Monthly Archives: August 2020

Pete “LaRoca” Sims (1938-2012): A WKCR Musician Show from 1993 and a WKCR Out To Lunch Encounter From 1998

As part of my ongoing pandemic project to digitize and transcribe as many of my previously un-transcribed WKCR shows as possible during my tenure there from 1985 through 2008, here are the transcripts of two encounters with the great drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims, who between 1957 and 1967, appeared on some of the most consequential recordings of the time, before a long hiatus — he earned a law degree and became a practicing lawyer — that ended during the early 1990s.


Pete LaRoca Sims (Musician Show, Nov. 2, 1993) (Side 1 &2); OTL (June 11, 1998):

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins-Wilbur Ware-Pete LaRoca, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”-Live At The Village Vanguard-1957]

TP: Pete LaRoca Sims has been playing every Sunday night at Yardbird Suite with various musicians comprising a sextet. Most of the best-known selections from that date, with the exception of “Night in Tunisia” from the original album, featured Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Did Sonny spontaneously set up the other configuration?

PLR: I was called in, and did my part, and Elvin was there. It seemed to be that it had been preconceived. I didn’t get the impression that it was impromptu, but it may well have been.

TP: You said that this was your first gig out of the neighborhood.

PLR: That’s true. The first major jazz artist who I’d gotten a chance to work with. Previously, I had worked with my contemporaries. We had a dance band that did a good bit of work in and around the city, Harlem, the Bronx, etc. By something of a fluke, having sat in at a place in Brooklyn called Turbo Village, where Max Roach was working during the week… I sat in on a Monday night and I broke quite a few of his drumheads, and I called him up to apologize and offered to pay. He said, “That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You might be interested to know that Sonny Rollins is looking for a drummer.” So needless to say, I called Sonny Rollins and was fortunate enough to get that job from which that record resulted.

TP: That led to a several-year relationship, on and off, with Sonny. You toured with him in Europe in 1959, which has been documented on a bootleg on the Dragon label.

PLR: There were just a few concerts actually. I don’t think there was another week’s work or anything of that sort anywhere, except that we did go to Europe for three weeks. All of it was quite enjoyable. There could have been more, for my money.

TP: On the Musician Show we create a virtual biography of the musician through the music they’ve listened to and the people they’ve played with. Since that was your first major gig, let’s talk about the events that led you to being on the bandstand – your history as a drummer and some of the experiences you had. How did drums enter your life? Banging on pots and pans as a kid?

PLR: Not quite pots and pans. But various parts of pieces of furniture around the house and things of that sort. I came from a very musical household, with a stepfather who played trumpet and an uncle who was something of an investor in jazz at the time and had a fine record collection that I pretty well exhausted, I think.

My first actual playing was in the New York school system, beginning in junior high school. It was a primarily symphonic orchestra that actually toured a little bit and went to I guess a couple of other junior high schools to play concerts. That continued through Music and Art here in New York, and City College, where I was in the orchestra, and a brief period at Manhattan School of Music, though I didn’t complete that.

TP: Any particular teachers you’d mention helping you a great deal, or was it from watching drummers on gigs?

PLR: Well, it was mainly from being around the music just about all the time, at least with regard to jazz. But since you mentioned teachers, there was one gentleman, David Greitzer, who was instrumental just in the way he spread his great joy in music and his love for the music in such a way as to enthuse the entire orchestra that he was teaching at junior high school. We all got kind of fired up. He had previously taught at Music & Art, as a matter of fact, and prepped us for the entrance exam there, and I think at least half our junior high school orchestra then went on to Music & Art, as a body just about.

Not too many other teachers. There was a Fred Albright who I was assigned briefly at Manhattan – a grand old man of drums he was when I came to him. Just working with him for a semester, doing exercises and things like that, was indeed quite memorable. But that’s the only part of formal training that I think leads to anything like the jazz work that I’ve been doing since.

TP: I take it you start working professionally, or least for money on local gigs, as a teenager? Or when did that start, and what was that like, and who were some of the people that you played with? And where?

PLR: We worked primarily dances, Friday and Saturday nights. One guy who might be known from that band…there are a couple… George Braith, who is a saxophonist, was in that band at one time…

TP: He plays together and he also plays that welded-together…

PLR: He designed his own horn. Braithophone I think he calls it. Barry Rogers, who became very well known as a trombonist in the Latin bands, was also in that band. Some other guys who I know still work in music, like Arthur Jenkins, a pianist; John Mayer, a pianist who I saw last week when he came into Sweet Basil. I don’t know remember all the guys. Phil Newsome… If you’re into Latin music and you were around during that period, you’d probably remember that period, you’d probably remember him. We all called him Cowbell Phil because he did that so well.

We were about 15-16-17 was about the time that… I guess it went on through the time that I went to Sonny. If that was 1957, then I was about 19 at that time. So I guess it continued until then. It was sort of broken up into two pieces. Hugo Dickens actually originated or established the band, and I came along and emphasized the Latin side, and we had a sort of dual situation going on where he was responsible for the swing side and I was responsible for the Latin. This was a time when I was primarily a timbale player. I didn’t play a set of drums at all. It was primarily standards. We did transcriptions from records, and got sheet music on for the Latin music, etc. We got a lot of work. It was a good band.

TP: You were also hanging out, I’d think, and checking out various drummers of the upper echelon…?

PLR: I think it was mostly records at that time. First off, I was playing a lot, so I wasn’t going around to listen a lot. Those were school years, and homework and things took over much of the rest of the time. I didn’t get really that close to traps until I think I was 17, and there was a band that was going to work in the Catskills to do a show. I said, “That’s great, but I don’t happen to have a set of traps.” They said, “We’ll get some for you.” I think the virtue that they found in me was that I could read music, and therefore I could probably cut the show – and indeed, that’s what actually happened. It was from that time I got familiar with a set of traps and then got some other work playing jazz type music, etc. But there really wasn’t a lot of it. I’m sure I played for 6 or 7 years before I ever seriously sat down to play a set of traps.

TP: The first track you’ve selected is an amazing solo album by Baby Dodds on Folkways. I take it you’d heard him through your stepfather’s collection…

PLR: my uncle’s collection, yes. At that time, it was a 10″ 78 that was just drums on both sides. In my experience, that was quite an anomaly. I haven’t come across that before or since. And I loved it. I loved his whole collection, but that was one thing that really struck me in particular. That was before I even played drums at all. That was before even junior high school.

TP: I believe you said that it sounded like a tap dancer.

PLR: I brought a tape of Baby Dodds playing a version of “Tea For Two,” with just him and a piano player who I can’t identify, unfortunately. But in that, it’s mainly drum solo, and what he plays in there is…you can hear – it sounds like a tap dancer dancing.

TP: Also, you’ve mentioned Tito Puente as your main influence on timbales. Were you going out to dances and hearing Tito Puente and so forth…

PLR: Yes, and Tito Rodriguez at that time was around and had a great band. I was mainly interested in timbales at the time, and that’s what I was doing. Puente was a great influence primarily in the way that he strung ideas together. The next idea that he would play would be built upon the last idea that he had played, and he constantly strung it out that way. Which was something that didn’t happen a lot in drums. Drums being a non-pitched instrument, we do different things. There are many familiar rhythms that are in the vernacular, both the Latin vernacular and the jazz vernacular. But that particular way of stringing ideas together was really unique with Puente, and I glommed onto it and have been using it ever since, without a doubt.

[MUSIC: Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums”; Baby Dodds-Bechet, “Save It Pretty Mama”; Dodds-pianist, “Tea For Two”; Tito Puente, “El Rey Del Timbal”]

TP: Within the course of 15 minutes, we’ve outlined some of the sources of Pete La Roca Sims’ aesthetic on drums and timbales. You mentioned that Baby Dodds eschewed the sock cymbal, didn’t use it on these recordings. On timbales, that would also be the case. In both cases, we have drummers creating a broad dynamic range within a limited palette, so to speak.

PLR: Somewhat. Although I think the color…the metallic sound of the timbales actually adds color, so that you’ve got that to play with even though you don’t have something like the sock cymbal. And, as I was mentioning to you when we were off the air, Baby Dodds uses the press roll as a sort of…I don’t know whether he intended it as a substitute for the sock cymbal, but it does pretty much the same job of emphasizing the second and fourth beats, etc. – which I think is interesting.

TP: How much of an adjustment was it for you to operate on the trap drums? Did you pick it up quickly? Was it complicated?

PLR: As I said, the first thing I got a chance to do was a job in the Catskills, and it was an entire summer cutting a show. That will get you in shape. You’re playing for dancing and then you’re playing for dancers, including strippers, and you’re doing rim-shots and ka-boom-chas, as they said today, for comedians, etc. It’s a bit of everything, and quite a bit of experience.

TP: How long did you that?

PLR: Just the summer. It was the better part of 3 months.

TP: Pete Sims is leading a group Sunday nights at Yardbird Suite on Cooper Square. Also, in the last few years, we’ve had a chance to hear you with Mal Waldron’s group. It’s been exciting to see you developing a stronger presence on the jazz scene.

The first source you mentioned as far as jazz drums was Kenny Clarke.

PLR: It’s the question of time and how time is kept, etc. Kenny also I think de-emphasized the sock cymbal to some extent and instead put the emphasis on the ride cymbal. I think he was one of the first to truly do that. If you listen to Baby Dodds, the beat-by-beat emphasis is in the bass drum. Then, of course, there’s the press roll on the snare drum, emphasizing the off-beats. Klook, by putting it in the ride hand on the ride cymbal, I think sort of smoothed it out. Prior to that time, drummers and rhythm sections were playing pretty much like the Basie rhythm section wit the rhythm guitar and CHUNK-CHUNK, CHUNK-CHUNK, beat-by-beat. By putting it in the cymbal it just got smoother because of the bit of continuity of sound that a cymbal gives you. I loved it and adopted that immediately, and never did anything else.

TP: Did you ever see him in person?

PLR: I only saw him in person, as a matter of fact, the job with Sonny Rollins in Europe.

TP: There’s another bootleg recording from that period in which Kenny Clarke plays with Sonny, in a cathedral in Aix.

PLR: I haven’t heard it but I’d love to.

TP: We’ll hear a set of recordings featuring Kenny Clarke in the early 1950s. This one is from Kenny Clarke’s 2nd MJQ date from April 1952…

[MUSIC: MJQ, “True Blues”; Miles-Bags-Monk, “The Man I Love”-Take 2, 1954]

TP: I think that was my first Miles Davis album, and you mentioned it’s one that you listened to many times.

PLR: That and Miles Ahead were the two first Miles Davis albums that I had.

TP: You mentioned off-mike that your stepfather had played in bands with Monk before bebop, perhaps in the late 1930s, or around there.

PLR: Somewhere around there. I was mentioning that he was a difficult person to keep employed, because he wasn’t yet Thelonious Monk, bebop hadn’t yet quite happened, and the kind of shenanigans that he was into at the time were not appreciated by leaders of the dance bands that they were working in. The reason why you mentioned that particular take as having a little bit of hilarity to it is because of the lapse, the dropout in Monk’s solo, where Miles plays him a fanfare to get him going again.

TP: He plays “You’ve Got To Wake Up In The Morning.”

PLR: Right! [LAUGHS] There were a number of scenes like that, as I understand it, just from having listened to my stepfather talk about it

TP: You had a chance to play with many of the greats of the period, but you never had a chance to play with Monk.

PLR: Never had Monk and never Miles. I missed the opportunities. I had a lot of opportunities, so I can’t complain, but I sure would have liked to have had those guys, too.

TP: Among the trumpeters you’ve been using at Yardbird Suite are Jimmy Owens and Claudio Roditi; you’ve had Dave Liebman and David Sanchez; George Cables and Joanne Brackeen; other people as well…

PLR: Other people of like caliber.

TP: Next in the chronology will be Max Roach. You mentioned that the thing that most impressed you about Max apart from your overall appreciation was his working outside of 4/4 time, particularly the material in 3/4 that he explored in 1956. He did a recording for EmArcy that was all in that time signature.

PLR: Right. Plus, the main thing for me with Max is that he established so much of the bebop drum vernacular. He made it quite a bit looser, taking it away from just the timekeeping function that drums had pretty much before that, and dropping – as were called – “bombs,” which really has to do with punctuating what else is happening in the band, etc. And the way that it was done… First off, the front line, people like Bird and Diz and Miles, were playing new ideas that called for I think something new from the rhythm section, and Max was very much up to the job and did things that I think every drummer has borrowed a big portion of, if you play jazz.

TP: Were you able to check him out, observe him in the flesh early on? How important is it to see musicians in the flesh?

PLR: It makes a difference. I got to get good jobs working opposite some of these guys early on, so that I wasn’t so much going out and hanging out in the clubs just for the purpose of hanging out. If I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work opposite them, I’m sure I would have been hanging out in the clubs. But as it happened, I was there. Yes, it’s important to see them in the sense that especially if you know the musician and there’s something that you really do want to borrow, a device you think you can use… Sometimes you have to see how it’s done; you can’t really tell it all by just listening. But I think the bulk of it was really from records. Jazz music was at that time the popular music… The dance music of that time was derived from jazz. The swing era was still going on. There were still big dance bands going around. So major stations here in New York, like certainly WNEW and I think maybe WOR, were having jazz just about 24 hours a day. There was a show on Sunday afternoon that had Frank Sinatra, for instance, for 4 to 6 hours or something like that. So to get to hear the music at that time was very easy. Today you have to seek it out a little bit and guys don’t play as often as you might like, so you have to get them when they’re there. But then it was really all over the place.

TP: The selection we’ll play to represent Max Roach is “Valse Hot,” from March 1956.

[MUSIC: Rollins-Brown-Roach, “Valse Hot”-1956]

TP: On the next session we’ll hear some sessions that Pete Sims played on as “Au Privave.”

[MUSIC: George Russell, “Au Privave”; Pete LaRoca, “Lazy Afternoon”-Basra; Sonny Trio-Grimes-LaRoca, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”-1959]

TP: I’d think the surname quandary of “LaRoca” and “Sims” is a constant source of confusion.

PLR: I’m afraid so. But I answer to both. It just doesn’t matter.

TP: In these next couple of sets, we’ll hear two drummers who meant a great deal to you when you started to be a professional jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor. A few words about what Philly Joe Jones meant to you, and his special niche on the drums.

PLR: Swing. Summed up quite neatly, it’s just plain swing. For my taste, no one ever swung like that before or since. It’s full-bodied, it’s full-out. No messin’ around. All of his cuts are crisp, and he knew quite a few of them. He obviously did some big band drumming, and he brings that over to Miles’ band, especially on “Two Bass Hit,” where along with Red Garland, who was also a big band piano player, it just makes for a dynamite rhythm section. I think that every drummer around was very much impressed by Philly when things were being made.

TP: Did you get to know Philly, watch him check him out in person?

PLR: Some. We were friends. Drummers never work in the same band, and I was working a lot. I didn’t work opposite Philly that I can remember. He was one guy that I had to go hang out in clubs in order to get to hear him. Of course, since I was working, that wasn’t a big deal because you sort of had entree to most of the clubs. But I had to go catch him. They were working at places like Café Bohemia, Birdland, etc. It was mainly just the propulsion, the non-stop, strong as it could possibly be form of swing that apparently Miles at the time was just lapping up, because song after song after song called for it, and the rhythm section that he had at the time – which of course included Paul Chambers – was giving it to him.

[MUSIC: Miles-Philly Joe, “Two Bass Hit,” – [END OF SIDE 2]“Gone, Gone, Gone”]Pete Sims, Out To Lunch, June 11, 1998:

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca Sims, “Amanda’s Song”]

TP: That was Chick Corea’s “Amanda’s Song,” from Swing Time, featuring Dave Liebman and Lance Bryant on soprano saxophones, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, George cables, piano, Santi DeBriano, bass.

Many of you know Pete LaRoca Sims from his middle name – he appeared on many recordings of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as Pete LaRoca. His two leader CDs from then are both in print – Basra on Blue Note and Turkish Woman At the Bath, for Douglas, reissued by 32Jazz. There’s a 30-year hiatus between recordings, and Swing Time comes next. The band is part of a rotating group of top-shelf New York musicians who’ve been recording with Pete since 1993, and the current version is appearing this week at Sweet Basil – Joe Ford on soprano sax, Don Braden on tenor; Jimmy Owens on trumpet; Steve Kuhn on piano; Santi DiBriano, bass. There’s a variety of arrangements, all sparked by Pete’s unique and original and unpredictable drumming.

Let’s talk about the origin of this group. You were one of the most active and respected drummers in jazz. The business became a bit too much for you to deal with in some ways. You became a lawyer. And you began playing actively again – although I gather you never stopped – in the early 90s with this band.

PLR: I got a few too many strong requests to do Fusion, which I was not interested in doing, and it was happening that many of the main jazz stars were going that way. It seemed to be the trend at the time. At the same time I was trying to get work for the band that did Basra, and without very much success. The missing link that people usually overlook when they tell that story is that between the time when I was getting a lot of work as a jazz sideman and the time I went back to school, I drove a cab for five years. It was after five years of cab driving that I figured out, “Hey, something has got to change here,” and then went back to academics. Then in 1993, as you say, I got the good fortune to collect a bunch of guys, all great players, mainly resident in New York or just across the river in New Jersey. We did months of Sunday nights and Monday nights at various clubs, and sort of teased the book into good shape. Working one night a week you can’t keep a steady group, so that’s where the rotating roster of musicians came in. Fortunately for me, a lot of great musicians around New York know my book. So usually, if I’ve got to get a band together, it turns out to be a pretty good one, like now.

TP: Let’s talk about this band, and a few words about each of the players. Maybe the overriding theme can be what it take to play in a band led by Pete Sims?

PLR: I’ve been told by the guys that the book is difficult. That’s number one. There have been occasions when guys have come aboard and stumbled there at having to read. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’re going to have to read, and that has been a stumbling block for a few fellas. So the main thing is that they wish to and can play freely when we finally get to solos, and they can content with the monster book, is what it’s called.

With regard to these guys: Jimmy Owens and I are actually both Music & Art, though not at the same time, and he has a lot of orchestral experience, which is what you do at places like Music & Art. He brings a lot of lore. He didn’t have the 30 years off, so he’s been in a lot of great bands and he brings a lot of lore and experience with him, and it’s a pleasure to have him.

Santi DiBriano has been in the group off and on since 1993. He comes from a Latin background. Along the way, before I ever played drums, I was a timbale player. So there’s a certain relationship there with regard to things that happen in time.

Steve Kuhn is playing piano this time around. He and I go back. We were together in the first Coltrane group. We subsequently worked together with Art Farmer and Stan Getz. So we have a history. He also has symphonic training, orchestral training, and he brings that lore.

Joe Ford is the guy you get when you’ve absolutely got to swing. There’s got to be one guy who you know you’ll give it to him and he’s going to swing with it. Don Braden is a new fellow; this is his first time in the group. He’s doing famously, brings a different color, a different style, so to speak, as most good jazz players do, and fills it out for us. A great ensemble sound he brings also.

TP: The record has three originals by you, Dave Liebman has one, there’s the Chick Corea tune and some standards. Who arranged the “Four In One” that you played last night?

PLR: That’s Hall Overton’s, from the big band album with Monk. It’s a wild thing to do, with that 2-chorus ensemble of Monk’s piano solo orchestrated out. That’s why guys say it’s a hard book!

TP: You have a sheaf of Chick Corea compositions, which I know are manna for drummers.

PLR: They are – Chick himself being a drummer. And he was good enough, at a time that we were talking about material to arrange, he said, “I’ll send you some stuff,” and about a week later I got a 2″ thick package of tunes he hadn’t recorded, snippets he hadn’t finished working on… It’s just a gold mine, and the first thing that’s come out of it is “Amanda Song,” which is for a singer.

TP: You’re writing. On “Basra,” from 1965, there are three of your pieces. The next track we’ll play is an updated version of a song that appears on Basra. How far back does writing and band-leading go for you?

PLR: Well, in my mid-teens there was a fellow up in Harlem named Hugo Dickinson, who had a group. I was then at Music & Art, and I had heard about him. Somebody said he was looking for a drummer. He and I met, and it developed into a situation where we had a sort of dual leadership. Latin music, the Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were quite popular then, and sort of at the beginning of their popularity – this is that far back. So he was doing the jazz side, and I, then, being a timbale player, was doing the Latin side. That’s when I started bringing in arrangements for the band. Some were simply sheet music that you could buy in places like the Music Exchange. Others were transcriptions. We heard a nice arrangement and we liked it, so I’d take it off the record. And some were original compositions that I wrote for the band. It was a big band, a 13-piece band or something.

We got a lot of dance work. It was really a dance band. We got a lot of work, mainly in Harlem, but some places in the Bronx or Brooklyn – wherever the gig was. Hugo was quite good at getting jobs. It was enough to keep the band together. A lot of great musicians came out of that band. Barry Rogers, for instance, who went over to the Latin world later, started out… That was one of his first big hits. George Braith. John Mayer, who is now on the West Coast, a piano player. A lot of guys came out of that band.

TP: Talk about the transition from timbales to trap drums.

PLR: Actually I started as a kettle drummer at Music & Art, and actually earlier at Stitt Junior High School. The transition from that to timbales was not that great, in the sense that the technique is the same. They both use what drummers call matched-grip, meaning that each hand holds the stick in the same way, as opposed to military style where you have that rotating motion in the left hand. So that wasn’t a big hump at all.

But then I sort of shied away from playing jazz. Jazz ran through my house all my childhood. My Uncle, Kenneth Bright, was involved in Circle Records, which originally recorded the Jelly Roll Morton… They were six 12″-78 albums where he is a raconteur and tells stories and plays bits to exemplify what he’s talking about. That was first released by Circle, which is the company my uncle was involved in. He was enough involved in the jazz scene that he would throw a party, and Fats Waller would come by the house and play piano. I’m sure that Fats would go anywhere and play piano, but our house was one of the places that he went.

I loved it so much, and it looked quite complicated and quite different from matched grip, playing kettle drums and timbales, that I shied away from it for a very long. Finally… I remember it was my 17th summer, because I couldn’t drink legally, and some guys I didn’t know, but who knew my name and knew I could read, had a summer-long job in the Catskills – a show band. They wanted me to play the drums. I said, “Hey, I’d love to do it, but I don’t even happen to have drums. I play timbales.” They said, “We’ll get you some drums,” which they did. I had something like 10 weeks at a place called the Kentucky Club up in the Catskills, cutting shows and playing for dancers, etc. That was my first real experience playing traps. It wasn’t even really a jazz band.

TP: Sounds like a trial and error thing for you?

PLR: I knew about it.

TP: What were the biggest demands about going from clave to swing?

PLR: The first big problem is coordination. Because you’ve got all 4 limbs going. You’ll see a lot of young drummers sort of staring into the middle distance as they try to figure out, “Now, which comes next?” Ultimately, when you really start playing, when you know you’re playing reasonably well, is when that stuff becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it.

