For Branford Marsalis’ birthday, here’s the final cut of a DownBeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008, and a Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2002.
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Downbeat Feature on Branford Marsalis, 2008:
“It’s important to have cats who can push you and let you express yourself through the music, to actually play anything you want,” said Branford Marsalis, the afternoon of his quartet’s first concert gig of 2008.
The saxophonist sat on his hotel room floor in White Plains, N.Y., slicing a grapefruit and an apple. Outside, the rain came down in torrents, as it had throughout the morning. Airline delays jeopardized the arrival of bassist Eric Revis, who lives in San Antonio, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who lives in North Carolina, not far from Marsalis.
Already it had been a busy day. Having arrived the night before, Marsalis practiced for an hour or so before catching a ride through the downpour to nearby SUNY-Purchase to lead an 11 a.m. master class. Striding across an open mezzanine to the music building with neither a hat nor an umbrella, he was sanguine and philosophical. The roads had not flooded, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Brooklynite, was driving up. “We’ll play duo if we have to,” he remarked.
This circumstance would be fascinating, but unfortunate. For one thing, the quartet plays the New York area infrequently, and the Pepsico Theater, the world-class facility on campus, was almost sold out. For another, as evidenced on Braggtown (Marsalis Music), the quartet’s most recent release, it’s a singular unit, able to generate and sustain seamless, organic dialogue through an array of emotional and structural environments—affirmative blues connotations (“Jack Baker”); lyric tone poems (“Hope”) and Euro-Classic homages (“Fate” and “O Solitude”); inflamed spirit talk (“Black Elk Speaks”); kinetic, complex Afro-diasporic rhythms (“Blackzilla”).
The master class transpired in a quasi-amphitheater with a giant pipe organ, in front of which Marsalis sat on a bench and, without ceremony, asked for questions. For the next hour, he addressed a slew of topics—practice procedures, the art of record-making, current favorites, how he filters non-jazz styles into his conception. Then he sat for an interview with a student researching a thesis on Kenny Kirkland, the pianist in the quartet’s first edition, which coalesced in 1988. Marsalis responded to a series of questions about Kirkland’s idiosyncracies, musicianship, position on the piano influence tree and self-destructive habits that eventually killed him in October 1998.
Back at the hotel, Marsalis returned to the subject. “I’d heard Kenny play with Angie Bofill when I was at Berklee, and was talking about how bad he was,” he reminisced. “My next-door neighbor knew him, and I got his number and called. He answered the phone.
“‘Hey, Kenny Kirkland, my name’s Branford Marsalis. You might have heard of my brother, Wynton Marsalis, who’s in New York. We want to come play with you,’” he continued. “He laughed. I must have sounded like the biggest hick—I mean, in terms of my diction and dialect. He said, ‘Cool. I live on 30th Street, right down from the train station.’ Me, Victor Bailey, Donald Harrison, Smitty Smith, Lance Bryant, maybe a couple of other people, got on the train, went to New York and rang his doorbell.’ We had our jam session with Kenny Kirkland.”
Around this time, Marsalis, whose Berklee roommates included drummers Marvin Smitty Smith and Gene Jackson, met Jeff Watts. “A lot of people thought Tain was unorthodox, and didn’t like to play with him,” he said. “But I gravitated toward him immediately. I was listening to Lester Young and Wayne Shorter, and he had just started listening to Elvin Jones, but his sensibility came out of fusion. He knew how to play different time signatures, played ideas through them, and you always knew where the beat was. When Wynton started his band, I thought Tain would be more effective than Smitty for the music he was playing, and I told him to hire Tain. When Tain and Wynton split, I was waiting for him.
From 1988 to 1992, when Marsalis brought his troops to Los Angeles to form the core of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” house band, the quartet was the hottest band in hardcore jazz. All members possessed formidable chops, and could swing with the best, a quality less evident on their studio recordings than on a 1989 bootleg of a tradition-centric set by the quartet at the Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ personal charisma, conceptual flair and pop culture cred from proximity to Sting and Spike Lee persuaded jazz-ignorant audiences to applaud his every move, and his superb, insouciant musicianship attracted a generation of aspirants.
