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

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


Roscoe Mitchell, DB Article, Final Draft:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  That’s right.

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

AMINA:  That’s right.

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  McKie’s.

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

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

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

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

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

What was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

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

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

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

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

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

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

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

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

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

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  We had a training program.

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

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

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

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

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

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

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

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

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

I interrupted you.  Sorry.


Your father was a singer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

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

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[MUSIC: “Songs In The Wind, 1&2”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And so on, yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of records were they?

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

In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s?


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

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

What were they listening to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that’s true.

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

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

You’re talking now about 1961?

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

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

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

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

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

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

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

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

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

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

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

[MUSIC: RM (solo) “Nonaah” (1976)]


Leave a comment

Filed under AACM, Chicago, Interview, WKCR

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

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


Maria Schneider, Gil Evans “Dozens” for

1.) Sorta Kinda (Track 13)

Artist; Claude Thornhill:

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

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

RATING: 100/100

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded: New York, NY, June 18, 1947

RATING: 100/100

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

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

3.) Track: My Ship

Artist: Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

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

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

Recorded: New York, May 10, 1957

RATING: 100/100

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

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

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

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

4.) TRACK: Struttin’ With Some BBQ

Artist: Gil Evans

Album: New Bottle Old Wine 1958 (World Pacific)

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

Recorded: New York, May 21, 1958

RATING: 100/100


5.) TRACK; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess

Artist: Miles Davis

Album: Porgy and Bess

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

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

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

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

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

Artist: Miles Davis:

Album: Sketches of Spain

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

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

RATING: 100/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.) TRACK: Once Upon a Summertime

Artist: Miles Davis

Album: Quiet Nights

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

RECORDED: NYC, November 6, 1962

RATING: 100/100


8.) TRACK: Stratusphunk

ARTIST: Gil Evans

Album: Out of the Cool

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

recording: November 18 or 30, 1960

RATING: 100/100

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

ARTIST: Gil Evans

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

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

Composed by Kurt Weill; arranged by Gil Evans

RATING: 500/100

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

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

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

10.) TRACK: Zee Zee (Gil Evans)

ARTIST: Gil Evans

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

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

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

RATING: 100/100

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

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

ARTIST: Gil Evans

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

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

Recorded; New York, June 11, 1974

RATING: 100/100

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded: 2009
RATING: 100/100

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


Maria Schneider DownBeat Article – 2014:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Maria Schneider for Downbeat (May 21, 2014):

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

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

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

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

TP: We spoke in January for your JALC event.

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

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

MS: Oh, yeah. That I feel guilty.

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

MS: Yes. Absolutely.

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

MS: Right.

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

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

TP: Melodies, you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS: She used to come hear the band.

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

MS: Yes, have me write something for her.

TP: How did that lead to the Stories piece?

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

TP: Is she also from Minnesota.

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

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

TP: Choro-esque maybe we could say.

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

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

MS: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

MS: Yeah, definitely.

TP: The Kooser music makes you cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: You’re not relevant.

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

TP: Hindemith liked jazz, I think.

MS: Maybe.

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

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

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

TP: He was constructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: He died in September 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: He was a teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Like what Ryan Truesdale is doing.

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

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

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

TP: The Socratic method.

MS: What does that mean?

TP: Asking questions constantly…

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

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

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

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

MS: Yeah, now it’s going back.

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

MS: It’s all changed…

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Even on the older, more open pieces.

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

TP: Tell me.

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

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

MS: Yes.

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

MS: Characters and people, yes.

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

MS: that’s hard to say.

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

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

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

MS: What does it feel like now to you?

TP: Like the suburbs.

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

TP: Instead of tearing them down?

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

TP: Instead of Hong Kong?

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

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

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

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

MS: Yes, there was.

TP: Did you live here?

MS: I lived in Astoria.

TP: When did you move here?

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

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

MS: Mmm-hmm.

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

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

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

MS: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

MS: Yeah, we had crows. Talking crows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Are there plans for future collaboration?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS: Yes, it’s so much better.

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

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

TP: Do most of your pieces mutate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS: German, Dutch and French.

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

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

TP: she played some piano, yes?

MS: Mmm-hmm.

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

MS: Yes.

TP: Is that a constant for you?

MS: Not always.

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

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

TP: You’re not a Schillinger person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: How is that going anyway? The fallow…

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

TP: I’m sure he’s paying you well.

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

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

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

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

MS: Yeah. I hate that.

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

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

TP: You need a McArthur or Doris Duke grant.

MS: Man, that would be nice.

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

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

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

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

TP: You’re an establishment figure.

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

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

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

TP: So you now are refocusing on the band.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: well, economically…

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

TP: Books are like that.

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

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

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

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

MS: It came out on ‘07.

TP: So we’re talking about 8 years.

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

TP: From 2008 and 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Maria Schneider (NYDN, Final):

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARIA: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARIA: Right.

TP: But then the second record, what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Well, 30-grand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: When did you come to New York?

MARIA: 1985.

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

MARIA: 1988.

TP: Was that when you went into Visiones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Do you count your hits?

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



Maria Schneider (March 7, 2005):

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

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

MARIA: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Does it seem more beyond influence?

RICK: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: What’s Maria like as a bandleader?

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

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

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

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

RICK: Yes, a couple of times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TP: You’re playing in Machu Pichu?

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

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

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

TP: Was that the speech you gave?

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

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

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

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

TP: So it’s not the Bob Dylan part.

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

TP: When you were a kid?

MARIA: Yeah.

TP: Was there lots of jazz there?

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

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

MARIA: Yeah, definitely.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

MARIA: Bob is going to start an ArtistShare.

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

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

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

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

TP: New York does?

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

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

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

TP: Is that good for the music?

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

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

MARIA: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: That’s a tune.

MARIA: Could be.

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

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

TP: It always starts with a sound.

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

TP: Do you compose on the piano?

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

TP: Do you use Sibelius program…


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

MARIA: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARIA: Not so literally.

TP: Not like Eric Dolphy going out on Malibu…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARIA: Bach is probably number one. Ravel.

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

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

TP: Two more.

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

TP: Did you play Chopin as a child?

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

TP: Is she a good pianist?

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

TP: So music came to you through your mother.

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

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

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

TP: No inhibitions about smearing yourself with Crisco.

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

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

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

TP: Can your music be pared down? Has anyone done a piano trio record of Maria Schneider’s music…

MARIA: They probably could. A few of my guys have done things. Like, Rich Perry recorded My Lament, and somebody recorded Last Season

TP: Is it too organic to be broken down?
MARIA: The orchestration and so many details. You could do it. I’m not sure if there’d be that much to be gained by it, because I think such a huge part of it is the orchestration.

TP: Maria is sitting under a photograph of her mother, who appears to be maybe 30, holding a pig sort of like a baby, with “happy birthday” markings on the pig. You also had a goose in a diaper.

MARIA: That was a birthday gift to my father. My mother repaired wings of birds, so this little gosling was given to my parents. I think its mother had been hurt, and this bird’s wing was hurt. My parents brought her up, and she became Lucy the Goose. She never could fly, but she had a diaper and lived in the house. Recently I was home, and I saw there was a picture of a dog and a squirrel in the house, and I said, “Mom, you had a squirrel?” “Oh yeah.” I said, “Where did it go to the bathroom?” “Oh, all over.” We had crows. We had two crows, and I don’t know… The crows were free, and I don’t know how they became take, but the crows started to steal clips off the laundry lines and started to steal jewelry at the beach, at the lake, so the police made us lock up the crows. They made us put them away. So my father made this huge cage for the crows. But that’s Windom. They put crows behind bars.

TP: Were there picket fences and stuff?

MARIA: Not picket fences. But it was very surreal. I have to say there was something very bizarre about Windom. I think Windom, in a way, was full of kind of that Magical Realism. In our house, we had recurring ball lightning that would go through our bedroom, so sleeping in bed at night, this ball of fire sometimes would come through one window and go out the other window. Our parents were telling us this didn’t exist, but I kept seeing it.

TP: “Oh, she has a vivid imagination.”

MARIA: Exactly. That’s it. “Oh, it must have been a reflection on the window” or whatever. It wasn’t until I think I was 13 that I finally saw an article in Life magazine on ball lightning, and it was like, “See?!” So it instilled this thing in me that I still carry, which is that the world is full of magic and there is much more than people will tell us there actually is. I still believe that, because I experienced it as a child. So Windom had a lot of real life, but then a lot of imagination, too.

TP: Maria said that when she was a little girl practicing piano, she imagined that the trains and cars passing by (there was a railroad track nearby) had radios, and a talent scout from New York.

MARIA: There was a highway that went through Windom and across from our house was just a field. Nothing. It really is very bleak. But I would fantasize when cars would go by that there were people passing through just looking for talent from mid-America to bring to the big city. If I played my Chopin or whatever it was I was playing, I was always playing my very best so that I would be discovered somehow.
TP: So you had ambitions.

MARIA: I had ambitions. I didn’t know exactly to do what. Even when I would practice my Grammy acceptance speech, I had no idea whether that would be for a song, for a performance, for jazz, classical, rock. I had no idea. But I just wanted to do music in some capacity, and felt that I had the ability for it somehow, but I had no idea of really what.

TP: Some of what you became is making sense from these anecdotes of your childhood.

MARIA: I’m a firm believer that when you have these really deep, heartfelt dreams… I’m so intellectualized, but they’re just coming out of real deep wishes. Those things have tremendous power to make things really happen in your life. I’ve always had that.

TP: Do you still have it? Now that you’ve won a Grammy, and your name is known around the world, and you have this band, and 50 compositions…

MARIA: I guess it’s different. Those dreams come back to me if I do something like go out bird-watching. When I get out of this grind of practical life and go more into that place inside me, then those kind of unrealistic but very possible dreams come out.

TP: Do you do all your own business?

MARIA: A lot of it. I have an agent, and I have people who help me, but I do a lot of my work.

TP: How does your day break down? Now are you writing anything?

MARIA: I’m just starting something. [POINTS TO FRAGMENTS ON SCORE PAPER ON PIANO] A lot of stuff there is being thrown away.

TP: Don’t you have a symphony commission?

MARIA: Maybe in the fall. Not a symphony, but a symphonic orchestra may have me… The Minnesota Orchestra is talking about maybe a little something. But lately it’s a lot of business. I’m getting back to writing. I have a some commissions. Every time I do a record, after the record, I’m fallow like… [END OF SIDE]

TP: You said you’re fallow like a field is fallow. What kind of crops did your parents grow?

MARIA: My father was in the flax business. He designed machinery for processing flax.

TP: Agricultural machinery. So he was an engineer.

MARIA: He was an engineer, and he ran the flax plant there. Behind our house was a big field with these huge flax stacks, and he’d have to go to Canada and Mexico, and he’d go to South America. That’s part of the South American thing, too. When I was a child, my father would go to South America a lot. My parents had some records of music from South America. Just this fantasy of South America. I’ve always been attracted to all things Latin.

TP: It’s a very romantic culture.

MARIA: Yeah. This isn’t for the Daily News, but I did have one experience as a kid with… There was a man from Mexico named Angel Gardner who came to our house. He came to Windom; he was somehow involved in the flax business. He was a young guy in his twenties. The only restaurant in Windom at this time was a place in the country called the Driftwood Steak House, which wasn’t really elegant dining, but they had like the chicken basket, the red plastic basket. My sisters went there, but it was my parents and me. I was probably 12 or 13, maybe. I had the chicken basket. And I didn’t feel very attractive. I was a late bloomer, a redhead kid. I was sitting there, and Angel is next to me, and I’m eating my chicken, fried very greasy, and he looked at me and said, “Maria. Feed me chicken.” “What?” “Feed me chicken. I want chicken.” So I took a drumstick, and I’m like holding it up to his mouth, and he starts nibbling and tugging on it. All I could think was it felt like a bullhead pulling the line and the bobber down in fishing! The lips smacking. And my parents were just sitting… They were in shock! They didn’t say anything, they didn’t stop it, they were just kind of like… I’d have to say my first erotic experience was with a Latin man in Windom, Minnesota. I’ve been looking for Angel Gardner ever since.

TP: He’s probably in his late fifties now.

MARIA: That’s okay. I tend to be with men who are about twenty years older than me. I’m trying to get over that. It’s not working well…


TP: How did you first meet Maria?

BROOKMEYER: Ed (?) at Eastman called me and told me ….[BLIP]…..

TP: She needed a job and a place to stay, and she’d call you ….[BLIP]…. What did she do with you? What was the nature of her apprenticeship.

BROOKMEYER: She said, “I came to you an arranger and left a composer.”

TP: So her technique was pretty much fully formed out of the conservatory.

BROOKMEYER: Her instrumental technique.

TP: When did you first hear her work?

BROOKMEYER: When she came to me.

TP: What was it like? Do you recall?

BROOKMEYER: Very well skilled. Good arranger. She had good orchestration. Everything was in place. So she was ready to go.

TP: What were her influences at that time?

BROOKMEYER: I think me. She heard Make Me Smile with Mel Lewis. She liked that. I assume she’d heard Gil. What else, I don’t know. First we worked on arrangements. She wanted to write something for Woody Herman’s band. Her then-boyfriend was on the band. So we wrote two arrangements for Woody, and then one for Mel Lewis as a vocal, which we thought would be a good entry into the band. Then she wrote Green Piece for Mel’s band, and Mel didn’t like it. So eventually, she and John started their own band, which was very good right away, and then she started her own group months later.

TP: Did you hear her band right away?

BROOKMEYER: No. The first I heard it, she sent me a CD to do the liner notes.

TP: I know how much you mutually admire each other. But could you speak to what has made her music stand out in the ‘90s and in this period?

BROOKMEYER: We talked a lot about being a woman in this business. I thought it necessary because I wanted to get her ready to function in sometimes a hostile male world. It’s hostile to me, and I’m a man. So I wanted to get her ready for the real world. She has a sensibility that is feminine, yet she has very much control over what she does, both as a composer and as a conductor with her band. So she has a voice, and where that comes from, I have no idea. The music god says, “You’ve got a voice,” you’ve got it. That’s the music god. That’s why I’m not Bartok.

TP: When you say that her voice is feminine, what exactly do you mean by that?

BROOKMEYER: I think she has a gentleness, say, as opposed to Thad Jones, or some McNeely even, and some other people. Since I think women are better human beings than men, I think she has a very human touch with the orchestra and a very poetic sense of space and timing, and the way she handles the instruments and the chances she takes I think are wonderful.

TP: There’s an innate quality of dance—not necessarily swing—in all the work that I hear, that somebody could be dancing to this.

BROOKMEYER: I would think this. She played Concert in The Garden for me, she was worried about the mix, so went to her apartment and listened to it, and I was just stunned. I said, “As Gil went from Porgy and Bess to Sketches in Spain, which is a radical work for him, this is I think a great leap from her third CD, Allegresse, to this one.

TP: How so?

BROOKMEYER: She completely discarded everything that she had been using, and went into another world—fearlessly. I think it’s a magnificent achievement.

1 Comment

Filed under Maria Schneider

R.I.P., Vibraphonist David Samuels (1948-2019) — A Downbeat Blindfold Test From 1998

Just received news that master vibraphonist and tuned percussion player David Samuels has passed away at age 70. In his memory, I’m posting a Blindfold Test that he did with me in 1998 — I think this was my first-ever BFT.


David Samuels Blindfold Test (1998):

Veteran mallet master David Samuels has touched on almost every facet of improvisation in the course of his career. Best known for his 17-year association with Spyro Gyra, the Chicago-born Samuels has also performed and recorded with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Carla Bley, the Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. Lately he’s been exploring pan-diasporic melodies and rhythms with Paquito d’Rivera and steel drummer Andy Narell in the Caribbean Jazz Project, while on “Del Sol” [GRP], issued several years ago, he joined forces with Latin Jazz masters Danilo Perez and Dave Valentin. That puts him in a line of direct descent with Cal Tjader, who, Samuels comments, “is responsible for putting vibes in the center of the Latin small ensemble as a solo voice.” On his latest disk, “Tjaderized” [Verve], Samuels joins forces with Eddie Palmieri and a top-shelf cast of young and veteran Latin stars on an idiomatic homage to the maestro.

