Monthly Archives: March 2017

For Hiromi Uehara’s 38th Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2006

It’s pianist-composer Hiromi Uehara’s 38th birthday today, and for the occasion I’m posting a 1250-word piece I wrote about her for Jazziz in 2006.

*****

Ahmad Jamal doesn’t endorse just anyone, and the chain of events by which he did so for Hiromi Uehara is the stuff of jazz legend. It began four years ago, when Uehara, then a jazz composition and arranging major at Berklee, submitted a string quartet to her orchestration professor, Richard Evans.

“He liked my arrangement, and suggested I arrange one of my originals,” recalls Uehara. “So I brought him my demo. He asked, ‘By the way, who is playing piano?’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ He said, ‘Wow, I need to have my best friend hear it.’”

That turned out to be Jamal, for whom Evans arranged numerous recording projects as far back as 1962. “Richard called Ahmad and said, ‘I found this girl,’” Uehara continues. “Ahmad was SO not into the story. He said, ‘Forget it, I have no time.’ Richard said, ‘Just listen to the first minute,’ and played it over the phone. Ahmad said, ‘Send that to me.’ A week or so later he called and invited me to dinner. He said he loved my music and wanted to help build my career. It was like a miracle.”

On Spiral, her third Telarc release, the 27-year-old pianist-composer, known professionally by her forename, shows what Jamal—who produced her 2003 debut, Another Mind, a 100,000-seller in Japan—was hearing. For one thing, she possesses a classical virtuoso’s two-handed digital dexterity, articulation and touch. At breakneck and rubato tempos she pays close attention to dynamics, eliciting at one moment a soft, pellucid sound that a petite Japanese woman might be expected to project, at another the sturm und drang of McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson at their most dramatic. An admirer of Franz Liszt, she only records original music—episodic compositions that reference heady counterpoint and modernist dissonance, jazz-refracted Impressionist harmonies, post-Varese electronic skronk, bebop, and the blues. She interprets them with a stream of fresh ideas, swinging ebulliently, constructing lines that reference a wide timeline of vocabulary, moving from landmark to landmark with Jamal-like flair. Like Jamal, she regards the trio as a three-piece orchestra in which instruments assume different roles—she’ll crank out basslines behind bassist Tony Grey’s high stringed melodies, or set up rhythmic counterlines to drummer Martin Valihora’s well-tempered toms and cymbals. She directs the flow on-stage, exuding charisma, addressing the keyboard with kinetic swagger and a range of facial expressions that bring to mind Elton John or Keith Jarrett.

“The reason I started playing in that style is because I’m very small, and I found I could get the dynamic sound I wanted when I used all my back muscles,” says Hiromi over iced coffee at a MacDougal Street café. A Brooklyn resident after four years in Boston, she’s wearing a pullover, jeans, a black beret, and no makeup. She embellishes her words with stabbing hand gesticulations as though comping on a piano; her long, tapered fingers seem somehow disproportionate to her frame.

“When I was little, saw this Oscar Peterson video and noticed his gigantic hands,” she explains with a laugh. “In the bath, I was always stretching my fingers.”

A native of Shizuoka, Japan, in the center of Japan’s green tea district, Hiromi took piano lessons at 5, and began studying composition at the local branch of the Yamaha School of Music at 6. By 8, encouraged by a teacher who nurtured her innate predisposition to improvise, she was mimicking Erroll Garner and Peterson LPs, sometimes creating impromptu “duets with Oscar.” “Jazz was the first music that I felt like dancing to,” she says. “But I had no vocabulary whatsoever. I had to learn the phrasing, and of course, at some point, to start finding my own voice.” She listened chronologically, “from Jelly Roll Morton up through Gonzalo Rubalcaba, so that I could understand why this person comes after that person.” She cites Rubalcaba and the late Michel Petrucciani as particular favorites from the generation preceding hers, and Marian McPartland and Toshiko Akiyoshi as inspirational female elders.

“Toshiko opened the door for Japanese people to come to America to play jazz,” she says. “I think it should have been very hard for an Asian girl to do, like an American going to Japan to play sumo.”

Hiromi’s own path to America began at 12, when she performed on a series of UNICEF-sponsored concerts, including a memorable performance in Taiwan. “I didn’t speak a word of English or Chinese,” she recalls. “I couldn’t read the program. But I went to the stage and played before these people I shared nothing with, and suddenly we shared something together. Since that day, I wanted to be a professional musician.”

