Category Archives: Blindfold Test

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**************

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):

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

[PAUSE]

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

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

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

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

TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.

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

TP: Was that through a school program?

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

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

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

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

TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…

WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.

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

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

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

TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Well, he might be.

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

TP: That senior year of high school.

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

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

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

TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?

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

TP: Acoustic at all?

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

TP: So you had a certain facility.

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

TP: Put up or shut up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOLFE: Oh, definitely.

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

WOLFE: No question.

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

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

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

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

TP: Well, not everybody can be one.

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

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

WOLFE: I suppose.

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

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

TP: But the technique is awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: It is if you can’t play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?

WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.

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

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

TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.

WOLFE: That was in ’88.

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

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

TP: Do you think it was politics?

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

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

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

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

TP: You were there when his star was rising.

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

TP: You were profiling.

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

TP: That relationship has endured for several years.

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

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

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

TP: He’s a perfectionist.

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

TP: You’re hard core, man.

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

TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: You seriously felt that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.

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

TP: The first separation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.

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

WOLFE: Before and after.

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

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

TP: But his music is very informed by those…

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

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

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

TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: When do you leave Wynton?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Were you on that first record he did?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.

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

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

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

TP: How about for you?

WOLFE: For me?

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

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

TP: What would make it successful all the way?

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

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

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

TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?

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

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

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

TP: With other people’s imperfections?

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: What is a jazz sound?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Who do you like?

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

TP: Who else do you like?

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

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

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

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

TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?

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

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

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

TP: No, just these records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[PAUSE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.

TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.

TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.

WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…

TP: You have a more control.

WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.

TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…

WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.

TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?

WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.

TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.

WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.

TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?

WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.

TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.

WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…

TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?

WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.

TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?

WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.

TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.

WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.

TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?

WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.

I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.

TP: When did you start with Diana?

WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.

TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.

WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.

 

*************

Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)

“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.

There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.

2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.

3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)

That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.

4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)

It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.

5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.

6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)

We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.

7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)

This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!

8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)

The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.

9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)

Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.

10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)

That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.

11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)

that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.

12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)

That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.

13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)

Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.

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For Arturo O’Farrill’s 60th birthday, Downbeat Features from 2017 and 2014, a DB Blindfold Test From 2016, and an O’Farrill-Eddie Palmieri Conversation from 2003

Pianist-composer-bandleader Arturo O’Farrill turned 60 yesterday. For the occasion, I’ve put together an omnibus post containing — in order of presentation — Downbeat feature articles from 2017 and 2014, an edited Blindfold Test from 2016, and an unedited conversation between Arturo and Eddie Palmieri (with some input from Brian Lynch) in 2003 conversation at Birdland that became a Downbeat article.

 

Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdes-Familia Project (DownBeat Article) – (2017):

At its core, the new Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdés collaboration, Familia: Tribute to Bebo and Chico (Motéma), is a meditation on the eternal subject of patriarchy, the complex relations of fathers, sons and daughters. The title references Bebo Valdés (1918-2013) and Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001), both seminal figures in the evolution and global dissemination of Cuban music, whose respective musical legacies receive a sprawling interpretation from their eminent pianist-composer-bandleader sons, themselves separated by a generation. Their talented grandchildren—New Yorkers Adam (23) and Zack O’Farrill (26) on trumpet and drums, and Habaneros Jessie (31) and Leyanis Valdés (36) on drums and piano—refract ancestral spirits through a decidedly 21st century prism.

Speaking at his Brooklyn studio, O’Farrill traced the gestation moment to 2002, when Chucho Valdés invited him to perform at Havana’s Plaza Jazz Festival. “I was ambivalent about going,” O’Farrill said. “I was traumatized by the idea of betraying my father, who was bitter about the revolution for many years, but softened late in life. He rejected an opportunity to return to Cuba when Miami’s Cuban-American community stated it would boycott him. That tore him up. I wondered what could possibly be so special about your land of birth that would cause you such agony.”

After receiving Valdés’ invitation, O’Farrill received no initial confirmation of venue or accommodations, and wrote the festival organizer that he wouldn’t make the trip. The organizer responded, “Please come—we have a special surprise for you.” O’Farrill continued: “I get to Cuba, and men with suits and a badge meet me at the airport. I’m thinking: maybe I’m going to die; these guys are either CIA or Cuban secret police.”

Instead, they brought O’Farrill to “a beautiful building, all stone and chrome and wood, called ‘Palacio O’Farrill.’” Outside, a line of people awaited his arrival. “The director of this hotel, which they said was an old O’Farrill house, opened the car door and said, “Welcome home, Mr. O’Farrill.’ I started crying. As I’ve spent more time in Cuba, I’ve realized how much the sounds and sights my father grew up with, his cultural roots, shaped his aesthetic. I developed a powerful obsession to perform my father’s music in his native land.”

Now 57, O’Farrill arrived in New York in 1965, when his parents relocated from Mexico City, where his father—who spent 1948 to 1952 in the Apple—had moved from Havana in 1957. In 1997, after a protracted Oedipal journey that that saw him shun and then embrace his father’s distinguished corpus, O’Farrill launched a 14-year Sunday night sinecure at Birdland helming the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill. O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, featured on the first disk of Familia, has occupied the slot since 2011.

In September 2014, Valdés came to town for a Jazz at Lincoln Center collaboration with Pedrito Martinez and Wynton Marsalis titled “Ochas,” an eight-part suite dedicated to eight Yoruban orishas. O’Farrill dropped in on a rehearsal. “We were hanging out, and then went to lunch,” O’Farrill recalled. “We talked about how lovely it would be to work together, to do something that extended the idea of family and legacy and our fathers and our kids. Later, I’d see Chucho at one thing or another, and we’d remind each other of the idea, until we started talking concretely about the music and the concept—we’d write a piece together, I’d write a few pieces, we’d do a piece by Chucho, re-record a piece by Bebo and by Chico, and then turn over the baton to the young people.”

Towards that end, O’Farrill and Valdés spent several days at Valdés’ Miami home, brainstorming repertoire and co-writing the album’s opening track, “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” a Haitano merengue upon which both pianists stretch out. “We sat at two pianos, and played, and talked, and played; sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee; talked and played some more,” O’Farrill said. “Although Chucho is a commanding presence, he’s soft-spoken. He chooses his words carefully. But at the piano he becomes gregarious, carousing and absolutely accessible. A lot of sentimental, major, diatonic, happy sounding music came out of that meeting. It’s all about family, and you can’t avoid it. But it’s not like me at all—every cell of my being fights sentimentality and feel-goodness.”

A member of the musicians union at 14, O’Farrill was still a teenager when his father first hired him for jingle sessions. First-hand observation of Chico O’Farrill’s scores taught him to arrange and compose; tough love from bandmates and the ministrations of Andy Gonzalez, helped him evolve into a proficient practitioner of clave and Afro-Caribbean codes. Meanwhile, in parallel, O’Farrill was cultivating another, very different tonal personality, oriented toward embracing speculative musical environments. He attributes this mindset to examples set by Carla Bley, who he joined at 19 and remained with throughout the ’80s, and Charles Mingus, whose album Mingus Ah Um “changed me forever.”

“Mingus would take the existing ingredients of acceptable jazz composition, and deconstruct them and flip them around and toy with them and throw in this and that,” O’Farrill said. “That’s where I come from more than anything else. Carla taught me to stick to your guns no matter what. I love writing, but I love art more. My father was an innate and brilliant composer—writing was his end-all and be-all. But for me, it’s always about the greater challenge of using your craft to serve the art.”

That stated aesthetic pervades ALJO’s prior CD, Cuba: The Conversation Continues; on Familia, O’Farrill applies it effectively on “Three Revolutions.” The piece began as a response to the death of Fidel Castro while O’Farrill was in Havana to bury his father’s ashes, not long after the election of the 45th U.S. President. “It was a sad day in Havana,” O’Farrill said. “The Revolution is not going away, but even so, it felt like it was gone. And after the U.S. election, I felt the American Revolution died. The third revolution is the one we all still hope will come—a global realization that every human being will be accorded the same value as every other, that we’ll wake up to the reality that if one suffers, we all suffer.”

O’Farrill explicated: Valdés’ opening cadenza, “strong, romantic, passionate, quoting Rachmaninoff,” denotes “the power and grace of the Cuban Revolution.” His own cadenza is “enigmatic and modern and strange, and asks if we really had a revolution.” There follows a “minimalist section that indicates militaristic roboticness, very 16th-notey, very square, but with a non-metric melody that denotes a strong undertow of resistance against the metric rigidity.” Prefacing kinetic solos by the co-leaders is a “‘matrix’ section, where everything is blown out of the water and you hear these trails of sound, calling into question the question-mark—that there is no finality; we’re still looking for that third revolution.”

ALJO captures the elegant essence of“Ecuacion,” a 1982 composition on which Bebo Valdés juxtaposed the language of bebop with his own definitive conception of mambo big band writing. O’Farrill first performed it in 2005 when Bebo performed “Suite Cubana” with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis invited O’Farrill to form in 2002. The program notes for Bebo De Cuba (Calle 54) quote Valdés that he wrote it during an evening of conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in Stockholm, where Valdés settled and formed a new family in 1963, three years after defecting from Cuba. “I decided to write Dizzy something on the spot with diminished fifths, which I played for him on the piano,” Valdés wrote.

Both pianists improvise floridly on Hilario Duran’s arrangement of Chucho Valdés’ “Tema De Bebo,” which Valdés often performs with his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, and on “Pianitis,” which Machito commissioned from Chico circa 1979. The idiomatic grace and lucidity of O’Farrill’s solo on the former piece denotes his intimacy with the classical Cuban piano style, as does his nuanced solo flight on his father’s “Pure Emotion.” “I adored Bebo,” said O’Farrill, who played the “Latin piano” tracks on the 2010 animated film Chico and Rita, in which the male lead is loosely based on Bebo Valdés in Batista’s Cuba. “The value system of writing in the mambo big band doesn’t exist any more. The Thad Jones-Bob Brookmeyer-Jim McNeely resonance on all of us who write and arrange for big bands has resulted in different textures. Rightly so. Things change. But Bebo did that so beautifully, so lush and fat and gorgeous, so lovely to behold. It’s timeless.”

“Bebo was one of the most personal musicians ever,” Chucho Valdés wrote via email. “He was equally proficient writing and arranging for big band, string orchestras and small groups.” Valdés added that his father imparted comprehensive home-schooling in the codes of jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music. “He told me to have an academic background, to study pure classical, to learn each genre correctly in its specialty, without jumping. We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned by epoch ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal. He taught me to be an individual musician, and I have taught these things to my children. This recording clearly proves that they have found their own way.”

Jessie Valdés upholds Chucho’s encomium on “Recuerdo” (“Memory”), a flowing Jazz Latin piece dedicated to Bebo Valdés that he propels with painterly, subtly percolating beats, and features Leyanis Valdés’ flowing, harmonically informed, high-chops solo—the fruit fell close to the family tree. “We’d see my father studying all day, and he ordered me to study every night,” Jessie recently told a Cuban journalist. “He’d listen to the music of Oscar Peterson and my grandfather. One time he went on a trip and brought back for me a very small set of drums, and said he’d place my drums by those of Enrique Plá. Leyanis and I are proud to be his children. Our goal is to respect his musical patterns, to follow the tradition that he and Bebo have charted in terms of good music and composition as we compose our own music.”

A similar predisposition to pay respect to elders through individualistic expression infuses the contributions of the O’Farrill siblings, both semi-regular ALJO participants . “We could probably sing back entire suites of our grandfather, as much from hearing it a ton and playing it a bunch as from overt, deliberate study,” Zack O’Farrill said. “But our father always supported us in playing our own music that has very little to do with what he does or what our grandfather did.”

Zack’s contribution, “Gonki, Gonki” a Jazz Latin line fueled by his complex clave permutations and elevated by inflamed solos from young Cuban trumpeters Kali Rodríguez-Peña and Jesus Ricardo Anduz, sardonically references his mother’s descriptor for the run-of-the-mill salsa gigs Arturo O’Farrill still was playing when Zack was a child. “Neither of us rebelled against his music the way my father rebelled against Latin music growing up,” he said. “He’s invited us to join what he does in a very equal way, and he’s also introduced us to things his dad couldn’t introduce him to—free jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Rock, Pop and R&B.”

“As much as we play with him, he’s our father first, bandleader second,” said Adam O’Farrill, who titled “Run and Jump,” to which he contributes a powerful trumpet solo, to reference the videogames he and his brother played with their father while growing up. “Stylistically, it’s a huge departure from the rest of the album,” O’Farrill said. “It’s not in any sort of Afro-Cuban tradition. But it is about fatherhood and fun, and the kind of relationship you can form with your parents.”

In a sense, the O’Farrill brothers’ contributions mirror their father’s mandate that ALJO not replicate canonic repertoire like a “museum band.” “For one thing, the technical refinements in the way pianos and trumpets and saxophones are made gives them a very different sound,” Arturo O’Farrill said. “Also, in the 1950s, when a lot of this music was originally played, songo and timba and other incredible rhythms hadn’t been invented. So in playing this music, we’re honoring the spirit and the tradition it was created in, but we’re very capable of adding to that conversation.

“When you go to Cuba, you understand that we still haven’t solved the riddle that Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá were beginning to unravel—the thing that binds us together. It’s not just artistic. It’s spiritual. Cuba and America are so powerfully part of one another; you have the messiest divorces with the people you love most. So when I look to my future, I have to look to my father’s native land. Something in that soil informed my father’s entire being as a musician. Something in that land speaks to me, speaks to my training, speaks to my furtherance and my history and my trajectory.”

Sidebar: Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill and Dionisio Ramón Emilio “Bebo” Valdés Amaro:

“For me, Chico O’Farrill is the best arranger in the history of music,” Chucho Valdes said last May. He spoke in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note after a set by his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers that ended with “Tema Para Bebo,” a song he composed just after the death of his father, Bebo Valdés, on March 22, 2013, at the age of 94. Pere and fils Valdés shared an October 9th birthday; Chucho reported at the time that his father sang him the memorable refrain in a dream.

Bebo Valdés was born in the village of Quivican to a cigar factory worker. His grandfather was a slave. He left for Havana at 17 to study at Conservatorio Municipal, where he remained until 1943. During these years he befriended the iconic bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, with whom he recorded the 2005 CD El Arte Del Sabor. By 1941, when Chucho was born, Bebo was playing regularly in Havana’s dance clubs; from 1943 to 1947 he was a staff arranger at the progressive radio station Mil Diez. In 1947, he left Havana for Haiti, and spent the ensuing year with bandleader Isaac Saleh, during which he keyed into traditional drumming and song. He returned in 1948 for an engagement with vocalist Rita Montaner, and became house pianist at the Tropicana Club with Armando Romeu until 1957. In 1952, he participated in Cuba’s first descarga (jam session) recording; he also introduced the batanga, a dance style that incorporated the sacred two-headed batá drum into the percussive base. In 1958, he played piano on Nat “King” Cole’s Cole Espagnol recordings, and contributed four arrangements.

In 1959, Valdés began using Chucho occasionally in his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. They next played together on the 1993 CD, Bebo Rides Again (Messidor), convened at Paquito D’Rivera’s instigation, which, along with D’Rivera’s Cuba Jazz: 90 Miles To Cuba (TropiJazz-1996), brought Bebo back to international consciousness. Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary Calle 54 documented their next encounter; a subsequent documentary, Old Man Bebo, earned its director first prize for Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. During his gloriously productive final decade, Valdés had a hit with the Cuba-meets-flamenco date album Lagrimas Negras with singer Diego El Cigala, creating a high standard that he matched on Suite Cubana and Live at the Village Vanguard.

The son of an Irish-born lawyer and a Cuban mother, O’Farrill—born in Havana in 1921—was slated to follow in his father’s footsteps, but caught the jazz bug as a teenager in a Georgia boarding school and devoted himself to music. He began to arrange for Armando Romeu’s orchestra at the Tropicana cabaret in 1942. In 1947, he organized an ahead-of-the-curve unit called Los Beboppers. A year later, he relocated to New York, where he caught the ear of Benny Goodman, who recorded “Undercurrent Blues.” In quick order, he composed “Cuban Episode” for Stan Kenton, “Afro-Cuban Suite” for Machito with Charlie Parker, “Manteca Suite” for Dizzy Gillespie, and a series of 10″ leader LPs for Norman Granz. These recordings established O’Farrill as the first composer-arranger to blend the vocabularies of modern jazz, 20th century European music, and Afro-Cuban idioms.

They also made him a lodestar figure in Cuba, as implied by Chucho’s recollection: “I learned a lot from the rhythmic structures in Chico’s arrangements that the Tropicana Club Orchestra had, while his recordings with Peruchín, Richard Egües, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines are master classes. Chico’s Cha Cha Cha is my favorite.”

During his final 46 years in NYC, O’Farrill functioned successfully as a journeyman arranger, while generating a masterpiece 1967 album Nine Flags (Impulse!), comprised of his originals; 11 albums between 1965 and 1970 with the Count Basie Orchestra; and Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods with Gillespie in 1975. After two decades of radio silence, he recorded the Todd Barkan-produced “comeback” albums Pure Emotion, The Heart Of A Legend and Carambola with the reconstituted Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.

[—30—]

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Arturo O’Farrill & ALJO, DownBeat Article (2014):

Since 1997, with occasional interruptions, Arturo O’Farrill has spent Sunday evenings directing big bands at Birdland—14 years with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill, his father; three years with its legatee, his own Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. On the 900th or so such occasion in early June, not long after the release of ALJO’s third CD, The Offense of the Drum (Motéma), O’Farrill opened the show with “Vaca Frita,” a swing-to-mambo original infused with Gil Evans-esque brass, then Chico O’Farrill’s “Trumpet Fantasy,” which juxtaposed rumba-driven call-and-response sections with subtle restatements from the Canción section of Chico’s “Afro-Cuban Suite.”

O’Farrill rose from the piano bench, stated titles and personnel, and introduced “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” which he composed. “I do everything backwards,” he announced. “When I teach jazz history classes, I start with Cecil Taylor, then we go to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus, we keep searching, and finally end with Scott Joplin. The beginnings of Jazz and Latin come from the same root.”

As on the version that appears on The Offense of The Drum, O’Farrill’s florid introduction evoked Rachmaninoff more than Taylor, but everything else was as stated. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli uncorked a soulful a cappella Charlie Parker refraction. An Ellingtonian passage followed, springboarding Seeley into a “West End Blues”-“St. James Infirmary” medley. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall’s unaccompanied passage channeled early ‘70s Mingusian Hamiett Bluiett, foreshadowing several call-and-response passages on which the sections, blowing reconfigured Mingus themes (think “Boogie Stop Shuffle” meets “Tijuana Moods”), alternated with bassist Carlo DeRosa, in “Haitian Fight Song” mode. Suddenly, the refrain of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” emerged. The band dropped out for O’Farrill to render a brief falling-down-the-stairs passage. When they reentered, the rhythmic template switched from funk to salsa. Trumpeter John Powell rode the wave, then passed the baton to Seneca Black and Adam O’Farrill—Arturo’s son—for a climactic two-trumpet passage.

By now, patrons packed the room; the applause was raucous. O’Farrill waited. “We’ve decided that Latin Jazz is not defined by Cuban and Puerto Rican music,” he declared, then offered “Mercado en Domingo,” a highlight of the new CD. Composed by Colombian pianist Pablo Mayor, it contained janky trumpet lines, tangoish sax unisons, Rafi Malkiel’s alligatory trombone solo and Seeley’s piercing declamation, all goosed by a porro streetbeat, which would sound apropos in a New Orleans second line. Next was O’Farrill’s “Freilach a Nacht,” a klezmer-ish minor blues propelled by a crackling merengue perhaps one degree of separation removed from a polka. On the set-closer, a Ray Santos mambo dedicated to Mario Bauzá, ALJO idiomatically channeled the soulful Afro-Cuban essence of its namesake.