TP: Was there a drum sound in your mind’s ear when you start playing jazz on trapset? Were there drummers you’d absorbed and wanted to sound like in some way or other?

PLR: Plenty of drummers. Not a drum sound as such. But plenty of drummers. Baby Dodds was a first major influence. In my uncle’s huge jazz record collection, there was a 78 (and again, this is back there) of Baby Dodds, just Baby Dodds, playing solo drums on both sides.

TP: Incredible record.

PLR: Absolutely incredible! One of those that I wore out. A major influence. I find that he’s an influence still, having listened to that. It’s not straight bebop. Certainly it predates bebop. It was a guy really playing impressionistically in a very early style on a set of drums – a BIG set of drums with temple blocks and all kinds of things like that.

Other major influences? Max was a major influence, and what he did at the inception of bebop with Bird and Dizzy – that’s fundamental jazz vernacular for drums.

TP: You were up on all of this?

PLR: I had heard it all. My stepfather was a trumpeter, and he played jazz. Jazz was always going on in the house. And it was a time at which jazz was extremely popular. It was the foundation for the swing bands, the dance bands. That hadn’t quite died yet, although I think it really did take a turn to a different direction with Bird, because he with his wonderful contribution sort of turned the music into ear candy, ear music, and not so much dancing music. That’s when we started having not dance halls, but cabarets, nightclubs without even a dance floor, where people just came and listened to the music. Once again, when the people stopped dancing to jazz, we lost a lot of public. Because really and truly, people want to be the show. They don’t want to go and sit and watch somebody else – be a spectator. But nevertheless, with regard to the music, loving jazz as much as I do, I’m glad Bird did what he did!

Kenny Clarke was a major influence because of the way that he smoothed out, to my perception, the beat. Guys were putting a lot of emphasis in their hands on the second and fourth beat, along with the sock cymbal playing on the second and fourth beat. He kind of had the sock cymbal going but smoothed out that right hand. To me, that was a revelation, and I play like that today.

Philly Joe Jones for the musicality. He played bebop and he played it hard, but he always played something appropriate for what was happening in the band.

These are the guys. You learn from them. You learn things to do. I still find quite a bit of Philly in my own playing, because some of the things he did are just the best way and the easiest way to get from one place to another.

TP: Were you a kid who went out to hear these drummers? Were you listening on records?

PLR: Pretty much. It really started with my going out to hear Latin bands. As I was sort of coming of age and allowed to go out at night by myself, that’s the stage at which I was playing timbales. But when it switched over, actually I was playing quite a bit. So once I started playing jazz, which was the job at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins when I was 19…once that happened, I was in clubs where there were usually two bands then. So I would be in one band I’d really hear these guys in the other band, which in many ways is the best way to hear them – it was really intense.

TP: So at the time of Night at the Village Vanguard you hadn’t had that much listening to jazz experience?

PLR: I hadn’t had that much playing jazz experience. I’d only played with my contemporaries in the neighborhood, the guys in Hugo’s band, when we were… After the summer in the Catskills. That gives me about two years of playing traps.

TP: Who were some of the hand drummers or Latin drummers you found particularly stimulating, who might enter the way you sound today?

PLR: Tito Puente as a great timbale player, and from whom I stole a concept that I still use today. I haven’t found a better one. The drums not having the advantage of harmony and melody, one way to sort of make your solo playing coherent is to take the last part of one musical idea, one rhythmic idea, and make it the first part of the next rhythmic idea. That comes from Tito Puente. And it works.

TP: Worked then. Works now. Anyone else?

PLR: Direct lifts? Not so much.

TP: I don’t mean direct lifts, but just general influences.

PLR: Everybody is an influence. Sure. You listen to everybody. In the rare case you listen to some guys for what not to do. But everybody is an influence. You let it all filter through.

TP: But when we cite the people you’ve played with, it’s a roster of pivotal figures in the development of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, on and on. Let’s hear some music and talk about some of those people when we get back.

“Candu” was first recorded on Basra, Pete’s 1965 Blue Note recording. This version is on Swingtime…

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca, “Candu”; Sonny Rollins-Pete, “Oleo”-Stockholm-1959]

TP: Let me read a list of some of the highlights of your c.v. between 1957 and 1964-65. Sonny Rollins. Tony Scott. The Slide Hampton Octet and I imagine other configurations – a significant band not so well known these days. John Coltrane’s first attempt to organize a quartet, which he eventually settled on later with results we know. Art Farmer. You played with Joe Henderson in your own band and other situations. Chick Corea became part of your working band for a while. An incredible roster, on the cutting edge of the time.

You referred to “missing link” in regard to someone before. Some people think of you as a kind of missing link because of your absence over 3 decades in the development of modern jazz drumming. A number of drummers have said this to me.

In any event, let’s talk about your experience with Sonny Rollins, who’s been known to be tough on drummers, though maybe not on you.

PLR: I didn’t find him to be tough on drummers and such. At the time, it seemed to me that he was not so much band-oriented. I’m coming out of symphonic background, and my first real work playing traps was in a show band, where you’re really expected to do certain things. Sonny really wanted to, at that time, follow his own nose, meaning he might change key in mid tune, he might change a tune in mid-tune. He would change the tempo in mid-tune. And he really just expected whoever was in the band to follow him, wherever he happened to go. If that’s what you mean… I didn’t think of it as being rough on drummers. He’s a very strong player, and when he set out to go from one place to another, it was kind of obvious what he was doing and not that difficult to follow along.

TP: Did this 1959 engagement end your association? He entered his hiatus following that.

PLR: There was really only the Vanguard, which was a one-week job, and I think the tour with him in Europe that included the Stockholm recording was 10 days-2 weeks, something like that. Other than that, there were really just a few concerts here and there. I think I might have had a half-dozen other nights playing with him at most over that whole two-year period.

TP: I’m sure the Vanguard gig opened eyes around New York. Did it open up work opportunities playing jazz for you?

PLR: I’m certain that it did. I think the next good job I got was for a longer period of time, with Tony Scott, who had a quartet at the time, a very nice quartet for a good period of that time, with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. We worked for about 2 months solid at a place called the Showplace in Greenwich Village, which is no longer there. He had other people as well. It wasn’t all that.. It was just that two months with those two particular musicians. But it included a concert with Langston Hughes at Carnegie Hall for instance.

There was work. I was getting lots of work. Given the Sonny Rollins recording, which was Blue note, and the Jackie McLean recording…

TP: New Soil.

PLR: Yes, which was also Blue Note. I kind of fell into favor, as it were, with Alfred Lion of Blue Note, and he would often recommend me for records and the musicians would accept me. The same was true with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He’d very often bring just a horn player to town and pick up a local rhythm section… Well, a local rhythm section in New York City, you’re not doing too bad. Max would often recommend me for some of those jobs. So I got to work a lot, and I think that’s how I got to play with so many fine musicians.

TP: Your experience playing with John Coltrane in 1959 and 1960.

PLR: Obviously a great experience. It was a great job in the sense that it started with 10 weeks on the same bandstand at the Jazz Gallery. Now, that’s unheard of today, but that’s… If you want to start a band, that’s a great way to go at it. We did 10 weeks, two weeks each opposite Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton, Count Basie (the big band…it was really a great job) and Max Roach also. It was kind of fierce.

I think what had happened is that he had always intended, I think, to have the band that he ultimately ended up with. But all the guys he wanted weren’t available at the time that he got his opportunity to start. So I just had really the good fortune to get those first…it was probably 4 or 5 months, because we did those 10 weeks and then a tour around the Eastern Seaboard.

TP: What were the dynamics, the special demands of playing with John Coltrane.

PLR: A lot of energy. [LAUGHS] It’s kind of contrary, in a way, to my sort of natural bent. I’m not exactly a soft drummer. But I do like…or what I’ve developed into liking over time is to have my peaks of energy and then to come back down. Hopefully that allows a horn player to get his breath and think about it again; you don’t keep him at the top of his lungs constantly. But with John, that’s the way John played. He was always not so much necessarily at the top of his lungs, but certainly at the top of his energy. He never let that part come down. So it really was not natural, in a way, for me – but it sure was fun to do.


TP: …the material he recorded for Atlantic around that time, or was he looking for other things?

PLR: It started with the material from Atlantic, “Giant Steps,” etc. I think there might have been some earlier recordings for another label. “Equinox” I think preceded some of that music, the Atlantic period. “Mr. Syms,” I think, which people thought was me, but actually it was a barber of his in Philadelphia. During the period that I was there, he branched out into “My Favorite Things,” “Chasin’ The Trane”…

TP: He was playing “Chasin’ The Trane” in 1960, then.

PLR: He was playing the tune, yeah. And “Impressions,” that he did the long extended solo on. And “Inchworm.”

TP: So he was playing extended solos when you were playing with him.

PLR: Yes. Not so much a whole 20 minutes worth necessarily. But they were getting there. They were on their way to that. And he was getting to modal, as opposed to “Giant Steps.” In fact, we had a conversation about that. I really didn’t like the “Giant Steps” type stuff very much at all. Certainly for me, and I think for most drummers, our main device is harmonic rhythm. Meaning we go for the places where there are harmonic changes, where the chords sit down. In something like “Giant Steps,” the chords are just about note-for-note. So almost every drummer is going to play that the same way. BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TI-BASH, BANG BANG. It’s going to happen every time.

TP: If they can.

PLR: Right. Well, ok, but it’s just a natural. And I’m not too partial to things where I sound like any other drummer! I just don’t like to do things that way. So the things where the harmonic rhythm was more disparate, more interesting, were the things that I preferred. I loved “Equinox.” I loved “Body and Soul,” his great arrangement of “Body and Soul” that I have since orchestrated to put into my own group, etc.

TP: Perfect segue. That arrangement of “Body and Soul” appears on Swingtime, and let’s get to it.

[MUSIC: Pete, “Body and Soul”; w/Chick-Gilmore-Booker, “Bliss”]

TP: I’m one of many people who initially thought it was either Chick Corea’s or John Gilmore’s recording, as I’ve seen both incarnations.

PLR: Interesting.

TP: Actually your entire output as a leader is currently in print – Basra for Blue Note, Turkish Women At The Baths, and most recently, Swingtime, which is the name of his current ensemble, which is performing this week at Sweet Basil.

When we were speaking before that set of music, Pete, you made a comment that you don’t like to do things the way other people do – it’s not your policy. Has that been an ongoing character trait – the principle of individualism.

PLR: I don’t know that it was a guiding light, but it turned out to be the turn that I took on a number of different occasions. I was asked recently by an interviewer, “What was the first influence that caused you to go out, outside?” I said, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” and it took me a few minutes to think. The one person who I came up with was Moondog, who is called a street drummer. He’s a very unusual character who I used to see around on the street both in Midtown and in Harlem. He’d be standing on the street wearing Army blankets, sandals, and carrying a long staff. And he happened to be a drummer, and wrote music – and I think he played the flute also.

TP: He has a record out recently.

PLR: It’s a reissue. He also did a concert at the YMHA that I went to, and he had a beautiful triangular drum, about 6 feet long, sat on the floor, and he straddled it. There was a head on one end and the other end open, and he played on the head with a maraca and on the wooden side with a clave – and played the most marvelous things. I think that kind of led my ear to know that things can be done differently and still be quite musical. Drums being what they are, a very repetitive instrument. We hold the beat down. We end up with the backbeat, which I’ve avoided like the plague because it’s just so repetitive and boring – though people love it. People are comfortable with it. It’s obvious. You can feel it. But I just tended toward those things that were more like Moondog, and you know, the great drummers who played things that were interesting, that you’d never heard before, and that made it exciting.

TP: I guess stretching out over 10 weeks with John Coltrane would have given you food for thought.

PLR: It really developed into following the lead from whoever was up front. That started with Sonny, though of course it was pertinent to Coltrane as well. I still do that. It’s not so much that I have a pattern in mind. That goes back to the issue of having to maintain coordination. If you’re really working at it, then there are certain things, licks that you would play that you’re going to be comfortable with and you know how to do. My approach I hope is different in the sense that I prefer to listen to what the soloist mainly is doing and do something that complements whatever it is that he’s into. How should I play the time behind a soloist who is playing that particular kind of phrase up front. That leads you. Because they’re always playing something different, so that leaves me to always be playing something different, and I always liked that combination.

TP: You also became involved in studying Indian music during the 60s, according to the liner notes.

PLR: Yes. Though it was more a general period of Eastern studies. I was also investigating yoga and Zen, etc., as many people were at the time – and Indian music, which was a big part of it.

TP: Did the rhythmic structures of Indian music have an effect on your concept of drumming?

PLR: Not very much. It came across as intensely beautiful but also intensely complex, and I couldn’t find a way to carry it along. Actually I’ve had a similar experience recently with Native American music. Many of the tunes that I’ve written are drawn from other folk musics, not necessarily jazz. I was looking for something that would be from the Native American vernacular. Once again, I love what I hear, but I haven’t found anything that I can take to make it swing. It’s been done. Jim Pepper did “Witchi-tai-to,” which was great. So I know there’s probably something out there, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very difficult. They don’t use time in so regular a fashion. Some of the time, meter signs – if there were one – seem to be irregular. They’re not circular like a 3/4 or 4/4 even or 5/4. They seem to change, to my ear, in large part, based upon their language. In other words, they’re singing a phrase, and whatever music or rhythm they’re going to do takes the shape of that phrase, as if it were spoken. That’s the rhythm of the music. It doesn’t have to be circular. Nobody is going to improvise. It doesn’t need to be a recognizable pattern. I’ve found that in many folk musics. I may be mistaken, but I think in Greek folk music I’ve also heard that, where they use wild meter signs. But it seems to follow the spoken phrase, not necessarily conducive to something that you want to swing.

TP: You started off in Latin music, and much of the roots therein are Yoruba-Cuban music. Have you continued exploring those feels and does it inflect the way you play?

PLR: Not much directly. I would go a little further back than Yoruba-Cuban to just plain African. When I was a kid, I lived in Harlem, and I was going to Music & Art, which was then at 135th Street, and the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library was at 136th and Lenox Avenue. So these things were close by, and I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Collection, listening to their records. That’s where I picked up the African elements of my playing. Then I got a chance to use them, of course, was I was playing timbales.

TP: When we break down Pete LaRoca’s influences, it sounds very complex, which it is, but there’s nothing daunting when you hear Pete LaRoca play. It’s endless swing, as the band’s apropos title, Swingtime, would indicate.

PLR: I wrote this for my daughter when she was 4 or 5, which is 25 or more years ago.

[MUSIC: Pete Sims, “Susan’s Waltz”]
[MUSIC: Miles, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles, “Gone”; Miles-PC-PJJ, “Billy Boy”]

TP: Next we’ll focus on Arthur Taylor, who you saw quite frequently during the late 50s.

PLR: Yes, late 50s-early 60s, and picked up a tip from him, actually, regarding the sock cymbal, which previously I had only seen played in only a rock-the-foot-heel-to-toe-and-back fashion. A.T. did it with just his toe, which bounced up and down, so to speak, on beat, and the heel never touched the pedal. That for me was a true find. It allowed a lot of flexibility as to how to use the sock cymbal. Or, perhaps what I should say is, it avoided the sort of locked-in motion of heel-to-toe, which is one of those things you can see drummers concentrating on getting it coordinated, and as long as you’re concentrating on getting it coordinated you’re not going to play anything that’s very loose. So it was a freeing-up device to learn from A.T. that, they, you can do it with just the toe, and there are then different things that involve balance and you get loose – for which I am forever grateful to A.T. It would be a pleasure to hear him play something.

[MUSIC: A.T.’s Delight, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”-1960]

TP: On the next segment we’ll hear a number of tracks from dates on which Pete LaRoca appeared. Alfred Lion called you fairly frequently. You played on several Joe Henderson records, including Page One, which debuted “Blue Bossa.” There are several Jackie McLean sides, Walter Davis, Jr., Sonny Clark…

PLR: Kenny Dorham.

TP: How did the relationship with Blue Note begin?

PLR: It was the Sonny Rollins date, which of course was the first thing I did. The next thing was Jackie’s New Soil, with “Minor Apprehension.” I guess Alfred was happy with the results, and I got into quite a few dates, including my date Basra.

[MUSIC: Art Farmer-PLR, “Tears”–Sing Me Softly Of the Blues; Jackie McLean, “Minor Apprehension”-1959; Joe Henderson-Andrew Hill, “Our Thing”-1963]

PLR: …when I was asked my name, and I said, “Peter,” I’d get a lot of “Ha,” etc., and I finally started making what I thought was a clever connection at the time – Peter meaning “rock” and LaRoca meaning “rock.” I sort of allowed myself to get stuck with it, and that’s how that name came about.

TP: It’s a catchy, recognizable name. You say “Pete LaRoca,” and it sticks in your mind.

PLR: The name has done its work well. People do not forget the name! If I had to choose, I did well with that one. Sims is my given name, and I’m just trying to be known as who I am without the 13-year-old cleverness…

TP: Sometimes the best inspirations…

PLR: Are when you’re 13 years old?

TP: This gentleman’s second question was: Where has he been since Night of the Cookers?

PLR: Right here, dealing with the vagaries of the jazz music business and the impossibility of getting the opportunity to work and be heard by people like your interested caller. I drove a cab for a while in order to survive. I’ve become a lawyer in order both to survive and to keep myself interested in life, etc. And now, at this particular juncture, I have this marvelous opportunity to have a band working and to indulge in music in a number of different ways again.

TP: Now we’ll get back to some other drummers, both from recordings with Thelonious. Roy Haynes is one of the masters in the pantheon; and also Frankie Dunlop.

PLR: Again, drummers don’t get to play with each other, so it’s only as a listener. With regard to Roy Haynes, I’ve always been fascinated by most particularly his left-hand technique, the very intricate and sometimes delicate things that he does on snare drum with his left hand, that I think are among the drumming marvels in jazz. The devices that he uses have a sort of military sound, which I think may be how he got his nickname “Sarge.”

Frankie Dunlap is a drummer I only heard in one context, and that was with Monk. I heard a number of other drummers with Monk, but there was something about Frankie Dunlap that has caused me to always think that he was just the ideal drummer for Monk. Monk was a little angular in his compositions and in his playing, and Frankie was a little angular in his drumming, and they seemed to go together quite well.

TP: It seems to me that your sense of the essential of being a drummer are boiled down into one word, which begins with an “s” and ends with a “g” – swing.

PLR: Yes.

TP: Talk about what comprises swing with a drummer. There are so many ways to do it. What’s that fine line? Is it something definable?

PLR: I personally would go back to Baby Dodds. I call it today CHANK-A-DANG. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. But if you listen to his playing, that sense of TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A is there. CHANK-A-DANG is the same thing on a cymbal that has an extended sound, so it’s smoothed out a bit, as I’ve been talking about smoothing things out. To me, that’s the essence. I think that’s what Duke Ellington was talking about when he said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” We didn’t have all the other versions and varieties and extensions of swing when he said that. So to me, CHANK-A-DANG is the heart of it. And there are then many questions as to on what part of the drums it’s actually done; one’s touch in doing it. The drums being such a forceful instrument, discretion in playing drums is always significant, and being able to play, for instance, soft and still keep the drive going. All of these things are the things that really, to me, comprise swing, and that’s what swing is about.

People have done other things, and other things are interesting. They are logically sound, or they may be commercially viable, or whatever the case may be. But they are not necessarily swing. A person can say that the absence of something is a form of that thing. That may be a nice, logical argument, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But it doesn’t come down to making that other thing, or that non-thing the thing itself, in my estimation, at least not when we’re talking about swing. There’s one thing. It’s CHANK-A-DANG. It goes right up the middle, and all the trimmings that you can add to it are great. But it never changes its own identity.

TP: During your younger days you played a lot for dancers on those Latin gigs, and I’m sure that imparted a whole sense of what sort of feeling to have on the drums, though that was on timbales at the time.

PLR: Yes. And I think everything I’ve done since that time has been in an effort to stay away from music for dancers because, though it may swing…

TP: It sounds a little contradictory, on the face of it, to say that.

PLR: It may. But a drummer has a function. In addition to the aesthetics of it, and the music of it, and the expression, a drummer has the function of setting down the time. And the closer you get to dancers, the more firmly you are locked into that function and the less you do anything else, to today where most of today’s popular dance music also derived from jazz is based on the hand-clap, or, as a drummer would call it, the backbeat. Well, you don’t need a drummer to clap hands. There’s a contradiction in terms there. Basically, that’s what it comes down to. It’s swing, and I don’t think there’s that much doubt about it, though people raise many questions as to what it is.

[MUSIC: Monk-Roy Haynes-Griffin, “In Walked Bud”-1958; Monk-Rouse-Dunlap, “Rhythm-A-Ning”]

TP: [re “Bliss”]

PLR: That album began with a cover. I was given the painting, Turkish Women At the Bath, by Ingres, and asked to write some music for it. I thought it was a little outrageous, but one doesn’t say no when somebody offers you a record date. So I did, and this set of songs resulted, and “Bliss” is one of those.

[Pete LaRoca,” “Bliss” and “Basra”]

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Filed under Drummer, Pete LaRoca, WKCR

Hamiet Bluiett (1940-2018): Two WKCR Interviews — Out to Lunch in 1993; a Musician Show in 1994

Here are the transcripts of a pair of WKCR interviews that it was my honor to conduct with the master baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett in 1993 and 1994 — the 1994 encounter was a Musician Show, where Bluiett played and talked about the music that influenced him. The July 21, 1993 show was intended to publicize a club appearance by the World Saxophone Quartet, which was about to welcome James Spaulding into the mix. Bluiett was with me from noon to 1:30; Spaulding came up for the second half, the transcript of which appears in a recent post.


Hamiet Bluiett, Out To Lunch, WKCR, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: WSQ, “Masai Warriors Dance” (by Bluiett), Metamorphosis, 1993]

TP: I’m pleased to welcome to WKCR the great baritone saxophonist, Hamiet Bluiett, who also plays various clarinets and other woodwinds, who is appearing with the World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums this week at Sweet Basil. Welcome.

HB: Ok, thank you.

TP: Three members of the World Saxophone Quartet have been working together now for 17 years. After Julius Hemphill left, Arthur Blythe held that chair for a few years; it’s now held by James Spaulding, who will join us later on. How does the presence of a new member affect what the band does, and the approach. How do you work someone in? And how was he chosen?

HB: So far, the band has been very fortunate in that…by having Julius… Then, when it was time for Julius to leave, we were able to get Arthur. Then Spaulding. Each one was a person that we had in mind for doing the particular chair. Because Arthur brought in a needed ingredient that was needed at the time, and James brings in another needed ingredient that’s needed at this time. The basis and the nucleus of it, we have it. So we’ve used quite a few people, and we have some more people in mind who we’re going to get to. In terms of the group now, Sam Rivers, Branford marsalis, John Stubblefield, John Purcell, Kidd Jordan, and I’m missing somebody… Julius, Spaulding, Arthur, and there’s two other saxophone players that I’m missing who have been… Henry Threadgill and Sam Rivers. These are people who at one time or another within our 17 year existence — besides myself, David Murray, and Oliver Lake — have appeared with the group in one kind of way or other. John Purcell is the only one who has covered everyone’s chair, including mine. He’s played all of the parts.

