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For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.


Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1—so it starts the sequence over and over again. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Article, Chicago, DownBeat

An Unpublished Article on Irwin Mayfield and Two Uncut Interviews from 2003

Recent reports by the distinguished journalists Jason Berry and Larry Blumenfeld on the alleged misappropriation of funds intended for the New Orleans Public Library into the coffers of trumpeter Irwin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra evoke for me my meeting with Mayfield in 2003, for an article — for reasons I can no longer remember, it wasn’t published — for Jazziz about a collaboration by Mayfield, then 25, with nonagenarian photojournalist-filmmaker-novelist-composer Gordon Parks that resulted in the CD, Blue Autumn.

Here’s the final draft that I submitted  at the time, plus  verbatim interviews with Mayfield in January and April of 2003.


Irvin Mayfield (unpublished 2003 article):

On the surface, Gordon Parks and the New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield have so little in common that to suggest the possibility of a productive artistic collaboration between them would seem a far-fetched prospect. But in this instance, appearances are deceiving.

Often described as a “Renaissance Man” in recognition of the range of media in which he operates, Parks, who turned 90 last year, is a giant of 20th century arts and letters. As the first African-American staff photographer for “Life” magazine during the ’40s and ’50s, Parks presented a gritty, unsentimental vision of the human condition in a series of photo-essays that addressed, without a touch of condescension, the lives and milieux of Harlem gangs, South Side cops, rural midwest wanderers, and the favela dwellers of Rio de Janeiro. Parallel-tracking as a high-fashion photographer for “Vogue,” he created understated images of beauty and elegance. As a film director, Parks gave the world “Shaft,” featuring the first black action hero of a Hollywood studio picture, and “Leadbelly,” a credible biopic of the blues legend. Since his 1963 novel, “The Learning Tree,” a canonic coming-of-age tale of his Kansas boyhood, Parks has written several memoirs and works of fiction, with an historical novel about J.W. Turner, the inimitable early 19th century English seascape painter, just out of the galleys. Parks is also a self-taught ear pianist, and he plays European classical music with reflective, somber elegance, often performing his own compositions, which blend pastel French impressionist harmonies with the melancholy emanations of the lowdown bordello blues, a style Parks played nightly as a scuffling teenager in Depression Minneapolis.

Parks describes his senior years as “half-past autumn,” and used the phrase to label the comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his photographs that has toured America since late 1997. Anticipating the show’s summer 2000 arrival, the New Orleans Museum of Art asked Mayfield — who had been hosting there a series of “informances” about the reciprocal relationship between the visual arts and jazz — to compose a creative response for opening night. He rose to the challenge with the “Half-Past Autumn Suite,” recorded in late 2002 and released this winter by Basin Street Records.

I caught up with Mayfield at the cocktail hour of a raw January day in the unheated front bar of Tribeca’s Knitting Factory, the first leg of a brief northeast tour in support of the “Half-Past Autumn Suite.” Just off the plane from New Orleans, sharp in a beige camelshair overcoat buttoned to the neck to ward off the chill, Mayfield sat at a small table, sipping bottled water, fixing me with laughing, hawkish eyes as he described the project’s genesis.

“I wrote the music in two weeks, and we rehearsed for three days before,” Mayfield says. “The place only seats 240, and there were a thousand unhappy people outside trying to see Gordon Parks. After we finished a blues, Gordon got up and said, ‘That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives,’ and at the end of the night he started dancing with his daughter. Later we sat, and he gave me his home number and told me to call any time. Then I realized I was going to put the music out.”

Popular around New Orleans since his teens, Mayfield, now 25, has established an international profile as co-leader of Los Hombres Calientes, a dance-oriented ensemble that articulates the styles of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti with idiomatic precision and a let-the-good-times-roll New Orleans jazz sensibility, as documented on last year’s Congo Square and the spring 2003 release Vodou Dance. But observers who know him only through that prism may not be prepared for the emotional depth of Half-Past Autumn. Like its solo predecessor, How Passion Falls, the program comprises nine challenging compositions for quintet that parse and counterstate the harmonic and rhythmic tropes laid down by New Orleans modernists Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison during Mayfield’s formative years. The musicianship throughout is informed, creative, interactive, and often inspired; Mayfield plays with virtuoso panache, crafting stories that balance bravura upper register flights with grounded excursions in a nuanced, malleable middle register. Icing the cake is a trumpet-piano duo by Mayfield and Parks on “Wind,” a Parks composition that the maestro suggested Mayfield perform.

“I chose to interpret Gordon’s modern pieces — ‘Evening,’ ‘Towards Infinity,’ ‘Moonscape,'” Mayfield said. “Gordon is very serious and warm, his music and art combine those qualities, and that’s what I wanted to capture. I could imagine myself having painted or photographed these pictures. That’s Gordon’s gift. He deals with basic fundamental themes — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.”

Mayfield evidently is not one to allow his creativity to be inhibited by Oedipal notions of slaying the father. In point of fact, he has internalized the New Orleans custom of treating the past as a living, evolving narrative to be dialogued with in a ceremonial context. Intellectually ambitious and highly disciplined, trained in century-old vernacular brass and parade band traditions and intimate with the most up-to-the-minute iterations of jazz modernism, Mayfield — whose early instruction came from his father, a former Army drill sergeant — could stand as a prototype for the 21st century New Orleans jazz musician. He cites the influence of Danny Barker, a native of the French Quarter whose long, distinguished career as a guitarist and banjoist included jobs with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. A world class raconteur with an encyclopedic memory, Barker retired to New Orleans in the latter ’60s, organizing a youth band at the Fairview Baptist Church, where, if he was so inclined, he might inform his young charges that Louis Armstrong learned his diminished chords from funky trumpeter Buddy Petit, or that the Onward Brass Band, inspired by a lead trumpeter named Kimball, who played like King Oliver, was the greatest brass band of his day.

“I played a lot with Danny Barker before he passed, and I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is,” Mayfield says. “One difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. There was never a point in time when Danny Barker wasn’t hip. Here’s a guy who was in his seventies talking about his chord structures on the guitar and about Louis Armstrong and what he did for American music, and at the same time talking about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ The older musicians always talked to you like a man. Danny Barker wasn’t not going to say ‘bitches and ho’s’ around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. ‘You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.'”

Cocksure from early proximity to elders in the Algiers Brass Band and undeniable technical proficiency, Mayfield matriculated at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts — the magnet school that famously produced Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Reginald Veal and Nicholas Payton. “I got a reality check at NOCCA,” he laughs. “These cats were traveling and working. I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ on the drums and interpret it. He had total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize them. Nicholas Payton had graduated, but he was still hanging around. The first time I heard him he was playing bass, and I said, ‘Oh, what a great bass player.’ Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounded like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. Hearing Nicholas Payton for the first time made me have to really decide.

“My father played trumpet and knew a lot of the technical aspects, but he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is very aristocratic in the sense that it’s a town of tradition, particularly the Creole tradition; if you don’t fit in, it’s hard to deal with. Coming up, I had to try to figure out which group I belonged in, which made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing. I knew it was almost an impossible task. But I decided that no matter what it took, I would do music, because I loved it so much.”

Not long after his 19th birthday, Mayfield accepted an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to crash at Marsalis’ Upper West Side apartment, and began a heady two-year stay in New York City. Situated within walking distance of Manhattan’s Museum Mile and the galleries of 57th Street, Mayfield heard the conversation of various thinkers who frequented the Marsalis manse, jammed late nights with the best and brightest of his peer group at the Blue Note, Small’s, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Home Front, and landed a gig playing after-work jazz shows at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Until I got to New York, I couldn’t appreciate visual art, but then I got my eyes open,” Mayfield relates. “I fell in love with Matisse and Cezanne, Bearden and Lawrence, and I began to study music that had been inspired by the same themes, like the use of trains in Bearden and Ellington. Then I started wondering about further connections. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art and politics? What I found out is that there is.”

After signing with Basin Street Records, Mayfield returned to New Orleans, refining his cross-genre explorations as Artist-in-Residence at Dillard University and as Artistic Director of the recently established New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. “New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home,” Mayfield says. “You go through this weird emotional thing. There isn’t prejudice about music in New Orleans. You’d play the Louis Armstrong music, and then if you wanted to play some avant-garde music with Kidd Jordan, that’s what you’d play. Then you’d play an R&B gig, or maybe horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead, or maybe some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You’re happy to be playing. You’re a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was.

“As much as I loved living in New York, I had a hard time at first because everybody thought you fit in a bag. If you’re hanging with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, not music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is really free music. That’s what Wynton and especially Terence Blanchard were trying to do. People are sometimes surprised when they hear my quintet record, and it sounds like what they would call a New Yorker. But if they hear Los Hombres, they say, ‘Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.’ I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.”

History will determine whether Mayfield’s progression during his twenties will prove half as consequential to the course of jazz as Picasso’s own third-decade transition from the Blue Period to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was to painting. But apart from his considerable chops and conceptual range, the quality that will make Mayfield a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future is a fierce individualism that allows him to imprint his iconoclastic tonal personality on deep-set cultural traditions in a way that sustains and invigorates them.

“I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and I play the New Orleans way,” he says. “I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs in the suspenders and white hats — and I follow that legacy. I challenge the concepts that Wynton puts out there by trying to redefine the concept of what jazz is and what it can be. A lot of times people get so pissed off with what someone says, that they don’t understand the importance of the dialogue. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I’m right. Can we have a dialogue about it? During the 1960s, you had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. A lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s reflective of my generation and what we’re doing in American culture.”

