Monthly Archives: August 2014

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

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Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation, a 2011 DownBeat Cover Story, and a Link to 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending first  the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com, and then a DownBeat cover story I was given the opportunity  to put together in 2010-11. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

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IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose! Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor’s note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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Brad Mehldau DownBeat Article (2010-Directors Cut):

 

The announcement last spring that Brad Mehldau would be the first jazz musician to occupy the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2010-11 season—an honorific he shares with such luminaries as Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and Thomas Adès—drew surprisingly scant notice from mainstream cultural gatekeepers as a watershed event.

With the exception of Wynton Marsalis, it’s difficult to think of a musician possessing greater bona fides in the classical and jazz arenas. From his earliest albums, Mehldau established his ability to weave the harmonic language and feeling of Brahms and Mahler into the improvisational warp and woof—swinging or rubato—of trio and solo performance. He gave his songs Germanophilic titles (“Young Werther,” “Mignon’s Song,” “Angst,” “Sehnsucht”), and described his intentions and thought process in liner notes and essays that refracted a long timeline of German philosophy and literature, producing as extensive an aesthetic manifesto as ever produced by any jazz musician not named Anthony Braxton. His deep grounding in the various tributaries of post Bud Powell piano expression came through in the career-launching Introducing Brad Mehldau, which also documented his knack—he was then 25—for getting to the heart of a ballad. By Mehldau’s second recording, The Art of the Trio, Volume 1, he displayed a nascent comfort zone with 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, constructing contrapuntal phrases with a flowing, over-the-barline quality. Numerous pianists of his Gen-X peer group paid close attention. They kept listening as Mehldau, after moving to Los Angeles in 1996, increasingly brought contemporary pop songs into his mix, resolving, as he once wrote, to “bypass the temptation to use the collective language of the past.”

Long a devotee of art song, Mehldau upped the ante five years ago with Love Songs [Nonesuch], a pair of fully notated song cycles set to poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Bogan for interpretation by the prominent mezzo soprano Renee Fleming. Fellow diva Anne Sophie von Otter, already a fan of his trio recordings, was impressed, and requested Carnegie Hall to commission her own project with Mehldau. The result is Love Sublime [Naive], comprising one disk on which von Otter sings five stark, ravaged Sara Teasdale lyrics from the ‘10s and ‘20s, and a poem apiece by E.E. Cummings and Philip Larkin, and a second on which she traverses a varied menu drawn from a trans-genre cohort of songwriter-composers, among them Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Leo Ferré and Bob Telson. Throughout the proceedings, Mehldau, the virtuoso soloist, embraces the role of accompanist, playing throughout with restraint and dynamic nuance. For the poems, he adheres strictly to the scores, which are at once fresh and idiomatically evocative of the lieder tradition; on the “middlebrow” fare, he imparts an old-school saloon piano feel, interpolating graceful comp with solos that contain no wasted notes.

“Brad plays beautifully, in the truest, most seriously meant sense,” von Otter emailed. “During one of our early meetings, I described my my range to him, my strengths and weaknesses, what I would encourage and discourage in the vocal lines. We also discussed our tastes in poetry. The songs sound American to me—Copland comes to mind, though not overly so. But they also have a strong Mehldau style, meaning that Brad has managed—and this is not so easy—to create his very own sound, something fresh and new.”

` There’s no mistaking the Mehldau touch on Highway Rider [Nonesuch], his first recorded exploration of the orchestral implications of his pianism. Recorded last March, It’s a motivically connected, 15-movement suite on which a two-drummer edition of Mehldau’s working trio and saxophone soloist Joshua Redman interact with a chamber orchestra comprised of 23 strings, three french horns, bassoon and oboe, each given a separate part on two selections, and functioning sectionally elsewhere. Both on the orchestral selections and the quintet, quartet, trio, and duo pieces that comprise much of Highway Rider’s second part, Mehldau weaves into his own argot a host of dialects—Euro and American streams of classical music, various iterations of post-songbook pop and classic rock, swinging and odd-metered jazz, flamenco and bolero, the blues. The piece, which has an imaginary screenplay quality, is chock-a-block with achingly gorgeous songs—seasoned with well-proportioned dollops of atonality, and threaded together with recurring harmonic and melodic themes—that seem to be begging for a lyric.

Mehldau toured Highway Rider in early November, recruiting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for a three-concert American leg that concluded with a November 9th appearance at Zankel Hall, in advance of a fortnight-long, seven-concert European sojourn. During the afternoon runthrough, Mehldau negotiated the mix section by section with conductor Scott Yoo and Zankel’s efficient soundman. Occasionally, he responded to the flow with extemporaneous contrapuntal responses; at other points, he walked to different spots in the auditorium to hear for himself. After all these issues were settled, after Yoo and SPCO had resolved to their satisfaction various nuances of phrasing and vibrato, the quintet soundchecked with a brisk version of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Left leg crossed over right, leaning into the keyboard, Mehldau tossed off an intense, ready-for-prime-time solo of several choruses, abstracting the refrain, alternating block chords with hurtling single-note passages.