Gary Burton: “Rhumbata” (from “Native Sense,” Stretch, 1997), Burton, vibes; Chick Corea, piano.

DS: I haven’t heard this record, but it’s clearly one of Chick’s tunes — an epic, long, involved piece. Four stars. Chick and Gary are a mini-percussion ensemble with two keyboard percussion instruments. They’ve been doing it for 20-25 years; they own this sound. I have a similar relationship with Dave Friedman in Double Image; it’s a very special dynamic and intuition.

Mike Mainieri: “Heart of Darkness” (from Don Grolnick, “Medianoche,” Warner Brothers, 1996), Mainieri, vibraphone; Grolnick, piano, composer; Dave Valentin, flute; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, drums, bongos, percussion; Don Alias, timbales and percussion; Milton Cardona, congas and percussion.

DS: That was Mike Mainieri on Don Grolnick’s “Medianoche,” a great record. Four stars. Michael has created not only an approach to playing the vibes, but a sound as well. He’s able to alter the sound electronically with effects, giving it a characteristic quality that he likes. Combine that with his ability to write tunes, and you’ve got yourself a great player.

Bobby Hutcherson: “Pomponio” (from “Ambos Mundos,” Landmark, 1989), Hutcherson, vibraphone; James Spaulding, flute; Randy Vincent, guitar; Smith Dobson, piano; Jeff Chambers, bass; Eddie Marshall, drums; Francisco Aguabella, congas; Orestes Vilato, bongos & cowbell; timbales; Roger Glenn, percussion.

DS: I’m not sure which Bobby Hutcherson record this is. [LOOKS AT COVER] I could have heard Bobby playing marimba on this piece as well as vibes. Bobby’s an important player on his instrument. He’s recorded historic music and continues to make great records. Improvisation is a process with no boundaries; the boundaries you put on how you improvise are the boundaries of style — there are as many different ways to improvise as different styles of music. I think one approach to playing over a Latin rhythm section like this is to play in a Post-Bop style, as everybody does here. Another approach is to fit the rhythm into the style of the music. I’ll give this three stars, partly because the way it’s mixed and recorded makes it hard to extract what’s going on. I’m missing a lot of Bobby’s notes; some of great lines are lost.

Joe Locke: “Slow Hot Wind” (from “Moment to Moment,” Milestone, 1994), Locke, vibraphone; Billy Childs, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Gene Jackson, drums.

DS: That’s from “Moment To Moment,” by Joe Locke, a great player who should be out there more. He’s heavily influenced by Bobby Hutcherson, but has taken it one step further. He’s got Bobby’s kind of linear approach, but also Joe’s a four-mallet player. Technically his phrasing is a little different. He’s got some dampening going on, a distinctive harmonic approach. Four stars.

Red Norvo, “Move” (from “The Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus,” Savoy-Denon, 1995, recorded 1950), Norvo, vibraphone; Tal Farlow, guitar; Charles Mingus, bass.

DS: This is that great trio with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow and Charlie Mingus. Five stars. Red Norvo from my standpoint isn’t recognized as he ought to be in the evolution of jazz vibraphone. He’s really the father of playing with four mallets. He started, on the xylophone, then started playing the vibes around 1927, when I think is when the vibes were invented.

Milt Jackson: “The Masquerade Is Over” (from “Burnin’ In The Woodshed,” Qwest, 1995), Jackson, vibraphone; Benny Green, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

DS: [AFTER 8 BARS…] That was the man — Milt. Five stars. He’s like a horn player playing vibes. I remember reading a description that he’s like someone who’s ice skating on the vibes — skating and gliding. He has those big puffy mallets! You don’t get a sense of how intensely he plays unless you stand next to him.

Gary Burton: “Bel-Aire” (from “The Best of George Shearing: 1960-1969,” Capitol, rec. 1963), Burton, vibraphone; Shearing, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums; John Gray, guitar; Bill Yancey, bass.

DS: [QUICKLY] That’s a very young Gary Burton playing with George Shearing, swinging unbelievably. It has a real sparkle. It’s one of Gary’s first recordings, a live concert, and remember hearing it years ago. He’s got that kind of youthful intensity. In a situation like that, short solos, you have to get it all out real fast — and Gary certainly did! Four stars.

Lionel Hampton: “When Lights Are Low” (from “Small Groups, Vol. 3, 1939,” Musique Memoria), Hampton, vibraphone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet solo; Chu Berry, tenor sax solo; Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Benny Carter, alto saxophone, arranger; Clyde Hart, piano; Charlie Christian, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.

DS: Gates! Five stars. That’s seriously heavy-duty swinging. It has the same kind of intensity and movement of any music that’s played well with a rhythm section playing together. Lionel’s a drummer who subsequently went to vibes, which is my own background, so I relate heavily to that style of playing.

Sanougue Kouyate: “Bintou” (from “Balendala Djibe: Salif Keita Presents Sanougue Kouyate,” Mango, 1990), Sanougue Kouyate, vocals; Keletigui Diabate, balafon, arrangements; Salif Keita, chorus.

DS: I first thought it was Salif Keita, who it turns out produced it and sings in the chorus. I like the way the balafon sounds here. It’s part of the ensemble, there’s a balafon solo, and though the instrument isn’t totally tempered, it’s in the context. Four stars.


Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Dave Samuels, Vibraphone

For the 75th Birth Anniversary of Peter Kowald (1944-2002), A Memorial Piece For The Village Voice, A WKCR Interview in September 2002, An Interview Conducted at the 2002 Vision Festival, and a Review of Several Kowald CDs for Downbeat in 2002

I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to speak with and write about the great German outcat bassist Peter Kowald during 2002, the year he passed away in New York City. For Kowald’s 75th birth anniversary yesterday, I’m posting an obituary that I wrote for the Village Voice in their jazz issue of 2003, the transcript of a WKCR encounter conversation I had with Kowald and saxophonist Assif Tsahar in Sept. 2002, nine days before Kowald’s death, and a review column of Kowald CDs that I did for Downbeat earlier in 2002. At the bottom is an interview that I conducted with Kowald at the Vision Festival in May 2002 — it was for a prospective radio piece on the “avant garde” intended for Studio 360 for which I also interviewed Derek Bailey, Fred Anderson, and others.


Peter Kowald Obituary, Village Voice, 2002:

“I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one.” – Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002.

In the mid-‘90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald-–a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”–spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked, and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road, and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.

Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-a-terre to solidify his base.

The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.

After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired of a massive heart attack.

Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ‘60s German culture.

At last year’s Vision Festival, Kowald worked the food stand, constructing two-dollar cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grass-roots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brötzmann, to which Kowald had contributed mightly for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.

Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first Sound Unity Festival, settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to packed houses every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the Knitting Factory Festival the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the Vision Festival.

“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”

Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine Basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brötzmann urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “the space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas–everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brötzmann’s basement studio.

During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. “The mood was, `Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,’” he said. “Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want–don’t worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies.”

Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brötzmann and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brötzmann remembers that Kowald’s father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.

“Peter’s mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path,” Brötzmann says. “But after the war we never got answers for the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers’ generation, and that’s why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries.”

Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald’s words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.

“Growing up in the `40s and `50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of Fascism,” Kowald said. “I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way–not play Classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman.”

Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter “Baby” Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn’t great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques–like detuning his E-string and chanting low, gutteral tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones–he tended to use them regardless of context.

Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. “Peter was looking to be a universal world musician,” Parker says. “He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn’t coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I’d tell him, ‘You don’t have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it’s there.’ There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don’t know exactly what.”

There was something archetypally German about Kowald’s wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds–he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. “Peter was very social,” says Morris. “He wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, ‘Hey, Peter, let’s go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,’ he’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere.”


Peter Kowald-Assif Tsahar (WKCR, 9-12-02):

TP: Peter Kowald is one of the avatars of European improvisation, beginning in the early 1960s. You and Peter Brotzmann came up in Wuppertal, a city which also serves as the home of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. As you’ve told me, Nam June Paik was living there, and you came under his influence. Since then, Mr. Kowald has created a staggering vocabulary of extended techniques and ways of attacking the bass and creating dialogue out of those techniques. He’s one of the giants of that way of making music.


TP: Assif Tsahar is a generation younger, 33 years old, from Jaffa and grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, and has been resident here for ten years. Peter Kowald is now a part-time New York resident, and has been for how long now?

KOWALD: A year-and-a-half. I found a place here now, and I’m going back and forth.

TP: Peter Kowald made an impact on New York as far back as the mid-1980s, when the Sound Unity Festival happened on 2nd Avenue and Houston, when you helped bring together what was a somewhat fractious community of improvisers into an extremely successful festival. It seems to me that this laid the seeds in some ways for the Vision Fest. So this is not New York’s first experience with Peter.

The two of you have developed a close musical simpatico over recent years. Deals, Ideas and Ideals is from 1999. How did you meet?

TSAHAR: Peter came to town, and he was staying with William Parker, who is his very close friend. Back then I was working on the Vision Festival maybe, the first year or so…

KOWALD: We met earlier, before.

TSAHAR: Yes, before. It was the Improvisers’ Collective. So we met there, and then I asked Peter if he had the time to play, to do a session. We played, we had a very good time. He was very supportive. One of Peter’s best qualities is that he has very good insights into the music; he’s very supportive in that way. That was the beginning. We played in the first Vision Festival. He played in the group I was playing in with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and we’ve kept it up since then.

TP: This goes back to when? ’95 or so?

KOWALD: Somewhere around then.

TP: Assif, as a saxophonist coming up in Israel, how aware were you of the stream of music that developed in the ’60s in Europe…

TSAHAR: I was aware of the musicians. I was aware of some of the music. Growing up in Israel, more depended on what we could get, and those were very hard to records to get there. I knew of Globe Unity, so I knew of Peter from there — and Brotzmann. But I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about everything that happened there. I had more knowledge of what was happening here, just because that’s what we could get in the record stores. So I knew of all the things like Cecil Taylor… When I got to New York, I didn’t really know what was happening. I knew William Parker because of what he did with Cecil, but I didn’t know all the current things happening at the time in New York.

TP: But it’s the ’80s when you’re forming your musical aesthetic and sensibility. Was there a community of out players in Israel at that time, or were you operating in isolation? Are you operating with a peer group?

TSAHAR: It was pretty much in isolation. A very good friend was a piano player, Daniel (?). He came with me here. We were working together. Basically, we were almost it, along with a few others. A drummer, Egal (?), who also lives here now. We were kind of working together. There were five, maybe six people, and that’s it. Now it’s growing, I think. There’s a lot more awareness of it now in Israel.

TP: How frequently does this configuration play, the trio or augmented, of Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, and Hamid Drake, the drummer from Chicago?

KOWALD: We actually do play quite a lot in Europe rather than here in America, and we have a couple of tours. Like, every two months we have a tour or a couple of gigs together. So we’ve played quite a lot in the last one-and-a-half years, in fact. We had a tour in Israel last year…

TP: 50-60 performances in the last couple of years?

KOWALD: Maybe somewhere in there.

TP: That would seem to be a situation that would generate a lot of new music and a lot of ideas and new directions. How has the band evolved from the first meeting?

KOWALD: The trio is more organized that way, that we just improvise, and we don’t really use, or only rarely, any thematic material. But the quartet with Hugh uses the pieces. But then, the quartet doesn’t work that often. Only a couple of big festivals when they invite us. And we have rehearsals for the pieces. So the music is a little different between the trio and the quartet. the quartet sounds more like the structure of you have a theme, and then you have the solos and you go back to the theme, and the trio is completely open.

TP: Do you find in trios like that you tend to create compositions from a blank canvas? How do you sustain freshness in a situation like that?

KOWALD: I would say there are a lot of routines in a positive way, like things we bring… Like, we have a bag on shoulders, and in the beginning of the evening we pull out things, things we know, things we have in a similar way done before. But then also, new stuff is happening each night. Especially I find that the relationship with Hamid and myself has really developed over the time. It’s interesting, because he likes to go into rhythmical things, and I like that, too, but then I kind of seem to be the person who always takes him out of there again to go somewhere else. Then Assif is using the two instruments, the saxophone but also the bass clarinet, so we have different textures in the horn section. And then the bass is the bow and the plucked, like the pizz stuff, so it’s a different thing… The pizz stuff with Hamid is more of a free rhythmical thing, and then the bows goes to the bass clarinet. So there’s a lot of songs coming from different parts. Hamid sings, he plays the hand drum, and we have pieces where I sing and he sings. So there’s a lot of different textures.

TSAHAR: I think the group is interesting. When we were touring in Israel, because of Peter being from Germany and Hamid being a Sufi, who have a strong connection also to Islam, and myself being Jewish, it was very interesting. I think that comes off in the music. We come from different places but have a very strong meeting place. What comes together is actually very strong, but we all come from like different direction, but really meet in the middle. I think that interestingly works… It’s also socially like that. It also works out in the music like this.

TP: A number of Israeli musicians who have made an impact in New York, but in less open form situations, have all had quite a bit of exposure to North African and Arabic music. It’s part of their vernacular growing up. It’s unavoidable.

TSAHAR: Yes. It’s actually the stronger… It’s actually what we listen to. People think about Klezmer music when you think about Jewish, and actually when you listen to Israeli music, Arabic music is a much stronger influence.

TP: Now, what do you think that imparts to you that allows you to intersect with the broader realm of improvising, whether within jazz or a pan-improvisational manner? Is it that you’ve internalized these very complex rhythmic signatures, or certain scales that correlate to melodies…

TSAHAR: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.

KOWALD: I would say for myself that in many ways I am playing a traditional European instrument. But I learned it autodidactically before I studied it. I played with Brotzmann ten years before I started to study the bass. I was autodidactic in the early years. Between 16 and 26, I was autodidactic. Then I studied classical European music, but it was kind of schizophrenic, because all the things I had to study in the day, I didn’t want to do at night. A lot of the things I did at night were forbidden in the day. So it was a real parallel thing, and the influences I had were rather not the classical European music, and the bel canto sound, as I used to call it, for the bass, and the classical European sound… I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to go into other aesthetics, and I took from all kinds of music. I tried to copy singers from Tuva and Mongolia and African music, and of course, it never worked on the bass, but then what came out was something… I was closer to the aesthetics of “world music” than of European aesthetics. That broadened the techniques, too. I had to find a way to put my finger on the instruments so it would make these kinds of sound I wanted to have.

TP: All the time. Have it not be an accident, but a systematic vocabulary.

KOWALD: Yes. And then I really tried to transform sounds and aesthetics of the pygmies onto the bass, and some of it worked, but of course, it’s not pygmy music. But suddenly I found out that the bass harmonics in a certain position with the hands do certain things which nobody does except me — but I got it from the pygmies.

TP: Can you relate what you were doing to the cultural milieu during the 1960s, the arc of the culture up to ’68 and the aftermath of that? Baader-Meinhof is happening…

KOWALD: Oh, yes. I can actually go back a little earlier. Because when I grew up in the ’40s as a little boy, and in the ’50s in Germany, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because everything had been used by Fascism and Hitler. So we didn’t sing our songs. It was very difficult. So I saw that every blues musician or every Jewish musician somehow related to his own tradition in a positive way. I used to have a Greek wife, and she loved her Greek songs, but I didn’t love my German songs. Then I became a traveler somehow. So I tried to be… I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and so I took it all from there. I became somehow a traveler from the beginning. But I didn’t ever use my own culture into my own music. Of course, there was Brecht and Weill and Eisler who were relatively modern people out of the last century, but in a way, their music was a bit of a tradition to me — or it became a bit of a tradition. But it was very difficult to sing a German song because it had always this smell of Fascism in it.