Within this kinetic six-tune episode, O’Farrill encapsulated the overlapping streams that define his musical production since 2002, when Wynton Marsalis invited him to form the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center. His mandate was to assemble an exhaustive book of “Mambo King” era repertoire associated with his father, Machito, Bauzá, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and other Afro-Caribbean heroes, and to perform it authentically, with an attitude firmly planted in the here-and-now. After JALC severed ties in 2005, O’Farrill regrouped, substituting “Latin” for “Cuban” in the band’s title. In 2007, supported by a 501(c)(3) non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, he launched an annual concert season at Symphony Space, an Upper West Side theater, which includes an annual musica nuevo concert devoted to commissioned works—The Offense of The Drum culls nine of them—reflecting Pan-American and Afro-diasporic perspectives.

A few days later, in the courtyard of Harlem School of the Arts, where ALJA has its offices, O’Farrill, 54, discussed the roots and branches of his hemispheric sensibility. He recalled the in-studio response of Donald Harrison—on-site to perform the Mardi Gras Indian flagwaver “Iko, Iko,” which ends the album—to a playback of “Mercado en Domingo.” “Donald started laughing quietly,” O’Farrill said. “He understood the idea I’m selling—that the same music he grew up with in the streets of New Orleans was happening in the streets of Bogotá or Lima or, for that matter, any major metropolis in South America where brass bands played African rhythms. We’re playing each other’s music, but from different entry points.”

These connective portals reveal themselves in various guises in the otherwise disparate pieces that comprise The Offense Of The Drum. Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda solos over a melange of Colombian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms on his glistening “Cuarto de Colores.” Spanish alto saxophonist-vocalist Antonio Lizana infuses flamenco soul into Eric Satie’s “Gnossiene 3 (Tientos),” which he arranged. The hip-hop cadences of Nuyorican poet Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas’ recitation-chant of “They Came,” arranged by Jason Lindner, intersect with D.J. Logic’s turntable sound-painting and an admixture of reggaeton and bomba beats.

The oppressive, martial sound of Japanese taiko drums, set ironically against a fugal form and a bolero cadence, opens the title track, which O’Farrill wrote in response to the gradual suppression of public drum circles in New York City during the mayoral administrations of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. During the second half, liberation beats fuel the orchestra’s rowdy splashes of color.

“Everything Arturo writes is really from the drums, although he writes around melody and conceptual things as well,” ALJO drummer Vince Cherico said. “When we’re learning something in rehearsals, he’ll stop the horns and have the rhythm section—or maybe the conguero or me on drums—play the patterns over and over until it sinks in. He says, ‘This is what you have to play the notes on top of.’”

Vijay Iyer’s brief piano concerto, “The Mad Hatter,” conceived in tribute to O’Farrill’s anything-goes persona, explores, Iyer stated, “compatibilities between Carnatic rhythmic ideas I was thinking about and certain rhythms in clave.” “I see it as similar to Satie and Phillip Glass in the way Vijay explores the idea of unfolding within a context of stasis,” O’Farrill remarks. “It also intrigued me that he would have the audacity to fuck with clave, because he clearly doesn’t come from that world.”

Some band members found “The Mad Hatter” “threatening,” O’Farrill reported. One questioned the necessity of playing the first section in its ascribed 21/8 time signature, to which O’Farrill riposted, “Because we can’t play ‘Oye Como Va’ forever.” The next day the malcontent cell-phoned, “The bridge is a mess, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer, and I’m trying to get to New York.’” O’Farrill answered, “Brother, life isn’t always 4/4—is it?”

“To me, that was a perfect object lesson,” he continued. “If you define your music by constructs that are already in place, you’re a fool. Now, I love 4/4. At my core, I’m a jazz pianist. I may have this big vision of what jazz could become, but my entry point into that conversation was bursting into tears when I first heard Herbie Hancock on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ I wanted to play like Herbie more than anything in the world, because if you could float rhythmically over that bed of swing, like him, you were a complete human being with mastery over time and space. But people don’t understand that when Herbie started playing his shit, someone said, ‘You don’t sound like Red Garland.’”

[BREAK]

Already a “mid-level” practitioner of Mozart sonatas and Chopin preludes when he experienced his Hancock epiphany, O’Farrill, then 12, was just beginning to experiment with jazz and improvisational music. By 14, when he joined Local 802, he was playing with experienced New York vets like trumpeter Manny Duran and trombonist-drummer Artie Simmons. “I didn’t know much about harmony or stylistic nuance in jazz, but I had really good keyboard skills, which always seems to impress people,” O’Farrill commented.

You can infer the level of O’Farrill’s teenage skill-set from his father’s contemporaneous piano concerto, “Pianitis,” which Arturo performed during the ‘80s with Machito. “Arturo is scary-virtuoso,” said Iyer. “He has amazing power. He can cut through the ensemble effortlessly, with all those drummers, he has great rhythm, and he’s extremely expressive, very colorful—just a joy to listen to.”

Over the course of three decades, O’Farrill evolved from efflorescent performer to the impresario-maestro of his maturity. Born in Mexico City, where his Havana-born father and Mexican-descended mother moved after the Communist Party consolidated power in Cuba, and a New Yorker since age 5, he experienced “tremendous ambivalence” about his cultural roots. “I thought the music of Chico, Machito and Tito Puente was secondary to jazz in importance and intellectual ability,” he said. “Growing up, the only Hispanics I knew were the school custodian and the basketball star. When I found out that Herbie had come from Bud Powell, I became a Bud Powell freak.” Even so, while immersing himself in bebop and free jazz, O’Farrill began playing on his father’s jingle dates, beginning with a Bumble Bee tuna commercial.

“I knew what a montuno was, but I didn’t understand how to make it work in the clave,” he recalled of that session. “Sal Cuevas was playing bass, and told me that I had to study and get my shit together.” O’Farrill purchased Papo Lucca records, learned the mechanics, but resisted the subtleties. He dropped out of Music and Art High School, worked as a bicycle messenger, and led a peer-grouper sextet called the Untouchables, which in 1978 took a gig upstate “at a hole-in-the-wall bar, playing for beers.” The proprietor notified Carla Bley, who lived down the road. She stopped by, liked what she heard, and soon thereafter hired O’Farrill to play a Carnegie Hall concert, initiating a four-year association.

“I’m much more Carla’s child—or Charles Mingus’ child—than Chico O’Farrill’s child,” O’Farrill said of his aesthetics regarding musical narrative. “Composition was my father’s end-all and be-all. He held jazz on a pedestal. Carla taught me that the notes are secondary to what you want to communicate; it’s not the vehicle, but where the person who’s driving wants to go.”

As the ‘80s progressed, O’Farrill freelanced, worked more frequently on his father’s commercial and creative projects, earned a degree in Classical Performance at Manhattan School of Music, and did extensive fieldwork in the Latin piano tradition with bassist-scholar Andy Gonzalez. “Andy told me that I needed to embrace where I come from, to understand how beautiful it is,” O’Farrill said. “Almost immediately I realized that Latin piano was as sophisticated—maybe even more so—and as difficult to cop as anything Herbie was doing.”

These looking-backward investigations coincided with O’Farrill’s burgeoning appreciation of the depth and quality of Chico O’Farrill’s corpus. “In my twenties, a friend had me listen to ‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,’” O’Farrill recounted. “He asked, ‘Have you really heard this?’ I went, ‘Yeah…not really…no.’” He blames the Oedipus Complex. “Whatever legendary musician he was, my father was also prone to the foibles and frailties of fatherhood,” he said. Youthful resentments dissipated during the ‘90s, as père O’Farrill, who died in 2001, experienced an end-of-career renaissance, spurred by the the recordings Pure Emotion, Heart Of A Legend and Carambola, which Arturo music-directed. “I learned how to arrange by looking at my father’s scores. I learned how to compose by listening to my father’s compositions. I learned about voicings and counterpoint. I also learned that my voice was very different than his. It wasn’t just about mimicking, saying, ‘This is a good way to do it.’ It was also about, ‘No, I reject this.’”

“I sensed that Arturo felt very much in Chico’s shadow and fervently desired to establish his own identity,” said Todd Barkan, who produced Chico O’Farrill’s final recordings, as well as The Offense of The Drum and, indeed, Arturo’s 1999 leader debut Bloodline. “But I never saw him be anything less than totally deferential and acquiescent to Chico’s wishes. In his soft-spoken, almost passive way, Chico was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, but he never outwardly expressed his emotions, unlike Arturo, who had to be challenged to control his temper. Arturo has a lot to be proud of in how he’s served his father’s vision and legacy.”

“Chico’s health was failing, so I was thrust into taking over the functions he’d done so well—standing in front of the guys, conducting them and emceeing,” O’Farrill said. “I had to stop being a pianist. He could barely walk, and I worried that he was frail and elderly and might keel over. It’s good that he’s getting his due, but he’s also ambivalent about the attention. At the same time, I had to pursue responsibilities I wasn’t really sure I was prepared for.”

[BREAK]

After Wynton Marsalis played “Trumpet Fantasy” with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1996, Arturo approached him for advice. “It interested me that he assembled this orchestra that was building a canon of American jazz, and I asked him—or maybe his assistant—for thoughts on how we could develop a relationship with an institution that might help us create a similar repertory orchestra,” O’Farrill recalled. “A few years later we were playing at a Christmas tree lighting, and Wynton said, out of the blue, ‘I really like your idea, and I want to give you a home at Jazz at Lincoln Center.’”

O’Farrill retains bittersweet feelings about the association, which JALC severed a year after entering its high-maintenance quarters at Columbus Circle. But he prefers to see the break as a blessing in disguise, by which ALJO was afforded the opportunity, as Barkan puts it, “to venture into the world on its own and be its own person.”

“That Wynton would fully open up his platform to us was extraordinarily moving to me,” O’Farrill said. “I learned a lot of lessons from him. He never told us what to do, how to do it, or controlled what we brought to his stage. At the end, I asked him point-blank if we did something wrong. He answered that we represented the House of Swing with great respectability, but that JALC was under great financial duress and would no longer be able to house us.”

One point of common ground is a mutual commitment to grass roots educational initiatives. Another is a decidedly non-preservationist approach to performing the “classic” repertoire that forms the core of each orchestra’s mission, with insistence on technical excellence in matters of instrumentalism, composition and arrangement as a default basis of operations, as is apparent in ALJO’S flawless navigation of the diverse environments of The Offense Of The Drum and 40 Acres and a Burro [Zoho], from 2011. The latter date includes sparkling performances of an Afro-Peruvian original by Gabriel Alegría, two programmatic pieces by O’Farrill, and creative-yet-idiomatic charts—each by a separate arranger—of Pan-American repertoire spanning Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla), Brazilian choro (Pixiguinha), Brazilian rhapsody (Hermeto Pascoal), Cuban danzón (Chico O’Farrill), Nuyorican salsa (Oscar Hernandez), and Afro-Caribbean-inflected bebop (Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”).

Both institutions also operate on the principle that to bring forth new work is as important as the mandate to preserve. “We honor the spirit and tradition that this music was created in, but never try to replicate or play like a museum band,” O’Farrill said. “We are capable of adding to that conversation. For one thing, technical refinements make the instruments sound different than 50 or 60 years ago. Afro-Cuban rhythms like songo hadn’t been invented when much of this music was first played.

“My model since the Lincoln Center days is to look for musicians who are multi-layered, multi-cultured, flexible stylistically and artistically, who understand clave but can also read in 21/8. I like to put a younger musician next to a veteran and hope each will influence the other’s thinking.”

In his wholehearted embrace of the music of the Americas, O’Farrill draws not only on extensive travels through South and Central America and bandstand interaction with musicians from those cultures, but frequent visits to Cuba since 2002.

“The only thing that could make my father cry during his last years was remembrances of his youth,” O’Farrill said. “He rejected an opportunity to return because he received hate mail from Miami’s Cuban-American community. It tore him up. I wondered what could be so special about your birthplace that would cause you such agony in your later years. I learned that the sounds and sights of Cuba indelibly shaped his aesthetic and cultural roots, his sense of harmonic counterpoint and Afro-folkloric counterpoint. The more time I spend in Cuba, the more I realize it’s the land I come from, and also that Cuba is part of Latin America in very concrete ways.”

O’Farrill cited his next recording, a project called “The Conversation Continued,” for which ALJA has commissioned young composers in the United States and in Cuba to imagine what might have happened had the U.S. not imposed an embargo. The program will comprise next season’s Nuevo Musica concert at Symphony Space, joining separate programs curated by Lionel Loueke, exploring the direct African influence in jazz, and by Antonio Sanchez, exploring Mexican jazz and Mexico’s influence in jazz.

Of Mexican descent on his mother’s side, O’Farrill states he can’t “identify more as a Cuban than as a Mexican.” He adds, “I’ve gone back periodically on a regular basis, and all my aunts and most of my family that I know are in Mexico. But at the end of the day, I feel not so much Mexican or Cuban, but I feel Pueblo. I relate to the pace of South American-Latin American life. I like the noise of children in the streets, and dogs running around, and colors and bright sounds, and food smells, and people practicing on terraces. When I first returned to Cuba, I remember walking down the street and thinking, ‘This feels like home.’ I’ve had that feeling in Mexico. I’ve also had that feeling in Lima, and in Cali, and in Santiago.”

More than anything, though, O’Farrill’s need to create on the edge, in an experimental, cross-disciplinary context, emanates from his New York origins. “Everything I do—being a bicycle messenger as a teenager, running a non-profit now, my musical projects—I take great chances,” he said. “What makes it exciting is that it could crash and burn.”

[—30—]

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Arturo O’Farrill Blindfold Test (2016):

After earning a “Best Instrumental Composition” at the 2016 Grammys for “The Afro-Latin Jazz Suite” (from Cuba: The Conversation Continues [Motéma]), the 55-year-old pianist-composer-arranger Arturo O’Farrill now holds three such awards for his musical production with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. This was O’Farrill’s first DownBeat Blindfold Test.

Pepe Rivero Big Band
“Gandinga, Mondongo and Epistrophy with Sandunga” (Monk and the Cuban Big Band, Universal, 2013) (Reinier Elizarde “El Negron”, bass (solo); Rivero, piano (solo); Georvis Pico, drums; Raul Gil Antillanos, Manuel Machado, Javier Arevalo, trumpets; Julio Montalvo, Julien Ferrer Riol, Dennis Cuni, trombones; Juan Ramon Callejas, Ernesto Millan, alto saxophone; Bobby Martinez, Segundo Mijarez, tenor saxophone; Rafa Serrano, baritone saxophone)

That’s “Sandunga,” the famous Frank Emilio composition. Is it a Cuban big band? Now it’s “Epistrophy.” The bassist is old school, almost Cachao-like in his solo style, not virtuosic, play-a-lot-of-notes nonsense, but connected to the tumbao. Is it the pianist’s record? Definitely not Chucho. The playing is modern and lean, not histrionic. Elio Villafranca? Was this recorded in Cuba? Here? Overseas?—like the WDR Big Band? Pickup orchestra or real orchestra? Beautiful arrangement, with lots of 16th note syncopations, very difficult to play. Right off the bat I thought a Cuban wrote it—the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are interspersed with high precision, the timba and sound of the swing are authentic, plus, let’s face it, not many jazz musicians know what “Sandunga” is. 4½ stars.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
“Moore” (XXI Century, 5Passion, 2011) (Rubalcaba, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Aruán Ortiz? David Virelles? Fringey stuff, fresh and new. I admire it. I have no clue. You can’t play with that much freedom unless you’re really listening. This person is not a replicator, is playing intuitively, in touch with the ebb-and-flow second by second, creating a holistic experience, very in tune with themselves as a human being. It’s extremely well-played, but not facility for facility’s sake. 5 stars. Gonzalo has redefined everything he does, which is extraordinarily courageous when you have huge success early on in the game.

Sullivan Fortner
“Passepied” (Aria, Impulse!, 2015) (Fortner, piano; Tivon Pennicott, soprano saxophone; Aidan Carroll, bass; Joe Dyson, drums)

It’s pleasurable and nice to listen to, but didn’t challenge me in terms of chords or syncopation. Not that things have to be challenging; it’s stupid to make that an aesthetic reason to listen to something. Good composition; I liked the ending. The piece sounds young and studied. It didn’t sound easy to play. The pianist is very accomplished, a lot of contrapuntal skill. 3½ stars.

Fabian Almazan
“Jambo” (Rhizome, ArtistShare/Blue Note, 2014) (Almazan, piano; string quartet [Sara Caswell, 1st violin, Tomoko Omura, 2nd violin; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello]; Linda Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Yosvany Terry, chekeré; Mauricio Herrera, batá)

Histrionic. But there’s a tumbador in there. String writing, contemporary language, Cuban-based with a conga part, an awareness of Afro-folkloric layering. When it dips into the harmonic world, the chromaticism is almost Romantic, but there are flourishes, clusters and very avant-garde writing. It’s interesting that the piano is mixed down and the drums are loud—the artist wants the composition to be center. I’ll assume the pianist went to ISO or whichever conservatory, but the cognizant use of rhythm shows he’s spent time playing rhythm-based music, and has a large repertoire of contemporary-sounding sounds, techniques and voicings. 5 stars.

Pedro Giraudo Big Band
“Push Gift” (Cuentos, Zoho, 2015) (Giraudo, bass; John Ellis, tenor saxophone solo; Alejandro Aviles, Todd Bashore, Luke Batson, Ellis, Carl Maraghi, saxes and winds; Jonathan Powell, Miki Hirose, Mat Jodrell, flugelhorn, Josh Deutsch, trumpets; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, Mark Miller, Nate Mayland, trombones; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Jess Jurkovic, piano; Franco Pinna, drums, Paulo Stagnaro, cajon)

There’s something very Argentinian about this, and Spanish at the same time. It starts out with the cajon, a very site-specific rhythm, then a beautiful, classically written fugue in the introduction. The voicings are well-done. Not a lot of chance-taking or strange harmony—no avant-garde-isms. Straight-ahead, lyrical music. I’d say Guillermo Klein or Emilio Solla. Neither? It has Guillermo’s vibe. I’ve played with the sax player, who plays beautifully, but I’m blanking on the name. 5 stars.

Osmany Paredes
“Perla Marina/Longina” (Trio Time, Menduvia, 2013) (Paredes, piano)

Lovely playing, elegant and simple, but I have issues with the constant arpeggiation in the left hand. Every other chord is rolled. For a minute, I thought of Tete Montoliu. I find that sometimes we pianists, instead of really playing, arpeggiate every chord in the left hand—maybe it’s an affectation or reflex. 4 stars.

Edsel Gómez
“The Chant” (Road to Udaipur, Zoho, 2015) (Gomez, piano; Areismar Alex Ayala, bass; Bruce Cox, drums; Felipe Lamoglia, tenor saxophone; Roberto Pitre Vázquez, flute; Fabio Tagliaferri, viola; Walmir Gil, flugelhorn)

Alfredo Rodriguez? This is very Cuban, despite the odd meter. Very modern. [clusters] That’s great. Sometimes Cuban music is divided into Afro-folkloric seriousness or heavy-duty hyper-virtuosity. It’s elegantly played, and the rhythm section is good. It’s fun, tongue-in-cheek, clever, and in command of its elements. 4 stars.

Danilo Pérez
“Light Echo/Dolores” (Children of the Light, Mack Avenue, 2015) (Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Is it an older record? The sound is very compressed. I know the pianist—the language and the approach to improvisation—but I’m not placing it. The pianist is not out to prove a technical issue. It’s entry-point improvisation, where you start an idea and it flowers into fruition. A lot of integrity. 4 stars. Danilo works out his ideas through his fingers, not just playing what he knows. They don’t sound like they do when they’re playing Wayne Shorter!

Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn
“Raro” (Second Half. ) (Solla, piano; Pablo Aslan, bass; Eric Doob, drums; John Ellis, Tim Armacost, saxophone and winds; Alex Norris, trumpet; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Meg Okura, violin; Victor Prieto, accordion)

Pablo Ziegler? Pablo Aslan? I’ve heard this; I don’t remember the record. Ah, Emilio Solla, Y La Inestable de Brooklyn. This was up for the Grammy the year we won it, and it’s extraordinary. This is Emilio at his best. Like a lot of his writing, it has a cinematic edge, with a narrative arc and characters in the music. Emilio has a large story to tell; nothing he writes is simple. When you can be a storyteller as a composer and improvising artist, that’s pretty huge. 5 stars.