Hit time was 8:30, and Mehldau had a five o’clock meeting with pianist-composer Timothy Andres at Steinway’s 57th Street premises for a pre-dinner parsing of the selections from Andres’ two-piano suite, Shy and Mighty, that the two were slated to perform at a March 11th Zankel Hall concert that would conclude Mehldau’s composer-in-residence obligations. (The third concert, on February 19th, presented Mehldau and Von Otter in support of Love Songs; for the second, on January 26th, Mehldau played solo, per his 2011 Nonesuch release, Live at Marciac.)

Before leaving, Mehldau took ten minutes to sit with me. He turned 40 last year, and his dark hair contains the barest intimations of gray. He’s taller and more buff than is evident from a distance or in photos, with ropy arm muscles—accentuated by a tattoo on his left bicep—that are a pianist’s equivalent of an embouchure. Unfailingly polite, he reiterated a message conveyed by management the day before: He had no time to meet face-to-face before his departure for London two days hence, and he’d remain in Europe through December with his wife Fleurine, the Dutch singer, and their three children. Our conversation would have to be by phone.

On the appointed day, Mehldau spoke at length about a variety of subjects. But taping goblins interfered. The proceedings evaporated into thin air. With a deadline drawing nigh, Mehldau agreed to a second go-round via email.

In a 2006 conversation on WKCR, Mehldau related that when he was “around 22, maybe four years in New York,” he “started rediscovering classical music, which I’d played as a kid, with great pleasure. I did what I did with jazz for a long time—I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. Scores. A lot of records. A lot of concerts. It rubbed off a little. I’d been playing in a style where the left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing, and I’d lost some left-hand facility to the point where I thought I had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12. It was a sort of ego or vanity thing that got me into playing classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.”

In 2010, I asked about the gestation of Highway Rider.

I like to read scores like someone else reads a regular book—in the train, in bed if I’m trying to fall asleep, wherever. It’s a great way to get inside a composer’s head; I feel like I’m getting to know the person who wrote it, even if he’s been dead for 200 years. It’s like he’s telling you everything about himself, right there in the room with you. So writing for orchestra came on its own time. The inspiration was cumulative. All the events in my life led to that moment.

Mehldau cited a passage from Rilke, first in the original German, then in translation: “Everything is gestation and then birth. To let every impression and every germ of feeling complete itself, wholly in itself, in the dark, the unsayable, the unconscious, unreachable by one’s own conscious understanding; and then to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour of deliverance, when a new clarity comes: This alone is the artist’s life: in comprehension as well as in creation.”

Highway Rider is the largest scale thing I’ve done. I don’t mean just the amount of musicians; I mean the aspiration to have formal continuity throughout an extended, multi-faceted piece. The process in which I wrote it might be something like writing a novel, in the sense that when you start to write, you are not starting at the beginning, and as you go along, you don’t know where it’s leading. You have to pay attention, and not over-extend yourself by adding too much material—you achieve continuity by vigorously sticking with one central idea. What happens, then, is super cool: At a certain point in writing—maybe about one third of the way—the theme starts to take over. It starts to dictate what you’re writing, and, in spooky ways, large-scale connections between the various parts of the whole start connecting to each other, without your effort, by their own accord. I wrote the first piece for Highway Rider—it wound up being the title track—in a dressing room when I was touring with Pat Metheny. I let it sit awhile, thinking maybe it could be a trio tune. Then, a month later, in the tour bus with Pat, I got some ideas for the string piece, ‘Now You Must Walk Alone.’ I saw a thematic connection, and thought that was interesting and maybe I could exploit it. Then I began to consciously stay with that motif. But the order of the pieces, and more importantly, what I think of as the narrative ‘arc’ wasn’t there yet—it took another year.

As the titles imply, said narrative arc pertains explicitly to travel—the notion of a journey, a life cycle. Since the 2000 trio recording, Places, the road, a fundamental reality for any working performer, has been an ongoing trope in Mehldau’s work.

Music travels through time; often we are traveling through space. So travel works well for me as a metaphor for music. I think that’s pretty universal—when you begin a piece, you feel like you’re in one place, and when it ends, you have gone somewhere. Or perhaps, like in a few things I’ve done already, Highway Rider included, you’ve traveled back to where you started, and maybe you’ve had some kind of gnosis: You’re where you were, but you’ve gained something. Music always expresses itself through the dialectic of a fixed identity and difference: As a piece develops, some part of its identity is constant, but there is also constant change. Likewise, in a journey, there is always the traveler—his or her surroundings change, but he or she remains the same conduit for all of those varied surroundings.

As a teenager, Mehldau discovered the Songbook tunes that would later enter his repertoire through recordings by female singers like Julie London and Peggy Lee; he’s described instrumental lyricism as striving for a voice-like quality. He addressed the way these concerns play out in his musical production in 2006, responding to a question on his Germanophilic predispositions.

“I was trying to bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, from Brahms in 1865 to Wynton Kelly in 1958. I was very concerned then with creating an identity that would somehow mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways). One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.”

[2010]: As a pianist you have the limitations of your instrument, and the big one is that the note dies away after it’s played. Still, you have all these models from the human voice, horns, and bowed stringed instruments, where the sound continues. You try to find your own way of sounding like a horn. A lot of the expression comes in the actual intention—if as a piano player you are getting inspired by a horn and try to play with a horn-quality, you won’t sound like a horn, but something different will happen in your playing.