TP: It would seem that with Brecht and Weill and Eisler there’s a certain attitude or sensibility toward the material that becomes correlated through the years to what you were doing.

KOWALD: Well, the ’60s came… That was your question. Then the whole political movement came, and then there were two Germanies, East Germany and West Germany, and then we had all the sympathy for the East because Brecht was there, and things were discussed in a very different way — and some of them were not discussed, of course. But we were all left wing people, and we were part of this revolutionary thing that started in the mid-’60s, and then we had ’68 in Berlin and Paris and here in America, too, and in Italy and Japan… Many people don’t know that in Japan there was a very political thing happening in the late ’60s. We said, “Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning — let’s go.” I was a little younger then. Brotzmann is three years older, and he was so confident when he was very young, in his early twenties. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn’t want. So I was kind of following him a little bit, in his shadow. So we played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke was in the second row, this famous German student revolutionary. So that was all part of it, yes. It was great. It was wonderful. Grand times. And I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in all this climate and always knew our enemies, so to speak.

TP: But you’ve mentioned to me that you were sort of imparted the notion that anything is allowable by Nam June Paik, who came out of the Fluxus movement, which in and of itself was an apolitical entity…

KOWALD: Well, it was not apolitical at all. But it was very open in terms of material, yes. Peter when he was only 20 was an assistant for Nam June Paik, certainly projects he did in Wuppertal, because we had this fantastic gallery all the time that would invite all these people in the early ’60s. Peter was a great painter and artist all the time also. He was much more advanced as an artist when he was in his early twenties than as a saxophone player. But then he decided for the saxophone. And I think he discussed a lot with Paik about these questions, about what is art today and what does it mean, what can we do in Art. I remember Peter saying that Paik told him, “Now, don’t worry about anything; you can do anything you want to do; the space is completely open; you can use any material, you can use any ideas — everything is possible; don’t worry about nothing; do what you want to do.” So that was the ’60s, which had all this air about this whole thing, and “okay, now we change the world tomorrow, we can do anything, we are able, there is a power there, there is a movement there, we are not alone” — and then take a saxophone, take a bass, and do what you want to do, and don’t worry about what the teachers have been telling you. [LAUGHS]

TP: Taking this broader political and cultural theme and applying it to the area you’re involved in, which is a specific way of translating sounds into vocabulary and narrative and creating this pan-national dialogue: How do you start reaching out and finding your peer group throughout the European Continent, which is sort of developing in parallel. While you and Brotzmann are talking to Paik, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are developing what they’re doing in England, and Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are doing what they’re doing in Holland, and people are dealing with different things in France and Italy. And eventually, the Globe Unity Orchestra forms, which seems to be an effort to incorporate these strands. Talk about your initial forays towards finding this peer group and embracing it.

KOWALD: Well, in a way we were very local in the beginning. We started to play together in ’62, I think. But I was 17, and had to be home… I had to go to school in the morning, so I had to be home early at night. [LAUGHS] My parents were pretty strict about that. Then we just started to play, and we had this little basement place which was a club, and sometimes on the weekend bands played. Gunter Hampel came by, I remember. Different people. But we during the week, we just came played for ourselves with different drummers at the time. Every Tuesday and every Friday we went, and then after one-and-a-half years, the first person came to listen. Nobody wanted to listen to us. They said, “Brotzmann can’t play, and why do you play with this guy, he can’t play — you have to learn other things.” After one-and-a-half years, the first person came.” We felt quite isolated in the beginning.

Then in the mid-’60s, Carla Bley came, Paul Bley came, Mingus came with Dolphy, Coltrane was there with the quartet in this club in Cologne. So we could see different people. But I think very important for us was when Carla came, and we sat in that night. She had a quintet with Steve Lacy and Mike Mantler and Aldo Romano and Kent Carter, and then she left…

TP: You and Brotzmann sat in.

KOWALD: We sat in on night. I think there’s still a tape of that.

TP: How did that feel?

KOWALD: Well, I was a little boy who was over-impressed by everything, and Brotzmann was much more “Let’s go into it and do it.” Carla liked him very much, and Steve also actually, and Steve encouraged us, and said, “Go ahead; this is good what you are trying to do there.”

TP: What was Brotzmann trying to do?

KOWALD: Well, he played alto… The drummers we had, they were always still playing time. Then I think Aldo Romano in this constellation, and maybe a few months earlier, when the Paul Bley Trio came, I think it was Barry Altschul… They were the first drummers who didn’t use time, who used more of an open pulse or free…

TP: This is ’65 and ’66.

KOWALD: ’65 and ’66, right. Then these records came out on Dutch Fontana, and then of course, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came over on ESP Records. That was about the time when Carla was around, and then she asked us for a tour…she asked actually Peter to play a tour with her the last year, and she had planned to bring Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, but somehow it didn’t work out with them, and then Peter was actually very nice and said “I’ll only do the tour if Peter Kowald is coming also.” Then I was 22 years old, and I did a three-month tour with that group. That was a big experience for me in many kinds of ways. I did a lot of mistakes in all kinds of ways, but still…

TP: Were you playing her compositions on that tour?

KOWALD: We had compositions, but…

TP: And then taking them completely apart every night.

KOWALD: Yes. But the context was more like a free context. We had the compositions in the beginning, but then all the improvisations were free, and without changes, without time.

TP: Were you ever involved in situations as a younger player where you needed to deal with form all the way through your improvisations and were satisfied with that course? Did you come across those experiences, or were you always wanting to shatter form, as it were, within every performance?

KOWALD: Well, in the early years with Brotzmann, we still played compositions. We played Ornette Coleman compositions, we played Mingus stuff, we played Coltrane stuff…

TP: That’s what you cut your teeth on.

KOWALD: Yes. But we didn’t really use the changes any more. We freed ourselves and never really stuck to the changes and stuck to the bars, the whole clear form. But then, on the other hand, I did very strict things. I played the tuba also at the time, and I played with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we recorded Cage pieces… There’s a record of this. So I did a certain amount of stuff of reading Contemporary Music and notation. That was the most formal thing I, in fact, did. It was very interesting, because they were themselves there. Earle Brown was conducting his own pieces and Morton Feldman was conducting his pieces. That was really interesting. But that was the most formal thing in fact I did while I improvised freely. We basically went to free improvisation.

And I think after the Carla tour was exactly the time when Globe Unity started to be. But Alex didn’t know us, because we were about 40 miles away from Cologne where they were, Manfred Schoof and Alex Schlippenbach. But then they heard us one night, and it was just when Alex was writing his composition “Globe Unity,” and he included the whole trio into his Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally there were two bass players and two drummers, and Peter was added.

TSAHAR: One thing I’d like to add, and see if Peter agrees with me or not. The free improvisation, there is something very natural about it that almost every musician goes through. Then, when they go to school, it almost makes you feel like they’re taken out of it. My first experience of music was free improvisation, was taking the instrument and playing, and then doing it with a friend of mine. I think there is something about that that’s very natural. It’s probably also what they were trying to do, without so much of the thinking that this is a revolution.

KOWALD: Well, I have to say that in Europe it was clearly forgotten. Improvisation wasn’t used at all any more. If you go back to Bach and Mozart, they could do it, and people like Messaien could do it, but in Europe as a method of working for music it was forgotten. But then Stockhausen came back and said, “Okay.” He gave a little advice, “Hear what you want to play and then play it.” He had very open pieces. But that was the same time we started to improvise, but our stuff came from Black American music, very clearly. It came from jazz. But then there was maybe a little step which I would call a healthy way of killing our fathers. I mean, I love jazz. I still love it. It’s the main music I’ve been listening to in all my life. In some way, I’m proud of it now, over these years. But we had a point in Europe where we said, “Okay, let’s do it the European way.” We don’t want to copy American jazz any more. We don’t want to play Classical European music, but we don’t want to copy American jazz.” Like, a lot of bebop players in Europe had done that for years. But looking back on it, I still have to say we took a lot. We took a lot from Albert Ayler, we took a lot from Pharaoh Sanders, talking about saxophone players, and I took a lot from all the bass players, from Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman. I will play a bass duo on the 15th November with Reggie Workman at Roulette, and I am very happy that he agreed to it. It’s part of a bass duo thing I’ve been doing with European bass players. There are 3 CDs out now, but more are coming. We are planning for one with William Parker to come out, and the concert with Reggie Workman will be recorded also.

TP: There are different attitudes to the form question. Someone like Dave Holland, a contemporary of yours, in the 1960s was playing with Derek Bailey and John Stevens and spent the ’70s playing totally free music with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton’s structural music, and then he made a decision that he didn’t want to exclude closed form, that he liked both of them. He felt that without structured forms you couldn’t necessarily springboard to the next step, that they contributed to his creative development. So you’re coming from a similar milieu, albeit he’s English and he’s German, but reaching two very different conclusions. That’s not to make a value judgment, just to show how two very different ways of approaching an instrument and an aesthetic can emerge from similar set of circumstances.

KOWALD: Well, I would say that the (?), of course, is quite a different one. But what I find is that the music we have been doing found a form, too, but it is as a very organic, natural form. I am very interested in… When I work with younger people it is always my theme: How clear can the music be? How clear can improvisation be? Is it just this process of what I call a cold spaghetti music, where everything just glues and sticks to each other and goes on and goes on? Or is it possible to have a more intuitive, formal consciousness about when you improvise? I am very interested in people who play with a formal consciousness. Maybe that is the European mind a little bit related to the mind over here. But I find that a certain element of being clear and making decisions also, which is somehow a formal thing, is very important to me. I think, in a way, I feel that I am respected over here, too, because I have that. Even when I play a solo, I mean, it’s completely open, but I have formal sections. I have sections in there, and people understand that. People understand that a formal background without it (?) so much from. But the difference from Dave Holland is that it is not a pre-given form. The form is coming while you do it. And Dave Holland and many other people like to work with pre-given forms. That’s just the difference.

TP: Peter Kowald has also contributed to the stream of out jazz through working with drummers like Rashied Ali, through working with drummers like Hamid Drake, working with saxophonists like Charles Gayle and Assif… There is now and has been for at least 20 years that component to what you do.

KOWALD: I would say, yes, the saxophone trio with a saxophone trio and a drummer…

TP: Where the bass functions as a bass.

KOWALD: Well, that’s one side of the extreme. And then to play completely European, free improvised music with the young people, where you sometimes don’t make a sound for minutes and think all the time, I like that, too. That’s the other extreme. My whole pendulum has been those two. I love to do the more jazz quality stuff, like we do with Assif and Hamid, but I also like to have that improvisation. Then also I work with Sanko, the Siberian singer, who gave me a completely new value since the early ’90s because her voice is from this Tuvan Shamanist breath and overtone harmonic music section. I went to Tuva with her twice on the Trans-Siberian train. So that is another leg I am trying to stand on.

TP: Assif, you’ve played with a number of bass players. What are the qualities that Peter Kowald brings to this real-time encounter, this collective improvisation that distinguishes his instrumental personality from his peer group?

TSAHAR: Well, it’s exactly what he said now, because his pendulum is so vast. So we don’t get locked so much into one thing, one area, which is very common to do. So it’s very easy when we’re playing with Peter. It’s both ways. He keeps it as a compositional thought from beginning to end, and also keeps the variety going. Because it’s very easy, let’s say… I mean, I love those Sam Rivers records; it’s a good example. But in some ways, it always stays within that jazz vein. But in some ways, when I play with Peter, even though if we go there, and go somewhere that’s in the jazz vein and in the swinging tradition, it will always go out of it and go into different places, and always have the possibility of going back into it. That’s why I love the experience of playing with Peter.

TP: Peter Kowald is leaving for Italy. The life of an improviser. You’re going to Italy for maybe one night, two nights…

KOWALD: I play two days in (?).

TP: Come back here.

KOWALD: Come back Monday.

TP: Come back Monday, do a recording, play this gig at Triad, do some other gigs during the week… I’ve been watching you create a schedule, and is Einhoven on the way from Frankfurt… The troubadours.

KOWALD: Yes. The everyday life of a traveler who just goes there and plays for the people, and opens his hand, gets some money and comes back home, and goes to the next one.

TP: Very much in the medieval European tradition of the traveling troupes, the caravans. The modern-day troubadours.

KOWALD: Well, in fact, Botticini(?), the great bass player, he had a bass that he could take the neck off, so in the horse coaches he could travel, and then he did the gigs at the clubs!

TP: We don’t have time to go in tremendous depth into recent work… We have cued up a CD called “Aphorisms: 26 Looks On a Situation” with saxophonist Floris Floridis, and drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer…

KOWALD: He’s from East Germany. We were not allowed to play together for a couple of years, but we played secretly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But in the early ’70s we were not allowed to play together.


KOWALD: [after Kowald-Barry Guy duo] …It means “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overvalued.”

TP: And why is it overvalued?

KOWALD: Well, it is something that Josef Beuys said. Josef Beuys was an artist of the area where I grew up. I really liked him in my early years, and he was very influential to me. Just to say it in short, he not only did his artwork for which people know him over here, but he also tried to put art in a social context in a new way again — again, something as a result of the ’60s also. He was very out there in the ’60s for us.

TP: Something that was antithetical to Marcel Duchamp, the idea of putting a context on anything.

KOWALD: He did a project which he called “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp has Been Overvalued,” and I thought it was really interesting because I liked Marcel Duchamp so much, too. Then Beuys said, “Okay, but let’s look what does it mean. Do we take certain things too seriously? Don’t we have to act in another direction now?” The ’60s again. Right? Actually, the Barry Guy record has all titles which are related to Art, which are actually sentences. Paintings used to be on the record, on one side, on the other side four pieces which are related to certain artists. Barry likes art very much. Then he decided for I think… Anyway, I decided for Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

TP: The previous piece was a duet between you and Sanko, the Tuvan throat singer to whom you referred. An incredible sound. It catches your attention. Even Peter Kowald, who’ve heard this record and played with her hundreds of times, is sitting across from me… If you can visualize a totally attentive expression where no motion is possible for a moment until they reach the next moment.

KOWALD: These aspects… We are talking about Josef Beuys now, who on the one hand is an artist who comes very much out of my context, but he also has worked on the Celtic stuff. Or the Cayuta(?) piece, when he came to America, where he didn’t touch American ground, but was carried off the airplane and carried with an ambulance into a gallery so he wouldn’t touch American ground, and then spent a week with the Cayuta(?) (they didn’t know each other, and they became friends during this week), and then Beuys left again without touching American ground. It’s very interesting, because he worked with very old cultures, and he includes… When he came the first time to America, he wanted to talk about the old America, and the Cayuta(?) was the symbol for that. Then Seinko carries in her voice a thousand years — and maybe more — of musical knowledge that hasn’t changed much in that area. In Tuva and Mongolia, the music has remained similar. Then she carries that thousand-years-old knowledge and puts it into a contemporary context. This is wonderful and very interesting to me.

TP: This actually would connect you with a strain of European modernism that goes back to James Joyce and Ezra Pound and Picasso. Pound would use pre-Biblical language, Joyce recontextualizes Homeric myth, Picasso deals with African sculptural forms. And here you are using a similar process in this manner of making music. If there’s a narrative in the music you make, what would be the closest analog? Would it be vocabulary? Would it be the visual arts? Is it shapes? Is it colors? Because the words “narrative” and “vocabulary” are often used by musicians, but it’s obviously an abstract vocabulary.

KOWALD: I believe that artists and the way that we play music is a very similar process in many ways. I think a beautiful thing in the music (and some of my artist friends sometimes express jealousy about this) is that we do it in groups often, most of the time, and the artist is most of the time alone in a studio…

TP: You mean that music is a social even a social process.