Mayfield is determined to back up his brash talk with musical principles that speak louder than words. “When I was writing the music for Half Past Autumn, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like Gordon’s art, not some esoteric idea of jazz, or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that bringing scraps to your band ignites them to figure out more. Jazz is about the process of trying to be better. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.”


* * * *

Irvin Mayfield (1-30-03) at the Knitting Factory:
TP: So let’s start with some nuts and bolts questions about this project. What’s the genesis. I gather you’d been doing series of concerts at the New Orleans Museum for events such as this, and this was a commission from them, and then Gordon Parks came and heard the music, and he liked it, and voila, you had a collaboration.

MAYFIELD: Right. Well, when I first lived in New York is when I first got my eyes open to visual art. I could never appreciate art before that. In fact, it was absurd to me that people would spend their money on these pieces of visual things. When I first got my eyes open to art, I fell in love with Picasso, I fell in love with Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden, Lawrence, all these great artists. Then I started wondering if there was any connection between the periods of the arts. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art, throughout politics? And what I found out is that there is. So what I wound up doing was I went to the museum at home. Now, I guess a lot of people don’t really use the resources that are there around them. But I went to the museum at home, I started going over there just looking at art that was around. So I went there and I started talking about them saying, here, let’s try… I would like to do some conversations or some dialogue or some research on the comparisons between Ellison, Bearden and Ellington, or Monk and Lawrence and Baldwin. I started doing this research, and they were giving me all these materials. People were coming out… We started this interesting dialogue. I think a lot of the people who were in the visual arts started looking at music in a different sense, because they figured their way of how they could relate to it…

TP: Who are you talking about now? The curator of the museum funneled materials to you, and then you’d share these materials with your circle of musicians.

MAYFIELD: Right. There’s a great group at the museum at home called the Champions Group, of African-American and Caribbean artists, and they were very much looking to do something that has an educational outreach and looking for somebody to do something like this They were really glad when I came along, obviously. Because you really have to want to do something like this, rather than have somebody hire you to do it. I did it at first for no money; it was just something we were doing. And it was really a lot of fun. I was learning a lot.

TP: Let me get a few things straight. You’re how old?


TP: So you’re born in ’77.


TP: You were in New York when?

MAYFIELD: I was in New York from 19 to 21.

TP: So in ’97-’99. Were you in school and performing at the same time?

MAYFIELD: I was living with Wynton, which was like being in school. But I was crashing at his place, and I was doing some Lincoln Center Gigs. I did several records, two Live at the Blue Note and also with Wessel Anderson, “Live At The Village Vanguard,” and hitting all the jam sessions at Small’s and Cleopatra’s. That’s where I hooked up with Jaz Sawyer and Richard Johnson. There was this club that opened uptown called the Home Front, which was open for four weeks and then closed down. That’s where I met a lot of my peers, like Eric Lewis and all the other musicians. This is the New York experience. So I’d be here, and then I’d fly back home and do these things at the museum and various gigs. But I was actually prepared to move up to New York. Wynton extended a favor to me to say I could stay with him as long as I wanted. If I hadn’t gotten my record deal, that’s exactly what I would have done.

TP: Staying in that part of town, the possibilities are infinite.

MAYFIELD: Right. I’m going to MOMA every day and doing performances there at their 5 o’clock jazz shows. I would use the band Wes had; it would be me and Jaz and Steve Kirby and Xavier Davis. Then I started doing more performances once I got the record deal, and that’s when the museum gave me their first-ever commission, and a very serious commission, to say, “Hey, Gordon Parks is coming to New Orleans for the first time with his art.”

TP: So that was the first commission. You’d been doing performances at the museum…

MAYFIELD: Informances.

TP: I saw that nomenclature in the liner notes. What exactly does it mean?

MAYFIELD: An informance is you perform and you talk. You talk about each song, bring the paintings out, which is hop, and you talk about the paintings relating to the music and vice-versa.

TP: So you’ve been composing inspired by visual art since about 1999 or so…

MAYFIELD: Well, not really composing. I had been studying it. Studying music that had been inspired by the same themes. Like, Bearden and Ellington all used trains as themes. The train is a very specific theme. Everybody used the train. So I started thinking about realities, of things like that. Then they gave me this commission.

The wonderful thing about the New Orleans Museum of Art is that they give you ALL the resources you need. I mean, they gave me every book Gordon Parks ever wrote, I got the films, I got everything. They said, “This is what you need. So I literally went through all his stuff, all his books. I went through “The Learning Tree,” I went through his poetry, “Towards Infinity,” I went through his photography books, I went through “Half Past Autumn.” And it blew me away. It killed me. It almost was an impossible task to come up with a suite for a man who had been married three times and was the first significant African-American photographer, a filmmaker, writer, director… It started to become a hard task.

TP: I mean, he’s a weighty cat, and he spanned all sorts of worlds.

MAYFIELD: Right. And I started hearing his music. Then I was like, “I’m not worthy.” He can compose a suite himself. But I realized that the power of jazz is that maybe he can, but I can interpret everything he’s doing through jazz, and leave room for everybody else to engage in.

TP: So what sort of themes were you looking at to capture Gordon Parks?

MAYFIELD: Well, after I got through “Half-Past Autumn”… I read all the other books first, and I finished with this, which is appropriate. When I got through the book, I realized which pieces I would choose. I chose his modern pieces — “Evening,” “Towards Infinity,” “Moonscape.” They all represented a period of his, which is what the book is entitled, “half-past autumn,” where he feels he’s at in his life. I thought it was significant when I read that first poem… I was almost in tears when he told the story about his father, and the advice he gives him, “If in autumn you can still manage a smile after all this shit you go through…”

TP: It has a very melancholy quality. In the DVD pieces with you, his brow looks like… You know how a trumpet player when they’re 60 has a face that looks like they play the trumpet. His looks like he’s been concentrating all his life, the brow curves in like this…

MAYFIELD: Very serious. But serious and a sense of warmth. His music and his art is combining. That’s what I wanted to capture. And these pictures did that to me. When I looked at them, they looked like pictures I might possibly have painted, or taken pictures of, or things I would have concocted myself. But that’s Gordon’s gift. He can make things that seem like they already exist come to creation, and they’re warm. Because he’s dealing with the basic fundamental themes that we all know in life — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. All that loneliness; he’s got that whole thing in his family. When I wrote the songs, being from New Orleans, I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.

Another thing is, when I was writing the music, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like his paintings, not some esoteric idea of jazz or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that when you bring your band scraps, it ignites them to figure out more.

TP: So the pieces were set up collaboratively?

MAYFIELD: Not collaboratively. But they were sketches. More ideas. Like his pieces are. I want to give emotions. And it was really the first record. Which is funny to me, because I wrote the music for my last record after I wrote this music, and it came out first.

TP: So the one with you and the young lady on the cover you wrote after “Half Past Autumn.”

MAYFIELD: I wrote that music after that. So coming back to this music, I went through the artist’s thing. It’s like writing a story that’s two years old, and you put out this other big story. I said, “Damn, I don’t know…”

TP: So you’re saying you developed this music on gigs before you went into the museum?

MAYFIELD: Right. By this time, I was on the road, touring with this band and Los Hombres Calientes. And by the time we went back to record the record for Gordon, I wondered whether the music wasn’t complicated… I went through all these emotional things. Then you know what I said? I said, “Man, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to go to the studio and I’m going to ask the cats to dig down deep.” I told them in the studio, “Man, this is about what you want to do.” I don’t know what you want me to do.”

TP: So you went in the studio and did it after you performed it for him?

MAYFIELD: No. We performed it for him at the museum…

TP: Give me the course of events. Slow down and tell the story.

MAYFIELD: I wrote the music in two weeks. [LAUGHS] I had something else to do…I don’t remember…maybe I was on the road. We rehearsed three days before, every day, and… It was packed! Man, there are so many people trying to see Gordon Parks. It only seats 240. There were a thousand people outside. So the museum was happy, but there were a lot of unhappy people who couldn’t get in to see that performance. We went through each of the songs; it was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it took an 1 hour and 15. We’re jazz musicians. We’ve got to play! And at the end of the night, Gordon Parks jumped up and started dancing with his daughter. It’s New Orleans. That’s what killed everybody. Here are these guys who are supposed to be modern jazz musicians, and here we are, doing the most fundamental thing that we do, and he got up and danced. It was a party. But the deep thing is, the people enjoyed the music. It had nothing to do with him. It was like, “Wow, the music’s great; we’re all partying and dancing.” We played a blues that night, and after we finished, Gordon got up and said, “That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives.” Everybody was just like, “Wow!”

TP: Is that the blues you did with Wynton?

MAYFIELD: Yes. His three ex-wives. It was a great night. I thought about it… After the performance, I sat with him and talked with him a little while, he gave me his home number and said, “Give me a call me any time,” and… I’m star-struck at the same time. Not only have I known his movies, but now I’ve researched him. There’s no greater thing than this guy seeing you perform and saying he liked it.

Then I realized that I was going to put that music out. And it takes a significant amount of work to get a world-renowned artist and Renaissance man like Gordon Parks to collaborate.

TP: What was your process in choosing the photographs?

MAYFIELD: I was sitting at the piano, and I’d put up the photograph and look at it. And if I felt moved by it, that would be the one.

TP: There’s one he spoke to you about on the DVD, “Flowerscape.”

MAYFIELD: When I looked at it, it reminded me of a flamenco dancer… It seemed like a woman at some level of pizzazz or some attitude. That’s kind of what I thought about it, and that’s why the music has that kind of thing.