Do ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ sides coexist within you? Do you enter different mind-spaces in addressing one idiom vis-a-vis the other, or is the process more holistic?

It doesn’t feel holistic, but it is. Basically, my gift is this: I have the ability to synthesize the classical music I’m listening to, studying, and playing, and let it find a way into my conception. I’m an okay classical player, but I never would have made it as a virtuoso concert artist. You have to have steel balls for that; it’s just not in my character. For example, a few years back I worked on Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata—a real warhorse ass-kicker—for a few months. I gave up in self-disgust after trying to play it for some friends and completely flailing. But then it seeped into my solo thing—different parts of it at different times. So I never stop learning classical music or exposing myself to new things. Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock—each of them let classical music rub off on their jazz playing.

In the program notes for Highway Rider, Mehldau states that the structure and instrumentation mirrors/responds to Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, a civilizational threnody composed in 1945, at the end of World War Two.

Metamorphosen is the perfect piece of music for me if there ever was one. It has everything: That thematic economy I mentioned, on a high level, and the perfect marriage between “horizontal” and “vertical” expression—very harmonic and very melodic all at once. The contrapuntal rigor is unparalleled, yet at times the piece can come at you like a big, fat, beautiful series of chords. Strauss’ harmonic language at this period in time—and early Schoenberg in pieces like Pelleas und Mellisande, and Mahler in his later symphonies, particularly the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth—is a language that I want to inhabit. It’s right on the edge of the abyss; yet it’s still tonal. There’s a tragic, hyper-real feeling to that.

Scott Yoo: After our last concert in Paris, I told Brad that the more I dealt with the piece, the more I liked it, and that I enjoyed conducting it most on the last day of the tour. That’s something that happens with Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms—the really great pieces are the ones you enjoy more as you do them more. I’m as much of a layman on jazz music as you can get, but with each different show, I could see what stayed the same with the group and what changed. For example, Brad had a lot of what we call cadenzas. One of them is the epilogue, and he played it very straight the first time I heard it. I thought, ‘ok, fine; that makes sense.’ From night to night, the cadenza became more elaborate. Actually, it was very classical. There were times where I thought it was a shame that what he was putting forth wasn’t being documented, because he was making up such profound music on the spot. Then I realized, ‘Aha, so this is what jazz is all about.’ The ephemeral quality of something existing in a brief second of time, and then evaporating, never to appear again, that’s the whole beauty of it. It was a little disconcerting to hear different notes every night. But once you understand that, and let go, then it’s not so hard.

Joshua Redman: I’d played ‘Don’t Be Sad,’ ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ and ‘Old West’ on duo gigs wtih Brad in 2008 and 2009, and he sent us demos a few months before the recording. But although I had some sense of the general vibe of the songs, I had no conception of the orchestral aspects going in. Often when I’m soloing, it’s in the context of orchestral passages with bold, sometimes dissonant harmonies. So it was a wonderful challenge, hearing it for the first time in the studio, to interact and figure out how to make my soloistic voice blend [with] and complement what the orchestra was doing. On the tour, the challenge, night after night, as I gained more insight into how everything fit together, was somehow to approach the music like I was playing it for the first time, to preserve that freshness and spontaneity.

There’s a lot in the piece that’s new and groundbreaking, but it sounds like a natural extension and development of all the musical ideas Brad’s worked with in the past. To me, almost every band he’s had, almost every record he’s done, there has been a sense of arrival, of completion, as though fully formed in its time. He’s a true virtuoso, but it’s not intimidating—in in every instance he employs his chops in the service of musicality and an emotional statement, not for display. You feel so much warmth and empathy and soul and love, as well as the intelligence, rigor and complexity music should have. Hands-down, he’s the best comper I’ve ever heard; he plays exactly what you would play for yourself if you were smart enough to think about it and empathic enough to feel it. The raw, God-given musical talent; the skill he’s acquired through years of playing, listening, and working on music; and that empathy—I’m not sure I’ve encountered that combination of elements in any other musician.

In 2006, Mehldau related that although he was well-conversant in jazz vocabulary when he arrived at Manhattan’s New School in 1988, he “had not much practical knowledge of how to apply it in a group setting.” He added that comping was “part of my definition of being a jazz piano player,” that it’s “a social, intuitive thing,” better learned by osmosis than in the classroom. He observed elder peer-groupers like Larry Goldings and Kevin Hays, and veterans like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and learning on the job on gigs with veterans like Jimmy Cobb, and contemporaries Mark Turner, Ugonna Okegwo, and Leon Parker. Junior Mance, Mehldau’s first teacher at the New School, helped, too. “I told Junior, ‘I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?’ He said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ We sat down, and Junior would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Doing these things helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time.”

[2010]: Comping is just plain fun. Think about it: Someone is blowing his or her brains out in front of you, telling a story. What to do? Do you interject? Do you support? Okay, you support, but…do you support strongly like a church choir, or softly like a harp? Or a little of both? It’s like playing basketball—you’re where you need to be right when your guy needs you to be there. That takes maturity. Comping is also a quick way to find out how a pianist thinks about harmony. You may showcase some worked-out stuff in a solo, but comping will show your actual knowledge of things like voice leading, register considerations, etc.

