Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Pile (#4), and raw copy of Karrin Allyson’s Blindfold Test from About Ten Years Ago

Coming in from several weeks on the road to back a new Concord release (her 13th on the label), entitled Round Midnight, singer Karrin Allyson enters Birdland tonight for a Tuesday-Saturday run.  I’m a fan. Like her idol, Carmen McRae, Allyson plays piano with more than an arranger’s touch, as she demonstrates throughout the date (bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson join her long-time guitarist Rod Fleeman in an impeccable rhythm section). Perhaps this is one reason for her uncanny, sodium-pentothal like phrasing, which certainly serves the repertoire on Round Midnight, comprised of blue ballads and reflective, elegiac songs. Allyson  conveys the oceanic emotions with minimal artifice and a complete absence of mannerism or excess or bathos; her husky, lived-in, pitch-perfect contralto conveys a starkness that’s an aural analog to her  Great Plains (Great Bend, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Minneapolis; Kansas City) background. Along with Gretchen Parlato’s The Lost And Found, it’s my favorite recording this year by a female vocalist. All the more interesting that, when coming up, Allyson was known for the cyborg chops she displayed when scatting at fast tempos (to hear what I mean, listen to Footprints, from 2006, on which she displays those skills with Jon Hendricks and Nancy King).

In 2001, in conjunction with Allyson’s release Ballads, on which she sang down the repertoire from the iconic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman collaboration of that name, I had an opportunity to conduct a DownBeat Blindfold Test with Allyson. Here’s the unedited version.

* * *

1.    Kurt Elling, “Say It” (from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (4 stars)

I don’t recognize the voice.  It sounds a little like Mark Murphy, but I know it’s not Mark Murphy. [LAUGHS] I like it.  It sounds good.  It’s a very focused version of “Say It Over and Over Again.”  Cool little horn things behind it.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I don’t know who it is, though.  Unh-oh, this is Kurt Elling.  But it sounds older than Kurt; I don’t think it’s him.  Maybe it is Kurt.  I’ll bet it is Kurt.  Interesting.  I didn’t even know he’d recorded this.  I like it. [AFTER] As I said at the beginning, it’s a very focused thing.  It’s not terribly romantic…but at the same time it is.  It’s not the typical romantic sound.  You don’t hear many singers do this song.  That’s what turned me on about Trane’s ballad album, because it’s not a typically romantic sound.  Like I said in the liner notes, it’s a deeper thing than simply romance.

2.    Luciana Souza, “Embraceable You” (from AN ANSWER TO YOUR SILENCE, NYC, 1999) – (2 stars)

Sounds like a Cassandra Wilson disciple.  I don’t know about disciple; that might be a little strong.  But she sounds influenced by Cassandra Wilson.  It’s kind of a cool arrangement.  Her pitch is a little off for my taste, so I give it a 2.  I really don’t know who it is.  But it’s creative, and I like that. [AFTER] Many Brazilian singers do have that trait about bending the pitch a little bit, and I do like her feel very much.  But for me, if you’re singing an American standard, maybe I’m just a snot, but it seems like maybe paying a bit more attention to the pitch would be a good thing.

3.    Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You” (from COMPACT JAZZ: BILLY ECKSTINE, Verve, 1962/1989) – (5 stars)

Is it Arthur Prysock?  No?  Do I get another guess?  Is it Grady Tate? [LAUGHS] It’s not Billy Eckstine.  Is it?  Yes?  On the third guess, I guess I knew it was Billy Eckstine.  It’s a bit more operatic than I’m used to hearing him present a tune.  “Operatic” may be the wrong word.  Because of that 12/8 Rock feel… It’s lovely.  I love it.  It’s classic.  I’ll give it a five.  I never really cared for the choir in the background, however, but that’s a whole other story.  That’s not his fault.  That’s the producer!  And the time, the year it was done.  Nat Cole did all that stuff.

4.    Norma Winstone, “Prelude To a Kiss” (from WELL KEPT SECRET, Koch, 1995) (Jimmy Rowles, piano; George Mraz, bass) – (3-1/2 stars)

Is that Dena de Rose”?  No?  It’s interesting to take “Prelude To A Kiss” as a waltz and spread out the phrasing so much.  It’s hard to do that.  And she leaves space, which is nice.  Her pitch is pretty good.  I mean, it’s very good.  Nice accompaniment.  They’re providing a nice groove for her.  I might like it better instrumentally this way than I like it for a vocalist.  But that’s totally subjective for everyone.  It’s not an insult toward her; it’s just a taste thing.  And in that way, instrumentalists have it easy.  Not easy, but that’s an advantage they have over vocalists, I think.  Because lyrics, the way you present them… Like I said, she’s spreading out the phrasing.  Because there are a lot of words to get in, but when you spread  it out that much, it goes quite a bit slower, of course… I’m trying to get used to this version of this tune.  I have no idea who it is.    3-1/2 stars.

5.    Jimmy Scott, “All Or Nothing At All” (from OVER THE RAINBOW, Milestone, 2001) (Justin Robinson, alto sax) (5 stars)

Jimmy Scott.  I didn’t think he did anything up!  I love Jimmy Scott.  This is cool.  Beautiful.  He’s somebody who knows how to paint a picture.  I can even see him singing this.  And I’ve never seen him live, so that’s kind of interesting!  He’s an artist.  I wish I’d heard this before I recorded my version of this…or before I recorded Trane’s version of this.  I like the alto player.  He has a really unique sound on his horn. [AFTER] I don’t have a problem with vibrato unless it’s insincere.  It depends upon the age of the singer, too, in a way.  Because physiologically, sometimes singers can’t help but waver.  I’m not speaking about Jimmy here particularly; I’m just saying in general.  So that’s a whole nother matter.  But vibrato I don’t have a problem with if it’s well-placed!

6.    Sarah Vaughan, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (from AFTER HOURS, 1961/199_) (Mundell Lowe, guitar; George Duvivier, bass)

[AFTER A MINUTE] Is that Sarah?  Is that early Sarah?  Am I totally wrong, or is that Sarah?  Mid period Sarah?  She’s having fun with that tune with the breaks in the melody…as if this melody needs any more!  It’s so unexpressive! [LAUGHS] Only kidding.  Sarah’s got one of those trick voices.  She can go wherever she happens to think about, and she can think about a lot of things, so therefore she can sing a lot of things.  And she contains so much… I mean, she’s playing with you at the very end there.  “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” she’s playing with you.  At the beginning it’s a little playful as well because of the breaks in the arrangement in the middle.  And she’s just singing it straight, it sounds beautiful.  5 stars.  Was the guitarist Herb Ellis?

7.    Tony Bennett, “Out Of This World” (from JAZZ, Columbia, 1964/1987) (Stan Getz, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, Elvin Jones, drums) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Tony Bennett.  I like this tune.  I used to sing this tune.  Trane did this?  I didn’t know that.  I may have to do another Trane CD!  What I like about Tony is his pretty much no holds barred approach to singing.  I suppose that’s the Italian Tenor in him.  But he’s not afraid of showing emotion.  5 stars.  There’s a lot of reverb on this recording, maybe a little too much for my taste, but that’s probably the time as well.  Is that Paul Desmond?  Is it a tenor?  All of a sudden I’m confused if it’s a tenor or an alto, for God’s sake!  Shame on me! [LAUGHS] I think it’s a tenor.  Is it Getz?  Okay, I never said Paul Desmond!  He was up there on that high register, though, with that tenor.  I have this record here!  I like Tony in this jazz context.

8.    Dena De Rose, “The Touch Of Your Lips” (from I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW, Sharp-9, 2000) (4 stars) (DeRose, piano, vocals; Dwayne Burno, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] That is Dena, isn’t it?  I just saw her at a gig, and she’s been in my consciousness.  I heard her on Marian McPartland’s show.  It sounds nice.  Is she playing piano for herself on this?  My first version of this tune was by Tony Bennett.  I love this tune.  I like singing it.  This version is faster than it needs to be, but it’s swinging.  It’s nice.  That’s cool when pianist-singers will double their own line.  I attempt that myself sometimes.  She’s a good piano player.  I know that was her first instrument.  A real inventive solo.  I like that very much.  Four stars. [AFTER] As little as I know about Dena, and I like her musicianship very much, I know that she will find, the longer she does this, that her voice is more a part of her than she might realize.  She’s an artist in progress, and she’s going to have a good run at this wonderful music.

9.    Ian Shaw “If You Could See Me Now” (from SOHO STORIES, Milestone, 2001) (3 stars)

One of my favorite ballads of all time.  Why is that singer starting on the bridge?  Just kidding! [AT THE DOUBLE TIME] Don’t sabotage this beautiful tune!  No!!!  Oh, well.  It’s nice, though.  It’s tricky sometimes.  We took “It Might as Well Be Spring,” as many other people have too…a beautiful ballad, and we samba-tized it.  So it’s totally a matter of taste.  I think it’s very important… And this singer is doing it.  He’s enunciating.  When you do a tune fast and it has a lot of lyrics, it’s very important to understand those lyrics.  It’s almost like he’s  trying to keep his rhythm section entertained or something.  I know it’s not Al Jarreau, but he is Al Jarreau-influenced, I think…a little bit.  Is he the pianist?  No.  I don’t know.  It’s a little frantic for me, this version of this beautiful ballad.  I’d give it 2.  Although the singer’s performance is better than a 2, so I should give it more.  3 stars.  It’s almost like this singer is a theatrical performer.  He’s got a great feel.  He’s a good singer. [AFTER] Now that I’ve discovered it’s Ian Shaw, I did hear him on a live gig once and really enjoyed it.  It’s just not my preference to treat that tune that way, but like I said, it’s totally subjective.  I said before I know who he was that this was more of a theatrical singer, and I got that impression when I saw him live, too.  Maybe it’s that English drama, the Shakespearean influence he has from being British.  I don’t know.  Maybe.  He’s a real showman.  He was just with a pianist the night I saw him, and you can only do so much with that.  And that’s  good sometimes!

10.    Betty Carter, “My Favorite Things” (from INSIDE BETTY CARTER, United Artists 1964/1993) (5 stars)

This is Betty Carter, of course.  I love Betty Carter.  Talk about bending the pitch; she does it, too.  Not too much on this.  Betty is an original, very unique.  I feel like I learned a lot from this influence… I don’t know if it would be evident to anyone else.  But I saw her many times live, and she was so integrated with her rhythm section.  Because I feel like I am part of the rhythm section, not only when I’m playing piano but when I’m standing up singing.  She may have felt a little bit like that, too.  I don’t know.  But she’s totally original.  I love her.  5 stars.  And not any singer could get away with doing this kind of… Good for her.  Do that Indian EEYEEYEEYEE thing there.  That ain’t Julie Andrews singing it!  Yeah, good for you!  She’s great.  Not every singer could get away with what she does.

11.    Jeffery Smith, “Lush Life” (from A LITTLE SWEETER, Verve, 1997) (3 stars)

Pretty voice.  I like the conversational style he has at the end of his phrases.  It’s nice. [SWING SECTION] Unh-oh!  I’ve never heard “Lush Life” swung by a singer.  Shows you how much I know.  Again, I liked it on the verse.  It’s beautiful.  I’m not crazy about swinging this tune as a singer.  But I mean, albeit it’s a waltz, but he’s swinging it.  He’s got nice pitch.  3 stars.  I was sort of really digging the verse in that dreamy state, and I know everybody doesn’t like it if they don’t swing or don’t do it in a different way, but it sort of turned me around a little bit on it.  It kind of ruined my mood.  But I suppose it’s a great way to do it in a club where it’s really noisy! [LAUGHS] I have been there and done that!  That’s where we come up with all our different versions.  Pure necessity is the mother of invention.  Or non-invention.