TP: His comment on the DVD was funny. He said he wanted to get the redness within the blackness but when you use your imagination it takes you into crazy stuff; I don’t even want to try to explain it. But this is the one that got him. This one reminded him of his wives.

MAYFIELD: No, the one that reminded him of his wives is “Moonscape.” I can understand that. You know, it’s obvious! Oh, I’m sorry. It’s “Blue Dawn.”

TP: So the images correlated with musical shapes and velocities…

MAYFIELD: I think the tune “Moonscapes,” which is actually based on the image on the cover of the book, too, which is why I started the CD with that one… I tried to think about what the Moon represented to him. The Moon represented another night coming and another day passing. The guy was facing starvation, and I think he can find solitude in such simple things that we take for granted almost. That’s really what I deal with in the piece. There’s not a lot of things going on in it, but what you hear is the band coming together with a concept, and we’re laying down these textures, and I guess we’re trying to make people reminisce about things deep down inside of them. That’s what the record really is.

TP: So just to reduce it to a term, it’s programmatic music; music that’s unified around a theme or a personality or…

MAYFIELD: Oh, yeah, I’m a big theme person. There’s not a record you’ll have by me that’s not…

TP: The recent one, the love series, everybody’s got to go through their love record.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I had to get that one out. I was so heartbroken when I did that. That was painful.

TP: But that’s another story.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, that’s another story.

TP: How many compositions do you have with your name on it, copyrighted now? Over 100?


TP: You seem like a very prolific composer. On the Los Hombres Calientes records, you do a lot of tunes in a lot of different idioms, you seem able to get to the essence of the idiom in some way…

MAYFIELD: That’s my background.

TP: But it is hard for many people to do that, to be idiomatic but personal at the same time.

MAYFIELD: See, being from New Orleans gives you a key to a lot of that stuff, because New Orleans has all that in there. It’s the northern port of the Caribbean, and you’ve got so many different peoples from so many different walks of life. I haven’t even been through all my childhood experiences in music yet. Another thing is, I want nothing more than to be a person who’s writing about music…

I’ll tell you what. When I’m putting a record together, do you know what I do? I have very few records that stay with me that I can listen to. I listen to a record one time, I can’t listen to it again. Actually, a lot of musicians I listen to who have modern-day record deals, very few of those records I like. I find I can’t get anything out of them. I’m not a person that is just give me a song because I like to tap my foot to it.

TP: There has to be a reason for the song to exist.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, some greater thing… I can even appreciate somebody like Frank Sinatra, because there’s a certain thing he’s implying when he’s doing these things, he’s representing something… I need something there. I can’t just get with a record that’s out, and the name of this record is “From This Moment On” and…

TP: But your stuff is very modern. If I were going to try to describe to someone what it sounds like, it would seem like you’re piggybacking on some things Terence and Wynton did on top of other things, with various rhythmic stuff and phrasing…

MAYFIELD: It’s interesting, because some people will say I sound more modern than Wynton and Terence. Being from New Orleans, I think people are sometimes surprised when they hear my record and it sounds like what people would call a New Yorker, and then if they hear a Los Hombres record they say, “Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.” I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.

TP: That’s not so easy for musicians to do. It’s a characteristic of what a lot of musicians are striving, to jump between a lot of different things…

MAYFIELD: Because I think musicians are striving… My only thing is that I’m just trying to develop my own personal goals. I don’t want to write any song to sound like another song.

TP: When did Los Hombres Calientes start? That’s obviously been a huge thing for you. It’s taken you around the world, it’s been a popular band, it’s obviously opened up a lot of compositional and improvisational possibilities.

MAYFIELD: It started when I was living up here. I met Chucho Valdez with Wynton the first time he came to New York. They were trying to talk, and they couldn’t talk at all, man, because Chucho didn’t speak English, and Wynton started talking… It wasn’t working out. But they started playing together. I said, “Damn, what is this connection between Cuba and New Orleans?” I always liked Cuban music, and these guys are playing together and it’s making sense. Terence made this record with Ivan Lins, the Brazilian singer. I’m thinking: Why do I like Reggae music? What is the connection with Brazilian music? Then I came home and decided I was going to put together a band that dealt with all those connections. And the connection was that all that music is dance music, but the level of integrity is very high, whether it’s Reggae or whether it’s Brazilian music.
So I called up Bill, who I called “Mister Sommers” then. He had just moved to New Orleans. I’d gone to school with Jason Marsalis. And I decided I’d put this band together. We were just going to do a couple of gigs. It was going to be a thing where we got together maybe twice or three times a year. I wanted to be funny. Because people always say jazz musicians are so uptight, I named it after a rap group, “the hot boys.”: Then we did this gig, and more people wrote about the gig before it started than probably any band I’ve ever known in New Orleans.

From there, the project led me and it led Bill — it molded us. Then Jason left the band. Then I think we solidified the concept after Jason left. Jason was more into interpretative things. He’s more like Gordon Parks. That’s interpretative. When you’re dealing with the music of Los Hombres, it’s not as interpretive; it’s about laying down the foundation of what it is — the essence of it. I think that’s always the balance between the two groups. One is about essence, one is about interpretation.

TP: Take me back a bit, to how you found the trumpet or how the trumpet found you.

MAYFIELD: I only started playing trumpet because my best friend, Jeffrey, played trumpet. He doesn’t play any more! But he made good grades, straight A’s, the girls liked him — I wanted to be like Jeffrey. So I wanted to get a trumpet. Then my Dad said, “Well, you know, if you get this trumpet…” My Dad used to be a drill sergeant in the Army. He said, “If you get this trumpet, you have to play it til you get to college.” I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, I want to get the trumpet.” Then I found out later he knew how to play the trumpet somewhat, so he started giving me lessons. Man, i tried to quit at least 10-11 times, but he wasn’t going for that. He wasn’t on that program. He’d spent his money on the horn, and he was going to get his money’s worth.

Then I fell in love with it. It was shocking. At some point, I decided… I think he had ambitions of me being a physicist or a mathematician or something like that…

TP: It backfired on him!

MAYFIELD: Yeah, it backfired. But I fell in love with the trumpet. But being from New Orleans… Man, I remember being on my street and seeing second line bands pass down the street outside.

TP: Did you ever do the second line thing as a kid?

MAYFIELD: Of course. I was the youngest member of the Algiers Brass Band, which was a traditional brass band that played all the old tunes. And I played with Danny Barker.

TP: Oh, you got to play with him before he passed.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. I played with him a lot before he passed. I learned a lot of stuff with him. I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is. I think one difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. You talk about a cat like Danny Barker, man he was hip when he was old. There was never no point in time when he wasn’t hip. And he would talk about…

TP: Hipness is not a state of mind; it’s a fact of life.

MAYFIELD: He’d sit down and he… Here’s a guy who was in his sixties talking about “bitches and hos” and at the same time he’s talking about his chord structures on the guitar, and Louis Armstrong, what he did for American music. This is the scope of a conversation in New Orleans.

TP: For a teenager, that’s quite a scope of conversation.

MAYFIELD: The other thing about the older musicians, they always talked to you like a man. He wasn’t not going to say “bitches and hos” around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.

TP: So that probably paved the way for you to relate to someone like Gordon Parks.

MAYFIELD: Clearly. Exactly. Not so much relate to him as much as respect the shit out of him.

TP: But to do a suite about someone who’s 90 years old, you have to have the empathy to get under their skin and have the confidence you can project those things.

MAYFIELD: But he writes so well… I don’t know, man. He writes so well… A great writer like Hemingway and Faulkner, they can do something to you. It seems like you know them personally. He had that Hemingwayesque approach of writing. You know how you read Hemingway and you start getting hungry because he’s always talking about food? You don’t even know what food it is necessarily, but it sounds mighty tasty by the time he gets finished describing how he ate it. And Gordon’s the same way. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. It’s things we all know. We all go through them. We know that look before we’re about to get our ass whipped, and we all know that look before we’re about to consummate our relationship with a woman or a mate. That I got to know from musicians, appreciating them stories. I’ve never laughed as much as I laughed when I hung out with Danny Barker.

TP: So do those stories correlate to the way you think about music and framing a solo and writing a phrase?

MAYFIELD: The band is always laughing at songs I write. Because there are some songs that they all know what they’re about. Some are clearly about anger, some are about love, some are about sex. So when we’re in the studio, they’re all…

TP: There’s a subtext.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. Then they start making words to the songs! I think that’s realistically… Look, I’m a 25-year-old and I’m approaching it my way. Wynton’s way is his way, and that’s 20 years before, what they did.

TP: So you were in the brass band, and then you wound up at NOCCA.

MAYFIELD: That was a real reality check. Because see, being in a brass band, hanging around these older musicians, I was quite cocky to be so young, because I was better than everybody.

TP: You could play the instrument.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I could play the instrument and I knew these old cats, and I had a certain level of sophistication that everybody didn’t. Until I got to know better, and then I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the drums and interpret it. He had that total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize it. He was a monster. And Nicholas Payton (he was 29, but he was still hanging around) walks in, and he’s playing bass the first time I heard him. I said, “Oh, what a great bass player.” Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounds like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. And that made me have to really decide, hearing Nicholas Payton for the first. There’s a lot of cats. Adonis Rose. And the thing is, these cats were working. These cats had gigs. They were like 14 and 15, traveling and working… It was a different experience.