Comparing the ’89 Vanguard document to Braggtown’s polymath erudition testifies to Marsalis’ personal evolution after leaving Leno in 1996. He hit the shed hard, and focused on classical repertoire to increase his scope.
“At 37, I started working on the Ibert Concertino, and within the first half-hour came face to face with virtually every weakness I had,” Marsalis said. “On the first page, there were five or six notes—low E, low D, low C, low B, low B-flat and low C-sharp—that I couldn’t even play. I spent years learning to control them. Now I’ll write songs in the lower range, and I play those notes instead of subtoning. I don’t have to rely on one thing to get the job done—i.e., my strength is playing really fast, so I’ll play really fast on every song, and only play songs that allow me to play fast. We can play fast songs or slow songs; happy songs or sad songs. My possibilities are much more expansive.”
Marsalis bedrocks experimental elaborations of modernist vocabulary—Keith Jarrett’s rubato ebb-and-flow of the ‘70s; non-western and Euro-Classical repertoire; the ways in which John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins created narrative from the outer partials; the overtones and harmonics of speculative improvising—with specific tradition tropes. He deploys tension-and-release, insists that the ride cymbal not only swing, but ring, and wants a thumping bass to drive the band, notions that he assimilated while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s. Watts orchestrates and propels the flow with a global array of beats and Blakeyesque force.
“The requirement is not to sound like an old man, but to use the music of the old men to get where you’re trying to go,” Marsalis said. “Then it sounds like we’re having the same conversation. Musicians use Wynton as an example of some stodgy old codger who’s criminally narrowing the definition of jazz, but we share the exact same philosophy. My band plays a style that doesn’t allow people to say that and sound intelligent at the same time. The more I listen to the old things, the more modern my music is. It’s a wealth of information. If the word is ‘neo-traditionalist,’ then I’m a neo-trad.”
As if to signify on that remark, Marsalis’ cell phone blared the fanfare of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Rob Hunter, his road manager, informed him that Revis and Calderazzo had landed and were en route. Marsalis donned his overcoat, took his saxophone case and went to the lobby to await their arrival.
Watts sauntered in, soon followed by Revis and Calderazzo. After a perfunctory exchange of ritualized insults and salutations, Marsalis hustled Calderazzo and Revis into his rented car and drove through the rain to the theater for the cover photo shoot, with Watts tailgating. After the shoot, two hours ahead of hit time, they returned to the hotel and convened in Marsalis’ quarters.
“I was new to checking out jazz when I met Branford,” Watts recalled. “I played with him on some cool recitals, and we did maybe three gigs outside of school, but mostly we hung out socially. Then he moved to New York. I was walking by a pay phone on the fifth floor of the dormitory, and somebody said, ‘Jeff just walked by,’ and connected us. Branford told me, ‘You’ve got to leave school because my brother started his band, and you’re going to be in it.’”
Marsalis interjected, “He said, ‘OK, cool. Later.’”
“I was aloof in those days,” Watts said. “I moved to New York, we got on Wynton’s group, grew up as musicians and developed a vocabulary together—and separately. Since I didn’t have much vocabulary, he’d anticipate my figures and play them along with me. Trying to dodge him set me up for a portion of how I play now—I try to take melodic stuff and other ideas out of context and move them to different places, but still have them serve the function. When we got together after Wynton, it was comfortable immediately, since so much of my conception came from playing in conjunction with him and Kenny.”
“In Wynton’s band we thought it out as it happened,” Marsalis said. “We developed our philosophy, our basic premises. One idea was to play songs the way classical musicians do, where you jumble a bunch of notes, and they don’t have to be in time if the musicians all can hear it.
