In Response To The Passing of Bob Belden (Oct. 31, 1956-May 20, 2015) a WKCR Musician Show Interview From 1999, an Interview for the Press Bio I Wrote for “Black Dahlia” from 2000, and an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2002

Bob Belden, a renaissance man who functioned as a brilliant arranger-composer-conceptualist, a fine saxophonist, a skilled producer, encyclopedic historian, and a keen student of human nature, passed away earlier today, at 58, after suffering a massive heart attack on Sunday. I got to know Bob during the mid-’90s when he was  Director of A&R for Blue Note, while also finding time to arrange some of the decade’s seminal dates, including Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. I became friendly with him after he left that position in the late ’90s. Bob even once put me to work for him as a co-“producer” of a Carmen McRae “Round Midnight” CD, which involved culling and sequencing 14 selections from her Decca ouput of the ’50s.  We weren’t close buddies, but always cordial, and I learned a great deal every time we spoke, as did anyone who had an opportunity to hear him expound in any situation or to read his erudite, exhaustive, insider liner notes to the various editions of Columbia’s massive Miles Davis reissue project during the aughts. In February, he played in Iran with his group, Animation, the first U.S. band to play there in 35 years. It’s very sad, very disheartening; Bob had so much more to share with us.

There will be informed obituaries and memoirs from Bob’s many friends. I will contribute with two long interviews we did in 1999 and 2000, successively. The first contains the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show in April 1999. The second was conducted for the press bio for his amazing orchestral suite, Black Dahlia, which won a Grammy. After those, you’ll find his uncut responses to 14 selections presented to him for a DownBeat Blindfold Test in 2002.

 

Bob Belden (Musician Show, 4-14-99):

[MUSIC: BB, “Psalm #1 (For the Heavens)” – (1990)]

TP: A few words about this particular project. You said some road dues imparted a perfect edge to this date.

BELDEN: Generally, there’s always a perfect schedule, and there’s always the one they give you prior to leaving. Then they tend to change things. In this case, we thought we had a day off between the gig and another gig, because we were partying the night after (?), partying — just hanging, you know. Then we had to get up. Everybody sort of got onto the train, went to Paris, then we found out the hotel was an hour on the other side. You want to get in the hotel, you want to do your soundcheck, you want to go back to the hotel and then you want to do the gig. We were supposed to open, and then the other artist said, “Oh, I want to open.”

TP: Was this a somewhat regular ensemble of musicians playing your music?

BELDEN: It was oddly irregular. We started in ’89 in February, and we did a few significant gigs that year, then in 1990 we played a lot more. By ’92 we were history.

TP: Bob Belden is well known in the jazz community as a man who, to use a cliche, wears many hats, as a tenor and soprano saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer (he’s the man who put together the various Miles Davis packages on Columbia, the Complete Herbie Hancock, etc.). It’s hard to represent it within one three-hour show, but we’ll do our best. A little of the third degree. You’re a South Carolina native.

BELDEN: Yes. I’m from Goose Creek, South Carolina.

TP: A jazz hotbed.

BELDEN: Well, if you consider bludgeons jazz instruments, it’s a swinging spot.

TP: Is your family musical?

BELDEN: We had a piano, and at 3 I started playing piano. My brother and sister play piano. My mother used to sing in church; she used to sing for the ballgames. I had a friend of the family, Mrs. Martin, who taught me boogie-woogie at 4. That was at a period of time when being into music was considered part of being a civilized person. Goose Creek was great because I grew up in a very idyllic, carefree environment. The place was an old Southern plantation that had been converted into a golf course, so nobody lived there who couldn’t afford to live there. We had golf, and we had all kinds of adventures in the woods. It made just develop as a human.

My brother had a garage band, so we used to play with him all the time. “96 Tears” was my big keyboard solo. One thing led to another. I got in the high school band; I was a band nerd. It was amazing.

TP: Was the high school band where jazz started entering the picture for you?

BELDEN: Strangely enough, not really. We had a private music school called the Leonard School of Music, and they had the Sammy Nestico Swingphonic Series band, which was a jazz group with woodwinds. It was a studio band, and we used to play that. I was in the all-state trombone section from the Newberry Jazz Festival.

TP: Trombone section?

BELDEN: Yes. I played all the instruments in high school. I learned everybody’s instrument just to annoy them. So I did this concert on trombone. Our big feature was “Cotton Fields.” 1972, South Carolina. We had bowties. We looked really stupid! But I got out of there as far as I could and went to North Texas State.

TP: When did saxophone become the instrument of choice?

BELDEN: Boots Randolph without a doubt, because he was the most audible of all saxophone players in the south. And then when Rock-and-Roll came along, we had Walter Perezeder(?) from Chicago and Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears. I played alto in high school. Tenor I didn’t get into until I got to college.

TP: There are many musicians who aren’t that engaged in the history and arcana and pedagogy of the music, and you’re certainly an exception to that. You’re a detail freak in a lot of ways, as to who did what take on what day at what particular time. Was that always evident?

BELDEN: When I was a kid, I used to memorize almanacs and sports statistics. Track-and-field statistics; who ran the best 100 that year. Then I used to try to memorize encyclopedias, much to the chagrin of anybody trying to take a bath. Then I just got into this thing of trying to retain as much trivial information as possible. My mother used to complain that I knew too much trivia, which I informed her that was a small town in Alabama — she didn’t think that was funny. But I always felt you need to exercise your brain, because it’s easy to forget. Now I don’t write anything down as far as my daily plans or anything like that; I have to remember it.

TP: So in high school you’re playing all the instruments. You settled into the tenor sax…

BELDEN: Well, I was an alto player. I was technically the First Alto player in the band. I played tuba, percussion, bass guitar, regular guitar, clarinet (which I hated), flute, trombone (which I loved — my brother had one).

TP: So you came naturally for arranging and composition for large ensembles. A good prerequisite is playing all the instruments.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. I was always attracted to that disciplined color. In our band program… The marching band was the rigamarole, the horse and burnished brass, marching trumpets au lait. But in concert band… I played in the Goose Creek High School Band, the Berkeley All-County Band, the All-State Band, and then we had a region band, and then I had a private band. So I was playing throughout the year in five concert bands. We would just play a lot of music. Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed, Vittorio Gianini, transcriptions of classics like Shostokovich’s Fifth Symphony. I went to Brevard Music Camp in the summer of ’72, and we must have read maybe 200 classic band pieces that summer. Modern stuff. Paul Yoder. Private pieces written for that band. So by the time I left high school I had a lot of reading skills and a concept of what music is supposed to be about.

TP: Then you landed in North Texas State one year early.

BELDEN: Yes. I figured that my tenure in South Carolina was going to…that I had just done my highlight. So I pretty much applied as a history major, because you didn’t have to audition to North Texas to be a history major, and they accepted some odd credits I had in Sixth Grade… Because in Texas you only have to have 16 high school credits to go to college, and in South Carolina it’s 18. So they accepted a typing credit from my Sixth Grade year, and I got into college. It was wonderful. I had a private room, I had a bank account, I was 16, and there were all these…how would you say…bad influence wouldn’t be the right word, but it would be the most understandable.

TP: Hardcore jazz veterans of 20 in the early ’70s.

BELDEN: Yeah! I’ll tell you, these guys were hipsters.

TP: Let’s talk about the North Texas State experience as it affected you. You seem to be a particularly enthusiastic alumni.

BELDEN: Yes. Because my entire musical… The fact is that I can do anything, any kind of orchestration job, arranging job, producing job, analysis, dealing with copying music, running sessions. It all came out as a result of what you thought you had to get together before you left the school. See, part of college is illusion. It’s this illusion that things are going to go well for you because you’ve got a college degree. I didn’t buy into that illusion, because i could measure talent pretty easily, and I knew who was doing it and I knew who was not doing it. I just followed the guys who are doing it.

TP: From what it sounds like, what we call hardcore jazz doesn’t really enter the picture for you until you get to North Texas State.

BELDEN: Yes.

TP: Talk about psychically how that affected you as a musician.

BELDEN: Well, as plain as day I remember the moment things changed. I had gone down to the record store, and trying to prove how hip I am, I bought a Dave Brubeck record, Together Again For the First Time, with Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, and I showed it to my neighbor, a guy named Mike Winter, who was from Ohio, and he was very slick — a wise guy. And he takes the record and he throws it out the window like a frisbee, and he takes me over to his room and he plays Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue. He said, “If you don’t figure this out by the time you leave here, you’re an idiot.” And I bought it. I used to hang out with the better players, because they could play records for you. So I used to hang out with Sam Riney a lot, who was in the One O’Clock Band. My best friend was the youngest member of the One O’Clock Band at that time, and we were just complete renegades. I mean, I never went to class, but I got a 3.3 grade point average. But I never really spent much time as a student in the practical sense.

TP: What did you spend your time doing?

BELDEN: Playing, hanging out, partying. Texas was cheap. $4 a credit hour for school. So you could spend 50 bucks and get a full load. You rent a house for $300 a month max.

TP: So it sounds like you were gigging on a pretty functional level for most of this time. No? Yes?

BELDEN: Well, yeah. You have your horn band gigs, and you’d have an occasional… Very rarely any jazz gigs, because the pecking order there was so stringent. We had what we called a dorm circuit, and it took you a minute to get onto the dorm circuit. That’s where all the reputations got made — playing in the dormitories for the musicians?

TP: Is there a guiding aesthetic, as it were, to the musical philosophy that North Texas State imparts to you as opposed to other institutions?

BELDEN: The highest level of professionalism. Probably up there with Eastman. What they demanded was that you actually know what you’re talking about. Because a lot of the students who went there were kind of on the edge of having anything together. Mom and Dad footed the bill, they couldn’t get into podiatry, so they would go to school. And there were a lot of people who couldn’t really function in the music world. But it put you around musicians, and you met so many cats, and it was constant music. People were just hanging. You’d go to this guy’s house, you’d go to that guy’s house. Constant. There wasn’t time for school.

TP: Was there a particular area of composition and arranging that the faculty was interested in? Talk about the pedagogy.

BELDEN: I was the Composition Major. So my entire class load was spent essentially in private instruction with the senior faculty members. I mean, I had Martin Mehlman(?), and he only had 3 undergraduate students — and he was the only teacher who took undergrad students. Michael Doherty I’m sure you’ve heard of; he’s a composer of opera and orchestra music. Kevin Mayfield, who could listen to something once and write it out. It was uncanny. He was also completely anti-social, and a perfect-pitch-playing trombonist, which is a nightmare. And a guy named Christopher Pierson. He let me write jazz and pop oriented stuff, and Elliott Carter material, and Stravinsky-esque stuff. All he wanted us to be was creative. But not petty. Not just like, “Oh, I can do this.”

That’s the problem with jazz avant-garde, is that in my college that would be considered student pieces. A lot of the stuff that I hear would be considered student pieces in college, because that was the tail-end of the real intense avant-garde period, where guys wrote densely and thought densely, and had to tie it all back to Schoenberg and Mahler. So in jazz, they think that what they’re doing is modern, but it’s really not. It’s when you’re exposed to it and how it’s explained to you.

TP: This is also the attitude of a lot of musicians who were in dance bands in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, like the Boyd Raeburn band, Johnny Richards, a lot of the Kenton arrangers, and Woody Herman arrangers as well. And your first professional jazz experience was with Woody Herman.

BELDEN: Well, Woody was a real jazz band. When I was in the band, it was a very strange period. We were coming out of fusion, and he was coming back into his Nostalgia-Reagan Era kind of thing. In our band, our drummer played like Jack DeJohnette our bass player played like Dave Holland, and they played loud and they played unrelenting. These guys had this pulse [CLAPS] which is like the Miles Davis Quintet, which we used to listen to a lot. People wouldn’t dance to it. They used to dock us money. It was an incredible experience because I got to see what it was like being on the road. Roy Hargrove made a comment, “Yeah, we worked over 200 gigs a year.” My first year on the road, of the 365 days of the year, we worked 300-and-something days.

TP: What does that do for a band?

BELDEN: It makes it have an uncanny sense of phrasing. Woody’s band is just like Duke. The phrasing was passed down from generation to generation. So when you came on the band you couldn’t just read the notes. You had to listen, and eventually you just got into listening. And guys would change things every now and then. You don’t need the music. I mean, Smulyan memorized his book in a couple of days.

TP: A lot of talented improvisers who emerged in the ’80s came out of that band.

BELDEN: That was the jazz-rock period. As far as writers are concerned, Alan Broadbent really came out well. He’s just a brilliant musician. Of course, Lyle Mays, who actually did some interesting arrangements for the band that weren’t pursued as far as recording. Dennis Dotson, who is one of the most beautifully melodic trumpet players in jazz. In the late ’60s and early ’70s you had Ed Soph on drums, who was one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever met in my life — just cutting intelligence. Joe Lovano. That’s who I replaced, which was a trip. He actually came out and did a gig, and it was me, Lovano, Smulyan and Dick Mitchell. That was fun. He was the first real cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician. And the difference between him and almost everybody was that he had it in his blood from childhood because his dad was so supportive of this strange business. So to me, Joe was always Jazz. He was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz.

TP: Did that experience transform you into someone whose essence is jazz?

BELDEN: Yeah. I knew I couldn’t deal with… Because I’m very sensitive. I’m one of these guys, you know, a flower child; everything’s got to be beautiful and perfect. And a lot of the jazz business is pretty…

TP: You need a thick skin.

BELDEN: Well, you don’t need a thick skin. You just need to understand that there are some people who were raised by wolves. I just don’t like being around these kind of cats. When I first came up, I had a thicker skin. But now I don’t need to be around them. Life is beautiful, man!

TP: You brought along a tape of the Woody Herman band at the Hotel Catamaran, San Diego, May 28, 1979.

BELDEN: Frank Tiberi will play the first tenor solo, who is a completely unique saxophone player. He’s a combination of Al Cohn and Coltrane. That was supposed to be a dance, and we got there and the people didn’t dance. They didn’t want to. So we played pretty full-out. We had some disasters at dances.

[MUSIC: Woody, “Reunion At Newport” (Broadbent)]

BELDEN: I always felt that big bands had a sense of excitement in the way they can come across which you can’t get out of a five-piece band. With Woody it was unrelenting excitement. He believed in a hot band. He’s always had it. If you heard the band from the ’40s, it’s ridiculous. It’s the highest level of musicianship, execution, intonation, the arrangements were custom-fit for the soloists, and it’s a great organization. And you followed into that tradition — as much as Ellington’s tradition. Duke and Woody were very close, and Woody was Dukish in a way that he didn’t want to fire anybody who he really liked, and he would let us play. I mean, we played a lot. This was not a dance band.

TP: Was band material organized to personalities in a similar way that Ellington would set up his material? Was it Dukish in that way as well?

BELDEN: Yes. Well, when you had a chart written for a certain person, it only lasted as long as that cat was in the band, and then it got passed on. Sal Nistico had an arrangement done for him of “Easy Living” by Nat Pierce, and that went all the way through to Joe Lovano, and then Smulyan got it when I joined the band, and it got changed to a baritone feature.

TP: Did you get very much into the lore of the Woody Herman band, in terms of playing the old arrangements? Was it a very informing experience for you?

BELDEN: There were a lot of arrangement that were functional, because we did have to appeal to survival tactics, like Steely Dan stuff and Carole King’s “Corazon.” But you’d have charts that really reflected the high point of the Herman Herd. Especially Ralph Burns, “Summer Sequence.” I mean, “Four Brothers” was a lot of fun to play. One of the bouncy, chubby bebop tunes. We used to see a lot of the alumni. We’d run into Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond all the time. Everybody would come out. He was amazingly revered by professionals.

TP: Inspired loyalty.

BELDEN: There’s more people coming out of Woody’s band who made a career as a professional musician than any other band. You wouldn’t believe it. Go to Los Angeles, and whoa, half of the town had spent time with Woody. Even Bill Watrous played with Woody.

TP: Your tenure with Woody Herman is ’79…

BELDEN: ’79 to ’80. Then I freelanced around. I moved officially to New York in ’83. I did a lot of television work, a lot of ESPN arranging. I was an arranger for their company, doing sports themes.

TP: Do you get royalties, I hope?

BELDEN: Oh, no. But I got even, because I used to interpolate ABC News Show themes into the second theme of all the sports themes.

TP: Would you hum one of the sports themes?

BELDEN: Gee, I can’t remember. But I can hum the second themes I put in there [SINGS ABC NEWS REFRAIN] But yeah, I had a lot of fun doing that. Then I ended up doing a gig in Visiones, and got a couple of record deals.

TP: Was it basically New York is the mecca; you need to be here?

BELDEN: Oh, no. It was frightening. There wasn’t any real work. This was right before the jazz renaissance, and there were no CDs. You don’t make a living playing jazz, you know. I fortunately found a cheap pad, and I just stuck it out. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of TV movies. Farrah-Fawcett stuff, and Jackie Cooper, Paul Lemat. I would play keyboards a lot and I would do some mild arranging. I would do Country songs for Country shows, and Pop songs and stuff.

TP: Did your jazz affiliation emanate from your North Texas State and Woody Herman experience, people who’d come to New York who you knew?

BELDEN: Well, what was great was I knew a lot of people from Woody’s band, and when I started doing commercial work I would hire the cats for sessions. So I never was perceived as a threat to other saxophone players, which is why I know so many of them and get along pretty well with them. I never was taking their gigs. I was always hiring them for sessions and stuff. And when you pay guys money, they tend to think of you a little bit differently until you stop paying them money.

TP: Tell me about this gig at Visiones you’re speaking of. Because it would appear you were writing music for local workshop type ensembles…

BELDEN: No-no-no. About half of the ensemble music I had done…we had done some recording in 1985 with Wallace Roney. See, when I was doing ESPN stuff, I was taking the studio time that I was bringing to the studio and getting free time in the studio. So if we did about ten ESPN dates, I’d get a full day in the studio for nothing. Joe Chambers and I did a record, I did an ensemble record, I did two records with Wallace Roney, then a New Age kind of record, and some odd stuff for free. Because all I think about is the studio. I’m not interested in anything else. This is right after the Cabaret Law got beaten down by Paul Chevigny, and Visiones was going to have big bands, and Marc Copland handed them a tape and they called me up — February 6, 1989. I remember it very well, because after the first set Francois Zalacain came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set, Matt Pierson, who was at Blue Note, came up…

TP: And said, “We must record”?

BELDEN: Yes, pretty much.

TP: We’ll hear music from Turandot.

BELDEN: Turandot was sort of a misguided effort by me to make a good record, based on something that goes beyond just chords and changes and stuff like that. They gave me a lot of money, and we came in right at budget. I wanted to capture… It’s what I always feel is important, this overbearing kind of emotional context that big bands can get. I tried to kill the trumpet players because I believe in trumpet masochism.

TP: You mean you tried to kill their chops.

BELDEN: Yeah. Because the context of the piece is the princess during this ancient time is one cold woman. So she has people beheaded for not answering her enigmatic questions. But in this aria she comes to the realization that she is just totally messed up. She is completely cold, she has no emotion. And so… [END OF SIDE A] …the most perfectly in-tune playing you can imagine from these players. I mean, they are impeccable. And we did it at Capitol Studios, and it just has this incredible ambiance.

[MUSIC: Belden, “In Questa Reggia”]

TP: This was never issued in the States.

BELDEN: One of the most litigious companies was recording through their subsidiary, Herndon Music, and they just sue-sue-sue — “We refuse to allow a jazz version of an opera.” And under U.S. copyright law, shows that are dramatic in nature enjoy an extra level of protection that people who just write melodies don’t enjoy.

TP: Bob was talking about the intonation and in-tuneness of the trumpet section, and that was an amazing feature for Wallace Roney.

BELDEN: You have to have a voice to write for, and if you don’t have a voice that has some context, clarity and idea behind it — a sound — then you’re just making a high school band chart.

TP: In this next segment, I’d like to talk to you more about your compositional influences in jazz. I guess the most obvious name in terms of tone color, mood and so on, has got to be Gil Evans. You have cued up an unissued performance of “Dolores.” Did your Miles Davis obsession begin at North Texas State, when this fellow turned you on to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Because you could buy the records for $1.99 at the stores, and I just went down and bought them all. I figured, “This is it.” Miles Smiles always had a strong place in my heart, because it’s just the perfect record. And “Nefertiti,” once I remember discovering it was a drum solo at my sister’s apartment in Charleston, it just became revelatory. See, there’s so much detail in Miles Davis’ work, and especially in small group stuff, that whe you go to a school that encourages analysis you get into the details. We were trained to try to understand everything on every level — every detail.

TP: Did studying Miles Davis or the Kenton arrangers dovetail with the classical music you were listening to in a very natural way?

BELDEN: At that time we were all kind of college geeks, and we were doing the Elliott Carter trip, and generally music you’ll never get performed again and nobody will like, because it was about density and contours and tone clusters. People used to write without actually listening to music; they’d write mathematically. We had all kinds of people. Guys who would write only in C. People who would do these kind of like what Zorn would have been doing the collage cut-and-paste kind of mentality. I figured that anybody who can’t swing has a problem. Because swinging is the eternal rhythm of jazz. As much as people make it an issue whether you’re in the club or not, it still is the eternal clock in jazz. And there are a lot of people who couldn’t get it. They just couldn’t get the feeling. Because to me, it’s always about the feeling.

TP: In that regard, talk about Gil Evans’ work and his salient characteristics through the filter of Bob Belden.

BELDEN: Well, I listened to a lot of Gil’s stuff. The Cannonball record, Great Jazz Standards, is an incredible album. What Gil did best was capture the essence of the soloist in an environment that made him completely positive, and it also provided challenges to the artist, and it put him in an environment that he never-ever would experience again. Because nobody wrote like Gil. Nobody thought like Gil. Gil was coming from another planet as far as arranging is concerned. I only kind or am influenced by the slower stuff that he did, the tone poems. But his lighter writing, the Birth of the Cool and the Cannonball record… I mean, the Cannonball record is one of the greatest big band records — period. Of course, it’s out of print. But Gil had a way of capturing who he was writing for, and sometimes the talent wasn’t quite up to it and sometimes it was Miles Davis. I never really got into any of the later stuff, because I just think that he didn’t care per se.

TP: You’re talking about the electric bands post-’72.

BELDEN: Yeah. I mean, the guys didn’t seem to care in some cases. Because when I went to see them at Sweet Basil it was like, “What is going on here?”

TP: It could get a little sloppy.

BELDEN: Yeah. But see, Gil lived in the neighborhood, and I’d run into him every now and then. He just wanted a place to go and be around musicians. I understand that. Because he’s already done Miles Ahead. He’s already done Sketches of Spain. He’s already done those things. So why make the guy sweat and then say it’s not as good as the original. He had a good life.

TP: Give us some context for the Miles Davis track.

BELDEN: I figured that since I’m associated with Miles, I should play something from the underground. Because this is an incredibly rare track. It was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1967, and it just shows the band playing a tune they recorded in the studio but aren’t known for playing live.

TP: Any personnel variations?

BELDEN: Albert Stinson is on bass.

[MUSIC: Miles, “Dolores” (1967); Gil-Wayne, “Nothing Like You”]

TP: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Bob Belden is in the middle of producing a mammoth Miles Davis retrospective with full discographical detail of his Columbia work. The full collaborations with Gil Evans are out, the complete Bitches Brew, the complete Miles and Coltrane. Talk about the salient characteristics about Miles Davis filtered through you.

BELDEN: From a musician’s standpoint it’s like listening to Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There’s just so much detail in the work that you have a lifetime to listen to it. He’s one of the few artists that I can listen to over and over and over. Sometimes I’ll get into these obsessions. There’s a bootleg CD from Sinfingelden, and they do “No Blues,” and it’s just swinging-swinging-swinging. So I’ll listen to that for days on days, and only that.

TP: Is this band, Miles-Wayne-Herbie-Tony, the one that sparks you, or all of them in different ways?

BELDEN: Well, overall, because they were more classically oriented in terms of Romantic tendencies and form. They really concentrated on improvising complex forms. The band with Chick, Dave and Jack was just high energy, like a Rock-and-Roll band. And I like the Agartha bands, because again, we were talking about blocks of sound, how dynamics become the composition. It’s loud. You play loud. Then you play soft.

TP: There are people who will play Stockhausen and the Miles Agartha band side-by-side, so that comes through.

BELDEN: Well, Stockhausen can’t swing. He’s just improvising in their context. You have to notice Miles Davis, who if he wanted to could sit down and play “Royal Garden Blues” and really make you feel that he has a connection to something that goes deeper.

TP: So you’re saying that they’re classically informed, you’re referring either to their ability or interest in playing over more complex, longer forms, extended structures.

BELDEN: Yes, more disciplined structures. Because again, free jazz, or what people call free jazz, sometimes is not very free at all. It just has an attitude, and a lot of it is just the people who are buying it don’t know. Miles Davis once said, “White people will buy anything.” In a sense, a lot of artists are… They’re not successful. I don’t know anybody who makes abstract music and really is successful with the exception of Ornette Coleman, and he’s mellowed lately. But it’s very unusual to see guys develop a level of financial security in playing non-romantic music. Maybe after hearing what the show was prior to this one, that may change. But I think that…

TP: When you say “successful,” do you mean aesthetically successful?

BELDEN: I think the whole point is to get your music across to as many people as possible. It’s not about money. It’s not about a fancy house. It’s about having people who you’ve never met make comments in positive ways about your music. When people say it affects them, it has some effect. To me, it’s that they actually bought a CD of mine. That always throws me for a loop. I’m not involved in the entertainment side of my business. If somebody buys one of my CDs, I’m flabbergasted. Out of all the CDs in the store, you went and bought mine. To my dying day, I’ll never lose sight of that innocence about having people get your stuff.

TP: Talk about Miles Davis in his different periods. Because apart from a lifetime of immersing yourself in this music as a fan and student, you’re now immersing yourself in the music from the perspective of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on an entire corpus of work.

BELDEN: Well, we do a lot of that detail work just to eliminate mistakes in future research. Because musicians especially have a right to know what went down, so they can make a decision. The general public who happens to buy it will be overwhelmed by the information. It really won’t make much sense. But musicians (that’s all I think about) generally gain so much from these sets. Because they lay a story on them. We tell a story as much as we can. And not the information that the guy had a problem with something or his ex-wife or something. We don’t get into that too much. we get into the music. We get into the players, their perspectives. Unlike a lot of the reissue companies, we deal with the musicians straight-up. They get paid for bonus tracks. They get paid for unissued material that comes out. And they’re willing to work with us. It’s great to be able to call Dave Holland or Jack De Johnette to discuss an event, or ask Ron Carter to look over what you’ve done to make sure you haven’t said anything stupid. For us, that’s… We treat Miles like Classical people treat Bernstein or Rubinstein.

TP: After the complete ’50s Quintet and Sextet comes out, I believe there’s to be a collection of a lot of the live-unissued material?

BELDEN: Oh, that’s an interesting rumor. No, our plan is that after… These plans are subject to whim. So after the Coltrane box, which is a 6-CD set with a lot of bonus tracks (stereo alternates to Milestones; it’s pretty good), then we have three choices. We have the Jack Johnson sessions. We have In A Silent Way, which is assembled but not mastered. Then we have a period called Seven Steps To Berlin, which is the Hollywood ’63 sessions up to Berlin ’64.

TP: Again, if you’re willing, I’d like you to talk about Miles the musician in his different periods.

BELDEN: Well, Miles Davis has some different periods, definitely. To me, his most powerful period in terms of communicating to a listening audience, as well as musicians, was ’57-’58-’59-’60-’61. On the Milestones date, the alternate takes, Miles plays these perfectly constructed solos that swing hard, and every note is perfect. Every note is right. There’s no extraneous baggage on it. So he was striving, I think, to create real highly constructed melodic solos — because then his other guys would just go nuts. But his contrast to that was playing these perfectly melodic solos. And it peaked to me with the “Blues #2″ with Philly Joe, which is coming out on Someday My Prince Will Come. I have that solo memorized. I can play it on saxophone. He plays “Royal Garden Blues” as a quote. You can hear how he can always take his music back to that time. There’s a bootleg where he quotes “St. Louis Blues” very abstractly. But you can tell he really liked the older stuff.

TP: Well, he himself did talk about Louis Armstrong as fundamental in his conception even if the connection wasn’t transparently apparent in his music.

BELDEN: He liked Bobby Hackett a lot. He liked pretty players, people who had control over their instrument. A lot of the white guys had this Harry James thing to deal with, so they couldn’t play raucous; they had to play pretty and melodic. I think Miles liked that, because Miles gravitated towards sophisticated music and music that gave an air of sophistication. Which is why he didn’t keep playing Hardbop. His band with Wynton and P.C. and Jimmy Cobb was funky, and it was beautiful, swinging, melodic. Happy. You just felt happy listening to it. I think he really wanted to get there.

TP: You think that’s part of why that rhythm section was so successful for him, that it conveyed that mood.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You’ve got to smile every time you hear those guys. I mean, Wynton Kelly, for some reason, God gave him the talent to make people smile when he played.

TP: Now, you’ve talked fairly extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter about the formation of the band that’s called the classic band. Talk about how you see Miles’ intentions at the beginning of that band and how it panned out in ways he may or may not have foreseen.

BELDEN: I think Miles had tried to get Wayne for a couple of years, and the guys in the band finally said, “Hey.” Sam Rivers didn’t work out, and George Coleman, whom I love dearly, apparently he left the band. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to do his own thing. He was already formed when he joined Miles’ band. And Miles used to pick on him. I mean, I have tapes from a session where Miles was just picking on the guy. This is a funny story. They’re in Los Angeles and they’re playing “So Near, So Far.” Apparently, the arrangement had a coda written into it as part of the solo, and Miles didn’t make it. Right? So the band breaks down, and Miles goes, “What happened?” Victor Feldman said, “Miles, you didn’t take the coda.” Miles says, “What coda? What coda?” George apparently goes to the stand and points at it, and then says to Miles, “I’ll nod my head when it’s your turn to come in.” And Miles stops for a second and looks at George and goes, “You’ll nod your head? What is that George? Method thinking?” Because they’re out in Los Angeles. George goes, “Hey, man, back off.” Miles says, “You ain’t in New York any more, George.” George says something to the effect of “Why are you bugging me?” and Miles said, essentially, “Because I want to.” George goes, “You don’t pick on Ron” and Miles says, “Because Ron has three degrees.”

So there was some element of Miles just sort of wanting to get through all this stuff at the time. He was definitely in a bored period during ’62-’63. I think Wayne changed the band, because it gave him a complete unit. See, Tony and Herbie were already stretching when George was in the band, and it just seemed to go from Miles getting involved to George forcing himself to get involved, and then Herbie coming in. Herbie to me is the greatest jazz pianist.

TP: Let me pick up on two comments. Wayne Shorter changing the band; Herbie Hancock is the greatest jazz pianist.

BELDEN: Well, Wayne changed the band, and he brought music in eventually, but he had this kind of casual way of approaching stuff. What he does technically on the saxophone is pretty intense. His articulation is right on it. He was able to tongue every note. So he could get real intense articulations going, and he had this humorous side, which he used to play for Miles and get Miles to crack up on stage. He had this old Gene Ammons kind of tenor throw he would put in. You could hear him; he sounds like he was drinking a lot. That’s what Miles really liked. He liked that history.

TP: That Midwest thing that he came from.

BELDEN: Well, Miles played with Coleman Hawkins, so he was very accustomed to big-tone tenors.

TP: Well, he played with the Eckstine band with Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon.

BELDEN: I always describe Wayne as somebody who’s squeezing the cat. You got a cat and you’re holding him around the neck, squeezing, and the thing is squiggling and stuff, going RRROWWWRR…

TP: A wonderful image, Bob.

BELDEN: Well, I described one musician as his playing sounds like he’s molesting a child.

TP: The second part. Your intense admiration for Herbie Hancock.

BELDEN: Well, to me, I like hip. There’s something about somebody who is quintessentially and consistently hip. And Herbie is hip. He is able to make every context he does hip, much hipper than it would have been without him. And I am a big student of his commercial sideman dates. I mean, I have every one of them. There is something he brings to a recording session that, as a producer and arranger…he’s a genius. Everyone who worked with him in the ’60s said he would come into the session and bring life to the band. Mel Lewis said that he was always creating, he was always pushing forward. He did a lot of commercial dates where his solos were not commercial. They were very hip.

TP: We’ll move to the subject of Stan Kenton and some of the arrangers who informed you in various ways.

BELDEN: When we were in school, we had the Kenton library. He donated his library to North Texas. So I played almost 200 Kenton arrangers.

TP: He was close to the founder of the North Texas jazz program, Dr. Gene Hall. No?

BELDEN: Well, not as close as he was to Leon Breeden. Breeden was a big Stan Kenton fan. The Ken Burns documentary is coming out, and they were talking about the guy who runs the Jurassic Center Orchestra is bringing jazz education into the schools. I looked at the woman who made that statement and said, “Obviously, you’ve never heard of Stan Kenton.” As much controversy as people have about Stan not being particularly kind to Colored musician, as the common misnomer, and not allowing pot smokers in the band, I mean, he did have a vision and he had a sense of professionalism that overrode everything else. And he would hire the best arrangers and have great bands and make highly emotional music. Highly emotional music. Because he came out of the Germanic tradition. At North Texas we played a lot of the material, and we had to understand it. A lot of Bill Holman’s stuff, a lot of Bill Russo, and then we had guys who were writing for Kenton’s band from our school. That was the time of the stage band clinics that were started… Donald Byrd was involved. Stan Kenton was involved. Leon Breeden was involved. More musicians came out of that than any other single movement in jazz. Especially good musicians. Every year in Los Angeles they have this big Kenton-Fest, and it’s like cultish.

TP: So the general overall aesthetic comes out of a Germanic orientation.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Again, he came from a period of time… He lived in Los Angeles, he lived in California, and Hollywood films were heavily blown… Especially in his early period, it was like a bad film noir kind of thing; wild, flailing bongo drums and brass. You’ve seen those ’50s TV shows where they’re trying to show the demented person in a small apartment in New York, and they play loud, Latin-oriented jazz. To me, that always created…

TP: Sweat pouring down the face.

BELDEN: Edward Dymytrk. So you get this real intense visual image, and then that translates to your heart and you become emotionally involved with the music. I always liked that about him. He had a dark side to him.

[MUSIC: Kenton, “Vida Prada”; Mel Lewis, “Interloper”]

BELDEN: Thad Jones was literally a genius, in the sense that he never used a piano to write his arrangements. He would just write the parts out. Sometimes he would do five or six charts the night before the session. “Interloper” was one of them. He had this uncanny ability to just write and not worry about it. It was second nature. His language, his phrasing were all completely personal. I mean, he was just a complete-complete arranger and musician. That tune, “Interloper” was done in the later period, and he started putting emotion, a romantic kind of emotion into his music. That piece is very sad. That’s what I find attractive about musicians, is when you get past the brassy, extroverted kind of thing, you find guys who cry. I cry at Flintstones weddings. So for me, I search out musicians and charts, especially arrangements, that have an emotion to it. Also, I played in that band at that period of time, and to play that particular chart, you just were carried along on this ride, unlike almost any charts they had in there. The band just kept going and kept going. And they loved playing it. We all did. It’s a great tenor solo.

TP: Talk about the difference of playing in that band vis-a-vis with, say, Woody Herman a few years before. You were speaking about the difference in phrasing, how every band has its own personality.

BELDEN: Oh, this band, with Earl Gardner and John Mosca, they’re phraseologists. They constantly change stuff up and they have little background figures. They communicate to themselves, and they create interesting things — the sound of surprise. When Thad was there, they’d create backgrounds… He was great at riff backgrounds, and they just kept chugging along and making things exciting. I’ve seen Thad when Thad was directing the band a few times. A very great, exciting band.

With Woody the phrases would be subtle. We had an arrangement of “Laura” where the written part is like… [SINGS REFRAIN], and we did it completely rephrased, out-of-time, and we all nailed it — because eventually we had to learn it. So Woody’s band I think was really into laying back phrases big time, and Thad was into changing phrases all the time.

TP: Albeit that Thad Jones was a sui generis composer-arranger, who were his influences, as you see it?