It’s a lot of people. But we have… Spaulding, because of the homespun blues and the other sort of ingredients, and the effervescence, brought another kind of thing, which is good.

TP: He also has a broad range on the flute, which I think fits in very well with African percussion and African melodies.

HB: It’s all of that. Everything. The whole bean. We don’t try to replace a person. We learned that from Duke. The music has to fit around whoever it is that you’re dealing with. So we’re constantly doing new things. At the club now, instead of having Mor Thiam and Mar Gue, with Chief Bey, we have Chief Bey, Okeryema Asante from Ghana, and Kahil el-Zabar from Chicago. So the configuration with the African drums now is something totally different from what it was before, but like I said, we don’t try to get another Mor Thiam because that won’t happen no way. It’s that singular.

TP: You’ve been associated with Okeryema Asante in a number of situations over the years, particularly on your most recent release on Tutu Records, If You Have To Ask – and isn’t he on your old Chiaroscuro recording?

HB: No, he’s not on that. Chief Bey has been with me all the time. He’s on Nali Kola with me. But on the Chiaroscuro, it’s Chief Bey, Ladji Kamara and Michael Carvin. That’s a little bit different setup.

TP: What was the impetus for World Saxophone Quartet to start bringing drums and the African drum ensemble into its orbit? You were solely a saxophone quartet for many years.

HB: Well, after Julius, who was basically a composer, then it was time for us to do something else. I had really grown tired of just a saxophone quartet configuration. Because… You can just reinvent some kind of way. For me, after so many years, it was time to do something else, and African drum was a good way to still bring out the saxophones, and in my mind, moving ahead to the next level of rhythm section, if you want to call it that. So we decided to go forward or go backwards, both at the same time.

TP: And the group does do both at the same time. There are numbers on which the four saxophones play together in ensemble or different solos, and pieces on which the rhythm comes in. Everyone in the WSQ has their own thriving solo career, and everyone is internationally known as a leader. How often does the group work in a given year?

HB: Well, it constantly changes every year. So far this year, we’ve gone on a European tour that last 28 days. We played in Atlanta, Georgia, with the drums. We’ve hit in Boston. We’re on our way to do a record date in Milano at the first of September with Spaulding. I can’t think of everything. It’s not a whole lot, but it does wind up being enough. After being together for so many years, being creative, you have to do a lot of other things just to come up with some different ideas. We have an LP in the can coming out now that will feature Fontella Bass and some totally different kind of stuff.

So the group is growing in other ways. The quartet is not just a quartet. The quartet is a whole…how can I put it…lifestyle, identity, base, umbrella. You understand? We’re planning to get to some things where we use piano, maybe piano…not necessarily piano choirs, but different configurations to go along with us to show the saxophone in a sort of different light as the nucleus of music, as opposed to being somebody else as the base.

TP: The members of the WSQ are all based in the New York area, but everybody is originally from the Midwest or the West Coast. Is there any way in which where you’re from affects the type of music that you play or the musical approach you’re talking about?

HB: Of course. Let me put it one kind of way. You’ve got the Mississippi River joining up with the Missouri River, and everybody that’s in the path of the river is going through that kind of trouble. People that live in Colorado are not bothered with that, or if you live in upstate New York. So the land that you’re in has a lot to do… For instance, me, I have a certain sort of accent when I talk that is Midwestern as opposed to Southern. So there’s a regional dialect that goes along with what you do. In the Midwest, the music a lot wilder, but not necessarily free, because there’s a lot of wide-open spaces. Whereas here, in New York, in the city, things are much more… Like, you’ve got [(?)208th Street(?)]. [(?)208th Street(?)] for me is a cornfield. If you take the same distance and go somewhere from my house, you… I’m in the middle of wide-open spaces. So the way of looking at a lot of things because of that… I’m trying to take everything to be verbal, and experience…

David Murray is from California. People are a lot cooler, a lot more laid-back. There’s a whole lot of other stuff. Now they’re going through some other kind of things, but… And plus, from Texas. Oliver is from St. Louis, from Mississippi. Stuff like that.

I know for me, I’m heavily blues-based. Spaulding is from Indianapolis, Naptown, heavy blues-based — so it’s a different kind of thing. As opposed to being East Coast. But then again, you’re all in one piece of land, so it’s all similar, too.

TP: Did you come up playing a lot of those type of blues gigs as a young musician?

HB: No.

TP: What were you doing as a young musician?

HB: Trying to learn how to play music.

TP: What instrument did you start on, and about how old were you?

HB: I started on piano when I was about 4, and learned how to basically read music and what I was looking at. I’m still being basic now. When the hands started going two different ways, I said, “No, this is not the instrument for me.” I tried to do trumpet. That didn’t happen. Then finally I wound up on clarinet in maybe about the fourth grade or something like that. I’ve been playing it ever since. But I wanted a saxophone. But the saxophone I wanted, that I saw, that made me excited, was a baritone saxophone.

TP: Why was that?

HB: I don’t know. I just looked at it and liked it.

TP: Were you big enough to play it?

HB: No. It was about my size at the time. But it was just that kind of excitement. Now, why? I don’t even care why, because I wound up with it. You understand? So that was just the instrument for me, regardless of what anybody say. So I saw it at that age. I don’t even remember the age now. I didn’t necessarily like the way the guys who played it, played it, because I thought the horn was too big to have such a small sound. I always thought the sound should be…it’s a bigger horn… I’m from marching band country, and I’m used to hearing sousaphone players hit as hard as any trumpet player on the planet, with enormous, fat…you know, fat-man sound, not no little sound — and big. And trombone players. The horns with the sounds getting bigger, according to the size of the instrument. With saxophones, the thing kind of went the other way. So I said, “There’s a problem here.” So that’s been one of the problems of trying to deal with it. Until I ran into Harry Carney. Then I said, “Oh! Ok. I was right.” But I said, “Oh, I got a lot of work.”

TP: Did you run into Harry Carney on a record or did you hear the Ellington band…

HB: I’m talking about in person.

TP: Where did you hear him? Do you remember when?

HB: 20-something. 25, maybe something like that. It was outside of Boston. I was in the Navy at the time, stationed in Boston at South Annex. So we’re talking about maybe 1965, 1964. I had heard the band before that. But what I mean by heard the band… I have a way of talking where words mean whatever I want them to mean. But what I meant, I HEARD the band, meaning it really got to me, I was in a club, and I was about as far from him as I am from here to you. For those who don’t know, we’re talking about 5 or 6 feet. But then the band was angled in another way, but I was right up on top of him. I was the first person that you got to. The band hit. And I sat there, petrified. It was a music thing, though, because I loved it, but I said “Whoa!” because it put so much distance in between what was going on and what wasn’t going on, that I said, “Whoa!” I said, “Damn, Duke’s got two bands; he’s got a big band and Harry Carney.” That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like his band and Harry Carney, who sounded like a whole band by himself. Everybody in the band had these tremendous sounds, but he was like…

Then I said, “Whoa, it’s the horn.” I mean, it’s him, but… So I started really thinking about the instrument. Instead of wondering, then I knew. So I said, “Ok, let me get to work on coming from another perspective. It’s a completely different instrument. Most people play it like it’s a tenor. They’re still running over it. And it can run, but it also goes through stuff. So it’s an altogether different instrument.

TP: When you got out Navy, is that when you started on music as your profession, your avocation?

HB: Chronologically, it was like ’66, January. I was supposed to come out four years earlier, but I got extended for the Vietnam draft. So instead of me coming out in September, everybody after a certain date had to… Which was cool, because I bought a car and the same instrument I’ve got now. Things were real cheap. I was a musician in Service. Actually, that’s why I went. Because I got tired of not playing.

TP: A fair number of musicians did that.

HB: Yeah, some of them. You had to volunteer to be in the Navy anyway, and I didn’t want to get drafted. Because that was coming at the time. It was one of those times when to keep from going into the draft, you could go your own way – but you still had to do some kind of service. And I was not in school or anything. So I said, well, rather than be in the foxhole… So I took an audition, and they said I was good enough to be in the band. As long as you get through basic service, then you’re a musician. So I was already set up to go that way, so I made it on through. Which worked out real good, since I had to do some kind of service at the time.

TP: What other music were you listening to at the time you were entering the service and coming out of it that was pleasing to your ear and that you wanted to be getting with?

HB: Well, I always was listening to what you call jazz. So if we’re talking about that time in the 60s, I was listening to John Coltrane and a lot of other people — at that particular time. I remember listening to a lot of those things when he was heavily criticized, and Miles was criticized for having him, and a lot of people that jump up and down now, praising his name, talked about him like a dog. I always heard something in his playing that satisfied me. Not necessarily technically, because I’m not into that sort of mindset. Something has to satisfy me inside of my body some kind of way. I heard Miles say that. It’s really kind of true.

TP: You’re both from the same part of the country.

HB: Yeah, we’re from the same part of the world. So we’ve got another kind of way of feeling it. My way of looking at music is sort of like spiritual decadence. It’s spiritual, but I can’t get away from whatever is going on. So they both seem to coexist without me being in control, since I don’t run the world, no way.

TP: But maybe you do run the baritone saxophone. Let’s hear a few examples from recent recordings by Hamiet Bluiett, and then we’ll be back for further conversation.

HB: This is called “Children At Play.” I wrote it for Mama Geri at a child development center at City College. My grand-daughter was going to this child development center, which you would call like a daycare…what they call them. But the concept was Afrocentric, and it was children from everywhere, but the sort of freedom that they had in being able to do what they did always inspired me. Because I watched the way they would play, and they don’t play military, like everybody got to step. They go! It all works out! Everybody is GO! But they weren’t destructive. They just took off and did what they had to do. So I looked at it a lot, and I said, “let me write a tune,” and I wrote a little tune for it.

TP: This features Fred Hopkins on bass and Michael Carvin on drums, with percussionist Okeryema Asante, who is appearing with WSQ this week. The CD is You Don’t Need To Know If You Have To Ask, and it’s on Tutu.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Children at Play”; “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”-You don’t Need To Know…]

TP: I think when the general public first became aware of Hamiet Bluiett was via stints with Charles Mingus during the early 1970s. Where did Mingus hear you? What circumstances led you to Mingus?

HB: It was between Paul Jeffreys and Roy Brooks. Because Mingus’ love of Ellington… He had a big band at the time, and he needed a baritone saxophonist. He was having a problem finding anybody with a sound, and he was starting to even write some tunes. So fortunately, I had been playing with Sam Rivers, Olatunji and some other people… I got here in 1969. I hooked up with Mingus I think in 1972. By then, most of the musicians knew me and I knew most of them.

So I started in with the big band. Jon Faddis was in it; he was real young. A lot of guys. Real good band. Then later on, I came back and played with him… I might have been in the big band in 1971, but I came and started really working with him in 1972. That’s what it was. Yeah, something like that.

Mingus was like, for me… At the time I came in with Mingus, he was always being talked about real bad, being crazy and all that other stuff. So I had to go through all that, which was a problem, because it’s hard to work with somebody when everybody else has a paranoia or fear about him. Even though you may not feel that way, after you get through fighting it for a while, then it succumbs to you. I’ve seen people walk to him and do some horrible things, like put their finger in his mouth. Just a whole bunch of crazy, stupid type stuff. He would tell musicians things that he wanted to do, and they wouldn’t understand what he was saying. I think because they didn’t want to hear it. To me, he was ahead of where the cats were talking about. But whatever kind of problems he had with them before I got there, I can’t even speak about. You know what I mean?

And I had been sort of weaned on Mingus’ music, because my cousin turned me on to him years ago, and I went to “Better Get It In Your Soul” and a whole lot of stuff. I listened to his tone poems. I was one of them kind of musicians, coming up as a kid, that went to the music store and would browse and get all the stuff they was about to throw away and give away and whatever, and take them home and play it — and I found a lot of interesting music that way. Mingus’ music, as far as I’m concerned…or his direction of music… More guys are writing off of it now by opening things up, and things of that nature, the way he dealt with the paper and all that kind of stuff, than probably any musician. Which is why, after he’s dead, he’s getting all these accolades. Because that’s really true. A lot of cats are off of Miles, and everybody has their regimen. But Mingus has a whole lot, especially in the avant-garde type feeling things of this nature, and people who do a multi-media and all those kinds of things. Mingus’ music is extremely powerful as a progenitor, and one of the people who set up that whole idiom.

Now, therefore, saying all that, that means you’re working with somebody who got a lot of problems because they’re trying to do things that people don’t know what you’re trying to tell them and they can’t hear it no way. And you kind of hear, though, what they’re talking about, where he would take 2 or 3 melodies and play it at the same time. He would take two tunes and play them at the same time. So now, when we decide to run one line against another line, it makes much more sense because he’s already done that. A lot of people have. But it’s just the timing of it.

So it was like a blessing, in a way, and a curse. Because I needed someone to helpme get out and be known other than someone playing… See, with the baritone sax it’s an enormous problem, because all people want you to do is be in a supporting role – like the grandfather. “Go get your old Chevrolet and I’ll have a sports car.” Stuff like that. Or “Oh, Daddy, go back home; you don’t need to be out now.” So the baritone saxophone sort of is relegated to that role. It’s not a Billy Dee Williams, if you want to put a type of instrument… The women are looking for something different. Everybody’s listening for something different. So I beg to differ with all that. I know better. So the horn needed to be put out, and I wanted it put out in another way, and I didn’t see any sense in trying to go over the past music. It’s already been done.

The thing that I learned about… I’ve put all the musicians together at one time that I felt greatly, which was a lot of them! And one thing I’ve come out with is that they all did what they want to do and they all were original. So I said, “I need to do what I want to do, and be original.” So I want to emulate them, instead of imitating their notes and trying to steal their styles. I took it in that direction.

TP: a lot of musicians with that type of mindset were coming to New York in the mid 1970s, and you hooked up with three of them, and it became the World Saxophone Quartet. Can you tell me a bit about…

HB: How that got started?

TP: How that got started, and your early encounters with Oliver Lake, David Murray…

HB: Well, see, I knew Oliver Lake from St. Louis. I also knew Julius Hemphill. Because we started a group called the Black Artists Group. At the time period when I came out of the Service, everybody was playing piano, basses and drums and organs and all this. Being a baritone, again, I wanted to play every day. So we got hooked up in St. Louis, and this is going into… After I came out of the Service in 1966. So from 1966 into 1969, I’m talking about two-and-a-half years. I said, “I want to play.” So we got hooked up with this organization, and we started playing every day, regardless to who showed up. So that means you might not have nobody but one saxophone, two saxophones, three people, four people, and most of them were like instruments and drums. Bobo was part of it and all that. We did that a lot. Then if the drummer didn’t show up, we started playing by ourself.

This brought about another kind of music. I didn’t have a bass to adhere to, nor did I have a piano. Mingus and the cats…Gerry Mulligan and all them, had already broke the group down (Max and everybody) to drums and bass. We stripped away the bass, and just had drums alone. People would do this… Max had done his solos with Clifford Brown. But it’s not for an album. It’s just for part of a texture. We’re talking about this is the whole unit. So now we’ve got a different kind of configuration. We started doing that, and I found out that for the way I was hearing, I heard more. Because something of the old fashion of playing with a piano…I had never been… I can do it but it’s not my expertise. I don’t call it that way. That’s not where I really thrive. Then, if the drummer didn’t show up, we would play anyway. So we worked up… It’s a different kind of thing. Some people try to act like it isn’t. But it is. It’s totally different. Every situation has a different…it opens up to different mysteries and different beauties.

Then, later, when I came to New York… I was the first one out of the bunch to come. I came in 1969. The Art Ensemble went to France earlier, and I said “later – let me go to New York.” I said, “If I go to Europe, I’ve got to come back anyway. If I go to Chicago, I’ve got to go to New York.” So I kept looking at the equation. I still had to come back Dexter came back. Everybody comes back. I said, “Let me just go to New York.” So that’s what I did. I talked to Oliver Nelson. I asked him. He said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Wait a minute. Before you answer. If you want to make money, get all your doubles and triples, bassoon, oboe, all the saxophones, all the flutes, all the clarinets, get all your horns together and go to California.” I said, “I want to play.” He said, “Ok, go to New York.” That was basically it. I went here.

TP: You knew Oliver Nelson also from St. Louis?

HB: Yes, he was from St. Louis also. So I asked him for some advice on what to do, to give me some sort of perspective. He gave me a perspective of what was happening on the two coasts. New York is about playing. I said, “Ok, good.” It’s more like a creative mecca. It really is.

TP: What was your impression of the scene when you got here?

HB: It was horrible, I felt. It had highs and lows. Uptown, the Club Barron was still here, going down bad. Count Basie’s, going down. Minton’s, going down. They were still in existence, but just a shadow of their grandeur, you understand, if you take it back to the players. I had come to New York to visit in the 60s, and just a shadow of THAT. Yeah, it was kind of bad, man.

Downtown, the only thing…. The Five Spot was going down. The Vanguard made it on through everything. Boomer’s was up and down. The scene was bad. Dexter and all the cats were going to Europe, Johnny Griffin, everybody. So I came in on a downward arc…

TP: But during this time, new musicians were coming, revitalizing the scene, finding new places to play.

HB: They were coming all along. But the thing about it, we started to come in and do some music in a different kind of way at the same time. Because there was this big split here between the so-called “straight-ahead” and the so-called “avant-garde.” It was real out at the time I got here. Which actually made it better, because it was wide-open spaces. I told you — 203rd Street for me is a cornfield. It was wide-open, so it made it much better for us.

After I played with Mingus and got out of the band, I sat around for a year and didn’t do nothin’. Then I said, “No, I want to start playing every day again.” Some of the cats were coming around, like Bobo and all of them; I think the Art Ensemble had come back from Europe. So we’re getting to about 1975 now. They worked at the Five Spot, which had revived itself and was on the Lower East Side. I said, “Ok, it’s time to go back.” That blended in to David Murray coming to town. Then the so-called “Loft scene,” which they gave a name to, hit. Because we were playing in lofts a lot, and that built a whole nother venue.

Now, the beauty, to me, of that music was it was a… I used to call it like trench warfare or front-line. Sometimes we would have rehearsals and concerts on the same day. Henry Threadgill, a lot of cats would do some massive and sometimes very intricate stuff right on the spot, and have to do it one time and one time only. That to me was very thrilling and very exciting. So people started coming from out of nowhere and everywhere to see this creativity happening in front of their face, because it’s very exciting. It’s very exciting when you see music go down like that. You’re watching it and it’s going down as you’re watching. You know it’s only for you, and that’s your flower. You can take it with you forever, because it won’t happen no more.

So this was going on a lot. Rashied Ali had his place, which I think now is what, Greene Street?

TP: 77 Greene Street.

HB: There was a lot of activity. Sam Rivers opened up a place, Joe Lee Wilson, the Tin Palace. So the whole scene was being revived…

TP: And it was all within 6-10 blocks of each other.

HB: George Coleman was coming out, finally getting a chance to get some work and get his recognition. So things were happening from a lot of different directions at one time. Eddie Jefferson was around a lot. There was a lot of stuff. Of course, Art Blakey and people like that never quit. They kept coming right on through.

TP: So within this ferment of activity, how does this lead to the saxophone quartet idea.

HB: Ok. During that time when these loft things were jumping off, Julius was here, I was here, Oliver was here, and David Murray. Ed Kidd Jordan came up from New Orleans on a sabbatical because he wanted to hit! He came in the middle of it, the summer of 1976, and it was the bicentennial summer. We were hittin’! We were going all the way through the summer, all the way through August. August had been a down month with nothing happening in the music. So now, quite naturally… You have all these festivals now; that’s totally changed.


…which the Dirty Dozen came out of. After they heard us, they formed their group. They wanted to do something different in the music. So they wanted for him to either come and get Sun Ra or Ornette. Luckiiy for us, neither one of them was formulated. So after coming and playing with us, he said, “Why don’t the four of you guys come down to New Orleans and hit with me?” So we went down, and we started this group that we called the New York Saxophone Quartet and played with a rhythm section. The place was packed, including Wynton and Branford, Donald Harrison, all these guys was like little kids. All of them were there, and old people up to 80 years. Mainly a 90% black audience, but with a lot of children, babies, old people all at one time. We started playing, and the kids started running through the audience like a wagon train. You know how they circle? So they had an aisle on both sides, and in the front and in the back, and the kids just started running. It was the coolest thing ever, because none of the parents acted like a fool and told them to stop. And none of the kids got hurt. And they ran and ran, and the people just sat there and dug the concert, liked what was happening, let us know that it was really going on, and the kids were energized, which is the way that they do — music makes them run.

So I said, “Whoa, look at this.” I went away and I said, “Look, we got something like this; we ought to keep this together.” I really can’t take credit for putting it together. But it was born that way.

TP: You have to grab the idea when it comes to you.

HB: Well, it worked so well, and we had been doing it anyway. So then we went and played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s on the same weekend, still in New Orleans. The first concert we did was with a bass and a drum — London Branch on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums. Then we went and played in a club. Then we got to New York, and someone approached us about playing in the Tin Palace, and so we did that. We called ourselves by this time the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, because we heard about a group… We didn’t even know there was a New York Saxophone Quartet, to be truthful. So we changed it to… Wait, the letter for that came later, after the writeup when we played at the Tin Palace. But the reaction to that was still real good. So we’re seeing how these people are frozen in their seat, and watching and looking and liking what we do. We never tried to get a job; all the jobs kept coming to us.

Then we were at Oliver Lake’s house one day, doing something. We were rehearsing, getting ready to go to the Tin Palace, and they called from Moers, Germany. Some group decided not to show up, and they needed a group. We were in the house rehearsing. They say, “Yo, what about the World Saxophone Quartet?” They say, “Ok, good, we’ll take them.” So we worked for them and we did a slight tour. It just kept growing and growing and growing. The four of us got together. It’s almost as if the spirits are saying “Stay together.” So it kind of worked like that.

TP: We’ll hear some of Bluiett’s music from another very recent release, recorded last October on Soul Note, titled Sankofa, Rear Guard, which I’ll bet refers to your remarks about the position of the baritone player in the band.

HB: Yes, it’s got something to do with it. It’s got to do with a lot of things, really. The avant-garde is the one that’s supposed to be in front, and my position is like to be actually behind, so as to push everything. Also sankofa is a way of looking back. So I am constantly going ahead, but I am also now collecting from what I’ve done. So I want to enjoy some of the things I’ve done as opposed to run away and not keep them. That means melodies in music, harmonies, time… There’s a lot of things I’m talking about anything.

TP: Ted Dunbar is on guitar, Clint Houston on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Why this particular group; how did it hook up?

