Monthly Archives: August 2011

Blindfold Test (Uncut) From 2002 With Branford Marsalis, Who Turned 51 Yesterday

Anyone who knows Branford Marsalis, even a little bit, knows that he is never loath to speak his mind. That being said, Marsalis—who celebrated his 51st birthday a day early at the unveiling of the Ellis Marsalis Center Of Music in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, his home town—approached this 2002 Blindfold Test in a rather diplomatic mood.

By the way, Branford’s new release, a sax-piano (Joey Calderazzo) duo recital entitled Songs of Mirth And Melancholy [Marsalis Music], is a lovely, introspective recital.

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1.    James Moody, “That Old Black Magic”  (from YOUNG AT HEART, Warner, 1996) (Moody, ts; Mulgrew Miller, p; Todd Coolman, b; Billy Drummond, d.)

[TO PIANO INTRO] Oh, it’s Thelonious Monk!  It could never be Thelonious Monk because the eighth notes are way too even.  Swing, goddammit!  Shit is swingin’!  The bass player is using one of those irritating pickups.  But my initial guess, based on the sound of it, would be Ray Drummond. I’m wrong.  It has that sound, though.  It’s swinging, whoever it is.  When you listen to the pickup, you hear the bass sound, but you don’t hear the characteristics of the instrument.  There’s only like DUM-DUM, you don’t hear like DOOM-DOOM.  The pickup is evil, man.  It’s a Communist plot. [Your brother...] That’s just a joke, though.  We just do that shit to make bass players mad, and it works every time.  If you’re going to play that fast, why not play it in that tempo?  To me, all the chords are right, and the saxophone player is playing on the chords, but the solo doesn’t have like a shape.  If you listen to it, it’s like harmonically correct, but it’s not… The chord structures are right, but the solo’s not… I prefer not to play that way.  I prefer to play a solo that has an arc to it, like a beginning-arc-end, with the structure of the chords, where like it’s a singable thing.  He sets up a motif, and then he goes elsewhere. [Any idea from the sound who it is?] No.  If I had to guess, I’d say Lew Tabackin.  Clifford Jordan?  But he never really played that fast. [pianist] Double time.  My guess would be Mulgrew Miller.  Yeah, that’s Mulgrew for sure. Is the bass player Peter Washington?  He walks lines like Peter.  The saxophone player is bedeviling me now.  I don’t know who it is.  I give up.  Who is it? [Moody] No shit.  Man, I don’t remember Moody’s sound being that mellow ever.  Ever!  I would have never guessed it.  But now that you say it, he plays the way Moody plays.  But the SOUND threw me off.  5 stars for Moody.  Who’s the bass player?  That was Todd!?  Shit, yeah, man. Moody’s a classic, man.

2.    Tim Garland, “I’ll Meet You There” (from STORMS/NOCTURNES, Sirocco, 2001) (Garland, ss; Geoff Keezer, p.; Joe Locke, vibes)

Boy, that’s a thin sound.  The higher up they go, the thinner it gets, a la Jan Garbarek.  It could be a lot of people. It’s a beautiful piece, but it spells along chord guidelines rather than coming through it.  I was listening to this, and I started thinking about the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto.  The chord changes are changing like crazy, but the melody line is almost more mathematical than melodic.  But it’s a popular writing style, a lot of people do it, so it’s a matter of personal choice.  It’s like they taught us in harmony class when we were 15, the best resolution in music is that of a half-step.  The saxophone player… Mark Turner. Chris Potter.  It could be Stefano DiBattista.  There’s a lot of cats who play that way.  Dave Liebman.  He plays the shit out the saxophone, though.  See that? [ASCENDING LINE] That’s just not my taste.  It’s a beautiful orchestration.  Everybody’s playing great.  [AFTER] Got me.  5 stars. Joe Locke’s bad, man.

3.    Steve Coleman, “Embryo” (from THE ASCENSION TO LIGHT, BMG-France, 1999) (Coleman, as, comp.; Shane Endsley, tp; Gregoire Maret, har; David Gilmore, g; Anthony Tidd, eb; Sean Rickman, d)

Checkin’ out that Ornette!  Oh, that’s that harmonica player everybody’s using in New York now.  Tain just used him.  I can make a general guess.  Music from the loft scene.  That club down there.  It’s not from the Knitting Factory?  I’m not saying a Knitting Factory.  I’m saying the scene, the loft scene. [Yes and no.] The saxophone player’s not giving me anything to go with.  Ah!!! Steve Coleman.  Bingo.  Thank you, Steve.  I was waiting, “throw me a fuckin’ bone here, man; give me something.”  Well, he changed his style up. That’s cool.  I think he’s one of the great thinkers of jazz.  I don’t agree with some of his outcomes at times, but the thing that I love about him is that he and I… I can sit down with him and have an earnest dialogue about the history of jazz, and it never gets into, “Well, man, I’m trying to get my own thing, and cats listen to those old cats.”  I mean, there’s a little bit of that in him, but not to the point where he would just intentionally disregard 60 years of history out of fear.  His intellectual curiosity is fantastic.  I enjoy him a lot.  I like his playing.  That’s what I liked about Miguel Zenon, is he checked out Steve as well.  But he even found a way to incorporate it… When Steve does it sometimes, it sounds like angular and removed.  Zenon took it and made it mainstream almost.  But it’s great when you hear a cat who had an influence, since he obviously grew up not only listening to Steve Coleman.  Whereas a lot of guys tend to pick their one hero, he clearly listened to other things, and that’s what makes it not sound like a ripoff or a shitty imitation. [You said he changed his style.] Well, you remember when he was doing the M-BASE thing.  It’s like the band was always shifting.  Nothing was constant.  The bass lines weren’t constant, the rhythms…the drums weren’t constant.  So now it’s more like this is real like Afro-Cuban, or even African moreso, or even Sumatran, something like that.  I like that motherfucker, man.  I always did. I didn’t buy into the whole M-BASE thing. I think it was a great marketing idea to give it a name, but I didn’t buy into… One of the things that Steve understood is that if you give your direction in music a name, people will jump on the bandwagon and buy in, whereas if he had just called it “jazz,” people might have just gone, “Ah, what is this shit?”  It gave it a mystique and it gave it a philosophy, so then you could have people jumping on the bandwagon. They could say, “I’m into M-BASE.” But they didn’t really withstand the test of time, as those kinds of trends don’t.  But his music withstands the test. I think giving his music a title like M-BASE didn’t really do it justice, because it made it seem it was separate of the jazz continuum — and it isn’t. It’s very inclusive.  It’s very much part of the jazz continuum to me.  It’s not some brand-new sect.  It would be like if Ornette Coleman took his music and gave it a name, which he eventually did with Harmolodics.  But when he first hit the scene, there was none of that.  He was playing, and people dug the shit, and people hated it, and then the people who hated it were forced to deal with the fact that it was some hip shit, and then they either pretended to like it or just kept their mouths shut.  But M-BASE… Then all of a sudden you had all these other musicians making records in the M-BASE crew, and a lot of them didn’t have the same historical expertise that Steve did, so the records couldn’t sustain themselves.  I think if Steve had done more to talk about just the tradition of the music and all the shit that he actually did listen to, if he wanted to start a movement that way, he could have furthered it.  But then it would have meant more homework for the people who chose to embrace M-BASE than less homework, and they seemed to go the path of less homework rather than more.  But Steve has never gone the path of less homework.  He is a studious, studious cat.  5 stars.

4.    Jerry Bergonzi, “Paul Gauguin” (from Nando Michelin, ART, Double-Time, 1998) (Bergonzi, ts; Michelin, p., comp.; Fernando Huergo, b; Steve Langone, d; Sergio Faluotico, perc.)

Another long-ass intro!  Jesus!  It’s great to hear Wayne getting his due.  For a whole lot of years people slept on him, so I’m happy. It’s a great piece.  It’s Wayne’s shit.  I am definitely not a person that you are going to see criticizing somebody emulating a great musician.  That’s amazing.  Who is this? [AFTER] Is that Bergonzi? Man, he sure did change up his shit.  Some bad shit.  The composition is Wayne, even to the point where when he hits the low note, he drops off.  But then the solo is real Coltranesque.  Even when he hits the upper register notes, he growls and makes them lighter the way Coltrane used to.  I’m going to have to get me some more Bergonzi. He’s one of the bad motherfuckers. 5 stars. The entire compositional structure was Wayned out.  But that was great.  I don’t know this cat, but I want to check out his record.  Man, Bergonzi sounds great.  He has such a fat sound!  I’m all for that.  Not as a finished product, but everything is a work in progress.  How old is Nando Michelin?  We’ll see when he’s about 40-45.

5.    Don Braden, “Fried Bananas” (from THE FIRE WITHIN, RCA, 1999) (Braden, ts; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d)

I like that section.  It was nice.  He went with a theme and he sat on it through the chord changes. [Any idea who the bass and drums are?] No. It’s good to hear people do Sonny Rollins, too.  Good to hear Sonny get his due.  I have no idea.  Nobody.  The drummer is either Tain or it’s somebody biting off Tain.  It’s Tain.  Is that Bob Hurst?  It ain’t Revis, because he don’t play like that.  Whoever he is, he’s not using a pickup, and I’m grateful for that.  I don’t think.  Wait a minute.  I can’t tell on this record actually if they’re using a pickup or not. I have no idea who the saxophone player is. [IMMEDIATELY UPON BASS SOLO] Christian McBride.  Nobody else can play that.  I believe in the Ray Brown joke, “Oh, drums stop, very bad luck, next comes bass solo.” [The safari joke.] Yeah.  Ucch, bass solos.  Who wants to hear this besides bass solos?  The only bass solos I really like hearing are Jimmy Garrison’s solos.  They’re germane to the piece.  I mean, this is technical prowess.  But… You know what I mean?  But it’s like having a center who can run a forty in 4.2. [That's a good thing.] It’s a good thing, but ultimately his job is to sit in the trenches and kick people’s asses, not to run out for a pass. [It's also to lead the runner.] Centers don’t lead runners.  Guards lead runners. [Centers do lead runners.] Centers don’t lead runners, dude. [Kevin Mawae leads runners.] Oh, yeah, when they’re going up the gut.  But it’s not his speed; it’s his strength. [AFTER] Is that Don?  See, Don’s changed his playing up a lot.  I would have never guessed that.  So I’m glad I shut my mouth.  If you put on one of Don’s early records, or the stuff he did with Wynton, he sounds nothing like that.  So bravo for him.  I wish they’d used a bigger studio.  The room is so small that it can’t capture the personality of the instrumentalists.  When Tain hits the drums, it’s… That’s why I didn’t know it was him.  The ceiling is so low, and they probably have him in an isolation booth so the cymbal doesn’t travel, so they have this really light sound.  So it’s not EQ; it’s the room.  Cool.  Don Braden, 5 stars.

6.    Joe Lovano, “Tarantella Sincera” (from VIVA CARUSO, Blue Note, 2002) (Lovano, ts; Byron Olson, cond.)

They had such a beautiful thing going, and then they ruined it with that waltz.  I had my eyes closed… Oh, well. Is Gil Goldstein the arranger on this.  It’s reminiscent of work that he’s done.  The first time I really heard his work was on a Milton Nascimento record called “Andaluce,” and I was like, “Wow!”  I don’t know who the tenor player is.  I’ll keep listening.  It’s Lovano.  Bad-ass cat.  One of my favorites.  I prefer less notes on ballads.  But that’s me.  Joe is always doubling.  And who can argue with Joe?  I can’t.  5 stars.  Joe Lovano. The man.  Beautiful song.  You’re going to send me the name of the record, so I can cop it. [Any idea of the song's origin.] No… Oh, he did another one of those?  It smacks of a marketing ploy.  He did one for Sinatra a couple of years ago.  I mean, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m totally full of shit, but I’m really convinced that people who are Caruso fans are not going to go and buy Joe doing Caruso.  I’m a fan and I’ll buy it.  But the point is that Caruso didn’t write anything.  So if it’s a Caruso record, it’s actually a Verdi record and a Puccini record.  Caruso didn’t write anything. [This is all vernacular music, Neapolitan street songs that Caruso recorded at the turn of the century.] I understand that.  But from a musical point of view, it’s a record about Neapolitan street songs or Neapolitan love songs or whatever you want to call them, but Caruso is the bait. I’m not a fan of the bait.  I’m not saying I’m not a fan of the recording.  If Joe Lovano comes to me and he’s on my label and says to me, “I want to do songs that Caruso sang,” I’m not going to say, “No, you can’t do it.”  I’m going to say, “Great, but can we call it Neapolitan love songs instead of Caruso?”  Because ultimately, those things have never been proven to work.  That’s all I’m saying, that these records come out all the time, and I don’t know who they’re trying to market it to, but most of the people I know that like opera don’t make the cross. In that Diana Krall market, they like Diana Krall. It’s not the music she sings.  It’s Diana Krall.  So any time you’re in an environment where the music speaks for itself… I mean, Joe Lovano is Joe Lovano.  I don’t think he has to do anything other than make records, and people will buy his records, and the more records he makes, the more people will buy them.  Maybe I’m being naive here.  But I think if the records were marketed as a continuation of the greatness that is Joe, rather than a record-by-record target concept, I think that it will serve Joe and the company better.  It will be more beneficial.

7.    Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew” (from THE COMPLETE ROOST SONNY STITT SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1959/2001) (Stitt, ts; Jimmy Jones, p; unknown, b; Roy Haynes, d)

He’s got a Gene Ammons thing and the Charlie Parker thing, which to me equals Sonny Stitt.  Sonny Stitt, I’d say.  Lester Young. Go ahead, Sonny!  But the vibrato was like that Chicago blues swinging kind of funky gritty… Yeah. My Dad was playing with Sonny in 1975, when I was 15.  I was like a true Louisiana boy, respectful of my elders. “Come here, motherfucker!”  Then he said something else.  “Let me hear you play.”  Oh, that’s all right.  You’re working on the shit.”  And he kept going.  So finally, I said, “Well, you know what that shit is, Mr. Stitt.”  He goes, “No, son.  I can curse.  You can’t.”  I went, “Yes, sir.” [LAUGHS] It was great. Wynton was teasing the hell out of me.  “Trying to be one of the big boys, huh?  Curse in front of…” “Shut up, man!”  But I’ll never forget it.  He came back later on that year and played at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and there’s a picture of us with Stitt.  It’s great. [Do you know the tune?] Nope.  Never heard it.  ["I Never Knew"] I didn’t.  I just love hearing this, because it’s an amalgam of things.  The Kansas City kickin’ shit from the ’30s, the jump blues players like Bird.  It’s all one thing, and it eventually codifies itself as a person.  But you never escape your influences.  Unless you make sure you don’t have any, then you don’t have to worry about it. [piano] One chorus?  That’s not fair. So I have to guess.  Because I couldn’t tell.  Hank Jones?  Close!  The drummer? [Roy Haynes] I was going to say Roy!  That’s amazing!  But I was sure it wasn’t him, so I said, “Nah, it ain’t him.” In this context… Well, Roy is one of those amazingly versatile musicians.  5 stars.

8.    Seamus Blake, “Children and Art” (from ECHONOMICS, Criss Cross, 2000) (Blake, ts; Dave Kikoski, p; Ed Howard, b; Victor Lewis, d; Stephen Sondheim, comp.)

Mmm!  Talk to me, Papa.  Whoever it is, is talking.  It’s beautiful.  Mmm!  This is beautiful.  I love restraint.  I’m a huge fan of restraint. [Do you know the tune?] No.  But if I had to guess… Is it a jazz composer?  Okay.  I don’t know the tune.  It’s a pretty song.  They’re playing it great, too.  Mmm!  Oh, giveaway.  Seamus Blake.  I’m not a fan of that echo.  That’s how I knew it was him immediately.  But it sounds great.  They’re playing the song great.  But it immediately lost its timeless quality as soon as that shit started — to me.  The whole point of effects, especially when you’re doing popular records… It’s like it’s all ear candy when you’re doing it.  It’s more like for the artists and… People don’t even notice a lot of that stuff. And that music lends itself to that.  It’s almost like listening to Beethoven with a doubling effect.  For what?  So the song is beautiful and it’s going, and then this shit starts, and it throws you in another place.  Well, it threw me in another place.  It may not throw other people, but it definitely threw me in another place. Oh, well.  Go ahead, Seamus!  He’s a bad cat.  I like Seamus. [It's a Sondheim song.] I don’t know it.  I’m not a big Broadway guy.  I’m a medium Broadway guy.  Band sounds great. 5 stars for Seamus.  No, 4 stars for Seamus.  He lost a point with that fuckin’ effect! [LAUGHS] Deduct a point.  The digital delay gets a one-point deduction.  That was Dave Kikoski?  It’s just great to hear cats in a moment of repose, with some restraint.  Their playing takes on a whole different character, and that’s great.  I’m happy to hear that.  Ed Howard on bass?  No kidding.  Cool.

9.    Evan Parker, “Winter vi” (from THE TWO SEASONS, Emanem, 1999) (Parker, ts; John Edwards, bass; Mark Sanders, d)

That took some practice.  Took a lot of practice to get that together. It’s not going anywhere.  It’s just sitting there.  Sometimes playing out has a purpose, and sometimes it’s just playing out.  To me, this is just playing out.  The saxophone player has practiced a lot, and he has all this technique at his disposal.  But what his band is playing is not affecting his outcome at all. He’s just playing what he plays. And it’s formidable. It’s hard stuff to play.  Versus hearing somebody like David Ware, who is definitely influenced by what his band does, this just seems like they’re not playing what he’s playing and he’s not playing what they’re playing.  It might be Garzone; this is the kind of stuff he… But I don’t know who it is. [Evan Parker] Oh.  Okay.  Evan Parker’s English.  I know him.  I mean, if you listen to Cecil play or you listen to Horace Tapscott or David Ware, they have a different thing to it.  Even a sonic thing.  They don’t seem to be dealing with the sonic thing.  It just kind of meanders.  For me.  Well, I should qualify it.  Come on, man.  You remember me in the old days.  I spoke with complete absolutes.  I’m wiser now.  For me, the shit don’t work.  I want people to understand that this is my opinion.  This is not dogmatic fact.  It gets louder in volume, but it doesn’t change in intensity.  It doesn’t build as a group.  It’s just getting louder because the drummer is getting louder. He’s not getting louder.  It’s the difference between loudness and volume.  It’s not voluminous.  Like, when Trane and them did this shit, it was like… You know the record that just came out, the Olatunji sessions?  Man!  When that shit starts, it fucks you up immediately.  This doesn’t do that for me.  But… 5 stars.

10.    Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Zoot Sims, “Groovin’ High” (from THE TENOR GIANTS, FEATURING OSCAR PETERSON, Pablo, 1975/2001) (Davis, Sims, ts; Oscar Peterson, p.; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, b; Louis Bellson, d)

This is going to be a slopfest.  This is a slopfest coming up, because the tempo is faster than the guys that are playing can play it.  This is going to be hard, man, because it’s old guys.  This is hard to identify.  For instance, Don Byas when he was younger, was influenced by Coleman Hawkins, but by the time they got older and were playing together, it was hard to tell one guy from the other.  These are older guys.  [They were both about 50] They’re older guys. At slower tempos it would be easier to tell.  This is a great song.  The version Bird did, Dizzy and Bird, where they had the little.. [SINGS THE BREAK] I think Milt Jackson took a solo on it.  Great. [Zoot's solo starts] That first solo could have been by almost anybody.  But they were playing in a style that Coleman Hawkins used to play and then gave up as he got older.  It could  have been Don Byas or it could have been Zoot Sims. [The first one could have been Zoot Sims?] I think so, yeah. [How about this guy?] Al Cohn.  That’s what my guess would be, because Zoot and Al always played together.  Al always had more of a… [This is Zoot.] Oh, this is Zoot?  I’m getting them confused.  I don’t know who that first guy was.  Like I said, it could be anybody. [Lockjaw Davis] I would have never in a million years guessed Lockjaw.  Never.  Go ahead, Zoot!  Who the hell’s the piano player?  That’s what I don’t like about these things, that nobody listens. [FOUR BARS] Oscar Peterson.  Can’t nobody else play like that, except Art Tatum, and he wasn’t playing on these.  Is this some of that Jazz at the Philharmonic shit?  Whoo!  Feel free to take a breath, Oscar.  Is he hitting the hi-hat and kick drum? [SINGS DRUM PATTERN] I’ve got three guys in mind.  The first is Jo Jones, the second is Louis Bellson, and the third is Buddy Rich.  Bellson?  Yeah, that’s the style.  Louis could swing his ass off.  I got to play with him once.  It was a pleasure.  We don’t need the Rock solo, Louis.  Thank you.

I would never have guessed Lockjaw, because he didn’t play fast tempos.  Every record I have him on, he’s not playing anything that fast.  Medium-up, but not like that.  That’s just too fast for him.  The tempo is now almost half of what it was.  Almost a half-time faster. [It's a show.] Oh, I know.  Believe me.  Fuckin’ Tain takes a solo, you come back and it’s just [SINGS ALL BEATS INTO EACH OTHER] Funny thing about drum solos, particularly in Rock bands, they look and sound great at the concert.  You hear it back on the tape, that’s what it sounds like.  But Louis, man, the motherfucker could play.  He kept adapting.  That’s the amazing thing.  You wouldn’t expect a guy his age to play that, because he was clearly listening to a lot of Rock drummers, and that’s a cool thing.  My Dad’s going to be mad that I missed Lockjaw, but hey.  I never heard Lockjaw play a tempo like that.  You got me good.  5 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Branford Marsalis, DownBeat

Wayne Shorter is 78 Today — A “Jazziz” Profile from 2002

For Wayne Shorter’s 78th birthday, I’m offering a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, a year or so before the publication of Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, Footprints. His amazing quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade was then two years old—they continue to evolve and create some of the freshest music on the planet.

[Jim Macnie's posted a terrific interview with Wayne from a few years ago in which he talks about his relationship with John Coltrane.]

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“With Miles, there was no music dogma going on. I can’t remember having ONE rehearsal — even when I joined him. Rehearsing, that’s a fertile time for the dogma to raise its ugly-ass head! What are you going to do with the unexpected? How can you rehearse the unexpected?”
— Wayne Shorter.

“When I was a kid,” Wayne Shorter recalls, “my mother would bring home big boxes of clay from Saturday shopping, and we’d jump right into it. Once we tried to make World War Two on our big round kitchen table. In Russia we painted the Red Army and the Blue Army. The American Army was all olive…well, almost brown. We filled up the kitchen sink with water, made submarines, made little people, and put them inside the submarines, which we placed on the bottom. Another time we tried to make the whole world out of clay — a one-dimensional circle with a globe. We had so much clay we could do land masses. If somebody came by and wanted me to do something, like go to the store for them, she’d say, ‘No, don’t bother him now; he’s in his room practicing. He’s drawing.’ Me or my brother. ‘Wayne and Alan, they’re in the imagination room.’”

That Shorter, pushing 70, continues to spend quality time in the imagination room was manifest on last year’s Footprints: Live [Verve], a free-spirited virtual concert culled from a 2001 tour with his working quartet: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They provide Shorter an opportunity to navigate his music within a fully acoustic landscape for the first time since the 1960s, and help him vigorously deconstruct a set of iconic originals — “Footprints,” “JuJu,” “Go,” and “Sanctuary” — that, as Patitucci says, “everybody and their grandmother has performed live” — for the first time since the recording dates that produced them.

“We’re playing with the attitude that there is no such thing as a beginning or end,” Shorter declares. “To say of a piece of music, ‘Oh, that’s been done,’ is an illusion. It’s almost like saying that at 5 years old you’re so many feet high, and that’s it. You’re going to grow. You don’t feel yourself getting taller, but the process continues. I was working on ‘Vendiendo Alegria,’ which is a piece of music that Miles Davis gave me around 1965. He said, ‘Do something with this.’ I last saw Miles at the Hollywood Bowl before he passed away in 1991. The years passed, and the thought started to coalesce that maybe it’s time to start making some albums where everything is not based upon something original. I’ve got all the time in the world to go for those little subtleties that get ignored and are sometimes sold down the river for a knock-em-sock-em, drag ‘em out announcement in the name of innovation or in the name of, ‘Yeah, let’s have something fresh,’ and what’s glossed over and ignored is the lifeblood of what freshness means. What the hell is music for?”

On his 2003 release, Alegria/Joy, Shorter offers some thoughts on the matter. Addressing subjects as diverse as the Portuguese diaspora, English folksong, medieval choral music, Hollywood, and his own experience as a young man in Civil Rights Era America from a variety of angles, he sculpts elaborate fantasy worlds, creating musical lines that take on lives of their own, tracking them with logic and intuition to improvise intricate stories with a minimum of notes, projecting an emotional aura that transcends instrument and genre. Building on group-improvised tracks recorded in the fall of 2000 by the working quartet (replaced on several tunes by Brad Mehldau, Teri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Alex Acuna), Shorter and producer-conductor Robert Sadin painstakingly layered on the details of Shorter’s vivid orchestrations, working with various configurations of brass, woodwinds, and strings.

It seems that Shorter embraced the notion of music as mutable narrative from the beginning. By his senior year of high school he was writing charts, and he studied composition at New York University between 1952 and 1956. During those years and a subsequent tour of duty in an Army band, he wrote a slew of tunes — among them “Nellie Bly,” “Ping Pong,” “Hammerhead,” and “Sincerely Diana” — that became established as hardbop AABA classics on his subsequent sideman recordings with Art Blakey and as a Blue Note solo leader. He also wrote an attenuated opera called “The Singing Lesson,” inspired by his observations of Italian gangs near the NYU campus in the southern part of Greenwich Village.

“I stopped around my second or third year, when ‘The Wild One’ came out,” Shorter recalls. “I heard that Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story,’ and I thought, ‘Unh-oh, I’ll catch up to mine some other time’ — which could be now. I have all the remaining pages. I’m going to scrutinize the stuff, rework it, and bring it into its own. To me music is like working with clay. I don’t deify notes, and ‘Well, it’s got to be like when I started.’

“It’s not like ‘Don Giovanni.’ There’s going to be some swinging parts. Not just grooves, but go for it, and still maintain the story. Character actors. The content. The struggle of winning or losing. And a lot of color. Shapes. Obstacles. Obstacles take a musical shape, too. So the audience gets it all. Panoramic. Not just something with an acrobatic, ‘Nice solo, my man.’”

“Wayne has absorbed a lot of the undercurrent elements of classical music,” Sadin says. “It isn’t that he uses violins or oboes, although that can be significant. It’s the structural unfolding of his melodies. The length of Wayne’s things, the way they consistently avoid the usual blocky 8- and 16- measure form is distinct from the vast majority of jazz composition — especially in the era going up to him. His solos also tend to make a big arc and are often quite melodic. He is not content to play through chord changes. He’s working with larger ideas.”

The most recent documentation of Shorter’s increasingly elaborate corpus of original music is the 1995 album High Life, [Verve], a suite for octet and a 31-piece orchestra that, although intended, as Shorter puts it, “to raise the IQ of commercial music,” caught the attention of numerous creative musicians of the latter Baby Boom. But he’s spent the first years of the new millennium paring down and retrospecting, returning to the attitude of speculative improvising that marked his 1964-70 tenure with Miles Davis.

“Ever since he recorded things like ‘Water Babies,’ ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Capricorn’ both on his own records and with Miles in ’68 and ’69, Wayne always quoted his own music,” says composer-saxophonist Bob Belden, a Shorter devotee. “That’s when he started to send a message that all his melodies will always be in his book, and he can do with them whatever he wants. He doesn’t believe the dogma that once the 8 bars have been chiseled into stone, you can’t touch them.”

“Wayne’s tunes were always provocative,” says Herbie Hancock of the Miles Davis period. “They would open up passages for your own conception and how you might perform the tune on any given day. Which worked out perfectly for Miles’ band, because we were into reducing things to their skeletal nature, and then each night put the meat on the bones.”

“Miles was famous for changing people’s music around,” Shorter remarks. “Which was hip, though, because the way it was written was square and … bland, let’s put it that way. And Miles brought dimension to it. But when I wrote something, he said it had to stay like it is. Which told me it’s already on its way to being what he wanted. The notes gave him the information. He didn’t have to give information to the music.”

“The first thing Wayne did for Miles, ‘ESP,’ defines the band’s sound,” says Belden. “Where is the melody? Where is the shape? Where is the form? What’s the bass part? What is the true anchor of the song? Well, there isn’t any. It’s the ambiguity. There’s also a level of hipness, the mystery, elegance and sophistication that has yet to be captured by anybody else since Miles in the mid-’60s. You hear it in lines like ‘Dolores’ and ‘Orbits,’ the shading between the major and the minor chord. Also, these guys were all playing the same breath; there were no mistakes. They would discover things at the moment they discovered them, rather than pre-planning it, like most records are made today.”

Although they piggyback their explorations on a much more elaborately rendered set of raw materials than the Miles Davis Quintet operated with in the ’60s, Shorter’s current quartet operates by similar imperatives.

“Wayne brings in highly composed and orchestrated pieces, and we go through them until the form is cemented in everybody’s mind,” said Patitucci a year ago. “Then invariably, he’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s what it is; now I want to delve into it and break it apart and put it back together.’ He wants it new every time — to be expansive, to dwell on the various aspects of the piece at will. You could say the one rule is that there are no rules.”

It takes courage to go out there together and be vulnerable,” Shorter says.  “But John, Danilo, and Brian have the foundation. You take your knapsack, your best stuff that you know, and that’s like a flashlight into the darkness. This band is roll-up-your-sleeves. To them the detail and complexity and orchestration and chance-taking means an adventure, not an experiment. That adventure means facing obstacles and overcoming them, turning poison to medicine. Confronting something. Something some people are leery of or stay away from. Everybody’s life has a dominant something, a self-burden that stops us from doing things. It can appear as a place or a thing or a person — a schoolteacher … a wife. Then you get divorced, and you say, ‘Ah, I got it!’ and then you marry again, but it’s the same wife with a different face. Then you get to a point where you’re flying! People haven’t flown yet. Don’t worry. We’re all going to fly.”

BREAK

A practicing Buddhist since 1973, Shorter focuses on his Tao, and it seems impossible for him not to frame his discourse in metaphoric koans. He was amused — “You don’t want to get philosophical!” — at my lugubrious efforts to steer our conversations away from the aura of “all that is solid melts into air” and onto solid ground. But although jokes about Shorter’s “weirdness” are legion in jazz circles, there is never a moment when he does not, as the cliches go, know precisely what time it is or land squarely on the one. He knows about labor and sacrifice. The tension between speculation and pragmatism, freedom and form, the high and the low, is a consistent trope in his conversation and a defining characteristic of his life and musical activity.

“He went from the most concrete descriptions to the most blindingly allegorical, sometimes within a short space of time,” Sadin says about their collaboration. Hancock elaborates with a story. “When Wayne has to communicate something important and be lucid in a more general way, he is all of that,” he says. “But even after Wayne had been playing with us for a while with Miles, I often couldn’t follow what he was saying. I just figured, ‘Well, Wayne’s a little out there.’ One day I decided: ‘I’ve got to find out whether this guy is a genius or just a little crazy!’ We had a few days off, and I decided to hang out with him until it was clear to me. So we hung out all night, had something to drink, and I went along with the conversation, and figured out a little more about how to listen and follow and play the games. And my conclusion was, ‘Yup, he’s a genius!’

“Wayne is a moviegoer. It’s his nature to be into drama, and his compositions have always reflected that. The world is his stage. The flow of his conversation is very much like the flow of his music. Instead of detailing every step, he jumps from here to there, and then makes another jump. The details aren’t so necessary to fill in. If anything, Wayne wants to stimulate your creativity to fill in those details, to give a deeper sense of what he wants to impart.”

“I had a world I could go into,” Shorter recalls of his childhood. “It was a combination of things — listening to the radio, comic books, going to the movies, and reading my first book all the way through (Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley) when I was 13. I used my imagination to put it all together. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Call some nice church girl and take her to a movie.’ But I thought I was weird. I was the lone wolf. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. Instead, I came home from the movies and wrote my first and only comic book, called ‘Other Worlds.’ I always say I’m writing music for films that will never be made — that no one has the courage to make.”

When Shorter’s grandmother presented him with a clarinet for his fifteenth birthday, the prospect of conjuring epic stories with sound was eminently appealing. “What was filtering through all the while was the background music, what used to be called programmatic music and then got changed to tone poems and soundtracks,” he states. “And the music that provoked further curiosity and investigation and taking action came from horror films and science fiction — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman. It seems like whoever did those didn’t have anybody looking over their shoulder, looking for a hit. I heard bebop and the classic saxophone music on the radio, and I listened every Saturday to a classical program called ‘New Ideas In Music.’ I heard Toscanini conduct his last concert on the radio. I listened to a lot of people. Then I said, ‘This is what I’d like to do, and let me see if I can surprise myself; if I can surprise myself, then I can surprise the world.’”