BELDEN: Well, he liked all innovative… They all loved Fletcher Henderson’s writing, they all loved Jimmy Mundy; they were all influenced by the great writers of the time — Ralph Burns. Geez, there are so many cats from that period, the older guys. Not so much… I mean, Gil was really influenced by the older guys, because that’s the music of his childhood. But I think Thad was not really influenced by anybody, because his harmonic language was unique, completely unique, and his orchestration was unique. He always used dense chords in his voicings, and he’d always write the sections opposed to one another. So in the ’40s and ’50s, the chord would be based on block harmony, and they’d just move it in parallel. Eventually they got tired of that because everything sounded the same. I mean, Thad had no real method, even though there’s a book that tries to analyze it. He just wrote what he felt like. And you you play with those players, everything sounds good.

TP: Not unlike Ellington, Thad Jones (correct me if I’m wrong) would use that band as kind of a workshop. Pieces weren’t set it stone with him, and they would change and evolve, as befits a band that’s playing at least once a week for 30 years.

BELDEN: Well, I think Thad didn’t do anything until the date, and then he came in with five or six new charts. Then they’d edit it at rehearsal, and they’d go and record them. Sometimes the charts are a little different than what was recorded; little arrows going here and there. But he was such a genius. Literally. That mind. You just can’t see too many people with that kind of intelligence.

TP: And did you discover Thad Jones, again, at North Texas State, or…

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You automatically had to go down and buy the records. I mean, they were on Solid State, the charts were published, and we used to play them a lot. I mean, “Cherry Juice” was a big college favorite. They used to play it so fast. We’d be chugging and not making it.

TP: A New York tempo versus a Texas tempo, huh.

BELDEN: Well, North Texas liked to play fast. They just were a little stiff. They never approached the rhythm section from a jazz standpoint; they approached it from an ensemble standpoint.

TP: So in the mid-’80s, you’re doing this commercial work, you’re playing the Monday nights or various workshop type big bands and filling in, and you’re embarking on your personal writing and developing a cadre of musicians to play your music as well. All this is going on in the 1980’s.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s… There was a period from about ’82-’83 to about 1991 when I must have written a couple of hundred pieces. I had just gotten a synthesizer, and I had enough work to pay the rent and pay the bills, and plenty of free time. So rather than get into a life of decadence, I just sat home and wrote a lot of music. Because of the clarity of synthesizers, you can create chord structures that are very precise and clear, and that pushes you on to other things — intervals of fifths, spread-out fifth intervals. I would translate that kind of gothic approach on synthesizers to big bands.

TP: So there’s a very specific instance of how technology influences artistic creation.

BELDEN: Oh, synthesizers to me are the most under-utilized instrument in what we call jazz — because nobody can play. There’s one guy who is truly a synthesist — Scott Kinsey. Because he goes beyond the mindset of most synthesists, who are just playing paths and stuff. He will take a sound, and he will play a solo and he’ll edit the sound during his solo, so that the solo has a different level. It has the harmonic level, and then it has this kind of sonic thing. Things will pop in and out, noises and samples, and it’s incredible. Because his mind is so fast, he can improvise and set up… He plays an edit mode, so any time he touches the keyboard, he can change anything. And nobody is out there doing that. I’ve used him exclusively since 1993. I mean, I fly him out for any session I do under my own name. There are no really any-good synthesizer players in New York.

TP: We have cued up a track from the Ellington band in the ’50s that’s somewhat obscure…

BELDEN: I like “Jeep’s Blues” and so on, but I like this because it’s commercial — at the time. It’s like an Alan Freed kind of vibe. But listen to how hip the band plays. Incredibly hip. It’s got one of the greatest shout choruses in jazz.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Rock City Rock”; Belden-Denise Jannah, “I Didn’t Know About You”]

BELDEN: We had a Pop record to do of Prince’s music, and I got a huge budget, and I decided, “Well, I’m just going to go in the studio and record.” We did about 30 sessions over a period of like five months. I did the Pop record, and I went in and did a bunch of some originals and then all these Prince songs.

TP: There are several dynamics of Pop music translating into jazz. One is that jazz musicians sound like they’re slumming when they’re playing Pop music, and the stuff sounds sort of trite. That’s one of the pitfalls. I’m falling into the Bob Belden trap of A&R’ing here. Another is that you often lose the lyric content, which in Contemporary Pop music is crucial to the meaning of a song. And it’s said that Pop material is much more simplified now than 30-40-50 years ago, and so there’s less protein for the improviser to build on.

BELDEN: Have you ever heard the original version of “Body and Soul”? It’s pretty hokey. Jazz musicians are able to transfer Pop music, sometimes very successfully and sometimes very unsuccessfully, into a new appreciation for whatever melody there is. I mean, they used to write real melodies. On the Prince record, we did a thing called “Electric Chair,” which doesn’t really have a melody. We just made the drums real loud and made it a groove.

TP: What makes Prince’s music particularly suitable for this type of rearrangement and reinterpretation?

BELDEN: Because I can do anything I want to it. I don’t get into this argument of should you do it for jazz or not. Nobody tells me what to do.

TP: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what are the dynamics of his music that make it suitable for rearrangement. Is it just because you choose to do it, and therefore you do it?

BELDEN: Well, a lot of the tunes I wanted to do. The Pop stuff was pretty obvious. But the ones I wanted to shift into jazz mode, I got a lot off of bootlegs. There was a tune called “In A Large Room With No Light” which was phenomenal, but he had a fight with Wendy and Lisa and wouldn’t let me do it. And this song that we’re going to play called “Power Fantastic” was never issued. It was on a couple of these bootlegs; they thought it was Miles. I recorded it three times. The first time I sent it to Prince, nah; the second time I sent it to Prince, nah — because the versions were modest. And then we went into the studio and hit, and really made it powerful, and we sent it to him and he said, “Okay.” He put out “Power Fantastic” on his Greatest Hits, and that allowed us to get a mechanical license.

TP: So this was done in collaboration of some sort with Prince.

BELDEN: Well, not collaboration. Just “Can we do this tune?” Because he’s a composer, and why would he let somebody record his tune for the first time when (a) there’s no money in it for him, and we’re just some lowly jazz guys. But he’s into good musicians.

TP: But I still want to know why, in this particular case, Prince?

BELDEN: Because it’s a Pop record. We covered Prince in a Pop kind of context for Japanese — huge-selling records. I’d just finished the Sting record and I’d established some strange sort of… But the record did great in Japan and terrible in the United States because of unfocused company policies. But in Japan, huge sales — it really did well. Again, I’m one of these guys who, when I’m in the studio, I don’t waste time and I record a lot of stuff, a lot of my material. So I got a lot of stuff done on this.

This track just jumped off the page. It really has some power. It’s heavily electric, but it has a lot of emotion to it. If you can take anybody’s music and make it happen emotionally, it doesn’t matter. Nobody knows this melody. But it’s a beautiful, simple song. It’s something any jazz guy could do.

[MUSIC: Belden/Prince, “Power Fantastic”]

TP: Coming up is an interesting segue, from Prince to Herbie Hancock’s ’70s fusion music. Bob Belden was the arranger of The New Standard

BELDEN: Verve demotes me all the time.

TP: One way or another, you’ve been heavily involved in reinterpreting the popular music of the last 20-25 years in jazz contexts. You were talking about Herbie Hancock’s creativity on commercial dates.

BELDEN: Manchild was one of Herbie’s finest records, because it involves groove and it involves pretty serious electric playing, but it also involves orchestration. Herbie always colored his records in very Gil Evansish… That record and Sunlight has so much interesting stuff in terms of backgrounds. And nobody understands those records, they don’t listen to them… Only a handful of fans. But they show that Herbie can meld commercial music and art music better than almost anybody I know. His music is about feel. So if it feels good, the general public likes it and then he throws in some pretty intense… I mean, if you listen to this track, “Sun Touch,” you hear this bass clarinet-flugelhorn kind of ensemble, and compositionally it has this little bass line that they repeat, actual proof, where they lock into that bass line occasionally. It’s really a beautiful tune.

[MUSIC: Herbie, “Sun Touch”]

BELDEN: That’s commercial music and it still has intensity about jazz. We were talking about jazz musicians don’t improvise. For the most part, if you’re a bebopper, you’re not improvising. You’re playing things you’ve practiced all day and all night. The improvisation may be considered how you string them all together. But very few people are… Keith Jarrett comes to mind as somebody who can really improvise. But to me, a lot of people, they just play what they know, and they focus in on a sound that they know and they stick with it. Because you have to look at improvisation as something that’s totally free and open, something that’s very spiritual, or something that’s constructed into what you’re trying to express.

TP: Well, improvisation is supposed to be the essence of jazz expression.

BELDEN: Yeah-yeah-yeah… I hate the bromides, because they never really apply, and they often are used to keep people out of the scene. Like, “He ain’t swingin’.” “He doesn’t have the tradition.” There are all these cliches, and it really doesn’t matter. Once you get away from having to deal with jazz on a level where your daily bread comes from that… Because I’m doing a lot more Pop-oriented stuff.

TP: To throw the epigrammatic question at you: What constitutes Jazz for you? If improvisation isn’t necessarily it, swinging isn’t necessarily it… Bob is giving me a disgusted look.

BELDEN: Jazz is an attitude. That’s all it is. If you seem like a Jazz guy, you are a jazz guy. Let me ask you this. Have you ever met Rodney Kendrick?

TP: Yes.

BELDEN: He’s a jazz guy! No matter if he works with Wu Tang Clan or he works with Abbey Lincoln, he’s a jazz guy. It doesn’t matter what he does. He’s a jazz guy. You can tell a difference in how people play. Jazz musicians have confidence. Good jazz musicians can play anything. They can walk in any circumstance and sound good. True jazz musicians. A lot of players, they’re just so open and fresh, and they have the attitude, and they’re humorous and they’re fun to be around.

TP: Isn’t that improvising?

BELDEN: Well, in a contextual element. But if you’re talking about notes, very few people really improvise everything they play. But to give an emotional element to music is very spontaneous.

TP: Well, to project your personality I think is what you’re talking about, and to project that personality into any given situation that you may find yourself…

BELDEN: Well, that’s not improvisation. That’s having a style. If you have a style, you can project it over anything. I think that’s what’s sadly lacking today, is nobody wants to have a style. I get tapes in the mail, and I get records from other companies, and for the most part they’re terribly imitating records that have gone down in the past.

TP: Why do you think this is, in this particular time?

BELDEN: Laziness. It’s laziness, lack of a good musical education, and no vision. I mean, I can imitate Miles Davis as well as anybody, as you will hear from this next track. But it’s like, “Do we want to put this out?” Do we want people to think, “Oh, this is our stuff”? And generally, I don’t put the imitative stuff out. Even if people don’t like what we do. Again, almost all the things I’ve done in the last few years have been Hip-Hop, Rap, Drum-and-Bass and R&B, and I get to put my personality on that music.

TP: Why are you choosing those areas as opposed to what we might call “hardcore jazz”?

BELDEN: Well, we do play hardcore jazz. The Tim Hagans record is hardcore jazz. It’s coming out of Freddie Hubbard. It’s coming out of playing the trumpet at the highest possible level, in perfect time, with an unrelenting sense of direction. I did a Hip-Hop version of “When Doves Cry” with Cassandra Wilson that’s one of the most popular licensee tracks. I mean, 45 compilations have pulled that track. Because it has a jazz attitude. It’s dark as hell. It’s dark and it’s very mysterious, and for some reason people like it because it’s jazzy. I have a difficult time with going straight commercially because I’m an old-school guy, so I tend to like real instruments played by real people. But for the most part, it’s really the personality of the individual. And we don’t have that many personalities now. Guys play, the image you get from them is a Berklee classroom.

TP: Does this have to do with the institutionalization of jazz education, and taking it off of the street or the road? Is it a little too reductive?

BELDEN: Younger guys don’t have older guys yelling at them. They haven’t been screamed at. They haven’t been completely dressed-down publicly. So there’s a lot of confidence the younger guys have that their stuff is happening. I’ve worked with a few of the younger guys, and they’re all beautiful, serious musicians, but they’re having a difficult time really coming to grips with the next ten years. I mean, the hardest thing to make it in the jazz business is past-40. You get forgotten. Your music is marginalized. Most guys get dropped around that time. That’s a stigma that’s really a terrible thing in our business.

Coming up… Again, we were doing the Tapestry record, our paean to Smooth Jazz. At that time, I was the A&R director of Blue Note, so I said, “Hey, we’re just going to record; I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to slap my own wrists.” So we spent six sessions just recording, and I recorded a lot of my material and we recorded the Tapestry stuff. Tony had just passed away, and I wrote this thing for him, and it’s like a Wayne Shorter, mid-late-’60s Miles. It’s funny because it has a mood, and that’s the way we sound when we feel like playing that way.

[MUSIC: Belden, “No Title” & “Winter I (Vivaldi)”]

TP: Bob Belden’s rearrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Jazz and the Classics, with flautist Patrick Gaulois, Kevin Hays on piano, Ira Coleman on bass, Billy Kilson on drums. Another Belden project not available here.

BELDEN: We recorded it for Deutsche Gramophone through Verve, and typically it’s too progressive for Verve. They just wouldn’t put it out. They demoted me on some projects and dropped me from stuff. It was terrible. But again, it’s my theory that musicians have lost control of the business.

TP: And when did musicians have control of the business?

BELDEN: Oh, in the ’50s and ’60s for sure, and in the ’70s, which was the last time when musicians had influence over what people bought. But since then it’s all marketing people and promotion people. They look at you as a musician like you’re some kind of weird guy. I did a lot of reissues for a company, and I pick things from what sounds good musically, not historically, because that whole historical view is crap. It’s all revisionist anyway, because unless you know the people and you actually play and understand the nuances of what real music is all about, you’re just guessing. And we don’t guess.

TP: At the time you recorded this, or shortly thereafter, you then came under the employ of Blue Note as the A&R director, and were right in the belly of the beast, as it were, in the attitudes you’re referring to…

BELDEN: Everybody in record companies now is an A&R guy. The marketing guy, the radio guy, the assistant A&R guy, the President of the company, the General Manager… Everybody is an A&R guy except the A&R guy. Again, I’m not the kind of person who takes suggestions. Because I know what I’m doing. I don’t need help. I don’t need anybody telling me, “We should sign this guy” or “we should sign this guy” or “what do you think about this.” I know the musician scene so well that I know about cats far in advance of record companies. Because the word on the street comes around, “so-and-so is hittin’,” “so-and-so is shucking.” And the process is, they eliminate the element of musical taste and judgment from the mix. It’s all about marketing, the image of the artist.

The other day a guy complained, he said that Omer Avital’s record, the tracks were too long — nobody would play it on the radio. Then one of their strong radio-oriented jazz records got number-one for a couple of weeks and sold 5,000 copies. That’s it. Kevin Hays had a trio record that was #1 on the Gavin charts for 3½-4 weeks and he sold less than 1,000 copies.

TP: With Omer Avital’s record, you’re referring to something that was ready-to-go and packaged, and got dropped when Polygram merged…

BELDEN: Yes. It got Verved. Again, they’re making a business decision. But I think eventually musicians are going to become more business oriented, and not follow the trap of a company.

TP: In A&R there is room for different aesthetics or different ways of presenting a sound image imprint for your company. Bob Belden may have different taste than someone at another label, and it doesn’t become quite that absolutely a matter of musical taste. Or does it?

BELDEN: Well, if you’re given control, which I was never going to be given any kind of control… Yeah, I’m intelligent enough to make decisions and stick with them and follow through. But I just can’t deal with people who can’t sit down and talk to me about the music. Because it’s about the artist and what they play.

TP: Is there a self-marketing aspect in musicians and their choices? In the Pop projects you’re doing, say, are you thinking about the commerciality of the material?

BELDEN: Sure. What’s the point of making a commercial record. I mean, what’s the point? If you’re going to make a record that’s not going to sell, why waste people’s time and energy and money? Because right now we’re flooded by records that are not going to sell by artists who are not artists.

TP: Why does a record sell? Why does a record not sell?

BELDEN: According to most companies, what they want it to sell and what it actually sells are oftentimes wide apart. You just have to know how few you’re going to sell. Gerry Teekens knows he’s going to sell a couple of thousand records, and that’s all he cares about. But Verve everything they do has to sell a lot of records, and that’s a tremendous amount of pressure. There’s no challenge in what they’re doing, because they’ve signed all these artists who actually have reputations. I don’t think they can break a creative artist, or somebody who is kind of left-of-center. They dropped Geri Allen after one or two records. They dropped Jason Lindner. They dropped Omer Avital. Didn’t even tell them. It’s kind of a shame, because if they have a bad year, it’s going to be even worse up there. The Herbie Hancock record I don’t think is going to make any money for the except maybe over a long period of time. But at Blue Note, three months, they make an evaluation, and that’s it.

TP: Let’s give our audience a blindfold test. One clue.

BELDEN: Yes. He was 13 years old when he made this record. The other thing is, if you listen to how professional these guys were. The arranger is Ernie Wilkins.

[MUSIC: Stevie Wonder, “Get Happy” (1963)]

BELDEN: See, guys who are Pop-oriented are much easier to work with. The whole business side, Smooth Jazz and R&B. Especially independent labels. They’re enthusiastic about the music. They really like what they hear, and they go to the bat for you. There’s not like some jazz tradition you’ve missed out. I see it a lot in the business, how they marginalize talented musicians, especially musicians who have a high level of musicianship — and they tend to go to a fashion. Again, for a non-musician, they look at a person and notice what they’re wearing and what the color of their skin is, and they make decisions based on that. And it has nothing to do with the notes, which are the real deal going down. So when I deal with all the kind of Pop-oriented labels, they are just much more professional about what they want to do. They tell you what they want and they do it, and they pay you the money. And they don’t sit down and talk about, “Well, what market is this going for?” They are trying to sell it. Because they don’t know about the Jazz tradition, and frankly, they don’t care.

I mean, the Jazz tradition is strangling our music. Why should a trumpet player have anything to do with New Orleans parade music? Why should all these guys imitate cats who passed away, and a lot of them lived in obscurity and poverty? Why can’t you live in modern times? Miles said, “You drive a modern car, you watch a modern TV, you live in a modern apartment.” Why be…

TP: I will say that some of the people who play the parade music did play that music coming up if they grew up in New Orleans. There are people who played Second Line, for whom that resonates.

BELDEN: Woody Herman was King of the Zulus in 1980 in New Orleans. They brought the whole band down. We had Afro wigs, blackface, grass skirts, the whole routine. We played the Heritage Hall with Wynton’s Dad and Nicholas Payton’s dad, and we did two nights at Al Hirt’s. The Zulu’s Ball. It was nothing. It was those guys who were locals. And they were modern players. They were playing like Cannonball stuff and Miles stuff, and then all of a sudden… I think it’s a tourist and cultural thing. They created this funeral music image. I don’t like old-fashioned music.

TP: You were talking about that before. You were saying that pre-Bebop players don’t really appeal to you.

BELDEN: Well, first of all, if you think about what that music meant at that time, that was some hard dues. And those guys basically played in smoky clubs and they had really no chance. Many of them had to retire… There are so many — in the ’50s — ex-musicians that had day jobs or taught schools and so forth. There wasn’t any real prejudice against white musicians back then, so you had a comfortable intermingling among musicians. There’s Mexican bebop players and there’s Puerto Rican bebop players, and they used to interact deeply back then. Now musicians have managers and agents and they have this kind of hi-falutin’ look of what their contributions to jazz are. I know as a writer, if I really wanted to, you could go and minimize what people think their contributions are. It’s so easy to imitate the past. It’s so easy to copy somebody else’s record. The hardest thing is to not put it out. I hear modern stuff occasionally, and it’s lifeless to me. There’s no adventure because nobody is buying those records. They’ve made the audience so traditional-oriented. They’ve tried to define jazz as a certain kind of music that has a certain kind of look. That’s why Smooth Jazz is primarily Caucasian.

TP: Well, the look you’re talking about is very much about marketing and has to do with the function of media. Everything is branded, and that look becomes the brand of the music.

BELDEN: See, I don’t agree with that. I think most jazz musicians are horribly ugly. They’re just not appealing physically. Because they never strived in their early years to do their face up and get their hair cut. Smooth jazz is a very visual well-to-do Yuppie kind of music, but a lot of those guys do pretty well. And the audience is so much more enthusiastic than jazz audiences. Jazz audiences tend to hoot and holler, and they like to go to hear picnic jazz, festival jazz. But the real serious Hardcore Jazz has sort of been banished from the planet. None of the companies want to take any chances with creative music at a certain level. If you’re fashionable, they’ll give you a shot. But they won’t come to the conclusion that they have to diversify completely and follow through with it.

The last time jazz was popular in America was when the fusion era was around. Now they’re talking 1.9% of sales. That’s like nonexistent. They sell more bootlegs than they sell that. But in the ’70s, it was 7%-8%, because of Fusion. Then in the ’80s they just dissed Fusion and Electric Jazz to the point where somebody reading a modern jazz magazine comes to the impression that there’s only the guys at Lincoln Center and only the guys who could play with Art Blakey and there’s nothing else. And there’s the Downtown scene, which has about 7 or 8 good musicians and a bunch of posers, people latching on to a scene — because it’s a social thing. But the main guys… If you deal with Zorn, Zorn is a very-very evocative conceptualist, and he takes care of business. He’s one of the strongest entities in the jazz business because he doesn’t need it to survive. And Bobby Previte, Dave Douglas…they’re all dedicated and very serious about what they’re doing. Yet they’re going to really sell mainstream numbers. If you’ve ever sold 50,000 to 60,000 records, you know what it feels like to see sales. In my Japanese records, sometimes I make a tremendous amount of royalties because the records sell.

TP: And it’s 9 o’clock. The next show must go on.

BELDEN: I love to poke fun at Verve. You have to understand.

TP: Well, Bob, you have many idiosyncracies, and many of them have come out on this program.

BELDEN: I’ll get nasty letters from people.

TP: And phone calls hopefully.

[-30-]

* * *

Bob Belden (for bio) – (9-13-2000):

TP: I think we should talk in as much detail as possible about the form of this piece, the events surrounding the piece, and the various associations you have to the piece. Will all this be described in the liner notes?

BELDEN: To some degree, yes.

TP: I have a lot of stuff from the Musician Show on your bio. I assume you want things like, “The Goose Creek, South Carolina, native, started playing music as a toddler, and did blah-blah-blah and did this in the school band, and went to North Texas State and did this and that, and from North Texas State went to Woody Herman and did this and that, and came to New York in 1980 and did this and that, and wrote the ESPN theme…

BELDEN: No, I didn’t write the ESPN theme. I arranged many themes.

TP: But all of that is in this interview we did. So if you want that stuff in the bio I have all of it to draw on. When we first were speaking, you said you wanted a thorough document, because you didn’t feel that you had an adequate bio.

BELDEN: Well, I’m sure you saw them.

TP: No. They didn’t send them to me.

BELDEN: They probably didn’t want to be embarrassed. Most of the bios are sort of for morons.

TP: Let’s talk about the piece. I won’t worry about the liner note. You’ve done a number of extended suites before. Before we talk about the personal circumstances that led to the work, let’s talk about the work formally in terms of the progression-of or the line of composition that you’ve done for large ensembles and suites.

BELDEN: The first thing I ever did as a suite was a piece called “World of the Past,” which is kind of science fiction jazz, which I wrote in 1981, and I had it performed in Denton, Texas, by the One O’Clock Band in 1987. It was essentially a piece of music about a dead world and about just intensity… It’s a very intense piece, non-stop. It was a three-movement piece that was continuous. When I was in school, we had a lot of encouragement to create pieces that went beyond just a chart, because we came out of a tradition of composition for large ensemble. It’s unlike anything you will find today, with the exception of maybe Miami University at one time. But Eastman School of Music and North Texas are probably the two places where composition for a large “jazz ensemble” is still taken seriously. Then in 1985 I started work ona piece that eventually became part of Treasure Island, which was originally for a quintet. The completed piece was commissioned by the Atlanta Arts Festival, and we performed it in 1987. Then I expanded it for a large ensemble, which I performed in April 1989 at Visiones, with my band at that time. And I had performed in February 1989 at Visiones for the first time with a band under my own name, and I so impressed Francois Zalacain that he gave me a record contract.

TP: You said that after the first set Francois came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set Matt Pierson came up and said, “We must record.”

BELDEN: Yes. And then for the second gig, Matt brought Lundvall down. I thought, “Wow, this is easy.” But I had never played a gig under my own name in New York City until I was 32 years old. That was the first gig I ever played as a bandleader. Because I had pretty much not been interested in the jazz world in the ’80s, since they were reinventing the past, and I did not want to put together a band to imitate Miles Davis or Art Blakey or anybody, which seemed to be the de rigueur of the moment. Which I still have strong feelings about that whole thing. I felt that jazz musicians at that time looked at serious composition as a form of frustrated abstract expressionism. They hid behind the intense nature of abstract jazz to feign seriousness, when in reality I felt that there was very little beauty. In Treasure Island I tried to create a bridge between the two, between the intense abstractness and beauty. It was also the first piece that expressed my feelings about the search for eternal love, and how jazz music comes out of a tradition of romantic music that was first proffered by Romantic composers from the 19th Century. And I can’t deny the fact that I am influenced profoundly by Western music, and will not lay claim to any part of African-American culture, and will not coopt that… I never wanted to lay claim to the cliche of African-American culture.

TP: A cliche?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s a cliche in the sense that people wrap their aesthetic around without really understanding what jazz really is. Nobody can define jazz except in the most analytical sense of the word or a historical sense of the word. I define it as a feeling. That it’s one of the few forms of music (using the word “form” in a loose sense) that allows you to go deep into your heart for no other reason than to say what you have to say. That you can express yourself deeply without having to think of any kind of commercialness. Because it’s the most unpopular music in the world.

TP: People are terrified of it.

BELDEN: They really are. It’s getting worse and worse, simply because people don’t care any more. They have to go to movies to cry. They can’t cry because they think about things. People only cry when they are surrounded by a tragedy. But I am surrounded by sadness all the time. I see it in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they act, the way they feel, the way they talk. “Love” is an abstract word that’s become commercialized. Miles Davis loved songs. It’s the same music, but it’s in a package. People say, “Oh, love; oh, Valentine’s Day; oh, makeout music.”

With Treasure Island I just decided, “Okay, what do I want to express about the idea of being in love.” And the idea of being in love has many implications. But to me there’s true love and eternal love. And to some people, love is a form of possession. So I wrote this piece…

TP: You addressed this in the earlier interview. But it sounds to me like the core of your ability to articulate your inner self as a writer of music really stems from your experiences at North Texas State.

BELDEN: No. I learned the tools from that. But I learned how to express myself from living in this place, in New York City, being alone for so many years…

TP: So North Texas State gave you the most thorough apprenticeship and training, and then you honed this living in New York in the ’80s through your various navigations of the sharkpit.

BELDEN: Well, I went on the road with Woody Herman, and that introduced me to the real life, the real world of jazz. It gave me experience going around the world and playing in every state in the United States and Europe and South America. I got to see things that… I looked for things. I felt things. And I realized that music was a viable way to make a living, even though the rest of our culture tends to dismiss it because for some reason they feel that their inadequacies as human beings prevent them from dedicating their life to something like this. So New York City brought everything good and bad in the world here, in front of your face every day, all the time. So having lived alone for a long time in New York City, my social circle was mostly musicians, and it was hard to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman because my intensity scared them. So I said, “Hey, I’m better off just thinking about it rather than dealing with it.” So Treasure Island was a real just crying-out to say, “Hey, I have a soul; I’m a sensitive person; I have dreams about these things, but I can only express them in music.”

TP: So it’s 1989, and you do Treasure Island and you record for Francois, and then Bruce Lundvall hears you.

BELDEN: Well, actually, right after I recorded Treasure Island, which was in August, I was in the studio for Blue Note in December working on the Sting record. Which was just one of those moments of inspiration. I had met Sting at the David Sanborn show and invited him to sit in with my big band, and then said, “Well, geez, if I invited him, I might as well write some music.” And I just listened to some of his music and said, “You know, there’s something there,” and went to Matt Pierson and said, “This is what I want to do,” and six minutes later I had a record deal with Blue Note.

TP: I don’t think I ever heard it.

BELDEN: Like most records today they go out of print faster than… Their out of print life is greater than their on-the-shelf life.

Then I recorded in October 1990 in Paris at La Cigalle, and there was a piece on there called “Psalm #1.” In 1984 and 1985 I had a bunch of free time, because I was doing all this stuff for ESPN and I was bringing this work to the studio, and they gave me free time. So I used it as a lab to record music. I did a couple of records with Wallace Roney, and one of them was half of an album with this ensemble. It was an intense piece that was a Valentine’s gift for someone, which was totally misunderstood. I played it on a gig, because I wanted to at least have it on record.

But then I did the Sting record, which went from a straight-ahead record to a commercial record, because Matt Pierson sort of… I just wanted it out. I wanted to have a record out on Blue Note, because I’m a big Blue Note nut. It’s a dream come true.

Then I did Turandot, and that changed my life. Turandot was an extension of finding a way to express deeper emotional feelings in music, and the subject matter and the melodic nature of Turandot were exactly what I wanted to deal with. It was about love, as most tragic operas are, and it was about the quest for unrequited love and eternal love set against a society and a social backdrop that put obstacles in the way. For instance, if you’re a musician, a very creative musician who is sensitive, who is into romantic music, into music that carries a sense of like sadness in it, which is essentially the melancholia, it’s hard to relate that to a female, especially when you haven’t quite gotten to yourself as an artist, simply because society has a prejudice against artists because they never make any money — the starving artist kind of syndrome. In reality, what we are…some people are really the heart and the essence of the tenderness of the human heart. I did this record because it was…you know, nobody had ever done it before — covering an opera. And I did it in such a way that I was able to transform the musicians who were involved on the record into following the personalities of the characters in the opera. It started out with Tim Hagans playing a certain role, and it ended up with Jim Powell playing that same role but having been affected by falling in love. Because Jim Powell was a very sensitive, very romantic player, and Hagans was a very confident player. I had Wallace Roney play the part of this Princess, a cold, heartless Princess, and I told Wallace to play it that way, and he played it just perfectly — just a very detached kind of lonely, searching kind of thing. He was the only one who could do that. I had Lovano play and Migliore play, the two main Italian Tenor operas, because they’re Italian, and coming from their upbringing, they understood that.

TP: It sounds in a certain way like Black Dahlia is the next step from Turandot.

BELDEN: Well, what happened was that Turandot was suppressed by the publisher because of some prejudice that the Classical Music Establishment has against all forms of music that come from human suffering, as opposed to the aristocracy. It put me into a state of artistic depression that you would not believe. Because I felt I could not express myself any more than that record at that time. And I stopped writing music. I started doing arrangements, mostly arranging and producing for other people. What I would do was take well-known material and twist it, so it sounded like Turandot or Treasure Island, so you will hear in all of these records I did, the records on Prince’s music and Carole King and the Beatles record… I would twist these things, so that I was able to maintain my skills and my sound, and further develop my sound using other people’s music. Because that way I wouldn’t have to deal with… The fact that Treasure Island is still in print is only because everything on Sunnyside will stay in print because Francois Zalacain owns the company, and he loves music, and he’s not interested in sales, he’s interested in having stuff available.

TP: Talk formally about how your sound developed between Turandot and now, in terms of what you were looking to develop and hearing it evolve.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s, when I was doing commercial music, I was doing a lot of television and film. I would finish all this work and I would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning almost every night writing music. I had a group with Smulyan and Powell and Hirschfield and Jay Anderson and Marc Copland, and we would rehearse every Wednesday. I would write for sextet, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with it because from a standpoint of harmony you can do things, but from a standpoint of orchestration, you couldn’t. When I bought the Yamaha DX-7, it allowed me to hear a certain kind of harmony that you couldn’t really hear on the piano, and I started developing a sound, a (?) of how chords should sound, and I started being attracted to certain kinds of chords, really dark minor chords, minor chords in like C-sharp-minor or E-flat-minor or A-flat-minor — dark, very dark, and they have a certain sound. I got away from writing in guitar keys, which are sharp keys, or string keys, which are sharp keys, because they are brighter. I really was gravitating towards darkness. I just felt it. There’s a Gil Evans arrangement of “The Barber’s Song” from The Individualism of Gil Evans which was profoundly affecting me, not only in the fact that it was dark, but the tempo was dark. It was just surrounded in this kind of darkness. Which is what New York was to me. Because I used to hang out at night all the time. I used to walk around at night. And you feel that even though there is sunshine, there is intensity here. There is a lot of evil here, a lot of evil in this city, and there is a difference between Good and Evil. I’ve been there.

So I developed a sound, the sounds of chords. I don’t write music that’s happy, like Kenny G or any smooth jazz per se. When I did Carole King, I turned her record into darkness. I found the sadness beneath the surface, and I exploited that. The record started kind of light and smooth, and it went further and further into abstract darkness, where you lead way over yonder. And at the same time I was developing a sound with three keyboards, because I couldn’t afford to go on the road with a big band, I couldn’t afford… I got frustrated. With Turandot that was like 26 musicians on one session, 64 total involved in the project. On Shades of Red, Shades of Blue, 104 musicians were involved in the project. I managed to arrange these Blue Note tunes and to twist them into the way I heard them. “Song For My Father” I totally twisted around to make it sound like my tune. And I got players who I thought could get the sound. In 1995 I did a piece for Deutsche Grammophone based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and I twisted that into my thing. You can hear stuff from Treasure Island and Turandot in that. They rejected that completely because it scared them. Because they see the word “jazz,” and they think, “Light, happy, bouncy, peppy dance music.” Then when you come out of… I was heavily influenced by Alban Berg, heavily influenced by music that accompanied noir pictures. Chinatown to me is one of the greatest movies for music. So I was just essentially writing arrangements, and… I just wanted to see if I could make a million dollars in five years. And I did. I mean, it all went to the Federal Government, for the most part, because we live in a state that’s a welfare state.

TP: So it’s ’97 or so.

BELDEN: In ’97, I read an article in the Village Voice which totally, totally freaked me out. Because I realized that something was wrong with me. I became the A&R director at Blue Note during that time, in the summer of ’97. On the one hand, it was a dream come true, and on the other hand it was terribly disappointing. Because I had learned how to produce records and I had learned how to conceptualize records, and I had learned how to take musicians and put them into environments where they sounded better than they did on their own records. Because I knew how to recognize strengths and weaknesses in players. I would study them. I would check them out. When I started working for Blue Note, musicians there who I was dealing with were essentially… It was a foretelling of the situation we have today in that musicians will not let their egos down enough to make a good record. Miles Davis trusted Gil Evans and he trusted the people at his record company to put him in an environment on the odd occasion that would take his music and sound into another world. That’s why those records, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, will last forever, and will define a certain kind of ultimate expression in jazz. And there are only a few musicians who would ever trust me enough to do that, one of them being Tim Hagans, and another one being Gary Smulyan, who unfortunately was not on Blue Note at the time. But certain musicians, a guy like Joe Lovano, would let me work with them on certain things and just allow me to do my thing.

But I realized I was fighting a losing battle, because cats these days want to produce their own record because they want to say, “I’m a producer.” But most people produce records that are basically average. They are the same record that they’ve recorded a month ago, or two months ago, or two years ago. And Blue Note was in a period where they were signing certain guys who had no conception of how to make a record, nor did they want to know, because they were having peer pressure, they wanted the New York Times to love them, and they felt that they had to make records that sounded a certain way as opposed to finding out who they were.

TP: But just to hold off for a second, this stuff won’t be in the bio.

BELDEN: But it’s going to lead to it. So I got frustrated, and then I found out that I was not well. That was in October 1997. And it was such a shock that I said, “I can’t do this any more. I have to write my own music again. I can’t be a producer who is just there to tell musicians how good they sound. I’m not a babysitter.” So that’s when I started writing Black Dahlia. Because the subject material was something that I found just totally intriguing.

TP: Let’s address the subject material, then.