HB: I wanted to play with a guitar for a while, and I wanted a guitar player that was very knowledgeable and steeped in the blues — and Ted’s from Texas, so that’s no problem. Whenever you just quit thinking, he’s already into the blues. Clint Houston is a virtuoso on bass. So he and Ted can chase each other with these chord changes and things. Ben Riley because Ben never ceases to swing. That’s the thing, and the music should do that. Right? So it was time for me to get a rhythm section that when I say “let’s go,” they go. So it was that kind of idea. Then that’s the kind of support that I thought the instrument needed, because all these guys are such great musicians that they would be able to do whatever needs to be done. You get a lot when you get people of that caliber.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Nuttin’ Special”;
[MUSIC: WSQ, “The Holy Men” by Bluiett, from Metamorphosis; James Spaulding, “Song of Courage”]


Hamiet Bluiett, Musician Show, WKCR, Feb. 9, 1994:

[WSQ: “Nuttin’ Special”-1992, Sankofa: Rear Guard]

TP: What were your thoughts in organizing the music we’ll hear this evening.

HB: Let’s go back to the beginning. You talked to me some months ago about doing this show, and I think I spoke about, “What about baritone saxophone?” Then in the last couple of weeks,we’ve narrowed it down to about 100…

TP: We have about a 48-hour show. We can hole up with potato chips and coffee.

HB: [LAUGHS[ Yes, we have a 48-hour show. Hopefully tonight, what will happen is, you’ll get a chance to see the baritone saxophone from my perspective, with Harry Carney being the boss of the horn for me – chronologically as well as everything. But not everything. Then these other people, some that are main influences. During the time, when I was coming up trying to listen to the baritone sax, there was not much available. So I had to hunt. You could find a lot of tenor, trumpet, things of that nature.

TP: What sort of things were you listening to then anyway?

HB: Anything I could get my hands hold of. There was a lot of stuff with Gerry Mulligan during that time period for me, because of Columbia records, and I was living in the Midwest, in a small town outside of St. Louis, Missouri. So I’d have to go look for Gene Ammons or other… I mean, they could be found; I’m not saying that. But not as readily as I could do the Columbia Record Club or whatever.

TP: How about the jukeboxes?

HB: The jukeboxes were nice. They had things… “Tempus Fugit” was on the jukebox. Miles on that Cannonball recording, Something Else — that whole thing was on the jukebox. A lot of things with Gene Ammons, with Nat Adderley and people like that. Eddie Harris had a hit…

TP: “Exodus”?

HB: Right. Or something like that… “Exodus,” right, he had a hit with that – you’re right. Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” and Bobby Timmons’ songs. A lot of those things were jukebox hits. So I had a chance to hear a lot of music, now that I’m thinking about it.

TP: There were a lot of instrumentals in Rhythm-and-Blues at the time a specific saxophone sound.

HB: That’s true. There’s always been specific sounds to certain eras; whatever is most prominent, everybody jumps on it, shows them where they’ve got to go.

TP: When you started playing, what sort of gigs were you doing? Who were some of the first people you aligned yourself with, or the type of music you started playing?

HB: When I first tried to play in terms of being on a bandstand or whatever, I was playing what you would call rhythm-and-blues, and doing a horrible job at it on the clarinet, and was glad that the people didn’t shoot me within the 9 months or so when I was working on this instrument. So I started out playing rhythm and blues on clarinet, believe it or not, and playing with what we called hillbilly bands at the time, or different, when I went to the baritone… So it was on one end of the block, which was about a half-a-mile block – that was just a rhythm-and-blues band. On the other end was this hillbilly band. I played with both of them, with the baritone sax, which I wanted to play since I was 10 years old.

TP: What made you want to play it?

HB: I just looked at the horn and liked it. It was as simple as that.

TP: Because of the heft of it?

HB: Everything. I just looked at one and that was it. No other horn affected me like that. I left the trumpet and all that stuff, and got kind of excited. But when I saw a baritone, I almost went, you know, OUT. I said, “Whoa!” It put an indelible impression. I never forgot the instrument. It was years later before I saw another or become close to it, other than seeing one from a distance, in the movies or something.

TP: When did you seriously begin to start playing jazz, improvising? In your teens, a local situation, or after you’d moved on to other things?

HB: Well, it’s kind of what you call, what you call… I’ve been trying to do improvising all along. But I guess maybe by the time I was 18, 17 – sort of late on the track, if you look at it in terms of how things can be done now. But it was hard for me to get any of that kind of knowledge, or even be steered in that direction. So it took me a while trying to do things the so-called correct way, but fighting these internal feelings while doing it.

TP: How so? What were you fighting?

HB: I could play things, but emotionally I would be off. Something’s supposed to be cool, and here I am getting ready to jump and run. So emotionally, I’m in the wrong spot. I’ll give you an example. I took an exam to get…it’s like an audition to get a scholarship on clarinet. I played some classical composition, I don’t remember right now. Anyway, when I played it, I got all carried away and I felt real good, and I was just, you know what I mean, BURNING, I thought. When I got through the guy said, “That was sort of rambunctious of you.” So I had gone the wrong direction in terms of the whole temperament of the music. I said, “Wait a minute – but I felt it; so therefore, if I felt it, I’m not going to let it be wrong.” But I was wrong. So I said: “Wait a minute; that’s the end of that.”

So it taught me a lesson in terms of… I had the wrong temperament. So I waited all those years to try… Even trying to play jazz, it’s the same sort of problem – for me – to be put in the same sort of structure. The horn doesn’t let me do that. It doesn’t let me flow the same as a violin or a piano. I’ve got more sonic blast and going through stuff… It’s a different picture, you understand, in my head or how I see the instrument or feel it coming through my body. So… For a long time. Let’s put it that way.

TP: You stated that Harry Carney is the king of the baritone sax for you, and it begins really, in a lot of ways, with Harry Carney. When did you discover him, and when did you first hear him (a) on record and (b) in the flesh?

HB: Well, I’d been hearing him all my life. My mother was a Duke Ellington fan, a big fan, and my father was a Count Basie big fan. So all my life I’ve been hearing all this music. It’s not a thing… I don’t even remember. I can sort of remember a first time for Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and some other people, but for him I really don’t. Because chronologically the age…like Louis Armstrong, I don’t remember not…

TP: Not hearing him. Part 2: You’ve mentioned there’s a big difference between listening to recorded music and hearing music in person. You said it was so striking, you even stopped listening to records for a long time.

HB: Well, music has a thing where it does something to the wavelengths of even what’s in the air, the room you’re in. So a lot of stuff is changed up. So it’s another kind of feeling. It can be eerie, you can like it, not like it – but it puts a whole nother thing on you. I found that to be missing. Also what I found to be missing… Maybe that’s it. The feeling of the person to really be missing in what I was listening for at the time. I found that the volumes would be… Some guys will have a large tone; the record made them seem smaller. Etcetera. Or singers or whoever.

TP: I believe you also mentioned hearing the Ellington band in the flesh and the impression that it made on you.

HB: Oh yeah. When I heard it in the flesh, then that was a different matter. I’d heard it before, but it was from a distance. This time I was in a small club outside of…in the Cape area, outside of Boston. I was sitting as far from Harry Carney like from me to you, so we’re talking 4-5 feet, 6 at the moment, but on the side of the band. Duke was on the other side of the band. So it was Duke on one side, Harry on the other, and everybody else was in the middle. The band sounded like two bands – it was a big band and Harry Carney. His sound was equal to the sound of the whole band, including the drums, Duke and everybody else. That froze me in place. In one way it was terrifying, but not as a musician. I don’t mean the term like the icepick murder is coming after you. I mean, it’s like WHOA – overwhelming. Maybe that was the word. Everybody had been soloing all night. Paul Gonsalves and the rest of the people. The band was superlative. I mean, it was BAD. So I’m sitting there, and the guys are playing their instruments, and this guy came out toward the end of the night, took a solo, played ONE NOTE – the whole place stopped. Nobody moved. The waiter. Everybody. BRRMMM… He went down, hit that bottom note, pop, and held that, and that was the end of it. Everybody started back to doing what they were doing. That was very impressive to me. Not only was it the note, it was just that it froze everybody.

I had that same experience happen, and they were all with Duke Ellington people. The next time it happened was with Jimmy Hamilton… No, the third time. The next time was Cat Anderson. Cat Anderson playing with Mingus. We did a tour in Europe. It was Mingus with Joe Gardner playing trumpet, I was on baritone, Roy Brooks on drums, and John Foster on piano. Cat Anderson. He did it. He played a note that was so soft and you could still hear it. It froze the place.

Jimmy Hamilton. We were in the Northsea, on a rooftop, playing with the Clarinet Summit and John Carter, and I was taking David Murray’s place on bass clarinet. He took a solo and did the same thing. Now, here’s people doing three different things, but both of them where everybody stopped at one time. Nobody moved. No waiters or nothing. And when they stopped playing and ended the solo, we were back to reality.

TP: One quality about Harry Carney that I think is applicable to your work is his role in the Ellington saxophone section in terms of defining the sound of the section. You’ve of course been the anchor of the World Saxophone Quartet since its inception almost 20 years ago. The first selection showcases the Ellington sax section. It comes from a 1946 recording on Musicraft. The saxophone-woodwinds section is Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope. Johnny Hodges, Al Sears and Harry Carney. This one is “Jam-a-Ditty”.

[MUSIC: Ellington-“Jam-A-Ditty”-1946; Ellington, “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Ellington, “Work Song”-1944, Carnegie Hall]

TP: Harry Carney was featured towards the beginning of “Work Song,” but that really was a showcase for the trombone of Joe Nanton.

HB: I know, but it still shows an important function of how the instrument was used, and I wanted that to be highlighted as well. Harry Carney did more section work than he did soloing. That’s the other thing about up to when it came in to see how well the horn was incorporated in the harmonies. Because a lot of times, to me, it seems as if it was more melody than harmony in terms of the placement of the parts.

TP: He also played a fair amount of bass clarinet and also clarinet in the Ellington band.

HB: But the reason I’m focusing on baritone is because he seemed… I think maybe he started playing in 1919, so he’s one of the first people to even play it consistently. So that automatically gave him first place, for doing it longer than anybody. It kind of set the definitive tone of that particular idiom of dealing with the instrument – because they’re all idioms of their own.

TP: In the middle was one of probably thousands of versions of “Sophisticated Lady” featuring Harry Carney, one night in Carrolltown, PA., in June 1957. He showcased his circular breathing technique in particular.

The next baritone player in the pantheon is Basie’s baritonist of the 30s, Jack Washington.

HB: I didn’t learn about Jack until later, at least I was grown – 20-something. Then when I started going back and doing a lot of investigation and having to get my hands… Maybe I wasn’t quite that old. But it was somewhere in there, when I was in school or something. I got a chance to start investigating older Basie things that I’d heard but I didn’t realize who was on them. I’d heard a lot of Basie from a child, but didn’t know who was doing what at the time.

TP: What qualities make Jack Washington a special player for you?

HB: Sound. Execution. Another sort of pre-bop, if you want to call it, in terms of the years, sort of… Another way of getting around the instrument. He was just an excellent musician. It’s kind of hard for me to do the labeling, even though I did it a little bit.

TP: He recorded very few solos on Basie’s commercial recordings, but a number of airchecks feature his very strong soloing, and we’ll hear two such from 1938 — “Yeah, Man” from the Fletcher Henderson book, from Oct. 1938, with first solo by JackWashington, followed by Buck Clayton and Lester Young; then “Indiana” from September 1938, with solo order of Buck Clayton, Jack Washington, Dickie Wells, Basie, and Lester Young plays a clarinet solo.

[MUSIC: Basie, “Yeah, Man”-Oct. 1938; “Indiana”-Sept. 1938]

TP: We’ll now hear music by Gerry Mulligan.

HB: Like I told you, I heard a lot of Mulligan. It was easier for me to get. I heard Harry Carney, Charlie Fowlkes, and now we’ll get to Mulligan. Then Pepper Adams, who was on a lot of things by Gene Ammons and a lot of things that were available to me.


HB: …I liked it. I had a very strong attraction. I didn’t start playing it until I was about 19. And I never heard anyone play it that I liked until I got to Harry Carney. It was something about the sound that never satisfied me. Because I come from drum-and-bugle corps country, where trumpets had big sounds, trombones had bigger sounds, and sousaphones had bigger sounds than that. So it didn’t make sense to me why this biggest saxophone had a smaller sound than the smaller ones. I couldn’t understand it. It was kind of weird. And everybody I heard until Harry Carney sort of was like that. If it wasn’t real small, they were playing it like a tenor, so the sound was trimmed down to be more sleek. That’s just the particular instrument that I heard doing everything that I needed to hear it do. I hear more than just saxophone in terms of playing. I also think graphically and a lot of other stuff. Like the kind of sounds you get in electronics and whale noises and all that. I hear all those kind of things, and I see those possibilities in the instrument.

I’ve taken a little bit from everybody. The thing I noticed about Mulligan is that he plays the baritone saxophone very akin to the way Lester Young played tenor. It’s in that sort of vein. That’s still playing the baritone like a tenor.

TP: How is that so? As opposed to playing it with emphasis on the properties of the baritone?

HB: Well, who are you imitating? If you’re imitating Lester Young, who played tenor, then you’re playing the horn like a tenor, whether you’re playing trumpet or whatever it is. Because he got another thing out of the instrument. It’s sort of that approach, but it’s a different instrument. It’s like once-removed from there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because that within itself is great. You’ve got to be a genius to be able to do that. I don’t hear it that way. So that always kind of disturbed me. It took me up until maybe a few years ago to realize what it was that I personally didn’t care for, to be able to put a name to it and say this is basically what it is. And the way that the instrument is treated most of the time being a support. Maybe the closest thing we can get to would be a Clydesdale.

TP: Although these days, I have to say, there are some people that size who can move.

HB: I’m talking about even a way of movement. See, that’s what I mean. You have to move like a big person as opposed to try to be a big person moving like a small one. There is a difference. You can just see people. One comes along who is 6’5″ or whatever and big, as opposed to somebody walking down the street who’s 5’0″. They move totally different. They don’t move the same way. That just doesn’t work. So I’ll see the instruments that way, too. I don’t try to move like a tenor. That’s very rapid.

TP: How about when you play clarinet? How do you try to move then?

HB: That’s why I don’t play clarinet no more! I had to quit playing clarinet unless I play the low instruments. I found out… It took me a long time to find out that what was happening with me was my concept of pitch was lowering. So I really hear bass clef. I’m talking about personal notes that are inside of me, come from the bass clef and go up. But they have to be there. So when I was playing instruments that didn’t give me that, I had problems with it.

TP: The Gerry Mulligan session comes from a pianoless session from 1957, with Mulligan and Paul Desmond on the front line, with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Dave Bailey.

[MUSIC: Mulligan-Desmond, “Line For Lyons”-1957; Mulligan-Bob Brookmeyer, “That Old Feeling”-1956 (Crow-Bailey)]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Diane” – Sankofa-Rear Guard]

TP: A few words about your experiences with Mingus.

HB: I first joined the big band in 1972. He’d always been looking for a baritone player with a sound, so I was able to fill that void for him. It was an incredible experience, because there was no other vehicle for me to be like that anyway. No one else was using the horn. If they were using it, they were using it only in big ensembles. So I started out with the big band, then worked down to the sextet, then wound up with a quintet. I was in and out a couple of times.

TP: How did he find out about you?

HB: I’m not sure if it was Paul Jeffrey or Roy Brooks. At the time I was playing with Roy Brooks’ Artistic Truth as well as dealing with Paul Jeffrey, and both of them were with Mingus. I’m not sure which one. Plus I was playing with Sam Rivers’ Big Band, so along with me came Bob Stewart, Joe Gardner…that I can remember. And some more people. We’ve all… There wasn’t that much to do doing that time period, basically. There was a lot happening, but not many things; just a lot going on among a few.

TP: Did Mingus express strong preferences in how he wanted his solos shaped?

HB: no, the only thing he ever said to anybody was “The solo belongs to you, but the melody and all that stuff belongs to me.” So he wanted you to play whatever you had on the paper, exactly like he said he wanted it, and do whatever it had to be, then when it came time to solo that was your problem. The only thing he expressed maybe in the time we were together was try to get used to the New York long solos.

TP: What do you mean by “New York long solos”?

HB: Well, the horn players in New York, by the time they get to New York, by the time they get to New York, they’re not playing… They want to PLAY, really play. So guys take what I call long solos. They’re long for me. I don’t say necessarily for them. But maybe that’s the nature of the instrument I’m playing. Which makes me like beg away and do something else, and cool it for a second or something. But that’s why I just said New York long solos. You hear more of that here than any other place. It’s not bad. I’m not saying that. Except for me. It makes me put out more effort.

TP: The next baritone player is Leo Parker, who you greatly appreciate.

HB: Yeah, because Leo did some other things on the instrument. I thought he made the horn romp and really jump. He had an effervescent quality in his playing. He swung real hard, so that endeared him to me. But I didn’t really get to him until later, actually. I’d already been with Mulligan, Pepper Adams and maybe a lot of other people, whoever they are, in different bands, or Stan Kenton or Maynard Ferguson, Basie, whoever was around at the time. But it took me a while. And I was shocked when I saw this material and how good he was. But it did a lot in terms of saying, “Yeah, ok, I need all of it” – that this was part of it, too.

TP: This piece is Leo Parker in a sextet situation circa 1961 called Let me Tell You About It. Bill Swindell on tenor saxophone, John Burks, trumpet, Yusef Salim, piano, Stan Conover, bass and Purnell Rice on drums along with Leo Parker on baritone sax.

[MUSIC: Leo Parker, “Blue Leo”; “Goin’ To Minton’s”-Leo Parker-Fats Navarro, Jan. 1947]

TP: That leaping solo by Leo Parker really illustrated your remark about his making the horn jump and dance.

HB: Yeah, make it dance, that’s right. That was Pepper. We’re trying to run through this thing now. I’m basically trying to go through the people who were most influential in those formative years of listening to and being…

TP: one of the strongest and most respected baritone players from the beginning of his recorded career in the mid-1950s was Pepper Adams, who I know had a big effect on you.

HB: Oh yeah, I used to listen to Pepper over and over and over and OVER, on whatever recording I could, and I heard things that Gene Ammons had done that he was on also. So you know, he was rough company and taking care of business, so I had a lot of respect for his prowess on the instrument. Hard core.

TP: This one comes from a 1969 release on Prestige called Encounter, where Pepper Adams and Zoot Sims share the front line on baritone and tenor, with a Detroit-based rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, playing Thad Jones’ “Elusive.”

[MUSIC: Pepper Adams, “Elusive”; “I’ve Just Seen Her”-Encounter-1969]

TP: the next baritone player to step up will be Serge Chaloff.

HB: I don’t remember when I heard these, but I guess I was in my teenage years…maybe. I only got a chance to hear one record; maybe later on I heard another one. I was very impressed when I heard it. To me, he had sort of taken the so-called bop style; he played it more like an alto as opposed to a baritone, the way I heard it, because of his fleetness and the way that he ran over the instrument. Plus with a great sound from what I can remember. That was very impressive to me also at the time. I was thirsty for hearing anything. It was hard. I was going on this baritone sax search, I guess you would call it, without even calling it that at the time. By the time I heard it, he’d already passed.

[MUSIC: Serge Chaloff, “I’ve got The World On A String”-March 1956, Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones; Basie-Charlie Fowlkes, “Counterblock”-1959]

TP: You mentioned that you listened a lot to Basie recordings with Charlie Fowlkes…

HB: I also got a chance to hear the band in person to hear how crackerjack he was on precision on playing parts, and had the sort of sound to do what it did to the ensemble. This was a great lesson for me, too, because that’s the definitive big band I guess you would call it kind of playing… That’s the definitive way of doing it. That’s the reason for bringing it in, because I didn’t want to omit the people who have played this instrument so many years, whether they’ve been featured as soloists or not. Because some of them have taken support role type jobs, and this is a master of that particular discipline.

TP: It’s hard to find a solo by Charlie Fowlkes in the Basie discography. Folks who know the discography better than I do call us at the station for Charlie Fowlkes solo flights.

We’ll take you to the hour with a track featuring baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, who is also well known for his tenor playing and alto playing, out of Chicago, who played with Sun Ra and did some two-baritone features with Pat Patrick on some of mid-50s recordings. Bluiett’s choice is from a Kenny Dorham recording for Time from 1960 with Steve Kuhn, Jimmy Garrison and Buddy Enlow.

HB: Charles I know personally. I met him after I moved to New York, and had only heard a few things up until that time. But when I talked to him, he spoke highly and most favorably of Leo Parker. That seemed to be his biggest influence, I guess, from being around New York and seeing him play a lot. I didn’t get that opportunity. But listening to Leo Parker, I can hear the extension of the influence that is in his playing. But he seemed to have given up baritone and moved on to tenor. But I think his lines and things seem to be better suited for that particular instrument anyway, the particular voice that he comes up with. But I like some of the things that I’ve heard in the past, and this is the record I used to listen to quite a bit because of the tenderness and character, which is something special, to me, to listen to.

[K.D.-Charles Davis, “Monk’s Mood”]

TP: Up to 1958-1959, Charles Davis had played extensively with Sun Ra in Chicago, and was paired off not infrequently with Pat Patrick. Were you aware of those two-baritone Sun Ra recordings when they were happening, or did you discover them later?

HB: I think I discovered them later. Because Sun Ra’s stuff is so extensive, I just heard what I heard. By the time I met Charles, I think he was in New York. This was what era?

TP: 1956. A lot of the Saturn LPs didn’t include personnel, but now the Evidence label has released 15 CDs thus far in an ongoing reissue project of the Saturn with complete discographies. The piece we’ll hear is “Reflections in Blue” from Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth.

[Sun Ra, “Reflections in Blue”-1956, Art Hoyle-Charles Davis-Pat Patrick, John Gilmore; “Pleasure”-Pat Patrick]

HB: Let’s make a comment on the telephone call we got. Tell them what it was.

TP: One caller, who said he’s a pianist who had played and jammed with Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff suggested I convey to Hamiet his suggestion that he listen to Ernie Caceres, whom he favored for his dark, woody tone on the baritone because he has a unique sound.

HB: I’m glad his name is mentioned, because his name was overlooked, as will be many other people in a 3-hour segment. We have enough material to do a whole spotlight, like the 40-some hour showcase…

TP: Apart from that, the purpose of this show is for the musician to present a personal statement about things they’ve heard and been influenced by. We’ll hear now the baritone sound of another extraordinary multi-reed player, Nick Brignola, who on the release we’ll hear I think plays 10 different instrument — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo. This is from Time, a drummerless date with Kenny Barron on piano and Dave Holland on bass.

HB: I think everything you said was true, so let’s just go and listen t o it.

