Monthly Archives: June 2011

Stanley Clarke: Uncut Blindfold Test

To be on the road seems to be the default condition of the virtuoso bassist Stanley Clarke, who turned 60 today. Having spent much of the past year-and-change touring with three of his own ensembles, the forty-year veteran launches his seventh decade tomorrow with the second, European leg of a four-stage mega-tour with Chick Corea’s reconstituted Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy edition of Return to Forever, with Lenny White on drums, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, and Frank Gambale on guitar.

Clarke’s bona fides are too well known to require recitation here. I met him about 18 months ago, when he consented to sit for the DownBeat Blindfold Test in his midtown hotel room, using his Mac laptop to listen to the selections.   There were time constraints, so I presented fewer selections than would normally be the case.

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PROLOGUE: “There’s a few musicians I know who absolutely, in all the years I’ve known them, have never said a bad thought about another musician, and one of those guys is Herbie Hancock. He’s a guy who could get a pass on saying, “that is a piece of shit!” He’s such a great musician, he’s done so many monumental records. I’ve been with Herbie where he’s talked about some of the most, for lack of a better word, amoebic musicians. He’ll say, “But see, that’s nice.” He could even say, “Man, nice shirt that guy has on. Cool instrument.” I really respect, and I’m trying really hard to adopt that way of looking at music. It makes you look deeper. Then again, why should someone have to have spent so many hours, as I did, playing the acoustic bass or studying with the teachers I had? I had this problem when I first listened to hip-hop music. “They’re not playing anything!” but then once I got into it, looking at how these guys grew up, what they had and what they were able to do with just what they had, it’s totally legitimate.”

1. Christian McBride, “The Wizard of Montara”  (from VERTICAL VISION, Warner, 2003) (McBride, acoustic and electric bass; Ron Blake, tenor saxophone; Geoff Keezer, piano, keyboards; Terreon Gully, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion)

I have no idea who that is. I don’t want to know why I want to say maybe it’s Avishai Cohen, but I don’t think it’s him. It was a good band. The composition was really good. I thought that the bass player swung pretty good. The drummer sounded young to me, though. Could of swung a little more. But there wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm; I’ll give it that. It was pretty enthusiastic. Was that a bow solo in the middle or was it an electric bass? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure whether it was something processed. That was nice. Also, there was something that, being an older guy, I’d say sounded almost like a ring modulator, which is unusual for straight-ahead music. But actually, that was refreshing, because it was something different. The track had a good feel. It was really spirited. When I listen to straight-ahead music, swinging music, the most important thing to me is that it swing, and on a swing scale this was a good 3½ stars.

2. Ben Wolfe, “Jackie Mac” (from NO STRANGERS HERE, MaxJazz 2008) (Wolfe, bass, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jesse Mills, Cyrus Beroukhim, violin; Kenji Bunch, viola; Wolfram Koessel, cello; Luis Perdomo, piano; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I liked that. It was swinging. These guys sound like they’ve swung a lot in their lives. They don’t sound like young guys to me. But then, who knows? I liked the string attempt there. It’s always nice to hear in swing music…I always like it when I can hear something new, something refreshing in there. A cool composition. I liked the whole tone aspect there. The bass player was nice, but I wish he was recorded better. I always get upset when I hear basses who are not recorded well. He played some notes that were really nice that were buried a bit—the piano accompaniment was louder than the bass at certain points. But it was a good recording. 3½ stars.

3. John Patitucci, “Messaien’s Gumbo” (from REMEMBRANCE, Concord, 2009) (Patitucci, 6 string electric bass; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That was a nice feel. I liked it. The bassist was playing the 6-string bass really nice. When it went into the real upper register I thought it was John Patitucci, but I’m not good at naming people, so then I thought it wasn’t him either.. But everyone seemed comfortable with that way of swinging. The drummer was really good, I thought. The tune was cool. The thing I liked is that there was a lot of space, and the tune was based off of a bassline. I love great basslines, and that was a really melodic bassline. That to me is a sign of a good bass player, if he has a good bassline. Matter of fact, I still hear that bassline ringing in my head. Very creative, and the space was really good. 3½ stars.

4. Reggie Workman, “Medea” (from Trio 3, TIME BEING, Intakt, 2002) (Workman, bass, composer; Oliver Lake, alto saxophone; Andrew Cyrille, drums)

Was there an extra percussion, or was it overdubbed? Just three guys? At first I thought the percussionist was another player. The rest of the track was so spontaneous and true, it would have been better if they’d had another guy, rather than the overdubbed percussion—it was like someone put a blanket on it. It was cool. I liked the bow sounds. Do they still call this stuff free-form music? It’s not my particular taste, but it was spirited. 3 stars. I don’t like to judge someone on their technical expertise, but from what I could hear, the saxophone player had good command. I couldn’t tell so much with the bass. The bass could have been recorded better. With the percussion, they used the echo, kind of like a blanket, so the perspective was different than the other instruments. Hard to tell whether they’re older or younger musicians. I’m from the time that I listened to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, and all. But the saxophone player had a nice tone.

5. James Genus, “I Fall In Love Too Easily” (from Manuel Valera, CURRENTS, MaxJazz, 2009) (Valera, piano; Genus, bass; Ernesto Simpson, drums)

That was really nice. I love the tune. They had an arrangement. They had a great command of their instruments. The bass player was really good; you could tell he’s studied the bass well. They played very lyrical. That’s jazz to me. The piano was excellent. They had a lot of space. Even though these guys have a lot of technique, a lot of knowledge in what they’re doing, the chords and harmonically, they were very patient players. That’s a hard to during recordings. Sometimes a recording sounds better when it’s relaxed, and someone took their time, and they show some patience in their playing. A really good recording. 4½ stars.

6. Alain Perez, “Donna Lee (Doña Líos)” (from EN EL AIRE, Ayva, 2005) (Alain Pérez, electric  bass, vocals, djembe; Iván Lewis “Melón”, piano; Kiki Ferrer, drums; Pepe Espinosa, congas; Carlos Sarduy, trumpet; Román Filiu, alto saxophone; Inoidel Gonzales, tenor saxophone)

At first I thought it was Victor Bailey, because I know he likes to take those kind of tunes and play the heads on them. But when it got to the bass solo, I knew it wasn’t Victor. Then I thought it might be one of these tribute records to Jaco, and this is one of the tunes he used to do, but then I thought, “No, I don’t think that’s it either.” A little too much percussion. But I really liked the arrangement. The bass player was excellent. It takes a lot of command to play that head. On the solo, I couldn’t tell…I wasn’t sure whether he was playing on the same tune or not. 3½ stars. That was interesting. I got into the tune, and I thought they were going to continue to go in that direction, but they didn’t, which was cool. But he sounded like a different player in the middle.

7.  Miroslav Vitous, “Surfing with Michel”   (from REMEMBERING WEATHER REPORT, ECM, 2009) (Vitous, bass, composer; Michel Portal, clarinet)

I like what they did with that theme…at first I thought it was a 4-note theme, but maybe an 8-note, 9-note theme. It reminded me a melody that Wayne Shorter would write. At first I thought it was Bennie Maupin, but I don’t think it was. I really liked the combination of bass clarinet and the bass. I thought they did a really good job of taking that motif and spinning it around and doing some stuff with it. It was very clear, what they were doing. Their objectives were really clear. I really enjoyed it. At first I thought it was Miroslav, but then, it didn’t sound like his bass. I definitely think it’s another guy. 4 stars.  That was Miroslav? He changed his bass. What the hell? What did he do? During the ‘70s, I was around Miroslav and Wayne… Miroslav sounds good, man.

8.   Ari Roland, “Damonesco” (from NEW MUSIC, Smalls Records, 2009) (Roland, bass, composer; Chris Byars, alto saxophone; Sacha Perry, piano; Keith Balla, drums.)

I can see the bass player. Short guy. Not American. Oh, this bass player is American? Then I don’t know him. That was great. It was bebop. I loved it. I liked the piano player, and it was swinging. It was recorded recently, though. I can tell by the sound. Sometimes the engineers haven’t done their research on the way the drums should sound in bebop. The snare almost sounded like a drum machine snare. It could have been Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers—everyone might have smiled. I liked the fours, and everybody played them, including the bass player, which usually didn’t happen. The saxophone player was excellent. The first couple of notes, I thought he was Lee Konitz, but then I said no. Then I wondered if Eddie Gomez was on the bass. No. The bowing didn’t sound like Eddie. But the bowing was great. It sounded like he used a German bow. You could tell that he really had it together. I could tell that these guys are diehards, because everything is exactly like those old records. This tune sounded like a composite of a lot of different types of tunes. But to their credit, bebop is as legitimate as classical music. It’s a lot of rules. You could almost say it’s finite. It’s in a box, and there are things you do, and if you do these other things, it’s not bebop. That’s a helluva discipline. I give them a lot of credit.  4 stars.

9.  Ron Carter, “Stardust” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2001) (Carter, bass; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Hoagy Carmichael, composer)

[1:40] Is that Ron? Yeah! 5 stars. There’s a couple of bass players in history who to me are source points. If I hear a bass player that’s influenced by Ron, he may have more dexterity than Ron, or have a fancier arrangement, or blah-blah-blah. But Ron is an innovator. Probably 99.9% of the bass players who play out here today all play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Oscar Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and after Paul Chambers a few people—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us guys. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player. When I was younger, I bought the Miles Davis records and listened to that stuff. As this solo bore out, Ron is a great storyteller. You listen to the song, and it’s like somebody telling you a story about something. It’s brilliant. Who was the piano player? Roland? He was great. Killing.

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Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Stanley Clarke

Andrew Hill’s 80th Birthday Anniversary

Two years ago to the day, not long after I’d started this blog, I posted a piece I wrote for DownBeat in 2000 on the  pianist-composer Andrew Hill (1931-2007). I’m augmenting that post today with four interviews that I conducted with Andrew (below the text of the story), two  on WKCR (1996, 2000) and three in 2000 for purposes of the article. As you can read in the section of 1996 interview that addresses Andrew’s encounter with Charlie Parker at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom in 1949, and in a few other spots, Andrew was playing along with a 1937 birthdate attributed on the liner notes  of his Blue Note recordings in the ’60s…but 1931 is what it was.

* * *

When I was a child, I was able to write music without hearing  it,” Andrew Hill told me in the spring of 2000, during one of several conversations for a DownBeat article that ran later that year.  “I’d write it at the piano, and then reshape it away from the piano by looking at it—lines, counterlines, and different things. I was in the streets, hustling, and and people began to notice. The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized notation.”

Individuality was the defining trope of Hill’s career. Born in Chicago 80 years ago today, and a South Side resident until 30, Hill—who died on April 20, 2007—blossomed creatively during the ’60s, recording a series of sui generis recordings—Point of Departure, Smokestack, Black Fire, Judgment, Compulsion—on Blue Note, animated by the likes of Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, and Richard  Davis.

“To me, it’s more like an alternative approach,” Hill had said of his attitude to music during a 1996 conversation on WKCR. “In Western civilization, melody is the major voice. Rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory. Though many things have changed traditionally, that dynamic hasn’t changed.  Always check the rhythm to hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s retrospective or trying to go ahead.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.”

Hill’s music contained extraordinary rhythmic nuance—in the manner of  Charlie Parker, he stacked rhythms, morphing time signatures from measure to measure in his pieces, and, when comping, altering the beats in every phrase. This is one reason why Vijay Iyer, one of Hill’s numerous acolytes amongst creative musicians under 45, could write for the now-dormant webzine www.jazz.com that what had always drawn him to Hill’s music was its innate sense of mystery. “It challenges your sense of what music is,” Iyer stated. “You can’t really listen to it as style, like, ‘Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.’ To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence.”

In the aforementioned DownBeat article, posted below, Hill spoke of the context in which he developed his ideas.  (Please also see David Adler’s fine 2006 profile in Jazz Times.)

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At Birdland on the Saturday night after the United Nations Millennium Conference, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure Sextet concluded a ferocious 90-minute first set to raucous applause from an audience that included a generous percentage of dark-suited men wearing wires up their sleeves.  Moments later, prompted by what the pianist-composer later informed friends was a Presidential request, Hill and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, played “Summertime” as an impromptu encore.  Well, the bartender later burst the bubble by noting that it was the wife of the President of Ecuador who popped the question.  But it didn’t seem such a stretch to imagine Bill Clinton — who attended jazz camps as a teenage saxophonist when Hill was recording the 8 or 9 Blue Note sessions by which many people still define him — taking a break from various off-the-record meetings to hear the composer-pianist on whose classics “Black Fire” and “Point of Departure” tenor hero Joe Henderson appeared.

Hill began to revisit the sonic terrain of Point of Departure — which blended the sounds of Henderson, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Richard Davis and an 18-year-old Tony Williams — two years ago, not long after returning from a two-decade West Coast residence spent teaching and sporadically performing.  Expecting to find a scene where “everything is a retrospective,” he instead discovered what he describes as a “golden age” defined by an intense cadre of improvisers intent on “creative contact with older musicians” working toward the end of “reclaiming a lot of things that had been lost.”

“There hasn’t been as much young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s,” Hill states.  “Life has been breathed into the music.  I’m seeing young musicians who understand the traditional musical vocabulary — the free playing, which has been out for forty years, and the magic of Bebop — enough to be able to use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process that will fit into this period.  They aren’t playing things they heard off records; they’re not looking at anything as old and new.”

Inspired by his young cohorts, Hill “got the writing disease,” producing a flood of new work, a smattering of which he recorded on Dusk [Palmetto], in September 1999.  The music is sui generis — mysterious, elusive, soulful, rich in mood and character, expansively written, replete with beautiful melodies and counter-melodies, complex intervals, unique voicings, intense vamps and ostinatos, each section tailored to the tonal personalities of the musicians, morphing in a nonce from keening rubato passages to long lines propelled by churning counter and cross-rhythms that define the overall motion.  “Each piece inhabits its own musical world,” Ehrlich says succinctly.  “Andrew is using a lot of different compositional devices in them, but what’s consistent is a sense of musical poetry and lyricism.”

Dusk is the capstone of a very good year for the 69-year-old pianist-composer.  He engaged Bobby Hutcherson, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Archie Shepp in well-publicized duos.  After spending most of the summer in a wing of a well-appointed castle courtesy of an Italian artists’ colony, he performed on a showcase night at the Chicago Jazz Festival that included a reunion with Von Freeman (they played “Stardust”), who appeared on Hill’s debut recording in 1956, for Ping, a Chicago independent operated out of the back of a record store at 47th and Cottage Grove.

“Andrew’s music is very heavily mental,” says Hutcherson, who first recorded with Hill on Judgment (1964) and on Dialogue (1965).  “You go into rooms you wouldn’t normally enter.  There’s always a little story in the melody, a reason why this tune is being played; it’s your own story, what you’re seeing as you play.  He’d give you melancholy, long notes, you’d think, ‘man, how long can you hold this note so that there will be this texture?’ — then all of a sudden it burst into a chant, a hope within the note.  Religious, I guess you can say…well, the religion of the bandstand…of someone’s thoughts.  It was very challenging, just because of its openness; the melody could be loose as a rubber band.  But just remember that it’s going to come down; the bar line is still moving at the same pace.”

“Andrew’s writing and playing sound like geometry to me,” notes Greg Osby, a Hill alumnus and vociferous acolyte who employed the pianist and guitarist Jim Hall on this year’s well-received The Invisible Hand.  “He builds his lines and melodic development and motives and themes in small fragments, and breaks those down into even smaller fragments.  It’s like building a pyramid, and setting that off with TNT, then building another pyramid based upon the smaller rock chunks or fragments, each one being more important than the structure itself.  And he has total elastic time, not your metrical, militaristic four-four predictable time feel.  It’s akin to that Dr. Doolittle animal, the pushmi-pulyu, which was like a two-headed llama who goes in both directions.  You have to really be game to push in the beat and pull it back — compression-expansion I call it.  Otherwise, you’ll get tossed.”

Scott Colley, Hill’s bassist of choice for the past two years, says: “No matter how much you’ve internalized the material, you have to be ready for the unknown.  More than anybody I’ve ever played with, Andrew is a true improviser.  If he feels you’re starting to formulize the music, he’ll take bits of a composition from one part of the form and put it somewhere else.  Though he writes simple bass parts for me, I have to look at the score because so much is going on that defies traditional harmony, that can’t be notated traditionally in terms of chord changes.  It sounds logical and beautiful, but when you analyze it, you realize it’s amazingly different.”

The unorthodox was norm in the blues culture of postwar South Side Chicago, Hill’s home town, where the overriding imperative was to establish an individual sound.  Hill’s parents, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, bought their son an accordion when he was 3; a few years later they acquired an old foot-pedaled player piano.  “I would match the keys as much as I could,” Hill recalls.  “I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever sound suited that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.”

Hill’s family was poor, and by age 12 he was a street musician, playing blues-style accordion and tap dancing “with his hustling companion,” guitarist Leo Blevins, who had a washtub with a string on it.  “It was safe at the time,” Hill remembers.  “I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street and State, which was a good block.  Across the street was the South Center department store, a little further down was the Savoy Ballroom and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing, and the Regal Theater was right next to that.”

An almost mute child with above-average intelligence, Hill enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in what would today be called an off-track program that allowed him freedom to follow his muse.  By his teens, he was working weekends at sorority house dances, at rent parties, even after-hours sessions.  Hill’s first taste of the latter occurred one early morning at the Macombo Lounge, an all-night joint at the intersection of Oakland and Drexel Boulevard owned by the Chess Brothers.  Trumpeter/bandleader King Kolax and tenorist Claude McLin were playing “Idaho” with bass icon Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Ike Day.  “The piano player didn’t show up, and Kolax knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so he invited me on the stand,” Hill remembers.  “I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, ‘Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!’  They were nice enough to gently ease me off the stand; they told me what I did wrong.

“Ike Day had this incredible feel, and the way he played opened up my concept of rhythm out of the rigid 1-2-3-4.  It was a live rhythm, a rhythm you could feel with your whole body.  He played over the entire drumset, like Roy Haynes does, incorporating everything into a rhythm, creating a floating rhythm sound in the African manner almost.  He did amazing things; he’d come off the bandstand into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.”

Hill cites Albert Ammons as an early local influence (“his boogie-woogie was a living thing; he created with it”).  As a teenager delivering the Chicago Defender he met Earl Hines, and “bugged him to death until he decided he would let me play something on his grand.  I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had a technical facility for not having really studied.  What I liked about Earl Hines was that he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate and play something creative outside the structure; when I talked to him he said, ‘Well, that’s what we call concertizing.’”  Hill also admired the lesser-known pianist Willie Jones (“he used to play with ninths in the bass and had a nice single fingering, even though he was known around Chicago for his exciting block chord Milt Buckner approach; I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer”) and Sun Ra.

“Sunny had a basic Chicago approach,” Hill remarks.  Even on a Blues you would go Out and you would go In.  A lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others, but to an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  There wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or about what someone else was doing; it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But it was category-less.  It was organic, like an African modal situation, in which the performer would play in all the different voices.  Jazz wasn’t an art form; before television and integration got strong, it was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  The music was coming from the streets.  Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.”

As his teens progressed, Hill also soaked up recordings by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as they came out, plugging his turntable into a guitar amplifier “so I could almost hear them the same way that I heard the live artists.”  He found someone to show him Czerny technique to get the fingering necessary to grapple with Powell.  He and a gifted friend named King Solomon, “used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift Monk’s stuff off the records when I was 16 years old — it came natural to him because he was a church pianist; after he taught me the church perspective, Monk’s concept became more accessible.”

As the ’50s progressed, Hill became “mesmerized” by the environment around me,” and established himself as a professional musician in Chicago.  “I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing,” he recalls.  “I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.”  He sidemanned at the Beehive on 55th Street and the Crown Propellor and Stage Lounge on 63rd Street, backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at various venues, played at Joe Segal’s bebop jam sessions, and from 1955 to 1959 became house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge, where national acts like Sammy Davis and Barbara McNair would come through.  He summer vacationed with Dinah Washington in 1954, who took him to New York for the first time; he subsequently returned to the Apple with singers Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler and with the comedian George Kirby.  He did supper lounge gigs on the Gold Coast with a steady trio comprising bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, became the pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band, and began to explore his voice with hardcore Chicago progressives like Nicky Hill and Ira Sullivan.  And he never stopped playing the blues.

In 1961, while working a mundane job on the West Side of Chicago, Hill decided it was time to come to New York.  “I saw that if I stayed in Chicago I would descend morally because everything had a type of sameness,” he says.  “Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!”  Hill found work with Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Walt Dickerson, and went to Los Angeles in early 1962 on a job with Roland Kirk.  There he met his first wife, Laverne, a talented organist; the couple moved back to New York in the spring of 1963.

Freed of Chicago’s artisanal cultural matrix, Hill found in New York a nourishing environment.  Opportunities presented themselves.  He eschewed sideman gigs that might pigeonhole him as a “blues pianist” or “singer’s pianist,” and instead pigeonholed himself as an artist, forging aesthetic commitments with a cadre of like-minded generational peers like Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson.  Through a job with Dorham, Hill met Joe Henderson; they woodshedded and gigged, and Henderson hired him to play on “Our Thing.”  During the session, Hill recalls, “Alfred Lion said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera, that he liked the way I played and wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  The next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.”

The rest is history.  At Birdland, 36 years after the original “Point of Departure,” and a year after “Dusk,” working from a book that now constitutes about 40 new compositions, Bill Clinton, if he was there, heard music by — in Ehrlich’s words — “a master composer at the height of his powers” performed by an ensemble (Ehrlich and Aaron Stewart, reeds and woodwinds; Ron Horton, trumpet; Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) at ease with its intricacies.

“It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder just to continue playing,” Hill concludes.  “The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  To me it’s terrible to play without the passion of music.  It’s the passion that connects, not the academic correctness.  The passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  It was inspirational to discover that things aren’t static; it’s led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.  The spirit of jazz is supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.”

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR) – (6-26-96):

[MUSIC: "Monk's Glimpse" w/C. Jordan-Reid-Riley]

TP:    “Monk’s Glimpse” features you with a fellow Chicagoan, Clifford Jordan, who I imagine you knew during your days in Chicago.  Did you?

AH:    Yes, I knew Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, later on Leroy Jenkins, a few other what you would call precocious kids all my life, because when we would run into each other when we were quite young, and each one of us would have our instruments and different things that economics would allow us to do during that period.

TP:    The three people you mentioned all went to DuSable High School on the South Side.  Is that where you went?

AH:    No.  I was one of the first children admitted to the University of Chicago pilot program.  At that time, intelligence was based upon a certain middle-class standard, and if a person didn’t fit into certain this middle-class standard they wouldn’t have so-called “intelligence.”  But for some reason I appeared to be bright.  I was semi-autistic, but as they called me, bright.  So they took me in and brought me to the point where I would be sociable.

Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  I used to call it the University of the Streets, because on the tip of Oakwood Boulevard you had the Macombo where I could listen to people like the late Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, I even saw Fats Navarro one time playing tenor, quite a few others.  They had this class where I would miss school… Well, I didn’t have to miss school.  I was brilliant and kind of eccentric, even then.  So we would meet up.  And Jazz wasn’t an art form.  These were the days building up to the zenith in Jazz in the ’50s and ’60s.  So every block would have a band in the area… I grew up in somewhat a Red-Light District, not Red-Light defined as…well, yeah, Red-Light, where you would have music available.  Then they also had after-hour parties that I could attend, because musicians would come and get me.  So I would mentor under Albert Ammons, Earl “Fatha” Hines, all these type of influences.  I wasn’t musically literate then, so I didn’t categorize of classify things, so here I had this rainbow collage of music available at every turn — and so did all of us.

TP:    The years you’re talking about now would be directly after World War Two until the early 1950′s?