BELDEN: You’ll get the information, then you’ll come up with it, then you’ll figure it out. See, the web-site is irrelevant. There’s three levels to the Black Dahlia. One is the legend. Number two is the crime. And number three is the human being. You’ll find out all about the legend on the website, and there was a TV movie, and James Ellroy wrote a book. The crime is a real thing. The crime was a crime of murder. But the story is of a human being who is born innocent into an indifferent world, a world filled with sadness and desperation. This girl, Elizabeth Short, had dreams, and like most kids from her generation, had to escape the drudgery of the Depression. And society created this dream world called motion pictures, and she became totally involved in this fantasy world of falling in love and being famous and being rich and happy. She had one of these childhoods that was dreadful in that there was no hope, so she moved to different places, and eventually settled and resettled in Los Angeles in order for herself to find love and find happiness, to free her spirit. Because that’s essentially what she was. But the problem is, when you move to a place like Los Angeles, the exterior of it is very misleading. Palm trees, sunshine, beautiful people, Hollywood. But at the same time, it’s still the wild, wild West. It’s a place where people move to to escape, and they brought themselves with them. So Hollywood, on the one hand… If you read any of the books about Hollywood, like City of Nets by Otto Friedrich being one, Hollywood was a horrible town. Hollywood was a place that was essentially greedy, selfish, narcissistic people surrounded by defense workers and servicemen and Oakies. So on one hand you had the glamour of Hollywood and you were surrounded by trash, you were surrounded by essentially kind of a low-level experience — no sophistication.

Hollywood was all fake. And I think she found how fake it really was. But by then it was too late. For her, it was becoming a nightmare instead of a dream. If you think about people who get caught up in the dream world of New York, and it slowly becomes a nightmare. Woody Shaw. Miles Davis got caught up in it. You know, Miles Davis almost killed himself, out of loneliness and desperation, in 1979. People come here with dreams. They can be shattered. Others have their dreams fulfilled. I saw this. I read about her in this book called Severed by John Gilmore. It talked about her, and it talked about the crime, and it talked about the real environment around her. And I read City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. And I got a feeling for how a human being can get trapped in this world. Because I was trapped. I lived in a dream world here, because I was totally focused on music and being a musician and being an artist, somebody who expressed their innermost feelings in music. It took me into the hardest part of New York City, the darkest part of the city.

In ’97 I realized that I had to write this music. And little by little, as my health deteriorated, I got focused more and more on the music, and I would write little bits here and there, little bits and pieces, and I would rewrite it and rewrite it. This is what I had to do, was eliminate the idea that these would just be little pieces that had no connection. And I had to create a theme that would be running throughout the music, which is the theme of her life. And I had to create themes that would capture episodes, moments in her life. That’s how the piece is. Every theme is exploited, just like Wagner. The piece starts at the moment of death, and it’s a flashback. It’s her life. She’s reliving her life. “Genesis” is the point of birth — death and birth. And the melody that enters is this lonely trumpet sound, and it’s the sound of one soul being born against this solo piano, which is the backdrop, just the simplest essence of creation. Then it develops into a full-blown orchestrated theme, which is how people’s lives develop. Then there is this little section which transitions to the solo, which is essentially the love theme. The harmonic basis of “Danza D’Amour” is right there. Then it goes into “In Flight,” which is when she is desperate to leave. “Genesis” ends with this triumphant kind of screaming-out, like “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m a human being.” Then the last three phrases are, “But I must cry, I must sigh, and I must die.” Because those chords that end “Genesis” are the chords of Death that follow her throughout the piece.

On “In Flight” she’s leaving, trying to escape the world she was born into. In “Dawn,” she’s at dawn and she’s overlooking this misty kind of valley and she has no idea what lies ahead. Then “City of Angels” is the moment when the city is revealed, and this artificial world, beautiful, a kind of a gauze, a golden gauze that holds over the city, and she looks around and sees movie stars, mansions, people who are just everything she ever fantasized about. She was there. Hollywood. California. Yet at the end of the piece you hear the essence of evil striking out, this moment of like uncertainty. But then she blows it off and just starts, you know, “I believe that I will see; when I believe, I will see.” She just accepts this as her world. Then “Dream World” is the world where she becomes an adventurer in a dream world.

TP: That’s where you enter.

BELDEN: That’s where I play the saxophone.

TP: And Hagans is playing most of the trumpet up to there. You play the soprano saxophone solos?

BELDEN: There’s no soprano saxophone solos. That’s English horn. Charlie Pillow. “Dream World” is the world she’s in at that moment, the fantasy world of California. “Prelude to Love” is the moment she stops and thinks, “What is it I’m missing? What is it I really want? I want to be in love.”

In “Danza D’Amour,” Joe Lovano plays the character of the potential suitors, the different men in her life that she fell in love with but who never could love her. And it ends tragically. The theme starts out very nostalgic, very period in some way. And it dances in and out of little harmonic cells which constantly modulate and change, and gets more intense and more intense until it kind of dwindles out. Because when you fall in and out of love, the feeling just peters out, you know. And it goes back into the theme again. But it ends incredibly tragic, and that’s the end of what her life was as Elizabeth Short. She could never fall in love because she did not have the capacity to fall in love, like the Princess in Turandot or like the characters in Treasure Island.

TP: Didn’t she specifically have…

BELDEN: That was irrelevant. Because love has nothing to do with sex. She wanted to find somebody who loved her because of all of her situations. So then “Zanzibar” is when she sort of starts hanging out in the nightlife, becoming a night creature. And “Black Dahlia” is the moment she becomes this person who transforms herself into someone who will draw people to her. In other words, she knew she could not fall in love with a man; she had to have men fall in love with her.

TP: Or desire her.

BELDEN: Well, pretty much one and the same. And she can control it. She became the Black Dahlia. And there’s a phrase that’s basically one of the melody phrases, which is “When your day becomes your night” in the beginning, and then at the end it’s “when your night becomes your day.”

Then there’s this piece called “Edge of Forever.” It’s her last night at the Hacienda Club. The Hacienda Club was a dance hall, and I envisioned it being a proto Kenton-Dizzy Gillespie band, these wild, extreme trumpets. Each soloist becomes a different phase of…

TP: The trombone soloist is Conrad Herwig?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s Conrad. Migliore on alto and Lou Soloff. At the end, there’s the famous Gene Krupa-Harry James kind of maddening trumpet-drum thing, where we wanted to get to this frenzy. There’s kind of a cliche… Like, if you’ve ever watched the Twilight Zone episode with Richard Conte; it’s really like this wild, crazy… I described it to Tom Evered as “bongo madness.” Just an intense bongo kind of driven piece that evokes the Afro-Cuban kind of dark, evil, sinister thing that they used that music for in movies. And it was her last night on earth. Then there is the piece called “Freeway (101 North),” which is the Hollywood Freeway. She was using that, heading toward the mountains. The way that was written, it was improvised, but I told Kevin Hays to imitate traffic, visualizing driving half out of your mind, desperate to leave, to get somewhere. I don’t even know if she drove, but in a car, going somewhere, and seeing lights…you know, being distorted in the headlights, headlights being distorted in the windshield, and creating this kind of illusion and this intensity, cars zooming by, horns honking, and just like total paranoia.

Then “Elegy” is basically in four parts. On “City Lights” she’s on top of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, wondering what has gone wrong with her life. It’s late at night, she overlooking the valley, and she’s wondering what has gone wrong with her life. Why is she in this position? Because in her real life, she had been involved with criminals, people like robbing houses, and she was a setup for robbing houses. She’d become a petty thief. She knew too much, and she probably was going to turn people in. She wanted to get out of that life and she wanted to have those people put away so she could be safe. So she’s up on the mountain, looking over the city, seeing all these little street-lights, and thinking, “For every light that I see in Los Angeles, that means their soul has died and gone to heaven to become a star in the night sky.” Then she prays, “God, if there is a heaven, then that’s where I want to be. I want my soul to live forever, for all eternity.”

Then as in most tragic operas, she starts walking to her destiny, to the moment… She knows she is going to die, and she accepts that. And she is going to walk to the place where she is going to meet the person who is going to kill her. And she starts thinking about how sad her life has been, and trying to glimpse into her mind the moments of happiness. When you hear the strings score up, she starts crying, crying like, “Why? Why? God Almighty, why do I deserve this? What have I done?” Then when the trumpets come in screaming her theme, she is back to the moment, like, “I started out innocent, and now my life is just intertwined with Evil and bad people.” Then those last moments, it’s like the emotion overwhelms her, to where she’s face-to-face with Jack the Ripper, the personification of Jack the Ripper, who begins cutting her up. Then there’s this big tympany roll, and then she screams — the last sound she ever utters. A scream. But it wasn’t a scream that anybody heard but her, in her mind.

Then you hear this like little low note, and then you hear a string note, and it’s like the very beginning. The trumpet comes in. And she looks down upon the crime scene, this vacant lot, and sees her body, and sees a little kid come up and see it and go and run. Then she sees the kid’s mother. Then the police come. It’s like dissolving from one to the other, happening, like floating… The time is like speeding up. It’s no longer like slow in real time. It’s like getting faster. She’s in Purgatory. She doesn’t know whether she’s going to ascend to heaven or if her soul will spend eternity in Purgatory. She is suddenly bathed in a light, and she looks up and sees this light just enveloping her soul, and she hears a voice and it says, “Please come to me, my little child.” That’s the voice of God inviting her to Heaven. So you can hear it go into tempo, and it just starts getting more intense, and the strings start playing a little higher and higher and higher. She’s ascending into Heaven, going higher and higher, until she breaks above the boundaries of the earth into this beautiful…like what people dream Heaven is. It’s a clear blue sky, the most beautiful blue. It’s Heaven. And the clouds is the cushion beneath you. She knows she’s made it, she’s done it. Her one dream, to live forever, will be achieved. Then the light intensifies and intensifies, and it becomes so bright to where it disappears into total blackness. Then suddenly a star appears in Heaven, and then a light appears in the City of Los Angeles, and then the Sun comes up over the mountains. Then you hear those three chords saying, “The Black Dahlia will live forever.” And that’s the story.

TP: You mentioned a few times Gil Evans. He seems a primary inspiration for the way you think about music. Not so directly tied into the sounds on this. But for instance, you said no one had done an opera, but he reimagined a different type of opera. Other things as well. Maybe this is a totally fallacious line of questioning, but I want to talk to you about tangible landmarks in your intellectual journey.

BELDEN: Well, simply: Alban Berg, Lulu. Puccini, Turandot. Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. And Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown. This record has nothing to do with Gil Evans. I talked to Gil. Gil and Miles were thinking of doing Tosca, and I asked him once, “How come you didn’t do it?” He said, “There wasn’t enough there.” But see, Gil could never conceptualize a unified work on his own, because he never thought like that. Basically, Gil could deal with one voice effectively, which was Miles. He could wrap Miles around in something. But he could not really deal with the idea of putting together…to create a work that told a story.

TP: That said, you spoke of what happened to you psychically after Treasure Island and Turandot, which was more a reimagination of the opera than a rearrangement, so we can call them creative works… Do you see this as in line with a late 20th century opera? How would you describe…

BELDEN: How about an early 21st Century opera? Well, it has the elements of opera and it has the elements of tone poems, which is like Richard Strauss — “Das Sprach Zarathustra,” “Der Eulenspiegel.” It’s a tone poem. It’s a work that tells a story, that’s based on themes. It comes from that tradition.

TP: But it deals with improvisers as the voices.

BELDEN: It deals with people who can improvise emotion, who can improvise feeling. Because there’s not a lot of improvisation in there. Because it’s about telling a story. It’s about telling a melody. It’s saying that melodies can become human characters.

TP: Lovano has a phrase, “tonal personality.”

BELDEN: Yeah. But I don’t even know if I’d call it that. Because I create the personality that the musicians will… I have to put that musician into a point where they can instinctively play that. Before we played the first piece, “Genesis,” I turned to Tim Hagans and said, “Do you remember how I felt last year?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Play like that.” He knew what I meant. And he played like that. He played like somebody who thought they were going to die. You never heard Hagans play like that. I got Lawrence Feldman to play that alto solo on “Black Dahlia” because I knew he would play exactly what I had written. We talked about that. I had him come over to my apartment in August 1999 and go over that with me, and I told him, “This is what I want you to do. I am writing this for you because I know you know what I want.” His solo was written out.

TP: What voice are you when you’re playing saxophone?

BELDEN: I’m just one of the characters… In “Dream World,” I am basically her as an existing human being in a situation. And when I am playing the last piece, I am like her watching herself die, which is when I watched myself slowly die. Because this shit is not your normal record, man. This has things in it that are so deep to me, and stuff that I really can’t talk about, because people won’t understand. They have to know that this purely emotion. This has nothing to do with the jazz tradition as people think of it. It has to do with the tradition of Germanic music. It goes beyond just a jazz record. Like, Keith Jarrett’s solo piano record. You can hear how bad he felt when he was trying to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, trying to get over an illness that was sapping his life out from under him. When you are at a point in your life when you can’t do anything, you have no strength to do anything, and your mind is like completely left to just ponder your fate, it’s terrible.

* * *

Bob Belden Blindfold Test (11-15-02):

1. Oliver Nelson, “Blues O’Mighty” (from MORE BLUES & THE ABSTRACT TRUTH, Impulse!, 1964/1997) (Oliver Nelson, arr.; Thad Jones, cornet; Phil Woods, as; Pepper Adams, bs; Roger Kellaway, p) – (4 stars)

The pianist sounded like it came from a deep source, like he has everything in it. And the bass player, the only guy who can play like that is Richard Davis, so it has to be Roland Hanna. It sounds like a Thad Jones tune. The baritone is a very, very different kind of Pepper — if it were Pepper. Outside of that, a funny reverb on everything. That’s as close as I can come. In terms of rating, it sounds like a basic record date, a blues, but if it’s those guys, they’re always quality musicians, so I would say four stars. If it were somebody else, I would say 2 stars for imitating.

2. Daniel Schnyder, “With the Devil On The Backseat” (from TARANTULA, Enja, 1996) (Schnyder, comp., ts; Hubert Laws, fl.) (3 stars)

I guess the drummer was out getting high or something. That’s a very intriguing way of dealing with that kind of cluster voicing that Brookmeyer and Gil Evans use so well. The flute player was great. There’s very few flute players who can have that tone. It could be Lew Tabackin. So it could be Toshiko’s band. Tabackin has that kind of tone. It’s a big tone and it’s uniform throughout the register. Jazz flute is kind of a dying art form. The saxophone player I couldn’t really tell, because the changes were kind of tricky for him, and it didn’t sound like it was something written specifically for that person’s phrasing technology, so to speak. But the arrangement is interesting, and it has certain intellectual qualities which are apparent. But it’s just all right. It’s okay. You know? If it’s Toshiko’s band, it has to be Frank Wess. But if it’s not, it could be Kenny Wheeler; he writes like that a little bit. Kenny Werner writes like that. I don’t know if Maria… She can, she has the potential to write like that. All these people kind of write in the same similar thing, where the music is more based on how much ensemble they can manipulate in between solos. My philosophy has always been the drama created from the hero, the antagonism between the hero and the society, as opposed to everybody being a communal player. And that music was framed around little solo vignettes for the soloists, but there was no emotional focus or where they were going to end up. It just sort of was a piece, something like you would write in college. For the concept, four stars. For the emotional thing that hit me, 2 stars. So three stars.

[AFTER] I wouldn’t have thought Hubert Laws, because he’s been kind of off the scene. But he has that big tone like Lew, a classical tone. I know who Daniel Schnyder is, but I don’t really follow his music that much. I get stuff in the mail from him. I know he wrote for Lee Konitz a couple of years ago. But I’m into just intense maniac stuff. I’m not into this kind of thing.

3. Cindy Blackman, “Green” (from CODE RED, Muse, 1990) (Cindy Blackman, d, comp; Wallace Roney, tp; Steve Coleman, as; Kenny Barron, p; Lonnie Plaxico, b) – (5 stars)

Okay, I think I know who that is. Cindy Blackman had to be the drummer, and probably Mulgrew Miller on piano, which means the bass player could have been… It’s a Muse date. I can tell by the fact that the recording quality has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But the trumpet player can be nobody else but my man Wallace Roney, and anything Wallace plays is 5 stars. The Muse dates were kind of like the Prestige dates. You could tell that if they had just focused on this tune and another two tunes for a session, they could have gotten what Wallace really wanted. But it’s Wallace, and it’s killin’. I can tell by the articulation. [Any guesses on the saxophone player?] I know who it is, but I can’t remember. There’s this whole line of alto players who come out of Spaulding in a way, this angular kind of Spaulding thing. There’s Kenny Garrett… This might have been an early Kenny Garrett, because they were a tandem for a moment there. But I could be wrong again. [Whose date was it?] Well, I’m not sure. These days there’s no… It’s kind of not really a Wallace Roney kind of tune. It’s a Cindy Blackman date probably. It’s the drummer’s date, because the tune was written around the drummer. I could be wrong again. But there would be more space if it were a Wallace Roney date. Five stars for Wallace. The record, because of the way jazz records are made, I’d say is not 100% of what they could have done with the people they had. But under the circumstances, that’s all they could get out of it. But I’ll give Wallace five stars for anything he plays. Cindy Blackman deserves a four star record, but she could have done a five-star record if it was her record… So four stars.

[AFTER] I remember Steve Coleman mostly as an alto player on Thad Jones & Mel Lewis’ band, and next thing you know, he’s got this system of music out in Brooklyn. I was going to say Osby, but it was too bebop for Osby. Greg has refined that whole concept, I think; has distilled the art of deception to an incredible length. But I guess he is severely influenced by Coleman.

4. John Patitucci, “Isabella” (from COMMUNION, Concord, 2001) (Patitucci, 6-string-electric bass, comp; Chris Potter, ss; Ed Simon, p.) – (2-1/2 stars)

Is that Michael Brecker on soprano saxophone? Oh, man! I said Brecker first, but it sounds Liebmanish. Dave Liebman has a conception on the soprano saxophone. It’s hard to say. I only liked the last 30 seconds. The melody is quasi-Weather Report, quasi-quasi, but the last one, they just stayed on that groove, the low pedal, and just stayed there, kept what sounded to be like a berimbau or something of that nature in there. That was cool at the very end. Had that been a Miles Davis date, Teo would have just looped the last end for about 20 minutes. On a record date like that, the vamps are when all the shit happens, because people are over all the agony of having to play the tune, and by the finish of the tune, they’ve already had an orgasm, and now it’s kind of like they’re relaxing and mellowing out, like lighting up the cigarette, and the music is just going into another world. I think that when people play, they should just let the thing run out, even if it’s a 20-minute ending. Because you can always edit it. But you get amazing things from the finish of tunes. And that tune had a great finish. I have no earthly idea who it is. The recording quality is pretty miserable, too. Everything is dark and muddy. So it could be the bass player’s record. The only guy who’s like approaching that stuff is…like, Richard Bona has a worldly approach. But it’s hard to say. The cliche of Fusion, as Zawinul once said to me, is that everything has got arrangements. That tune there was so many different tunes within the tune. Just the vamp could have been tune. Just the melody. You could have just played around with that melody, like “Nefertiti,” and not ever played a solo, and just let the melody breathe. Sometimes you don’t have to develop things. Sometimes you don’t have to make an issue out of things. But then, it’s their record, not mine. 2-1/2 stars for the last 30 or 40 seconds of the piece. The soprano player was nice, but again, there’s all these things in there. It’s all Coltrane-based. Very Coltrane-based. I mean, anybody who plays the saxophone can do that without thinking about it. And I think he should send at least $1.40 to Coltrane’s family.

[AFTER] Chris Potter, my man! But yeah, the bag is you get into those Middle Eastern kind of grooves, and the tendency is go on to Coltrane, and the thing is that you’ve got a slash mark that says whatever the tonal center… Say it’s A-concert, and that’s an open string for the bass, so he’s able to jump off and do all kinds of interesting stuff. But for a horn player, you’ve got this one note, and you’ve got to have everybody on the same wavelength, and then you can play melodies to it instead of playing the Slonimsky kind of stuff. But it’s just basically the kind of thing where he wrote a tune… They all write tunes, and they’re tunes, and it’s not really about the actual music that happens on the tune. Just the arrangement happens. Patitucci is a guy who comes from that area. All his influences are evident in that kind of thing. But record companies put pressures on guys to write tunes as opposed to letting the music just happen. Personally, I’d have just let them go for a half-an-hour on that little vamp, and got the Sonic Solutions out. But again, those guys are all 100% musicians. It’s just they’re making records, as opposed to making momentary snapshots of the way they feel about life that day. It’s a very abstract way of making music. But to me, it’s the only way of making music that is a true testament to how you feel about life. Otherwise, you’re just making a date with a bunch of all-stars.

5. Brecker Brothers, “Slang” (from OUT OF THE LOOP, GRP, 1994) (Michael Brecker, ts, comp.; Randy Brecker, tp.; George Whitty, keyboards, arr.; Dean Brown, g; James Genus, b; Steve Jordan, d; Steve Thornton, perc.) – (3-1/2 stars)
Right there’s another one, man. They get into it on the fade. The back end of the tune is killing. They get into a groove. It’s like it’s all focused on that. What I heard is two different record covers. It’s almost like a hip Saturday Night Live band. The first part is all Brecker Brothers, the voicings, the Hindemith descending fourths, very early Miles-’80s, the muted trumpet, bebop licks… It’s just a lot of stuff in there. And at the very end, it gets into this kind of groove, and kind of very Pop, and then they fade out. It’s a tune that’s five tunes in one. You’re on an emotional roller-coaster ride there. Like, where are you going? It’s again about two stars! Because that’s all I ever want to hear it. I don’t want to ever hear it again. I don’t need to hear it again. It will stick in my mind forever because it was getting nice towards the end, and I’ll probably steal a few voicings. But outside of that, wow. Who was it?

[AFTER] Man, the Brecker Brothers! Yeah. I was thinking that if it was somebody STEALING the Brecker Brothers, then it should be 2 stars. But that’s George Whitty. See, I was going to say George Whitty. But they’re the only guys that are doing that stuff. It’s totally Brecker Brothers language. Now that it’s a Brecker Brothers record, it’s 5 stars. No, you have to understand. If it’s an imitator, then it’s definitely 2 stars, because there’s groups out there that imitate very well. I’m thinking, my God, a band has come out, and they’re copying the Brecker Brothers note for note. Because that’s George Whitty and that’s Robbie Kilgore doing the programming. I know the record, but since the car accident, my memory has just gone. But I knew that was the Breckers, because Randy is the only guy who does that. And I knew it was Michael. But then again, there are so many people who imitate Michael Brecker note for note, to the point where it’s scary. And I dare venture a guess, and I’d rather make a hip remark about somebody imitating them than to give them… Because this kind of music is so easy to imitate, because it’s note for note transcription. It’s an arrangement. It’s something that starts and finishes with endings and beginnings. And the kind of music that’s more difficult to imitate is the music that…to imitate or capture the feeling that went into making the music in the original. That was Dennis Chambers on drums, right? I saw that band live. Barry Finnerty was on guitar. It wasn’t Dennis Chambers. Oh, Steve Jordan. But Dennis Chambers did the live shows. But yeah, that had to be… I knew that was Randy Brecker. Nobody does what he does. But again, I don’t think it’s the best example of their band. The best stuff they ever did was in the ’70s on Arista. That was ridiculous. And nobody has imitated that. Well, actually they have. I take that back. I heard a group at the Blue Note one night, but it was fake Brecker Brothers from the ’70s. But it’s hard. Michael is the kind of guy… I feel bad for Michael, because he’s the first guy that synthesized Stanley Turrentine and Coltrane, and he made the connection because Turrentine dug Coltrane, and they all came out of Gene Ammons, and they all came out of the big tenor tone — Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Michael Brecker just took that and made it his own thing, and then everybody…even Chris Potter can sound like that if he wants. So I have a difficult time even distinguishing him sometimes. Which is why when you played the thing with Patitucci, I thought that was Brecker on soprano. I thought somebody was giving him a break, and having him play soprano. Because there were so many lines there, patterns that saxophone players play, and articulation. It’s very gender-specific. It’s like a code. I can tell somebody who’s… I know the record collection. I know the record they got it from. On the one hand, it’s great. But when you put it out on your record as being your thing, then it’s kind of disingenuous, because the guys who made the music in the original to begin with suffered enough.

For Randy Brecker, five stars. For Michael Brecker, 5 stars. For the track, 2 stars. There is a distinction. They are 100% artists making a 50% album. I’ll make it easy. 3-1/2 stars, with 5 for the Breckers, for Randy, and for the conception, 2 for the tune, and average it out for the fact that everybody steals from them and they don’t pay them any money.

6. Benny Carter, “Blue Star” (from FURTHER DEFINITIONS, 1961/1997) (Carter, as, comp, arr.; Coleman Hawkins, ts) – (5 stars)

I’m going to make a stab. Marshall Royal. No? I mean, that’s a really tight saxophone section. It could be Bobby Plater. It’s very bizarre. Like, the old-school vibrato, reverby room… Wow, that is so out there. Because there’s a record with the Count Basie sax section and Coleman Hawkins, and Marshall has that kind of sound. But I’m trying to think… [Do you know the tune?] [SINGS REFRAIN] Yeah. The bebop tune that’s based on “How High The Moon.” Yeah. I have no earthly idea. It’s from the ancient days. [You think you recognized Coleman Hawkins, though.] No, there’s a record called “Coleman Hawkins and The Big Sax Section.” It’s with the Basie Sax Section and Coleman Hawkins… [A Savoy record.] A Savoy record, yeah. But no, there’s only a handful of these kind of sax ensemble records that exist in this old-school stuff. Earl Bostic… Benny Carter. Yeah. I’m not familiar with the recording, but I’m thinking who plays like that? There’s only a handful of guys who can play like that, and it’s an elegant kind of thing. I knew it wasn’t Woody Herman. He’s the other guy who plays that style. It’s a touch of Johnny Hodges, but what Johnny Hodges brings to it is a skilled… It’s very elegant. Everything was very precise. The vibrato was very precise. It was a lot wider than Hodges. Why I say Marshall Royal is because Marshall is from L.A. and was profoundly influenced by Benny Carter, and Marshall plays exactly like Benny Carter when he solos. So I don’t think I was too far astray. But yeah, Benny Carter, and I can’t venture to say who was in the section. But if the readers could hear it, the tenor players, when they played their ensembles, they played it perfectly in the same…no vibrato. I knew it wasn’t any of the Ellington guys, because the pitch would have been all over the place and the vibrato would have been all over the place, so you’d have had that fuzz. This was done by meticulously trained musicians…who were probably sober at the date. [But you think the tenor player was Coleman Hawkins.] I couldn’t tell. [Well, it was.] Okay. [Do you want to know who the other saxophone players were, just for professional curiosity? The other tenor player was Charlie Rouse and the other alto player were Phil Woods.] See, I told you, man. They played like not on the road, playing the same music every night. You could tell when the tenor counterline came in, they were playing the same vibrato and the same phrase. Benny Carter, 5 stars. The arrangement, 5 stars. It’s a very specific kind of writing. There are six saxophones… [Four.] So there’s not a trumpet in there. I guess I’m hearing the reverb… Oh, the guitar. So the guitar is playing some of the notes, too. But it sounds a lot bigger than it is, and that’s a testament to his writing. It’s also a testament to the reverb.

7. Jack de Johnette, “Where Or Wayne” (from EARTH WALK, Blue Note, 1991) (de Johnette, drums, comp; Gary Thomas, ts; Greg Osby, as; Michael Cain, keyboards; Lonnie Plaxico, b)

A black hole. That’s the only rating I can give this. Do you know what I mean by that? There are no stars in a black hole. It sucks out all the light. The only guy I can think of would be Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone, or Billy Harper, because of that certain kind of sound. But I just didn’t like it at all. I guess this is what happens when you go to Berklee. Again, for the composer, for the people who are making the music at that moment, to have an arrangement and to have the structure and to have polychords in little spots for the soloists to work out all the things they work out… It lacks any sense of spontaneity, and it’s derivative of almost every inner city fusion record of the ’70s and early ’80s. I have no idea who it is. I probably know them, and they’ll probably smack me in the face. But it’s very Downtown. Very Downtown New York. Again, something like this, it’s hard to say. They’re going for something. It’s jazz guys trying to play fusion music. It’s like a burgeoning thing. And forgetting that fusion music in itself was a natural evolution of a certain kind of playing of hard-bop. So where do you take it? What is Fusion of today? The fusion of today is far more electronica than groove-oriented, than beat-oriented, than backbeat-oriented, than repetitive chord sequences. [When did it sound like it was made?] Definitely in the ’80s and ’90s because of the string synths. It’s hard to say.

8. Bill Holman, “I Didn’t Ask” (#5) (from A VIEW FROM THE SIDE, JVC, 1995) (Holman, comp.; Ron Stout, tp.; Pete Christlieb, ts) – (5 stars)

Is this the Vanguard Orchestra? Holy shit. That’s a sound. The only guy sick enough to write this is Bob Brookmeyer. It’s not Brookmeyer? He’s the only other guy I know who’d be sick enough to write something like this. [Besides who?] Thad Jones. Jim McNeely… [You’re thinking of the wrong clique.] But see, it’s the same sound. It all comes from Brookmeyer’s tune, “ABC Blues,” and Thad Jones, from his first record. That’s a Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band tune. It’s a Basie and Gerry Mulligan. [You’re in the wrong clique.] In the wrong clique. It’s bizarre. It’s a good… I don’t know this specific album. But that’s definitely not a… [It’s lineally connected to all the people you’re talking about.] So it’s very current, right? [It’s a recent recording.] That’s what I’m saying. It has to be a radio band in Europe or something. They’re the only other ones who can rehearse that well. No? Who is it? I’m dumbfounded. I’m not up on what goes on… Well, the composition style is basically an imitation of the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis record, of “ABC Blues,” which came out of the Concert Jazz Band, which was like a combination of Gary MacFarland and Gerry Mulligan, and they had this kind of conception. But Thad Jones had that kind of Basie pop thing, so there’s these interrelated rhythms going on in between. so it’s a guy who’s amalgamated those particular kinds of sounds. Or it might be a woman. It might be Maria, and Julie Cavadini did a record — she’s pretty much into the Brookmeyer kind of thing. But it’s hard to say, because it’s such an identifiable… [It’s a cousin of Brookmeyer.] Manny Albam? No? [Or maybe an uncle.] An uncle. Not Gil. No, of course not. Who is it? [You’re not only in the wrong clique; you’re on the wrong coast.] A West Coast guy, a cousin of Bob Brookmeyer. Bill Holman! That makes total sense, but I would not have guessed it, because I know the source. The source comes out of Gerry Mulligan. I’m one of these guys who goes back to the source of it. Gerry Mulligan comes out of Lester Young, and that goes back to Count Basie, and you know where that comes from. And it’s the blues. But all of these things you’re playing me, not one person has played anything that remotely resembles anything to do with the Blues in any of their playing or any of their tunes. There’s nothing that has that essence of it. Just the Brecker Brothers tune had a moment of it, I think. And the deJohnette tune had just a moment of it… The Oliver Nelson tune was a straight blues. But everything else, the fusion stuff, is all devoid of that feeling. So it becomes like a guessing game. With Oliver Nelson, I could pretty much tell who the main stars were, but it wasn’t their best playing. For Bill Holman and the fact that it’s an L.A. band, the miracle of that coming out of L.A. is five stars alone. Bill Holman is a genius, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve compared him to Bob Brookmeyer and the Gerry Mulligan Jazz Band at all, because that’s the sound he’s fighting for. He wrote a chart for Mel’s band called “Just Friends,” which is the art of taking Tristano’s idea and bringing it to a big band. He’s truly a brilliant musician who, unfortunately to us, lives on the West Coast and doesn’t hang out here where it’s cold and damp. Five stars. It was a great performance. It was very cool in terms of big band writing… The soloists I didn’t particularly find fascinating, because what could you possibly play after that writing? With Miles and Gil, Miles played written out solos on a lot of the stuff, especially the “Miles Ahead,” because what could you possibly think of, improvise off the top of your head that will follow what you’ve just heard from the mind of somebody like Bill Holman?

9. Jeremy Pelt, “Madness” (from INSIGHT, Criss-Cross, 2002) (Pelt, tp.; Jimmy Greene, ts; Myron Walden, as) – (4 stars)

To play that tune that way, which was “Madness,” a Herbie Hancock tune, it’s like playing Vivaldi with electric violins. See, I have the alternate take of that. There’s an alternate version of the way they approach the melody, and Miles just says, “Well, let’s just play a feel.” They also recorded that in the summertime. They played differently. Miles played differently in the summertime than he did in the wintertime. If you listen to all those Miles records from the summer, which is “Nefertiti” and “Sorcerer” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way”… If you listen to “Bitches Brew,” “Nefertiti,” “Sorcerer,” “Filles De Kilmanjaro,” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way” and the stuff from the early “Jack Johnson” sessions, you hear the difference in the way guys play summer and winter. And the feeling on that tune, “Madness,” is about getting to a point or a place. And these guys… It’s Jeremy Pelt, right? He’s one of the few young guys out there looking at this kind of music like Wynton did in the early ’80s. But it’s not doing the tunes, because the tunes were just captured in the studio by Miles at that day, and if they ever played them again, they probably appeared in quotations of other tunes, as they did on the Plugged Nickel, where you hear Wayne go into a tune from “The All Seeing Eye” or you hear on some of these live tapes where they go into “Prince of Darkness” and actually play “Dolores” on the gig. So musicians tend to go by the recording, and extant bootlegs of certain things, and they base that on how they approach this kind of music as opposed to using a particular kind of method to it. Of the younger cats out there in the city, he’s one of the most serious guys about playing the instrument and being involved in the music, and I’m on his case all the time about just this thing, about dealing with this kind of music in a way where you just do it privately, and publicly, you try to create an image of yourself as a musician who is on top of everything that’s going on in the world around you. Because to play that kind of music, you’ve got to recreate the environment. That tune sounds great in a big studio like the 30th Street Studio in Columbia, where the ride cymbal can ring out into the room, and you’ve got a great classical engineer like Fred Plath, who made the most of it. But I think this was a Fresh Sound recording, or a Criss Cross recording… Criss Cross. So it’s from Systems II, and the drums bleed into everybody. Was that Ralph Peterson? This record was a long time coming for Jeremy. I met him a few years ago, hanging out at this club, Assault(?), where all the up-and-coming young hard boppers would play. I see him all the time, and we talk all the time. Was the tenor player Mark Turner? Oh, Jimmy Greene. My man. All these guys are having to deal with things that they didn’t think they’d have to deal with, which is what to do with their sound and where to put it and place it in the modern world, not in the world of the mythology of jazz. In the world I live in, we recreate the… On Legacy or Blue Note, when we do these reissues, we can set a tone for a style of music, and it can come back to haunt you, where people are imitating the records you put out as reissues. If guys lose themselves so much into somebody else’s identity, they will eventually lose themselves in the identity of the world, because it’s getting bigger and bigger for us as musicians. And by being bigger and bigger, it’s harder and harder to show yourself as distinguishable from somebody else. The amount of pressure on guys like Jeremy and Jimmy Greene is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Four stars for Jeremy Pelt. He could do better, and he knows it, and he… The conditions for making Criss-Cross records are like the old days, where you have to go in, and a lot of times the guys don’t go in with working bands, they go in with all-star bands, or guys go in with rhythm sections that are dovetailing from another session. These guys played the music, but they didn’t work on the music for this record intensely. Horace Silver said that he would work on his music for months with his band, and he would invite Alfred Lion down to hear the music, and Alfred would say, “Yeah, that’s great, all this is great, this one maybe not,” and then he’d go into the studio, and boom. And you’d get the feeling like they’d have it down. What Jeremy wants to get is a group telepathy thing going, and it’s hard to get it going on a record date where you’re going in to make a whole record in one session. The guy that he is aspiring to be…the feeling of this track… That was done with one or two other tunes in a three-hour session in the middle of June or July in 1967. They weren’t thinking of making a record. They were just in recording, of how they felt that day, and they were working at the Village Gate that night. So the conditions of making recordings today are so inverse of the way they used to be, and yet, they’re expected to have the same visceral effects as the recordings of yesteryear.

10. Bob Brookmeyer, “Seesaw” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.; John Hollenbeck, d.) – (4-1/2 stars)

Man, that’s an amazing arrangement, because the arranger made 8 minutes seem like 20. I daresay who could possibly be. But whoever it is doesn’t play solos for a living. They like to write. It’s a lot of ensemble writing, and it was hard for me to discern a melody that anything could be based on. Like most of the things you played for me, the ones where people are trying to become complex, they don’t establish any kind of groundwork, anything that says “this is the thing that I want this moment, that we’re forcing you to listen to, to be.” Especially with ensemble writing, the tendency is to get carried away, and to just write-write-write, and instead of going, “Well, man, let the tenor player open up, let the trumpet player open up, let things open up and be free…” Some bands are like that, mostly the European bands. But I couldn’t venture to guess. Maria could potentially write something that complex, but… For the arrangement, I would say like a 4.5-4.75 arrangement. That’s a serious arrangement! But it was just an arrangement. It was a tour de force, so to speak, for the arranger. So I’d say 4 stars. It was really good. You can’t say there’s anything bad about it. It’s a matter of an aesthetic opinion, a difference. But still it’s a stellar, an amazing performance.