Shorter heeded the prevailing post-war black culture ethos that individuality is every bit as important as learning the scales and chords. “My mother used to talk about Lena Horne,” he says. “She said, ‘She’s not a singer’s singer, but she knows how to put over that song.’ I filed away that sentence, and its meaning played itself out in other areas. The talk then was, ‘Hey, man, you can be yourself; be original.’ Work on that tone, work on this, work on that. Nobody said, ‘Work on life.’ Except my parents. My parents were hip. Period. Hip to the idea of excellence and giving 100 percent to whatever it is that you do. My mother didn’t go past freshman year of high school, but she was very aware of everything. She always read the newspaper, and she was hip to the nuances of insurance policies. She didn’t take geometry, but she helped my brother with geometry by using the logic of what was going on.”

Bebop was at its apogee, and Shorter’s learning curve was rapid. He got the fundamentals in the solid music program at Newark’s Arts High School and heard Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Lester Young and Charlie Parker with strings at Newark’s Adams Theater. He joined a 9-piece teenage band fronted by one Jackie Bland, who, Shorter recounts, didn’t read music, ‘but had the look,” and knew many of Gillespie’s arrangements by ear. “I sat with the trumpet player, and at dances when we did Dizzy’s ‘Things To Come,’ I’d blare out the trumpet part on the clarinet,” Shorter says. “We’d sound almost like three trumpets if we stayed right in the microphone loud. People said, ‘How do you dance to that stuff?’”

After Jackie Bland left, the band named itself The Groove. “We would play before three or four people acting like they’re dancing, and get $1.50 at the end of the night,” Shorter continues. “Then a guy at the YMCA named Mr. Lazar wanted us to play the Saturday night dances there, and taught us to read music. I had been taking clarinet lessons for a year, so the notes were running through me. He brought out ‘Things To Come,’ and we would stay on the first two measures all afternoon until we reached the point where we were playing it as an ensemble. Then we did things like ‘One Bass Hit,’ ‘Godchild,’ ‘Jeru,’ and ‘Israel’. Then we became rebels, and we’d rehearse on our own and do things like ‘’Round Midnight’ or ‘Weird Lullaby,’ the Babs Gonzalez song.

“Word got around that there was this crazy band. The other band in Newark played the Terrace Room and the cotillions and all that. Their hair was coiffed, they had rust-colored jackets with powder-blue pants, and they looked [i]good[i], man. They read music. They made some money. Most of them went to Barringer High School. We called them the Pretty Boy Band. So someone proposed for us to have a playoff, a contest at the Court Street YMCA. It was packed with people. They were playing on a balcony and we were down on the floor. They played ‘Harlem Nocturne’ and we played ‘Ool-Ya-Koo’ or ‘Cool Breeze.’ They played an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘American In Paris.’ We played ‘Emanon.’ They played something else, and we played ‘Now Is the Time.’ We let them know that we were from some other place. My brother was in the band, too, and he carried his alto sax in a shopping bag and played with his gloves on. It was nice weather, but we came in wearing galoshes and wrinkled clothes. We didn’t have any music stands, so we took two sets of chairs, sat in one, turned the other around to face us, and put up newspapers, like we were reading the newspaper and playing ‘Manteca.’ We went back and forth, back and forth, and at the end, they rated by applause. We won.”

After graduating high school, Shorter got a job as a stock clerk at the Singer Sewing Machines factory in Elizabeth, N.J., where he spent a year wheeling bobbins from one department to the other.

“I didn’t play much that year,” he says. “In fact, the saxophone literally stayed under the bed. But just before the College Entrance Exam, I started to write stuff that we played at dances. My group broke up after a while. The Korean War was going on, and some guys went into the Army. Somewhere in the middle of my first year at NYU, the bandleader of that other band called, and I joined them. They made more money than we did, sometimes $28 per man on the weekend. I wrote 28 arrangements for that band. Once we were invited to play at the Palladium. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez — or maybe Perez Prado — were there; Celia Cruz was dancing; Mongo Santamaria and Guataca, the percussionist, were playing; and we played something I wrote called ‘The Midget Mambo,’ meaning the small mambo, a toy mambo. I wasn’t trying to encroach on ‘I came from Puerto Rico myself’ and so on. But I liked it. We knew Dizzy and Chano Pozo got their stuff from Africa and mixed it. And when we grew up, mambo and cha-cha were big. You couldn’t get a date if you couldn’t dance the cha-cha. No girl would go to the movies with you. They said, ‘Can you dance?’”

Through his decade with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Shorter would continue to answer that question in the affirmative. “Wayne’s body of work with Blakey is phenomenal,” Belden says. “His tunes captured that real African-American funk element Blakey embodied, and were still harmonically interesting and captivating harmonically. They represent a sort of hip detachment. And they make a point. They tell you about something. When he joins Miles Davis, his playing becomes much more open, a completely unique, original language — harmonically, articulation-wise, phrasing — that’s not based on anything preceding it.”

“What Miles was doing had a philosophical lean,” Shorter says. “His bands had the freshness that comes with unfamiliarity — always having a bunch of originals, records loaded with firsts. The newness and surprise supplied the drive. Different apples and oranges forming a garden that everyone wanted to be in. That all-encompassing edge of this solar system, and wanting to go into the darkness to see what the other solar system is like.”

BREAK

Seven years after losing his wife, Ana Maria, in the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, and 18 years after the death of their daughter Iska, Shorter has remarried and resettled in Florida from California, his home for 30 years. Fortified by his practice of Buddhism and the ministrations of his new wife, Carolina, he seems refreshed and vigorous, able to channel the spirit that animated his efflorescent first four decades.

“I would say that Wayne’s quartet is the focal point for a new development in jazz,” says Hancock. “Openness is very much a quality, although that wouldn’t distinguish it from many other bands. But another quality is that they depend on trust — in themselves and in each other—in their playing. Creating music for the moment. Being in the moment. Whatever they play sounds like that moment.

“But it couldn’t have happened any time but now. What exudes from Wayne includes all his past experiences — including losing his wife — and him being whatever he is at the moment. What he and the band are doing puts value to everything that happened in his life, including what immediately appears to be negative. I don’t want to take away from the talent of the individuals who play with him. Not all the ideas come directly from Wayne. But although he allows the other musicians so much latitude, his life force presence is very strong, and it helps to bring out all their talent. I’m sure Danilo never played like this before. Brian Blade, too. Whatever they did before prepared them to be able to do this.”

“For composers, it’s almost a decree that the chamber orchestra and string quartet are the height of individualism,” Shorter says, referring both to the content of his new album and the aesthetic that his quartet exemplifies. “Composers like Gabriel Faure wrote things like stories — complex but in color — that let you go away on a trip. The musicians leave their egos at the door. There’s companionship and exchange, and you don’t have one job. You have something to say, someone disagrees, the line you play saves the second violinist over there, then he or she comes and saves your ass!”

“Wayne is a profoundly secular musician,” says Sadin. “He spent much of his life playing in clubs and concert halls. But music as a cultural force rather than product or entertainment is very deep in him, just as the great 19th-century composers — who certainly wanted to make a living and so on — felt they were embodying a cultural mission.”

Which perhaps is why Shorter responded to his personal tragedy with an ode to joy. “I think we’re on an eternal journey, and when we go through the exit doors, it doesn’t mean the journey is done,” he says. “No one can convince me that if you don’t see someone, they’ve been taken away, that they’re gone. Everything can be a work in progress, just like our lives, and I want to support that up to the last moment of this three-dimensional existence. I want the music to reflect the true nature of the journey of life, with its tragedies and joys, and the ability to transcend what is temporary in tragedy, and also temporary in joy, but eternal in enlightenment, which casts out fear, doubt, and all the other teeter-totter stuff that people allow themselves to be victims of.”

Shorter halts his discourse. “I’m getting into some heavy stuff here,” he says with a twinkle in his voice. “But heavy is light to me. I’m going to be 70, and it seems like everything is getting lighter and lighter. Everything that I’m saying seems like it takes a long route. And I’m finding out more and more that the long way is the shortest way.”

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Brad Mehldau’s Blindfold Test From 2000 (Uncut) — He Turned 41 Yesterday

Eleven years ago, I had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Brad Mehldau, then 30, and in residence at the Village Vanguard for a week-long engagement. It was conducted in Mehldau’s hotel room on the Upper West Side; if memory serves, he listened to the selections through headphones on a Sony Diskman…or maybe it was an Aiwa. In any event, here’s the pre-edit version.

Brad Mehldau (Blindfold Test) – (9-21-00):

1.    Art Tatum-Red Callendar-Jo Jones, “Just One Of Those Thing,”  THE COMPLETE ART TATUM GROUP RECORDINGS (#1) (1956/199_) (5 stars)

Tatum.  “Just One Of Those Things.”  I guess I know it’s Tatum from his melodic concept on here, because he’s not playing solo, which then you can really hear it in all his voice leading.  Just aesthetically, I prefer his solo playing.  With the rhythm section… I don’t know who this is.  Is this Slam Stewart? [No.] I’m hearing the drum solo now that he’s playing four-to-the-floor.  I have a feeling I should know this drummer from his style on the brushes.  I can’t put a name with it.  But he sounds great.  The bass player, too. [you've haven't heard this before.] No. [Is Tatum someone you've listened to a lot?] More his solo stuff, like the Pablo reissue of his solo albums, where it’s just one standard after another and these incredible things.  But this is really something I want to check out. [AFTER] Jo Jones!  Unbelievable.  Definitely 5 stars.  His whole melodic approach to lines, the way he’s playing over changes is so much not-informed by bebop.  It’s so fresh to hear that.  But very unto itself, really dealing with the changes.  He’s also using the whole instrument.  Even though he’s not playing solo, he’s really getting down there.  Amazing.

2.    Chick Corea, “Monk’s Dream,”SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS (Concord, 2000). [solo piano] (4 stars)

I really don’t know that person’s style.  I wouldn’t even know who to guess.  It’s “Monk’s Dream.”  I would give it 4 stars, because it’s really creative and interesting harmonically.  This kind of feel for me is a little jagged.  As a performance, it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste.  But really creative, interesting harmonic things he’s doing, using the upper register there and different melodies going on at the same time in some places. [AFTER] Really?  It’s a live performance, huh?  Nice recorded sound, too.  You can hear a lot of the room in there, which I also like.

3.    Christian McBride, “Lullaby For A Ladybug,”  SCI-FI (Verve 2000). [Herbie Hancock, piano; Diane Reeves, vocal.] (4 stars)

It’s a beautiful composition.  I don’t know the vocalist.  I don’t feel like I know anyone.  The piano player is somebody who’s been influenced by Herbie Hancock, but I’m not sure whether it’s Herbie himself.  It’s a tough call. [Why is it hard to tell?] That’s a good question.  There are some spots where the piano player is playing a lot, maybe more than sometimes Herbie does — but sometimes Herbie plays a lot, too.  That would probably be my only criticism, is that on the actual piano solo itself it’s a little out of context to what’s going on around the whole thing, and sometimes he’s jumping on the vocalist a little with some of the things that he’s reacting to.  But just my taste; that’s a taste thing.  But the track is beautiful.  The composition itself, and the recorded sound is great. [So do you think it's Herbie or not?] I’d probably guess Herbie.  [LAUGHS] I got a couple of them right here.  Diane Reeves?  I don’t know who the composer was. [AFTER] No kidding?  I didn’t even recognize Christian, because he’s so unobtrusive.  Wow, I’m going to have to get this record.  Who is the drummer?  He’s great.  4 stars.

4.    Hank Jones-Dave Holland-Billy Higgins, “Yesterdays,” THE ORACLE (Emarcy, 1989). (4 stars)

That’s got to be Billy Higgins on drums.  It’s kind of tough to tell the piano player.  I’m not sure about the bassist.  Maybe Ron Carter?  The piano player, there’s a feel there that’s kind of like the feel I associate with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, but I’m not sure whether it’s one of them.  I really don’t know.  It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangement, but it felt great.  I liked how it started out in D-minor, I think, and then modulated down, and I liked that little bass thing.  4 stars.  Every record Billy Higgins is on is just going to feel great.  I’ve played with him a few times with Charles Lloyd.  The experience of playing with him is like nothing else; it’s like being taken for a ride.  I should have just guessed Hank!

5.    Geoff Keezer, “Maple Sugar Rays,”  ZERO ONE (GMN, 2000). [solo] (3-1/2 stars)

Maybe Mulgrew on some solo record I don’t know? [You're warm.] I don’t want to make a generalization, but for me the style was a little too much of the same thing for the whole thing.  It’s kind of predictable after a while.  Really inside the harmony, and a certain kind of melodic vocabulary that sort of sounds like a vocabulary already.  So after a while I’m not too interested listening to this.  Also, dynamically it’s always pretty loud, which after a  while gets on my nerves.  There were some spots in the arrangement that were nice, where he was doing some harmonic stuff that made it interesting, but for the rest of it I felt like he was kind of running stuff.  It got to be a little of the same after a while.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] That’s interesting, because I have this but I’ve only listened to it once.  Was this an original?  Some of the pieces on here were really different, where he’s treating the piano.  That makes sense, because it’s a certain style… It’s more of an aesthetic thing than an actual qualitative thing, because that’s a whole school of piano playing that I haven’t gravitated towards too much, like Harold Mabern and some of those guys.  It’s not my taste.

6.    Bill Charlap, “All Through The Night,”  ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Criss-Cross, 1997). [Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums] (4-1/2 stars)

I really enjoyed it.  It was tough, because the solo introduction was sort of in a different style than what it turned into with the trio.  I was thinking about the trio as it went along… Maybe Ahmad Jamal.  I don’t know who it is, then, but I really loved the performance.  I thought this arrangement where they kept going back to that theme reminded me of something Ahmad might do.  But the melodic concept was… You could hear some of a bebop kind of  thing in there.  Also, we were just listening to Tatum.  There are some triple-time things he was doing, but very original, though, in his or her own right, with the lines, doing some different, creative, fresh melodic things that really were fun to listen to.  I really liked it.  A great, swinging trio thing.  It was really locked-up.  Not 5 stars, because I could have done without the intro, a lot of flashy stuff.  4-1/2 stars.  Cole Porter really has a specific sound as a composer.  Sometimes it reminded me of “From This Moment On,” sort of the way his harmonic movement is.  But Bill put in some great changes on his own, too, that really were nice, the way they worked with the melody under it.

7.    Earl Hines, “Prelude To A Kiss,”  PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON (New World, 1974/1997) [solo piano] (5 stars)

Wow!  I don’t know the performance, but I think it’s Monk.  It’s not Monk?  It’s “Prelude To A Kiss.”  Whoever it is, I’ll have to give it five stars.  It’s so deep harmonically, what he’s doing inside the chords, the way it builds up as an arrangement throughout.  He starts from something and just develops out of it organically, and it gets more and more dense.  The other thing that’s great is once the time starts it’s really right there.  You can always hear the quarter-note no matter what’s going on.  I don’t know Monk’s solo playing too much; that’s why I might have guessed him. [Monk would tend to be sparer.] A little more spare, yes.  Because I did hear, again, some of those Tatumesque runs in there.  That seems to be a theme of a lot of what we’re listening to. [Do you think it was a more contemporary player or an older player?] I’m going to guess older because of the nature of the recording quality and the piano horribly out of tune!  But I just don’t know.  I’m disappointed in myself. [AFTER] [In your learning process, were you into older piano players?] Not as much.  It’s more just because I haven’t gotten around to them yet.  But the ones that I really know are some Tatum and some Duke.

8.    Ahmad Jamal, “I Love You,”  BIG BYRD (Verve, 1996). [James Cammack, ass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion] (4-1/2 stars)

I’m going to guess Ahmad again.  That’s a great arrangement.  Now it’s staying on this vamp and… I don’t know his later records too much, but I’ve had the chance to hear him live a lot, and there’s still that great way of taking “I Love You” and making these vamps throughout it which make it a different kind of compositional thing.  And he plays so compositionally, too.  He plays with that arrangement.  The tune is almost incidental a lot of the time, which is what’s so great about it.  I definitely checked out “Live At The Pershing” and “Awakening,” the one that he did “Dolphin Dance,” explored the oeuvre of Herbie and Bill Evans.  The drummer has a really fat groove.  4-1/2 stars.

9.    John Hicks, “Passing Through,” AN ERROLL GARNER SONGBOOK (High Note, 1997). [solo piano] (3-1/2 stars).

I have no guesses on this one.  I’m coming up short here.  [AFTER] Again, that’s sort of not my aesthetic.  My thought was that this is someone who probably plays more in groups regularly, and solo piano is sort of a departure for him.  What I noticed is that… Maybe it’s because I’m a piano player.  I feel that his rhythmic thing is almost reacting to an invisible band that’s not there.  So as a solo performance, I wanted a little more of what the bass and drums would typically supply somehow, no matter how abstractly that might be.  It felt like there was this hole.  The composition was kind of normal for my taste.  It didn’t particularly get me too much.  3-1/2 stars.  Nice recorded sound.

10.    Kenny Kirkland, “Ana Maria,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) [Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, congas; Steve Berrios, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer]

I love the composition, but I can’t pick out which one it is.  The shape of the melody sounds familiar.  Is it a Wayne tune?  I love the way the piano player states the melody, nice and rhapsodically through the bar-line, with a nice texture building up.  During the blowing the piano player has a nice, crisp technique in the right hand which I always enjoy hearing.  The kind of crispness I associate with Wynton Kelly, a really articulate thing which is nice in the double-time stuff.  I thought it could have been maybe a chorus shorter, because after a while you hear certain melodic shapes repeating themselves over and over again.  As a group performance, I felt like there was a piano player, then there was this percussion thing that was reacting with the piano a little rhythmically in the double-time stuff, and the bass and drums were sort of in the background.  It could have been the mix.  I have no clue who it would be.  4 stars. [AFTER] Kenny Kirkland is another one I haven’t gotten to.  I kind of missed him.  I was so involved in my own listening pattern in the early ’90s and late ’80s.  I was really into guys like Sonny Clark and Mal Waldron — a lot of compers.  I loved Mal Waldron, and the stuff he did with Steve Lacy; the minimalism he uses appealed to me.

11.    Denny Zeitlin, “Cousin Mary,”  AS LONG AS THERE’S MUSIC (32 Jazz, 1997/2000). [Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums] (5 stars)

That got me off the most out of anything you’ve played thus far.  It felt great.  I don’t know the piano player, but I might know the bass and drums.  Maybe it’s not them, but it sounds a little like Ben Riley and Buster Williams, that kind of feel.  Oh, it is Buster.  The drummer has that great tipping feel; it feels so good.  I love the piano player.  I never hear any vocabulary.   First of all, the arrangement of “Cousin Mary” is really great.  You would think, “What can you do with that tune?”—but he finds another harmonic thing that really is also referring to the original, with the strange, different chords for the blues.  You get the feeling that he’s blowing on that, but at a certain point he’s just getting away from what roots should be, and he’s sort of making up different forms of the blues — one thing, one thing, one thing, and then… Again, these 12-bar things.  Which I love. [Does he remind you of anybody?] You can hear a lot of the history of piano playing in there.  I’m probably going to be really embarrassed that I should have known him.  5 stars. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin!  Wow.  I’ve never heard him.  Charlie Haden always tells me to check this guy out.  Really inspiring.  A great trio performance.  For me the piano is a little high in the mix, but it still doesn’t detract.  It’s still really great.

12.    Martial Solal, “Round Midnight,”  BALLADE DU DIX MARS (Black Saint, 1998) [Paul Motian, drums; Marc Johnson, bass] (4 stars)

The tune is “Round Midnight,” but you’ve got me stumped on the player.  Because I just heard Paul Motian play duo with Frisell in Monterrey, some of the brushwork in this kind of approach where there’s not a leader was reminding me of Motian.  I could do a deductive thing and say maybe it’s Paul Bley.  No?  Now, when I just Paul with Bill, one thing I liked is that within a rhythmic context they were following each other a lot, phrasing together.  With this, one criticism would be that the piano player was going and the other guys were following his phrasing.  So after a while it got to be a little too much of that, and not so much interaction.  It gets kind of noodly, I guess — for me.  Within all that, there were flashes of harmonic things sticking out there in between.  So it might be the kind of thing I could listen to more and start to enjoy more.  It’s definitely a brilliant performance.  I like how the bass player, too, was finding certain notes in there to ground it.  4 stars

13.    Ornette Coleman-Joachim Kuhn, “Passion Cultures,” COLORS (Verve-Harmolodic, 1997) (5 stars)

It’s beautiful.  I think it’s Ornette and Joachim Kuhn.  Beautiful!  I have another record of them that was made in the studio which is much different than this.  Somebody gave it to me in France.  It’s so great to hear a real kind of tonal thing, for the most part, taking place, these modal sections with Ornette’s beautiful melodic thing over it, and then the way Joachim Kuhn found his way out of the harmony slowly, with Ornette.  It’s a wonderful process.  A nice composition that really stands up, the whole thing.  There’s this sort of urgency or sort of mortality feeling to that melody, something haunting that Ornette has the ability to evoke so well.  They’re really together on that.  5 stars.  Definitely a great performance.  Nothing wrong with that.  I checked out mainly the early Atlantic stuff with the quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie, like Change of The Century, This is Our Music. [Does his late '60s stuff or the '70s harmolodics appeal to you?] That stuff I haven’t checked out as much.  Actually, just in the last couple of months while I was on the road, Larry Grenadier was playing me a few things I’d never heard by Prime Time.  So that’s all another “yet” to me.  A lot of times with that quartet, I hear changes.  I’ve talked to Charlie Haden, and he’s like, “Hey, man, we were just making up changes.”  But there’s still definitely a harmonic component going on.

15.    Ruben Gonzalez, “Almendra,”  INTRODUCING RUBEN GONZALEZ (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1996) (4-1/2 stars)

It’s a great rhythm section.  It sounds Cuban from the beat.  I’m not too familiar with the players, so I really wouldn’t know who to guess.  But I love the bass player and the Latin rhythm section; they’re so locked in.  The arrangement is cool, because they’re just blowing over this… You hear the beginning, the head, and it’s a V-chord.  So it’s suspended on this pedal thing for the whole blowing, because he’s just staying there.  And the piano player is rhythmically free of that and he’s sort of just playing over everything, extemporizing over that, which at first is interesting, but I guess after a while it sort of drags on a little. The content was interesting.  I found myself being reminded of Duke sometimes, actually, in the spaciousness of the way he plays melodies sometimes 2 or 3 octaves apart and leaves this wide-open space in the middle and gets in the lower end or upper register, and using those parts of the piano — and some of the voicings, too.  I thought it was really interesting, the chromatic things he was doing.  4-1/2 stars.

_________
It’s really interesting.  It’s difficult after the fifth one.  You find yourself swamped with information and it gets hard to be objective.  But you never are objective, really.  You’re listening, and then it would be nice to listen to it again.  Then your opinion might change.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, DownBeat

Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

* * *

1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named "Ron Carter."] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar

Two Interviews with Mal Waldron on The 86th Anniversary of His Birth

For the 86th birthday anniversary of the pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m offering a pair of interviews conducted during the last 16 months of his life. Our first encounter occurred in late August of 2001, when Waldron was performing at the Blue Note in trio with Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. It went well, and I proposed a DownBeat article. They agreed, and so did Waldron, through his Belgian representative. For this purpose, we had a phone conversation the following February. As fate would have it, DownBeat held off on running the piece, which ran in shortened form, as an obituary. Waldron passed away on December 2nd (he was 77), ten months after our second encounter. The interviews appear seriatem and—with a couple of exceptions—uncut.

Mal  Waldron (WKCR, Aug. 23, 2001):

[MW/BL/ED, "Fire Waltz"]

You’ve been recording with Reggie Workman for a good 25 years now.  What kind of bassist and drummer are ideal for the way you play and write music?  Well, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille are ideal for the way a lot of people write music.

They listen and they try to adapt to what you’re doing.  That’s all you need, is somebody to listen and to adapt to what you’re doing.  Be like shadows. [LAUGHS]

Let’s step back to the Five Spot and that particular week, which resonates in many ways.  It’s one of the last recordings by Booker Little, who was in amazing form, although by all accounts he was already quite ill.  Eric Dolphy is in fine form, and it’s one of the first occasions Blackwell recorded outside of Ornette Coleman’s axis.  How did the band come together?

I think Booker Little and Eric Dolphy had the idea together, to form a quintet and play both of their musics, and they hired me and Richard Davis and Ed Blackwell to support the group.

You had a musical relationship with Eric Dolphy from early 1960, and appear on some recordings with him on New Jazz.

I was the house pianist at Prestige.  That’s how we hooked up.

So he signed his contract and you were hired to come in and play the music fresh.  But he also recorded a fair amount of your music on The Quest.

The Quest was my date.

You were a beautiful match.

We got along beautifully.  I learned from him, basically, because I was going through my student phase.  I was learning from everybody.

One would think with someone of your curiosity, it might be a perpetual student phase.

It is..

But your music certainly had its own sound by 1960.  You’re recognizably Mal Waldron by 1960.  No one could mistake you for anybody else.

Well, I’m not quite sure about that, because I was still learning and putting it together.  I was halfway through the tree.  In other words, I started out with a big tree and I tried shaving and shaving and shaving try to find the perfect toothpick, but I wasn’t there in 1960 — definitely.  I was nowhere near the toothpick at that moment.

But by 1960 you had played for a number of years with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, you’d worked with Billie Holiday and attained broader recognition just by dint of being her accompanist, you’d played with Ike Quebec, you’d played with Lucky Thompson, you’d played with Lucky Millinder — a whole range of vernacular and functional gigs.  You had a degree in music from Queens College.  So you were by no means a neophyte.

Well, I might not have been a neophyte, but I really was in my mind a neophyte, because I was always like a little child around these people.  Because they were all giants to me.

Is piano something you’ve done from the earliest days?  Was there a piano in your house as a kid?   You’re from St. Albans.

I was born in Harlem, but my parents moved out to Jamaica, Long Island, when I was 4.  There we had a piano, and I was forced to take piano lessons.   Really forced.  If I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that!  But I really didn’t want to play piano. I wanted to be outside in the street playing football with the other kids, but they said, “No-no, you’ve got to play piano.”

When did it start to take?

I don’t really know.  I can’t really remember.  I think when I heard Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul.”

So you were 14 years old or so.

I think so.  At that point, my mind moved toward jazz and I started fooling around on the piano at that moment with jazz (?).

So in the ’30s as a student pianist, it wasn’t jazz you were thinking about.  You were studying the European Classical repertoire.

Yes, I was playing classics, and I didn’t like it because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped.

Did you play in public at all, like in church or…

Yes, I did some concerts around… I’m trying to think where I played.  But there were a few halls I played in.  I can’t remember the names of them now.

But you developed your facility for the piano. Even though you were being forced to do it, it translated into some proficiency with the instrument.

Fear is a great motivator, you know!

Did hearing “Body and Soul” then start you off buying jazz records and listening to people…

Right.  Then I started listening to Symphony Sid’s After-Hours Jam Session, which by the time I got home from school was on, and I listened to them every day.

Who were the people who first caught your ear, especially among pianists?  1939-40-41-42, Teddy Wilson is out there, Art Tatum…

Art Tatum caught my ear.  Duke Ellington caught my ear first, and then Art Tatum, and then Bud Powell, and last, Thelonious Monk.

Did you go out and hear music when you were young?

Yes, I did.  I was at the Cafe Society when Tatum played there, and I caught Bud on 52nd Street. I was in the Army at that time.  I used to go down and hang out on 52nd Street, and then go back to West Point. I was stationed at West Point.

Was the Army after high school?

The Army was after high school, yes.  It was my first year of  college; I was drafted into the Army in ’43.

That’s just when the people from Minton’s were coming downtown to 52nd Street, and ferocious energies being unleashed.

Right.  They were still up there at Minton’s, though.  Because I used to go down to Minton’s, too, when I came down from West Point.

Describe your impressions of the scene.  There aren’t so many people we can talk to who witnessed Minton’s or, for that matter, the Onyx and the clubs on 52nd Street.

It was a very energizing experience, because you were able to sit for half-an-hour in every bar along the way for 50 cents — you could buy a beer and sit there and nurse it and hear all the good music, and then you’d move on to the next bar.  They were all very close to each other, and you could catch Billie Holiday in one, and Lester Young in another, and Bud Powell and Charlie  Parker — all the people there, just lined up.  It was fantastic.

At Minton’s it was a jam session type thing.  They would play one tune, and the rhythm section would be up there pumping away and the horns would be soloing chorus after chorus and getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another pianist would take over, and it kept going like that all night long.

When did you start to put your toes in the water?

I didn’t put my toes in the water at Minton’s.  I put my toe in the water at the Paradiso, which was a place around 110th and 7th Avenue that was run by Nick Nicholas.  It was very close to Minton’s.  The attitude was the same as Minton’s, and there were musicians passing through and sitting in.  That’s when I first dipped my toes in the water!

This was after the Army, and after you came back to Queens College on the G.I. Bill and studying music?

Right.

Did you continue to play piano all this time?

No, I was a saxophonist at this time.  My jazz experiences started with saxophone.  When I first heard Coleman Hawkins I was so impressed with the saxophone that I went out and bought an alto.  I couldn’t afford a tenor.  I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for “Body and Soul” from “Downbeat” and I read it, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins!

So you’re born in the same 24 month period as John Coltrane, Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, Bud Powell is maybe a year older than you, Max Roach a year older than you… Were you smitten with Bebop?  Is Bebop what captured you?

Yes, Bebop captured me.  I was into the Bebop scene..

So as a young saxophonist, who were you trying to emulate?

I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker!  But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to the piano.  Because I found my basis on piano was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.

Then you started developing your technique.

Yes, solos.

When was that?  1949-50 or so?

This was a little before 1950.  Maybe 1947 to 1950.

During those years you made the transition from being an alto saxophonist to being a pianist, and gave up the horn around 1950.

That’s right.

Fifty years ago.  And by this point, you were a professional musician?

No, I wasn’t earning any money at it.  I was still going to college under the G.I. Bill, and I got my subsistence money from the Army to keep me going, and I lived at home with my mother and father, so I handled my expenses that way.  Finally, I got into Charlie Mingus’ group around 1954 — the Jazz Workshop.

But during those years you were on the scene and hanging out, and presumably formed a circle of acquaintances and like-minded people with shared interests.  Who were some of those people?

Randy Weston, and also Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, too, and Jackie McLean.  I played with Allen Eager’s group for a minute, and also Lucky Thompson.

If I could ask you for some impressions.  You’ve written a tune for Herbie Nichols, “Hooray For Herbie.”

Yes.  He was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment.  I was interested in seeing how his sound fitted his personality, and that helped me to decide that your sound had to be your personality, so if you just played the way you spoke or automatically moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound.

He was a master on several levels, not just pianistically, but as a composer of fully worked-out pieces.  Did you go through his scores or compositions?

Not at that time.  I did that much later.

Were you aware of it at that time?  Did people who knew him know that he had an identity outside of playing gigs at Your Father’s Moustache?

No, I don’t think they were too aware of it.  But I know when he played opposite us on Barrow Street at the Bohemia, he played his own music at that moment and people became aware of it then.

How about Cecil Taylor in the early 1950s, and his sound and persona and manner?

Well, he was really out at that moment!  He was working on it.  I could see some form in there.  I could see the way it was going.  I could see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.  A lot of people didn’t accept Cecil, but I did.  I thought he was a fantastic musician and I still think he is a fantastic musician.

Randy Weston.

Randy was more like me.  He was more into the formal music.  He didn’t step outside, he didn’t play free, he played more In.  We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest between us to see who could play the best waltzes! [LAUGHS] We had a little waltz competition going on…off the record, of course.

[MUSIC: MW/RW/Blackwell, "Thy Freedom Come"; Mal/Jeanne Lee, "Soul Eyes"; Abbey Lincoln/Mal, "Straight Ahead"]

Mal Waldron has long experience in accompanying and gently prodding singers to their strongest performances, an ability I’m sure he honed during his several years with Billie Holiday. [ETC.] Have you always played for singers?

Pretty much, yes, because they had more of an in with the areas to make money than the musicians really did.

Discuss your thoughts on the art of accompaniment.

Well, it’s really support. I just lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!

Whatever the key might be!

[LAUGHS] Right.

Doing that, for one thing, you accumulate a lot of repertoire.  And in doing so, I’d imagine that you internalize the lyrics for many of the songs that you subsequently have to play instrumentally, which would inflect your interpretation of those songs.

Right.  It really helps me to improvise, because the words give it a completely different atmosphere to improvise on.  You can improvise the words alone, instead of just improvising on the changes and the harmony and the melody.

Subsequently you wrote lyrics to “Soul Eyes,” after composing it… It’s hard to say which of Mal Waldron’s is the most classic, but “Soul Eyes” has particularly been a romantic tenor sax vehicle ballad showpiece — John Coltrane, George Coleman.

That tune was written for John Coltrane.  I knew he was on the date the next day.  The way the setup was in those days, they’d tell me who was on the set and then they’d tell me to write six or seven compositions for the date.  So I had to stay up all night long and write the changes, and next morning I’d come in to Hackensack, N.J., and make the records, then I’d go home and write some more music for the next date.

Not a bad way to get your craft together.

No.  Not a bad way to make money, too!

And you have royalties on a lot… Do you own this music?

Yes.

Prestige doesn’t own it.

Well, I get half and they get half.

So “Soul Eyes” was written for one of the Prestige Coltrane dates and not Impulse 21.

That’s right.  It was originally for Prestige with the Two Tenors, Two Trumpets.