KOWALD: Yes. Well, art is a social process, too. But then the artist usually works alone in the studio, while we work in a group on stage and in a direct way. The music is going out, and it’s right there. The artist works for months maybe, until the product is ready. But I believe certain questions are very similar, certain questions of how do you free your language, how do you work with form. I talk a lot with artists about this question of form and how to change… Once you have been doing it for years, the change gets smaller. When I was young, I thought every month something new came into the music. Now it is changing much less. Artists have very similar problems. That is classic with them. And artists sometimes have a more, like, formal consciousness, because they work on form for months; when they do a painting, for months they work on the form of the painting. Our form kind of develops organically and it’s right there when it’s just been developed.

But then you come also back to the question of form with Seinko from Tuva, the singer. What is interesting about her is she brings all the qualities of her culture, of her voice, all the Shamanistic breath techniques, all the overtones and all of that, but she left what I call the local song. She doesn’t bring her local song any more. She says, “I don’t sing my song any more. I put my stuff into an open context, so I can play with you or I can play with Evan Parker or Ned Rothenberg,” whomever she plays with. So she left the local song. But she still brings all that knowledge and all the thousand years with her. That’s a beautiful thing. Then suddenly, because the pre-given form, the local form is not there any more, the form is completely open, and we just all can work together. People from China, from Africa, from Tuva, from Israel, from Germany, we can work together instantly without even discussing the matters. That’s really good. That’s really what I call the Global Village. I have this group called The Last Global Village. We are actually playing at CB’s Gallery on the 22nd. We are playing with… [LISTS PERSONNEL] We don’t prepare the music. We don’t rehearse it. We just get together. And most of the people don’t know each other, have never played with each other. And it works, because we don’t arrive with a pre-given form.

TP: That brings me to another question. What do you observe your audience to be? And how has that audience evolved over the forty years you’ve been playing? Who do you find coming to the concerts? How do you think they’re receiving it? Are they involved-enthralled in the process of the music-making? My main response to hearing this kind of music is watching the interplay as it occurs from moment to moment. It’s not so much what’s being played as how I am perceiving taking shape in real time. Other people may have a different perspective. How do you perceive the process with your audience?

KOWALD: Well, the audience has been the same in many ways. There are little festivals in Europe where the same people come together every year to listen to basically the same musicians — the big family. That’s fine. But then, in the last few years, I see many young people coming. Also I play for a lot of artists, like for the art openings, and then you have an audience which has never heard this music. So what I tell in these workshops sometimes, the young people, what for me is important… We’ve talked about form now three times already in this little hour here. We talk about the believing and the love of it. This is important to me. I’m sometimes a little critical about some European players who do it so cold, in a way, with so much thinking and so much formal consciousness. I don’t mind the form at all, and I said that before. But I also believe that you need the love. You need to believe in what you are doing. If I don’t believe in the moment what I play, how can the people down there believe it? That’s what I try to tell the young people. Don’t just think about material. Just do that. Practice, check out the forms and do the work, but also try to come in contact with yourself. This is an esoteric term you read all over the place.

I remember this very young dancer of Pina Bausch who lived across the street, and we used to meet in the coffee house in the afternoon sometimes. He was 22, a French guy, Francois Durer(?), a fantastic virtuoso dancer, and Pina let him do all these little solos in the pieces. And then one afternoon he told me, “Listen, I know I’m a good dancer, but I haven’t found it in HERE yet.” And then he pointed to his chest. I found it really wonderful that a 22-year-old virtuoso dancer, a great artist already, understood that still he had to look for something inside. This is what I’m talking about. “If you don’t believe what you are doing,” I tell young people all the time, “how can they believe it? How can the audience believe it?”

That’s what you were asking about the audience. The audience believes it if you believe what you are doing, if you are in it, if you open your soul, if you open your heart. That’s the aspect people don’t talk about enough sometimes. I think in Black America people talk about it much more than in Europe. That’s I think an important point also to the question where I said I have this pendulum between, let’s say, Black American Jazz and very formal European improvised music. I think the music meets the heart.

TP: Assif, you’re from a generation for whom playing free music is almost another option for vocabulary. Last year I went to Cecil Taylor’s orchestra workshop at Turtle Bay Music School, and there were people who could play the music extremely well and lucidly. But in talking to some of these people, they might play bebop here, and here we’ll play this way, and here we’ll play a dance gig. There were all these options, and free music is one part of the craft of being a musician in 2001. It seems generational, that people with that attitude can embrace this music with extended vocabularies and extended techniques and tabula rasa playing as a genre of equal value to others. Maybe it has to do with the way education is presented now. Not to ask you to speak for your generation, but for you is this an operative thing?

TSAHAR: Well, it exists. Things are more formalized and more clear, and there’s more awareness that one is using certain techniques in a certain genre. Also, I grew up playing actually bebop on guitar, not on saxophone, so I had an experience of growing up and then being freed out of it. Because everything was done, there’s more awareness of what are the things that we’re doing. But in the end, the difference is of being a musician or being an artist, I guess. So for me, I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying just to think about where I am, how I play, where do I find myself, and not think about playing like… If I find myself thinking about, “oh, I sound like…” Which was always with me. I think, “Oh, if I sound like Coltrane,” that’s not a positive thing. That’s a negative thing. That’s…

TP: Well, for a while you want to emulate a sound, and then move away from it, no?

TSAHAR: Well, I think that’s from the beginning, a certain awareness. I might have enjoyed it more in my earlier years, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” But I was always aware this is not what I want to do, this is not where I want to go. I want to feel like I have no shadows chasing after me. Because all these thoughts of style and mentors, which could be like living mentors or dead mentors, are kind of shadows covering what I really want to do. So I’m trying to surpass them and not really… They only will get in the way, in a way. So being within a style thing of, “Oh, I’m playing free” or “I’m playing inside,” all those things, in a way, interfere with what I want to do.

But it is all there, because it’s all part of what I listen to, what I grew up with… You asked in the beginning how does Arabic music influence my music, and a lot of people ask me about Jewish music, and I say that for me I play Jewish-Israeli music if I want or if I don’t want. It’s like what I grew up listening to. It’s in my sound even if I don’t like it. A certain type of Arabic singing… Like, playing out of tune for me was the easiest thing ever…

TP: Microtonal.

TSAHAR: Or microtonal, if you want to be more intellectual about it. But it’s the way I heard people singing. The tone, the pitch always shifts and moves. It’s never like a very specific thing. That’s how I hear. That’s how I play. Because that’s what I heard growing up.

TP: Peter, you said before we went on mike that you could discuss some of the extended techniques you use on bass in the duos, say, with Barry Guy. And it’s interesting, because in some sense there’s a creative tension between the elaboration of these very specific techniques that comprise your sonic identity, and transmitting the heart and love and soul that is your ideal, the imperative for why you do it.

KOWALD: Well, there are different steps. On this CD here is Barre Phillips, who was a little bit my teacher in the ’60s when he came to Europe. He had studied with Fred Zimmerman here in New York. I met Barry Guy later, but then when I went to London in the ’80s, often I stayed at his house. We would drink until early in the morning, and then he would go to a studio and record this Mozart symphony which he hadn’t looked at. He went completely unprepared to the studio, and he could do them, and they all got these awards. So he is a fantastic classical player, too.

But now I want to talk about the third person, Martin Aaltena, who did something to me which really helped me a lot. He broke his arm in the ’70s, and he had it in plaster, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to play for two months. Then he put the bass neck into plaster, too, and then he started to play concerts like that. There’s a record out where there’s a photograph of the bass neck in plaster and his arm in plaster. I thought he had a courage which I don’t know if I’d have had to really go out and say, “I have to forget everything I’ve ever learned and do something completely new.” So he started to stick bows into the strings and made all this sound. The sounds he made were completely sounds that didn’t have to do at all with bass techniques he knew. He just wanted to spend the two months playing the bass, even with his arm broken, and he did that way. But also, all the sounds which came out really freed him from everything he had learned, and it helped to free me. Because I was kind of theoretically… I didn’t want to break my arm to do the same thing, but okay, let’s try really to put the hand on the bass in a way like I’ve never done it before. Then all these sounds come out which you don’t know where they come from. Then you have to combine. You have to combine your aesthetic will, maybe, something you have in your head and something which comes through the music you listen to, to combine with this how to put your hand on the instrument. If those two aspects get into a balance, then I think it’s really interesting.

TP: I’d like to pick up one other trope of this conversation, which is the relationship between your musical expression and the visual arts. So much of your music seems to be generated, performed, and perhaps even done in that context. You’re contemporaneous with German painters like A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer, painters who made an international impact in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not trying to suggest any affiliation, but merely to note that their work was operating in parallel to you. Were there convergences?

KOWALD: I always like to hang out with the guys and discuss everything, and with the artists you often hang out and discuss… With the musicians, too. But then we discuss the methods, and discuss how does this function and how does this work. Well, artists don’t have an instrument. They have a very open way to use material. I have a bass. Of course, I could do other things, and now all the young guys do this electronic stuff, in order to have maybe a more free equipment to work with. But I was always quite a purist. I wanted to do all these things just on the bass. But then, artists have a lot of freedom. Many people do videos, installations… I just saw a documentary a couple of weeks ago in Germany. They are very free in terms of material. I think musicians can learn from that. That’s one thing I definitely have to say. But then our social thing is…I really don’t want to miss it. To go with Assif and Hamid on stage, and the three of us, and that smile, and then we just go, and we don’t know what the next minute will bring us. That’s the most wonderful thing to do.


Peter Kowald Review Column (2002):

“I sometimes like to be like a chameleon,” Peter Kowald said last May, five months before his death. “I like to change color related to the person or the group I play with. And it means that I don’t have a function any more. I am just a bass player, which means that I make sounds on the bass like other people do on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa.”

Born and based in Wuppertal, in Germany’s Ruhr Basin, Kowald brought that fluid aesthetic to innumerable extemporaneous encounters with a global cohort of speculative improvisers. Deploying a vivid, original tonal personality that blended tropes from jazz, Euro-Classical, and Mongolian and Pygmy folk traditions, he was as comfortable navigating discursively conversational duos as the complex terrain of hardcore free-improvised jazz.

Kowald is both chameleon and functional bassist on APHORISMS (Ano Kato 2015, 44:17, 4 stars). True to the title, Kowald, Greek reeds and woodwind virtuoso Floris Floridos, and innovative Dresden-born drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer improvise 26 pithy vignettes from a veritable lexicon of extended techniques, parsing essences with precision and nuance, merging singular vocabularies into a collective sound that transcends instrumental gymnastics. Outcat trombonist Conrad Bauer, a multiphonics maestro who like Sommer was a pioneer of jazz in the GDR, joins Kowald and Sommer on BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (Intakt 079, 52:46, 4 stars); they perform eight brief narrations with similar rigor and timbral scope, before stretching out for two vigorous extended blowout improvs that sustain compositional thought and variety from beginning to end on a minimum of thematic material.

Theme-solo-theme structures spur the intense interplay of OPEN SYSTEMS (Marge 28, 72:42, 3-1/2 stars), a sprawling, ritualistic recital by a first-time-out quartet of Kowald, post-Ayler saxophonist Assif Tsahar, bravura trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and drummer Hamid Drake. Convened in Paris in the spring of 2001, the unit only occasionally meanders, blowing with heat and wit through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and four Tsahar vehicles that conjure up the apocalyptic feel of 1969 BYG record by, say, Archie Shepp or the Reverend Frank Wright. Kowald chants low, gutteral tones in counterpoint to Drake’s muezzin’s call on “Heart’s Remembrance,” an open improv, and presents an idiomatic Ayler homage entitled “Fathers and Mothers.”

Kowald once noted that he and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann – his mentor in early ‘60s Wuppertal — deployed radical jazz as a symbolic weapon to kill their fathers. After encouraging mid-‘60s encounters with expat American avatars like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and Carla Bley, the young Germans set to work at eliminating the stepfathers; in Kowald’s words, “to do it the European way.” FOR ADOLPHE SAX (Archive-FMP Edition 230, 50:25, 3 stars) reissues a rawboned, to-the-barricades 1967 trio album on which Brötzmann blows with primal violence, Kowald bows resourcefully and dynamically, and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen jabs and pummels ametric texture out of the drumkit, setting an expressionist template for several subsequent generations of the young and restless on both continents. Dutch energy pianist Fred Van Hove, Brötzmann’s cusp-of-the-‘70s partner in a trio with Han Bennink, joins the unit for a strong, though predictable disk-concluding track recorded at Radio Bremen.


Kowald at Vision-Fest (5-27-02) – (Peter Kowald):


PETER KOWALD: …it’s about making a castle against the poor people. Like, America is a castle, and then Europe is another castle now. I guess in Asia there are castles, too. So it’s like a castle to defend certain things, certain standards.

TP: I know what you’re talking about. [ETC.] We’re in the boiler room of the St. Patrick’s Church Community Center, where the Vision Festival is being held… [ETC.] Peter Kowald, bass player, master of extended techniques…

What is your sense of the term “avant-garde” and how does it apply to what you do, to the projection of your musical personality?

[45:18] KOWALD: Well, the first thing I have to say: In Europe we don’t use that term so much. And it has been used in the last century…well, at the beginning of the century for artistic movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and stuff. Actually, it is a military term. As we know, the group in front. The group in front which may be in the most dangerous place, the most risky place, and also which can make decisions — or does make decisions which the people in the back don’t do. So that has been modified for art movements in the last century. The way we use it, or the way it’s used here in New York about this music we all are playing, it’s a way we wouldn’t use that any more. Somehow, the term smells a little bit in Europe. It’s a little old-fashioned.

TP: That leads to a question I was going to ask. If there’s a difference between the conception of the avant-garde in Europe and the American notion of what the avant-garde is.

[46:24] KOWALD: So I believe what it meant and what it means is that there’s a movement or a group of artists who do something new, something different from what has been before. And I guess in the ’60s the term came up for this music very strongly, and there has been a lot of breaking up of traditional matters. And so, it has been used now 50 years later…no, 40 years… Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” came out in ’62, no?

TP: ’60.

[47:04] KOWALD: Okay. 40 years later. I would say that’s a good moment, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” which was definitely what at the time people would call avant-garde. It was breaking many, many rules, and trying to really open up the whole question of form. That’s what we maybe have to say first. Breaking up the form was what the whole goal was. Because all traditional musics, all over the world, they have a form. The Inuit singers or Indian Raga or African drum music, all this has form, however open or tight it might be. And I think the ’60s movement, what we relate to the term “avant-garde” now to what we are playing has completely opened up the form, which was not only the case in this music but also in contemporary art and… Remember Nam June Paik, the Fluxus artist, he came to Wuppertal in the early ’60s, and Brotzmann was his assistant for a moment, and Paik had said, “Now you can do anything. It’s completely open. Anything is possible now. Don’t worry about any tradition; don’t worry about any traditional form — anything is possible.” And that was maybe for us Europeans to think, “Okay, now the free…what does the free mean?” It basically means, in the first place, free of a pre-given traditional form, like bebop was and like a raga is or any other music has these forms. Free of a form. But of course, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach and the black musicians in America meant it also in another connotation of, well, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were around at the same time.

TP: Now, the Inuit musicians and the musics of India and the drum music of Africa, you don’t see this pattern of breaking up the form in this manner. These days it’s more that you see people who have mastered these forms intersecting with other people, creating this giant hybrid of vernaculars and cultural expressions. Why was the notion of breaking form so appealing to you at that moment?