[AFTER] Brookmeyer is the only one who could play like that. Bob is in that phase where he’s not like into just opening up and blowing all the time. I mean, he is into having the form structured and stuff like that. The beauty of that music is it’s composition. It’s not really about soloing. And I’m lazy. I’m a Southerner. And I just like to write slash marks out for cats to play, and I like to write whole note melodies. Bob is much more developed in terms of composition. In his modern day writing there’s no… This tune wasn’t a long-form melodic thing. It was gestural writing. He had phrases, he had a recapitulation. But I thought it was a little too happy to be Bob Brookmeyer. But he told me he was thinking of moving to Canada, so maybe this was his “I’m moving to Canada” piece. But 4-1/2 stars. Bob Brookmeyer is one of the best in the world. But again, my concept of having fun with a big band is road trips, hanging out with them, and letting them all play long, boring solos. But he likes to write music. I went to a college where that’s what we did all the time, so I left school to be a Bohemian. And he was a Bohemian, and now he’s really a composer. But he’s the only guy who could play the trombone solo like that.

11. Marcus Miller, “Visions” (from TALES, Dreyfus, 1995) Miller, bass clarinet, bass guitar; keyboards, rhythm programming, sound programming; Michael “Patches” Stewart, tp.; Kenny Garrett, as; Poogie Bell, d.) (5 stars)

Kenny Garrett. Of course. Five stars for Kenny Garrett. The tune was really nice. I vaguely recognize it. It’s a pop tune. [Is it a new standard?] I don’t know. But it’s Kenny Garrett, and that’s all that matters. Because he has a SOUND. When you hear it, you know it’s him. That’s the beauty of Kenny Garrett. It doesn’t matter what he plays. He has yet to make his ultimate record, I think. [Was it Kenny’s record?] Uh…no. No. Could that have been a Don Byron record or something? There was a bass clarinet player. Was that Marcus Miller? Yeah, Marcus Miller. [END OF SIDE] …”In A Silent Way” sequence. But Kenny Garrett and Marcus, they’re coming out of the way “Tutu” derived from the “In A Silent Way” thing. You can tell, because there’s more blues in that. There’s more of that darkness in the Marcus way of doing it. Because they think that way all the time. And that’s why I can hear that thing, just sort of that floating down and letting it slip out every now and then. Where some cats, they don’t let it slip at all. Jazz comes from basically the deepest feeling of all, the feeling of sadness. And you can hear it from Kenny’s playing, you can hear it in the way he plays every note. He’s one of my favorite musicians, just to hear him play. “Tutu” to me wasn’t a jazz album; it was an ambient album with Miles Davis involved. It was a textural, ambient record. That’s what I have to say.

12. George Garzone-Joe Lovano, “The Mingus I Knew” (from FOUR’S AND TWO’S) (Garzone & Lovano, ts; Joey Calderazzo, p; John Lockwood, b; Bill Stewart, d) (3 stars)

First I said Joe Lovano, because the first phrases the tenor player played were like pure Lovano. Then I realized Mark Turner, and I thought this has got to be a Criss-Cross date. So it’s got to be like Orrin Evans? [You’re getting cold.] But it is a Criss-Cross date. It’s not a Criss Cross date. It sounds like a Criss-Cross date. But it’s just sort of a jazz date. The tenor players were both young modernists… Well, one guy seemed to have a little older phrasing in him, but it just didn’t…it was just sort of there. It was just a tune. 3 stars for Jason Koransky. Now, on the composition end of it, it had the schizophrenia of a Mingus composition, the bipolar nature of a tune, and the spirit of it was that kind of thing. It’s like when guys do faux Ornette tunes; like, they all copy “Lonely Woman.” When people copy a Miles tune, they do something that sounds like “Madness” or they write their own “Nefertiti.” Everybody’s an homage. I guess that’s the whole thing. Because it’s very difficult to come up with something unique or to be brave enough to let people hear it. [So at first you thought it was Lovano…] Well, the phrasing… Modern saxophone players, in my opinion, who are being recorded on a regular basis… This does not include college players or part-time players. But the guys who are disseminated in the recording world, the younger guys have an influence… Like, Chris Potter is seriously influenced by Joe Lovano, as is Mark Turner, as is Joshua Redman. Joe gets it from Dewey Redman, and Dewey gets it from basically living in Texas. But there’s this kind of flow, and it’s a phraseology kind of thing. If you keep up with guys… There are guys like Seamus Blake and Mark Turner who will probably acknowledge their many influences, and Joe being one of them, not only for the fact of the way he plays, but that he’s accessible as an artist and they’re able to deal with him as a real-time jazz musician. He’s been on the scene. So I would say that the presence of Joe Lovano is within the saxophone players. [It was Joe Lovano and George Garzone.] Wow. I got it. The first one I knew had to be Lovano. The second one was the one I wasn’t sure of. Because that’s why I mentioned Mark Turner. But again, I don’t know. Because all these guys sound like Lovano. But I would rather say who I think it really is, and then say, “But these other guys copy his stuff.” It’s like with Brecker. So to me, it’s always a dilemma, because I’m very precise on the notes. I can tell you what note somebody steals from somebody. It’s that sick. Like, Lewis Nash…it sounded like Lewis was the drummer. Bill Stewart? Wow, he was pretty straight-ahead there. Wow, Bill! I would never have guessed the bass player, but Calderazzo I might have guessed because of the sudden shift into a more modernistic approach on the bridge of his solo when he got a chance to burn. It’s not the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard any of those guys do, especially Lovano. I’ve heard some of the most ridiculous stuff. 3 stars.

13. Ellington, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (from DUKE ELLINGTON: THE REPRISE STUDIO SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1966/2000) (5 stars)

Duke Ellington selling out. That’s just amazing. The only other hip version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is Grant Green’s version, with Hank Mobley and Larry Young. But Duke Ellington did a track, it’s very obscure, called “Rock City Rock,” from 1957. It’s the best Rock-and-Roll tune performance ever done! And at heart, he was really a Rock-and-Roll musician. As you can tell, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to do it. But that’s Johnny Hodges playing that little break there, and I think that’s… Around that time, Basie did a Beatles album as well. Everybody likes those melodies, because you know it right away, and I found from rearranging standards of popular music that you can do anything you want, anything artistically, once you establish the fact that you’re doing somebody else’s well-known song. All they have to know implanted in their mind on this end is “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” And you can hear it. So they know it’s that, and so they’ll follow along with it, as long as you make it interesting. It’s kind of an illusion that clever arrangers use. You’re a magician. What you hear is a popular song, but what you’re actually hearing and seeing is something totally different. I’d say for the sheer balls of it all, five stars for Duke Ellington, and five stars for the A&R guy who got drunk and had him do it.

14. Ben Webster, “There Is No Greater Love” (from MUSIC FOR LOVING: BEN WEBSTER WITH STRINGS, Verve, 1955/1995) (Ben Webster, ts; Ralph Burns, arr.)

Isham Jones, “There Is No Greater Love.” The saxophone player has a direct connection with Benny Carter. You can hear it in the phrasing. Because they grew up around the same time. The way they ended their phrasing… It’s like those romantic violin players in restaurants, when we see the cliched gypsy violin, how they do the phrasing, and they put tremolo on it, and they dovetail their phrasing. That’s from doing vaudeville shows and being involved in all kinds of other-world kind of music. He always wanted to do a string album, and he did it, and people put him down for it. He was like one of the first jazz guys to really adapt well to this kind of string environment. Am I correct? [Who did you say it was?] I said he and Benny Carter were contemporaries, more or less. Although this particular saxophonist started his early years with a blues singer. And he used to get on his knees and play, and he also used to play clarinet with her. Then he became probably the most famous jazz virtuoso in all the world. [If you’re saying it’s Coleman Hawkins, it wasn’t.] There’s only two people who play like that. Victor Goines… Well, Joe Zawinul would kill me. It’s the king of the boudoir saxophone, Ben Webster. [I knew you’d know that. I wonder what you thought of the arrangement.] For a musician, they all have a soft spot, especially saxophone players…not necessarily exclusively. But they all want to get over with women. And Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins especially… Coleman made a string record that was widely criticized by the jazz purists because it was commercial, but probably for him, it allowed him to make quite much ado with the young ladies who frequented the jazz spots he performed in.

But with the arrangement, it’s like you were replacing a vocalist. That’s how the vocalist arrangements… Strings were orchestrated in an upper range as to not allow them to interfere with the range of the tenor. It’s as though he were Mario Lanza in the midst of all this, just going freely throughout this, and it’s a very Puccini-esque orchestration, the strings glittering up high. The way they do it is they basically keep a lot of violins, and then they just double the melody line with a viola, and it gets this rich texture, and then in the middle you have the saxophonist flying all through it. It’s a very simple arrangement, obviously for the jukebox, obviously to facilitate a more commercial approach to his sound. The Boudoir Tenor is a very romantic kind of thing, a very affected playing. [Any sense of who the arranger might be?]

Well, to do a Ben Webster date, it’s not going to be… It could have been Quincy, it could have been… Well, with Quincy you never know either, because he farmed it out. But Ernie Wilkins could write like that, and Ralph Burns could write that style. But that kind of arranging, that was the style. It’s like a particular kind of voicing. It was Ralph Burns! I couldn’t tell the pianist… [Teddy Wilson] I was going to say Teddy Wilson. He had that Nat Cole touch. That was about the only guy I would say. Again, you’re talking about recording sessions, and a lot of guys are great soloists, but on a recording date, they go in and they freeze. They can’t play. And certain guys, they nailed sessions. They were just the consummate professionals. Teddy Wilson could read music. He could comprehend the form and the texture of an arrangement. But the only two guys who could adapt to a jazz soloists effectively in that style were Ernie Wilkins… He did a record with Stevie Wonder, and he got that sound. But Ralph Burns. It wasn’t Nelson Riddle, because Capitol would not have let Nelson do a record like that.

A lot of these records, you can hear the business involved. You can hear the effect of being on top of a trend, or the pressure to get a record done in six hours because the guy is too cheap to pay for two extra hours of a rehearsal. And you can hear that in the rushed tempos, in the uncertainty of… Everything is getting put into one thing. [In this date you can feel that?] On this date, no. This was a commercial date, where they probably ran it down once or twice and they nailed it. Norman Granz wasn’t a spendthrift in the studios, but he was professional and the sound was good.

Overall, the pieces like Brookmeyer’s piece require lots of rehearsal and lots of patience. That’s probably a European orchestra. The Bill Holman piece, he has a rehearsal band, and they are very dedicated to his music. That’s what it takes to make that kind of music. And it replaces the environment of the touring bands. But the small group jazz people always have the ghost of the past haunting them. It’s caused a quandary within the industrial circles as to what to do with those pesky hard-boppers.

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bob Belden, DownBeat, Uncategorized, WKCR

In Response to the Passing of Bruce Lundvall (Sept. 13, 1935-May 19, 2015), An Uncut Interview From January 2009

It isn’t often that musicians collectively respond with sadness to the death of a music executive, but that is precisely how the artists who knew Bruce Lundvall have reacted to the news of his passing this afternoon,  after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

A mass email from Blue Note announcing the event gives the basic facts:

“A self-described “failed saxophone player,” Bruce took an entry level marketing job at Columbia Records in 1960 and over the following two decades rose to lead the North American division of the label, signing artists including Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson. After launching the Elektra/Musician label in 1982, he received the offer of a lifetime in 1984 when EMI approached him about reviving Blue Note Records which had been dormant for several years. He jumped at the chance, partnering with producer Michael Cuscuna to bring back the label’s earlier stars like Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson & Jackie McLean, and signing new artists including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Michel Petrucciani, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.

Under Bruce’s stewardship Blue Note established itself as the most-respected and longest-running jazz label in the world. He presided over a prosperous nearly-30-year period of the label’s history, reaching commercial heights with artists including Bobby McFerrin, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green and Amos Lee, while recording some of the most important jazz artists of our time including Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Don Pullen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard, Jacky Terrasson, and many others.”

I didn’t know Mr. Lundvall very well, but had several occasions to hang out with him in one club or another, and, as consequentially, to interview him on several occasions about his life and times. One was a public interview before a rather large crowd at the National Jazz Museum In Harlem, of which I don’t have a tape. A couple of years earlier, on January 9, 2009, I interviewed him for a story in Jazziz at an Italian restaurant near the Blue Note offices. He drank three martinis without batting an eyelash, as he took on the questions. I had to cut 75% of the text for the piece; here’s the entire conversation.

 

Bruce Lundvall (Jan. 9, 2009):

TP: I’ve been trying to think of a phrase or two phrases to encapsulate my impressions of you.

BRUCE: Unh-oh.

TP: One is “survivor” and the other is someone who could be a master diplomat in your ability to balance the dictates of art and commerce. So let me ask you about that. You’ve survived in the record business, flourished in the record business, and made your mark on the record business for close to 50 years. Not an easy feat.

BRUCE: 49 actually.

TP: 49. Since 1960.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: I’d like to relate that to the state of things right now.

BRUCE: I’ll tell you on Tuesday, because I have an interview with my boss on Monday.

TP: Who is your boss?

BRUCE: Nick Gatfield. He’s the global head of A&R now. They’ve changed the structure of the company completely, as you probably know.

TP: Yes. But I don’t know exactly they’ve changed it and how it affects Blue Note.

BRUCE: Essentially, it affects Blue Note because Blue Note no longer has the staff that it used to. We have an A&R staff, and then we use the services of a marketing staff and the services of an international staff, etc., which handles Blue Note, Capitol, and Virgin. In other words, it’s sort of like a top-down… It would be like, in a way, recreating Columbia Records where they handle Epic and everything else… But Epic had its own staff, so it’s not a good analogy. But there is a common staff now to handle every one of the three major labels—if we’re talking about Blue Note as a major label, Blue Note-Manhattan. So they’ve taken away the idea of having a team of people who are just Blue Note. So Blue Note is now just essentially A&R. So Ian Ralfini runs Manhattan. I run the combination of Blue Note and Manhattan. Eli Wolf is the head of A&R for Blue Note. Lauren is his assistant. And Mike (?) is the guy who does A&R for Manhattan. So that’s kind of like our little staff of people. Then we use the services of people like Zack, J.R., Cem, and so on. Cem has other responsibilities than Blue Note, but only a few. It’s a different structure altogether, but it works the same way.

TP: And you report to Gatfield.

BRUCE: Yeah, Gatfield.

TP: That’s a private equity group?

BRUCE: No. Terra Firma is the private equity group that bought EMI last July and June. So now the guy who runs EMI is a guy named Elio Leoni-Sceti. They hired this guy who worked in a different business altogether to run EMI-Worldwide. So he is the ultimate boss. But the company is owned by Terra Firma. Leoni is a very smart Italian guy from Rome, who has lived in the States before, lives in London now. He is in charge of EMI-Worldwide, but reporting in to the board of Terra Firma.

TP: How long was the previous structure in place?

BRUCE: Forever.

TP: How many different bosses have you worked for over the years?

BRUCE: At least 15 since I came here in ‘84. I’ve had various jobs. It’s always been Blue Note and Manhattan, and then at one point Capitol on the East Coast. I’ve had about 14 or 15 bosses, starting with Bhaskar Menon and Joe Smith… I don’t want to get into a whole list of people. I can’t remember them all.

TP: With all these different bosses, the label has retained a remarkable consistency as far as the face that it presents. It would seem from the outside to be fairly seamless.

BRUCE: We have been left alone for the most part. No one has ever told us to drop an artist. No one has ever told us we’re in trouble. We’ve always made a profit, too. We’ve had a profit every year since ‘85, which is amazing. The advent of the Blue Note catalog. The advent of Blue Note on CDs, of course—people buying their whole collection of LPs on CD. All that is past us now, but that was part of it. Then, of course, the phenomenon of Norah Jones, other phenomenons like US-3 and Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Things like that, that happened and had hits. The basic roster has done pretty well.

[ORDER: Bruce: caprese & orichette w/sausage & broccoli rabe]

TP: You just said that you’ve always made a profit, which would be the reason why you’ve always been left alone?

BRUCE: Well, it’s certainly one of the reasons, I think, with respect to what we do. I think we’ve brought some class to the company, and the fact that some artists really are prestigiously important and artistically important. That’s a good part of it. But the fact of the matter is, the target, it’s hard to say in… We started this in ‘85, when the first releases came out. Then we had Manhattan as our pop label as well. So on balance, Blue Note (not always Manhattan, but Blue Note) has had a profit in each of these years, and the combination has had a profit in most of the years. So therefore, we’re looked upon as a profitable resource for the company. Not like Capitol or Virgin—or Nashville, which is immensely profitable. But we’ve had those big years. When Norah had her big success, my God, we outbilled Capitol and Virgin, and had more of a profit as well. So that helps, certainly.
The fact of the matter is that they’re proud of the heritage of Blue Note and they’re proud of the artist roster that we have, so we’ve been pretty much left alone. Now it’s a little different, because the economy is tough, and they’re looking at every dime that’s being spent, which you have to do, so we don’t have quite the flexibility that we had before. But no one is saying, “You’ve got to get rid of these people” or anything like that, which is good.

TP: Two things come to mind. One is that your own personal management style must have something to do with it.

BRUCE: I can’t speak to that.

TP: Can you describe your management style, though?

BRUCE: Well, I think luck. First of all, I am mostly about music. I have done this long enough that I know about business, too, but I’m not a numbers guy really. But I know what it takes to make money and lose money on a record. The parameters of deals that we should be making. We don’t make any crazy deals. We don’t have any million dollars or anything like that, including the artists that we have on Manhattan. Well, maybe Sarah Brightman, but she pays her way. Those kinds of artists are much more expensive, but they’re profitable artists for us. But normally, we make reasonable deals, intelligent deals, and that’s part of it, and we try to keep our rosters manageable and not let it get too large. Very often, these pop labels, their artist rosters expand and become really bloated, and the cost is so high it’s crazy. That’s not the case any more, right now, but in the past that’s happened. But we’ve already kept our rosters pretty tight. In terms of the number of artists we’re carrying on the roster, we’re very selective.

TP: I’m noticing that there seem to be fewer artists than ten years ago, or is that a mis-assumption.

BRUCE: No, not really. If you just take Blue Note alone, which is what we’re really talking about… Manhattan had a lot of artists when it was a major pop label in New York. Now it’s a smaller… But Blue Note has been pretty much about the same. We have 22 to 25 artists on Blue Note right now. A few people are gone.

TP: But let’s get back to this management style issue. Was there anyone who mentored you, for instance, after whom you modeled yourself?

BRUCE: I had maybe four mentors in my lifetime in the business. The first one was John Hammond. We were very close. The second would be Joe Gallagher, who was head of marketing at Columbia Records and hired me. The third one would be Ken Clancy, who was the head of A&R at one point at Columbia, and then RCA. The fourth one would be…I’d say Clive probably, because Clive helped me a great deal. These are the people I learned the most from, I would say. And others as well.

TP: Did you model yourself after them, or was it always your own personality?

BRUCE: I think I tried to keep my own personality, but a lot of my points of view were either confirmed by the way they behaved or what they taught me. John Hammond was really interesting, because he said, “If you hear someone that’s original, don’t ask any other questions. Just sign the artist period. Don’t ask if it’s going to be successful on radio. Always ask, ‘Does this artist sound like somebody else?’ and if so, don’t bother.” Good lesson to learn. I didn’t learn that just sitting down in two or three words. But he set it by example. He was a guy who produced a lot of records. He wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer. Or, commercially speaking, he wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer, certainly. Stick with your convictions, and don’t be influenced by other people saying, you know, ‘You’re full of shit.” I remember when John Hammond came out with Bob Dylan, it became known as “Dylan’s Folly.” Everyone said, “He can’t sing, he can’t write, he can’t play the guitar, blah-blah-blah.” John said, “You’re wrong, he’s a genius and original,” and certainly he was exactly that. He was called “Hammond’s Folly” for the longest time. That happened with other artists with John, too.

TP: Forgive me for not knowing this, but at what time during your tenure at Columbia did you move into A&R and signing artists?

BRUCE: I became the General Manager of the Columbia label in 1970. That’s when I first started being able to sign some artists. The first artist I brought to Clive was Herbie Hancock when he was still on Warner Brothers. I said, “We’ve got to sign this guy.” I said, “Let’s sign him under the name Mwandishi.” That was his Swahili name; he had that group called Mwandishi. Clive wisely said, “Let’s wait til he gets off Warner Brothers.” As soon as he got off Warner Brothers, he was signed. Clive signed him, but I brought him to Clive. I brought Bill Evans to Clive, too. We signed Bill. I was the head of marketing then. The first successful artist I had who I signed on my own was Phoebe Snow. Before her first record came out, On Shelter, there was a lawsuit going out. It came out and did very well. But I had heard it was under litigation. I said, “Well, I have to have this artist.” And we did very well with her, too. We won the lawsuit and we put out two albums that were gold albums, and subsequently two more.

I made a lot of mistakes. Because shoemakers are supposed to stick to their last, as you know the old expression. When I thought I could sign rock-and-roll bands, and I fell on my face. I signed some. I won’t mention who they were, because no one in the world would ever remember except the artists themselves, if they’re still alive. But I was much better at signing, obviously, jazz artists, singer-songwriters, R&B artists, and country artists—of all things.

TP: It seems to me that one accomplishment we can attribute to you is helping to put hardcore mainstream jazz back on the map via large label representation, by signing Dexter Gordon in the mid ‘70s when it was against the grain. Now, this article is about Blue Note, but it’s also about you. I also realize that you’ve recounted this endless times before. But if you could speak to that. Also, during those years, since it pertains so much to your reign at Blue Note, your forays into Cuba and beginning your relationships with Cuban artists.

BRUCE: Obviously, my first love is straight-ahead, serious jazz music. Dexter Gordon was an artist I had never seen, but I had bought his 78s on Dial and Savoy as a kid, and then I bought all his LPs. But I’d never seen him. He was living in Copenhagen. In the Army, I was stationed in Germany, I went to Copenhagen to see Dexter, and he was away on tour. He wasn’t playing at Montmartre. So I missed him there.
I was at John McLaughlin’s wedding in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and I went to the reception, and a guy named Stan Snyder, who was my head of sales, who was a big jazz fan, said, “Dexter Gordon is playing at Storyville,” which was a club that Rigmor Newman was managing on 58th Street. I said, “oh, shit.” So I went there right away. We left the wedding, we made some feeble excuse to leave the wedding reception, and ran over there and caught the first set, or maybe the second set. Dexter was playing brilliantly, and I went backstage. I said, “You don’t know me, but you’re my hero. I want to sign you to Columbia Records.” All he said, “CBS” in that inimitable way. We came in the next day and we signed him.

I signed Stan Getz there, and I saw McCoy Tyner, and Arthur Blythe and Return to Forever. Bob James was a commercial signing. Al DiMeola. Woody Shaw.

TP: A real renaissance in the artistic aspect of the label.

BRUCE: Well, Columbia Records had a great history in jazz, after all, and it was dwindling. Everyone wanted rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll, and more rock-and-roll. I felt that my contribution could be where my heart was. Essentially, that’s what I did best. I loved that, so I wanted to have those artists on the label, and we did that. I had no resistance at all. The thing that made it interesting is that we didn’t have a jazz label. It was just Columbia Records. It was never the Columbia jazz label, not even a Legacy then. So in a way, when you had the kind of success that the company was having in rock-and-roll music and in pop music generally, if you signed Dexter Gordon, instead of signing 10,000 records, he might sell 40,000 or 50,000. The perception was that we could do anything better than anyone else. The company was an amazing company during those years in terms of their power in the marketplace. So very few of those artists lost money for us.

Who else did we sign? One record with what’s his name, the guitar player..oh my Lord. It doesn’t matter.

TP: In signing Dexter Gordon, you weren’t particularly making any calculations. It was Hammond’s dictum.

BRUCE: Yes, exactly right. I wanted quality, and I loved the music, and I loved Dexter Gordon’s playing, and I said, “My God…” When I heard him that night, there was just no question. No question. You know who called me the next day after he found out that we had signed him, was Ahmet Ertegun. He said, “You’ve done a completely great thing.” I said, “Mr. Ertegun…” I referred to him as Mr. Ertegun). I said, “I did? What did I do?” “You signed Dexter Gordon. We should have done it at Atlantic. We never thought of it, but you did it at Columbia Records.” “Yeah.” I didn’t think there was anything so special about it, but he thought it was. It was an amazing thing for a label like Columbia to sign Dexter Gordon. Dexter himself thought he was going to be signed to an independent jazz label.

TP: What you’re saying bears out that by 1976, you’d already lived through several eras of the music and made your impact felt. I don’t know if there’s anything to ask about that…

BRUCE: You have to remember that I started out as a marketing guy. I wanted to be in A&R, but I didn’t have any real credentials. So they put me in marketing, and I was in marketing up until I became the General Manager of the Columbia label, and then I learned how to sign artists. The first thing that I did, which was a terrible mistake, is… Chip Taylor was the artist, a pop artist who wrote “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” a very talented guy. I said, “We’ll make a four-album firm deal.” The head of business affairs said, “Lundvall, no-no-no!” I said, “What did I do wrong?” “You don’t make a one album firm deal; you make one album with options.” I said, “oh, shit, that’s right.” We got away with it anyway. Not four albums firm, but one album with options, with four options.

TP: How did the record business evolve vis-a-vis the culture of Columbia during the ‘60s?

BRUCE: When I was at Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson was the President of the company, who was a genius and a visionary man, and he felt that art precedes commerce always. You get the art right, the commerce will come with it. But we were late in rock-and-roll because Mitch Miller and the people who were in the A&R staff felt that rock-and-roll was trash. So we were rather late compared to Warner Brothers. We had Bob Dylan, we had Simon & Garfunkel, we had the Byrds, and we had Chad and Jeremy—those were the only rock-and-roll bands. And Paul Revere and the Raiders on Epic. That was the contemporary roster. There was a big battle going in the company. It was a very middle of the road company, with Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, Percy Faith, Jerry Vale, Steve and Eydie, and so on. Very middle of the road, and the A&R staff was very middle of the road for the most part also. The A&R staff was people like Bob Mersey(?—20:27) and Tony Altschuler and Mitch Miller and people like that, who were very much involved with the pop music of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and weren’t particularly fond of rock-and-roll music at all.

There was a time when we had an A&R meeting in Miami, and we had a system… The product managers were involved with the A&R department very closely, just doing the marketing after the records were done, and they were talking to the A&R people about the records while they were being made—which is something I think I had a lot to do with. So we were in Miami with a meeting of myself and a couple of the other product managers and the A&R staff, and a big fight ensued at this planning meeting over how deeply we should be involved in rock-and-roll. The young guys, of which I was one of them, all felt we were missing the boat completely, and the older A&R people were saying, “No, we shouldn’t get that deeply involved, because it’s not really good music,” and so on.

So it ended up with a lot of screaming and yelling, and Goddard had to come down from New York to resolve the issues. So Goddard said, right after that meeting, after he calmed everyone down with his great sense of humor and his great erudition, “We have to be in every area of music that counts” and so on, blah-blah. He said, “What I want to do is have at our Columbia Records convention at the Americana Hotel in New York next summer is have a contest, and have one night where we invite the winning high school attend at a gymnasium, and we’ll have all of our rock-and-roll acts.” The reaction was somewhat negative. It was “God, there will be a riot; we’ll have to wear plectron units and all that kind of stuff to police the building,” and all this shit.” “No-no, I’m not worried about that.”

So the convention came along, here it is, 1500 people world-wide, everybody in the company, all over the world, are at this convention. This one night… Every other night, it was Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, the Brothers Four, whoever the big artists were that were performing, on the normal nights, on the Americana stage. The other night, the rock-and-roll night, we all went to this gymnasium. We sat in the bleachers, but the kids were on the main floor—standing up, of course. We had Chad and Jeremy and the Byrds and Bob Dylan—it was three acts. The crowd went insane. And the man standing in front of the bandstand, wearing a safari jacket and moving with the music, was Goddard Lieberson. He changed the culture of the company without saying a single word. He was the one that got the company completely into rock-and-roll. In other words, “you see what the impact of this music is; you either get it or you don’t work here any more,” without saying that at all. I have to say, it was a genius stroke. You’ve got to be on board. Whether you really dug the music or not was immaterial, but it’s going where it’s going.

TP: One anecdote that I think is interesting, and also oft-told, is that directly out of college you went to the Blue Note office to ask for a job and were told it was a two-man show. I’d like you to relate that, but also ask if during the ‘60s you developed any relationship with Lion and Wolff.

BRUCE: No, I did not. The first time I ever saw Alfred Lion was at One Night at Birdland, when they were recording it live. I came home for a college weekend, and I was there. I saw the wires going into the kitchen. I said, “What’s going on there?” “Oh, they’re recording live.” So when you hear the applause for those passages, well, it’s my hand on that record!

So anyway, I was there, and I saw Alfred Lion—I didn’t meet him, but I saw him. What happened is that when I got out of college, I went directly to Alfred Lion’s office with my resume. No preceding phone call or setting up a meeting of any kind. I didn’t know any better. I was walking the streets of New York, looking for a job in the record business, and I started at Blue Note. He was very polite. As I recall, the meeting lasted, oh, 5 or 10 minutes. He said, “Just Frank Wolff and me; we do everything ourselves; we don’t need nobody.” I said, “I’ll work for nothing.” He said, “No, we don’t need nobody; it’s just Frank and I. We even put the records in the sleeves and ship them out ourselves.” I said, “Well, I’ll help you.” “We can’t. We can’t do it. I’m sorry.” He was very polite and very nice, but I was ushered out the door. Within five minutes, I was out with my resume in my hand. So I went to Columbia Records, I went to Capitol, I went to RCA—those three. No one was hiring anybody just out of college in those days, because you still had the draft in front of you—there was a mandatory draft in those days. Nobody had a training program either. So I was working for an advertising agency for a year, and then I was drafted myself and ended up going into the Army in 1958.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BRUCE: In Stuttgart. I was in the counter-intelligence agency.

TP: Good training for the record business.

BRUCE: Yeah, right. “Counter-intelligence” is correct, too. It was fun. I had the best time of my life. I was stationed in Stuttgart.

TP: Not so much towards the interview, but I know at the time a number of musicians were stationed in Germany, which made for a fairly active jazz scene.

BRUCE: Who was there at that point?

TP: Don Ellis, Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, people like Roscoe Mitchell and Albert Ayler were and intersected with the Germans… Various prehistories to careers.

BRUCE: Well, in basic training, I used to play a terrible alto saxophone. I’d go to the enlisted men’s club and play with Calvin Newborn. There was a great piano player from Brooklyn who made one record, not as a leader, but as a sideman—Ed Stoudt. A black dude. Good player.

TP: And you went back, and you went to Bucknell. You majored in what at Bucknell?

BRUCE: Commerce and finance.

TP: So you had a business training.

BRUCE: I spent more time with liberal arts courses. I was more interested in literature and philosophy and all that than music courses. But my major was because my father was insistent that I have a career. So I had a Bachelor of Science degree. But I was more interested in the liberal arts subjects, so I took a lot of those.

TP: Was your father a businessman?

BRUCE: He was an engineer, a mechanical engineer. He went to Stevens in Hoboken. He took me down to Stevens for a test, an aptitude test. I was able to con the test. I could tell. He wanted me to be an engineer more than anything else. I had no interest in the sciences at all. I was feeble when it came to math and all that stuff. So I took a preference test with a pin that you hit to answer whether I’d rather be this, this, or this. By the time it was done, I’d rather be… My father and I sat down with the shrink who read back the results. He said, “Your son’s first skills are in music, then literature,” and way down the list was sciences. I said, “Dad, I told you.” I could easily tell where these questions were leading. Because he really was insistent. He was really tough about it. “Be an engineer, a real man’s job.” “ I like this, Dad.”

Anyway, I was a business major. I booked concerts at Bucknell. Every time we’d get a chance, I’d go to Philadelphia to hear Clifford Brown or Brubeck, whoever was playing there, or I’d go home to New York and go to Birdland. Mike Berniker was my roommate. He was a fabulous A&R man. He did all the Streisand records, and he did a lot of jazz records for Epic, too, like One Foot In The Gutter and those things. We were college roommates. We used to share our jazz collection, and we used to run off and drive down to Philadelphia and see Clifford Brown and Max Roach and all that.

TP: So you were the hipsters of the school.

BRUCE: Yeah, we were the hipsters of the school. There was no interest in jazz there.
TP: It’s interesting, because in the ‘60s, while you were establishing your mark on Columbia, Blue Note was at least in its artistic prime, in a lot of ways, or the second wave of its artistic prime.

BRUCE: Yes.

TP: You signed Bob Dylan in ‘64 or ‘65. There may have no better two-year period for Blue Note than those two years.

BRUCE: I didn’t get out as much. I was a new father. In ‘65, our first son was born. When I first got married, I had no money. I would go out as often as I could to see jazz in New York, but normally my wife would come with me. Then I went out to see jazz less frequently, because I had a kid, and when I was in New York, I was a 9-to-5’er. So there were people I really missed. Not missed, but I missed them live.

TP: One thing that Lion and Wolff did, it seems to me, and one reason why the musical production during the ‘60s is so consequential is that they went to the source and trusted the artists to record original music. They showed real faith in them, and it seems that this is something you’ve managed to do at Blue Note even in the changed environment of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the present. That’s a real continuity. I’d like to ask you about this and other continuities between the Lundvall Blue Note and the Lion-Wolff Blue Note.

BRUCE: The simple answer is that I believe that you have to give a real artist artistic freedom. You can’t tell them what to do, you can’t tell them how to make records, and you shouldn’t sign just marketing…we call them marketing…inconsequential marketing records. Marketing confections. I’ve done those in my career. You make real artistic records, and let the artist… The artist knows better than you do. You’re just a middleman. You make the right signing choices and let the artist have the freedom to make the record they believe in—within certain financial parameters, of course. That’s what Alfred and Frank did, I’m sure. That was a lesson I learned through John Hammond and through all the records I bought as a fan.

TP: But in the 1970s, it seems the prevailing ethos was not so much along those lines.

BRUCE: Well, you’re talking about the fusion era, too. We had Bitches Brew at Columbia Records with Miles. It was a landmark record. I signed Return to Forever. Clive…well, somebody else signed Mahavishnu. So we had some of the better examples of fusion music.

TP: Who signed Keith Jarrett, by the way?

BRUCE: Clive did, and dropped him. There was a moment in time, I think… I shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t want to disparage Clive. There was a moment in time where we had Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Mingus. They were all dropped in one day. How this happened, I have no idea. I think on the same day all of them were dropped at one point. Keith Jarrett called me… It was the only time I ever really spoke to the man. I was a marketing guy. “You fucking jerks,” and so on. I said, “Listen, I didn’t drop you; I had nothing to do with your contract at all.” But he was very angry at Columbia Records, that’s all.
Bill Evans, whom I had convinced Clive to sign (I was still in marketing then), had won a Grammy for the trio album. He made two albums, the trio album and an orchestral record…

TP: With Claus Ogermann?

BRUCE: Yeah. Anyway, he had won a Grammy for his first album, the trio record, and Columbia Records didn’t win any other Grammies of any consequence that year, and Clive (this is not for the article) walked right by him. Didn’t even say, “Congratulations.” He was so pissed off we didn’t win any pop awards. Bill started crying. I had to stay with him half the night—he and Helen Keane. He was just so upset. The man who’s the President of the company wouldn’t even say “congratulations.” I won this Grammy, one of the few Grammies had won that year. That’s the way it was.

I think what happened is that Clive thought he could do anything. He had all these successful rock-and-roll acts. He was the king of the hill. Therefore, if you sign the jazz artists who were important names, that someone else would tell him were important, that would be great.

TP: I don’t know how accurate Frederick Dannen’s book is, but grandiose notions, grandiose ambitions seemed rife in the overall culture of the record business during those years.

BRUCE: The idea that the executives are more important than the artists, yes.

TP: So you had no relationship with Lion and Wolff, other than that you were probably getting the records at the time.