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Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):

TP: We’re at Birdland, and all together for the Downbeat conversation. I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie. I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music. And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years. And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears. It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano. It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation. It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.

PALMIERI: Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz. That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. We did three CDs, “Palmas,” “Arete” and “El Vortex.” That was the move. We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz. What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra. Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra. That’s where you have “El Rumbero Del Piano.” After “El Rumbero Del Piano,” which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did “Masterpiece.” But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned. Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig. He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone. That’s where it started. Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta. We did the first album, LA PERFECTA, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received. Then on the second CD for Concord, RITMO CALIENTE, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.

TP: You wrote new music as well. Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion? Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?

PALMIERI: Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there. The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting. That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on RITMO CALIENTE.

TP: You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom. This is dance-driven music. But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more. I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage. Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?

O’FARRILL: It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left. That’s one of the problems. In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls. Also, I think this is true. People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.

PALMIERI: Yeah.

O’FARRILL: They’re not taught to dance. The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance. So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs. We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art. I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!

TP: When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!

O’FARRILL: You can’t listen to those records without moving.

PALMIERI: Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers. To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense. And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.

TP: It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo. A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers. What were the first principles for your compositions? Rhythmic? Harmonic? A combination of both?

PALMIERI: At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s. It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them. At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds. How they were able to get you! I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there. Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite. There were reasons. There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax. That’s what made it interesting for me.

O’FARRILL: That’s an interesting word — “tension.” When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.

TP: And intellectually challenging.

O’FARRILL: Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension. The dancing. The groove. There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove. I mean, the groove is the factor, too.

PALMIERI: Thank you.

TP: Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah. As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto. For two years. Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in. But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later. In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui. In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban. The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening. So I was able to capture that also. After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years. By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.

TP: So you had a long apprenticeship. Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere. You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.

PALMIERI: Oh yeah. And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…

O’FARRILL: I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians. You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is. To get that concept, you have to play it. I’m the kind of person who learns by doing. I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it. I have to do. So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.

TP: What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?

O’FARRILL: Conga. That’s it.

TP: And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?

O’FARRILL: It’s difficult on my hands. As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.

TP: You’d better pick up some sticks.

O’FARRILL: Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers. But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section. A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing. But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding. And as a player, you begin to pick up on things. You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo. It’s very important stuff.

TP: Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root. Arturo is a very florid player. You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…

O’FARRILL: I have to say that’s true. But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.” And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition. For a minute there, I had his groove. It felt so good! Florid, whatever. But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.

TP: Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.

O’FARRILL: Yes.

TP: And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later. You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.

PALMIERI: Yes, I never comprehended it. Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing. That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader. What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance? But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.

O’FARRILL: See, I came from a different background. It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing. My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that. You know how kids are. You reject what your father does. So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played. It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.

TP: What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had. What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music? Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?

O’FARRILL: It’s very different. There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it. You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity. First of all, it’s a different technique. Your hands have to move differently. It’s not florid. It’s not Bud Powell. It’s a different concept. And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense. Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.

TP: Elaborate on that.

O’FARRILL: Well, Rene Hernandez. Peruchin. That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes. You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch. And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school. Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand. So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that. And I had to grow up. I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music. Because it’s who I am.

PALMIERI: And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico. And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes. When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that. Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras. So then, it was quite difficult for me. And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things. Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…

TP: You had to play loud.

PALMIERI: That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in. So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style. It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.

TP: Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well? Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.

O’FARRILL: Ideally, you want to blur that line. You don’t want to have that big a changeover. What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play. As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.” It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.” Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers! So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me. But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake. I don’t think you can make it. I think it really has to come from your soul. So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.

TP: Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing. Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?

PALMIERI: What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant. For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.” For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that. That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing. Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play. I still keep working on it and keep developing it.

O’FARRILL: Eddie plays with a lot of texture. Eddie plays with what I call sound waves. He plays with the texture of the piano. It is orchestral.

TP: I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do. Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”

PALMIERI: [LAUGHS] Right!

TP: So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing? What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?

PALMIERI: To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for. For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists. So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about. And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way. That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own. And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted. So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.

TP: Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?

PALMIERI: No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.

TP: How many compositions have you published over forty years?

PALMIERI: I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.

TP: And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?

PALMIERI: Well, there’s different books. I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book. Then we have the Latin Jazz. Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.

TP: So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.

PALMIERI: I’m bringing some of them back.

TP: Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana. In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months. So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz. And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire. So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play? How did he make his choices?

O’FARRILL: He chose pieces that were suggested to him. There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years. Chico has rewritten a lot of music. So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece. It’s smoking. But it has its roots there. I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948. Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s. Some of that stuff is classic.

TP: The things he did for Norman Granz?

O’FARRILL: “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple. It’s not cluttered. It’s linear. So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.

TP: Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience. You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers. Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s. Very different perspectives on similar roots.

O’FARRILL: Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too. My father didn’t play anything.

TP: He was a trumpet player.

O’FARRILL: Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up. A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives. Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform. Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!” For him, it was an easier way to be a musician. It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.

TP: Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it. I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!

PALMIERI: Right, Charlie. And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras. My brother was nine years older. We had no other brother, no other sister. It was just Charlie and I. So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano. He really went at it! That certainly came into me. I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road. My brother was quite an exceptional player. He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I. I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before. But Charlie had. So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.

TP: Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition. How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it. Is there anything you can say about that?

O’FARRILL: There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras. People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it. I just believe that musicians are organic. They bring to the music a whole nother vibe. There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat! But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important. Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed? Hell, no.

TP: Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?

O’FARRILL: It’s a daunting task. And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book! Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.

PALMIERI: Yes, I remember. We had the two orchestras, I think.

O’FARRILL: The two orchestras side-by-side. How do you choose? That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop. There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon. Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out. That’s more important than the position or the institution. And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines. That’s what it’s about.

PALMIERI: One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.

O’FARRILL: We played in Pori. They LOVE his music in Finland.

PALMIERI: And I certainly congratulate Arturo on his position with Lincoln Center…

O’FARRILL: I just want to say one more thing, because it’s important. Again, Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge institution, and it’s important to me personally that Latin music be taken seriously, that it be given the weight that it merits, that it be accorded the position it deserves. That’s all I’m trying to do.

TP: One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own. So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo. I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.

PALMIERI: For me, it’s on the rhythm section side. But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended. I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it. How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly. It’s a constant challenge.

TP: How has musicianship changed over the years?

PALMIERI: They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared. And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players. Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree. I have to say that. Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany. But now we have incredible soloists. You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra. I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.

TP: Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music. How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole? It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music. Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?

O’FARRILL: I think so. I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now. You really do have a wide variety of styles. You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena. That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large. I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz. And it’s still Latin. It still comes from our corner of the world. But it’s very much more open, very flexible.

The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz. I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz. I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music. They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz. I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.

TP: It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.

O’FARRILL: Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars. Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.

TP: Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands? You do have steady personnel. How do you see the musicianship?

PALMIERI: It’s tremendously rounded now. As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s. Now it’s Afro-World. And now it’s all over. The talent just keeps pouring in. On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel. So it’s not as varied as it was before. I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras. But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel. We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us. But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now. They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.

TP: In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it? Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?

PALMIERI: Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings. I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it. The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.

TP: Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work. You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad. All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.

PALMIERI: Right. But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra. When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.

TP: Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel. Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.

O’FARRILL: There’s no substitute for having a regular gig. Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players. They understand how to phrase. It’s very subtle, it’s very different. You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music. You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”

PALMIERI: That was his form of identification.

O’FARRILL: That’s a very Victor Paz thing. But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing. I am very lucky, very blessed. I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.

TP: Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all? Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been to Africa. As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers. Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.

O’FARRILL: We went to South Africa. I’ve been there several times. The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…

TP: My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.

O’FARRILL: You better believe it! Talk about colonial imperialism! I was amazed. I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.

TP: Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?

PALMIERI: It was Cuban. But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African. But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba. That’s where I really centered my education on.

TP: How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?

PALMIERI: I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns. They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance. That’s where I come in.

TP: So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.

PALMIERI: Exactly.

TP: Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life? Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?

O’FARRILL: He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba. Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music. I think it influenced him greatly. That kind of music gets in your blood. It kind of becomes a part of you. I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos. Man, I started bawling! I was weeping, man. Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys. That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations. It has to be folkloric. It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots. It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures. You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz. Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!

TP: But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.

O’FARRILL: I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable. Anybody can write these rhythms. It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.

TP: But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition? Were you writing it down or learning by doing?

PALMIERI: Well, naturally, by listening. That was the main direction. And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records. Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening! Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time. Conjunto meant without the saxophone. So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide. Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings. The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.

TP: Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience? As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.

PALMIERI: Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers. That’s something that gives you balance. It’s absolutely wonderful. But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts. On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling. But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.

O’FARRILL: You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid. To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!

TP: And you play for them a lot.

O’FARRILL: Oh, I do all the time. When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it. You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes. But that’s the real deal. That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.

TP: But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical. A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing. So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.

O’FARRILL: Yes. There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.” A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is. My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument. So what?” That’s a small part of it.

TP: Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?

PALMIERI: I haven’t been writing since the last CD. I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.” But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.

TP: Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?

PALMIERI: Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me. I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded. I have it at home. But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.
TP: Do you make use of the new technology?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been able to comprehend that. I leave it alone!

O’FARRILL: I can’t make heads or tails. I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper. I can’t cope with it at all.

TP: And how much composing and arranging do you do?

O’FARRILL: I do quite a bit. And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.

TP: Is it project-oriented for you?

O’FARRILL: It’s always project-oriented. For me, deadlines are crucial. I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever. So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming. My father was very much the same way. Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!

PALMIERI: Amazing.

O’FARRILL: He would do it transcribed. The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way. It’s very different for me. But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.

TP: For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.

PALMIERI: The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it. For me, it’s the feel of the instrument. That’s why the keyboard was put on top. I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard. I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through. It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.

O’FARRILL: That’s rare.

PALMIERI: But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.

TP: So it’s to hear yourself. To hear yourself think.

O’FARRILL: The clarity.

PALMIERI: Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band. The rhythm section is quite heavy also. And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.

TP: Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands. There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. Is the repertoire expanding for it?

O’FARRILL: The repertoire is expanding.

TP: And where are you getting repertoire?

O’FARRILL: Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.

TP: With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.

O’FARRILL: Absolutely.

TP: How are you conceiving that? Where are you getting material from? How big is the book now?

O’FARRILL: Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources. For example, the Machito stuff I can’t find. It’s irreplaceable. The scores are gone. So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of material that exists.

TP: How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician? It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.

O’FARRILL: It’s funny. I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues. There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies. I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you. But I care about the music. I have to do it. I CARE about this music. So I’ve been put in this position. I’m very happy to do it. It’s because this music is vital. It’s very important. But bandleading is difficult at times. It’s a very strange position. People don’t understand. You’re dealing with Lincoln Center, and they start a Latin Jazz Orchestra. That’s a huge deal. The name of Lincoln Center opens doors all over the world. When Wynton approached me to do this… It was born out of an idea that I had. Ten years ago I said to Wynton, “Man, we’ve got to have an orchestra that plays the canon,” and I guess it just sat in his brain for a while, but he came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “Let’s do it.” But it’s still a huge responsibility. Culturally, if this thing doesn’t take off in a major way, it’s going to be a huge faux pas for Lincoln Center. I feel like this music has to be performed.

TP: How big is the book for that orchestra?

O’FARRILL: It’s running 30-40 pieces.

TP: Done much touring with the band?

O’FARRILL: We’re going to do a tour in March. We just got signed to a new agency, and we’re going to be touring in March.

TP: But to return to the question, in what ways has being a bandleader influenced your musicianship and your vision of music and sense of possibility?

O’FARRILL: Certainly it’s expanded me as a musician. Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship. That takes a lot of skill. So all that has honed my musical skills. It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable. I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.

TP: So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.

O’FARRILL: Yes. And not as a pianist. As a musical concept. As a mind. As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.

TP: Eddie, forty years ago, playing gigs at the Palladium, with that whole cast of characters who populated it, would you have envisioned an institution like Lincoln Center establishing an Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra? What does it mean to you?

PALMIERI: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that we have the orchestra to represent this music at an institution like Lincoln Center with the blessing of a Wynton Marsalis. It presents a challenge for all the musicians in this orchestra, in writing for it, and to their preparation, their musicianship. So I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I never thought something like that would happen, and I’m elated that we have it.

[PAUSE]

TP: Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.

BRIAN: How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint. I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much. But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it. The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music. I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities. The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle. Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?

PALMIERI: Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry. Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.” Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.

BRIAN: You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.

PALMIERI: Right. What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra. That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional. But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.

BRIAN: Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz. If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities. Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?

O’FARRILL: I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City. It’s another branch of the roots. Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time. I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature. You’re right. The roots of improvisation are there for both musics. There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.

BRIAN: I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.” That America means just the residents of the United States of America.

O’FARRILL: That’s very narrow-minded.

BRIAN: Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out. The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.

O’FARRILL: I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music. Guess what? New Orleans is the Caribbean!

BRIAN: I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s. It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. All these things are very much together. So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.

TP: One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up. A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate. With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.

BRIAN: I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms than he did in 1970 or 1980.

O’FARRILL: Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.

BRIAN: Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing. Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around. A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is. And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.

O’FARRILL: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. What is jazz?

BRIAN: What is jazz. Or what is swing? I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.

O’FARRILL: Oh yeah. I have to agree with you there. Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music. Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.

BRIAN: And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together. I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.

O’FARRILL: Yeah. It might be a lost art today! I would add to what Brian was saying. I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy. Human beings love to categorize things. They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not. The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.

TP: What did your father think about it?

O’FARRILL: I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he looked at life as a musical challenge. The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect. It’s basically an economic issue. To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics. I think my father didn’t care. He was just a consummate musician. He just wanted to write music. He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito. He just loved what he did. I don’t think he saw one or the other.

BRIAN: Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing. It’s about improvisation. It’s always about wanting to extend something. I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.

TP: We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.

BRIAN: Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz. A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music. The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Eddie Palmieri

For Miguel Zenón’s 43rd Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2005

For virtuoso alto saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenón’s 43rd birthday, here’s the uncut version of a Blindfold Test we did for Downbeat in November 2005. He was 29 at the time, and already extremely literate in the lineage of his instrument.

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Miguel Zenon Blindfold Test (Raw) — (2005):

1. Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages”(from In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.

That’s Ornette. At the beginning it sounds like this other tune that I know, but I don’t know this tune. It sounds like Charlie on bass, but that’s another horn in there. I wonder if it’s Don Cherry. Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound too high for a pocket trumpet. But definitely Ornette, though. I don’t know this recording, but who’s going to say anything about Ornette? One of my main inspirations in terms of one of the first alto guys that really got away from the Charlie Parker thing and was able to do something original back then. He still does actually. I saw him the other day when we played with Charlie at the Blue Note. He was there. So I was pretty nervous! But it was great to see him. I’ve had the chance to meet him a couple of times, and he’s one of those guys who everything he says seems to have a meaning somehow. He doesn’t talk unless he wants to say something important. But I’m pretty sure that this is Ornette. It sounds like a fairly recent recording. From the ‘70s maybe? It’s the way the recording sounds, and to me the more recent music is a lot freer in terms of time, whereas his earlier music was free in terms of the improvisation, but what was happening with the rhythm section was pretty much a bebop approach, like walking bass and the cymbals just kind of swinging in that way. This is totally free in terms of tempo, too. But in terms of the sound, you can tell this has reverb and all that stuff, so it’s maybe ‘80s or even more recent than that. 5 stars, just because it’s Ornette and it sounds incredible. I’ve seen Ornette recently perform a few times with his current group, and he’s almost like Wayne Shorter in the way he uses little motifs that he’s carried through ages, but he still uses them to compose. Sometimes you’ll be able to recognize something that’s an obvious motif from Ornette’s language, but then it’s a totally different tune. So that’s what happened when he started the tune and the first phrase – I thought it was this other tune I’ve heard before. But then he went into something totally different. It’s a definite gift, I guess, for a composer to have motifs so strong.

2. Donald Harrison, “Doctor Duck” (from Eddie Palmieri, Palmas, Nonesuch, 1994) (Palmieri, piano, composer; Harrison, alto sax; Brian Lynch, tp; Conrad Herwig, tb; Johnny Torres, bass; Richie Flores, congas; Anthony Carrillo, bongo; Jose Clausell, timbales, Robbie Ameen, drums

I don’t know this record, but it sounds like something maybe Eddie Palmieri would do. Yup! There’s the montuno right there. This is probably Donald Harrison. Well, it might not be him, but I know he did all those records with Eddie, and because of the montuno and the kind of tune it is, it’s pretty obvious that it’s Eddie’s recording. Of course, Eddie Palmieri is one of the legends of Latin music in general, and this track specifically is a perfect example of a traditional Latin jazz kind of track, very danceable in terms of the form, in terms of the way the percussion is playing behind them, just going for it, establishing a percussive movement and setting. There’s not that much interaction between the soloist and the band; it’s more like they’re establishing that… It’s the same way you would do on a salsa group, establishing a groove, and the alto player, who I think is Donald Harrison, is blowing on top of that. But of course, as I said, once the tune started I was trying to guess who it was, and I guessed Eddie first of all because of the instrumentation, because I know he used trombone, trumpet and alto on a lot of those records, and also once he started playing the montuno it was obvious that it was Eddie Palmieri. That’s probably Brian Lynch on trumpet. Yes, that’s definitely Brian. He’s playing the changes real clear, but then he’s playing some kind of modern stuff. This kind of stuff to me is really nice to listen to. It’s very groovy and very down-the-line, pretty obvious Latin. It has the percussion, the montunos, the bass, the tumbao—everything. It’s almost like dance music. It’s trying to capture that same vein, all the music that Eddie does. Eddie’s one of those guys, along with Pappo Lucca, who plays with the salsa group Sonora Ponceña in Puerto Rico. Every piano player who’s working on montunos, they swear by these guys, because they kind of invented a way to put what all that stuff that was coming from the très, from the son montuno in Cuba, to put that stuff in the piano—and in a modern way, too. So they are very different, but every piano player you talk to, they always cite them as their main guys for montuno. It’s incredible that Eddie still plays like that, too. 4 stars, just because it’s Eddie and a legend. If it was somebody else, I probably wouldn’t give it 4 stars. As I was saying, this isn’t something I would sit down and listen to. It’s something that’s more danceable, very groovy and very nicely done.

3. Sonny Criss, “Blues In My Heart” (from Crisscraft, 32-Jazz, 1975/1997) (Criss, alto saxophone; Ray Crawford, guitar; Dolo Coker, piano; Larry Gales, bass; Jimmy Smith, drums; Benny Carter, composer)

I have absolutely no idea who it is. He sounds great. I can’t recognize the alto player by sound. Maybe when he starts improvising, I’ll be able to… He’s playing a lot of Bird stuff, but the sound has something else to it. It might be Charles McPherson. Maybe Frank Morgan. He has a very distinctive vibrato, but I don’t recognize him. [Do you know the tune?] It sounds familiar, like I might have heard it, but I don’t recognize it either. He’s got a great sound. The way he uses vibrato specifically, it’s hard for me to pinpoint who it is. He has a way of using the vibrato which is uncharacteristic of other alto players. But he’s definitely playing a lot of bebop stuff, too. So whenever he’ll play a run, I can say it’s definitely a guy who admires Charlie Parker a lot. But I’m not familiar enough with the sound to pinpoint who it is. The way he’s playing the bluesy stuff is kind of different, though. He’s being very economical about the notes he’s playing. He didn’t really play a lot of notes. He was being very patient. 3½ stars. Sonny Criss? Wow! I’ve heard him a couple of times, but I’m not really hip to him that much. Oh, that was by Benny Carter. When he started playing, I was thinking of Benny Carter, but the sound didn’t match…

4. Tim Berne, “Huevos” (from Science Friction, Screwgun, 2001) (Berne, alto sax, composer; Marc Ducret, electric guitar; Craig Taborn, keyboards; Tom Rainey, drums)

This is definitely more modern than that! This recording sounds almost like a live recording. It sounds weird. It doesn’t sound like the other recordings. My first guess would be Tim Berne maybe. His sound. Just the composition. But I’m really not that familiar with his playing. I’ve never actually heard him live. I’ve heard him on recordings. When the composition first started playing, I thought he was Henry Threadgill, but once he started playing, it’s not quite the same sound. Although it might be him! But now that I hear it a little more, it’s not like something Henry Threadgill would write, at least from the stuff I’m familiar with. It’s pretty complex and really well done. He has a lot of instruments in there. I can’t really pinpoint how many. Maybe a couple of guitars? One guitar. Drums… It sounds really thick. It could be Marty Ehrlich. He has that kind of sound, too. But my guess would be Tim Berne. The other guy I might think of is Dave Binney because of the composition, but his sound is totally different.[AFTER] I guessed it, but by chance. As I said, I’m not really that familiar with his playing or his music at all. But the times I’ve heard him, I could recognize him by the sound, what he started playing. I couldn’t tell you for sure it was him, but I could guess it was him also because of the music. I’ve heard a little of his music and the music he does with other people, and it’s along the same vein—specific instrumentation and driven by some kind of complexity and a very systematic way of doing it. It was a great piece. 4 stars.