AH:    Well, the years I’m talking about is consciousness; you know, when consciousness first hit me and when I started accumulating childhood memories.  My memories go back to, we’ll say, 1941 as a baby almost, to the Regal Theater, which was part of the chitlin’ theater for Black artists, where I experienced such phenomenons as Fats Waller playing the organ and different things.  Then in 1945 there was a bar right down the street from me called the Savoy, where they had people like Hot Lips Page, and I would be chaperoned in these places.  There’s a joke about that.  I took up the northeast corner of 47th Street, because on the corner where the Regal and the Savoy was (what they called South-Center) that was the spot for me to play accordion Blues style and tap dance.  So I’ve in a sense been organically part of the scene since I was a little kid, because it was inclusive of me, and older artists would give me what I needed.

TP:    It sounds like music has been part of your entire living consciousness and memory.  Do you remember a time when you weren’t playing music?

AH:    No, not even recently.  Because a lot of times, when you’re not visible on the New York scene, there’s this theory that you’re not functioning.  Even off the scenes, I’ve written string quartets, performed with 40-to-100-piece choral groups.  It’s an interesting life, because music it has always been with me.  The crowd comes and goes.  At one moment it’s the mode, you’re not; the next moment you’re not so hot.  So now I’m back in New York again, and now it looks like everything is a retrospective.  But even in the retrospective I’ve begged to come back on the scene, because in a retrospective some things are missing, some things have never been captured, and if the person really don’t come back and give them a guideline to what was going on… Because it might just be the link to creativity itself, but if only the academic situation is available in a mausoleum type learning process, that means something could be lost.

TP:    I’d like to step back again to your days in Chicago.  You mentioned people like Albert Ammons and Earl Hines.  Some capsule impressions of them, and other pianists who influenced the way you approach the piano.  Albert Ammons first.

AH:    Albert Ammons, because he played boogie-woogie, and the way I played accordion, boogie-woogie was accessible, because you would approach it rhythmically, not harmonically, which after he taught it to me made me ambidextrous, which gave me complete independence between the hands.  And then Fatha Hines was interesting because, as you know, he started the single finger approach to Jazz.  And then there were so many other followers around the area with these individualistic approaches to music.  This was the difference between Chicago and New York for a long period of time.  In New York you would have one person who would be a great innovator, and a lot of imitators — which it’s all common property.  But in places like Chicago, after the music left New Orleans and came to Chicago, then people had the freedom to be flexible and not have to sound like anyone.  Their only rule was that they had to fit into the Tradition itself, the Tradition coming from, we’ll say, the beginning of the oral Protestant tradition.

TP:    Who were some of the other pianists in Chicago who had an impact on you?

AH:    There were so many.  There was a fellow named Vernon Griddle(?).  I don’t know if he ever made it; he was phenomenal.  Then there was Chris Anderson, who had and still has a unique approach to harmony, similar to Willie Jones.  Willie Jones played like Milt Buckner, but then he was into the new music aesthetic where he used to listen things like Lukas Foss 1950s’ music and stuff, so I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer.  Then there was Sun Ra, or Sonny Blount.

The amazing thing about Chicago was that there wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or what someone else was doing, because it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But Sonny’s approach was a basic Chicago approach even on a Blues, where they said we would go Out and we would go In — which a lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others.  To an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  But like I said, Chicago was category-less, so people would come out to hear the music, so it was just an organic situation, like an African modal situation, which would put on the performer to be able to play in all the different voices, not a monotone where it’s a stylistic supported by an academic element who are more lettered than oral.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal followed Earl Hines’ path from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1949, and was also a child prodigy and performer.  Did he have an impact on the way you approached the piano or the piano trio?

AH:    No.  In retrospect, what I just said is there were so many brilliant people, known or unknown, and we would exchange ideas.  But any time you go to mimicking or idol worship, you cancel creativity, because you negate the openness that you need to have creative contact.

TP:    Besides Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore and Leroy Jenkins, who were some other people in your peer group that you associated with?

AH:    I mentioned those, but there were a lot of others.  There was always Johnny Griffin, who was a little ahead of us.  But a lot of the others developed.  They had more of an academic approach than a natural talent approach, with a  continuous learning process.  There are people who are born with a talent for music.  The more you listen to something, the more available it becomes, and when it’s readily available in your environment, your aesthetic, your sense of harmony, rhythm, etcetera, develops that much faster.

TP:    When did you start working on the professional music scene in Chicago as a pianist in rhythm sections or as a trio pianist in various venues?

AH:    Almost from the start.  I remember at 12 years old an alto saxophonist named George Lee came and got me and took me on my first job.  It was at a sorority house.  From then on I was working every weekend.  Then I found out about the night circuit where the rent parties were still going on.  The pianists who were working that circuit used to get too much work, or they’d have a job where they couldn’t get there until 12 o’clock.  I had no curfew, so I could go and play the piano from around 8 o’clock until 12:30 in the morning.

TP:    I gather that your first recording was on a very obscure date with Von Freeman in 1952?

AH:    Yeah.  I had Von Freeman, Pat Patrick, Wilbur Campbell, and Leroy Jackson.

TP:    Was Von Freeman one of the people you were working with?

AH:    Well, Von Freeman used to work all the sorority gigs, he had some high school dance jobs, so he was always a presence because he and George and Bruz would always play those type of affairs.

TP:    Outside of people in Chicago, who were musicians on the national scene that had an impact on you.  We began with “Monk’s Glimpse,” and there’s always seemed to be a certain affinity to Monk’s approach to music in what you do.

AH:    Well, retrospectively, Monk to a lot of young pianists my age in 1949 was very accessible, in terms of understanding what he did and following his music.  That’s why now, when I talk about the periods of Jazz, I talk about the period when it was a popular music and when it became an art form.  Like, I came on the end of the period when it was a popular music, so that way someone from another lifestyle or another area in life could look at it as experimental, when it was very organic, which comes from people like Monk.  Before Television and Integration got strong, Jazz was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  So certain things we heard all the time.  It wasn’t even called Jazz then.  I remember up until 1949, Downbeat used to have pictures of Negroes (as we were called during that time) talking about how we play the flute, but my lips are too big… So when I think about Jazz, then I think about the first Jazz recording by a group who sounded like Spike Jones, and the Creoles were supposed to have the first recordings, but then they excluded the Blacks from Uptown, even though their music goes back to before Slavery…  I’m only saying that to say that ever since they took the drums away from us in this country, the music has been flourishing, and then 1917 is where Jazz came in, which isn’t very inclusive.

So a lot of people have had an influence on me, and then I’ve had an influence on quite a few others.

TP:    The next tracks we’ll hear come from a few of the extraordinary series of recordings Andrew Hill made for Blue Note when he hit New York from Chicago in the early 1960′s, and took the jazz world by storm through the originality and distinctiveness of these recordings.

[MUSIC: AH-Hutcherson-Davis-E. Jones, "Siete Ocho"; A. Hill-J. Henderson, "McNeil's Island"; A. Hill-KD-Dolphy-Williams, "Refuge"]

TP:    Listening to those tracks raises several questions.  I asked you while the music was playing whether these were working groups, groups that performed live and played this or other music in performance.

AH:    Well, the group with Bobby Hutcherson, we worked the University of Toronto and Montreal.  We had an incredible college tour…

TP:    Did you set up drum parts in this music, or was the drummer free to create their own…

AH:    Well, it was basically drafts written off my interpretation of someone else’s playing, so that really was the catalyst.

TP:    Was all the music on Judgment set up for Elvin Jones’ style?

AH:    Yes, it was set up for his style.

TP:    Was the group with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes a working band?

AH:    Yes, we were really getting ready to work, but the only wrench that was thrown in that was right after we did a few nights at Birdland and a few other places, Joe joined Horace Silver.  So that was the end of that for a while.

TP:    Did you write the music for Black Fire with Roy Haynes’ style in mind?

AH:    Yes, I really loved the way Roy Haynes played during that time.  I still love his playing, but I was really enthralled during that period.
TP:    The front line of Point of Departure, indeed the whole band, reads like a who’s-who in the history of Jazz.  Was this a group that got to work for a while?

AH:    Well, we did a few things before Eric left for Europe, mmm-hmm.  During that period I was lucky enough to get quite a few college concerts, so there was always an opportunity to play with some of the great ones from that period.

TP:    Again was that music written with Tony Williams in mind?

AH:    No, actually Tony surprised me and gave me a little more than I was looking for — which I enjoyed.  Because you really couldn’t hear his whole style with Miles Davis, even though it was a great group, but it still didn’t cover all the areas that Tony could go into.

TP:    One of the characteristics of Andrew Hill’s groups is that always dynamic drummers are featured, and the drums and rhythm seems to be a major component in both your improvatorial and compositional sensibilities.

AH:    Well, I researched that while I was at Portland State, and then I came into this phrase “African retention” (all this after the fact).  To me, it’s more like an alternative approach to music.  In Western civilization, melody is the major voice, and rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory.

TP:    It’s almost as though rhythm is part of the dialogue that emerges among the musicians in improvisational situations.

AH:    It is.  And though many things have changed traditionally, that hasn’t changed.  That’s how you can really hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s a retrospective or people trying to go ahead.  Always check the rhythm to see whether it is static.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.

TP:    One thing you seem to do to insure rhythmic dynamism is change the rhythmic signature from measure to measure within the compositions.

AH:    Well, between one and one in a space of time you can have 5, 7, 12 or 4, but it’s always imposed upon a strong four like the heartbeat.  Still, in between, so many things can be done with it rhythmically, even thinking in terms of strong and weak accents.
TP:    Let’s talk about some of the drummers you played with in Chicago, stepping back 40 or 50 years.  Ike Day is one of the legendary drummers of all time.

AH:    Oh, I cut my teeth on Ike Day.  Only three people had a profound musical effect on my life, and those were Charlie Parker and Ike Day and Thelonious Monk (I’d always heard Monk play but when I saw him play, it had a profound effect).  Ike Day was amazing.  As a kid, I didn’t know who these people were, but I used to see people like Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, all of them would come to Chicago for a glimpse of Ike Day so they could prepare their respective styles.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    What made him so special?  Was it his interdependence?  His command of the timbre of whatever surface he was striking?

AH:    To really explain that, I have to bring in the sociological connotations.  Because in that period the community and the musician was close, because it was all a part of a sociological aesthetic in the community.  Tap dancing was strong.  The rhythm you played wasn’t like a dead rhythm; like you hear drummers play, and you say, “That’s dead” or “that’s alive” or “that’s great” — whatever one says.  But it wasn’t a dead rhythm; it was a live rhythm, one that you could feel with your whole body.  When I was in Chicago there was a place called the Macombo where the bandstand was perched up high, and Ike Day came down off the bandstand, like you’ve seen Gene Krupa and all of them obviously do, but there’s something about when you see the Master do it… He was the master.  You get involved.  It had an emotional impact.  It wasn’t just a static, visual experience.

TP:    Let me pin you down a little more on Ike Day.  Was he someone who was let’s say dealing with a different line with the right hand, left hand, right leg, left leg, like Max Roach developed and Andrew Cyrille?  Was he doing that functionally?

AH:    Well, you asked me about Roy Haynes.  The one similarity between him and Roy Haynes is that when he played the drum set, he played all these things over the entire drum.  He incorporated everything into a rhythm, so you had this floating rhythm sound instead of him stacking just doing a parallel…

TP:    So Ike Day was stacking rhythms on top of each other in the African manner almost.

AH:    In the African manner almost.  It’s true.

TP:    I commented that within “Refuge” that you’re constantly changing the rhythmic backing of each phrase, and this was something Charlie Parker would do this in his solos.

AH:    And I was saying I was surprised you knew that!  It’s really evident when you’re dealing with a music that’s really built off the rhythm, not the tonic dominant harmony, and that’s what I learned from playing with Charlie Parker. That’s why he had such a profound effect on me.  Some tunes I was too young to know, and Barry Harris took my place on a few numbers.  Well, I tried to get Barry to take my place, because Barry was one of the older Detroit guys at the time.  Anyway, before I played with Charlie Parker, he said, “Well, you play good and you do this well, but place more emphasis on the rhythm than the lyrical approach.”

TP:    Do you remember what year this was and the venue?

AH:    It was June 1949 at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit.  Illinois Jacquet and Bullmoose Jackson were on the bill.

TP:    You were 12 years old at the time, playing with Charlie Parker.

AH:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    The third you mentioned was Thelonious Monk.  Do you recollect when you first heard his records?

AH:    Oh, I heard his records as a kid, me and another pianist who we used to call King Solomon.  We used to dissect things like “Hackensack” and stuff like that on the piano, which came easily.  But then the dynamic of seeing him play in person… I’d heard his sound all my life, but to see that he played with two hands, you know, to maintain a certain type of volume, and the way he would hit the piano, it was just profound.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first saw Monk in person?  He did perform at the Beehive in Chicago…

AH:    Oh, I didn’t go to that, because I didn’t like the milieu of the situation because they didn’t give him the respect he was due.  So I really heard him at the Five Spot in New York when he was having this long run, and I would take the train or the Greyhound out and hear him, and get on it again and go back satisfied.

TP:    Did you perform at all with the great Wilbur Ware in Chicago?

AH:    Yeah, Wilbur Ware, the great one! [LAUGHS] I did a few things with Wilbur.  I enjoyed him.  But then, fortunately or unfortunately, being a retrospective of what I said around 40 minutes, there really wasn’t any great ones, because then you had Israel Crosby in Chicago and all these incredible bassists.

TP:    Richard Davis was up there as a young bassist as well.

AH:    He was coming up with the Ahmad Jamal trio, and this fellow who used to play Classical music.  He was hot for a brief moment, nationally and internationally.

TP:    What circumstances brought you to New York on the eve of your series of recordings for the Blue Note label?

AH:    Well, it was just like what brought me to New York to reside in this period.  My life seems to be based upon intuition, discernment, the ability to know when to go and when not… I don’t know, I just had this urge…

TP:    So it wasn’t a gig that brought you here; you just decided to come here on your own.

AH:    Yeah, that’s my life story.  Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!

This weekend with Lonnie Plaxico and Pheeroan akLaff, in an environment where the only thing they can feed me is myself and my soul consciousness escapes in an occasional flurry, I say to myself, “I might as well…”  In the old days people didn’t really get carried away with what they sounded like.  The emphasis was on never playing the same thing twice, to create.  And I figure this weekend I can go for that.  I won’t be with people who are jaded, who go in different areas.

TP:    No repeater pencils, as Lester Young would say.

AH:    Oh, no.  No pencils! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: AH-Davis-Khan-Haynes, "Smokestack"; A. Hill, "Sunnyside"]

* * * *

Andrew Hill (3-22-00):

TP:    First things first.  Let’s talk about current events, about the record, about Dusk.  You recorded “Ball Square” in 1986 and “15/8″ is on that solo record.  Did you do a lot of composition for this?  Has this been a fertile period for you writing?

HILL:  Yes, a very fertile period, where I’ve written new things that, as you said, went over older things and added different sections to it for… Let’s see, from ’97 to now it’s like I’ve had the writing sickness.  I find myself writing music all the time.

TP:    Talk about accumulating this personnel.  It’s the same instrumentation as Point of Departure.  I don’t know you’ve done this since.

HILL:  I’ve never done this sextet since.  I’ve done other sextets and septets and 10 pieces for Blue Note during that period that they haven’t yet released. They have enough backlog on me to bring out for ten years.

TP:    Another Mosaic box.

HILL:  Yeah, of unreleased compositions.

TP:    But here, was most of the writing done for the date?

HILL:  Most of the writing was done for the band.  We didn’t actually record all the compositions for this period, because when I recorded this there were 20 originals and it keeps on growing.  Now there’s more. [October '99]

TP:    You’ve talked about writing for personalities.  Talk about the band as it’s constituted, and how you see each person as being applicable to what you do.

HILL:  Well, Marty, when the band was first formed, he brought a certain excitement to the band in his solos.  Ron Horton has improved drastically on trumpet, and he’s also helped me by copying the music and counting it out in strange situations where the bandstand won’t allow him to see me.  Greg Tardy, he’s like a fresh young talent, a star on the rise.  And Billy Drummond is a very musical drummer.  And Scott Colley has this incredible technique with this sensitivity to where he doesn’t overpower you with technique; he just overpowers you like a second left hand.  So I’m really happy about the last year because we worked some quality concerts, and the group was able to record intact, which is very unusual when I think of the caliber of the participating artists and their talent, and the fact that they’re working all the time.  Scott is very generous.  A lot of times he turned down jobs or other situations where he asked not to get paid… So to have this type of fellowship to the extent where everybody makes rehearsals, it’s just like a musical spirit that’s extended.  Like I was telling Howard, that’s why I was happy to have documented it, because sometimes it’s dependent upon economic expediency of some sort, where you get the band to work more, and the band has been generating work on its own, but it’s been sporadic, but at least maybe two or three concerts every two months, but that’s not enough to hold quality musicians.  So I’m glad we could stay together and partially document the music.

TP:    You came back in ’97?

HILL:  I left the college, Portland State University, in ’96, and I arrived in ’97.

TP:    Did you have any particular focus in mind for what you were going to do when you came back East?  Did you envision this…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t see anything, because at the time I came back for love, not my career.  I remarried in Portland, and my wife was part of the dance faculty, and they dissolved the dance department, so she was offered and received a position as the educational director at the Joyce Theater in New York City.  Her name is Joanne Robinson Hill.  So from that, I started navigating here.  The college was extremely generous to me, and they let me go… It was a good situation.  I came back for love, and I’m amazed by the venues that I hadn’t dared to dream of in decades.

TP:    Why hadn’t you dared to dream of them?

HILL:  Well, it’s good to be a rumor in your own mind, in a retrospective.  But with life in its current situation, one knows the impossibilities available to them.  If they dream from the reality, that’s one thing…

TP:    What you’re saying is that people tend to identify you with the records you did in the ’60s and less so the current things…

HILL:  No.  I’m talking about the venue.  It’s good that people think anything of you, good or bad.  But the reality is that you can tell whether you’re lukewarm or not from the activities that you’re participating in.  Because it’s till a supply-demand type situation.  So I was in a university out of the music milieu, and was completely… I could run off concerts and colleges and a few trips to Europe, but I really wasn’t in the business.  I was an educator, and I really couldn’t think about other things, because even if I hustled, they were obviously not available to me at the time.  So I came back here, and all of a sudden these unlimited things are… Like I said, things that I dared not dream of because it would be beyond my reality to envision my being accepted back on the scene like I have been.

TP:    In Portland talk about the scope of your performing activity, and also the way you organized curriculum and your aesthetic of teaching.

HILL:  Well, in Portland, a friend of mine was food and liquor manager at the  Salishon Lodge there, which is a resort.  After my deceased wife died in 1990, he invited me there for a few months to just relax on the grounds and shape my vision that spring.  So when the Fall came, it was time for me to pick a bigger city, and Portland was the biggest city there, so I arrived in Portland, and they presented me with information on all the colleges in Oregon to bring me into the circle.  Then I got a commission… While I was there I got every commission that Portland had to give, and received a tenured teaching situation at Portland State University as Associate Professor of Music.  So I could have stayed and gotten full professorship and all that.

But anyway, my classes were similar, in a sense, to the way I learned how to play in Chicago.  The only thing is it had texts with it.  But the way I tried to organize the curriculum was so one could make evolutionary type of advances.  Like any aesthetic, the more you introduce the students to certain things at a certain period, and all of a sudden they become more familiar and make the text their own.  I accepted students only through the audition process.  So I had these workshops where I tried to teach the students how to hustle, or I should use the word “market” themselves [LAUGHS], so they understand the mechanics of the business.  If you’re good, you can… But other than that, no matter who you are, you have to reach out.

TP:    But there was more to it than teaching students about marketing themselves.

HILL:  I had these ensembles that were created.  I created jam sessions for them to participate in.  In other words, I made a pedagogy out of my approach by having different aspects of musical training, like jam sessions, playing the tune in class, so different classes can get together and have a jam session on the material.

TP:    Were you mirroring your own experience as a young musician?

HILL:  I would say mirroring my experiences, plus taking advantage of the knowledge that I learned about teaching in, Pittsburgh, California before, where I was teaching special children, teaching advanced school…what they call in California key classes.  I was in K-to-12.  I started the Jazz Department at the New College of California in San Francisco when I first got there.  But anyway, all this accumulative experience helped me in teaching my students and giving them a sense of self-esteem.

TP:    Were you taking them also through the tradition in a step-by-step-by-step way?

HILL:  Well, I would have a question there where they would tell me their interests, what inspired them.  Because I want them to be grounded in text and situations and areas they weren’t interested in.  Because I figured if I could get their interest and work with them in their areas of interest, that they will evolve themselves the more they develop.

TP:    For you, in terms of writing your music and turning your music into text, not necessarily on a printed page, but maybe in a more general sense… When did you start writing music, composing music?

HILL:  Well, I always haven written music.  That’s what attracted great composers to me, because they figured with my imagination…composition… When I was a child I was able to write music without hearing music.  I was just writing symmetrical…

TP:    Oh, you could write it without being at the piano, out of your head?

HILL:  Yeah, write it at the piano and then reshape it by looking at it and have lines and counterlines and different things about it.  That came natural, and that used to amaze…

TP:    You can do that intellectually without sitting at the piano.

HILL:  Uh-huh, without sitting at the piano.

TP:     How old were you when people started noticing you could do that?

HILL:  About 10 or 11.  Because I was in the streets, hustling.  When you’re on a stage, you never know who your audience may be that day.  So everyone I met used to tell me, “Well, you’re writing it right, but that’s not…”  The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized way of notation.  After I explained it to them, they told me the notation had to become more homogeneous.

TP:    Let me set a scene, and let’s start talking about Chicago.  You’re born in ’37 in Chicago.  Your parents had a piano in the house?

HILL:  Well, at the age of 2 or 3 I received an accordion.  First it was a toy accordion, then it was a regular accordion with the buttons on the side.  Then when I was around 7 or 8, we got this old player piano in the house, where you use your foot to pedal the rolls.

TP:    And you would match the keys?

HILL:  I would match the keys as much as I could.  Because I found out that a lot of those player piano rolls were built for two piano players.  So I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever the sound for that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.

TP:    So by the time you were 7 or 8 you were playing piano all the time.

HILL:  Yeah.  Well, any chance I could get to it.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.

TP:    There’s a published story I think that you won a turkey at the Regal Theater?

HILL:  Yes, for playing the piano and accordion when I was around 6.  They used to call Black Chicago Bronzeville, and in those days they had a regular Thanksgiving party for the “Defender” newspaper boys.  So every Thanksgiving they would have this amateur contest where the winner would receive a turkey.

TP:    And you played the accordion.

HILL:  Yes, and sang.

TP:    When you talk to people who grew up in especially in black neighborhoods in the ’20s-’30s-’40s-’50s, they say music was everywhere, and all kinds of music was everywhere.  Where was the music coming from for you?

HILL:  Well, the music was coming from the streets.  Like, my first jam session was at a place called the Macombo on Drexel Boulevard, where Oakland and Drexel come together at 40th Street.  It was owned by the Chess Brothers, the ones who later owned Chess Records.  But I didn’t know about that at the time.  I was just a young kid, 12 years old, at one what they called “blue morning” jam session.  King Kolax was playing, a tenor player named Neal Green, and Oscar Pettiford was there on bass and Ike Day was on drums.  So I was sitting there… They were playing “Idaho,” and King Kolax kept telling me when the bridge came, “A-flat!  Go to A-flat!”  I was young enough where they weren’t vicious; they delicately eased me off the stand after I played one number.  But I said, “Well, shoot, I was able to play with Oscar Pettiford.”

TP:    But when you were 4-5-6, you were basically picking up music…

HILL:  Picking up music hustling.  Hustling on the streets with my hustling companion Leo Blevins.  He used to play a washtub with a string on it.  And his brother Bobby Blevins and somebody else.  It was safe at the time.  I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  I’m glad I learned that from playing music money comes, not poverty, because poverty is a lack-of.  There were these record stores you could just go in… And my hustling block was a good block.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street.  Across the street was the department store, South Center.  A little further down the block you had the Savoy Ballroom, and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing.  Even though I wasn’t old enough to go over there, but it was still…

TP:    The milieu.