You did a lot of those dates.  Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean, Paul Quinichette.  What a great apprenticeship.  How did it begin?

Jackie McLean is the one who first got me in there on a date he did, then Bob Weinstock liked me and Esmond Edwards liked me, and another guy named Ozzie Cadena was working for them, and he also liked me.  So they kept giving me more and more dates to write for.  That’s how come I’ve racked up so many compositions over the years.  I have about 400 compositions out there, at least.

I’m sure you have favorites.  I’ve listened to those Prestige dates, and the impression one gets of them is that they’re a little more substantial than the run-of-the-mill blowing session that Prestige dates could sometimes turn into, that your presence seemed to impart an organizing, cohesive quality.

I was very lucky in those days, though.  The way I’d write the tunes, the first important thing was to be able to solo on it.  So I’d make my  changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then I’d write a tune over the changes.

Write your melody…

Over the changes, yes.

I guess the Prestige relationship starts in ’56, when the first Jackie McLean record happens. At this point you’d been playing with Mingus for a couple of years.  There’s a Teddy Charles Tentet date where you’d done “Vibrations,” a rather ambitious orchestrative piece.  A lot of work around New York.  So even though Mal Waldron says he felt like a child next to these musicians, he was certainly making his mark.  Was composing for you a functional thing, something you plunged into because of economics?  Or was there some inner imperative?

It went along with the improvising, which is instant composition for me.  So I just decided to write them down and work with them a bit more on paper than just running them off as solos.

What’s the first composition or a few of yours that you remember finding yourself satisfied with and that continues to be in your repertoire?  What’s with you now?  “Dee’s Dilemma” is on this ’97 date, so I guess that’s one.

That’s tough.

Well, we can skip that.  But obviously, your attitude toward old repertoire is accretive.  You keep things, you discard things, you come up with new things, and it builds.  Talk about the scene in New York in the ’50s.  By now your toe isn’t dipped in the water; you’re at least up to your waist if not headlong.  Talk about your daily life in ’54-’55-’56-’57.

Well, my life was consisting of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and then recording them the next day.

But you were also working gigs.

Yes, I did some gigs, too, at that time.

I mean, all over New York, because there were so many clubs and so much music.

I was freelancing.  I didn’t work with one group all the time.  I worked with whoever called me.  That was the way you did it in those days.

So Jackie McLean would get a gig at some place on 145th Street and would call you and you’d go in.  Or then he’d go down to the Bohemia.  It would be a circuit type of thing.

Well, it was a snowball effect, because you played with one musician and there was another sideman on the band who was also a leader, and he heard you, too, and if he liked you he’d use you on his date.  Then he had another sideman on his date who was a leader, too… It just kept snowballing and snowballing until finally you played with all the musicians.

Talk about your association with Charles Mingus, which I gather was consequential for you.

Yes.  Well, Mingus was like my older brother really.  We talked a lot, and he gave me a lot of advice and helped to develop myself and become a mature musician.  The first thing he told me was “don’t imitate anybody.”  I was into imitating the people around me, like Bud Powell.  I’d make Bud Powell runs and so forth.  He said, “Don’t.  That’s not the way.  An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.”  So that stuck with me, and I started working on my own style.

So you credit Mingus with helping you find the Mal Waldron tonal personality.

Yes, sure.

And before that you were trying to play in the manner of Bud Powell, a lot of single line runs…

Right.

What did creating the Mal Waldron style entail?  A more orchestral approach to the piano?  A more compositional approach?

Well, it entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but thinking of changes as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change or something like that, just a group of notes — not thinking of a tonal concept, just a group of notes would be an impetus for soloing on.

Were you doing formal study after Queens College?  When did you graduate?

I came back in 1946.  I graduated in 1949.

I’m assuming that the curriculum dealt with classical music up to modern European…

Right.  I learned a lot about development of themes, too, from Karol Rathaus, who was the compositional teacher.

Did those lessons stay with you in your composition?

Definitely.

Your classical background never left you, your sense of harmony and shading…

And form and development, how to develop themes, sure.

I think people aren’t aware of how deeply classical music studies permeated musicians of your generation, who then created a lot of home-grown resolutions and utilizations of it.  Can you address that a bit.  I guess the G.I. Bill helped a lot of people.

Sure.  Well, it had to do with the concepts of Bach.  Bach is very basic.  The way he moves from V to I, that concept is very instrumental in how the musicians grew.  They moved from V to I, and they made it with a flat fifth and putting in stuff like extra notes in the chords and changes like that.

In your circle of friends with Randy Weston and Herbie Nichols, etc., were you talking a lot about classical music and listening to…

Yes, we discussed things like “Rite of Spring” and the sounds and things like that.

Then at night you’d be playing the blues in various places. I’m trying elicit a sense of the milieu in which sensibilities are formed. It’s very different today, how people find information and develop themselves…

Well, there were times when I would play with Tiny Grimes’ group, which was the Swinging Highlanders…

With kilts, right?

Yes, kilts.  I didn’t wear the kilts.  I just wore the tam, though!  But after a night of that we’d come home and we’d put on our records and  listen to Sonny Rollins playing things like “A Song In My Heart” and things like that.  We’d just get away from the sound of what we were doing all night long.

You played with Ike Quebec for a while.

Yes.  He was a beautiful person.  He was the straw boss of the Lucky Millinder group.  That’s how come I got into Lucky Millender’s band, too.

He became the de facto A&R man for Blue Note, although you wound up with Prestige, where Jackie McLean introduced you, and voila!

Right.  Well, there was a competition between Blue Note and Prestige, too.  If you went in one camp, you couldn’t go in the other camp.  At the moment I went in, it was one or the other.

Talk about the milieu of those Prestige sessions, which have a different character than the analogous Blue Note sessions.

I’m not too aware of what the Blue Note sessions were like.

But how would they go down?  You’d get a phone call, you’d write some music, a bunch of charts or tunes…

Right, and bring them in.  We’d run them through maybe for ten minutes, or just talk about them, and then we’d make the record.  They were usually all first takes, too.

I guess with people like Gene Ammons and Coltrane and Paul Quinichette and Frank Wess and Thad Jones, you didn’t need more than one take. [ETC.] In the previous set, we heard Mal Waldron with two great divas of the generation that grew up listening to Billie Holiday.  Mal Waldron played for several years with Billie Holiday.  I wonder if you can talk about how that happened and address the experience.

It was really an accident.  Because her pianist… She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist just conked out, he couldn’t function any more.  So she needed the pianist.  So she asked Bill Duffy, who had written the book with her, to find a pianist, and Bill asked his wife, Millie Duffy, if she knew any musicians, and Millie asked Julian Euell, who was one of her friends, and Julian Euell asked me, and I said “The buck stops here.”  I got on a train and went there.  So it was an accident, but it was a beautiful accident for me.

Were you always a fan of her music?

Oh yes, I was a fan of her music, but I had never played it.  But I got a crash course!

And “Left Alone” was written for her?

Yes.  She wrote the words and I wrote the melody.  We were on a plane going from New York to San Francisco.  It took more time than it does now because they were propeller planes.  She just wanted to write tune about her life, so she wrote those lyrics, and I wrote the melody.  By the time we got off the plane, it was finished.

What was she like with the band?

She was very relaxed.  In fact, she didn’t make rehearsals.  She didn’t like to make rehearsals.  She just came on and did it.  So I had to rehearse the band! [LAUGHS]

I guess you always took on those responsibilities.  Let’s go to a 1956 session led by the vibraphonist Teddy Charles for Atlantic under the title, The Teddy Charles Tentet, which has an early and very ambitious Mal Waldron composition entitled “Vibrations.”  It’s a feature for Gigi Gryce, with whom you played a lot.  Art Farmer plays trumpet; he was on many of those Prestige sessions… [ETC.]

[MW/TC, "Vibrations," MW/Coltrane/Shihab, "From This Moment On"; w/Jaymac, "Left Alone"; Abbey/Hawk, "Left Alone"; w/Dolphy, "We Diddit"]

Before The Quest in 1960, a lot of your compositions had been recorded, but something about this seemed to bring you to a different level.  It seems pivotal in some way.

Well, it’s hard for me to make that statement.  Because I was just growing; each year, each day, I was growing bigger and bigger.  There’s no real point I can point to and say this was my best.  I just growing every day.

In writing for The Quest, did you know who the horn players would be?  Did you write for musicians?  If you had a date with Gene Ammons and composed “Ammon Joy,” was that based on his…

Yes, on his sound.  They’re all connected.

Or writing for Thad Jones or Frank Wess or John Coltrane.  In each case you had their sound in  mind.

Their sound in mind, sure.  That’s the way you write.

So maybe it had something to do with the tonal personality of Eric Dolphy that made The Quest what it was.

Yes.  And Booker Ervin, too.  The sound just came to me as a whole entity.

You were describing the ambiance in the studio when Abbey Lincoln did “Left Alone” with Coleman Hawkins.  You said that Monk was there.

Monk was there, yes.  It was a very exciting day for me because Coleman Hawkins was playing my tune!  That was a big joy for me.  Then Thelonious Monk was in the room, and I had arranged one of his tunes for the date, “Blue Monk,” and I was interested to see if he would beat me up after the rendition.

What statement did he make?

He said, “That sounds good.”  So I passed.

You’d been paying attention to Monk since the ’40s, I guess.  Were you hearing him live before you heard his records?  You’d have had an opportunity to do so.

Yes, I heard him at Minton’s Playhouse before I heard the records.  It’s so long ago…  He was very different and kind of austere, kind of imposing.  He was a big man.  And he looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world.

Was his sound immediately attractive to you as a twenty-ish aspirant?

No, it wasn’t immediately attractive to me.  It was so strange, the way he hit the piano.  But later it just grew on me.  It just grows on you.  It’s an acquired taste.

Were you studying his tunes and taking them apart once the records came out? Andrew Hill, for instance, described to me that as  the records came out, and he and his friend, who were teenagers, would learn them directly off the records.  You were somewhat older, but was that the way you did it as well?

No, I didn’t do it quite that way.  I heard them and was impressed by them.  But I didn’t learn them off the record.  I was aware of the changes, so I approached them that way, and I tried to play them with my sound really.

On “From This Moment On” we heard the way you distilled Bud Powell, the fleet right-hand lines.  For instance, with Bud Powell, were you trying to play his solos note-for-note in your learning process before you emerged?  Were there other pianists like that?  Or was it always getting an impression and then going out and doing what you do?

No, it was really note-for-note.  I would try to imitate him when he played “Bud’s Bubble” and things like that.  I’d try to imitate the sound.  But that was before I got to Mingus.  Mingus put an end to all that, and said, “Stop that!” [LAUGHS] He was a very impulsive person, being a Taurus.  As I said, fear is a great motivator!

You’re on the session where “Haitian Fight Song” makes its debut. Coming up is “The Git-Go,” from a session with Joe Henderson.

WALDRON:  The git-go means taking it from the top, taking it from the beginning.  It has that funk and stuff like that…

[MW/Joe-Hen, "The Git-Go", "Herbal Syndrome"]

We’ve kept Mal Waldron in the past, several generations ago, when he formed his sensibility and laid down an astonishingly strong corpus of work, which, had he never recorded another note after 1963, he’d still be remembered as one of the most consequential musicians of his time.  But that edifice has turned into a pyramid or the Great Wall of China or something…but he’s created a huge body of work during his 36 years in Europe — lots of composing, associations with the creme de la creme of European improvisers, record dates for Japanese and European labels with people like Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean…much too much to address in the time we have.  But I’d like to address the circumstances under which you settled in Europe.  You had an illness, and moved to Europe in the aftermath of that.  Let’s talk about getting established in Europe and your state of mind in the mid-’60s.

When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin.  In America if you were black and a musician at that time, it was two strikes against  you.  And in Europe, if you were black and a musician it was two strikes for you, so I decided to go for that.

Where did you initially move to?

Paris.

There were a number of Americans in Paris at that time.  Arthur Taylor and Kenny Clarke had both moved there, Dexter Gordon…

Ben Webster was there.

Don Byas and Johnny Griffin.  Are those the people you began to work with?

I worked with Ben Webster over there, at…what’s the name of this place…

Le Chat Qui Peche…

No, not Le Chat Qui Peche.  Another one on the Right Bank.

But I’ll assume you landed in Europe playing…

Well, no.  I went to Europe to write the music for a film.  That’s how I got my plane fare over there.  Marcel Carne, who directed the film Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, from a book that was written by Georges Simenon, and the film had Annie Giroudeau… He asked me if I wanted to write the music in New York or Paris. [LAUGHS] Of course… What a choice!  I said, “Paris, of course,” and he paid my ticket over there and I landed in Paris.

And here we are in 2001…

Right! [LAUGHS] The musical scene was very varied in Paris at that moment.  I remember working at Buttercup’s club, The Chicken Shack, which was in Montmartre; Buttercup was Bud Powell’s second wife, and they had their child Johnny with them, and I gave Johnny piano lessons.  That was a gig for me, too.

Had you known Bud Powell before?

No, I never knew Bud, but I was aware of him.  I never got to know him.  When he came back to Paris, he was not very coherent.

Next we’ll hear Mal Waldron interpreting one of Bud Powell’s great ballads, which folks like Walter Davis and Barry Harris have played magical versions of.  It’s a duo with Steve Lacy, with whom you’ve performed probably several thousand times in the last 30-plus years, always doing it differently.  It’s perhaps the defining association of your many associations there… Well, for both of you in some ways.

Yes.  The first time I met Steve, we did Jazz and Poetry at the Five Spot.  That was our first meeting.

Who was the poet?

Kenneth Rexroth was the poet there, and also I think Ginsberg, and this artist Larry Rivers…

All of whom were drawing inspiration from jazz musicians, something the poets (not Larry Rivers) later renounced.  Talk about that scene.  Here I go again bringing you back to America.  But this would be of interest to people only the most general interest in jazz, is the relationship between the avant-gardes, as it were, of literature and poetry and art and jazz  music in the ’50s.

Well, they were together because we were both on the outer edges of the status quo.  We were not included in the status quo.  We were the outlaws really. [LAUGHS] So we ganged together.  There was sawdust on the floor at the Five Spot!  But we did some beautiful things together there.

On the East Village Frontier.  Did you have that view yourself in the ’50s?

No.  At that time, no.

This is in retrospect.

This is in retrospect.  At that time I was just a normal person, playing a gig and getting money for it, and going home and feeding the family and stuff like that.

So in 1958, playing a gig with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg and Steve Lacy was just part of your quotidian, part of the big mosaic…

Right.  They were not stars to me.  They became stars when you look back, but they were not stars to me at that moment.  They were just people that I worked with.

So you’d do that, then go out to Hackensack and do a session, then play a set in Harlem with somebody, day-after-day, one day at a time.

That’s right.

But let’s get back to Europe.

We both got to Paris.  I hadn’t seen Steve in a little while, and then we met… They set us up for a gig in Italy, a duo, and we just came together and we didn’t have anything prepared, so we just improvised, and it worked. [LAUGHS] So that’s the way the duo started.

You both had an extremely broad range of reference, with Monk and Ellington as common points.

Well, music is a language, and as long as you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else.  And if the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better.  Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.

You came up in a similar milieu, though you approached it from different angles.  You had a quintet with him and Manfred Schoof.  One of his quintets had you, though there was another one that didn’t have you.  It’s been a symbiotic relationship.  The last time you played together in the States was last summer at Carremour.

Yes.  And we the Iridium, too.  The Get Rid Of Them, I called it.

[Waldron/Lacy, "I'll Keep Loving You"; "Johnny Come Lately"]

That scratches the surface of the oeuvre of Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy, which is massive and of the highest aesthetic level. [ETC.] You’ve been a resident of Belgium for some years now.

About 15 years in Belgium.

Do you work primarily in Europe or all over the world?

All over the world.  I go to Japan and  I go to South Africa and all over the world.  I work with several different groups.  For example, I do duets with David Murray, I do duets with Steve Lacy, and I used to do duets with Jeanne Lee, but she’s dead now.  Then I have a quartet with John Betsch on drums, Ian Horta on bass, and Sean Bergin on tenor saxophone.  I have the trio with Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, who sometimes I bring to Europe.  And then I have a duo with Jackie McLean that we’ve been doing lately, too.

Then there are solo piano things. I guess.  You continue to write.

Yes, every day.

How do you decide when a melody works and when it doesn’t?

Well, when if it stays in my mind for two months then it works.

That’s the cutoff point?

That’s the cutoff point, right.

Say in the last two or three years, how many new pieces have come out?

Maybe 30, something like that.

You said you have about 400 copyrighted pieces.  Are they all within jazz form?  You do various commissions — ballets, film scores.

I didn’t count the ballets.  The 400 tunes are jazz tunes done under the Prestige mantle while I was the house pianist there.

Oh, you’re just talking about 400 tunes in the ’50s and ’60s.  Subsequent to what, what are we talking about?  How many compositions have your copyright on them?

There are a couple of ballet scores.  I did some things for Henry Street Playhouse, and I did some individual dance things with Florita Ropp(?) and other dancers around New York City in the early ’50s, I think.  Then the film music, too.

So your compositions probably number a couple of thousand.  How do you keep track of them and decide which stay in your repertoire?

Well, they don’t all stay with me.  A lot of tunes I just remember the name, but I can’t remember the way it goes or anything like that.  I can’t remember the changes.  I have scores written so I can refer to it in case I want to play it again.  But I go through stages where I’ll go backwards.  For example, with Judi Silvano I went back and did some things I did for Prestige that I haven’t done for a long time.

“Cattin’,” “All Night Through.”

That’s a ballad.  I haven’t played it for a long time, and Judi helped me rejuvenate it.  Certain circumstances make me go back and other circumstances take me other places.

From Zephyr we’ll hear a new piece, entitled “You.”

[MW/Silvano, "You"; Mal solo, "You Don't Know What Love Is" (1972)]

Mal Waldron brought a tape of a duo he did with the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani, who was a mainstay of European music for thirty years.

This is kind of a safari feeling.  You’re out in the bush and you’re just moving.  The feel is like that.  It was done maybe 20 years ago in Paris.  It was just released by Futura Records.  It was done by the Jazz Unity at (?) which was functioning at that time, around 1975 or something like that.

[Mal/J. Dyani, "#1"]

When you hear Mal Waldron’s sound, you hear the New York sophistication, the stride piano thing, the Ellington-Monk continuum, the Bud Powell sound — and of course, Mal Waldron, as Charles Mingus admonished him always to retain… [ETC.] What do the next few months hold?  Can you tell us when you’ll be back in the States?

I don’t plan to come back to the States for a while.  I don’t feel relaxed here.  I can’t relax.  I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke in the club, I can’t have one in the bandstand.  And for me, having the smoke around me when I play the piano help me to feel the mood and feel relaxed and jazzy.  You know?

You are old school!

That’s my “snoozedecker,” like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in Peanuts.

I guess in Belgium they have the good chocolate, the good beer, the good mussels.  But we hope it won’t keep you away for too long, because we need our old masters here, and Mal Waldron is palpably one of them.

[MW/RW/AC, "Dee's Dilemma"]

Mal Waldron (2-25-02):

What I’d like to do is ask you about current events, and ask some questions that spring to mind around those events.  You just came back to Belgium from ten days at two of the Japanese Blue Notes with John Betsch and Jean-Jacques Avenel, your trio. Then you did some duos with Avenel and Lacy.  You did a record at the end of January with Lacy for Sketch.  You did a duo album for Enja with Archie Shepp of Billie Holiday material.  And you’re about to go on a tour of master classes.  You’re doing some festival appearances with a quartet, which is the rhythm section and Sean Bergin.  And you’re doing a duo CD with David Murray as well.

Let me ask you about the personalities that are most suited to playing with you.

Actually, I don’t know, because I try to fit to them.  I feel that the object is to make a beautiful sound, and if I can add to the sound, I play something to add to the sound, and if I can’t, then I don’t play anything, like Miles Davis once said. [LAUGHS]

You try to fit them and suit them.  But that said, one can have a conversation with anybody, but there are some people with whom the sparks just fly and certain people with whom they don’t, and it seems there are certain types of musical personalities you intersect with where the sparks fly.

WALDRON:  I think sparks fly with David Murray and I, because he’s adventurous, he likes to take risks, and I’m adventurous, I like to take risks — so we go up on that point together.  Jean-Jacques Avenel is a fantastic bass player, I love him and also Steve Lacy is very adventurous.

Is it that risk-taking quality?  That’s the main thing with you?

Yeah, that’s the main thing with me, because I hate monotony!  I think that that’s what makes you get old — monotony.  To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting yourself to new situations.

Is that something that just happens, or are there processes you go through to get yourself there?

No, that’s something that just happens, really.  It happens when the people opposite me are adventurous and take risks.

So that’s why you seek out those types of people.  I guess they have to be also people like you, who have a very deep grounding in the fundamentals.  Because your music is always very rooted and earthy…

Well, you have to have your vocabulary.  That’s your vocabulary.  You can’t talk to another person without a vocabulary!  All of those things that went before in music is part of your vocabulary.

With Lacy, you’ve seemed to go through the whole legacy.

The gamut.

From Monk and Elmo Hope and Bud and Ellington to the songbook.  Do you listen to your records analytically?  Do you listen to them, or do you just do them and go on to the next thing?

I like to look forward.  I don’t like to look back too much.  Because I feel if you look back too much, you trip when you take a step forward.

But yet when you joined me on the radio, when you were selecting tunes you were pretty definite about which tracks you wanted to represent yourself with.  So you’re obviously conscious of…

Yes, I’m conscious of everything I’ve done.

With Lacy, who you’ve played together in duo for over 20 years, and with whom your association goes back to 1955, how has that evolved from when you began your European association?

The European association started out very free.  There was no material at all on the boards.  We just related for an hour-and-a-half or something like that.  Then later on, we started getting together and playing tunes.  Steve brought out his tunes and I brought out my tunes, and we started involving working out on tunes and doing tunes by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and all the people we both liked.

So you just organically evolved a repertoire, beginning with original music and then moving to common vocabulary. You’ve played with so many dynamic drummers.  We’re talking about Max Roach, not to mention the Prestige sessions with Arthur Taylor, or with Blackwell later on, and Cyrille right now, or Billy Higgins… Is there a particular kind of drummer who sets off sparks with you?

Yes, the type of drummer who doesn’t feel that one has to be fixed.  One should be fixed in their mind, and then they can play all over it, all around it, but they always know where the start of the bar is.

Is there any component to the way you think about playing music that’s like a drummer in terms of the percussive aspect of the piano?  Is it something you’re very conscious?

Yes, I’m very conscious of it, because I learned long ago that the piano is a percussive instrument.  It’s a percussive instrument because you beat on it, so it’s drum-like.  It’s basically a percussive instrument, so you have to use it like that.

When did you learn that?

Oh, way back, when I was with Charlie Mingus or earlier than that.

Is that when Mingus told you to stop playing like Bud Powell and be yourself, or words to that effect?

[LAUGHS] Right.  About that time.

Was that a difficult lesson to learn, that the piano is a drum?

No, it wasn’t too hard for me to learn, because I love to bang on things!  Even as a child, I used to bang on things!

Well, you and your friend Randy Weston came to similar conclusions about the piano. Cecil Taylor, too.  All around that time.  Maybe I’m being a bit too free and easy with chronology here.  But what was in the air then that gave you this sense of endless possibility?

Well, first of all, we realized that jazz was a music of protest, that it was the music of people who wanted to change the status quo, who were not satisfied with things going as it is now.  So that meant you would strike back.  So that gave us the punch to… You’d punch the piano like you were punching somebody who was in your way or something like that.

Is jazz still that?

Jazz is still a music of protest, right.

What were some of the stylistic antecedents you would have looked to in that?  Was that something, let’s say, you heard in Monk and Ellington?

I heard it in Monk and Ellington.  I heard it in Jimmie Lunceford’s band.  I heard it in Billy Eckstine’s band.  I heard it almost all over the place!

And you were an avid listener as well.  I know you told me when you heard “Body and Soul,” you bought an alto saxophone, changed the mouthpiece to make it sound like a tenor, and learned Coleman Hawkins’ solo, and you were on your way.

[LAUGHS] Right.

The chronology you gave me was this.  You said you were forced to take piano lessons, fear was the great motivator because your father would get physical with you if you didn’t do it.

He would kill me!

And growing up in Jamaica, you played little recitals here and there of Classical music.  Then you go in the Army after high school, and you worked during high school, which would be ’40-’41-’42, playing alto saxophone, on little gigs here and there.

Right, with Reggie Goodlette.

Was that a jump band thing?

That was a swing band.

You’d be playing the basic stocks?

Right, we had all the charts from Sy Oliver and all the people who wrote charts, and we would read those through.  Basie’s charts.  You’d read through those.

And you’d play neighborhood dances and little functions around the neighborhood.

Right.

Then you go in the Army.  Were you playing music in the Army?

No, this happened when I was in the Army.  I met Reggie Goodlette when I was in the Army, because he lived up in Nyack, near West Point, on the other side of the river.  He had this band, and I played alto, and I happened to hang out with him one night, we got together, and I tried to fit it into the band.

So before you got into the Army, you weren’t playing for little bits of money and things like that?

Yeah, I had played for little bits of money.  I had played with Al Brown’s Sheiks of Rhythm! [LAUGHS]

Same sort of thing?  Charts?

Same sort of thing.  Charts.

But you said while you were at West Point, you would go down to Minton’s.

Yes.

Which isn’t that hard to do from West Point.  In less than an hour you could be there.

Right.  I’d take the train down.

How did you know about what was going on at Minton’s at that time?  Was it basically in the air, among the circle of people you were hanging out with?

People would come back from the city and they’d say, “Man, you know who’s in town?  Coleman Hawkins is playing at 52nd Street, and Minton’s has so-and-so.”  They’d spread the word.  Then you’d go down and hear it, and you would spread the word.  “Yeah, they sound fantastic; you should catch them.”

And you heard Monk a number of times there.

Yeah, I heard Monk a number of times.

I saw an interview you did for an NPR show where you said “For me, Monk was perfection, because he didn’t say with 10 words what he could say with one word.  Very economical and his music was very basic and very subtle at the same time, and I liked that, so he was my perfect musician.  I learned from him that silence is important, too.”  Did you learn that then or did you learn that later?

Did I learn all those things that you said?  I learned those later, but through him.  I heard them first in him, and then I listened to it coming out in other musicians, and then I realized the importance of what he had done.

So Monk had an impact on you as far back as 1943 and ’44.

Definitely.

You’re one of the very few musicians for whom that could be a true statement.

Randy Weston was around there, too.  Cecil Taylor was around.

He would have been a bit young to be there in 1943-44.

Right, I keep forgetting!  Herbie Nichols would be up there, too.

You said about Herbie Nichols that you learned from him that if you played music in consideration of the way you walk and move and talk, that you would then be finding your personality, and you found that out through listening to him and how his music matched his personality.

Yes, that’s true.

You’re one of the few people who would have known Herbie Nichols well enough to say something consequential about him.

He was kind of an introspective type of person.  I was also introspective.  That meant that when we stood together, there wasn’t too much conversation going on.  But we said a few words, and I got his meaning and he got my meaning.  His themes were so beautiful and so intricate and tricky, but subtle at the same time — and basic, too.

Can you talk about how your notion of technique evolved over the years, and how technique plays into self-expression?

Well, my technique was always nil and is still nil.  I only play what I hear, and I usually have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear.  But there are other things that other musicians hear that I can’t play because my technique is not up to that.

Are there things that you hear that you can’t play?

That I hear personally that I can’t play?  No.  I’m a rounded person.  So whatever I hear, I know I can play, I know I can reach.  In other words, if my technique isn’t enough to cover it, then the idea doesn’t come in my mind in the first place.

There were a number of people in your peer group who when bebop came along pooh-poohed the older music, who decided that wasn’t so material to their interests.  I know that process has been exaggerated a bit.  But what side of the fence did you fall on at that time?  Listening to you now, the continuities seem clear, but I don’t know how clear they would have been then.  What was your attitude in 1949 to stride piano or the Basie Orchestra or Louis Jordan?

I enjoyed all those musics, and I felt that they developed into the next phase.  Stride evolved into Swing, and Swing evolved into Bebop, and it goes on and on like that.  It just evolved.  Because after a while, when you work at it long enough, it changes its qualities and becomes bigger, and then it goes into a different class.

Also, a lot of your early gigs were with people for whom the differentiations didn’t mean anything.  People like Lucky Thompson, Ike Quebec and Big Nick Nicholas were all fully aware of bebop, but they were playing functionally, too, and their self-expression wasn’t limited to any one particular thing.

Right.  In other words, they just played music.  They didn’t play styles.  I think the styles came from the critics who wrote about it, and they had to put you in some type of box, so they said, “Well, he plays bebop” or “this is bebop and this is swing.” But when a musician sits down, he just plays music.  He doesn’t think about a barrier between swing and bebop.

Is it the same way for you now when you think about playing free and with Lacy’s more outer partials type of thing, or David Murray…that those stylistic differentiations don’t exist?

Yes, I feel that way.  They both feel the same way I do about that.  So we just play music together, and we don’t think about barriers at all.

Getting back to the here-and-now with your band, how much rehearsal do you do on tunes?  Do you give them a chart and let them play out what the version is going to be?

Yes.  If I hand them a chart, it’s just a melody and they can do whatever they want with it, because I’m interested to see all the possibilities that other people see in my music, and their possibilities enable me to grow and to develop into other areas, and then I write another tune that’s more developed than the first tune because I heard what the other fellows did with my first tune!  So it grows and grows and grows.

You also played with some of the most distinctive vocalists that ever sang on a stage, just to mention Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Jeanne Lee, plus the various others.  First of all, did you do a lot of that type of accompaniment work in the ’50s and after Billie Holiday died?

Yes, I did quite a lot of it.  Right after Billie died, I joined Abbey Lincoln.  We had the duo and trio with me and Julian Euell and Abbey Lincoln.

And before you joined Billie Holiday, you were doing a fair amount of it, too?

Yes.  Before I joined Billie Holiday, I was doing demo dates for singers.

What advantages did you draw from those experiences?

Well, the words were very important to me, and I found out that words are important to music, too, because it means that you have a new area that you can solo and improvise on.  You can improvise on the words.  Not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words.  This gave me a bigger and bigger area to expand into.

Do you continue to play with singers?  Judi Silvano, of course.

Yes, I did the record with Judi Silvano that I like.  Also I’m doing something with Sheila Jordan every now and then.

She comes to Europe and you do duos and trios?

Yes, duos and trios.  In fact, I’m performing with her in LeMans on May 3rd.  I hope they won’t be doing the Grand Prix that day!  At least not over the stage.

How much touring do you do these days?  First of all, you live in Brussels, right?

Right.  I’ve been in Brussels since about 1989.

So you go to Europe in ’65.  You get a ticket from Marcel Carne for this movie, and then you wind up playing with Ben Webster a fair amount, you played a lot at Buttercup’s restaurant… So Paris was your initial base.

Right.  Paris was my initial introduction to Europe.  I was in Paris for about one year. Then I moved to Italy.  I played six months in Rome and six months in Bologna.  In Rome I did the radio every week for about one year, lots and lots of “giorno de festa” holidays with pay.  I loved it!

Were they using you as a composer-arranger primarily?

No, just a piano player.

You did this in Bologna as well?

In Bologna I just did gigs.  I did the jazz festival there… The Bologna Jazz Festival was running there at that time, for two years.

I see.  And after Bologna was Munich?

No.  After Bologna I was up in Cologne, for about three or four months.  Then I went to Erlangen for about two months.  Then I moved to Munich, and I stayed there for almost 25 years.

You described to me in a very pithy way what the appeal of Europe was.  You said if you were a black musician in America you had two strikes against you, and if you were a black musician in Europe it was exactly the opposite.  What were the qualities of living in Europe that made it possible for you to blossom and function?  Maybe it was nothing more than that open-minded attitude and sense of being able to get away from all the bullshit. But if there were other factors, what were they?  And how did the European situation evolve over the years? I gather that the attitudes did change and the environment did change in various ways.

Well, to the first part of the question, it was the respect for the music.  Respect.  That’s the main thing that affected me in Europe.  Respect.  They all came out and loved your music and respected it, and they tried to learn about your music.  They made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it.  And when they finally finished, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist.  Which was not true in America.

Has that been consistent over 35 years?

Yes, it’s been very consistent.

How has the European scene changed?

There’s more areas where you can play.  When I first came to Europe there was just France and Germany and Italy.  Those are the main things.  Now Spain has come in, and also many Eastern countries have come in.  Now there are festivals in Romania and festivals in Czechoslovakia, and festivals in Yugoslavia and festivals in Hungary where you can play now.

So since the Iron Curtain came down, it opened up a market.

Right.  Also Greece, which wasn’t too heavy on jazz when I came, but now you can get a gig down in Greece easily.

So for you it’s that the venues have opened up and you have a more capacious selection of places to play.  It’s easier to make a living.

Right.

But was the canard about European musicians true, that they insufficiently understood the principles of 4/4 swing and so on?

Of course, it’s individual.  Everything is always individual.  you can’t just make general statements like that.  But there were some drummers that didn’t have any concept of swing, but there were others that could swing.  And there were saxophone players that had no conception of harmony, they’d kind of just thumb it all over the place; and there were musicians who had a conception and played their horns well.  So it was just a question of finding the right musicians.