BRUCE: I got all the records, but I didn’t really know them at all. I knew Ahmet. I knew Creed Taylor. I knew Bob Weinstock from Prestige. I knew Norman Granz. But for some reason, I just didn’t know them. They were rather private people. Apparently, Frank Wolff was a very private man, and Alfred was a shy fellow.

TP: Also, they were emigres, so perhaps felt a bit alienated from the mainstream culture.

BRUCE: Yes. I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I can’t give you an answer. I loved the label. It was always my absolute favorite label, my favorite jazz label by far. I would buy many of the records without even hearing them in the store, even at the time when you could listen to records in the store.

When I finally met Alfred, when we started Blue Note, for the first time really meeting him, we brought him in for the Town Hall concert, he asked me two questions. One, he said, “What are you going to do to make money?” “You’re asking me this? YOU are asking me what we’re going to do to make money, a man who did such great artistic records that probably didn’t make money?” That was the surprise first question. He said, “Yah, you’re owned by EMI, a big corporate company. What are you going to do? You have to make money, or Blue Note will be dead before you know it.”

TP: He experienced that with Liberty.
BRUCE: Sure. So I said, “Well, you’re completely right.” So the first artist that we signed was Stanley Jordan, who sold a half-a-million albums. Alfred loved Stanley’s playing. He thought he was a total original, which he was—but he had certain limitations; we’re not going to talk about him.

Then the second question was, “I want you to use guys who are going to go as far out as we did with Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and these people.” So we did a little bit of that. Not as much as I’d have liked.

TP: Well, you signed Don Pullen in the ‘80s.

BRUCE: Don Pullen George Adams. Andrew Hill we signed back. Andrew Hill was a request of Alfred at Mount Fuji. When he was invited to come to the first Mount Fuji Festival in ‘86, Andrew Hill had all new music, and he had a band with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, and so on. We went to a rehearsal in the afternoon which was extraordinary. Every musician was sitting there, in awe of what Andrew had created. Then came the concert the next afternoon, and there was a huge windstorm, and all the sheet music was blowing off the stage, and these guys were trying to play this very complex by memory. It was kind of disastrous, in a way. It still worked. But had the sheet music not blown away… It was really blowing off the stage. But Alfred said, “The one guy I thought was a total original genius, like Monk and Herbie Nichols and Bud Powell, was Andrew Hill, and I really want you guys to sign him.” And we did.

TP: Before we get to what you did with the label when you assumed your position, could you recount for me (I know it’s for the eight-millionth time) the circumstances that led to the label’s revival and your… You went to Elektra from Columbia, right…

BRUCE: Yeah. I started Elektra Musician…

TP: It was a great label.

BRUCE: Well, thank you. We tried real hard to do something fresh with it, the way we did the covers, the liner notes, and all that stuff. I was very proud of the label, and I was on the RIAA board. The RIAA had quarterly meetings, and we had a meeting down in Washington, and Bhaskar Menon was on the board as well, from Capitol Records. He said, “I’d like to have dinner with you tonight.” So we had dinner. He said, “How would you like to start Blue Note again? It’s been dormant now for about five years.” “What?” “Can you get out of your contract at Elektra?” I said, “Wait, wait, wait-wait.” I hesitated for a moment. I said, “This is my favorite label. Do you know how tempted I am to say yes right now? But I also do pop music on Elektra. I don’t want to stop doing that. I enjoy it.” He said, “Well, we need a catchment center on the East Coast.” “A catchment center? What is that?” “We have two labels on the West Coast, Capitol Records and EMI-America. We have no label on the East Coast. So we could start two labels. We could start Blue Note again and start an East Coast, fully-staffed pop label, not just a vanity label.” I said, “When we do we start?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” I said, “Michael Cuscuna and I. I want Michael to help me with Blue Note, because he knows… He has Mosaic, so I can’t hire him on staff, but I’d like to hire him as a consultant.”

TP: Did he already have Mosaic then?

BRUCE: Yes. I said, “We can hire him as a consultant.” He agreed to that. So Michael and I together started Blue Note, not just me alone.

TP: What was the original division of responsibility between the two of you?

BRUCE: There was none. Like Alfred and Frank, in a way. Well, I shouldn’t make any comparisons. The first question I said was, ‘How the fuck do I fill Alfred Lion’s shoes? I’m not qualified.” What a challenge. What an opportunity! My favorite label, and I’ve been asked to run it after all these years.” This is what I really wanted to do right when I left college. Now 27 years later, I had the chance to do it.

I realized that my musical interests were focused essentially in jazz. I could do other things, and I wanted to keep doing other things, but I felt you stay true to the art that you grew up with and that you love still, the thing that moves you more than any other kind of music. So I had to do it. Anyway, I had to get out of my contract at Elektra, which had a year to go. So I went to a guy named David Horowitz, who was Steve Ross’ senior executive who handled all the record labels—Elektra, Warner’s and Atlantic. He said, “We don’t want you to leave. Krasnow and you have returned the label to profit.” Which we did. We’d lost a lot of money; we returned it to a profit, luckily, doing the Linda Ronstadt What’s New album and Dick Griffey’s label, Solar, having a lot of success. So we’re doing well, we’re making money again, and they didn’t want me to leave. I said, “I really don’t want to stay here. This is too small a company to have a Chairman and a President.” Krasnow was the Chairman, I was the President. We didn’t really get along very well.

Finally, David Horowitz said, “Look, we never someone to just work against their will. If you really want to talk that badly, you have to talk to… I’ll let Bob Krasnow make the decision.” I said, “oh, good.” I knew what Krasnow would say. I went to Krasnow and said, “I have this opportunity and I really have to take it now.” “You’re right! Good for you, man. Do it, do it!” He wanted me out of there, like, in a flash. By the end of the night, I was gone. I had my farewell party and I was gone.

One of the funniest things that happened was… Krasnow and I had an off-and-on relationship. Difficult man. Good music man, but a difficult guy. We got along, but just barely. So that night at the farewell party, Bill Berger… I don’t know if you know Bill Berger at all. An international guy with a good sense of humor. They had all this talk about me. He said, “I remember when Lundvall got two phone calls on two different lines. One was Michael Jackson, the other was Dexter Gordon. He picked up the phone, he said, ‘Hi, Dexter!’” That summed it up. [Berger: Senior Vice-President of International for Elektra Records and was responsible for all aspects of their artist’s foreign sales, foreign tours and marketing.]

TP: Is that a true story?

BRUCE: True story… I don’t know if it’s true or not. [LAUGHS] But I love that story. “Bruce, I have Michael Jackson on line one and Dexter Gordon on line two.” “Hi, Dex!”

TP: So at Blue Note, you have to form a roster and create a personality for the label, and the challenge not to make it a retro label, but to sort of be what Blue Note would be in its time.

BRUCE: Here’s what we did. Blue Note has to be a label of its time. So the first thing I thought of was: Well, we don’t have Frank Wolff’s photographs. We don’t have Reid Miles, because he’s now making television commercials, making a lot of money, and we can’t afford to hire him to design the covers. And Rudy Van Gelder can’t be the only engineer to make records with the Blue Note artists, because they have the freedom to be on any studio they want to. That’s very clear to me. So what do we do now? I thought we should have Reid Miles do all the covers so we had a consistency. But then I thought, “You know what? It will look like the old records maybe. So maybe it’s better not to have them. If we can’t afford Reid, we can’t afford him.” So I had to use different designers and so on to do the covers. Rudy understood that he couldn’t be the only studio in town. Frank and Alfred owned the label. It was their label; they could do what they wanted. Rudy was my favorite engineer. So some artists would like to record there, and others did not. So I had all these issues. It was really causing lots of problems, just thinking about, “What the hell do I do now?” The answer was, “Just do what you have to do. Be a label for the current time. Sign artists for the current period of time that are moving the music forward, who hopefully are quality artists, and change the cover design to whatever it has to be and go to whatever studio the artist wants to go to.” And they had the freedom to do it.

TP: 1985 is an interesting moment in jazz. Columbia had been in the forefront of the “Young Lions” phenomenon with Wynton Marsalis, and Art Blakey was resurgent and all these young artists were coming through that. Then the artists from the ‘70s fusion and avant-garde areas who were still popular and active, some of whom you signed. There were many factions and styles, some overlapping, some not. I’m interested in how you strategized.

BRUCE: What happened is, there were two artists who had come to me at Elektra-Musician who I wanted to sign, and Krasnow… I don’t want it mentioned in the article. But I was turned down. Put it that way. Jordan came to my office and played for me. He brought his guitar and his little amp on a Pullman cart from the railroad station, and played for me. I thought he was fairly outstanding, pretty unusual. Petrucciani I saw with Charles Lloyd. I thought this guy was an amazing player; long lines, a beautiful, conceptual player, a creative player.

The first artist I signed was probably Stanley, although it might have been Michel. I’m not sure. I knew about them, so those were the first two signings for Blue Note. Then Michael and I decided we should bring back the artists who were still relevant. So we signed Tony Williams, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, to make records again for Blue Note. Which made sense. Then we had the Town Hall concert in 1985, and we brought back as many artists as we could. Now, I told Cuscuna, “We’ve got to do this; we have to relaunch the label with a flair. Let’s have a concert. Do it at Town Hall. Bring back all the Blue Note artists from the past and bring all the new ones on stage that we’ve signed.” Cuscuna thought I was mad. But I said, “We’ve got to do this.”

So Michael did the whole thing. Then he said, “Let me get Alfred to come. His wife will never let him come to New York, because he’s got a bad heart, and half of it probably comes from his experiences with these artists through so many years of sessions every night, and all this stuff.” so I said, “Let’s send him a telegram.” So we sent Alfred a telegram, saying that we were having this concert on February 26th (I think it was, or 22nd, I’m not sure…) at Town Hall to celebrate the rebirth of Blue Note, and we want you to come as a guest of honor, and Rudy Van Gelder, and Reid Miles, and so on.”

The next day, I got a phone call at home. It was a Saturday. He said, “Bruce. It’s Alfred.” “Yes, Alfred. My God, it’s you.” He said, “Do you have a pen or pencil there, and a piece of paper?” I said, “Yes.” “Write this down. We have to have Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley…”—he listed all the tenor players that are on there. “Alto saxophone. Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson. Drums. Art Blakey.” He went on and on, the whole thing. I said, “I have a list here of about 50 different artists. I don’t think we can have that many of them. We’ll have as many as we can get.’ So we had 35 different musicians, including the newly-signed ones.

Alfred came to New York. We started with a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. At the beginning of the dinner, I saw a tear in Alfred’s eye. I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “You don’t understand that Ruth would never be allowed in this hotel when we had Blue Note.” She’s a black woman, a very light-skinned black woman. “This is the first time she’s ever eaten in this hotel; we always wanted to eat here.” A sad moment.

TP: A poignant moment.

BRUCE: Poignant is right. Then “What are you going to do? Are you going to make it commercial? Are you in tune with the times?” All that kind of stuff. We had a long, wonderful meeting. The next day at rehearsals, he brought his little camera. He had a reunion with all of his friends, Art Blakey and all of those guys, and they rehearsed into the night. Then the night came. It started at 8 o’clock and ended I think at 4 in the morning.

TP: I guess you didn’t care about the union overtime that night.

BRUCE: I said, “Fuck the union now. We’re too late. There’s nothing to do about it. We have three more acts to go on.” So it ended at 3 or 4 in the morning. The only artists who couldn’t play, who really wanted to play… There were two. Milt Jackson we failed to invite—bad mistake. Hank Mobley was too ill. He came and wanted to play alto saxophone, but he wasn’t very well.

TP: so that relaunched the label.

BRUCE: When the concert was over, we had a party with a jam session until 8 or 9 in the morning. It was incredible. Incredible memory. Walking out into the daylight, and “oh my God, what have we been through?”

TP: Some of those guys were used to those hours.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. But just the idea of “What have we done here?” It took a while to really readjust that we’ve actually relaunched the label. It was great. Not all of the music was great, but most of it was at a high level. Art Blakey forgot his hearing aid. He didn’t hear the rhythm right at first, then he finally caught up right away. Cuscuna could tell you a lot about what happened on the stage and backstage. Then we gave an award to Alfred. I have a lovely tape of Alfred’s speech. Beautiful. He said, “Thirty-five years ago, Art Blakey asked me to be one of his little messengers. I tried to preach the good gospel of jazz for all this time, and I hope Art is happy.” A lovely thing, the way he said it, with the German accent and stuff. He became our spiritual godfather. He was on the phone for most of the week with us at least.

TP: When did he die?

BRUCE: ‘86 or ‘87.

TP: So not long…

BRUCE: No. We brought him to Mount Fuji for the festival. That was another festival. The Japanese were in awe of Blue Note records, which were licensed by King Records in Japan.

TP: They had all the unissued and out of print albums.

BRUCE: Right. All that.

TP: I recall seeing them at Soho Music Gallery in the early ‘80s, when people like John Zorn were fetishistically collecting all this stuff.

BRUCE: Oh, I know. So they decided they would put on a festival, a major television station there, at the foot of Mount Fuji, right at the base of Lake Yamanaka(?) looking out on Mount Fuji. They built this enormous stage, about the size of Woodstock, had a 7-camera shoot over three afternoons and two evenings, and on a smaller stage at the hotel for nighttime jam sessions after the major events were done. It was amazing! Alfred was the guest of honor. The moment that was poignant for me was when Alfred came out and was introduced for the first time—I think it was on Saturday afternoon. These people stood up, and something like 30,000 fans out there… It was like Woodstock. It was incredible. Standing, giving him a standing ovation that must have lasted fully 3 or 4 minutes. He was in tears. He said, “I’ve never been to Japan before, never in my life. To think that now, after all these years, they’d be honoring my label.” So it was a pretty amazing time.

TP: How was all this translating into sales and profitability at the beginning?

BRUCE: At the beginning, mainly it was coming from the reissues, obviously. Stanley Jordan was selling a lot of records. His record was on the Billboard jazz chart for a full year. 51 weeks. Not 52, but 51 weeks. Tom Noonan was running the charts then. Tom cheated us out of the last week. We could have had a full year!

Anyway, his record was selling. The reissues, obviously, of Sidewinder and Blue Train were the key, records that had been big in the past. Song For My Father.

TP: They were big in the past. But it seems that when they were reissued they became recognized as iconic.

BRUCE: Iconic. Exactly right.

TP: I don’t think they’d been iconic before then.

BRUCE: Probably not before then.

TP: So the brand took on an identity of its own. Joe Jackson ripped off the Sonny Rollins album cover. In the postmodern pop world, something about Blue Note resonated as a signifier.

BRUCE: Yes. It became extremely hip. Then the England company started to put out these crazy reissues, Blue Bossa, blue-this, blue-that, about 25 different releases, with hip artwork. They’re fun, and they sold extremely well in the U.K., and they sold a bit here.

TP: I’m going to ask a few of my talking points. One is how you reestablished the Blue Note brand to suit the climate of the early ‘80s. Not that you necessarily thought of it as a brand, but you were a marketing person.

BRUCE: I hate the word “brand”, by the way. It was clear to me that Stanley Jordan, for one, was an artist that had a young appeal—as well as good traditional appeal, to a degree, but certainly a young appeal. At the very least, we were very interested in reaching out to that, as well as retaining the serious, straight-ahead aspect of the label. Then Petrucciani became a bit of a phenomenon in his own way. Then later, Eliane Elias came to the label and she sold the Brazilian stuff very well. Later, in ‘89, Greg Osby did a hip-hop kind of record. We signed Medeski, Martin and Wood; I chased them around for a long time. Then Charlie Hunter. Then Dianne Reeves. Because after all, we didn’t have any… Alfred was not a big fan of vocalists, apparently. I never asked him about this. I should have. I should have, though. He preferred instrumentalists. He recorded one Sheila Jordan album, two albums by Dodo Greene, and that’s about it—unless Babs Gonzalez could be considered a serious singer (I don’t think so).

TP: Bill Henderson on the Horace Silver records.

BRUCE: Yes. But he was apparently not a big fan of vocalists. But it was second nature to me. When I heard Dianne Reeves for the first time… George Duke had called me and said, “You should sign my cousin, Dianne.” I said, “I don’t particularly like the record she made on Palo Alto. She’s a good singer, that’s for sure.” Well, I went to L.A. for a…outside the Wilshire Theater. There was a Duke Ellington tribute that they were videotaping and recording, that never came out, but Dianne Reeves was a guest vocalist on the night, and she sang two solo Ellington pieces and one duet with O.C. Smith, the R&B singer. I fell apart. I raced back to her dressing and I said, “You’re on Blue Note. I’ve got to sign you.” And we signed her then, in ‘87 or ‘88. She was the first major vocalist that we signed, and she’s been with us ever since.

After that, it was Rachelle Farrell, who is an amazing singer with an incredible voice, and she was very successful as well, selling half a million records. Although that was on Capitol; on Blue Note she sold several hundred thousand. Then I brought in Lena Horne at one point, and we made the last record of her career.

TP: Then Cassandra in 1993, who was very successful.

BRUCE: Very, very successful. Cassandra wanted to make a jazz album of R&B tunes. Actually, I heard her perform at an R&B club, owned by a former R&B singer, on 8th Avenue…B. Smith’s. Cassandra was singing upstairs. It was a fusion kind of thing. It was one of her downtown phases. She had a percussionist and a synthesizer player and a very loud guitarist. They all but drowned her out. I met with her the next day. I said, “Cassandra, I didn’t sign a democratic group here. I want you. I signed you. You have a great voice, you write interesting songs. Let’s make an acoustic record. Can we do that?” She was a little insulted. We had a long meeting. “How about doing this album of R&B…” I said, “It’s been done before. It’s ok. I want to make sure you do an album that focuses on you, your voice, your songs, and I want it to be acoustic.” That was my contribution to her career, and that was it. So she came back to me in about a week with two songs, “Tupelo Honey” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, produced by Craig Street, who I didn’t know. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know who it was. He had produced a Jimi Hendrix concert and some other stuff. He was working in construction, living in the same building that she did in Harlem. He had broken his foot, so they used to hang out on the front porch and just talk about music. He’s the one that said to her, “Who were your influences when you were young? You like Joni Mitchell. Why don’t you do one of her songs?” And so on. So when she came in with this demo, I said, “Oh my God, this is the whole plot. We’ve found the plot. Or he did. Or the two of you did. This is the record.” The record was enormously successful for us.

TP: And it established a certain template for ‘90s pop music that remains today. It brings me to another question. Looking at it retrospectively, as someone who has been a fan of the music as long as you have and been involved in it professionally as long as you have… The sound of jazz was changing at the cusp of the ‘90s in a lot of different ways. The vocabulary was becoming more inclusive, more internationalized, with Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music entering the mainstream, hip-hop influences, and so on, and you signed Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Osby, Don Byron…

BRUCE: Chucho.

TP: Ron Carter, too.

BRUCE: We licensed Ron through the Japanese company.

TP: Weren’t Chucho and Gonzalo also through…

BRUCE: No. What happened is, when I was at Columbia Records, we did Havana Jam. I went down there and signed Irakere. I heard how great the musicians were in Cuba, and I became a huge fan of what was going on in Cuban music, and we signed Irakere to Columbia, with Jimmy Carter’s blessing, and we won a Latin Grammy with the first album of Irakere. So with Blue Note, I went back down there and signed Chucho, but I had to sign him through the Canadian company with the embargo. Charlie Haden brought me Gonzalo. He’d just come from the Montreal festival, where they’d done a series of nights dedicated to his music. One night he heard this Cuban pianist. He said, “Have you heard this kid?” I said, “No. Let me come…” Charlie Haden played me a tape. Gonzalo had just gotten off the plane after trying to get to Montreal through Kennedy Airport. They wouldn’t let him stay off the plane. They sent him back to Cuba, and he had a private plane. I heard him, and I thought, “This guy is unbelievable. I have to get down…” So we went down to Havana and signed him, but through the Japanese company, since we weren’t allowed.

TP: So you were able to leverage the international structure of EMI in a creative way.

BRUCE: We also made another album with Irakere. We made an album with Frank Emilio Flynn.

TP: Lovano came on board in 1990. Very long term relationships with these artists.

BRUCE: Well, yeah. The idea is to stay with them as long as you possibly can. Lovano has been with us now for 16 albums, something like that?

TP: I think this will be his 21st.

BRUCE: You’re right. Dianne Reeves since ‘87. Osby had a long run.

TP: So did Don Byron, and Gonzalo has been with you ever since…

BRUCE: Gonzalo ever since the beginning.
TP: Again, this comes back to balancing art and commerce. Through your acumen or luck or whatever it is, you found artists who sold large units, and used one to pay for another, or so it’s said. Is that how you were thinking about it? Speak a bit about the economics of creating art records.

BRUCE: Well, we’ll start with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as an example. We sold millions of records all over the world. It was a Blue Note record that we put out on the Manhattan label, because we didn’t think it should be in the jazz section of the store. We thought we had a it, and we did. But it was a Blue Note record, actually, because he was signed to Blue Note, but Manhattan was a sister label. It was a matter of marketing technique. We put it on Manhattan, because we didn’t want to be in the jazz section of the store; we wanted to be in the mainstream section of the record store.

Then came US-3 with “Cantaloupe Island,” which was ‘90 or something. That album sold at least 2 million copies. Then between that, we had Dianne Reeves’ very first record, which sold several hundred thousand. So we always had something going like that, starting with Stanley Jordan.

But I didn’t think of it in terms of paying the way for the other stuff. We were able to keep our budgets fairly tight. Some of the artists did lose some money—not a lot. Others made a small profit. It continues that way right now. When Norah Jones came around, she changed the paradigm of everything. That was one of those… People ask how I signed her. I say, “I returned a phone call.” “What do you mean, you returned a phone call.” I said, “So many people in our business are so arrogant, they don’t return phone calls. I return every phone call I ever get, by the end of the day, if possible, and by the end of the week, certainly.” I got a call from some woman in the royalty accounting department whom I didn’t even know. She was an accountant. I said, “Do we have a royalty problem?” She said, “No. I want you to hear this jazz artist that I found.” I said, “Ok, send me something.” She said, “No, I want you to meet her.” I said, “Ok, bring her in on Friday at the end of the day, when things are a little bit more quiet.” So Norah came in… This girl, Michelle White, who is in our royalty department, and like a lot of people in the royalty department you don’t know these people at all. It turns out that her husband, who is a jazz musician, has a downtown band, and Norah used to sit in with the band. He said, “Take her to Lundvall, who runs Blue Note.” Well, after hearing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” one time, I said, “You’re on Blue Note.” She said, “What?” I said, “I don’t even need to hear the other two songs.” I said, “Who’s the piano player? He’s a pretty good piano player.” She said, “Oh, it’s me.” “You’re on Blue Note. Get yourself an attorney.” That’s really how it happened. Then I listened to the other two songs, that were equally good. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” is the one that killed me. It’s a tough song to do. She did it better than almost anyone I ever heard. It was a demo. Then she played me “Walking My Baby Back Home,” which everyone does, and it was fine. Then there was a pop song.

While we waited for her to get a contract, we did a separate demo deal, so she could demonstrate some of the songs that she wanted to think about for her first album. Well, it was all over the place. There were pop songs, there was a Mose Allison song, there was a Hank Williams song, there was Ellington, there was Strayhorn, Bessie Smith (“Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”). They were all this (?—1:12:17), and they’re all terrific in their way. She demoed these songs in one night.

I said, “what kind of record do you really want to make?” She said, “This is the music I want to do.” Anyway, Arif Mardin produced the record, and it had a huge success—20 million records worldwide with that one record. It changed everything. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be on Blue Note, including Kenny Loggins, whom I knew from Columbia days. I said, “Listen, it’s still a jazz label.” So he came to us as a jazz artist. He didn’t make exactly a jazz record, but jazz-informed, yes.

TP: Is Van Morrison on Blue Note?

BRUCE: Was. One record came out on Blue Note. Looked like a Blue Note cover. That’s his history. He makes one record with each company, and then goes on to the next one. So he has a new one coming out on Manhattan, Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl.

TP: Al Green started resurrecting himself on the label.

BRUCE: We found out that Al Green was ready to make his first secular record in a lot of years. So Michael and I went to Memphis, and Willie Mitchell played us the record with Al. Al is incredible. We had dinner that night. Al was going to make this record on his own vanity label. By the end of the night we’d had a few drinks, and he said, “I think we should be on Blue Note.”

The Anita Baker came along. She wanted to be on the same label that had her favorite singers, Cassandra Wilson and “that young girl, what’s her name…” I said, “Norah Jones.” “That’s where I want to be.” She had a vanity label under her contract, but she said, “I want to be on Blue Note,” so she’s on Blue Note.

TP: So the bottom line is that Norah Jones opened the door for people to see you as a label that could handle them, market them.

BRUCE: They knew the quality of the label, the history of the label. “If I can be on this label, I add to the great quality and artistic history, and they can still sell as many records as Capitol can, or more. Or I want to be on the pop label.” That was really it. Norah Jones made that a very clear example.

TP: Do you think this develoment had something to do with the changing demographics of the listening audience, an aging audience with different tastes and aspirations?

BRUCE: I think so. I think people were getting tired of the quality of the music that they were listening to. Norah summed it up pretty much with one album. Great voice, sensitive, intelligent, very musical, jazz-informed, and yet not inaccessible.

TP: You also had Kurt Elling during these years.

BRUCE: I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich about the three most important jazz singers of the decade. It was Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Kurt Elling. I said, “Who the hell is Kurt Elling? I never heard of this guy.” So about a week later, I was going to the dentist’s in western New Jersey, and I was going through my bag to look for something to play, and picked a cassette—Kurt Elling. “This is the guy Howard Reich wrote about.. I was curious. I put it on and I went nuts. “Oh my God, this guy’s really fresh and very original.” so I went to the dentist’s office, got my novocaine and all that stuff, drove back to New York, and I’m still listening to it a second time, I’m going out of my mind. I see there’s a phone number on the cassette, and it might be his number, so I dialed it from the car phone. I said, “I’m looking for Kurt Elling.” He said, “This is Kurt.” “You don’t know me. My name is Bruce Lundvall; I’m with Blue Note records.” I said, “I love your record; I’m listening to it now,” and I played it back over the phone.” I said, “When can I see you? I want to see you perform?” “I’m playing Monday night at the Green Mill in Chicago.” This was a Thursday night. “I’ll be there.” “This is just an improvisational thing; it’s not anything planned.” “Even better. I’ll be there.”

So I went. I had Richard Morse with me, who I had signed to Manhattan Records— a pop artist. He lives in Chicago. A great cat. “You want to come with me?” We had dinner, and we went to see Kurt Elling at the Green Mill. Kurt Elling didn’t know who I was. After the first song, Richard said, “You’re going to sign him, aren’t you.” I said, “You’re fucking right, I am.” So we had a handshake then and there, and we signed him.

TP: You’re extremely hands-on.

BRUCE: Yeah.

TP: Well, not everyone who runs a larger label is as hands-on as you. I could be wrong about that.

BRUCE: No, they could be wrong by not being more hands-on. They have to be. If you love the music, you are hands on. Are you going to sit and let someone else do everything? I’ve become a fairly decent delegator at this point in my career after all these years. I was never that good at delegating in the past. But I still want to keep my hand in. I don’t allow anyone to be signed who I don’t approve of. Eli Wolf is becoming a terrific A&R man for us. Terrific. He’s been doing this now for about ten years, and I trust his judgment. But we still work together like that. Michael and I work together like that.

I think what’s happened, in a strange way… I’m writing a little piece for a book that’s coming out in Germany of Frank Wolff’s photographs and Jimmy Katz’s photographs together, which ten years ago is the way we presented the sixtieth anniversary of Blue Note, with the box set and the booklet with his photographs of the current roster and Frank’s photographs of the past. I think Jimmy Katz is becoming our Frank Wolff photographer at Blue Note. He doesn’t do every cover by any means, but he’s fabulous.

It’s interesting, the way things come together in this manner. I feel we’re really a team. It’s not me. It’s a team of people that are friends, who respect one another, that work together very effectively. We have issues, too, that we have to face that are not so pleasant from time to time. But we do have a good team of people who respect one another, and are really first and foremost about the music. That’s what’s made it work. I’d really be embarrassed if I had to tell you that this has been a failure. It’s been successful commercially, it’s been successful artistically as far as I’m concerned. It will never be as successful as what Alfred Lion created in the first place.

TP: Why not? Why couldn’t it be?

BRUCE: I think he had artists that were so one-of-a-kind and had such giants. We have to see how many of our artists become that in time. We’ll see.

TP: What’s your sense of it?

BRUCE: My sense is that there are certain artists we have who will be recognized 30-40-50 years from now. Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano certainly, Gonzalo without question, Jason Moran certain, hopefully Glasper (we’ll see what happens). Who else am I missing?

TP: All of them are high quality artists.

BRUCE: Bill Charlap, too, in his own straight-ahead way, a conservative way, but what a masterful player.

TP: He’s serving as the face of your 70th anniversary at this point.

BRUCE: Yes. Well, he’s really the Musical Director of the Blue Note 7. He’s very anal. He’s very precise. Highly intelligent. So he’s brought a group of guys together in a way that they got very frustrated, but they respect him, and when it was done they said, “We like this record; thank god for Bill.” They all had their own ideas, but they respected him. He handled them very well.

TP: I think he got excellent training for that in booking the 92nd Street Y series.

BRUCE: Yes. He’s an amazing man. Wynton has been a joy to work with. I wish he worked only on making records, and not working on all these other things, like building Jazz at Lincoln Center. But he’s done an extraordinary piece of work with this music, no doubt about it. He’s a great player, no question about it. I wish he had more time to devote just simply to writing and playing.

TP: Then Terence Blanchard, who’s recorded at least one major work for you.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. Not only that, we’ve signed two artists out of his band, Aaron Parks and Lionel Loueke. So here’s a guy who fosters young talent brilliantly. They’ve stuck with him.

TP: I think Terence hews closely to the Art Blakey dictum of nurturing young players.

BRUCE: Exactly right. When people say there’s no more Art Blakey around, or a school of Art Blakey or a school of Max Roach, or that kind of thing—well, there’s a school of Terence Blanchard.

TP: But again, without trying to butter you up too much…

BRUCE: You can keep doing that. It’s ok.

TP: Ok, I’ll butter you up. It seems that Blue Note under you has been uniquely receptive to the shifting winds. You’re not the most radical label, but in the ‘80s your roster included Don Pullen and James Newton, and Lovano and Gonzalo have done some pretty wild records, Osby never compromised on anything, Jason is conceptually venturesome, Don Byron as well.

BRUCE: You bet.

TP: Again, we get back to you as a kind of diplomat. Not quite akin to sustaining world peace…

BRUCE: World peace I can’t handle.

TP: …but keep the balance between the million-sellers and this sort of…

BRUCE: You have to do that. As Alfred suggested, what are you going to do that keeps the label profitable? Because if you’re not profitable, they’ll close you down. We’ve been profitable every year. Last year was a tough one. We lost a little money last year. That was the first time in… I have a 12-year running tab on our profitability, and we were profitable at least for 12 years. In the early years we were, too, but we were coalesced with the Manhattan label and so on. So we’re separated. We wrote a separate P&L on both labels.

TP: Your brand is so associated with the legacy of music in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the notion of back catalog.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: Now, it’s impossible not to notice that even an artist like Joe has only four albums listed on the website, none of Osby’s are listened, only two of Don Byron’s—at least as far as hardcopy.

BRUCE: They will be all available on the Internet.

TP: Let’s speak about the challenge of sustaining the label’s identity in an environment where economics don’t allow much back product to be in print.

BRUCE: The problem really is that there are no record stores any more. It’s as simple as that. Very few. Thank God for J&R Music World and places like that. Borders’ is on the threat of bankruptcy, and Tower is already gone. There are very few Virgin stores left anywhere. So it’s really a tough time for retail. Those are the retailers that carry catalog, carry Blue Note and carry classical music and everything else. They’re not here any more. So the Internet is the way forward. It has to be. There’s no other options. There’s a small market for vinyl. We’re doing vinyl again on a certain level. But we’re talking about something that’s small. Still, it’s encouraging to see that people like the quality of vinyl and they’re buying turntables again. It doesn’t surprise me, but in a way it does.

TP: Do you have any feelings about analog versus digital?

BRUCE: I love the sound of vinyl. I’ll be honest with you. I think the seeds of destruction were built into the CD itself. You get 79 minutes of music. That’s too much music. Less is more. What is art about? Less is always more. You always want the audience waiting for more. You buy an LP, you’ve got 17 minutes on a side, you can turn it over or not turn it over right away, you’ve got a 12″-by-12″ portrait, you had liner notes that you could read even when you got old and your eyes got bad. Now I have to read the notes with a magnifying glass. And the sound is not as good. It just isn’t. Put on an LP, and the warmth of the sound and quality of the sound is quite superior. Even when you hear scratches and ticks, it doesn’t bother you. We’re used to them; at least I was. But I think the CD, as much as it did for the music, it encouraged artists to do more music.

I remember when Stefon Harris said to me, “I filled out every second of music on this CD.” I said, “Why?” First of all, you play the vibraphone with overtones, and it’s very hard to listen to that much vibraphone. Secondly, you don’t have that much good music. I didn’t really say it to him this way. I was more diplomatic than that. But I said, “Less is more, Stefon. If you had five great songs and the record lasted 45 minutes, it would be worth more than the record is now, at 70-75 minutes or whatever.” Now, don’t use the artist’s name, if you don’t mind, but an artist on the label. But I think this is true.

Also, CDs have become very expendable. You come into the office and grab a bunch of CDs. You couldn’t carry that many LPs out of the office. I really think that it encourages artists to be a little sloppy. They think they’re being diligent by offering you more music. It’s funny. If you’re documenting a symphony orchestra or something like that, then a CD that can contain the entire symphony, that’s wonderful. But it’s too much to listen to. No one’s attention span is long enough to sustain listening to 79 minutes of everything.

TP: I think CDs have the advantage in documenting live performance, because it’s a more seamless experience.

BRUCE: That’s true. But 50 minutes is fine. It’s all you need. I’d say, “Oh God, that’s so great. I want to hear more. I wonder what the next one is going to be like.” Rather than being sated by all this endless, endless stuff. After a while, the quality fades.

TP: Your taste notwithstanding, you adapted.

BRUCE: Well, yes. I remember at Columbia Records going to the Museum of Modern Art. We were right around the corner, in the CBS Building in those days. So I’d get a couple of guys in the art department to have lunch at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’d walk around and discuss the exhibits. I like art very much. I remember John Berg, the Art Director, and a woman who was there, too, whose name I’ve forgotten now, saying, “This is terrible, this whole advent of the CD. It’s going to be 5″-by-5″, and you can’t design anything for that size. It’s not going to work, no one will see anything, the LP is perfect…” They were thinking of it in terms of design, as graphic artists. I said, “Technology is going to win; you can’t win this one. You’re right in many respects, but you’re going to have to learn to design for the 5″-by-5″ format.

TP: Apart from questions of CD design, we’re already speaking of old history with digital technology.

BRUCE: Oh, I know.

TP: I just want to note for the record that you grimaced when you said “Oh, I know.” Nonetheless, you’re adapting.

BRUCE: About 16% of our volume now comes from digital technology, from the Internet. I don’t know how much downloading is done without paying for the music. Not too much in jazz, I don’t believe. Still people are buying physical records. But it’s all going to turn digital at one point in time, I think. Not entirely so, but I think 90% of it will be downloading the Internet. So we have to adapt that way. I’m a little bit old for that. I’m not really a technological guy at all. It frustrates me very often, to see people downloading everything and walking around with Ipods. Yes, it’s good in a way, but I think the problem with the computer world is that people spend their time looking into a fucking computer screen, and they can’t even communicate verbally or write a note that you can make sense out of. It’s a weird experience. Frustrating for me. I still write everything down.

TP: You write longhand.

BRUCE: Yes, always. It’s not easy for me now, because I have a little pre-stage Parkinson’s, so my handwriting is very small and illegible. That’s why I talk this way. It’s very strange. Supposedly, it’s not going to get any worse. I take a couple of pills every day, and that’s about it. But it affects your handwriting, it affects your speech, it affects your walking.
TP: You seem to have the discipline to mask it.

BRUCE: That’s good. For three years, I’ve been doing this show on Sirius, on Channel 72, which I do pro bono, of course. But why not? To get an hour, three times a week on the air, promoting Blue Note Records? Why not? It’s not easy for me just to talk into a microphone without an audience, but fortunately, I’ve had good producers like Matt Abramowitz, and now I’ve got Mark Ruffin, since they converted with XM. But the other day I did a show, and I completely lost it in the middle of describing something I wanted to play. It was the last tune on the show. My words just got fuckin’ jumbled. What the fuck is going on? What’s that? I snap into this malady.