HILL:  The milieu.  And the Regal Theater was right next to…

TP:    When you were coming up, that was the center of entertainment on the South Side.

HILL:  Yeah, that was the cultural center.  They had stuff from the Lafayette Theater, you know, visiting places in other areas, but that wasn’t my area of interest…

TP:    So this is all happening from when you were 5-6 years old?

HILL:  Yes.  The moment I could get out of there.

TP:    What did your parents do?

HILL:  My parents were people who suffered from the oppression, who were basically trying to keep a family together and raise a family.  The best thing I can say about them is that they worked and found a way to work.

TP:    And they were able to get you an accordion and a player piano.  Were they musical?

HILL:  As I started playing, other relatives not in my direct family said they played, but my parents didn’t play any other instrument.

TP:    Were they born in Chicago or did they come from the South?

HILL:  My mother came from the South.  My father, it’s rumored that he came from Alabama.  But he was a strange…a very dark man… They say he may have been what they call Geechee.  Other things I’ve been trying to find…

TP:    Find out for yourself.

HILL:  Well, not really.  But now, the older I get, the more some of my relatives that I’ve never known before are trying to enter my life, so I guess the information is available if I get friendly!

TP:    You also said that you got in the University of Chicago Lab School.

HILL:  Well, most people during that period thought I was talented but autistic.

TP:    You weren’t verbal?

HILL:  No, it wasn’t anything verbal.  So they took aptitude tests on me and found out that I had an over-average intelligence.  So I was one of the second group of people accepted in this off-track type educational process.  I hear about off-track education now.  But then it was like an off-track situation.  Because from my background and stuff, tracking me… If it was just a situation where they would put me within certain types of rules and regulations of places, like things I was supposed to… I seemed retarded.

TP:    But then you were writing music.

HILL:  Yeah.  But in other areas… So a lot of times, I found out later, as I began to investigate myself, sometimes being autistic is just a refusal to enter society at a certain point.

TP:    When did you start to study the piano with someone?

HILL:  Well, I would take musical lessons with people, but sometimes my teachers were so boring, I just let them know after they played something one time that I could play the same thing that they could.  Then an old preacher liked me for some reason, so he was trying to tell me… He said, “Wouldn’t it be better for you, whatever you want to learn, learn that?”  That’s the way I approached the students.  He said, “What do you want to do?”  I said I wanted to build chords.  He said, “Well, find a teacher who can teach you that.”  Then at a certain point I needed technique.  So one teacher took me to the (?), but she couldn’t take me all the way because… It’s almost like what they call master classes today by me starting to participate in the jam sessions early, because I wasn’t stopped after that.  I didn’t go and put my head in the sand.  I just kept on participating, and through that, even though everyone… You know, you had these Classical pianists actually playing jazz better than the 25 cents and 50 cents teacher who needed the money who was located at these different community centers.  You had people who really… So they helped me out.  I would ask them how you do this, they would show me, and then I’d make a project out of it.  So there were so many different flowers in Chicago, especially in the period when jazz was popular music before it evolved to classical music.  You could almost learn in the street, which is where I tried to achieve different projects.  Instead of giving people a lot of material that they really can’t study, just…

TP:    Up to the time you were 14 or 15, when you do those early records and join the Paul Williams band and all this stuff, you’re taking lessons, you’re participating in various jam sessions with older master musicians and with your peer group, and you’re also listening to a lot of records as well…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t start meeting my peer group until I was around 17-18.  Because all of them, the ones who could play, went to DuSable.  And a lot of them hadn’t advanced harmonically to the point where they could play according to the form.  In other words, they first arrived at free music, and then regulated themselves to become musicians.

TP:    So you mentioned on our radio show that Albert Ammons and Earl Hines were the first two piano players who influenced…

HILL:  And Count Basie, when he first came…

TP:    Talk about all three, and how they entered your world.

HILL:  Well, Albert Ammons entered my world because when I was a kid he was at the tail-end of when Louis Jordan was hot, and boogie-woogie was popular.  But I noticed that Albert Ammons played his boogie-woogie differently.  It was a living thing more than a novelty.  He just created with his boogie-woogie.  He wasn’t just in one space.  That interested me, because his approach kind of freed me to really try to play the blues.

Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, what I liked about him was he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate from the form and play something creative, not within the structure of the music itself.  I like that.  When I talked to him he said, “Well, that’s what we call concertizing.”  It’s what they do now, you know, when they take extended solos off… But it was called “concertizing” then, because jazz had… You know, they had these black jazz musicians at Carnegie Hall, and Israel Crosby was telling that when you played with Benny Goodman then you didn’t play like you did with… If you were a black band, you had to alter it to concertize.  And Willie Jones, I liked him because most people during that period, known and unknown, were playing the piano voices like the (?) bass and the seventh up top in the left hand, and D in the right hand, A and D octave… He dealt with some variation of that.  And Willie Jones used to play with ninths in the bass and some really incredible things, and he had a nice single fingering even though he was known around Chicago for his block chord Milt Buckner approach because it was exciting, but he always had this terrific band playing with him — so he was a wonderful experience.

And Basie, when I was a man and heard “April In Paris” and so on, I didn’t associate that with the same Count Basie I’d heard when I was a kid.  Because when I heard him as a kid, he was a really exciting stride piano  player — and he had hair.  Then it took me years to realize that this sophisticated big band leader is this person whom I used to love hearing play those exciting stride piano solos.

TP:    A lot of people your age and up to a few years older than didn’t have a whole lot of connection to what they call prebop players.  Someone like Barry Harris was mainly inspired by Bud Powell.  But you from an early age were inspired by people who preceded that and then came to it from that perspective.

HILL:  Well, sometimes, when you’re living instead of studying, preparing to-be one day, it has a more natural evolution.

TP:    So you’re saying because you were performing this whole time, your ideas developed organically.

HILL:  Organic.  You ask questions, and there’s some memory work, and a little text, whatever the people give you.  I discovered Bud Powell and Monk as an adolescent, but before them there were people in the neighborhood.  So it wasn’t an outside influence that captured me.  The music itself captured me, and I acknowledged different other artists as they came that was true to form perhaps, it wasn’t real… Even though I devised a way to make me a music system out of a guitar amplifier at that time from the turntable so I could get the actual sound… A guitar and one of these turntables that would plug into the guitar amp for the sound of the records.  That’s how I heard Bud Powell, on records, but never live; that’s how I set it up so I could really hear him, so I could almost hear him the same way that I heard the live artists.

TP:    Did you transcribe Bud Powell or did you just apply it?

HILL:  Well, I listened to it and a lot of things I could hear.  What I couldn’t play naturally… Someone showed me Czerny, so I could get the fingering necessary to play that.

TP:    To play like Bud Powell, the Czerny technique.

HILL:  For piano fingering, mmm-hmm.

TP:    Again, the same thing about Bud Powell and Tatum.

HILL:  Well, before Bud Powell had the shock treatments he was the most exciting piano player I’d ever heard.  After he had the shock treatments he was a different person.  But he was an exciting approach to me on piano, because hearing stride piano in Chicago, those who didn’t play well, it sounded like BOOM-CHANG, but he eliminated that in such a way where he could play like a horn, in a sense, pianistically.  It was exciting, and it was an extension, in a sense, of what Fatha Hines was doing.  It was just a different approach, different music in the evolution.

Art Tatum was interesting, because… A lot of people love his technique, but I love his harmonics and the voicing of his chords and his contrasts, which was as strong as Monk, but more romantic whereas Monk is more rhythmic.

TP:    As far as understanding harmony, was that innate, or was it through developing your ear on the bandstand with people?  Hearing Tatum, you were able to comprehend what he was doing?

HILL:  Well, by the time I really heard Tatum, I had heard it before from pianists around Chicago, a lot of them unknown, who played like him.  Then they had this piano book on him that they released in 1944 or 1945, with “Body and Soul” and all these things transcribed.  So he wasn’t the first, but he had taken it to a more polished level than a lot of the stuff I heard in Chicago.

TP:    I want to talk about Monk and Bird and Ike Day, maybe Ike Day first, since you recollect sitting in with him when you were 12 years.

HILL:  He had this incredible feel of rhythm.  It was rumored that everyone from Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and got what he was doing.

TP:    Did he affect your sense of rhythm?  How to play against the drummer…

HILL:  The way he played, even back then, opened up my concept of rhythm.  It took me from a rigid 1-2-3-4… Because even before that time, with him playing between swing and bebop, he did so many amazing things.  When I heard him at the Macombo he was at the height of his powers before he got ill.

TP:    You said he was playing all over the drum set all the time.  You made an analogy to Roy Haynes.

HILL:  Well, it was similar to Roy Haynes, but not, because he had approached it a different way.  Not only did he play on the drum set; he would come off into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old, and that was decades ago.  Lionel Hampton and a lot of people got… He was just incredible.  I never have heard anything like that since, which really leads me, every time I talk about him through the years, to say how important he became.

TP:    You said he played all these things over the entire drum, and incorporated everything into a rhythm so you had this floating rhythm sound.  And there’s something of that in the way you play over the drums.

HILL:  Well, a lot of times I would really like to play with them.  But sometimes that type of synergy isn’t available.  The main thing, you try to have this creative contact that seems to fit in certain situations more than (?) playing with someone… Especially now with everyone concertizing, they establish a certain a certain space as a rhythm.  So the only way you can exist is like a counter-rhythm.

TP:    You said you heard Monk’s records as they came out, when you were 10 and 11 years old.

HILL:  Me and a friend of mine, who was another prodigy, we used have a challenge to see who could play Monk’s compositions.  It came natural to my friend because he was a church pianist, so he was approaching it from the church perspective and play everything on a different degree, but still keep it… So after he taught me that, Monk’s things became more accessible.

TP:    Monk’s impact on you had more to do with his rhythmic concept?

HILL:  Well, Monk’s harmonic concept, the way he heard the harmonies, but still he kept it basic.  Even though he borrowed, his whole concept was very unusual, but then part of it traditional if you approach in from a church perspective from that period with modern harmonies.

TP:    What do you mean by “a church perspective”?

HILL:  Not the Baptist Church.  The Holy Roller; a certain church perspective.

TP:    You’re talking about getting the spirit, spirit-chasing…

HILL:  Well, that’s that type of musical approach, like the Prayer-Masters, which they call the piano and these religious situations that developed naturally in the community.

TP:    Were you in a church situation?

HILL:  Well, no, I really didn’t get into a church situation until I was 30.  So that’s why my friend was such a resource, because he played church piano and he could show me what he hear.

TP:    And one thing Monk and Charlie Parker had in common is that they were both dance musicians.

HILL:  Well, most music for the period up until 1960 was… Well, not dance music.  People had a more developed sense of rhythm than they have now, for some reason, maybe because the music and dance had split, became categorized and separated.  But from that, it wasn’t like commercial, homogeneous dance music.  People did unusual steps.  It wasn’t so much of a formula as it is now.

TP:    People were creating steps.

HILL:  Creative steps.  That’s before television took control and stuff.  Where I played with Charlie Parker was a dance hall, and they had dance halls across country, where they…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    [BIRD AT GRAYSTONE WAS '51 OR '52] You’re 14 or 15 and you’re going to Chicago, but you’re going to Detroit for a gig.  You also said that when you came to New York, you’d already had a full career in Chicago.  You’re 25-26 with a fully developed aesthetic.

HILL:  Bruz Freeman came by my house and told me that he had a job for me to play with Charlie Parker.  He said that Bird had asked for me, to play with me.  I have no idea how he knew me.  Like I said earlier, I was playing at the jam session.  I was really young and visible on the scene, and it was noted that I had certain natural things and I was a better supplement than a lot of other people who had evolved from the swing period or people who listened to the records…

TP:    So you knew the new harmony.

HILL:  Yes, I knew the new harmony better than people who could play just like Bud Powell or any of them, but it was like an artificial music because they weren’t flowing, they were just playing like the classical music, which it would be one day, but what really gave it the vitality for that earlier period was people being able to express themselves.

TP:    So to put it in my own terms, you knew the language of Bebop and you knew the phrasing of it, and yet it was a natural organic thing for you…

HILL:  Well, it was natural to a certain extent, but then there were things I had learned.  But at least I did have a learned approach that was partially creative at the time.

TP:    Which was the jam session at the Macombo, and you were doing that from the age of 12 to…

HILL:  Well, it evolved.  At first, Pat Patrick was rehearsing this big band, and I went to him and he showed me what the standard harmonies were, the popular harmonies that everybody was playing.  Because I could chord and I had a harmonic concept, but it really didn’t fit into the sound that people wanted to hear during that period.  So he gave me the basics, and I was able to go from there.

TP:    So that was from rehearsing with the Pat Patrick Big Band.

HILL:  Yeah, Pat Patrick and (?).

TP:    does that mean that you were hearing Sun Ra then, too?

HILL:  Well, Sun Ra was always around, but I had a different approach to him, because I asked him to sit in and he refused me as a kid.  So then as I got older he said I should support him, you know, and he really didn’t mean that much to me.

TP:    So Bruz Freeman comes by and has the gig for you, and you drive to Detroit and there you are with Bird.  When did you start making a living as a musician?  Were a professional musician then?

HILL:  Yeah, taking gigs.  Like I said, it was still a popular music; it hadn’t become an art form.  So I could look forward to being employed all week or all weekend.

TP:    If there was such a thing as a typical week, what would it be?  Would you be playing the same type of program?  Different functions?

HILL:  Well, there were so many various jobs, because it was before television.  There was weddings, funerals, dances, social clubs, blues jobs and jazz jobs…

TP:    Miss High School, 1958?

HILL:  Well, I missed those high school things.  I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing.  I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.  But it was all type of… You could play a stage show. I played with a variety of singers.  It was just anything.  There was just work all around.

TP:    So you played the full spectrum of functional situations that a professional pianist would do.

HILL:  Yes.  Then they had places like Roberts Show Lounge, where Sammy Davis, Barbara McNair and all them were coming through, and I was the regular house pianist there.  I had a trio.  That was from around ’55 to around ’59.

TP:    Willie Randall, the old Earl Hines alto player, was the manager there?

HILL:  He was the bookkeeper.

TP:    So you were basically backing all the major acts coming through Chicago, and did a lot of playing with singers.

HILL:  And then at the Beehive also a few years before that when I was 16-17.

TP:    Then Norman Simmons did that later.

HILL:  Well, Junior Mance started with Buddy Smith and Israel Crosby.

TP:    At the Beehive you’re playing with the national jazz musicians coming through and you’re playing…

HILL:  And I played at Joe Segal’s sessions.

TP:    Did you back Lester Young ever?

HILL:  I never did back Lester.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins ever?

HILL:  I went to Milwaukee in his band as a kid.  They had a jazz club there.  I was invited to his house.  Then Sonny Stitt.  Almost anyone…

TP:    Ben Webster.

HILL:  Ben Webster.  Oh, I did play with Lester.  I played in a place called the  Stage Lounge.

TP:    So you’re playing rhythm sections, and you do that first trio on Ping.

HILL:  Right, where I had Wilbur Campbell on drums and Leroy Jackson on bass.

TP:    I have the one on Warwick with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter.

HILL:  That was ’59.  I made the ’45 for Ping in ’56.

TP:    I’m trying to get to the development of your concept and sound.  Because nothing I can remember on that Warwick record in ’59 sounds anything like, say, Smokestack or Black Fire.

HILL:  Well, that was designed for the supper clubs I was playing at the time.  Like, in Chicago you weren’t pigeonholed into one situation.  You could participate in multi-situations.  But here in New York, they just seemed to pigeonhole you into where you started working.  In Chicago, you could play the blues, you could play jazz, you could play behind a singer or in the various supper clubs that existed on the Gold Coast at that time.  So if you make a name and people dig whatever you do…

TP:    So each function was one function and there were other functions.

HILL:  That was one function.

TP:    It’s almost as though you got pigeonholed into being an artist in New York.

HILL:  Well, when you’re young and you first come to a city, you find your way.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll find something to get occupied with.  But here in New York… Like, I came to New York with Dinah Washington as a kid and Johnny Hartman, and I could see after that, when I got back to Chicago, the singers, like Al Hibbler…all of them would want me.  So if I came here…which is quite a bit… The only thing that would be available with me would be as an accompanist.  Regardless of what else I did… I was offered a job with Paul Butterfield, but then if I started working that job, I would be polarized again as a Blues pianist.  It was offered to me in New York, and that was why I couldn’t accept it, why I didn’t accept it even though I was moving at the time.  But I’m just saying that to say that whatever you participate in, you become part of.  Now I’m above all that where I’m doing it for my leisure and my sanity at this age.  But earlier, when I was younger, it was just polarized areas.  If one did one thing, he was drafted(?)…

TP:    Let me get you from 1959 to 1963, from the Warwick record where you’re doing supper club music, to Black Fire and Smokestack, which don’t sound like anything else anyone else is doing!  Was the music that you were doing on those first records music that you’d written and conceived of and performed in Chicago?  Or was it project-oriented?

HILL:  Well, the one on Warwick had some standards and originals I wrote, but it was conceived for a certain situation, as were things for other situations, but they were never recorded at the time.

TP:    So the music on that early Blue Note record were things you’d conceived of but never…

HILL:  The things on Blue Note were written especially for that session.

TP:    Did you perform music like that when you were in Chicago?

HILL:  Oh yes, especially with Ira Sullivan’s band before he left Chicago… We had a great band with Ira Sullivan, Nicky Hall…

TP:    Not Malachi.

HILL:  No, not Malachi.  Malachi wasn’t progressive; you know, at that time.

TP:    It almost seems to me, the way you’re describing your function as a musician in Chicago is almost artisanal.  Everything is according to a function and then you create art within that parameters of that function.  I can relate that to writing.  In this article, there are certain limits to what I can do, but I can try to make it as substantial and rich as I can.

HILL:  You have to compartmentalize.

TP:    When you came to New York, did you stop having to compartmentalize?

HILL:  Well, other opportunities were available here from people having seen me in Chicago.

TP:    Who were people you met in Chicago who you linked up with when you came to New York?

HILL:  Well, actually a lot of people I met in Chicago, I didn’t link up with.  Like Art Farmer, Charlie Mingus, who I refused to play with… So everyone I played with who were useful in Chicago weren’t useful in New York, but life has a certain way where you can flow on.

I played with Dinah Washington in ’54.  In the period they said I played with Dinah Washington I was with Johnny Hartman.  Then George Kirby, the mimic, I was his pianist for a while during that period, and I traveled for a short period of time with Al Hibbler.

TP:    Is that how you got to L.A.?

HILL:  No, I got to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, and stayed over and played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    What gig got you to New York?

HILL:  I just paid my own way here.  I was working somewhere on the West Side of Chicago, and the way I looked at it then is I’ll be doing this all my life, even though I wouldn’t… The way things turned out, all of that evaporated.  So I just decided it was time to come here.

TP:    Chicago started to dry up a bit?

HILL:  No, it didn’t dry up for me.  I was doing fabulously.  I was working with Red Saunders doing stage shows at the Regal, getting all the jazz gigs, and getting… I really was pretty active.  But after ten years of it, it began to get boring.

TP:    So you thought you could find some fresh ways of expressing yourself in New York?  What was the pull?

HILL:  The pull was just the fact that it existed, and I wanted to see what it was, because I knew what I had in Chicago.  What I had in Chicago was nice and great, but it wasn’t satisfying at that point, and I saw to myself that if I stayed there I would have condescended morally because everything had a type of sameness to it.  And then in New York, once I got there, I discovered it had a certain type of environment that nourish me, nurture me.

TP:    And you came at a time when… At the time you got there, you and your peer group, the people you recorded with, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson all had… I mean, in terms of a distinction with a difference, you not such dissimilar sources and influences, and were looking for something new and for different ways to articulate it.  So it was this wonderful convergence.

HILL:  that’s the way I looked at it, to sustain me, and opportunities presented themselves.  It’s almost like this period now; it’s like coming full circle.  Even though the names and the faces have changed, it’s almost the same situation where there are some younger musicians on the scene, a lot of them unknown, but they exist, and the music can be played on a higher level.

TP:    Because they’ve mastered the tradition in some ways, or have a command of the fundamentals.

HILL:  Yeah, enough where they’re participating academians(?) where they might be able to enter the music.  A lot of them can… It’s just exposure.  In other words, that type of natural resources is here with the talent where one can be catalytic to the music, moving the music ahead.

TP:    Let me ask you about some dates and some of the personalities.  You and Joe Henderson had a real linkup… Through him you got the Blue Note…

HILL:  I did the Our Thing session with him.

TP:    Did that come out of a working situation?

HILL:  When I first came back to New York in ’63, my first job was with Kenny Dorham, and Joe Henderson was playing with Kenny Dorham.  Then the (?) thing started.  Joe had a session and he asked me if I would participate on it.  Then while we were playing the session Alfred said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera.  He really liked the way I played and he wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  So next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.

TP:    How did you know Kenny Dorham?

HILL:  I’d played with him in New York before I left to go to California.  I played with Kenny Dorham, with J.C. Moses, with Jackie McLean.  Anything else between ’61 and ’62 was a situation where I worked out of New York.

TP:    Talk about the affinity you and Joe Henderson had.

HILL:  Well, it wasn’t that close like relative fellowship.  During that period there were so many musicians, and everyone was feeling the music and had a different unique approach to the music.  Some people later defined it as it was recorded and worked, and others didn’t.  Because they had such a variety of artists there.  Blue Note was looking for a certain type of artists, like records companies are looking for a certain type of young artist now.  Each period has its similarities.  They were looking for someone who played in the tradition, but who could write music and had some type of direction.

TP:    You played with Walt Dickerson, too, that first time in New York.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  And I loved the way Joe Henderson played, but there were so many scholars to hear at that time.  The way he played excited me.  But then I still enjoyed hearing Von Freeman at the time.  So it wasn’t to me anyone greater or lesser.

TP:    This question isn’t about who’s greater and who’s not…

HILL:  No, but they were all an equal influence, because any other way would become too centralized.

TP:    Sam Rivers mentioned that he was playing in your band for a while, i think.

HILL:  Well, Sam had recorded for Blue Note, and I had this job in California where I had written something for 7 pieces.  Sam did a library job at Lincoln Center, I think, back then, with something for the Musician Fund, and I liked what he did there.  So I heard him and asked him to go to California to me.  He said he was leaving the Miles Davis band and that he wasn’t going with Art Blakey, so we had a certain period of time together.

TP:    Did you play in his bands at all?

HILL:  No.

TP:    And he did one record with you of all your music.  You said that the Point of Departure band was actually a working group for a while.

HILL:  Yes, we had a few concerts.

TP:    With Tony Williams.

HILL:  J.C. Moses was the drummer for things that weren’t recorded.

TP:    Did you ever in performance have Roy Haynes or Elvin or Tony in your band?

HILL:  Well, it was in ’71 when I was doing encounters with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis and Billy Harper.

TP:    But they never got recorded, though.

HILL:  They never got recorded.
[PAUSE]
HILL:  In Chicago the audience seemed to have the (?) with the artist, those who really liked the music of a different sort.  A lot of things that people in later years approached as experimental was almost like a natural evolution of the music itself.  You could approach music in various directions, like playing in two keys at once, or playing certain things and having an audience were a certain synergy existed.  That’s why a lot of people say, “Did they have approach this as such-and-such?”, etc., or some type of musical terminology that’s applied to it after the fact, after the actual… But these were just a natural evolution in that period, even to the extent of the New York… Like, with Ira Sullivan I had written things that evolved differently, like tunes with 10 bars and stuff like that.  A good part about that in Chicago is it wasn’t for just a situation where you would go to a coffeehouse or something and say it’s new music; it was something that the people felt.  That was why you could have somebody like Coltrane, who represented a certain musical period.

* * * * *

Andrew Hill (4-21-00):

TP:    At one point in our conversation you mentioned that this seems to be another golden age in jazz, not unlike things that happened in the ’60s when you came to New York.  Could you elaborate on that?