Trying to fit in with her jazz-challenged high school peer group, Hiromi played the music of their idols—among them Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Green Day, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa. “It was almost shocking to hear Zappa,” she says. “I UNDERSTOOD what he was thinking about.”

At 18, she opted to study law for two years in Tokyo, where she moonlighted playing standards at small clubs and penning advertising jingles. “Music comes from experiences, not from music, and I wanted to be around non-musicians,” she says. “They don’t know Herbie Hancock or Oscar Peterson. They only judge the music by whether they like it. They can’t know what kind of scales or complex harmony I’m using. They just say, ‘Yeah, it’s good’ or ‘I’m not really hearing it.’ I knew that I would come to the States some day and be in music college, so I didn’t need to do it in Japan.”

Ensconced at Berklee, she soaked up the diverse musical tastes of the student body, and began to piece together her pan-stylistic approach, paying particular attention to film scores. “I tend to see visuals, a story and a plot when I compose,” she says, noting that she conceptualized each tune on Brain, her second album, as a short soundtrack. “I try to write every single day, even the small motifs. If the music came to me when I was watching a beautiful moon, I write ‘beautiful moon on April 22.’ Maybe next year I’ll see another beautiful moon, write it down, and see if they can go together.

“I love playing standards. It’s like trying to cook the best tiramisu or cheesecake in the world. But it’s more fun to cook to my own taste. Playing my original composition is like trying to find my own recipe, to cook something that never existed.”

When Hiromi cooks, by the way, the cuisine is Japanese, primarily donburis. But she sees no need to extrapolate the cultural tropes of her homeland into musical expression.

“I never wanted to put Japanese culture into my music artificially—or remove my Japaneseness either,” she says. “When I first meet people or I want to thank them, I tend to bow instead of shaking hands or hugging. That’s not because I am trying to be Japanese. It’s in my blood. So I’m sure my Japaneseness is in the music naturally.

“I am not trying to be a woman artificially either. I won’t try to play very feminine or look sexy. I just want to be myself, and my femininity will naturally show in the music.”

And what does femininity sound like?

“There are so many different types of women,” she responds. “Women can be very feminine, very soft, very tough. I don’t want to deny or stress being a woman either. But I can’t deny that many people who haven’t heard me think that I won’t play the piano in a focused, serious way. I don’t want to try to prove anything, but I’m happy when they give me some respect.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Hiromi, Jazziz, Piano

For the 99th Birthday Anniversary of Marian McPartland (March 20, 1918–August 20, 2013), a Liner Note for the CD of Her Piano Jazz Encounter With Elvis Costello

It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of pianist Marian McPartland, who made an enormous contribution to jazz culture not only with her nuanced approach to jazz piano and composition, but with the iconic NPR show, Piano Jazz, in which she interviewed and played alongside hundreds of her most distinguished piano peers, as well as no small number of singers. My only real encounter with her was a half-hour conversation when I was asked to write liner notes to a CD release of a Piano Jazz session with Elvis Costello. She was extraordinarily gracious, and wrote me a nice note after the CD came out. I highly recommend Paul DeBarros’ excellent biography of McPartland, Shall We Play That One Together?

*******

“I would make a terrible singer, because I probably would always forget the lyrics,” says Marian McPartland with characteristic self-effacement.

In point of fact, McPartland has few peers at the fine art of making other singers sound their best, a proposition bolstered by this encounter with singer-composer Elvis Costello from a September 2003 installment of Piano Jazz. She’s been at it for a while: she began her professional life on a four-piano vaudeville gig in 1936, and entertained the troops during World War II. On a USO tour, she met and married cornetist Jimmy McPartland, accompanied him to the U.S. in 1946, toured with his trad band, and subsequently found employment as a trio leader in classy 52nd Street venues like the Embers and the Hickory House. During those years she met everyone who was anyone in the business, and around 1970, she established a record label (Halcyon), on which she documented herself prolifically. One album was a subtle recital of the songs of Alec Wilder (Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, Jazz Alliance, TJA-10016); in 1978, Wilder, about to leave a syndicated NPR show he had hosted based on his book American Popular Song, recommended McPartland to replace him, and Piano Jazz was born.