12.    Shirley Horn, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from I LOVE YOU, PARIS, Verve, 1994) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Shirley.  I was going to comment on the piano playing, but I should just wait… I love Shirley Horn.  I’ve never heard her do this either.  I love Shirley.  She’s another unique, beautiful interpreter of songs for me.  Her accompaniment, of course, is dreamy for her.  She takes a bath in her ballads.  She’s got all those suspended chords that always leave you…suspended as a listener.  5 stars

13.    Carmen McRae, “Speak Low” (from PRICELESS JAZZ: CARMEN McRAE, GRP, 1955/1997) – (5 stars)

Early Carmen!  I love Carmen.  She can do no wrong. [LAUGHS] Carmen has so much attitude in her singing and contains… She’s a little bit like Sarah, but Sarah is a little more on the romantic side — or can be.  But she can be sassy, of course, like she was given the name.  But Carmen has so much attitude in  her singing.  It contains all kinds of emotion within one phrase.  Yeah, I love Carmen.  Five stars.  I like this tune a lot.  I used to do it.  It’s a cool arrangement, too.  It’s fun.  I have no idea who it was.

14.    Billie Holiday, “Why Was I Born?” (from THE COMPLETE BILLIE HOLIDAY ON COLUMBIA: 1933-1944, 1937/2001) – (5 stars) (Buck Clayton, tp.; Teddy Wilson, piano; Benny Goodman, cl.)

“Why Was I Born,” obviously.  It’s not Louis Armstrong, is it?  Oh. [LAUGHS] Billie Holiday.  Of course.  Those are different changes at the end of the A-section.  It’s interesting.  Different chord changes than I know, anyway.  I never heard Billie’s version of this.  I guess this is THE version! [LAUGHS] I knew Coltrane’s version. [CLARINET SOLO] The Dixieland approach.  [When does this sound like it’s from?] The ’40s. [Who do you think the pianist was?]  Jimmy Rowles?  She used to work with him all the time. I have no idea.  Was it Buck Clayton on trumpet?  Was it Tommy Flanagan?  Teddy Wilson!  Oh, sure.  So you want me to give that a star rating?  5 stars. [LAUGHS] [So you’re more familiar with her later recordings.] Mmm-hmm.  Not so much the earlier stuff.  It’s a terrible thing to admit.  But I had to grow into Billie when I first started singing.  She didn’t hit me as quickly as Sarah and Carmen, Ella… Part of it is that I did hear her later stuff first, like Lady In Satin, things that now I really appreciate.  I think she’s somebody that you keep discovering.  She’s got layers.  She’s geologically got a lot of layers going on there.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Singers, The Pile

Interview with Dave McKenna (May 30, 1930-October 18, 2008)

Via Larry Appelbaum’s  birthday notifications on Facebook comes word that today is the mutual birthday of Benny Goodman and the singular pianist Dave McKenna. One of the great originals, McKenna, a basically self-taught pianist out of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, went on the road at 17 and never looked back…

In 1999, I had an opportunity to interview McKenna for the publicity bio for a trio recording on Concord with clarinet legend Buddy DeFranco and guitarist Joe Cohn called Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us, following a duo from three years before entitled It Might As Well Be Swing. Throughout both dates, the masters played with unfettered effervescence, impeccable craft and a fiery edge that would be the envy of musicians young enough to be their grandchildren.

Their felicitous chemistry wouldn’t make sense if you looked at their careers superficially.  DeFranco is supposed to be a cold, cerebral player locked into the tropes of jazz modernism, while McKenna was the contemporary embodiment of old-style, two-handed pianism — the ultimate “saloon piano player.”  But they shared a profound common denominator.  Both came up in the top-shelf dance bands that incubated so many personal improvisers during the decade spanning World War Two and the Korean War when bebop entered common jazz parlance.

McKenna emerged from a strong regional New England jazz culture that produced such generational contemporaries as—among others—Phil Woods, Sal Salvador, and Joe Morello, Horace Silver, Gigi Gryce and Paul Motian. As he stated below, Nat Cole was his pianistic model, and he developed a rollicking-yet-subtle orchestral approach that he applied to every tune. The distinguished piano critic Robert Doerschuk described his unique style as follows in the liner notes to another of McKenna’s numerous Concord recitals, entitled Easy Street. “The best I can describe it, Dave McKenna plays like he has three hands.  Where most pianists tend to devote their left hand entirely to chords or bass lines, using the right exclusively for melodies, McKenna seems to split each hand in half.  The bottom two fingers of his left hand dance through bass lines Ray Brown would be happy to conceive, the top two fingers on the right hand explore variations on the theme of the tune, both thumbs and second fingers play chords in between, and the middle fingers jump in wherever they’re most needed.”

McKenna was tremendously consistent; almost any of his more than three dozen recordings are worth looking for.

Dave McKenna (Ted Panken) – (1-27-99):

TP:    It said in the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz that both your parents were musicians.  Is that right?

McKENNA:  Yes.  Well, my father was just a part-time musician.  He played the snare drum in military type concert bands, like small towns used to have.  He played very well, and he was a good snare drummer.  He played a little dance music.  That’s where he met my mother.  And my mother was a good classical violinist and a good piano player.

TP:    Did she give you your first musical education?

McKENNA:  No, she didn’t.  She didn’t think she was a good enough teacher.  But I used to hear her play.  She played classical; she didn’t play jazz on the violin.  But at home I heard her  play the standards of the late 1930s and 1940s, like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Stormy Weather,” and she played them very good, all the nice changes, nothing elaborate.  Plus I heard radio jingles, the early jingles, and I went to the piano and picked out tunes.  My mother sent me to the nuns at parochial school.  They were nice old ladies, but I hated the study of music.  I really did.

TP:    You liked playing and not studying.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  Later I took a few lessons from a guy in Boston, Sandy Sandiford.  But he more or less left me alone.  He gave me a few assignments that I played, to work out some variations on this or that.  He wanted me to play scales, too, but I didn’t.  He saw that right away and he laughed, and he said, “Well, you’re not going to do it,” which was obvious.  But he said, “You’re playing very nicely and continue to do what you do.”  The lessons were kind of casual.  I’d stop them if I felt bad or I had a cold or something.  But I’d go up there, take a train to Boston.

TP:    Did your technique and piano conception develop organically?

McKENNA:  Yeah, I think so.  Just playing at home.  My early gigs were three-piece bands, piano, saxophone and drums.  I think I did my first one at 12 or 13.   It’s a French-Canadian town, and there were a lot of wedding jobs.  The first few were non-union.  They even had bands for pre-wedding showers.  French-Canadians were very big for that.

So I worked that way, and then I joined the union.  When I joined the union I had to play with a band that played Polish polkas half the night.  I didn’t stay very long with it.  So I worked around home, and then Boots Mussulli came back from Stan Kenton’s band around 1947.

TP:    I assume you were listening to jazz pianists and digging them.

McKENNA:  No, not so much.  First of all, I liked songs, and I think I had a very brief time with liking the cowboy singers, Gene Autry and people like that.  Then I heard a Bing Crosby record.  I liked him okay, but he did a couple of things with a Dixieland band, either Bob Crosby or John Scott Trotter, and I liked that. Around that time, I got interested in Harry James’ band, and then Benny Goodman’s band — and I was hooked from then on.  I used to try to play like Benny rather than Teddy, although I had the utmost respect for Teddy.  (Nat Cole has been my favorite piano player for years; I loved his trio when I heard it. ) But most of that time I listened more to horn players.  Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw.  Also  Count Basie’s band, but I didn’t even know who those guys were at first, like Lester and Count himself. I love Basie.  Duke Ellington was an early favorite, too.  And later on, Bobby Hackett was one of my favorites.  By that time I was listening to Bird and Diz, too.  So I always listened to horn players more than piano players.

TP:    You mentioned in another one of these liner notes that you were inspired by trumpet players, like Dizzy Gillespie  — that you played a little trumpet as well.

McKENNA:  Yeah, although not particularly with Diz.  Some of the swing trumpet players.  I loved Cootie and Rex Stewart, I loved Billy Butterfield and I loved Bobby Hackett.  Buck Clayton, oh, he knocked me out.  And then Dizzy, too.  Dizzy and Bird and Miles, early Miles — I liked all that.  But even when I was listening to Bird, I loved Johnny Hodges; he was one of my favorites.  I loved Duke’s band.  I loved even Duke’s piano playing.

TP:    Why do you say “even Duke’s piano playing”?

McKENNA:  Because most people give him short shrift on that.  They  don’t pay enough attention to him.  I love Count Basie’s piano playing, too.  But as far as all the other piano players, I respect them very much and I like them a lot, but they weren’t the ones that inspired me the most.  It was horn players most of the time.

TP:    It sounds like  in developing your style, you just were playing music by your mind’s ear.

McKENNA:   Right, absolutely.

TP:    Were you very involved in bebop?

McKENNA:  When I was 19 or so, I went with Charlie Ventura.  I loved those guys.  I loved Bird and I loved Diz, but  I also loved the players who were on that band. Boots was a fine player, to — he went back on the road with Charlie and played baritone, whereas he was an alto player with Stan Kenton.  But Conte Candoli was on the band; I loved his playing.  Bennie Green, the trombone player.  He was wonderful.

TP:    You recorded one of his pieces on an Epic date, called “Expense Account.”

McKENNA:  Yeah, that was Bennie’s tune.

TP:    Let’s  get  back to your chronology, though.

McKENNA:  I worked with Boots, and he went back and got me with Charlie Ventura.  That was the small band.  It was the one originally that Roy Kral and Jackie Cain were with.  Boots asked me if I wanted to come on that, but maybe I was too scared or something — I was  18 or 19.  So another piano player went out for a while, then I went out. I named those guys already.  Charlie was the leader, Conte Candoli, Bennie Green, Boots Mussulli. Betty Bennett was the singer.  She later married Andre Previn.  Fine singer.  But no guy singer.  Red Mitchell was the bass player, and Ed Shaughnessy played drums.  Red left, Kenny O’Brien came back on.  Red left to join Woody.  Woody broke up that Second Herd and took a small band to Cuba with Milt Jackson, Bill Harris and Red Mitchell.

Then Charlie broke up that band.  I went home for a couple of months.  Then Red Mitchell called me.  He said, “Woody’s reorganizing a big band.  You want to come on?”  So I did.  Then I stayed in Woody’s band until I was drafted in the Korean War.  I spent almost two years as a cook mostly in the Army, and never got in a band.  I got out in something like September, and Boots was back home.  I worked a little with Boots Mussulli again around Worcester and Milford, where he was from. Then Charlie called again, and I went back to that quartet with Charlie, with Sonny Igoe and Bob Carter on bass and me on piano, then later we added Mary Ann McCall.  Then we did a few interesting gigs.  We were on a Stan Kenton Festival of Jazz which predated all those Newport jazz things.  It was in 1955 or so, and it had Stan’s band and the Shorty Rogers-Shelly Manne All Stars with Jimmy Giuffre and Pete Jolly and Curtis Counce, the Art Tatum was on it.  We rode the buses.  And Johnny Smith, who had a big hit, “Moonlight In Vermont,” on all the jazz stations…

TP:    So you got to meet Tatum.

McKENNA:  Oh yeah.  I rode the bus with him. He was a beautiful guy.