HILL:  Well, you have fresh young musicians on the scene who are not coming from the same aesthetic as the older musicians.  They’re coming because it’s economically expedient to play music.  They can make a career out of it, come college on.  Then on the other hand also, you have the younger players playing with older players, so that means a lot of things that were lost during what I call the retrospective period shortly before this period now have been acquired by the younger musicians through creative contact with older musicians.

TP:    Are you saying that musicians within the generations before this, maybe 1980-95, weren’t sufficiently in touch with older musicians?

HILL:  Well, they weren’t.  Because when the resurgence occurred, it occurred with what I call retrospective bebop.  In other words, good young musicians… Like you always have had good young musicians who copied other people’s music, and could play without achieving any type of creative contact with each other.  So you had that, which is the normal process for younger musicians to go through.  But now, I’m beginning to see young musicians with concepts where they’re not just playing things that they heard off the record, even though it’s still homogeneous, where Coltrane is still the main influence you hear out of a lot of them… But the music is changing again, going its own way, and then you have all this volume of jazz…all these jazz clubs for almost every genre of jazz here, and all of them have a capacity crowd.  Then you have another thing, that jazz all of a sudden seems to be a middle-class or upper-middle-class music.  Because it’s so expensive, a lot of people don’t hear it unless they hear through, you know, Wynton Marsalis, which is a service because it’s like a music appreciation lesson.  Even if one don’t agree upon the text, you can agree that he is bringing the music to young people who never heard it.  And other people have done it, so I can see there’s a wide flurry interest in jazz where people are trying to find not promoted hype, but the truth on the Internet and stuff like that.  Then most of the audiences, you have your chronological cross-section.  You have your older fans, but you have young fans, too.  Because where there’s younger musicians, there’s younger fans.

TP:    You’ve said a few times in these conversations that when you were coming up, jazz wasn’t an…I think the word you used was “art music.”

HILL:  It wasn’t like an art form.  It was still like a people’s music, but from the change of direction that Jazz has taken… Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities!  They were more in tune to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk… I heard him with a piano player friend of mine.  We used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift his stuff off the records when I was 10 years old.

TP:    This was King Solomon, huh?

HILL:  Yeah, King Solomon.  Oh, I told you about that.  Well, the art form was in the neighborhood even before television.  In almost any neighborhood that you wanted to go into, you could hear the music.  It was just coming out… I remember one time when I was 5 years old, I walked down the street and I could hear Billie Holiday coming out of every apartment blasting.  So it was like a people music.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.  It hadn’t become an expensive art form for social climbers and jazz connoisseurs.

TP:    But of course there was a group of connoisseurs, though not necessarily social climbers.  I just finished a story for Downbeat on Barry Harris, and he was talking about that time sitting in with Bird in Detroit when you drove there with Bruz Freeman.  But he said that when he was coming up (and he’s older than you), he and his friends got together, they listened to every record when it came out, they absorbed the solos, they took the things off the record, they slowed the records down until they had absolutely internalized all the solos that interested them.  They had their lessons, but they basically taught each other.

HILL:  Oh yes.  But then Chicago was definitely…it seemed to be further away…not further away… But it seemed to be geographically further and culturally different.  There wasn’t an emphasis on everyone being homogeneous.

TP:    Oh, you think the Detroit cats were homogeneous?

HILL:  In their approach to music.  Because you had all these older piano players who played different ways in Chicago.

TP:    you were mentioning Willie Jones.

HILL:  There was Willie Jones.  A slew of fine pianists.  They weren’t, you know, hip-hip-hip, or they weren’t the currently fashionable as the new jazz thing in the black community, but they worked all the time, and each one of them could play.  So you had all these variety of styles, from ragtime piano players who were in the church who were playing with Thomas Dorsey, the one who allegedly created gospel music…

TP:    Or commodified it anyway.

HILL:  Yeah, commodified it.  To all the fine pianists who were coming through town, which one could jam with; which I could jam with when one of the mature pianists was in there.  That’s how I got the job with Bird.  He asked for me and Bruz drove me there.  In other words, we had people like George Eskridge, who could take Bud Powell and Charlie Parker note-for-note off there, but there was no emphasis… Naturally, a lot of the alto players played like Bird.  But then you had Porter Kilbert and other older musicians who played like Willie Smith.  So there was such a cross-section that there was no…

TP:    Everybody was playing everything, is what it sounds like.

HILL:  Yeah, it wasn’t codified or marginalized.  You could work at supper club jobs; there jobs on the North Side, jazz gigs… In other words, there was an emphasis on people being well-rounded instead of polarized.

TP:    I understand.  Let me throw out another question.  How did you meet Hindemith, and what was the nature of your interaction with him?

HILL:  When I was a kid, I used to hustle on the corner of 47th Street with Leo Blevins, who at that time had a bathtub with a board with a G-string.  Me, Leo and Robert Blevins, I would bring my accordion and tap-dance, and we would just play on the corner.  That was our corner.  It was 47th Street and State on the northeast corner.  Because across the street was the cultural heart of what was called Bronzeville.  You had the Regal Theater, where they had a stage show and a movie, the Hurricane Lounge where Albert Ammons and later Gene Ammons played, the Savoy Ballroom, where Hot Lips Page and all… Then adjacent to that from where that was, there was a department store called South Center, which was the biggest… In other words…

TP:    The hub.

HILL:  The hub.  That was the hub of Bronzeville.

TP:    And your corner was in the hub of Bronzeville.

HILL:  Was in the hub of Bronzeville.  So when people didn’t show up, I used to go to South Center and just get a brown paper bag and allegedly call myself writing music.  And Hindemith came — I wasn’t musically literate as far as who’s supposed to be what in classical music and stuff — and he asked to see what I had written.

TP:    You mean he just was down there and he saw you doing it and said, “Little boy, let me…”

HILL:  It wasn’t “little boy.”  He was a very nice man.  We had a little conversation, as much as the age barrier would allow, and he asked me.  He said who he was, which I didn’t know.  But he said what I was writing was musically correct, but people who played, professional musicians, would have another type of notation.  And he showed me how I could do certain things without any type of musical instrument, like writing notes down and arranging them symmetrically and asymmetrically.  Things like that.

TP:    And you said that you had an innate ability to do that, to hear music without a tangible sound in front of you.

HILL:  Yes, I could do it without a sound in front of me.

TP:    But continue with Hindemith.  You wound up sending him something and he gave you a critique?

HILL:  No.  It was just when he was town he always arranged for us to get together and talk.  Later some people would call it a master lesson.  But the way he dealt with me is the way I tried to deal with my students in later life.  He didn’t try to change anything I was doing, but just enhance what I had naturally.

TP:    What about Bill Russo?

HILL:  Well, I bought a few lessons from him.

TP:    how old were you when you met Hindemith?

HILL:  I was around 14.

TP:    So that’s around 1951, and this relationship continued through the ’50s, to your being an adult?

HILL:  For a few years.  Once you get into your adolescence, different things change, and I became more mesmerized by the environment around me.

TP:    Elaborate.

HILL:  Well, I was getting to the point where I was making…you know, playing jobs.  Like, in ’54 I went out with Dinah Washington as her pianist, just a summer vacation.

TP:    She was covering tunes that were already hits.

HILL:  Yes.  “This Bitter Earth” and stuff like that.  That was right before she did her Emarcy sessions.

TP:    Are you saying that your performing career in Chicago subsumed your composing aspirations?

HILL:  Yes.  Because I had a career in Chicago as an adolescent and young man before I came to New York.  In Chicago there were so many things to do.  There were singers to play with, musicians to jam with — not to mention trying to stay in school.  So consequently, all my working time was in functional activity and trying to correct what needed to be correct so I could be more proficient.

TP:    And you were house pianist at the Beehive in ’53 and ’54?

HILL:  No, I played there.  Aside from the Beehive, they had the Crown Propellor and the Stage Lounge.

TP:    You sat in at all those places, but you were never house pianist as such.

HILL:  Well, I played…was almost house pianist at the Stage Lounge, which was on 63rd and Stony Island.  Then you had the Crown Propellor right before Cottage Grove.

TP:    And that was part of that 63rd Street strip.

HILL:  Yes, that 63rd Street strip.

TP:    A lot of musicians who were around then describe 63rd Street in awestruck tones.

HILL:  Oh, it was similar in a sense to what people said 52nd Street was.  On Cottage Grove you had the 6310; that’s where Willie Jones and his band played.  Then they had a disk jockey named McKie Fitzhugh, who had a club directly across the street.  And on 64th was the Pershing Lounge, where Ahmad Jamal was playing, and downstairs you had the first Cadillac Bob’s, where Sun Ra’s band used to play.

TP:    And they had a ballroom in there, too.

HILL:  Yeah, the Pershing Ballroom, where Gene Ammons, Tom Archia, Illinois Jacquet and people like that used to play all the time for the kids.  So the strip went up… They had a gay place a little further down on 63rd Street near South Park.  This was in the latter part… This was from ’54-’55.  Then before that, they had Nob Hill.  That’s where the Beehive was.

TP:    That was on 55th Street.

HILL:  Yes, in the Woodlawn area.

TP:    So you basically worked in all those places, and you said that you were de facto house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge.

HILL:  Well, I did have the house trio at the Roberts Show Lounge with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter — and Teddy Thomas for a while.

TP:    So that formed the core of your activity in the ’50s.  You’re performing, you’re doing tons of jobs, you’re finishing school, you have your compositional fires sort of fueled by meeting Hindemith, but you’re not really doing it because there’s not time and not really opportunity, except for some things you’re doing with people like Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill at certain concerts, and maybe some jamming.

HILL:  Oh, you know the names.

TP:    Well, I know a lot about the Chicago    music.  But when I asked you if there was any analogue to your Blue Note work, you mentioned that you had done some things like that with Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

HILL:  Yeah.  And Red Lionhart(?). There was a bunch… Because Saturday mornings… Ira and the gang was on the North Side, and I was on the South Side, but I would occasionally go on the North Side to play with them.

TP:    And you said you played some of the North Side, Gold Coast supper clubs.

HILL:  Yeah, supper clubs, and they had a jazz club over there, too.  I forgot the name of that place.

TP:    And the Warwick record is ’59, not ’55.

HILL:  Yeah, ’59.

TP:    So you leave Chicago on your own, you get to New York, you know people I guess from their having met you through coming into Chicago, and you work with Johnny Hartman, you work with Walt Dickerson, you leave for Los Angeles with…

HILL:  Al Hibbler.

TP:    Al Hibbler.  Then you go to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, where you meet your wife.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  We played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    And you do that record [Conflict] with Jimmy Woods.  Then you get to New York and settle back in.  So if I cite that as your chronology, I’m accurate.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    But just tell me one thing about playing with singers.  Was that something you liked doing?  Was it valuable?

HILL:  It was very valuable to me, because instead of voicing the chords which were popular then, which were sevenths in the right hand and, and thirds and sevenths, you know, like that…or fourths, bass on the seventh in the right hand… I could really go into the harmonics of the tune.

TP:    With the singers.

HILL:  Yes, with the singers it called for not the voicings so the horn players could play, but to play the harmonics of the tune so you could embellish and bring out what the singers were doing.

TP:    Did playing the accordion so young have an effect on your sense of time flow at the piano?

HILL:  Well, I played accordion very much like a harmonica.  Because with those bellows and stuff, you would get the same type of sound, just like a blues accordion player or zydeco…

TP:    All that vocalized timbre.

HILL:  Yes.

TP:    So it didn’t really have that much to do with your conception as a pianist, you don’t think.

HILL:  Well, in a sense it did, because you have the buttons, or stops, on the left hand.  But on the right hand, you had to deal with chordal clusters, not the chord itself.

TP:    In Chicago, did you see yourself as a Jazz pianist as such, or did you see yourself as a pianist who could play a variety of functions, including Jazz?

HILL:  Well, then I saw myself just as a pianist.  Because there was no need to polarize myself in one corner.  Because unlike New York, or maybe… When I came to New York, that road to supper clubs and the singers… I used to play with comedians like George Kirby.  So when I came here, I was more interested in playing jazz jobs than being well-rounded.

TP:    Did you come here with the intent of playing your own music also, or did that sort of happen…

HILL:  Well, that just came on its own.  Because everyone was to me writing so many interesting things, I found out I could evolve myself harmonically by participating with the others instead of stagnating for a certain style.

TP:    So in other words, through playing the original music of Joe Henderson and other people, it kind of spurred things that had been welling up in your mind over the years and music just came pouring out?  Was it that type of thing?

HILL:  Well, I always was a prolific writer.  But like most writers, you need new material to keep from becoming passe in your approach to writing, unless you market yourself to some institution where it’s necessary for you to have a certain almost commercial approach to writing.

TP:    Without going into a lot of detail about… Oh, Bobby Hutcherson asked me to ask you about coming back on the D-train early in the morning from Brooklyn.

HILL:  [LAUGHS] I’m not going to tell you about the D-train.  That’s not for public consumption.

TP:    But you mentioned sort of offhandedly that the friend you did the transcription with was a church pianist, and you learned a lot of the techniques of church music…

HILL:  Oh, that was afterwards.

TP:    You said you learned a lot from him, but you didn’t have your own church experience until you were 30.

HILL:  Oh, it was a her, not a him.

TP:    Oh, so it wasn’t King Solomon.

HILL:  That was a lady named Oveal Warren.  She was the choir-master at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, California.

TP:    So that happened when you moved out…

HILL:  Well, when I left New York in ’76, first we bought a place in the Mariloma(?) Park section of San Francisco.  But I couldn’t take that because San Francisco at the time was trying to be just like New York, and Pittsburgh was kind of country, but it had the nerve to have its own identity.

TP:     Why did you start to get sick of New York?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t get sick of it.  My deceased wife was becoming ill, and once I moved there the condition was described as terminal.  So rather than run back to New York, I decided that I would just stay there because she would need me to be with her.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the present and talk about Dusk.  I don’t want to ask you anything so trivial as to talk about the genesis of the record.  But you said you’d been doing a tremendous amount of writing since you came back east in ’97, that it kind of opened up… Not everything on the record is from the last few years, but I gather most of it is.

HILL:  Well, maybe two or three.  Because when the sextet first started, we had a different repertoire, but the two or three tunes I kept in the book.

TP:    Well, Ball Square you played with Clifford on that Spirits record.

HILL:  Yes, but I just put more sections on it.

TP:    And “15/8″ you might have done solo.

HILL:  Yes, I did on a French record.

TP:    Were you writing music for the qualities of the musicians in the sextet, or was it more them just dealing with your conception?

HILL:  Well, there was a combination of both.  The first compositions I wrote, that I took out the book literally wasn’t changed for the sextet.  But they really didn’t fit the sextet, so the compositions became more personalized the longer the group stayed together.

TP:    And the group going into the Jazz Standard is slightly different.

HILL:  Yes, we changed the bass player and drummers from last year.  Ratzo Harris is taking Scott Colley’s place, and Nasheet Waits in on drums.  The tenor player is Aaron Stewart, plus Marty and Ron…

TP:    And since this record I think you said you’ve done 20 more tunes.

HILL:  Yes, 20 more tunes.  But then some tunes were shaped around Greg Tardy, because he plays clarinet and bass clarinet also.  With Aaron Stewart we’re starting off with 7 tunes, and we’ll possibly rehearse every day we can during the job, so I can try to get a repertoire that fits his personality.

TP:    And then you’re going to record again?

HILL:  I think I’m recorded out for the moment.  The reason I did this recording, between you and I, is I was talking to Howard and telling him that I was thinking about disbanding the sextet, and he said, “Well, it would be good if you did a recording before you do that.”  Because the sextet is good, but it has a life of its own; it seemed to have a synergy that connected with the people.  So it created its own life.  Even though at times I wanted to stop it, but you know, it has a life of its own.

TP:    So it fulfilled a function and maybe now it’s not fulfilling its function and it’s more of an obligation.

HILL:  Well, I really don’t know how I feel about it, because time the people change, the music changes.  It’s a situation that I have to see how it goes at the Jazz Standard.  I know when I changed to Nasheet Waits it improved for me, because I had a more sensitive and open drummer.  Billy is wonderful, but he played like a leader drummer instead of a sensitive drummer.  Which was good, because the band before I started changing it around was like a machine that would just play on its own.  But then what I hate about big bands is the stagnation that comes from repetition.  So this was like a little big band, and it started getting to the point where it could easily become very repetitious from the way some people approached it.  So by making the change, sometimes it became more interesting.

TP:    Do you see your composed music as infinitely mutable material?

HILL:  Well, at the time I really write, I see my composed music as an outlet for my emotions.  Sometimes life is just life, and it has its frustrations for everyone, or problems or whatever, and I can use it as a vehicle to soothe my emotions, and I notice that every time I write when I’m emotional, or even when I write when I’m not emotional, something new and good to me will come out of it that expresses those emotions.

TP:    What’s the role of improvisers within your music?

HILL:  I like to try to get people who are sensitive, like I said before, and who love the music.  Actually the music is just a blueprint for, in most spots, the way it develops, for group improvisation.

TP:    So you see your compositions, at least within an improvisational sense, as templates for group improvising and group creation.  I guess the phrase you like to use is “creative contact.”

HILL:  Yes, for group improvisation.  Because some parts they play as written, but then what’s written sometimes is just a theme to expand on together.

TP:    Lately you seem to be doing a lot of concerts and special appearances.  I don’t know if the thing with Bobby was a singular event or one of a series you’ve been doing, but I know you’ve also done duos with David Murray…

HILL:  Yes, and last week I did a duo with Archie Sheep in London.

TP:    I guess Archie Sheep is your age, but one thinks of you as being from different generations for some reason — maybe because you were on different labels and didn’t at least historically interact during the ’60s anyway.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    And you see to be distinct from the “free” school of players.  Particularly in that time.  Did you see a distinction between you and, say, some of the players who were around Coltrane, or as you said when you called me while I was playing your record and Greg Tardy was soloing, “it sounds like Albert Ayler.”  Did you have any contact with that group of musicians then?

HILL:  Oh yeah, when I was in the Black Arts period, I produced Albert Ayler, the drummer Milford Graves and Don Pullen… On the streets of Harlem, I had three concerts a night(?) of free music.  But as far as myself, the only reason I was catalogued as an avant-garde is because they had no category to put me in.  Which they explained to me when I asked about it.  They said, “Well, we can’t say that you’re a Bebop drummer or a post bebop piano player or a solo piano player or avant-garde.”  But for marketing purposes, they put me under the classification of avant-garde, which seemed to have… It gave me life in the catalogue.  Because if I was classified as a post-Bebop piano player, that only had a certain duration on the jazz market.

TP:    I remember reading a review which I xeroxed of you doing a concert in Chicago in ’67 of your group opposite Roscoe Mitchell, I think it was.

HILL:  No, Roscoe Mitchell came up and jammed with me.

TP:    I realize you were out of Chicago by that time.  But did you have any contact with the nascent AACM, or its antecedents in the Experimental Band, or did you ever touch base with them…

HILL:  Well, I gave them one of their first jobs out of Chicago.  Because John Sinclair, who was in Ann Arbor, asked me to name some musicians who were with the new avant-garde, and I mentioned the AACM, particularly Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.

TP:    And subsequently they got a lot of work through him.

HILL:  Yeah, he really gave them a big push.  That was around ’67-’68.

TP:    Do you remember your early contact with Joseph and Roscoe?

HILL:  Well, I first met Roscoe when he sat in with me.

TP:    What did you think of what they were doing when you first heard it?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t really know what they as a group were doing.  I just played with Charles Clark and Thurman Barker with a trio, and it was good, you know, but people have been playing like that in Chicago before Ornette Coleman hit the scene.  In Chicago we used to play what we would call “in” and we would play what we would call “out.”  So that was really nothing new for Chicagoans when it got promoted.  That represented a situation where we had Marshall Allen and a few people unnamed.  So when music was… Popular music.  I’ll go back to that.  The audience’s ears was more developed, so you could have a type of synergy…

[END OF SIDE A]

So people had been playing like that.  It was just…

TP:    I guess there’s a certain element of that that goes into blues playing as well.

HILL:  Well, it really goes into blues playing, because the true blues musicians really don’t cater to so many bars, let’s say.  Where people might say it should be a 12-bar blues, and it may be a 15-bar blues.

TP:    It’s whatever they feel at the moment.

HILL:  It’s like choir music, where you have the refrain before you start again, and all that.  Even though it’s based on some type of rhythm, what’s on top may not really fit in with Western harmony the way people think Western harmony should be.

TP:    You also mentioned that Israel Crosby told you that black musicians would play differently, say, with Benny Goodman than in a black band — that they had to concertize.  Which was the thing that impressed you to Earl Hines.  So we can even trace that way of playing Earl Hines in a very stylized show situation.

HILL:  Oh yes, playing something simple like “Sweet Lorraine” or whatever the repertoire, but he would take it out of the context of the standard form, even though it was in the mode of chords of that period, and do certain things… A musician like King Kolax would talk, and they would say… When they crossed over then, they would use that term, that they would concertize their music, put it in almost more of a concert form where the soloist would elaborate a little more than they would just playing together…just playing with each other.

TP:    When you’re talking to me about the range of sources that you can work with, it sounds like the way Muhal Richard Abrams talks, or Anthony Braxton, or Joseph Jarman — that almost any form of music, any genre of music, whether it’s Hindemith, or whether it’s the Blues, or whether it’s Charlie Parker, is grist for your mill, is something you can express yourself with in the most natural way.

HILL:  It is.  All material that you hear… A lot of things have been recycled or expounded upon.  Like, the rhythm may change over the decades or certain elements may change but the basics remain the same.

TP:    Going back to the idea that this is another golden age in the music, do you think this particular group of musicians at this particular moment is ready to seize upon all those possibilities in a way that they haven’t for a while.

HILL:  The ones who aren’t literate.  And by literate I mean those who aren’t so well read that they associate the music with European Art, the part of European art which has been adopted into Jazz, where people think they either have to compromise or live in poverty to play creative music.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

HILL:  By compromise, sometimes it’s not a compromise… They feel that because of the venues available and the visibility available from the institutional position of jazz when you’re in places like Lincoln Center, and the repertory used…that they either have to play like that, or they’re afraid to expand on their talent, because either they’re not open enough to receive it or feel that they won’t work.  To me, both camps, the retrospective camp…and the Free camp is retrospective also, because that’s over forty years old.  But then I see the young people using the entire vocabulary instead of one aspect of it to move the music forward.  Because when I first came back here I thought, like everybody else, “Well, ain’t nothin’ happening.”  Then I started playing with people and I thought, well, something is happening.  The music has moved already, even though it’s imperceptible to those who are loyal to the different camps… But the music itself, the way it’s being played, is totally different from what it’s been.  Now you have those who depending on what school they went to will dictate whether they’re playing allegedly Free or Bebop — because that was the text.  But those who have got past the academic approach, who have gotten into the sound, are taking it somewhere else.

TP:    Did that inspire you when you got back here and you found that out?

HILL:  Yes, it was really inspirational to find out that things aren’t static, which led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.

TP:    You don’t have to recreate the things that you put down in the spur of the moment… You don’t have to be those three or four years of Blue Note recordings.  You can be who you are now, and progress and grow within a community of people.

HILL:  Yes.  And that’s always rewarding rather than isolated in a retrospective view of yourself.  Or I can express it better.  It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder to just continue playing, because when one plays, either… The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  Then those who compromise can have a longer tenure of playing.  But it’s terrible to me playing without the passion of music.  Because that’s what I hear a lot of times, people playing without even a passion.  Because it’s the passion that connects; it’s not the academic correctness.  Because the passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  But to be playing without any passion but playing correctly seems like people just make a career out of it instead of following their passion.

TP:    What music do you like to listen to these days?

HILL:  Well, now, other than newer things, I like Steve Coleman, the things I like…

TP:    Another Chicagoan.

HILL:  With his own… Yeah!  Then I liked the duo record that Frank Kimbrough did with Joe Locke, Saturn’s Child.  I listen to a variety of things.  Because what I do is, everybody is giving me CDs… I try to tell them not to give it to me.  So the things that I like, which is around 3% of what I get, I keep and listen to sporadically, and other things I just put in care packages and send them out to friends.