5. Jerry Dodgion, “Quill” (from The Joy of Sax, LSM, 2004) (Dan Block, Dodgion, Brad Leali, alto sax solos; Mike LeDonne, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums)

The alto is way up front in the mix. I can’t tell if that’s the recording.. But it sounds great. I can’t recognize them. There are a couple of alto players. The second guy, I can’t tell… He’s playing a lot of Cannonball stuff. I’m not really sure if it’s Cannonball, but it’s definitely from Cannonball. I wonder how many saxophones there are. Sounds like a big saxophone section. It sounds like one of those Thad Jones arrangements, although it isn’t, but just the way the groove is set. Maybe it’s Jerry Dodgion. I can’t tell about the other guys, though. I wonder who the second guy is, the guy who sounds to me like Cannonball? Well, I thought it was really. It was grooving. It sounded to me like it was a really big saxophone section. I couldn’t really tell by the orchestration; there were a lot of different things happening. But it was pretty happening. 3½ stars. I can’t guess the alto players, though.

6. Steve Coleman, “Ascending Numeration” (from Alternate Dimensions: Series 1, Self-Produced, 2002) (Coleman, alto sax; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Regg Washington, acoustic bass; Sean Rickman, drums; Pedro Martinez, percussion; Yosvany Terry, clave)

I know the drummer already, I think. Sean Rickman. The way he’s playing. The sound of his cymbals. This is Steve Coleman. I’ve sat in with him a few times, and I’m usually lost. I get together a lot with him and talk. If I were going to say anything about him, he’s probably my greatest living inspiration in a musician. He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever met. He’s always working on something. He’s one of those guys who never gives up in terms of the information he has. He’s not content with what he has already. He’s already looking for more, always looking for something new, always reading and trying to bring everything that’s around him into music. I think this is the record where he uses two bass players, maybe Resistance Is Futile, or maybe the one before. I’m not sure of the name, but I’m pretty sure I know this recording. Reggie Washington is playing acoustic and Anthony Tidd is playing electric. I’ve sat in a couple of times at his gigs, and I talk to him a lot about music… I’ve gotten together with Steve a bunch of times, and we just play and talk about the kind of stuff he does. It’s always inspiring. But his music is very, very complex. It’s almost important to go out and sit in on a gig with him if you don’t know what’s happening. You could kind of skate around it, but I think the main thing with him is that he’s trying to put his own effort to not skate in everything he does. Even though something can be very complicated for somebody listening from the outside, he’s trying to play it as perfectly or as accurate as possible. He’s very accurate about playing changes and playing meters, and I know he’s very serious about the whole thing and not just getting by, kind of just playing licks. He’s an inspiration, because he plays it at such a high level. But then when you talk to him about something, he usually just talks about Bird or Coltrane, and goes back to the tradition, which he knows real well. But the thing that’s most inspiring about him to me is that he’s really been able to take all that tradition and classic jazz stuff, and he’s been able to translate into something that sounds incredibly modern. But the roots of his music are all in something that’s very tradition. That to me is incredibly inspiring. He’s very precise about changes. When you hear anybody else playing this music, and you hear him play, he’s not missing anything. He knows this music so well. Everything he does, at least from what I’ve learned from talking to him, is pretty systematic. It’s preconceived, in a way. He conceives everything from the rhythm to the harmony to the melodies, and everything that happens on the tune has a purpose. It could be something numerical, or he even goes as far as astrology and stuff that goes beyond just playing numbers and music. I wouldn’t be able to into deepness on it, but I know he’s serious about incorporating many elements of nature, and just… Everything that has to do with the world, basically. He’s very serious about incorporating that somehow in his music. So the rhythmic thing… When I first met him, I was an incredible fan, and I had all these records, and I started asking him about tunes, like this tune that’s in 5/4 or 7/4 or whatever. The first thing he told me is that he didn’t think of it like that, he didn’t think of it as 5/4 or 7/4 in meter. He thought of it almost like a rhythmic melody. He’s got a rhythmic melody that just happens to be 11/8 or 7/4, but he doesn’t measure it in terms of meter – it just happens to be that way once he starts playing the tune, and they have to incorporate everything around that. His music is an incredible inspiration to me in every way—conceptually, sonically, the way he plays. Especially after I got to meet him and talk to him. A really big influence on me. 4 stars. There’s things he’s done that I like better than this. My favorite is probably this double record he did with a big band and also a quartet called Genesis and Open Another Way. The thing he did in Cuba is also incredible. And by far my favorite is The Sonic Language of Myth. That period when he did those records is incredible.

7. Kenny Garrett, “April In Paris” (from Roy Haynes, Birds of A Feather, Dreyfuss, 2001) (Garrett, alto saxophone; Roy Hargrove, trumpet; David Kikoski, piano; Christian McBridge, bass; Roy Haynes, drums)

I know this tune, I just can’t think of the name. It’s a great tune. “April In Paris”? I had to think of the lyrics. I’m still not sure if it’s Kenny Garrett, but if it isn’t, it’s definitely somebody who’s really into Kenny Garrett. Just the sound. He has a way of bending into notes, especially when he plays high. It’s very distinctive to the way he plays, even if he’s playing ballad. But I’m still not sure if it’s him. But I’m pretty sure it’s him. Would this be one of those recordings with Freddie or Woody Shaw? Maybe one of his first couple of recordings. Kenny Garrett is probably the most influential alto player of the last 20 years. Anybody from my generation, or even younger or a little older has been influenced by him one way or another. Because what he did was so strong… Basically, he was kind of the Michael Brecker of the alto, of that generation. The way he played in terms of sound and his whole approach to the alto was very un-alto. It was more like a tenor. He was coming from the Trane kind of influence, but he brought all that stuff into the alto. He’s an incredible soloist and knows how to build. So any time you hear him, he’s going to be consistently good. But as I said, he’s so strong, the way he plays, that even for myself… When I started getting into jazz, he’s one of the first guys I started transcribing and really getting into. But eventually, I had to stop listening to him, because he was so strong that it’s hard to get away from trying to sound like that. So I had to stop listening to him completely. As great as he is, I don’t listen that much to him any more, because I’m trying to get away from the vein that everybody else has gone. But he’s an incredible alto player, one of the top today, if not the top. Just what he did with sound, just that, the way he approached sound on the alto is enough to get him into the hall of fame or whatever. 4 stars.

8. Lee Konitz-Sal Mosca, “Baby” (from Spirits, Milestone, 1971/1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Mosca, piano)

This sounds like one of those Lennie Tristano-Lee Konitz heads, putting a different melody in a standard, but I know it’s not Lee Konitz. Or maybe it is. More recent Lee Konitz. Yeah, it’s definitely Lee. But his sound is very different. If I were going to mention someone other than Bird who really did something for the alto back then… They were all kind of contemporaries, Bird, him and Ornette; they were coming out of the same time, just a little before and after and so on… But the incredible thing about Lee Konitz is that he was able to do something totally different from everybody else who wasn’t Bird. Even Cannonball… He and Ornette were the only ones who just went totally left. It’s almost like they did it on purpose. But he had a sound back then that was a very cool approach, not like a hard-headed sound like Bird had. It was more Stan Getz, kind of Paul Desmond, very cool and delicate. It was a strong sound, a great sound, but a very different sound. The way he plays his lines now is pretty much the same as he played them back then, though obviously more advanced and a lot different. But it’s very unlike something that Bird or somebody coming out of the Bird vein or the bebop vein would play it. The way he moves around the changes is very different in many ways. He uses a lot of different approach notes, he resolves the changes in a different way than somebody within the bebop vein would. Everything about him is different. What makes him different from somebody like Ornette is that Ornette to me was coming from a point where he was trying to find freedom with melody. He wasn’t really worrying that much about changes. He was trying to bring melody back to the forefront and this got to be the main characteristic of the music. Whereas Lee was still dealing with changes and standards. He was playing the same kind of changes that everybody else was playing; he was just playing them very different. It still sounds good, but it sounds very different, and for somebody who’s heard all these alto players coming out of the Bird tradition, when you hear Lee Konitz, it’s incredibly refreshing. It’s incredible! But his sound now has more of an edge to it, and he’s got a way of approaching and swelling into the notes that makes it very obvious that this is something that would be more recent. I don’t know who the piano player is. Is the tune “My Melancholy Baby”? 4½ stars. ‘71?

9. Henry Threadgill, “Dark Black” (from Up Popped The Two Lips, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, alto saxophone, composer; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Tarik Benbrahim, oud; Jose Davila, tuba; Dana Leong, cello; Dafnis Prieto, drums.

This is Henry Threadgill. Right away. That instrumentation. The way he’s doubling the melody with a lower instrument. He does that a lot. He’s an incredible composer. Probably one of the top jazz composers today just because of his originality and what he brings to the music. Very dense. His music is very dense, very well-done. A very original sound on the alto. It’s almost coming from that avant-gardist kind of sound on the alto, but his music is not free. His music is very composed. Is this Zooid? I don’t know what he calls it. He’s got the band with cello – it might be Dana Leong – and tuba, but I forget the name of the guy he uses. Maybe it’s Liberty Ellman on guitar. Maybe Elliott Kavee on drum or Dafnis; he switches. I don’t think it’s Dafnis. The music is very dense for me. It’s hard for me to find something to grab. I would have to listen to it a couple of times to start finding my own logic to understand it. I guess that’s kind of my fault, too; I’m always having to find something in the music that I can understand in a way to be able to follow it. But it’s incredibly well done. 4 stars.

10. Greg Osby, “Mob Job” (from Channel Three, Blue Note, 2005) (Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Ornette Coleman, composer)

I just bought this record a couple of weeks ago. That’s Greg Osby. It’s an Ornette tune. I would probably put Greg, Steve Coleman and Kenny Garrett in the same category, as guys from the same generation who all are coming from different places but have something fresh happening. Kenny Garrett I’d say is coming more from the tenor as opposed to the alto—maybe Trane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson. Whereas I know from talking to Steve that he’s totally a Bird fanatic, and everything he does is somehow coming from Bird. Whereas Greg Osby, in terms of the sound and things he does in the lower register and his lines and so on, is coming from a Cannonball vein, but a lot more modern approach. Greg is also a great thinker, a total conceptualist, and he has a lot in common with Steve in that way, though their ideas are very different. They deserve the same amount of respect in that sense. Greg is definitely a huge influence. I like this record a lot; it’s probably the one I like most of the last two or three he’s done. Before this one, I thought Symbols Of Light, the one he did with a string quartet, was incredible. This one is at that level. 4 stars.

11. Eric Dolphy, “Round Midnight” (from George Russell, Ezz-Thetics, Riverside, 1961/1999) (Dolphy, alto saxophone; Russell, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Joe Hunt, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

Is this Eric Dolphy? This is “Round Midnight.” He’s got such a special sound. Every time I listen to him, it seems he’s blowing as hard as possible into the horn. He has so much energy. Could the arranger be George Russell? I don’t know if this is a George Russell recording, but I know they did some stuff together. The instrumentation and the beginning reminds me of stuff he’s done. A few people I know who knew Eric Dolphy personally, they say he was the nicest, sweetest person, and he doesn’t sound like that when he plays! He has so much energy when he plays. Definitely not nice and sweet. Very aggressive. Especially his sound. He sounds like he’s blowing so hard into the horn, but it’s not like he’s getting out of control, but like a laser kind of sound. His approach to the intervals and melodies is very personal. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until recently that I started to find a way to get into his music and listen to his records for a long enough time… Before they kind of pushed me away a little bit. Before, with the combination of his sound and his aggressiveness, I couldn’t hear what he was trying to do in terms of changes and melodies. I couldn’t really see his whole vocal approach. His whole thing is like a vocal thing, and I couldn’t see that; I was interested in something that had more finesse, like Cannonball and Bird or Lee Konitz. This doesn’t have finesse at all. But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to try to get into his head, basically, and see what he was going for. He was an incredibly organized guy. When I started listening to him the first couple of times, it almost sounded to me like he was just playing random things, but now I listen to it and it sounds incredibly organized. This is a very virtuosic and personal way of playing the instrument, definitely. 4 stars.

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Miguel Zenon

For saxophone-woodwind maestro and composer Ted Nash’s 59th birthday, an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2010

To mark the 59th birthday of Ted Nash,  master composer and master practitioner of the reeds and woodwinds family, here’s the uncut proceedings of a Downbeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2010.

 

Ted Nash Blindfold Test: (2010)

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, “Foreign One” (from ETERNAL INTERLUDE, Cuneiform, 2009) (Hollenbeck, composer, drums; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone solo; Gary Versace, piano)

Wow. That was intense. That was, of course, “Four In One,” Monk, but a complete taken-apart-and-put-back-together version of it. It’s almost an original composition in itself, using Monk’s theme as sort of an inspiration. Certainly, the big unison line at the end kind of recalls the whole passage of 16th notes. But it’s really recomposed. The sound, the production of it is very clean. Because of the cleanliness and the in-tune quality and the great proficiency with which they dealt with it technically, it almost sounds electronic at times. I know I can hear a lot of edits, and I think it’s not just for best takes; I think that’s kind of part of the sound that the composer is after, is to have these kind of clean chops. I like using the board and using edits to make a statement. I don’t do it myself that much. I prefer things to kind of flow forward. I haven’t heard this before. My guess is it might be either John Hollenbeck’s band, or it could be Dave Holland. If it’s Hollenbeck, I know he was the arranger. If it’s Dave Holland, I wouldn’t know who did the arrangement. [It’s Hollenbeck.] It is Hollenbeck? I’ve heard his music a little bit, and I think he’s really creative. This stuff is very intense. The tenor solo really leads into the next section. Pretty interesting how that is designed. A lot of times, people allow the soloist to take a lot of the space. When I studied with Brookmeyer, he actually was getting more and more away from having improvised solos, except for ones that really serve the purpose of the composition. I do miss extended solos when it gets to that degree. But it could have been Donny McCaslin or Chris Potter. Those are the two… Maybe Tony Malaby. It’s Tony? I haven’t heard any of them in that context very much, but the freedom sounded more like Malaby to me than the other plays—but I hadn’t heard him play with such a great technique up in the upper register, which made me think of the other two. I really enjoyed it, and I think that Hollenbeck definitely somebody who has got his own thing going on. It doesn’t sound like a cliche big band. I get tired of sort of the cliche approach to writing in a big band. This is very refreshing. 4 stars.

Mark Turner, “Nigeria” (from Billy Hart Quartet, ALL OUR REASONS, ECM, 2012) (Turner, tenor saxophone, composer; Hart, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

I loved the humor in that, especially at the end. It was also interesting to have that notey line, that very linear theme played, and then have an extended drum solo. You don’t hear that very often, and I think it was an interesting choice. The pianist is interesting, because I don’t recognize at all his left hand. He’s got a different way of playing chords. It’s not the cliche way people accompany themselves when they’re playing with their right hand. He was playing fuller triad kind of things in his left hand, rather than more extensions. The looseness of it reminds me a little bit of my friend Frank Kimbrough, and how he’s I think got a lot of his influence from people like Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols and like that. Is the saxophone player Mark Turner? Ok. I’m not extremely familiar with his playing except for a few things I’ve heard. I think he’s remarkable. He’s got a nice, light, airy sound, and he’s very linear. He reminds me of an extension of Warne Marsh and that Lennie Tristano kind of thing when he’s doing that. It doesn’t necessarily have… In this recording and some of the things that I may have heard, it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of room for that kind of bluesy expression, but it’s a little more intellectual. I like it for that. I think he’s got something going on that does feel like an extension. You can hear the lineage from some of those older players coming out of the Warne Marsh school of very linear playing. I like it very much. I like the looseness and the freedom. The drummer sounded a little like Jeff Ballard to me. At times, for me, it lacks a bit of real deep expression. So I give it 3½ drums. [AFTER] I thought it might be Ben Street, because he played with Mark with Kurt and Jeff—that made me think of Jeff Ballard. Ethan Iverson makes sense. Very creative. He’s got his own way of doing things.

James Carter, “Playful—Fast (with Swing)” (from CARIBBEAN RHAPSODY, EmArcy, 2011) (Carter tenor and soprano saxophone; Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Roberto Sierra, composer)

Is it Branford Marsalis? Oh. I’m not familiar with this. I know Branford did some things with orchestra. It became sort of tongue-in-cheek. It started off very 20th century, with influences of Berg, and then it gravitated toward more of a Gershwinesque kind of ending with the blues. It really was all about the blues, but it didn’t really feel like that was coming. Then it became just a little tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at certain cliche aspects of the blues. But it was a beautiful recording. Who was it? James Carter? That was my second guess. I swear to God I was going to say him because of his technical stuff in the low register, but I hadn’t heard him stretch out so much, and his harmonic sense seemed to be a little more developed than I thought… I thought maybe it was Branford. But he’s got such an amazing technique, especially with the slap-tonguing and stuff; it made me think of James Carter right away. But I had no idea he was doing this kind of stuff. 3½ stars based on the quality of the recording. It was interesting and had some humor.

Vinny Golia, “NBT” (from SFUMATO, Clean Feed, 2003) (Golia, composer, sopranino saxophone; Bobby Bradford, trumpet; Ken Filiano, bass; Alex Cline, drums)

That was intense. It’s very influenced by the Ornette-Don Cherry thing. I don’t recognize it. I’m not sure if the instrument that the saxophone player was playing was a sopranino or a soprano. It was hard for me to tell; it seemed the range was sopranino. I don’t recognize the trumpet. It did sound like Don Cherry to me, but I think it might be a bit later than some of the stuff they did. I liked it. I loved the thematic material, the way they played that with a certain kind of looseness, and that it was kind of anything-goes for a while. For me, at times, I felt like they could have come to more ups and downs in the overall shape, because it kind of kept one intensity throughout most of it. There’s some humor; the quote by the trumpet player of “I Love You,” which I like. The sopranino player was playing straight through in one direction, and it carried me through, I have to say. It kept my attention. I didn’t feel like it was completely without regard to anything. But just in general, I felt I could have seen more ups and downs and shapes within the freedom. For me sometimes, when music is totally free, there has to be a little bit more story-telling at times. But this obviously is what these people do, and they’re very good at it, and for me it held up. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know who Vinny Golia is. I was thinking that might be Bobby Bradford, because he’d been in the band with John Carter. He’s the only other trumpet player I could think of who was that close to Don Cherry. But I wouldn’t necessarily have recognized him.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Playing With Stones” (from SAMDHI, ACT-Music, 2011) (Mahanthappa, alto saxophone, laptop; composer; David Gilmore, electric guitar; Rich Brown, electric bass; Damion Reid, drums; Anantha Krishnan, mrdingam and kanjira)

I’m not sure I recognize the alto player. I might know him if I heard him in another context. It feels like it’s his composition. There’s an ostinato that goes on for a long time with repetitive rhythmic support that almost suggests an Irish, an African thing… At the same time, it’s got a heavy sense of some kind of Afro-rhythm, but also that jig-like thing with the melody on top. Then it breaks down into a very atmospheric section; it has some more effects on it. I enjoyed that section. For me, it was kind of light. Not every piece has to tell a very specific story. Sometimes it’s just part of a larger story. When you hear the entire record, you might have a better sense of why this piece was what it was, and why it was limited to a certain kind of experience. I’m definitely not familiar with it. My guess might be Steve Coleman, from his stuff with the Five Elements group. No? That was a wild guess, because I’m actually not that familiar with his music. This might be a player I know, though, in a different context. 3 stars. [AFTER] I’ve been hearing a lot about him, but I still haven’t had a chance to check him out. I heard something that was a little more straight-ahead once… I like what he gets to at times. It’s very conceptual. Again, it seems like a piece of a bigger story. I’d like to hear more of his music.