I didn’t really come from a musical family, because even though my father knew a lot of the technical aspects, he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is a town of tradition. It’s very aristocratic in that sense. And you deal with a lot of the Creole tradition. Tradition plays a big role. So a lot of times, if you’re not fitting in, in some way it’s hard to deal with. I think I went through a lot of that when I was coming up, trying to figure out which group I belonged in, or I didn’t have any of those things. So I think it essentially made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing.

TP: So when you were in high school, what were you thinking defined what you wanted to be doing?

MAYFIELD: In high school, I think I was always dissatisfied with what I was doing. That was the biggest important thing I knew in high school. I knew I was not where I wanted to be, and I knew it was going to take a lot of work and it was almost an impossible task. But I made a decision that no matter what it took, I would do it, because I loved it so much. I really love music, and not just jazz. Jazz is one of the mediums in which I lay out what I do, but it’s art. I love literature, I love visual arts, I love theater, I love dance — I love people communicating.

TP: Did that start at NOCCA? I know it’s a multidisciplinary arts high school.

MAYFIELD: It started at NOCCA. When I got to New York, New York seriously nurtured it.

TP: Did you go straight up to New York from NOCCA?

MAYFIELD: I went to UNO. I studied with Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr… I’ve been mentored by damn near every trumpet player out of New Orleans.

TP: Were you listening to other trumpet players historically?

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. In New Orleans, man, Louis Armstrong’s music was very vibrant and alive.

TP: So you had to play that music too.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah.

TP: That’s a thing that trumpet players outside New Orleans don’t really have to do.

MAYFIELD: Well, see, in New Orleans, not only do you have to play all that. Then you’ve got to go on the R&B gig. See, ain’t no prejudice about music in New Orleans. I never knew anything about period playing until I got to New York, because here cats talk about what type of jazz they play. I never heard that shit. When I was in New Orleans, if you wanted to do a gig with Kidd Jordan and play some avant-garde music, that’s what you played. Happily. You were happy to be playing. Then you went and played an R&B gig, or maybe you played some horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead. Or maybe you’d go and play some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You are a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was. People start defining it after you do it. I had a hard time when I first got here because of that. Because everybody thought you fit in a bag. Well, if you’re hang with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, and you don’t like to play music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is actually non-structural — it’s really free music. That’s what Wynton and them were trying to do, ironically enough, especially Terence Blanchard. People want you to stay the same.

So when I think about what molded me, growing up in New Orleans is a… It’s a great thing, but then it’s a bad thing, because at the same time, nobody in New Orleans appreciates what you’re doing, because everybody is a musician. Everybody is an artist. Everybody cooks. You’re not special. “Yeah, so what? The cook plays trumpet. His grandson plays trumpet.” We have a lineage of people who play trumpet who are all great who never did anything. “So what about you?”

TP: That’s a great environment to develop what you do, because you just have to do it, but then you have to get out to make it…

MAYFIELD: New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re really a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home. So you go through this emotional thing. It’s weird. But being up here in New York, when I first got here, at that point it was so different from New Orleans, it was the only place I said, “I could live here and never go back home.” Because it was so much!

TP: Donald Harrison tried it. Terence tried it. I don’t think Nicholas tried it. But most of the people…

MAYFIELD: Well, Nicholas went on the road. He was up here hanging for a second. But what I realized is being here after two or two-and-a-half years, man, it wears on you. You have to know how to cleanse yourself if you’re going to be up here. But I guess that’s the thing I liked about it. I felt proud every day I made another day in New York. Because everybody’s trying to make it up here.

TP: Has the music for the “Half-Past Autumn Suite” changed or evolved since you wrote it?

MAYFIELD: Man, I’m on the stage with four guys who are determined to play something different every night. And it’s a hard process, because when you write music, you intend on it staying the same way, but it just ain’t happening! They take over. You may be the bandleader, but whoever is playing the most music per song is the bandleader. So you’ve got to follow them. So yeah, it changes, and depending on the night, it is what it is. One night everything is a certain way, and another night, you know… The thing I’ve noticed about the response to the music is that most… See, I would assume that this record wouldn’t have gotten as many reviews artistically… I knew people would say, “It’s nice Gordon Parks and you have collaborated,” but I don’t think people would have appreciated it as much as my last record. But what I guess I’ve found — and I’ve learned my lesson through this record — is that sometimes less is more. I guess I started I’ve started to understand more what Miles Davis really did through his reductions down to simplicity in music. He really reduced things down to those fundamental assets of what’s really required. It’s an interesting experience. I’ll tell you one thing. when you’re playing music like that, you’ve got to really trust the musicians. Because, man, you’ve got some musicians who can’t carry that off… It’s all about the musicians at that point.

TP: Are these guys from New Orleans.

MAYFIELD: No. Aaron Fletcher is from Tipino, Louisiana. It’s New Orleans, but he’s a country bumpkin, man. Victor Atkins is from Selma, Alabama, so he’s a product of the Civil Rights movement. Jaz Sawyer is from the Bay Area. Jaz is like my soulmate. Me and Aaron are like brothers, because we play so well together, but me and Jaz are like… We’ve played and worked together so much.

TP: He’s a very accomplished drummer.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. He is really… I would say if there are any new innovations, they really come from the drums. He’s the kind of guy who just refuses to do anything anybody else does. He’s his own person. You know he’s going to show up late to the show. I just wish I could expose everybody to the band, because the band is so crazy. It’s young guys, but…

Neal Caine is a wild man! [Benny Green, Harry, Elvin] Don’t leave your girlfriend around if Neal Caine is around. He’s a wild man.

TP: Did you do that?

MAYFIELD: Hell, no! I learned from experience! Aaron is a nice guy. Aaron will cook for everybody, make breakfast. He’s country. But Neil and Jaz, I don’t know what’s going to happen. On the stage, we’ll be playing songs, and they’ll start yelling words from other songs…

TP: The music isn’t local any more.

MAYFIELD: Well, you’ve got to go with the guys who can really deliver what you need. Like, Aaron is living in L.A. right now.

TP: Is that because Terence is out in L.A. a lot?

MAYFIELD: Well, he’s not in Terence’s band any more. But I think he wanted to find a different… Everybody goes through that. I did New York and he wants to do L.A. I’m not a big L.A. fan necessarily.

TP: Tell me about Gordon Parks’ music.

MAYFIELD: The first time I heard Gordon Parks’ music, I was watching an HBO documentary. I was like, “Damn, this music is killing; who did the soundtrack?” The name of Gordon Parks came up. Then I was about fed up at that point! Does the guy have to do everything and be successful? You feel insignificant inferior next to a cat like this.

You know that Gordon can’t read any music, so he came up with his own notation system. Can you imagine coming up with a whole nother written language? His music is beautiful. It’s very melancholy, like you said. When I asked him to play on the record… He said, “I think there’s this piece you may want to check out. I wanted to do it for Leontyne Price, and it deals with the sentiments of September 11th.” He played it for me. I said, “Well, Gordon, why can’t we play it together. You play it.” He said, “No, you should get your piano player to play it.” I said, “No, you should play it.” He said, “I’ve never done a recording session before. I’ve never been in the studio and played on a record.” I said, “But you’re Gordon Parks!” Do you know, he practiced for three days and came to the studio. The studio was packed.

TP: He’s got some left hand.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. Everybody asked me, “Who’s that on piano? Do you have a classical pianist on there?” He’s amazing. And the title of the song is “Wind Song.” I was extremely nervous playing that song, because I knew I doing something that very few people get an opportunity to do in life.

TP: But you’d listened to his recordings. Are they all within the rubric of classical?

MAYFIELD: Well, you know, he used to play blues in juke joints and all that stuff. But he has that kind of blues interpretation to it. Yet at the same, it’s a very French…

TP: Is it like a deeply harmonized blues?

MAYFIELD: You can hear all the elements. You can hear that honky-tonk piano. You can also hear the influence of France — Debussy and Ravel. You can hear that shit all up in his stuff. You can hear the interpretation of… His sound is still American, despite the fact that it’s very heavily influenced by French composers. And it still sounds like Negro music. That’s Gordon Parks.
TP: That’s a beautiful piece.

MAYFIELD: I like it, too. I can put it on, it’s a nice day, I put it on at home… My mother likes it a lot.

TP: Obviously, Gordon Parks is a holistic personality, with all his activities integrated with one another. Talk about your impressions of the ways in which his music and his photography are linked.

MAYFIELD: I think his music and his photography are linked in the sense that he loves to function in… See, the thing about music is that it’s the only art form that is in the same space as emotion. He understands that completely, and he tries to transcend that with his art. Because his photographs… But then the photographs become visual art. They’re not just photographs. They’re paintings… I’ve asked him and he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking of.” It’s like asking Miles Davis, “What were you thinking when you were doing…” And I know I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Gordon and Miles. But there’s a lot of comparisons to be made. Because I think that’s true, exceptional genius, is when you can take something, which is anything, and reduce down to its fundamental level, and exude beauty from it. The guy is a master.

And it’s hard for me to detach myself from how amazing it is. Because you have to realize, when I’m writing these pieces, I’m digging down so deep inside myself and what I’m capable of, because I’m amazed at what he’s able to do. His pieces are all different. Some artists, they make one piece, and another piece it’s like, “Ah, you can tell it’s him.” Gordon Parks’ shit is not like that. Every piece is distinctly different. You don’t know what he uses. He don’t even know what he uses. And he’s challenging himself. You know what Gordon Parks’ art is like? It’s like being on the edge of the abyss, looking out and then jumping off. That’s his art. Each one of his pieces.