TP: It must be very frustrating, after being so in control in your world.

BRUCE: It is. But normally I’m ok, but it will happen when you least expect it. It just happens. Your mind is going faster than your mouth.

TP: Let’s speak a bit more about the implications of the digital world. What to do to ensure Blue Note is around for its 75th?

BRUCE: You find the best and most original artists you can possibly find, and you sign them, and you give them the freedom to make great records. And they’re out there. It’s always a surprise. People like Jenny Scheinman. Fucking incredible artist, by the way. Many, many others.

TP: Did you sign her?

BRUCE: No.

TP: Who are some people out there whom you like?

BRUCE: There are a lot of people developing that I like. I haven’t found a tenor player that really strikes me now. Ravi Coltrane is coming into his own. I’m interested in him now, slowly, after the misjudgment of playing the same instrument his father did. He’s trying to develop now his own voice. But he’s been around for a bit.

Lizz Wright as a singer. She’s done three or four albums, but I think she’s got much more than she’s exhibited on record thus far.

TP: I don’t think she’s been produced properly.

BRUCE: No. Me either. Miguel Zenon. He’s got a great vision. Francisco Mela, this young drummer, is fabulous. I heard him before Joe. I heard him with Kenny Barron, and he just killed me! I thought, “Who the hell is this?” This guy has something special as a drummer. There’s a drummer named Willie Jones. I think the best trumpet player out there among the young guys, who is no longer a kid, is Roy Hargrove. He’s kind of stayed in one place, but still he’s a helluva player.

TP: Quickly, while the check comes, three signings you’re most proud of.

BRUCE: Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Joe Lovano. Not three. I have to give more than three. Jason Moran. Shit, man, that’s not fair. Bill Charlap I’m very proud of also. And Dianne Reeves. You have to include Dianne. She is the greatest singer around.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Bruce Lundvall, Interview, Jazziz

An Unpublished Article on Irwin Mayfield and Two Uncut Interviews from 2003

Recent reports by the distinguished journalists Jason Berry and Larry Blumenfeld on the alleged misappropriation of funds intended for the New Orleans Public Library into the coffers of trumpeter Irwin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra evoke for me my meeting with Mayfield in 2003, for an article — for reasons I can no longer remember, it wasn’t published — for Jazziz about a collaboration by Mayfield, then 25, with nonagenarian photojournalist-filmmaker-novelist-composer Gordon Parks that resulted in the CD, Blue Autumn.

Here’s the final draft that I submitted  at the time, plus  verbatim interviews with Mayfield in January and April of 2003.

 

Irvin Mayfield (unpublished 2003 article):

On the surface, Gordon Parks and the New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield have so little in common that to suggest the possibility of a productive artistic collaboration between them would seem a far-fetched prospect. But in this instance, appearances are deceiving.

Often described as a “Renaissance Man” in recognition of the range of media in which he operates, Parks, who turned 90 last year, is a giant of 20th century arts and letters. As the first African-American staff photographer for “Life” magazine during the ’40s and ’50s, Parks presented a gritty, unsentimental vision of the human condition in a series of photo-essays that addressed, without a touch of condescension, the lives and milieux of Harlem gangs, South Side cops, rural midwest wanderers, and the favela dwellers of Rio de Janeiro. Parallel-tracking as a high-fashion photographer for “Vogue,” he created understated images of beauty and elegance. As a film director, Parks gave the world “Shaft,” featuring the first black action hero of a Hollywood studio picture, and “Leadbelly,” a credible biopic of the blues legend. Since his 1963 novel, “The Learning Tree,” a canonic coming-of-age tale of his Kansas boyhood, Parks has written several memoirs and works of fiction, with an historical novel about J.W. Turner, the inimitable early 19th century English seascape painter, just out of the galleys. Parks is also a self-taught ear pianist, and he plays European classical music with reflective, somber elegance, often performing his own compositions, which blend pastel French impressionist harmonies with the melancholy emanations of the lowdown bordello blues, a style Parks played nightly as a scuffling teenager in Depression Minneapolis.

Parks describes his senior years as “half-past autumn,” and used the phrase to label the comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his photographs that has toured America since late 1997. Anticipating the show’s summer 2000 arrival, the New Orleans Museum of Art asked Mayfield — who had been hosting there a series of “informances” about the reciprocal relationship between the visual arts and jazz — to compose a creative response for opening night. He rose to the challenge with the “Half-Past Autumn Suite,” recorded in late 2002 and released this winter by Basin Street Records.

I caught up with Mayfield at the cocktail hour of a raw January day in the unheated front bar of Tribeca’s Knitting Factory, the first leg of a brief northeast tour in support of the “Half-Past Autumn Suite.” Just off the plane from New Orleans, sharp in a beige camelshair overcoat buttoned to the neck to ward off the chill, Mayfield sat at a small table, sipping bottled water, fixing me with laughing, hawkish eyes as he described the project’s genesis.

“I wrote the music in two weeks, and we rehearsed for three days before,” Mayfield says. “The place only seats 240, and there were a thousand unhappy people outside trying to see Gordon Parks. After we finished a blues, Gordon got up and said, ‘That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives,’ and at the end of the night he started dancing with his daughter. Later we sat, and he gave me his home number and told me to call any time. Then I realized I was going to put the music out.”

Popular around New Orleans since his teens, Mayfield, now 25, has established an international profile as co-leader of Los Hombres Calientes, a dance-oriented ensemble that articulates the styles of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti with idiomatic precision and a let-the-good-times-roll New Orleans jazz sensibility, as documented on last year’s Congo Square and the spring 2003 release Vodou Dance. But observers who know him only through that prism may not be prepared for the emotional depth of Half-Past Autumn. Like its solo predecessor, How Passion Falls, the program comprises nine challenging compositions for quintet that parse and counterstate the harmonic and rhythmic tropes laid down by New Orleans modernists Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison during Mayfield’s formative years. The musicianship throughout is informed, creative, interactive, and often inspired; Mayfield plays with virtuoso panache, crafting stories that balance bravura upper register flights with grounded excursions in a nuanced, malleable middle register. Icing the cake is a trumpet-piano duo by Mayfield and Parks on “Wind,” a Parks composition that the maestro suggested Mayfield perform.

“I chose to interpret Gordon’s modern pieces — ‘Evening,’ ‘Towards Infinity,’ ‘Moonscape,'” Mayfield said. “Gordon is very serious and warm, his music and art combine those qualities, and that’s what I wanted to capture. I could imagine myself having painted or photographed these pictures. That’s Gordon’s gift. He deals with basic fundamental themes — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.”

Mayfield evidently is not one to allow his creativity to be inhibited by Oedipal notions of slaying the father. In point of fact, he has internalized the New Orleans custom of treating the past as a living, evolving narrative to be dialogued with in a ceremonial context. Intellectually ambitious and highly disciplined, trained in century-old vernacular brass and parade band traditions and intimate with the most up-to-the-minute iterations of jazz modernism, Mayfield — whose early instruction came from his father, a former Army drill sergeant — could stand as a prototype for the 21st century New Orleans jazz musician. He cites the influence of Danny Barker, a native of the French Quarter whose long, distinguished career as a guitarist and banjoist included jobs with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. A world class raconteur with an encyclopedic memory, Barker retired to New Orleans in the latter ’60s, organizing a youth band at the Fairview Baptist Church, where, if he was so inclined, he might inform his young charges that Louis Armstrong learned his diminished chords from funky trumpeter Buddy Petit, or that the Onward Brass Band, inspired by a lead trumpeter named Kimball, who played like King Oliver, was the greatest brass band of his day.

“I played a lot with Danny Barker before he passed, and I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is,” Mayfield says. “One difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. There was never a point in time when Danny Barker wasn’t hip. Here’s a guy who was in his seventies talking about his chord structures on the guitar and about Louis Armstrong and what he did for American music, and at the same time talking about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ The older musicians always talked to you like a man. Danny Barker wasn’t not going to say ‘bitches and ho’s’ around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. ‘You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.'”

Cocksure from early proximity to elders in the Algiers Brass Band and undeniable technical proficiency, Mayfield matriculated at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts — the magnet school that famously produced Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Reginald Veal and Nicholas Payton. “I got a reality check at NOCCA,” he laughs. “These cats were traveling and working. I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ on the drums and interpret it. He had total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize them. Nicholas Payton had graduated, but he was still hanging around. The first time I heard him he was playing bass, and I said, ‘Oh, what a great bass player.’ Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounded like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. Hearing Nicholas Payton for the first time made me have to really decide.

“My father played trumpet and knew a lot of the technical aspects, but he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is very aristocratic in the sense that it’s a town of tradition, particularly the Creole tradition; if you don’t fit in, it’s hard to deal with. Coming up, I had to try to figure out which group I belonged in, which made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing. I knew it was almost an impossible task. But I decided that no matter what it took, I would do music, because I loved it so much.”

Not long after his 19th birthday, Mayfield accepted an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to crash at Marsalis’ Upper West Side apartment, and began a heady two-year stay in New York City. Situated within walking distance of Manhattan’s Museum Mile and the galleries of 57th Street, Mayfield heard the conversation of various thinkers who frequented the Marsalis manse, jammed late nights with the best and brightest of his peer group at the Blue Note, Small’s, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Home Front, and landed a gig playing after-work jazz shows at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Until I got to New York, I couldn’t appreciate visual art, but then I got my eyes open,” Mayfield relates. “I fell in love with Matisse and Cezanne, Bearden and Lawrence, and I began to study music that had been inspired by the same themes, like the use of trains in Bearden and Ellington. Then I started wondering about further connections. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art and politics? What I found out is that there is.”

After signing with Basin Street Records, Mayfield returned to New Orleans, refining his cross-genre explorations as Artist-in-Residence at Dillard University and as Artistic Director of the recently established New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. “New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home,” Mayfield says. “You go through this weird emotional thing. There isn’t prejudice about music in New Orleans. You’d play the Louis Armstrong music, and then if you wanted to play some avant-garde music with Kidd Jordan, that’s what you’d play. Then you’d play an R&B gig, or maybe horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead, or maybe some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You’re happy to be playing. You’re a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was.

“As much as I loved living in New York, I had a hard time at first because everybody thought you fit in a bag. If you’re hanging with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, not music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is really free music. That’s what Wynton and especially Terence Blanchard were trying to do. People are sometimes surprised when they hear my quintet record, and it sounds like what they would call a New Yorker. But if they hear Los Hombres, they say, ‘Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.’ I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.”

History will determine whether Mayfield’s progression during his twenties will prove half as consequential to the course of jazz as Picasso’s own third-decade transition from the Blue Period to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was to painting. But apart from his considerable chops and conceptual range, the quality that will make Mayfield a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future is a fierce individualism that allows him to imprint his iconoclastic tonal personality on deep-set cultural traditions in a way that sustains and invigorates them.

“I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and I play the New Orleans way,” he says. “I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs in the suspenders and white hats — and I follow that legacy. I challenge the concepts that Wynton puts out there by trying to redefine the concept of what jazz is and what it can be. A lot of times people get so pissed off with what someone says, that they don’t understand the importance of the dialogue. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I’m right. Can we have a dialogue about it? During the 1960s, you had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. A lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s reflective of my generation and what we’re doing in American culture.”

Mayfield is determined to back up his brash talk with musical principles that speak louder than words. “When I was writing the music for Half Past Autumn, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like Gordon’s art, not some esoteric idea of jazz, or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that bringing scraps to your band ignites them to figure out more. Jazz is about the process of trying to be better. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.”

 

* * * *

Irvin Mayfield (1-30-03) at the Knitting Factory:
TP: So let’s start with some nuts and bolts questions about this project. What’s the genesis. I gather you’d been doing series of concerts at the New Orleans Museum for events such as this, and this was a commission from them, and then Gordon Parks came and heard the music, and he liked it, and voila, you had a collaboration.

MAYFIELD: Right. Well, when I first lived in New York is when I first got my eyes open to visual art. I could never appreciate art before that. In fact, it was absurd to me that people would spend their money on these pieces of visual things. When I first got my eyes open to art, I fell in love with Picasso, I fell in love with Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden, Lawrence, all these great artists. Then I started wondering if there was any connection between the periods of the arts. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art, throughout politics? And what I found out is that there is. So what I wound up doing was I went to the museum at home. Now, I guess a lot of people don’t really use the resources that are there around them. But I went to the museum at home, I started going over there just looking at art that was around. So I went there and I started talking about them saying, here, let’s try… I would like to do some conversations or some dialogue or some research on the comparisons between Ellison, Bearden and Ellington, or Monk and Lawrence and Baldwin. I started doing this research, and they were giving me all these materials. People were coming out… We started this interesting dialogue. I think a lot of the people who were in the visual arts started looking at music in a different sense, because they figured their way of how they could relate to it…

TP: Who are you talking about now? The curator of the museum funneled materials to you, and then you’d share these materials with your circle of musicians.

MAYFIELD: Right. There’s a great group at the museum at home called the Champions Group, of African-American and Caribbean artists, and they were very much looking to do something that has an educational outreach and looking for somebody to do something like this They were really glad when I came along, obviously. Because you really have to want to do something like this, rather than have somebody hire you to do it. I did it at first for no money; it was just something we were doing. And it was really a lot of fun. I was learning a lot.

TP: Let me get a few things straight. You’re how old?

MAYFIELD: 25.

TP: So you’re born in ’77.

MAYFIELD: ’77.

TP: You were in New York when?

MAYFIELD: I was in New York from 19 to 21.

TP: So in ’97-’99. Were you in school and performing at the same time?

MAYFIELD: I was living with Wynton, which was like being in school. But I was crashing at his place, and I was doing some Lincoln Center Gigs. I did several records, two Live at the Blue Note and also with Wessel Anderson, “Live At The Village Vanguard,” and hitting all the jam sessions at Small’s and Cleopatra’s. That’s where I hooked up with Jaz Sawyer and Richard Johnson. There was this club that opened uptown called the Home Front, which was open for four weeks and then closed down. That’s where I met a lot of my peers, like Eric Lewis and all the other musicians. This is the New York experience. So I’d be here, and then I’d fly back home and do these things at the museum and various gigs. But I was actually prepared to move up to New York. Wynton extended a favor to me to say I could stay with him as long as I wanted. If I hadn’t gotten my record deal, that’s exactly what I would have done.

TP: Staying in that part of town, the possibilities are infinite.

MAYFIELD: Right. I’m going to MOMA every day and doing performances there at their 5 o’clock jazz shows. I would use the band Wes had; it would be me and Jaz and Steve Kirby and Xavier Davis. Then I started doing more performances once I got the record deal, and that’s when the museum gave me their first-ever commission, and a very serious commission, to say, “Hey, Gordon Parks is coming to New Orleans for the first time with his art.”

TP: So that was the first commission. You’d been doing performances at the museum…

MAYFIELD: Informances.

TP: I saw that nomenclature in the liner notes. What exactly does it mean?

MAYFIELD: An informance is you perform and you talk. You talk about each song, bring the paintings out, which is hop, and you talk about the paintings relating to the music and vice-versa.

TP: So you’ve been composing inspired by visual art since about 1999 or so…

MAYFIELD: Well, not really composing. I had been studying it. Studying music that had been inspired by the same themes. Like, Bearden and Ellington all used trains as themes. The train is a very specific theme. Everybody used the train. So I started thinking about realities, of things like that. Then they gave me this commission.

The wonderful thing about the New Orleans Museum of Art is that they give you ALL the resources you need. I mean, they gave me every book Gordon Parks ever wrote, I got the films, I got everything. They said, “This is what you need. So I literally went through all his stuff, all his books. I went through “The Learning Tree,” I went through his poetry, “Towards Infinity,” I went through his photography books, I went through “Half Past Autumn.” And it blew me away. It killed me. It almost was an impossible task to come up with a suite for a man who had been married three times and was the first significant African-American photographer, a filmmaker, writer, director… It started to become a hard task.

TP: I mean, he’s a weighty cat, and he spanned all sorts of worlds.

MAYFIELD: Right. And I started hearing his music. Then I was like, “I’m not worthy.” He can compose a suite himself. But I realized that the power of jazz is that maybe he can, but I can interpret everything he’s doing through jazz, and leave room for everybody else to engage in.

TP: So what sort of themes were you looking at to capture Gordon Parks?

MAYFIELD: Well, after I got through “Half-Past Autumn”… I read all the other books first, and I finished with this, which is appropriate. When I got through the book, I realized which pieces I would choose. I chose his modern pieces — “Evening,” “Towards Infinity,” “Moonscape.” They all represented a period of his, which is what the book is entitled, “half-past autumn,” where he feels he’s at in his life. I thought it was significant when I read that first poem… I was almost in tears when he told the story about his father, and the advice he gives him, “If in autumn you can still manage a smile after all this shit you go through…”

TP: It has a very melancholy quality. In the DVD pieces with you, his brow looks like… You know how a trumpet player when they’re 60 has a face that looks like they play the trumpet. His looks like he’s been concentrating all his life, the brow curves in like this…

MAYFIELD: Very serious. But serious and a sense of warmth. His music and his art is combining. That’s what I wanted to capture. And these pictures did that to me. When I looked at them, they looked like pictures I might possibly have painted, or taken pictures of, or things I would have concocted myself. But that’s Gordon’s gift. He can make things that seem like they already exist come to creation, and they’re warm. Because he’s dealing with the basic fundamental themes that we all know in life — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. All that loneliness; he’s got that whole thing in his family. When I wrote the songs, being from New Orleans, I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.

Another thing is, when I was writing the music, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like his paintings, not some esoteric idea of jazz or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that when you bring your band scraps, it ignites them to figure out more.

TP: So the pieces were set up collaboratively?

MAYFIELD: Not collaboratively. But they were sketches. More ideas. Like his pieces are. I want to give emotions. And it was really the first record. Which is funny to me, because I wrote the music for my last record after I wrote this music, and it came out first.

TP: So the one with you and the young lady on the cover you wrote after “Half Past Autumn.”

MAYFIELD: I wrote that music after that. So coming back to this music, I went through the artist’s thing. It’s like writing a story that’s two years old, and you put out this other big story. I said, “Damn, I don’t know…”

TP: So you’re saying you developed this music on gigs before you went into the museum?

MAYFIELD: Right. By this time, I was on the road, touring with this band and Los Hombres Calientes. And by the time we went back to record the record for Gordon, I wondered whether the music wasn’t complicated… I went through all these emotional things. Then you know what I said? I said, “Man, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to go to the studio and I’m going to ask the cats to dig down deep.” I told them in the studio, “Man, this is about what you want to do.” I don’t know what you want me to do.”

TP: So you went in the studio and did it after you performed it for him?

MAYFIELD: No. We performed it for him at the museum…

TP: Give me the course of events. Slow down and tell the story.

MAYFIELD: I wrote the music in two weeks. [LAUGHS] I had something else to do…I don’t remember…maybe I was on the road. We rehearsed three days before, every day, and… It was packed! Man, there are so many people trying to see Gordon Parks. It only seats 240. There were a thousand people outside. So the museum was happy, but there were a lot of unhappy people who couldn’t get in to see that performance. We went through each of the songs; it was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it took an 1 hour and 15. We’re jazz musicians. We’ve got to play! And at the end of the night, Gordon Parks jumped up and started dancing with his daughter. It’s New Orleans. That’s what killed everybody. Here are these guys who are supposed to be modern jazz musicians, and here we are, doing the most fundamental thing that we do, and he got up and danced. It was a party. But the deep thing is, the people enjoyed the music. It had nothing to do with him. It was like, “Wow, the music’s great; we’re all partying and dancing.” We played a blues that night, and after we finished, Gordon got up and said, “That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives.” Everybody was just like, “Wow!”

TP: Is that the blues you did with Wynton?

MAYFIELD: Yes. His three ex-wives. It was a great night. I thought about it… After the performance, I sat with him and talked with him a little while, he gave me his home number and said, “Give me a call me any time,” and… I’m star-struck at the same time. Not only have I known his movies, but now I’ve researched him. There’s no greater thing than this guy seeing you perform and saying he liked it.

Then I realized that I was going to put that music out. And it takes a significant amount of work to get a world-renowned artist and Renaissance man like Gordon Parks to collaborate.

TP: What was your process in choosing the photographs?

MAYFIELD: I was sitting at the piano, and I’d put up the photograph and look at it. And if I felt moved by it, that would be the one.

TP: There’s one he spoke to you about on the DVD, “Flowerscape.”

MAYFIELD: When I looked at it, it reminded me of a flamenco dancer… It seemed like a woman at some level of pizzazz or some attitude. That’s kind of what I thought about it, and that’s why the music has that kind of thing.

TP: His comment on the DVD was funny. He said he wanted to get the redness within the blackness but when you use your imagination it takes you into crazy stuff; I don’t even want to try to explain it. But this is the one that got him. This one reminded him of his wives.

MAYFIELD: No, the one that reminded him of his wives is “Moonscape.” I can understand that. You know, it’s obvious! Oh, I’m sorry. It’s “Blue Dawn.”

TP: So the images correlated with musical shapes and velocities…

MAYFIELD: I think the tune “Moonscapes,” which is actually based on the image on the cover of the book, too, which is why I started the CD with that one… I tried to think about what the Moon represented to him. The Moon represented another night coming and another day passing. The guy was facing starvation, and I think he can find solitude in such simple things that we take for granted almost. That’s really what I deal with in the piece. There’s not a lot of things going on in it, but what you hear is the band coming together with a concept, and we’re laying down these textures, and I guess we’re trying to make people reminisce about things deep down inside of them. That’s what the record really is.

TP: So just to reduce it to a term, it’s programmatic music; music that’s unified around a theme or a personality or…

MAYFIELD: Oh, yeah, I’m a big theme person. There’s not a record you’ll have by me that’s not…

TP: The recent one, the love series, everybody’s got to go through their love record.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I had to get that one out. I was so heartbroken when I did that. That was painful.

TP: But that’s another story.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, that’s another story.

TP: How many compositions do you have with your name on it, copyrighted now? Over 100?

MAYFIELD: Maybe.

TP: You seem like a very prolific composer. On the Los Hombres Calientes records, you do a lot of tunes in a lot of different idioms, you seem able to get to the essence of the idiom in some way…

MAYFIELD: That’s my background.

TP: But it is hard for many people to do that, to be idiomatic but personal at the same time.

MAYFIELD: See, being from New Orleans gives you a key to a lot of that stuff, because New Orleans has all that in there. It’s the northern port of the Caribbean, and you’ve got so many different peoples from so many different walks of life. I haven’t even been through all my childhood experiences in music yet. Another thing is, I want nothing more than to be a person who’s writing about music…

I’ll tell you what. When I’m putting a record together, do you know what I do? I have very few records that stay with me that I can listen to. I listen to a record one time, I can’t listen to it again. Actually, a lot of musicians I listen to who have modern-day record deals, very few of those records I like. I find I can’t get anything out of them. I’m not a person that is just give me a song because I like to tap my foot to it.

TP: There has to be a reason for the song to exist.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, some greater thing… I can even appreciate somebody like Frank Sinatra, because there’s a certain thing he’s implying when he’s doing these things, he’s representing something… I need something there. I can’t just get with a record that’s out, and the name of this record is “From This Moment On” and…

TP: But your stuff is very modern. If I were going to try to describe to someone what it sounds like, it would seem like you’re piggybacking on some things Terence and Wynton did on top of other things, with various rhythmic stuff and phrasing…

MAYFIELD: It’s interesting, because some people will say I sound more modern than Wynton and Terence. Being from New Orleans, I think people are sometimes surprised when they hear my record and it sounds like what people would call a New Yorker, and then if they hear a Los Hombres record they say, “Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.” I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.

TP: That’s not so easy for musicians to do. It’s a characteristic of what a lot of musicians are striving, to jump between a lot of different things…

MAYFIELD: Because I think musicians are striving… My only thing is that I’m just trying to develop my own personal goals. I don’t want to write any song to sound like another song.

TP: When did Los Hombres Calientes start? That’s obviously been a huge thing for you. It’s taken you around the world, it’s been a popular band, it’s obviously opened up a lot of compositional and improvisational possibilities.

MAYFIELD: It started when I was living up here. I met Chucho Valdez with Wynton the first time he came to New York. They were trying to talk, and they couldn’t talk at all, man, because Chucho didn’t speak English, and Wynton started talking… It wasn’t working out. But they started playing together. I said, “Damn, what is this connection between Cuba and New Orleans?” I always liked Cuban music, and these guys are playing together and it’s making sense. Terence made this record with Ivan Lins, the Brazilian singer. I’m thinking: Why do I like Reggae music? What is the connection with Brazilian music? Then I came home and decided I was going to put together a band that dealt with all those connections. And the connection was that all that music is dance music, but the level of integrity is very high, whether it’s Reggae or whether it’s Brazilian music.
So I called up Bill, who I called “Mister Sommers” then. He had just moved to New Orleans. I’d gone to school with Jason Marsalis. And I decided I’d put this band together. We were just going to do a couple of gigs. It was going to be a thing where we got together maybe twice or three times a year. I wanted to be funny. Because people always say jazz musicians are so uptight, I named it after a rap group, “the hot boys.”: Then we did this gig, and more people wrote about the gig before it started than probably any band I’ve ever known in New Orleans.

From there, the project led me and it led Bill — it molded us. Then Jason left the band. Then I think we solidified the concept after Jason left. Jason was more into interpretative things. He’s more like Gordon Parks. That’s interpretative. When you’re dealing with the music of Los Hombres, it’s not as interpretive; it’s about laying down the foundation of what it is — the essence of it. I think that’s always the balance between the two groups. One is about essence, one is about interpretation.

TP: Take me back a bit, to how you found the trumpet or how the trumpet found you.

MAYFIELD: I only started playing trumpet because my best friend, Jeffrey, played trumpet. He doesn’t play any more! But he made good grades, straight A’s, the girls liked him — I wanted to be like Jeffrey. So I wanted to get a trumpet. Then my Dad said, “Well, you know, if you get this trumpet…” My Dad used to be a drill sergeant in the Army. He said, “If you get this trumpet, you have to play it til you get to college.” I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, I want to get the trumpet.” Then I found out later he knew how to play the trumpet somewhat, so he started giving me lessons. Man, i tried to quit at least 10-11 times, but he wasn’t going for that. He wasn’t on that program. He’d spent his money on the horn, and he was going to get his money’s worth.

Then I fell in love with it. It was shocking. At some point, I decided… I think he had ambitions of me being a physicist or a mathematician or something like that…

TP: It backfired on him!

MAYFIELD: Yeah, it backfired. But I fell in love with the trumpet. But being from New Orleans… Man, I remember being on my street and seeing second line bands pass down the street outside.

TP: Did you ever do the second line thing as a kid?

MAYFIELD: Of course. I was the youngest member of the Algiers Brass Band, which was a traditional brass band that played all the old tunes. And I played with Danny Barker.

TP: Oh, you got to play with him before he passed.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. I played with him a lot before he passed. I learned a lot of stuff with him. I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is. I think one difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. You talk about a cat like Danny Barker, man he was hip when he was old. There was never no point in time when he wasn’t hip. And he would talk about…

TP: Hipness is not a state of mind; it’s a fact of life.

MAYFIELD: He’d sit down and he… Here’s a guy who was in his sixties talking about “bitches and hos” and at the same time he’s talking about his chord structures on the guitar, and Louis Armstrong, what he did for American music. This is the scope of a conversation in New Orleans.

TP: For a teenager, that’s quite a scope of conversation.

MAYFIELD: The other thing about the older musicians, they always talked to you like a man. He wasn’t not going to say “bitches and hos” around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.

TP: So that probably paved the way for you to relate to someone like Gordon Parks.

MAYFIELD: Clearly. Exactly. Not so much relate to him as much as respect the shit out of him.

TP: But to do a suite about someone who’s 90 years old, you have to have the empathy to get under their skin and have the confidence you can project those things.

MAYFIELD: But he writes so well… I don’t know, man. He writes so well… A great writer like Hemingway and Faulkner, they can do something to you. It seems like you know them personally. He had that Hemingwayesque approach of writing. You know how you read Hemingway and you start getting hungry because he’s always talking about food? You don’t even know what food it is necessarily, but it sounds mighty tasty by the time he gets finished describing how he ate it. And Gordon’s the same way. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. It’s things we all know. We all go through them. We know that look before we’re about to get our ass whipped, and we all know that look before we’re about to consummate our relationship with a woman or a mate. That I got to know from musicians, appreciating them stories. I’ve never laughed as much as I laughed when I hung out with Danny Barker.

TP: So do those stories correlate to the way you think about music and framing a solo and writing a phrase?

MAYFIELD: The band is always laughing at songs I write. Because there are some songs that they all know what they’re about. Some are clearly about anger, some are about love, some are about sex. So when we’re in the studio, they’re all…

TP: There’s a subtext.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. Then they start making words to the songs! I think that’s realistically… Look, I’m a 25-year-old and I’m approaching it my way. Wynton’s way is his way, and that’s 20 years before, what they did.

TP: So you were in the brass band, and then you wound up at NOCCA.

MAYFIELD: That was a real reality check. Because see, being in a brass band, hanging around these older musicians, I was quite cocky to be so young, because I was better than everybody.

TP: You could play the instrument.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I could play the instrument and I knew these old cats, and I had a certain level of sophistication that everybody didn’t. Until I got to know better, and then I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the drums and interpret it. He had that total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize it. He was a monster. And Nicholas Payton (he was 29, but he was still hanging around) walks in, and he’s playing bass the first time I heard him. I said, “Oh, what a great bass player.” Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounds like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. And that made me have to really decide, hearing Nicholas Payton for the first. There’s a lot of cats. Adonis Rose. And the thing is, these cats were working. These cats had gigs. They were like 14 and 15, traveling and working… It was a different experience.

I didn’t really come from a musical family, because even though my father knew a lot of the technical aspects, he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is a town of tradition. It’s very aristocratic in that sense. And you deal with a lot of the Creole tradition. Tradition plays a big role. So a lot of times, if you’re not fitting in, in some way it’s hard to deal with. I think I went through a lot of that when I was coming up, trying to figure out which group I belonged in, or I didn’t have any of those things. So I think it essentially made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing.

TP: So when you were in high school, what were you thinking defined what you wanted to be doing?

MAYFIELD: In high school, I think I was always dissatisfied with what I was doing. That was the biggest important thing I knew in high school. I knew I was not where I wanted to be, and I knew it was going to take a lot of work and it was almost an impossible task. But I made a decision that no matter what it took, I would do it, because I loved it so much. I really love music, and not just jazz. Jazz is one of the mediums in which I lay out what I do, but it’s art. I love literature, I love visual arts, I love theater, I love dance — I love people communicating.

TP: Did that start at NOCCA? I know it’s a multidisciplinary arts high school.

MAYFIELD: It started at NOCCA. When I got to New York, New York seriously nurtured it.

TP: Did you go straight up to New York from NOCCA?

MAYFIELD: I went to UNO. I studied with Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr… I’ve been mentored by damn near every trumpet player out of New Orleans.

TP: Were you listening to other trumpet players historically?

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. In New Orleans, man, Louis Armstrong’s music was very vibrant and alive.

TP: So you had to play that music too.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah.

TP: That’s a thing that trumpet players outside New Orleans don’t really have to do.

MAYFIELD: Well, see, in New Orleans, not only do you have to play all that. Then you’ve got to go on the R&B gig. See, ain’t no prejudice about music in New Orleans. I never knew anything about period playing until I got to New York, because here cats talk about what type of jazz they play. I never heard that shit. When I was in New Orleans, if you wanted to do a gig with Kidd Jordan and play some avant-garde music, that’s what you played. Happily. You were happy to be playing. Then you went and played an R&B gig, or maybe you played some horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead. Or maybe you’d go and play some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You are a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was. People start defining it after you do it. I had a hard time when I first got here because of that. Because everybody thought you fit in a bag. Well, if you’re hang with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, and you don’t like to play music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is actually non-structural — it’s really free music. That’s what Wynton and them were trying to do, ironically enough, especially Terence Blanchard. People want you to stay the same.

So when I think about what molded me, growing up in New Orleans is a… It’s a great thing, but then it’s a bad thing, because at the same time, nobody in New Orleans appreciates what you’re doing, because everybody is a musician. Everybody is an artist. Everybody cooks. You’re not special. “Yeah, so what? The cook plays trumpet. His grandson plays trumpet.” We have a lineage of people who play trumpet who are all great who never did anything. “So what about you?”

TP: That’s a great environment to develop what you do, because you just have to do it, but then you have to get out to make it…

MAYFIELD: New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re really a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home. So you go through this emotional thing. It’s weird. But being up here in New York, when I first got here, at that point it was so different from New Orleans, it was the only place I said, “I could live here and never go back home.” Because it was so much!

TP: Donald Harrison tried it. Terence tried it. I don’t think Nicholas tried it. But most of the people…

MAYFIELD: Well, Nicholas went on the road. He was up here hanging for a second. But what I realized is being here after two or two-and-a-half years, man, it wears on you. You have to know how to cleanse yourself if you’re going to be up here. But I guess that’s the thing I liked about it. I felt proud every day I made another day in New York. Because everybody’s trying to make it up here.

TP: Has the music for the “Half-Past Autumn Suite” changed or evolved since you wrote it?

MAYFIELD: Man, I’m on the stage with four guys who are determined to play something different every night. And it’s a hard process, because when you write music, you intend on it staying the same way, but it just ain’t happening! They take over. You may be the bandleader, but whoever is playing the most music per song is the bandleader. So you’ve got to follow them. So yeah, it changes, and depending on the night, it is what it is. One night everything is a certain way, and another night, you know… The thing I’ve noticed about the response to the music is that most… See, I would assume that this record wouldn’t have gotten as many reviews artistically… I knew people would say, “It’s nice Gordon Parks and you have collaborated,” but I don’t think people would have appreciated it as much as my last record. But what I guess I’ve found — and I’ve learned my lesson through this record — is that sometimes less is more. I guess I started I’ve started to understand more what Miles Davis really did through his reductions down to simplicity in music. He really reduced things down to those fundamental assets of what’s really required. It’s an interesting experience. I’ll tell you one thing. when you’re playing music like that, you’ve got to really trust the musicians. Because, man, you’ve got some musicians who can’t carry that off… It’s all about the musicians at that point.

TP: Are these guys from New Orleans.

MAYFIELD: No. Aaron Fletcher is from Tipino, Louisiana. It’s New Orleans, but he’s a country bumpkin, man. Victor Atkins is from Selma, Alabama, so he’s a product of the Civil Rights movement. Jaz Sawyer is from the Bay Area. Jaz is like my soulmate. Me and Aaron are like brothers, because we play so well together, but me and Jaz are like… We’ve played and worked together so much.

TP: He’s a very accomplished drummer.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. He is really… I would say if there are any new innovations, they really come from the drums. He’s the kind of guy who just refuses to do anything anybody else does. He’s his own person. You know he’s going to show up late to the show. I just wish I could expose everybody to the band, because the band is so crazy. It’s young guys, but…

Neal Caine is a wild man! [Benny Green, Harry, Elvin] Don’t leave your girlfriend around if Neal Caine is around. He’s a wild man.

TP: Did you do that?

MAYFIELD: Hell, no! I learned from experience! Aaron is a nice guy. Aaron will cook for everybody, make breakfast. He’s country. But Neil and Jaz, I don’t know what’s going to happen. On the stage, we’ll be playing songs, and they’ll start yelling words from other songs…

TP: The music isn’t local any more.

MAYFIELD: Well, you’ve got to go with the guys who can really deliver what you need. Like, Aaron is living in L.A. right now.

TP: Is that because Terence is out in L.A. a lot?

MAYFIELD: Well, he’s not in Terence’s band any more. But I think he wanted to find a different… Everybody goes through that. I did New York and he wants to do L.A. I’m not a big L.A. fan necessarily.

TP: Tell me about Gordon Parks’ music.

MAYFIELD: The first time I heard Gordon Parks’ music, I was watching an HBO documentary. I was like, “Damn, this music is killing; who did the soundtrack?” The name of Gordon Parks came up. Then I was about fed up at that point! Does the guy have to do everything and be successful? You feel insignificant inferior next to a cat like this.