Will Vinson, “Late Lament” (from STOCKHOLM SYNDROME, Criss-Cross, 2010) (Vinson, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; Aaron Parks, piano; Orlando LeFleming, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; Paul Desmond, composer)

That was beautiful. I really loved the alto player’s sound. It’s very warm and dark without being stuffy. For my taste, a lot of alto players play with such a brightness, and this is the kind of sound I really enjoy hearing. Very expressive. 4 stars. Everybody is playing with a lot of space and maturity, and willingness to let it be what it’s going to be without forcing it. That means a lot to me in music, when there’s that kind of relaxed sense of allowing it to be something. The guitar player is gorgeous, too. I’m sure I know who both players are, but off the top of my head I’m not sure. [AFTER] I don’t know him. He’s got a beautiful sound. I don’t know Lage Lund either. There are so many great players out there. Having heard this, I want to check him out more. Beautiful sound. I like his conception, too.

Yosvany Terry, “Contrapuntistico” (from TODAY’S OPINION, Criss-Cross, 2011) (Terry, alto saxophone, composer; Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Osmany Paredes, piano; Yunior Terry, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; Pedro Martinez, percussion)

I really liked that. It was a nice journey. Is it Billy Drewes on alto? No? It sounds just like Billy Drewes to me, in a really positive way. A similar kind of sound and way of phrasing, especially in the low register. I didn’t get a chance to hear the trumpet player improvising that much; it reminds me a little of Tim Hagans. Then I’m not sure who this is. I liked the piece. It had a nice flow to it. The line is like a journey somewhere. You’re starting off and you have a vision of something, and you start out on this trip, and you go, and then you get to a certain point, and you rest for a little bit, like, on the top of a hill, and then, when you think you’re about ready to go to sleep, you realize you’ve got to walk home. That’s what happened there. It came back. Then you realize you’ve got to take this journey back home. There was patience involved with it, I thought. Yet the solos had intensity and were very creative. 4 stars, just for the overall concept and strong improvising. [AFTER] I don’t know Yosvany Terry. Very, very good. I know Mike Rodriguez; I’ve worked with him a bit, and I’m a big fan of his. He didn’t have a real extended solo, so it was hard for me to tell. But I like the alto player’s concept. I think he’s coming from similar influences as someone like Billy Drewes; some freedom, and yet good technique, good understanding of harmony, and so on. Interesting. Similar in sound to Billy.

Eddie Daniels, “Three In One” (from ONE MORE: THE SUMMARY—MUSIC OF THAD JONES, VOL. 2, IPO, 2006) (Eddie Daniels, clarinet; James Moody, Benny Golson, Frank Wess, reeds; Jimmy Owens, flugelhorn; John Mosca, trombone; Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Michael Patterson, arranger; Thad Jones, composer)

Obviously, the classic Thad Jones, “Three In One,” which I played many a Monday night at the Vanguard. I’m not sure I see the real reason for re-recording this. It’s pretty much Thad’s arrangement, especially the sax soli, which I thought sounded really beautiful with the clarinet on lead. I think it would almost have been reason enough to record this like that, just to hear that really relaxed clarinet sound in the lead. But it felt like the solos were rushed, like they needed more time to express something. It felt like someone’s idea to do something that would be kind of cute and fun, but didn’t have enough reason really to be documented. The soloists sounded fine, and I thought the bass and drums were hooking up pretty good. It was very relaxed. It didn’t have the intensity that this piece usually would have with the big band. The trombonist sounded a lot like John Mosca to me. Ah, that’s why! I didn ‘t recognize anyone else. The clarinet sound was beautiful. Who was it? Eddie Daniels? Is it his record? 3 stars. I love the piece, I love the beautiful sound of the clarinet, I love Mosca’s solo. Again, I don’t quite see the reason to re-record this as it was, as it’s not a stronger statement than the original. Who else was on it? So it’s people who had a lot of close association with Thad, and wanted to do a tribute to him. For that reason I understand it. If it was just someone’s conceptual idea of something creative, for me it lacks a little. Again, very relaxed. Not really tight by all means, but a nice, relaxed feel.

John Ellis, “Dubinland Carnival” (from PUPPET MISCHIEF, ObliqSound, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Alan Ferber, trombone; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone; Jason Marsalis, drums)

I totally love the theatrical quality of this. I’m a big fan of theatrics. It’s got a lot of humor, and what I love is that the musicians are not afraid to go ahead and embrace that humor. If they were afraid to do that, it would suffer greatly. 4 stars for everybody’s complete commitment to what the piece is supposed to be about. That’s fun. It feels like a circus. The circus is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be entertaining. There’s a little high-wire act going on there. The harmonica sounded like a synth, a keyboard harmonica. It sounded like a real harmonica in the beginning, and then it seemed like maybe it was a synth. The organ sounded great, and I love the tuba as a bass function. It gives it a lot of depth, and it helps for that theatrical quality. I’m not sure if I know the musicians. The tenor player phrases a little like Chris Potter, but I haven’t heard enough of his improvising, the way he thinks and feels, to know who it is. [AFTER] John Ellis? I don’t know his playing. I think there’s a lot of personality in his playing. I didn’t hear enough of his improvising to… But it’s a showcase for who he is, and his risk-taking. I don’t know Gregoire Maret. He did things technically on harmonica that seemed to be almost impossible. Amazing. I loved it. Jason Marsalis is great. He has a great concept of how to play over odd time signatures. He’s got the ability to play in different time signatures like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, “Like A Lover” (from LIVE AT MCG, Telarc, 2005) (John Clayton, bass, arranger; Snooky Young, trumpet solo; Jeff Clayton, soprano saxophone solo)

I think this is a piece of a larger picture, for me. It feels like a movement of something rather than an entire statement. I liked the use of what felt like a quarter step in the beginning, and then it came back at the end there, with a little rhythmic thing in the low brass. It was like a use of some kind of a rubbing quarter steps, which I don’t hear very often. There’s moments with this kind of syncopated, smooth line that was going on that reminds a bit of some of Brookmeyer’s stuff from the ‘60s, which I think a lot of great orchestrators have developed their take on—like Maria Schneider and some other different composers. I liked the plunger solo coming out of nowhere, in a way. It was like a great contrast to what was going on before, which was very atmospheric, and this was like that kind of spark of somebody kind of screaming for something, like “Let me out.” But then, when it got to the soprano, I felt it went on too long, and it felt like the piece didn’t support that long a soprano solo. I thought it could have been more integrated into the orchestration. I think the orchestration could have grown out of the soprano solo, or vice-versa. I think that needed to happen there after the trumpet solo. So it promised something for me in the beginning which it didn’t feel like it delivered as much. But again, it may be just a small statement of a larger piece. There were some intonation problems in the woodwinds which made… This kind of orchestration needs to be really in tune to sound at its best. Even with that said, I think it’s beautiful orchestrating. I’m not sure who it is. 3½ stars for the ability of the orchestrator. It’s a live performance; if it was a studio performance, they’d have had time to make a little bit tighter. [AFTER] It makes sense with Snooky Young. That’s his thing. I was thinking it sounded like someone who was copying Snooky a little bit, the way that he belts out those little phrases. This is not the typical Clayton-Hamilton that I know, which is a little more full-on and really swinging hard. So it was good to hear that. Again, it was a live concert, and John Clayton, the orchestrator of this music, is really gifted. This is one of the most swinging big bands I’ve ever heard. This is an departure from my experience of their music.

Marty Ehrlich, “Frog Leg Logic” (from FROG LEG LOGIC, Clean Feed, 2011) (Ehrlich, soprano saxophone, composer; James Zollar, trumpet; Hank Roberts, cello; Michael Sarin, drums)

I liked it. Of course, this is a freer piece, but it’s within the context of something that’s quite structured. So you get both. You get structure and then absolute freedom, too, which I really like. Someone’s vision is very clear. There was a lot of clarity in this performance. The trumpeter sounds a lot like Ron Horton, who is on my record, in his approach to phrasing and the way he goes up in the upper register. It’s someone who maybe comes out of the same influences as Ron. It sounds a lot like someone who is influenced a lot by Ornette Coleman as well on the alto, so it’s got that kind of freedom… Both the trumpet and the alto have angular lines going. But I like that they don’t suddenly just go off in a direction and stay there for a really long time. There’s a responsibility about how much freedom and how to involve everybody and keep it all intact. I think that’s one thing that people who are playing music that’s much more free…there’s still a responsibility to tie things in with each other. I thought they did it very well. For that, 4 stars. Also, the incorporation of the cello, and how that was voiced in, was very nice. Also, using the instruments in registers that you don’t often hear them, like the alto playing parts that are written way down low, with the trumpet way up, like a tenth up, and stuff like that—sort of unusual ways. I like when people don’t limit themselves to using the instruments for how they’re always used. It always creates something kind of fresh. I don’t recognize the players, though. [AFTER] Marty Ehrlich makes sense to me. I haven’t heard James Zollar in that context. I’ve always enjoyed Marty Ehrlich’s playing. We’ve crossed paths at different times. He’s a wonderful multi-instrumentalist, a beautiful musician, and definitely very committed to his own vision, which I really like.

Gerald Wilson, “Aram’ (from DETROIT, Mack Avenue, 2009) (Wilson, composer, arranger; Terrell Stafford, trumpet solo; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone solo)

This performance was all about momentum and intensity, and it kind of built from the beginning and didn’t let up, and then the only way they could really deal with it is just to fade it out. Which was a little disappointment for me… It’s the end of the album? Ah, then it’s the end of a big statement again. I sort of wanted to see how the composer would bring it to an end, and they just did it by fading. So the intensity went away, but the moment was still there. It’s still there now! It’s off, but it’s still going. A lot of intensity. My favorite thing in this was out of this waltz, which keeps going and keeps going and keeps going, then suddenly this bridge, you have two bars of 4/4 swing with a whole different approach to the harmony, and then all of a sudden back to the 3/4. So you keep coming back to this thing, and you keep promising something with this 4/4 swing, and then you’re back into the 3 again with a minor kind of vibe. So it’s sort of like a tease. It didn’t say a whole lot to me overall, because I think the statement was meant to be a limited statement, in a way. I think the soloists jumped up on the intensity, and then did what they were supposed to do. I don’t recognize the composer or the players. 3 stars. I might have a different opinion if I heard a whole album’s worth of material. But for that performance alone, 3 stars. [AFTER] I should have said Gerald Wilson. I thought that might be Gerald Wilson’s band, because I recognized certain things about his harmony. Anyway, I didn’t. Pretty swinging, but it felt like it didn’t have a lot of dimension to it; it felt one-dimensional. That’s not necessarily a bad thiing, because that’s obviously the choice he was making. But I kept waiting for it to go in another direction, and it didn’t. My hat is off to him for being his age and still having so much passion for music. He’s not the kind of person who is going to sit down and rest. He’s going to keep going and keep going.

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R.I.P., Vibraphonist David Samuels (1948-2019) — A Downbeat Blindfold Test From 1998

Just received news that master vibraphonist and tuned percussion player David Samuels has passed away at age 70. In his memory, I’m posting a Blindfold Test that he did with me in 1998 — I think this was my first-ever BFT.

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David Samuels Blindfold Test (1998):

Veteran mallet master David Samuels has touched on almost every facet of improvisation in the course of his career. Best known for his 17-year association with Spyro Gyra, the Chicago-born Samuels has also performed and recorded with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Carla Bley, the Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. Lately he’s been exploring pan-diasporic melodies and rhythms with Paquito d’Rivera and steel drummer Andy Narell in the Caribbean Jazz Project, while on “Del Sol” [GRP], issued several years ago, he joined forces with Latin Jazz masters Danilo Perez and Dave Valentin. That puts him in a line of direct descent with Cal Tjader, who, Samuels comments, “is responsible for putting vibes in the center of the Latin small ensemble as a solo voice.” On his latest disk, “Tjaderized” [Verve], Samuels joins forces with Eddie Palmieri and a top-shelf cast of young and veteran Latin stars on an idiomatic homage to the maestro.

Gary Burton: “Rhumbata” (from “Native Sense,” Stretch, 1997), Burton, vibes; Chick Corea, piano.

DS: I haven’t heard this record, but it’s clearly one of Chick’s tunes — an epic, long, involved piece. Four stars. Chick and Gary are a mini-percussion ensemble with two keyboard percussion instruments. They’ve been doing it for 20-25 years; they own this sound. I have a similar relationship with Dave Friedman in Double Image; it’s a very special dynamic and intuition.

Mike Mainieri: “Heart of Darkness” (from Don Grolnick, “Medianoche,” Warner Brothers, 1996), Mainieri, vibraphone; Grolnick, piano, composer; Dave Valentin, flute; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, drums, bongos, percussion; Don Alias, timbales and percussion; Milton Cardona, congas and percussion.

DS: That was Mike Mainieri on Don Grolnick’s “Medianoche,” a great record. Four stars. Michael has created not only an approach to playing the vibes, but a sound as well. He’s able to alter the sound electronically with effects, giving it a characteristic quality that he likes. Combine that with his ability to write tunes, and you’ve got yourself a great player.

Bobby Hutcherson: “Pomponio” (from “Ambos Mundos,” Landmark, 1989), Hutcherson, vibraphone; James Spaulding, flute; Randy Vincent, guitar; Smith Dobson, piano; Jeff Chambers, bass; Eddie Marshall, drums; Francisco Aguabella, congas; Orestes Vilato, bongos & cowbell; timbales; Roger Glenn, percussion.

DS: I’m not sure which Bobby Hutcherson record this is. [LOOKS AT COVER] I could have heard Bobby playing marimba on this piece as well as vibes. Bobby’s an important player on his instrument. He’s recorded historic music and continues to make great records. Improvisation is a process with no boundaries; the boundaries you put on how you improvise are the boundaries of style — there are as many different ways to improvise as different styles of music. I think one approach to playing over a Latin rhythm section like this is to play in a Post-Bop style, as everybody does here. Another approach is to fit the rhythm into the style of the music. I’ll give this three stars, partly because the way it’s mixed and recorded makes it hard to extract what’s going on. I’m missing a lot of Bobby’s notes; some of great lines are lost.

Joe Locke: “Slow Hot Wind” (from “Moment to Moment,” Milestone, 1994), Locke, vibraphone; Billy Childs, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Gene Jackson, drums.

DS: That’s from “Moment To Moment,” by Joe Locke, a great player who should be out there more. He’s heavily influenced by Bobby Hutcherson, but has taken it one step further. He’s got Bobby’s kind of linear approach, but also Joe’s a four-mallet player. Technically his phrasing is a little different. He’s got some dampening going on, a distinctive harmonic approach. Four stars.

Red Norvo, “Move” (from “The Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus,” Savoy-Denon, 1995, recorded 1950), Norvo, vibraphone; Tal Farlow, guitar; Charles Mingus, bass.

DS: This is that great trio with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow and Charlie Mingus. Five stars. Red Norvo from my standpoint isn’t recognized as he ought to be in the evolution of jazz vibraphone. He’s really the father of playing with four mallets. He started, on the xylophone, then started playing the vibes around 1927, when I think is when the vibes were invented.

Milt Jackson: “The Masquerade Is Over” (from “Burnin’ In The Woodshed,” Qwest, 1995), Jackson, vibraphone; Benny Green, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

DS: [AFTER 8 BARS…] That was the man — Milt. Five stars. He’s like a horn player playing vibes. I remember reading a description that he’s like someone who’s ice skating on the vibes — skating and gliding. He has those big puffy mallets! You don’t get a sense of how intensely he plays unless you stand next to him.

Gary Burton: “Bel-Aire” (from “The Best of George Shearing: 1960-1969,” Capitol, rec. 1963), Burton, vibraphone; Shearing, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums; John Gray, guitar; Bill Yancey, bass.

DS: [QUICKLY] That’s a very young Gary Burton playing with George Shearing, swinging unbelievably. It has a real sparkle. It’s one of Gary’s first recordings, a live concert, and remember hearing it years ago. He’s got that kind of youthful intensity. In a situation like that, short solos, you have to get it all out real fast — and Gary certainly did! Four stars.

Lionel Hampton: “When Lights Are Low” (from “Small Groups, Vol. 3, 1939,” Musique Memoria), Hampton, vibraphone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet solo; Chu Berry, tenor sax solo; Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Benny Carter, alto saxophone, arranger; Clyde Hart, piano; Charlie Christian, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.

DS: Gates! Five stars. That’s seriously heavy-duty swinging. It has the same kind of intensity and movement of any music that’s played well with a rhythm section playing together. Lionel’s a drummer who subsequently went to vibes, which is my own background, so I relate heavily to that style of playing.

Sanougue Kouyate: “Bintou” (from “Balendala Djibe: Salif Keita Presents Sanougue Kouyate,” Mango, 1990), Sanougue Kouyate, vocals; Keletigui Diabate, balafon, arrangements; Salif Keita, chorus.

DS: I first thought it was Salif Keita, who it turns out produced it and sings in the chorus. I like the way the balafon sounds here. It’s part of the ensemble, there’s a balafon solo, and though the instrument isn’t totally tempered, it’s in the context. Four stars.

[-30-]

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A 2012 Downbeat article with trumpeter Paolo Fresu, a 2012 Blindfold/Winefold Test with Fresu, and the complete interview for the Downbeat article

Earlier today, I uploaded an omnibus post documenting my encounter with Enrico Rava at the Barcelona Jazz Festival in 2011. The following year, 2012, I returned to Barcelona to do another Downbeat Blindfold/Winefold Test, this one with the magnificent, mystical trumpeter Paolo Fresu, who I also interviewed for an article of reasonable length. The order here is, first, the article; then the Blindfold/Winefold Test; then the complete interview that generated the article. (I’ll be conducting a public interview with Fresu in Milan on Nov. 4th.)

 

Paolo Fresu Article:

On Tuesday, November 13th, his last day in Spain after a string of consecutive concerts—duos with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa in Madrid, Malaga, Seville, and Granada; a duo in Manresa with nuevo flamenco guitarist Niño Josele; a performance in Barcelona two nights previous with the Alborada String Quartet, and, the previous evening, at the wine club Monvinic, a programmatic solo suite of eight compositions that refracted his impressions of eight different Catalan vineyards—Paolo Fresu took a day off from playing the trumpet and flugelhorn. Fresu slept in, then descended to the lobby of the Hotel Gran Havana with his bags and instruments and checked them at the desk. After grabbing an espresso and a few bites of croissant at a café, he proceeded to Monvinic, where he devoted his attention to the nine musical selections—each matched to a separate glass of wine—comprising the DownBeat Blindfold/Winefold Test. Later, after a lunch of couscous salad and a bottle of beer, he returned to the hotel lobby for a conversation.

“I am happy when I can play with different bands every night, because it’s so creative—each time, good questions and a new answer,” Fresu remarked. He described a summer 2011 project, undertaken for his fiftieth birthday, involving 50 concerts in 50 nights at 50 different locales in Sardinia, the Italian island that is his homeland, using solar-powered generators for amplification. “I like to change, to jump into the projects. It’s easy for me to do, because on all of them we have a good level of communication. And the first thing you need for communication is the sound. If you share your sound with the other musicians, it’s very easy to play and learn music with them. If the sound is good and we have good relations, you can find a good place in any music without a problem.”