TP:    How did you like The Invisible Hand?

HILL:  I enjoyed doing it because Greg gave me the… I didn’t approach it as a sideman.  I just did it because Greg expressed to me sincerely how disappointed he would be if I hadn’t done it, and I have a feeling for him, so… I first met Greg ten years ago when we did Eternal Spirits, and it was good to see where he had progressed to and where he was at this point.

TP:    And in Classical music?  What do you listen to?

HILL:  Yes, I listen to Classical music.  I never have grown tired of Bartok’s string quartets — and other things.  I listen to a whole mixture of different music, but the composing I don’t really listen to it that much.  It seems like I’m able to draw a lot of things from the inside, even though I do go to concerts of all types — Classical, Jazz and stuff.  I have a preference myself for live music, because recorded music to me is like representational art.  That people hear so much… Even though most abstract things can be hung.  And the spirit of jazz is not on the repetition, but it’s allegedly supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.

TP:    And I think we have a good concluding question.  So you’re optimistic.  You’re seeing enough young people in this generation who embody that spirit going forward.  It sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about it.

HILL:  Yes.  I not only see the spirit; I see the outlet for that spirit, where someone, one who commits himself to the music, the rewards will be greater than someone who just approached the music career-wise.  I see where an outlet for creative music is bigger than the outlook for those who can confine them to a certain music simply because they found one formula that they can work or gain a professional image with.

TP:    One other question.  In the program notes to the Mosaic box, Cuscuna says that in the late ’60s you invested wisely in real estate and were able to support yourself comfortable and get away from the vagaries of the existence of being solely a performing musician.  Is that right?

HILL:  Well, from my beginnings, what made me play music was the desire to play, but also it was motivated by the fact that I got paid.  So I never associated music with poverty, because I found that when I played, no matter what my skills may be or how I may attempt to be the Renaissance man, that my rewards were greater even financially than they were by my being a tenured college professor.  But then I also realized that for me to have any duration I would have to get away from the music for certain periods so I wouldn’t be jaded either by my contemporaries or by my having a musical formula which I considered successful.

TP:    So you looked for outlets so you could keep your juices going.

HILL:  Well, when someone says they’re an artist, that’s not a poverty thing.  To be a true artist, you have to have a certain economic freedom.  And if you weren’t born with that, you can give it to yourself.  Because by working, you have escaped poverty.  So it’s just a matter of what do you spend your money on.  Do you need all the new technological toys or do you want a good life?

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR, 5-5-00):

[MUSIC: "Dusk"]

TP:    Let’s talk about the genesis of this record.  The instrumentation comes from one of your most famous recordings, done for Blue Note in late 1963, called Point of Departure, which featured some of the legends of jazz in an ensemble oriented situation articulating your music [ETC.].  I guess the idea arose a few years ago came to revisit the aural timbre of that event for a Knitting Factory festival a few years ago.

HILL:  To revisit the aural timbre and try to reset the state of excellence.  Because there was a certain artistic excellence with that album which wasn’t uncommon for musicians when they got together for that period.  But for this period I figure we’d try to create a band that had the same type of synergy with the audience and who loved the music.

TP:    That brings up two questions.  One is, what qualities, in the general sense, distinguish the musicians who performed on Point of Departure from the generation that appears on Dusk, and what they need to interpret the music with the sensibility that it demands.

HILL:  What I’m trying for now is to be more open and not deal in comparisons.  Because the social and economic situations that created the artists of 20 and 30 years ago isn’t prevalent today.  Because now it’s economically expedient to be a jazz musician.  So you’re dealing with a vast majority of younger musicians who went to college to study jazz (bebop probably was the text) who can make a career out of music.  For me, when I discover musicians in that chronological age with a passion for that music, that’s what gets my attention.  Because I really can’t say what happened (it would seem like a contradiction of what I just said) can’t happen today, but it is happening, seems to be happening in a different way.  Because before I got more involved in my writing and playing, and the interchange with various chronological, 3 or 4 generations from… I discovered that something is happening today.  Because the usual look is that Jazz is something unique that happened in the 20th Century and went its own way and died, and is being preserved.  But now I look at some of the younger musicians and I say, “Well, they really don’t need anything but to play and to play with a certain type of openness.  Like, in any subject, they say, well, once people forget what they studied, then it all becomes organic and instinctive and something great arrives.  But I’ve seen those qualities in quite a few young, middle-aged and older musicians where I say, well, the music really doesn’t need anything.  Because those type of human resources are still available, and the cream of whatever always will find a way to rise to the top, regardless of the obstacles.

TP:    I guess a lot of the musicians who can sustain themselves in the contemporary scene will have to have internalized the styles of many different periods to be able, as you put it, to forget it — forget what they learned and play, in some sense.

HILL:  When I was at the university, the way I approached it was it’s good for a musician to transcribe and have a certain model for entry, and then once they discovered that formula they have something to study and make various improvements on the improvisations.  So it’s a matter of a student nowadays, moreso than everyone who’s been before them, is just to be able to apply critical thinking to the subject matter.  It’s good to go back, but if one really can’t go back and get the feeling out of it, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Because music is not just based on the academic approach, like tonic-dominant harmony and stuff, but it offers a certain magic when people play together and get a creative contact.  So if one can listen, like any aesthetic…listen gradually and get the emotional content out of their music, and in some kind of way figure out how it fit into the sociological mores of the time for the period when jazz was a popular music, not an art form.

TP:    Well, what is your relationship to this older music?  You began your recording contract for Blue Note in 1963, and by ’65, certainly by ’66, you had recorded 8 or 9 albums that stand out as individual documents and classics of the time — over about a three-year period.  To a lot of people it was like you’d come out of nowhere.  Well, that certainly wasn’t the case, because you’d been an active working musician in Chicago for more than a decade before that.  But most people define you by this music from 35 years ago.  So what’s your relationship to it in putting together a body of work for a group of contemporary musicians with that instrumentation, your relationship to that older body of music.

HILL:  Well, for my selection process, I would like a musician who partially understands everything that has gone on before, like the free playing which has been out for forty years, then the bebop, the retrospective, then the magic of Bebop… Just have an understanding of the traditional musical vocabulary that has happened before them enough where they can participate, use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, the sounds, able to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process, to say, “Well, this will fit into this period.”  Not looking at anything as old and new.  Because it’s all common property and always been recycled with a different beat.  But I look for people to have a knowledge of what has gone on in the past, because the freedom I will give them, I want them to make good musical choices.

TP:    There’s an explicit reference in this… The title track is inspired by a section of Jean Toomer’s Cane.  Talk about how your impression of the text set off the musical impressions we hear on the CD.

HILL:  Cane is basically a bunch of short stories linked together which is built on his experience in the South, when he went down South to teach and was drawn into what I call a native environment.  Prior to that period he was raised as mulatto gentry from that time, a Washington, D.C. background with his family… But what links it is these different things, like they say “her skin was beautiful, it was like dusk…”  Everything emphasizes dusk.  Dusk to me is the period between day and night.  Each one has a different dusk.  One could smell smoke, the baby burning… That was kind of a dusk.  Not dealing with it chronologically in years, but dealing with it chronologically by the season.

[MUSIC:  "Sept"]

TP:    When people in the band talk about playing with you from night to night, they describe an attitude on your part towards the music that it’s kind of like a work in process.  The musical texts seem to be infinitely mutable.  You change the form of the compositions from night, occasionally without much warning or on the spur of the moment.  Has that been your philosophy?

HILL:  Yes.  The sextet is nice, but then when you have arranged things it can become as boring as a big band.  Because some of the most interesting big bands I have heard, the musicians who play in them regularly are bored to death.  So I figure, well, maybe if you can change the form and context of the material and get the soloists involved where they can go into group improvisation on a theme or on a rhythm, you can keep the music alive.  Because other than that, everyone who would probably sound incredible from playing the same thing over and over again… But there’s a certain magic of creation.  Because I would rather have the magic of creation, which is success, rather than perfection of an academic approach where everything is perfect but meaningless.

TP:    Did you ever lead a big band or write big band music?  Am I correct that there is one unissued big band record in the Blue Note archives?

HILL:  There’s actually three big band things I started, with a tentet, with unorthodox arrangements, then I have two or three with 12 to 14 piece instrumentations, which to my memory isn’t like a standard orchestra.  But I always have enjoyed writing for almost any group.  Writing seems to be my passion.  I was amazed today… Two days ago I was working on a tune, and today it just revealed itself as a futuristically incredible composition.  So I’ve written for big bands, orchestras…

TP:    And you’ve been writing since before you knew it was writing, in a certain sense.

HILL:  Yes, I always have had that.  When I grew up, everybody would say it was weird, because the young kids my age were playing baseball, hitting each other in the head with the bat, the little things that came with childhood in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But I preferred, in a sense, to hustle.  I had two or three street corners where I would stand and play my accordion.  Leo Blevins, who was ten years older, had a bathtub with a board and a G-string.  So we would liberate a corner and play there.  During the intermission I would go to the department store and allegedly write things down on a brown paper bag, which I found out in time was correct… I was told that my method of notation… Because when you write, you try to make things a little more homogeneous so people can read it.  But my music didn’t have any mercy for the musician who would read it, but it was correct.  I always loved to write music.  Then when I got to the point where I could hear the music back, I loved it that much more, just… I notice that whenever I’m troubled or whatever, it’s like an…it’s amazing that from your creative outlets, something is born.

TP:    The neighborhood you grew up in that you’re referring to is the South Side of Chicago, which was a center of enormous cultural ferment in the time when you were growing up, after World War II and during the 1950′s  And the person who let you know about what you were writing, if I’m not mistaken, was Paul Hindemith.  Not necessarily the person you’d expect to encounter on the South Side of Chicago.

HILL:  Well, across from the corner where we were playing, you had such cultural attractions as the Regal Theater, where they had the stage shows, part of the black theater circuit, then you had the Savoy Ballroom where great artists would come in who people would dance to.  Then you had the Hurricane Lounge, where first Albert Ammons was playing, but then Gene Ammons and Tom Archia played… It was just a hub.  Not to mention 47th Street itself.  As you walked down 47th Street from east to west you would run into a few places that had blues bands.  So you would find a lot of people going through that strip because it was safe and there was a lot of, in a sense, material available.

TP:    So Hindemith just heard you, saw what you were doing, and took an interest.

HILL:  Yes, he took a partial interest.  I think he was going to the Regal Theater.  I think one of Fats Waller’s last performances was there, and he played organ.

TP:    So you were 6 years old when…

HILL:  Hmm-hmm. Anyway, he stopped… I guess I was a sight, a little raggedy kid who could play the accordion, and when I played it, it was like a harmonica almost, where it sounded like a mouth instrument, because you can  have those waves of air.  So that was interesting.  It looked like the stage show was getting ready to start…

TP:    And you were more interesting than the stage show.

HILL:  Well, everybody put their instrument down.  So I sat down and wrote something on some music paper.  I was calling myself writing, because I could hear the sound from when I was a baby… In hard times they had rent parties, and you had some of the finest pianists coming by your house playing stride and boogie-woogie and some modern.  So music was always available, and from my ears I could separate the various sounds.  I’ve always been talented at that.  At first it was like a game, but then the game grew into another type of reality.

TP:    I guess through playing on the street is how people like Albert Ammons or Earl Hines would have heard you play — you’ve mentioned both as early mentors.

HILL:  Well, Earl Hines, a few years after that he was at the new Grand Terrace.  The old one was at 35th Street.  In ’49-’50-’51-’52-’53, it moved to Oakwood Boulevard, which was on Oakwood and South Park, which is now King Boulevard.  Anyway, from being at the Regal as I got older, I started selling the Chicago Defender.  The way that worked was, you would go to the distributor and buy so many newspapers yourself.  Part of my route where I would go was these hotels and buildings, and sometimes it was the Grand Terrace.  I stumbled upon Fatha Hines.  Because at that age I didn’t know who was supposed to be who or what, but I was just happy that when I ran into an older artist, they would be supportive and maybe give me a…you know, explain something musically to me.  So I bugged him to death. [LAUGHS] Then he decided he would let me play on his grand.  So I played on his grand, I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had an unlimited technical facility for not having really studied.

TP:    It’s something that couldn’t be duplicated today.  You mentioned to me that at 12 years you sat in for one tune at a breakfast session at the Macombo Lounge…

HILL:  Yes, they were playing “Idaho.”  They gently eased me off the stand because I didn’t play the bridge in A-flat.  Oscar Pettiford was playing bass and the legendary Ike Day was playing drums.  King Kolax, who was an older musician who had been in all these various big bands… The piano player didn’t show up, and he knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so they invited me on the stand to play “Idaho” with them.  I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, “Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!”  But after that, they were nice enough to generally ease me off the stand, but they told me what I did wrong.  They said, “On the bridge, you go to A-flat.”  Then years later…well, not that many years, when I discovered who everyone was, I was overwhelmed.  Which I think really created my personality now.  I said, “If people of that magnitude can be generous and gracious and giving, let me try to be like that.”  I know there was others who turned their back to the audience.  I’m not saying anything is greater or lesser.  But from my experience, I also try to be supportive.

TP:    Through the ’50s, you finished school, and also played rent parties, did various gigs around the South Side, which meant a range from supper club things to hardcore jazz to playing with singers — and blues.

HILL:  And blues.  Then all of a sudden I became a pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band.

TP:    You played at the Beehive, where national acts would come through.

HILL:  Played the Beehive when it was in Nob Hill.

TP:    Subsequent to that, the Roberts Show Lounge, where major entertainers came in, North Side supper clubs, different clubs on the 63rd Street strip.  So by the time you got to New York in 1961, when you were 24, you already a decade’s professional experience, which puts into perspective the splash you were able to make once Blue Note allowed you to unleash your creative juices on the scene you encountered in New York City.

HILL:  The (?) had become polarized, in a sense.  Sometimes I’d say to myself, well, since I played all these clubs and so on in Chicago, why wasn’t I drawn to that in New York.  But when I arrived, what got my attention was all the various flowers, known and unknown, was were available.  It was just a big potpourri of musical talent.  It was thrilling to be alive.  Music wasn’t economically expedient at that time, but there was a certain type of fellowship and certain information and certain…you know, the joy of musicians really having a social work style where they were liberally given information all the time, and you were able to play… No one had gotten big enough where they couldn’t refuse certain situations where they got together.  Before I left, things had changed.  I knew it was time to go, because people were charging me for rehearsals.  I said, “The scene is changing.”

TP:    Dusk has a programmatic component to the recital.  There are sextet pieces, piano with a three-horn orchestration type of thing, and some solo tracks as well, of which we’ll hear one, which is called “Tough Love.”

[MUSIC: "Tough Love"; w/ Osby, "The Watcher, Vol. 2"; POD, "Flight 19"]

HILL:  I really enjoyed Freddie Waits.  He was a incredible drummer.  He was like Ike Day to me, one of the great masters who never really got their due.

I love playing with Marty because he’s always fresh and he always inspires me.  I can’t remember when he played the same thing twice on any different occasion, which I love.  Ron Horton is a nice person, a person I like who I’ve seen develop his own style, really coming into his own.  I heard Aaron Stewart last year with Marty Ehrlich’s group playing Julius Hemphill’s music, and I was impressed with his sound.  I was also mostly impressed with the fact that at the time he didn’t sound like anyone but himself.  Nasheet Waits is a person who has won my heart.  To me, everything is built of the spirit of the drums and where the drums goes, so to me, he’s the spirit of drums at this moment.  And Ratzo Harris is a very magnificent bassist.  I’ve been playing with him for years, since he was 17 in San Francisco, and he was spectacular then, so it will be interesting to see…

TP:    You spent a good chunk of the ’80s and ’90s on the West Coast.  There’s always been a bit of mystique about you, people wondering whether such-a-such a fact is accurate.  I guess you were away from New York for 20 years or so.

HILL:  I left in ’75 and returned in ’93.  I’d make runs in and out, but then at a certain point I felt New York was the place.  Because I could see New York coming alive again, things changing, a different space but the same place.

TP:    You’ve said that you think we’re in a sort of golden age, and the group of musicians who are sort of entering their prime now and defining the next stage the music will take… You describes it as almost analogous to the period when you first made your big creative splash.

HILL:  There hasn’t been as much new, young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s.  But I see the music is well in their hands as evolving to something else.  Then I see the concert stages more available, not really comparatively… But Classical music has lost much of its audience, and it’s been sustained in a lot of areas with the orchestras contracting jazz artists for a collaboration.  I see where Jaazz is just going to flower.  The reason I say it’s going to flower is because of the creative young artists that are still alive, who… If they were all dead, it could really be looked at as a retrospective.  But I see life has been breathed into the music.

TP:    The way information is passed down is a lot different than when you were coming up, isn’t it.

HILL:  Well, now information and misinformation… Like, everything is… Now it doesn’t have the substance.  When it was passed down to me, like before television and stuff, it was, in a sense, more accurate.  You heard about Coltrane, and in New York they heard about me… Different people were..> it was more of an accurate assessment than it is now.

TP:    But I was referring to the way vocabulary was passed down, musical information.

HILL:  Well, it was more of the oral tradition, where they would show you… Depending on the instrument, you would show the instrument… And the ears were more sensitized or… I can’t compare it.  But you could play the most complex figure for someone two or three times and they would have it.  Whereas now everyone is reading 100% synthetic, so one really has to have compositional skills to write it down.  Because there is a great chance that if you try to share it through the oral tradition, it will really take more time.

TP:    [Re Shades] Did you used to gig with Clifford Jordan in Chicago?

HILL:  Yes, I used to gig with Clifford off and on when he was available during that period.  Clifford could play every instrument — bass, drums…

TP:    Speak foreign languages…

HILL:  Oh, he was an incredible person.

[MUSIC: "Ball Square" from Dusk]

TP:    I’m going to take you back about 40 years.  In the years before you left Chicago, which was in ’61, what if any was your connection with the people who comprised the AACM in Chicago directly or indirectly?

HILL:  Well, I had a talk with Richard Abrams…Malachi…

TP:    He was part of your working trio.

HILL:  He was part of my working trio.  But other than that, I had no working connection.  After I had moved to New York, I came back and played at a concert they presented at the University of Chicago, and introduced them to John Sinclair, who was at Ann Arbor at the time, and through that introduction they were able to expand into other areas.

TP:    Next week, how much is new repertoire and how much old?

HILL:  We’re starting with the tunes on this album, but we have about 7 compositions we’re going to work into the repertoire.  By the end of the week, I’m hoping to have a new repertoire of 25-30 tunes.  Because I’ve written a few things before, but I really can’t write for the group effectively until I’ve played one or two nights with the musicians.  Then I can write music that would fit their strengths.

TP:    So for you, writing is as much personality-based as it is…not abstract…

HILL:  Well, in certain situations… Extended compositions are different.  But in these groups, improvs where you put different sections of music together depending upon who is playing.  I’ve noticed through the years you may give an artist material that really may not fit their mindset for the period that they’re in.  This way, everyone can… Like the old jam session, even though it’s a little more rehearsed.  You can find a common denominator, a common level to play on.

TP:    You’ve also been doing a bunch of duos in recent years, as with Bobby Hutcherson recently, duos with David Murray and Archie Shepp.  Are these very satisfying performances for you?

HILL:  I don’t know if “satisfying” is the word because I approached them with apprehension, and then when they’re over it takes me two or three weeks to figure out whether they were successful musically, but they are challenging.

* * * *

Andrew Hill (6-22-00 & 6-23-00):

TP:    I’d like to speak about your relationship to your history, to your past.  I’ve seen you play several times now this year, with your current group, but also situations that bring you back in touch with past associations.  The concert last week with Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson reaffirmed something I knew about your music, which is that you operate with a very specific language and vocabulary, and it seems that to be articulated in an effective way, it needs to be done with all appropriate detail, which it didn’t seem you had time to rehearse enough to make it come out in the concert.

HILL:  That’s partially true.  The problem with this job and the job coming up at the Chicago Festival, most of the promoters want to book me with past associations, because they say it will bring a better house.  But the other side of the coin is, everybody hasn’t kept up.  Musicians come to me with a desire, as they say, to play in the big room, which is defined as playing open, and they really haven’t developed their skills.  That’s why in my band I have a preference for… I can cross racial, chronological and different lines, and find open people who are open enough to have developed these skills to the point where we can go onward with a series of workshops and reprogramming.  Like I was telling Howard, this coming Festival, the only way I can see myself surviving is to cancel and redo it with musicians who I feel I can play with this decade, who may have been wonderful for me 20-30 years ago.  But like I said, everyone hasn’t really kept up.  I’m versatile enough to play other people’s ways.  But the unfortunate thing is, most of the older musicians… With the so-called success or whatever it is, the promotional visibility that I’m getting now, they figure they want to cater to me to the extent that they can play with me.  But then, it’s not about anything retrospective.  We’re talking about current skills.  Because the younger musicians have an encyclopedia from the so-called “avant-garde,” which isn’t avant any more, or bebop… So they have an encyclopedia where they can go into certain aspects of certain styles, and develop a new sound and even an identity.  But then if someone has been out there for years and really hasn’t upgraded their skills, in a sense they’re back at point one.

TP:    Or at the very least, their skills may not have gone in parallel with where you’ve gone in your own music.  Like, Jackie McLean’s skills are immense, but he’s a leader, and he hasn’t been a sideman on anything but Charlie Parker’s music and the tradition for a long time.

HILL:  Well, he wasn’t supposed to be a sideman.  It was supposed to be a collaboration where we went through new material, nothing so hard that anyone would have to go to school for it.  Just little things that were supposed to be natural, natural enough where people could just get together and get into the sound.  But for sound, it would be better for people to play the way they play.  That was my objection to the concert.  I figured it would be stronger if people didn’t try to get with me and allowed me to get with them.  That way I could accompany them, and bring them out.

TP:    I thought for that concert that a more effective way, if you didn’t have a day or two to rehearse…

HILL:  We didn’t.

TP:    …would be maybe to do trios or quartets or break the thing up.

HILL:  It was supposed to be broken up like that.  But they didn’t give us the space necessary for trying to adapt.  That’s the way it was arranged.  But we had bass, drums…everyone was supposed to be in different combinations.  But for some reason it didn’t happen.  Because for the performance, everyone really kind of reverted back to their first nature.  So this type of space was very new.

TP:    The concert needed a producer.

HILL:  It had a good producer.  Everything went well.  The problem was the same aspect that people couldn’t really relax, and when they couldn’t relax they were like a bull in a china shop.  Nothing bad.  But if they had relaxed, and just let everything float and had come in floating, they would have found that space and no one would have noticed.  But then people get used to becoming a dominant soloist, so much so that they feel they must fill up all of the space in certain areas, but they’re not equipped to fill up the space without listening and capturing what’s going on around them.

TP:    So in the ’60s, when this music was all fresh, people weren’t so set in their vocabularies, weren’t so set in their ways.

HILL:  Yes, that’s it.  Just like a young aspiring player today, or anyone creative.  To be creative, you can’t… Everyone can find a formula where they  can sound good, and they can sound good for decades by applying the same formulas.  But when someone says that there are more, then it is their responsibility to themselves that they keep on listening and evolving.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which your sense of composition has evolved over the years.  How do you hear your older music now?  How does it sound to you?

HILL:  The older music brings back the moods of certain periods.  I can almost experience my life during those periods by listening to the music, and enjoy it.  But as far as my having any established formula… I just write music every day, and there’s 10 or 12 ways that I try to get to a new creation.  But I can become analytical only when I’m inside the creation, as to which ways the melodies or fragments of melodies lean towards.  Some things lean towards voices.  So my sociability is my music composition.

TP:    Is the 4-5-6-piece combo sort of your natural metier?  Is that what you hear most naturally?  Or is that a pragmatic choice to write for?

HILL:  Well, I figured I’d get a sextet, get in and write some compositions.  It can be an outlet, but it’s not what I hear or all that I hear.