This being said, the preponderance of Mehldau’s schedule until the end of April are solo concerts in support of Live in Marciac.

I felt like I had something to say solo with Elegiac Cycle, but my solo concept wasn’t as loose in the concert setting. The looseness—the relaxed thing I have playing trio—kicked in the next few years and I gradually got drawn to doing it more and more in concert. I put out the first live record, In Tokyo, because it represented for me a transition in my solo conception—the end point of something that had developed, and the beginning of something that was hatching. In the same way, Live in Marciac is the summation of certain things I’ve done, with some glimmers of a new conception, which is now in full throttle, I would say.

In the January solo concert I’ll intersperse music from the classical repertoire with my own music and talk a little, showing examples of how various composers have influenced how I write, improvise, and arrange other people’s tunes. I never take this approach; it’s intentionally didactic, and that’s not my thing. But I’m doing it in my role as the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve given it some real thought. The position is certainly a great honor. A lot of ink is spilled about how the jazz and classical music worlds inform each other, and it’s been a tired trope for years—it kind of knocks the danger out of each one. The only way for both genres to inform what you’re doing in a meaningful way, whatever kind of musician you are, is to engage deeply in both disciplines.

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Filed under Brad Mehldau, DownBeat, Jazz.com, Piano, WKCR

For Bassist John Clayton’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2010

John Clayton, who continues to make his mark as top-tier bassist, composer and bandleader, turns 62 today. I had the pleasure of several conversations with him in late 2009-early 2010 when researching and composing a feature piece for DownBeat, which I append below.

* * * *

One of John Clayton’s favorite sayings is that he doesn’t do stress. “I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get the job done,” Clayton said. “I might have to go without sleeping, deal with difficult people, maybe have people scream at me—but it rolls off my back.”

It was the second Tuesday of January, and the bassist, 57, was anticipating the final installment of an eight-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Clayton Brothers Band, which he co-leads with his brother, Jeff Clayton, to be directly followed by two days in the studio to record The New Song and Dance, a follow-up to Brother to Brother [Artist Share], a 2010 Grammy nominee. He had arrived in New York directly from a week at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, where he performed four duos with bassist John Patitucci and another four with pianist Gerald Clayton, his son.

On the previous evening at Dizzy’s, the only screaming came from a packed house of NEA Jazz Masters, who ate salmon, drank wine and mineral water, and rose up and hollered in response to a surging, well-paced set. “That band is great,” 2010 awardee Kenny Barron said later, summing up the prevailing opinion. “It reminds me of why I wanted to start playing jazz in the first place.”

Such approbation made sense: Since 1977, when the Claytons co-founded the unit, they’ve connected to the hip populism and presentational values that defined the musical production of such predecessors as the Adderley Brothers, Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Horace Silver, the Ray Brown-Gene Harris Trio, and Count Basie. Now they’re a pan-generational ensemble, with forty-something trumpeter Terrell Stafford sharing the front line with Jeff Clayton on alto sax and flute, and twenty-somethings Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire on piano and drums. At Dizzy’s, CBB articulated old-school aesthetics in a non-formulaic manner, addressing sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic raw materials with a sell-the-song attitude and acute attention to detail. John Clayton radiated the cool, composed affect of which he spoke—alert to all the nuances, he smiled encouragement at his band-mates, goosing the flow with consistently melodic basslines and ebullient, surging-yet-relaxed grooves.

“When I was 16, I studied with Ray Brown,” Clayton explained. “Milt Jackson was like an uncle to me at 17. Their music was extremely deep and serious, yet they had no problem allowing the joy that they were deriving from it to be expressed on their faces and in their body language.”

Known as Ray Brown’s protégé since those years, Clayton holds an undisputed position in the upper echelons of bass expression—in addition to his considerable jazz bona fides as both an ensemble player and soloist, his peer group gives him deep respect for having held the principal bass chair with the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years during the 1980s.

“One of John’s talents is picking things up quickly—understanding concepts,” said Jeff Clayton. “I practice long and hard. John practices smart—always has. In preparing to audition for the Amsterdam Philharmonic, he just added another hour or so to his practice.

“ I was practicing a lot anyway, so I just added the orchestra audition material to what I was practicing,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “Classical is just another kind of music. You’ve still got to push the string down to the fingerboard. You have to play detached notes or legato notes, forte or piano. Now, the instrumentation or the groove or some other aesthetic might be different—you learn those things.”

“I’ve always been analytical,” he added. “I’m more comfortable if I try to figure out why the characters in a situation say what they do or act as they do. Rather than play something from my lesson 300 times, I’ll play it 50 times, and each time analyze, say, what my elbow or wrist is doing.”

Clayton has applied his penchant for compartmentalization and mono-focus towards mastering various non-performative aspects of the music business—indeed, he does so many things so well that it is possible to overlook how distinctive a niche he occupies. “John is a visionary, who says, ‘Five years from now, I’ll be here,’ and then gets there,’” said Monty Alexander, with whom Clayton spent the better part of three years on the road during the middle ‘70s. “When John says he’s going to do something and then it transpires, it’s not by chance,” his brother adds. “We would write down goal sheets and follow them; once we’ve made it to ALL of our goals, then we set new ones.”