TP:    Say a few words about him.

McKENNA:  Well, he was just astounding. But his orientation, it was like hearing Franz Liszt or Rachmaninoff play.   I mean, he could swing like a son of a gun.  If you hear about eight bars of that “Elegy,” he played stride better than Fats maybe.  But he got impatient with that, and he was back to those tremendous classical runs and arpeggios.  It was beautiful.  But he made you sweat when you listened to him.  And he had a nice trio, although he was probably fettered by a trio.  He had Slam Stewart, a marvelous bass player, and Everett Barksdale on guitar.  So I think I only heard him play one solo.

TP:    You’ve said that you also feel fettered by a trio.

McKENNA:  Yeah, but not because I have any technique.  I like to play rubato, change tempos, change keys, and I’d have to rehearse with a bass and drums to get that going.  So I don’t like the piano format, no.  But I love working with a band, a little band either four pieces, or five.  I love a full rhythm section, too.  I love a guitar.  Then I can just plink-plank-pluck, you know.

TP:    Would you say your style was pretty fully formed by the time you went in the Army?

McKENNA:  Well, yeah, but I got more pianistic later.  When I played alone then, I played just a single line in the right hand and a single line in the left, and a few chords here and there.  Not when I played a ballad, but…

TP:    You play like an orchestra now.

McKENNA:  I didn’t consciously become a solo piano player using a bass line.  I just used it to fill up what I heard on records.  That’s the way I played at home.

TP:    Well, you were very distinctive among pianists who came up when you did because of the way you used the left hand.

McKENNA:  I don’t know about that.  And I’m sick of doing that, to tell you the truth — I mean, the bass line.  I’m very sloppy with stride; I came to it later in life. My favorite way to play solo is sort of rolling the chords, like four to the beat, sort of strumming them like a guitar.  Can’t do it too fast, though.  So I much prefer that to the single-note line.  You have to use a little more exertion for that.

TP:    So you were influenced by rhythm guitar players also?

McKENNA:  Yeah.  I think I was.  I loved Count Basie and Freddie Green’s rhythm.  Then later on,  I got to do a couple of record dates in New York with Barry Galbraith, who was the number-one studio rhythm guitar player.  He was in that famous Claude Thornhill rhythm section which they called “the sophisticated Count Basie.”  They swung in a gentler manner, but they swung, though.  It was Billy Exiner on drums, Claude, Joe Shulman on bass and Barry on guitar.  Those guys are all long gone now, of course.

After Korea, Charlie called again with that quartet.  I was with Charlie about three or four different times.  After that, Gene Krupa called, and I worked with his quartet for a while, and I went back with Gene at different times.  I had a short time with Stan Getz, very enjoyable.  But I got a little sick, had to go home for a while, and then I worked with  Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.  Then Gene Krupa again and Charlie again.

But in 1958 I joined Bobby Hackett, and I had a long association with Bobby.   I would leave and go back.  It was on and off until Bobby died around 1978 or ’77, whatever.  Then I worked in Eddie Condon’s in New York City for a while.

TP:    You lived in New York for a while.

McKENNA:  Yes, I did, from 1960 to about ’66, something like that.  I worked at Eddie Condon’s first with Peanuts Hucko’s band, then it was Yank Lawson’s band.  The first band didn’t have a bass.  It was Peanuts, Cutty Cutshall, and Buck Clayton.  Oh, I loved Buck!  Then Buck left, and Nick Travis came on for a bit, and then Yank Lawson came on.  When Peanuts left, Yank became the leader.  Cutty was there all the time.  I worked with different drummers, but we had a bass player.  It was a tough job, but those guys were good players.  And I started to retrogress.  I started to get more interested in the older traditional jazz.  I still played basically the way I did, but I changed my outlook.  Even with Hackett, I started to play… I started using the minor 7th in front all the time.  I started to become a little more old-fashioned, and I think a little too much so that way. [LAUGHS] I’m sort of a mainstream player.  A guy like Bill Evans, who I admire tremendously, was my age, but he went on to pioneer a new piano style.  Maybe in the very early ’50s we played more or less alike… Maybe.  I’m not sure of that.  Maybe I was always a little bit more old-fashioned.

TP:    At least from that trio record, it sounds like your time is more in the older piano players, and Bill Evans has more of a Bud Powell type of left hand.

McKENNA:  I suppose so.

TP:    There’s a quote I read where he said he didn’t get records by piano players except the records he collected of you.

McKENNA:  I think I did see that.  There’s a another quote a long time ago in DownBeat that I’m kind of proud of.  It was a thing about Andre Previn, and toward the end of the interview he said, “What young piano players do you like?”  He said, “Well, I’m not certain how young they are, but I love Bill Evans and Dave McKenna,” something like that.

Then of course, in those days, with Zoot and Al… I had to take a gig with Gene Krupa, went back with Gene for a couple of weeks because it paid more money.  DownBeat  had a “Caught In The Act” which said it was Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, with maybe Knobby Totah on bass, Ray Mosca on drums, “and Bill Evans, subbing for Dave McKenna.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Whoa, man, I wish I could clip that out.”  Bill Evans subbing for Dave McKenna.

TP:    You must know 10,000 tunes.

McKENNA:  Oh, no, man!  Nobody does. In fact, there are guys that know more.  Hank Jones, Jimmy Rowles when he was living, Tommy Flanagan, they know many more tunes than I do.  They know the Bebop tunes, too, and I stopped learning them.  The Bebop tunes I knew go back to “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Yardbird Suite” and “Groovin’ High,” Dizzy’s early things, “Dizzy Atmosphere,” and then maybe up to “The Preacher,” Horace Silver and all that — then I stopped listening to it.  I didn’t stop liking it.  I just got into tunes and all that shit.

TP:    Are you a vocals man?  Do you know the lyrics to all the tunes?

McKENNA:  No.  I mean, I know a few verses and I like them, but Jimmy Rowles had me beat a mile. Well, there are piano players around, more like cocktail piano players; they know more tunes and more verses than I do.  I play them if I know them.

TP:    And when you’re improvising on them, are you thinking about lyrics?

McKENNA:  I never used to.  And you know, for a long while I didn’t even know who wrote what tune.  I mean, I knew the obvious, like Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust” and I knew Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day,” and I knew George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.”  But later on a friend of mine who was a brilliant musician, an arranger who gave it up for… He said, “Do you realize how many tunes Harry Warren wrote?” and he told me what he wrote — and he got to be my favorite songwriter for a while.  He’s in that class of Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin and Porter, great Pop tunes.  He wrote some rinky-tinky tunes; I even like them.  But “The More I See You,” “I Wish I Knew”…

TP:    Talk about playing a duo and playing a trio and playing a solo, and the different ways you approach them.

McKENNA:  I have no analytical approach.  I just go in and do the best I can.  But  it’s tough  playing solo, and  even tougher playing with a duo.  You’re playing every minute.  At least the horn player gets to rest while you play a solo.

TP:    Duos and trios have been part of your working life for 40-50 years?

McKENNA:  Well, no, not the duos and things.  I did a couple of trio records with Scott Hamilton and Jake Hanna, and I did a few duo records with my old pal Dick Johnson, including one for Concord…

TP:    Well, when did you start being primarily a solo or duo pianist?

McKENNA:  I made my first solo album in 1955, when I was 25, but I didn’t do much solo work in New York at all. I took solo gigs on the Cape during the summers in the early ’60s, and then when I moved back to the Cape after Condon’s I started playing solo extensively. I had done solo gigs and  solo records, but that’s when I started to make a living at it more or less.  I got into it in the ’70s, and it became most of my living — and still is, I guess.  But I’d like to change that. I’m having a little trouble with my hands now and I’d like to play in a little band, but can I make a living?  But I don’t think I’ll be able to make much of a living playing solo either, because my technique isn’t that good, and I’m slowing up and having trouble.  But my hands are feeling a little better in the last couple of weeks, so we’ll see.  I’m starting to play a little more at home on the piano and stuff.

TP:    One aspect of your technique, from what I read in one of these liner notes, the writer said you break up your hands into two parts, like you use the outer two fingers…

McKENNA:  That’s all technical.  I don’t even know what I’m doing.

TP:    So it’s all intuitive for you.  It’s the way you learned.

McKENNA:  Yes.  I am a by-ear piano player — no question.  I had a little classical training. As I said, I had one other teacher, Sandy Sandiford, who was a black guy in Boston who was  a very nice jazz piano player, but he also wrote for singers up there.  I heard about him through another lady piano player in Woonsocket and I went there.  He said, “listen to this and listen that.”  He tried to make me play scales, but I wouldn’t do it.  Then I had a classical teacher very briefly in Woonsocket, a guy who just died lately, who was a classical piano player who got into church music or something.  He tried to give me Chopin.  But he said, “Dave, what’s the use?  You don’t practice.”  I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”  He said, “Just continue what you’re doing.”

I read music to a certain extent, but not well.  So when I was in New York I couldn’t have made a good living as a studio piano player, because I wasn’t a good reader.  So that answers that question.

In the ’80s I was almost exclusively a solo piano player.  I had one long gig during that time at the Copley Plaza in Boston, for most of the decade; I worked there about nine months of the year.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time in Boston when you were a kid?

McKENNA:  No.  That’s the funny part of it.  My mother is from Boston, and I grew up less than 40 miles away.  But when it came time to leave, I spend much more time in New York.  It wasn’t until later years I got to Boston.

TP:    So talking to you about the Boston scene in the ’40s and ’50s is kind of pointless.

McKENNA:  Yes, it is.  I was aware of it.  I used to go when I was between gigs.  When I’d leave Charlie or Gene, I’d go up and hear the guys.  They had that Jazz Workshop at the Stables and all; I’d go up and I met Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, and all the guys. But in those days I spent much more time on the road and in New York City.

TP:    But it seems you always knew you were going to be a musician.

McKENNA:  Well, the thing is, I drifted.  I thought maybe I’d go to college.  But there was no money to send me, and my marks weren’t that good in high school.  So rather than a job in a factory in Woonsocket, which was a mill town, and right after World War Two most of them went south… What else was there for me?  I should have gone into the Post Office like my father; I would have had a pension now.  I’m not kidding either.  But I just drifted into it.  That’s the way it was.  And I figured you don’t have to get up early in the morning, which was the way it used to be, more or less.

TP:    Well, you’d go to bed early in the morning.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  No more of that.  And sometimes you do have to get up ridiculously early in the morning when you’re on the road — to catch a plane.  But I never intended to be a professional musician.  I never did.

TP:    It just happened.

McKENNA:  Yes, I just drifted into it.


Filed under Dave McKenna, Interview, Piano

Ethan Iverson Interviews Henry Threadgill

If you’re linking to this very young blog, you probably know  “Do The Math,” the forum in which Ethan Iverson, best known as the formidably creative pianist in The Bad Plus, expresses his omnivorous interests. But if you don’t, I urge you to spend some time navigating Ethan’s archives, which include, in addition to incisive criticism,  informed, in-depth interviews with musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett to Wynton Marsalis, not to mention Billy Hart, Stanley Crouch…and many more.  Ethan’s latest installment is a lengthy sitdown with the composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill for a BBC3 profile

Haven’t figured out yet how to create hyper-links within the text,  so please find the link in the “Blogroll” section  to your right.

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Filed under AACM, Ethan Iverson, Henry Threadgill, Interview

Gonzala Rubalcaba (Part 3) — WKCR, June 29, 2006

Gonzalo Rubalcaba (June 29, 2006, WKCR):

[Gonzalo was playing at the Jazz Standard with Matt Brewer and Jeff Waits, after two nights performing solo, and a few days after performing three piano duos with Herbie Hancock at Carnegie Hall.  Solo [Blue Note] had just come out.]