[49:20] KOWALD: Well, I have been thinking about this a lot, in fact. What we might see in the ’60s…it started, and now it’s really obvious: That you could go all over the world in a plane in 24 hours, which means in one-night-and-day unit. Or you could have a CD or record at the time from any music of the world. I mean, there might have been very remote corners where you wouldn’t have something, but now everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. And at that time, at that exactly at this moment when this happened technologically, basically, that happened. The form broke open. So the traditional forms… They are still there, of course, and they are still very strong and they will stay. But exactly at that moment, the question came up: What does traditional form mean? Because traditional form is always a local form. But going around with a plane in a one-day unit means that the question of local has changed. And I believe that it’s very much connected, what I’m talking about now, that we can have information about all parts of the world, about all cultures, about all musics, about all art forms. We can have that now. We can discuss it. We meet people who play instruments who come from very different… Like, I play with Sanko from Tuva, and Tuva in the ’60s wasn’t even…nobody really knew about it here in the West, and now everybody talks about Tuva and the music there. So, so much has happened in these forty years. Which means that the local forms are still there, but they don’t have their importance any more. Or, they have it for the people who live locally. We all live locally, we have to say, too. But at the same time, there is a big exchange of all cultural values and traditions and all that is there. People call that the Postmodern maybe. I don’t know if I would like to use that term, in fact. But everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. We can use everything.

[51:30] So breaking up the form in terms of avant-garde, it meant — and Cage has said — that we can use any noise, and any noise is valued. And a saxophone player in New York, he would play saxophone in a way that would make certain screams, as we know, and certain noises. So noise has been with instrumental improvisers included, too. Noise was not excluded. So as Nam June Paik has said, anything is possible. We can include anything.

TP: You mentioned Nam June Paik twice, and in doing so you’ve touched on the next question. To what extent did artistic forms, cultural forms other than music — or politics — inflect the musical personality you’ve come to evolve?

[52:30] KOWALD: I mean, I grew up in Germany, and that’s why I talk about it. And I met Paik when I was 20. So he was very influential to me, in a way, through Brotzmann somehow. But also I was closer to the visual arts at the time, because I played the bass, and I played with Brotzmann, and I was 17 when I started to play with him, etc. But we didn’t grow up with the music like people here did. I was not Albert Ayler’s bass player at the time. What happened here, we watched really what came out here, the records when they came over here later — ESP and all of that. We really watched that and listened to it. But we were not here. We were in Wuppertal, Germany, which is a little town, and we were the only two people playing that kind of music at the time — or trying to. So we didn’t grow up with the music. So our connection with other art forms was more natural at the time. It was usually visual art, and then Fluxus was very important; it started in ’62-’63. Which again, the movement of Fluxus was about everything is open and everybody can what he or she wants to do.

So transporting this or transforming it to the question of playing the music: We tried to say, okay, we don’t want any tradition. We reject our own tradition in the sense of not playing Classical music, Classical European music, not even contemporary music in a sense, which is something which follows the classical music in the 20th Century. But then again, not what many Europeans had done before, learned the jazz licks and learned jazz and tried to copy or being with American jazz… We said, “We don’t want to do that either.” So that was our way to say, “Okay, we play a completely free, improvised music now.” And somehow, of course, Albert Ayler and Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette helped us to make these steps, and they were actually very influential to us in the beginning. But then also, we thought, okay, now we’ll try to have some European music which is just coming out of improvisation and no pre-given form.

TP: In the process, the most committed, adept improvisers developed specific identifiable vocabularies. Someone can tell you from William Parker from Barry Guy and so forth and so on. And you’ve evolved these vocabularies over many years. Has a music which was born from the idea of there being no form or the abolition of form become a formal entity unto itself, and how then does the music develop and advance within such a situation?

[55:36] KOWALD: Well, the pre-given form… Of course, in what we call now the avant-garde of this jazz music or post-jazz music…sometimes it has form and makes forms. But what I call the free improvisation doesn’t have a form — or a pre-given form. But each piece, of course, which is improvised, as a solo, as a trio, as a quintet, will have a form when it’s finished — has a form when it’s finished. Form is not something pre-given, but form is something which turns out to be in the process of playing. But this is basically a situation which is very open, open in the sense, too, that… And that’s what I love to talk about, too. I have played with a lot of people from different cultures. We all have. But I always looked for the question what the other cultures have to say. So from Sanko to Charles Gayle, or from a Japanese koto player…a Chinese koto player is in my group now, ..(?).., who is in my group in Germany now. to Pamela Z(?) from San Francisco, who uses body contact mikes. I like to play in other spectra. But that’s also part of the openness, too.

In a way, I sometimes like to be, as a bass player…like to be like a chameleon, which means I like to change color related to the person I play with or to the group I play with. Which means as a bass player I don’t have a function any more, like, up until the ’60s the bass player had. And still, sometimes, in a groups with saxophones, drums and bass, of course, I still use the function…I have the function of a bass player in that group, too, when I play with Rashied Ali. But in other times, I don’t have a function as a bass player. I am just a bass player, which means that I make the sounds on the bass like other people make it on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa. And that means we are all individuals now. The openness is there. The openness… As I said, we can travel in one day to any part of the world. We can have music from everywhere we can listen to, and we can play with people who also live behind the local forms and just say, “Okay, we are open now, too.” We still use our aesthetics. Sanko, the singer, is an example I like to use often, because she is so obvious. She’s using the shamanistic breath techniques, and she is doing the overtones like in Tuva, but she opened up the form and she doesn’t sing the local song any more. And when we do that, then we can play together immediately, without any discussion. We don’t have to prepare anything.

TP: This is a very radical idea.

[58:45] KOWALD: Well, it’s an idea which sometimes… I don’t want to exaggerate, but sometimes I feel it could be a beautiful little model for how this world could function. Because of course, the forms… We need form, and that’s why many people also sometimes come back to it more than in the ’60s. Many musicians have gone back to pre-given forms — to compositions and to playing time and to playing chords sometimes. But all that is possible. All that can be included. We don’t want to exclude anything any more. Not the noise, but also not the sound. So we can include everything. And that’s nice. Because I believe if you look at it socially, politically, psychologically, everything that is excluded will be a problem later on. So we can include everything. Then when everything is on the table, then we can make our choice and say, “Today I eat the apple” and tomorrow the orange and then the day after the grapes. We can make the choice when everything is on the table. But everything has to come on the table first. And when it’s on the table, then we can make the choice.

TP: Now, this attitude, it doesn’t seem to me, was possible 40 years or, or 30 years ago, even. But now it seems a commonplace to say this. Why do you think that is?

[1.00.16] KOWALD: Well, that has to do with that the world got smaller, in fact, of course, and it has to do with attitudes of… We all travel more than we did in the ’60s. In the ’60s we had an old car, and went from Germany to Belgium, which was five hours. Of course, some musicians traveled at the time, too, but they were much less. And now everybody travels all the time to play concerts wherever in the world. Wherever people ask me to play, I go. Or if I were to invite a musician from wherever, I ask them to come.

So that’s part of that. But also the information has gone… I don’t look at television any more, but what they give you on television at least it’s a sign what could be possible of what we see from other cultures, what we see from other parts of the world. Television in Germany and in America and in the Western world don’t use that. But there are so many possibilities to get information. But then there’s so much information that we have to make choices again. We have to make choices all the time, because it’s too much. And then, okay, we made the choice to make free improvised music with a network of people between Asia and… Maybe there are people in Africa coming soon. I played with people in Africa who understood what I was talking about. Because they wanted to teach me their rhythms, which as a German I never would be able to learn, even as much as I would try. Then at some point, they said, “Oh, you play what you play and we play what we play,” and so we played together. That was a step into… Still people who were very related to their traditional form said, okay, you can do what you do and we’ll do what we do. That’s a step into that freedom you’re talking about.

[1.02.35] TP: You were saying just before that you will travel wherever anybody asks you to play, and you’ve been doing something like this for about 40 years in one form or another, and you’re 58 years old. How have you sustained your intensity and commitment?

[1.03.10] KOWALD: Of course, I have sometimes a longing for being in one place more. Now I have two places, because I am in Germany, as I used to be, and I have a place in New York now, too. So basically I have two legs I’m standing on now. Well, I don’t like so much to teach. I do these workshops sometimes, and I like to talk to younger people about this music, and maybe give away something I’ve learned over the years. But basically, I love to play. So I don’t want to be really a professor at a university and stay in one place. My family…my children are big and have children themselves, so I am completely free to travel. And that’s what I love to do — travel and play. Just play with anybody… Traveling is the biggest thing…it’s a little hard. But to play with as many people as I like to play with and who like to play with me.

TP: Derek Bailey kind of rejects the notion of performance as artistic activity. He refers to it as playing, which implies a workaday attitude. That he is a musical artisan, in a certain sense. If you were to use that general typology of what it is you do, would you characterize yourself as an artist? An artisan? Both?

KOWALD: Well, I would say that at the moment I play, I mean, this hour or two hours of a concert on a stage… Usually it is on a stage. But I prefer the little cafe, the corner of a little cafe; that’s my favorite place, where there are 50 people and everybody is in reach, really. That is my favorite. But this hour of music for me is a special moment, I have to say. I wouldn’t call it a holy moment, but a moment of great concentration. All I can give to the world is that hour, the music in that hour. So when I play with people in a situation where people listen to this music, and not just at home or in a rehearsal space or in any place, just playing… It’s a different thing, playing for the public, I feel, and playing for non-musicians. This is a special moment, and this is still what… I don’t care if you really call it art, but I believe it’s my art, yes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bass, Village Voice, WKCR

For Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2017

In recognition of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th birthday, here’s the text of a long feature that I wrote about him for Downbeat last year in conjunction with his multiple “Critics Poll” victories as “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album”


Late last December, just after Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith turned 75, well before Downbeat’s critics anointed him “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album” for 2017, John Lindberg spoke about “the rare arc” that has brought his old friend to “arguably the most productive time of his career.”

“That Wadada has elevated so much in notoriety, recognition and output of work speaks to his endurance, determination and sheer grit, his complete dedication and focus on his work for 40 years,” said Lindberg, who first played with Smith in a creative orchestra concert in 1978, has played bass regularly with Smith’s Golden Quartet and Organic ensembles since 2004, as well as in a long-standing duo, documented in 2015 on Celestial Weather: Midwest Duets. “It’s a coronation of the idea that true art can rise up in its purity and be recognized.”

Smith detailed his work ethic at his midtown hotel on the morning of April 22, day five of a six-night, six-event residency at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue. Only two of the concerts overlapped with his CREATE Festival, an eight-set, Smith-curated event that transpired on April 7 and 8 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut, where Smith lived during the 1970s and returned to in 2013, when he retired after two decades on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.

“The practice of making art has been my lifestyle,” Smith said. “I work the same way I worked when I taught school. Every day I get up at sunrise. I do my morning prayer. I have food and coffee or tea. I work until 11, 12 or 1 o’clock—another hour or so if I have a deadline. After that, I may visit my granddaughters and daughters. Then I come home. I cook my dinner. I watch a movie. I go to bed. I have no distortions or intrusions.

“I’ve always written a lot of music, on a scale that if I’d stopped writing ten years ago, I could still record for years. I’ve always been able to receive inspiration and transform it into scores, be they musical scores or literary scores. I read scores—opera scores, orchestral scores, string quartets—for my own satisfaction just like you’d read a novel. I’m looking for an intuitive, mystical connection with how those ideas came about—not with what they are. By doing that, you get a feeling for the decision as it was made, like when Shostakovich wrote that line where the strokes of the violin and various instruments in the quartet are only about dynamics.”

At CREATE Festival, Smith celebrated his Connecticut experiences. He presented a new score for saxophonist-flutist Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, both collaborators in New Dalta Akhri, the ensemble that Smith organized during his first New Haven stay, and members of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, which Smith founded there on the model of Chicago’s AACM, which he himself joined in 1967. Pianist-composer Anthony Davis, a Yale freshman in 1970 when he heard Smith, who had just moved there from Chicago, play a duo concert with Marion Brown in 1970 (he first recorded with Smith on the self-released Reflectativity in 1974 with Wes Brown on bass, recontextualized for Tzadik in 2000 with Malachi Favors), joined the RedKoral String Quartet to play Smith’s “String Quartet No. 10.” Drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who recorded with Smith and Davis in 1976 on Song Of Humanity, performed with the Mbira Trio, with extended techniques flute master Robert Dick and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen.

Smith also applied his 75-year-old chops to a solo recital mirroring his 2017 release Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM), and, both evenings, to repertoire from America’s National Parks (Cuneiform), the aforementioned Downbeat “Best Album,” on which cellist Ashley Waters, Smith’s one-time student at Cal Arts, joins Davis, Lindberg and akLaff, the core members of Smith’s Golden Quartet for the past decade.

DownBeat caught three concerts at the Stone, including an April 20 performance of “Pacifica” by the Crystal Sextet, on which four violists and electronicist Hardedge, prodded by Smith’s real-time instructions and exhortations, interpreted a graphic score depicting vertically stacked bands of color, progressively more opaque, representing how sunlight refracts in water as it penetrates to its depths. On April 22, Smith presented the kinetic, blues-infused suite, Najwa, using two guitarists (Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, his 21-year-old grandson) rather than the four who perform on a new Bill Laswell-produced release of that name (TUM), along with akLaff, Hardedge and Laswell on electric bass.

On April 23, Smith concluded his run with “Lake Superior,” a 19-page score drawn from the six-part Great Lakes Suite (TUM), with Henry Threadgill, Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette. For this occasion, Smith convened alto saxophonist Jonathan Haffner, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who conjured a kaleidoscopic performance after a half-hour pre-concert runthrough. Smith played throughout like a man possessed, leaving it “all on the field” on his final declamation, during which he roared through the trumpet with the power and heat of a practitioner half his age. At one particularly intense moment, he stood on one foot. After another, he leaned against the wall behind him. He took periodic pauses to mop his brow.

When they were done, Smith lifted the score for the audience to see. “I changed this—right here, right now—several times,” he said. “I create this magnificent gray zone where no one knows what’s going on except me. I’m exploring the dimensions of creativity. It’s not written. It’s not thought about. Then they solve the equation. My heart feels pretty incredible.”

He moved to the center of the “bandstand.” “I played the hardest I can possibly play,” Smith said.

The comment mirrored Smith’s remarks the previous morning on the phenomenon of playing with such boldness and in-your-face presence at his age. “I play as strong as I’ve ever played—in some contexts, much stronger,” Smith declared, noting a 2½-octave range, “starting from the bottom octave, around the G or the F#, all the way up to the high F or E, and sometimes G.”

He continued: “That’s a physical and emotional artistic gift. It has nothing to do with the way I practice or conceptualize making music. There’s a lot of misconceptions about making art. One is that you have to practice every day, as hard as you can. Another is that you have to warm up for hours before you play. None of those myths exist for me. I’m not bound by the idea that something has to sound a certain way or be done a certain way. What’s important to me is that, when an inspiration comes, I allow myself to receive it and try to read it the best I can, without inhibition or blockage.”

Smith offered a recent example in New Haven. “I got cramps in both rib sides five minutes after I started playing with the Golden Quintet,” he said. “I decided, ‘Ok, we’re going to see who wins.’ I stretched, which relieved the sharpness, and when I started playing I bent a little lower and didn’t think about it until it was over. When I pick up the trumpet and step out to play, I’m oblivious to everything. Therefore, I play as hard as I can every moment. To make live music—to make art live—is one of the most heroic feelings in the world. You have the possibility and actuality of losing yourself inside that for an hour. It’s cleansing. It regenerates your body, your human condition, your mental and spiritual state.”

Apart from spiritual dimensions, Smith added, “the trumpet came natural to my physique and my intelligence” from almost the moment he started playing it at 12 in Leland, Mississippi. “A few weeks later, before I knew all the notes, I wrote my first piece—for three trumpets,” he said. “I started playing live at 13. That got me out of having to go to the cotton field. In high school I played three nights a week, sometimes four. Even if we drove 150 miles from the gig, I still went to school every day. I learned how to do what I had to do. Trumpet is a tubular instrument, and to play it, you have to understand what happens when its physicality doesn’t match yours. When there’s a breakdown, it becomes traumatic for most people, and they try to correct it. But when the trumpet denies me access, I accept whatever it gives me, play what’s possible at that moment, make something out of it. After I do that, I gain the greatest sense of confidence. I don’t ever worry about if my lips are sore. I’ve played probably four or five mouthpieces for as long as I’ve played the trumpet.