“A lot of singers, like Jackie Paris, would come to the Hickory House and sit in,” McPartland recalls. “We’d say, ‘What key?’ and they’d do whatever they wanted.”

During Piano Jazz’s quarter-century, McPartland has brought a similar attitude to impromptu dialogues with several dozen world-class singers, famous and obscure. Her sessions with Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney and Steely Dan are Concord releases; awaiting release are episodes with stand-up singers Tony Bennett, Alicia Keys, Linda Ronstadt, Karrin Allyson and Jane Monheit, and singer-instrumentalists Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

“I like hearing somebody else take the song and do whatever they want,” says McPartland, encapsulating her philosophy at 87. “I try to play chords that will make him or her feel good and not get in their way, and listen a lot, and not play lots of runs.”

McPartland’s impeccable manners proscribe her from mentioning that she can call up on a moment’s notice seemingly every song composed during her seven professional decades. She’s much too polite to discuss her knack for spontaneously molding an interpretation that matches the tonal personality of her partner. True to her generation’s aesthetic, she always tells a story, wedding a vivid harmonic imagination to unfailingly melodic imperatives. When interviewing her guests, she discreetly shapes the flow like a veteran sideman, deploying conversational equivalents of laying-out, comping, and pithy solo turns.

“My first reaction was one of surprise, as I am neither a jazz musician or a pianist,” says Costello—Krall’s spouse—of receiving McPartland’s invitation. “However, I am an admirer of Marian McPartland, and her humor, ease of manner, and depth of understanding of the repertoire made this an absolute pleasure.”

“We had a wonderful time, because everything he sang was something that I knew well,” McPartland corroborates. “I had never met Elvis, and I found him a very charming guy. We sat and talked about tunes and keys, and just did one after another. It was all very easy.”

“I have never been tempted to record a ‘Standards’ album, but I have recorded at least an album’s worth of such material over the years,” says Costello, who first reached a mass audience playing Punk-inflected Rock-and-Roll two years before Piano Jazz kicked off. “Revisiting songs I had known my whole life, such as ‘My Funny Valentine,’ which I recorded 25 years previously, was exactly what this opportunity was all about.”

Over the years, Costello sustained his fan base while, in his words, “moving away from orthodox rock-and-roll styles.” He expanded his craft, and developed a parallel identity as an art musician informed by polyglot influences. “The feeling for songs changes in time just as the voice changes,” he says, and here, wrapping himself in a velvet-to-husky baritone, resonant with vibrato, he addresses the program—comprised primarily of dark “blue ballads,” including two Costello originals—with in-the-moment presence. Each song connects in some way to his personal history.

Costello’s sense of jazz dates to his earliest years. “My father [Ross MacManus, b.1927] was a bebop trumpeter, and he and my mother ran jazz clubs on Merseyside [near Liverpool] in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s,” Costello relates. Costello’s mother also ran a record store, and the MacManus household moved to a soundtrack of top-shelf pop singers like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, as well as progressive instrumentalists like Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. “These sounds were familiar to me, and I heard a wide range of ballads other than the ones I grew up buying as a teenage rock-and-roll fan,” Costello continues. “When my young adult curiosity took me back to many of those artists and their recordings, I found that they were equally vivid.”

In 1955, the year after Costello’s birth, Ross MacManus took a job as vocalist-trumpeter with the Joe Loss Orchestra, a well-established commercial band that first broadcast on BBC in 1933, and didn’t disband until the ‘70s.

“Joe Loss was somebody I listened to a lot,” says McPartland, who recalls seeing Loss perform when she was 19. “They played what I would call dance music of the time. It was a very good band, and though I don’t recall listening with great concentration, it must have stayed in my head.”

This is Costello’s first recording of Harry Warren’s “At Last,” a Glenn Miller vehicle from Orchestra Wives (1942). His father sang it on a 1958 EP by Joe Loss, six years after Ray Anthony’s cover made the top ten and two years before Etta James’ thrilling, iconic version.

“I played my Dad’s recording of the tune on Desert Island Discs [a BBC show],” Costello tells McPartland. “Both my parents have been very supportive all through my career and understood the different things that I’ve done, but obviously their heart lies in the music we’re speaking about today.”