TP:   In the liner notes to Solo, you write, “For a long time, people at every event have asked me, ‘When will you do a solo CD?’ Today this work is already a memory for me, resulting from the many hours of listening, observing, evaluating, criticizing, and reevaluating. I have come to the conclusion that although this is a solo album, I have never been more accompanied. My history, nostalgia, memories, affection, faith, and the multitude of the unseen companions of solitude, also from the profusion of signs and sounds coming to me also from these otherwise silent colleagues. I speak in these terms, because when I theorize over music and art in general, I feel the need to go beyond the limitations and restrictions of speech in describing the significance and life of the artist, the artistic process, the act of creation, and its product as it actually exists in the music. When I thought of an organized the music of this disk, I felt the necessity to create an album of secrets, letters and notes and photos, something like an aural diary. Everything has been openly stated in the most classic way. But more importantly, it is an album of intuition and courage, where the important messages are openly stated, but then echoed by murmurs, whispers and suggestion.”

So it has been a long time coming. And if someone had not heard a Gonzalo Rubalcaba record since, let’s say, 1995, they might be surprised at how much space and how much silence and how much restraint is embodied in your playing on Solo. I don’t know if that’s a question or not. But talk to me about the process of concretely preparing to do this date.

GONZALO:   I want to believe that right now I have so much music in my mind than before, just because I’ve accumulated a lot of reference, confrontations, stores, stories, memories. And I cannot put everything at the same time without a real and great organization. So I have to find the right space and form to translate all those memories, and give them the importance that each one has. So that obligated me to create kind of a performance where I had to be very careful in the way that I transmit it. Technically, musically, and in terms of spirituality, I think that this is one of the best moments in my career, where I feel very relaxed. I don’t know how to name it. But I feel very comfortable, very well-trained to do that—especially this record. It took me a long time to do it—partly because there’s a stipulation in my contract that I do a solo record at this point,  following the other records that I was supposed to do.  I appreciate that now, because I think there was not a better moment to do that.  I had now a better vision of what should be a solo record, taking a few factors into consideration. The Cuban tradition. My classical training. My relationship with the jazz idiom. The references coming from different kinds of players—classical players, jazz players, folk players, popular music. And composers from different moments of Cuban history, especially those composers of the 20th century that not many people know about, who were very compromised with the idea of creating a Cuban music not under the patterns that we heard in the music of Lecuona or in the music of the 19th century, but matching with the contemporary music coming from Europe, coming from America, but at the same time very authentically Cuban.

TP:   The composers you’re referring to are mostly early 20th century composers.

GONZALO:   Yes. We are talking about Amadeo Roldan, Alejandro Garcia Caturla… I’m speaking about composers that are part of the record, and others that are not part of the record. Leo Brouwer.  Among others. So that was a challenge for me, because I was supposed to do a record where it’s not 100% or even 90% improvisation, but where you have to create an interpretation of that music. The challenge was to prepare similarly to what a classical player has to do, and combine both worlds—the interpretation, my vision of that music, and at the same time the improvisation, and, on the other hand, my original compositions.

TP:   You’ve said that as a young player you didn’t  have access to the music by the Cuban composers you’re referring to, mainly because of the politics of the time, the way  ideology affected pedagogy and the creative process.  There’s an NPR show that aired last Sunday that’s up on the Internet in which you go into some detail. You said that to do this music, you basically had to deal with scores; it wasn’t possible to hear much of it. How does that function for you?

GONZALO:   What happened is that the program of the classical school in Cuba takes too much time and space talking about European tradition. They bring you  all the information about the different periods of classical music coming from Europe, and you know all about baroque, classicism, romantic, impressionism, avant-garde—all of them. It’s just at the end of the curriculum where they put you in contact a little bit with the Cuban composers, with the Cuban tradition in terms of Classical music. Which is not enough. So if you want to become a composer, you run the risk of being too much influenced by the European tradition, and  not doing the right thing, not putting your roots, putting your tradition to use  in the right way.  Some of the people who used to be part of my department had no knowledge about the Cuban music. They had no knowledge about the traditions…

TP:   You mean the folkloric traditions.

GONZALO:   Exactly. I had an advantage to be part of a large family with a very large tradition, very focused and very related with the Cuban history and the most popular Cuban musical styles. That gave me the opportunity to be in the middle of the essence of the Cuban music, but that was not the reality all the time. So it wasn’t until a few years ago when, thanks to a few people, I got those music parts coming from those composers, and I could see the way that they wrote the music, the way that they conceived the music, the vision of their music, and I could work with that. Not when I was in the school. I always said that was a big mistake, not having that information and that relationship with that music before, when we were part of the school.

TP:   Go into a little detail about your family. We played your grandfather’s composition. Who was he, and which bands did he play with?

GONZALO:   We’re talking about the beginning of the 20th century. So in the ‘20s, the ‘30s…

TP:   Is he from Havana himself?

GONZALO:   No. From Pinar del Rio, which is the western part of the island. He created his own school in this city and this town, because he thought there were a lot of talented people there without the possibility of going to a private school. So he helped them. He created his own band. He was a conductor also of the military band. But he trained young people. He gave them all the access to learn about how to read music, how to write music, and also how to play. He played some of the wind instruments, the brass section, like trombone and trumpet. But his main job was as a conductor.

So he created a big family, and he was a teacher in all his family. He taught my father, he taught all my uncles…

TP:   This is a tradition in Cuba, isn’t it. Cachao comes from that kind of family. Yosvany Terry comes from that type of family. Chucho Valdes. And there are many others.

GONZALO:   Exactly. That’s right. He became a very important reference in the music at that time, not only as a musician but as a professor and  a person that preserved many of the memories of the Cuban music coming from the 19th century. He also wrote some danzons like this one, “La Cadete Constitutional.” I think he wrote a little book about how to read music. So he was working in different directions—as a composer, as a professor, player, conductor. We give thanks to him to be part of that family and be part of that heritage.

TP:   Your father was an important part of the popular music culture of Cuba in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I’ve read that the cha-cha-cha dance comes from his band or was his idea.

GONZALO:   He was part of one of the most important charangas, which is the name that they give to those ensembles that used to play cha-cha-cha and so on. It was the Enrique Morin orchestra. So he became a piano player of this band in the ‘50s, and he was there for about ten years, and then he moved to another very old charanga that specialized in danzon. He became a piano player in this band, and at the end he became the director of this band, and he has been the director of this band until now. He collaborated with different people—with Arcaño, Barbarito Diaz… I know that many of those names mean nothing to many people here. But we’re talking about musicians that define the Cuban music in different styles. He is still working. He is still touring around. He has been part of those later ensembles, like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, all those bands very well known now in America and Europe and around the world.

TP:   You played in his band as a teenager while you were in the conservatory, studying the European canon. So you would be playing in the conservatory by day, studying your Chopin and Liszt and Brahms and Beethoven, and at night you’d be in the clubs playing drums…or keyboards and drums.

GONZALO:   Yes. My father created a family band with my two brothers and myself (I’m the youngest one), and I played drums in that band. Also a few more friends from the neighborhood who were interested to do music…

TP:   Which neighborhood, by the way?

GONZALO:   The Centro Havana. I was born there. I remember since I was 6 years old, even before, being part of that group. So when I was 9 years old, that was the right time to get into the school. But until that moment, my first reference as a player was being part of that group with my father and my brothers and people from the neighborhood. I had no idea how to read music. I did everything by ear. That drum was a gift, coming from my mother and my father. When I got to 6 years, they asked me what I want, and I said, ‘I want a drum.” It was a difficult situation for them, because it was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba. So we found somebody else, in a very far place… He used to do a very rustic drum! That was my first drum.

TP:   It was a conga?

GONZALO:   No, it was a drum.

TP:   A drum that you beat.

GONZALO:   Exactly. You have no idea how it looks.

TP:   Funky.

GONZALO:   Exactly. But I used to play also some Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, like the timbales, congas, bongos, maraccas. So I went into the music through the percussion.

TP:   So the core of your musical birth is through the drums, not the piano.

GONZALO:   The drums. The piano…it’s too much to say that it was an accident, because it’s not really. But I have to say that when I was of age to apply for a place in the classical school, they disapproved me. They said that I was not rhythmically able to play music.

TP:   What did they mean by that?

GONZALO:   No rhythm sense. That was their argument.

TP:   Did they mean that you didn’t understand the European legato…

GONZALO:   They used to do that apparently simple test where you had to reproduce what they sing and what they clap and things like that. And at the end, they decided that I didn’t pass. So my father and one of my brothers came to the school, and they asked for a meeting with the principal, and they refused the result of the test, and they wanted them to repeat that in front of them. So they did it, and I passed it. Part of the bureaucratic thing that is too long to explain; it doesn’t matter.

The next step was which instrument.  I was looking to be part of the percussion department, and they said, “no, you don’t have the right age; we have for you piano or violin.” That was a big trouble for me. I said, “I don’t like any of that music.” So my Mom was the one that made me decide about the piano. She said, “Piano is a great instrument that will help you in the future to compose, to write music, to have a different view about how to do music. Even if you decide not to become a piano player, it will help you, so you should do that, and we will see in the future if they can move you to the percussion department.” So I said, “Okay, I want to make you happy, and that’s it.” So I did it. The first year was kind of weird and difficult to me. One of the elements is that I didn’t get well-related with the teacher, so they asked to see if they could change the teacher for the second year, and that was the solution. I was very lucky with that woman who put me on the track to love the instrument, and then develop myself as a piano player. When I was in 5th or 6th year, the principal (it was a different principal already)  asked me if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, “Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.” So they gave me the opportunity to do both things at the same time.

TP:   How does your percussion background filter into the way your piano playing?

GONZALO:   It’s the need to expose myself not only as a piano player but to expose my music as an ensemble. When I am playing the piano, I am not thinking about the piano as a single instrument. I try to put different levels of music and dynamics and texture and message at the same time with that instrument, using pedals, using different kinds of touch, holding some section of the instrument, and doing everything I can to make that music and the result of that music richer. That’s the only way. And the piano provides me that possibility more than any other instrument, because you can play that game with an instrument, getting different kinds of textures and holding the sound here, and playing around here, and using the piano as a percussion instrument but also as a melodic instrument. You can go for a different kind of dynamic. That’s the way that I conceive how to play that instrument.

TP:   Early in your career, you played and recorded with Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, John Patitucci, Ron Carter. More recently you’ve worked and recorded with Ignacio Berroa, the Cuban drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie, who plays idiomatic Cuban rhythms and jazz rhythms with idiomatic precision as well. How does the drummer’s style filter into the overall conception of what you play? Would it be possible for you to play the type of music you played on Super Nova, let’s say, without a Cuban drummer? Or a drummer intimate with the codes of Cuban music.

GONZALO:   A good question. I think that music has different doors, and that is the important thing for me, that the music gives me the possibility to go with the same music in different directions, depending who is part of the band and the vision of the musicians as part of the band playing that music. Of course, this is music that contains a lot of Cuban codes, Afro-Cuban elements, and it will help a lot if the people involved are related with that.  It doesn’t mean that they have to do that in a very orthodox way. That’s totally the opposite of what I’m looking for. I’m looking to give the musicians the opportunity to be related with those codes and at the same time for them to apply what they know over those codes.