In a few hours, Fresu would return to actualizing this principle on the road, catching an evening flight to Geneva, where, the following evening, he would apply his big, round sound to a triologue with accordionist Bebo Ferra and soprano saxophonist Gavino Murgia. On next evening, he would perform a solo “action” in Lausanne connected with an art premiere; on the next, another duo with Sosa in Conhillac; on the next, a performance in Toulon with the Corsican choir A Filetta and accordionist Daniele Di Bonaventura in conjunction with the 2011 ECM release Mistico Mediterraneo. From Toulon he’d proceed to Soresina, in northern Italy, for a duo with pianist Dado Moroni, then a second day off before concluding this 14-night tour in Cenon, France, again in duo with Sosa, with whom—and Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum—he recorded Alma [Otá] in 2011.

“For me, Paolo’s voice is a mix of Chet Baker and Miles Davis with a bit of his own Mediterranean touch,” Sosa said, describing what it feels like to play with his frequent partner. “Sometimes his voice is like a little bird, sometimes an angel drawing me to a special direction—a little voice that you can listen to in your dream.”

Sosa recounted their first meeting, perhaps a dozen years ago at the festival that Fresu has curated since 1988 in his hometown, Berchidda, a farming village of 3200 souls near the northeast coast of Sardinia.

“It was Paolo’s concept to present a band at the main stage, and then a special project the next day in a different part of the island,” Sosa said. “He invited me to play solo by a eucalyptus tree. In the middle of the concert, I heard a trumpet. I looked around. It was Paolo on top of the tree. I thought, ‘Wow, my man is crazy.’ I switched to play some real conceptual Latin thing, and he followed. I said, ‘Hey, my man is in the tree, but he listened to what I do.’ He’s got the freedom to create a moment and a space and be himself, no matter what happens.”

“Why not play over the tree?” Fresu asked rhetorically. “The tree is one of the elements of this concert. For me, place is very important in music.” He mentioned a Berchidda encounter under that eucalyptus tree with Tunisian oudist Dhafer Youssef and Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Lê; a duo with Bill Frisell “in the middle of nowhere”; and a Dadaesque meta-event with pianist Uri Caine, his frequent duo partner since the middle-aughts (documented on Things (2006) and Think (2009) [EMI/Blue Note]).

“Uri was in the train station in my village,” Fresu recounted. “The train stopped. Uri played ‘I Love You Porgy.’ The train started again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrived, Uri was there with the same piano and the same song.

“In contemporary society, we think about jazz music in jazz clubs or in theaters. It’s always the same dynamics—you’re in your seat, you wait for the musician, the musician arrives, you clap, he plays, and then you go home. The relationship between the place, the music, and the people is a magical thing. If we are together in a new place, in a mountain or by a lake or the sea, or in a small church in Sardinia, or a hospital or a prison, the energy and feeling is completely different. It’s not comfortable, and this is nice for the music—you know you need to exert more energy, play better than always, because the place is bigger than you. Communication is a political word, I know, but it is very important. Every concert is a kind of tale, but we need to read the same book.”

Fresu didn’t mention it, but according to Caine, “thousands of people” attended the 50 concerts in 50 places marathon. “Paolo wants music to be a way to show something else,” he said. “We play a lot of standards, but also Sardinian and Italian folk music, and classical and baroque music. He’s always thinking about the moods, and he gets into them, which makes it easy to play. As you play over a period of time, you focus on the details, the different things you can do within those moods. That seems to capture the imagination not just of the people who are playing the music, but the audience.” Whatever the context, Caine added, “he sounds very lyric and can also swing.”

[BREAK]

In Fresu’s opinion, his ability to refract diverse musical dialects into a holistic conception stems in great part from the quality of his relationships. “I have played with the same people for many years,” he said. As a first example, Fresu offered his postbop-oriented Italian quintet, in which he’s played with saxophonist Tino Tracanna, pianist Roberto Cipelli, bassist Attilio Zanchi, and drummer Ettore Fioravanti since 1983. He noted his long-standing trio with pianist-accordionist Antonello Salis and bassist Furio DiCastri; the decade’s tenure of the Angel Quartet (Nguyen Lê, guitars; DiCastri, bass; Roberto Gatto, drums); and the still-ongoing eight-year run of the Devil Quartet, with Ferra on guitars, Paolino Della Porta on bass, and Stefano Bagnoli on drums. He cited his seven-year association with Caine; a decade-plus of breaking bread with Yousef and Lê; and five years with Ralph Towner (the latter documented on the 2009 ECM disk Chiaroscuro) and the Mare Nostrum trio with accordionist Richard Galliano and pianist Jan Lundstrom.

“It is fantastic,” said Fresu of such long-haul partnerships, “because finally we have one sound. You hear a concert live, and the first thing you remember is the sound of the concert. It’s like the first idea of the menu, and then you go inside and think of the saxophone player or the pianist. If the cover isn’t so good, then maybe the rest isn’t important. When I started my quintet and quartet, the first thing was to create a good cover for the music, which wasn’t easy. After three or four years, you can go everywhere, and it’s all like your music. It’s important when you play a standard that your version is different than the 2,000 versions before.”

A self-taught player, Fresu refined his ears and developed the notion of music as conversation during a long apprenticeship in Berchidda’s marching band, “My brother had played trumpet for them, and gave it up,” he recalled. “When I was 11, I asked the maestro to let me be part of the group, which I had been following in the street, and when he gave me the first score, I knew it very well. From 1972 until 1979, when I was 18, I played for them, and also weddings with small combos and dances in the square.” He discovered jazz soon after matriculating at the Conservatory of Cagliari, at Sardinia’s southern tip, when he heard on the radio an unidentified bebop trumpeter. “I was completely shocked at this fast playing, and was impressed by the gymnastics. Then I heard Miles—‘Round Midnight,’ 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles on the Harmon mute. I thought, ‘OK, this is my idea of music’ because there was a lot of silence, and it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many months trying to play exactly like this. The attrazzione of the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this.”

Not long thereafter, he heard a cassette of Miles playing “Autumn Leaves” from the In Europe album of 1963. “I knew it as ‘Le Foglie Miele,’” Fresu says. “Although I listened every day for a week, I couldn’t hear the theme, which was distorted and complex. That was my first lesson that jazz was freedom. It is possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

“When I think about Miles, I think about the architettura, the system of constructing the music in my quintet. I also liked Chet and Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Dizzy, too, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, always an even, quarter-note swing, and also creative in that you play one melody and then try to move the melody in another way. I like to be very close to the tradition, not to play it exactly, but in this way, and then I like to go very far with other things. Today’s musicians have a big responsibility to connect the past with the music’s future. Every one of the nine trumpet players we heard today tried to find it.”

This imperative to connect ancient and modern, to find common ground between Sardinian vernaculars and musical dialects of other cultures, deeply informs Fresu’s intense partnerships with Sosa, Youssef and Lê. Towards this end, he interpolates into the flow real-time electronics, both to lengthen the notes from his trumpet and flugelhorn, whether Harmon-ized or open, and to augment his acoustic tone with a lexicon of celestial shrieks and rumbly whispers. During the two Barcelona concerts, he also showcased an extraordinary circular breathing technique, which he learned on performances with Luigi Lai, “a big maestro” of the launeddas, an indigenous polyphonic Sardinian instrument.

“I developed this, but nobody showed me,” he said. “It’s just that I am very fond of Sardinian traditional music, and jazz and classical started to mix with it. Maybe that relationship was the door to my playing projects with people from Brittany or Vietnam or North Africa or Cuba. One day I was flying from Paris to Tunis. When the captain said, ‘We’re arriving in twenty minutes,’ I looked out the window, and there was Cagliari. It’s just across the water from Africa. Also, the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years; the people from Alghero, where my wife is from, speak fluent Catalan. So there’s a relationship between Morocco and Spain and Sardinia, which is why Cuban culture is not far.”

Sosa himself perceives a close connection between Cuban and Sardinian folk traditions. “You can hear the counterpoint of the guajira in the canto a tenore,” he said. “They have something called mamuthones, a mask the country people use to put away the spirit. We have the same thing in the abakua tradition in Cuba.”

To explore and illuminate these ritualistic connections, to evoke palpably such spirits of the past is Fresu’s primary goal in deploying electronics, which he considers a separate instrument. “It’s primitive, archetypal, mystical music,” he said. “I started using electronic stuff just to preserve the sound quality when I’d change to Harmon mute on stage, because the sound engineers knew nothing and fucked it up. As I played with it, and listened to people like Mark Isham and Jon Hassell, who is the master for everyone in Europe who uses electronics, I discovered different possibilities of harmonizers and delays.

“I like very much to stay in many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Sometimes you go inside the new one, and it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes you enter a new room with another window or another door. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past. It’s not music from any particular countries. It’s emotional music, like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food.”

[—30—]

************

Paolo Fresu Blindfold Test (Raw):

[WINE DESCRIPTIONS ARE IN ITALICS]

1. Brian Lynch, “Wetu” (from Unsung Heroes, Hollistic Musicworks, 2009) (Lynch, trumpet; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Rob Schneiderman, piano; David Wong, bass; Pete Van Nostrand, drums; Louis Smith, composer)

López de Heredia Rioja Viña Tondonia blanco

This work of Brian Lynch is a tribute to musicians that has some influence, the “heroes” of the past, in this case the fast tempo reminds us the bebop.

To keep the legacy of our grandfathers and make of each bottle a tribute of them, is the goal of the family López de Heredia. They kwon that all what they do and what they are, is thanks to the received legacy. Their wines have the unique taste of the traditional old fashioned style of white Rioja.

I’ll try to speak in English, and sometimes in a kind of Esperanto language—Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, and Castiliano. [WHILE MUSIC IS PLAYING] It feels like “Donna Lee,” but it’s not “Donna Lee.” I don’t know who is the trumpet, but this is fantastic. He’s a young one. More or less? [Middle-aged.] It is mainstream jazz, but it is very interesting language with trumpet. It’s between Miles sometimes… It’s like Miles, some phrases, and sometimes it’s a bop player. I don’t know which name is the tune. Some phrases, it’s like “Donna Lee” from the endings. [MUSIC FADES] I don’t know who is the trumpet player, but this is a good one. I like very much! I don’t know which is the theme. I think it’s an original theme. But the idea is… It’s like “Donna Lee,” the Charlie Parker tune that starts for the ending. Perhaps we can put on the ending just for the theme, because it’s very interesting. [SINGS OPENING REFRAIN OF “DONNA LEE”] Yeah, it’s nice. I like it. I liked also the short solo of the alto player, that this was the ending… The starting of the solo was like Paul Desmond and this kind of area. I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Maybe it would be Roy Hargrove or one of those, but maybe not.

[“As a young trumpet player, after you discovered jazz, was bebop… Everyone knows you love Miles Davis and Chet Baker, but was bebop also important to you?”] The first trumpet player I heard in my life was on the radio, because there was not a sound system at home—like this, but also the basic one. It was on the radio, and there was a bebop player. I don’t know which one. It was the first time for me with jazz. It was completely new music. Maybe it was Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd or one of those. I was completely shocked about this. But not for… I was completely shocked for this kind of faster playing. It’s not possible for human people to play the trumpet like this! This was my first approach with jazz.

And then, after this, I heard Miles. The first one was “Round Midnight,” 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles with the Harmon mute also. And I think, “Ok, this is my idea of the music,” because there was a lot of silence. The Miles sound was amazing, incredible, because the sound of “Round Midnight,” when Miles started with the theme, it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many, many months to try to play exactly like this. [LAUGHS] I remember finally I buy one sound system (it’s not like this one) and one microphone that I put in the sound system, and with the headphone I try to play one note, and the same elsewhere with the Miles sound.

So the first approach with jazz was the radio, and I was very impressed about the gymnastics of the music. The second one was Miles, and it was completely different. So the attrazzione for the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this. The strange thing is that I was in Sassari. Sassari is the town near my small village, just 70 kilometers, and every day I take bus to go there—round trip. People that were a jazz fan were playing in the cave in one cantina there, and they invite me to play with them. I played before with dancing groups for the square in Sardinia, the (?—12:31) or mazurka and polka and valse, and the Stevie Wonder covers, and Lucio Dala, the Italian pop star.

I played also the “Autumn Leaves” theme. The name in Italian “Les Foglie Morte.” [SINGS REFRAIN] One day the piano player gave to me one cassette with the theme of “Autumn Leaves.” I say, “Ok, but I know this theme.” But he gave me the cassette, and said, “Ok, go home and try to listen to this one.” I was at home, and for one week, every day, I heard the cassette, but the theme was not there; “Autumn Leaves” was not in this cassette. After one week I come back to Sassari and say, “Sorry, it was wrong information; the cassette is not this one, because I know the theme of ‘Autumn Leaves.’” But the version was Miles in 1963 in Joan Les Pins. The theme was completely different. The distortion of the theme was complicated. This one was my first lesson about jazz, that jazz was the freedom. It was possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

Then, after Miles, Chet was the other one that I liked. I heard also older trumpet players. But not Louis Armstrong. I know about Louis Armstrong many years after, and I know that this way is the same for me as Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, a lot of European players, who think that Louis Armstrong is a very, very old age, you know… But finally, probably, he’s the main one or the best one, very modern for this period. The swing of Louis Armstrong, the sound, the idea, the relationship between melody and idea was incredible. So maybe Louis is the best one finally

[“Back to the piece we played… I don’t know how many times you’ve seen the Blindfold Test, which is optional, but strongly urged, from 1 to 5 stars.”]

The trumpet player maybe is 4 stars, but I stay at 3½ because I don’t know what happened after. [AFTER] “It’s from an album dedicated to his influences, trumpet heroes, but lesser-known trumpet influences.”

2. Wadada Leo Smith, “Spiritual Wayfarers” (from Heart’s Reflections, Cuneiform, 2011) (Smith, trumpet, composer; Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, electric guitars; Angelica Sanchez, piano; John Lindberg, acoustic bass; Skuli Sverrisson, electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff, drums)

Goyo Garcia Viadero Ribera del Duero Valdeolmos

Free Jazz.

Goyo García Viadero represents the freedom, the return to the origins, to the “natural wine” without any intervention. The spontaneous fermentation of the indigenous yeast makes a wine that expresses itself in a free way, far from the uniform style and rigid forms characteristic in the modern wines of Ribera del Duero.

Some phrases… I like the idea of the mix with electric guitar and the feeling of the tempo. It’s not easy, because he played just a few notes. The piece is under construction. I like the music, the mix between sounds and electric guitar. It’s like Miles’ idea in the ‘70s. I like this kind of thing, intervenzione of the trumpet that is… It’s no theme. Or it’s a little theme that is a little bit “Jean Pierre” in some moments. The trumpet player…I know it is not him, but the sound of him in some moments is like Don Ellis. But it’s not him, and it’s very far from Don Ellis, but the idea of the sound, especially in the highest register, is like him. But I don’t know who is the player. 3 stars. [AFTER] I know this record. I have this record. [LAUGHS]

3. Wallace Roney, “Pacific Express” (from Home, High Note, 2011) (Roney, trumpet; Antoine Roney, soprano saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, keyboards; Rahsaan Carter, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; John McLaughlin, composer)

Jerome Prevost Champagne La Closerie Fac-Simile Rosé

Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are some of the greatest trumpeters in the history of Jazz that influenced the career of Wallace Roney.

Jerome Prevost has a characteristic style with wines aged in barrels, with a deliberate oxidation, that adds complexity. Disciple of Anselme Selosse, (who is one of the most influential producers and with a best reputation in the last times in Champagne) you can recognize the keys of the style of the master in his wines.

I don’t have any idea who the trumpeter is. Is it an American trumpet player? A black trumpet player? A young one? [No. Your age.] Is this one of those like Roy Hargrove or… [MUSIC ENDS] I don’t know who is the trumpet player. The sound is like Miles in the ‘80s, and the trumpet player plays like Miles—not exactly like Miles, but the idea of the construction of the phrases is like Miles. I like very much the soprano saxophone solo, the sound and the architecture of the solo, but I don’t know who the trumpet player is. I like him, but in this case I prefer… I like the trumpet player, but I was not convinto about the idea of the solo, the construction of the solo. It was always without the dynamics, and I prefer the second one, for example—the saxophone solo. The sound is nice, but something that is not in a good way—for me, of course. 2½ stars. [AFTER] Ah, I understand now the kind of tune that they’re playing and the idea of the music.

4. Ron Miles, “Guest of Honor” (from Quiver, Enja, 2012) (Miles, trumpet, composer; Bill Frisell, guitar; Brian Blade, drums)

Valdespino Sherry Fino Inocente

“Miles plays brilliantly, singing the melodies with a tone bright and vocalized, tinged with melancholy…” –Down Beat

This wine has one of the most pure and precise aromatic and stylistic definitions. It is made with grapes that come from a unique single vineyard. Probably the Macharnudo vineyard, where grow the grapes of this particular wine, will deserve to be among the greatest names of the world of wine. Tinged with the melancholy of a glorious past.

This is like a kind of European idea for the composition. [MUSIC ENDS] I liked the tune. I liked the idea of the tune. It would be very close to the Fellini mood, like Nino Rota. The theme is very nice, with a lot of sense of humor. The sound of the guitar player is like Frisell, but it’s not him. But I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Because he played just the theme, and there’s no solos, nothing, and it’s not easy to find it. [“what did you mean that it’s a European idea of composition?”] That it’s the idea where the melody is very long, and it’s not solos inside, and… Well, the idea of the song would be like Enrico, for example. Sometimes Enrico writes a composition where the theme is the most important thing in the record. This one is without solos, and the melody is very long, and all the information about the song is inside in the melody. Then also, of course, the interplay between the guitar player, the bass player, and the drummer. But the idea of the composition for me is very European. So for these reasons. It’s difficult to rate this. I liked very much the song. Maybe 3½, because finally I like very much the idea of the music. I have no questions, because if I like it, I like it. [AFTER] Wow. [Vittorio: He loves your music.] Ah, that was Bill! It’s strange, Bill. Because the sound of Bill is more ambient, reverb… Here it was very dry. The reason why I thought it was not him—but it was very close to him, of course.

5. Etienne Charles, “J’ouvert Barrio” (from Kaiso, Culture Shock, 2011) (Charles, trumpet; Brian Hogans, alto saxophone; Jacques Schwartz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums)

Springfield Robertson Sauvignon blanc

Fusion Jazz with Caribbean rhythms

This wine represents the perfect fusion of a French grape planted in South Africa, where develop its own personality. The grape Sauvignon blanc comes from the Loire Valley, and the wine there is austere, fresh and with restrained aromas. But in other parts of the world, like in this case South Africa, the wine becomes lush, with exotic perfumes of tropical fruits, without the loose of its essence of a dry fresh wine.

This is the school of Freddie [Hubbard], the idea of his… But the record is different, because Freddie was more… He played with a lot of dynamics and different ideas at the same time. Is it a black player or a white trumpet player? American? [Not from the United States.] [MUSIC ENDS] The music is a kind of mix with Latin jazz. But the language is not in this way. It’s modern jazz. I liked the mix between both languages. I liked the song. I liked the interplay between the musicians. The piano player is fantastic. I like also this idea, the mix of the Latin rhythmic parts with the theme. I don’t know who the trumpet player is, but I like him. The sound sometimes is very close to Freddie for me, in some moments. But the difference is that Freddie was always very…started the solo here, and finish with incredible projection…projezzione, the solo… So he played sometimes like Freddie Hubbard, but then he left this idea and go into new ones and new… He had a lot of ideas and he started with one, and then it’s finished, and then he goes to another one. But I don’t know who the player is. 3 stars. [AFTER] Where is the trumpet player from? [He’s from Trinidad.] He’s a young guy? [About 30.]

6. Tom Harrell, “Journey To The Stars” (from Number Five, High Note, 2012) (Harrell, solo flugelhorn and overdubbed trumpet chorus, composer; Danny Grissett, piano)

Bruno Lorenzon Mercurey Cuvée Carline

In the last years the greatest wines for some critics and some amateurs, has been those that use to have a lot of color, body and concentration. The grape Pinot Noir, fight against the difficulties, the lack of color and power, with its intense perfume and its delicate character.