“My sound is authentically me, and it comes from here.” Smith touched his diaphragm and his heart. “It doesn’t come from a mouthpiece. It doesn’t even come from an instrument.”

Smith developed his mighty embouchure by playing and practicing outdoors, both in high school and during his 1962-1966 tenure as an Army musician. “Your sound doesn’t bounce off columns or four walls,” Smith said. “The projection level is just after the bell.” He held his hands about 6 inches apart. “Once it gets past the horn that far, you can hear it almost anywhere, a half-mile or a mile away if there’s no trees.”

Roy Hargrove, presented with “Crossing Sirat” from Smith’s 2009 album Spiritual Dimensions on a Blindfold Test last year, described Smith’s sound as “majestic.” In a separate conversation, Jonathan Finlayson called it “regal.” A more granular, metaphysical appreciation came from Laswell, whose second duo recording with Smith, Sacred Ceremonies, comes out this summer on his M.O.D. label, along with a Smith-Laswell-Milford Graves trio titled Ceremonies and Rituals and a Smith-Graves duo titled Baby Dodds in Congo Square. In each instance, Smith weaves in and out of the rhythm, juxtaposing sound and space with fluid rigor, signifying on the cool, simmering Laswell-engineered ambience with a lustrous, blue-flame tone that contrasts to his white-heat declamations the last two evenings at the Stone.

“He doesn’t do much high-register stuff, which you also find in people like Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Olu Dara,” said Laswell, who documented his first encounter with Smith on the 2014 CD Akashic Meditations (M.O.D.). “When he’s playing warmer tones in the mid-range and lower register, he catches this blues quality without the form. There’s some kind of force with a natural element, not just based on the music experience. Wadada’s been here long enough to accumulate these different feelings and elements and experiences about the human condition, and he’s pouring it back on the world. He plays rivers and lakes and mountains and fields. You don’t find that so much in music. That’s why people are responding.”

In akLaff’s view, Smith now plays with more sustained intensity than when he first entered his orbit. “I remember people writing about my playing the austere and spare music of Leo Smith, and it wasn’t necessarily laudatory,” akLaff said. “During his thirties and forties, Wadada had direct experience with the energy people were playing with during that period, which cannot be repeated. He chose not to get in the fray. You could say composition won out over braggadocio. Now, as a septugenarian, Wadada has that in his pocket, and he’s chosen to be uniquely outstanding with it.”

“Wadada always had this inimitable, immediately recognizable, wide sound with this incredible concept of using space and texture and color,” Lindberg said. “But if someone asked me which trumpet player is going to blow the roof off the place every night, he wouldn’t have jumped to mind at the top of the list. But ever since 2004, when I joined the version of the Golden Quartet with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Vijay Iyer, I cannot recall a performance where he hasn’t played really hard. I don’t think he can help himself.”

Smith’s “gray zone” reference after the April 23 concert illuminated his penchant for deploying micronic control of timbre to maneuver and shape the flow within the diverse instrumentations and contexts that he explores. “Wadada’s notation system seamlessly represents composed, fixed elements while allowing for the spontaneous innovation of the player to be embedded within it,” Davis said. “His music was always developed and multifaceted, taking us as performers on a journey through different structures, moods, settings and techniques. You always have to be on your toes, because the structure can change on a dime. You look at the whole score, not just your part—according to what Wadada plays, you might have to go to a different section. That keeps the music fresh; the composition is a living, breathing thing.”

Davis regards America’s National Parks as “a natural progression” from Smith’s epic Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), recorded in late 2011, with the Golden Quartet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Smith took as his subject pivotal events, themes and protagonists in the African-American struggle for civil rights over a 145-year timeline. “Ten Freedom Summers was more turbulent than this album, which emphasizes the more lyrical side of Wadada’s music and playing, and has a beautiful flow,” Davis said.

In 2015, Smith was looking for “another project that would make sense and give me the opportunity to showcase another aspect of my art,” when he received a copy of Ken Burns’ American National Parks documentary. “I wanted to expand the idea of national parks, and also not make them into cathedrals, sacred ground for some kind of religious endeavor, as Burns did,” Smith said. In his vision, New Orleans, which gestated “the first authentic music in America,” is a national cultural park; Dr. Eileen Southern, author of the comprehensive, pathbreaking Black Music in America, is a literary national park. “New Orleans and Dr. Southern are common property for everyone, just like Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite, that should be held in trust for every generation of Americans coming forward to participate in, appreciate and understand,” Smith said.

Lindberg related that in the process of conceptualizing and rehearsing Ten Freedom Summers, Smith engaged in “literal depictions and discussions about the events that inspired certain pieces.” Conversely, when conceiving America’s National Parks, Smith followed a process of metaphoric refraction. “I’m not trying to achieve musical portraits of a spot or a piece of land or a book,” he said. “Through meditation, reflection, contemplation and research, I profile these entities psychologically and aesthetically to give me deeper insight into what that particular something means.”

Although he didn’t say so explicitly, Smith follows that refractive m.o. in Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, his fourth solo album, comprising four songs by Monk and four by Smith, among them an original titled “Mystery: Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium.” “I won’t resolve that mystery, but I’m fascinated to see how it’s taken,” Smith said of the implied narrative. He located his booklet note remarks on Monk on his iPhone, and read: In this life, I am closer to you than any other artist, not in the way you inform your music practice and ensemble intelligence, but in the way we calculate inspiration.

“I’m challenging the notion that Monk’s music is purely harmonic, saying it can be performed in multiple languages in a way believable to the listener,” Smith said. “I use melodic elements to evolve the solo passages. Some are composed as fragments, some as long extended lines. When I play through it, I spontaneously select from those composed melodic elements the portions that I need; what I select is based off what I played before, and also where I’m going from there.”

Where is Smith going as he progresses through the second half of his eighth decade? Among other things, he anticipates releasing another dozen or so completed albums, including his complete string and viola quartets, and a trio date with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette. Their release will likely generate further critical acclaim. He won’t turn it down.

“When I was a young, developing artist, my friends and associates in the AACM, and other independent artists whose viewpoints I respect, all thought of DownBeat as the most major component for this music,” Smith said. “DownBeat has covered this music for 80 years, and written about the major artists of our times. I’ve grown, of course, but I do the same thing I’ve done all along. I did it without wondering whether I’d ever get an award. So having Downbeat recognize in 2013 that I’m a composer of value with the Composer of the Year award for Ten Freedom Summers, and now Record of the Year, Artist Of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year—that’s like a grand slam, to use a baseball metaphor.”

Ted Panken

Leave a comment

Filed under AACM, DownBeat, trumpet, Wadada Leo Smith

R.I.P. Nancy Wilson (Feb. 20, 1937-Dec. 13, 2008) — An Uncut Interview For BN.COM From 2002

R.I.P. Nancy Wilson, who passed away yesterday at 81 — I had an opportunity to interview her in 2002 when EMI put out a four-CD box set of little known older material, which was released concurrently to a date with Ramsey Lewis.  This is the unedited version.


Nancy Wilson (2-8-02):

TP: First I’ll ask about the box set, and then a few things about MEANT TO BE, because both will be reviewed on the website on the date they come out. As far as this lavish set, what made this such a good time for you to release this project in the manner that you did it.

WILSON: Actually, EMI had the idea.

TP: So it was basically you cooperating with them.

WILSON: I was glad that they released the four-box set, yes.

TP: I’m under the impression you had quite a bit of input in it.

WILSON: Months ago, when we talked about what should go in it, yes.

TP: In the publicity they’re sending out, the impression is that you had your hands on a lot of what went in.

WILSON: I didn’t know what went in it. Initially, I picked certain songs that I thought should be in it, and I wanted that live album to go in it.

TP: You wanted that live album from the Sands.


TP: But did you pick all the material that’s on Disk 3, as you said?

WILSON: yes.

TP: Are you someone who’s very analytical about yourself, your records? Do you listen to them once you’re done?

WILSON: No! [LAUGHS] Not at all. I do it, I did it. I can’t tell you how it came about. I just go in there and do it.

TP: That said, in making these selections, did you go back and listen to your records?

WILSON: I know the songs. “Over The Weekend” and some of the other songs are songs I rarely get a chance to do on songs, and they’re some of the most wonderful songs. The lyrics deserve to be heard more.

TP: The box is interesting in that it spans four decades, and spans such a range of styles and sonic palettes and approaches to music, and also many different sounds to frame your voice in.

WILSON: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Depending on the situation, do you change the phrasing or timbre of your voice? Does the instrumental context make any difference in how you project your voice?

WILSON: I never thought about it. I just go ahead and sing the song over what is being played. I’m certain that certain music will bring a different feeling to it. Certain music will bring out something else in a singer. But I don’t analyze what I do. I hear it, what they’re playing, I listen to it, we go in and I usually play the chart down, I hear what they’re doing and I hear where I go, and the downbeat comes down and we do the track.

TP: About how much time would it take you to internalize the lyric?

WILSON: Internalize the lyric?

TP: Or get it to the point where you can sing it and want it to be documented.

WILSON: It doesn’t take but a minute.

TP: Really?


TP: Is that right? You make it sound so easy!

WILSON: But it is! I mean, it isn’t a job. It’s not work. But that is my gift, I guess. I don’t really sweat over a song, or worry over it or anything. If I like it, I sing it, and it just comes out.

TP: You mean, you just know what to do.


TP: And has that always been the case?

WILSON: Yes. I tell stories, and that does not change.

TP: But it’s interesting because you’re projecting your story through the medium of someone’s lyric, and with the range of material you address, it’s really quite a gift.

WILSON: But that’s my gift. I am an interpreter, and have always known that. I am not a writer of songs. I interpret lyrics, and I’ve been blessed to have some of the greatest lyrics ever.

TP: I’ve been reading up on you. When you were 18 and dropped out of Wilberforce College in Ohio to go with Rusty Bryant’s band, would you say that gift was in place at that time?

WILSON: Yeah. I had a television show when I was 15, with a big band, called “Skyline Melody” in my home town, twice a week. People would call in or write in and request songs, and I would sing their songs for them.

TP: At what point in your career, would you say you got beyond influences?

WILSON: I think I’m a product of everything I ever heard. I know there’s… On, say, the love of the humor, the chit-chat, probably I would say is Dinah Washington. The gowns, the look and whatnot, I loved Lena Horne. The sound? There’s a lot of Jimmy Scott there. The phrasing, there’s a lot of his. I heard male influences when I was 3-4-5.

TP: Nat Cole, Jimmy Scott?

WILSON: Mmm-hmm. Billy Eckstine. I loved Louis Jordan.

TP: This was the music of the day. So you just heard this, and by osmosis it got into your style? Or did you break down those recordings and study them?

WILSON: [LAUGHS] I was 8! No, I didn’t break down anything. I’ve never broken down anything in my life. I don’t even know what that means.

TP: I guess I mean playing the records over and getting whatever you got.

WILSON: No, I never did that. I listened to the song, learned the lyrics, and then I didn’t pay any attention to that any more when I sang my song.

TP: Do you play any instruments?

WILSON: I played piano for a hot minute, but the more I sang, the less I could play. I would be singing and my hands would not be moving.

TP: Would you care to offer a song or two by Billy Eckstine and Dinah Washington and Jimmy Scott that you’d cite as a total favorite or very influential?

WILSON: Dinah Washington, “This Better Earth.” “If It’s The Last Thing I Do” is on my first album. Jimmy Scott, “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” “Very Truly Yours.” Billy Eckstine, “Cottage For Sale.”

TP: How much autonomy did you have in choosing either material and/or the people you recorded with when you were with Capitol?

WILSON: Complete. I get asked questions often, “Well, who told you what to do?” and “Who picked material?” It wasn’t like that back in the day. We were artists. We weren’t fodder. Nobody came in and told us what to wear, and how to do this and how to do that, or set us up there and said, “You’re going to sing this.” They submitted songs, I had a management, I had an excellent record company, and my producer was a good guy — Dave Cavanaugh. We sat down and went over many, many things. We went to Broadway for a lot of stuff. We did the best stuff that was out there.

TP: You did a lot of film music, too, it seems like.


TP: This question may be immaterial given your answer to my first question. But in listening back to yourself, if you did at all, can you look upon how your sound has changed over the years?

WILSON: Well, I’m forty years older than when I started recording. The voice has lost maybe… Most of the songs that I sang when I was 22 I still sing in the same key. Rarely do I have to change or drop it down a half-tone. I have a much wider and prettier bottom. I’ve always had that little growl, the whisper; that’s still there. So I haven’t lost a great deal of anything. But if I listen to it, I think I like the Nancy Wilson sound at 50 as much if not more than I did at 20.

Listen to someone like Rosemary Clooney. Same thing. Her voice is just as mellow and beautiful today as it was 30 or 40 years ago. Because they have VOICES. They have naturalvoices. We’ve always sung where it was natural, where we could do it. We weren’t going around singing falsetto, and singing songs all high-pitched and out of our range. We were able to go in a comfort zone. And when you do that, you have a tendency to keep your voice.

TP: Let’s talk about Ramsey Lewis. You met him in the early ’60s.


TP: But you didn’t record until ’84.

WILSON: Right. We did a lot of work together, though. We did a lot of concerts together. My trio, his trio, we would go out and package it.

TP: Apart from being born around the same time and having gone through a lot of similar experiences, what would you say is the cause of the chemistry that you have?

WILSON: He’s funky. When he played, back in the day, The Three Sounds and Ramsey Lewis had two of the swingingest trios out, and… I mean, they could play a ballad and make you cry. And it was soulful. It wasn’t just technique. They touched your heart with their playing. And those were two trios that I thought were very much similar to the kinds of things that I liked. When Cannonball came along with “Mercy, Mercy” and all, unhh!, that stuff was great! That’s the music of my life. That’s the music I like.

TP: I gather this record was done on September 11th?

WILSON: We were supposed to record the first tune on September. We stayed in Chicago and did it the 12th and 13th.

TP: Tell me about the tunes. There are three signature ballads, and “Moondance”…

WILSON: “Moondance” turned out to be really nice. I liked it. It’s a good tune. I heard it by Grady Tate. I heard about Van Morrison, and then I knew that I wanted to do it because I heard Grady, because it was swinging, really singing. Now I will put it on the floor next week at Yoshi’s with my own trio, and we will do it different, probably. We will keep the same tempo, but it won’t be as structured. It will be freer.

TP: Can you tell me about the three ballads you sang?

WILSON: On “First Time Love,” the composer is Patti Austin. I know she sang it; I think it’s her tune. I don’t know who wrote “Did I Ever Really Live?” But I went out and did, oh, like 21 days with Joe Williams a couple of years ago, and he used to do it at the end of his show. I would stand in the wings. I thought it was one of the best songs I ever heard. It’s a beautiful song. Especially when you’re a senior citizen, and you’ve reached the point where you have grandchildren (or I was about to have some hopefully; and I did), then that’s something that you really pay attention to. Brenda Russell wrote “Piano In The Dark.” It was an R&B Pop tune, and I thought it was really apropos for Ramsey.

TP: “Peel Me A Grape” was fun. You got to pull out the stops on that.

WILSON: It was. I remembered it so well by Blossom Dearie when I was a young girl. Then I’ve heard it obviously by so many others. I just thought it had been done very soft and gentle, and I just thought it needed a little more edge! Heh-heh.

TP: Is it just intuitive to you that you treat songs as a dramatist?


TP: You’ve always done it?

WILSON: Always. That’s who I am. That’s what I do.