Aside from “My Funny Valentine” (it was the B-side of a 1978 EP), Costello reprises “Gloomy Sunday,” a melancholic Billie Holiday vehicle from ‘30s that he recorded on Trust, from 1981. “They Didn’t Believe Me,” inspired by Mel Tormé’s 1947 version, appears on a U.S. promo edition of The Juliet Letters, Costello’s venturesome early ‘90s collaboration with the Brodsky String Quartet. You can hear him sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “The Very Thought Of You” on a DVD documenting a 1981 encounter with Chet Baker at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London.

Baker subsequently recorded Costello’s “Almost Blue,” Costello’s “most broadly interpreted song.” Costello wrote it with the trumpeter in mind when he was “in the thrall of” Baker’s version of “The Thrill Is Gone.” During this time, he tells McPartland, he had “started writing on the piano, and made a conscious decision to try and learn from the music I had literally grown up with as a child, rather than as a teenager.”

Of more recent vintage is “I’m In The Mood Again,” the finale, as it also is on North, a suite of 11 self-composed piano ballads which Costello was preparing at the time of this recording. The repertoire on that album contains, in Costello’s words, “harmonies, instrumental timbres and rhythms derived from jazz, but they are just songs and music that I imagined.”

After Costello’s final breath on “The Very Thought of You,” McPartland remarks, “You did that like a jazz singer,” referring to his fresh phrasing and identifiable-in-one-note sound. Perhaps they’ll meet again.

“I might have suggested we perform Mingus’ ‘Weird Nightmare’ or one of my lyrics for Mingus’ ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colors’ or Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Blood Count,’” Costello says. “But then we would have no repertoire for a return appearance on the show.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Elvis Costello, Marian McPartland

R.I.P. Larry Coryell, April 2, 1943-February 19, 2017

A month ago, the jazz world lost the important guitarist Larry Coryell. I didn’t know him well, but had the honor of hosting him twice during my years at WKCR and of being asked to write the liner notes for the 2003 High Note recording, Cedars of Avalon, which appears below.

********
“At 59, having “lived and loved and lost and paid all the dues,” guitarist Larry Coryell presents Cedars of Avalon, on which he improvises through a program primarily comprising modernist blues and songbook torch tunes filtered through a bebop prism. It’s the latest chapter in Coryell’s two-decade exploration of early roots, which he began to revisit on the heels of an efflorescent early career that saw him famously navigate—indeed, pioneer in—genres as diverse as Jazz-Rock, Fusion, and creative classical guitar. Here Coryell tells rich stories in a singular voice within the bedrock forms of jazz.

“When we were doing the stuff that is now called Fusion, the musicians I collaborated with didn’t agree on much,” Coryell says. “But we were trying to inject something from our own generation. There was a lot of pressure on me from people I played with in the middle ’60s to play different stuff. Some suggested not to play too much bebop, and the other extreme was ‘play more like Albert Ayler.’ Everything I did with Eleventh House and all the Jazz-Rock was a conscious effort not to copy the heroes and find my own voice. I needed to take that detour. I needed to make that conscious effort to be original in order to come back and better understand what I was trying to do in straight ahead jazz.”

Coryell plays on the edge throughout the program. He deploys his enviable technique as a platform for continuous chance-taking, addressing the guitar with the innocent nonchalance of a child learning the ins and outs of a new toy. Playing straight from the heart with vigor, invention and relentless swing, he grounds his elegant, passionate stories through mastery of idiomatic nuance and musical narrative. Cedars of Avalon is a snapshot of the moment, devoid of the notion of no-mistake perfection.

“I used to spend hours getting everything right,” Coryell remarks. “Then I came to understand that this is not the best way for me to record. Trying to be a perfectionist removes all the heart and spirit from music. Other guys can do it successfully. But I now accept the fact that even if I don’t play exactly what I want to, I’ve got to go with it if the overall feeling is there, because that’s the truth.”

This being said, the playing on Cedars of Avalon is remarkably consistent. That’s due in no small part to the superb rhythm section, headed by pianist Cedar Walton, the album’s dedicatee.