“There’s a drum ensemble in Bahia called Timbalada that’s like the brass bands in New Orleans,” he continued. “I loved a certain rhythm on one of their first records, so when I was in Brazil I asked them, ‘How do you count this out?’ They said, ‘We don’t understand the question.’ I said, ‘When you start this rhythm, do you count on four or on one?’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ After 20 minutes, they understood. ‘That’s not how we work,’ they said. ‘We’re not limited by counting. This is the first rhythm and this is the second rhythm.’ I realized that the entire thing is one long rhythm, like a conversation. It’s not counted out, not subdivided, not parsed out in bars. That’s where ‘Lykief’ came from. It’s not in a time signature. Bar lines separate the melodies, so they can understand where the target points are.”
In 1988, Revis, 20, was one of many youngsters taking notice. “They were my idols,” he said.
Marsalis pretended to vomit, and Watts uncorked a howling laugh.
“Eric’s sound is the sound of doom—big, thick, percussive,” Marsalis said. Recruited for Marsalis’ 1996 Buckshot LeFunque tour after apprenticing with Betty Carter, Revis was, Marsalis said, “raw as hell, but he won me over with his determination and desire. He had a rough time at first. All Kenny wanted was strong, solid quarter notes, not all those hip extra beats, and he went off on him. ‘Why did you hire this cat?’ I said, ‘We’ve all been where he is, but I like where he’s going.’ Right before Kenny died, he said, ‘Yeah, Revis is getting it together; he’s going to be all right.’”
Kirkland’s legacy made life complex for Calderazzo, already an established professional for 11 years when Marsalis hired him.
“Wynton came on the scene when I was 17,” Calderazzo said. “I had never heard anybody like Kenny, so he was an instant hero. I was 14 when I met Branford and Tain, visiting my brother at Berklee.”
Marsalis interjected. “Being from Louisiana, Berklee was funny then, because the whole race issue in the South had started to develop a sophistication, and up north it was different. All these black people would have a jam session in this practice room, and all the white guys would stand outside the door and look in, but never enter, like we were going to eat them or something. Tim Williams, who ran the sessions, said, ‘Let them stay out there.’ Joey saw us, and he was jumping to see in, so we saw this head going up and down. He started knocking, opened the door and said ‘Can I come in?’ ‘Yeah, come on in. What do you want to play?’ ‘Moment’s Notice’—and he burned. It didn’t take on any racial connotations in his mind. He wasn’t scared of black people.”
“I hung out in the Mount Vernon projects,” Calderazzo added. “They weren’t too far from where I grew up in New Rochelle. I hung out with all the races.”
“Until today,” Watts shot back.
“The first few weeks were rocky,” Calderazzo recalled. “In some ways, I was probably the wrong guy. We were on the road a few months ago, and I heard Kenny on some bootlegs on the Internet,” Calderazzo said. “I remember saying to Tain, ‘I’m Chick.’ That’s how I felt when Chick replaced Herbie in Miles’ band.”
Part of the problem, Calderazzo noted, is that Kirkland’s tunes, which had specific voicings, were staples of the quartet’s repertoire, and he felt ill-equipped to play them. A burning player with an encyclopedic command of harmony, who had played with Michael Brecker since 1987, he was unaccustomed to Kirkland’s predisposition, as Watts put it, “to put his energy into the ensemble to give the music a certain resonance and vibration rather than put himself on display.” An even bigger obstacle was decoding the aesthetic that governed the quartet’s gestural procedures.
“I was playing the wrong style,” Calderazzo said. “Plus, I wasn’t swinging. I’d never played anything slow. If Michael or Bob Berg or whoever it was played a blues (I’m naming white guys, but a lot of black musicians also), it was, 1-2, 1-2-3,’ and play all your shit on it. With Branford, it was ‘de … dank, de … de … dank,’ and I either played quadruple time or sounded bad at best. We were doing it one time, and Tain was laughing.”