And was that something you did with a fair amount of success?

Yes, I did it with a fair amount of success because they were all over the place.

Who were some of the first people you linked up with?  I know in ’71 you did Black Glory with Jimmy Woode, who was over there, and George Mraz had one of his first gigs with you.  But it seems your associations in Europe have been very long-term for the most part.

I worked together with Dusko Goykovich for quite a while, too.  That’s who I came to see in Cologne when I first came to Germany.  His sister had a restaurant, and I lived above the restaurant and we played gigs.  Peter Trunk on bass, who was a beautiful bassist, who died in New York City.  Also Eddie Busnell(?), an alto saxophone player.  A very talented fellow.

Were you playing mostly your music on those gigs or a whole range of…

No, we were playing a whole range of stuff.  There would be some of my tunes in there, of course, but there would be other people’s tunes, too.

How aware of you were these musicians you worked with?  Did they know things like The Quest and the records with Gene Ammons and Jackie McLean and Billie Holiday?

They knew all of this, yes.

So they were quite familiar with who you were.

Yes, they respected me.

I was interested in how you described your procedure in writing for Prestige.  I think you said 400 tunes in the Prestige years.  You said you’d write 4-5 tunes the night before the gig… The first important thing was to be able to solo on it, so you’d make the changes first, “nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully,” and then you’d write your melody over the changes, and that’s how it went.  You’d think of the idiosyncracies of the different people you were writing for, so with Gene Ammons you’d go a certain way and maybe with Jackie McLean, another way, and maybe Frank Wess and Thad Jones another way.

Right, that’s the way it went.

Were you gigging with these guys outside of the record dates?

Some of them I was gigging with.  There would be things with Jackie McLean.  He was my ace buddy.  He got me with Prestige.  I did some things with Art Farmer and Addison Farmer, his twin brother.  I did some things with A.T., Arthur Taylor, and Paul Chambers, too.  And Doug Watkins.  There were a lot of little things we did around town, and we got together on those gigs.

So you were all over the scene, uptown, downtown, the boroughs.

You had to be!  That was the prerequisite of staying alive.  Keep all the burners going.

Getting back to Europe, would you say that the general level of idiomatic ability to deal with jazz has advanced during your time there?

Yes, it’s definitely advanced.  It’s made progress, sure.  At the time I came in, they were on Level A, and now they’re on maybe Level U or W or something like that, at the end of the scale.

A lot of people say there’s almost no difference, that because of jazz education, there are people all over the world who can play the music… Well, you do workshops and master classes, so you see it.

Right, I do.  And a lot of other musicians do workshops here, too, and musicians gain from that, profit from that, and they get better.  It’s been going on a long time, too.  Kenny Clarke gave workshops, too.

Did you touch base with him when you got to Paris?

Yes, I touched base with Kenny Clarke right away.  He was a very relaxed guy, very funny, and liked to laugh… He had idiosyncracies, things I thought were idiosyncracies, but I adopted them myself!  He used to collect change from all the different countries.  He had bottles with francs, and bottles with marks and bottles with lira — all those different bottles!  Now I’m doing it!

Now there’s the Euro.

Right.  So now I’ll take these bottles and try to get to the countries to cash them in!  He was smart.  He did it at the right time.  I did it too late!

By the way, did you get to know Monk pretty well, or was it more an admiration from a distance thing?

It was an admiration from a distance for me and Monk.  We were both introverted.

So like Herbie Nichols, same way with Monk.  Talk about your relationship with Max Roach a bit.  You were playing with Abbey, but quite a bit with him.

I met Max through Abbey.  He came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady!  Then he liked me, so he took me in his band.  We played great.  I loved him.  He was a real teacher for me.  He taught me about time and different tempos and different accents.  He was a master of time.

You described to me when we did the show the circumstances of The Quest and Live At The Five-Spot.  Did you have any working relationship with Eric Dolphy or Booker Little outside of those two record dates and that week at the Five Spot?

Yes, we did the things with Max Roach together and we did things with Abbey Lincoln together.

Were those just record dates?

Record dates.

But on a gigging level, was there anything…

No other gigs.  Just that one week.

I would like to ask one thing, and please decline to answer if it’s too personal.  That’s the circumstances of your leaving America and the illness you had in the ’60s.  Is there anything you can say about it for the purposes of this article?

Well, I left America, because at that time every jazz musician was called a junkie, automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too.  So I started using drugs, and I took an overdose, and I was out for about 6 or 7 months, in East Elmhurst Hospital, and they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind, to get my memory back, because I couldn’t remember where I was, I couldn’t remember anything about the piano or anything.

You lost your memory from it?

Yes.  And I lost my coordination.  My hands were shaking all the time; I couldn’t keep time.  So then I got out of there, and when I got out of there, Marcel Carne asked me about writing music in Paris, and I said, “Of course!  Let’s go!  Let me get out of this.”  Then I got to Europe, and I found in Europe there was so much respect and love for me that I didn’t need any drugs.  I didn’t need any drugs at all.

So you didn’t get involved in it in the earlier years?  Did it happen later as an accumulation of being fed up?

Well, it happened when I was working with Charlie Mingus in the Bohemia, from as early as that. [1955]

Then it just built and built.

Built and built, yes.

For someone who was doing that, you were sure functioning on a pretty high level!  Not to use a pun.

I thought I had control of this horse! [LAUGHS] I would bring him out at night, and have him open in the daytime and put him away at night, and I thought I had him covered.  And all of a sudden, he snuck up on me and knocked me down!

It’s no wonder you stayed in Europe. When did you first return to the States after going to Europe?

In 1975, ten years after.

What was it like?  Did you approach it with trepidation?

No, I didn’t approach it with trepidation, because I knew where I was at that moment.  I knew I had everything under control.  So I just came to America, and I did I think about three or four weeks.  I did a loft and some other things; I can’t remember now.  But I had myself under control, so drugs didn’t affect me at all.  I didn’t use drugs at all.

Just cigarettes.

Those are not drugs, officer! [LAUGHS] They can’t confiscate my cigarettes.

I remember during the interview you were so upset about the attitude to smoking here that you wanted to go home to Belgium so you could smoke your cigarettes.  You used a term that means your security blanket.

My “snoozedecker.”  A “decker” is a blanket.  Sleeping warm and protected under your decker.  It’s a sleeping blanket.  It comes from Snoopy, from “Peanuts.”

So it’s not an old phrase.  It came about because of American culture.

Linus always had his “snoozedecker,” in the German cartoons at any rate!  I don’t know what they call it in America, because I wasn’t there at that time.

Do you have a facility with languages?

Yes, I do.

So you’ve learned German and French and Italian to one degree or another?

Yes, I’ve learned them all, and I’ve working on my Japanese now.

I guess that’s another good reason for people from those cultures to respect you.

Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it.  If you can communicate to them in their own language, they love you more!  I don’t have to struggle for words.

So vocabulary is essential in many different areas of life, I guess we can say.

Right.  You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else.  You have to have a repertoire.

What music do you listen to now?

Right now I’m checking over the records I made with Jean-Jacques Avenel and Steve Lacy, just to pick out the right takes.  But other than that, I listen to… I like Herbie Hancock when he was playing, like “Wandering Spirits.  I like Geri Allen; I listen to a lot of Geri Allen.  I also like Miles Davis.

All of Miles?

All of it, all the way through.  Miles is a killer.

Did you know Miles, by the way?

No, I didn’t know him at all.  I’ll tell you a joke. When Miles first met me, he said, “You know, you look just like my brother.” I said, “Oh yeah, Miles?”  He said, “Yeah, and I hate my brother because he’s a faggot!” [LAUGHS] So me and Miles were never close after that.

But you like him anyway.

But I like him anyway.

Do you listen to other things besides jazz and improvisers?

Yes, I listen to classical music.  I like Brahms, and I like Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, and I like Stravinsky, I like Alban Berg, and I like Schoenberg, too.  I like Ray Copeland…sorry, Aaron Copland.  I like Mozart.

So that’s a big part of your listening experience, too.

Sure.

A lot of African musicians and Middle Eastern musicians reside in Europe.  Has being in their proximity inflected you since being in Europe?

No, it hasn’t really affected me that much, because I feel that we’re going in two different directions. African jazz is an older form.  The beat is almost like Dixieland, really, in the popular African music.

But that doesn’t apply to someone like Johnny Dyani or Bheki Msileku or Tchangodei…

No-no-no.  There’s a record that came out from me and Johnny Dyani that’s very interesting.

Do you have five favorite records from your corpus of work?

Yeah.  Impressions is one. [Addison Farmer & Tootie Heath] Then The Teddy Charles TentetThe Mal Waldron-Steve Lacy Quintet on America-Disk.  I like The Quest, with “The Warp and the Woof.”  And the fifth is with Joe Henderson on “Soul Eyes.”

Thanks for your wonderful answers.  It was very enjoyable talking with you.

It was very enjoyable talking with you, Ted.  That’s why I did this interview!

I don’t know if I’ll come back to New York.  I can’t smoke cigarettes in New York City.  I had trouble smoking them before; I know it’s even harder.

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Filed under DownBeat, Interview, Mal Waldron, Piano

Interview From 1999 with Pat Metheny, Who Turns 57 Today

On September 18th, five weeks from today, Pat Metheny will embark on a 2-1/2 month tour, the first leg in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier in various U.S. venues, with the second leg comprising six weeks of one-nighters in Europe in trio with Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. This trio first launched in 1999, a while before I had my first opportunity to interview the master guitarist-composer for the editorial component of bn.com, in conjunction with the contemporaneous release of the soundtrack recording A Map Of The World.

Metheny also graciously submitted to a bit of bn.com sillness that we titled “My Favorite Things,” a short-lived series in which various musicians cited favorite recordings, instrumental influences, and the like.

The questions at the end about Michael Brecker were for a DownBeat feature I was putting together at the time about Michael.

What follows is the unedited  transcript of our conversation.

* * *

Let’s address the various recordings you’ve done in recent years, beginning with the soundtrack that the record company is interested in, Imaginary Day.  I haven’t seen the movie.  Would you tell me something about the logistics of how A Map Of The World came to be.

It’s a very well known book.  It was a best-seller a couple of years ago, written by a great author, Jane Hamilton, who has written several really nice books in the last couple of years.  It’s one of those projects that I feel lucky to have been asked to do.  The thing of doing film scores in general is something that I’ve done a bunch over the years.  I did a bunch of them during the early ’80s, Under Fire, The Falcon and the Snowman, and one called Twice In A Lifetime, and a couple of smaller independent ones, one called Big Time, which had Mia Farrow in it, one called Little Sister which was with John Savage, one called Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon.  I’m a big movie fan, I love movies, and from a young age thought, “Wow it would be cool to write movies someday,” and did that bunch over a few years.  Then I realized at that point in my life, and in some ways it’s still true, that if I was going to take three or four months to do something, I’d rather do a record or do a tour — do the things that I do.

You commented in one of these old interviews that’s on your website (and I read all of them this afternoon) that you found it very difficult to really get to your sound on a film soundtrack. You said if somebody gets 2 minutes of good music out of a movie, your hat goes off to them.

Yeah, it can be a very difficult process on the sort of committee level.  One thing about films is that it’s usually the last thing that happens, and it’s at the point in the film where people are often kind of desperate for things to come along and make things better.  More than anything, music is one of the subjects that many people feel that they can talk about, including producers’ wives, girlfriends, buddies, everything else, and have opinions without necessarily knowing that much about it, and it’s a hard thing to do in a consensus way.  It’s a little different than visual arts, where somebody can say, “Oh, I don’t really like the purple part over there.”  You get somebody who doesn’t know about music talking in those kinds of terms, and you can really wind up with a kind of Frankenstein, committee-ized version of something that might not have been that great in the first place!  Those aspects of it are part of what every major Hollywood kind of guy can deal with… A lot of it is just human skill.  I actually don’t interface with Hollywood well at all.  I kind of figured that around the time of Twice In A Lifetime

Are they a bit too oblique for you?

Well, part of it is that I’m really spoiled.  I’ve been able to make my own kind of music kind of on my own terms pretty much from day one.  On the other hand, the part of film scoring that I really love is, in fact, the collaboration of it.

This particular project, Map Of The World, was sort of like a dream.  It was a complete pleasure on every level right from the beginning.  It was a great story.  The acting is amazing.  Sigourney Weaver has probably never done anything this great in her career.  It’s her career performance, no question about it.  It’s the director’s first film, but he’s actually quite a well-known theater director here in New York, heading an interesting theater group called The New Group.  I was the guy that he wanted to do the score, there was no one else they were really even considering… In a way, it’s kind of gotten me back in the thing of, like, “Wow, doing film scores is kind of cool again.”  It was a very pleasant and very rewarding experience.

Was there an Americana aspect to the film that made it felicitous with your aesthetic, or the way a lot of people perceive it anyway?

Yeah.  The movie takes place in a small town in Wisconsin, and has a very strong Midwestern theme to it in the sense that… Well, actually one of the interesting things about it is that it’s sort of a look of the darker side of that.  By that I don’t necessarily mean the evil side of it.  But there’s this Americana thing that people think of as whatever that thing is.  But having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, there’s also a lot of sort of closed-minded, ignorant kind of stuff there, too, that kind of gets shoved under the rug of all those major chords! [LAUGHS] This film really just deals with that.  And the film also…

It’s the underbelly of Americana type of thing.

Yeah.  It also deals with a certain aspect of current American culture that’s interesting, which is the thing of, like, when something does go wrong, this incredible need to find a place to put blame, to identify somebody who fucked up, and how it’s sort of just like an obsession right now.  The music doesn’t really get down and dirty with all that stuff.  The music functions in the film as kind of the… I hope to try to keep it sort of neutral to several different things…

Is it used ironically in the film?  Because it doesn’t have a very dark sound, frankly.  Are they using it as ironic counterpoint to certain scenes?

I would say that it’s not ironic at all.  It’s kind of neutral.  Hopefully, it’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s just kind of the way it is.  That’s kind of the tone I wanted it to have.  And that’s a zone I try to address often anyway, this kind of thing, especially on a melodic level, where things don’t necessarily push it too much one way or the other in terms of the actual notes that are on the page.  It’s just kind of like almost making a commentary on what the thematic element is.  If you had to say the movie is about one thing, it’s about forgiveness.  That’s the tone of it.  There’s all this other stuff that happens, but I really wanted to keep the music in that specific shade of forgiveness.

Does that shade have a color for you?  You’ve said you think in colors, and you think of your compositional process as sound painting in a certain sense.

Yeah, but I would say that the color of it only would exist in the syntax of music.  It doesn’t exist outside of that realm.

Why the use of the full orchestra?  Was that a directorial choice, or was that the way you were hearing the music?

That’s the way I heard it.  To do a score for me, there’s a moment early on where I either sort of hear it or I don’t know, what the basic sound of it is.  To me, this was very clearly acoustic guitar and orchestra.  That’s what the tone of it was for me.  Also, it was great, because that’s an area of writing that I love to do and hadn’t done that much of in recent years, so it was a great chance to explore that kind of writing, too, again.  The feeling of the scenery and everything is big.  It’s out there in the spaces, and it kind of needed something bigger like that to represent that.

Before I get to Imaginary Days, this might be a good place to segue to Missouri Skies, the duo with Charlie Haden.  I know he’s been such a significant musical figure for you over the years, from close to the beginning of your getting out into the great wide world as a working musician.

Yeah, we’ve known each other for a really long time.  When I first started playing with Gary Burton’s band, which I guess was in 1974, we’d play opposite Keith Jarrett’s band of the time, all the time.  That’s when Charlie and I became friends.  We didn’t really start a strong musical relationship playing together until ’80/’81, and from that point on it seems like we’ve played together on project after project.  I’ve just always had a thing.  It may be because we’ve become such good friends, or may not be — I can’t even quantify what it is.  But there is a thing that happens when we play together that we can anticipate each other.  I mean, Charlie is good at that with anybody he plays with.  But for me, the way we play together, it almost becomes like one instrument, and that’s something rarer and great to participate in.

Is there a certain vibe for you of a very acoustic feeling in playing with him?

I mean, that word “acoustic” is one that gets thrown around so…

Oh yes, you’ve had much to say about it in many of these interviews.  I shouldn’t have opened that can of worms.

Yeah.  To me, Charlie is just Charlie, and whether he’s plugged into his amp or not doesn’t have too much to do with the Charlieness of it all.

So the vibe that the two of you have is an ineffable thing.

Yeah.  To me it all boils down to listening.  All of the musicians that I really love playing with have one thing in common, and that’s that they’re able to sort of absorb and respond to what’s happening on a sort of microsecond-by-microsecond basis, and come up with really cool answers to whatever question the music is asking at a moment’s notice.

In his liner notes Charlie Haden says that he calls your sound “contemporary impressionistic Americana.”  Can you talk about the arc of that record?

Well, that was a special one, and one that kind of surprised me, because I never would have guessed that record would become as successful as it’s become.  That’s going to be one of the most successful records I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so proud of that record, because it’s so direct, it’s so intimate.  At the time we were making it, it was almost like we weren’t even making a record.  We were just kind of hanging out, playing, and we’d work on something, then we’d do another one, and about ten tunes in I remember turning to Charlie and saying, “Charlie, it seems we’re doing an awful lot of ballads here!”  “Yeah, I know, I know, that’s what I want to do.”  I was like, “Well, okay.”  It’s probably not something I would have thought of, to do a whole record of ballads like that on acoustic guitar, and yet at the same time I’ve learned so much about the way I play, and that record kind of reveals a side of me as a player that I didn’t even know.

Can you quantify what that is?

No.  I guess I didn’t realize that somehow over the years I had gotten a thing going on acoustic guitar that I just didn’t know about.  I mean, I would play a tune here or there on acoustic guitar, but Charlie would always rave about my acoustic guitar playing to other people and to me.  I didn’t get it exactly.  But now I listen to that record, and I… “First Song” especially.  It’s like, I get it, man.  It’s like, “Oh yeah!”  I don’t think anybody else really plays like that on an acoustic guitar.  So that’s good.

So the record gave you a sense that you have a singular sound on that end of the spectrum.

Yeah, more than just… I guess I always knew I did that and I could do that.  I didn’t realize… It’s something I guess I can’t even put into words.  Maybe I can’t really quantify what it is.  It’s a way of playing melodies, where the melodies can really stand on their own, without there necessarily being any chords, where it’s just sound.  That’s about as close as I can get to it.

Let me segue to another record you did a few years with Derek Bailey that was almost all about sound… It was interesting to read these interviews, because in the early ’80s you were talking about the dangers of basing compositions only on sound because it was too easy to get new sounds, and so therefore the pieces might tend to wane in value in a few years.  Then as time goes and these new sonic options make themselves open to you, you’re moving more and more to this incredibly expansive sonic palette.  It’s interesting to read all those interviews in one spot, and brave of you to try to put all that stuff in one spot…

That’s an interesting comment from the early ’80s.  I mean, in a lot of ways I still stand by that.  Especially my regular group… A big part of what my group is, is the sound of it.  That’s been true right from the very beginning.  Yet at the same time, Lyle and I, being the guys who write most of the music, are aware of the temptations of just using sound as the final thing.  At the same time, we’re aware of the power of that.  The idea is to get a lot of things working together.  That’s to me one of the fun and exciting things about being a musician at this particular moment in time, is that we have all these options, we have all these possibilities, and we have a whole set of new things to explore and try.  In that range of possibilities, to me, is included acoustic guitar, duets with Charlie, playing the way that I was playing with Derek, playing with synthesized stuff and combining it with acoustic instruments, like we do with the group, using an orchestra for a film score, or playing solo guitar, or playing in a quartet or something like that.  All of those to me are very viable, sort of real, everyday kind of musical situations that I feel very lucky to get the chance to address.  And all of them are primarily about sound.  All of them are kind of within a palette or a range of sonic color that’s very familiar to me.  Yet at the same time, the sound is just the envelope, and what you put inside that has to do with kind of everything that’s happening to you outside your life as a musician.  I think that might be more what I was talking about in the ’80s there.

So it’s not about style for you.  It’s really about sound.  It’s like one enormous palette.

It was never about style for me.  To me, style is the easiest to talk about and the least resonant aspect of what music is.  In fact, that’s the area that I would say 90% of — for lack of a better word — criticism is talking about, is style and idiom, both of which are absolutely meaningless to me and to most people, I think, post-1965 or so.  I mean, it’s just not an issue now.  I think that hasn’t completely sunk into the culture yet, how deeply that’s been obliterated from the scope of the world that we live in.  I mean, we live in a world where everything is completely smashed together.  For those of us who are making records and trying to work as musicians or as artists or whatever, it can be extremely confusing.  But I welcome that confusion, too.  That’s part of it.  And to try to avoid that confusion by retreating into a world of nostalgia or some, like, mythical purist kind of way of thinking of style or idiom or whatever, it’s a real copout for me.  It’s much more valuable to just, “okay, be confused.”

That said, the Pat Metheny Group does operate within a certain sonic parameter.  Or not.  I mean, you’re not going to step out, for instance, and do what you do with Roy Haynes, say, when you’re a sideman with him.

I would say that if you look at however many group records there are now, 10 or something like that, the range of sound from the earliest group record through Imaginary Day, and including records like Quartet or Off-Ramp or whatever, you can find things on those records that absolutely refers to the way I play with Roy Haynes.  In fact, Roy has even covered several of the group tunes on his records.  I do think that there is sometimes a perception of the group that is based on two or three tunes.  I mean, a lot of bands have this same thing.  But if you really go deeper into some of the records, there’s a lot of other stuff going on there that maybe isn’t as noticed as some of the other stuff.  Addressing your question in particular, there are things on Quartet, which is the group record right before Imaginary Day, that would be way too far out for a Roy Haynes record.  So it’s  hard for me…

Let me change gears.  This band has been together for 20 years now, right?

Yes.

And how much are you still touring… Oh, here’s another quote from about 15-16 years ago.  You said, “I don’t expect to be on the road 300 days a year when I’m 50.”  Now you’re 45.

45, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Are you close to meeting that aspiration?

It has changed a little bit.  Although the year following the release of Imaginary Day, I think we did do 220 shows or something like that.  Also, the scene in the world is wildly different now than it was when I did that interview.  There’s fewer places to play, and it’s harder to get gigs for everybody.  That may have been the last time, actually, that jazz was not separated from Pop music.  Since then, there’s been a strong movement to get jazz to be something more like Classical music, like almost a defined little branch separate from the sort of like mainstream music that was just people’s music.  We used to play like in the same places that Rock bands would play and everything like that.  The generation immediately after me kind of gave up on that, and took what for me is the easier route of playing for much older people rather than playing for their own generation, and kind of dressing and acting like people much older than they were, while we were… Like I say, I think we were the last generation of guys who really were of the generation we were in.  There’s of course lots of exceptions to that, but I’m talking about on a sort of larger scale.  Now I think there’s been two or three generations of kids, jazz is just not part of their world because they’ve never had people their own age playing it.  The people who were their own age were playing it for people older than them.  And that’s made it harder, because the scene sort of lost its momentum.

A lot of the young players hear it in school.  They sort of get tracked onto it, I think.  Whereas you are from a generation who was able to grow up in proximity to smaller cities and play with very strong musicians and work out your own ideas about music in a situation that was without orthodoxies and without an academic program, as it were.

Yes, I’m so lucky for that.  I look back on that often and think what a lucky thing it was for me to be near Kansas City, where there was this very real kind of scene — and also lucky to be able to participate in it when I was 14-15-16-17 years old.

And you were working fairly much from the age of 15 or 16?

Yeah.  By the time I was 16 I was working five or six nights a week.

By that time, when you were 15 or 16, did you have any inkling in your mind’s ear of the type of sounds that you eventually started moving toward during your time with Gary Burton?  Talk about the development of that inner ear.

I think there was a certain kind of harmony that I always liked and a certain kind of rhythm thing that I always felt good playing.  When I look back on it now, kind of in retrospect, those two areas were what defined a lot of what I do even now.  I never had any fear of triads.  A lot of jazz guys, if there’s not at least four notes happening, they’re going to stick one in there.  For me, triads were always a viable option.  I think when people talk about Midwestern blah-blah-blah, a lot of that is just simplicity.  I’ve always loved to play simple.  As much as I like playing things that are very dense and complicated now, underneath all that is this thing where I just love playing real simple things.

It seems you’re also able to find the essence of simplicity within very complex forms, and get right to the point, which I’m sure is one reason why you’ve stayed so popular for so long.

Well, it’s a hard thing to do, what you just said.  Now, you want to talk about Brecker’s thing.  To me, that’s one of the real challenges of playing his music, is that it’s so dense.  I mean, that is the hardest music I could ever imagine playing.  And that’s true on all three records of his that I’ve been on.  He’s another guy who can really find ways of playing sort of straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I would aspire to try to be at that same level.  I mean, Brecker is one of the guys I really look up to, like Herbie is.  Those two guys kind of remind me of each other in that respect, in that harmony becomes…it’s just not an issue because they’re so advanced harmonically.  What I try to do is, I aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom, but I also really want to play things that even if you don’t know anything about the chords you could still kind of sing it.  That’s kind of what I try to go for.

Do you look objectively at your records once you’re done with them, or do you just let them go and move on to the next project?

I just have to let them go and move on.  I think everybody’s like that.  You do your best and… For instance, the first record I made, Bright-Sized Life, which almost 25 years ago now…that record for me was just a horror at the time and for maybe ten years after it came out.  I thought, “God, how could I have blown my first record that much?”  Yet there were people who kept talking about how good that record was, and how it was a really nice record and all that sort of thing.  I’d go, “Oh, people are just nuts, man!”  Then about ten years afterwards I was somewhere, and I heard it, and I was like, “Well, that’s not so bad.  Now, 25 years later, I listen to it and I think, “Man, I was 19 and Jaco was 20… We were onto something!”  It’s something I would never have gotten for years after it.  On the other hand, there’s records that at the time I made them I thought, “Ooh, that’s really good,” and now it’s like, “Whoa, what were we thinking?”

Tell me a bit about the arc of Imaginary Days.  You mentioned that each record tells a complete story and set of circumstances unto itself.

I think that’s one of the better group records.  And I’m only a couple of years away from it now, so what do I know?  But it’s a record where I think we upped the ante on several levels in terms of what the group could be, sonically and in terms of the instrumentation, and also just in terms of the density of the writing.  We kind of had an idea early on, which was to try to get this arc of a day.  Even if that doesn’t come through in the music, it gave us a place to start and get our foot in the door, which sometimes is enough.  The group’s thing… I think that a lot of people like the group for the sort of trip quotient, the way that we have these long pieces that really kind of develop over these 9- and 10-minute periods as opposed to just a little tune where everybody solos or something like that.  We really try to write fairly elaborate environments for improvisation to live in.  And it always does boil down to the improvising, but the settings are particular to the possibilities that are available to that band, with those people and the instruments that are available to us, and the way of making records that are available now.  We try to address all those things, and tell a story about them.

You’ve certainly always embraced technology wholeheartedly.

Well, to me, because I’m a guitar player and all that…

You had to plug in.

My first musical act was plugging it in.  If you’re a guitar player, you have no choices, because the acoustic guitar really has, in my life, one true function, and that’s if I want to play a tune for my girlfriend sitting on the bed.  Beyond that, there’s going to be a mike or an amp or a pickup or something like that, and if I want to play with a drummer there’s got to be.  I’ve spent a fair amount of energy examining those details to try to be hopefully creative and hopefully musically responsible with what those things offer.  And it’s exciting.  It’s an exciting time to be a musician right now.  I’m always a little bit puzzled by what appear to be creative musicians who, from what I can see, have their head in the sand as to what’s possible now, like preferring to just deal with the tried and true.  I can dig that, too; it’s easier.  But there’s some stuff that a lot of people could be doing now, and aren’t, because… I don’t know why they’re not.  There are some cool things out there.

That’s a good segue to ask you about your duo with Jim Hall (Pat Metheny and Jim Hall).  You’ve said that along with Wes Montgomery he’s the guitarist who had the biggest impact on you.

Definitely.  I’ve said this before, that I call him the father of modern jazz guitar, in the sense that all of us — Frisell, Sco, Mick Goodrick, Abercrombie, especially the five of us — are all very easily traceable through Jim’s thing, yet at the same time we don’t sound very much like each other.  That’s an interesting thing.  I think you could say the same thing about Charlie Christian and Jim and Wes.  They both point to Charlie Christian, yet they don’t sound like each other either.  It’s an interesting thing.  To me Jim is also a bit like Roy Haynes in the respect that there’s Jack and Tain and all those other guys who would talk about Roy without really sounding like each other.  It’s like Jim, especially with The Bridge and Undercurrent, sort of opened up a door of thinking.  And when I think about the way I actually play, it doesn’t have too much to do with the way Jim actually plays.  It’s more just a way of thinking of what the guitar can mean than anything else.  I think that there was a point where guitar was a little bit of an odd piece in the puzzle.  Let’s say prior to The Bridge, even, you had guitar players who were leaders, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and various other guys, but they weren’t playing in major bands.  It was sort of this other thing.  Then you’d have guys like Herb Ellis who were half rhythm guitar players and half single note or soloist kind of players.   But to me, until The Bridge, there wasn’t a guy who kind of said, okay, the guitar can really function in this sort of in between zone, the way Jim…

Not Wes Montgomery?

Well, Wes didn’t really play in those kind of bands.  Wes is one of those guys who came on the scene as a leader.  Wes is like the original Joshua Redman or something like that, just kind of showed up and became a leader instantly.  That’s very rare.  Nowadays that seems to happen more.  But in terms of players who make a major impact it’s very rare that somebody comes along just out of the blue like that.

[ETC.]

One other recording I think we should address, because it seems to be a very summational thing for you, is Like Minds on Stretch, with Gary Burton and Roy Haynes.

That was a fun record to make, actually.  It was really easy.  Actually, we did that record in a day.  I think Gary had booked three days, and we did it in one day.  You do a take or two, and…

Nothing else to say.

Right.  It was real fun, because everybody knew each other and had played together in different situations, even though we hadn’t all played together… I mean, the criss-cross lines of the different situations that everybody had played in was kind of funny almost — how many different contexts we all had shared at various points.  But it was a great, pleasant experience.  Gary to me is a musician who is kind of underrated, even though he’s famous and everything like that.  Having been around at this point a lot of really good improvisers, some of the best improvisers around, from Herbie to Sonny Rollins to Ornette, all the different guys I’ve had the chance to play with, in terms of somebody who can really come up with the stuff at a high level night-after-night-after-night-after-night, and really just play… I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Gary, who can just deal like that in terms of melodic-harmonic invention, and playing his ass off, and grooving, and just coming up with the goods! — and really making stuff up.  He is something else, that guy.  Because it’s the vibes and because he plays with four mallets and there’s a lot of ringing going on and stuff, I think sometimes people miss it a little bit with him.  But he’s an incredible improviser.  He’s a heavy cat.

And that band put you in the big leagues real quick, I mean, with Steve Swallow and Mick Goodrick…

Oh, I was so lucky to get that experience.  I mean, I was 18 really when I started playing with those guys, and all four of them, Swallow, Mick, Gary and Moses, just had a major-major-major impact on the way that I play to this day.  They were already an incredible band, and they had to make room for me, in a way, which kind of caused them all to have to talk to me in very specific terms about, “Do this; don’t do that” kind of thing. Which was actually kind of difficult at the time.  First of all, it would be hard for me now to walk into a situation as perfectly balanced as a vibes, guitar, bass and drums quartet, and make it a quintet with another guitar.  It was just hard.  There wasn’t an obvious thing to do and an obvious place to be.  Combined with the fact that, like you say, I wasn’t exactly green prior to that, because I had played a lot with great musicians even, but I hadn’t played with people at that level night after night after night before.  It was a fantastic experience.

Why don’t we do the “My Favorite Things” component of this interview now. So you’re still traveling a huge amount…

This year it’s been a little bit less, but generally speaking, yes.

What CD or CDs would be things you would want to accompany you if you’re flying from New York to, say, a gig at the Japanese Blue Notes?

The honest answer to that question is nothing.  Because I rarely listen to music except when I can really like sit in front of a good stereo and sort of hear it.

In that case, what five CDs are in your rotation at this point?

Let me go over here, because I’ve been listening to a bunch of stuff lately.  Well, the new Keith Jarrett solo piano record is in there.  Larry Goldings’ new trio record. Larry is something.  I’ve got actually Brecker’s record sitting here.  I’ve got Tenor Madness, Sonny Rollins.  And I’ve got Brad Mehldau’s new trio record, Live At the Vanguard, which for me is the release of the year.  I’ve loved Brad ever since he came on the scene.  In fact, my favorite prior to this one was that Live in Barcelona one that he did.

What albums, if there were albums, inspired you to get into music?

Oh, there are some real specific ones.  There’s four sort of like big records for me.  New York Is Now is one.  Miles Davis, Four and More is another one.  Four and More is really the reason I became a musician.  In fact, it has probably as much to do with Tony Williams as it does with Miles.  I heard 10 seconds of that ride cymbal and it just blew my mind.  Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At the Half Note.

Two sentences about New York Is Now and Smokin’ At the Half-Note.