TP: Whether it’s music, whether it’s photography…

MAYFIELD: I mean, even to come up and make a black action hero! That was absurd, man! To be the first to really say, “I’m going to make a black action hero.” Then they said, “Well, damn, why don’t you direct it?” So then he directs it. Then he decides what music he wants. And tell me that music didn’t become the definitive music of the era. I think a lot of people don’t… You have to realize, no Gordon Parks, no Curtis Mayfield. No Gordon Parks, you miss out on that whole aspect of what people define as black music during the ’70s. Much as people don’t want to admit it, because I know a lot of people think that he didn’t take enough of a stand throughout the ’60 and ’70s — but that is a stand. I was in an argument not too long ago with a guy who was saying the same thing about a musician like Miles Davis. I can’t say he took a serious stand like James Brown. But that’s what art is. Art is a stand. That’s what we’re doing out here, is making a stand. And Gordon Parks’ art makes a stand, a stand towards humanity, not towards political achievement. When you look at his art, it transcends all that.

It’s like Louis Armstrong. You’ve got more people around the world trying to imitate Louis Armstrong and singing his songs than anyone else. He’s the one singer…the most performed artist all over the place, more than Michael Jackson. Why is that? Because he’s challenging on a humanity level, not on a political front and not on a specific genre and not on an American front. Actually, the concept he really deals with… This is what we mean by the concept of jazz being democracy, is that the concept outgrows the people who create it. And Gordon Parks’ art does that. It outgrows him. So a lot of times I know why he doesn’t want to explain any of the shit he’s doing, because it’s bigger than him.

TP: Right. I understand. He channels it.

MAYFIELD: Yeah. And it’s the same thing with me… You know, people ask me, “How did you write all this?” I can’t respond to that. It’s because I’m just following what’s out there.

TP: You really got a lot out of living at Wynton’s house. Sounds like it was a higher education for you.

MAYFIELD: Oh, the arguments, man. I wouldn’t argue with him. But I’d see some great debates go down.

TP: Stanley would be there?

MAYFIELD: Oh my God, the greatest debater of all time, whether he’s wrong or right. And that’s the idea. That’s why I got Stanley to do the liner notes. I said, “Well, whether he’s wrong or whether he’s right, he’s going to make some point for people to engage in a dialogue about it.” I think that’s what people miss about jazz. Jazz is about the dialogue. It’s about the process. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It’s about the process of trying to be better. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.

TP: Well, it’s great that there are still people who want to do that, because it certainly isn’t the zeitgeist in terms of the mass.

MAYFIELD: I think we live in sad times, with sad movies and sad things that take up a lot of what’s going on. And even in the jazz realm. A lot of what people call jazz, I would consider to be sad music. I can’t say I’m really impressed with a lot of artists who are around right now.

TP: Who do you like these days?

MAYFIELD: Do you want me to be honest? [LAUGHS] I like Brad Mehldau. I like his conception, because I like how he’s a master of form. He’s very specific on forms. I like Abbey Lincoln. But out of the young cats, I can’t say I’m too enthralled by a lot of the others. I like Roy Hargrove’s trumpet playing, but I’m not impressed by his records. They’re two different worlds. Because hey, when Roy walks in the room, everybody starts playing. Even me. I love Roy. That don’t mean when I pick up his records…

I think that’s part of the challenge of where we’re at right now. I take my records very seriously. I try to make records that I want to listen to, and there’s a lot of records I don’t want to listen to.

TP: What’s your current project now? Some author you’re reading a lot of? Some filmmaker…

MAYFIELD: There’s a lot of stuff. Reading list: Ralph Ellison. Faulkner. I’m actually trying to finish every Faulkner book. I’ve read about 7.

TP: You have 15 to go. Have you read the Trilogy yet?

MAYFIELD: I haven’t read the trilogy. Absalom, Absalom, The Sound And The Fury. Hemingway, the same thing. I’m trying to complete him by next year. I’m trying to complete Faulkner in two years. I’m trying to complete Ellison in the next eight months.

TP: Who do you talk to about it?

MAYFIELD: Well, I’m the director of the Institute of Jazz (?) at Dillard.

TP: So you talk to the faculty at Dillard.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah, man. The eminent scholars over there are wonderful, and I engage in conversations with them. People disagree with me a lot. And that’s fine. It’s about of the process. But for me, Ralph Ellison embodies that person I go back to as far as literature. Picasso is that person in Art — and Bearden. They’re the two people. But Picasso is really my guy. Alvin Ailey blew me away not too long ago with the new pieces that Judith Jameson is doing. In theater, you can’t ever get away from Shakespeare. I’m trying to deal with actually reading some more Shakespeare. So I’m starting with the poems and some shorter versions of the plays. There’s a lot of the stuff, because at the same time…

TP: You’re doing a lot of things. Plus trumpet is an instrument you have to practice.

MAYFIELD: Have to practice. And then we just started this jazz orchestra in New Orleans. So now I’ve got four of the guys in the trumpet section all out for blood, so I really have to practice now! Really, mostly I’m thinking of the bigger picture as far as tying all these things together and start engaging in dialogues about how these things are related.


* * *

Irvin Mayfield (4-19-03):
TP: One thing I wanted to address with you is the attitude with which you approach Los Hombres Calientes. There’s a certain level of showmanship and presentation involved in it. It’s a very effective live band.

MAYFIELD: I don’t really think that Los Hombres’ presentation is necessarily different from my quintet. It’s more that the music to lends itself that maybe people who are not familiar with the music might have a different outlook on it. But when I play quintet… One thing the band was saying the last time we were in New York is that we felt the audience was very stiff, and it was strange for us. Even when I play quintet, I still play some of the…


TP: You said that the last time you played in New York, the guys in the band thought the audience was stiff.

MAYFIELD: Yes. I guess in New Orleans people have jazz as part of the culture, as a cultural thing, and people react very differently to jazz. It has a different meaning to people in New Orleans than it does to people everywhere else, and sometimes we get spoiled by that.

TP: How does it have a different meaning?

MAYFIELD: Well, meaning that it’s ceremonial. Meaning that if I play the music that I was playing for the Gordon Parks suite for a bunch of kids in New Orleans who go to public schools and are from impoverished areas, they would be reacting to the music, screaming and enjoying themselves, because they’re used to reacting like that. They’re used to going to the second-lines and the funerals. They know all the traditional New Orleans jazz songs, such as “Saints” and “High Society” and “Flee As a Bird.” So it has a different meaning to them. So when I’m playing, they’re interacting with the music. It’s an interactive thing. When we leave New Orleans, it’s kind of like we’re playing for foreigners. They’re enjoying it, but they’re enjoying it by just listening and watching.

TP: That’s both bands, both ways of playing.

MAYFIELD: Well, Los Hombres is a little more successful because the music lends itself…

TP: It’s dance music.

MAYFIELD: Right, it’s very specific dance music. But the thing about Los Hombres is… Of course, you could argue that the rhythms are danceable. It’s not as interpretive as the music that I do with my quintet, of course. But Los Hombres is pretty much a jazz group. We’re just showing people that it’s okay to interact with jazz. If you’d seen some of the performances that we’ve done with the quintet where people interact, it’s not too much of a different reaction.

TP: In what way is Los Hombres Calientes a jazz band? Is it as flexible and fluid and improvisational as your quintet music? That’s pretty complex music, after all.

MAYFIELD: Well, they’re pretty much on the same level of complexity. I think the difference is that the quintet music is more interpretive. Meaning that a jazz musician, when we’re playing music, we’re not dealing with the indigenous part of it. Except when we play certain… [LAUGHS] It gets real complex. Really what’s happening is that on one level it’s more interpretive. Once you get the music, the interpretation sets in for the jazz musician, because the genre you’re playing is jazz. So there’s more flexibility in interpretation of all kinds of things. The functionality of things can change easier than they can when we’re playing Los Hombres. For instance, if Bill wants to play a certain rhythm, then Ricky has to play that same style of rhythm. Well, in the quintet, we don’t have that problem, because there’s only one drummer. Neal Caine is interpreting the bass part and Jaz is interpreting his Brazilian music that we played on the Gordon Parks record, as opposed to when Bill and Ricky play the Brazilian songs — they’re playing the specific samba rhythm.

TP: And is Edwin Livingston playing the same rhythm also? He’s interlocking with them.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. But the interesting thing that happens is that the more you understand the rules, the more you can break them. Like, if you listen to our first record, which was light years behind where we are now, you hear less interpretation. Now, when you listen to our records, we’re doing many things. We’re keeping with the vibe of what the music really is, but we interpret and take more chances and really develop the motifs more than we have been doing in the past.

TP: Do you have any particular group in Los Hombres Calientes? I’m thinking the Fort Apache Band might be an antecedent…

MAYFIELD: What we’re doing with Los Hombres has never been done before.

TP: Why? Because the rhythmic template is so broad?

MAYFIELD: It’s so broad and it’s so indigenous. The level of study we’ve done, it would take… This is a band that’s been five years of study. It would take a long time for people to really get that together. Another thing is that it’s very hard for Latin musicians to play swing and to play blues.

TP: I’m saying this for the point of argument, but I’m wondering if bands like Fort Apache Band set a template for you in conceptualizing this or if it’s a purely home-grown thing.