You know that Gordon can’t read any music, so he came up with his own notation system. Can you imagine coming up with a whole nother written language? His music is beautiful. It’s very melancholy, like you said. When I asked him to play on the record… He said, “I think there’s this piece you may want to check out. I wanted to do it for Leontyne Price, and it deals with the sentiments of September 11th.” He played it for me. I said, “Well, Gordon, why can’t we play it together. You play it.” He said, “No, you should get your piano player to play it.” I said, “No, you should play it.” He said, “I’ve never done a recording session before. I’ve never been in the studio and played on a record.” I said, “But you’re Gordon Parks!” Do you know, he practiced for three days and came to the studio. The studio was packed.

TP: He’s got some left hand.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. Everybody asked me, “Who’s that on piano? Do you have a classical pianist on there?” He’s amazing. And the title of the song is “Wind Song.” I was extremely nervous playing that song, because I knew I doing something that very few people get an opportunity to do in life.

TP: But you’d listened to his recordings. Are they all within the rubric of classical?

MAYFIELD: Well, you know, he used to play blues in juke joints and all that stuff. But he has that kind of blues interpretation to it. Yet at the same, it’s a very French…

TP: Is it like a deeply harmonized blues?

MAYFIELD: You can hear all the elements. You can hear that honky-tonk piano. You can also hear the influence of France — Debussy and Ravel. You can hear that shit all up in his stuff. You can hear the interpretation of… His sound is still American, despite the fact that it’s very heavily influenced by French composers. And it still sounds like Negro music. That’s Gordon Parks.
TP: That’s a beautiful piece.

MAYFIELD: I like it, too. I can put it on, it’s a nice day, I put it on at home… My mother likes it a lot.

TP: Obviously, Gordon Parks is a holistic personality, with all his activities integrated with one another. Talk about your impressions of the ways in which his music and his photography are linked.

MAYFIELD: I think his music and his photography are linked in the sense that he loves to function in… See, the thing about music is that it’s the only art form that is in the same space as emotion. He understands that completely, and he tries to transcend that with his art. Because his photographs… But then the photographs become visual art. They’re not just photographs. They’re paintings… I’ve asked him and he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking of.” It’s like asking Miles Davis, “What were you thinking when you were doing…” And I know I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Gordon and Miles. But there’s a lot of comparisons to be made. Because I think that’s true, exceptional genius, is when you can take something, which is anything, and reduce down to its fundamental level, and exude beauty from it. The guy is a master.

And it’s hard for me to detach myself from how amazing it is. Because you have to realize, when I’m writing these pieces, I’m digging down so deep inside myself and what I’m capable of, because I’m amazed at what he’s able to do. His pieces are all different. Some artists, they make one piece, and another piece it’s like, “Ah, you can tell it’s him.” Gordon Parks’ shit is not like that. Every piece is distinctly different. You don’t know what he uses. He don’t even know what he uses. And he’s challenging himself. You know what Gordon Parks’ art is like? It’s like being on the edge of the abyss, looking out and then jumping off. That’s his art. Each one of his pieces.

TP: Whether it’s music, whether it’s photography…

MAYFIELD: I mean, even to come up and make a black action hero! That was absurd, man! To be the first to really say, “I’m going to make a black action hero.” Then they said, “Well, damn, why don’t you direct it?” So then he directs it. Then he decides what music he wants. And tell me that music didn’t become the definitive music of the era. I think a lot of people don’t… You have to realize, no Gordon Parks, no Curtis Mayfield. No Gordon Parks, you miss out on that whole aspect of what people define as black music during the ’70s. Much as people don’t want to admit it, because I know a lot of people think that he didn’t take enough of a stand throughout the ’60 and ’70s — but that is a stand. I was in an argument not too long ago with a guy who was saying the same thing about a musician like Miles Davis. I can’t say he took a serious stand like James Brown. But that’s what art is. Art is a stand. That’s what we’re doing out here, is making a stand. And Gordon Parks’ art makes a stand, a stand towards humanity, not towards political achievement. When you look at his art, it transcends all that.

It’s like Louis Armstrong. You’ve got more people around the world trying to imitate Louis Armstrong and singing his songs than anyone else. He’s the one singer…the most performed artist all over the place, more than Michael Jackson. Why is that? Because he’s challenging on a humanity level, not on a political front and not on a specific genre and not on an American front. Actually, the concept he really deals with… This is what we mean by the concept of jazz being democracy, is that the concept outgrows the people who create it. And Gordon Parks’ art does that. It outgrows him. So a lot of times I know why he doesn’t want to explain any of the shit he’s doing, because it’s bigger than him.

TP: Right. I understand. He channels it.

MAYFIELD: Yeah. And it’s the same thing with me… You know, people ask me, “How did you write all this?” I can’t respond to that. It’s because I’m just following what’s out there.

TP: You really got a lot out of living at Wynton’s house. Sounds like it was a higher education for you.

MAYFIELD: Oh, the arguments, man. I wouldn’t argue with him. But I’d see some great debates go down.

TP: Stanley would be there?

MAYFIELD: Oh my God, the greatest debater of all time, whether he’s wrong or right. And that’s the idea. That’s why I got Stanley to do the liner notes. I said, “Well, whether he’s wrong or whether he’s right, he’s going to make some point for people to engage in a dialogue about it.” I think that’s what people miss about jazz. Jazz is about the dialogue. It’s about the process. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It’s about the process of trying to be better. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.

TP: Well, it’s great that there are still people who want to do that, because it certainly isn’t the zeitgeist in terms of the mass.

MAYFIELD: I think we live in sad times, with sad movies and sad things that take up a lot of what’s going on. And even in the jazz realm. A lot of what people call jazz, I would consider to be sad music. I can’t say I’m really impressed with a lot of artists who are around right now.

TP: Who do you like these days?

MAYFIELD: Do you want me to be honest? [LAUGHS] I like Brad Mehldau. I like his conception, because I like how he’s a master of form. He’s very specific on forms. I like Abbey Lincoln. But out of the young cats, I can’t say I’m too enthralled by a lot of the others. I like Roy Hargrove’s trumpet playing, but I’m not impressed by his records. They’re two different worlds. Because hey, when Roy walks in the room, everybody starts playing. Even me. I love Roy. That don’t mean when I pick up his records…

I think that’s part of the challenge of where we’re at right now. I take my records very seriously. I try to make records that I want to listen to, and there’s a lot of records I don’t want to listen to.

TP: What’s your current project now? Some author you’re reading a lot of? Some filmmaker…

MAYFIELD: There’s a lot of stuff. Reading list: Ralph Ellison. Faulkner. I’m actually trying to finish every Faulkner book. I’ve read about 7.

TP: You have 15 to go. Have you read the Trilogy yet?

MAYFIELD: I haven’t read the trilogy. Absalom, Absalom, The Sound And The Fury. Hemingway, the same thing. I’m trying to complete him by next year. I’m trying to complete Faulkner in two years. I’m trying to complete Ellison in the next eight months.

TP: Who do you talk to about it?

MAYFIELD: Well, I’m the director of the Institute of Jazz (?) at Dillard.

TP: So you talk to the faculty at Dillard.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah, man. The eminent scholars over there are wonderful, and I engage in conversations with them. People disagree with me a lot. And that’s fine. It’s about of the process. But for me, Ralph Ellison embodies that person I go back to as far as literature. Picasso is that person in Art — and Bearden. They’re the two people. But Picasso is really my guy. Alvin Ailey blew me away not too long ago with the new pieces that Judith Jameson is doing. In theater, you can’t ever get away from Shakespeare. I’m trying to deal with actually reading some more Shakespeare. So I’m starting with the poems and some shorter versions of the plays. There’s a lot of the stuff, because at the same time…

TP: You’re doing a lot of things. Plus trumpet is an instrument you have to practice.

MAYFIELD: Have to practice. And then we just started this jazz orchestra in New Orleans. So now I’ve got four of the guys in the trumpet section all out for blood, so I really have to practice now! Really, mostly I’m thinking of the bigger picture as far as tying all these things together and start engaging in dialogues about how these things are related.

[-30-]

* * *

Irvin Mayfield (4-19-03):
TP: One thing I wanted to address with you is the attitude with which you approach Los Hombres Calientes. There’s a certain level of showmanship and presentation involved in it. It’s a very effective live band.

MAYFIELD: I don’t really think that Los Hombres’ presentation is necessarily different from my quintet. It’s more that the music to lends itself that maybe people who are not familiar with the music might have a different outlook on it. But when I play quintet… One thing the band was saying the last time we were in New York is that we felt the audience was very stiff, and it was strange for us. Even when I play quintet, I still play some of the…

[PAUSE]

TP: You said that the last time you played in New York, the guys in the band thought the audience was stiff.

MAYFIELD: Yes. I guess in New Orleans people have jazz as part of the culture, as a cultural thing, and people react very differently to jazz. It has a different meaning to people in New Orleans than it does to people everywhere else, and sometimes we get spoiled by that.

TP: How does it have a different meaning?

MAYFIELD: Well, meaning that it’s ceremonial. Meaning that if I play the music that I was playing for the Gordon Parks suite for a bunch of kids in New Orleans who go to public schools and are from impoverished areas, they would be reacting to the music, screaming and enjoying themselves, because they’re used to reacting like that. They’re used to going to the second-lines and the funerals. They know all the traditional New Orleans jazz songs, such as “Saints” and “High Society” and “Flee As a Bird.” So it has a different meaning to them. So when I’m playing, they’re interacting with the music. It’s an interactive thing. When we leave New Orleans, it’s kind of like we’re playing for foreigners. They’re enjoying it, but they’re enjoying it by just listening and watching.

TP: That’s both bands, both ways of playing.

MAYFIELD: Well, Los Hombres is a little more successful because the music lends itself…

TP: It’s dance music.

MAYFIELD: Right, it’s very specific dance music. But the thing about Los Hombres is… Of course, you could argue that the rhythms are danceable. It’s not as interpretive as the music that I do with my quintet, of course. But Los Hombres is pretty much a jazz group. We’re just showing people that it’s okay to interact with jazz. If you’d seen some of the performances that we’ve done with the quintet where people interact, it’s not too much of a different reaction.

TP: In what way is Los Hombres Calientes a jazz band? Is it as flexible and fluid and improvisational as your quintet music? That’s pretty complex music, after all.

MAYFIELD: Well, they’re pretty much on the same level of complexity. I think the difference is that the quintet music is more interpretive. Meaning that a jazz musician, when we’re playing music, we’re not dealing with the indigenous part of it. Except when we play certain… [LAUGHS] It gets real complex. Really what’s happening is that on one level it’s more interpretive. Once you get the music, the interpretation sets in for the jazz musician, because the genre you’re playing is jazz. So there’s more flexibility in interpretation of all kinds of things. The functionality of things can change easier than they can when we’re playing Los Hombres. For instance, if Bill wants to play a certain rhythm, then Ricky has to play that same style of rhythm. Well, in the quintet, we don’t have that problem, because there’s only one drummer. Neal Caine is interpreting the bass part and Jaz is interpreting his Brazilian music that we played on the Gordon Parks record, as opposed to when Bill and Ricky play the Brazilian songs — they’re playing the specific samba rhythm.

TP: And is Edwin Livingston playing the same rhythm also? He’s interlocking with them.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. But the interesting thing that happens is that the more you understand the rules, the more you can break them. Like, if you listen to our first record, which was light years behind where we are now, you hear less interpretation. Now, when you listen to our records, we’re doing many things. We’re keeping with the vibe of what the music really is, but we interpret and take more chances and really develop the motifs more than we have been doing in the past.

TP: Do you have any particular group in Los Hombres Calientes? I’m thinking the Fort Apache Band might be an antecedent…

MAYFIELD: What we’re doing with Los Hombres has never been done before.

TP: Why? Because the rhythmic template is so broad?

MAYFIELD: It’s so broad and it’s so indigenous. The level of study we’ve done, it would take… This is a band that’s been five years of study. It would take a long time for people to really get that together. Another thing is that it’s very hard for Latin musicians to play swing and to play blues.

TP: I’m saying this for the point of argument, but I’m wondering if bands like Fort Apache Band set a template for you in conceptualizing this or if it’s a purely home-grown thing.

MAYFIELD: The difference between a band like Los Hombres and Fort Apache is that Los Hombres is a New Orleans band, and a New Orleans musician has more flexibility than any other musician from anywhere else. Meaning that a New Orleans musician… With some very rare exceptions. Jaz Sawyer is a very rare exception, but where is he living right now? New Orleans. A New Orleans musician can play the Brazilian styles and the Cuban styles and the New Orleans styles. When Horacio — El Negro — was in the band… And don’t get me wrong. With Horacio, you’re talking about the foremost influential Cuban drummer in the world today. He is the top cat, the top-number-one guy from Cuba playing the drums. But as far as the flexibility of playing funk music and New Orleans music, it was good and he did his best, but it’s not as strong as, for instance, when Ricky plays it. Because it’s very hard to get the New Orleans type of feel if you’re not in New Orleans. It’s an American approach, and it gives you a different outlook as far as jazz and how all those things relate to each other.

TP: You’re talking about the entrepot aspect of New Orleans as a Gulf City.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. One thing people have to realize is that we’re including New Orleans in there, and the reason it gets to be complicated is because New Orleans music is jazz. You have New Orleans music that gets to be less jazz, it gets to be more jazz-influenced, like the Neville Brothers or Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias and the Mardi Gras Indian type of things. But what we’ve clearly stated on our records is we’ve even shown to a certain extent that all those musics really are just a hybrid. They’re the foundation that laid the palette for what Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and all those people started to do.

TP: One record I thought was very radical when it came out was Donald Harrison’s “Indian Blues,” which came out a couple of years after the first really complete Fort Apache records. Did Donald’s return to New Orleans in the early ’90s have an impact, or the things Wynton was doing with the Septet?

MAYFIELD: What really influenced me… I think Wynton even credits me for being ahead of him, as far as him really wanting to get a good hold on the whole indigenous music of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. What really influenced me was actually that when I heard this music, I always heard the connections, even when I was a kid. And when I lived in New York, Chucho Valdez came and met Wynton, and I got to hear them play together. It worked. It made sense to me. See, Wallace Roney playing with Chucho Valdez does not mean the same thing as Wynton playing. Not to take anything… A lot of people think, being New Orleans, that we’re trying to talk shit on people…
TP: Yes, they do!

MAYFIELD: But it’s not really that, man. If you don’t live there, you just don’t know. Here’s Donald Harrison. Here’s a motherfucker who puts on a fuckin’ Indian headdress and can function… When he’s playing with them, he doesn’t sound like Donald Harrison. For instance, Wallace Roney, everything he does sounds like Wallace Roney. Donald Harrison! You can put on a fuckin’ Eddie Palmieri record, you’d be like “Who the hell is that?” “That’s Donald.” “Oh, okay.” Nicholas Payton is the same way. Here’s a guy who can play many different styles many different ways. I’ll tell you, that’s been part of the problem for many New Orleans musicians.

TP: That’s a problem.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, because the fuckin’ major markets have no idea how to expand upon that. That’s hard for them. Nicholas Payton runs into that problem all the time. What is he? A traditional New Orleans musician? That’s what he got his Grammies for. They want to lock him into what he’s doing with Doc Cheatham. And in New Orleans you have so many different indigenous types of musicians. The Mardi Gras Indians shit that Donald does and the traditional shit that Nicholas is so versed in are two completely different things. Then, if you want to start getting with the gospel element that happens in New Orleans music, that’s a whole other thing. But they all co-influence each other.

I think that’s really what we’re trying to say with Los Hombres, is that we try to exhaust these different elements of music from the Caribbean. And don’t get me wrong. This record, Volume 4, could very easily have been a New Orleans record. I didn’t exhaust anything. I gave a little snippet just to try to give people an idea that they have entertain New Orleans in a different fashion from what they have been.

TP: Los Hombres sounds like it’s going to be a perpetual work in progress so long as you and Sommers both have the energy to do the fieldwork.
MAYFIELD: One day we would like to take a band of 80 musicians on the road, where we would have three or four musicians from a country.

TP: Did you say 80?

MAYFIELD: 80.

TP: Sort of like Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations concept extrapolated…

MAYFIELD: If you really want to know, I’m really taking the bench from where Dizzy left it. I’m really taking his mark, and we’re taking it into the new millennium. No one has done that. Dizzy’s shit was groundbreaking. And he was interested in African shit. People don’t understand that the easiest place to get to Africa is Cuba. That’s Africa. People look at it as just some Spanish shit. There ain’t shit Spanish about that music except for the words. Matter of fact, really Latin…

TP: A lot of the Spanish music is African, too. North African.

MAYFIELD: The term “Latin” is a European term. When you think of Latin, you think of the Pope, you think… When you hear Horacio or Cha-Cha, or you hear these guys singing in Yoruba, and you see these guys beating on drums, I’m sorry, that’s just some African shit. You know what the whole Volume 4 of Los Hombres is about? There is no such thing called Latin music. That shit does not exist. And we’ve been trying to dispel that for a long time.

TP: Stephen Bernstein a few years ago did a record called “Diaspora Soul,” where he put Afro-Cuban rhythms on Jewish cantorial melodies, which have a North African component to them, and in his notes he was calling it a Gulf sound.

MAYFIELD: Even that kind of doesn’t work. Really what is, is the concept of the African diaspora? As it gets to certain places, it survives and mutates in different ways. When it got to Cuba, it was one thing; when it got to Haiti, it was one thing; when it got to Brazil, it was one thing. But when it got to New Orleans, a very interesting thing happened. I think in New Orleans, our music is the true representation of democracy, and the concept of music and the concept of Democracy is much greater than the men who created it. I think it’s one of those rare things. That’s how it happened. You look at the legacy and the magnitude of Louis Armstrong’s music, it was much greater than he was as a man. I think that’s the same thing with Los Hombres. It’s a concept that’s so large and so big, it’s much bigger than Bill and I. We’re trying to do the best we can to keep our arms around it and keep moving forward.

It’s very hard to define this shit in words, because the music defines it. That’s what we really try to do. We can sit up here and say there’s no such thing as Latin music and get controversial, which we haven’t really taken that stand in the press yet, because we take it with the records. And if people check out the record, it is what it is. Here are the Mardi Gras Indians. They have their own specific rhythms, their own specific things, and all this music is ceremonial.

TP: In New Orleans, it sounds like you have, for the most part, a ceremonial context in which to perform the music.

MAYFIELD: That’s what I mean is the difference between when we play in New Orleans as opposed to when we play in New York. Because of the ceremonial aspects, because it has to do with celebration of life and different things, when we play in different places it doesn’t really transfer to people that same exact way as far as how they react to it. It does transfer to them as far as how they feel, obviously. That’s why I feel that New Orleans musicians have always been at the top tier of the people who tour and represent the music. Even when you talk about the legacy of Miles Davis or the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie, it still doesn’t have the same magnitude as the legacy of Louis Armstrong because his music was so celebratory. It has to do with that same thing that happened when Dizzy started working with Chano Pozo. You know, they play rhumba at ceremonial parties. It’s a religious thing!
TP: It’s pretty secular stuff, like courtship rituals for dock-workers.

MAYFIELD: Well, the same thing happened with jazz. All the jazz songs before 1900 were religious songs. That’s point-blank, and people don’t really understand it. Without the New Orleans funeral, there would be no jazz. Field hollers come from the gospel, from the spirituals.

TP: It always seemed to me that the reason why African music traveled so well is that rhythm and timbre were language, and it couldn’t be quenched. That’s how I read Wynton’s meaning by “black codes from the underground,” and it’s why rhythmic innovation is so key in jazz, because that language is coming through in different iterations, no matter how conscious the person who’s producing those develops is of the context. There’s still that metaphorical quality.

MAYFIELD: I agree with you 100%. You are right on the concept. The amazing thing about Los Hombres is that the band gives you that ceremonial experience.

TP: In terms of your identity as a trumpet player, how does it fit into the ceremonial context? What you’re talking about is something that’s collective. But then there’s the tonal personality that someone associates with your name, which is going to happen more and more, because I’d be 95% sure that by the time you’re 40 you’re going to have a certain impact on the way this music is going. So where does your individuality fit into this? In America, imperatives of individualism stand for more than they do in Cuba or in Trinidad or in Haiti.

MAYFIELD: The first thing is that I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and that’s a very individualistic thing. That means that my approach and how I play is very specific. I play the New Orleans approach. I play the New Orleans way. I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs with the suspenders and the white hats — and I follow that legacy. The second thing is that I challenge the concept of what Wynton puts out there by redefining the concept of what jazz is and what it can be.
TP: What is the concept and how are you challenging it?

MAYFIELD: Meaning the concept of the records he’s put out versus the type of records that I’ve put out.

TP: Is that what Albert Murray means by “counterstatement”?

MAYFIELD: Exactly. That’s that important thing of a dialogue. I think a lot of times people get so pissed off with what people say, that they don’t understand that the dialogue is what’s so important. It’s not who’s wrong or right. A lot of times it gets into who’s wrong or right. Can we just get some interesting dialogue! Maybe I am wrong! Maybe I am right. Can we have a dialogue about it. I think that’s what the Los Hombres records are about versus my own solo records. That’s why I think it’s important to bring out these two records — Gordon Parks and Los Hombres — close to one another. It’s two very different concepts dealing with two very big-ass issues that are not being addressed right now. In my generation now, if you had to ask Joshua Redman what visual artist of his age group is his counterpart right now, he couldn’t tell you.

TP: You asked him?

MAYFIELD: Yeah.

TP: And he couldn’t tell you?

MAYFIELD: No. Or if you ask Nicholas Payton. Not only couldn’t tell me, but he don’t really give a damn.

TP: Joshua would give a damn, but Nicholas wouldn’t.

MAYFIELD: That’s Nicholas’ personality. And that’s a jazz musician. That’s a guy who’s open to this shit. Don’t even ask the visual artist! That’s the type of collaboration that used to go on in the 1960s. You had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. And a lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s part of my generation and reflective of what we’re doing in American culture right now.

TP: Do you think that music governed by the aesthetic you bring to it can penetrate the corporate media? Do you see yourself having a consequential impact on the global aesthetic?

MAYFIELD: It does impact. I go all over the country, all over the world, and people have my records. I’m not selling millions of records, but people understand the concept of what we’re doing, and every time we play more and more people are interested. What people don’t really notice is the true impact that bands have. When we play New York or Boston and young guys come out, and we go to the universities or colleges or high schools, and they see a band like my quintet where they hear Jaz, this young guy playing all that shit he’s playing, and being serious and really playing his style… Jaz is a very conceptual player. In my opinion, he is probably the top drummer in country now for the approach he’s playing, really expanding upon what Max Roach and Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes and those guys did — not playing like them, doing something different.

TP: Talking swing drums.

MAYFIELD: Exactly! You got it. When they see a band like Los Hombres, here you’ve got those young guys like Leon Brown and Devon and Stephen Walker. Here are New Orleans musicians, these young guys, and they’re supposed to be the traditionalists! They’re supposed to be this thing that everybody’s so afraid that Wynton has instilled in everyone, and here these guys are playing shit from Woody Shaw on, trying to expand what they’re dealing with constantly all the time, and at the same time shakin’ their ass and partying and having a good time. That’s Los Hombres. That’s the type of concept I don’t just have with Los Hombres. Even though Los Hombres is very specific as far as the type of project we’re doing, we know we’re going to travel and bring all these cultures in, I’m still the same guy with both groups. It’s just that I’m using different resources with each of them. That’s really the difference. The resource on my record with Gordon Parks was, “Shit, I got Gordon Parks, so I can do all kinds of shit with him.” There my musicians are interpretive guys. When I’m in Los Hombres, I’ve got Bill. I can do a different thing. I’ve got more people.

TP: It’s holistic for you.

MAYFIELD: It is. It’s all part of that one thing.

[-30-]

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For Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th Birthday, a Blindfold Test From 2007 and a Jazziz Article

In recognition of Hammond B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th birthday today, I’ve posted three separate pieces I’ve done with him over the years — a 2007 Blindfold Test for Downbeat, a 2006 profile for Jazziz, and a publicity bio for his 1999 concept album Goodfellas, on Concord.

 

Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

1. Sam Yahel, “Saba” (from TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Origin, 2007) (Yahel, Hammond B3; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s nice. That’s got a Larry Young influence. I’m trying to figure out who the horn player is. This is not typical organ stuff, which is nice. Some guys trying to do something different. Once they get into the thing, I might be able to know who it is. There’s a lot of arranging here. It’s a nice sound on the organ. It’s a nice recording. It’s definitely something more modern. It kind of reminds me of Larry Goldings. But is it Sam Yahel? They’re very similar. I knew it was one of those guys. Sounds great. I don’t know who the horn player is. That’s not Josh Redman. Is it Josh? I kind of thought so. But he can play so many ways. Sounded like his sound, though. I love it, man. Who wrote that? Sam did? I like it. It’s a nice piece. It’s difficult. What are they, in 7? It’s all over the place. Brian Blade is on drums. That’s right, this is a group that was working. I don’t have this record, though. Oh, it’s brand-new? It’s nice to hear people doing some different things with the organ like that. It sounds a little like it’s difficult just for the sake of being difficult. But there’s still a great feeling there. I mean, they can do it, so why not? I like Sam. He’s got a lot of facility and a lot of harmony. He reminds me of Larry, but Sam to me has more fire than Larry does. He gets a little funkier sometimes. But I love Larry, too. Sounds great. I love Brian Blade, of course. We’ve never played together, though; that’s one guy I haven’t played with, but he’s a great drummer. 4 stars.

2. Mike LeDonne, “At Long Last Love” (from LIVE AT SMOKE, NYC, Savant, 2006), (LeDonne, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Cole Porter, composer)

This is the way of recording the organ that… Everybody is really trying to get that old Rudy van Gelder Blue Note sound, because that’s the staple. “At Long Last Love,” that’s the tune. Frank Sinatra, man. “That’s what I’m feelin’, for real…” Yeah! Look out. Is this something new also? Recent? This is traditional here. Good organ music here. Nice guitar. The guitar player sounds NICE. Got a little Grant Green in there. I like when the organ player is playing in that low register. It’s a nice, warm, bell-like sound with the percussion. Ah, Lonnie Smith. No? I’ve got to listen a little more. He’s building it like Lonnie. Tony Monaco? No? Oh. That’s Mike LeDonne. I love Mike, man. See, you’ve got to listen. When somebody’s building, it could sound like a lot of different things, but then there’s signature things, and there it is. He’s got a lot of harmony, and he plays the organ in a swinging tradition. Is that at Smoke? That sounds great. So that’s Pete on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. I don’t have this record, and I never heard it, but I’ve heard about it. I know about… [BREAK] Whoo! Ha! He’s got a lot like Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith… A lot of similar influences that I have. I guess that we all have. That’s nice. This always feels good. The drummer’s playing what they used to call a conga beat. Hey, man, 4 stars. He’s building and building and building. I’m going to have to get that. Again, really nice recording, and that’s live. That organ isn’t easy to play in there. That B3 organ at Smoke is a tough organ. He plays it all the time, though, so he’s probably really used to it. It’s got a great sound, though, and the way… See, he’s building up to the big full organ… Now, you get the Leslie spinning on tremolo. Everything’s out. All the stops. Smoke was interesting. When I first played there, they took a direct signal out of the organ, straight into the system, as well as miking the Leslie, and that’s how Rudy Van Gelder… That was his big secret, how he recorded, that nobody could figure out all those years—then finally we did. That’s how we play live now, too. Because you get that nice fatness straight out of the organ for the bottom end and all that. That style there comes from Wild Bill Davis—the shout. Because it’s like a big ball when it gets into the shout chorus. This system does sound… Man!

3. Gary Versace, “Gallop’s Gallop”(from Loren Stillman, THE BROTHERS’ BREAKFAST, Steeplechase, 2006) (Versace, Hammond B-3; Stillman, alto saxophone; John Abercrombie, guitar; Jeff Hirschfield, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This has got some nice humor in it. Everybody you’ve played so far uses the Jimmy Smith setting. That’s just a staple. I mean, you’ve got to play with your own style, but as far as how you set the organ, he really set the ground rule. Whoever it is has got some imagination. Yeah! Is this somebody new? [It depends on what you mean…] I don’t know who that is. I liked it, though. The approach is similar to where I’m at, what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking different. But I like that. When you say the name, I’ll probably know who it is. I’m not sure, though. I like the saxophone player, but I don’t know. [How do you mean similar to what you’re doing.] Harmonically, going outside the vocabulary with a different language a little bit. He’s got nice technique, too. Who wrote the tune? Monk? I figured it was someone like that. “Gallop’s Gallop” is a rare tune. I’m going to learn this. Well, the bass line isn’t swinging as hard as I would like. But I don’t know if he wants to do that. It might be a kind of implied thing. [polyphonic section] Wow. Definitely a piano player first, whoever it is playing. I can’t recognize anybody. You got me! 4 stars. This tune is a bitch.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Note Bleu” (from THE DROPPER, Blue Note, 1999 (John Medeski, Hammond B3; Marc Ribot, guitar; Chris Wood, electric bass; Billy Martin, drums)

This sound is a very over-driven sound. That’s what we call that, when you push the Leslie and get that little crunch in the sound. Which is sometimes a cool little effect. There’s a bass player on this one. A minor blues. This guy really likes a dirty sound on the organ. It’s a little too much for me. Too much overdrive—distortion. It’s a little jerky style for me. It’s okay, though. It’s still good. I don’t like all that overdrive, though; it’s just too much. Especially for something like… I mean, if you want to play some high energy rock or something, that’s the sound for that. 3 stars. I don’t know who that is. Medeski, Martin & Wood? That makes sense. Too much distortion, John. That’s his sound, though. But for something a little mellower like that… But he still has the organ set the same way we all do, except he uses a little bit…on the vibrato part, the chorus, he’s got a little bit less depth on it. That’s for the organ geeks out there.

5. Count Basie-Oscar Peterson, “Memories of You” (from NIGHT RIDER, Pablo, 1978) (Basie, organ; Peterson, piano; John Heard, bass; Louis Bellson, drums)

Now, I like this. This is happening. This is old…I think. Is this from the ‘80s? Earlier? I can tell just by the sound. With the piano in there… This is a very old-school style. He’s got the Leslie on tremolo, fast speed. Not as percussive a sound. It’s very pretty. “Memories of You.” Is that Milt Buckner? It’s the older style like that. Is that Ron Carter on bass? Somebody influenced by him, though. That style. It’s definitely an older player. Is the pianist Oscar Peterson? You can tell that. Is it the Count on the organ. Man, I’ve got to get this. I’ve heard about it. That’s Oscar and Count. Is it Bobby Durham on drums. [No, Louis Bellson] And Ray Brown. [John Heard] I have the two-piano things they did, but Count’s playing organ here. I knew it was Oscar, and I knew the organ player was somebody from back in the day. Milt Buckner played with Lionel Hampton, and he kind of played like Count. 5 stars, man. That’s easy. The way he sets the Leslie is very old-school. See, when the Leslie speakers first came out, they weren’t supposed to be turned on and off. They just were on to add tremolo to the organ, to add vibrato to the organ. Then really, the jazz people and the pop people started to think, ‘If we could turn this in and out, it would be very dramatic.” That’s how that started.

6. Larry Goldings, “Sound Off” (from Michael Brecker, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, Impulse, 1999) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Goldings, Hammond B3; Pat Metheny, guitar; Jeff Watts, drums)

Pat Metheny on guitar. That sound is unmistakable. Michael Brecker. Great. Whoo! On the drums, is that Jeff Watts? Oh, and Larry Goldings. I don’t have this record. But everybody on there is so unmistakable, such a strong style. Pat Metheny, Michael, Tain… Tain is killin’, man! The tune has a lot of rhythm in it, there’s a lot of hits, and it’s a little brisk, too. It’s also modal; not a lot of changes in it. A minor kind of thing. Who wrote this? I thought it was Larry. I could tell. It’s his harmonic approach to stuff. Larry’s got a nice bassline. He doesn’t play much foot, though. But he doesn’t like to play it. He don’t want to play it. Now, he can play. I love Larry. He swings. 5 stars. He hasn’t soloed yet, but it’s gonna be good. I want to hear it. I love Jeff Watts. A lot of fire. I’ve played with him quite a bit. I regret that I never played with Michael. We talked about it. We were going to record a record at one time. I often thought about recording two organs with Larry. We’re so different. But same, too, in a lot of ways. He plays perfect, man. Every note is the right note. He’s got wonderful feeling. He’s influenced a lot by Larry Young. Fantastic player. Smooth. Pat’s compin’ nice behind him. I’d like to play with Pat. I’ve never played with Pat either. I’d like to just get in there and play with that whole band. Isn’t Elvin on this record, too. I’m going to have to go out and get this. It’s interesting for Pat Metheny, too, because he doesn’t have his delay and all that shit out. It’s just guitar. And Pat can play his ass off. 5 stars there, man, for sure. A bunch of bad motherfuckers.

7. Melvin Rhyne, “Light Life Love” (from TO CANNONBALL WITH LOVE, King, 1992) (Rhyne, Hammond B3; Carl Allen, drums)

I don’t recognize the tune. I think I might know who the organ player is, but I’m going to listen a little more. It’s a very organic sounding recording. See, there’s a touch of the overdrive I was talking about before, but it’s nice. [That little burry thing?] Yeah. It’s a growl, kind of. It’s an older player, I think. Is this just a duet thing? I don’t hear a guitar comping, but he could be laying out for now. Is it Mel Rhyne? I know his style. When he played with Wes, he had a different sound, and later on, he used different settings. I like it better. But I know his style. Very melodic. Played around the changes. Very bebop, old-school—wonderful style of playing. Who’s on drums? Carl Allen? Ah, now he’s playing the foot with the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right, which is really the legitimate style of organ playing. That’s great. Mel Rhyne, man. 5 stars. Is this a ballad he wrote? Very nice. Wow, I don’t know this record. I don’t know any of these! I mean, I heard of some of the ones you played, but I definitely don’t know this one. It’s happening.

8. Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense” (from David Murray, SHAKILL’S II, DIW, 1991) (Pullen, organ, composer; Murray, tenor saxophone; Bill White, guitar; J.T. Lewis, drums)

Nice. They’re playing something in 5 here. He got a different kind of sound on the organ there! These guys sound a little uptight. They don’t sound relaxed. It’s not swinging. It’s not 4/4, it’s 5/4, but you’ve still got to groove. They’re rushing a little bit. You gotta relax! It’s obvious they know what they’re doing. Who’s the tenor player? David Murray. He knows what he’s doing. But now that I know who he is, he’s going for a more edgy thing. He can play in, but he played more out. He had like a nice combination. He’s playing an organ setting, man. That’s pretty cool. This must be from a while ago. I have a pretty good idea who the organ player is. It sounds like Don Pullen. I have a video of him playing with John Scofield, so that’s how I know. Don was an organ player, man. A piano player, but he knew what he was doing with that organ, too. These are the Out guys playing In. But it’s edgy, man. It’s rushing. It’s not real relaxed. But they didn’t play that way that often. But they knew how to play inside. At one time, probably that’s what they did. For many years, most of David Murray’s stuff was way out. So this is cool. But that’s why I’m hearing that little edgy thing. I’ve still gotta give it 4 stars. I have a lot of respect for these guys, the tremendous body of work and things they’ve done. But I stand by it’s not relaxed-sounding. He’s got some weird sounds on the organ, too. He’s got a weird vibrato, like UHHUUHHHUUHHH… I use that sometimes for an effect. But he’s playing the organ the way you play it, got the left-hand bass going and… There are his Pullenisms. There’s still Jimmy Smith in that. There’s still a Jimmy Smith influence in the style. A lot of people don’t know that Jimmy could be out as could be! He had a very avant-garde approach. If you knew him and heard him play on his own… But a lot of the things Pullen is playing here, you know he definitely dug Jimmy Smith. I mean, I don’t think he could play the organ without… Anybody who says anything different than that, they’re lying.