One platform is the area of composition and arrangement for small groups, big bands, and orchestras, a craft that Clayton learned in the crucible of the late ‘70s Count Basie Orchestra. While in Amsterdam, he continued to refine his aesthetic, creating charts for a radio big band. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he found steady work in the studios, and set to work establishing himself as a film writer.

“I was involved in a lot of film sessions as the only African-American musician in a 75-piece orchestra, and I thought as a writer I could help change that situation,” Clayton said. “But when it looked like the doors were starting to open, it became less interesting to me. I realized I was getting into it for the wrong reason; I’d be focusing on a lot of music and an environment that doesn’t define me. If you’re lucky enough to work with the great directors or producers, then fantastic. But to work with unqualified shlocks who are telling you what to do, and have no taste in music… I always say that jazz saved my life. I don’t make the kind of money that a successful film writer makes. But I smile a lot.”

Instead, Clayton focused on establishing the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band as a primary locus for his musical production, transmuting vocabulary from various Count Basie “New Testament” and Woody Herman arrangers, Duke Ellington, and Thad Jones into his own argot in the process of creating a book. As the ‘90s progressed, he served as arranger-for-hire, producer, and conductor on numerous recordings and high-visibility concerts, adding to his duties administrative responsibilities as Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 to 2001. While multi-tasking amongst these activities, he also taught at the University of Southern California (he retired at the end of the 2008-09 academic year), developing a comprehensive bass pedagogy.

In discussing his first principles as a bassist, Clayton referenced his initial encounter with Ray Brown at a weekly “Workshop in Jazz Bass” course at UCLA in 1969, which he rode four buses to get to.

“Ray came through the door, took out the bass, and showed the whole class what we had to learn,” Clayton recalled. “He played every major scale, every minor scale, all the arpeggios in every key. Later, he brought in recordings of Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Israel Crosby, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, and Scott LaFaro, none of whom I’d ever heard of. He saw how hungry I was, so in love with the whole thing, so he’d invite me to his recording sessions or club gigs in the area. I can pick out Ray in the middle of a 150-piece string orchestra. But he still has lessons for me, whether about tone, how to handle a groove from one tune to the next, and on and on.”

Mentorship evolved to friendship and ultimately productive partnership in Super Bass, the three-contrabass ensemble that united Brown, Clayton and Christian McBride from 1996 until Brown’s death in 2002. Most tellingly, Brown bequeathed to Clayton his primary bass—Clayton played it at Dizzy’s and in Orvieto. “It’s like a talisman,” Clayton said. “It’s as though by touching this instrument, I am infused with confidence, not egotistical, but as if to say, ‘You’re touching this bass, the music needs this, you can supply this.’ I tell my students that creativity begins from nothing and silence. When you touch the instrument, before you play a note, allow some silent moments so that you are immediately cool and chill and calm—and THEN give the music whatever it demands.”

[BREAK]

“I’m playing the piano, and standing next to me is this patriarch guy, caressing everything and making what you’re playing better,” Monty Alexander said, recalling Clayton’s comportment as a 22-year-old in his trio. “Sometimes I got mad because I wanted to say, ‘Hey, respect seniority here!’ He had a way about him that just made you happy to play.”

“My dad finds a way to translate his approach in life better than a lot of people,” Gerald Clayton remarked. “He’s got such a big heart, he’s thankful for the situation, and he brings that energy and love and honesty into the music. Even if he’s telling you to do something, it’s more like an invitation—sort of intimidating but loving, like a big bear.”

Asked to comment on this patriarchal trope, Jeff Clayton said: “Our mother raised seven kids as a single mom, worked ten hours a day at the Post Office, went to choir rehearsal, taught the junior and senior choir Tuesdays and Fridays and went to church all day Sunday, and took one class per semester, one night a week for 12 years, and got her degree in theology. As the oldest brother with that many kids, John had to be responsible.”

“Billy Higgins used to say, ‘You don’t choose the instrument; the instrument chooses you,’” John Clayton said, “I think that surely applies to me. People look to bass players as glue. We’re the go-between for the egos of the drums, or the piano, or the vocalist, or the trumpet—we understand where everyone is coming from. That molds your personality, and you move more towards what the bass represents.”

Clayton’s personal rectitude and groundedness, his impeccable craft, his insistence on privileging ensemble imperatives above solo flight, his staunch identification with the bedrock codes of jazz tradition, can impart the superficial impression of aesthetic conservativism. But his comments on  what he considers distinctive about his voice reveal an incremental sensibility.

“The changes and contributions I make to the structures we work with are inside, subtle, upper-level things,” Clayton said. “I was inspired by the way Israel Crosby, with Ahmad Jamal’s trio, superimposed within his bassline a tune on the tune he was playing. Or when Monty played a solo, the way he would anticipate my bassline and harmonize it before I created it. Now I’m listening to Terrell, and create my bassline based on a melody fragment he’s just played in his solo.