[MUSIC: Nick Brignola-Barron-Holland, “Speak Low”; Cecil Payne, “Slide Hampton”-1972; Sahib Shihab, “”-Jazz Sahib-1957]

HB: I left quite a few people out, but ones I like: Danny Bank for the hundreds of records I listened to him on in different configurations, like a lot of things with Oliver Nelson. Tony Scott, who is known more for clarinet, but I heard him…he used to play baritone for a while – it was real wild. That affected me, too. I was trying to get to “Cuber Libre,” which I couldn’t, and stuff I heard do Jay Cameron do with Slide Hampton when Slide had his octet.

TP: “Cuber Libre” is a Ronnie Cuber release from the mid 70s.

HB: Yes. Howard Johnson. Gary Smulyan is one of the newer, younger… John Surman. So there’s quite a few other people. The horn seems to have taken on another kind of significance that it didn’t have in the past. There’s more people soloing on it now maybe than was in the past, and not just playing support roles.

TP: I think Hamiet Bluiett is one person who’s raised a lot of people’s consciousness about the baritone sax with his own recordings over the last 20 years and with the WSQ.

Coming up, something by Charles Tyler, who played baritone and alto with great proficiency.

HB: He was a formidable baritone saxophonist. I thought he was more original on that instrument than he was on alto. Original in his style and the way he approached the horn, and the things that he did. Immense sound. Sound for days. That’s the thing I remember, and the amount of power, and what he brought to the instrument. I was sad to hear of his passing and stuff of that nature. But I’m glad that these few things are left.

TP: You recorded a solo baritone album around the time this one was done for India Navigation. This recital by Charles Tyler was recorded at WBAI, and issued by the Adelphi Jazz Line.

[MUSIC: Charles Tyler, “From St. Louis To Kansas City By Way of Chicago”-60 Minute Man]

TP: We’ll conclude a track featuring the musicians Bluiett will be performing with at the Village Vanguard next week, who are Ted Dunbar, guitar; Clint Houston, bass; and Ben Riley on drums. They play on a 1992 Soul Note recording, titled Sankofa: Rear Guard.

When we were discussing the show, you said it wasn’t just baritone players who influenced you. You mentioned Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and John Coltrane as great influences on the way you play and why you play the way the way you play. A few words about those non-baritone players in your conception of the horn.

HB: I was influenced by a lot of different people. Count Basie for the way he drove the band. Duke Ellington for the kind of colors that he used. Some vocalists. I listen more to the musicians than anything else. Lockjaw because of the uncanny way in which he played saxophone. No one outplayed him, I thought. No one. He had a band with Johnny Griffin, and it was just awesome. He just kept raising the ante, every tune. And Griffin… It was just awesome. It was unbelievable.

John Coltrane for the sort of spirituality in the way he played. I could dig into the music and stay into it like an hour or so at a time. It really would be focused all that length. It was overwhelming to see to see the band take the whole audience and everybody with them at the same time. And his harmonic sensibility. Just everything about him. It was amazing.

I’ve always liked people with big sounds, big wind and big-throated. Not that I didn’t like the others, but I just favored those in comparison.

Gene Ammons for the kind of knockout punch that he had. His first note, that was it. After that, everything was gravy, but the first note would always just kill. Everybody else that even existed before he got there for his first note, that was like ho-hum.

I was always amazed at the abilities of these people to just command — demand and command so much with an instrument.

Like I said, for Carney, Harry Carney… I heard a lot of these people at different times. I’m going back more to listening to them in person. Because the records provided one thing, but the in-person feeling of what I heard was more important to me. The Basie band – the whole band. And hear the band with Ella and hear her sing, it would be just as powerful or more powerful than a whole big band, when they would do the things where she was scatting and the band would come in with the riffs. It’s just unbelievable. A lot of gospel music, listening to that kind of thing. The blues. Quite a bit. The more I think about it, the more I start digging up.

This first piece is called “John.” It’s dedicated to John Coltrane. It has a simple melody. And it was going through the era of Coltrane…it’s sort of a modal period. It conjures him up in my brain.

[MUSIC: Hamiet Bluiett 4, “John”]

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Bobby Hutcherson from 1999

Here’s another of my newly-digitized interviews from my WKCR years — with vibraphone immortal Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016), who was playing at Iridium that week with an all-star band of thirty-somethings. It’s a remarkably candid interview — no filter.


Bobby Hutcherson, Out To Lunch, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1999:

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Pomponio”]

TP: “Pomponio” is from Skyline, Bobby Hutcherson’s new release on Verve. It features Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Christian McBride and Al Foster, a band that six months ago or so did a week at Birdland in preparation for this date. This week Bobby is in residence at Iridium through Sunday with a quintet. He’s playing this music with Kenny Garrett, Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

Skyline is your first release on Verve, though you’ve done some guest appearance on Verve albums in recent years. There are strong liner notes by Stanley Crouch that position you firmly in the vibraphone pantheon and explain why you hold the status that you do. But probably because of space considerations, he didn’t go into some of your biographical particulars. So if you don’t mind…

BH: Sure.

TP: One point he makes is that the vibraphone is an instrument whose vocabulary was very much invented in jazz, and in the jazz lineage. It wasn’t that common when you were coming up. Why was it the vibraphone for you? What circumstances led you to it, and what qualities attracted you?

BH: As I was growing up, first… My mom was bedridden for the first four years of my life, so I was always… As a toddler, instead of going out and playing, I was always inside the house, listening to a lot of stuff. I had an older brother who passed away, but he was a schoolmate with Dexter Gordon. They went to Jefferson High School.

TP: They had the famous bandmaster, Samuel Browne?

BH: Yes. Dexter was in the marching band and my brother was a cheerleader at the school. After school they’d come over to the house and they would play records. I’m a young toddler… I have an older sister, and my sister started singing, and she used to sing… This is before I even started playing. She was singing in her trio, and in her trio was Sonny Clark. One time she gave a concert, I remember, in Pasadena, where I grew up, at John Muir High School, and playing bass was Oscar Pettiford. I remember Oscar Pettiford walking up to me before I was playing and saying, “don’t you want my autograph?” — and I said, “Yes, I do.” I didn’t even know who it was! I was still young. Then later on, my sister started dating Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was a good friend of the family’s — again, before I started playing. Then later, she started going out with Billy Mitchell, who was playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

TP: Jazz is a family experience for you.

BH: It was a family experience. There was always a piano in the house, and I used to sit around and play piano for my own enjoyment. Then one day when I guess I was 13 years old, I was walking down the street in Pasadena. It was summertime. I walked past a record store. This is when they used to play the music, so that when you walked by outside, on the speakers you could hear what record was being played. It was the Giants of Jazz with Miles and Milt and Monk, Kenny Clarke and Percy Heath — and “Bemsha Swing” was on. I just turned right around, and walked right in, got the record, and went home and wore it out. I said, “this is how I’m walking; this DAY.” I said, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I had grown up with Herbie Lewis. We were in the same grade, going to Washington Junior High School. All the schools that Jackie Robinson went to. As kids, you either tried to be in sports and do what Jackie Robinson was doing, because when you walked in the gym, here was all his records; or you tried to get into music. Herbie said, “If you get some vibes, you can play in my trio, and we can play school dances.” I said, “Oh, great.”

I worked for my dad, who was a bricklayer, and saved my money that summer, and I bought a set of vibes. At the end of the summer, I got the set of vibes. I went and showed Herbie, “Hey, I got a set of vibes.” Herbie says, “Great – because we’ve got a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know anything about the keyboard.” He said, “don’t worry; we’ll play around three songs.” I said, “Three songs? How can I do this?” We’re playing a concert. Bobby Troup was the emcee.

We took a black felt pencil. He said, “Here’s what we’ll do. Since you don’t know what the bars are, we’ll take a number for the next bar that you hit.” Well, if we’re doing three songs, it got like 318, 319, starting from #1, and it had all these numbers all over the vibes. But we practiced so much, I got pretty good, looking for which note to hit next, looking for the number on the bars. Well, came the night of this concert, the first time I’m going to play, and the stage manager and he says to us, “Ok, kids, it’s time for you to go on. Oh, by the way, Bobby, I saw some marks all over your bars, so I took a nice wet towel and I wiped everything off — I know you’re glad I did that.” He says, “Now, you kids go out there and have a great time.” I said, “Oh, no. You didn’t.” He said, “Yes, I did.”

So we went out, and all my family, my mom and dad, they’re sitting out there, ready to be all proud for me, and the kids going to school… I hit about the first three notes, and then after that they started throwing rotten fruit at me. At that point, I realized, “You’re going to have to study; you’re going to have to know what you’re doing.”

TP: It’s not paint by the numbers.

BH: no, you can’t play the numbers. But I still keep the numbers… No. [LAUGHS] But that’s how it all started.

TP: Well, you obviously weren’t discouraged.

BH: No. We used to have these jam sessions at my house as I was growing up, with Herbie, myself… And there was a young man named Terry Trotter who used to come over all the time. Terry became Margaret Whiting’s pianist. Charles Lloyd used to come over all the time. H.B. Barnum, who did all the arranging for Aretha Franklin, he used to come over and he would play tenor saxophone, alto, trumpet, he would play a little vibes, he would play some drums. Everybody in Pasadena would come and park their cars in front of the garage, and we’d open up the doors and we’d play all afternoon. It became like a school. After school, go over to Bobby’s house and listen to the music. There would be all these musicians… Walter Benton used to come over. An awful lot of musicians would come over and play. That happened until…oh gosh, until someone set my garage on fire, and all the instruments burned up.

TP: That happened during high school?

BH: Yeah. I think somebody really didn’t like…

TP: Resorted to drastic measures.

BH: Somebody burnt my garage down. You know what was the thing? All the instruments were in there, the vibes, the bass, drums and piano. I remember… I looked out the door the evening when the fire started, and I remember seeing the fire and trying to call the Fire Department, and the telephone line is burning down. I remember running out to the garage and thinking, “Maybe I can pull my vibraphone out.” And the door was too small! I got the small end out, and I got the big end into the door and I’m trying to get it out the door, and this big wall of flames just came and said, “Get out the way; you can’t do it.” The vibes, the drums, Herbie’s bass, the piano – everything burned up in the fire.

TP: Then what happened?

BH: Whoo, how about me telling my father that the garage burned down? He was at a party that night. He came back, he and my mom, and I said, “Dad, the garage has burned down.” He says, “don’t worry. Did you lose everything?” I said, “Yeah.” He just held me. I thought he was going to be really upset and be mad, but he just held me. He says, “That’s ok. I have insurance. So we’ll go through the things in the fire and find every nut and bolt that’s in there, and we’ll claim it. We’ll get you another set of vibes, we’ll get Herbie another bass…”

TP: Several things are coming out here. One is that you were in an incredibly supportive environment, both in the community (except for the people who burned down the garage) with your parents and fellow musicians, and that music was in the air, almost as though you couldn’t help but absorb the essence.

BH: Yes. I think that fire instigated us to play all the more. As I think back… I haven’t talked about that fire too much. Sometimes I push that back in my mind, because it was real traumatic. Some of the kids were really… I always felt it was some of the kids at school who had done it. I felt that because of what we were doing… Everybody was coming over and listening to the music, and it was like…

TP: It was a positive thing, some people felt excluded…

BH: Yeah.

TP: It seems that Los Angeles… Should I play some more music, and then we resume a little later.

BH: Sure.

TP: We’ll hear “Tres Palabras” from Skyline, on which you play marimba.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Tres Palabras”; Bobby-Abbey Lincoln-Marc Cary, “Another World”]

TP: We were speaking about your early years. One quality about Bobby Hutcherson’s improvising that grabs me every time is the total honesty, spontaneity and transparency. People often hold back on the radio, but Bobby was discussing a very traumatic event of his youth – the fire that burned down his garage and destroyed his instrument. We’ll put the fire behind us…

BH: Put the fire behind us.

TP: Let’s talk about your path towards becoming a professional musician, getting on the road, and coming to New York City, where you participated in so much history on numerous dates for Blue Note.

BH: What happened was, going back to my sister going out with Billy Mitchell… Billy Mitchell and Al Gray had just left the Count Basie Orchestra and formed their own sextet. After I’d started playing, Billy asked could I join the group, and play 4 mallets, and comp and solo, and take the place of Gene Keys, and go up to San Francisco and work opposite Charlie Mingus. I had never played 4 mallets before, but I said, “Of course I can – yes.” In the group was Doug Watkins, and Doug took me under his wing and showed me things to do. He was wonderful. I really loved Doug Watkins.

Anyway, we played two weeks at the Jazz Workshop, and then came back to Los Angeles. Billy came back here to New York, and Al and Doug stayed in Los Angeles. A couple of days later I got a call from Billy Mitchell, and Billy said, “How would you like to come to New York and open at Birdland? We will play opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” I was also in college at the time. I asked my mom. She said, “I want you to graduate from college; it’s very important.” I said, “Mom, I’ve got a chance to go to New York and play at Birdland.” She said, “Oh! Well, forget college. Go on to New York.” She said, “I have this dream that you’re going to go to New York – go ahead.”

So we drove here in Doug Watkins’ car, the car he was killed in when he went back out to California – in his black Peugeot. We drove here. We started out with a steak dinner, and by the time we got to the Lincoln Tunnel we didn’t have enough money to pay to get through. We were eating potato chips when we came through…

TP: Sounds like the old days of travel…

BH: I remember in part of the trip, Doug’s windshield wipers stopped working, and we were in a snowstorm in New Mexico. He had to reach around, put his arm around and work the windshield wipers to keep the snow off as he was driving. It was bitter cold! Oh, gosh…

TP: The vibraphone, the bass, everything is in the car.

BH: Yeah. We come to New York, and we open at Birdland. First thing is, that afternoon I’m setting up, and Pee Wee Marquette was… I’d heard him on records, but I didn’t know he was a midget. Pee Wee Marquette saw me setting up, I was just by myself. So he walks up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Bobby Hutcherson.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m going to play vibes with Al Gray and Billy Mitchell.” He says, “We don’t need you. Pack up your vibes and go.” I said, “Oh, Lord, is this what I heard about what New York is?” He said, “You heard me. Go.” I just waited for him to walk back out the door, and I kept setting up.

That night… In those days you heard that Pee Wee could make or break you. So it went like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet, blah-blah, and with Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.” I said, “Oh, no!” Every night he would do this. But we had two weeks there. So on pay night, everybody would go over to the Alvin Hotel, which was across the street (it’s a parking lot now, I think). I’m in Al Gray’s room, and there’s a knock on the door, and I open the door, and a big puff of cigar smoke arrives. There’s Pee Wee. He says, “Say, Papa, you got something for me?” I said, “I don’t have anything for you, the way you’ve been announcing my name all week.” Al Gray says, “give him five dollars.” I said, “I’m not giving him a thing.” Al goes, “Give him five dollars.” So I gave him five dollars.

So the next week goes like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet with Billy Mitchell, Al Gray, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes” – because I gave him that five dollars. So everything started to change right there.

We went on from there and worked the Apollo Theater. Besides playing the regular show, we played the talent night where they had to drop this cheese-cloth, and they’d throw all the rotten fruit at the entertainers who would come out. I had heard about that. That was unbelievable! I’d never seen people get fruit thrown at them. This was unbelievable. And the people were screaming, going crazy.

I think the next gig, we went on to Chicago, the Sutherland Lounge, and we worked opposite Redd Foxx. They would not let me in the club while Redd Foxx performed, because I would go crazy. It got to the point where I didn’t have to hear the joke. All I had to do was hear the sound of his voice, and I would be on the floor.

Anyway, after about a year-and-a-half, the group disbanded. I didn’t really know that many musicians. So I started driving a taxi.

TP: So they worked steadily, around the country, touring for 18 months, and then you move to New York.

BH: Yes.

TP: Quick question before we resume the narrative. There aren’t that many stylistic antecedents for a vibraphone player, but a few great ones. You heard Milt Jackson first, there’s Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, some others. Who were your models? All vibraphonists, or other instrumentalists as well?

BH: I’m going to tell you…I think I’ve told Tommy this. I really started listening to Tommy Flanagan. I think Tommy Flanagan… Tommy, if you’re listening, I love you. I just want you to know that I started listening to you to try to find another avenue, another way to come through the instrument.

TP: If you can, is it possible to describe the sound you were trying to achieve…

BH: I wasn’t really sure. I was just trying different things. I was just trying to be a part of. It was a situation, as I said, where I’m driving a cab. Herbie Lewis had moved to New York and he’s playing bass with the Jazztet. Grachan Moncur was in the Jazztet. So I started going over to their house and playing jam sessions as I was driving a cab. Now Grachan says to me, “I want Jackie McLean to hear you.” Jackie comes and says, “Oh, I like this.” He says, “I just met a new drummer in Boston; his name is Tony Williams. I’m going to bring him down, and we’re going to play at this club, the Coronet.” It was Grachan, Tony, Jackie, and Eddie Khan. We came in there. Everybody had heard about all these young kids playing at the Coronet Club in Brooklyn with Jackie. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, came in and says, “I want to record this; Jackie, I’ve got to record this.” After being at the studio, at Rudy’s studio, Alfred Lion came up to me after the first song that we recorded, and he walked up to me and said, “Bobby, how would you like to sign a record contract?” I said, “Whoa! Am I in the right place and the right time.”


TP: Jackie McLean was incorporating the sounds and ideas that you and Grachan Moncur were working with to get into what he calls “the big room” area of improvising.

BH: Yes.

TP: Had you been workshopping a lot of new ideas, experimental ideas in Los Angeles?

BH: You know how you can have your own personality, but if you get with someone else, another personality seems to come out of you and someone else… Well, that’s what started to happen. It got all of us together… We would be so silly — and be serious at the same time. But silly. I mean, we used to have comic books in our back pockets as we would come to rehearsals. So it would be really serious, but at the same time we’d be looking real serious, we’d be like, “this is the most ridiculous…”

What happened, besides doing those records then with Jackie, Grachan did a record with the same group – Evolution. In fact, this next cut you’re going to play, “The Coaster,” Grachan replaced Jackie with Lee Morgan, and Lee Morgan really played different on the original recording of Evolution and on “The Coaster.” I guess that’s really why when I did this last record with Verve, I wanted to remember those days.

[Bobby Hutcherson, “The Coaster” – from Skyline; “Little B’s Poem”-Components]

BH: Not a bad group.

TP: That recording featured four pieces by you and four by Joe Chambers; another album, Dialogue, comprised entirely compositions by Joe Chambers and Andrew Hill. It’s interesting that these Blue Note recordings became a forum for the ideas of other composers.

BH: The Dialogue album was my first album for Blue Note, and it was at a point where I wasn’t writing. All I was doing was working with other people. I was just trying to complete the circle. I didn’t really understand the situation, that in order to complete the circle (or complete the sphere), playing, and playing with other people, practicing, working on soloing…theories and stuff like that… You really start to complete the circle of music, or the sphere of music, by writing. Because then you’re really writing in your diary. This is what happened to me; this is how I feel today; this is the recipe for what happened today; this is the recipe for how this day went for me. Along with the routines that I went through to try to enrich my life.

TP: Did the recordings you did for Blue Note during the period when you were living in New York… Because then you moved back to California and formed a working quintet with Harold Land which was amply documented. Does it reflect the work that you were doing in New York as well? The performance situations, the gigs. Or do the albums more reflect a for-the-studio situation?

BH: I think it really reflected what was going on in New York. When I first came to New York, I’ll say a lot of my writing on the first album had to do with my still ties with Pasadena. This greenery, the relaxation type situations. Joe Chambers coming, as we met each other and started doing things together, it became a situation of looking into the sculpture of new things developing along with the renaissance that was going on, and the new people going on, and along with the fight for the Black people in the country. It was very common for me in those days to get in a cab and I’d be going to a rehearsal, and I’d be coming from 165th Street and Woodcrest, where I was living in the Bronx, and come past 125th Street and come past the Lenox Hotel, and Malcolm X would be on the steps in front giving a speech, and thousands of people would be standing there. The cab would stop at the red light, and even though I only had another 15-20 minutes to get where I was going, I’d tell the cab driver, I have to get out here; I’ve got to go listen to Malcolm X for a moment. I’d go over and listen and then get back in another cab, and then go on to rehearsal. It was a situation of that cabaret card, that police card that you had to have, which stopped an awful lot of musicians from working in nightclubs, and all the people playing in lofts in those days where you could hear all this writing. Everybody was writing music.

TP: So the recordings you did with Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill or Freddie Hubbard also reflected gigs that were happening at the time.

BH: Yes, a lot of it. Then, at the same time, I renewed acquaintances with Eric Dolphy, who was back here at the time, and we started rehearsing and doing things. I started doing gigs, playing here, at Brooklyn College, or we would go to Pittsburgh…Crawford’s Grill, on the Hill in Pittsburgh and play…

TP: Playing the type of music that was on Iron Man and Out To Lunch?

BH: Exactly. Going to Washington, D.C., and playing the Bohemian Caverns.

TP: Then you returned to the West Coast and formed a well-regarded group with Harold Land, who I guess you knew from your younger days in Los Angeles.

BH: Yes.

TP: Can you speak a bit about that band and your musical production during the 70s? I hear it as you blending the experimentation of the 60s with a look back to the fundamentals you’d come up with.

BH: When I went back to the West Coast… I got busted for some grass here. They took my hack license, my taxi license away; they took my cabaret card away – and scared me half to death. I decided to go back to the West Coast for a second and just regroup. So I went back and started working with Harold Land, and then I started getting calls: “Bobby, are you going to come back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to come back again and play.” The Slugs thing was starting to happen…no, it wasn’t starting; it had BEEN happening – but I wanted to come back. I always loved playing in Slugs. So I told Harold… There were some things happening over in Europe. I said, “Let’s form a group, come back to New York; I’ll call Joe Chambers and we’ll get a group together and we’ll start playing some music.”

At that time, it seems to me as though we stopped playing linear type things, and started playing a lot of intervals of 4ths and 5ths and 2nds, and tunes that went into that category. That was a change. That caused… Different combinations cause different things to happen. So that was a change in the sound, because of…solo-wise… A lot of the solos were constructed in 2nds and 5ths and 4ths and neighboring tones. I don’t want to get too technical. But that’s what started happening, and started the sound to change.

TP: With Woody Shaw there’s another evolution…

BH: Woody, yeah. Woody was playing different intervals. Woody was playing a lot of 6-intervals. Woody was playing more pentatonic scales. Our group was using pentatonic scales, but using different intervals, and Woody was using more of the pentatonic scales with a lot of the major VI in his. I didn’t use too much of the major VI.

TP: That was a very fruitful partnership, and you did a lot of records, though not all of them are around these days.

BH: Yeah. I used to go over to Woody’s house all the time, and we would start talking about what we were working on. Woody was always talking about the pentatonic scale that he was working on. It’s funny how all of a sudden there’s a style of playing that starts blossoming out of that.

TP: You’ve been at the center of several transitions. Then around 1980 or so, it seems you begin to go out as a solo voice with groups that elaborate your conception, and the co-led groups fade away. It seems for the last 15-20 years, it’s been Bobby Hutcherson’s sound. Is that more or less accurate?