And into a glass of wine becomes the favorite for the aficionados.

The wines of Brune Lorenzon have a soft velvet texture, with a fresh and persistent taste. And the aromas are delicate and penetrating, pure aromatic lyricism.

This is an American guy? Yes? He’s young. No? I like the sound and the idea of the two trumpets, the harmon mute. But the sound is like a European trumpet player. For example, the Italian trumpeter, Flavio Boltro, plays with this idea. I don’t know if he’s on flugelhorn or on trumpet. [Ralph Alessi: “flugelhorn”] I like also the sound of the Harmon mute. Sometimes a lot of trumpet players, when they play with the Harmon mute, the sound is not… For me, the sound of the Harmon mute is the Miles one! When the Harmon mute is so small… I like, for example, for the European ones, the sound of Palle Mikkelborg—that is one of the best about this idea. This is the first one that plays also a little like myself. It’s different, of course, But the idea of the phrases and the sound, the Harmon sound and the flugelhorn sound, is more or less the same. In this song, the construction of the phrases is like the short ideas, so one here, the other one here, but every one is in relationship with each other. Finally, it’s akind of small colors, a lot of different colors, but with just one line. There’s a kind of impressionistic music. The piano plays the same thing. It’s like minimal music, or ambient music. Then, over this, so that the flugelhorn is floating over it…and the color of the Harmon mute is the last stroke. Of course, it’s just piano and trumpet. So the difference between this one and the pieces we heard before is that here you have no interplay, but the piano is just the carpet for the ideas. The sound is very nice. So everything is in the perfect place. I don’t know who it was. I had ideas about the European ones who play…not exactly, but like him. But I don’t know who it is. In everyone I ask you if this is a young guy or not, and you say, “no, it’s not very young,” but the problem is we don’t know… I am 51, and for me, I am very young, and my perspective about the age is completely different from before. Because for me, the young player are the people who are 25 years or 30—maximum—years old. Maybe not for you. [I’m 57.] You’re 57. [So you’re young.] Because for me, the young trumpet player is all the guys who were growing up with me. For example, Roy Hargrove or Dave Douglas or people like that, are young people, and Ralph Alessi is a young person, but maybe not for the other. It is very sad! 5 stars. No, 4. [Why did you say 5 and then correct?] No, it was a mistake. It was a lapse. A Freud lapse. [AFTER] Of course ! [POUNDS TABLE] So now everything is clear. [“He’s very popular in Italy.”] Yeah, I’m played with him also. He’s one of my favorite trumpet players. Because the sound is fantastic, and he plays with a lot of emotion, so every note is the good one. This is the reason why, when I heard it, my idea was transferred to Europe, because we have a lot of trumpet players who can play like him—not with the same quality, but… And he’s also very close to me because the idea about the music is the same.

7. Dave Douglas, “Frontier Justice” (from Orange Afternoons, Greenleaf, 2011) (Douglas, trumpet, composer; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Vijay Iyer, piano; Linda Oh, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Navazos-Niepoort Andalucia 2010

“The recordings focus on short, informal sessions featuring Douglas with different groups in an effort to bring music quickly from the studio to the fans. Reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Workin,’ Steamin,’ Relaxin,’ and Cookin’ albums on Prestige Records which, according to jazz lore, were recorded in just two days and mostly in single takes. Many albums of the 1950s and 60s were recorded this way, and Greenleaf looks to this style of recording as a model.”

This wine represents the recover of what was supposed to be the Sherry wines in the XVIII century. An effort to recover an style of wine and lost techniques. The layer of yeast that covers the wine for a few months appears in a spontaneous way and adds the peculiar taste to this wine. The wine comes from a single vintage, without the traditional blending of different vintages, and the long ageing in barrels,

I know that horn player from the three notes, just like this, and also for the construction of the music. It’s a lot of information at the same moment, and I like this. The saxophone player sometimes is like Lovano. I don’t know who is the piano player. I’m thinking about Uri [Caine], but it’s not Uri. Is the drummer Clarence Penn? Also, the sound is Dave, but it was easy for me when he had the three notes, the chops that I know. The exact moment that he played those notes, I know. [AFTER MUSIC] Dave Douglas. Finally, one! After six… [APPLAUSE] It’s very interesting, because I think about him because the construction of the music was very complicated, so it’s much information at the same time. But then, the moment that I know that it was Dave was when he played three notes in the highest register with one special inflection of the tuning that I know. It’s nice. I like the song. The feeling of the song is like Wayne Shorter compositions from the Miles period. I like also the saxophone player, who played a little bit like Joe Lovano, but it’s not him, of course. I have no idea about the piano; I was thinking about Uri, but it’s not him. I thought the drummer was Clarence Penn, but it’s not. 4 stars. [AFTER] I think about Linda, but I was not sure, because we were playing together last year in Sardinia, with a new project, with me, Avishai Cohen, Enrico Rava, Dave, with Uri, Clarence and Linda Oh—one concert there.

8. Fabrizio Bosso-Antonello Salis, “Domenica a sempre domenica” (from Stunt, Parco Della Musica, 2008) (Bosso, trumpet; Salis, accordion [fisarmonica])

Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

Some describes this joint of Antonello Salis and Fabrizio Bosso as the joint of the refinement and the fury.

The piedmonts’ grape Nebbiolo, always represents a contrast between its refined perfume, pungent, intense and enchanting, and the fury of the texture and the acidity in he palate. A rough and harsh texture due to the tannins of the grape, that sticks in the palate, in a pleasant way; and a fresh and tasty acidity that increases the delicious bitterness of the wine.

[LAUGHS] That’s Antonello. And maybe…I wait for… The trumpet player is Fabrizio. I know the sound of Fabrizio; I know it very well. Here, for example. It’s a good mix between the mainstream… [‘Tiger Rag’ section] Yeah, the accordion, the fisarmonica (because it’s different) is Antonello Salis, an Italian player. The crazy one, who is also a piano player. But I know, because the sound of the accordion is Antontello, and then he sings… He’s a good friend of mine, and we started together in 1985, I think, and then we play a lot as a trio with Furio di Castri. We’ve done many, many projects together. The duo project. He was inside my Kind of Porgy and Bess for BMG. I remember the first time that I met you in the office of Daniel (?—53:33) in Paris a long time ago. The trumpet player is Fabrizio Bosso, one of the best European players. Fabrizio is amazing. He’s a little crazy. For me, he’s one of the best trumpet players in the world. He needs just to be a little bit maturo… [RALPH: Mature.] Yes. He’s a young player… Trento… For me, it’s young, but it’s not young. 2 stars for this, because I think it is not… I am sorry for this. These are both good friends. But I give 2 stars because it is not communication. So everyone plays in one room. [LAUGHS] Each one played fantastic, but not together. It’s not a good example for jazz. Because Fabrizio played a lot of information. So the difference between the duo and the Dave Douglas tunes is that in Dave’s music there’s a lot of information at the same time, but everything is in a good place. Here it’s a duo that play and speak together a different language. And when we play a duo, we need to play together, because otherwise it’s nothing. No? I like very much Antonello… Antonello is my love, because Antonello is Antonello. It’s not possible to compare Antonello with a piano player, with an accordion player. Antonello is Antonello, for his life, for his human approach with life. He is a genius. He is an immense musician. When I speak about Antonello, it is not possible to compare him with other musicians. Fabrizio is a very good player, incredible technique, sounds fantastic. He needs just to be a leader in the groups. He’s a fantastic soloist. The best performance from him is when he played 8 bars in the solos for the pop stars or something. He played 8 bars, and I heard this and said, “Wow. Incredible.” Then, when he plays music… He loves sometimes, you know, the goal. But he has time to grow up. He’s a very nice friend of mine, and I write the liner notes for his record with a symphonic orchestra—not the last one with Nino Rota, but the one before.

9. Christian Scott, “Spy Boy/Flag Boy” (from Christian aTunde Adjuah, Concord, 2012) (Scott, trumpet, composer; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Lawrence Fields, keyboards; Kristopher Keith Funn, bass; Jamire Williams, drums)

Fritz Haag Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Juffer Sonnenhur

The whisper technique of Christian Scott imitates the human voice playing trumpet.

Andreas Larsson, Best Sommelier of the World 2007, described a wine in the shortest and, probably, most wonderful way that I ever eared. He described this particular Mosel Riesling like this: “This wine is like: Ummmm, a blow of fresh air”. Onomatopoeia, the human voice in its most primitive estate, to express in a brief and clear way the scented perfume, deep and pungent of this wine, that is at he same time delicate and fine.

Is the trumpet player American? [“American.”] I know him. I know the idea of the sound, the quality of… I know who is this trumpet player, but I don’t know the name. It’s the most close to Freddie for me. The trumpet has a very heavy sound, and the idea of the intonzaione (intonation) and vibrato is like Freddie—but it’s not him, of course. The record is not very old. [Yes, it’s a new recording. And a younger player. Even if you were younger, it would be a younger player.] It’s one of those new…what’s the name of…the black guy… I was thinking about Ambrose Akinmusire, but it’s someone else. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Christian Scott. I don’t know him? Is he young? [He’s 29. He’s done three or four recordings. He has a contract with Concord. He’s Donald Harrison’s nephew.] He’s a nice player.

***************

Paolo Fresu (Nov. 13, 2012):

TP: …blog-site. They might have taken it off the radio.

PF: Because we’re playing together, two eyes. The first one was two years ago, because I invited Dave for the master class in the Stage… I am also Director to the Jazz State in Sardinia in the summertime, for 24 years now. Every year we have a short master class for three days for all the students. There are 120 students. Steve Lacy was there, Sheila Jordan, Ralph Towner, Enrico, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Liebman…

TP: There’s a record I downloaded on which you play a couple of tracks with Dave Liebman.

PF: Yes, but this is a very old one. This is my second one… In 1985. My first record under my name was 1984. The title is Ostinato, with my Italian quintet. The second one was with my Italian quintet plus Dave.

TP: I can get these details later. But it sounds like your educational activity is one way you formed performing associations with other musicians.

PF: Yes.

TP: It’s a very good one.

PF: Well, I was born in Sardinia. Sardinia is an island, and my small village is an island inside of the island. So nothing happens there. Except now, because the festival is 25 years; it’s one of the bigger festivals in Italy now. You can imagine that the village is 3,000 people, and during the festival we have more than 35,000 people there. It’s amazing. It’s in August, between the 9th and 16th.

TP: Is there enough room for everyone?

PF: Well, it’s not 35,000 people in one day. But we have two hotels, and camping, and bed-and-breakfast. It’s incredible, because it’s a lot of energy.

TP: What is the economy of the village? A fishing village?

PF: It’s a rural economy. But it’s 20 kilometers from the sea. It’s nothing to do with the sea. So the economy there is a rural economy. So the land and cow and a lot of farms. My father was a farmer, so he was not an artist, no bourgeois…

TP: You don’t come from a bourgeois family.

PF: He was… Well, we are, because my father and my mother are still alive. My father is 88 and my mother 86. It was a very poor family, so it was nothing to do with art. So a lot of energy…he spent a lot of money for my studies. Because I did electronic studies before.

TP: I noticed that. Which puts your sampling, the electronics in your music…

PF: Well, I don’t know if there is a relationship with this. When I started with the electronic stuff, it was because… I think that in jazz, the most important thing is the sound. We have a lot of parameters in the music—sound, and then the melody, and then the harmony, and the construction, and the dynamics, and a lot of different things that finally we put together. For me, the sound is on the top. It’s the first one. If the sound is not good, the rest is nothing. It’s like when you build a very big house, if you don’t put the first stone in a good position, so after…

TP: Is your brother a good trumpet player?

PF: No-no-no, my brother was in the marching band, and then he…

TP: He gave it up.

PF: Yes. I see this trumpet—I was very young—at home, and my dream was to touch this 0instrument and play. When I was 11 years old, I asked the maestro from the band to be a part of the group, and he said, “Ok, you can play the clarinet or the tuba.” I said, “No-no, please, I need to play the trumpet, because we have one trumpet at home, and this is the reason why I play trumpet.”

TP: Did your brother teach you? Did you have a teacher?

PF: Nobody teach me. When I started in the band, I know everything, because when the band was in the street I followed them. This was my dream. Finally, when the maestro gave me the first score, I said, “I know this one very well.” “Why?” “I know, because I…” This one was my first school, and then I played for weddings many years with small combos, and in the square for dancing music, until… From ‘72 until ‘79, more or less.

TP: From when you were 11 until you were 18.

PF: Well, yes. In the last part of this experience with dancing bands, I tried to play a little bit the “Nucleus” composition from Ian Carr. But it was very funny, because when we were playing this music, all the people in the square, the old people stopped completely, saying, “What’s happened?”

TP: Did you develop a sound pretty quickly on the trumpet?

PF: No. When you play with the marching band, you are very lucky, because we started to play very quickly with 50 people together. It is fantastic. When you get to the conservatory, for example, the piano player don’t play with nobody for 8 years. This is terrible. This is completely stupid. You stay home, play scales and everything for 8 years, and then finally you can share the music with each other. For me, it was fantastic.

TP: It’s always collective.

PF: Because I was very young. It was like the Dixieland bands. You play with other people. The guy that plays just in the back of you plays the same thing, but it’s different. Plays different. You say, “Wow, fantastic.” We play the same notes, but he played a kind of abellimente(?)… For me, this was really incredible and fantastic. But it’s not good for the sound. The maestro is the one maestro for all the instruments—trumpet and trombone and tuba and clarinet and saxophones. The techniques were very bad. When you share the music at 11 years old with other people, the most important things is the communication, but not the quality of your sound. Because your sound is one small part of a very big picture.

TP: A lot of people can develop a good sound on an instrument, but not a lot of people can develop an approach to music where it’s like a conversation. Which you seem to have had from the beginning, and seems to be characteristic of what you do. I’d think it’s why you take on so many projects.

PF: yeah. I think that I was very lucky also, because my first group was my Italian quintet. My Italian quintet is a really Italian group, because the drummer is from Rome. It was 1982. The drummer, Ettore Fioraventi, is from Rome. The piano player is from Cremona, the bass player is from Milano, and the saxophone player from Bergamo. And I am from Sardinia. I was in Sardinia, I lived there, and the other people was Rome, Cremona, Milan, and Bergamo.

TP: Do you consider yourself as part of Italy or as Sardinian?

PF: Sardinia is Italy, but it’s an island. We speak another language. So we have a lot of different things to Italian. So when we travel to Italy, we go to Italy from Sardinia. Politically it’s Italy, but it’s an island—it’s completely different.

When I started with this group, it’s the group that exists now, so it’s 29 years with the same people. We recorded between 16 and 20 records together. The human relation with those guys was fantastic, and it was my first school to play and to speak with. I was very lucky, because in this group the communication in life and in music was really easy. After this, the rest of the groups… When I think about music, I think about the good relationship with the musicians first, and then it’s easy when you find the good ones to play together. Because otherwise, no…

TP: For instance, this coming week, you’re going to be working… You’ve worked with a string quartet that includes your wife. Then you did the solo yesterday. You’re going to play a trio tomorrow with Bebo Ferra and…

PF: Gavino Murgia.

TP: A few days after that you’ll play a duo with Richard Galliano…

PF: …and I was here with Omer, and then I play with Uri…

TP: And this is your life, going around to play with different people.

PF: I like this. Listen. If I tour with the same people for one week, it’s too much! [LAUGHS} Sometimes in the summertime, for example, I play 50 days, 60 days without a day off, everywhere in the world, and I am very happy when I can play a lot with the different bands every night, because it’s more creative. So every night, you have a night with good questions and a new answer. Of course, I like to play also for one week with my musicians, because the level of the music every night is better. But finally, I like very much to change, to jump in the projects. Depending, because if you are all the same, it’s very easy. If you need to change yourself and to change everything in the music, to find the door… You have a lot of doors here, but if you need to find a good one every night, maybe it is a mistake. So for me, it’s easy to play with different projects, probably because in all the projects we have a good level of communication. And the first word for the communication is the sound. If the sound is a good one, you have nothing to explain and nothing to speak with people.

TP: Where I’m going, and maybe you’ll think this is a silly question, is: do you relate your ability to do that… That’s not something that everybody likes to do. Do you relate your ability to do that to these early experiences as an ear musician in the marching band, being surrounded by other voices, other sounds? It seems as though you were initially an ear musician, a street musician, and then you evolved into a refined art musician who mastered the technique of the trumpet, and arranging, and different languages and dialects, absorbed a lot of different canons of music.

PF: Yes. Well, I started with the marching band, and I think the marching band and the small combos after was an incredible school for music, the music that was inside. Then I was in Siena, the Siena Jazz Stage, in 1980 and 1982, two years, like a student. Then in 1985, I started to be like a professor in the same stage. Me and Enrico were the professors. So in 1980, was not the class of the trumpet, and in 1982 Enrico was the professor. I was with him for five days. So it was not my master…

TP: In one of your biographies, it says you ‘discovered’ jazz in 1980.

PF: Yes.

TP: That’s pretty late.

PF: Incredible, yeah. Because 1980 was the first time, and then in 1985 I was professor in Siena with the big master, like Enrico Pieranunzi and Enrico and Gianluca Trovesi and Franco D’Andrea, and everybody that was my idols before.

TP: So your ears must have developed tremendously during the years with the marching band, though I’m sure you were doing other things as time went on.

PF: Yes. I stopped with the marching band… I play with the marching band also now. So when I am in Sardinia… For example, for Easter or for Christmas-time, when I am there, I go and I play, because this is my life. Anyway, we have now with the marching band a new combo. The maestro was my student, and we start now with a kind of funky orchestra with very young people like a legacy of soul thing. It’s nice, because this is the (?—16:05) for the village.

But between ‘80 and ‘84, I heard a lot of jazz at home. The school for me was this. Because I was in Berchidda; Berchidda is far from the big cities. Cagliari, the capital, is 250 kilometers, and it’s 6 hours by train. The unique way for me was to learn jazz with the records. I put the records of Miles and Chet and I tried to play exactly like them, and the solos transcription. This one was my school. No professor, no that… Then, of course, I tried to play with people.

TP: Is that also how you developed your sound, or did you have a maestro for trumpet?

PF: No, the maestro for trumpet was in the conservatory after.

TP: So that’s where you refined your sound. Or had you developed it before? In other words, did you have bad habits that someone had to break you…

PF: No, nothing. So the unique professor was the guy that was in the conservatory just for classical music, of course. For example, the system of circular breathing that I developed was just myself. Because in Sardinia we have one special instrument that’s named the launeddas, which is the oldest polyphonic instrument in the Mediterranean area.

TP: Evan Parker has mentioned that instrument as inspirational.

PF: Yes, of course. I played with the big maestro. The name is Luigi Lai; he is a big name. We play this instrument with his collaboration. The technique that I used with the trumpet yesterday night came from this area. But nobody showed me. It was just that finally the jazz and classic started to mix with the traditional music, because I am very fond of the Sardinian traditional music. So my idea was to go to the university to get the laureate with the very big ethnomusicologist in Italy whose name was Roberto Milleddu. He was like Alan Lomax—the big name. I started with the university in ‘82, but then I stopped immediately because it was not time for the university.

But my big love in music was jazz and traditional music. Maybe this relationship between jazz and traditional music was the door to go into the music. For this reason, I play a lot with people from Brittany, people from Vietnam, and African projects, and Sardinian projects, of course. So I like very much this kind of connection with the… Because I love really the classical jazz. I like very much Miles. I have 2 or 3 records that I tried to play exactly like this.

TP: One of them is the record with Rava, where you play the…

PF: The Montreal. We have another record where we play Chet, Shades of Chet. For example, I have the two records, the Philology ones, where I play Porgy and Bess, the Miles and Gil Evans version with the transcription of Gunther Schuller. Another record also where we play Birth of the Cool. I like very much to be very close to the tradition, and to play not exactly, but in this way, and then, I like also to go very far with other things that (?—20:40) finally. So the contemporary musicians today have a big responsibility to put in connection the past with the future of the music. It’s not easy, because when we heard the 9 trumpet players today, every one is completely different. I think that every one tried to find it, so that they have a good relationship between the original music of today with the big and heavy tradition from the past.