“I’ve been waiting for years to record with Cedar,” Coryell says. “I’ve loved his playing since college, when I heard Art Blakey’s record Golden Boy. In the middle ’80s we did some dates on the West Coast, including a jazz cruise on a boat from San Francisco to Vancouver with Billy Higgins and Freddie Hubbard. When we were getting ready to play, Cedar talked about how important it is to really love the music when you’re on the bandstand, to forget about all personal differences. That impressed me very much, and as I got to know Cedar musically, I became even crazier about his playing. We seem to be compatible in the music we like, the phrases and styles we favor.”

Rounding out the New York A-list rhythm section are bassist Buster Williams and trapsman Billy Drummond. Williams lays down impeccable walking lines on the comp and conjures a series of ebullient, guitaristic solos; Drummond, whose big ears and stylistic flexibility are a plus on any session, pushes the beat with his irresistible ride cymbal, entexturing the drum kit to suit every shift in the musical climate.

“I almost felt like an outsider,” Coryell jokes. “When I’d lay out after playing the melody, and heard them play, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a nice gig I’m attending.'”

The title track is a graceful line built on a continuously reharmonized six-note phrase that blends simplicity and sophistication in a Waltonesque manner. Coryell says: “I wrote it for Cedar and his concept. It reminds me of something he might have played with Wes Montgomery if they had ever played together.”

After Coryell’s ingenious intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” which springboards a crisp, lucid Walton statement, the guitarist, in his own manner, channels his inner Wes, a recurrent reference throughout the date whenever Coryell gets his vonce going.

“That’s true,” Coryell agrees. “It worked very naturally with Cedar and the rhythm section. These guys play the real thing.”

Coryell played piano and drums and sang during his formative years in Eisenhower Era Richland, Washington (“There ain’t nothin’ in Richland; sagebrush and rattlesnakes—once I heard real jazz music, it was like ‘get me out of here.'”), but his hands were too small to maneuver around the guitar until he was 16, around 1959.

“Then I heard Wes Montgomery, and everything changed,” he relates. “I was amazed that he had such modern ideas, not to mention all the obvious pluses of his playing — his great single-note lines, the octaves and the chords. I started transcribing all of his solos.”

Coryell offers “a direct, huge thank you” to the master on “D-Natural Blues,” which Montgomery recorded on The Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside, 1960) in quartet with Tommy Flanagan.

Elsewhere, Coryell offers heartfelt homages to early influences Johnny Smith (“What’s New”) and Barney Kessel (“Limehouse Blues”).

“I wanted to record ‘What’s New’ all my life, but didn’t think I understood the lyric,” he says. “Now I felt qualified to make my own statement. I know other guitar players my age will pick up that I used some direct quotes from Johnny Smith’s recording — the fast major-VII arpeggios are almost note-for-note. Johnny Smith had that beautiful lyrical sustained sound and feel, and a beautiful heart that blew me away.

Coryell overdubs a rousing bass counterpoint to his fleet acoustic guitar line on “Limehouse Blues,” one of his two unaccompanied declamations. “Around the time I recorded it, I had gotten an email that Barney Kessel was disabled and needed money,” he says. “I remembered years ago listening to him play it and how blown away I was. But he did it by himself. I had to use two guitars.

“Barney’s playing was clear and forthright, especially his chord work and his ballads, and I could take his ideas off records more easily than Tal Farlow’s. I loved Tal and Johnny Smith and Barney, and I tried to transcribe all their solos.”

Later on, in New York City, Coryell found the real thing up close and personal. “I went to New York to hear bebop, and nobody was playing it,” he says. “Charles Lloyd was playing at the Vanguard with Albert Stinson, Gabor Szabo and Pete LaRoca, and I couldn’t find the one all night! But at the seventh club I went to, I finally heard something I recognized. It was in Harlem, and I saw Grant Green and Larry Young. It was a life-changing experience. Grant Green was throwin’ it down, man. His time was amazing. The notes were popping out of the guitar. I never got over it.”

Incidentally, John Coltrane applied his transcendent instrumental voice to “Limehouse Blues” on a memorable 1959 recording with Cannonball Adderley; Coryell has Trane very much in mind on Walton’s “Fantasy in D/Ugetsu” and Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie.”

“Theme For Ernie” is part of Walton’s trio repertoire, and the rhythm section addresses the iconic lament with a slow-medium groove not unlike what Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor laid down underneath Coltrane’s keening statement on Soultrane [1958].