BH: I went through another transition of the theories that I was working on. For a while, I started working on a lot of piling chords together, right next to each other, so it would be like a cluster, and it would become really hard to figure out what was the scale. I used to think a lot of times when I used to work with Eric Dolphy… He would say: “Now, Bobby, on this tune, this scale in this tune doesn’t end until it runs for 2 octaves, and every note is different.” I said, “Oh my goodness, what…” It was really different.

TP: You seem to have incorporated everything you learned, but also stepping back into the tradition in a personally meaningful way.

BH: Yes. It’s like taking some things, throwing them away, bringing them back. It’s just like sitting there and making something. I might say, “Ok, I want to make an old-fashioned apple pie. Do I get these new modern ingredients?” No. You have to use just some plain old apples and some sugar…

TP: Food is always the best metaphor.

BH: [LAUGHS] If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have to put in there. It’s a great reservoir, if you can look and say, “Ok, on this I have to do this; and on this one, I’m going to try this.” To reach back and say, “Ok, this time…” Situations like not only that, but to say, “On this one, I have to play behind the beat; on this one I have to play on top of the beat.” If you want this situation to happen, you have to go from playing on top of the beat and slide into playing behind the beat, to get this feeling. And to think about those things as you’re playing is… It’s tough!

TP: Are you thinking about that consciously now, or is it a more organic thing?

BH: Exactly. You want it to be like it’s just a natural thing to happen, instead of it being a technical, mechanical situation. You want it to be just part of breathing. It’s almost a situation of there is no tempo. There is only feeling. There is only action and reaction. There is only You.

TP: On that note, let’s Bobby Hutcherson play “I Only Have Eyes For You” from his new Verve release, Skyline.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “I Only Have Eyes For You”]

TP: This Verve recording is one of the first in some time where you’ve had a decent budget and preparation time. A few ideas about your intents and purposes in putting it together.

BH: A lot of thought about each person. A lot of thought about music is not the image; it’s the reflection – and the images are the people involved and the love and friendship for them.

TP: We’ll conclude with a track from 30 years ago that you spoke off mic. You talked about trying to transcribe it some years later, and being in a totally different head space. This is it. It’s called “Visions,” originally from the 1968 date Spiral, which came out about ten years later, with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson, Joe Chambers.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Visions”]

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Filed under Bobby Hutcherson, Vibraphone, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Han Bennink From 2000

A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.


Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):

[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]

TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…

HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.

TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.

You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.

HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.

TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.

HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.

TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?

HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.

TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.

HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.

TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…

HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.

TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.

HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.

TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?

HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.

TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?

HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.

TP: But that was later.

HB: Yes.

TP: You were already a professional.

HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…

TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…

HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.

TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.

HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.

But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.

TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.

HB: yes, more or less.

TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.

HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.

TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.

HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.

TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.

HB: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?

HB: I know Misha since 1960.

TP: What were the circumstances?

HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…

TP: 40 years.

HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.

TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.

HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.

TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.

HB: Not so much.

TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.

HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.

TP: He’s a big liar?

HB: Yeah-yeah-yeah.

TP: What does he lie about?

HB: About everything. But on a very high level.

TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.

HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.

TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.

HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.

TP: It’s an improvised duo?

HB: Of course.

TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…

HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.

TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.

HB: Cool.

[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]

TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?

HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.

TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…

HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.

TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…

HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.

TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.

HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.

TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?

HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…

TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.

HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.

TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?

HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.

TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?

HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.

[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]

TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.

We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.

HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…

TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…

HB: Yeah, yeah…

TP: John Stevens was doing it then.

HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.

TP: How did you find each other?

HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…

TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.

TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.

HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.

TP: I should have brought the LP>

HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.

TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.

HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.

TP: How would you describe the difference?

HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.

TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.

HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”

TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?

HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.

TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.

HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.

TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.

HB: Yes, absolutely.

TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.

HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.

TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.

HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.

TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?

HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…

TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.

HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.

So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…

TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…

HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.

TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.

HB: Yes.

TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.

HB: Something like that.

[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]

TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.

HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.

TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.

HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.

TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?

HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.

TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?

HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.

TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.

HB: Yes.

TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?

HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.

TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?

HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.

TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.

HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.

TP: So it’s as organic as language.

HB: Yes, I guess.

TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.

HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…

TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]

HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.

TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.

HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]

HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.

TP: Why is that?

HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.

TP: You said “reduced.”

HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.

TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?

HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.

TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?

HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.

TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.

HB: I do my best.

TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.

HB: More than ever.

TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.

HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.

TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.

HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.

TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…

HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.

TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.

HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.

TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.

HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.

TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?

HB: Yes.

TP: A lot of it is with found objects.

HB: Yes, objets trouvees.

TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?

HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.

TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…

HB: Yes.

TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.

HB: Right.

TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?

HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.

[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]

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For Master Bassist-Composer Ben Wolfe’s 58th Birthday, a 2001 Downbeat Players Profile, 2 Interviews Conducted for the Profile, and an Uncut 2015 Blindfold Test

Best of birthdays to bassist-composer Ben Wolfe, one of the strongest individualists in jazz 30+ years. In 2001, Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a “Profile-Players” article about him; he sat with me for a couple of interviews, most of which couldn’t be used. They appear below the article.


Ben Wolfe (Downbeat “Players”Article) – 2001:

In the latter 1980’s, Ben Wolfe, recently arrived in New York from his native Portland, Oregon, was squatting in a funky apartment on Utica and Montgomery in the East New York section of Brooklyn. To take a bath he routed the water down a board from the sink; electricity came from a jerryrigged outside line. He was earning $20 a night, six nights a week, as bassist in the house rhythm section for a well-attended 1-4 a.m. jam session at Manhattan’s Blue Note.

“I quickly was on the scene,” Wolfe recalls, “but it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. It drove me crazy, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave. I always stayed.”

Persistence paid off for the moon-faced bassist; now 39, he boasts an enviable c.v. He cites lucrative, high profile ’90s gigs with the likes of Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis, and is currently in the second year of his second go-round with Diana Krall. Each appreciates his professionalism, definitive harmonic ear, impeccable time, and — not least — the huge, unamplified sound his fingers elicit from gut strings. “I think it’s very ironic,” Wolfe states at his comfortable pad on a block of warehouses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I never followed the crowd. But it makes sense. I never got a gig through an audition. I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody who needs a bass player.

“I prefer the sound of every one of my favorite bass players — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford – without the amp. I want to experience the problems that my heroes experienced — the strings breaking, intonation trouble, a drummer playing too loud. If someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, that’s the sound of the music. It shouldn’t be corrected manually.”

Wolfe most recently elaborated these purist principles on the suite-like Murray’s Steps [Amasoya], which follows a pair of well-received late ’90s disks [13 Sketches and Baghdad Theater (Mons)]. On each he hews to the aesthetic of group interplay and the rhythms of bebop, and displays a well-honed sense of sonic narrative.

“I’m definitely from the bebop well,” Wolfe avers, citing Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans — as well as Ellington and Strayhorn — as primary influences. “I feel a connection to Mingus’ ’50s music, the way he combined playing hard and writing beautiful music.

“My music is definitely not bass oriented; most of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I arrange for the band. I like arranging, putting stuff together, finding different harmonic movements and sounds. I think of what I do as chamber music in a jazz context, as ensemble music, versus having somebody blow on top of a rhythm section.”

How does he reconcile quotidian sideman work with creative imperatives? “I think of myself as a composer who plays bass,” he says. “With Diana, I’m there as a bass player, playing tunes, trying to swing and make people feel good every night. We’re not trying to change the world. With Wynton, whose vision is so strong, I was playing original extended compositions; I learned a lot about ensemble writing from him. With both Wynton and Diana, it’s about trying to realize their vision and keeping your ego in check. When I do my music, it’s a completely different head space. I write and arrange all the music, do everything I’m capable of doing. I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision and conception.”

Not that Wolfe plans any radical career shifts in the near future. “Playing with Diana enables me to spend all my down time writing,” he concludes. “I like the idea of doing both things at the same time. If I had it my way, I would only play with my band, but that’s not a reality now. I think I have something tangible to offer as a leader. I feel patient. I’m always working on my music, and eventually I’ll get to do it.”


Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):

TP: I just said that you have to avoid cliches, and Ben said, “Well, that fits the modern jazz era,” then he said, “Unh-oh.”


TP: After talking about all those cliches, let’s talk about you started learning those cliches when you were young. You’re from Portland.

WOLFE: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I moved here in 1985.

TP: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts. Are your parents musical?

WOLFE: My father played violin with the San Antonio Symphony for one season, and then he quit. He felt he was always fighting the instrument. He claimed he wasn’t that great. He actually got in without an audition, which is unusual in a symphony. He’s now a photographer. My mother is a therapist, a gestalt therapist, and she also owns some restaurants — she’s remarried. She loves the arts, but she’s not a musician; but she goes out to hear string quartets and loves jazz…

TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.

WOLFE: A cultured family. [ETC.] My great grandparents did not come from here. But my parents divorced when I was young. I grew up with my Dad. But I also came out of that whole Hippie thing, for better or worse, on my Mom’s side. Don’t put it in there, because it implies something… So my family was just me and my Dad, so instead of a traditional Jewish family, it was more like two guys who didn’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, he’d work all day and I’d be in school, and I’d come home and it would just be me watching TV and trying to be I guess an athlete, as all young kids try to be. When I started playing music in 7th grade it was like I found something that I could do, that was easy to do, that I was good at, or thought I… It was easy for me to do. I started playing the tuba in 7th grade, and that just consumed my life immediately.

TP: Was that through a school program?

WOLFE: Yeah. It was pretty good for what it was. Then in high school, they had me doing all kinds of different instruments. I was a tuba player, but they decided I should be a bass player also, so I was playing electric bass and a little acoustic bass. That’s when I discovered that some people in the band weren’t planning on being professional musicians. I wasn’t aware that there was a choice. I just thought that’s what you do. I didn’t think there was a choice. I started playing music, and it was so natural, so comfortable, it never even occurred to me it was something you do on the side. It just seemed like, “Okay, this is what you do.” I was very naive about it. I thought everyone was like that. I remember someone in the high school band said they were going to go to school and be a doctor, whatever it was, and I went, “Huh.” I didn’t understand. Then it finally occurred to me that maybe some people were just in the band for fun or whatever. So I never saw it that way.

I was playing a lot of electric bass. I started really enjoying electric bass, playing like in funk bands and stuff like that, and being…

TP: so you got your reading and so on together in the school band?

WOLFE: Well, I was a Classical tuba player, but I started really enjoying playing in the stage band, playing jazz and playing electric bass, which also was easy for me to do at first. And they also had me play acoustic bass in the orchestra, which I wasn’t into at all. But my father told me I would be. He really said that, and it’s funny; we laugh about it now. In high school, when I’m playing different instruments and stuff, this is ’77…

TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…

WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.

TP: Sort of the other end of the plateau of creative fusion and into the disco era.

WOLFE: I got immediately into Return to Forever and Weather Report. Stanley Clarke was my first bass hero when I was a musician and a bass player. And the first time I heard his record, I didn’t recognize the bass line. I thought it was guitar, so I didn’t know what it was. But at the time, everything was so new. My taste wasn’t… I didn’t really have good taste in music. I just enjoyed playing. I wasn’t listening… I was more into just, “wow, check out how so-and-so plays.” I wasn’t even really into the music, looking back. I believe in a musical adolescence, which I think a lot of people never leave, which is a part of the problem today — which is a whole nother subject.

Then through high school I started doing all these different things. I was going to camps in the summer, stage band camps, concert band camps… I wasn’t playing the acoustic bass at all. I wanted to be a funk bass player, a studio player. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to be like tuba in the symphony, I was going to be a studio player during the day and bass trombone with Basie or whatever big band. I started playing bass trombone, and I really got into that.

TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..

WOLFE: I wasn’t really listening to anything. I was just playing all the time. It’s funny. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t like studying it, the way Wynton did in high school — he had a regimented practice thing that he did every day. I wasn’t like that. I was just a regular… I was out smoking weed, doing what everyone else was doing. But I was playing tuba and the bass. And eventually, my junior or senior year, I joined some dance band, so I was playing in bands. I finally formed my own little group, and we had this great singer, so we started playing high school dances. I enjoyed that very much. I was also going to two schools my senior year, a magnet program at another school that had a great music program. Me and this drummer would go over there in the afternoon, and I met more musicians over there. I started making friends who were other musicians around town and we formed little groups.

Let me back up a little bit, back to acoustic bass. In the stage band, I was forced to play the acoustic bass on a Count Basie tune. We didn’t have pickups or amps. So in a stage band contest, I played the acoustic bass with no mike and no amplifier, and the judges were really into it. “Wow, man, that sounds great. That’s cool. That’s like they used to do.” Which is what I do now. It was just an interesting coincidence.

TP: It’s interesting when musicians come up who are studied but are also ear players, in the way they approach music.

WOLFE: I wish I could say I was a total ear player. But that’s one of the biggest things I don’t have together actually, compared to people I see. I wish I was just a complete ear player. It seems like the most honest way of playing . I call myself a schooled street player in between. I was going to school, taking classes and studying, but at the same time all I wanted to do was play at jam sessions.

TP: When did the notion of jazz as such start to enter… When did you start identifying yourself as a jazz musician?

WOLFE: Not til later. My senior year we had a band called Swing Shift playing jazz where I was playing electric bass, and another band playing funk.

TP: Was it always just playing the function, or were you listening to role models?

WOLFE: I was always listening to Paul Chambers. Well I shouldn’t say always. My father would play me a lot of records of all kinds of music. Looking back, it seemed like he had it from me. He had a whole collection of records that were R&B, he had James Brown and whomever. Then he had rock records with the Stones and the Beatles, which I loved — the Who. He had all these jazz records, Charlie Parker and Mingus and Prez and Coleman Hawkins, and he always pointed these guys out to me. “Listen to this; this is Thelonious Monk.” I remember I identified Monk immediately. I remember hearing his left hand and really digging how he was playing. He played me this record, Paul Chambers-John Coltrane, with “Dexterity” on it. That’s the first one; it knocked me out. That became my THANG. I was a Paul Chambers freak. I mean, from then on. He’s my favorite bass player. I’m not saying he was the greatest…

TP: Well, he might be.

WOLFE: He might be. But then I have to put my Oscar Pettiford, some Jimmy Blanton… I had a definite connection with him. You know how the musicians you love, you almost feel like you know them personally, and all you ever hear is a recorded mike on their instrument. It’s amazing to me; you feel like you know them. But every other bass player says the same thing about Paul Chambers; it’s huge, the way he reaches people. At that point I loved it, but I was still into this other thing. I was just playing electric bass. Then I started playing in top-40 bands.

TP: That senior year of high school.

WOLFE: This was the senior year of high school. Then I’m in college, this Mount Hood Community College that has a great music program. I played bass trombone in their stage band and played electric bass in the practice room with people in these little combos during the day, and I’m going on the road with these top-40 bands. So I haven’t really found my home, so to speak. I’m doing all these things. I’m working. I’m playing electric bass. I’m playing trombone, playing tuba. Then I started playing so much jazz on electric bass. I’d go to the school, and all I would do was go in this practice room and set up and play. And I had a great theory teacher who also was an acoustic bass teacher, and I was playing Jazz jazz — and now I’m identifying myself as a jazz musician. I play jazz electric bass. That’s my thing.

TP: So you’re Ben Wolfe, you’re 19-20, it’s ’82…

WOLFE: I’m playing jazz electric bass in Portland.

TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?

WOLFE: Well, I’m still not quite part of the scene. I’m getting calls to sub every now and then. I’m still an electric bass player but people are starting to think I’m talented and wanting me to come hang out, and now I’m meeting people. But now I’m deep into jazz, I think. I’m still playing electric bass, but I’m deep into jazz in my mind, playing non-stop. That’s all I’d do, was play.

TP: Acoustic at all?

WOLFE: Every now and then I’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna check that out,” and I’d play it.

TP: So you had a certain facility.

WOLFE: Well, I was playing electric every day. But I didn’t think in those terms of facility. I just loved music. I picked it up and I could play it. I fooled around on it all the time. Then all of a sudden it occurred to me, “Wait a minute; if I’m going to play jazz, I’ve got to…” I borrowed this guy’s bass for a jam session — Louis Ledbetter. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do.” It was like BAM, I found my home. So I asked a teacher if I could study with him. I told my father, “Look, I think this is it, acoustic bass. You were right. That’s what I’ve got to do. I want to play with top-40 band; I want to play jazz.” I must have really seemed serious, because he sold his violin and actually put up some money for me to get an acoustic bass — which was heavy. He hadn’t been playing the violin. And this guy, the bass teacher at the school said, “You know, you really shouldn’t do this.” He said, “Who knows if he’s really going to do this or not? He hasn’t even started yet.” And I was really into it.

TP: Put up or shut up.

WOLFE: But I was so into it that all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, this is it.” So I got this bass and I started taking lessons, and I started doing little gigs around town. Every night, my blisters… It was terrible. I was in pain. Then they had this little function in Portland. Some musician who was on the scene before me had passed away, so they had one of these things where everyone in town played, all these different bands played for this guy whom I didn’t know. And at this thing I was supposed to play with this one musician, and none of the bass players could make it, so I ended playing with everybody. Then all of a sudden I started working all the time. I started getting all these gigs in Portland, so now I’m on the scene.

I started playing with this guy Sonny King. He hired me for his band. Do you know who Nancy King is, the singer? He used to be married to her. He’s passed away. He was probably in New York in the ’70s, playing with Jimmy Garrison and these guys, a free jazz sort of alto player. And Lawrence Williams, who plays drums with Marcus Belgrave. Me, him, and this other piano player, Eddie Wheats(?), an older guy in Portland. He formed a band playing some original Coltranesque music. So now I’m in this band with these guys who have been around for a long time, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing with this great drummer, who to me was just amazing, especially at the time — this Elvin Jones-like drummer who writes ballets and long-form compositions and he called me “Partner.” So I was like, “wow!” I felt like I was playing with Miles or something. It was incredible.

So I’m in this band, and I’m practicing a lot. I’m playing literally non-stop. There are stories in Portland. “Oh, I hear you worked at the Fine Arts Building every night, all night long, practicing.” It wasn’t like that. But I made friends who were serious, and we would get together and play literally all night some nights at different places. It was non-stop. And I started working all the time, and I started making friendships. That’s always been important to me, having friends who also viewed things similar to me. Because most people I don’t agree with on anything. So even to this day, that’s real important to me.

TP: As a jazz musician, do you feel somewhat marginalized? [PAUSE, BATHROOM] first you were talking about cliches, that they permeate…

WOLFE: Just the whole thing. I’ll put it this way. It seems now, whenever I hear a new record or… Let’s see how I can put this…

TP: Jazz is a subculture. As far as being a sideman goes, you’ve got some of the highest profile gigs of anyone out there. Yet even you in the larger scheme of the music business are small potatoes, with 2% of the sales…

WOLFE: Oh, definitely.

TP: So jazz has to do with a point of view, a way of looking at the world.

WOLFE: No question.

TP: So one thing I always ask people is why jazz becomes the thing they feel they have to do.

WOLFE: Versus what? Versus playing with a Pop band?

TP: Or versus being some sort of creative Pop musician.

WOLFE: I think it all comes down to what one’s intentions are and what one’s goals are. A lot of people I see out here, I think they should do that. Because it seems that’s really what they’d rather do. I get the impression a lot of people would rather be in Funk bands and want to be Pop stars. I’m not saying that’s bad…

TP: Well, not everybody can be one.

WOLFE: Not everyone can be one, but a lot of times under the jazz name they can get a little further. But that’s all career. If you look at it from the art perspective, everything seems a lot different. The amount of people diminish greatly. Most of the people I know don’t seem so much coming from that perspective, where I really consider them artists versus instrumentalists. These days, it seems like a lot of jazz seems like an expression of the instrument versus something out of the mind. A lot of people are just demonstrating how well they play their instrument. I see that all the time. “Wow, check out how so-and-so plays! wow. Amazing! He’s all over the instrument. It’s always about the individual’s technical feats, it seems like, which is…

TP: Let’s continue on technique. You’re obviously developing a fairly substantial technique as a young guy.

WOLFE: I suppose.

TP: You’re listening to Paul Chambers, so you have a sense of the real elemental swing and how it’s supposed to sound…

WOLFE: Well, when I hear Paul Chambers, I don’t hear technique. I hear a character, an actual…

TP: But the technique is awesome.

WOLFE: The technique is awesome, but the technique is also completely unimpressive, in a way. Because anybody can learn the technique. The technique is not what makes Paul Chambers great. There are many bass players who have more “technique” who I suppose can play faster. There are guys now who can play much faster or… Well, it depends what you mean by “technique.” If you mean technique as far as producing a gorgeous around a/nd playing from the brain and really listening and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine. But when I hear Paul Chambers, the band always sounds good. And I hear a character in him.

TP: Who taught you how to look for making the band sound good? Is it innate? Did you know it intuitively?

WOLFE: Musical conception was always something that came easily to me. A lot of people have perfect pitch and can hear… Everyone seems to have certain things that come easy for them. That’s something I seem to understand easily. I’ve always thought that way, and I’m also always getting frustrated on the bandstand because of that, because I hear things that are little that drive me crazy. Playing fast doesn’t impress me at all.

TP: So in other words, technique reaches a point where it’s not an issue any more.

WOLFE: It’s never an issue. I don’t think technique is ever an issue.

TP: It is if you can’t play.

WOLFE: Well, it’s obviously necessary. I mean, the carpenter has to know how to hammer a nail.

TP: I can’t write an article if I use passive verbs.

WOLFE: No, you definitely have to have the technique. But the art being an expression of the technique. The technique is something you use to express whatever it is you’re trying to express. I think more and more, it’s become an expression of the technique.

TP: Technique becomes more a function of the craft, and the art is a whole different thing.

WOLFE: Right. The art is what counts. The only thing that really counts is the final product to me. That’s what counts. Of course, the more technique… I mean, obviously, Charlie Parker had amazing technique and facility on his instrument. But that’s not why you get chills… That’s not why when Bill Evans plays a ballad you might have a tear in your eye. It’s not because he understood…. That’s not what it is. It’s because he had a vision, and he needed the technique to produce his vision, and the whole struggle… That’s where it’s at.

TP: So is that part of the experience you had playing with Sonny King?

WOLFE: Well, at that time I wasn’t thinking this way. When you first start playing music, just the joy of playing the instrument is enough. The quality of the music for me wasn’t as important. It’s just I was so happy to be playing an instrument and to be able to do it what I thought was well for that point or whatever. But playing with Sonny King was just… At that time, everything was new. New experiences. Playing with a drummer, learning tunes, playing harmony… Everything was all new. At that time, I played with Woody Shaw for a weekend. He came through town. I was so not-ready to play with him, but at the same time it was incredible. I was so excited. I remember playing with Woody Shaw and I went and bought every Woody Shaw I didn’t have. Didn’t learn any of the tunes, but I bought the records and looked at them. I was just so thrilled and excited, and I went to this gig, and he called “If I Were A Bell,” I didn’t know the tune… I did a pretty good job. But I was so excited and proud. I remember afterwards he said he was going to Europe, and I was thinking, “Man, take me to Europe and get me…” In my mind I’m playing with Woody Shaw now. I said, “Yeah, who’s in the band?” He goes “Red Mitchell…” I’m staying here in Portland! But back then, everything was just about learning.