“Our ultimate goal as musicians is to become one with our instrument, and singing is the barometer that tells us this is happening. In fact, any time that my playing starts to go south, all I have to do is remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not singing,’ and it automatically clicks back into place.”

Prefacing his first Orvieto duo concert with Patitucci, Clayton introduced his partner as “a faucet that turns on and turns off and plays melody.” It could have been self-description. Performing such iconic bass repertoire as “Tricotism,” “Whims of Chambers” and “Ray’s Idea,” songbook chestnuts like “Squeeze Me,” “Body and Soul,” and “Tea For Two,” and baroque music, they engaged in open dialog, intuiting each other’s moves, playing as authoritatively with the bow as pizzicato, taking care to stay in complementary registers, switching from support to lead on a dime.

“It was the best musical experience I’ve ever had playing duos with a bass player,” Patitucci said. “He’s a consummate musician. The pitches lined up, which made the sonorities much richer; he’s so well-rounded that you could throw up anything and read through it, and it worked.”

The father-son duos at Orvieto proceeded along similarly open paths, the protagonists addressing blues, spirituals, standards, and originals by Clayton fils with abundant reharmonizations, and polytonal episodes, with a stylistically heterogeneous stance. Pere Clayton kept things grounded with a relentless pocket and elevated the mood with a succession of transcendent arco solos, including an introduction to John Lewis’ to “Django” that channeled Bach in grand Koussevitzkyian fashion.

“Each situation is about passion,” Clayton said of his unitary interests. “You immerse yourself in that language, and try to make it part of what you do, because you’re so crazy about it. I love classical and jazz styles 50-50, and I think that’s what you hear.”

On The New Song and Dance, the Clayton Brothers place tango, New Orleans streetbeat, and complex time signatures into the mix towards the notion, as Jeff Clayton put it, “that swing is part of a large cauldron of many ideas that we are allowed to visit in each song.” “It shows the wide span of creativity that the group represents,” John Clayton said. “The project is pushing me in ways I haven’t been pushed before; my brother’s songs don’t sound anything like songs he wrote four years ago. Gerald stretches us, too. If people thought they knew what we sounded like, they’re going to be surprised with different sounds.

“The things I write for the Clayton Brothers that I’m less happy with lean too close to being over-arranged. I always look for that balance to have it organized yet allow for a lot of freedom. With the big band it’s a little different. I want it to be a blowing band, but then other times I’ll write a chorus with no improvisation at all.”

Clayton anticipated a light touring schedule over the summer, the better to focus on expanding “Red Man, Black Man”—a programmatic 2006 opus commissioned  by the Monterey Jazz Festival as a collaboration between the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Kurt Elling, that year’s artist-in-residence—from a 25-minute investigation of the affinities between Native American and African American music into a concert-length performance. To frame Elling’s reading of original lyrics and poems apropos to the subject, Clayton orchestrates a Shawnee tribal stomp (“the singers were using call-and-response, the notes were primarily the blues scale, and the shaker pattern was CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING”) with radical techniques—the musicians blow silence, the saxophone section plays the transcribed stomp with wood flutes, chains and anvils strike the ground at measured intervals to represent a chain gang.

“I’m interested in different cultures and their music, and always tried, somehow, to incorporate them in what I do,” Clayton said, citing an unaccompanied bass feature that combines “Lift Every Voice And Sing” with “Danny Boy,” and, on a meta-level, the fall 2009 release, Charles Aznavour and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra [Capitol Jazz-EMI], on which  Clayton’s subtle arrangements—the guests include pianist Jacky Terrason and Rachelle Farrell—reimagine the iconic chanteur’s hits, and some choice new repertoire, in a swing context.

However his milieu evolves, Clayton does not intend to be left behind. “In the big band era, there were way fewer choices,” he said. “Now we can listen to so many categories of music. Many young musicians say, ‘There’s too much for me to absorb and learn and be held responsible for.’ I think, ‘That’s great—get busy.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, John Clayton

For Mal Waldron’s 89th birthday, A Director’s Cut of a DownBeat Piece from 2002

In recognition of the 89th birth anniversary of the late pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m posting a “directors’ cut” of an article that ran in DownBeat in 2002, with a link to the two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Waldron — one on WKCR, another on the phone — that contributed to the bulk of the piece. It was an honor to meet and interact with him.