MAYFIELD: The difference between a band like Los Hombres and Fort Apache is that Los Hombres is a New Orleans band, and a New Orleans musician has more flexibility than any other musician from anywhere else. Meaning that a New Orleans musician… With some very rare exceptions. Jaz Sawyer is a very rare exception, but where is he living right now? New Orleans. A New Orleans musician can play the Brazilian styles and the Cuban styles and the New Orleans styles. When Horacio — El Negro — was in the band… And don’t get me wrong. With Horacio, you’re talking about the foremost influential Cuban drummer in the world today. He is the top cat, the top-number-one guy from Cuba playing the drums. But as far as the flexibility of playing funk music and New Orleans music, it was good and he did his best, but it’s not as strong as, for instance, when Ricky plays it. Because it’s very hard to get the New Orleans type of feel if you’re not in New Orleans. It’s an American approach, and it gives you a different outlook as far as jazz and how all those things relate to each other.

TP: You’re talking about the entrepot aspect of New Orleans as a Gulf City.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. One thing people have to realize is that we’re including New Orleans in there, and the reason it gets to be complicated is because New Orleans music is jazz. You have New Orleans music that gets to be less jazz, it gets to be more jazz-influenced, like the Neville Brothers or Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias and the Mardi Gras Indian type of things. But what we’ve clearly stated on our records is we’ve even shown to a certain extent that all those musics really are just a hybrid. They’re the foundation that laid the palette for what Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and all those people started to do.

TP: One record I thought was very radical when it came out was Donald Harrison’s “Indian Blues,” which came out a couple of years after the first really complete Fort Apache records. Did Donald’s return to New Orleans in the early ’90s have an impact, or the things Wynton was doing with the Septet?

MAYFIELD: What really influenced me… I think Wynton even credits me for being ahead of him, as far as him really wanting to get a good hold on the whole indigenous music of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. What really influenced me was actually that when I heard this music, I always heard the connections, even when I was a kid. And when I lived in New York, Chucho Valdez came and met Wynton, and I got to hear them play together. It worked. It made sense to me. See, Wallace Roney playing with Chucho Valdez does not mean the same thing as Wynton playing. Not to take anything… A lot of people think, being New Orleans, that we’re trying to talk shit on people…
TP: Yes, they do!

MAYFIELD: But it’s not really that, man. If you don’t live there, you just don’t know. Here’s Donald Harrison. Here’s a motherfucker who puts on a fuckin’ Indian headdress and can function… When he’s playing with them, he doesn’t sound like Donald Harrison. For instance, Wallace Roney, everything he does sounds like Wallace Roney. Donald Harrison! You can put on a fuckin’ Eddie Palmieri record, you’d be like “Who the hell is that?” “That’s Donald.” “Oh, okay.” Nicholas Payton is the same way. Here’s a guy who can play many different styles many different ways. I’ll tell you, that’s been part of the problem for many New Orleans musicians.

TP: That’s a problem.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, because the fuckin’ major markets have no idea how to expand upon that. That’s hard for them. Nicholas Payton runs into that problem all the time. What is he? A traditional New Orleans musician? That’s what he got his Grammies for. They want to lock him into what he’s doing with Doc Cheatham. And in New Orleans you have so many different indigenous types of musicians. The Mardi Gras Indians shit that Donald does and the traditional shit that Nicholas is so versed in are two completely different things. Then, if you want to start getting with the gospel element that happens in New Orleans music, that’s a whole other thing. But they all co-influence each other.

I think that’s really what we’re trying to say with Los Hombres, is that we try to exhaust these different elements of music from the Caribbean. And don’t get me wrong. This record, Volume 4, could very easily have been a New Orleans record. I didn’t exhaust anything. I gave a little snippet just to try to give people an idea that they have entertain New Orleans in a different fashion from what they have been.

TP: Los Hombres sounds like it’s going to be a perpetual work in progress so long as you and Sommers both have the energy to do the fieldwork.
MAYFIELD: One day we would like to take a band of 80 musicians on the road, where we would have three or four musicians from a country.

TP: Did you say 80?


TP: Sort of like Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations concept extrapolated…

MAYFIELD: If you really want to know, I’m really taking the bench from where Dizzy left it. I’m really taking his mark, and we’re taking it into the new millennium. No one has done that. Dizzy’s shit was groundbreaking. And he was interested in African shit. People don’t understand that the easiest place to get to Africa is Cuba. That’s Africa. People look at it as just some Spanish shit. There ain’t shit Spanish about that music except for the words. Matter of fact, really Latin…

TP: A lot of the Spanish music is African, too. North African.

MAYFIELD: The term “Latin” is a European term. When you think of Latin, you think of the Pope, you think… When you hear Horacio or Cha-Cha, or you hear these guys singing in Yoruba, and you see these guys beating on drums, I’m sorry, that’s just some African shit. You know what the whole Volume 4 of Los Hombres is about? There is no such thing called Latin music. That shit does not exist. And we’ve been trying to dispel that for a long time.

TP: Stephen Bernstein a few years ago did a record called “Diaspora Soul,” where he put Afro-Cuban rhythms on Jewish cantorial melodies, which have a North African component to them, and in his notes he was calling it a Gulf sound.

MAYFIELD: Even that kind of doesn’t work. Really what is, is the concept of the African diaspora? As it gets to certain places, it survives and mutates in different ways. When it got to Cuba, it was one thing; when it got to Haiti, it was one thing; when it got to Brazil, it was one thing. But when it got to New Orleans, a very interesting thing happened. I think in New Orleans, our music is the true representation of democracy, and the concept of music and the concept of Democracy is much greater than the men who created it. I think it’s one of those rare things. That’s how it happened. You look at the legacy and the magnitude of Louis Armstrong’s music, it was much greater than he was as a man. I think that’s the same thing with Los Hombres. It’s a concept that’s so large and so big, it’s much bigger than Bill and I. We’re trying to do the best we can to keep our arms around it and keep moving forward.

It’s very hard to define this shit in words, because the music defines it. That’s what we really try to do. We can sit up here and say there’s no such thing as Latin music and get controversial, which we haven’t really taken that stand in the press yet, because we take it with the records. And if people check out the record, it is what it is. Here are the Mardi Gras Indians. They have their own specific rhythms, their own specific things, and all this music is ceremonial.

TP: In New Orleans, it sounds like you have, for the most part, a ceremonial context in which to perform the music.

MAYFIELD: That’s what I mean is the difference between when we play in New Orleans as opposed to when we play in New York. Because of the ceremonial aspects, because it has to do with celebration of life and different things, when we play in different places it doesn’t really transfer to people that same exact way as far as how they react to it. It does transfer to them as far as how they feel, obviously. That’s why I feel that New Orleans musicians have always been at the top tier of the people who tour and represent the music. Even when you talk about the legacy of Miles Davis or the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie, it still doesn’t have the same magnitude as the legacy of Louis Armstrong because his music was so celebratory. It has to do with that same thing that happened when Dizzy started working with Chano Pozo. You know, they play rhumba at ceremonial parties. It’s a religious thing!
TP: It’s pretty secular stuff, like courtship rituals for dock-workers.

MAYFIELD: Well, the same thing happened with jazz. All the jazz songs before 1900 were religious songs. That’s point-blank, and people don’t really understand it. Without the New Orleans funeral, there would be no jazz. Field hollers come from the gospel, from the spirituals.

TP: It always seemed to me that the reason why African music traveled so well is that rhythm and timbre were language, and it couldn’t be quenched. That’s how I read Wynton’s meaning by “black codes from the underground,” and it’s why rhythmic innovation is so key in jazz, because that language is coming through in different iterations, no matter how conscious the person who’s producing those develops is of the context. There’s still that metaphorical quality.

MAYFIELD: I agree with you 100%. You are right on the concept. The amazing thing about Los Hombres is that the band gives you that ceremonial experience.

TP: In terms of your identity as a trumpet player, how does it fit into the ceremonial context? What you’re talking about is something that’s collective. But then there’s the tonal personality that someone associates with your name, which is going to happen more and more, because I’d be 95% sure that by the time you’re 40 you’re going to have a certain impact on the way this music is going. So where does your individuality fit into this? In America, imperatives of individualism stand for more than they do in Cuba or in Trinidad or in Haiti.

MAYFIELD: The first thing is that I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and that’s a very individualistic thing. That means that my approach and how I play is very specific. I play the New Orleans approach. I play the New Orleans way. I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs with the suspenders and the white hats — and I follow that legacy. The second thing is that I challenge the concept of what Wynton puts out there by redefining the concept of what jazz is and what it can be.
TP: What is the concept and how are you challenging it?

MAYFIELD: Meaning the concept of the records he’s put out versus the type of records that I’ve put out.

TP: Is that what Albert Murray means by “counterstatement”?

MAYFIELD: Exactly. That’s that important thing of a dialogue. I think a lot of times people get so pissed off with what people say, that they don’t understand that the dialogue is what’s so important. It’s not who’s wrong or right. A lot of times it gets into who’s wrong or right. Can we just get some interesting dialogue! Maybe I am wrong! Maybe I am right. Can we have a dialogue about it. I think that’s what the Los Hombres records are about versus my own solo records. That’s why I think it’s important to bring out these two records — Gordon Parks and Los Hombres — close to one another. It’s two very different concepts dealing with two very big-ass issues that are not being addressed right now. In my generation now, if you had to ask Joshua Redman what visual artist of his age group is his counterpart right now, he couldn’t tell you.

TP: You asked him?


TP: And he couldn’t tell you?

MAYFIELD: No. Or if you ask Nicholas Payton. Not only couldn’t tell me, but he don’t really give a damn.

TP: Joshua would give a damn, but Nicholas wouldn’t.

MAYFIELD: That’s Nicholas’ personality. And that’s a jazz musician. That’s a guy who’s open to this shit. Don’t even ask the visual artist! That’s the type of collaboration that used to go on in the 1960s. You had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. And a lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s part of my generation and reflective of what we’re doing in American culture right now.