I got New York Is Now I got when I was probably about 12, and I had no idea about the controversy surrounding Ornette or anything.  I didn’t know there was any difference between the way Ornette played and the Beatles and marching band music.  To me it was all music that was on record.  All I knew was they were on records.  To me, it just sounded like they were having a lot of fun.  I just remember thinking, “It’s fun.”  I think in a lot of ways that’s the essence of what Ornette’s thing is, is that it’s fun.

Smokin’ At the Half Note for me is the record (I think everybody has got one or more) where you actually learn every note that every person on the record plays.  I mean, there was a time I could sing you every note of every solo on that record.  It’s not only a great Wes Montgomery record or a great guitar record.  That’s a great jazz record.  I mean, that’s people playing together the way people are supposed to play together.  And also the sound of that record always… It’s just so stuck in my brain, the tone of that record.

The fourth one is actually the Gary Burton Quartet, Live In Concert at Carnegie Hall on RCA, which I don’t think was ever reissued, and isn’t very well-known record.  It’s Gary, Swallow, Moses and Larry Coryell.  That record blew my mind in a whole other way.  It was jazz, and yet at the same time it was guys sort of addressing the other stuff, the kind of Country and Rock thing, but not doing it for any reason other than you could tell it was natural for them to do that.  I guess a lot of people point to Bitches Brew as sort of the beginning of a movement.  To me it happened some years before that, and it’s somewhat uncredited, which is, you know, Gary’s band of the time, and there were a couple of other bands like the Fourth Way and Jeremy Steig’s band in ’65 or so… What those guys were doing kind of predates the Miles thing significantly, and in some ways it’s a little bit more interesting.  But that particular record has a few things about it… Larry Coryell on that record is just staggering.  He’s a musician who is still around and still plays really good and everything, but what he was suggesting on that record is kind of mindblowing to me.  And it still blows my mind.  I still get that record out every now and then, just to check out what Larry did on there.  I’m a fan of him in general, but that record is just light years past anything else he ever did.  In particular his solo on “Walter L,” which is just a blues, is one of the greatest blues solos anybody ever played.

Speaking of Gary Burton, he said in his liner notes he thinks you carry around a secret list of people you want to play with and you just walk around, do a project and cross it off.  Is there such a list, and if so, or even not, what artists haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

You know, I saw that Gary wrote that, and actually it’s funny, because I don’t really think of it that way at all.  In fact, honestly… Playing with people that I don’t know is not something I do easily or casually.  For the things that I’ve ended up doing compared to the things that I’ve been asked to do, it’s a small sub-group.  If I’m going to play with somebody I have to first of all really love what they do, and also, more importantly, feel like I can play with them.  There’s musicians that I absolutely love but I know I wouldn’t play that well with them.  For me, each time I go into a project, I go into it with the same commitment to making it as good as it can be that I put into my own band or any records I make on my own.  So it’s not really that easy for me to go playing with people.  On the other hand, I look at the list of people I’ve played with, and in fact, it does include literally all of my favorite musicians, with one exception, and that’s Joe Henderson.  We’ve talked about doing something two or three times over the years, and it just never happened for one reason or another, most recently because he’s been ill.  But I think that he and I could play really well together, and that’s one thing I haven’t done.  The other one was Elvin, and I actually would love to play with Elvin more.  It was so much fun playing with him!  But I got to do that on Brecker’s record, and that was a real thrill.

Given that the premise for this interview is the film score, give me five of your favorite films, and perhaps you can mention soundtracks in there as well.

Let’s do it featuring the soundtracks.  Number one would be Cinema Paradiso.  I recorded a couple of the songs from that on Missouri Skies because I love it so much.  Ennio Morricone is awesome, just the greatest really.

Schindler’s List, besides being one of the most incredible movies anybody’s made, also has for me one of the greatest scores ever written.  People almost dismiss John Williams, oh, Star Wars and Spielberg and all that.  He is such an incredibly great writer, and he’s got such a great mind for texture and kind of density and… With him, I really get this feeling of a canvas, and the way he places colors and everything is really something.  Even on a craft level, just what he does with those really big movies… It’s kind of hard to do that.  It’s hard to keep something going for 45 minutes buried underneath explosions and everything like that, and have it still kind of swing, in a way.  Swing in the sort of broadest sense of the word, glueing everything together with this forward motion thing.  He’s a heavy cat, John Williams is.  But that score in particular also has some incredible melodies in it.

Henry Mancini.  You could pick a number of scores, but in particular “Two For the Road,” which I covered on Missouri Skies.  It’s a score that basically is that one song sort of repeated endlessly.  In fact, a number of Mancini scores were like that.  You can say Breakfast at Tiffany’s with “Moon River”… He just had this thing where he could actually write an amazing melody that you really wanted to hear over and over again.  So many film scores have a theme, and you do hear it over and over again, and you couldn’t sing it if your life depended upon it two seconds after you walk out of the theater.  Mancini, it’s like the first time you hear it, it’s like stuck in your brain forever.  Then he can really do something with it, too; his sense of how to develop those themes was kind of unparalleled.

Sticking with a contemporary guy, James Newton Howard to me is the best of the current guys who do a lot of scores.  That David Mamet play about real estate, Glengarry Glen Ross, with Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin… His score for that is incredible.

One more is a guy who people have a little bit of the wrong impression about because he can do other things, and that’s Danny Elfman.  His score for Dolores Clairborne is one of the most interesting harmonic pieces of music that I’ve heard in several years, just for this sort of floating, like nondescript harmony thing he gets going, which is absolutely perfect for the movie, but just to listen to as a kind of modern composition is really advanced.  Also, his way of writing, from what I understand, is wildly different than a conventional composer who sits at the piano and writes notes on a page.  He’s almost doing it in a sort of intuitive way, it sounds like.  But the result is really special.

I should also ask you about your favorite guitar players.

Of all time?  Number one would be Wes Montgomery.  Wes was the guy who embodied everything about music that makes me love music.  He had incredible time and one of the great rhythm feels of any modern improviser.  He has the most incredibly soulful, inviting, warm persona as a musician, which I think more than anything is what made his music accessible to people who  maybe only have one jazz record in their collection.  They can feel it.  They get it.  To me, he’s like Stevie Wonder that way.  You know, everybody digs Stevie Wonder.  If you’re a musician, you can dig it because of all the incredible melodies and the aspects of it that deal with Funk and all that stuff.  But everybody digs it because it’s just THERE, and Wes has that same thing.  It’s just there.  You can’t help but dig it.  It’s just there.

Django Reinhardt would probably be number two for just finding a way of making the instrument sound that no one before him and no one after him has ever even approached.  I mean, he was completely singular.  There may be somebody who could imitate that a little bit, but even the people who have tried to imitate it sound kind of silly.  It’s like he just found a voice.  And that voice sort of crosses time and space.  It’s like hearing Bird.  It just doesn’t sound old.  Like, you hear all these things around him that sound old, and his thing sounds as modern now as it must have been when he was playing it, just like Bird.  Maybe he’s the only guitar player who has that quality of sort of transcending the time that he actually played in.

I have to mention Jim, who opened the door for the guitar’s place in modern music with a very subtle touch and a very quiet way of presenting the instrument.  He sort of expanded its voice more than if he had turned it up to 10!  Somehow through reduction he expanded things.

I’d have to pick amongst my contemporaries John Scofield, who for me is everything that a great musician should be, and he happens to be a guitar player.  He makes everybody around him sound better and play better.  He is an incredibly interesting and inventive and exciting improviser.  He can deal with harmony in a very expanded way, but he can also play blues probably better than almost any other jazz guy on any instrument right now.  He’s such a great blues player, and that sort of informs everything he does and gives it the spirit that makes it… Again, anybody can dig John.  They don’t have to be a jazz fan.

Just a few questions about Michael Brecker.  You gave me a very nice quote about his being so authoritative harmonically.  You and he have been close for many years, and he said that being in the ’80/’81 band opened him up in a certain way, it gave him a sense of freedom he’d never experienced before, even in his first days in New York in that sort of Coltraneish loft scene out of which a lot of things emerged.  How do you see his sound having evolved from 1980 and when you first knew him to now?

I’ve heard him say that a lot of times, and some of his friends from that time have said that, too, that he came back from that tour kind of a changed person.  Which makes me feel really good!  Because that music really was written for him. That way of playing was the way I imagined he sounded like.  It’s a little bit like me with Charlie.  Charlie showed me a way that he thought I sounded that I didn’t even know I sounded like.   Sometimes in this kind of broad community of musicians that every guy functions in, the guys you play with sometimes illuminate your own thing to yourself in a way that you might not notice.  So it makes feel good that Mike feels that way.  I think that there is kind of a pre-’80/’81 Mike and a sort of post ’80/’81 Mike that exists even on his own records.  I think it’s a more adventurous.  I always felt like his first record, that Michael Brecker one, was kind of the followup to ’80/’81.  It’s basically the same band, and we kind of took up where that record left off.  The thing that I have seen evolve, and starting with that record, is what a great composer Mike has become.  You could see that coming in the Brecker Brothers records.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing on there, Randy and Mike, is really advanced.  There’s very little three-horn writing going on today in any sphere that approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record.  I mean, I go down to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that are that hip.  And that’s 25 or more years ago.

Mike’s thing for coming up with tunes that you play like night after night after night I think has evolved as he’s become a bandleader, which has been going on now for almost 15 years.  For me, it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on his records.  It was flattering the first time.  Then Tales From the Hudson for me, of all the dates I’ve done in the past few years, or really ever, as a sideman, is the one I point to as the most satisfying.  It was just a great record to be a part of.  I thought the band was absolutely perfectly suited for the music.  Everybody played well together, and played as a band.  To me, that’s what Modern Jazz is in the ’90s.  That kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way that the record felt as a whole… I was really proud to be on that record.  Now the new one is sort of a continuation of that Tales From the Hudson thing, and compositionally it’s the best of them all in terms of his writing.

He’s a heavy cat, Brecker.  I said the same thing about Gary Burton before, but I mean… Again, he’s famous and everything, and I think well-respected and all that, but sometimes I see people put Brecker down.  Like, you would know the criticisms the same way I would, some people say, “Oh, Brecker…”  I’d like to see any of those guys follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced.  There are very few musicians on any instrument who can follow Brecker.  And it’s because he’s deep!  You can say, “Oh, it’s technical and it’s flash.  No.  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  Yes, I can sit here and talk all day long, and it’s true… In terms of harmonic knowledge and really understanding what Trane did, there are not too many people at his level.  Yet at the same time, he’s not about that any more.  What makes him, him, is what he does to people.  He drives people crazy!  People will like start screaming and stuff.  He can just keep going.  It’s kind of the way Herbie can do that, too.  He just gets people where they live.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.  It’s what he does to people.  He whips them up.

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An Interview with Dave Brubeck, July 23, 2007

A recent press release from the Detroit Jazz Festival stated that 90-year-old Dave Brubeck, advised by his doctors that it would be a bad idea for him to travel, had cancelled his scheduled concert, A vivid force in American music since the latter ’40s, and a charismatic performer, Brubeck shines in the public eye, and it will be a shame if his performing career is over.

I had a wonderful opportunity to interview Brubeck four years ago, for a Jazziz story focusing on his involvement in education. It was a narrative article — the unedited transcript appears below, following four expository paragraphs.

* * *

Few jazz musicians can discuss the whys and wherefores of jazz education so eloquently as pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, whose career could serve as a case study in how to blend the conservatory and the working world beyond.

A household name since Time magazine placed his picture on its cover in 1954, Brubeck continues to meet commission deadlines, producing  extended works—operas, oratorios, ballets, suites—that bespeak continued artistic growth, while sustaining a respectable concert schedule as a solo artist and with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. He also devotes much time to the Brubeck Institute, an organization established in 2000 by University of Pacific, his alma mater. Chaired these days by Clint Eastwood, the Brubeck Institute houses its namesake’s archives, sponsors eight student-musicians as Brubeck Fellows during every academic year, runs an annual Summer Jazz Colony (artists-in-residence in recent years include Chris Potter, Nicholas Payton and Christian McBride), and hosts an annual Brubeck Jazz Festival wherein its charges break musical bread with luminaries of the jazz world.

On a rainy July afternoon at his rural Connecticut home, Brubeck spent two-and-a-half hours discussing the course of his own education—on both the receiving and the giving end—from his formative years on through to the here-and-now. Pleased to be wearing shoes for the first time since he incurred a serious ankle injury in March, he sat with exemplary posture on a sofa across from the Baldwin grand piano in his ground floor studio, separated from a Japanese garden adroitly landscaped to convey a certain studied wildness.

The topography evokes the terrain of central California, where Brubeck lived with his family during his first two decades.  His father, Pete, a cowboy and champion roper, of Native American ancestry, managed cattle ranches; his mother, Olga Johanna Elizabeth Rengstroffsky Ivey Brubeck, known familiarly as Bessie, of Russian descent, and a native of Concord, California, was a well-regarded piano teacher. His oldest brother, Henry Brubeck (1909-1986), who played piano and violin, and was the drummer in Gil Evans’ first big band, became Superintendent of Music at Santa Barbara High School; middle brother Howard (1916-1993) was a jazz-friendly classical composer with avant-garde leanings who became Dean of Humanities at Palomar College.

I thought it would be interesting to speak with you about you learned things, taught things, assimilated things. Perhaps speaking about the way you assimilated information might make it less tedious to speak about things you’ve spoken off thousands of times before, and it might lead logically into the Brubeck Institute, the college concerts, your own conservatory education, and the training you received from your mother. First, can you tell me something about your mother’s piano education?

Yeah. My mother decided to go from the small town of Concord… When we lived there, there were 1600 people. When she was born there, there were probably a lot less people. She wanted to have an education. There was no high school. So she got in her cart or wagon with a horse, and went from one ranch or orchard-ranch to the other to get people to promise to support a high school—financially contribute—if it were going to be built. So she had really to educate herself and the community, and she graduated from Concord High School in the first class. She’s the one that got the high school going.

What year?

I’m very bad with dates.

Well, your oldest brother was born in 1909, so it was probably before that.

Oh, yeah. Henry. Henry went through that high school. Howard went through it, and then taught there, in that same high school.

And he later became the Superintendent of Music in Santa Barbara?

Henry. Howard was a Dean of Humanities and Music at Palomar College near San Diego.

Had your mother had piano education before high school? Was it part of her family tradition?

I wouldn’t think so. She was always going to become educated by herself, reading… She was driven. See, her mother came to California probably through what they called White Russia, to Poland, to Germany, and then came on to California as a servant. That’s the way a lot of people came to this country. My mother just wanted to rise above all that, and she was driven all her life. She was still studying… She was in class with her oldest son, with Henry, when he was getting his Masters done. That was in Idaho, I think. But before that, she was at San Francisco State. She studied with Henry Cowell. She’d go to classes at University of California in Berkeley. Her cousin was Ethel Cotton. If you want to look her up, she and mother would have… A visit was practically like a class. Ethel reviewed books, wrote speeches for the Mayor  of San Francisco and for the Governors, and her books were on education and conversation and just development. So they were kind of in the front of getting something going for women and education.

So she was a highly independent woman.

Oh, boy.

And strong-minded, it sounds like. But she would have had to be if your father was anything like what it sounds as though he was.

[LAUGHS] Then she went to Kings Conservatory in San Jose, and I recently read where the Dean of the Conservatory, when she graduated, encouraged her to go on and become a great pianist, like she was to become. Then she married my father, which no one can figure out.

He sounds like quite a charismatic guy.

Oh, yeah. Oh, boy. Well, he would just run off anybody else interested in her. They’d better forget it! [LAUGHS]

She just gave in. He wore her down.

Yeah. Then after she had three children, she went to Europe to study, and she studied with the top teacher-pedagogist…

Which country?

In England. His name was Tobias Matthay. If you look him up… I never have done it, but everybody that knows about piano, the older people all thought he was the greatest.

She left the three of you, then, to go to Europe to study—also quite ahead of her time.

Oh, yeah. She took Henry, who was the oldest, and Howard and I had to be boarded out. I was maybe five. It was quite a blow to the both of us. But my Dad was working with a big cattleman, they were kind of like partners in meat for a butcher house and a slaughterhouse, and big ranches. He would see us, come and pick us up on weekends. We’d go to this big cattle ranch, where we could be with him.

Did music continue to be part of your life during those years, or did that take a vacation until your mother got back?

You’re right. I guess pretty much of a vacation. I guess she was gone a year. Dame Myra Hess noticed that during the lesson one day in London, she looked out the window, and her mind drifted from the piano lesson. Dame Myra said to her, “Oh, you’re watching those children play outside; do you have children?” She said, “I have three sons.” They talked for a while, and Dame Myra said, “This is a pretty lonely life, to be a concert pianist. If I were you, I’d go home to my children.” That’s why she came home.

What a dramatic story. It really is!

Well, it’s the story of her life. Then she became a very well-known piano teacher. Although we were still in Concord, people came from the surrounding towns, even from Oakland and… She became well known as a teacher. My first lessons with her were… There’s a picture of her teaching at a blackboard the circle of fifths. I had to be very young. And to be introduced to that, which was what most European music and a lot of jazz is built on… So that was one of the things that she taught me, and it’s one of the few things she was able to teach me, because I took right to it. But she couldn’t teach me to read. I would write or play little things, and she would write them down for me. When I was very young, I almost can’t remember when I wasn’t around a piano. The house was full of pianos. She had 2 grands in the studio, and then two other places in the house where you could practice.

Did she herself have a virtuoso technique?

Well, knowing the literature she played, when I look back on it, she had a lot of technique. She was a great sight-reader and a great accompanist, and her desire was to have three sons that were musicians. Well, Henry became a very good musician, and played violin and drums. When I was introduced to Gil Evans as Dave Brubeck, and he had just recorded “The Duke” with Miles, and… I was at the working session, and when I was introduced he said, “Brubeck! Did you have a brother?” I said, “Yeah. Henry.” He said, “You know, he played in my first big band.” He was a great drummer.

You have a story that you recalled of hearing, as a little kid, him argue with your mother about using the studio at your house for his jazz band to rehearse, which would have been the middle ‘20s or so.

Yeah, I was about 6 when that started. Just like my floor here, it’s been kind of ruined by drummers pegs and pegs of the bass, when they have to work them out of the hardwood.

Is this where you rehearse your quartet?

I have, yeah. She was so upset by the guys… When you play a trumpet or a trombone, there’s often a little saliva comes out on the floor. Then she made them put down newspapers, and was really angry with my brother about the marks that his drums made on the floor. She had a right to be. The suffering she went through to build that studio. It was attached to the house where she grew up. If you were from California, you will know the name Del Courtney. If you watched the Oakland Raiders, he had the band for years. Del came out from Oakland to Concord, and took over the band my brother had with local guys in it, and became the front man. Then Del and Henry went on to College of the Pacific. They were roommates, and they continued with a big orchestra for quite a few years. Then my brother dropped out so he could get his degree at College of Pacific and become a schoolteacher.

So your introduction to jazz seems to have come through your brother, then.

Yeah!  Howard did not play jazz, but he could play Gershwin, and he’d memorized Rhapsody in Blue when he was 12 years old. He won some competitions in San Francisco. Great pianist. Finally, he and Pete Rugolo got their Masters with Darius Milhaud. They were both going to San Francisco State, in San Francisco, and they came over to Mills College so they could get their Masters under Darius Milhaud.

That must have been when Milhaud moved here in ‘41 or ‘42.

Yeah, you’re pretty close.

I guess ‘39 is when Milhaud emigrated.

Well, you know that to save his life he had to get out of France in a hurry because of the terrible things that happened. His parents pretended to be workers on their orchard in southern France, near Aix, and many of the people were being turned in for being Jewish by other farmers, just a mean streak, because it meant you were going to go to your death. No one turned in the Milhauds, but Milhaud never saw them again.

I guess he returned to Paris… Well, this is off the track. Otherwise, we could talk all afternoon, and I know you don’t want to do that. But as far as developing as a pianist, it was an organic thing from living in the environment that your mother created, and I guess seeing your older brothers.

You got it. Environment. I loved to sit and improvise. I was not good at my lessons with my mother, and she finally figured out that I wasn’t reading. For some reason, she could never teach me to read. It just didn’t read.

You figured it out once you got to conservatory, though, I gather.

No, not too good.

Mostly ear?

Yup. That’s got me through—and that I could write. That’s what’s strange. I couldn’t read, but I could write.

Let me go there. Another ongoing theme is incorporating the sounds from your environment directly into your compositions. I was thinking about other people from California who are composers. I was thinking about Harry Partch and I was thinking about John Cage, and I was thinking about the three of you, with very different sensibilities, as coming roughly from the same place—that is, understanding the fundamental structures of music and finding a completely fresh way of applying them to your circumstances. It sounds as though that notion became innate to you as a young kid on the ranch; you’ve talked about hearing the sound of the motor, the clip-clop, and so on…

Yes.

Were you thinking of music as a language at a young age?

Yeah. It was always in my mind. It’s funny you mentioned Partch. I think I went to one of his first concerts, where he was on a huge…it was like a structure with instruments that you had to climb way up on. That was across the bay from San Francisco that I went to hear it. The other composer you mentioned, Cage, he used to come in once in a while where I was playing, and I got to know his wife, Xenia, real well. They got a divorce. I said, “Xenia, why did you divorce John Cage?” She said, “I got tired of hitting the piano with a dead mackerel.”

My brother did all the work for his concert when he was coming to Mills, to prepare the piano. I saw my brother working on it, with clothespins and various things that he was instructed to have in the piano.

You started to play for money when you were in your early teens, and I’d imagine then you started learning about being a bandleader—which is also part of music. Bending people to your will, as it were.

You see, when we left Concord, California, I was well, and were moving to this huge cattle ranch, 45,000 acres, owned by H.C. Howard who owned Seabiscuit. Of course, he owned other ranches, and Seabiscuit wasn’t on this ranch. But when I moved there, I would still be improvising after school and playing the piano. The guy that came to pick up our laundry at the ranch and take it to Lodi, where Mondavi started, about 18 miles away… He’d take the laundry, and he heard me playing, and he said, “I could use you in my band.” I was 14 then, and he hired me, and we played on the Mokelumne River, outdoor dance floor that was all warped from the rain, and electric lightbulbs hanging from wires with the decorations. His name was John Ostabah. From Ostabah, I went to another band in Ione, California, that played all the foothill dances. Believe me, that was an experience. Very few people have had the experiences I had when I was very young. Because the towns of Jackson and Sutter Creek were wide-open. That means everything in California that was against the law, was not against the law in those mining towns.

Things hadn’t changed since the 1840s, right?

Exactly. And boy, it was rough and ready. That was another town, called Rough and Ready! I played for the Jumping Frog Jubilee; the Mark Twain story, the jumping frog of Calaveras County. We played that. Mokelumne Hill. Oh, boy. Those dances went to 12 o’clock, and then they had a midnight supper, and then they’d come back and dance til they were through. If you wanted to be through, they told you to keep playing—and you’d better play.

Sounds like the equivalent of the bucket of blood joints that a lot of black musicians played in. Same deal.

Gene Wright grew up playing outside of Chicago, and he told me about those places, where guys were up in the balcony with machine guns.

But anyway, my experience with those guys… They were pretty good musicians up in the foothills, so that was a good band to be in.

Were those swing bands? Were they jump bands? Country-western swing?

Swing. Stock arrangements.

When you played piano, would you say that you by that time already had a conception? Let’s just hypothesize that you had a decent piano and one could hear you take a little intermission solo. Would it sound anything like the solo fragment from 1942 at University of the Pacific?

They didn’t give the pianist much of a chance. I remember I used to, as one guy called it, screw up the shuffle with rhythm. Like Clyde McCoy, OOMPTY-DOOMPTY-DOOMPTY-DOO… I’d go [SINGS TRIPLET PATTERN], just to make it more interesting.

I knew you were going to use that word. Then you’d get home and your father would tell you to take off the tuxedo and…

“Put on your jeans and help me.” And I would do that.

So you got to be a pretty tough guy and also a musician.

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Because… Other musicians did not want to just go home. It would be 4 in the morning, and the tenor saxophonist and the drummer would stay awake until first mass, and then go to the Catholic church. They’d be so drunk that… [LAUGHS] One night the saxophonist fell between the steering wheel and the dashboard, and got his head stuck, and they ran off the road!

It sounds like being on the ranch kept you from palling prey to a lot of bad influences.

Oh, yeah! All the temptation in the world was in the town of Jackson. And anything goes. And it went that way until… Sacramento was the state capitol. Some senators came up there to have a good time, and the gamblers and everybody thought they were there to investigate the town—and it kind of closed down the town. It changed after that.

At this point, were you listening to records?

Yeah.

You’ve talked about this millions of times. Ellington, Kenton, Lunceford, you liked—big bands. Teddy Wilson and Billy Kyle were among the pianists, and of course, Tatum and Fats Waller. Those are the first names that come to mind from before you went to college.

You got ‘em. The first recording I bought cost 48¢. It was an acetate recording. I went to Sacramento with the idea of buying that record. At that time, I was working all day for a dollar, so to spend I think, with tax, 50¢, was half-a-day’s work. So it was a big event. I bought Fats Waller’s “Let’s Be Fair and Square In Love” and “There’s Honey On the Moon Tonight.” But I had heard Billy Kyle while I was still in Concord—the Billy Kyle Trio. It was so great to play with Billy when he was with Louis, and Louis asked me to sit in, and there’s the first really great jazz pianist I had heard—I’m playing with him. Then we recorded on The Real Ambassadors, just two pianos behind Louis Armstrong, Billy and I. So it was really an event.

But I guess where I wanted to go with that question was to ask whether, during those years, were you trying to emulate any of those players? Were you trying to play lines like Teddy Wilson, trying to get a left hand like Fats, or in some way get Tatum’s orchestral approach, or maybe get an Ellington arrangement on the piano? Was that important to your development?

Oh, yeah. Tatum… It’s a story I’ve often told people. But my mother didn’t like jazz, and she was in the car with me once, I was driving her some place, and I had on a jazz station, and they played Art Tatum’s “Humoresque.” When it was finished, she said, “David, now I know why you want to be a jazz musician.” Because she played “Humoresque.” Tatum also recorded “Elegy.” But that’s the first time she kind of caught on. Fortunately, the recording I made when I was probably 19, that they found in the archives at Pacific… Have you ever heard it.

Well, I think they dated it 1942, so you might have been 20 or 21.

Ah. Well, you can hear Tatum’s influence. That’s what people have said, and I think it’s definitely there.

Do you think Tatum would be the earliest influence on you?

The earliest influence was the pianist I worked with when I was 19. Cleo Brown. She was so great. She was an influence on Marion McPartland; in England, she was listening to her. When Fats died, the guys in the band asked her to take his place. Then she disappeared. Because she was in Stockton to get over a habit, and in the hospital there, and the hospital wanted her to gradually go back to work, but I was to pick her up and bring her to the job, and then see that she got home, and play intermission. But she was a great influence on me.

So it wasn’t just that you were around her. She talked to you, told you about music, passed on information in a first-hand way.

Just by playing, she did. Once in a while, she’d say, “Dave, let more come out through your hands than through your feet.” Because I would stamp my feet when I was playing, which went on for years! Everybody has a bit of stomping in their feet when they’re playing piano, but mine was harder than most!

I guess during your sophomore year at University of Pacific, you transferred from veterinary school to music, and then you did get a degree. The famous story is they allowed you to graduate if you’d swear never to teach.

Well, the first thing I heard was, “You can never graduate.” Then the harmony and the composition teacher and… The counterpoint teacher went to the Dean and said, “You’re making a big mistake; this guy has written the best counterpoint probably I’ve ever had,” and the harmony teacher said, “He’s pretty advanced harmonically.” So the Dean then said, “Well, if you promise never to teach and embarrass the conservatory, I’ll let you graduate with the class.” Now that’s where I’ve got my Institute, and I got an Honorary Doctorate.

Time has proven you right. But during those years… This sounds like a naive question, so please forgive me.

It’s all right.

Were your studies as an undergraduate in a conservatory useful to you in your career? Were you able to apply them to your own musical vision?

Yes. Well, the harmony teacher, J. Russell Bodley, had studied with… Say the word for “bakery” in French.

You’re putting me on the spot. Bakery…bakery…

Who was the greatest teacher in France? Taught Stravinsky?

Oh, Boulanger.

Thank you. How could I all of a sudden not remember? So he’d studied with her when he was young. He liked jazz, J. Russell Bodley. He was a tremendous musician, and he was Director of the a cappella choir, and the big choir… But the a cappella choir was excellent. I loved to hear that, and I’d sneak into his rehearsals. So he was a big influence on me. My last year in college I lived across the street from him, and we’d jam most of the night. He could hear us. He would make remarks about what we had been playing, because he had perfect pitch and great musicianship. You see, you couldn’t play jazz in the conservatory. But I would go visit him across the street, we’d talk a lot about music, and my roommate, Dave Van Kriedt, studied with him… He was just a huge influence on all of us.

There were so many good musicians that played jazz in the conservatory. There were two big jazz bands that couldn’t practice in the conservatory, but worked in town and local dance halls. After all, Stockton is where Gil Evans picked up a lot of those musicians; great musicians there.

So because of the conservatory, it became a kind of magnet for musicians from the area.

Yes. It was great. When I first came down from the ranch, I wanted to hang out with the musicians. They asked me where I was from, and I’d say, “Ione,” and they just kind of turned away from me. It wasn’t until the President of the Musicians’ Union needed a pianist to take his job so he could go to another job that they let me get into the union, and play… When I played, it kind of scared these guys who’d been fluffing me off…

You were giving them stuff they weren’t prepared for. You had some stuff they couldn’t understand.

[LAUGHS] But he had his own dance band, and became very successful in Hollywood as a composer for television, movies, and so on. His real name was Herman Shapiro. He was head of the Musicians Union when he was still a college student. He was a brilliant guy.

During those years before the war, in Stockton, were you composing? Were you arranging at all for any of those bands?

I was just starting to.

Were you thinking about polytonality then? Were you thinking about polyrhythms within your personal style?

Only when I was improvising. But when I was writing, I wasn’t.

But when you were improvising , you thought of those things.

I think so, yes.

Was that just innate from your experiences, or…

Well, my brother, being a student of Milhaud, must have told me about polyrhythms and polytonality. But I remember there was an article on Darius Milhaud that was on the bulletin board at the conservatory, that I read, where he’s talking about playing in two or three keys at the same time. So I don’t know how this started to happen, but it did. Harmonically, I was different than some players. [LAUGHS]

Then you went in the Army for four years.

There again I was with first-call studio musicians and also from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Bronislaw Gimpel was the violinist, and one of his top students joined the Army so he could still study with him—which I think was a bad move, but it worked out! Then Joseph DeFiore was from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a violist, and then Brown from Cincinnati, first cellist for the Cincinnati Symphony… There was a string quartet practicing in the tent. There’s a picture of me just in a t-shirt listening to them, probably in the archives.

I guess there’s a long tradition in this country of the Army being a breeding ground for innovation, since the musicians have nothing to do but practice and perform. It goes back to marching bands, and John Philip Sousa and James Reese Europe, and all the black bands in World War Two. So I guess you’re part of that continuum, too.

Well, anyway, I was assigned to a tent when I got into the band. A student from Pacific set it up so I could get into that band. His name is Ernie Farmer. We’re still close friends. Great trumpet player. The first thing they said to me when I walked into that tent, five or six guys in the tent… One of the remarks was, “Are you a cowboy or an Indian?” I said, “I’m both.” [LAUGHS]

Your father was Native American?

Maybe. [LAUGHS]

Looking at you, it certainly appears somebody was.

Well, he would admit it, but my mother would say, “Don’t tell him that nonsense,” so I’ll never know.

You probably could know, now that they’ve mapped the genome.

That would be interesting.

I guess that’s always been a source of curiosity to you, hasn’t it.

Well, the Indians considered me an Indian.

Did they?

Well, my friends that I had on the cattle ranch, and the girl…my first date was Ramona, and she always thought I was Indian. She was full-blood. My best friend on the ranch was Awalupe(?); I wrote “Indian Song” with his melody. Did you ever hear that recording with Alan Dawson and Gerry Mulligan? It’s on the Berlin album. It’s wild. Have you ever read the book Ishi? The last Indian that they finally brought in to civilization that was really an Indian, and not knowing American ways, was found near where my wife’s family was. Then they brought him to a museum in Golden Gate Park, where he would teach people Indian ways. It’s a wonderful book, Ishi.

But you see, there were so many massacres. My father told me about some of those things, where his family hadn’t gotten involved because they were friendly with the Indians, but the rest of the settlers were all wiped out, and then the Indians knew there would be a reprisal, and they jumped into the lake, and they had to come out of the lake, and as they came out on the other side, they were just all of them killed. Then the Indians were invited to have a meal with the whites, and the food was poisoned, and they all died. Just terrible things. Thank God that’s over.

Do you need to move around a little bit?

No. I’m all right.

I wanted to make sure, because I know you’re recovering from this injury.

I’ve got shoes on for the first time in over four months. I usually have to have this part cut out, because the wound is bandaged right here.

Right over the ankle. What a place for a piano player to have…

Oh, man!

How did you manage to do that solo piano session?

It was tough. It was tough.