* * *

An expatriate for roughly half his life, 77-year-old pianist Mal Waldron, New York born, finds it increasingly difficult to come home. “I don’t plan to return to the States for a while,” he noted in New York last August, two nights into a week at the Blue Note with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke on the bandstand. Having the smoke around me when I play the piano helps me to feel the mood, and feel relaxed and jazzy. That’s my ‘snoozedecker,’ like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in ‘Peanuts.'”
The image of a security blanket is a recurrent trope when Waldron discusses his musical personality, established over a career that spans half a century. “It’s support,” Waldron said, addressing the art of accompanying singers, a function he mastered on numerous gigs with Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. “I lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!” As his long-time collaborator Steve Lacy once put it, “All the thousands of people he’s played with love Mal because he makes them sound good. And he sounds good himself. He gets a wonderful sound out of the piano, and he’s got his own style, his own angle, a vast knowledge of structure, of harmony, of rhythm, time and space. He’s an ideal partner.”
Waldron knows how to articulate essences, projecting his voice with an understated, introspective style, building powerful statements through the incremental repetition of cogent rhythmic and melodic cells. “My technique was always nil and still is nil,” Waldron says. “I only play what I hear, and usually I have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear. But other musicians hear things that I can’t play because my technique isn’t up to it.”
Be that as it may, it’s a good bet those other musicians appreciate Waldron’s memorable compositions, informed by sources as diverse as Eric Satie, Johannes Brahms, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and the blues. Structurally complex, deploying unusual time signatures and relentlessly logical chord changes, they have a dark, astringent feel, with spare melodies that penetrate your bones and stay there. Close to a thousand in number, they include repertoire classics like “Soul Eyes,” “Left Alone” and “Fire Waltz,” and more recent improvisational fodder like “Snake Out,” “The Git-Go” and “Hurray For Herbie.”
Waldron conceived the former set of pieces between 1955 and 1963, when he recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Jackie McLean, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. He was also house pianist, arranger and composer for Prestige Records, where he imparted an organizing, cohesive quality to in-and-out-of-the-studio blowing dates led by the likes of Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.
“Composing went along with improvising, which is instant composition,” Waldron says. “I’d make my changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then write a tune over them. My life consisted of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and recording them the next day.”
By 1956, when McLean recruited Waldron to play on 1…2…3, the first of his several dozen Prestige sessions, the pianist had ample experience to draw upon. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he had piano lessons from an early age, developing proficiency with classical repertoire. “I was forced to take piano lessons,” Waldron recalls. “I didn’t like playing classics, because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped. But if I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that. Fear is a great motivator.”
Waldron’s “mind started moving toward jazz” when he heard Coleman Hawkins play “Body And Soul.” “My first jazz experiences were on saxophone,” he says. “I bought an alto, since 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 Down Beat, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, Waldron, stationed at West Point, spent some of his free time playing saxophone in an off-base swing band. More often, he rode the Hudson Line south to Manhattan, where he heard Art Tatum at the Cafe Society downtown, Bud Powell on 52nd Street and Thelonious Monk at Minton’s in Harlem, finally catching the early morning train to return for duty. “52nd Street was an energizing experience,” he recalls. “Minton’s had a front bar and a back room where the rhythm section would be pumping away on one tune, and the horns would solo chorus after chorus, getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another would take over. It kept going like that all night long. I heard Monk there even before I heard his records. He was a big man, austere and imposing. He looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world. His sound wasn’t immediately attractive to me; the way he hit the piano was so strange. But later it grew on me. It’s an acquired taste.”
After his discharge, Waldron matriculated at Queens College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued studies in composition and theory with Karel Radhaus, while continuing to chase the music, most frequently at a jam session run by saxman Big Nick Nicholas at the Paradiso. “I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker,” Waldron states. “But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to piano. I found my basis was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.”
Others agreed; after graduating in 1949, Waldron became a professional, doing uptown rhythm-and-blues jobs with Ike Quebec, Lucky Millinder and Tiny Grimes, simultaneously nurturing friendships with a homegrown pianist peer group that included Randy Weston, Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, to whom Waldron dedicated “Hooray For Herbie.”
“Herbie was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment,” Waldron says. “His themes were beautiful, intricate and tricky, but subtle and basic, too. His sound fit his personality. Observing him helped me decide that if you just played the way you spoke or moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound. Cecil was really out. But he was working on it, and I could see some form, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Randy was more like me, more into formal music; he didn’t step outside and play free. We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest to see who could play the best ones.”
Mingus recruited Waldron in 1954, beginning a decade-long relationship. “Mingus was like my older brother,” Waldron says. “He gave me a lot of advice and helped me develop into a mature musician. I was into imitating Bud Powell from things like ‘Bud’s Bubble,’ making Bud’s runs and so on. Mingus said, ‘Don’t copy anyone. That’s not the way. An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.’ That stuck, and I started working on my own style. Which entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change; just a group of notes could be an impetus for soloing. I learned that the piano is a percussive instrument; you beat on it. We realized that jazz is the music of people who were not satisfied with the status quo. You’d punch the piano as though you were striking somebody in your way.”
Through the ’50s, Waldron juggled Prestige sessions with demo dates for singers and gigs uptown, downtown and in the boroughs with hardcore jazzmen McLean, Art and Addison Farmer, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers. He even did jazz-and-poetry happenings at the Five Spot with Lacy, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.
“We were on the outer edges of the status quo,” Waldron states of his association with ’50s Bohemia. “We were the outlaws, really, so we ganged together. There was sawdust on the floor of the Five Spot! But this is in retrospect. They were just people I worked with on a gig, I got money for it and went home and fed the family.”