TP:   Now, you yourself were raised in those codes, because you played drums, and not only did you play them in popular music and dances before large groups of people, but also santeria and religious ceremonies.


TP:   So those codes also contain for you a narrative. If you hear a rhythm there’s a certain storyline or state of mind or state of being attached to it.

GONZALO:   Mmm-hmm. One good example of that is this record, Antiguo, which is based 100% on all the Yoruba culture. I took some of the chants, rhythms, and I speculated a lot with them, using a kind of electronic ensemble with synthesizers, computers, sequencing, but at the same time live musicians playing different kinds of drums, percussion, brass section, singers. I’m sure that music can be played by a symphony orchestra—it’s very possible. We should add to the symphony orchestra some instruments that are not part of the regular structure of the symphony. But it’s a music that was created with that vision of a big-big-big ensemble. So that music would absorb any kind of musician, any kind of player. This is what I’m looking for—a music without limitations, with a very clear starting point, but at the same time with a totally free road to work with.

TP:   Talk about how  your relationship with technique has evolved over the years.

GONZALO:   I know there’s a lot of points of view about technique and how to apply technique and how to use it, and also many prejudices about it. I want to state an example. Even Thelonious Monk, when you heard the latest Thelonious Monk recordings, you can hear Thelonious Monk clean, more clean, more specific about what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say that. He was not going around, but was going exactly to the point where he wanted to go. It was a technique in relation with the music he was doing; not in relation to something else coming from nowhere, but with the music he wanted to do. This is exactly what every musician should do. I mean, depending on the way you think. The music forces you to find different ways technically to express that, and to express that without confusion, clearly. This is probably the process that I have led to.

TP:   Did you study various jazz pianists deeply after emerging on the scene?

GONZALO:   I listened to a lot of them. But I wasn’t the typical student that looks into the book, looking for a transcription or something like that. I never tried to memorize any solo or any phrase or any style, because I thought it was kind of a limitation for me. I would say in the same way you read a book, you cannot memorize phrase by phrase. You memorize the content, the essence of a book. This is what I was looking for in the records. But I hate to go and try to play the transcription and play in the same way that everybody…

TP:   Conceptually, though, who were some of the pianists you paid attention to between 1989 and 1996?

GONZALO:   I can say names that I know influenced me a lot. One of them is Bill Evans. Keith Jarrett. Even before that, Chick and Herbie were two names important as a reference to me, not only as a player but as composers. Art Tatum at the very beginning of my career, along with Oscar Peterson. I remembered seeing Erroll Garner for the first time on a TV show that they broadcast in Cuba—just one piece. I really loved what I saw. Then I wasn’t able to see many people and to hear many of the jazz players. But I had a lot of references coming from Europe in terms of classical music, and also from Cuba. The recordings came from Czechoslovakia, from Russia, from Poland, from Bulgaria, and many of the artists were teaching in Cuba. So I had that mix of reference. Obviously at some moment of my life their influence was more present. It takes a long time to find yourself, It takes a long time to find your own way to say things. Especially when you are very ambitious about music, or you are in relation with many different kinds of music, especially the Cuban music that has many sides—and unfortunately, not many people know about how many sides that culture has.

I am very surprised now by the articles that talk about this Solo record; I feel there isn’t enough reference to talk about what I tried to say with those Cuban pieces, especially the classical pieces that I incorporated in that record. There’s an obvious comparison with the European styles, but there’s nothing deep about the form of those pieces, the language of those pieces, the meaning of those pieces, which are very related with our traditions, with our codes, our music. I don’t see that in the reviews. It’s like they pass that over. They say it sounds a little bit like Ravel, or we can see some of the Debussy influence… It could be very possible. Why not? We are talking about more or less the same times. But they don’t go deep into the structure of the piece, the meaning of the piece.  There’s a lot of elements that we could talk about, and we need the right reference.

[Rubalcaba selected “Cancun da Cuna del Nino Negro by Roldan; “Preludio en Conga” by Hilario Gonzalez, and “Homage to Hilario” by Rubalcaba]

TP:   In the program  notes, Gonzalo writes of Hilario Gonzales that he played his music while still in high school “as an antidote to too much Mozart and Beethoven.” You said that reviews of the new album insufficiently discussed your Cuban roots and the intent of the music. A few words about Amadeo Roldan and Hilario Gonzalez, the dynamics of what they did, and how they inspire you.

GONZALO:   We have to say, first of all, that Cuba has been a country that collaborates with many different cultures. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the world live in Cuba, different composers at different moments coming to Cuba to play their music, to teach, to get in relation with composers there, different kinds of emigration from different parts of the world—from China, from Poland, Latin America, South America. So Cuba  has been open all the time to confront a different kind of vision, a different kind of attitude about how to create arts—not only music, but painters, writers… It’s obvious that  the presence of  European culture was very strong for us in Cuba.

The good thing is that Cuban composers, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, took consciousness about what to do with those memories, with this tradition, with this influence coming from Europe, and totally transformed the Cuban music into something at the same level of what was happening in the rest of the world in terms of how to construct the music, especially music at that level—the music that we know as classical music. They took the tools from the European school, but they were talking about their stories, their roots, their traditions.

That was a good example, this one that we just heard from Amadeo Roldan. He took that melody, which is not exactly a folk melody, but his vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he put that into  a musical form very similar to the European form. But when we see the score, we see that the left hand and the way that ostinato is working,  isn’t the way that a French composer or Russian composer would do it. It’s totally against the time, against the beat, in the same way we do the popular music, in the same way we dance, and the same way we talk, the accent—the melody works over that. There’s a lot of elements. If we check the music score, we see that there is a very particular way to do the music. We can feel some ambiance coming from the European reference, especially the Impressionist composers. But the melody, the rhythm conception, is totally in relation with the popular Cuban music.

This is what is not there in the comments and the reviews. I feel unhappy, not about the record and not about me, but that people who have access to the record don’t have exactly the right reference when they listen to that music. Why? Because there’s not enough information about that side of the Cuban music, not only in the United States, but around the world. People know a little more now about Cuban popular music of the ‘30s and ‘40s, because of Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cubanismo… But there’s still a lot of things to discover about the Cuban music.

TP:   Do you see yourself as a mantle-bearer of the legacy of these composers whom you’re interpreting on records?

GONZALO:   I’m doing that because I like what they did.

TP:   I mean, you yourself as a composer. Is your aesthetic consciously referring…

GONZALO:   Definitely. Those composers, like Amadeo Caturla and Leo Brouwer, Farina, Roberto Valera, and all of them, I would say that it was the first generation to change the way to produce music in Cuba—with very bad luck. Nobody paid attention to what they were doing. Nobody believed in what they were doing. I don’t think they had enough support to promote the music, to promote their ideas, their conception about how to do music. But I think it is in our hands, my generation, myself, the responsibility in some way to talk about that, to revise that, to check that, to say, “Okay, let’s see what is true, what is the real thing about that, and let’s promote that.” I’m doing that, and at the same time I’m choosing what I like. It’s not that I’m blind about it and saying, “Oh, we should sound that because that’s the way to promote it.” No. I’m trying to combine both things, promote that and, at the same time, I choose to play exactly what I feel in connection with my wish, with my need.

TP:  A few words on the jazz you heard as a kid. Chucho Valdes told me that his father, the maestro Bebo Valdes, gave him a systematic pedagogy. He said, “Learn these things in order chronologically,” and he gave him Jelly Roll Morton, he gave him Tatum, he gave him Bud Powell. He did that. Since he lived in Cuba in the ‘50s, he could see musicians playing in Havana, and even play that music with them. You didn’t have that advantage, but you did have your father’s record collection. I’m wondering what it was in that record collection that made you (I’m assuming this) fall in love with jazz or be attracted to jazz at a young age, when it wasn’t part of your immediate environment in Cuba.

GONZALO:   I think it was the space to improvise.

TP:   Not one person, but the space.

GONZALO:   Exactly. That was the first thing that put me in orbit already with that music, and how much importance they gave to the improvisation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the space to improvise in the Cuban music. Every popular music, every folk music is based on improvisation, in that spontaneous act. We had to make a balance on the form of jazz as a music, We see that improvisation is very tied to the main part. I mean, it’s as important as a main section of the piece. That’s a little different than our own structure in our music. But that was the point. When I heard for the first time Art Tatum, I remember he had some record of Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie…

TP:   Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson.

GONZALO:   Exactly. Charlie Parker. Among others. To me, the most relevant at that moment was the improvisation section, and that interchange, exchange, that interaction in between the musicians, how they interact, how they followed each other, and how they had to create another story in relation with the main thing during the improvisation section. It’s like they composed again another piece—connected with the piece, but in distinction to that. It made me be in love already with that music, even when I know that I was not able to understand many things that were happening in there.

TP:   I’m assuming when you say you weren’t able to understand many things that were in there, you’re referring to cultural codes that were hard to crack because of where you were. What were some of those codes, and which did you crack…

GONZALO:   Well, the first question at that time was how they developed this speech. How they arrived at that speech, and how they developed that imagination and that fantasy about the way they play harmonies and the chords, and how the bass player arrived to the conclusion that this was the line that he should do behind the saxophone player’s speech. All those questions were the first curiosity and secret for me. How is that? How do they produce that? What is the sign that gives them the green light to go in this way and to do that? Then with time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but it was about spirituality, about instinct, about…as a conversation.

So I put together two things, that experience with the experience I had with a very important musician, a Cuban violin player, composer and teacher, Pedro Hernandez, in Cuba. He was part of the Barbarito Diaz Orquesta, he worked with Arcano, he worked with many great musicians in Cuba, and we were able to see him in person over many years because he was a friend of my family. He was the one that taught me how to read music. He said something from the beginning: “You have to read music in the same way that you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper is going to say tomorrow. But you get it and you start to read.” So you have to read the music in that way, because the music is an idiom, is a language, and you have to have control of that.

Then on the other hand, I had at the end of my career the possibility to be trained by Roberto Valera, another great contemporary Cuban composer. I remember when we would start our lessons, our meetings talking about composition, he asked me, “What are you looking for here in this school?” I said, “I’m looking to learn how to compose.” He said to me, “I cannot teach you how to compose. That’s impossible. The first thing is that you need to say something. You have to feel the need and the necessity to say something. Then you are able to compose. I will give you the tools, the experience, the rules to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound, according to the reference we have. But you have to be able to say things in your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”

This is what I found also in jazz. Everybody was able to say at the same time their speech and their own voice, and collaborate as a group. That was the thing that really caught me from the beginning when I heard those records.

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Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Part 2) — Interview, WKCR, December 5, 2004

Gonzalo Rubalcaba (WKCR, December 5, 2004):

[Gonzalo was performing with the New Cuban Quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola]

TP:   What is the New Cuban Quartet? You state in the notes (to Paseo [Blue Note]), more or less, that at this point you feel free to revisit and reinterpret music that you have performed in the past as well as bringing out new music. The timeline seems to proceed past Irakere and Los Van Van up through Timba. What has brought you to this point?

GONZALO:   Exactly what you said. I used to work with the Cuban Quartet about 6 or 7 years, from 1990 to 1996 and ‘97. I produced a few records with them – Antigua, Live In USA, Four and Twenty [all on Blue Note via Toshiba-EMI]. There was a moment in November ‘96 that I moved to the United States. I was living in the Dominican Republic until that time, from 1990 to 1996. I moved to Florida with my family. Also I think that the Cuban Quartet at that time was a little bit tired. We were kind of tired musically. I’m not talking about the human side, but musically. We spent a long time doing the music together, and I have great memories with the Cuban Quartet, but it actually was the right time to quit, to say, “Okay, let’s finish and see if we can do something else different” – each one. There was the moment where Julio Barretto, the drummer, decided to live in Switzerland, and begin his career as a soloist. The bass player went to Paris and the trumpet player is still in Cuba. I moved to the United States.