“That’s my favorite ballad,” Coryell says. “We decided we needed to do only one take. I changed the melody a little, but kept this version because the feeling was right.”

“I learned ‘Fantasy in D’ when I was on that cruise,” Coryell continues. “Then my determination became, ‘Some day I’ve got to record that with Cedar.’ It has the Coltrane feeling; that pattern at the end of each chorus, where you go from D-major to a D-minor suspended over an A. Before Coltrane, there was nothing like that in jazz; no modal thing in a song with chords. I loved it. I was afraid to think I could even play like Coltrane, but by listening to him I think I learned something. He was not just technique and different ideas. He was deep feeling; the substance of his music has touched my heart. They make me think about what a spiritual man he was.”

Coryell has similar regard for Walton’s “The Newest Blues,” a composition of more recent vintage that required exactly one take to wrap. “I’d never heard it before in my life,” Coryell says. “The challenge on a blues is always to see if you can say something you haven’t said before. I love the line, and I love the way Cedar reharmonizes blues, always with a call-and-response component. There’s a section where his piano part and the bass are unified and do a sequence of organized movement. The contrast to that when we go into the regular blues is great.”

Coryell learned “It Could Happen To You” from his mother, who died in 1999. “She used to sing that song to me a lot, and I loved her words,” he recalls. “My mother played piano as well, and everything she ever played was in E-flat—it was her favorite key. I wanted to do something in E-flat for my mother.”

With a flourish, Coryell concludes Cedars of Avalon with a solo tour de force entitled “Shapes.” “That was a direct result of an unofficial lesson from Donald Byrd,” Coryell says. “He was in Pittsburgh to receive an award when I was doing a gig with Geri Allen and Wallace Roney, and I sat in the hotel and listened to him discourse on the relationship of mathematics to music. I tried to remember everything he said, and composed the piece on that basis.

“There’s no one else in art like Donald Byrd, a jazz musician with an unbelievable intellect who had all the Apollo Theater trappings in his life and had to deal with segregation, etc. He’s like a man of the people who is also a leader in the mind. I feel fortunate to be born in this lifetime, to be exposed to people like him and all the others I love.”

Throughout Cedars of Avalon, Coryell recalls the fresh sensibility he brought to New York in 1965, a 22-year phenom fresh from Seattle, where he “played rock-and-roll in the evening, jazz at night. Rock-and-Roll was like children’s music; it came very easily. But jazz was Mount Everest, to be admired and hopefully to scale.” Now we can place the guitarist with the heroes who—to borrow the title of the late Clifford Jordan’s classic tune—have scaled the highest mountains of improvisational expression.

Leave a comment

Filed under guitar, Larry Coryell, Liner Notes

R.I.P. James Cotton, July 1, 1935 – March 16, 2017

Coming out of hibernation to post an interview with James “Superharp” Cotton, master of the blues harmonica and a great singer, who died on March 16th at 81. I had a chance to interview Cotton in 2012 for the program notes for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. I don’t know nearly as much about blues history as I do about jazz, but I thought the conversation was interesting. Among other things, his remarks about wanting his harmonica to sound like a tenor saxophone. Here’s an edit.

* * *

TP: How long have you had this current band?

JC: The current band that I have has been working with me about 20 years. Noel Neal I think is one of the best blues bass players in the business.

TP: Earlier, you used saxophone and piano, I think. When did you switch from that lineup to something more pared down with the guitars, bass and drum?

JC: I had the horn section for about four years, and there was problems carrying it on the road with everybody, and I broke the band down. So I have bass, guitar, and drums for the last eight years or so, I should say.

TP: Do you play the same repertoire all the time with this band, or do you switch things up?

JC: I switch things up.

TP: Because you’re famous for knowing tons and tons of songs.

JC: Well, we don’t do them all. But we do switch ‘em up sometimes. Sometimes we’ll do something different because of the way I feel that night. We’ll do something from everywhere.

TP: Do you still bring new songs into your band book?

JC: Yeah, I do that every year. We’ve got a CD coming out. I have new songs in there. One song has been recorded before, but the rest of it is brand-new. Although I didn’t write all of them.

TP: About how many songs have you written over the years?

JC: I don’t know. So many, I don’t know. Quite a few.