TP:    What are some other things you’re hearing?

HILL:  Oh, I hear voices, big bands, string quartets, two-basses.  Quite a few things.

TP:    Apart from the unissued tentet stuff for Blue Note, have you done big band…

HILL:  There’s 12 or more in the can.  And I did a big band composition for Harvard University and a few colleges.  I wrote for big bands and orchestras when I was an Associate Professor at Portland State University.  I’m marketed in such polarized areas that there’s really not that much interest in that aspect of me here.

TP:    Can you talk about how your style of piano playing and your individual technique of playing the piano inflects how you hear and compose?

HILL:  Well, it’s almost two different things.  On piano, I go through certain periods where I seem to be very dexterous, and then periods when I’m more into the content than the quantity.  These are things that I don’t analyze, but I try to…

TP:    They happen.

HILL:  Well, it’s not like a gift from God where I just sit down and play.  I have to keep on refining my skills to see how I want to play.

TP:    Tell me something analytically about the pieces on Dusk.

HILL:  Basically all I can say is that the various compositions are constructed in sections.  Different sections where I’ll put certain sections together with the versatility of the musicians.  Each section can have a different sound.  Then as a result, I can bring out different aspects in the various sections.  But as far as my approaching it analytically, at the moment I’m not… I haven’t really been analytical since I left the college.  I have the skills, so I want to apply the skills in almost an organic manner.  In approaching a composition in general, I generally don’t want to talk about something so that I find myself trapped within that for my interpretation of a certain type of creative… I’m happy that the sound means different things to different people.  But for me, as long as I have an activity…in writing, I just would rather pursue it naturally, instead of it being natural or retrospective about what I have done, to keep from having a series of repetitions. TP:    Let me ask you about your range of activities this year.  What are you doing in Italy?

HILL:  In Italy I have a fellowship to retreat for creativity and clarity.  It’s in the vicinity of Tellunueri Castle in Umbertide, Italy, right outside of Perugia.  There will be some writers, poets and painters there also.  I’m the only musician.  I’ll have a wing of the castle to myself a studio and an apartment.  They’re providing transportation, lodging and food, and a car and bicycles.  It’s kind of like the McDowell Colony.  The purpose, they say, is just to give creative artists a chance to reflect and, for consideration of their generosity and hospitality, maybe mention their name.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of duos, special projects. Hutcherson and David Murray are the ones I know about.

HILL:  I did one with David Murray, one with Andrew Cyrille, one with Archie Shepp.

TP:    How were they set up?  In an informal way?  Were they playing your compositions, compositions by both…

HILL:  No, in situations that I try not to be academic about the approach, to try to approach it seeing that there’s two people where I feed into their strength, or their style of performance, trying to create something that’s not specific… My approach to their different individual solos isn’t specific.  I just tried to play with someone and achieve some type of creative contact, no matter what approach I may have to use.

TP:    But which approach did you use?  Did you play your compositions…

HILL:  No, I played their compositions.  I’d try to make them feel completely comfortable.

TP:    With Hutcherson you have a much closer relationship, so I’d imagine the dynamic of performing together is very different.

HILL:  Well, with Hutcherson what happened is, I went to his house for three days and we just had an intensive workshop.

TP:    How is it different for you playing in let’s say the duo as opposed to a situation where there’s a drummer?

HILL:  Well, the drummer is still the basis of jazz, really.  When you’re playing jazz and you’re playing without drums, it’s kind of artificial, but it’s the mood of the time.  It’s artificial because jazz is another aesthetic.  Even though it’s European as far as tonic-dominant harmonies, it’s still a music where Western culture, the emphasis on the melody and harmonics, and rhythm is an accessory.  In African music the emphasis is on the rhythm, and the harmony and melody are accessories.  So basically, it’s been an osmosis of those things.  But still when you get past the rhythm, the beat, the feeling of the heart, all of a sudden you’re dealing with a situation where the guidelines between classical music and jazz are dissolved.  So maybe because people have two artists they call it jazz… It’s still spontaneous music.  It’s really spontaneous music then, because you two are relying on each other to feed each other.  But as far as the tradition, you take the drums out (like, I hear the drums being taken out of James P. Johnson’s music), and you have something else entirely.

TP:    Of course he made up for that with what he did with his left hand, but I take your point.

HILL:  I mean out of his written music.  He has operas and string quartets also.  But for all those things the rhythm has been taken out of the music so you have something completely different than what he wrote.  But like you said, on the piano itself… When they took the drums out of America, the piano because the spiritual master, where you have an evolution of church music in this country.  Especially in the black African-American Negro tradition, the piano has been evolving as a rhythm instrument, even going back to 1850, when they used to play the rolling piano, which was boogie-woogie.  So boogie-woogie came before ragtime.

TP:    I didn’t know boogie-woogie went back that far.

HILL:  They used to call it the “rolling piano” style.  It was known in the West, the same approach that boogie-woogie had.  These things were nourished in the subculture, even though it wasn’t predominant in the greater society.  Because in that period, from the free Negroes and the slaves, they wanted Coon music.

TP:    This record is extremely rhythmic, with amazingly complex and dynamic rhythms.  In the sextet with Nasheet Waits, you have an incredibly dynamic young drummer.  How much of a blueprint do you give the drummer?  Are you very specific about the rhythms that they have to articulate?

HILL:  First, I get drummers, again, who love the music.  The ones I’ve select, I select because of their abilities to play counter- and cross-rhythms.  So from that alone, I give everyone in the band the freedom to be themselves (it’s not a dictatorship) to the extent where they can utilize and develop their creative voice.

TP:    Greg Osby said that with your music, you have to disregard the page.  The page is just the blueprint and you can’t follow it literally.  If you follow the notations and rhythms just as you wrote it out, it won’t have the right sound, that there has to be a real experience of hearing the music.

HILL:  I understand what you’re saying.  With different musicians I use different approaches.  I have to, because everyone has their…soloists have their certain rhythmic priority, places where they can go and places where they can’t go.  Like, the younger musicians aren’t supposed to be as creative as the older ones, even though they’re developing that, but they have something special in the fact that they can read anything you put in front of them.  Even though I’m humble, but most people don’t realize that having been an Associate Professor for year, I am very precise.  Like, I can write for strings and do things for strings that most people can’t do.  They said in the old days that you couldn’t write for strings because they really couldn’t swing or capture the magic of jazz.  I’m skilled enough to communicate with anyone.

TP:    Do different musics that you write have different functions?  Does the music for the performing group have one set of parameters and the string music has another?

HILL:  Well, each song you write has to me a life of its own once you’re developing it.  It itself will tell you according to one’s own references what area or genre you think the music would fit best in.  So you develop it from that point on.  It’s not a thing where you sit down… Quite frequently melodies come to me in the head.  But then other things… Even they have a form of their own.  So when you write music, you try to capture the form, and when you’re playing with other people you try to capture the essence of their presence and not control them.  So with Greg, I give him the liberty that if he hears other things, he plays other things.  I don’t write it so set that if a person goes contrary to what I thought, that I’m offended.  I give it to the artist.  Some prefer to read it with the dynamics and stuff written in, like the sextet…

TP:    So in other words, the flow of it goes according to the personality of the artist and where they’re willing to go with what you give them.

HILL:  Yeah, and the things that I have completely written, like extended compositions.  Well, you’re supposed to be dealing with the creative music.  In the old days they used to take standards and bend them to their interpretation, so that they can take music and bend it to their interpretation and style where… If it’s natural to them, I honor it.  I don’t say, “Well, you have to play this note.”  Because what the sextet brought out is it shows the players how to play rhythmic counterpoint against each other in the group improv.  So I see from my having done that on the scene, it’s become popular on the scene.  But now the older musicians cater to me, but the younger musicians have been hearing me so long that I’m natural to them no matter what way I go.

TP:    With someone like Nasheet, his responses are based upon having heard you for a long time and kind of intuitively knowing what you need.  And of course, that’s his own predisposition to play like that.

HILL:  His response is to play.  Like I said, the sound may sound natural to him.  But to play and not be hemmed in.  Whoever you are, present yourself, moreso than the call-and-response… It’s a term that really is not completely appropriate, even though it’s used on certain occasions.

TP:    Now, Bobby Hutcherson said that the main thing about your music for him is that every song makes him think of a story.  There’s always a little story in the melody, and there’s a reason why it’s being played.  Do you write music abstractly, or does a work always have to correlate to some sort of story or some sort of mood or some sort of color.

HILL:  Well, those are two questions.  On the first question, about Bobby Hutcherson’s impression of my music compared with Greg’s impression of my music, everyone who performs with you looks at it a different dimension of your music, according to their understanding and how they connect with you.  But it has nothing literally to do with the composer himself.  I’m glad, as we said earlier, that the music can be interpreted by other artists in various ways.

Question two: I write because it is as natural to me as breathing.  I just write music.  I write all the time.  Like I said, that’s my relaxation and my sociability.

TP:    You made a comment a few years ago about Point of Departure, that Tony Williams surprised you in some ways in everything he did, and that there were areas he couldn’t go into with Miles that you were able to bring him into in some of the thing you did.  That’s how I’m interpreting what you said.  If you could be specific, what areas would those have been?

HILL:  Well, playing with Miles was an egocentric, demonstrative situation.  For a professional musician that the epitome, because from that other things are coming, and the more demonstrative you are, even musically, the more you’ll be seen.  But with me, he could go into calmer rhythms and deal with the music not in volume but in rhythmic intensity.

TP:    Also stepping back to the ’60s, you said that during that time in particular you were extremely enamored with Roy Haynes’ playing, and what you specifically liked was a quality you said also Ike Day had, that he incorporated every component of the kit into the rhythmic flow, so that there was therefore a floating rhythm rather than a stacked rhythm.

HILL:  What attracted me to Roy Haynes, when I first came to New York he was playing with trios all the time.  And I loved the way… Like you said, it’s a floating rhythm, it’s a relaxed rhythm… Playing with him, he relaxed the beat, i a sense.  Philly Joe Jones and them were playing precise metronome, like 1-2-3-4, and everything was pyramided on top of that.  But with Roy Haynes, he left space and he left the soloist, whoever it may be, a space where they could be precise but they could still float in.

TP:    What is the synergy between you and Nasheet Waits?  He seems to be an extremely effective drummer for your music.

HILL:  With me, being homogeneous, I’d say, well, my blessing is through these various decades to play with the best artists available, young artists, being able to interact with them, interact with anyone… Through the decades… I’m not going to say, “Well, such-and-such is the greatest,” but I will say that I’ve liked people who love the music… I mean, Billy Drummond, what he did is phenomenal, and I like Billy Hart.  I’m not so polarized on one person.  All I ask a person to do when I get together with them is play.  If they can play, I like them.  If they can’t play, I don’t like them.  I see people develop certain instinctual skills.  So if I’m lucky enough to be in an area where there are still some great budding artists, it means jazz isn’t dead, that it’s still evolving.

TP:    You said before that this is a golden period.

HILL:  Well, in more ways than one.  In the artists that’s available at any time… You have younger artists, you have young audiences — that’s a given.  So you have to have a chronological cross-section who love the music, and that will pick up the volume demographically.  So there are opportunities for things to happen that haven’t happened since the ’30s, and will go further than what happened in the ’30s.  It’s just the laws of general dynamics.

TP:    Everyone I’ve talked to has said that your voicings are totally distinctive, that if you write a standard chord change you can’t really play it as written because other notes are implied that aren’t in there.  I guess that’s maybe for them to say and not for you to say at this point.

HILL:  Well, that’s just a leftover from the old days.  People didn’t play the same chord the same way all the time.  They took certain liberties that gave the soloist liberties.  That’s just an extension of that.

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Filed under Andrew Hill, Article, Chicago, DownBeat, Interview, Piano, WKCR

It’s Joey Baron’s 56th Birthday

On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree.  They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.

“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe.   He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash.  That’s part of his sound.  I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style.  Beautiful touch.  It took me a while to appreciate what he did.  When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things.  But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy  does.”

Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.

* * * *

Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.

The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh.  Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.  In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade.  Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.

We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community.  It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness.  Round two is another story altogether.  Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.

“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks.  “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing.  He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines.  He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”

Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano.  To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”).  Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.

As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest.  I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making.  “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds.  “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included.  They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo.  They know how much is enough.”

Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home.  “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states.  “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn.  Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel.  I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it.  It was not an accident.”

Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South.  Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”

“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states.  “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took.  I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews  with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist.  It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes.  These guys were very supportive.  They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is.  I got my experience doing the work before me.”

Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP.  On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage.  Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper.  “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues.  “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about.  This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black.  I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’  ‘Do you know who that is?’  ‘No.’  ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”

While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education.  “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!”  Baron jokes.  “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups.  I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician.  I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”

Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles.  His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later.  “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses.  “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume.  One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline.  Carmen always kept things in balance.  Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”

L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms.  Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker.  He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it.  Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York.  There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’  I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back.  I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning.  We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”

Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.”  He studied voraciously.  “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records.  I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played.  But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing.  Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal?  It was the beginning of the chorus.  He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo.  Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”

One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David.  “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently.  “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me.  When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish.  You’d get the living shit kicked out of you.  I went to Hebrew School and hated it.  I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door.  There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”

As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity.  He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.”  In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract.  “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms.  “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles.  My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York.  We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”

After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly.  During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.  “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms.  “It gave me a lot of strength.  It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong.  I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”

Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture.  “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks.  “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  I was seeing myself as a victim.  I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard.  I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson.  I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”

Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments.  He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble.  “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls.  “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note.  Right at that moment I turned to him.  We smiled at each other like we KNEW.  There was this weird connection.  I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play.  I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with.  I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’  But then he started to kind of get it.”

Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.”  One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session.  “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs.  “Not unfriendly.  But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this?   Doesn’t he play any tunes?’  It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it.  Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson.  All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”

Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles.  “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates.  “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around.  The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us.  We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way.  Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit.  All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation.  It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”

As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen.  “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv.  He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned.  He was thinking of it presentationally.  He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”

Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots.  “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay.  We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room.  I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish.  John said, ‘What?’  I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’  He said, ‘No.’  At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism.  I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’  I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”

If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope.  Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.

“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there.  He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before.  I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it.  I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another.  Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.

“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey.  I’ve been spoiled.  I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard.  As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do.  I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for.  If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it.  What he did was a matter of will!  It didn’t just happen.  He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals.  He decided to cut down his set.  I really respect that.  It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows.  It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do.  This has not happened before.  I am going to take a chance.’”

Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT.  “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says.  “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band.  I wrote a whole book for Baron Down.  I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own.  I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard.  The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down.  It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly.  Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.

“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas.  Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them.  I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well.  But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians.  I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch.  That’s an endless study.”

As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.”   Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand.  He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel.  “Close your hands.”  Dutifully, I make two fists.  Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms.  A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch.  “Open your hands.”  Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist.  “You did that very well, Joey.”  “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles.  “‘Very well!’”

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Filed under Article, Drummer, Jazziz, Joey Baron

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

Donald Harrison Turns 51 Today

This evening, alto saxophonist  Donald Harrison, “Duck” to his friends, observes his 51st birthday with opening night of a three-night run at the Jazz Standard linked to his participation in the acclaimed HBO series Treme, for which his personal biography is the source of two characters. Joining Harrison for the engagement is his working quintet, a trio of Mardi Gras Indian musicians, and, on percussion and voice, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers.  He’s one of the masters, and ought not to be missed.

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to write a DownBeat profile on Harrison, which appears below.

* * * * *

The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians  running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

Donald digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring the Harrison story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released “New York Second Line” [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

“‘New York Second Line’ sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of “Real Life Stories” [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on ‘Nascence’ [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do.  The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing.  Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on “Indian Blues” [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’  They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on “Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin –  both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.’”

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, New Orleans

Mark Turner Blindfold Test, Uncut

It’s New York’s gain, if the world’s loss, that Paul Motian doesn’t like to leave the island of Manhattan. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to. In the latest iteration of his ongoing residence at the Village Vanguard, Motian will perform the sideman function in a new quartet led by the immensely influential tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, with pianist David Virelles and bassist Ben Street.  For a report on what Turner’s up to lately, read this recent interview with A-list altoist Jaleel Shaw. Then scan the uncut version of the Blindold Test that I conducted with him for DownBeat about five years ago.

* * *

1.   George Coleman-Ron Blake, “Speak Low”(from Joey DeFrancesco, ORGANIC VIBES, Concord, 2006) (Coleman, Blake, tenor saxophone; DeFrancesco, organ; Byron Landham, drums)

I have an inkling of who it is, but I’m not exactly sure. But it’s very proficient playing.  I was  trying to see if I could recognize the drummer, and I wasn’t sure. It could be a few people. I’d like to hear what it is afterwards. I thought I’d figure that one out, but I’m stumped as to who it is. It’s an extremely hard tempo to play well on. But it’s well played. The rhythm section in particular was very proficient, very solid, forward-driving. That’s about it. [Anything about the lines or sound? Do you think it’s a younger player or older player?] It sounds like one of the saxophone players is older and one is younger. The first saxophone player I gathered was older (I’m not sure who it was) and the second one who soloed being younger. I’m don’t know whose record it is. Concept of sound is the first way I can tell, and the types of lines in general – without being too specific about it. Maybe to the point of the phrases, and when a given person decides to play a given phrase – and where. That was my general feeling. I don’t know whose record it is. I couldn’t quite tell. I was assuming maybe it was the organ player’s record. That was my first impression. Maybe the organ player wanted to get young and old together, or something like that, with maybe his rhythm section. Is it Joey DeFrancesco? I’m surprised I got it! But I don’t know who either saxophone player is. I think I could tell at a slower tempo, but at that tempo I can’t tell. 3 stars. [AFTER] I got it!! Well, I had an idea. As a whole, not their most individual playing.

2.   Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought” (from BLACK NARCISSUS, Milestone, 1968/1994) (Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Oh, you gave me an easy one. Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought,” with Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. This is one of my favorite Joe records. I have it on a compilation and also on the actual record. But I used to listen to this record every day for two or three years, I was so into it, and others by Joe Henderson around that period. That was around 1989-90-91. It’s just so incredible! I think of Joe as someone who brought together quite a bit of what happened before, so he brought together, say, a certain amount of free playing, a certain amount of saxophone tradition, like bebop playing and swing before that, and players of his generation and before. Also, from a saxophone player’s standpoint, he started a certain type of tune. For example, some tunes that have free playing, and a lot of tunes that have been written since, that are kind of like some through-composed, some not, with sort of compact, condensed areas of changes. That type of tune…he’s the one who started all that, basically. In this period it’s great, because his sound is maybe somewhat lighter than earlier records. It’s incredible, because he gets a feeling of playing live in the studio, which is extremely difficult to do. It sounds like other records that are live records from around the same period. He sort of wrapped together everything that he did before and sort of looking to what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s all done in the studio in one period. It’s incredible. Also, that recording and others around that period, it’s an excellent example for him of mystery and logic and rational playing brought together. He’s the master of that of the saxophone players I’m aware of. 5 stars.

3.  Jimmy Greene, “Take Advantage”(from TRUE LIFE-STORIES, Criss-Cross, 2005) (Greene, tenor saxophone; Xavier Davis, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Harry Connick, composer)

Nice tune. Nice form. It flows very nicely, it’s very melodic, nice motion between the sections. Very well played, very swinging and very well done. Very professional-sounding. Before I heard the solos, I thought it was John Ellis as a sideman on someone else’s record.  I don’t know who else it could be. I thought maybe Jimmy Greene because of some aspects of the size of his sound in the middle register, but the lines and phrasing didn’t quite sound like what I knew to be him from when I played with him and hearing him on other people’s records. I’m less familiar with his playing recently. Maybe Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. It’s a nice performance that rests on its own terms. It didn’t sound like a standard, or if it was, it was a pretty complex and obscure one. It didn’t sound like a normal standard. I thought it was an original written in a certain style. 4 stars.

4.   David Murray, “Steps” (from 4TET & STRINGS, Justin Time, 2006) (Murray, tenor saxophone, composer; Lafayette Gilchrist, piano)

I thought it was Sam Rivers for the first few  seconds because of the sound and vibrato, but as soon as I listened a little more, I knew it wasn’t. I don’t know who it is. I especially liked the section during the piano player’s solo. Wow, that was beautiful. I really loved that. I liked especially certain sections of the arrangement with the strings. I liked the tenor player. To a certain extent I like that kind of playing over let’s say a string section or something where there’s some clear harmony written, but I’d say the soloist isn’t necessarily addressing tonality in a specific sense, maybe more like sounds and certain colors than addressing tonality. I enjoy that, because there’s a certain amount of mystery that it adds to music. I personally prefer also having that and really addressing the harmony in a specific way as well. I enjoy that even more. But I really like the mystery added, again, by that type of playing. Of course, part of the reason why I enjoyed the piano player’s solo more is because both of those elements were both in play, maybe because of the instruments played. 4 stars.

5.   Chris Byars, “The Lion of Yerevan” (from Ari Roland, SKETCHES FROM A BASSIST’S ALBUM, Smalls 2006) (Byars, tenor saxophone; Sacha Perry, piano; Ari Roland, bass; Danny Rosenfeld, drums)

I’m not sure who the saxophone player is. It sounds like Lucky Thompson, the saxophone player who did the record “Tricotism.”  There’s a tune of his that I play, too. I’m not sure if it’s him, but it sounds like he’s coming out of that tradition. I don’t think it’s him, but it sounds somewhere in that area. Otherwise, I can’t think of who it would be off the top of my head. It’s fantastic. I don’t know this recording. It sounds like it could be from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; for example, a bass player from the late ‘30s or early ‘40s recording a record later, like maybe in the ‘50s. It’s the harmonic language and the sound of the recording. It sounds like something recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. That’s my guess. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’m not surprised. I’ve heard those guys a fair amount of times. It sounded like someone from that period who had their own original material that I didn’t know of. It’s totally fresh. It sounds like they’re completely in it, and it sounds like that music is alive and they’re in that language, as if they were living then and playing it now. It’s amazing. It’s great.

6.   James Carter, “Blue Hawaiian” (from GOLD SOUNDS, Brown Brothers, 2005) (Carter, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, keyboards; Reginald Veal, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

It sounds like James Carter. Why did it take me so long? I’m not that familiar with his playing, and in the very beginning he didn’t play that much, he was introducing the melody, and it sounded like it could be some other people from, say, the Chicago school of saxophone players, if you want to call it that – the avant-garde, more or less, to some extent. I haven’t listened to them a lot; I’m aware of them and have listened to them to some extent. I need to check them out more, but I’m just aware of it. So at first I was wondering which one, but as it went on I was aware of James, one, because it sounded like a new recording, and two, because of the amount that he was playing – as in playing a lot and not leaving any space for anyone else, really. On a good note, as far as the amount of effects and facility on the instrument, it’s amazing. There are some things he was doing with sound that were incredible, very difficult to do. There’s one thing in particular, somewhere on the horn, maybe A-flat to B-flat, something like that, back and forth, and there were some kind of harmonics with something else going on. Sound-wise, it was kind of amazing. Really interesting. That ability is fantastic, and I enjoy that part. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s the prowess on the instrument, and the sound that the rhythm section was getting together. Even though it was a vamp, the relationship between the bass and keyboard – it was nice, what they had going. There was one little interlude between the solos, right after the tenor solos, that was really nice. My reservation is sometimes a little too much playing. If there was less, it would have been more pleasurable to listen to. I liked the song. It was a vamp more or less with some little interludes to break it up. 3stars.

7.   Greg Tardy, “As the World Rejoices” (from Greg Tardy, THE TRUTH, Steeplechase, 2005) (Tardy, tenor saxophone; Helen Sung, piano; Sean Conly, bass; Jaimeo Brown, drums)

That sounds like  Greg Tardy playing saxophone. I didn’t know if this was his record, because I haven’t heard any of his records or heard him write tunes like this. But I thought it was fantastic. It sounds really beautiful. It was an excellent composition, especially the relationship between bass and melody. It’s nice, because it’s the type of tune where you can hear the harmony just with bass and melody alone. That says a lot about the composer’s understanding of harmony. Also fantastic is the way that even though it was somewhat rubato in some sections, it still had a nice rhythmic tension, which is sometimes hard to get. It was very well done. The sound was great. I think Greg is playing a Radio-Improved that he’s shown me. Totally beautiful. 4½ stars. The only reason I don’t say 5 is just because I reserve 5 for established classics.