TP: How much did your early experiences singing in the church inflect your musical personality?

WILSON: Well, I don’t think singing in the church did, but being a child of God did. I couldn’t sing in my church, in the Pentecostal church. I sang in the choir at the Methodist Church. My Mom… I would be out in front with her or her sisters for a few times, being the lead singer at like 12 or 13 with them. But I didn’t consider myself a gospel singer. Because I sang secular music, consequently, I wasn’t able to sing in the choir in my home church.

TP: But in your voice there are so many sounds and techniques that one would associate with that.

WILSON: I think that’s just osmosis. That’s how you grow up and you are what you are.

TP: Did you ever, when you were learning how to sing, emulate instrumentalists as well as other singers? Did you ever think of your voice as an analog to an instrument?

WILSON: No. I was singing lyrics. I was all about what the song said.

TP: And the phrasing was always just whatever the song required.


TP: It’s amazing to have 80 selections that have barely been reissued and encompass so much scope.

WILSON: Yes, that’s what I like about it.

TP: You’re rather emphatic about including some of the material you recorded in Japan in the ’70s and early ’80s. Was there a qualitative difference in attitude for you in recording for the Japanese labels?

WILSON: No. Unh-uh.

TP: You said that they allowed you to be yourself and record who you were.

WILSON: But I was able to do that always. That I was able to record was more important. I couldn’t get a record label in this country. It was good. I had a wonderful producer, a pianist-arranger, Masahiko Satoh, who was brilliant. And I was able to sing, “If You Want To Sing Me, I’ll Be A Song” and “I’m A Balloon,” some really wonderful pieces of material, that were only imported into this country, and I think they should have some exposure now.

TP: Do you have your next recording project in mind?

WILSON: No. I’ve got a lot of work between now and June. Really busy.

TP: You’ll be on the road?

WILSON: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Concerts or clubs?

WILSON: One club, the rest concerts.

TP: What material will you be performing? Things from the new record, or a mix?

WILSON: Some things from the record. Always a mixed bag. Certain songs I have to sing, or the audiences will walk away disappointed.

TP: How do you stay fresh on “Guess Who I Saw Tonight” after you’ve sung it 20,000 times?

WILSON: That song is so great, it does not matter. You can bring something new to that always. You can make it funny, you can make it bitter… It depends on the audience. But it’s still a fabulous tune.

TP: Do you feel that way about all the songs that are signature songs for you?

WILSON: Yes. I don’t mind singing “Save Your Love For Me.” In fact, I study it every now and then. I can sing any of the Shearing things and feel comfortable with them today. Anything from Cannonball, I can do and feel comfortable with. We just changed direction on “The Masquerade Is Over.” We don’t do it as a ballad any more. We’ve funked it up. The guys just had a ball doing it.

TP: How long have been working with this trio now?

WILSON: Twenty years with the drummer and bass player, almost 15 years with the conductor.

TP: What is it about them that makes them so suited for you?

WILSON: Well, they’re excellent. They’re wonderful. The bass player has just got richness and tone, and that’s my major instrument. That’s what I need. I’ve always had a great bass player. And great piano players, too! [LAUGHS]

TP: You may have been asked this 8,000 times for all I know, but if you could name the three arrangers that you most enjoyed working with, who would they be and why?

WILSON: Jimmy Jones, whose harmonic structure was wonderful, who played piano so brilliantly. He was a great accompanist; consequently, he was able to surround the voice with instrumentation that was wonderful. I thought Billy May wrote the best music ever on LUSH LIFE. I love Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson on the big band things, and I loved the harmonies and how they phrased the brass sections, and the woodwinds were wonderful. They always did a good job. They were so dependable, and they wrote… Their music just went different places. You can find so many things in their music.

TP: I’m not familiar with everything you did for Capitol, but I’m under the impression you didn’t do too many things with small ensembles.

WILSON: A few.

TP: And you included three tracks with Hank Jones from the BUT BEAUTIFUL record, which are lovely. Why so few?

WILSON: Well, that wasn’t what was being done during that time. I was a supper club singer. I sang with big bands. That was what I did, other than with Cannon and with Shearing. When we were out, we would usually try to have a big band. The only time we didn’t was in some of the concerts and the theaters, like at the Apollo and things like that. But if I was in a club, it was at a supper club with a big band.

TP: Again, do you find yourself approaching the different functions in different ways?


TP: You just go out there and do it.

WILSON: Yes. Actually, it doesn’t change anything. It spans it. I don’t necessarily have to sing anything differently because it goes from rhythm section to 18 pieces? The music is still the same. It still surrounds my voice, as opposed to me having to change because it’s a big band. The music is written for my voice as opposed to being just written for anybody. It is written for me to sing, and it does not get in my way. They write stuff that…it’s really wonderful how they do it. They leave space, open space for me. You could sing the same song exactly the same way with either a rhythm section or an 18-piece band.


Leave a comment

Filed under, Nancy Wilson

For Russell Malone’s 55th Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2016 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2005

For master guitarist Russell Malone’s 55th birthday, here’s a feature profile that I wrote about him in the fall 2016 issue of Jazziz, and the proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2004.

Russell Malone, Jazziz, 2016:

Before settling into the formalities of an interview in the kitchen of his Jersey City row house, Russell Malone, Southerner that he is, decided to feed his guest. First he prepared ginger lemonade, a 20-minute procedure that included eight squeezed lemons, a lot of ginger, and agave for sweetener. Then Malone shaved daikon, cooked sushi rice infused with butter, fixed a ponzu sauce, seared some pea-shoot greens with garlic and, finally, broiled two slabs of salmon.

Malone worked methodically, washing and drying the dishes and utensils after each stage of the process. He was dressed well — cream-colored linen slacks; a forest green shirt from Thailand with gold brocading, untucked — but didn’t wear an apron. We spoke as he cooked, and continued to speak as we ate lunch, trading opinions and scurrilous gossip, discussing family and mutual acquaintances. Ninety minutes later, it almost seemed a shame to turn on the digital voice recorder.

The subject at hand was Malone’s spring release, All About Melody (High Note), on which the 53-year-old guitarist and his quartet — pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III — address an American Songbook ballad; two American Soulbook torch songs; a spiritual; and originals by jazz icons Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Lee and Sonny Rollins. Malone also presents his own ballad, “Message to Jim Hall,” directly followed by a brief voicemail from the late iconic guitarist.

Neither notions of high concept nor narrative arc inform the program, Malone says, not even his decision to follow his dedication to Hall, who famously played on several early-’60s recordings by Rollins, with Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” which Malone learned while touring with the saxophonist in 2010. “Those songs are fun to play,” he says. “When I make a record, I want the songs to flow naturally, to hold your attention, just like playing a set in a club.” He affirmed his close friendship with Hall. “Jim would call to tell you how he felt about you,” Malone says. “He was big on taking the time, effort and thought to write a letter, get the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mail it. I have a stack of his handwritten letters. I didn’t get around to writing Jim a letter, but I did get around to writing that tune for him.”

For a unifying thread, Malone suggested the title, edited from HighNote proprietor Joe Fields’ suggestion, “It’s All About the Melody,” which, he says, seemed too preachy and dogmatic.“This could have titled any of my other records, because that’s always been my attitude,” Malone says, before fleshing out the core aesthetic principle that infuses his previous 11 leader recordings since 1992 and numerous sideman or collaborative appearances with — to name a roughly chronological short list — Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick, Diana Krall, Benny Green and Christian McBride, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and Rollins.

“I’m as influenced by singers as by instrumentalists, and whenever I learn a song, particularly a standard or a ballad, I listen to a vocalist’s rendition,” he says. “I want to learn not just the harmonic structure, but the story, the lyrics — everything. Those things go through my head when I play them. I try to sing through my instrument.”

In that regard, Malone mentions his unaccompanied reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he heard growing up in Albany, Georgia. “If you noticed, I only played the melody,” he says. “Sometimes a strong melody, good changes and a good story is enough. That’s my thing these days.”

Malone adhered unstintingly to this stated criteria for song selection and play-your-feelings interpretation on both All About Melody and its 2014 HighNote predecessor, Love Looks Good On You. The latter date transpired four years after Triple Play, a trio recital that was Malone’s only studio recording during a six-year, four-CD run with MaxJazz, a fine boutique label that ceased operations after the death of its owner, Richard McDonnell.

“I was working so much, it wasn’t a priority to do a record if nobody would get behind it,” Malone explains. Several labels suggested he join their roster, but none followed up. “My attitude was: Your loss; if you ignore me, I’ll keep forging ahead. Then Joe Fields contacted me. People who’ve worked with him told me he’d support the records. Joe seemed to be the only guy interested in someone who plays like I do.”

He referenced the phrase “interview music,” coined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, Malone’s dear friend and colleague from before the guitarist moved to New York from Atlanta in the late ’80s until Miller died in 2013. “Certain musicians talk a good game, and sound deep and interesting, and it gets over,” Malone says. “But writers don’t consider people who play like me as cutting edge. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective — devoid of melody, swinging, blues and, heaven forbid, any black elements — are described as pushing the music forward. That’s complete bullshit to me.”

He recalled a brunch gig with organist Trudy Pitts in Philadelphia around 1990, playing tunes for “older people who wanted to hear some melodies.” One of Malone’s core influences, Kenny Burrell, working in town, was in the house. So were a group of college students. “Whenever I played something a little outside or rebellious to what was going on, these kids went, ‘Yeah, man — whoo-oo!’ Instead of thinking about the music, I started to think about impressing them with my crazy, dissonant shit.”

After the set, the admirers offered compliments: “Yeah, you were really pushing the envelope; you’re taking it out.” Malone thanked them, proceeded to Burrell’s table, and sat down. Malone recounts: “I had the nerve to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Burrell, you hear what I’m working on?’ He put his arm around me, and started chastising me like I was his son. He told me that what I’d played may have worked well in another situation, but it didn’t work here. You have to play what the situation calls for, which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Any time you’re playing to prove something, it’s not honest. I never forgot that. And I never did that again.”


“I am flexible,” Malone says. “I take pride on being open enough to play with anybody.” He’s played “Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” with Andy Williams on The Mike Huckabee Show. He’s shared stages with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole; channeled the pioneering electric guitarist Eddie Durham in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; played the blues with Clarence Carter and raised a joyful noise with the Gospel Keynotes. He’s played high-level chamber jazz with Ron Carter and supported Dianne Reeves in a two-guitar format with Romero Lubambo. He’s rehearsed outcat projects with Bill Frisell and James “Blood” Ulmer. He visited Ornette Coleman’s loft once for a marathon of shedding.

Malone grew up in a Pentecostal church, where he discovered the guitar. He traces his openness to the experience of playing it there from age 6 to 18. “It fascinated me how these church mothers singing spirituals would move people to tears, or to get the Holy Ghost and shout in response,” he says. “That’s when I started to really listen — the singers might start singing in any key, and not always at the same time, so I learned to be flexible throughout the guitar neck.”

As he entered his teens, Malone memorized his first guitar solo from Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, had “epiphanies” from B.B. King and from “country” guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis on Glen Campbell’s TV show. In 1975, “on a school night when I should have been in bed,” he saw George Benson play “incredible things” on “Seven Comes Eleven” on a PBS homage to John Hammond “that let me know there was a whole other level to aspire to.” Malone soon purchased The George Benson Cookbook and the double-LP Benson Burner. “A gentleman in my church who played guitar noticed that I was trying to play this stuff,” he continues. “He liked Wes Montgomery, and he laid Smokin’ At the Half Note and Boss Guitar on me. Those four records set me on a course that I have not deviated from.”

That course followed autodidactic pathways. “I had enough sense to know that something triggered George Benson’s interest in playing guitar like that,” Malone says. “I read that George was influenced by Charlie Christian, then that Charlie Christian was influenced by Eddie Durham and Lester Young, and had influenced Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and so on. I didn’t have skills to write anything down, and I never transcribed a solo. I like the way I learned because I trust my ears. I’d pick things up and remember them.” He sought advice from lesser players who understood theory, as, for example, when he saw “Misty” in the Real Book, spotted an E-flat-major-VII chord, and asked a roommate to play it. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been playing all along.’ From there, I learned how to identify what I saw on paper. I still ask questions.”

After garnering experience on chitlin’ circuit revues that included Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor, Malone spent much of 1983 in Houston with Hammond B3 practitioner Al Rylander. In 1985, just before he turned 22, he moved to Atlanta, where he quickly established bona fides on transitory engagements with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson and O.C. Smith. In 1986, he joined Freddy Cole, who offered a master class in the nuances of blending with a singer before firing Malone after several months because, the guitarist recalls, “I wasn’t there yet.”

Malone first visited New York in 1985. He promptly received a lecture on the virtues of sonic individualism from bassist Lonnie Plaxico after they played “Stablemates” at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater. “I respected Lonnie, because he’d played with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon,” Malone says. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got good tone, good feeling, and you really hear those changes.’ Then he said, ‘I hear that you like Wes and George and all those guys. You might be able to get away with playing like them in Atlanta, but not here. Those guys were able to break through because they didn’t come here trying to sound like somebody else. They had their own thing, and people eventually caught on.’”

Two years later, Jimmy Smith took an Atlanta engagement, and invited the local hero to sit in for a blues, “The Sermon.” “After the head, I played all my pet licks and generated some superficial excitement,” Malone says. “Then Jimmy went into a ballad, ‘Laura,’ which I didn’t know. You can’t just hear your way through it, because it moves harmonically, with a lot of twists and turns. That’s when I found out I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. After he’d finished embarrassing me, Jimmy got on the microphone and said, ‘Whenever youngsters sit in with us, we like to make sure they learn something.’ He looked at me. ‘Now, did you learn something, young man?’”

After that set, Malone approached Smith at the bar to thank him for the opportunity. Smith, a black belt, turned and stuck his index finger in Malone’s solar plexus. “Let me tell you something,” Smith said, finger still in place. “I knew all those guys you’re trying to play like, and I also taught them. Don’t ever get on my bandstand with that bullshit again.” Then he invited Malone to his hotel room to play for him, telling the youngster about his life and experiences until 6:30 in morning. A year later, Smith hired Malone for his Southern and Midwestern tours.

“I’ve been around a lot of the older guys,” Malone says, reflecting on a cohort of associations that includes Smith, Rollins, Hall and Ron Carter. Another mentor was guitarist John Collins, who replaced Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio after quality time with, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Art Tatum. “John saw Andrés Segovia when he was a serviceman in World War Two, and remembered that he played the whole guitar, compared to young guitar players who focus on single lines like a horn player,” Malone says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re selling the instrument short. In the right hands, it can function as an orchestra. I never forgot that.”

He cited an encomium from Benny Carter, who was 94 when he heard Malone play his “All About You” on Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz. “Benny told me he liked the way I treated ballads and my own songs because I respect the melody and don’t treat them like blowing vehicles,” Malone says. Dr. Billy Taylor — who himself sat at the feet of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum during formative years — learned Malone had been spending quality time with Carter. He said: “You’ve been around the real guys, doing it the right way, the way we did it coming up. You know what’s up. Nobody can come along and bullshit you.”

Perhaps the accumulated weight of these validations helps Malone sustain philosophical equanimity in processing the inequities he discerns as he approaches his own elder statesman years. “I meant what I said about critics who have racist agendas and jump on things that are devoid of ethnic elements,” he says. “But my attitude now is that what anyone decides to play ain’t my damn business. I’m just trying to play good music, what feels right, and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for what I do. When I hung out with Ornette and Blood, I wasn’t concerned about trying to push the envelope. I was looking for a different musical experience. I’m not going to change who I am. I don’t classify my favorite musicians, like Hank Jones, as ‘modern.’ I steer away from that word. I see them as timeless. That’s how I want to be.”