Right now, I was looking around at what I did in the past, and I found out that the music at that time still presents a lot of places and spaces to recompose, to reinterpret, to take into consideration as a new point, to develop a new music and a new group as the music is still alive – at least for me.

TP:   In the intervening time from 1996 to the present, you’ve done many things. You’ve elaborated your own personal study of the piano trio, refined your touch and use of space and so on. You’ve done two bolero projects with Charlie Haden, and the broader audience can see your lyric side. And you’ve also done some very cutting-edge work, such as on Antigua. So a lot of experience is going into this current reexamination of your older work.

GONZALO:   It’s a good point about the boleros with Charlie Haden. It’s not only that I could show people my lyrical side. It’s the lyric side of the Cuban music more than my lyric side. It’s the lyric side of the Latin American music, the music of Mexico, music from Cuba, from South America. It’s the side that is not really popular in the world about Latin music. When people think about Cuban music, automatically they think about music to dance, happy music or whatever. Light music. But there are very important composers in Cuba who made a wonderful career making ballads, boleros, songs with incredibly rich harmonies and melodies. Charlie was looking for a different kind of recording, a different kind of music, not with American standards or American ballads. He was looking for something else, totally different. I sent him a CD with a lot of stuff like that, boleros, and he fell in love with it. We decided to do that first recording, Nocturne [Verve]. The second one, which is now the second part, is I’d say an extension with the music from Mexico, in that 90% was music from Mexico. Probably that was the moment when people found out that I could play another musical idiom, musical language, not only what the people used to hear me do on Antigua, on the trumpet stuff, or fire…

TP:   Or long extemporaneous improvisations with the trio.

GONZALO:   Yeah. But I think everything helped. Everything helped me to arrive at this point where I am right now. The New Cuban Quartet gives me the opportunity to put all the experience together. A lot of ballads, which I think is the most important. We have a space to improvise with total freedom and at the same time to develop forms and structures, not the typical structure that we can see in the Cuban standard music or even the American standard music. At the same time, we keep codes coming from  our folklore,  from our tradition, and also the tradition of the fusion that we’ve seen not only in the last 20 or 30 years, but from the end of the 19th century. Composers like Cervantes, Amadeo Roldan, Leo Brouwer, Caturla, Ernesto Leuconia, Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, all of them were involved in this fusion to combine the music from Cuba, the music from… Not the music, but some codes, signs, from the music that we were doing in Cuba at that time with the American tradition. So this is basically what we are doing right now.

I see the record as a single piece with different movements, different chapters, all  connected in some way. The difficult thing and the beautiful thing about that is to find a different personality for each tune, a different character. It’s a challenge not only to play the music, but to compose the music. That was the point when I was looking back at the music we did on Antigua specifically. That was the motivation. That was the impulse that I found to say, “Okay, I should go again to the Cuban Quartet, new people, but trying to extend what I was doing at that time.” I think the good thing right now is that I’m a little older and I have a little bit more knowledge. I am more conscious about what I want.

TP:   A few words about the members of the New Cuban Quartet. You’re in your early forties, Ignacio Berroa is in his early fifties at this point, and the other two seem to be early thirties, if that.

GONZALO:   No, they are less. Armando [Gola] is 24 or 25, and [Felipe] Lamoglia I think is already 30.

TP:   Tell me about them.

GONZALO:   All of them are Cuban. Lamoglia was living in Brazil for a while, so he had an opportunity to share musical experience with important people there – Hermeto Pascoal and all of them. Armando was living in Columbia for three or four years, and then he moved to the United States, and is moving between Miami and New York. A lot of people know about Ignacio, who has been for 25 years already living in the U.S., making collaborations with a lot of different great musicians and different projects – McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Danilo Perez, Michel Camilo. He’s been working as part of my projects for the last 7 or 8 years.

TP:   He’s the type of drummer who, if you closed your eyes, you’d think of somebody in a muscle shirt, sweating profusely, and when you look at him, it looks as though he’s barely moving a muscle, he hardly sweats, and all these rhythms are coming out of him. In your music, who is setting up the rhythms? Are the rhythms coming from your pen? Are you collaboratng with him in terms his execution? You yourself have played quite a bit of drums and worked in your share of dance bands in Cuba. How do you set them up?

GONZALO:   It is everything together. I used to write everything, and I used to suggest what I want here and there, at that moment. Probably there’s a lot of drummers who hate me because of that. This is music that needs to be rehearsed. When we have rehearsal time, I always spend much time, 5-6 hours, to present the conception to the ensemble, but also second, trying to find the spaces, the moment where they have to add their experience. I want to see both things clearly—my vision of the music that I wrote and their vision, so that  have a space to create, to add whatever they want, always in connection with the musical conception for each chair.

TP:   This would differ in concept, I’d think, from your recent trio projects.

GONZALO:  That’s true.

TP:   Why are the two different? Is the one your compositional voice and the other your improvisational voice? Or do they blend in various ways?

GONZALO:   Well, the point is that we find here two…I don’t know if I should say two sides, but it is the same person. The difference here is that when we play trio, 80% of the music that we play is not my music. It is music from American composers, Cuban composers, whatever. And it’s music I try to interpret, or at least to develop. In this case, it’s my music in every aspect – the form, the rhythm, the idiom, everything. It’s not music that can be treated with a rigid attitude. Right now the good thing is that they feel total freedom to play this music. But it takes time. Because it is not music where you play the melody and then you improvise. No. The introduction has an instrument, and then the melody is not only the melody, but it’s the melody with another section which is the development of the melody, and there’s a second part where we are going to somewhere as a result of the first part, and then we come back and there is an improvisation section to conclude the piece. It is a trip to find an end in connection with the whole piece…

I mean, it is a complex way to make music, but it is a rich way to make music, too. What I want is not to present a little melody and a little piece of music where the people finally make improvisations, and that’s it. This is more in the classical conception to the music. That is a music that contains all our traditions, all our experience as a people, with the jazz language; all our training as classical musicians. Because we have to say that, as a Cuban, the musical education in Cuba is 100% classical, so there’s not a jazz school there or a salsa school or whatever. You go to a musical school and what you receive is a classical training. When you finish the school, you can do whatever you want. You can go in any direction you want. But the academics is totally classical.

TP:   So as a kid, you were  also playing outside of school, and playing folkloric music and dance music.

GONZALO:   Yes. But it was a trouble.

TP:   You had trouble for that.

GONZALO:   Oh, definitely. Because at that time, the classical school didn’t want you to play anything else but classical music. If they discovered that you were involved in Afro-Cuban folklore or music to dance or whatever, they looked at you very bad. They figured you were not serious. And they were totally wrong, because this is a country where the Afro-Cuban music, the popular music is really strong. It’s what made Cuba what it is. At the same time, it was good to have both sides, because we are able now to play all this tradition and a very serious classical form or structure. It’s like you said at the beginning that there’s a lot of reference that was coming from Los Van Van, from Irakere, from many other very popular orchestras in Cuba that used to make music to dance. But the way that we built this tradition is not to dance; it’s to listen. So that’s the difference. And we are able to do that because we already get the tools to create that kind of form, that kind of space, to put all these traditions together, but in a different conception, a different direction.

TP:   That’s a tremendous challenge.

GONZALO:   It is.

TP:   It’s compressing a lot of information. So I suppose some of the challenge is to avoid having it be overly dense.

GONZALO:   But I have to say something. This is not a musical language which says that we are the first ones.  Fortunately, a lot of people at the beginning of the 20th century (I already mentioned a few names, like Alejandro Garcia Caturla, Amadeo Roldan, Leo Brouwer, among others) already were doing that, more with the symphony orchestra and more with chamber music – but it was exactly the same conception. They absorbed all the music that we used to see in the religious community, the spiritual music, the Afro-Cuban codes, and they put all that information in the service of the symphonic music. Unfortunately, not many people know about this moment of the Cuban music.

TP:   Since you entered the international playing field  in 1989-90, and your first records came out with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, and so on… Some Cubans had come here before you, like Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa. Many have come subsequently, and are making an impact on the international jazz scene—not just from Cuba, but from around the Caribbean and South America. Their presence has changed the sound of what jazz is. By that I mean, a 7/4, a 9/4, an 11/4 time signature is not exotic; it’s part of what young musicians presume they have to play. How do you observe the changes in the scene since you emerged?

GONZALO:   Well, the good thing about Cuban music and jazz music is that both musics are open all the time to accept anything that could make them rich. That’s the reason why we have seen these great collaborations between North Americans and people from Latin America. There’s no need to force anything.  It is about attitude. The attitude of the jazz conception of doing music and the Cuban conception of doing music. There’s a totally open mind. You find freedom all the time in the form, in the harmonies, in the rhythm. We cannot say which part has been more influenced by it, the American part or the Cuban part. That’s not the point. The point is that we are arriving to something new, to something totally fresh, to something that we can see a real organization of the harmonic changes, a real organization of the structures to the music, a real organization of the musical textures, a new attitude in the American musicians to absorb, to learn what we are offering. Same with us.

TP:   For you, what were the biggest challenges in absorbing jazz syntax? You do have a trio where you’re dealing with the Songbook, with the music of Dizzy Gillespie. Were there serious challenges, things you had to work on?

GONZALO:   There were, but the biggest challenge was to find your own voice. There are too many examples of great voices, of great documents in the history of this music, and it’s really hard, after you absorb it all, after you  listen to a lot of music, after you think that you learned about this document, to find your own way, your own voice. A voice in a way that the people can recognize you. That’s the big challenge, and I think this is a big challenge not just for me – for everyone.

TP:   To deal with Afro-Cuban music properly, American musicians have to learn the codes.

GONZALO:   Yes. That’s true.

TP:   There’s a lot to learn. You can’t just go in and blow on it.

GONZALO:   Mmm-hmm.  I know what you’re talking about, and this is very delicate. In the past, I feel many American musicians were looking at Cuban music in a  superficial way—only the face, the exterior part, but not INTO the deep part of the Cuban music. The reason why I decided to push a lot to do recordings like Nocturne  or Land of the Sun with Charlie, or an album that I did a long time ago, Mi Gran Pasion, which is a danzon album, or Antigua, which contains a lot of the depth of the history of Afro-Cuban music and all the complexity of that culture, is to motivate the people here, and not only here but around the world, about all the sides of our music, our history. That’s the difference, the attitude in relation to each culture.

But I think we are at the point now where the American musicians and people around the world are more conscious about these points we are discussing right now. They know that the Salsa is there. They know that the music from Cuba and from Latin America to dance is there. But they start to accept that we can make music to make the people think, too.


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The Pile (#3) — Faith, by Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who turns 48 today (Part 1)

Saw that master pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 48 today, and listened to his 2010 self-produced solo CD,  Faith, which arrived recently.  I think it’s a masterwork, as was his 2006 recital, Solo [Blue Note], on which he similarly assumed sole responsibility for time, tempo, key, timbre and tuning on a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz.