TP: I know that for a little under 20 years, for reasons of health, you’ve hardly done any singing, but you play harmonica all the time. People know solos you’ve done, those solos are famous, and hundreds of harmonica players might have memorized those solos. Do you try to play them differently every time?

JC: If it’s new. If it’s something I did before, I try to stay close to the pattern as I can.

TP: One thing I want to get to, because this is a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to ask you a bit about your attitude when you were a young musician to swing music, and rhythm-and-blues, and jazz of the time. Were you paying attention to, let’s say, Louis Jordan in the ‘50s, or other people who were bridging swing music and blues?

JC: Yeah. Back then I was listening to anything I could hear. If I heard it, I played it, or I tried to play it. Louis Jordan? I probably knew every tune Louis Jordan ever did. But I listened to about everybody I could. When you’re trying to learn something, you have a tendency to listen to use.

TP: Were you influenced in your approach to harmonica by other instruments?

JC: I try to make my harmonica sound like a tenor saxophone.

TP: Who were some of the tenor saxophone players you liked back in the day?

JC: Coltrane. I listened to James Moody. Uh…I can’t think of his name right now… I listened to quite a few horn players, because I wanted to have a different sound with my harmonica.

TP: How about singers? Everyone who knows you, knows you were apprenticed to Rice Miller and Howlin’ Wolf. But who were some of the other singers you checked out? During the days that you were singing, you had a lot of different approaches, and your voice was very flexible, went through a lot of flavors.

JC: B.B. King. John Lee Hooker. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Gatemouth Brown. Willie Mabon. I listened to everything that I could listen to with the music. I didn’t push none of it aside. I even listened to Elvis Presley when he was…you know, back in the day.

TP: I think I read an interview where you said you heard Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley.

JC: I did. I’d never seen him before that. Elvis used to come down to the Blue Monday party we had on Beale Street in Memphis, and he was the only white face there. He sat in and he wanted to listen.

TP: I guess you first started leading a band in 1950-51, when Rice Miller left his band to you. But full-time you’ve been leading a band about 45 years, just about? 1966?

JC: Right.

TP: Did you pick up cues from any of your mentors as far as being a bandleader.

JC: Yeah. Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Muddy Waters. I didn’t do all the things they did. I tried to leave all the bad things aside. Some was good, some was bad. I tried to pick up the good things, like treating the guys right, getting them paid right…and I found out one thing—if you don’t like somebody, you can’t play with them right.

TP: How much freedom do they have within the context of your band? You mentioned that during your first four years with Muddy Waters, he wanted you to play Little Walter’s solos note-for-note. (I know all your fans know this stuff.) Then you told him that you had to play your own sound. Is that something you also want from your musicians, that they play themselves, that they play their own sound?

JC: Well, they play what they feel is right for the band, not what somebody else played with the band. Because the other way they sounded is no longer with the band. We are here together.

TP: What do you think is your greatest or couple of greatest accomplishments as a bandleader?

JC: A guy like me, comes out of Mississippi, with the “Cotton Crop Blues,” man, and wins a Grammy—that makes me feel good.

TP: Do you have any favorite records from your output? Or are they all your favorites?

JC: They’re all favorites. See, I work on something when I like it. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. Then it won’t come out. I’m still looking forward to playing. I’m 77 years old, and I’m still doing it. It still feels good. I don’t want to quit. I love what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep right on doing it. And I find something to do every day.

TP: I forgot to ask you one question pertaining to the number of songs that are in your repertoire. During the time when you were singing, how long did it take you to put your own stamp on a song? Could you get there right away? Did it take a long time to get it? How did you go back learning all those lyrics, and making them part of your soul?

JC: I guess I was blessed with that, too. Back in the day (it’s a little bit slower now), if I heard something one time, I knew it. You could play it one time, and I’d know it word-for-word. I was pretty good about putting lyrics together.

TP: How much are you touring these days? I was looking on your website, and it seems like you’re working quite a bit.

JC: Yes. We’re going all over the world. We’re going everywhere. I’m enjoying it.

TP: Do people all over the world respond to the blues in the same way?

JC: They respond everywhere I’m doing it. The people here, they’re going to hear the blues because they know what you’re talking about. But if you’re in Europe, they feel what you’re doing. They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they’ll applaud, holler for me to come back.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blues, James Cotton