9. Pete Levin, “Uptown” (from DEACON BLUES, Motema, 2007) (Levin, Hammond B3, composer; Joe Beck, elec. guitar; Danny Gottlieb, drums)

It’s amazing. There really are a lot of organ players. You think there’s not that many, but… I’ve got to figure out who this is. Too much melody, man, for too long! It’s not interesting enough to be that long. I mean, you get into the soloing… All right, here we go. The guitar player went into Wes Montgomery right away—the octaves. A lot of Wes Montgomery influence here, which is great. The organ player is playing too much behind the guitar player. The guitar player is playing block chords. You’ve really got to play minimal, almost no chords, just bassline, and leave it open for the guitar when he’s playing that fat. Otherwise, it gets too busy-sounding. He shouldn’t be playing any chords there—in my opinion. It’s a little corny-sounding. It’s not real greasy. Even if you play out or avant-garde or harmonic, there’s got to be a certain amount of grease in there, funkiness and… This is very choppy. I don’t know who it is. Now, the guitar player was really into Wes. But the organ is real stiff-sounding. It’s not necessarily wrong. But it doesn’t move me. 2 stars. [AFTER] He’s probably not an organ player. Right? I like Joe Beck. Joe sounded like Wes there, man. I did a record with Joe, one of those Japanese releases. It was all songs named after ladies.

10. Trudy Pitts, “Just Friends” (from Pat Martino, EL HOMBRE, Prestige, 1967) (Pitts, organ, Martino, electric guitar; Mitch Fine, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, “Just Friends.” I love Trudy. I grew up… Trudy was like a musical mother, man. I know Trudy and Bill Carney, her husband, Mister C, since I was 8 years old. In fact, we just did a concert together… I didn’t have to hear too much of the playing. I just knew what it was right away. [You probably know every note on the solo.] Oh, yeah. Pat plays his ass off on here. His choice of drummer on here… I asked him years later. I said, “That drummer on there wasn’t really up to par, Pat.” He said, “Yeah, but the guy was a sweetheart, and I really liked him, and he was my friend, and he was excited to do the date.” But Trudy sounds great on here, so does Pat. I could do without the bongos. But this is 5 stars easy. I haven’t heard it in years, but this is one of those things you just know. This solo Pat takes here influenced generations of guitar players. For me, this is Pat’s best playing. The feeling he played with, and he was bluesy, and he swung hard, and he listened more. I love this period of Pat. And Trudy is playing so great here. Trudy is underrated. She never got the due she should have. That’s Orrin Evans’ godmother. I’d love to have heard this with a great drummer, though. Pat basically played like Wes Montgomery, but with a pick, and a little more percussive and aggressive attack. But this is definitely out of Wes—totally. Grant Green. He’s probably 19 or 20 there. Swinging like crazy. They did a record, Bar Wars, a Willis Jackson record. That’s some shit there. That’s Charlie Earland and Idris. Charlie Earland was very limited, man, but he could swing like crazy. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you’d rather hear.

11. Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Invitation” (from Ximo Tebar, GOES BLUE, Omix/Sunnyside, 1998/2005) (Smith, Hammond B3 organ; Tebar, elec. guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums)

Well, there’s no question of the drummer. That’s Idris. I’ve played with him a lot. He just swings his ass off. That’s Ximo Tibar and that’s Lonnie Smith. I’ve played with Ximo and Idris. Boy, listen to Idris. Ximo is directly out of George Benson, Pat Martino…and that’s the Doc. Let it play, though. Ximo’s my man. I love Ximo. Now he lives here. But being Spanish, at this time… I think they made this record before the record we made. He did a lot of funny things sometimes, quotes that… We used to tell him, Idris and I, “Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.” Or “If you go to New York and you play that, they’re going to laugh at you.” He wasn’t aware of certain things. We used to have a lot of fun. One night he said, “I can’t play this. I can’t play that. I can’t play… What am I going to play?” We said, “We’re helping you, man, filter all this shit out so people don’t laugh at you.” He’s such a great player, but he would put little corny things in there. Now he’s even better. Is Lou Donaldson on this record, too? [3 tracks] Of course, this is “Invitation,” a standard. Now, there’s the Doc. I love Doc. Lonnie Smith plays better now than he ever did. In the ‘60s, when he was with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, he was just learning how to play the organ. But he had such a great FEELING that he could pull off… But now…oh yeah, he plays his ass off. 5 stars. Idris and Lonnie, man! Plus Ximo. Lonnie’s got some showbiz in him, too. A lot of showbiz. Lonnie’s from Buffalo, N.Y., and there was a guy in Buffalo named Joe Madison that he learned pretty much everything from, and he does sound a lot like him. My family, except for me, is from Niagara Falls. My Dad kind of learned from the same cat. So Lonnie’s and my father’s groove always reminded me of each other, and then I figured out why. Idris is so lyrical, man. He plays that Second Line and funky stuff just unbelievable. Killing, man. I love that. Lonnie’s playing that full organ sound.

12. Jeff Palmer, “A Happy Trail” (from SHADES OF THE PINE, Reservoir, 1994) (Palmer, Hammond B3; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, elec. guitar; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums)

One thing I know right away, it was recorded at Rudy van Gelder’s. I know that sound. That’s fast, man! Blues in B-flat. Is that Marvin Smitty Smith on drums? Who the heck is this, man? Whoa! John Abercrombie? That’s Jeff Palmer. I’m not aware of anything he’s really recorded. [He hasn’t recorded much since this record.] I have a record he did years ago by himself. It was a solo organ record. I think Marvin Smitty Smith and John Abercrombie played together some. And John did another record with Jeff, and maybe Adam Nussbaum. [He did a few records with Jeff. One with Rashied Ali, one with Victor Lewis.] I want to play with Rashied Ali. Let’s see if I know who the horn player is. Is that Bob Berg? No. Who is it? Oh, is that Bill Pierce? Jeff is a nice player, man. I think underrated. It’s a shame more people didn’t talk about him and he didn’t have more recordings. I like Jeff. 4 stars. He likes to play tempos, man. A man after my own heart. Great, swinging player. He’s got a nice imagination. Doesn’t play the norm. He’s stretching it out nice. He’s got a lot of chops, man. He can play. He isn’t swinging real, real hard, but it’s still happening. I played with John Abercrombie once, and I liked the way he accompanied. He comped real nice.

13. Larry Young, “Luny Tune” (from Grant Green, TALKIN’ ABOUT, Blue Note, 1965/1999) (Young, organ; Green, guitar; Elvin Jones, drums)

This is the shit, man. “Luny Tune.” Larry Young, Elvin Jones and Grant Green. What can I say, man. Larry was influenced by Jimmy Smith, but he took it into a little different vibe, with the influence… When McCoy started playing with Trane, and playing fourths and things like that, that influenced Larry. Grant Green just swings so damn hard. And Elvin… How can you go wrong here? This we’re going to have to give 10,000 stars. This is some of Larry’s best playing on record. Is this Talkin’ About J.C.? I covered this tune on a date for the producer Milan Simich, with Lenny White, Kenny Garrett, and a guitar player, Tony…an Italian name. We did it. It was cool, but nothing’s going to be like this. There’s a warmth and feeling to this. Elvin played so great on here. Just a big huge, rolling sound. That’s such a big pad to play over. You never heard a Rhythm change swing so hard, man. That is really, really swinging! And Elvin’s just stomping that sock cymbal, man—hi-hat as they call it now.

[END OF SESSION]

* * * *

Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

It’s noon on the last Saturday of June. Joey Francesco is sitting on a couch in the front section of his bus—a fully outfitted unit in which he sleeps, cooks, showers, and hauls his Hammond B-3—as it ambles along the Delaware River into South Philadelphia.

“I love the B-3,” muses DeFrancesco, who, above his bare feet, is dressed comfortably in a T-shirt and pajama trousers. “They have a certain smell with the motors and the oils and the wood—especially if it was in a smoky club for years. It’s organic, like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. All the sounds and power you can get—very brash or obtrusive, and at the same time mellow and warm, just like a person. It’s a moving, human sound if it’s played right. And it’s the most spiritual of instruments, which is why it’s used in church. I was born to play it. There’s nothing on organ that I can’t do, and a lot of stuff that most guys that play it can’t do.”

Asked precisely what that “stuff” is, DeFrancesco elaborates. “Maybe the way I can play a tempo and the bass line never moves. Then my energy level and the way I never play anything that’s not swinging. I feel so at home behind that instrument. It’s an extension of me. I own it. It doesn’t own me.”

DeFrancesco, who titles himself “The World’s Greatest Jazz Organist,” now owns a dozen or so Hammonds, including a portable 1958 B-3 that Jimmy Smith used on the road for most of his life. Smith gave it to him, along with a baby grand and Yamaha upright piano, not long before he died in 2005, symbolically transferring to his protégé the keys to the organ kingdom.

Originally a pianist out of Norristown, a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, Smith singlehandedly turned the organ trio into a jazz genre with several dozen LPs for Blue Note and Verve between 1956 and 1966. Onto the aggressive, extroverted sound of the popular Wild Bill Davis, who played big, stomping block chords and percussive left hand bass figures, Smith extrapolated the virtuosic single-note approach of Bud Powell, with whom he played when Powell lived in Philadelphia in 1954. That year Smith formed a trio with John Coltrane, and became the first organist to separate the bass and horn functions, conjuring modern basslines to support harmonically sophisticated solos that he executed with impeccable technique and unending groove.

Smith was the right voice for the time. “In the ’50s and ’60s,” DeFrancesco says, “people who owned lounges and beer gardens realized it was cheaper to have someone carry in their own organ than to own a piano. Organ and drums, you have a gig. Add a guitar or saxophone, you have a bigger gig. So every club around Philly had an organ. It was big in the blue-collar world, because they played this very soulful, bluesy, spiritual stuff that moved people when they needed it. It was the same thing they heard in church—that rocking, grooving sound.”

That sound was out of fashion in 1989, when DeFrancesco, 18 and fresh from a year playing keyboards with Miles Davis’ “Amandla” band, signed with Columbia and released the first of five organcentric sessions with the label. Wynton Marsalis, along with various editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, had brought hardcore ’60s jazz back into the consciousness of the post-Baby Boom generation, but as in the years before 1956, the organ was perceived as a poor relation. In the wake of DeFrancesco’s success, such ’60s soul-jazz icons as Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, John Patton, and Shirley Scott—all of whom were recording for small labels and gigging in various hotels and inner-city lounges—found new audiences.

“I was kind of the savior for the instrument,” DeFrancesco says without affectation. “I say that humbly and with no ego—it just happened. I might have played terrible, but it made everybody interested again. My first record sparked an interest. I’d worked with Miles, and things were rollin’ nice. People who’d forgotten about organ said, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing.’ People who still loved it were happy it was happening again, and people who’d never paid attention or younger ones who thought it was brand new wanted to check it out. There was a demand for that sound again. It needed a new face, and I was young and white. As Jack McDuff said, white people never had a white organ player to cheer for.”

DeFrancesco was always much more than a Great White Hope. He started playing at 4, inspired by his father, a gigging Philadelphia B-3 organist known as “Papa John,” who in 1978 took the prodigy to hear—and sit in with—Smith at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. At 10, DeFrancesco bought his first B-3, a used model, for $900. Before puberty, he had played weekend jobs around Philly with the likes of Hank Mobley, Bootsie Barnes, and Philly Joe Jones. How deeply he assimilated their work is apparent on his latest release, [i]Organic Vibes[i] [Concord], titled for the presence of Bobby Hutcherson and also notable for two guest shots by veteran tenor sax virtuoso George Coleman. Playing with authoritative, old master relaxation, eschewing tricks, licks, and long-held notes, DeFrancesco guides the icons through a broad range of genres—Coltranecentric postbop, on-the-one bebop, testifying ballads, travel-the-spaceways funk, pork-chops-and-pasta soul.

The rhetoric of organ marketing rankles DeFrancesco. “Jimmy [Smith] was as sophisticated harmonically as he was soulful,” he says, “but everybody latched onto [i]Back at the Chicken Shack[i]. Of course, Jimmy had a lot to do with that, because he latched onto those hits and had the same set for almost 40 years. I get that, too. Every ad, every marquee, every poster says, ‘greasy, soulful, gutbucket.’ Now, I love the blues. But I’ve played with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. What about when I play Coltrane tunes? His influence is one reason why I play a lot of notes sometimes. My guitar player’s role is the piano in a quartet. Trane would play a tune’s head, then McCoy built for a while, and Trane entered when the fire was stoked and took off from there. The organ is nice for that.”

But DeFrancesco has few other complaints. “I’ve always pretty much stuck to my guns and done what I wanted to do,” he says. “For some reason, people like it. I played recently in Dayton, Ohio. There was a nice middle-aged to older black crowd who wanted the hits and some white college kids who were calling out all the Wayne Shorter stuff. I catered to them both. As long as everything comes from your heart, you’re going to be okay.”

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

In production from 1955 to 1975, the tone wheel-based, analog Hammond B-3 organ weighed 425 pounds and was a sonic universe unto itself. It had two 61-note keyboards (manuals), and players could incorporate various effects—percussion, chorus and vibrato, adjustable attack and decay. Each keyboard had 9 preset keys and two sets of stops (drawbars), representing the harmonic wave patterns of an orchestral array of instruments. Add to that a two-octave set of foot pedals with two pedal drawbars built into the console, an expression pedal built into the base, and massive Leslie speakers with a pair of rotating treble horns at the top of the cabinet, a pair of rotating horns at the bottom, and a bass woofer that enhance the organ’s vibrato.

“The very early ones sounded good, but the sound we love so much, the way Jimmy Smith sounded when he started recording for Verve, is from the models after 1958,” says Joey DeFrancesco. “They made little refinements to the technology that no one really knew about. But it became too expensive to make them—all handmade, a lot of parts, a lot of screws.”

In 1977, Hammond launched a transistor-based model called the B-3000. “It wasn’t too successful,” DeFrancesco says. “Then they attempted one called the Super-B, which was a nightmare, with all kinds of problems—people still weren’t happy.” In 1988, Suzuki Instrument Corporation bought the name and, as DeFrancesco puts it, “got serious about rejuvenating the legend.” In 1993 they introduced a line of digital, MIDI-adaptable organs, and as the decade progressed, with help from DeFrancesco, continued to work on sampling techniques to tweak the nuances, an effort that culminated in 2002 with the “New B3,” which uses a digital tone generator.

“They’ve come a long way,” DeFrancesco says, of Suzuki’s exertions to replicate the B3’s nuances digitally. “ Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell the old and the new apart.”

While every electromechanical B3 was idiosyncratic, like a piano, the digital iterations are consistent. “That’s good, because I know what each one will sound like,” says DeFrancesco. “On the old model, everybody had their own sound. But these new ones represent the ideal sound that we all love.

“To bend a note before, you’d shut the motor on and off, like Groove Holmes used to do, but now you can actually hold a note—there are pitch bend wheels which weren’t on the original. With MIDI, I can put strings on my lower manual, play the organ on the top, and put an upright bass on the foot. I can switch from organ to piano trio with my own upright bass. Another band.”

Bio for Goodfellas, 1999
“The whole concept of Goodfellas,” organist Joey DeFrancesco comments, “was three Italian guys playing music that we grew up listening to. We all in common love Mafia movies and Italian-oriented films. All the tunes are hand-picked to associate being young as an Italian, growing up with all Italians around, the music that we listened to and played — living the Italian life. The whole thing — the food, the music, and a lotta love.”

Joined by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and crisp swing-to-bop drummer Joe Ascione, the 28-year-old South Philadelphia native puts forth a varied paean to the Italian-American experience with musicality and brio, displaying his characteristic blend of jawdropping chops, attention to nuance, and high comfort zone for playing many styles and colors of music with a singular idiomatic voice. “I’ve always been a chameleon with everything I do,” he remarks. “If I’m talking to somebody with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I don’t even do it consciously. And it rubs off in my music. I can get pretty much into any bag with anybody.”

It’s as though DeFrancesco was born to play the organ. His father, “Papa John” DeFrancesco has gigged steadily on the Hammond B-3 around Philadelphia and its immediate environs since the ’60s. “I started playing when I was 4,” he recalls. “I could just play. I was already hearing Jimmy Smith and stuff like that around the house, then one time my Dad brought the organ home from the gig, and when I heard that sound I really got into it. He guided me in the right direction, the dos and the donts, but he was never very forceful about it.” His father began taking the prodigy to clubs at 7 or 8, and he began playing for money on weekend gigs at 10 years old. By high school DeFrancesco was working steadily around Philadelphia, receiving first-hand instruction from the top-shelf organists who populate and come through the City of Brotherly Love, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and numerous others. During those years his trio was named “Best High School Combo” at MusicFest USA, a student competition; he was also the first winner of the Jazz Society of Philadelphia’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship.

“I went five years to music school,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay attention, never learned how to read a note. I love to play and I love to listen, and pretty much whatever I hear I can play pretty quick. I’ve been influenced by everything — Miles, Coltrane, piano players like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal. Whatever music is prevalent in my life at the time comes out in my approach. If I’m listening to a lot of horn, I’ll play horn-like, single-note lines; if I’m listening to a lot of piano, I’ll play pianistically. Ray Brown and Ron Carter influenced my bass lines, but I don’t even have to think about them. They’re like another brain that’s just there. I can totally concentrate on my right hand; the coordination has always been easy.

“I love Jimmy Smith; to this day he’s the king. The Blue Note records he did in the late ’50s are very innovative; he was doing things that Coltrane did five-six years later. He’s a great hardbop single-note player with impeccable technique, but blues-drenched with an amazing groove. He’s all-around great! Larry Young’s the one who put the John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner approach to the organ. He didn’t swing as hard as Jimmy Smith, but his touch was so nice.”

You could appropriate DeFrancesco’s description of Jimmy Smith to describe his style. He swings ferociously, executes spot-on single-note lines and imaginative bass lines underneath them, can dig deep into the pocket or float over the time. He’s told his story with equal comfort in a panoramic range of idioms — power postbop, on-the-one bebop, abstract reharmonizations, funk that travels the spaceways and soul jazz of the pork chops-and-pasta variety. His high-visibility career kicked off when Miles Davis asked the 17-year-old organ wunderkind to join his late ’80s band (he appears on Amandla and Live Round The World). Then he signed a contract with Columbia that resulted in five varied records from 1989 to 1994. He’s worked extensively during the ’90s with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (see After The Rain and The Free Spirits [Verve]), and been a sideman in bands led by guitarists Dave Stryker, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, Danny Gatton and Paul Bollenbeck, his band guitarist for many years. He’s been in the studio with saxophonists like Houston Person, Ron Holloway, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Eric Alexander.

Though assembled specifically for the date, the “Goodfellas” trio plays with the synchronous intuition that long-standing interaction imparts to a unit, finding fresh approaches to the classic material. “If something swings, I like it,” DeFrancesco enthuses. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s grooving. I’m more of a Miles Davis-John Coltrane approach kind of player, but the stuff on Goodfellas is more Louis Prima oriented! It’s grooving. It’s swinging. It’s supposed to be fun, but on the other hand the musicianship is impeccable. We weren’t goofing off and making fun of it.

“Frank Vignola’s sound goes way back into the Swing Era — Freddie Greene, Django Reinhardt. “He’s got a lot of soul and a very clean way of playing that makes me play more in the mode of traditional, older school jazz, like before Bebop, more like Count Basie big band style. I accompany him like I’m the whole horn section, little stabs here and there, comping. Frank brought Joe Ascione on the date; this is the first time we’ve played together. He played great, and he knows this bag very well.

“If you’re going to do an album about Italians and having influence from Mob movies, you’ve got to have the theme song from ‘The Godfather,'” DeFrancesco continues. “Am I right?” Yes, Joey. The trio addresses “Speak Softly Love” with “Jimmy Smith’s version of the Erroll Garner approach; the tune’s probably never been played like that — Frank’s got Freddie Greene happening on it.”

“Volare” evokes images of Italian crooners like Vic Damone and…Jerry Vale. “My favorite!” DeFrancesco laughs. “Those tunes are great. See, I heard jazz all my life, mostly. But when we went over to our family’s houses on Sunday for pasta, sausage or meatballs, this was the stuff that your aunt or uncle or grandmother was playing in the background. That’s part of the tradition.” The band gooses up the tune with a heartbeat-steady up-tempo groove treatment directly out of the Louis Prima textbook.

“Fly Me To The Moon,” “All The Way,” and “Young At Heart” are direct tributes to Frank Sinatra, a huge presence in the aural soundtrack of DeFrancesco’s life. “Sinatra is like a God for Italians, especially from South Philly, where I grew up,” DeFrancesco states. “Now, they liked him more because he was Italian and had a good voice. But when you’re a musician, especially a jazz musician, and you listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane and guys like that, you start to realize how great he was. His phrasing was perfect! He sounded like an instrument. Many of the ballads Miles would play were Sinatra tunes, and Miles played them like Sinatra phrased them. He always credited Sinatra for his phrasing. I really got hip to it when I started playing with Miles. He told me, ‘You’ve got to listen to more Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Well, I do listen to him.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to listen to the way he’s singing those notes.’ He was truly a jazz singer, particularly in the early days, the ’50s and the ’60s. He took a lot from Billie Holiday, too, the way he slides, and from Dorsey with those long notes. He had that sound, and he swung like crazy. That’s why guys like Miles and Trane loved it.

“‘Fly Me To The Moon’ is the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie arrangement in trio form. It’s a great tune. We played ‘All The Way’ very sweet; I like the way it came out. We played the melody of ‘Young At Heart’ straight. It’s one of my Dad’s favorite tunes; he always used to sing it when I was a kid, and the song became one of my favorites.”

The trio swings the “O Solo Mio” aria; opera influences DeFrancesco’s shaping of melody and phrasing. “Opera is very powerful, with a lot of dynamics and emotion. It comes out in my playing. That’s why I play so wild, like such a maniac sometimes, and then I can come down and play something real sweet.”

There’s Italian vernacular (“Mala Femina”, taken as a boogaloo, and an album-closing “Tarantella”), and three originals that take titles from Mafia argot. Ascione’s “Whack ’em,” a blues based on Jimmy Smith’s arrangement of “Organ Grinder Swing,” takes inspiration from hit-man dialogue in the Martin Scorsese film that gives the album its title. “You See What I’m Sayin'” references a trademark declamation by Robert DeNiro, a DeFrancesco hero; “it’s an Uptown ‘Rhythm’ changes with a ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’ vibe on it.” The title track is a slow blues in the organ tradition, collectively developed by the trio. The trio is jazz all the way on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” also known as “Justice,” where DeFrancesco floats with fire over the angular harmonies.

Goodfellas is DeFrancesco’s debut as a leader for Concord, after a sideman appearance with guitarist (and fellow South Phillyite) Jimmy Bruno [Like That, C-4698] and a co-led two-organ date with mentor organist Brother Jack McDuff [It’s About Time, C-4705]. It’s the latest chapter for the protean young veteran with a firm grip of the jazz lingua franca; like all his records, it celebrates the music’s eternal values of communication, intelligence and swing.

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, organ

For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

* * * *

The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”

[BREAK]

The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”

[BREAK]

James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

[SIDEBAR]

In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd

For Randy Weston’s 90th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat Article

Best of birthdays to pianist-composer Randy Weston, who turns 90 today. I’ve had two opportunities to write longish profiles of him. The first occasion, in 1998, was a Downbeat cover story instigated by the release of Khepera;  the second occasion transpired last September, when I had a chance to speak with the master at the Detroit Jazz Festival and at his home in Brooklyn — I’ve appended the text below (the article appears in the Jan. 2015 issue of Downbeat.

* * * *

In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms, Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Twenty-five years later, Weston wore an indigo suit at a Paris concert with a Gnawa ensemble and bluesman Johnny Copeland, supporting his 1993 release Volcano Blues. In attendance was a young Senegalese woman named Fatoumata Mbengue, an accounting graduate who had opened a shop containing a potpourri of objets and clothing from across the African continent. She noticed Weston’s attire and 6’7″ frame, thought he looked like a God, and resolved to meet him. Three months later, Weston stopped in and made some purchases. After a few more visits, he asked that her tailor prepare bespoke clothing in his size. She complied. Soon thereafter, she invited him to her home for dinner. Weston titled his next (1995) album Saga, after the store. Six years later, they traveled to Egypt to be married in a Nubian ceremony.

“I’m not sure I saw colors, but I felt them,” Weston recalled of his Tangier experience. He sat on a sofa in the ground floor office of his house in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, where his father ran a restaurant from 1946, when he purchased the building, until the 1970s. He faced a large-screen TV, sound off, tuned to MSNBC. It was the only part of that wall and the one behind him not covered with an array of photographs, posters, prints, honoraria, and other memorabilia from Weston’s seventy years as a working musician. An image of his parents hung over a large radiator near the front window, where patrons paid up after eating his father’s soul food and Caribbean fare. Weston’s wife sat at a large desk towards the rear, where the kitchen had been, taking care of correspondence, phone calls and other business.

“Blue was also Ellington’s color,” Weston observed. “His piano was painted blue. I played on it.”

Ellington is Weston’s lodestar, and the connection is tangible—he was romantically involved for more than a decade with Ruth Ellington, who lived in her big brother’s Upper West Side apartment. While he was visiting one evening, the maestro called, and she played him Weston’s popular recording “Blue Moses,” composed in response to his Gnawa experience. Ellington dug it, brought 20 of Weston’s compositions into his publishing company, Tempo Music, and signed him to Piano Records, his short-lived label.

The impact of Ellington—and Thelonious Monk—on Weston’s orchestral approach to the 88 keys is evident any time he performs. “I heard ancient Africa in Duke and Monk, Count Basie and Nat Cole, and earlier guys like Willie the Lion Smith and Eubie Blake,” Weston said. “They approached piano from an African perspective—polyrhythm, call-and-response.” He splayed his fingers down, indicating a percussive attack. “They held their hands this way. You’re not supposed to play piano like that.” He switched to straight wrists and curved fingers. “You’re supposed to play like this.”

Weston was still a teenager when he heard Monk on 52nd Street in a combo led by Coleman Hawkins, his earliest idol. “I was looking for something on the piano anyhow,” he recalls, citing expeditions to downtown Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, then a home to a sizable Arab-American community, with Sudanese-descended bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who would later play in Monk’s ensembles. “We heard instruments from North Africa and the Middle East on which you could play between the notes. I’d try to play like that on piano, but Monk was already doing it. Monk brought mystery, a way of saying you can play beautiful music by going this way. Music became universal.”

Ellington and Monk also shaped the aesthetic that bedrocked Weston’s sizable corpus of compositions, depicting individuals, places and rituals with memorable melodies built on stark intervals and evocative timbres. “They set the foundation that you’ve got to tell the story,” Weston said. “In particular, the story about African-American life. This was before the Civil Rights movement. Serious segregation. ‘African people contribute nothing.’ Both Monk and Duke wrote about their families, which I thought of in the ’50s when I wrote ‘Little Niles’ and ‘Pam’s Waltz’ about my children, or later with ‘Portrait of Frank Edward Weston’ and ‘Portrait of Vivian’ about my parents. And both were masters of the blues, which is a simple structure, but to create, you have to give yourself to it. Whether Ellington wrote for the Queen of England, or the Eurasian Suite or Liberian Suite—whatever he did—the blues was always there.”

He paused, perhaps considering that he himself has composed 43 blues, the import of which hit home after a visit to a cotton field during a sojourn to Mississippi with his wife. “It’s one thing to see a cotton field in the movies. But when you see it in person, you say, ‘My God—how did those people survive that to produce a Randy Weston?’”

[BREAK]

Shy and awkward as a youngster because of his height, averse to full engagement with the physical demands of basketball, which he played at Boys High School, Weston immersed himself in music. He learned the fundamentals from a strict female teacher, who rapped his knuckles and said he’d amount to nothing, then began to flourish when a male teacher gave him popular songs that facilitated self-expression. By 17, he was playing local calypso dances and Greenwich Village gigs with guitarist Huey Long, who had recently left Earl Hines, and tenor saxophonist Stafford “Pazuza” Simon, a stalwart with Louis Jordan and Lucky Millinder. After completing an eventful tour of duty in the Army, where he attained the rank of staff sergeant, Weston took over his father’s first restaurant, on Sumner Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose bop-to-Stravinsky jukebox made it an attractive hang for musicians. Off-hours, he spent consequential time with high-level Brooklyn-based friends like Max Roach, who had Weston play an early composition for Charlie Parker, and George Russell, then generating such pieces as “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” for the Chano Pozo edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra.

Still, Weston did not transition to music as a full-time profession until the early ’50s, when he took employment as a breakfast chef at the Music Inn, a culture-oriented Berkshires resort where he could practice at night. Soon, Weston met the pioneering jazz historian Marshall Stearns, whose history-of-jazz lectures and colloquia, which delineated the threads that connect traditional African music to jazz, offered a university-level education on Afro-diasporic culture. This “African cat,” as Weston calls him, asked the young pianist to accompany his presentations, and eventually to deliver them, an experience that Weston continues to draw upon when addressing audiences. Through Stearns, he encountered such avatars as—among others—the Sierra Leonean choreographer-musician Asadata Dafora, whose ability to incorporate traditional African drumming and dance in Western settings influenced, among others, Katherine Dunham; the calypso singer Macbeth, who introduced Weston to the notion of swinging in 3/4 time; ethnomusicologist Willis James, who specialized in field hollers; Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Langston Hughes; and drummers Babatunde Olatunji, from Nigeria, and Candido, from Cuba.

“My father told me to try to be around the best minds you can find, no matter the subject,” Weston said. Frank Edward Weston, a Jamaica-descended Panamanian who followed—and proselytized—the Pan-African ideology of Marcus Garvey. “Dad would stop people in the street and talk about Africa. He told me, ‘You’re an African born in America.’ He had books by African-American authors about ancient Egypt, ancient Nubia—the great African civilizations. I’d read them and dream.”

Sundays, Weston joined his mother, Vivian Moore, born in Virginia, at People’s Institutional AME Church on Monroe and Stuyvesant Avenues. “When you go in the black church, you’re in Africa,” he stated. “Dad’s fire was strong; Mom’s was quiet. She was very organized. Like everyone in the neighborhood, she knew the importance of music and dance.”

Three weeks before this conversation, at the Detroit Jazz Festival, Weston gave two concerts—one with a septet edition of African Rhythms, the other in duo with Harper, supporting their 2013 recital The Roots of the Blues (Sunnyside). At the latter event, on an oppressively hot, humid, cloudless Sunday afternoon, Weston wore a tailored indigo suit and a Panama hat on the Absopure stage, a convex amphitheater in which no bare spots were apparent on the unpadded concrete benches.

On “Blues To Africa,” conceived to the image of an elephant’s polyrhythmic strut, Weston made that elephant stomp and romp with dark, stabbing left hand phrases that complemented right-hand clusters, concluding with a taste of Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine.” He opened “Hi-Fly” with extemporaneous variations and comped a rolling bassline for Harper’s solo, feeding the chords from many angles, then referencing “C Jam Blues” as the tenorist ended. He launched his own declamation with a stride chorus, foreshadowing an extended, free-associative meditation that postulated a succession of clearly articulated, authoritatively executed ideas, some in tempo, some rubato, entering atonal areas on a final exchange before summing up with a rumbling cadenza. After a brief pause to remove his hat and wipe his face, the 88-year-old began a ruminative introduction to “Berkshire Blues,” making the piano ring with a variety of attacks and absolute command of touch.

On the previous day, after rehearsing horn parts for an evening concert by Weston’s African Rhythms Septet in music director T.K. Blue’s room at the Renaissance Marriott, Harper described the challenges and pleasures of their ongoing association, first documented on Tanjah, a Liston-arranged 1973 big band session, and the following year on Carnival, a live quartet date. “I never know what Randy is going to play or how he’ll play it,” he said of the duo. “He’s creating a whole composition, even if we’re playing the head. In the middle of something, we suddenly shift into a whole different thing, not the way the larger group has played it, or that I’ve ever played it. I just have to follow. It almost would help if I could jump into his head, but I did that once and said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here!’

“I think Randy’s personal development leads the music. It’s about him feeling a certain thing. Not necessarily ‘I want to play this feeling with the music,’ but ‘I’m feeling this now, and this is what the music says.’ To me, he represents the spirit of truth in history. It’s a story about what happened to the music, what happened to the people, from all the way back to the present, depending on where he is at a particular moment in truth and in time. One moment he might be in the era of Duke Ellington, at another in the era of Thelonious Monk, or at the beginning in Africa, or in the middle of Manhattan or Bedford-Stuyvesant. He’s different than any other musician I’ve played with.”

Himself aligned with Weston since the early ’80s, T.K. Blue elaborated. “Randy never tells you what to play, but he’ll paint a picture,” he said. “He’ll say, ‘This tune is Tangier Bay; the sun is coming up,’ not ‘Play F# or C#.’ When he plays the tune, I’ll ask him to hold his hands in place, to get a sense of what he’s doing harmonically and arrange it for the band. He’s no longer thinking in technical terms. For him, it’s a sound.”

Weston concurred with T.K. Blue’s observation. “All our earlier African-American greats had their own sound,” he said. “I loved how Coleman Hawkins’ sound changed from Fletcher to Dizzy and Monk. Once Monk put his whole hand on the piano, like BRRRMMM, and I asked why he did it. He said, ‘That’s the sound I wanted.’ Eubie Blake lived near here, and I’d visit him after we met at Music Inn—he’d get a certain sound.” At listening sessions with Russell, he assimilated the sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Alban Berg. “It took me to another level,” Weston said. “What Schoenberg did—‘Pierrot Lunaire’—was interesting but kind of cold, but I fell in love with Berg’s ‘Violin Concerto,’ when I heard how he used the whole tonal scale but had more emotion, more feeling than Schoenberg. I loved Lulu and Wozzeck, too.

“But I can’t explain how my sound happened. It’s a combination of playing rhythm-and-blues and calypso dances, listening to African traditional music, falling in love when Dizzy brought in Chano Pozo. You absorb it all. People told me, ‘If you truly love your ancestors, they will feed you, they will guide you.’”

In the memoir, Weston is at pains to credit Liston with organizing his sound on recordings by ensembles of various sizes between 1957 (Little Niles) and 1998 (Khepera). They include Highlife, from 1963, inspired by Weston’s two eventful sojourns to Nigeria; Spirits of Our Ancestors, from 1991, on which Harper, Dewey Redman and Pharaoh Sanders play tenor saxophone, and Dizzy Gillespie performs “African Sunrise,” which Liston wrote for him in 1986; and Volcano Blues. “I could play her a particular melody, explain the story, say which instrument I wanted to feature, then she’d write something that sounded just like I wrote it,” he said. “She could to get inside what I wanted to do, very original, very fresh.” He expressed pleasure that Universal Records would imminently reissue their first big band collaboration, Uhuru Afrika, from 1960.

Interestingly, Weston has not researched the location of his ancestral home. “I took the easy way out,” he said. “To do a genealogy, you’ve got to check your mother’s roots, your father’s roots—the full story. I ask what preceded West Africa, what was the original civilization of the planet as we know it. I claim the whole continent as mine. Each area’s music is different, but you find a certain pulse from northern Africa all the way to the south. There are no boundaries.”

Weston’s current investigation of source origins is a program interpreting music contemporaneous to pioneering composer-bandleader James Reese Europe. “We’ll use banjo and tuba in trying to capture that period of 1910-13,” he said. “People need to understand that this is advanced music, that there’s no such thing as modern music.” Along those lines, within the next year he plans to record An African Nubian Suite, which he performed with African Rhythms at NYU’s Skirball Center in 2012. It includes a poem by the late Jayne Cortez, and narration by Wayne Chandler, author of Ancient Future: The Teachings and Prophetic Wisdom of the Seven Hermetic Laws of Ancient Egypt. One piece celebrates Ardi, as paleontologists nicknamed the 4½ million year old female hominid skeleton (Ardipithecus ramidus) unearthed in Ethiopia in 1994.

“Our story is that this lady is the oldest grandmother of the human race,” Weston said. “She walked upright, and after my little introduction, I have Howard Johnson imagine how she walked, all alone on tuba. The larger idea is: What happened when the first African picked up a tuba? What happened when the first African touched a piano? What did he do with it? Our ancestors created this music. How? We have that cultural memory in us, which we don’t realize we have. It’s an amazing story.”

So is the story of Weston’s life, as related to and organized by co-author Willard Jenkins. A French translation recently came out, and Duke University Press had just informed Weston that it would release a paperback edition of African Rhythms in January.

“It’s like reading about somebody else,” Weston said. “It signifies the power of music and where music has taken me—a miracle. All this stuff is a big surprise to me. I’m a dude from Bed-Stuy. I speak like a Westerner. I went to a Western school. I wear clothes like a Westerner. But if you only think the Western way, it’s limited.”

[—30—]

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For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the www.jazz.com Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the www.jazz.com website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

* * *

Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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