You probably imagined yourself back on the ranch and your father telling you to take off the tux and put on the jeans.

[LAUGHS] So I wanted to see if I could wear shoes. I’m not moving, so it feels okay.

After the Army, your brother tells you you’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity to study with Milhaud, and you enroll… Well, the story is that you decided to stay a private so you could stay around your band. True story?

It’s such a corny story, but it’s true.  To understand it, you have to know this—that as a G.I., we were in a place in France called the Mud Hole. It was outside of Verdun. The Red Cross girls came up on a truck that had a side lowered down that became a stage, and there was a piano in there, and we’re all sitting in the mud on our helmets, thinking, “Well, there’s going to be some entertainment,” and they asked, “Can anybody play piano?” I raised my hand and went up, and played for a couple of numbers. The Colonel in charge was there, and he heard me, and let it be known that I shouldn’t go to the front in the morning. I couldn’t believe it when two of the guys that were musicians that had come from California…we were called out of the line that was lined up to be replacements, and asked to form a band. They gave me the rating of O2O, which is bandleader—Private First-Class Bandleader. So I was to form a band. So I did that, with guys that had been shot or wounded, had Purple Hearts when they came back. We got up to 18 to 28 men, depending on who had to go back or got shipped someplace else. We went through the rest… This was in Patton’s Army. Went in pretty wild places across France and into Germany. The band was really a great place to be.

Under those circumstances, I’d say you couldn’t have done much better.

We were right behind the front, but never at the front. You could hear and see it all night, the shelling. It’s like a lightning storm that never stops, you know. And the sounds. As the front moved up, we would move up with them, and our job was to play for the front-line troops, and we could do it very successfully, because my guys would wear their Purple Heart, whereas if the average show would go up there… It takes a long time to get through to an audience that knows they’re going into battle in the morning. It’s a tough way to get them to enjoy themselves. We were able to do it better than most people, because they could see that this band had been… My guys. I don’t say I had been in battle, but plenty of them had been.

So experiences like this would be good training for stage presentation, and capturing people’s attention. I guess you learned pretty good in the mining town and on the front.

[LAUGHS] Yeah. You’d be playing, and you’d hear a plane in the dive kind of situation, or coming in low, and they’d turn off the generators, and you’d go into total blackout, and you’d just sit there praying that plane would drop its bomb beyond you, and then you’d hear the guns shooting at him. One night you could just tell that they’d hit the guy, and everybody started clapping. It’s a way to play.

You were already married by then, and you come back after four years, maybe a leave or two, and you set up house, I guess, such as it was, in the Bay Area while you attend Mills. Tell me about your early encounters with Milhaud, and after four years in the Army how you were able to process what he was giving you, and how these experiences started to come out in this early documented music of yours. You’ve said that a lot of your war experience was coming out in the music you made during the years directly after.

Because of the G.I. Bill, I could go to Mills College, and after being without hardly any money for four years, now you’re 26 years old… The first time I saw him, I think I was 21. I said “I’m going into the Army.” He said, “when you get out, come back and study with me.”

So you did meet Milhaud before you went in the Army.

Yes.

I was wondering about that. Did he hear you play?

He asked me to play. Then we gradually had other friends, like Dave Van Kriedt, Bill Smith, Dick Collins, Bob Collins, Jack Weeks, studying with him. They came to Mills…I think the second semester they started drifting in, and then in 1947 we had the G.I.’s there. He asked, “Do any of you play jazz? Raise your hands?” So we raised our hands. He said, “I want you to write your fugues and counterpoint for jazz orchestration if you want to.” That’s how the octet was born. Paul Desmond came over from San Francisco State, and Cal Tjader, and we got up to an 8-piece group. It was wonderful to study with him. He was the first European composer to use jazz in creation of the world.

Was he a hands-on teacher? Would you play him your charts and he’d critique them? And what was his manner of critique? It sounds like he was very supportive, and not didactic in the stereotyped manner of the European maestro.

Yes, he was very supportive and very friendly. Our first concert, he put together that we should play for the assembly of the Mills girls. That was quite successful. The next concert, we went back to College of the Pacific, took a big bus and went up there. Then we started playing at University of California in Berkeley. But we didn’t get enough work to really make it. We played a concert in San Francisco…

You’ve spoken about your poverty during those years.

Oh, it was bad. We lived on practically nothing. Our rent was $21 a month, with everything paid—that means garbage and electricity—in a housing project, and it was about the simplest kind of thrown-together structures. Mostly G.I.’s were living there. Then I started working more, and things started picking up.

These are oft-told stories, and I don’t need to have you elaborate. But I would like you to tell me… The period 1946-1950, when you leave the Army and start to build your career, begins a year after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came to Los Angeles and bebop hits the West Coast, and all these records are coming out—Nat Cole’s trios, George Shearing’s groups, Lennie Tristano’s first records, Bud Powell’s records, and so on. I’m wondering to what extent you were paying attention to that and to what extent, if at all, it was influencing your style. I was listening last night to your collected piano trio recordings from 1949-51, and I heard all sorts of influences in there, but not beholden to any of those influences… They were very original. I wanted you to talk about your relationship to jazz modernism of that time, and to the currents going on in jazz primarily on the East Coast.

Remember the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra? We took that recording and played it for Milhaud in orchestration class. When we were finished playing it, and we were all thinking, “Boy, this is such a fantastic band…” Milhaud liked it very much, but he said, “You know, a lot of the things going on here went on twenty years before in classical music. So I want you to know that it’s not that new to me.” We were all kind of surprised. To us, it was new. But we also knew where he was coming from, because we were aware of Bartok and Stravinsky and things going on with them, and Charles Ives, who was really in some ways ahead of Europe for a while there. So it was very interesting to talk about Gershwin… He figured Gershwin and Duke Ellington were America’s best composers. That’s what he told us. That was such a wonderful thing to hear in class. He said the reason they are outstanding is because they have used American music, they have incorporated jazz, and always think of the success of composers that had used the music of their culture. Like, Bartok knows more about Hungarian folk music than anybody. Then he talked about Copland, and Gershwin using the jazz idiom. He said, “Don’t be ashamed that you’re jazz musicians. That’s what’s going to distinguish you, is your knowledge of jazz, and don’t ever give it up.” Then one day, at a private lesson, he said, “Dave, I don’t know why you would ever want to give up something you can do so well. It’s important that you never think in those terms.” Of course, I’ve always remembered that. He said, “You’re free. You can go any place in the world; if there is a piano, you will survive.” He said, “But take someone like me. I can’t stand faculty meetings, and I’ve got to keep going to them. You’ll never have to go to a faculty meeting. Think how free you are!” [LAUGHS]

Of course, you had to put up with other stuff in the course of constructing your career. But I wanted to get back to some of your contemporaries who were playing piano and recording during those years, and if you were drawing from them or not drawing from them. It would seem pretty evident that you were listening to Shearing.

Oh, that’s for sure. I think that he opened up the possibility for American small groups to work in nightclubs more than anybody. Oh, boy, when he came to San Francisco, it just helped. People started bringing in groups, small groups like mine, Red Norvo…

I was wondering if you’d been checking out Red Norvo’s trio because of Cal Tjader’s on the vibes, and if you met Mingus in San Francisco during those years.

And Tal Farlow. That group… I recorded them for Fantasy, because I figured they were one of the greatest groups playing now. Today the young vibe players know how important Red Norvo was, they know how important Mingus was, and Tal Farlow!

I also noticed… Please forgive me for bringing this up, but you did a version of “Perfidia,” and you played a little quote from Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy,” and my jazz nerd antennae went up, and, “Aha! He quoted ‘Buzzy’.” I wondered how much you were listening to Charlie Parker during those years, and did it have an impact on you, not so much of an impact…

You touched a weird chord with me. I toured with Charlie. Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Shelley Manne, Whitlock the bass player…he played sometimes, and another bassist… We toured the West Coast.

Might this have been ‘52?

Early. It could have been that.

There are bootleg recordings by Parker with Baker in ‘52…’53, maybe…

Baker used to come into the club where I worked when he was in the Army. Very young. Maybe still 18 or 19. I don’t know. But he was a young guy. You mentioned somebody else.

Bud Powell and Tristano, too.

Oh, Tristano. Great. Bud? The thing that most people will not believe is that Bud listened to me all the time.

Oh, I believe it.

You do?

Well, I know that Cecil Taylor also listened to you. A lot of people listened to your trios. You were the avant-gardist’s avant-gardist in 1951.

[LAUGHS] Well, Bud, right up to his dying days, was listening… When Bud had to go to the hospital when we were working at Birdland, his manager told me that he asked Bud what he’d like him to bring to the hospital for him to listen to, and he said, “Only Brubeck.”

The trio sides.

Yeah, it would have been. If you read the French guy that wrote about Bud, in that book he said, “I’m so tired of listening to Brubeck.” This is at the end of Bud’s life; he’s living with that guy. Then Bud lived with the artist-critic from Oslo (Randi Hultin), and she said he was always listening to me.

Do you have any speculations on what he was hearing in you?

I don’t know. Because when I heard things that Bud played, it seemed he couldn’t make a mistake…

When he was on.

When he was on. I hated to say that. But there was a time when he was a kind of perfect player. It just flowed out of him. And I don’t see why he’d be listening to me.

Cecil Taylor said your chords had more notes in them than anyone who was playing at the time. Then he qualified, as many people do when they speak about you… I’m simply asking these questions to get a sense of whether you were operating independently of these streams (and it could well have been, since the West Coast was still pretty isolated), or whether you were paying close attention to what they all were doing. I have a feeling you don’t want to go any farther talking about it, but if you do, it would certainly be welcome.

Well, it’s dangerous territory, because I knew that I was liking so many guys, and there was so much new… After all, I’d been separated overseas from hearing too much of what’s going on at home, and it was a shock to musicians like myself to come home and hear bebop. That wasn’t easy. Everyone was saying, “This is what you’ve got to do.” I went in to a period where I thought there’s so much great stuff… I liked Tristano, but I was forced to listen to him. A friend of mine was saying, “You’ve got to hear this guy,” so I heard him, and I thought, “Oh, this is fantastic.”

Are you talking about “Intuition” and those free pieces?

Yeah. That would have been ‘49. I’m flooded with “God, I’ve been so isolated overseas, and here’s all this new stuff,” and I decided to go into a period where I wasn’t going to listen to anybody, and try and find my own voice after being separated from a natural way of growing up. You know, to be hauled out from your jazz environment for that many years, and then come back to all this that’s going on… I thought, “I’ve got to find my own voice.” So I quit listening.

Got it. Although I guess you heard “Buzzy.”

[LAUGHS]

That’s a great answer. Thanks for sharing it with me.  I want to ask you now, and my editor wants me to ask you about the college concerts—again, since this is an education issue. From researching, I know how they came about, and your wife’s genius stroke of going through the World Almanac and writing to every college with a music department. What I’m wondering is: Were workshops ever attached to any of those performances? Were they purely performances, or was teaching layered onto it as well? And if there was teaching, who were some of your models as far as passing on information? Your mother, for example? By now, you have kids, and they became musicians. I know you weren’t their primary teacher, but I’m sure you had something to do with it. So if you could start expounding on this not-so-specific question.

I was forced because of lack of any funds to take a job teaching, although I had promised the Dean…

You broke your oath.

Yeah. But it was at the University of California at Berkeley Extension, and I was asked to take this class. I didn’t have any work at that time, and that would pay about $15. Now, you may not realize this, but being a cowboy, I was terrified of the microphone. I couldn’t introduce my group for years. I couldn’t say a word to the audience. When we came to Birdland, I hadn’t said anything, and the agent working for Joe Glaser came in to hear me, and he called me aside and he said, “You haven’t said a word all night. If you want me and the Glaser office to represent you, you have to start speaking.” Now, this is a long way into my career to not have opened my mouth yet.

In the Army you didn’t open your mouth?

No. I ran the show, and I would tell the guys what to do, but I didn’t get out and be an emcee. I had a black African-American named Gil White to be the emcee, and he was great. Then John Stanley, the comedian, would often take over. So I wasn’t talking.

That must have made teaching a challenge.

I couldn’t open my mouth. That’s the point that got me to this. Now, the first night at Birdland, when we were terrified to come to New York and to play at Birdland, it was absolutely paralyzing. Just couldn’t really face it. But you had to face it. At the first table was Benny Goodman and John Hammond on the first night. Desmond and I, we were panicked!—because Paul respected Goodman so much. He’d been in to hear me in San Francisco, and I just quit playing for a while, took a long intermission. Same thing when Tatum came in.

I heard Tatum spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco. Richard Wyands told me he played intermission piano for Tatum, and it was challenging.

The first time I sat in in San Francisco, Richard was playing, and a guy named Wilbur Baranco. They let me sit in. I think Vernon Alley was on bass. I had brought my wife to this so-called “black” club because I wanted her to see what my life was going to be like, whether she could understand all this. I worked in a black club called Cool Corner in Stockton, where not a white person would go in there. No other students would venture there. I loved it so much. Then there were other experiences I won’t go into where I’m the only white guy. So I wanted her to see this and feel this. So we sat in a booth and listened, and somehow, somebody asked me to sit in, which I did, and I played good. The people in the booth behind Iola, where I’d left her, reached over and nudged her and said, “That boy’s got black blood in him.”

What did she think of that comment?

It was wonderful! Because I had a weird reputation on campus and in class. There was a discussion of race, and my wife was defending the whole idea of integration, and this other girl said to her, “Well, would you marry or be with a black person?” She said, “I think I already am.” Some kind of remark. [LAUGHS] You’ll have to ask her exactly what.

It sounds like you didn’t necessarily think of yourself as being Caucasian.

No. [LAUGHS]

I don’t know that everybody would know it, and it isn’t necessarily…

Well, the blacks thought I was black. I was  very popular with the black audience, especially in city like Atlanta… I worked in three different black clubs in Atlanta where I was the only “white” group they would hire. We were integrated at that point.

That’s a whole other issue that I would love to talk to you about, but I don’t know if I can justify talking to you about it for the scope of this story, which is on education. The notion of race and how that plays out has had so much to do with the way you’ve been perceived in the jazz world and by the critical community, and the notions of does he swing or doesn’t he swing, and so on…

Well, I don’t want to appear to be claiming I’m black, because I’m not. But other people think I’m black, and that’s great with me.

But returning to the college tours and the quartet: Once you’d taught and been ordered by Joe Glaser’s agent to talk, did workshops become part of it? Was there an educational component to the Dave Brubeck Quartet plays Oberlin University or University of the Pacific or other things that didn’t get recorded. Was any teaching attached to those jobs?

I mentioned the Cal Extension. Then we did Cal Extension in San Francisco. I didn’t open my mouth. Iola did all the talking, all the research, and I played the piano to demonstrate what she’s talking about. But I wouldn’t open my mouth. I was terrified of that class. I had to do it because we needed the money, but otherwise I wouldn’t have.

When did you start talking?

After Glaser…at Birdland. The next night, the whole cast of The Caine Mutiny court martial was at the first table after the play got over. They’re sitting there, and now I know I’ve got to talk. It was Larry Bennett who worked for Joe Glaser. I said, “What am I going to talk about?” He said, “Just tell them what you’ve done that day—where you came from, where you’re going. But say something!” So I got up there and I said, “Well, we came from [LAUGHING] Philadelphia, but my bass player here, he was sick… You know, you never want to get sick in Philadelphia.” Well, those guys broke up! Desmond’s looking at me, like, “What the hell did you say that would get a reaction like that?” Almost everything I said was funny. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was just trying to save my job, and kept talking about, “You know, it’s a tough drinking in Philadelphia” or “the word got around you should never drink the water in Philadelphia.” Anyway, I started talking at that point. Some concerts, for years, I still wouldn’t say anything. Then I started talking, and people liked what I was saying—and my wife disliked it, and would say, “Don’t talk so much—just play!”

Some of the compositions that became very popular start to come out, like “The Duke” or “In Your Own Sweet Way”… Did they come out before the Quartet or with the Quartet. I also want to know why the quartet became your vehicle. I understand there were economic reasons for not touring an octet, and I understand  that you needed, particularly after your accident, to have someone else do a lot of soloing because you became somewhat impaired vis-a-vis what you could do before the accident.

Yeah.

But given those parameters, how did the quartet become an impetus for you to write? Why did tunes like that start to come out with the quartet? I’m assuming you wrote them then, though perhaps you wrote them in 1947 or something, I don’t know…

No. See that old Ampex over there? Go take a look at it. [We walk over] That’s one that I recorded “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

Here’s another vintage one, the Baldwin…

Yes. This is a mirror. I can’t open it because of the humidity. I can see myself here, and the tape machine can go through a hole that’s in there. I recorded those things myself in Oakland, and then I’ve recorded here that way.

For instance, Ellington wrote with the voices of his musicians in mind. Were you writing with Paul Desmond’s voice in mind? Or was Desmond or anyone you’re playing with supposed to play your vision? How did it work?

Well, with Cal Tjader, he started playing vibes with my trio. I didn’t even know he could play vibes. As soon as he started playing vibes, then Armando Peraza was stranded because Slim Gaillard abandoned him after bringing him from Cuba, and he was working this club in San Francisco where we were playing. The owner said, “I keep him here because Slim has just left him, and I feed him and let him sleep here in the club,” and he swept up and did odd jobs. He said, “He’s a helluva bongo player; why don’t you let him sit in with you.” So I did it, just because the guy was abandoned. And boy, he broke the place up. So Cal started playing bongos because of that, and Paul bought a pair of bongos. So we had three guys up there on the stage playing bongos.

But Peraza knew what he was doing.

Oh, yeah. Then Cal became so intrigued with it, and then he became a big star in Caribbean music. But I’m not answering your question.

Things happen, and you move. Like, I didn’t know he could play vibes. I didn’t know he would be a great bongo player. You just use where somebody is great, and you incorporate it into things. With the trio, it was easier to answer that question. The quartet was the trio with Paul Desmond playing solos on the same arrangements. That’s the way it had to start, because we didn’t have time to organize or rehearse. We just had a job, and I thought it was well enough to play. I was so bad off that they had to go into a blackout so I could stand. I had to pull myself up on the piano bench and just stand there for a while. I shouldn’t have been playing, but I had to play. There was no way out. But with Paul, I started thinking in terms more of counterpoint, because he and I naturally played counterpoint together. So what does somebody bring into the group?

I’ve always liked all my groups. But when one of my favorite drummers, Joe Dodge, left the group, Paul told me about Joe Morello. So we went over to the Hickory House and listened to Joe, and he didn’t play anything but with the brushes all night. Paul said, “oh, that would be so wonderful; I could really love playing with him.” So I told Joe, “I’d like you to join my group.” Because Marian was going back to England for a while, and he wouldn’t have a job, so it kind of worked. So he said, “Look, you’ve always kept your drummer kind of in the background. I wouldn’t go for that. If I’m going to play with you, I want to develop as a soloist, and I want to develop in some new directions.” So I said, “That would be great, Joe; I’d like to go in some new directions I’ve been thinking about.” Our first job was in Chicago. No time to rehearse. The first night Joe was on the stage, I gave him a drum solo, and he broke it up with the audience, more than anything that we had done all night. So when we got off stage, Paul said, “Either he goes or I go.” I said, “Paul, he’s not going.”

The trio was the most important thing to you, I guess.

I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking Paul’s not serious—maybe. I had to wait til the next night to see if my bass player, who also sided in with Paul, didn’t like to have this star on drums. So I was going to play with just Joe and I. It was at the Blue Note in Chicago, too. You had to be pretty good, or you wouldn’t stay there. But they came just in time to play. So now I have two stars in the group. I wrote a tune called “Sounds of the Loop” that featured Joe on my next album.

So my answer is go with what you have. With Joe, I could see a whole different way of going, and that would be the beginning of getting into things finally like “Time Out.”

The different meters.

Yes.

With Peraza, was it the first time you’d been around an African drummer? I know he was from Cuba, but I think of him as an African…

Yes.

Was it your first time on a bandstand with someone like that? I’m interested in how you assimilated polyrhythms and developed a comfort zone with them. I know you’ve talked about the ranch and odd meters and so on. But you’re much more specific in your pieces, and there’s an idiomatic quality to your so-called odd-meter compositions. When you mentioned Peraza, it made me wonder if he’d played some role for you.

If you hear the Octet, the opening track on the old recording is in 6/4 time. ONE-two-three-four-five-six, ONE-two-three-four — which I hadn’t heard in jazz before, but it really works on that short thing called “Curtain Music.” I had written an 8-bar phrase in a piano piece in 5/4 in ‘46. “Singin’ in the Rain” with the trio. [SINGS OUT THE BAR] So on a trio recording, I’m using 6 and 4. Now, I’m thinking, when I introduced “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” I started playing it as a waltz, then I started playing it in 4/4 eventually, and superimposing other meters over the waltz. And “Alice in Wonderland.” This is a direction that I thought I was going just on my own until somebody told me, “Look, Fats Waller wrote ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ a long time ago, so you’re not the first guy to do this.” But I think I was the first guy to… It’s always dangerous to think you’re first. Somebody else is showing you something else.

But what I give a lot of credit to was the Dennis Roosevelt expedition into the Belgian Congo. When I heard that, I knew jazz was not reflecting African music.

When was that?

‘46. It was so complicated, so wonderful, so polyrhythmic, it just knocked me clear out. Why wasn’t this used in jazz? Then again, watch out. Maybe you’ll find something pre-New Orleans. Maybe if you could have recorded Congo Square, what the slaves brought over from Africa might have been a lot like that. But it wasn’t in the first New Orleans music that I heard or that my friends who played New Orleans music were playing. It was always like a march. “Tiger Rag” is a Belgian march syncopated. So this made me think if it’s more polyrhythmic, you’re not getting away from jazz, you’re getting towards its source to have other rhythms in 4/4. That’s a reason I started doing “Time Out,’ “Time Further Out,” “Time in Outer Space,” writing in the odd time signatures like 3, 5, 7, 9, Paul’s 11/4, my 13/4 in the World’s Fair. So advanced jazz guys were listening to what I was doing, and letting me know that I had opened up a way they wanted to go. They did it so much better than I do.

Who are some of the people you’re talking about?

A guy that wrote to me had a big band…

Don Ellis?

Yeah. Don wrote to me, said, “You’ve opened a direction for me.”

Obviously, it opened up avenues for everyone. Certain ideas develop in parallel. For example, in New York, Roy Haynes said that he and Max and the other drummers would hear Machito at the Palladium with Ubaldo Nieto, and he opened up ways of playing polyrhythmically on the drumkit. Then Max Roach studied with Guy Warren in Haiti. But no one orchestrated those rhythms as you did, even when Max did his experiments in the ‘50s.

It’s tough to think you ever did anything that hasn’t been done before. So I want to plead innocence. But some of the things I’ve told you were reasons that shaped my thinking.

I only have a few more questions, because I don’t want to take your whole day. I do want to speak to you about the way you approached teaching your children once it became apparent that they had musical inclinations. I know you used different strategies. I know with one, you had to dress up as Professor Nooseknocker…

[LAUGHS] Nooseknocker. He’d come to the front door…

In doing that, did you pick up anything from your mother, or Milhaud, or Bodley, or Cleo Brown? Did they figure into the way you communicate information?

Aha.

Or your father, for that matter, whom I’m sure had something to do with it, too.

Yeah. [LAUGHS] You know, I really can’t come up with an answer. How you communicate information. I think that most of the way that I learned, because I couldn’t read… Darius Milhaud knew I couldn’t read. After he heard something I’d written and was being performed, he was sitting with my wife in the audience, and he said, “Dave has to be a composer. He’ll find out on his own how to become a composer.”

Pitch-perfect, Milhaud’s responses to you.

Yeah. The word “osmosis” is the only way I seem to learn. Just listening and being. I learned so much from Milhaud about life. He wasn’t trying to teach me about life. I was with him a lot. And I learned so much from Ellington. We were on the road together, and in some kind of situation where we were not being treated fairly. I started describing what I thought this person was doing to us, and he said, “Dave, you’re right, but let’s not get any of his bad shit in our blood.” One time I was with him on a radio show, and the announcer-emcee asked what we thought of rock-and-roll. I started to talk about what I thought about it, and I could see that Duke didn’t like what I was saying, so I cut it very short, thank goodness. He said, “Well, Mister Ellington, what do you think?” He said, “If the American public likes it, it must be good.” I thought, “Boy, this old man is so sharp; how to get out of a nasty… He knows without saying anything.” Osmosis, being around Duke, just helped me in life. He was such a wonderful man to me.

That’s kind of the way I’ve had to learn, because I can’t learn in conventional ways. [LAUGHS] I’m thinking of Gerry Mulligan’s saying once to Iola and I, “My biggest problem is people think I’m a lot smarter than I am.” I often think that about myself. Because I haven’t learned a lot of things I should have learned.

I want to talk about the Brubeck Institute. What motivated you to do it? What did you hope to accomplish with it? I don’t know how much direct oversight you have over it, but talk about what… Is it meeting your expectations, whatever those expectations were?

It’s more than I expected. Because the students… I shouldn’t call them students. The Brubeck Fellows are so fantastic. I run into them now when I’m on the road, and they’re making it, they’re out there playing with name groups. The pianists have been phenomenal, just brilliant. You can’t call them “students.”  They just know so much. One teacher… We bring in top guys to maybe play a concert, but maybe stay the whole week. One of the teachers said, “It’s very difficult when you come in to teach these kids, and you realize they know more than you.” Well, I know they know more than me. The only way I can teach them is through osmosis, and tell them to listen to… For instance, my ballet is going on in San Francisco. They started it last season; it was so successful, they’re using it this year. Lar Lubovich used it in Paris with his group, and they came to New York. Miami, the Florida Ballet is using it right now. Three companies in Canada are going to be using it. Just for them to know that I can recommend things for them to listen to, or I can sit in with them and play with them.

And I talk to them. I remember one time getting a group together and saying, “Look, you’re on a university campus, and all you’re doing is practicing all day long. You have that opportunity. That’s great. But I want you to know that when I was on this campus, I had to take religion in order to graduate. I had to take world literature and art. I’m using those things every day. All the sacred music I’ve music. The understanding of world literature. I took away from the university a hundred books to read because the teacher had given us that to take with us. In the Army, when I had nothing to do, I’d read. You’re here on a campus, and we want to fix it that you can sit in with some of the lectures you might be interested in, and broaden your scope. Because too often, people like yourselves, who are so competent, live in a narrow scope of what’s really going to help them broaden their playing and their creative ability. So don’t just be here practicing all day long. Go to some of these other classes. Talk to the other students. I learned so much from the other students that I became friends with who weren’t interested in being composers or jazz musicians. Try and stretch out into what’s available. When you’re on the road, go to the museums and plays, and broaden your scope.”

You of course, during those years, with the ranching and playing in the mining camps, had done things most college students don’t get an opportunity… It was a different time in the Depression.

Depression, did you mention? See, that is a thing that can structure you and come in handy, because knowing what went on in the Depression helped me when we were not making enough to live on. I’ve had to put my wife and kids in a cabin with no floor, just dirt, and it was flooded, and to wash the kids I’d have to take them to a stream. But I was ready for that. I had lived sleeping on the ground with my saddle blankets, and cooking where there’s no water or sink or anything, and to wash the frying pan you go down to the stream and wash it with sand. Then the Army, man, you’ve got to live without a lot of things. It all made us able to survive.

Young musicians coming up, if they pick the wrong wife, it’s going to be very difficult. I’ve seen the wrong wife break up so many things for musicians and people close to me. You have to be very careful. I don’t think I’ve gotten into this with the students as deep as I’d like to. Because you can hardly tell anybody to be careful who you marry!

Not when they’re 20.

No. No, you can’t. Anyway, with the Brubeck Fellows I see and play with… After all, the first night a new crop came in, we told them, “Get ready; you’re playing at the Monterrey Festival. They hadn’t even rehearsed together, and they went there, and they were so talented that they were well-received by the very critical jazz audience. Just last year, the Brubeck Fellows played with Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and they were fantastic. It wasn’t easy music.

How large is the faculty?

The main person we have is Joe Gilman. He’s so wonderful. You should hear the record he made with the students on bass and drums. That bassist and drummer are already pros out there working. I just ran into the drummer, who was with a name group, and just breaking it up, they told me, he’s so good.

So I am really pleased with how things have gone way beyond my imagination.

What did you expect it would be at the beginning, when you decided to do this?

It just started growing. After Joe Gilman came into the teaching end, and then we saw what an inspiration he was to the students, and how he worked with them… That was so much. He was a no-nonsense but great teacher to inspire you. He’s still doing that. Then we get in people… Like, Christian McBride was artistic director for a while, but he had so much going on, he couldn’t go to Stockton as much as he wanted. But we try to get top people. It’s all worked out very well. The Dean of the Conservatory has just become the Managing Director; left the Deanship to become Managing Director of the Institute. You see, we’ve had the cooperation of the conservatory. It was slow at first, but when the conservatory people realized that these young jazz students, like the pianist…

Taylor Eigsti…

Taylor didn’t come. He was the first guy there. Incidentally, he’ll be playing with my sons at Newport, Chris and Danny, on the same day I’m playing on the other stage with my quartet. There’s an example. I’ve known Taylor since he was 12. And Eldar came there… Can you imagine what a conservatory piano teacher is going to think of a kid who’s coming to study jazz, and then hearing… Or the same way with the pianist from last year…damn… He’s like my son, and I can’t think of his name. I’ll tell you later.

Tell me later. This leads me into my final question. People like Taylor Eigsti or Eldar are very mature young men, focused on their discipline, with phenomenal technique and phenomenal resources available to them. 

These kids are beyond being students. They’re pros.

You have an expansion of jazz curriculum all over the country. And you have maybe even a shrinking marketplace for musicians.

Yes.

So I’m wondering about your thoughts in general, apart from the Brubeck Institute, on the explosion of jazz pedagogy today and the notion of jazz-as-such being taught as a specialized discipline.

I just remember my pianist named Glenn Zaleski. That’s so fantastic. He crossed over…

This is the one whose name you forgot.

Yes. One of the teachers in the conservatory thought that Glenn was just tremendous, and almost all of the students in the conservatory, when they do their final recital, if they’re singers or players, they want Glenn. They’re not picking another conservatory student. Although I’m sure they’re there. But they know. I’ve picked Glenn to sub for me when something was too hard at the time for to cut again. I’d written it, I’d played it, but at that…

At that moment you couldn’t execute it.

Yeah. So I had Glenn. He’s 19. The night that we did the Monterrey Cannery Row, I was so exhausted from rehearsals and the performance and everything… I was supposed to close with Oscar Peterson and…three brothers… Hank Jones. (I was going through my thing.) I was supposed to play. There were three pianos; I’m supposed to go play. I couldn’t play. My hands, everything about me…I had nothing left. And my mind had nothing left. So my manager said, “Pull the third piano; we can’t have a piano out there and no player.” Clint Eastwood said, “Get the kid.” He’s going to the car, heading back to Stockton. They run down the stairs and say, “Glenn, come up here and play; you’re going to play with Oscar and Hank.” He says, “cool.” [LAUGHS] And comes up and plays. That’s what I mean when I said one of my so-called students.

Now, I went off the track, but it’s still what I think of these kids. Who is going to go out there and play with Oscar and Hank who’s 19, and say “cool”?

[END OF SOUND FILE #1]

You were talking about your kids who are at the Manhattan School of Music to get their Masters.

BRUBECK:   Yeah. Going to get his Masters next year; he’s graduated this year. I spoke a few words at the graduation. Then there were two that will be studying there, a pianist from the Institute, who got a scholarship I think to Columbia in Calculus and Music. [LAUGHS] That’s frightening, isn’t it, to have that kind of mind?

Not surprising, the relationship between math and music being what it is.

Yes.

Kenny Barron mentioned something similar about not having much to teach his piano students, but that again it’s more a matter of passing on his functional experience, like, “Don’t play so many notes” or “Let the ballad breathe,” that sort of thing.

Well, when the students ask me the question you asked, where are they going, I said: Look at my sons. They’ve survived, because they know so many directions that they might be called on to go to make a living. Darius just finished twenty years at University of Natal, in South Africa. The youngest, Matthew, is at York University. I just played the Toronto Festival. He’s on the same bill with a duo—David Braid and Matthew Brubeck. Matthew is teaching improvisation to the string players at York University. He’s playing in the symphony orchestra. He just finished with Sheryl Crow last summer, he’s played with Dixie Chicks, Jewel… He can improvise and he can read, and that’s why so many people want him. The first day he was called in to do a job, it was because the cellist they had could only play notes, and couldn’t improvise. So they had to cancel the session. Somebody said, “Who can you get?” and they said, “Get Matthew Brubeck, because he can read and he can improvise.” So they want to have that ability.

Compose. Chris is composing all kinds of successful things. He’s recording today with a woodwind quintet that will soon be out. Two trombone concertos. He’s writing a concerto for trumpet and trombone for the Prague Symphony. He’s written a Triple Violin Concerto for three different stylists–-Jazz, Irish and Classical—that was played and televised by Boston Pops.

Danny on drums. I’ll be playing with him this weekend. He can do clinics… Like, Joe Morello has done marvelous clinics all over the United States, sometimes in Europe.