TP: Was Woody Shaw the first national guy you played with, or are you sitting in by this point?

WOLFE: By that point I might have played one gig with Bud Shank or something. But I think he might have been one of the first people I played with.

TP: You come to New York in ’85, you’re 22-23. You’d reached the point you couldn’t get any more in Portland?

WOLFE: I reached the point where I felt I needed to keep going. I was frustrated. I was playing with the same people in the circle. Not that I wasn’t learning, but it was time for me to move on. A friend of mine, a drummer named Alan Jones, who is actually back there now, had a place and needed a roommate. So I came out here. I got my car, put all my stuff in the car, and drove out here. Slept in the rest stops on the way. I had like $1000. I was so green. I had my travellers checks, and I was so afraid of everything. I was SO green. I came out here, and we lived in this funky apartment that was probably once really nice, and we paid rent for one month and they never charged us again. This guy Alan Jones is a guy who makes his own drums, his own machines, can fix anything, so he had electricity hooked up from outside illegally. Everything started breaking in his apartment. I remember to run a bath we had a take a board from the sink and let the water run down. But at the same time, it didn’t bother me. And I got a steady gig, sort of, because this drummer in Portland, Ron Steen(?), called Ted Curson, who he used to work with, and Ted hired me for the Blue Note. So I was playing six nights a week at this after-hours session, making $20, but meeting all kinds of people.

TP: That’s ’85. It was a very interesting time in New York. People were pouring in here and forming their sound.

WOLFE: Yeah, it was. I remember the guys who would come down there. Dave Kikoski was just in town. Benny Green had been here for a few years. Tyler Mitchell was down here doing the gig also. Art Blakey had the band with Jean Toussaint and those guys. They were down there. He ended up running the session. The Harper Brothers, Philip and Winard, were on the scene. Jeff Watts would come in sometimes. Grossman would come through… It was actually not bad. At the time we thought it was terrible, but of course it wasn’t bad. I did that for a couple of years under different leadership. Manny Duran ran it and Jean Toussaint. At that point I was spending a lot of time… I was living with or near Rudy Petschauer, the drummer, and Renee Rosnes. We were the rhythm section at the late night session.

TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?

WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.

TP: So six nights a week at the Blue Note. You must have learned a ton of tunes.

WOLFE: Learned a million tunes. Ted knew a lot of tunes. I was also forming my friendship with Ned Goold, this tenor player, who’s like a partner, a musical partner. That was important. We were learning a lot of tunes, and to this day we play each other’s tunes all the time. I’m on his CDs, he’s on mine. We were playing each other’s music during the day all the time. That was the most important thing happening back then.

TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.

WOLFE: That was in ’88.

TP: You’re in New York, you establish yourself as someone who’s reliable, can do gigs, your learning curve is expanding greatly, and you’re meeting your peer group.

WOLFE: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I quickly established myself. I mean, I quickly was on the scene. But it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. Everyone else seemed to have all these gigs. A years ago Ira Coleman told me, “Yeah, I remember it seemed like you were the last one to get the gig.” Everyone else I saw working, and it used to drive me crazy.

TP: Do you think it was politics?

WOLFE: I don’t know what it was. I think it just wasn’t time yet. I always believe everyone gets their chance. But at one point I started to feel like, all right, I’m just going to be this guy who never gets a gig. It was frustrating, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. I always stayed. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave.

TP: Well, not everybody gets to work six nights a week at a place like the Blue Note. It kept you busy.

WOLFE: Well, everybody could come play at the session. I mean, it was just $20. It was a good thing. But I ended up meeting a lot of people. I ended up playing a lot of restaurants with this piano player, Rob Bargad. We played duo gigs all the time together. I started making associations. I met Harry Connick at the Blue Note. He was playing at the Knickerbocker, and I came by there and sat in or something. That started in ’88. That’s when everything changed, right at that point. We started doing duo gigs, the two of us. That’s when I met Wynton, because he came down and heard me play. I used to call him all the time on the phone; he was never home. I still call him all the time. Every now and then you get like a 5-minute conversation. It’s great, though. I love talking to him. [Don’t print that; it sounds…]

So now I’m touring with Harry Connick, making some good money, more than I had before, and doing television, and I started to make records, the When Harry Met Sally thing and all that…

TP: You were there when his star was rising.

WOLFE: That’s right. I was there doing all of that. And it was all new to me, the whole thing. Which I actually got caught up into, the stardom… It’s a very seductive world, and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t sucked into it. At one point, when the big band was happening, I wasn’t really practicing. I was into this world.

TP: You were profiling.

WOLFE: Yeah, the whole thing. all of a sudden I had money. I’d never had money before. That TV [32″ Sony] is part of it. When I bought that, I felt like I had bought a Mercedes. It was like, “wow!” It was all new to me, all those things. So I got really into it. I spent all the money I made. But I’m glad. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship with a woman, you look back and you’re glad you went through it so you don’t make the mistakes again. I’m not trying to say that experience was like a bad relationship. Because parts of it were great. I learned a lot of music. But I saw in that whole Harry Connick thing… You’ve got to be careful how you print this. But I saw a whole lot about the music business and how everything works. I saw the whole business side. It’s about selling records, filling houses. Which makes sense. The money has to come from somewhere. But I never thought about it that way before.

TP: That relationship has endured for several years.

WOLFE: Well, we didn’t talk for a long period. We would go through different things.

TP: What interests me is how that experience and playing with Wynton inflected your sense of music. Because if you’re playing as much as you were with people like Harry Connick and Wynton, with the visibility it gave you, there has to be an impact. It’s part of who you are, and continues to be.

WOLFE: Oh, no question. That makes sense. Well, playing with Harry Connick is when I was able to be out there playing the way I play, with the gut strings and no amplifier, which certainly isn’t something I started, but at the time there were only a few guys doing it. So now I’m doing this on a national stage, and I’m learning how to record in the studio, I’m learning how to play in different-sized rooms, I’m learning what it’s like to be on the road, I’m experiencing all these new things — which was great. Harry is an extremely talented musician, so now I’m playing with someone who’s scrutinizing everything I play. He hears everything.

TP: He’s a perfectionist.

WOLFE: Yeah. But he hears that way. He hears every note you play at all times. It was good that way. That was a great experience, playing in all different situation. First it was the two of us, then we had a trio, then we had a quartet with Russell Malone for a short time. We did all these records, touring a lot. Seeing the world was interesting. I’m going to movie sets when he’s making his films and meeting all these actors. It was whole nother world for me from squatting in East New York, out at Utica and Montgomery… 88 Montgomery. So it was Utica and Eastern Parkway.

TP: You’re hard core, man.

WOLFE: It wasn’t that. It sounds hard core. It sounds real romantic and hard-core. I had a car, so I could leave. But Harry Connick was a great experience. I learned a lot and I became a professional musician, in the sense that I was in a lot of situations where I had to deliver and learn to deliver.

TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.

WOLFE: Learn how to play with a singer, and learn how to play with a band, learn how to play with a bandleader who’s a perfectionist, and he’s a star — learn how to be around a star type, whatever that means. Played with Branford for the first time. It’s funny. All of a sudden you’re on a gig now, and people talk to you in a different way, which is absurd — but that’s just how it is. When you’re just one of the many early-twenties bass players in New York, maybe you play okay, maybe you don’t… But there are hundreds of them. You’re fighting to be heard. All of a sudden, now I’m being heard.

TP: What was it about you that appealed to him?

WOLFE: I think the way I approached the bass was unique at the time, the fact that I was playing acoustically. I think the sound I produced was…

TP: Why was that the way you approach the bass? I’ll bet it scared a lot of people off, too. Maybe that’s one reason it was hard to get the gigs. You’re not following the crowd doing that…

WOLFE: I never followed the crowd. But the thing is, it makes sense.

TP: you don’t follow the crowd, but you get these high profile…

WOLFE: I think that’s very ironic. But the thing is, remember, I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody needs a bass player. If I audition, I probably won’t get the gig. I never got a gig through an audition, ever. Someone hired me to do what I do.

TP: How did that attitude develop? It’s also not the easiest way to get a sound out of the acoustic bass?

WOLFE: Well, that’s the way that every one of my favorite bass players plays. Paul Chambers. Ray Brown at the time. Ron Carter in the ’60s. Oscar Pettiford. You can name any bass player. Not one of them do I like the way they sound with the amp better than without the amp. That’s just not how it happened. Someone will say, “Well, what if you can’t be heard?” — all these different problems. I wanted to experience those problems that my heroes also experienced. I wanted to experience the strings breaking. I wanted to experience the intonation problems; I certainly still experience them. I wanted to experience a drummer playing too loud and not being able to turn up. I wanted to go through all those things that they went through. That’s partly how it started.

TP: You seriously felt that way.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. I was saying at the time, “You know what? I want to go through those problems also.” With the gut string… I played Dennis Irwin’s bass, and I also played it on a guy’s bass in Oregon, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like jazz bass ought to sound.” It sounded like the same instrument that’s on the record. Before that I was into Buster Williams and trying to get that kind of sound. That to me is a different thing. But when I put the gut strings on and didn’t have an amplifier, it sounded like the jazz from the records. Not the way I played, but the tone. It’s like hearing a fender Rhodes versus hearing an acoustic piano. If you’re into Bud Powell, the acoustic piano is going to make more sense to you than the Rhodes. The Rhodes is easier. You can turn it up, you can play faster and you can sort of control the sound based on electronics. That’s the same thing with the bass with the amplifier. You can turn it up if the drummer is too loud.

But I think that’s bullshit anyway. Dave Holland once said at a clinic… I remember this. This is going to sound weird, but at his clinic that he gave at Bass Shop, it moved me more than anything I heard him play before or since, hearing him play in his bands. Not that he don’t sound good, but hearing him talk about the bass and how he learned to play and his philosophies was amazing to me. It seems simple now, but like with Tony and Ron, if Tony played too loud and you couldn’t hear the bass, that’s the sound of the music. I totally believe in that philosophy. If the drummer is too loud or someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, it should sound of balance. It shouldn’t be corrected manually that way. So another thing with the amplifiers, they’re just not for me. I don’t think it sounds good. I don’t think it makes the band sound good. And that’s how all my heroes have played.

It also seems to me hat a lot of the bass players who didn’t play with the amps and then switched to the amps, sometimes it seems as if they think that the guys who aren’t doing that are making a mistake, when a lot of times they’re just doing the same thing they did. So if the amp if the answer, then I’m going to find out the same way they found out, going through the same pattern. But I don’t think it is.

I used to always have this conversation with people. I no longer talk about it, because it doesn’t matter. The final product is what counts. To me with amps it doesn’t sound as good. It makes the ride cymbal not sound good. But that’s all part of how to get the final sound.

But Harry Connick liked the fact that I did that. I think he liked the sound I got and the approach.

TP: It probably reminded him of the sound he was hearing from his models.

WOLFE: Maybe so. He was using Reginald Veal before me. It’s funny. We always end up in the same place. Our careers are different, but have been somewhat parallel. We always seem to be in the same places at different times.

TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.

WOLFE: Before Harry hired me, he wanted Wynton to hear me play at first. So I met him that way, and I’d talk to him on the phone every now and then. Eventually, Veal had some dental work done or something, so I subbed for him for like a month, and that’s when the Harry Connick thing, let’s say, dissolved.

TP: The first separation.

WOLFE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there you go. Then I subbed and I prepared myself… They were real surprised I learned the music. “Wow, you played ‘Citi Movement’ without a rehearsal!” Well, that’s just professional. If one didn’t do that, it’s more like, “Why didn’t you do that?” instead of being celebrated for doing what you’re supposed to do. I mean, I always liked that they were impressed by that, but I didn’t think… I just learned the music. I was just excited to play.

TP: I’m sure with Wynton, if you take care of business, that’s the first principle.

WOLFE: That’s the only thing he cared about, the music. That was a great, great experience, playing with those guys. I loved it. I loved learning the music. And that’s when I was subbing, so it was really…

TP: Now, Harry Connick has a specific piano style and I guess he’s an ear piano player to the Nth degree so the stuff can go anywhere, but there’s a certain level with him that’s about presentation and showmanship. But Wynton is someone who has a very sophisticated and evolved compositional aesthetic. So it’s really two very different experiences.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. Harry at that time was a big band and it was a show. And with Wynton it was playing these ballets he’d written. So it was a whole other thing. It was no show, really. It was just the music. That’s what I loved about it. It was really interesting, playing with those guys. Then when Veal left the band, I took his place for basically two years. I should say one year.

TP: It was a very good year, though. Because when you hear this Vanguard record you can hear how his concept honed itself in in ’93, to the last stuff with Veal and the stuff you’re on in ’94.

WOLFE: I didn’t know it would sound that good when I heard it. Really I love it. I thought we sounded okay. I had no idea we sounded as good as we do on that CD. It was a good band.

In that band we did this tour of In This House, On This Morning, which was wild for me. Long-form composition, custom-made for Reginald Veal. I was always trying to play the music correctly and not be Veal at the same time. But looking back, I was still going through trying to find out where I was at musically. I was still going through this struggle with myself at that time with Wynton, and still learning a lot, and wasn’t as formed in what I wanted to do. I was still taking in a lot of information from him. In that band… What was the question?

TP: It seems that band was the first time you were involved in a very sophisticated, high aspiration, compositional entity. And these records are all about composition, really, or at least finding compositions where the personalities of your cohorts, Magnarelli and Gould can be expressed. So I’m curious how the experience with Wynton inflected your compositional attitudes in let’s say 13 Sketches.

WOLFE: Well, all this time we’re talking, I’m writing music. So the whole time, my career is one thing and what I’m trying to do is another thing. That’s been going on the whole time. I’ve always been writing music. Ned Goold and I are always playing together, original music, every day, since I got to New York. That’s always been happening and is still happening. That’s what I do. That’s the reality of who I really am as far as what I’m trying to do, and then the career is something else. That’s like half of it. It’s the half everyone sees.

TP: It’s also part of who you are. It’s all going in there.

WOLFE: Oh, definitely. But with Wynton, I was in a band now… When I was actually in the band, when I wasn’t subbing any more, I thought I was part of something important. It was great. It was like a real family, this band. It still feels that way when I go back and see them. It feels like family. I love that about that group. I always felt that’s what a band should be like. I really felt like I was part of something and I felt welcomed.

TP: Also, you were the first white guy who was ever part of the circle…

WOLFE: That’s not really true. I was the first white guy permanently hired in the Septet. Lincoln Center had white guys, and some piano players… I think Peter Martin played some gigs with Wynton. But that was NEVER an issue! Never an issue except for the issue around it. But the funny thing was, with all this stuff of Wynton being a racist or whatever you read, when I was in his band, no one ever asked me about it. No one in the press, no one in interviews, not one time ever suggested, “Well, he’s got Ben Wolfe in the band; he’s white.” It never came up. It was bizarre. It never came out of the band, except for people making idiotic statements after the gigs. It was never really an issue, other than like private jokes among the band out of love. Both ways. But that was never an issue. That was the most get-along band I’ve ever been with. There were more issues with things in the Harry Connick band. It was great, just like being part of a little family. We got along for the most part. We played music all the time. I never felt like an outsider. I mean, it’s like you see a basketball team. If there’s a white guy, they’re going not to be thought of as different. They’re like a team. It was never a problem, or an issue… It didn’t even really come up, other than… It really was never a thing.

TP: Did being with Wynton affect your compositional sense, your sense of maybe orchestration or…

WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.

TP: You’re also in LCJO at this point.

WOLFE: Before and after.

TP: It seems to me that one thing that’s really valuable at LCJO for Wynton is that he got to really get into the building blocks of jazz from the inside-out, because he had the scores and had to play the music in an idiomatic manner. So he’s playing Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Armstrong, Monk, the whole nine from the inside out in a way that most of your contemporaries, really starting from your generation, didn’t have a chance to do.

WOLFE: True enough. I see that. To me, I always like it best when Wynton plays Wynton Marsalis. I’d rather hear Lincoln Center play his music any time.

TP: But his music is very informed by those…

WOLFE: yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think his music sounds anything like Duke Ellington’s music. That’s the one common thing through all his records that I recognize, and I… Always, if I’m attracted to anything, it’s his composition. People always debate his playing…

TP: I think he has his own language, but… For instance, Blood on the Fields, those soli passages by the trumpets, are his own language, but the building blocks seem very much a 21st Century type of concept.

WOLFE: That’s what people say. I don’t hear it like that. He’s influenced by some Beethoven also. I don’t hear people say “Beethoven!” Obviously, he’s deeply into Duke Ellington, obviously, and it influenced him, clearly, but I… Going back to what we were talking about not being impressed by technique, I’m more interested in hearing the part… I tend to hear what’s him in the music.

TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?

WOLFE: I love playing Wynton’s music. You mean Duke Ellington’s music?

TP: Well, playing Wynton’s music and the J@LC experience of playing… Well, he doesn’t like it to be called repertory, and I don’t really think of it like that, but playing… Look, you’re out there sitting in the shoes of Jimmy Blanton.

WOLFE: It was great to play it at first. But I’m at the point now where I don’t want to play other people’s music.

TP: But put yourself in your shoes back then to how it’s inflected you now.

WOLFE: Okay, that makes sense. I think playing his music affected me more than playing Duke Ellington’s music. Because I’ve always heard Duke Ellington’s music, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington all the time, and I love Duke Ellington. You know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly it influenced me, especially Wynton’s music. Because the way I write is different. He writes a lot thicker than I do. He writes real thick sometimes, and I don’t do it the same way. The thing I liked that Wynton used to do, which maybe influenced me but is something I’ve probably always been into anyway, is he would assign emotions to music sometimes. He would say things like, “This is about so-and-so.” He would express what’s happening in a non-musical way, what the music represents. That’s something I’m very much into, completely into. A lot of his conceptual things I learned, from being around him so much — the way he would talk to the band, the way he would say like the rests… Little things he would say influenced me a lot. The way he thought of music. The way he approached everything the same. Whether he was soloing or playing the written part, it was all jazz to him. And the whole ensemble concept influenced me, and that’s something I’m very much into also, the way of an ensemble still sounding like jazz, even if it’s not… Even if it’s written, if parts are written. His whole work ethic also. But it’s hard to pinpoint how playing the Ellington music influenced me. I mean, hearing it…

TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…

WOLFE: I mean, I’ve always loved Monk. I’ve been into Monk since I’ve played music. That’s something I’ve always connected to, just the rhythm of Monk’s band, the way they play rhythms.

TP: But here you’re actually doing. You’re going on the road with this music and playing it a lot. It has to affect you. Or not.

WOLFE: I’m not sure exactly how playing all the Duke Ellington music affected me. Because at that point, I’ve already been on the road a lot playing a lot of different music. So I’m not sure how that affected me. Playing Wynton’s music affected me because it was a challenge to play it well, and try to find my own way of playing and also play it correctly. I think I gained more from playing Wynton’s music than Duke Ellington’s music. I think if I were in Duke Ellington’s band, I would get more from playing Duke Ellington’s music than playing… Like, if you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, you’re going to gain more playing Duke’s music than playing someone else’s music. You know what I mean? Not that I didn’t gain from it. It was great to play all those parts, all the Jimmy Blanton parts, all the Oscar Pettiford parts you’ve heard on records.

TP: But you’re inside-out with the architecture of the music.

WOLFE: In a way. But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of the music before. It was just getting a chance to play it. I’m not sure how much… It would be kind of like playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean, listening to it I might gain more than playing his tunes. Maybe.

TP: More accurately, though, might be Dizzy Gillespie and being inside of the band.

WOLFE: That I wish we would do, play more of those tunes. Well, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it affected me. But I didn’t like break it down and go inside and study the scores. I just played the music.

TP: Is that not the way you approach music, like breaking it down into minutiae?

WOLFE: Not always. Not as much as others, I should say.

TP: When do you leave Wynton?

WOLFE: I finished in Wynton at the end of ’95; the septet breaks up and I do another year with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I’m also playing with Benny Green at that time and Eric Reed, and doing other little things in and out at this point. And I went back with Harry before I went back with Wynton. When I subbed for Wynton, and then joined his band, in between I played with Benny Green and Harry Connick — and Marcus Roberts, a little bit. Little pockets of things I was doing.

TP: A few words about Benny Green and Marcus Roberts, who are two of the most visible pianists of the era.

WOLFE: Well, I met Benny… Our high school band did a concert together when we were seniors in high school. We didn’t meet then but we saw each other. Craig Handy was in that band also. But we’ve played together in different situations, and we’re good friends. We played in the trio with Kareem Riggins playing free jazz! He was breaking out of the Oscar Peterson mold. He’s something else. I love Benny Green. I love his musicianship. I think he’s a great musician. We played over here at the house, myself, Ned Goold, Benny Green and Rodney Green, this young drummer. He’s my favorite drummer in New York. I love his drumming! We played over here, and it felt so good that I would loved to just give up all career and just do that. I would have actually done that! I’d have said “just do this.” Everyone was like, “Wow, this really feels good.” [ETC.] Benny and I talked yesterday on the phone. We have long, real conversations actually.

I played with Marcus for a very short time. We went on the road and rehearsed. I think Marcus is a really funny guy. He makes me laugh. I dig Marcus, and I really respect the fact that he’s trying to do something. He’s an artist. He’s not just trying to get over and sell records. Because he could easily associate himself with Wynton completely and just be that. And I don’t know what he did, but it seemed like he consciously removed himself to try to stand on his own two feet or whatever, which I respect and like.

TP: He makes some outlandish claims for himself, but then you get past it.

WOLFE: But he’s trying to do something. All his records, he seems to be trying… Which is more than most people do.

TP: You’ve played a lot with Eric Reed.

WOLFE: He’s one of these super-talented guys. He just can play anything. Yeah, we played a lot together, with different drummers… In fact, me and Eric Reed and Greg Hutchinson, I thought we had a great trio. I really liked that combination.

TP: Were you on that first record he did?

WOLFE: I’m on two records. The first Impulse record I’m on half and Ron Carter is on the other half, and the record before that me and Rodney split.

TP: So you leave Rodney in ’95 and you do your first record in ’96..

WOLFE: Yeah, I’m playing with Eric Reed at that time. I did my first record then. I’m doing a lot of gigs at Smalls with little… And I’m doing little gigs at the Village Gate. All through this time I’m doing little gigs. I’m writing a lot of music.

TP: So no matter how up on the feeding chain you get, you’re not losing your connection to the lifeblood.

WOLFE: I’m doing more. Every gig I’ve been doing feeds into that one way or another, whether it’s financially or learning things. With Wynton I learned a lot about writing. I don’t know what I learned. I can’t tell you what it was. But I learned a lot being around him. But I’m writing a lot of music during all this time. I spent a lot of time at the piano writing a lot of music, writing a lot of ballads.