“You played something so bad that I looked at Tain, and Tain was looking right at me at the same time,” Marsalis interrupted. “That’s what was so funny.”
“I could have just played double time,” Calderazzo injected, “which nine out of 10 guys would have done, and it would have been …”
“You’re fired,” Marsalis retorted.
“I tried to accommodate …”
“… my lovely boss.”
“Later Joey comes up to me and says, ‘That’s fucked up; you’re laughing at me,’” Marsalis said. “I said, ‘Learn how to play it, and then can’t nobody laugh.’ Then he went on and he got it.”
“I don’t get laughed at any more,” Calderazzo said.
“You went and got it,” Marsalis repeated. “He did the work. He got the records. He didn’t go away sulking or whining. That fire comes out in the music. Sometimes we’re playing gigs, and it’s like the last tune we’re ever going to play. More lately than before.”
“This band has little to do with personal performance,” Calderazzo said. “Until a few years ago, my career was all about, ‘How did I play?’ The band could play badly, but all that mattered is I played my ass off. During the last nine years, I’ve worked harder than in my whole career at just learning and accepting and trying to get better.”
For Revis, Calderazzo’s Miles Davis analogy was entirely apropos. “When I first got into music, everybody was checking out Wynton’s band, and nobody could figure it out,” he said. “With all the time permutations on Black Codes, it was like calculus, and I was trying to navigate ii-V-I’s in a reasonable fashion. Later, I started to understand that to call it math-based is a misnomer.”
“We didn’t play based on paradigms,” Marsalis said. “Tain is a melodic player, not a rhythmic player. It isn’t theoretical. You can’t count it. He would just hear shit, and throw it in. It was like one was his enemy. It would go on and on, and if you didn’t know where you were, you were dead. Whenever drummers sit in on our band after hearing Tain, they play loud and bash, just like an American in Europe asks a question, and when they say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ they speak louder and slower, like that’s going to make everything cool.”
Marsalis parsed the distinction between technical facility and conceptual understanding.“With the proper amount of time and patience, anybody can learn how to play a bunch of runs,” he said. “But I wanted to get certain things I hear in old records. In 1941, Duke Ellington’s band was playing with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away, and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp, no mike or nothin’, That’s the sound I want. The bass player had to think about the team.”
Revis: “I’ve had this argument with several bass players. They say, ‘Why can’t we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.’”
Marsalis: “Then get a guitar!”
Revis: “This misconception that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated from anything? Does Charlie Haden? The band allowed me to actualize my own voice. I knew the earlier records, and went through a period of thinking that was the sound. Jeff and Kenny encouraged me not to try to sound like that, but to play myself. That gave me courage to interject my personality after I adapted and served the function. I’d been checking out a lot of ‘avant-garde’ music and playing gigs outside of Branford’s band, and the first time I went into my Peter Kowald or William Parker bag, Branford was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Marsalis: “Ottawa. That was hilarious. Joey was out with Mike, and couldn’t make the gig, so my dad played it. When Eric started playing, I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
Revis: “This is like bragging on family, but we do things better than any band out here. We can play sensitive or go to the wall. Every record, Branford has a concept of exactly how and where he wants it done, how he wants it to sound. He works quick, so it’s two or three takes, and you’re stuck. But even if you don’t understand it in the moment, in hindsight, it always sounds great.”
Calderazzo: “Everybody in the band has something to say. We’ve learned to play together—and on a fast level—at all times. Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic information flies across the stage all night long.”
Marsalis: “But I don’t think anybody’s listening. People come to me and say, ‘I love your stuff.’ Then they’ll mention Bloomington, Trio Jeepy, Requiem. They don’t say anything about Eternal, Braggtown or Tain’s records. And it was 10 years ago when cats started saying, ‘Man, you was killin’ on Bloomington.’ Historically, this is what happens. Given that fact, just play. I’m not going to play for accolades. I’m playing for you all.”