TP: Do you think that music governed by the aesthetic you bring to it can penetrate the corporate media? Do you see yourself having a consequential impact on the global aesthetic?

MAYFIELD: It does impact. I go all over the country, all over the world, and people have my records. I’m not selling millions of records, but people understand the concept of what we’re doing, and every time we play more and more people are interested. What people don’t really notice is the true impact that bands have. When we play New York or Boston and young guys come out, and we go to the universities or colleges or high schools, and they see a band like my quintet where they hear Jaz, this young guy playing all that shit he’s playing, and being serious and really playing his style… Jaz is a very conceptual player. In my opinion, he is probably the top drummer in country now for the approach he’s playing, really expanding upon what Max Roach and Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes and those guys did — not playing like them, doing something different.

TP: Talking swing drums.

MAYFIELD: Exactly! You got it. When they see a band like Los Hombres, here you’ve got those young guys like Leon Brown and Devon and Stephen Walker. Here are New Orleans musicians, these young guys, and they’re supposed to be the traditionalists! They’re supposed to be this thing that everybody’s so afraid that Wynton has instilled in everyone, and here these guys are playing shit from Woody Shaw on, trying to expand what they’re dealing with constantly all the time, and at the same time shakin’ their ass and partying and having a good time. That’s Los Hombres. That’s the type of concept I don’t just have with Los Hombres. Even though Los Hombres is very specific as far as the type of project we’re doing, we know we’re going to travel and bring all these cultures in, I’m still the same guy with both groups. It’s just that I’m using different resources with each of them. That’s really the difference. The resource on my record with Gordon Parks was, “Shit, I got Gordon Parks, so I can do all kinds of shit with him.” There my musicians are interpretive guys. When I’m in Los Hombres, I’ve got Bill. I can do a different thing. I’ve got more people.

TP: It’s holistic for you.

MAYFIELD: It is. It’s all part of that one thing.


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Filed under Article, New Orleans, trumpet, Wynton Marsalis

For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

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The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”


The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”


James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.


In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”


* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”


Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”


In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”


“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”


“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):


At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TS:   We need more everything.

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


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

An Article on Jazz as a Cultural Signifier for the 2007 Playboy Jazz Festival Program Guide

Ted Gioia’s incisive “Jazz (The Music of Coffee and Donuts) Has Respect, But It Needs Love,” which appeared in yesterday’s Huffington Post, reminded me that a few years ago, through a chain of circumstances too complicated to relate, I had an opportunity to write and extensively research an article on a similar subject. The idea was to interview various cultural critics, music programmers and ad industry folk to explore the ways in which jazz is perceived within the mainstream as a cultural signifier. As I sometimes do, I’m printing the “director’s cut,” which ran about 3200 words, over the final 2400-word edit; it’s a bit more sprawling and meandering, but there’s more information in it. Ap0logies to various friends for not altering their 2007 credits to match their contemporary circumstances.

* * *

In February 1964, the month when the Beatles set off the “British Invasion” with two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a Carnegie Hall concert, and Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, ascended to the heavyweight boxing throne, Playboy offered its annual “Jazz and Hi-Fi Issue,” fronted by a fetching blonde in a salmon-pink peignoir, manipulating a trumpet-playing bunny puppet with her raised right hand.

In  small print on the lower left were the articles: the 1964 Playboy Jazz Poll results, “the latest in hi-fi equipment,” “the Playboy record library,” “Mamie Van Doren Unadorned” and “Boudoir Fun with Richard Burton,” “a new novel by P.G. Wodehouse” (an excerpt from Biffen’s Millions). In place of the Interview, already a buzz-generator after 14 installments for in-depth conversations with Bertrand Russell, Billy Wilder, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jimmy Hoffa, Albert Schweizer, and Vladimir Nabokov, Playboy offered a 17,200-word panel discussion on no less a subject than “Jazz: Today and Tomorrow,” eliciting insights from Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Ralph Gleason, Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller. Jazz and Playboy were anything but strangers: The Interview had launched in November 1962 with a blunt Miles Davis-Alex Haley dialog, and some readers may have remembered a November 1960 jazz roundtable on which Adderley, Gillespie and Kenton joined Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Shelley Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Nat Adderley, Nat Hentoff, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer parsed the thorny issue of “Dope Addiction and the Jazz Musician.”

Neither panel seems dated, and the issues that concerned the panelists in 1964 (read it verbatim on remain particularly crucial to the broader jazz conversation. How does an expanding and ever more technically proficient musician pool grapple with unfavorable economics and insufficient exposure? Can art jazz and popular jazz coexist? Can folk forms from different cultures coalesce with the jazz mainstream? Can the musicians from those cultures make consequential contributions to it? Is race a barometer of authenticity? Does the term “jazz” even apply to the many styles that it is used to describe?

During that “pre-Sixties” portion of the Sixties, it was easy to absorb this discussion not only in the pages of Playboy, but “men’s magazine” spinoffs like Rogue and Cavalier, and such general circulation standbys as Esquire, Saturday Review and Harper’s. All were targeting an adult, educated, professional male readership, primarily but not exclusively white, for whom jazz coded as an alluring signifier, a soundtrack to the “Playboy bachelor” lifestyle, one that encouraged connoisseurship of sound systems, sports cars, Italian suits, Hathaway shirts European art films, dry martinis, good cigars, and fine wine, as well as sexy ladies. Among African-Americans, the hipness factor was high: progressive jazz dovetailed with civil rights movement aspirations, and it had street presence, too, through a national circuit of inner city clubs, lounges, theaters, and radio stations that presented a panoramic selection of black music.

In February, 1965, Playboy, grabbing the zeitgeist, presented an “Interview” with Bob Dylan. Five years later, Miles, now plugged in and wearing Carnaby Street threads in lieu of Italian suits, was playing first sets at rock concerts at the east and west coast Fillmores. That same year, Wayne Shorter left Miles after a six-year stint; in 1971, he and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the guiding intelligence behind Miles’ pathbreaking jazz-rock album Bitches Brew, formed the ur-fusion group Weather Report. In 1972, Chick Corea, another recent Miles graduate, discovered Scientology and launched the smooth jazz movement with Return to Forever. In 1975, Miles sat with Playboy for the second time, having long since discarded his musical skin of a decade earlier. To a public besotted with Rock Spectacle, the aesthetic values of hardcore jazz already seemed a cultural artifact.

In relation to the popular culture matrix, it still is. The jazz audience remains specialized, a subculture, a 3% sliver of the total music pie that divides to micronic levels for those mavericks whose radical departures from the tried-and-true are the DNA of jazz evolution. Mainstream music pubs like Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe seem to consider the word “jazz” more offensive than  “ho” and “bitch,” and mass market glossies ignore it altogether. It goes without saying that jazz is minimally present in print and TV advertising. Undeniably, jazz is barely a blip on the popular culture radar screen, and its coolness quotient resolves barely on the > side of null and void.

Well, perhaps it depends on what your definition of “cool” is. “Jazz is cool,” says Alan Brown, a market researcher who has analyzed classical music audiences. “To some extent, it’s the new classical music, and the audience is sophisticated — or seen as sophisticated. Our culture reshapes art forms constantly, and over a period of years the meaning of the art form changes in the public consciousness. That’s extremely difficult for some arts organizations that hold dear a specific definition of jazz.”

“Jazz Cool has become marketable to the bourgeoisie,” ripostes Greg Tate, a veteran essayist and cultural critic for the Village Voice, who agrees with the “America’s classical music” trope. “It’s lost its stigmata and its stain,” he continues. “On one level, it’s read as very safe and uplifting, a part of American culture that young people are encouraged to want to study and learn and participate in.”

“It’s certainly not the cutting edge of what really cool young people are into or following,” declares Touré, a novelist, staff journalist and editor at Rolling Stone, and occasional talking head for CNN and MSNBC on pop culture matters. “When I encounter a character in an ad or in a movie who’s all into jazz, it’s like a cliche of the idea of being cool, which is outdated. Part of jazz as Cool came from it being counter-culture, underground, something that was sometimes attacked as the devil’s music. But nobody’s scared of us now. The same thing in Hip-Hop. We used to be seen as dangerous figures, and now we’re selling Pillsbury and Chevrolets. Nobody’s scared of us. Jazz is supposed to suggest classy refinement, intelligent, mature, with that little burst of excitement—but a SAFE burst of excitement.

“It doesn’t come through the airwaves on its own any more, and you need a certain music education to understand it—you won’t be into it just by accident. Also, it requires an intellectual concentration much greater than a lot of people today are ready to offer. It’s weird talking about a melody or a rhythm. When do we talk about ME? The generation of now is very much about that. A lot of songs are really just the singer’s exploration—and by proxy, you as the listener—of ‘who am I?’”

These sentiments are demonstrably true for the masses, yet jazz does address that question for far more than a few. Indeed, considered on its own terms, the music has never been healthier. In the wake of ’80s young lions like Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, post-Boomer jazzfolk — Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Danilo Perez, to name a few — have built their styles from the ground up, absorbing the vocabulary and syntax upon which jazz was built. Thousands of students learn jazz in high school bands, and pay high tuitions to jazz degree programs at numerous universities in the United States and Europe. Nor is academe the only institutional setting in which jazz has staked firm roots. Supported by a well-heeled, racially integrated board, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra represents its parent institution as a full-fledged partner to the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet, while the SFJAZZ Jazz Festival celebrates its quarter century this year. The music generates sufficient advertising revenue to justify the continued publication of well-produced monthly trade magazines like Downbeat, Jazziz, and Jazz Times, and inspires its practitioners to release a few thousand new CDs each year.