“It was an accident” is Waldron’s simple explanation of how he became Billie Holiday’s pianoman in April 1957. He held that job until her death, penning the melody to her iconic swan song “Left Alone” on a plane en route to a job in San Francisco. “She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist conked out, couldn’t function any more,” Waldron relates. “She asked Bill Duffy, who wrote Lady Sings The Blues with her, Bill asked his wife Millie if she knew any musicians, Millie asked [bassist] Julian Euell, and Julian asked me. I said, ‘The buck stops here,’ and got on the train. I was a fan of her music, but had never played it. I got a crash course.
“Words were very important to me, and I discovered that words are important to music, too. You can improvise on the words; not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words. This gave me a bigger area to expand into.”
After Holiday died, Waldron and Euell joined Abbey Lincoln, whose then-husband, Max Roach, “came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady. He liked me and took me in his band. He was a real teacher for me, and he taught me about different tempos and accents.”
Waldron appeared on several memorable Roach records during these socially turbulent times, including the 1960 Candid classic Straight Ahead, on which Lincoln sang “Left Alone” in dialogue with a soaring Coleman Hawkins, and Percussion Bitter Suite (Impulse!), a dynamic date propelled by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Waldron convened Dolphy, saxophonist Booker Ervin, Ron Carter and Charli Persip on his own 1961 breakthrough album, The Quest (New Jazz), on which for the first time he wove the various strands of his experience—Ellingtonia (“Duqility” and “Warm Canto”), modality (“Status Seeking”), quasi-serial music (“Thirteen”) and uneven time signatures (“Warp And Woof” and “Fire Waltz”)—into a distinctly Waldronesque quilt.
During a 1963 Chicago engagement with Roach, Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown on the bandstand as the result of a heroin overdose. “I couldn’t remember where I was,” he says. “I couldn’t remember anything—about the piano or anything else. I lost my coordination, and my hands were shaking all the time. I spent six-seven months in East Elmhurst Hospital, where they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind.”
Waldron had begun dabbling during a 1955 run at the Cafe Bohemia with Mingus. “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 it built and built. I thought I had control of this horse! I would bring him out and put him away; I thought I had him covered. All of a sudden he snuck up on me and knocked me down.”
Waldron recuperated, buckled down and began the arduous process of relearning his instrument. In 1965, director Marcel Carne asked Waldron if he wanted to write the music for the film Three Bedrooms In Manhattan in New York or in Paris. “What a choice!” Waldron laughs. “I said, ‘Paris, of course,’ and he paid my ticket. When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin. In America if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes against you. In Europe if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes for you. So I decided to go for that.”
And in Europe he remained and flourished. “The main thing that affected me in Europe is their respect for the music,” he says. “They came out and made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it. When they were done, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist. Which was not true in America.”
In Paris Waldron worked with Ben Webster and gigged at a chic expat soul food restaurant called the Chicken Shack. In 1966 he landed a steady radio gig in Rome (“lots of ‘giorna da festa’ holidays with pay; I loved it!”), then spent consequential time in Bologna and Cologne before settling in Munich, his home base for the next two decades.
During this adjustment period, Waldron resumed his association with Lacy on an impromptu duo in Italy. Thirty-five years later—a couple of dozen recordings, and hundreds of duo, quintet and sextet concerts behind them—they are one of the magical partnerships in jazz, spinning fresh variations on stories postulated by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Powell, Nichols and Mingus. “We just improvised, and it worked,” is Waldron’s pithy description of their initial European encounter. “As time went on, we each brought out our tunes and began to work out tunes by all the people we liked. Music is a language, and if you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else. If the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better. Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.”
Waldron quickly found a cadre of first-class Europe-based improvisers – expats and natives—with a good feel for that vocabulary, including trumpeters Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich and Manfred Schoof, bassists Jimmy Woode and George Mraz, and drummers Pierre Favre and Makaya Ntshoko. “Things have advanced since I came in,” Waldron says. “Then the European musicians were at Level A, while now they’re on Level U or W, toward the end of the scale. But you can’t make generalizations. Some drummers had no concept of swing, but others could swing. There were saxophonists who had no concept of harmony, who’d thumb it all over the place, but others had a conception and played their horns well. It was a question of finding the right musicians, and they were everywhere.”
For the past decade, Waldron has lived in Brussels, Belgium, where the beer, chocolate and mussels are good, and he can smoke as many cigarettes as he likes. Having recorded close to 100 albums as a leader or co-collaborator for a variety of European and Japanese labels since 1969, his performing and recording career continues unabated.
“I hate monotony,” he declares. “To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting to new situations. I want the people opposite me to be adventurous and take risks.”
A cursory scan of his winter schedule substantiates his point. As of late February, Waldron had performed several trio recitals with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, after returning to home base from 10 days at two Japan Blue Note clubs with Avenel and drummer John Betsch. This happened a month after he recorded an album with Lacy and Avenel for Sketch, a French label, following up on a Billie Holiday oriented duo CD with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (enja), far-flung musical conversations with David Murray (Justin Time) and vocalist Judi Silvano (Soul Note), and a never-released ’70s encounter with bassist Johnny Dyani.
Proficient in German, French and Italian, and working on his Japanese, Waldron’s musical voice speaks to cultures around the globe, and he continues to “keep all the burners going” as he did in ’50s New York. “That’s the prerequisite of staying alive,” he says. “If you can communicate to people in their own language and not struggle for words, they love you more! You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else. You have to have a repertoire.” DB

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, DownBeat, Mal Waldron, Piano, Reggie Workman, WKCR