8.   Michael Brecker, “Prince Lasha” (from Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, LOCKED & LOADED: LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE, Half-Note, 2006) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Craig McIver, drums)

I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t say I liked it very much. Wow. I think I’ve heard the piece before, but I’m not sure. But on that performance the band was…wow. I mean “wow” in the negative sense. The band performance was a bit atrocious, I have to say. The time wasn’t quite happening. I don’t know what was going on. At first I thought the tenor player was Brecker, but it’s not what I’m used to. Maybe it’s other things…I don’t know what happened. It sounds like maybe someone else who sounds like him. There are certain lines that he was playing that I’m not used to hearing him play. Also, part of it is execution. I’m used to hearing even more immaculate execution and time. But on the other hand, if he’s dealing with the drummer, whoever it was, it would be hard to deal with that maybe even for him. So I don’t know. It could be someone else who sounds a lot like him, would be my guess. I was going to say maybe Tommy Smith or… I don’t know that many people. It could be Bob Mintzer, but I’m used to hearing him sound different. Or Bob Berg, But not quite. 1 star. One thing that made me think it was Brecker was sound, and there were other things he executed that were so him, that I haven’t heard anyone else do. Even for him, dealing with that, I can see why he was – for him – not as immaculate on phrases or time or whatever as he normally would be. It sounds like he’s trying to keep everyone together.

I love Michael Brecker. I think he’s fantastic. He’s an incredible saxophone player, musician, person. Musician in an ideal sense, in terms of work ethic, reason for playing, the feeling of emotion that he puts out and gives people. It’s sad for me to hear him in that situation, because it’s pulling him way down, way below what he can do. To me, he’s just keeping them together, baby-sitting them. That’s what I think. I’ll be flat-honest about it.

In terms of recordings, there are so many great ones, but one of my favorites is Brecker with strings, a Claus Ogermann date. Man, it’s super-bad. It’s an immaculate record. [Has he influenced you?] Yeah. He’s probably influenced everybody. Maybe some people would not like to admit it. But of course. Definitely. Absolutely. Yes, in many ways. Should I say how? I don’t know how to put it… Well, specifically, like many saxophone players, when I was in early college and high school, I spent a lot of time trying to sound like him. Actually, in certain ways… I did certain transcriptions, and had books with transcriptions where he kind of, among others, taught me how to play the saxophone, and certain things he could do with it… I mean, there are certain things that he’s done with the saxophone and taking, say, the language of Coltrane and people like that, and done certain things that are characteristically him. He’s not just let’s say a disciple of Trane or whatever. Not to me. He’s really added to the canon. Anyway, so he’s influenced me and maybe others in the sense that he’s kind of stretching certain ways of playing the saxophone very specifically, certain things that he can do on the saxophone. There are certain things that I didn’t realize you could do with it until I heard him play. They’re just technical things that are also musical. It’s hard to explain it. But certain things that are very difficult to do. Certain scalar things, certain patterns very, very fast to play within a range of 2½ to 3 octaves, using the upper register is a big one. The way he plays and improvises certain lines. Also the way he uses false fingerings, certain things he did that are very difficult to do, that are his. It’s his vocabulary. Out of a certain tradition, like all of us, but it’s his thing. And when he’s in an environment not like this one, it’s incredible. [Did you keep abreast of his later records?] Yeah, somewhat. Totally incredible. In fact, another thing that’s great about him is that he’s one of those people that I would like to be like, just continuing to blossom. Just better and better. It’s just incredible. Now it’s like he has all the technique and sound, deeper and more open. It seems on his last records, he’s had more opportunity to show various things he can do and changed his own playing even more. Still evolving.

9.   Ned Goold, “In The Still Of The Night” (from THE FLOWS, Smalls, 1999/2004) (Goold, tenor saxophone; Ben Wolfe, bass; Ron Steen, drums)

It’s Ned Goold. I don’t know the tune; I haven’t played it. I don’t know who’s in the rhythm section. He’s a great saxophone player. I could tell because his lines are very intervallic, but still in the ‘40s-‘50s vernacular. So that’s how I recognized him. It’s very interesting playing. It’s difficult to do that and still play the changes well. 3½ stars.

10. Chris Potter, “Morning Bell” (from UNDERGROUND, Sunnyside, 2006) (Potter, tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz, guitar; Craig Taborn, fender rhodes; Nate Smith, drums; Thom Yorke, composer)

It sounds like Chris Potter. I’m not familiar with this tune, but it’s a great composition. I really enjoyed that. It sounds like a Radiohead tune or influenced by it. It’s the form and the harmony. There are certain basslines or certain parts of the harmony, certain things in minor thirds that make it sound like that. I don’t remember exactly, but some other spots that are like that. [Can you take a brief tangent and discuss what about Radiohead’s make them appealing to musicians in this period?] I don’t know actually. But there are a lot who are into it, including myself. Maybe because at least a fair amount of musicians are listening to other music besides jazz, and are into various popular musics, whatever they are, and then those that are of that genre, let’s say rock-influenced or whatever. I think that because the sound on their records is so great, and also they’re pretty meticulous about sounds – getting the sounds right, the sound of the record. Plus the tunes. The songs are great. It’s really good songwriting. I think a big part of it is that. Even if you just play the song without really soloing that much, like this one, they’re just nice forms to hear, and there seems to be something close about maybe what some of us are doing and what they’re doing that may be influencing us. Maybe it’s because a fair amount of us are willing to address popular music from our generation. That includes anything from something we listened in high school on – anything from the ‘80s and ‘90s. And Radiohead, among others, seems to be a good example of that. I thought that performance was fantastic, beautiful. I can’t say anything bad about it! It’s all great, fantastic. I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

11.   Donny McCaslin, “Soar” (from SOAR, Sunnyside, 2006) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone)

It’s pretty bold to start that long with percussion. It’s interesting. I like that. I’m not sure who this is, but it sounds like an Avishai Cohen tune, or something in that scene – an active section of the tune, sort of syncopated in a scalar sense. It sounds like an Israeli vibe, or sounds influenced by it. I don’t know who it is, though. It’s a great song. I can’t quite place the guitar player. Tenor player sounds fantastic. Whoo! Killing. Sounds like some people I know, but I’m not sure if it’s them. Maybe younger people who sound like them. It sounds Latin-influenced, some type of Caribbean-Latin thing. This is a nice interlude section. It’s a great tune, a great composition. It’s really well-done. Beautiful. [FINAL SECTION] This last section is really nice! Wow. What a great arrangement. Great ending, too. Just falls right off. A little arrangement of whatever those revolving changes were. 4 stars. [AFTER] I thought it was Donny, but there was something about his sound that sounded different, so to be honest, I thought it was someone who was sounding like Donny, or checked him out.

12.   Branford Marsalis, “Laughin’ and Talkin’ with Higg” (from ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Rounder, 2004) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Wynton and Branford. I don’t know whose record this is, and I’m not sure if I’ve heard this record. Oh, I figured it would be Branford. I’m not sure if it’s recent or not. It’s Jeff Watts, and I would imagine Eric Revis or Reginald Veal depending on how recent it is. It’s incredible playing, understanding of swing rhythm and all those things – just the obvious things. But not only a great understanding of the swing tradition, but it’s their own language they’ve created. I’ve been influenced by it. Many people have. The way that they play that maybe objectively speaking or maybe, according to some who may be against them or not like what they’re doing, who think they’re too conservative or something… It seems like they have so much control, especially over this, that it sounds like they’re playing really free. They have a lot of creative ability. They’re  really connected, and really complementary to each other, not necessarily a thing where someone will play a certain phrase and someone else will play the same thing, but actually complementing – two different melodies that work together type of thing. They do it very well. And it’s improvised. That’s another thing that’s great, is they’re really improvising, really making up lines, but still in the whole vocabulary and vernacular of the tradition. Rhythmically it’s great, Jeff Watts’ innovations and the innovations of that group of people, whether it’s Branford’s bands or Wynton’s bands, especially Wynton’s band in the ‘80s, like ‘85, like J-Mood and Black Codes From The Underground. This was right before I went to college, so everybody was listening. Not everybody, but those that wanted to play mainstream jazz were into that, and so was I.  So yes, it’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Mark Turner, Tenor Saxophone

Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard This Week

On any given evening in New York City, jazzfolk possessing sufficient determination, logistical savoir faire, and funds can select from an embarrassment of riches. Last night, for example, I might have gone to the Jazz Standard to hear James Farm, the new collective “all star” group with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. Could’ve gone to Birdland for Bill Charlap’s inimitable trio, or to Smoke, where the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander was swinging with piano maestro Harold Mabern.

Instead, I stayed in downtown Manhattan. Started off at the acoustically superb theater at the Rubin Museum, sited on the premises of the old Barney’s on 17th and 7th, to hear a solo concert by pianist Craig Taborn in celebration  of his new ECM release Avenging Angel, a recital constructed by Manfred Eicher from two days of in-studio improvisations. In person, Taborn compressed, presenting 8 or 9 tabula rasa improvs that showcased both his enviable interdependence,  rhythmic precision, and an array of attacks and pedaling techniques that exploited — and reveled in the harmonics of –  the full dynamic range of the Yamaha piano. It was a good reminder that Taborn — whose public profile  has become distorted by the amount of time he’s spent over the last decade playing keyboards in bands led by Tim Berne and, more visibly, Chris Potter — is anyone’s equal on the acoustic 88s.

Later, I walked down 7th Avenue to the Village Vanguard to hear the final half-hour of the first set by Chris Potter,  with whom, for the last 8 years, Taborn has played keyboards in the “Underground Quartet.” Earlier this year, Potter presented a thrilling new band with Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Harland, performing original music inspired by a reading of The Odyssey. This week — the gig runs through tomorrow — Potter is working with a stringcentric quintet that features the protean guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith from the Underground group, acoustic bassist Scott Colley from his acoustic quartet of the late  ’90s and early ’00s, and electric bassist Fima Ephron, a master of texture and pulse. The music was technically challenging, but also episodic, melodic, and collectively oriented. It took me on a journey.

My last stop was the Jazz Gallery, where trumpeter Ralph Alessi led as individualistic a quartet as you could think of — Jason Moran on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, which performs on the 2010 release (though it was recorded in 20040, Cognitive Dissonance [CAM Jazz]. I was tired, and had to leave after three tunes (looks like I missed Ravi Coltrane sitting in; he was coming up the stairs with his saxophone). Wish I could have hung in there, though, as Alessi’s music is brilliant — highbrow, witty, rhythmically intoxicating — and the cats played it with such conversational sangfroid…

On the way home, though, Potter’s set stayed in my mind. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a bit over the years, both through conducting a number of public interviews on WKCR, but also in the course of writing several pieces — a blindfold test 10-11 years ago, a 2006 feature article for Jazziz, a 2008 (I think it was) cover story for DownBeat. In the 2006 piece, Potter talked about themes that seem quite pertinent to the next step that he seems to be taking.

* * * * * *

On consecutive Fridays last June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For week number-two, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin.  Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz.  “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier], and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), until the present, everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention  when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led a dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of  the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers.  He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang ‘Yesterday,’ and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar,  launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying  his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority  reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965.  Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources.  These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

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Filed under Article, Chris Potter, Jazziz, Review, Tenor Saxophone

The Pile (#6): Orrin Evans, Freedom

Over the past few weeks, via Facebook, I’ve been communicating with a cohort of people, all but a few of whom are complete strangers, who share with me the singular experience of spending our childhoods and teen years  in Greenwich Village during the 1950s and (in my case) the 1960s.  Several of them are musicians, and a few among that subset, I discovered from a thread this morning,  studied with Barry Harris at various points along their timeline.

This  led me to look at a profile I wrote about the maestro in 2000 for DownBeat, which concluded with these reflections: “The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then another freedom comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.”

Something like this notion is what I think the Philadelphia-based pianist Orrin Evans had in mind when he decided to give the title Freedom to his excellent new release on PosiTone. Recorded a year ago, and dedicated to Philly jazz  icons Trudy Pitts, Charles Fambrough, and Sid Simmons, each of whom had recently passed away, it’s an incisive, 9-piece recital (7 trios with Dwayne Burno on bass and either Byron Landham or Anwar Marshall on drums, 2 quartets with Larry McKenna on tenor saxophone), animated by dictates of groove and harmonic logic, which become ever more open as the proceedings unfold.  Often predisposed on prior recordings to navigate the high-wire in satisfying ways,  Evans here plays throughout with old soul concision and deep focus worthy of his dedicatees.

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George Colligan’s Jazz Truth Blog

In addition to Ethan Iverson’s estimable Do the Math blog, my favorite jazz blog these days is George Colligan’s JazzTruth, which lives up to its name not only through George’s penetrating writing, but also strong interviews with such major and — because of the myopia of the critical community — somewhat unsung musicians as Ralph Peterson and Dwayne Burno.

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Chick Corea is 70 Today

To note Chick Corea’s 70th birthday, I’d like to share an interview from two years ago that was conducted for the  now-dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com.

Chick Corea (May 26, 2009) – for jazz.com:

“I like all kinds of sounds,” Chick Corea told me some years ago. “I’m always realizing over and over again that the instrument itself is just a vehicle for the actual guts-and-blood of life, which is creating something and communicating it to other people. They’re just instruments. An instrument is a tool with which to do something. I’m interested in the instrument, but I’m more interested in the effect. Sounds are sounds, and a musician uses sounds to paint music with.  So I keep trying to use whatever instrumental techniques I have to create effects.”

This remark is particularly apropos to Corea’s musical production across his seventh decade, during which he’s navigated multiple stylistic environments, moved back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, written books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, recontextualized iconic units from his past, and also created new ensembles. The most consequential of the latter is Five Peace Band, Corea’s collaborative venture with John McLaughlin in observation of the fortieth anniversary of their mutual participation on the transitional Miles Davis albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the dates that established the template within which, over the next decade, the movement known as Fusion took shape. Spurred by the prevalence of electric guitar in ‘60s pop culture and by the presence of electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, Corea (Return to Forever) and McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) plugged-in along with such fellow sons of Miles as Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi and Head Hunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), setting up experimental hybrids of jazz with contemporaneous mass market dance-oriented music, specifically rock, soul, and funk, as well as folkloric idioms from India and African- and Iberian-descended diasporic cultures. Towards sustaining that spirit, they convened fellow Milesian Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums, presented them with a corpus of original music, and developed their interpretations during a seven-month world tour that transpired over four legs, and concluded at the beginning of May.

Above all else, Corea is a musical storyteller, whose vocabulary contains a global range of reference—Bach and bebop, Bartok and the blues,  Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish Tinge. The hybrid is uniquely his own. He is also a master of his instrument, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide repertoire of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands are completely independent, and he tosses off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort. But he’s no showoff, and never deploys his enviable technique as an end unto itself. Again, whichever keyboard he uses, the intent is to treat it as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.

It is apparent that Corea’s music is the sum total of his personal biography, which began in 1941 in Boston, where his father, Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical bebop and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He put his lessons to use on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1962. While studying Bartok and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1966, he made his first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones. That year he hit the big time with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and in 1968, upon a recommendation from drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. During his two-year adventure with Miles, Corea went electric and stretched form to the limit. Then for a year he explored ways of improvising freely on abstract musical in an acoustic experimental quartet called Circle, with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. During that time he returned to melodic lines and harmonic progressions on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM. Late in 1971, he plugged in again and made a commitment to melody, structure and consonance with Return to Forever, the fusion super-group that made him a mega-star.

We caught Corea while he was enjoying a little down time before embarking on his next journey, a summer tour of Europe that will find him playing solo and duo. In the fall, he tours again, this time in trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, both RTF partners.

“At first, I thought that the trio was the trio and the piano is the piano and the 4/4 tempo is the 4/4 tempo,” he told me in the conversation cited above. “But as I began to experiment and put my attention on the way a lot of different artists make music—ethnic music, classical music, written music, improvised music—I finally realized that in the field of art there are no ultimate authorities with rules that say you must do it this way or that way.  I guess slowly the conviction grew in me that whatever material I could use that would make a creation bright and interesting was valid.  The fun is the joy of creating.”

* * *

You’ve been touring almost continuously since the beginning of last year—two marathon tours over the 14-15 months.

Yes, the Return to Forever tour and the Five Peace Band kind of butted up against one another. But it hasn’t been consistently out on the road. There are a couple of one-week breaks here and there. But for the most part, I pretty much keep my suitcases ready to go at every point.

Do you enjoy the road?

As the years go on, actually, the travel part of the road gets harder and harder. So we need to use more and more organizational energy to try to keep that part of it livable. But the payoff is the nightly playing—playing music with my partners, and playing music to live audiences everywhere. That’s my lifeblood. So in that sense, I would never stop touring. That two or three hours a night is what I live for.

Five Peace Band, which I saw twice at Rose Theater in April, seemed really to be set up for creative music-making. I know you’ve discussed this eight million times, but could you first discuss FPB’s genesis and the various steps by which it coalesced?

Simply put, it’s been a goal of mine for decades to get together with John McLaughlin for a musical project. We would always cross paths, or talk occasionally, as friends will, and there’s always been a very mutual high respect and admiration between the two of us. John is such a magnificent and unique musician. One of my criteria for wanting to get together with specific other artists is my desire to learn something new, and expand myself musically. John is one of those musicians with whom I felt I could do that. I wanted to get more inside his musical universe, to play with him—and learn. I love to learn new things. So with that desire in mind, maybe a year-and-a-half before we began the tour, and actually before we began to talk about even the Return To Forever tour, I began to present John with this idea. I had more recently worked with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta in various situations. I had never worked with Brian Blade before. But they were also at the top of the list for musicians whom I love working with and with whom I wanted to work some more. So in my head, I kind of put together a dream band. Gee, who do I want to go out on the road with and spend some time? Those were the guys.

Just before I presented the initial idea to John, I had dropped the idea to all three guys—to Christian, Vinnie, and Kenny—in a casual way. “What would you think about it if we could get together with John?—blah-blah-blah.” “Yeah, man, let’s go for it.” So I kind of had their interest up on it before I even approached John. When I told John, it didn’t take too long before he said it was a great idea, and all we had to do was find a schedule. I guess we settled on that period of time only some weeks after that—the end of last year through the beginning of this year.

It was a seven-month tour in four legs.

Yes, approximately that.

You’ve mentioned that each band for you is a body of music, a body of work. How did the body of work for Five Peace Band take shape? Was there an overriding concept for the repertoire?

For the kind of music that we were playing with that band, and the kind of music I like to play in a small group, I regard the compositions as kind of game plans. Different games. Different areas you can go in that have certain rules and certain freedoms that make a certain game that we would like to play.

Actually, the first thing John and I talked about was what the repertoire would be, and it turned out to be several new compositions by me and several compositions that John chose off of his recent recordings. However, that was only a small percentage of the input that finally resulted in what the music turned out to be. When we got together all the guys at the first rehearsal, and then the first couple of gigs that we did, the atmosphere of whatever that was that we did together got pretty firmly agreed-upon. Like how far we would stretch material, how much freedom we would take in developing it, and all of that, started to settle into a groove after four-five-six concerts.

For instance, I’ll give you an example. When John and I discussed it, John said, “Maybe we should have different guys soloing on different songs, so that not everybody solos on every song.” He also said, “For me, I’d like to keep the solos kind of short and not like the old days.” I said, “Well, ok, let’s give that a try.” Heh-heh. That idea immediately went by the wayside, including John liking to stretch out himself. So it turned out that the game plan became anywhere from 15-minute to 45-minute renditions. Actually, 15 minutes was short for us. At the very end of the tour, even after you saw us (or maybe in New York as well), we were playing five tunes a night.

I think you played six in New York in a three-hour concert. You went past the union closing time! It sounded like you were tailoring the originals for the individuals in the band.

Well, the most tailor-made was “<i>Hymn to Andromeda</i>.” I wrote that suite with everybody’s feature in mind, as it turned out. But the other pieces? I wrote “<i>Disguise</i>” kind of just to add a mood to the band. But I did write absolutely with those musicians in mind. That’s the fun of writing for me, to have musicians to write specifically for who I love to play with.

You’ve mentioned a number of times how deeply the drums feed you, how attuned you are to rhythms. On FPB, you deployed two drummers with very different approaches to stating a beat and navigating the kit. In fact, it almost sounds like two different bands, Band A and Band B. I’m wondering how you conceived of it with Vinnie Colaiuta vis-a-vis Brian Blade.

Well, the conception was one thing, and what came out was a slightly other thing. I conceived of it only because those guys were the musicians I desired to work with. The other part of it, I guess, is that, because the way the tradition of a jazz rhythm section has developed through the decades (not all the time but a lot of the time), the drummer can really set the atmosphere of the group, especially if those playing with him give him the freedom and openness to do that, and encourage it to happen—which, in this case, is the case, because John also, like me, loves the drums. He could play with just drums all night. So both Vinnie and Brian, when they took hold of the music, really set an atmosphere and an energy for our renditions. As you noticed, which is pretty obvious, the two styles couldn’t be any further apart! [LAUGHS] The same set of compositions came out completely-completely different when Brian added his touch to the band. Especially what Brian did. After working with him for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time. He thinks as a composer, and he carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, but he also…I don’t know… In my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming. But he does do what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly! [LAUGHS]—or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He’s very expressive. He came in and the whole set turned around. I’m hoping at some point we can extract from those last couple of tours another live set. Marketing-wise, it’s kind of funny because it’s all the same tunes, but they came out so different, they’re worthy of being produced, I believe.

Another interesting thing is that the way FPB mixed electric and acoustic feels, although my impression is most of your recent band projects have been one or the other. Am I completely off on that comment?

You can never be off on anything subjective. It’s the rule of communication. It’s the ethics of communication, is what I feel. It’s a better conversation on what it is you actually observed than to try and pander.

I’m not trying to pander.

No, I know that. Maybe “pander” was the wrong word. I meant try to be nice. But it’s interesting you mention it like that, because since maybe halfway through my experience with the Elektrik Band in the ‘80s, my goal has been to produce a band sound and a group sound that easily accommodated both the nuances of acoustic music and the impact of electric music. I like both sounds. Keyboard-wise, I like playing both ways. But drumming-wise and texture-wise and communication-wise, I like the stage texture to be such that we can always hear each other comfortably, and in order to do that, each musician has to develop a pretty wide dynamic range. It’s actually quite a technical feat to be able to do it. But it requires a drummer like Brian to be able to do something like that. Fortunately, John is probably, up to now, the only guitarist I’ve ever worked with who can do that with a solid-body electric guitar sound. He can play within the context of a delicate acoustic piano, and he can play with the impact and energy that was produced when he’s playing with Vinnie Colaiuta playing full-out! Being able to do that enables me, as a player and a composer, to explore a really wide range of emotions in music.

I guess Christian McBride also was doing something that very few bassists can do, transitioning between the electric and the acoustic seamlessly and with tremendous virtuosity. That’s also a characteristic of John Patitucci and Stanley Clarke, with whom you’ve played extensively.

It was the first time I’ve played with Christian with his electric playing, and I was very happily surprised. He’s a master at it. He’s also a master at being able to blend the instruments. This problem of introducing electric instruments onto an acoustic stage… We do play in concert halls, and this has been happening since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s always-always been a problem,  as soon as you bring a P.A. system and drums with impact, and other instruments with impact, and amplifiers and so forth. The first mistakes that have been made and the horror that’s been created from acoustic stages with the use of electric instruments through the years is…well, it’s legendary, isn’t it!? [LAUGHS] It’s produced a lot of writing in print. But it is an actual problem. That’s one of my high interests, because it’s an actual living, physical problem that impinges on the creativity of the musicians and the enjoyment of the audience, and it’s really one that needs to be solved fully.