“Not many people know the 20th century Cuban composers,” Rubalcaba told me for a Downbeat piece I wrote at the time.  “European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and these composers—Amadeo Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example—used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”

As an example, Rubalcaba analyzed Roldan’s “Canción de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For a Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”

Solo feels highly curated. Faith — which includes one Caturla piece [“Preludio Corto #2 (Tu amor era Falso)”], as well as six Rubalcaba originals, two improvisations based on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and two interpretations apiece of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green” — does not. That the session took four days to record contradicts the aural impression that Rubalcaba turned the studio into a faux living room in which he just sat down and let the invention flow.  On both dates, he gets to essences, finding the most lyrical pathways, playing with restraint and keenly focused intention. The word “poet” gets tossed around a little too much in reference to pianists of a lyric bent, but it’s a descriptor entirely suited to Rubalcaba.

It’s a real evolution from the pre-40 phase of his career, when Rubalcaba wore his chops on his sleeve. He was  an innovator of Cuban timba (he was also the musical director for the salsero Isaac Delgado), and, while still in Cuba tried to synthesize Cuban and jazz vocabularies within a highly caffeinated, improv-oriented ensemble context. He emigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1992, then to Miami in 1996 (he became a U.S. citizen several years ago). By ’96, he was an internationally known jazz musician, known for various bravura soloist-over-all-star-rhythm section albums with the likes of bassists Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, and John Patitucci and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian.

“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” Rubalcaba remarked to me. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something. “

As is evident on the subsequent Blue Note trio disks Inner Voyage [1998] and Super Nova [2002], both propelled by Cuban master  drummer Ignacio Berroa (and on a highly creative late ’90s duo recording with Joe Lovano),  Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. He learned, as  Ron Carter put it in 2006, “not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”

Rubalcaba stated in 2006 that his ability to coalesce different styles and languages “is very typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100% Piazzolla.”

This predisposition for polylingualism extends to the spoken word as well; Rubalcaba has become quite comfortable expressing himself in English, as was apparent on a pair of interviews that I conducted with him on WKCR in 2004 (during a run at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola with the New Cuban Quartet) and in 2006 (during a combined solo and trio — bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Jeff Watts — week at the Jazz Standard).  I’ll post them separately, seriatem.

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Miles’ 85th

I’m sure all the bloggers will offer their two cents on Miles Davis’ 85th arrival anniversary, and, as I never had a chance to meet Miles or write about him til he’d left the planet, I don’t have much to add that hasn’t been or won’t be said.  So I’ll focus on my single  Miles-related assignment, for Jazziz, which was framed around a prospective 5-CD reissue of his output for Warner’s in the ’80s. Of all of Miles’ epochs, this  is the one that I find least engaging; however, many  friends and peers whose acumen I most respect feel differently.

Now, most people looking at this blog know enough about jazz to know that just staying ahead of the curve wasn’t enough for Miles, who still holds  the sobriquet “The Dark Prince,” two  decades after his death. He was a son of the Mississippi Valley, and students of archetype and myth might surmise that he cut some sort of Faustian crossroads deal  imparting Nostradamian gifts that enabled him to occupy aesthetic space a great distance from the pack at each stop on a 45-year career timeline. With a introspective sound that, as Olu Dara once noted, “sucked the juice out of each note like a stick of sugarcane,” his instrumental voice changed over the years by degree but not in essence, and with it he created definitive statements that resonate vividly for successive generations of hungry spirits.

During the first 28-year phase of his recorded corpus, which begins with a 1947  date on which Charlie Parker played tenor, Miles favored  the crucible of collective dialogue with musicians of similar ability and mutual affinity (perhaps the iconic collaborations with alter-ego Gil Evans are the exception, but not really). In conjunction with the  most individualistic young musicians of the day — a short list includes pianists Horace Silver, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea; saxophonists Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Dave Liebman; guitarists John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Mike Stern, and John Scofield; bassists Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter,  Dave Holland, and Michael Henderson; drummers Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette and Al Foster — he designed a succession of ensemble sounds that exactly suited the mood of the time during which he conceived them. He was fearless, discarding universally popular approaches that bore his signature for untrod territory.

But  the context of real-time interplay that defined Miles’ first four decades is almost entirely absent from the ’80s music documented on Warner. Though his chops were somewhat diminished, he constructed a series of pithy, sometimes classic set pieces over a backdrop of various contemporary rock, funk, and hip-hop beats. It’s not that Miles didn’t stay on the cutting edge, but the goalposts shifted. He continued to work with the most talented, hungriest musicians of the era. But his interests  now centered on the Warholian, Fashi0n-centric, technocratic, MTV notion of pop culture that mainstreamed during the Reagan era. To my admittedly idiosyncratic way of looking at things, his musical production provided a pitch-perfect soundtrack for the apolitical, consumerist, Yuppie-Buppie, gentrification climate of the decade. From today’s perspective, it seems kind of apropos.

My pontifications aside, you’ll get a much more useful perspective from the remarks of the great electric bassist-arranger, Marcus Miller, Miles’ primary muse of the era, the producer of the prospective aforementioned box set, and the primary voice for the  Jazziz article. Here’s the verbatim interview, from May 7, 2002.

By the way, for Mr. Miller’s perspective circa 2011, read this comprehensive interview conducted by George Cole on

* * * *

TP:    When you were recruited to do the music for Tutu, was that your first encounter with Miles?

MILLER:  I played bass in Miles’ band on his first comeback stuff, Man With A Horn and We Want Miles and all that kind of stuff.  I left in ’83.

TP:    Did you during that time have a vision of the way you would want the music to sound if you ever had that opportunity?

MILLER:  I began to imagine stuff for Miles when I heard that he had left his old record company and moved to Warner Brothers.  I talked to Tommy LiPuma and said, “If I can come up with something, would you guys be interested?”  He said, “Yeah.”  That’s when I began to imagine things that could happen.

TP:    How much of what’s on Tutu was existing in your head at the time you went in?

MILLER:  A lot of it. A lot of it was arranged in my head.  The stuff that I didn’t imagine, obviously, was what Miles added to it.  There were some things that Paulinho DaCosta added and some things that Adam Holzman added musically, but mostly… I have a demo you can hear that sounds pretty close, except it’s not as cool because it doesn’t have Miles on it.

TP:    ’81 to ’83 is when Miles was getting used to the trumpet again and re-finding his sound and all this… Can you talk about how that music evolved toward what he wound up doing for Warner Brothers? The two entities sound rather different, with a few exceptions, at least the recorded examples.

MILLER:  To me it sounds like… The stuff that we did with Miles in ’81, when he first came back, a lot of it seemed like it was along the same thread as the stuff that he was doing before he retired.  Obviously, there were big differences, and there were big differences in the players.  But the way he was putting the music together and the way the music came to be, when I listened to the stuff he was doing with Michael Henderson and Mtume and those guys… I think Miles was still on that track when he came back.  Eventually he started listening again to what was going on in the music world in the ’80s, and began to slowly incorporate that stuff and those kind of musicians into his scene.

TP:    How would you distinguish musicians like Michael Henderson and Mtume  from the people he played with when he was coming back?

MILLER:  I think those guys, at least toward the end of their stay with Miles, were pretty comfortable with themselves and were comfortable with the fact that they had to bring a lot to the game when they would play with Miles.  When the ’81 band first got together, I don’t think they realized that.  I think a lot of guys in the band were looking to Miles for real specific instruction, and it took probably a year or two to realize, “You know what?  I’ve got to bring some personality and bring my thing to this, and then Miles will shape it. But I’ve got to bring the raw materials.”  I don’t know how Mtume and those guys started.  They might have started the same way. But by 1975 or whenever it was when Miles stopped playing, they seemed like they were there.

TP:    As I recall, being alive in 1973 was a very different proposition than being alive in 1981.

MILLER:  Yeah, and I think that’s the main difference, that the 1973 band was very much a product of its time and the 1981 band was very much a product of its time.

TP:    But one qualitative difference, and maybe the most notable one between the stuff you’re responsible for with Warner Brothers and before that is that most of the music is created within a context where Miles is dialoguing with a group of musicians.  The content is created through that dialogue in a lot of ways.

MILLER:  Yeah, that’s true.

TP:    It’s somewhat a different proposition with you, which I’d say is to your credit, because the environments you came up with resonate so well.  But does that make it a different experience listening to it in a detached way, or does it not, from your perspective?

MILLER:  From my perspective, it’s very different. In 1985, when I looked back at the last 15 years of Miles’ music, it had been all done in a certain way, which is the way you just described, where it’s a dialogue between musicians — some great musicians.  That was fantastic.  There was fantastic music done there.  What I felt was an exciting idea was to maybe begin a different kind of sound with Miles.  When Tommy LiPuma called me, he said, “Miles is looking to do something different; let me send you something George Duke did with Miles.”  He sent me this song George did called “Backyard Ritual,” very obviously done with overdubs, and it was done with a lot of technology involved since George was a heavy synclavier guy at the time.

This was exciting, because this was something new for Miles, and Miles is about new.  There’s dialogue on those new records, but it’s not a dialogue between the individual musicians as much as it is a dialogue between the guy who composed and arranged it a lot of the time, who was me, and Miles. . .more like Miles had dialogues with Gil Evans when he did those records.  Those Gil Evans records weren’t really about dialogue between Miles and the other musicians as much as they were about dialogue between Miles and Gil, where Gil had ideas and he had environments that he wanted to set up for Miles.  They fit Miles well, and Miles really thrived in those environments.  So I tend to compare the stuff that I did more with those settings than with the music that came right before it.

TP:    Do you have ideas on Miles’ own attitudes toward framing his sound… It’s obvious that he never did anything without thinking a lot about it, that he knew precisely what he wanted to do, or at least knew the environment he wanted to put himself in or knew where to look for that environment.  Do you know what was going on in his mind at that time?

MILLER:  I think he got excited by things that are new and, besides being new, have an obvious substance. I think that he knew that he’d been making music a certain way for a while, and I think he was excited by the prospect of doing something different, especially when he heard it back.  Because it was a different process for him also.  A lot of times he and I were in the studio by ourselves, just kind of talking about music, and then rolling tape and playing.  The thing that I think he dug the most, even though he never said this… Miles was really into painting at the time, and when you paint, you draw something, then you stand back and you look at it.  You go back and maybe refine it.  It stays there.  And when it stays there, it’s something you continually look at.  The way we did the music with Miles was more like a painting, where we’d sit there, we’d listen to the music, we’d roll the tape back and say, “Hey, try it this way.”  We’d play it this way and sit back and look at it.  So it wasn’t music in such a continuum as it normally exists, the way Miles had been making it before.  It was more like doing paintings, where we tried different colors.  If you listen to the way I put that “Tutu” stuff together, you can hear that I was experimenting with different sounds, and the music kind of sat there, and you can just look at it and roll it over in your mouth and taste it.  So I think he was excited about that new way of making music.

TP:    By the way, was that your basic process in constructing the music on the rest of Tutu and also Siesta and Amandla?  Was that basically your process?  Would you start from the bottom up?

MILLER:  Each song, whatever the heart of the song is… In some songs it was the rhythm, in some songs it was the melody… Whatever the heart of the song, that’s usually what I started with.  Sometimes I work from the bottom up, sometimes I work from the top down.  It was always based on what the tune was.  As we began to work on Amandla, it began to become a more live thing.  In my imagination, I always imagined the Tutu and Siesta stuff as being a period in Miles’ life.  I didn’t think it was something he would actually stay with for any considerable amount of time.  So in my mind, I was trying to help him transition back to some kind of live situation, which is what got him to Amandla.