Calderazzo: “I spent all my years, you know, wanting it. Now I don’t care! I started playing solo piano. I’ll stay home and play.”
Revis: “I’m not saying I don’t care. But it’s kind of funny that certain things are heralded and certain things aren’t.”
Marsalis: “When I was with Wynton, people said I sounded like Wayne Shorter. ‘All the badass saxophone players out there, and that’s who you want to sound like?’ Now, what are they saying? ‘Wayne is the greatest! Wayne is the man.’ This is just how it is.”
Revis: “It’s like Keith’s band 30 years ago with Dewey and Charlie and Paul Motian. Nobody gave them any love up until damn near now.”
There was no lack of love from the sold-out house when Marsalis and crew strode onstage. With neither rehearsal nor sound-check, the quartet was in game shape, slaloming through the fiendish twists and turns of seven assorted burnouts and ballads with crisp spontaneity and formal command.
Not that they had been idle: A week before the concert, Marsalis convened them in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to record a Ned Rorem composition, “Lions (A Dream),” with the North Carolina Symphony. This came several months after a San Francisco performance of “Focus,” the 1960s Eddie Sauter–Stan Getz collaboration.
“These projects force us to think differently,” Marsalis said from North Carolina Central College in Durham three weeks later. “Those musical and emotional experiences enter the repertoire. On the Rorem piece, our job was to create a dream-like sequence—it occurs in a peaceful setting, and in the middle a lion shows up and eats the people—and to give it the looseness of a jazz band playing a tune, but keep that beautiful, serene quality. Then the orchestra surrounds you and swallows you whole. You can’t just play as loud as you want, or the way Trane would play ‘I Want To Talk About You.’ You can’t start thinking about the changes. You’re thinking, ‘What is the emotional content of what I’m trying to do?’”
He related an esthetic dispute with Delfeayo Marsalis, his younger brother and long-time producer, about the orientation of his next recording, on which the quartet will interact with an orchestra. “Delf’s idea of the record was based on Charlie Parker With Strings, Clifford Brown With Strings, Wynton’s Hot House Flowers,” Marsalis said. “I heard it differently. He said, ‘Well, it’s about you.’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the group, and now the group includes 35 strings.’ I don’t want to play solos while the strings play whole notes behind us. I want to highlight the malleability of jazz. A jazz combo is like an insurgent group, and an orchestra is like a large military. We’re small, agile and mobile. They’re not. So give them the meat, and we’ll react to them, as opposed to the orchestra reacting to the jazz band.”
Asked why the quartet performs less frequently than it once did, Marsalis responded, “I have a pile of theories. For one thing, there’s a perception of us that stems from me—arrogant, cocky, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he knows everything, neoclassicist. Name it. That perception, combined with promoters thinking that the challenging style of music we play does not sell a lot of tickets, combined with our refusal when we go to Europe to let them record us and own the rights in perpetuity.
“Plus, with what I have to pay these guys to keep them, it’s hard to bring them into clubs, because I won’t realize any real profit,” he continued. “It’s a good investment, though, because if we want to let people know what we’re actually doing, the clubs are where we need to do it. I don’t know what good buzz is actually worth, but on our club tour in Europe a few years ago, we got more buzz within the first three days than we’d had in years. But being in clubs too much also makes it difficult to establish a clientele, because people think, ‘I’ll catch him next time; he’ll be back next month.’”
Marsalis states that Watts, Calderazzo and Revis hold the key to the quartet’s future. “I leave them an option to quit if they don’t think it’s right,” he said. “If Tain starts getting a lot of gigs with his band, and that’s what he wants, how can I fault him?”
Should that occur, Marsalis added, “Clearly, I would do something else. Play more classical music. Play with a trio. More likely, now that I’m at Central, I’d get some youngsters and start over—these church kids have endless possibilities. But ultimately, we’ll always have to find each other, because right now there are no other musical situations.” DB
Branford Marsalis, DB Blindfold Test, 2002:
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.