To pinpoint who exactly comprises this audience and what jazz signifies to them is a complex proposition. “We’re just beginning to understand how people relate to the art world in general, including jazz,” says Brown. “There’s so little market research. But there are statistics that demonstrate that the constituency for jazz is more diverse than other forms of music.”

In February, Blue Note released comparative demographic information for jazz and total music market that both supports and counters Brown’s diversity proposition. Certainly, its constituency is seasoned. Some 76% of jazz buyers are “over 36” as compared to 44% of the total market; of the jazz-buying over-36ers, 44% are male and 32% female, while the gender breakdown for the total market is 57%-43%. It is also quantitatively more affluent (44% of jazz buyers earn over $75,000 [29% over $100,000], compared to 31% [19%] of total music) and more educated (38% of the jazz market are college grads or have graduate education, compared to 22% of the total sample). Jazz appeals to a more racially diverse audience than other genres, with a 57% “Caucasian”-34% “African-American”-9% “Other” breakdown, as opposed to 72%-17%-11% overall.

“There’s many jazz audiences rather than one,” says Randall Kline, the Artistic Director of the SFJAZZ Festival. “We appeal to different demographic groups at almost every concert we present. With Dave Brubeck, the age skews older. With Jason Moran, it skews younger. For a Latin Jazz show, it’s primarily Latino. Jazz is the perfect candidate for long-tail marketing over the Internet, because it’s lots of niches, and we’re always marketing to those niches.”

SFJAZZ’s most recent audience research also confirms that those niches conform to the high skew of plus-$100,000 households and college graduates. This makes sense to Andre Guess, Kline’s counterpart at Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2000. “The people who read Playboy forty years ago, who had the slick hi-fi and so on, are commensurate to the $125,000 a year subscribers at Lincoln Center now,” Guess says. “Where it has some appeal is with the 30 to 45 year-old guy with a nice job, who just met this woman he’s trying to get to do certain things with him, so he takes her out to Jazz at Lincoln Center or to Dizzy’s Club, has a nice dinner, and at the end of the evening… It’s all a setup for his thing.

“Popular music is basically the soundtrack of adolescence and sexuality. Jazz was that at one time. There’s an element to it now. But from a marketing standpoint jazz mostly is mellow or laid-back, something that I graduate into after my young and wild-and-crazy days. I want to grow up now.”

The notion of jazz as sophisticated seduction resonates with such upscale brands as Brooks Brothers and Cadillac, both long-time Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsors, and Movado watches, which Wynton Marsalis endorses along with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pete Sampras and Tom Brady. Infiniti and Audi have sponsored SFJAZZ; so has Target. During the ‘90s, Lexus put a jazz soundtrack to commercials hawking its 400 luxury line, targeted to over-40 executive types, but shifted gears when when Infiniti, a direct competitor, stamped its launch campaign with the Dave Brubeck classic, “Take Five.” The ‘90s also saw Starbucks associate its brand identity with jazz by distributing content generated by Blue Note at its stores; this year, Hear Music, Starbucks’ house label, partnered with Concord, the L.A.-based jazz independent.

On the other hand, the safe-as-old-pajamas connotation persuaded Ryan Kitch, a New York based sound designer for Saatchi & Saatchi, to use a Latin Jazz version of Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island for a Cheerios spot intended for Mexican-U.S. distribution. “The song spans several generations and has a nice, timeless feel,” Kitch says. “Cheerios has been part of family life for generations, and lots of people can relate to it. But we also do spots for Wendy’s and J.C. Penney, and usually end up more in a Rock type of world.”

Such jazz-embracing attitudes are exceptions to the rule in the corporate world. “Advertisers are always looking for something hip and contemporary and on the edge, and they feel that jazz is old and done,” says sound designer Chris Bell, who worked on the aforementioned Lexus commercials.

“Jazz is in a sort of no-man’s-land,” says Steve Silver, the San Francisco-based creative director who conceived the Lexus ads. Silver plays saxophone, and mentions that his father, Art Silver, wrote a jazz review in Playboy’s inaugural, Marilyn Monroe issue.

“For an upscale advertiser you’d think that jazz would work pretty well,” Silver continues. “But often, upscale means luxurious, and if you want to convey luxury, the no-brainer approach is to use opera or classical music. I say ‘no-brainer,’ because frequently, something counter-intuitive would work better. On the other hand, if you want to say ‘urban hip,’ it’s not your best choice. There were times, of course,  when jazz was TOTALLY “Urban Hip.” That time is not going to be now. Jazz would be a great opportunity to make your product stand out, and I’d love to use it. It has so many flavors—it could be optimistic or cacophonous. Or it could be not so tied to class and income. But it isn’t hugely in demand for those particular flavors that you’re trying to communicate.

“Jazz is different than a lot of these other sounds, because it requires you to listen and engage and be intellectually—and emotionally—stimulated. We’re so far away from Classical, that as soon as you hear the violins, two notes, half a bar, you think, ‘Well, that’s classical.’ As soon as you hear a Rock or Hip-hop sound with that heavy beat, you’re viscerally engaged, but not really intellectually engaged. When you use music for commercial purposes, you’re not showcasing the music. You’re using the music to showcase something else. So if the music is too engaging, too rich, asks too much attention, it gets in the way of the trajectory that the advertiser really wants, which is the product. It’s almost too distracting.”

Notably, artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, who signified jazz when jazz led the zeitgeist, still code intriguing to the young and cool. “When we were producing the Verve Remixed series, we found jazz, iconic jazz in particular, had a lot of cachet in the dj/electronica/lounge crowd,” says Jason Olaine, who directed A&R for Verve between 1999 to 2004 after a six-year tenure  programming the Oakland jazz club-restaurant Yoshi’s. He’s referring to several CDs on which deejays  altered classic tunes from the catalog with drum loops and analog scratchy sounds. At the time, Olaine notes, “they were some of the most widely played soundtracks to chic bars and fashion hotspots from San Francisco to L.A. It seemed like a good way to monetize the catalog and reach some new kids, not only educating them about some of these classic artists but also possibly turning them on to buy our catalog.”

“The characters in jazz today are less singular than before,” Touré reflects. “There’s no excitement around the genre now as there was when Miles and Monk and Bird and Ornette Coleman were reinventing music.” He suggests that the cross-generational fascination they inspire has as much to do with the transgressive qualities they projected as with their respective sounds. “There’s definitely an aspect of Fear of Black Man, that fascination with the black man that is wrapped within the cool of jazz,” he says. “It’s a small underground club, some kid’s hiding away practicing, and he blows away the club, and it’s late, and there’s alcohol and women, and there’s Black Brilliance on the stage. In America that fascination always exists, but the locus has changed. It used to be located on jazz and boxing, but it isn’t in those places any more. Now in Hip-Hop you get a lot of that Black Male Other.”

“There’s a sort of stereotypical character that does rap, and the music is an extension of their life and the culture,” Guess elaborates. “There has to be a movement to create an aura or mood around musicians like Miles, Trane and Sonny Rollins, that marries itself to what jazz is, so the uninitiated can say, ‘Okay, this is the vibe, and I can see it in this person.’”

It’s tempting to fetishize the stylish surface imagery of those years. As a corrective, Tate mentions a scene in ATL, a youth-oriented Urban movie from last year. “One guy in the film is dating the daughter of a fairly well-off black professional, and he goes to this lily-white southern country club,” he says. “The band is playing something, I think, from Kind of Blue. It struck me that this is not just old folks music. It’s old WHITEFOLKS music.”

In point of fact, the jazz paradigm for the digital era follows pathways reminiscent of the one-world lifestyle pitched by Benetton. The underground club and existential brilliance found therein do exist, at least in New York, but the performers could come from anywhere; jazz now functions on a global playing field, and multiculturalism is the new mainstream. Kind of Blue modalities will be part of the game in the brave new world. So will church music and the blues, bebop and soul jazz, the piano vocabularies of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, the universes of Coltrane, Monk and Sonny Rollins. So, too, will the intoxicating melodies and rhythms of Cuba, Brazil, India, and West and North Africa; the song forms of popular music, from hip-hop to Bjork; the Euro-Classical tradition. The more intrepid may translate Fibonacci equations into musical flow, explore post-Webern dissonances, or make computers improvise in real time.

“From a marketing perspective, jazz reads more intellectual than sexy,” Guess notes of this tendency. “It needs to be decoded, and it’s hard to overcome that. One reason why jazz been marginalized is that it’s a little like pornography—the ‘I know it when I hear it’ kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons why Wynton Marsalis places such an emphasis on trying to define it in a way that you can understand it.”

But the Internet inevitably will open doors for micro-marketing strategies, and as the elites that it has created parlay their assets into increasing social influence, jazz—in all its many varieties—seems well-positioned to find a consequential niche. Consider the Silicon Valley venture capitalists and information technology executives who populate the board of SFJAZZ, chaired by 32-year-old Srinija Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! Inc. Through the prism of mass media and fashion culture, they may code nerdy, but they will be the movers and shakers of 21st century progress, and their geek cool demands a music that engages their quirky, pragmatic, improvisational intelligence. Being cool, they will not require definitions.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of power, and a younger culture,” Kline says. “It’s like San Francisco from the Gold Rush, people coming west to earn their fortunes, that rugged guy in Levis with a pick-axe over his shoulder. I think jazz fits with that sensibility. How we in the jazz world position ourselves is the challenge, but the place of jazz will be much stronger and longer-lasting.”

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A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.


 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”


“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”


Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”


A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”



Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.


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