They have to spread their talents. Look at what I’m doing with the ballet. I’ll be at Notre Dame doing a piece called “In Praise of Mary.” I’ve just done two fugues, one “The Commandments” and the other “The Credo,” from… Mozart left out the “The Credo,” so they asked four American composers to fill it in. You don’t know what the next phone call is going to be, and you have to be able to go, to survive now… It’s not like when I grew up, you can get a job in a joint or a big band or something. You have to have many ways of making a living, and they’ll all work for you, and you’ll have a great life. But be prepared as much as you can be in many different parts of the music.

I hated to bring up my sons again. I’m so glad you know about Eldar and Taylor. See, I’ve known these kids since they were 12 years old.

There are so many talented young musicians. It’s an astonishing thing. You just wonder if there’s enough space in the O.K. Corral for all of them.

Yeah! There are so many opportunities to teach, and the universities have become like the big bands and the joint jobs that we used to have.

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An Interview With Abbey Lincoln from 2001

Yesterday was the 81st birthday anniversary of the singer Abbey Lincoln—also known as Aminata Moseka, and born Anna Marie Wooldridge—who died last August 14th.

Like her inspiration, Billie Holiday, Lincoln was never out to prove that her voice was a great instrument — although, in its own way, it was. Never afraid to make a mistake, never self-censoring, she reached for what she heard. Usually it worked.

I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Lincoln for the bn.com website in February 2001, when her Verve album, Over The Years — one of many superb collaborations with the French producer Jean-Philippe Allard — was released. What follows is the unedited transcript.

Follow this link for her discography.

Abbey Lincoln (2-5-01):

In all of the records that you’ve done with Jean-Philippe Allard, you’ve had various magnificent tonal personalities intersecting with you.  How do you go about deciding who you’re going to work with and make music with for each particular project?

Well, I use my band, as usual, the trio that I work with.  It was Jean-Philippe who suggested Joe Lovano.  I hadn’t thought of him for the album.  But I’m glad he did.  He was brilliant.  And I asked for Jerry Gonzalez, because he worked with me before as a percussionist on an album called Talking To The Sun.  I didn’t know he played trumpet!  Jaz Sawyer, who is a brilliant musician and drummer, I asked him about a cello player, and he sent me Jennifer Vincent.  Kendra Shank came to see me one day, and we were having a little jam, and she played this song for me and I fell in love with it.

Did you do that much before the association with Verve; that is, intersect with other horns within your groups in the period directly before that?

People in Me.  In the album I made in Japan, Miles Davis sent me some of his musicians.  I asked him for his drummer, and he sent me Al Foster, Mtume and Dave Liebman.  I’ve always had a lot of help in the music.  When I was with Roach, I got to work with Coleman Hawkins.  My first album was with Benny Carter, and Marty Paich was one of the arrangers.  Jack Montrose as well.

But you know, it’s a happening.  I’m not that wise.  It’s like writing a song.  I start out at a point, and it gathers energy.  I’m fortunate, I think.

What usually comes first, the words or the music, when you’re writing a song?

It all depends.  Sometimes it’s the words.  Usually it’s the words, and sometimes the music comes much later.  But it’s a story that I hear, a point of view, and I have  developed it with the words and with the music.  But the words are really important for me.

Your songs on this record, are they all recent or do they come from different points?  Part of what I’m asking is:  Do you write for projects, or with each project do you select from a well of material?

I select from a wealth of material.  I don’t wait to record to write a song.  If it comes to me, I write it then.  “Bird Alone,” when I wrote that, I was in Japan, and Miles Davis was working there as well.  He wasn’t so well, you know.  And I thought I was writing it for him.  But it really was for myself.  Later on, years later, I finished the song and recorded it.

The records that you’ve done with Allard have been so rich…

Yes.

…in so many ways.  I wonder if you could speak about that relationship and the effect on your records.

I  think he is very, very bright.  He is a brilliant man, and he knows a lot about music, not only this form, but the Classical tradition and other forms.  He called me in 1989 and asked me what I wanted to do.  He never tried or suggested that I didn’t know what I was doing, and he wanted to help me to do what I was doing, and that’s what he’s done.  The first album was called The World Is Falling Down.  He brought me J.J. Johnson.  And I asked for Ron Carter.  So I get this kind of help from him.  I asked for Stan Getz, and he told me he would check it out.  So I’ve not been here alone.  Jean-Philippe is a great ally.  He told me that the newest album, Over The Years, he liked it a lot.  So a lot of it is due to an alliance with Allard.

In interpreting your tunes, how specific are you with the musicians?

They’re brilliant.

They help create the arrangements…

No.  They’re head arrangements.  In that way they help create them.  But I know how many choruses I’m going to use.  I know what key it is in.  And I write them.  So it’s me.

Does that develop on the bandstand over touring?

No! [LAUGHS] It’s not as if… They have lead-sheets, they learn the songs, and bring their understanding and their spirit to it.  So I don’t try and really control things — except that I do.  I like the tempo that I want.  Everything is about how I hear the song.  And they know how to interpret the song.  Brandon McCune is brilliant.  So is John Ormond, and so is Jaz Sawyer.  That’s my quartet.

Let me ask you about the notion of style, which I think is an insufficient word to describe the way you sing, or maybe I should call it the craft of singing.  I realize you’ve said these things before, but could you discuss  some of the singers you concentrated on when you were forming your singing personality, and a few words about them.

Well, I heard Billie Holiday when I was 14, on a Victrola, in the country where I was living.  She was always a great influence on my life.  She was social.  And she didn’t try to prove that she had a great instrument.  This is not the form for people who use that approach.  That’s the European Classical tradition.  We have voices.  Louis Armstrong was a great singer.  It has nothing to do with having a great voice.  So I had a chance to listen and to meet many of these great performers and singers, and I come from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, all of these people.  I sing in that tradition.  I don’t try for anything they do, just like they didn’t try for anything that anybody else was doing, but interpret a song on a level of understanding and with skills, knowing where one is… They’re brilliant.  It’s a brilliant musical form.  The musicians are masterful when it comes to theory and harmony… Yeah.

So I’m not here alone.  I learned a lot about the music through Max Roach.  I didn’t know about Charlie Parker, I didn’t know who he was — or Dizzy or Monk or all these people.  Working with Max, I had a chance to meet some of these folks.  All of them.

You were just speaking about singing the song with understanding.  Could you say a few words about the songs not by you on Over the Years.  I’m interested in “Somos Novios.”

Yes!  That’s a beautiful love song.

And you sing it beautifully..

Thank you.  Armando Mazanero is the writer.  I’ve been singing this song for about 15 years, and in Spanish.  I’m not sure of everything I’m saying, but I know that it’s a love song.  We are lovers.  And it has nothing to do with motive or anything.  A pure love.  It’s one of my favorite songs.

The opening song “When The Lights Go On Again,” is one I’m unfamiliar with.

That comes from the Second World War.  When I was 12 or 13 or something like that, I heard that song.  I must have been in Kalamazoo at the time.  One day I was thinking, working on the album before I went into the studio, and  that line just came into my ear.  “When the lights go on again all over the world.”  I thought, “Wow.”  So I called the music store, and they sent it to me…or somebody brought it for me.  So it’s like an unconscious companion that is with me all the time, and whispers in my ear sometimes.

I have a certain memory of “The Windmills of Your Mind” with a certain connotation, but it’s certainly not the connotation that you give it.

Well, that’s the glory of a song.  It can have more than one meaning.

On Lovano’s solo he sounds like a windmill.

Yes.

“Lucky To Be Me.”

That’s the great Leonard Bernstein.  I remember singing that song years ago.  There was a brilliant singer named Mabel Mercer, and I heard her sing that on a recording, and I’d been meaning to sing it over the years, but I finally got to it.

And I was spellbound by the conclusion, by “Tender As a Rose.”  I was listening last night at about 1 in the morning over headphones so I could have you in my head overnight, and it caught me!

It’s the second time I had a chance to record it.  The first time was on an album called That’s Him, with Max and Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly.  I hadn’t had a chance to have it transposed, because Wynton did that for me.  We needed one more song, so I sang it alone, and I’m glad I did.  Phil Moore, the composer and the writer, was a brilliant coach whom I went to see a couple of times.  He was one of Lena Horne’s teachers.  So I added the last line.  “Well, that’s the way the story goes, and sometimes the rose was he.”  Joanne is here, too.  Joe isn’t the only one who is a stalker.  Joanne does that, too.  Know what I mean?  And leads a youngster astray.

I was actually about to ask you about the conclusion of the song.  Because not many women would really think to say something like that at the end of a song about evil men.

Well, women like to talk about a man.  This is what the songs always were when I came to the stage.  It’s about this man who she has to have, and how he treats her badly.  Well, I decided I’m not singing that any more.  If he’s nothin’, then that makes me nothin’ too.  Mmm-hmm.  So I sing, for the most part, the praises of a man.  He’s God and the Devil and she’s not responsible for anything! [LAUGHS] Well, anyway, I’m not playing that.

But I guess you were placed in that role a lot in the first stage of your career…

Yes.

…as far as having to sing that kind of material and project that type of image.

Yes.  I was following after the other singers.  Sarah was singing, “You’re mine, you; you belong to me; I will never free you.” [LAUGHS] I was singing the songs of the women who were prominent on the stage.  “Happiness is just a THING called Joe.”  And “My Man, he beats me, too, what shall I do.”  I thought, “Well, leave him.”  You know?  So I found my way to other conversations and to other things to address.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me is that your songwriting started in mid-life. 

It takes a while, I think, to awaken here.  I have been writing words, but I never saw myself as a composer.  And I would write lyrics to other people’s songs, like Oscar Brown, Jr.  So I wrote a lyric to Thelonious’ “Blue Monk.”  We hadn’t talked about it.  I didn’t ask him if I could write it.  But I just wrote it, because I felt that I knew what he was talking about, and it really touched me.  And he gave me permission to use it, to record it, and was instrumental… Because he was quoted on the liner notes to an album… They asked Max to do the liner notes when Straight Ahead was rereleased about ten years later.  And Thelonious was quoted as saying that I was not only a great singer and actress, but a great composer.  I had never written a thing.  I knew that he knew something that I didn’t know.  Because Thelonious was not a flatterer, nor a liar.  And it freed me up.  So when I heard “People In Me,” I used it.  I mean, I believed it.  It’s like a child’s song.  And the compositions get better and better for me, I think.

Also, in some of the articles, I remember reading of Monk telling you not to be too perfect.  I’ve heard other musicians relate that.  Benny Golson relating almost the exact same story, of Monk talking to him and saying “make a mistake; you’re too  perfect.”

Well, Roach was the one who said “Make a mistake.”  When I told him about it, Roach said, “He means ‘make a mistake.’”  It took me a minute…a while to understand that.  But what they meant was, you try for something.  If you crack, at least you tried for it.  Don’t be so perfect.  Yeah.  Make a mistake.  Mmm-hmm.  And that’s what this form of singing is all about.  I mean, you reach for something and it works. [LAUGHS] Yes.

You made a comment in a piece that Amiri Baraka wrote about you in Jazz Times that men… Well, you came up in a generation when everybody was a rugged individualist, and you couldn’t really be anything if you weren’t.  You made a comment toward the end of the piece that women have always been in the music, but the men have been out front, and you said, “the men have a hard time keeping a standard that’s individual.”

I didn’t say that.

Oh, you’re quoted as saying that.

That’s one of the reasons I really dread sometimes interviews.  Because I didn’t tell Amiri that.

The men, I say, have like a conception, and it’s a delivery.  They cannot run away from their work.  It’s something that they have to do.  A woman can get married and have a child.  She has other options.  But he delivers this work.  It’s him.  Yes.  And they all have a style that is their own.  If you’re not an individual, you can’t stand along the masters.  No, I didn’t say that.

But you just said what you said.

Yes.

In your bands you’ve nurtured a lot of the most individualistic younger musicians, like Steve Coleman and Rodney Kendrick and Mark Cary and the band you have now.  I just wonder if you have any sense of the struggles of this generation in maintaining their individuality against the incredible magnificence and weight of the tradition they’re trying to come out of, which you may represent to them as well.

I’ve never worked with greater musicians than the ones I’m working with now, the ones I’ve been working with.  They are not lauded and they are not rich yet in money.  But I remember when all of these folks weren’t either.  It’s always been kind of a secret society.  And the musicians are as great as they ever were.  There will never be another Charlie Parker.  Or John Coltrane.  That’s what this work affords us, is individuality, and that’s who you are, and there is nobody to replace you.  But Jaz Sawyer and John Ormond… Brandon McCune I got through Betty Carter, you know.  That’s how I inherited Marc Cary.  He worked with Betty.  She was a great teacher, I believe.  She taught them a lot about the work.  About on the beat! [LAUGHS]

A strict taskmaster, right?

Yes!  And it works, too.  Mmm-hmm.  So I am benefitting from her work.

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Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR

n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website, http://www.jazzhouse.org., the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  That’s right.

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

AMINA:  That’s right.

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  McKie’s.

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

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

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

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

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

What was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

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

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

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

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

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

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

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

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

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

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

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

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

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

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

AMINA:  We had a training program.

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

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  [LOUD LAUGH]

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

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

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

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

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

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

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

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

I interrupted you.  Sorry.

ROSCOE:  Yes. [LAUGHS]

Your father was a singer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

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

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROSCOE:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ETC.]

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

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

[MUSIC: "Songs In The Wind, 1&2"]

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tripled.

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

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

And so on, yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of records were they?

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

In the late 1940′s, early 1950′s?

Yes.

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

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

What were they listening to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that’s true.

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

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

You’re talking now about 1961?

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

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

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

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

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

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

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

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies...?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

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

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

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

[MUSIC: RM (solo) "Nonaah" (1976)]

ROSCOE:

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, Interview, WKCR

Two WKCR Interviews With Greg Osby, Who Turned 51 Three Days Ago

A heavy workload and some traveling have kept me away from the blog for several days. Hence I missed the shared August 3rd birthday of saxophonists Greg Osby (51) and Roscoe Mitchell (71).

One of the pleasures of tracking jazz as long as I’ve done is the opportunity to watch careers unfold in real time. This is certainly the case with Osby, whom I first interviewed in 1989 for WKCR, and for whom I’ve had the opportunity to write several liner notes and album bios. Our most recent encounter was a public conversation last December at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

I’ve posted below our third WKCR conversation (a Musician Show from November 1995, on which Osby—then 35, he was beginning to transition out of a long plugged-in, neo-populist phase of his musical production—played and spoke about music that had influenced him) and our final WKCR conversation (which originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com), which took place in August 2008. It originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com.

* * *

Greg Osby Musician Show (WKCR, 11-8-95):

[MUSIC: Osby, "Black Book" (1995)]

Greg is appearing at Sweet Basil next week with a very strong quartet, featuring James Williams, piano, Kenny Davis, bass, and Jeff Watts on drums.  Have you played with this band before, with this rhythm section, or each of the different rhythm sections in different contexts and situations?

I’ve played with all of them individually in various groupings.  That’s the way it is in New York.  You play with a lot of people, and you just hook up for certain occasions — tours, record dates and things like that.  You cross paths.  You see a lot of people more in the airports than you do on the bandstand.

Apart from availability, what is it about these musicians that you see as a fit for the week?

OSBY:  James Williams is a stylist, and we need more of those.  He has a very individualistic approach and touch to the instrument.  He was the first professional guy that I played with when I moved to New York, so I have a really sweet spot in my heart for him.  Jeff Watts and I have a long-standing relationship.  We played together in college; I’ve been knowing him forever.  Kenny Davis is just, you know, a warm soul, and he’ll bring the swing to the whole foray.  So I’m looking forward to playing with all of them in the grouping.

The records that you brought along look extremely well taken care of, but also that you’ve had them for a while and listened to them a lot.  Before we get into the music, I’d like to talk in a general way about your development as a musician.  You’re from the St. Louis area.

Exactly.  I’m from St. Louis.

Have you been playing since a very young age?

I don’t know if you’d call 12 very young.  I’ve been playing since 1972.  And I took to it rather rapidly.  I was, you know, I guess destined to do this…

Alto saxophone?

Clarinet, actually.  Clarinet, then flute, and then alto saxophone.  Saxophone stuck.  It got the little girls going, and it also brought dividends quickly, you know.  So I stuck with that…

If you’re talking about monetary dividends, does that mean that you were playing in little groups, earning some money playing?

Exactly.

What sort of music?

These were R&B bands, Funk groups and Blues bands — because St. Louis was really heavy on the Blues.  And throughout high school, in the mid-Seventies, I was playing in organ trios, really groove trios, Grant Green and the like — that kind of stuff.

Older musicians?

Older musicians.  I was always the youngest.

Name some names.  Which musicians, what kind of music were you playing, what songs did you learn?

Kenny Gooch, Terry Williams and the Soul Merchants, things like that.  Charles Drayne(?) and the Players.  Soul groove bands.  We played in a lot of atmospheres that actually I was too young to even be there, to be a participant, a legal participant, but I was welcome, because they really… They accepted me as a young funky guy.

Now, in the 1970′s, the Black Artists Group was very active in the St. Louis area.  Were you in contact with them, in touch with them?

I was only in contact as an absentee kind of situation.  I couldn’t get into the places, so I listened in the alley and outside.  You know, they used to play with the windows open.  It was kind of an upstairs situation.  So I was aware of all of them, and I followed their movement and their progress, but I couldn’t participate.

Now, did that aesthetic of, I don’t know what to call it, but I guess merging many different elements of the arts… Well, obviously in some way, whether directly from that or not, it certainly seeped into what you wanted to do, because that’s what you’ve been very much involved with over the last number of years.

Yeah, but the key element was, during that whole period my mother worked at a record distribution place in St. Louis.  They distributed all the records to the local stores.  So she would bring home daily armloads of D.J. copies, promotional copies and cutouts and things.  I mean, we had a record collection like you wouldn’t believe.

And you listened to all of them?

I listened to all of it, you know, with no discretion. I’m talking about the Doors, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, the Jackson Five.  It was whatever she brought.  So as a result, I just gravitated toward the sound.

Was it more sound for you, like you’d hear a sound and then you’d try to get it out, rather than analysis at that point?  Or when did the analysis part begin for you?

The analysis part didn’t happen until college.  Because I really wasn’t pursuing music as a career until then.  I had a hankering to be an architect actually.  But you know, the music bug bit, and it stuck, and it became analytical.  It became a search for more possibilities more varied forms and environments in music.  That’s kind of my little catch-phrase.  I call myself a musical environmentalist.  I like to immerse myself in different environments and see what happens.  I like to cross the line and straddle the fence, if you will.

College was where?

College was Howard University in Washington, D.C.

That was a very fertile environment at the time you were there for a young musician.

Yeah, that was 1978.  At that time, Wallace Roney was there, Geri Allen, Clarence Seay, Gary Thomas, and a handful of others.  Then I migrated north to Boston, where I went to Berklee College of Music for three years.

What were some of the things happening in Washington at the time you were there.  John Malachi seems to have been a mentor for a lot of the young musicians in the D.C. area.

Right.  John Malachi, Keeter Betts, Kirk Stuart, people like that.  Local teachers.  They had an adjunct situation at the school, so you got kind of a hands-on application.  I was still a bit green, though, because the environment wasn’t thriving enough to give me what I needed.  When you’re impressionable, or as impressionable as I was at that age, and as eager to learn, you need to be bombarded with information.  So I sought a healthier situation, which is why I moved to Boston and went to Berklee.  Well, I didn’t move.  I got a scholarship and went there.  And it was a who’s-who of what’s happening on the scene.  Everybody that’s happening now pretty much was there at the time, from Branford Marsalis, Wallace Roney was there again, Cindy Blackman, Jeff Watts, Kevin Eubanks, Victor Bailey, Smitty Smith and on and on and on.  It was a great environment.

Let’s commence Greg’s programming portion of the Musician Show, beginning with the great master who is doing his annual New York concert with Jackie McLean in a couple of weeks at the Beacon Theater.  We’ll start with a track from Tenor Madness.  When were you first exposed to Sonny Rollins?  Say a few words about him and your feelings about his music.  Put on the professor’s hat here for a minute.

I really love him because of his explorative spirit, the way he twists certain tunes, and reshapes them, reworks them, rethinks them.  I find that to be most inspiring.  Even to this day he’s still searching.  And that’s what I look for in music.  I mean, people who don’t rest on their laurels and who don’t sound the same way they sounded forty years ago, and stopped and allowed themselves to get stuck in a time warp.  That’s why I really dig him.

And also because he took a lot of tunes that were popular tunes of the day, show tunes and the like, and he made them environments for improvisation, just like the song we’re going to check out.  That’s kind of the theme of the show today.  What is commercial music?  What is commercial?

[MUSIC: S. Rollins, "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" (1956); Don Byas/Slam Stewart, "I Got Rhythm" (1945); Bird, "Just Friends" (1950)]

One thing that I as a ‘civilian’ could say about that set, just to start a conversation, is that all three of those incredible, seminal saxophonists are total masters of time.  All of them float over the rhythm, and bar lines really mean nothing.  They’re just totally relaxed with it at all times.

I guess that’s what everyone strives to achieve in music, is musical mastery of the time, and the ability to shape and mold the time to fit certain phrases.  Because naturally, things aren’t even and metric as they lay claims that everything should be in academia.  Things should be elastic and they should stretch, and there should be that type of appeal in everyone’s playing, I think.

Greg, you in your work are dealing with very complex and interlocking rhythmic structures, and I guess try to achieve that same quality of floating or being very relaxed with those rhythms.

Exactly.  I have made that a concentration in and about my playing for some time.  I made a concerted effort to study that and to try to dissect the particulars of rhythm and time so that I would be comfortable in those types of environments.  I’ve made it a point to I guess endear myself to drummers who are known for twisting time around.  I have a real strong rapport with a lot of the drummers on the scene.

A couple who I can think that you’ve worked with are Jeff Watts next week, Marvin Smitty Smith, you worked in Jack De Johnette’s group for a few years…

Six years.

Since you’re an alto saxophonist, I’m particularly interested in your comments about Charlie Parker.

Oddly enough, of the three here that we’ve just checked out, Sonny Rollins had the most influence on me, because his sense of time and rhythm appealed to me more so than the harmonic explorations of Don Byas and Charlie Parker, until later, until I recognized the value and the wealth of information that their playing contained.

Don Byas is an unsung hero, as far as I’m concerned, a technician of the saxophone who experimented with various sophisticated cycles and substitutions and change-running.  He was known for running a cat out on his ears at many a jam session.  Also he had a heavy emphasis on his tone and shading of his tone, and muting, and a real strong vibrato, reminiscent of that real muscular tenor school.

For my money, Charlie Parker still isn’t completely recognized for his contributions to music.  I mean, people aren’t really dealing with some of the more prominent stylistic characteristics of his playing.  When people say, “Yeah, he plays just like Bird,” they’re just playing, you know, the Acme, do-it-yourself, just-add-water licks, not really dealing deep into his concept and to the meat.

Talk about what they’re missing.

To me, they’re missing a highly, a highly developed and sophisticated sense of rhythm and time, and the ability to shape that time.  The harmonic sense speaks for itself.  Listening to Art Tatum and people like that, and being aware of Stravinsky and Bartok and those type of people, you’re going to… And this is the 1940′s we’re talking about.  So he was way ahead of his time, and people still haven’t checked that out.  Also, the ability to take popular tunes of the day, which I guess were Pop tunes, you know, and to make those environments and transform them into vehicles for melodic exploration and development. That took a lot of forethought.

Sometimes I gather he’d just hear something on the radio and start playing it that night, and would start a whole process of exploration for him.

The ability to recall those variables in those songs and make them into something listenable requires a highly developed ear.  And the ability to recollect that kind of stuff is… A lot of people do it, and it’s very corny and it’s very patronizing.  I don’t want to name names, but it’s… I mean, he would take it and make it something that was very valid and very profound.

Talk about Charlie Parker’s sound.  I know that as an alto saxophone player, you probably have a very particular ear for the distinctions in the sound of alto saxophonists.

Well, I was turned on to him right about at the same time… It was about 1974, and I was listening to cats like Maceo and Ronnie Laws and Cannonball Adderley and Junior Walker, more the R&B kind of guys.  Then when I heard him, what appealed to me more so than his sound was the way he played.  I just recognized… I didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was doing and how to get to that level, but it was something that I aspired to.  The sound sounded very bright and very brittle and very hard, and it sounded very forced.  It was as if he was over-exerting himself.  So the sound didn’t appeal to me at first, until I heard the stories from the people who were there, until I had a chance to meet and talk to Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that, who told me that he could fill up a room and he could be heard from the outside and that kind of stuff.

Without a microphone!

Yeah!  And you got a better appreciation of his sound.  There’s really no way of telling.  It’s really the same way that people talk about John Coltrane.  You listen to the records, and you would think that his sound was really loud, and they say it really wasn’t.  You would think that Elvin Jones was playing so loud that he would have to be very loud to accommodate, and they say he wasn’t really loud.  So you just have to get the stories, and you have to embrace the truth before it’s too late.

The next set of music begins with an early effort by Wynton Marsalis, the Hot House Flowers release, which was a very popular recording for him in the early ’80s.

Well, despite the media wars that would have various factions of music pitted against one another, I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for Wynton.  I love his sound, I love his spirit and his enthusiasm.  Sometimes, you know, his perspectives…

Are not maybe what you would…

Yeah, we differ, but that’s natural and that’s healthy, I think, to have that type of debate.

Embracing diversity.

You’ve got to have it, or else, where are you going to… But anyway, I really like this record.  I really love strings, I like to see to see people in various environments, and I like the way he rose to the occasion, the way him and his band dealt with it.  And this is in keeping with the theme of the lecture here, which is:  What is Commercial?  Because these are popular songs, and this effort is highly commercial, and I think it was highly successful.

Now, one point we can make here is that we’ll hear a track of Marsalis playing “Stardust”, which in 1984 is not necessarily a popular song of the day.

Not necessarily.  But I guess it was stylized…

But does that give the music a different context when it’s reflecting back thirty or forty years, as opposed to the music being right there, or does it have the same connotation?

Well, not necessarily.  I mean, we have versions of these songs that were made popular by various artists.  We recall those versions whenever we hear those songs being performed.  Now, that they were or weren’t popular in their day when they were written is not really important.  The key here is to take something and to rethink it, and to make it an environment for exploration.

I think that’s a very important point.

Yeah.  But some people say, well, you can’t do that with commercial music, because then you’re being commercial. And everybody wants to sell their music.  We’re not doing this for fun.  So everybody is commercial in a sense.  But the issue really is quality.  Because some people can be commercial, and they can be of very low quality.

[MUSIC: Wynton Marsalis, "Stardust" (1984); Prez, "Two To Tango" (1953); Lou Donaldson, "Alligator Boogaloo" (1967)]

I’m not quite sure how to link everybody up in that last set, but it sure sounded good.  A few words about Lou Donaldson, one of the master alto saxophonists, and playing a consistent level of music for forty years.

Yeah, but there was a departure in this period.  They were embracing the boogaloo beat, him and many others, and it was a commercial venture.  However, it didn’t detract from what he could do.  It was just a choice.  It was what he wanted to do.

There Lou Donaldson was using a drummer who was partly responsible for a lot of the beats that we were hearing in black popular music of the 1960′s, Idris Muhammad.

Oh, yeah.  Idris, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, some of the funkiest drummers who ever walked the planet — but also some swinging individuals as well.  Further examples of how people can straddle the fence.

Now, Lou Donaldson is about as much of a disciple of Charlie Parker as there is. I take it you’ve been checking him out for some time now in your music.

Sure.  Him, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean.  I mean, it’s necessary.  That’s part of studying the lineage of the instrument and the music.  You want to know who did what, and how they interpreted it, and how they filtered Bird’s means through their music.  Sometimes it’s easier to get to some of the more difficult players by listening to their descendants and disciples.

Lou Donaldson is your journeyman jazzman.  As a student, if you have a particular difficulty in a certain area in music, he and players like him, Sonny Stitt, people like that, they lay it out for you.  They lay it out for you on the table, also maintaining the stylistic characteristics that made them who they are.  I wouldn’t call Lou necessarily an innovator, but a great contributor to the language of the music.

Lester Young speaks for itself.  Also I think he did that recording as a goof, but he’s still swinging.  So swing is bone-deep.  Also just his sense of time and how he approaches the beat.  It’s a very lazy approach.  And he influenced generations of musicians, too; I mean, too lengthy to go into right now.

What do you mean exactly by that word, “a lazy approach”?

Well, you have different ways of approaching time in Jazz.  Some people are very agitated and they’re very ahead of the beat.  It’s a very classical and legit approach to the beat, and it sounds skittish and augmented, as opposed to what’s been widely accepted as the Jazz feel, which is a more laid-back feel.  I don’t know what brought on the acceptance of that feel, if it was a lot of people that were, you know, inebriated or intoxicated or high or whatever.  But it feels better.  It just feels better.  I can’t even explain it.  I mean, if that’s synonymous with swing, so be it, but I don’t know.  And we haven’t really come up with a concrete explanation for that, anyway.

One other thing I’d like to raise as a more general point in talking about Lester Young, is that a lot of the younger musicians who do these Musician Shows, don’t play the music of a lot of the musicians who came before Charlie Parker, even the direct antecedents to Charlie Parker.  Of course, there are exceptions, but as a general rule it doesn’t seem to be necessarily central to their vocabulary.  Talk about how a contemporary musician can draw inspiration and information from the earlier musicians.

As a saxophone player, it’s necessary for me to study the greats of the instrument, naturally, and also to study who they studied, to see how they arrived at their conception.  Apart from Charlie Parker, I’ve also checked out, I’m also checking out Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, Buster Smith, Willie Smith, Johnny Hodges of course, Sidney Bechet, people like that.

Interestingly enough, the saxophones were made differently in those days mechanically.  It’s an articulated G-sharp and a side F-sharp and B-Flats and things like that.  They were just mechanically different.  So the players played differently to get around those horns.  In the mid-Forties, the way the saxophone was constructed changed, so it also changed the way people could finger and get in and around the horn.

We know that Parker was playing in his style pretty much in 1942, ’43 and ’44.  Do you speculate that that might have had an effect on the way he could get around the horn and the development of his conception?

Some people believe it was the change from what they call vertical playing to horizontal playing.  Vertical is a more arpeggiated, up-and-down motion, outlining chords and things like that, where horizontal is a more melodious, in-and-out, peaks and valleys approach to the music.  I tend to think that Charlie Parker was solely responsible for freeing up that type of thinking, and I think he was ostracized for it initially, because he dared break the norm!

It’s time to hear a duo between our host, Greg Osby, and pianist-composer Andrew Hill.  You appear on two of his Blue Note releases.  I know he’s someone you listened to also before actually encountering him in the flesh.

Definitely.  And it was such an honor to be part of his world.  He’s been more or less an absentee mentor, and we stay in touch constantly.  I mean, I did some work for him this summer, teaching at the Portland State University, where he is an artist-in-residence.  I went out there and hung out with him for a few weeks, and I was able to immerse myself in his wealth of information.  I mean, amidst all the great pianists that were his contemporaries, that he emerged so strong a player with so much personality and with so much integrity is a monumental achievement.  There are but a handful of people who are my contemporaries whom I could recognize in a few notes, in just a phrase.  That’s what we all strive to achieve, and I long for the day when people are playing and the way they interpret things is as individualistic as their vocal pattern, or the way they talk, the tone of voice.  I mean, things should be that personal, as opposed to emulating someone for the rest of your life.

[MUSIC: Osby/A. Hill, "Friends" (1990); Hill-Joe Henderson-Richard Davis-Roy Haynes, "Pumpkin" (1963); Herbie Hancock, "Speak Like A Child" (1968)]

What comes to mind most for me in listening to that set is what some people might think of as an abstract connection, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.  Both Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock are from Chicago, and kind of developed the groundwork of their musical aesthetic coming up in the Chicago area.  You’re from St. Louis, and it’s often been said that there’s a shared Midwest aesthetic to the music.

Oh, yes.  Places like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City are located, of course, in the middle of the country, the heartland.

The Mississippi River…,

Exactly.

…the Illinois Central Railroad.

The Bible Belt, all that.  And a lot of these places were stopping points to get from East to West or vice-versa.

Or North to South.

Yes.  And a lot of people stayed, and a lot of people left remnants of their visit behind.  So it was kind of a melting pot, if you will, even more so than in the coastal areas, because it was the center.  Whereas New York and L.A. would kind of be the final destination for a lot of people.  So being in that area, you benefit from all of those regional differences, regional particulars.

Well, not only that, but each of these cities—and certainly St. Louis, which was known for producing high-level brass players—had a self-contained, distinctive musical scene.  Anything to say about that?

Well, St. Louis being on the Mississippi River, it was part of that whole riverboat trek.  And also it’s in the direct path of the Great Migration, you know, in the second decade of this century.  A lot of people sought a better life in the North, so they migrated from New Orleans, which is where my people are originally from, and parts of Mississippi, and migrated on up, and stopped off in Arkansas and St. Louis, up to Chicago, to Cleveland or Detroit or whatever.  So you get the benefits of that whole experience as well, that whole way of expression, and it’s reflected in the trumpet stylings of Clark Terry, Miles Davis, people like that coming out of St. Louis.