In other words, on Tutu I played on almost all the instruments.  It was real painting.  It wasn’t like a bunch of guys in the studio capturing a performance.  We captured Miles’ performance, once I had kind of laid this tapestry down for him.  That’s a different way of making music from having five or six guys in the studio kind of vibing off of one another.  And I thought it was a very unique way for Miles to make music in that period.  I don’t think he ever intended to do that for any long period of time.  In other words, a couple of albums like that was cool.  It was Miles trying something different, just like he did those things with Gil.  But he always went back to his band, which was kind of the heart and soul of what he did.

TP:    So when you said “live” you meant live performance.

MILLER:  Yes, I meant live performance.

TP:    You played a fair amount with him in the latter part of the ’80s, then Daryl Jones came in, and I’m not sure who was between you…

MILLER:  Tom Barney was in there.  There were a couple of guys.

TP:    These studio recordings are quite pristine.  There’s something very elegant and holistic and organic about them.  They’re like beautiful images unto themselves.  It can be a complex proposition translating that to a live situation, especially in concert halls, with amplification and those sorts of issues.  I don’t know if you have anything to say about that…

MILLER:  You mean in terms of trying to take the music we did on Tutu and perform it live?

TP:    Yes, and evolve it and transform it, and did it come off live…

MILLER:  I was never in the band with Miles when I was writing for him, so I was never really involved in that process.  So I really witnessed it like everybody else did.  My impression was that I think they did it correctly.  They took elements from those records that helped identify the song.  I put these huge orchestra staffs in front of Tutu, where you’ve kind of got to start with those.  But then they opened it up and found windows where they could jump through and explore the music and open it up, and it became a living thing.  I think that’s the way to handle the situation.

TP:    You’ve talked quite a bit about how it was intimidating for you to be proactive with Miles, to tell him where he needed to go to realize your vision.  Could you talk about the obverse, the input Miles gave you after you’d executed your end of the process?

MILLER:  When we were doing Tutu, he’d come in and out as I was layering these parts.  For instance, we were doing the song “Portia,” and he said, “Marcus, that’s beautiful.  You know what?  Write another section at the end.  I want to hear an ensemble section at the end.”  He’d leave, and I’d do it. When I came back, he said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”  He said, “Keep writing stuff, man, because you’re in a fertile period.  I remember when Wayne was in this period.  Just keep writing.”  And “I don’t want any acoustic piano on this; take the acoustic piano out.” I’d take that out.  He said, “Man, this reminds me of this rhythm that we used to do with J.J. Johnson,” and he’d play me that rhythm on the trumpet.  I’d go, “Man, let’s put that on there.” We’d roll the tape.

We were doing the album Amandla and we were doing “Mr. Pastorius.”  There was always this tug of war with the band and Miles, because we were always trying to slip him back into that 4/4 rhythm, at least for a taste of it, just because he was the master of that, but he really kept wanting to move forward.  So when I wrote this song, “Mr. Pastorius,” and it was a melody that he sounded beautiful playing on.  Then after the melody was done, I went into a slight two-feel, a shuffle feel, not going all the way into the 4/4 feeling, but just enough to kind of give him a hint of that, and I thought maybe I could urge him into that a little bit.  So he began to solo, with just me, I’m playing bass and he’s playing trumpet, just the two of us, and he holds up his four fingers to me like, “Play in four; what’s wrong with you?”  I just jump into the four thing, and he played chorus after chorus after chorus in this “Mr. Pastorius” song.  He probably played around six or seven choruses. It was beautiful, and it was so amazing because he had kind of resisted that for so long.  Then I went back and orchestrated around what he had done, and added some other instruments based on what Miles did.

But that’s the kind of input Miles would have.  Sometimes he would talk and give me ideas.  Other times he would just come in and begin to do stuff, and I’d try to capture it on tape and maybe work some things around it.

TP:    Your reference to “Mr. Pastorius” makes me think about two things.  One is Miles’ sound during this period. Listening back to all of this at once, he was really in great form on the trumpet, better than I remember contemporaneously.  He seemed to have command over all the sounds he wanted to get out, which wasn’t the case in 1981.

MILLER:  It evolved over time.  In’ 81 and even into Tutu, I don’t think he was as strong as he was by ’88-’89.  By the time we did “Mr. Pastorius,” I think he was in great form.  He wasn’t relying on the mute as much any more.  In fact, “Mr. Pastorius” is all open horn, which is another thing I love about it.  He really found himself again, which is pretty incredible for a guy in his late fifties and sixties to rediscover the trumpet and find his sound again.  I think that’s amazing.

If you listen to Man With A Horn, his sound was at times kind of small.  There are some songs, like “Aida,” where he kind of let loose, but I don’t think he could sustain it for a long time, because the trumpet is such a physical instrument.  When we would play concerts, there were times when he really couldn’t sustain his notes.  He got really sick when I was in the band around the time we played Saturday Night Live, and his tone was pretty shaky at the time.  But then he began to get his health.  He was married to Cicily [Tyson], who put him in touch with some doctors who really helped him.  And by the time I began to write for him, he was coming into his own.  I think if you listen to a song like “Mr. Pastorius” and compare to The Man With The Horn, you can hear the development of his playing.

TP:    As a bassist of your age and generation, it’s self evident why you would call a tune “Mr. Pastorius.”  But in listening to this, one thing that stayed at the back of my mind is that it sounded, in my imagination, the way Miles might have sounded if he’d been playing with Weather Report, if Weather Report had a certain type of sensibility toward constructing the music.

MILLER:  That’s an important thing, though, the last thing you said.

TP:    Was Zawinul’s approach to creating these great tapestries of music something that was important to you as a composer and arranger?

MILLER:  In a general sense, absolutely.  I know I wasn’t trying to recreate that with “Mr. Pastorius.”  But precisely for the reasons you listed.  The generation I came from, that was a powerful influence on me, and a lot of guys my age, the way Joe orchestrated things.  Guys my age, we grew up with that sound, and I think a lot of people who were older and maybe some people who are younger can’t relate to that sound.  It sounds kind of cold to them.  But guys like Joe Zawinul and George Duke — and Herbie, too, to a certain extent — really humanized the synthesizer for me, and there were, in my mind, ways to use it that were really human and represented the sound and feeling of our times.

TP:    Off the Miles track, I’d like to ask you about your circumstances, growing up in Queens as a teenager in the ’70s.  You were born in ’59. So you grew up with Kenny Kirkland, Lenny White was a bit older than you, but he’s from around there… A bunch of people from around there made their mark.  Can you address what was percolating in your group or clique or whatever in Queens that led you in this direction?

MILLER:  You could do a whole thing just on Jamaica, Queens.  We’re talking about Billy Cobham and Lenny White, Omar Hakim, Tom Browne, and we’re also talking about John Coltrane and James Brown living there at the same time.  We’re talking about L.L. Cool-J and Run-DMC and A Tribe Called Quest.  We’re talking about one of the most fertile musical areas in the world.  Its proximity to Manhattan had a profound effect, but it had enough distance where there were homes with basements.  It was a suburban area… Not suburban, but it was an area with homes, where young guys could get in there and really make some noise, unlike Manhattan.  But we could go to Manhattan or we could go to clubs in Queens.  We would do gigs with Weldon Irvine, who was one of the elder guys there in Jamaica, Queens, who was always creating opportunities for us to play.  The first tune is a straight-ahead tune, the second tune’s a funk tune, the next tune is a samba.  It was New York at its best.  I mean, all the influences that came from all over the world landed right there in New York, and we were really the recipients as young musicians.  So you end up with a breed of musicians who are very different than the guys who came from the Midwest or from Louisiana, you know what I mean, who really had a more centralized idea about what music should be.  We were pretty open and pretty all-encompassing.

TP:    You’re a year or two older than Wynton, so that’s true.

MILLER:  Yeah.  Wynton has a very clear idea of what he feels he has and a very clear idea about what he thinks music should be, and a lot of it is a product of where he came up.  For me, coming up in New York, I played with African bands, I played with Reggae bands, I played with Salsa bands, I played with big bands — just about every type of music that came through New York, I had a good, healthy experience with.  So that shapes you.

TP:    Did Miles talk to you about those types of bands?  Did he ever speak about Prince or Fela, etc.?  Can you address his listening during your association?

MILLER:  The thing that really impressed me about Miles and a lot of the great genius musicians like Wayne Shorter and Herbie is that they’re always listening and they’re always excited about new things.  Miles was always like, “Man, listen to this.”  He’d play me Prince all the time, or a band called Kassav that he was really into for awhile.  He’d play me whatever came his way that he was excited about.  Then when I played him stuff, I’d explain to him. . .I’d even play him Janet Jackson records and say, “Look, Miles, see how they’re using the drum machine there.”  He’d giggle, because he got a kick out of it.  But it was always a search for new, fresh stuff to infuse his music.

TP:    So he was greedy.

MILLER:  Yeah, he was hungry.  Man, the guy was 60 years old, and he’s still hungry.  He’s still searching.  He’s still not afraid to change his music and to do things… Who else at that age is going to take those risks with their life, with their reputation, with their money, with all sorts of things?  His fearlessness was just incredible.

TP:    Are these records things that you go back to?

MILLER:  I hear them every once in a while.  But they’re in my head so clearly that I don’t have to…

TP:    Is it possible for you to listen to them in a detached manner?

MILLER:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Looking at them in 2002, how do they stand up?

MILLER:  To me, listening to a record like Tutu, I go, “that stuff is very obviously from the ’80s, but there’s some stuff that’s still cool.” At first I felt funny about that reaction.  Then I remembered my reaction when I heard Charlie Parker.  Not to say that Tutu is on the level of anything that Bird did.  But the point I’m making is that my first reaction when I heard bebop, was, “Man, this stuff sounds like ‘Our Gang.'” [LAUGHS] But then I began to realize, “But there’s some stuff in here that’s cool,” and that stuff is what’s stayed with me for the rest of my life.  I’ve talked to other people who hear Tutu and say, “Man, this record did this for me, this record did that for me,’ and I realize that, to some degree, the record is doing that for younger people.”  People say the record changed their life.  They say, “I heard that, and said, ‘that’s so cool,'” and they went out and bought everything with Miles’ name on it — which takes considerable funds, by the way.  But they went out and bought all Miles’ discography and discovered him just through that record.  There are people who say that record kind of defined that period of their life for them.

TP:    So do you think it’s because you helped Miles define himself through the most advanced aspects of Pop language at that time?  Or the cutting edge of Pop expression?

MILLER:  I think we took a lot of elements from Pop music at that time, absolutely, and created an atmosphere where Miles sounded natural.  The thing that I’m most proud about is that we took some things that you wouldn’t expect, and it sounds like it always existed.  Miles sounds very comfortable in that environment.  When I hear it, it takes me right back to 1985-86.  And I think that’s what music has to do first.  It has to represent the time it was created.  Then you have to hope it has something great about it that will make it transcend its time and last, and that people can still listen to it.

TP:    Do you have a favorite of the three albums?

MILLER:  I think Tutu represents exactly everything that we were at that time.  It represents our relationship, between Miles and myself.  It represents the time.  The fact that it was dedicated to Desmond Tutu represents where our heads were at.  If we had to play one song, I think I’d play that.  If I had to choose a favorite of the three, I wouldn’t.  What I’d do is I’d probably take “Tutu” and make it the first song on the Amandla album, and then make sure there were a couple of those cues from Siesta in there also.

TP:    What from Siesta do you like the best?

MILLER:  I like the things Miles played with his open horn.  Because on “Tutu” it was mainly mute, and I was really starting to miss that beautiful open sound he had.  In Siesta we got to explore that a little bit. I really love that stuff.

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