TP: Was your first record a collection of things you’d been writing over the years or did you write stuff for the project?

WOLFE: Both. I had so much music, I just tried to record as much as I could.

TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.

WOLFE: Joe Magnarelli was my neighbor when I lived on Thompson Street. He always seemed like he wanted to be there in my group. Like, the first time I hired him… I was at the Village Gate, I hired him for the weekend, and he came in on the Wednesday to sit in and had everything memorized. He’s real diligent, hard-working. I’ve known him for years, and he has improved so much as a trumpet player. Tardo Hammer once said to me, “Man, the first time I heard Joe Magnarelli, he sounded terrible, he was awful, and now he’s my favorite trumpet player.” He made this HUGE…like bang. But he works hard.

TP: Joe has a specific timbre to his sound, and it’s coming out of K.D. and Tommy Turrentine, but it’s his thing. Is that a sound you relate to a lot? Is it imprinted on you from early listening?

WOLFE: I don’t know. When Joe is playing good, there’s something about it… It just sounds good. He plays much different than I play. He seems to think a lot differently. I still don’t think Joe has really become what he’s going to be yet. I still think he’s fighting. Something is in his way. I really believe that. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a certain view he has seen yet into how to make music, and he’s still trying to figure out the instrument even though he can already do that. I think that’s his thing that he struggles with. But you can’t put that in there, but it would sound like I’m putting down my man. But I think that’s something with Joe, that he’s still not…which is somewhat frustrating.

TP: How about for you?

WOLFE: For me?

TP: Yeah, these two records… How do you see this new…

WOLFE: Well, on the first record, the bass playing is terrible. I didn’t play any bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass. I was thinking about the record and about the music, and I didn’t play the bass well on that record at all. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I mean, except for a couple of tunes. But overall, I forgot to play the bass on the record. And the second record, I practiced a lot and I think I played the bass better. I didn’t solo very well, but I played the bass better. I think if you were to combine both the records, take a few tunes from each record, you’d have one record that I could live with forever. Each record has a few tunes that I’ll never wish were different. I can say that for both records. The second record I think was far superior to the first record. But it’s still not successful all the way, just like the first one.

TP: What would make it successful all the way?

WOLFE: Well, the first tunes of both records are successful. They sound good. I don’t wish something was different. They sound like music. I stay in the music. A lot of tunes didn’t come out conceptually the way I would have liked them to. Which is not… That’s normal, I suppose. Both records were done in one day, very quickly. A lot of tunes. The sound of the second record is better. I got a great sound in the studio on the second one, I felt. I really liked the bass sound for the most part on the second record.

TP: Again, was that first record something you wrote for the date, or had you been collecting tunes over the years?

WOLFE: In the two or three years before that record came out, I was writing differently. I was writing as if I was a composer as much as a bass player, versus being a bass player who wrote music and loved to write music. I was writing as a composer, a lot of music. So that record is kind of a product of a lot of that music, and it’s finding some kind of voice as a writer. The second record is a much more refined version of the first record. Each record I learned something. The first record I had trombone; the second record I had the baritone saxophone. They’re similar actually, but the second record is a little more realized, I guess.

TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.

WOLFE: Billy Strayhorn is a huge compositional influence on me. Mingus, the way he wrote ballads. Yusef Lateef, from the Paul Chambers record First Bassman. Duke Ellington influenced me as a writer. Charlie Parker influenced me as a writer.

TP: On first blush, they sound like Bebop records, which isn’t like a lot of guys in your generation.

WOLFE: I’m definitely from that well. I don’t want to play Charlie Parker’s music every night, because he did that. I don’t want to play my influences’ music every night. But he’s a huge influence on me. And the rhythm of Bebop, the rhymes of it are definitely a big part of my writing.

TP: You also do some very hip substitutions. One of the tunes on 13 Sketches is “Little Willie Leaps,” very cleverly disguised.

WOLFE: Yeah, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” “Blind Seven.” That’s written for Sherman Irby. We used to play some card game, Blind Seven. Another tune on that record is based loosely on “Dewey Square”. Every tune on that 13 Sketches is a description of something, of a person or a situation. M Mostly people. Every single tune. The second record is pretty much descriptions of situations or people. The second record is more like a soundtrack for a movie without a movie, which is something I really want to do — and I just did something actually for this guy’s student film, with a 17-piece band, with strings and clarinets. I love that. That’s what I want to do. I want to write, compose and play the music.

TP: There’s some very specific technique involved with that, making the stuff fit the frames-per-second.

WOLFE: Well, this wasn’t that kind of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. I just want to write.

TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?

WOLFE: I played with Diana Krall for two years, and that ended a year ago, and I played with Harry Connick for the summer, and with Ned Goold as the opening act. We did that also, which was tremendous. A live record should be coming out. And I’m back with Diana now, as of a month ago.

TP: Again, it’s one of the highest visibility gigs…

WOLFE: It’s a good band. Right now it’s Dan Fanley, a guitar player from Oregon, and Shannon Powell, who used to play drums with Harry back when I played with him years ago. It’s nice. We just play tunes and try to swing. We’re not trying to change the world. But in a way, I like that it’s not trying to change the world. Because I have my own vision and that’s what I want to pursue. So every time I do a gig with someone, I’m like helping someone pursue their vision, so to speak. This is easier, in a way. I don’t mean this to sound bad. I play with Wynton, as much as I love playing with him, it’s a reminder of so much what I want to do and what I’m not doing. I’m seeing him do it, which is great. And in a way, Harry Connick, too, because he writes a new song every day and has his own band to play it. So it’s like, okay, why am I the guy in the band? I don’t want to be the guy in the band. I don’t feel like I should be, but who does? But I really believe in the music I write, as much as I believe in my bass playing — equally. With Diana, it’s we’re playing standards and just trying to make people feel good every night, so it’s a good gig to have for me, especially as far as keeping my frustrations intact. I get very frustrated on the bandstand sometimes. You should ask Benny Green; he’ll tell you.

TP: With other people’s imperfections?

WOLFE: With everything. I just see things more and more so clearly how I think they should be, or how I’d like them to be, and I’m still learning how as a sideman to realize I’m not either… Play the gig or don’t play the gig, but don’t make it your band, because it’s not my band. But I feel these things so strongly, and sometimes they’re really… To some people they would seem so small. Like the way a drummer holds his stick in his left hand. If he’s playing (?), it drives me crazy. I can’t play with it. It drives me nuts. It’s little things that most people don’t even notice. so I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s why I need to be a bandleader.

TP: One thing about being a sideman, there’s a level where music is also narrative, and if you’re playing with a singer you’re evoking these very palpable stories. you seem to think of it that way in terms of your tunes…

WOLFE: I think of it that way sonically, not so much verbally. But that’s true also. I don’t really know a lot of lyrics to tunes, though I should. When Diana’s playing the song I know them, but I probably couldn’t tell you the lyrics to the tunes afterwards. But when they’re being sung, I hear them go by, and I’m aware of them. But when the song is over, I don’t remember what they are.

TP: Does being around lyrics all the time for two years have anything to do with putting images for…

WOLFE: No. Reading books about Picasso… I read a book called Picasso on Art, talking about his views and people saying things that he had said — and that influenced me greatly. It’s hard for me to describe. I’m certainly not a painter, and I don’t want to sound presumptuous. I don’t know enough about… Well, you can look at his paintings different ways and see different things. I love the whole concept of duality; is it a tree, is it a woman… I love that kind of stuff? And I write that way. There’s a tune on the first record called “Ursula’s Dance” where it has two melodies. The melody could be a melody, it could be a counter-melody — it can be heard either way. It’s not important how one hears it, but it could be viewed differently. But that way of having things have dual meanings. I put a lot of stuff in my tunes just for me, that no one would ever in a million years notice, where I quote myself, or I’ll put a certain melody or chord or rhythm I used in other tunes, almost like as a marker for myself, so I know… I have a lot of things like that. My titles will have other meanings that are never… My mother once said to me, “You know, your titles are great if you know what they mean.” But no one could ever know what they mean. In the book, one thing that struck me was Picasso… Some students were talking about trying to draw the perfect circle, they’d spend hours trying to get a perfect circle. He said, “No, just draw the circle, and your personality will be in that circle every time.” I love that way of thinking, sort of little, witty, clever conceptual ideas.

I think music is of the brain, not of the instrument, and that’s what drives me crazy today, is people don’t play that way. Jazz just isn’t happening any more. It just isn’t, at least… I’m not saying I am either. But it seems to me that a very small percentage of jazz musicians have a jazz sound.

TP: What is a jazz sound?

WOLFE: I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s hard for me to explain. Maybe it’s some sort of consciousness of the sound between the sounds, the space between the notes, a way of hearing… I don’t know how to hear it.

TP: Bennie Wallace was saying that about a Sonny Rollins solo, the space between the beats, the pitches between…

WOLFE: The in between. There’s like air, and it’s relaxed and it’s swinging. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I know that it doesn’t seem to exist as much now. It seems like these days, for the most part, you have people expressing some sort of ability on their instruments, which I think is sometimes very suspect in what they think of as ability, and different versions or imitations of the ’60s, and calling that modern. The ’60s is a lot closer to the ’40s than it is to here. Or you have people picking their eras and imitating them, and ignoring the others, and it’s like all about which era one is… How they’re imitating which era in what way. Which is bullshit, really. I mean, it’s a way to learn, but the people they’re imitating weren’t doing that. Monk certainly wasn’t doing that. You can find his influences, but he sounded very fresh. Bird wasn’t doing that. I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate Prez’ bag. Prez wasn’t doing that. Duke wasn’t doing that. They all had a vision, they were trying to find… Ornette. All of them. Coltrane’s band in the ’60s… How many bands now, how musicians do you hear trying to sound like Coltrane’s band in the ’60s? I mean, if you look at it… A lot of drummers are trying to sound like Elvin. Right? When I first came to New York, everyone was Tony, Ron and Herbie, and everywhere you’d go, every piano player was Herbie Hancock. It’s like why?

TP: But then a lot of guys got past that. A lot of guys who did that 12 years ago sort of found their own take on it. You don’t think so.

WOLFE: I don’t. I hear so many Herbie Hancocks, man, out there. That’s nothing against Herbie, but that’s not what Herbie was doing. That’s not the lesson with your heros. The lesson isn’t how to sound like Paul Chambers. The lesson is how to sound like yourself. How did Paul Chambers sound like Paul Chambers? He didn’t sound like everyone else. You hear him, “Oh, that’s Paul Chambers,” “Oh, that’s Bud Powell,” “Oh, that’s Sidney Bechet,” “Oh, that’s Bird.” Why are they such beacons?

TP: So you’re saying you can’t listen to that many people and identify them as them.

WOLFE: Well, everyone says the same thing. Everyone says the same thing, everyone plays the same way, everyone talks the same way. Everyone’s trying to be this “jazz musician,” and no one is trying to be an artist. And I hate that. I mean, I could care less about that. I don’t care, man. Being a jazz musician and playing jazz seem to be two different things. We can go out and be cool and talk hip and shake hands and dress nice and talk about so-and-so-‘s killin’ and not really mean it, and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s get together” and not really mean it… All that stuff is all bullshit. It means nothing. It might be fun t go to the Vanguard and be cool and have Lorraine fuck with you, all those things, the whole jazz world… All that is nothing, man! It means nothing. I mean, it’s fun and it’s a lifestyle, but it means nothing — absolutely nothing. What means something is what one is actually producing and I think most people aren’t even trying to produce much. Not really. You certainly can’t compare the records now with the records of the past. They don’t hold up well in any way, in playing, in sound, in creativity. They just don’t. My records included, believe me. I’m much more attracted to people trying to do something.

TP: Who do you like?

WOLFE: I like Ned Goold. That’s who I respect the most. Him and Wynton are the two people I respect the most, by far.

TP: Who else do you like?

WOLFE: Who else do I like? It’s dangerous, because when I say who I like I have to preface each time… I don’t like a lot of people the way I like Monk or the way I like whoever. I like the way Veal plays the bass. If I had to pick one bass player I like, I would pick him, because when I hear him play, he sounds like a character. I hear his personality. I don’t hear him just trying to be somebody or just trying to be professional. I would pick him over all the rest of them, if I had to pick one person. Of all the bass players you could name, I could tell you things I like about them and things I don’t like about them. Everyone one of them I could say what I like and don’t like.

Another thing is, I hear a lot of arrogance in music, that I hate. I can only describe it, it sounds arrogant… The sound of conceit, I hate. If that makes any sense. When I hear Monk, I don’t hear that. I guess Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan are very bravado. But when I hear like Bird… To me, what I hear. I’m not saying how they are as people. But I don’t hear it as arrogance in the music. It sounds like it’s a humble artistic gesture to take it, and do what you want — you like it or you don’t or whatever. It is what it is, like a poem or something. A lot of times now everything seems real arrogant, and I find that offensive in music. I probably sound arrogant right now talking this way, and it could be construed like I’m talking down…

TP: Well, it sounds a bit like flailing against the wind. There’s a reality and you’re in this reality…

WOLFE: I don’t feel part of the reality. I feel like it’s my job to do these gigs. But I don’t feel connected with the jazz scene that way. I don’t feel like they’re my peers in certain ways. Not really.

TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?

WOLFE: Ned. No, not really. I don’t look at it that way. I’m just trying to find a way to get to do my thing, and hopefully develop it and hopefully have a chance of being great. I want to have a chance to be great. I’m definitely not anywhere near that. The whole music business… See, now I’m getting dark, man. But I really believe these things. And I don’t dislike people. But I don’t go out and buy a lot of jazz records, because they don’t appeal to me. I put the jazz radio on a lot, and every now and then I hear something I like. It’s funny, when I hear something I like I’m afraid to give it a second listen, because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time. Like, I heard something a few years ago and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting; I like this.” It was John Zorn live with that Masada group. I’d never heard anything from him other than that one tune, and I was almost afraid to hear anything more because I was so satisfied by it. I haven’t forgotten it since. I like Wynton. I like a lot of what it stands for.

TP: It sounds like some of what you’re looking for is in avant-garde music you haven’t gone to in your career stuff. I hear a lot of individuality there.

WOLFE: Oh, what I’m doing in my career is nothing at all what I would do if I was doing my own thing. It’s just that’s what I do for a living. And I enjoy doing it. You’ve never heard my band probably.

TP: No, just these records.

WOLFE: That’s a small part of it. I write all the time. That’s what I want too do. Whether it’s avant-garde… The music I want to play is based on principles of how one thinks on the bandstand. Like, the intention of the music is as important as music itself. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody, and it was a common argument about opinions. “Well, if someone like it, then it’s good. If it makes someone feel good, then it must be good.” I said, “Yeah, but you can lie and make someone feel good. You can tell someone they’re beautiful, you can tell them you love them, you can tell them they’re this and they’re that — and be lying to them and make them feel good. But the intention was not good.” And I think that’s important. In music I think you can lie and you can impress, and I don’t like that. I kind of have a… When I make my records, for better or worse, I try not to think at all business-like. The first record someone said, “Maybe you should put a couple of standards on there.” I don’t care if it sells one record. I’m not going to put something on there in order to make it sell. I refuse to do that. I do enough of that as a sideman. I’m a hired gun, so to speak. But when I’m doing my own thing, I refuse to do it for that reason. What people hear is going to be honest.

TP: There’s a notion of genre that goes to Hollywood studio directors who made great art within those forms. There’s an element of that in jazz as well. I mean, just playing the function, if you do it with your personality, then that becomes a statement in and of itself.

WOLFE: True enough. That’s true. I agree. But I need more control than just being put in it. For my best work, I need to be more than just a bass player. Mingus was like that. I’m not comparing myself to that. But he wasn’t just a bass player.

TP: It’s an interesting dichotomy, because you’re so successful as a sideman.

WOLFE: Successful in one regard. Paul Chambers, I’m not like him.

TP: I’m not talking about the aesthetics. As far as your career, 99.5% of the bass players out there would kill to have the gigs you have.

WOLFE: No, and I’m glad I have them, because I need to make money and I need to be out there, and I need to pursue what I’m trying to do. Because no one is going to pay for my 17-piece record. Which is fine.

TP: So that’s sort of a Connick attitude, in a certain way, which I believe Connick is telling half the truth when he says that half of what he does is so he can put the band out there so he can write his music.

WOLFE: I think that’s true, but he’s a complicated figure. It’s hard, because you have to learn… By playing these gigs that I’m doing, it makes it easier to not be disgusted by who is chosen to do their own thing. When I see who is getting to write their music, and I see people who are being celebrated for whatever reason they say they’re celebrating them, when I know that’s not really what’s happening… You can become so frustrated that you don’t want to be part of anything, and that’s not the way to get what you want to do. You have to accept that that’s the world, that’s Corporate America. But at the same time, I always got to things from a different route. I can’t do what everyone else does. That way doesn’t work for me. And I don’t want to be part of that anyway.


No piano. Well, the music I write is definitely not bass-oriented. It’s all written on the piano. Most all of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I’ve written on the piano, arranged for the band. When I have a piano it’s so… Well, I’ll probably have more piano in the future. But it’s so definitely what I ask from a piano player as far as the voicings, that it’s almost… I’ve decided for a while to have the piano…to try to arrange it for the band. But I do love having piano. But I want a piano player to be a third rhythm section, not run the show… It just hasn’t happened yet. It’s not like I don’t want piano. It just hasn’t happened.

TP: Is that analogy to Mingus’ mid-’50s music accurate? Did you listen to it a lot?

WOLFE: I haven’t studied it, but I’ve heard it and I feel a connection to it, especially “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” the ballad. That influenced me a lot, just that ballad, the use of the trombone in it. In fact, the way Mingus kind of played hard. He played hard, with a lot of ass, for lack of a better word, and wrote music that was really beautiful and pretty. That combination I could kind of relate to in a sense. People think of Mingus as being rough, but his music is really beautiful. I can relate to that in a certain way.

[-30-]Wolfe-Panken (8-8-01):

TP: First, since we last talked, which was about 18 months ago, what’s new? Then you were just leaving Connick and starting to go out with Krall.

WOLFE: I started working with Diana again, and we started touring like crazy, and I started planning this new CD of mine. That’s pretty much been my life since then. That CD originally was going to be doing something real quick, and it turned into the biggest project I’ve ever done. I wrote a lot of music and recorded it in a real unique way, and I’m real happy with it actually. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to do my work for that. It’s out now, and…

TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?

WOLFE: I’ve been with her a little less than two years. This young drummer, Rodney Green has been playing. We’ve become a real team. It’s nice to play with a drummer like that. He’s unique in the fact that he gets a great sound on the drums. At that age you don’t hear that so often. A real developed tone quality, which personally I love, being a big fan of the drums.

TP: So more or less, it’s been either you’re touring with Krall or putting together this new music on your downtime.

WOLFE: Yes. I want to write for some films. That’s one of the things I want to do. But I spend a lot of time writing… I’m already planning my next record, writing music for it, for whenever that does come around. I’ve been writing actually for full orchestra.

TP: Will the tunes be more filled-out? It seems with each record, you’re treating the tunes more and more minimally and more through-composed. Some of the tunes here seem a bit sketchy, but maybe that’s the imaginary film aspect.

WOLFE: Here’s the way I think of it. I write all my music on the piano. Almost like little solo piano pieces. Then I arrange them for different combinations of instruments based on the instrument and the person playing. I try to arrange them and write them for a different sound. I think of the instruments almost like characters. The way I describe my writing these days is chamber music within a jazz context. Like, I might use cello… I’m writing a piece now, an half-hour five-movement extended work, for a concert in Oregon that I’m producing, and I have the sextet I use, which will be bass-drums-piano-trumpet-tenor saxophone-baritone sax/flute. For this long piece I’m adding three classical musicians, an opera singer soprano, a cello player, and a tubist. So it will be 9 musicians.

TP: You described Murray’s Steps as an imaginary film. Can you describe that film?

WOLFE: Well, it’s not so much that I pick a story. I just put it together as if it was for a film. The way the CD is set up, it starts off with this particular tune, the same tune it ends with, almost I imagine like the credits rolling, or on the way out I imagine people leaving a theater from a play. It’s that whole experience. The first tune is a short little introduction, almost like an overture, coming into the experience. The second tune is a little interlude that introduces the characters, so to speak, and some of the sounds I’m using throughout the record. And then the third tune is almost like the first tune of the record. I’m trying to write it like an experience, like a journey, so to speak. I tried to put it together almost like a suite, in how the tunes go together. I spent a lot time figuring out how much stuff between the tunes.

TP: Who would you say are some of your compositional influences? You’re obviously mixing a lot of information, a lot of perspectives, or interpreting or reformualtion… There’s a lot of information being distilled here.

WOLFE: When I write, I don’t really write in terms of trying to write like anybody, so to speak. The influences I think you hear would be Billy Strayhorn, Duke Elllington, Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker. It’s definitely jazz music. I like arranging. I like putting stuff together and finding different types of harmonic movements and arranging to find different sounds that sound good to me. Basically, when I write, I just find what sounds good to me. I like thinking of it as jazz ensemble music versus somebody who’s blowing on top of a rhythm section. I’ve never been real attracted to that, unless it’s done in its finest sense, the way I like it, when it always sounds like a group — it doesn’t sound like someone getting off on top of a rhythm section.

TP: Well, you had a lot of good experience with ensemble playing in your couple of years with Wynton.

WOLFE: I learned a lot from Wynton, because he was writing a lot of ensemble type music, with solos in it, of course. But it’s more about the whole thing versus the soloists. I like the thought of jazz music being ensemble music, whereas… That’s what it really is to me. Unless it’s that one person playing, to me what makes it beautiful is the connection of the musicians and how they play together, not so much what they’re playing by themselves, but how they play together.

TP: So what you’re describing must be part of the satisfaction of playing with Diana Krall — apart from it being a great gig.

WOLFE: My sideman work is something to me that’s totally separate than what I’m doing on my own — or trying to do. It’s like a whole different thing. It’s a different perspective from the bass, from everything. When I’m hired as a sideman with Diana or whomever… It depends who it is, of course. But to me, when I’m playing with Diana, it’s about her vision, it’s about her conception, and it’s about what she’s trying to do. I’m there to help realize her musical vision, so to speak.

TP: How would you describe her musical vision and how you fit into it?

WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.

TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.

TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.

WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…

TP: You have a more control.

WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.

TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…

WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.

TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?

WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.

TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.

WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.

TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?

WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.

TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.

WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…

TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?

WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.

TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?

WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.

TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.

WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.

TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?

WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.

I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.

TP: When did you start with Diana?

WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.

TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.

WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.



Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)

“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.

There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.

2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.

3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)

That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.

4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)

It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.

5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.

6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)

We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.

7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)

This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!

8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)

The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.

9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)

Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.

10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)

That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.

11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)

that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.

12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)

That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.

13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)

Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.

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