FPB’s creative approach fit in with the marketing of the band as a response to the fortieth anniversary of Bitches Brew, and the mutual intersection that you and John McLaughlin shared during that period with Miles Davis, with whom that kind of attitude towards nightly performance before large audiences was the default mode.

Mmm-hmm.

Were you thinking about that approach as an overriding template from performance to performance?

Well, John and I certainly wanted that from the very beginning. We talked about it, and we didn’t need to talk about it a lot, because, in fact, it’s what we both wanted as far as the blend on stage and the dynamic range of the music. That is, we wanted to be able to easily include the piano and the saxophone, and to play with a wide dynamic range. We strove for that, and I think, to a great degree, we accomplished it.

I’ll apologize in advance for asking this question, as I know it’s come to you 18 million times. But looking back on your days with Miles Davis, and particularly Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, since these experiences so palpably influenced Five Peace Band, how do you now perceive that time?

All experience to me is… Life is a cumulative thing that’s lived day by day, hour by hour, and you just keep living. Life is always right now, you see. So you just keep going, you live, and you have experiences. For me, what I think I try to do, and I believe what all people try to do naturally, is take with them successful actions, successful things, things that please them. Things that I liked, I take with me, and try to leave the things that were painful or unsuccessful behind—and just keep going. But it’s hard to evaluate, and maybe unproductive also to try to evaluate particular things in the past and how they were influential. So when I think about my period with Miles, and Miles generally, as the universe of music that he is, it’s hard to pinpoint things, other than to say generalities.

Fair enough. I asked because you don’t seem to let go of experiences in your musical production, as is evident from the Rendezvous in New York DVD set, where you revisited and updated so many different bands. I find it interesting that you’re able to create new contexts in which these old relationships can continue.

I know what the truth of this is. The truth is that the experiences themselves are not what’s important. What’s important are the people in them—the relationships. Any friend that you had for a long time, for years or whatever, the important thing is the friendship itself more than the individual experiences. The communication. The thing that you had with that person, with your wife or your family or your musical partners—that kind of thing. For me, my life is as rich as I have friends and musical partners and family, and people who I love and who love me. The pay for life is living. The pay you get for the thing you do that we call “life” is the actual pleasure of living, and the pleasure of living comes about by the pleasure of relationships with people.

You did tell me once that each one of your bands turned into a little family. Perhaps that’s another way of saying the same thing.

Yes, it’s associations with individuals and groups that is what makes life, life. It’s what makes it pleasurable. So the thing of “returning to the past” or “reexperiencing” something, or the terms like “reunion” or “recreation” and all that kind of thing, I put them aside, because it’s all the bric-a-brac of the past, and what makes life exciting is always doing something new. Always. If I have a rich relationship with John McLaughlin, for instance, or Kenny Garrett, or my other musical associations, that is a richness that never goes away. If, hypothetically, Miles Davis took on a new body and came and played with us now, it would be a new creation. Do you know what I mean? That’s really the excitement of it.

That sixtieth birthday party that I had at the Blue Note with all of my musician friends brought me to the extreme realization of how important my friends are to me. That experience really brought it home. So rather than trying to be cool and hip and say, ”Yeah, I never return to the past; I always do something new,” which would irrationally equal that you never wanted to talk to your old friends again, is stupid. So I actually started to actively go back and find my old friends again, because the relationships were so rewarding—and the rewards have been coming. These two projects, Return to Forever and the Five Peace Band, are examples of that.

Let’s talk about the 2008 Return to Forever tour, then. There’s a new double-CD  and also a 2-CD anthology of the old music. Anyone who is interested in RTF can saturate themselves in that body of music. Now, the edition of Return to Forever with which you toured last year wasn’t the only one. I know you’ve talked extensively to the press on this project, but please trace the genesis.

Return to Forever was probably, and probably always will be my breakthrough into having a band of my own. Not working for another bandleader, but either working in partnerships or with my own music. It was the first time that I did that, and it was a return to myself. It was a return to my own universe of music. In a sense, the concept of that band will always be special to me. Yes, the band has had many versions. RTF-1 I call the band with Flora Purim and Airto, and Joe Farrell, and Stanley Clarke. RTF-2 consists of the bands with mainly Stanley, Lenny White and myself, along with Billy Connors, then Al DiMeola. RTF-3 was shorter-lived but still was a creation that lasted a year to 18 months, the big band that Stanley and I had with Music Magic, with Gayle Moran, my wife, and the brass section. Getting back together, especially with Stanley and Lenny, brought that whole experience back to life.

Why the choice of Al DiMeola as the guitar voice?

Stanley, Lenny, and then Al were the guys who were in communication with me about wanting to keep the band alive. That version of the band was the one that had the most road experience together in the ‘70s. We made more records and did more concerts than any other version of the band, and created a wider repertoire. I guess it’s the version that most people remember.

Within that band, you created some of the compositions that are most associated with you, compositions you’ve revisited in many forms—an efflorescent burst of composition. Did the formation of RTF spur you in that direction?

You’re talking about the time of the ‘70s. Well, I was on a roll of the creation of that sound, and also on a roll of enjoying creating my own music, creating my music with musicians who turned out to be partners, like Stanley in particular and also Lenny. So the compositions kept rolling out. It was like having a personal orchestra to write for, and I took as much advantage of that as I could.

One of the most noted characteristics of the band is your use of Spanish and pan-Iberian rhythms within the flow. You’ve mentioned that your experience playing with Afro-Caribbean bands, a la Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, had a big impact on the way you think about music—although you would move away from that approach for several years when you joined Miles and then did Circle and the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. But Return to Forever seems like a logical extension of what you were doing in those earlier bands.

There’s a natural magnetism that any person has for certain cultural things, certain artistic things, certain ways of doing things. In music, that’s always been my sort of geiger counter. That’s been my pointer. It’s been the thing that has led me into studying certain kinds of music, or learning from certain kinds of musicians. It’s the reason why, for instance, in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, or even in the ‘40s, when I was still a young boy, I was attracted to musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a magnetism to it, an interest that led me to that kind of music, rather than, say, Elvis and rock-and-roll back then, which I pretty much completely bypassed. It held no interest for me. So in a way, all through my life my interest and attraction has been towards jazz music, but also towards Latin music. Especially when I got to New York in the early ‘60s, the salsa scene, or the Latin jazz scene that was going on was very magnetic to me. I have great pleasure-moments of the stints that I did at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, because five doors north on the same side of the street was the Palladium. On practically every break took from the gigs I had at Birdland, I’d be at the Palladium, checking out Tito Puente and Machito and Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. I had and always retained this attraction for Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, South American music, and then finally, in the early ‘70s, for what we call the flamenco music, from southern Spain. Whether I’m writing music directly out of that rhythm and dance spirit, like I did with Touchstone, or whether it’s just an echo of a flavor, it will always be there for me.

The Latin music is an extroverted dance music, and that was a great complement to the seriousness of jazz that I was into.  Jazz and Classical music of the ’60s was already a serious, almost introverted kind of performance.  Jazz musicians never looked at an audience and were quite serious in demeanor, especially on stage.  Go to a Latin dance, heh-heh, and you’re back into the joy of life again, you know.  It really was the complement I needed in my life to open me back up again to communication and sociability and the importance of an audience.  That’s mainly it.

There’s a couple of different definitions of serious, and I don’t want to confuse the two.  When you say “he’s a serious professional,” that means that the guy is really competent and ethical about what he does.  He puts his nose to the grindstone, and he really works hard and he gets a product.  That’s what that definition of “serious” means.  There’s another definition, which is the one I’m talking about, which is the seriousness that one gets when one becomes very serious about a subject, and it’s kind of heavy.  That kind of seriousness to me is anti-art.  You see someone on stage who is a little bit too introverted with his own scene.

Latin music took me out of all that, and I’m happy for it!  Actually, my jazz heroes were always kind of extroverts.  Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were extroverts.  Miles was a total covert extrovert.  He looked like he was introverted, but he never was.  He was really communicating to an audience all the time.  And Coltrane, even though he didn’t tell jokes from the stage, was very warm with the audience, even though he didn’t say a lot on the microphone.

You once told me an anecdote of spending a long run at the Apollo when you were playing with Mongo Santamaria opposite Monk…

Yes. It’s a story I often tell when I’m trying to describe to other people that era or talk about Monk in particular. That’s definitely one of the things I experienced that shows what his humorous personality was all about. That’s one of my great pleasure moments.

That was in the early ’60s, about a five-week stint at the Apollo Theater that Monk’s quartet was on when I was playing with Mongo Santamaria, so I got to be around him a lot and watch him play.

Did that have a big impact on you?
Totally.  Completely, yeah.  The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn’t that flashy.  It was just…hip. [LAUGHS] On this particular occasion at the Apollo, I was watching him through a hole in the curtain, which was right by his piano, and he played this set.  He had Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop.  His first tune, he played “Rhythm-a-ning.” He played the tune, he stated the melody, and they played the tune all the way through with long solos. The drums soloed, bass, saxophone—everybody soloed.  It must have been a 10-12-15 minute piece.  He stopped, and the people loved it, and they applauded, and Monk took a breath, and sat there for a moment, and then he started the next piece—which was [SINGS REFRAIN OF “RHYTHM-A-NING] He played the same tune, same tempo, and they played the tune all the way through with solos fresh as a daisy, rhythm beautiful, everything was great, the audience loved it, and they applauded.  And yes, he took a breath, and played it a third time.  Same tempo, same tune.  It was just hilarious.  That’s audacious!  It’s of the moment.  He thought, “I’m going to play this again.” Who knows how he came around to deciding that?  But there was no question about it, because once he launched into it… These guys, Bud and Monk, had a power of certainty about what they were doing that made their creations so unique.

I don’t want to put you in the position of comparing yourself to them, but the quality you evoked in that last comment does seem to infuse your musical production over the last number of years. In any way, can we take it as a self-description?

I stay completely away from self-descriptions, as you know. They are unproductive. But I can tell you that that quality of, oh, you can call it artistic certainty or just your own knowingness about what you like… When I teach music or when I talk to music students, that’s one of the high concepts I try to get across in a simple way, is to trust your own judgment, to think for yourself, to know what you like and know what you don’t like. It’s the basis of all artistic creation. You cannot create based on some idea that someone else gave you that you’re just using without it being your own. I have noticed that the kind of artists and people that I get interested in, that I get attracted to, that I like to learn from, are ones who have that quality in abundance. You’ll find that same quality in every artist who is creating their own way, their own individual expression. That’s the quality of life. That’s the thing we struggle to keep alive. You can take that idea into reviewing social issues, and how society develops or de-develops, based on whether individuals are thinking for themselves or not. That was the whole idea of our founding fathers, for instance, if you want to take it into that subject. It’s the thing we love about the idea of democracy or a republic, in a social way—that it involves people thinking for themselves and interacting with one another, taking responsibility for life as individuals. It’s an attractive quality. It’s a basic spiritual quality. The more of it you have and can develop, the more life there is in life.

Bud and Monk were musical adventurers in New York.  They were New Yorkers, just like I sort of was; I was a Bostonian, but I came through New York as well.  There’s the whole wide world, and here’s this thing called music and jazz and improvisation.  They were the guys who for me on the piano held on to a creative motivation, a world of music that they heard that they immersed themselves in.  They became their compositions in music. That’s all they did, and spent their life that way. What they created was inspiring.  So it was sort of like having someone who was doing something that I wanted to do, so they became mentors and teachers and inspirations, and I ended up spending a lot of time with their music.

Were you around in the summer of 1964 when Bud played Birdland?

Yes.  He came back, and I heard one night of him playing at Birdland. It was very emotional to watch him play.  It pissed me off in a lot of ways, in the sense that he was obviously mutilated by the psychiatric community.  But through it all, he was still there, and once he got his hands on the piano, there it was, Bud’s music.  John Ore was there that night, and I think J.C. Moses was playing drums.

But you didn’t get to spend any time with him.

No, I never got to meet my hero.

Talk about approaching his music as a fresh avenue of creative expression.

Well, it’s totally a deep repertoire of music.  Bud wasn’t ever acknowledged enough as a composer.  He was as a pianist.  But his compositions stood on their own as great works.  Some of the musicians would play some of his music;  Miles recorded some of his tunes.  So I had incubated the idea for years of doing a Bud Powell project where I performed all of his music.  I had already done that with Monk, but it didn’t get called a Monk project.  But there was a recording I made in ’81…

On ECM with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

That’s right.  A record of all Monk’s music.  So I did my tribute to Monk, and this was my tribute to Bud.

Speaking of trios, let’s talk about the trio you’ll be playing with starting in the fall, which is the Return to Forever rhythm section, but as a trio. Is it a new entity unto itself?

It’s definitely a new entity unto itself, although it’s an old entity that we’ve done before. There’s a glorious week that Stanley and Lenny and I will sometimes reminisce about, which was kind of the inception of RTF-2, the electric version. It was a trio gig at Todd Barkan’s old club in San Francisco, the Keystone Korner. It was Stanley on his amplified upright bass, and Lenny on a small kit of drums. He used to have this bass drum that we called an oil can, because I think it was basically an oil can—it was a wild 18-inch bass drum. That week I played exclusively Fender Rhodes. I didn’t have a synthesizer or a piano. I just played Rhodes all week. One of the intents of that week was to audition guitar players for the eventual quartet that we wanted to play in together. But from that point forward, that rhythm section has become like an old, comfortable shoe that you put on. Working with those guys, that same warm pleasure is still there now. So we’ve decided to explore it some more.

This summer, you’ll be touring Europe mostly solo, and a couple of duos with Gary Burton and one with Stefano Bollani in Perugia. Speaking of Gary Burton, you made Crystal Silence  right at the time that Return to Forever came out, beginning this dual track between what people have called your “acoustic chamber jazz” and more dance-oriented, beat-oriented music. It’s a very long-standing duo. It’s 37 years since then. You’ve reunited on a number of occasions, most recently Native Sense: The New Duets   in 1997, and The New Crystal Silence  in 2007. Talk about the mutual attraction.

It can be easily explained. I think of that magnetic artistic connection that I make, that I go and befriend someone like Gary, who is this magnificent musician who makes a particular sound. We first played together, on a couple of gigs when Gary first founded his own quartet after he left Stan Getz—Steve Swallow had brought me on Stan’s gig after Gary left. Anyway, I was working other gigs, and that wasn’t a preferred gig.  But when we played our duet together, something clicked that was really pleasurable to both of us. We started discovering how pleasing it was to just play piano and vibes together. We didn’t need anything else. We weren’t thinking, “Well, this is nice; let’s get a bass player and a drummer and do some gigs.” It was, “Wow, this is kind of nice; let’s do this some more.” When we first got together, that idea was encouraged along by Manfred Eicher, who heard us play, and immediately, with the genius perception that he has, or the genial perception that he has sometimes of something that strikes him as interesting, he offered us a contract to do a recording. That was the beginning of the duet. Just like my association with Stanley Clarke, it’s one of those lifetime relationships. You go into it, and an infinity of music is possible. It’s amazing how Gary elicits all that music out of what I’ve thought of as a metal thumb piano. Through the decades, I’ve found myself constantly going back and playing with Gary some more, and we’ve always come up with a new idea of some other area that we want to explore, until recently we finally realized this orchestral project. I think we touched on it years ago when we did Lyric Suite for Sextet, and we played the duet with that wonderful string quartet. It seemed such a beautiful sonic setting that I never forgot about that, and I always wanted to use strings again with the duet. So here we had the opportunity, and we thought, “let’s go for it,” and we created those orchestral arrangements for the duet and did that last record. So the duet just keeps going on.

We have another idea now, another recording that we’re going to finally do, or a set of music we’re going to develop, that we began developing during that last tour, which had to do with, well, standards, and songs that I’ve always wanted to try to play. Like, for instance, the repertoire from Birth of the Cool, Miles’ record. I’ve always loved those songs, and not too many guys play them. Gary and I started exploring Bill Evans’ wonderful repertoire. Things like that will be the direction of our next project.

Duos seem to be a particular love of yours, and your most recent duo recording is Duet with Hiromi. It’s very far-flung, very sprightly, and seems to have been a mutually energizing project. You even did some Bill Evans on it—“Very Early.” You did Monk’s “Bolivar Blues.” Many things. You also recorded not long ago in duo with Bela Fleck.

Philosophers and poets have eulogized (is that the right word, “eulogized”)…have poeticized about the beauty and microcosmic aspect, universal aspect of the relationship of two people. It’s the basic act of communication, living communication, one person directly with another person. In music, it certainly is the most intimate ensemble and, in a way, allows for everything that I like about music. It’s got an incredible amount of space and freedom, just because there’s only two people playing, of course. But then it’s got this intimacy of just a straight communication line with one other person, which can be explored infinitely. So when I find compatible partners like Gary, or like Bobby McFerrin, or more recently like Hiromi or Bela Fleck, it’s a great joy.

Also, the other kind of mechanical aspect of the duet is it’s very practical to tour with.

But it’s interesting that you seem to have created separate books of music for Bela Fleck and Gary Burton, and each partnership has taken on its own tonal identity.

Yes. That’s the beauty of it. Recently, I got together with Bobby McFerrin; we jammed a little bit and started putting together ideas for another project. When I step into a musical universe so huge as that, gee, all of these kind of new, fresh things occur. So it is a great way to make music.

Stan Getz seems to have been such a pivotal job for you.  So much music you would do subsequently spun out of relationships that you formed in that band. In fact, you also seem to influenced his own musical production for a number of years after.

I felt that Stan always wanted to learn new things.  He had already developed a beautiful lyrical style and had made his fame with “Desafinado” and the Bossa Nova.  But he always wanted to try new things.  That’s why he loved playing with Roy Haynes, I think, and that’s why he started to like playing my compositions. Stan was a wonderful performer.  He taught me the lyrical side of music and the quieter side.  I was coming from playing free music, and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen and Bartok were my mentors.  When I got the gig with Stan Getz, I had to learn how to deliver up something a little bit more lyrical and compact.  He didn’t want 15-minute piano solos.  He wanted two choruses. I learned a lot doing that.

Classical music  seems to be the foundation of a great deal of what you do.  Were you studying classical music from very early on?

Not really.  As a matter of fact, when I first was getting into music and playing the piano, classical music seemed conservative to me.  I didn’t get into the sound of it at first.  What really attracted my attention was the jazz big bands, the trios, Charlie Parker’s music.  When I was 8 or 9, my dad sent me to have piano lessons with a local pianist in Boston, a wonderful man named Salvatore Sullo, who played every year with the Boston Pops.  He thought it was kind of silly that I played jazz.  I auditioned for him and played “Perdido,” and he said, ‘Oh, like Dizzy Gillespie,’ and he blew air into his cheeks or something like that.  He introduced me to the piano music of Chopin and Bach, the easy pieces, and I became interested in Classical music through the piano music more than anything else.  But I didn’t intensely study it.  My interest in classical music was more analyzing orchestral scores as a composer.  I fell in love with Stravinsky’s and Bartok’s music, and that was my first passion with Classical music. But it wasn’t until the early   ‘80s that I became interested in what we term ‘classical music,’ meaning the music of the 18th century—Mozart’s music, for instance.   Then I decided that it would be a challenge and really fulfilling to try to perform some of that music live, and that’s when I started to get involved.

Could you tell me something about your father, about what sort of musician he was?  It’s obvious that you were hugely influenced by him in your musical path.

My Dad was a real sweetheart and a great father. He let me have my own mind, as my mother did.  They encouraged me in every creative effort I ever had.  When I wanted to stay out late and hang out because of the musicians, they let me do it.  Plus, he was a very, very good musician.  He played very soulful horn.  He played trumpet mostly.  He played a little bit of piano.  He played bass.  He played some drums.  He played violin earlier on in his life.

Was it a lead trumpet sound?

No-no.  He was always the second trumpet player who played the jazz solos. He was the soulful guy.  He was always up on the times.  He had another trumpet player friend, and they used to listen to Miles play.  I used to catch them.  I’d come into the house, and they’d be in the back room where I had my hi-fi set, with Miles records on, smoking cigarettes, and with their elbows on their knees, close to the speakers—crying sometimes! He was a sweet man.  He had a band.  I used to sit in with his band.  We played a lot of dances together as I grew up.

Was he a full-time professional musician?

Yes.  He was a working musician.  He had a successful band during the Depression.  He played radio shows, and played at the hotels.  His band played at the places where the guys would go and hang after the theater gigs, that sort of thing.  They’d sit in with his band.  But later on, as he got older, he didn’t have his own bands any more, but he continued to get calls for work around town.

<When you were younger, were you part of that very hip Boston scene?  You’re a little older than Tony Williams.  I’m thinking of people like Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and Hal Galper and Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy…

I connected with some of those guys.  I used to go listen to Herb Pomeroy’s band play, at that club he played every Tuesday night, and I knew Herb a little bit.  I played with Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Mosher.  I played with Tony a little bit in Boston.  I worked at Conley’s a lot—I worked there with Pony Poindexter and Sonny Stitt. My school friend was Lennie Nelson, one of the young great drummers around town—unknown but great.  And Bobby Ward, another wild drummer from that era.  Roy Haynes I never knew as a Bostonian, but Tony I connected with.

So in a sense, your father taught you to be a professional, just by example.

Exactly.  And how to live a life where you did something that you really loved, and where that was good to do, not something that was considered frivolous.

Was your father a first-generation American, or did he come here from Italy?

No, he was a first-generation Italian-American.  He was one of 13 kids, and his father and mother only spoke Italian.  So when I sat on my grandfather’s knee, he used to tell me stories in Italian.  I didn’t understand a word he said, but I used to dig it.

Did he play Italian music also as part of his…

No.

That was corny for him?

It was corny for him.  He was a jazzer.  He wore loose shirts.  He used to buy a new white shirt… I used to see him do this—I’d hang with him.  He’d take the shirt home, and the sleeves would always be way too long for him.  So he’d measure it like about 2 inches above his wrist, which is where he felt comfortable, and he’d take it off, and he’d cut both sleeves with scissors.

You like to wear those baggy, guayabana shirts yourself.

Yeah.

Was your mother also musical?

She was a great mom.  She was not a singer or a musician or anything, but she supported us, and went in the candy factory and worked her butt off and bought me a Steinway piano.  She was the greatest.

So she really sacrificed for you.

She totally worked her butt off.  She kept both of us in line.  I was the only child.  So she cooked for me and my Dad, and kept the house clean, and kept us going and encouraged us, and she was the best.

Perhaps as a wrap-up question: I’m not sure if you gave yourself this name or if it was given to you—“The Chameleon.” Who did give you that name?

I have no idea. But it’s used sometimes to describe people, isn’t it, “the chameleon.”

It is, and it seems like a wonderful cognomen for you. It’s very descriptive of your ability to project your own personality within so many diverse situations consecutively. I read an interview where you mentioned Dustin Hoffman as a model, because he’s so good at portraying different characters, as opposed to DeNiro, who is always great, but, you said, pretty much always DeNiro.

Years ago, when I would try to describe what it’s like to invest myself in different musical directions, that was the first analogy that I came up with. I thought, “well, maybe I’m the Dustin Hoffman of music.” But that’s apt, and that’s the way it goes. My desire as a musician has always been just to learn—always to learn something new. I think learning and growing more aware and more skillful is an infinite process. I don’t think it has a ceiling. So in order to do that, it’s always necessary to find something I can’t do, that I want to do, and then just go there. I’ve never had a sense of trying to be myself, if you know what I mean, or try to create my own sound, or my own way. I’ve never had my attention on that. I don’t care what I sound like, because it’s not where my attention is. My attention is outside of myself, and I’m always happiest when it’s that way, and whatever comes out, comes out. So what tends to happen is, I find myself playing a lot of different roles, or being a lot of different ways, or expressing a lot of different emotions, and it makes life interesting and rich for me.

It’s a great way of staying young, too. Mentally.

I guess, yeah! How about that?

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