Anything to say about Herbie Hancock’s beautifully orchestrated  Speak Like A Child, which has impacted so many musicians?

I’m a big student of orchestration and arranging, although a lot of my current projects wouldn’t reflect such; but a lot of people that know me, know that, and my big band writing and score writing and chamber writing past and history.  But I studied it, I dissected that whole album and took it apart, that as well as a lot of Mingus’ works. I love his choices of  instrumental couplings.  Alto flute, trombones, French horns, things like that.  It’s very unusual.  Flugelhorns… And he made them real popular.  Him and people like him, Thad Jones… Some of the more obscure woodwinds, bass clarinets, bassoons and oboes in a jazz setting make for some really nice sounds, juxtaposed with the more traditional rhythm section elements.

Were you a student of the Miles Davis band in the Sixties, and the types of abstractions with which they treated standard material?  Did that have an impact on your conception of music?

Not so much.  I was more into the players themselves than how they sounded together, you know, being placed with one another in Miles’ band.  Because it was kind of a collaborative vision.  It wasn’t one person’s vision.  I’m really into… I mean, it evolved, and you know, it just happened that way.  But I’m really a big fan of Herbie’s.  I had the pleasure of touring with him for a couple of months, and that was one of my greatest experiences, one of the greatest triumphs in my short history.  I learned a tremendous amount.

The next set will focus on the alto saxophone,beginning with Louis Jordan, who shared with Lester Young roots and antecedents in a family band that did the carnival circuit in the 1920′s and 1930′s.  A trumpeter, Leonard Philips, who lived in Washington, who toured with the Young Family Band in his youth, mentioned an encounter between the two family bands that he said sparked quite a few fireworks, at some point in the Twenties.

Is that so.

You could say Louis Jordan might be the father of Rhythm-and-Blues.

Well, there you go.  He’s the father of Rhythm-and-Blues and Rock-and-Roll, and that whole thing, but was largely overlooked when other elements came into play. Since he was a predecessor of Charlie Parker and one of his contemporaries, it’s notable to marvel at how he remained pretty much unaffected by the “wrath of Bird,” as I call it, and his musical onslaught and his stylings.  Also, his sound and the way he approached the instrument is reflective of the way those saxophones were constructed in the day.  I mean, he was a more vertical player, and he had a really rich and deep tone, and very wide.  I just implore my fellow saxophonists to really check this out, because it’s food.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan, "The Dripper" (1954), "Whiskey Do Your Stuff" (1954); Earl Bostic, "Harlem Nocturne" (1954); Sonny Stitt, "Every Tub" (1954); Earl Bostic, "Moonglow" (1952); Coltrane-Hartman, "They Say It's Wonderful" (1963); Osby, "We'll Be Together Again" (1989)]

Listeners who have only heard Greg Osby’s recent releases may be wondering about the relevance of the music he programmed for that set to his musical production.  But indeed, there are some very personal connections involved in just about all the music we heard.  For instance, you were mentioning to me an experience you share with many young saxophonists who came up in the Seventies and Eighties, a first-hand encounter with Sonny Stitt.

Sonny Stitt was notorious for altering the keys in standard compositions on jam sessions.  And a lot of younger players, arrogant as they are, will practice and play those songs in one key, as I did.  I had the audacity to ask him to sit in, this was about 1977, at a club called B.B.’s in St. Louis on the riverfront.  I sat in with him.  He did the whole gig sitting on a stool, had his fifth of gin in his back pocket — he was chillin’, as they say.  And he did “Rhythm” changes in A-flat.  Now, it’s commonly played in B-flat, so that’s all I was dealing with.  So of course, I was thrown.  Then they also played an alternate bridge, a bridge that I hadn’t practiced.  So by the end of the first chorus, I was already underwater.  Heh-heh.  A most humbling experience.

As far as Louis Jordan, “Caledonia” was still on the jukeboxes when you were a young guy. It was the break song for the organ trios you worked in.

Right, that was the break tune, “Caledonia.”  We played that and, you know, “Rusty-Dusty Woman,” things like that.  I mean, it was way above my head.  It’s things that I was involved in and introduced to that I had to research and find the value and the validity of.  But it was a great experience to play in those organ trios then.

We heard your interpretation of “We’ll Be Together Again.”  So it’s quite evident that this music is a deep part of your musical experience, and really back to the very beginning.  You made a point that around the time you recorded “We’ll Be Together Again” you were listening deeply to singers.  Now, many of the great saxophonists have been very much aware of the lyrics of the songs they play.

My exploration into vocal stylings was inspired by a lot of my contemporaries.  They were only concerned with velocity, playing really fast and loud and honking, and just being very bullish and arrogant on the instrument.  I wanted to explore the possibility of subtlety, which has been exploited by people like Miles Davis and softer players like Joe Henderson.  So I was really interested in how Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Hartman, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, people like that, how they would interpret the song and how they would break up the lyric.  Billie Holiday, how she would interpret a lyric so personally, it was as if she was the composer.

I’d gone through the rigors of the velocity school, and didn’t get much of a rise out of people.  Laypersons, they don’t really react to that.  They react to heart-wrenching feeling.  Not that I want to just be a soul player either.  I mean, there has to be some kind of cerebral content, or else it’s not Jazz as far as I’m concerned; there has to be something intellectual about it.  So I spent about two years really shedding on my sound and my tone and interpreting lyrics.  Not that it was really necessary for me to know every word, because the songs themselves had a totally different meaning.  But I must say, it does help.

One of the saxophonists who really combined the cerebral and the gutbucket, we could say, was Earl Bostic, and we heard those two tracks.  A few words about his alto playing.  On “Moonglow” he sounded like a tenor saxophone, he was playing so low in the register.

I’ve always strived to try to emulate that sound.  I always wanted to give the illusion that I was some big fat guy playing, you know, with a lot of girth, with a gutbucket belly or whatever.  And it’s an ongoing pursuit.  I’m not a large cat…

You want to keep the belly down but the sound up.

Yeah.  I want to give the illusion.  I really miss that sound.  And there’s a handful of young players that sound that way, but a lot of people are, I won’t say victims, but they’re coming from the throat school of alto playing as opposed to the diaphragm.  There’s two ways of producing the sound, the throat and the diaphragm; there’s two types of vibrato.  A lot of the older, more gruff and smoky tenor players play from the diaphragm.  Von Freeman gave me and Steve Coleman a lengthy discussion on that. It’s slower and more deliberate, and it’s less natural than playing from the throat.  Playing from the throat if you’re playing in big bands or rock-and-roll groups where you have to cut and project the sound.  The sound is a lot more strident, it’s a lot more pointed.  The diaphragm vibrato is actually a flute technique, because flutists don’t have reeds or mouthpieces, so they have to vibrate from the diaphragm.  So it’s more a Classical derivative.  And it gives a wider sound up, with more breadth and the illusion of girth.  And that’s what I like to hear.

Next up is Cannonball Adderley.

Cannonball is the result of all of these musicians having been his predecessors.  He also helped define, or redefine or lay down the law for what’s known as contemporary popular saxophone playing, people like him and Junior Walker and people like that and Maceo and them cats in that day.  I can’t even begin to talk about Cannonball.  For several years, I was a Cannonball fanatic, a fiend, and when I emerged on the New York scene I took great strides to kind of exorcize the shades of Cannonball out of my playing, because it was at the point where it was debilitating.  Hammiet Bluiett gave me a lecture one time, talking about how some musicians don’t recognize the cut-off point, the natural cut-off point when you should stop emulating somebody and try to emerge with your own voice.  And that’s…you know…

A valuable lesson.

Exactly.  And it leads to the early demise of many a talented musician, because they’re knee-deep in somebody else’s concept.

[MUSIC: Cannonball Adderley, "Love For Sale" (1958); "Miss Jackie's Delight" (1957); w/S. Mendes, "Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corvocado)" (1965)]

Before a final set of Greg’s music, we must mention Wayne Shorter, whose way of through-composing and general style has had a huge impact on you.

Exactly.  And he’s always been a very kind gentleman to me.  He’s always been very informative, and he’s embraced me and showered upon me oodles of knowledge.  Not so much in a literal sense, but the way he describes music is kind of cryptic, you know, in this panorama.  So you kind of have to decipher it. He is definitely a genius, and I don’t use that word loosely.  Without being too descriptive and breaking down, he’s played an impacting role on my development.

TP:    There are many connections between the Greg Osby recording we’ll hear to conclude the show, which date back to 1989. Can you give a general description of how your music has evolved from Season of Renewal, which we’ll be hearing, to Black Book, your latest release?

In order for me to remain inspired, it’s necessary for me (and this is on a personal tip) to put myself in varied, highly varied environments, to see if I sink or swim.  That’s the true challenge.  Since I don’t have the luxury of playing with a whole bunch of different musicians and different rhythm sections, in a thriving scene with a lot of clubs where you can interact with a lot of people, you have to create your own environments.  Also that I don’t have the opportunity to do more than one record every year or two days, much to my dismay; it’s not like the Blue Note days or Prestige where they could do four or five sessions a year, and they could fully document their musical meanings and aspirations.  I have to kind of get it all in one effort.  So all the recordings reflect my experiences, trials, tribulations, so to speak, in between projects.  And hopefully, they show some type of growth and, you know, just experience.

* * * *

http://www.jazz.com Interview with Greg Osby, August 2008:

“When you look the music’s lineage, the people that stand out have something that’s their own, as unique as their vocal patterns,” Greg Osby told me a decade ago. “Hopefully I’ll reach the point where people say, ‘I can recognize Greg Osby in two notes because nobody else approaches a song that way.’”

Now 48, Osby can reflect on an iconoclastic oeuvre, much of it documented on 13 recordings for Blue Note, with which he signed in 1991. It includes, as I wrote in an Osby bio several years back, several pioneering attempts at mixing jazz and hip-hop aesthetics, a project framing his tart alto saxophone sound with strings, a two-sax pairing with tenor titan Joe Lovano, various acoustic quartet investigations of his structurally rigorous, off-kilter compositions, a burnout club performance, and several deconstructions of the jazz tradition. He’s also brought his tonal personality to numerous encounters—duos with drum-master Andrew Cyrille and impressionistic pianists Marc Copland and Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi; ensembles with guitar harmony-master Jim Hall, rhythmically complex Turkish guitarist Timucin Sahin; jams with the Grateful Dead, an Ali Jackson-led quintet with Wynton Marsalis. His bands have launched some of the next generation’s best and brightest, employing such present stars as Edward Simon, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland, and Nasheet Waits early in their careers.

Now unattached to a mothership label, Osby, like many 21st century musician- entrepreneurs, has established his own imprint, Inner Circle, which he recently launched with 9 Levels, featuring a new sextet. In October he’ll follow-up with releases led by younger talent, including several by members from his group. In August, Osby debuted the sextet at the Village Vanguard; to publicize the occasion, he joined me at WKCR for a far-ranging conversation.

Let’s talk about your new group.

It’s yet another installment of young upstarts. I’m loath to use the term “up-and-coming,” because they’ve already arrived as far as I’m concerned. That’s actually what appealed to me, that they sounded so resolved in their musicality. They were the missing pieces to the puzzle. Interestingly, I don’t have to search for people any more. They find me. Every day, I’m getting solicitations from young players who either want me to evaluate what they do, or want to play with the group, or want some kind of commentary. Every day, so many great talents come across my desk. I wish I could employ them all, because the cup runneth over with talent out there. I do what I can.

You haven’t worked with a vocalist in about 20 years, since Cassandra Wilson sang on some of your records, then there’s piano and guitar, plus bass and drums. So it must be a nice prod to get into your mad scientist thing, working out tunes and sonic combinations for this ensemble.

It’s been a while since I heard a vocalist who had the dexterity, the attack, and just the complete musicianship of a Cassandra Wilson. Right now, we’re in an era where they’re embracing a lot of female vocalists. But it’s dangerously teetering on the precipice of the “chick singer,” the flame-siren-vixen sitting on the piano kind of thing, as opposed to women who really can sing instrumentally, like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Abbey Lincoln—singers that are instrumental as well as vocal. My current singer, Sara Serpa, is from Portugal—Lisbon. I met her on MySpace. We had mutual friends, then I saw her, then I clicked, I listened, and I was floored. I contacted her, and she responded immediately. She’s more or less the second horn. It’s not so much words and lyrics, but really she gets inside the music. She learns all of the intricate melodies. Harmonically, she can negotiate chord changes and progressions just like an instrumentalist.

You were using guitar in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with Kevin Bruce Harris, but not so much in about a decade. Given your past proclivities, I imagine they’d negotiate different roles within the ensemble from piece to piece.

Well, a lot of guitarists don’t like to play with pianists, because they navigate the same territory, and there’s a lot of conflict in terms of chords and comping and role playing. Here I’ve assigned  people to stay within certain ranges, and they have very specific material that they adhere to and certain particulars that they work within, so they won’t violate territory or turf, musically speaking.

Adam Birnbaum is a Boston native. He plays in and around New York. I think he has a regular daily hotel gig. He’s an amazing stylist. On guitar I have Nir Felder, who’s from upstate New York. He’s also a Berklee College of Music graduate, and he’s an amazing talent on guitar. I can’t even describe it, and I don’t want to use the same terminology that irks me, so I’ll just say he’s one for the years.

Our young drummer, Hamir Atwal. is a Bay Area native. He’s also a Berklee College of Music student that I heard last year when I was doing a residency there for one week, and I said, “I’m going to use him immediately.” The bassist, Joseph Lepore, is from Italy. He’s been living in New York over ten years, and has a big, rich, reverberant sound. I need that bottom to support the structures. I don’t need a notey bass player or someone who plays all the time and just bombards the music with those

What’s the median age of this group, the leader excluded?

I would say around 28.

It’s an ethnically and probably socially diverse group as well.

Oh, yeah. An Italian, a Portuguese, one of Israeli descent, another of American-Jewish descent, Hamir is half-Filipino and half-Indian. So yeah, we are the world. It’s like United Colors of Benetton!

In the Times review of your Tuesday performance, Nate Chinen used the word “postmodern” to describe the group. What I’d read into that is that these are players who are familiar with a very broad range of vocabulary, and can access any dialect in an almost modular way to suit the dictates of the moment. That’s been a component of your compositional and musical thinking since you emerged as a composer in the mid ‘80s with your recordings on JMT.

It’s a hybrid of sorts. The compositions comprise a host of particulars that I have embraced, and hopefully developed some of them through my travels and through my needs as a composer and a musician. I had to put myself in an environment that I think is provocative for me, that prods me, and also makes the musicians think. You have to analyze the music, make deductions, and figure out what you can do within a certain sonic set. That prevents people from playing the same thing twice, playing stock phrases, being too comfortable. I like that phrase Milt Jackson used when he said, “It’s like walking on an oil slick on a sheet of black ice on a bed of marbles.” With that kind of thinking, you stay on your toes. It works for me.

You said that a lot of young musicians want to play with you. What qualities in your music appeal to them?

The first thing that appeals to them is that they know I’ll let them play. It’s not a one-man show. It’s not about me and they are the support system. It’s a group effort. It’s a collaborative. I allow their voices to be heard and allow them to develop, too. I don’t admonish people and browbeat them for making mistakes or doing the wrong things. They have to find their way, just as I found my way. I would safely say that I cut my teeth in Jack DeJohnette’s band. He was the archetype leader in that he nurtured by staying out of your way. He was very hands-off, but he led and he conducted. There was no intervention in terms of, “well, do this and don’t do that” or “your gig is in jeopardy” and so on.

They know that a lot of people have come through my band and are doing very well now, and they know that I’ll allow them to do things that may be unorthodox or outside of what’s common to these types of presentations, that if it works, we’ll incorporate it, and make it part of the repertoire and part of that expression. I’m not trying to approach this in an educational fashion, like, “Okay, this is the University of the Streets and we’re going to play…” I’m learning just as much as they are. I’m enjoying it, and I still have the enthusiasm. Some of these players have so much to offer. They’re so learned and so accomplished in what they say as musicians. I’m all ears as well. I’m soaking it in, too.

This new recording also signifies an economic transition for you. After 17 years as a Blue Note artist, that relationship is severed. A lot of the records are out of print. You’re starting a new label, bringing you into the ranks of musician entrepreneurs, an ever more common job description. How’s it working out?

These seeds have been sown for a while. It’s only recently that they’ve actually germinated and blossomed. But it’s something that I’ve always planned to do. It’s just the natural order of things, especially today. Blue Note They gave me a clean slate to express myself, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But at the end, record sales weren’t what they could or should have been, and I guess my commentary or suggestions weren’t heeded or recognized as valid, because I’m the artist. That’s when the end comes. The records aren’t moving and you’re dissatisfied. Then also, the tide is turning. The whole climate is…

Internet, downloading, and you’ve been at the top of that curve. You’ve been offering downloads for the last several years.

Well, that, too. I mean, aesthetically, here I am at Blue Note Records, and it represents…the things that are being produced… It was just time.

So is there an overall aesthetic to your label?

Absolutely. It’s called Inner Circle Music, named after my favorite Blue Note recording, called Inner Circle. The Inner Circle was a band with Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen, and either Nasheet Watts or Eric Harland, and Stefon Harris. We were on the road constantly in all our various groups, and it was interchangeable. The only thing that would change would be whoever was leading the group. I decided to document it with a series of compositions that celebrated that union. So here I am now, with Inner Circle Music. All music in an era is dictated either by a sound or a variety of integers and compounds that give it a sound, that mark it or date it. Then some writer gives that sound a name, be it “swing,” “dixieland,” “post-bop,” “hard bop,” “avant-garde,” “M-Base,” or “postmodern” you said…

Did a writer give “M-BASE” the name?

No-no. We were in control of that.

Thank you. Don’t blame everything on us.

I wanted to have a record company that mirrored both the Strata-East umbrella structure as well as United Artists, where the artists were in control of their own destiny. Here the artists make contributions financially, business-wise, promotionally—they really get in the trenches. To keep the overhead low, everyone has to have roles and you have to delegate duties and responsibilities to everybody. That way you can keep things moving. It also gives them more incentive if they have a financial stake.

Have you toured with this group?

We haven’t toured. This week is our first hit as an ensemble since the recording. We’re on to Chicago after this, and some other things. But it’s deep, keeping the band together, keeping them working, keeping them occupied and stimulated. What did Dizzy say? The best way to keep a working band is to keep the band working. Or vice-versa. Kind of like keeping the landlady happy. They will bounce on you. They will go to other places. I have had other band members either stolen or just yanked out from underneath me…

Evolved to the next phase might be a way of putting it.

Yeah. Financial needs prevail, and people need to pay the bills. My band is considered an art band. You can work and you can express yourself, but you won’t make a windfall of money at the beginning. But as soon as the momentum starts to happen, people defect. It’s just the way it goes.

You were born in 1960. So you’re the same age as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, Jeff Watts, Marvin Smitty Smith, people who got tagged in the ‘80s as the “young lions,” that ill-fated term, and have gone on to do many different things and transcend those labels. When you yourself were in your twenties, you played with Jon Faddis and Jack DeJohnette and Andrew Hill, and gigged with Herbie Hancock and Muhal Richard Abrams, and were affiliating in collectives with Steve Coleman and Robin Eubanks and Geri Allen. How were people in your generation different in sensibility and attitude than musicians coming up now? Or were you? Can you pinpoint ways in which your ideas about music were shaped by the environment in which you came up? Some of those dynamics don’t exist for musicians today.

That’s exactly the point. The situation in New York was a lot more vibrant when we arrived in town. There were a number of jam sessions on any night. You could bounce around and hear the new cat off the bus, so to speak, to see if they would do the make it or break it thing. You’d hear about someone blowing everyone away at a previous night’s jam session, and you would go out to hear for yourself. Then after all the sets at the major clubs, people would either go to Bradley’s or to these various jam sessions. A lot of veteran players would come to these sessions unannounced, and you would sit and get an earful. Then also, during the day, it was very common to have jam sessions at our respective apartments. So there was always something happening in a progressive sense. Now the musicians are a little more desperate. They’re a lot more proficient, mind you, because there’s a lot more intellectual access, so they learn more rapidly. But they don’t have the vehicles and venues for expression. Now it’s a scramble: “What shall I do now? Now I have a degree. Now I have these professional particulars and variables, and I’m ready to do it, but where shall I do it? Where shall I find employment? How shall I get the break? How shall I get people to become interested in what I’m doing?” This is their dilemma.

What did you think New York would be like?

GREG:   Of course, you have this ideal of the utopian metropolis—bustling with ideas and support and progressive minds and that type of thinking. You’re going to descend upon the scene with what you do, and take the whole thing by storm. This is what everybody thinks. It’s the big-fish-in-the-small-pond thing. You’re the best cat in whatever university or conservatory or hometown situation, then you come to New York and you find that whole dream immediately shattered. You find that there are a lot of people who not only are as good or better than you and have more experience, but also have better connections, for whatever reason, be it where they’re from, or who they know, or whatever. So now you have to start at the bottom, and you have to establish a reputation. You have to meet people and network and find some other like-minded folks who will help you to see your vision through.

Who was your first clique when you got here?

When I first got to town, I was playing with Jon Faddis at the Village Vanguard, and I guess someone had told Steve Coleman, there’s some guy who plays alto and he…

Had Faddis met you in college?

I was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I think he played up there, and then I sat in. That was a Friday. That Monday, his manager called and said, “We’re going on the road, let’s do it.” I didn’t need a second invitation. That’s how that happened. Immediately, the first week I came, and we were at the Village Vanguard, right out of school. This was a dream come true. Fortunately, I was ready. I was a good reader, played various saxophones, and knew the bebop repertoire. I think he wanted somebody who wasn’t really knee-deep in the scene, who was better known than he was, or would compete for attention.

Anyway, someone told Steve Coleman, “Yeah, there’s a cat who sounds like you.” So when you hear that, you think, “Let me go see for myself.” Both he and Cassandra Wilson came to the Vanguard, and we struck up an immediate friendship. We talked outside the club until sunup, and found out we had a lot of common ground. I went home and slept a couple of hours, and then he called, and we talked again for another five hours about, “What do you aspire to do? What is your vision? What are your long term goals?” Things like this. We mutually agreed that we needed to engage in some kind of musicians’ collective where people could freely talk about music, bring new compositions, talk about approaches to improvisation as well as composition, and also to school each other on business. We also agreed that business was the main reason why many of our predecessors had led lives as paupers, even though they were amazing contributors to the music. They always had to have a benefit to pay for hospital bills or whatever, they had no insurance, no holdings, no real estate, nothing. So we needed to school each other on that, as well as the particulars of music business law, negotiating, recording techniques—all the things that a musician should know. Unfortunately, many musicians stopped short. They say, “Ok, I can write, I can improvise,” but they don’t learn everybody else’s role. So therefore, they are led around and they just sign on the dotted line, they say yes to everything, without really knowing the fundamentals of survival and business.

So these were ideas you were thinking about as a student.

Absolutely. I was always like that.

Is that innate? Were there things happening in St. Louis, where you grew up, that influenced you that way? People you encountered in college?

Actually, fear of failure made me think about these things. I would look around the environment where I was from, and you saw so much depravity and so much blight. As a youth, I said, “I’m not going to be about this. I’m from here, and I can recognize it, but I have to step above it. Otherwise, I can’t help anyone else and I certainly can’t help myself.” I don’t understand why a lot of young people say, “Yeah, I’m from the streets. I’m the ‘hood.” That’s really nothing to be proud of. So fear of not being able to leave or do better for myself, made me go to the library on my own, without any prodding from anybody else. I have to learn about these things, and I have to learn about the world and learn how to relate to people. I talked about that way back.

It’s tempting to think of this loosely formed consortium of musicians that convened together under the name M-Base as a 1980s descendant of Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, but in reality, as young artists, neither you nor Steve Coleman had that much contact with either the AACM, in his case, or with the Black Artists Group, in your case. Or am I wrong?

Not at that time. I mean, I certainly heard the Black Artists Group as a youth in St. Louis. But I didn’t know what was going on. I would climb this building and hang onto the bars of the window, and I would look in, and I saw Hamiet Bluiett and I saw Floyd LeFlore… I saw those cats, wearing, like, big straw hats and dashikis and real tie-dye kind of stuff. It was loft scene stuff, the REAL stuff, in warehouses. I would ride my bike down there. So maybe that…

It rubbed off.

Yeah, maybe it did. Because now Bluiett is one of my best friends, and Murray, all those cats. So I guess it did plant some kind of seed back then. But we also fashioned that collective off George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the big umbrella structure where there would be one mass group and a lot of mini-groups that resided up under it. So you would have interchangeable personnel on each other’s projects that would give it a sound and be a glue that held everything together. So there were other models.

Mentioning George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic as a model segues to another question. When you think about the enduring legacy of M-Base in the ‘80s, on a superficial level the most obvious component would be the rhythmic innovations of that period, bringing hip-hop and funk rhythms into jazz flow, working kind of in parallel with musicians familiar with Afro-Caribbean rhythms doing the same thing. Then in the ‘90s, people started intermixing and intermingling all those rhythmic structures, Steve Coleman not least among them. Can you speak to the process by which you worked out and conceptualized those ideas within your own musical production?

It’s important for me that the musical environments I place myself in be inclusive and encompass the values that I consider essential for thinking and progress. I would never want to be involved in something so predictable and rote that people can anticipate what’s going to happen, anticipate the moves or decisions you’re going to make. So it’s important to set up a host of variables and parameters that disallow the same choices, with each cycle, with each generation. This strategy is very deliberate. Each composition has a point—either rhythmic, harmonic, or structural—that I’m trying to make. We deal with different structures that aren’t necessarily chords—voicings that are derived from purely rhythmic means, mathematical means; different weights and depths; different balances. But you’re always trying to mold these theorems into something that sounds musical, because otherwise it sounds solely technical, left brain, and analytical.

Well, that was a criticism at certain points.

Right. Well, that’s going to happen, and that’s inevitable when you’re experimenting. These sounds tend to be foreign, they’re not very familiar to people, and they are works in progress, so they may not be fully resolved. In the process, there will be hurdles, there will be mistakes, and there will be complete failures. But even those failures will eventually yield triumphs if you stick to it. Also, a lot of the things you work on, you realize you have to abandon, because nothing fruitful is going to come from it. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole.

But you can’t figure this out unless you take to its conclusion. There’s beta-testing to know you can’t use something.

Of course. The admonishment of the critics, and the thumbs-down, and the negative stars in the polls, and the dark reviews and all… Anybody who I champion, certainly, turned a deaf ear to that.

You’ve been playing two nights with this band. Did the music change from Tuesday to Wednesday? Do you want your music to be mutable? Are you looking for that?

Most definitely. Each night it ascends to a higher rung on the ladder. It’s great to witness the growth and development of a new band, to see these young personalities blossom, as they climb the stairs towards realizing themselves and who they are as artists. Again, my personal frustration is that I don’t see it often enough. I wish the scene was as bountiful as it was when I got to town, so I could go out to see what the new arrivals have to say, then see some of them run home with their tail between their legs, and then emerge again and redevelop. Sometimes people need that kind of shaming to get the lesson. Or you need the scolding of a Betty Carter or an Art Blakey or an Elvin Jones or a Max Roach, as elders, to put you in your place and let you know that either you’re not ready, or you have things to work on.

Did anybody fill that role for you?

Not in New York. But before I got to New York, in St. Louis as a teen. The elders were very intolerant and unyielding in their position as caretakers of the scene, and they didn’t let things go by.

Who were some of those people?

Willie Akins. Freddie Washington. Both are tenor players. Other players. They said, “Look, man, you’ve got to get out of there.” I’ve had the band stopped on me. “Stop. Get outta here. You don’t know what you’re doing?” I’ve had bombs dropped on the drums, they hit the snare really hard or hit a cymbal really hard, or they’ll just like lay out, or start playing really soft, and then you’re just out there. You’re young, you’re arrogant, you don’t know what you’re doing. Then you don’t come back until you’ve learned THAT. Then there are other lessons to learn.

I actually sat in with Sonny Stitt when I was 17. I could play blues. He said, “Well, young man, what would you like to play?” I said, “I’d like to play a blues.” But I only knew blues in a couple of keys. So of course, Sonny Stitt being who he was, he played it in a very, very difficult and obscure key…

Then he probably transitioned to another one.

Man! So that let me know. You just can’t coast. You have to learn how to access everything on your instrument, and be able to adjust in a variety of contexts. It was tough love. We don’t have enough of that, because right now, younger players are being embraced right out of school, with no training, no apprenticeship, they don’t go on the road. They get record deals…

Your generation was accused of those sins as well.

Yeah, but the thing was, we still had the benefit of being apprenticed. I started out with Faddis and Dizzy and all these people, and Steve Coleman at the time was playing with Abbey Lincoln and Thad Jones. Cassandra Wilson was playing with Henry Threadgill, and Geri Allen was playing with Oliver Lake as well as James Newton. So it still was happening. They still would allow us to sit in. George Coleman, Cedar Walton, Lou Donaldson, other people, would let you sit in until you were too disruptive or proved you weren’t ready. But fortunately, a lot of us were conservatory-trained. We had gone to Berklee or Oberlin or Manhattan School of Music or North Texas State or various places. A lot of people were prepared.

Which is a dynamic that may differentiate you from previous generations—that conservatory background.

Well, by the time I got in school, they did have jazz programs. Prior to that, you could get kicked out of school playing jazz—even a music school.

There were some in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but the real burgeoning began with the class you entered school with.

Right. It was a great time to be in school, and everyone was New York-minded. This was the ultimate destination. So everyone played and carried on and had the profile of somebody who was en route to New York. We did our jam sessions on a very competitive and furious level. We practiced all day and all night, every moment. All the drummers would walk around playing air drums. All the trumpet players and trombone players would walk around buzzing on their mouthpieces. All the saxophone players always had a neckstrap on. All the piano players were stretching their arms and doing finger exercises and things. People knew there was a slim chance, but possibly a chance that you could land a gig with somebody and go on the road and see how it was done. By and by, that dried up, and Bradley’s closed, which was the end of everything, as far as I’m concerned. That was the end.

October 1996. That was the end.

GREG:   That was the end. That was the all-night hangout spot where you could go hear amazing music being played, up-close and personal, and then you turn around and there’s George Benson sitting next to you, then Freddie Hubbard will come in, Horace Silver is over there… It was amazing. I like to talk about the many nights that I saw the piano roundtable go down, where the John Hicks Trio might be playing, then Kenny Barron would come in, and he might play “Round Midnight”—he’d play a few choruses, then Roland Hanna may play a few choruses, then Cedar Walton may play a few choruses, then Mulgrew Miller and James Williams and Donald Brown. You might hear 5 or 6 pianists play the same song, and it might go on for like an hour or two. You’re sitting there with your mouth open. It’s like a university education in the night. You’ll sit there and talk to various people. Stanley Crouch is holding court. So you get an earful of stories and anecdotes.

Many levels of humanity in that place.

GREG:   Absolutely. But it was great. That was jazz to me. That’s why I came to New York. “Mr. Coleman, can you tell me…”—and George Coleman would indulge you. You could sit and talk to anybody. Can you imagine? John Hicks. Just the stories.

That was the end. Then a lot of the jam sessions closed up, too. Unfortunately, musicians during Reaganomics, they weren’t making a lot of money, so a guy would buy a beer and be at the jam session for five or six hours, and he’d still have that same beer—it would be still two-thirds full. He couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Those places couldn’t afford to stay open, when people were holding up the wall, so to speak. I really miss it. I miss seeing people get embarrassed. I miss seeing people just get smoked on the bandstand. They need to know that they’re not ready, that they need to practice, that they don’t have the particulars to make it on the competitive New York stage. Without that, you have whole legions of people who aren’t ready but don’t know that they’re not ready. You’d go to the Jazz Cultural Theater, and Barry Harris would be there, or Jaki Byard. Anybody would walk in. Clifford Barbaro. Betty Carter would come and say, “Honey, you need to go back to Cleveland or Arkansas or wherever you’re from; you need to work.” You NEED this. We don’t have it. You don’t have Art Blakey playing two weeks in a row at Sweet Basil or Mikell’s or wherever. You can go every night, and he may let you sit in, and you get to hear some amazing jazz with people your age. Or you go to the Blue Note and play at Ted Curson’s jam session. This is before you had to sign your name and wait all night, and get to play one solo. Or you’d go to the Star Café on 23rd Street. Or you’d go to the 7th Avenue South, when the Brecker Brothers had that club, and you could hear that kind of jazz. David Sanborn might be there, Hiram Bullock, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Michael and Randy or whatever. Or Grand Street. Greene Street. There were so many places.

Hangs.

GREG:   Yeah, hangs. Not only there, but you would see so much great music on the street. Arthur Rhames. Vincent Herring was 17 years old, playing out in Times Square. George Braith, with his dual saxophones welded together, the Braithophone, would be in front of the public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This was before policemen started confiscating musicians’ instruments. They would take cats’ stuff, then demand that they get a laminate and a peddler’s license, just like a hot-dog cart guy. You could hear music all the time everywhere.

I don’t want to reminisce like it was the glory days, and I think it can happen again. I just think younger players need to get back into the idea of having jam sessions at their houses, and really twisting each other’s arms, and getting out, and just being more enthusiastic about it, more creative, and take more chances, more risks, and stop playing it safe. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.

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