“It’s all in the hands,” is all Russell Malone will say about his plush, full-bodied, instantly recognizable tone. “Everybody hears their sound in their head, no matter how old they are. I just heard a recording of me with a gospel group when I was 16. It sounds like me — the feel and everything else. You refine the nuances and subtleties over time, but it’s going to still sound like you.”

He points to a Gibson Super-400 standing by an armchair in his living room. “Kenny is the reason I play that guitar,” he says. “Just before I joined Jimmy Smith, he did a concert in Atlanta. He needed a Twin amplifier, and I had an old one, so I brought it for him to play his Super 400 through. I decided that if I ever made some money, I’d get one.

“I modeled my sound after him, Jim Hall and Mundell Lowe. They get this big, beautiful, round sound, where you can still hear the wood. Kenny picks great notes, plays great tunes. He also sings. Great composer. Master musician.”

Malone continues: “What attracted me to George Benson was the drive in his playing. He showed us that you can be a great musician and still be successful. That whole thing about being a starving artist never worked for him. It never worked for me either. I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full. A lot of people have disparaged George for ‘selling out.’ That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The way I look at it, he cashed in on his talent.”

On a previous occasion, Malone had offered a list of guitar heroes that also included Chet Atkins, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. “I love everyone on that list, but Wes really sets my soul on fire,” he says. “I’ve loved every record I’ve heard by Wes Montgomery. He never played a bad note. Always got a good sound, good taste, and swung all the time.” —TP


Russell Malone Blindfold Test, Downbeat, 2004:

1. Ted Dunbar & Kevin Eubanks, “Fried Pies” (from Project G-7: A Tribute To Wes Montgomery, Vol. 1, Evidence, 1993) (Dunbar, Eubanks, guitars; Rufus Reid, bass; Akira Tana, drums; Wes Montgomery, composer)

This is a Wes Montgomery tune, Fried Pies. It’s two guitar players. This guitar player, whoever he is, is playing with his thumb, and he doesn’t seem to have good control. It would lay in the pocket better if he played it with a pick, I think. I have no idea who this is. I mean, this is just okay. It’s funny when you play a tune like this, that’s already been done right once. I almost never play songs by my heroes, because unless you can bring something to the table that’s equally as good or better than, what’s the point of playing it. Now the second guitarist is playing it. He sounds good. He seems to be more in the pocket than the other player. He’s got some fire, too. I like the bass player and the drummer; they’re locking up very nicely. Is that Kevin Eubanks? Ah!!! Ha-ha! Yeah! Now, that makes sense. This record was done about ten years ago, right? Was that other guitar player William Ash? I have no idea who the other player was, but I recognized Kevin immediately. There’s a certain way he attacks the notes. He’s not playing with the pick, he’s playing with his fingers, but he has a certain attack. That’s the reason why I was able to distinguish him. He plays very nicely. 4 stars for the bass player and drummer, because they really locked in well. Hell, 5 stars for Kevin. The other guitar player played nicely enough, but I would have liked it more if he’d been in the pocket. 3 stars for him. I’ll give the piece 3 stars. [AFTER] That was Ted Dunbar? Wow! I loved Ted. I never got to meet him. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. I heard Ted play before, and he could definitely play better than this.

2. Jonathan Kreisberg, “Gone With the Wind” (from New For Now, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Kreisberg, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Mark Ferber, drums)

This is nice. Is that John Abercrombie? I have no idea who it is, but he plays very nicely. He has a nice touch. The sound of the organ threw me in the beginning, because it sounded like one of those cute Farfisas or Wurlitzer, but now it sounds rich. Boy, this guitar player is killing! Oh, that’s Jonathan Kreisberg! So that must be Gary Versace on organ. I can’t remember the drummer’s name, but I think he plays with Jonathan every week. Jonathan’s a good friend of mine. Wonderful player. I’ve gone to see him a few times and listened to him, and once you become familiar with a person, you become accustomed to what they sound like. Everybody has a sound. Jonathan is younger than I am; I think he’s in his early thirties. I hear a lot of people talk about young guys don’t have a sound, which I think is total bullshit. Everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice; it just depends on how familiar you are with that person. If you listen to a person enough, then you will be able to distinguish it. That’s how I was able to distinguish Kevin on the previous thing you played me, and this is how I was able to distinguish Jonathan. There are certain things you key in on. Here it’s Jonathan’s sound and the ideas that he plays, and his touch. I love this tune, Gone With the Wind. I like that they took an old standard, and did something different with it. It sounds like they’re playing it in 6/4. Jonathan has chops in abundance, and one thing I like about his solo is that he really took his time and said something beautiful on the tune. Guys with that kind of ability to play whatever they want on the instrument sometimes have a tendency to overstate. But he didn’t do that, and I appreciate that approach. 4 stars for Jonathan.

3. Joel Harrison, “Folsom Prison Blues” (from Free Country. ACT. 2003) (Harrison, guitar; David Binney, alto sax; Rob Thomas, violin; Sean Conly, bass; Allison Miller, drums)

Man, this sounds like some of the sanctified music that I grew up hearing in my church. Oh, this is grooving. Is it Derek Trucks? Wow! I LIKE this cat, whoever he is. See, this is one of the things that guitar can do. It can bend notes, it can wail, it can cry. Whoo, man! Now, this was fine until the horn player started to play. He’s probably a bad cat, but he’s not really adding anything to this performance. Is it Bill Frisell? Oh, this is Folsom Prison Blues? The Johnny Cash tune. I didn’t recognize it without the lyrics. The guitar player, whoever he is, he just got right to the heart of the matter. But the horn player, though he’s probably a great musician, listening to him play is kind of like eating crabs. You’ve got to go through so much to get so little. He’s not really doing it for me. But the guitar player got right to the heart of the matter. Mark Ribot! It’s not Mark Ribot? Dammit. I give up. Joel Harrison? I’ve never heard of him. I’m going to go out and get some Joel Harrison records, man. That’s one of the ways I like to hear guitar played. Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument. It can do so many things, man. That’s going into the CD collection. Joel Harrison. 5 stars. I loved him. I’ve seen Dave Binney’s name, but I don’t know him. I like the bass player and the drummer. I like the whole band. Oh, I know Allison Miller. She’s great!

4. Rodney Jones, “Summertime” (from Soul Manifesto Live!, Savant, 2003) (Jones, guitar; Will Boulware, Hammond B3; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Kenwood Dennard, drums)

Whoever this is, I hear a very strong George Benson influence. The tune is Summertime. Rodney Jones. Which record is this from? Soul Manifesto Live? Okay. This is just okay. I’d like to have heard him pay closer attention to the melody. This is a personal thing with me. What he’s playing is great. That tune has such a beautiful melody. I’d like to hear a little less embellishment of the melody. It’s a little bit too much guitar for me. Now, Rodney’s bad. I’ve heard him play a lot more musically than this. It doesn’t do it for me. I love Rodney; he’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite guitarists, but I don’t feel this. I’ve heard him play a lot better. 2½ stars.

5. Jim Hall-Geoff Keezer, “End The Beguine” (from Free Association, Artists Share, 2005) (Hall, guitar, composer; Keezer, piano)

Mike Stern? No? Okay. Oh, I like the dissonance. The guitarist sounds like he’s picking close to the bridge. It sounds like he’s playing one of those solid body guitars. That’s cool. That doesn’t offend me at all. Mick Goodrick. It’s not Mick Goodrick? Ah, that’s Jim Hall. [LAUGHS] Yeah, go ahead, Jim! That’s Geoff Keezer. I heard them play this tune at the Vanguard when they played there a couple of years ago. These are two of my favorite musicians. Geoff Keezer is one of the greatest piano players walking the planet today. He can do anything; he’s so versatile. What can you say about Jim? He’s a magician. He’s like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat! Wouldn’t that be something to go see a magician, and then the rabbit pulls him out of the hat. That’s the way I see Jim. He’s such a quirky, unorthodox kind of guy, but he’s always musical. Never anything for the sake of being different. Everything that he plays and does has a purpose. One of my favorite things about him is that there’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein, and that’s okay to do, too. But Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too. 5 stars. Give Jim Hall the Milky Way. In the beginning I said Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick, but even though I was wrong I wasn’t too far off-base, because I know Jim Hall has influenced both of those players. What threw me in the beginning was that Jim was picking towards the bridge, and when you do that, it makes the tone of the guitar thinner, more brittle, and that’s not how I’m used to hearing Jim. But what gave it away was just the touch and the ideas.

6. Nguyen Lê, “Walking On The Tiger’s Tail” (from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail, Nonesuch, 2005) (Lê , guitars; Paul McCandless, oboe; Art Lande, piano; Jamey Haddad, percussion)

I like this. Really thick harmony. Thick chords. Is that a bass clarinet? Is it Adam Holdsworth? Nels Cline? Oh, wait a minute. Dave Fiuczynski. No? Okay. Damn. Whoever he is, he’s a heck of a player. I like it. Whoo! Ben Monder. Not Ben? It sounds spacious. It’s out there, but there’s a groove. I mean, you can pat your foot. It sounds good and it feels good. Is he European? [Yes.] This is good. I think I would appreciate this better if I was listening to these guys play live. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. There was some stuff that moved in certain spots, but now it’s going on and on and on. It doesn’t really do anything for me. But I liked what led up to this. I have no idea who the guitarist is. 3 stars. There’s no denying the ability. Everybody can play. That cannot be denied. Nguyen Le? I’ve heard him. He’s good! I’ve been meaning to check out more of him. I have nothing but respect for him, but as far as this performance, I’d appreciate it more if I was sitting there listening to them. I have some homework to do. There’s so much stuff out there. I’ve seen this guy’s name, and I have heard him play and I liked what I heard. What I heard by him was acoustic, and it was beautiful.

7. Bill Frisell, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from East-West, Nonesuch, 2005) (Frisell, guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums)

I like this. He’s getting some very beautiful colors out of the instrument. Nice voicings. Is that Ben Monder? No. I like Ben. “My Man’s Gone Now,” a Gershwin tune. This is really pretty. Is that Paul Motian on drums? Is this Frisell? Aha. He does a lot of different things. He does a lot of things with swells and he uses effects. You never know what kind of bag he’s going to come out of. Oh, yeah! He’s a very wonderful musician, and he’s a very nice guy, too. I have to be honest with you. For a while, I had a problem with listening to guys like Bill Frisell and Metheny and Scofield, a lot of the white players. Not because they were bad musicians. It’s just that whenever white writers would write about these guys, I always got the feeling that they were making them out to be superior to a lot of the black players. So for a long time, I didn’t listen to these kinds of players, but after having met them, I found out that they don’t think like that at all. These are very nice men and they’re great musicians. 3 stars. This was very good. I like listening to things like this, but after a while I like to hear some time. I like to hear guys deal with time. But Frisell is great. He’s a wonderful musician. But for a while I didn’t want to hear guys like that, because of the way certain writers would write about them. But having met them, I know that they don’t think like that at all. These are very soulful guys. They’re just about the music.

8. Calvin Newborn, “Newborn Blues” (from New Born, Yellow Dog, 2005) (Newborn, guitar; Charlie Wood, organ; Renardo Ward, drums)

I like this. This is home here. This is where I live. Whoever this guy is, he likes B.B. King. That’s not B.B., is it? But he likes B.B., whoever he is. I know some critics might look upon this kind of thing as being dated and predictable and not pushing the music forward and whatever, but I NEVER get tired of this, man. The blues, man. To me, jazz needs that. I have no idea who this guy is, but give him the Milky Way, too, whoever the hell he is. I love this. I love the band. I love the way they’re locking in together. This is great. He’s not playing anything slick or fancy, but it makes sense, it works, and it sounds great. Oh, yes, yes, YES! Oh, yeah. Cornell Dupree? Calvin Newborn! Know how I knew? The touch! That’s what I’m talking about. All the stars in the universe. I’m very suspicious… You’ve played some great stuff today. But I read about a lot of players who the critics write about as players who are pushing the envelope or players who are breaking away from the tradition. I’m very suspicious about players who are described that way, because to me, all it means is that they deleted all of the ethnic elements out of the music—or the black elements out of the music. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective seem to be the ones who are described as pushing the music forward. I mean, I know the music has to move forward and everything, but come on, man. If you don’t have this, you got nothing. You might have something else, but you need those ethnic elements to have jazz, man. Some people may disagree with me, but that’s just the way I feel. Right on, Calvin Newborn. Bend those notes. Play that blues. [LAUGHS] Yeah! That’s how I feel about that one. Listening to him… I got the same feeling as I got when Joel Harrison played. I don’t care what color he is. I’m sure he’s white. But he is not afraid to acknowledge the blues, those black elements. He’s a brave white man who is not afraid to acknowledge that in his playing. My hat’s off to him.

9. Baden Powell, “Samba Triste” (from Live A Bruxelles, Sunnyside, 1999/2005 (Powell, guitar, composer)

This is just okay. Whenever I hear people play solo guitar, especially on the nylon string, I like to hear a lot less sloppiness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m nitpicking. I know it sounds like I am. But I have to tell you how I feel. This is a little sloppy for my taste. This doesn’t really go anywhere. If there is a melody, it’s damn near nonexistent. The tune is weak and I think it’s poorly played. I have no idea who this is. Whoever he is, it’s probably a legend. But this is a pretty poor performance. Is it Barney Kessel? Well, I don’t know if he did anything on the nylon string anyway. Bad guess. Bill Harris? He’s a guitarist who lived in D.C. who did some things on the nylon string guitar. No, this is not good. 1star. That’s Baden Powell? That’s surprising, because I’ve heard him play. I feel really bad that I don’t like this, because I love Baden Powell. He’s a monster player. I love the way he plays. But this is not a good performance. I’ve heard him play on other things, and the touch is a little more delicate than this.

10. Paul Bollenback, “Too High”(from Soul Grooves, Challenge, 1999) (Bollenback, guitar, arranger; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Jeff Watts, drums; Broto Roy, tabla; Stevie Wonder, composer)

This is a catchy tune. The band is swinging. Is this Too High? Yeah. That’s a Stevie Wonder tune. This is nice. They put a lot of thought into this. I have no idea who the guitar player is. Now, the guitar player has got some chops. Once again, a very strong Benson influence. George is all over the place. Is it Paul Bollenback? Okay. [LAUGHS] I know his ideas and his touch. Very nice arrangement. He put some thought into this. It’s very well played. Is that Joey on organ? Byron Landham on drums? Billy Hart? Whoever he is, he’s really locking in, man. He’s swinging, laying that pocket down. That’s Tain? Whoa! That doesn’t surprise me. He played on my all-ballad record, Heartstrings, and Tain, man… He’s got the whole history of the drums. There are a lot of young drummers coming up nowadays who are influenced by him, but I don’t think they’ve really checked out what makes Jeff Watts, Jeff Watts. He’s got Kenny Clarke, he’s got Baby Dodds, he’s got Elvin, he’s got Tony—he’s got everything. And he’s incorporated all of these influences and came up with his own thing. Yeah! 4 stars. With Tain, swinging is not an afterthought. Whatever wild and crazy things he does, it’s all rooted in swing. It’s all about that groove. It’s never an afterthought for him.

11. Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Brooklyn Sometimes”(from Deep Song, Verve, 2005) (Rosenwinkel, guitar, composer; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Kurt Rosenwinkel. That’s Kurt! He’ s a great musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s always very musical. I have quite a few of his records around here. He’s a wonderful musician. Plays the piano. Knows the instrument and the history of the music. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s his latest release on Verve, Deep Song. I have it. That’s the beauty of being in New York. You have so many different types of musicians here. So many different types of music to take advantage of. I always tell young players when they come here, don’t just get locked into one thing. You may have your taste and your preferences, but go out and hear all kinds of different things. Go out and hear these different kinds of players, because you may find something you’re able to use. That’s why I love being in the city, because I get to hear all kinds of players on any given night. 4 stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under guitar, Jazziz, Russell Malone, Uncategorized