TP: But you have a very fresh approach when you play the tradition. Your lines seem fresh and you always seem to be thinking about melodies. You’ve played one melody after another over the past two days I’ve heard you, and listening to the recordings, whether if it’s complex changes, or playing along with the sample and doing a celestial shriek from the heavens thing…whatever you’re doing, melody seems very important, and something you’re able to access.

PF: Absolutely. In these parameters in jazz, the first one is the sound and the second one is the melody. When I heard Miles and Chet Baker… The idea in this moment were three different ways, Miles and Chet, Clifford with all this kind of bebop players, and the third one maybe was Freddie Hubbard. Another one was Dizzy, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I travel a lot with Enrico, we speak about the trumpet players, and Enrico says, “when I heard Dizzy, I don’t know nothing about this music; I like this music, but I don’t know in my mind, I don’t know in my head. When I heard Miles and Chet, I know everything, and if I KNOW everything, I can play everything.” Because the melodies are different… It’s a kind of diatonic approach with the music. One note, and the second one is just there, and the third one is just there. It’s not like this, you know… I am in this line. For example, for this reason I like very much Tom Harrell and all these kinds of players who try to construct one melody…a very simple melody, sometimes with a very complicated course. We can choose just one note and not the other one, and this note, because the note before was different and the note after was different…

TP: One thing I’ve noticed also is that a lot of Italian players don’t feel alienated from American swing tradition as something they can embrace, whereas in other countries there’s a more prevalent feeling that their own cultural traditions don’t necessarily jibe with playing in the American tradition. It seems that you, Rava, other Italian players I know like Dado Moroni or Petrella, feel very comfortable with African-American jazz tradition, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit them from expressing their individuality…

PF: Italy is like this. It’s very long. It’s not a big country but it’s very long. We have the north, we have the center, we have the south, we have the two islands, and we are exactly between Africa and Europe—especially Sardinia. Finally, Italy politically the relationship between the South and the North is very complicated. If you travel from the south to the north, you meet people, and the taste of wine and cooking and faces and the dialects are different. If I speak with people from Naples, sometimes I don’t understand nothing. So if I speak Sardinian language with people from Rome or from Milano, it’s nothing to do with Italians. It’s more far…

TP: Well, Italy wasn’t a nation until the 1860s.

PF: Yes. In politics this is a big problem, but in music it’s fantastic, because we have a lot of jazz players in Italy who try to mix jazz with opera, with music from Naples, with the mitteleuropa for the heart of Europe, the jazz with music from the Mediterranean, Africa… We have a lot of people who play incredible bebop, who play exactly the language of the bebop, people who play like Enrico with fabulous melodies. So finally, Italy is a kind of country that is in the middle of the world, and this is the reason why the jazz today is the music that is a photography about the Italian of today. We play jazz, but we have a lot of kind of jazz in Italy, because the country is very long. We have a lot of cultures and musics and foods and idioms and everything. I don’t compare the Italian jazz with the jazz, for example, from France or from Germany. I don’t know if the Italian one is better or is the first one, the second one, or the third one. But it’s true that Italian jazz is different than the other countries.

TP: I think in France, the African influence is more pronounced, just because so many West Africans live there…

PF: I agree. When I started to live in Paris, where I lived for more than ten days, Paris to me was the door to the world. Because in this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, Paris was the most international big town in Europe, for me more than Berlin and more than London. Why? Because Paris was in relationship with Caribbean people and then to people from the (?—28:40) island and the …(?)…, and people from Africa. Italy was a little bit more closed to this world. But the relationship between Italy and the world in jazz was Italy and America direct in the ‘80s. It was the reason why we started to play exactly like the American musicians in this moment. So the jazz standard for us was “Stella by Starlight” and “My Funny Valentine,” and all the American jazz standards. But we have also…

TP: Might that also connect to operatic traditions?

PF: Yes.

TP: Some American songbook material is linked to light opera and so on…

PF: Absolutely. Now we have incredible Italian songs that are like the jazz standards. For example, “Estate” is one of those that, when Chet started playing, Bruno Martino said, “Wow, this is a nice idea.” So you have a lot of standards everywhere, but at this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, the reference for us was the American jazz, of course. This is our school, our milk.

Now it’s a little bit different. Because the reference was in American music. It was important to know this music, to learn the language. But now, after this, we can go everywhere today. And the background of Italian music is very rich. Then we can look forward and try to mix a lot of elements from the Mediterranean, from the opera, from also all the Italian music in jazz… This is the reason why you have a musician who plays jazz with Mediterranean music, that plays bebop, other musicians who play jazz with other kind of music… Italian music is very rich.

TP: Many flavors. For you, speaking about the grounding, you could make a metaphorical case that you’re in dialogue with North Africa when you make recordings with Dhaffer Youssef, that you’re in dialogue with Asia when you play with Nguyen Le, or in dialogue with Cuba and the west African diaspora when you play with Omar Sosa, or with the American Tin Pan Alley tradition when you play with Uri (who is kind of a doppelganger for you; you’re similar personalities); or with Ralph Towner a different stream.

PF: Yes.

TP: It seems that these dialogues aren’t just notes and tones, but that there’s some broader philosophical inquiry going on. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I’m wondering how you regard the broader implications of the projects over and above just listening and reacting, what’s embedded in what you do.

PF: First, Africa is more close… One day I fly from Paris to Tunis. At the moment the captain says, “We are ready, we’re arriving in 20 minutes,” and I look from the windows, and Cagliari was there. Cagliari is just in front to Africa. Finally I think we have an incredible relation with the North African musicians.

But the rest is that I think it’s really that if the sound is… If you share your sound with the other musicians, for example, with Uri or with Ralph Towner or with people from Africa, it’s very easy to play and it’s very easy to learn music with them. I think that this is very important. It’s important if you know which is your way music, after it is also important to change the duration to the music, to learn something for you first. Sometimes I make the experiments with people from different countries of the world, and I don’t know if the final result is good or not, of course—we need to ask the audience. But it’s important to try to do something with them.

Anyway, Uri is very easy. We speak the same language. Also with Ralph… With Ralph Towner it was a little bit more difficult, because the sound mix between acoustic guitar and trumpet was not so easy. It’s two different dynamics. And Ralph’s compositions sometimes is not really jazz; it’s another music. For example, with Uri it was pretty fast. With Ralph it was a little bit more difficult. With people like Dhaffer Youssef or Nguyen Le, it’s very easy. So depending about the music and which kind of music…

But then, if we have a good relation with each other, you can find a good place for you in any music without a problem. Also with the strings or the other projects.

TP: There are two other things I want to ask you about. One is the way you think about electronics in relation to your sound. The impression I got (and I’m sure you have hundreds of people telling you what they feel when they hear you play) when I heard you last night on the last piece, which is obvious because it’s Bach, is that the trumpet has this celestial quality, the voice of Gabriel, but then also you use the electronics to impart the celestial shriek. I’m wondering how these ideas filter into your concept of sound? Are you thinking about the heavens? Are you thinking about the properties of the trumpet in an empirical way?

PF: I started with the electronic stuff just for the quality of the sound. I spent a lot of time to play exactly like Miles in 1966, in 1956, and finally, when I was on stage, the found was completely fucked up. It was completely different. It was a shit sound. The sound engineers don’t know nothing. I’d change the trumpet with the Harmon Mute, and the sound of the Harmon Mute was not there. It was really, really difficult always. For me, the sound was the most important thing, and if the sound is not good, the rest of the music is nothing. For this reason, I decided to buy the electronic machine just to be myself on stage. It was my responsibility now to put a little reverb and the equalization added.

When I started to play with electronic stuff, I covered a lot of different possibilities, harmonizers and delays, and I said, “Wow, it’s amazing, an incredible instrument. So I can use this inside my music to be more rich and creative.” But the first idea was to use the machine just for the quality of the sound and the pure sound. The rest was after.

Then I heard people like Mark Isham, for example, and the best master for me, who is the best one in this, is Jon Hassell. I played with him. We have a record together. He’s the master for everybody, for people who use the electronics in Europe, like Nils Petter Molvaer or Arve Ericsson. All those guys think about Jon Hassell first.

Finally, the electronic stuff is another instrument. When I play, I use four different instruments. The first one is the trumpet. The second one is the flugelhorn. The third one is the trumpet with Harmon Mute. For me, it is another instrument when I play with the Harmon mute. I think differently in my head. The fourth one is the electronic stuff. So it’s important that when you start to use the electronic stuff, you think the music different. Because otherwise, the machine, the electronic machine, the risks that can cover you, and you are more like this, and the electronic stuff is like very (?—39:28). The idea is to use the electronics just for molto descriptzione… I am the boss in any case.

TP: I think one of the dangers with that might be doing something just because you can, or exercising taste, or making it suit your own purposes instead of suiting its purposes.

PF: I know, I know. For example, I don’t use the MIDI system with the electronic stuff. I don’t play the trumpet like saxophone, because it’s completely stupid. I don’t play the trumpet like a guitar or like a keyboard. So all the sound of the trumpet goes into the machine, and finally the sound of the machine is more or less natural. So it’s the same sound of the trumpet, but a little bit different. This is my philosophy.

Also, when I think about the electronic stuff, I think to the past of the music… It’s not the future of the music.

TP: It’s like the Corsican voices, which are representing something very ancient.

PF: Yes. For me, the electronic stuff is like the primitive music, the archetypal music. For me, the electronic stuff is like Africa. It’s like mystical music. This is very strange, because when you think about electronics today, it means we think about the future, the technology. But for me, this technology is the best way to go back in the past. And this is very interesting, because it is another idea about it. Electronic suggestions is also emotion…it’s not cold, but it’s important that it will be warm…

No, it is a big risk, because sometimes… For example, with the string quartet it was a big risk because it was alone with the trumpet there, and because the string quartet is incredible, is the perfect architettura in music. It’s four voices, perfect, and it… If you play inside in the string quartet, the risk is to destroy this perfect architettura with the trumpet. If you use trumpet and electronic stuff, the risk will be very big. Also for the dynamics, because you use a sound system, the sound of the quartet is more or less acoustic…

I know. I know that it is a big risk to play electronics. Sometimes you don’t need it, because finally the acoustic sound in music is the more puro, and when you use the electronics it is important to think about the nature of sound of the instrument, otherwise it’s very… Maybe it’s nonsense, because…

TP: Can you describe the arc of the concert with the string quartet? Was it a program you were doing for the first time, or…

PF: No, it is a program that we know. With the string quartet, we change the repertory every night because the music is right over the place when we play. For example, the idea to start with a musician in the audience, this can change every night. Because if the sound of the theater is a good one, it’s perfect. Otherwise, it’s not possible. The first one was a traditional song for Sardinia, for the choir. The last one that we played the encore was also a very famous Sardinian song, the name is “Ave Maria,” but with a new idea, that the arrangement was in 3/4, and changed every chorus the key. Other music was from myself, the music for movies…

TP: Music you’ve composed for movies.

PF: Yes. I like it very much. And some music was for the European minimalist composers, like Karl Jenkins. Sometimes we play something from Michael Nyman. In the past from Arvo Part. Also, we play a lot of different music in repertory. Baroque music, because I like very much the baroque music, like Monteverdi or Handel for example.

TP: There’s a great trumpet lexicon in that music, too.

PF: Yeah, of course. Vivaldi and Bach, and Handel, too. Finally, the music that we play…the range of the music is very different sometimes. But the sound of the project is always the same. This is the key… This is a kind of passport, too, to go in different rooms. So we use the same key to go in the different rooms. The key is the sound, and if we have a good sound we can go in the different rooms, completely different. This is my idea. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.

TP: You have many, many rooms.

PF: I have many, many rooms, because I think that…

TP: You really do. More than most.

PF: I like very much to stay in many, many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Because you try to open the new one, and sometimes you go inside and nothing…it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes we open the new one, and you have a new room with another window or another door, and you go, you go, and you try to recover this scopelita(?—46:44) always in your things. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past.

TP: Please describe to me also in some detail what you did yesterday at Monvinic.

PF: Yesterday, the first tune was from Alma, the record with Omar. It was just the theme of Alma. I decided before which music, more or less, for the wines.

TP: Well, you told me it was sort of a joke.

PF: Yeah, I think that is a joke. The strange thing is that after the performance every winemaker say to me, “Ah, fantastic. The pieces that you played for my wine was perfect for this.” I am not sure, of course. This is the joke, because we try to put together the different philosophies. I think that the unique thing that we can share in jazz and wine is the gusto…the flavor of the life. Then my suggestion is just one part of the…the…the…suggestion.

But finally… For the last wine, for example, the idea to put Bach, the Goldberg Variation, for the last wine and the Hilliard Ensemble with Arvo Part was because this wine was a meditation wine. So when I heard Bach, for me it’s a kind of meditation. Also, the piece, when I’m playing with the deejay music was because the producer of this wine is a deejay player. Also, the piece when I play with the voice of Chet Baker was because with this wine, my idea was to put a relationship, the flowers of this wine with the voice of Chet, that is a little bit feminine. It’s a joke, because I don’t know after if everything was… Also, the long notes…

TP: When you walked around.

PF: And do you know what say the wine producer after this? He said, “The long notes was perfect because we have a lot of tramontana, which is the wind… The tramontana is the wind from the north that is very cold. Because for us, this wine is incredible because we might with the tramontana every day, and the long notes was like the wind, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. This is fantastic, because it’s like when you play in concert every night, you don’t know. So you know what you think about the music, but you don’t know if, for the audience, your sound goes here, goes here, goes here, and everybody can come see… The music can arrive in different parts of your…

TP: And for a different person, it can come in a different…

PF: For each one, it can be completely different. This is the mystery of the music, and it is fantastic, of course.

TP: I think the piece that engaged me the most might have been the fourth one. You played a long, dark theme that made me think about Mingus…

PF: Ah, ok. This one was a South American song, a famous one. The name is “Que Sera, Que Sera,” from… Chico Buarque. This idea… I changed the song there, because the idea was this wine for me…the flavor of this wine was like South America. There I played just the theme of the song that was really clean and like the taste of this wine.

TP: but I still would like to know (and perhaps I’m asking the same question in different ways and will get the same answer) whether you have explicitly metaphysical intentions with your music? Are you trying to make the trumpet sound like something other than a trumpet, like that celestial voice that I hear in a story of your own devising, or when you do Sonos e Memoria or Ethnografie, those projects, are you trying to evoke some broader story apart from just abstract sounds?

PF: Nice question. Honestly, I don’t know why. I know just that, especially with electronic sound, I can go there in music, and I know that when I open the door and I go in the room that I know, in this room we have a lot of doors, and we’ve put the music in one place where the music is not from Sardinia, it’s not from any countries in the world, but it is music for everybody. So I start from here, and I go there, and when I arrive there…

TP: From in back of you to far ahead of you. [DESCRIBING HIS GESTURE]

PF: Yeah. When I put the music there, this music is not from any countries. It’s just music from… It’s emotional music, and everybody can keep something to… It’s like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food. In this case the emotional part of the music is the most important. There’s a physical thing in music. I play this strange position, because I need to find the good relationship between myself and the music and sound. For example, I play sit down sometimes, especially with a small project, like with Uri… I play sit down with Ralph Towner, with the strings. Because if I play sit down with a good chair, I can find the good emotional relationship with the music. In this case, I hope I play well. Otherwise, if I don’t find the good relationship with myself, the music is nothing. It is like a train that goes pretty fast, and you say “Where is the train?” “Ok, it is there.”

There is a rationale. I think that I have two different approaches with the music. Rationale, Cartesian. The second one is completely, completely…

TP: Are there two, or are they intermixed?

PF: Yeah, finally I need to put together those different phases of the music. If just one is there and the second one is far, the music is not good. If just emotional part, the music is there, and the rationale is not there, it is the same. For me, the good concert is when I put together the two parts of my music, and then these two parts of the music I can try to share with the musicians, with the play and communication, and then with the audience. But if we don’t find it, and then you don’t find that good relationship between the musicians, the audience is there… I say, “Ok, but it’s nothing happening.”

TP: Omar was telling me a story last night that I think he’s repeated a number of times about your first meeting…

PF: Yeah, I was on the tree.

TP: You were on the tree. I can’t quite get that out of my… Not only were you in the tree playing, but he said you were following his line of thought and… So two things strike me as something that not necessarily every improvising musician would do. One, the idea of being in a tree and playing a trumpet, and the other, playing the trumpet without telling him that you were going to play the trumpet.

PF: I think that the first question is the same question. To be on the tree or to be on stage to tell the musicians which is the ….(?—57:31)…. is the same question, because we speak about the place and the space of the music. In the last 20 years, for me it is very nice when I can play, for example, open air in a very strange place, like in the mountain, close to the lakes, or under the tree. Last year, in the 50 concerts in Sardinia, we were playing under two eucalyptus with Dhaffer Youssef and Nguyen Le. The concert was there and the audience was the ground.

TP: And you were in the tree.

PF: Yes, also. For example, with Uri, I asked him one time in my festival to play a crazy project that was called From Station To Station. Uri was in the train station in my village. The train stopped there. The audience go. Uri playing “I Love You Porgy.” And then the train starts again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrives, Uri is there with the same piano and the same song. This is the strange joke with the places.

I think that in music the place is very important. Because if you play in the good place, you play well; if you play in the wrong place, you play wrong music. It’s also important because in the contemporary society we think about music just in the jazz clubs for jazz, and in the theater. So the theater, it’s always the same dynamics. You are with your seat, we wait for the musician on stage, the musician arrives, then claps, and then plays, and then finishes, and then you go home. The difference is if we are together in a new place, for example inside Nature, or in a small church in Sardinia… Because the energy and the feeling is completely different. Because you need to put more energy in your music because the place is not the same. It’s not comfortable like always. This is very nice sometimes for the music, because you know that you need to play better than always, because the place is more bigger than you. This is not bad. Because Toscanini, he say, “A la perto si jocobocci(?—1:00:30)…” Toscanini’s personality was very strong. That means in English, “Open air you play just with balls.” Of course, for the classical music and for the big orchestra. But sometimes, I play in the open air places where the feeling was really-really-really fantastic. No stage. Is nothing. You put your feet on the ground. The audience are without seats. Was incredible, because everyone was there just for the music, and the place is really big, and finally you need that the music is bigger than the lace. And the music growing up, and finally la maggia of the music… In the 50 last year it was always like this. It was 50 concerts in 50 places, incredible places, the nourad(?—1:01:41), the strange building for Sardinia, and we were in the prisons, we were in the hospitals—we were everywhere. In those places, the magic thing was the relationship between place, music, and people. Because this is very, very important.

After fifty years, my question is what I like to do for the next fifty, or the next thirty, or the next two years. I think that the idea is, in this part of my life, the most important thing is to put the music in the middle, like to get the people, and play good music, but also to use the music for communication. Communication is a political word, I know. But it is very important. Because if I play jazz for myself, it is ok for me. I can go forward. But it is important that you can share the story with people, with your musicians, with the audience, with the places, and to looking for new ways for music.

TP: Maybe that’s one reason you use polyphony so much.

PF: Maybe.

TP: I think I understand why you were in the tree with Omar Sosa, but what I still don’t get is why… When you started playing, he wasn’t expecting to hear the sound. Right? You surprised him? I know you were booking the concert, so it was the right of the…

PF: It was the same surprise like two days ago when I started a concert in the auditorio with the strings around the people. Because when you start with this, we put the people into the perfect atmosphere for the concert. I think this is very important. Because the place is very important.

TP: So stagecraft is part of it.

PF: Yes. But sometimes the place is very dangerous for you. Because if the place is very big, the music will be a little bit fragile. If you start with something, the audience will say, “What’s happening?” They’ll finally understand which is the way and which is the tale for his concert. Because every concert is a kind of tale. But we need to read the same book. Which is the language of the book in Italian, in English, in Spanish, or in German language, I don’t know, but the same book. Then everybody can understand. Sometimes this is… The performance in music is interesting because you put the music and the audience in the place, in the middle of something that you know, but you know which is your duration, but maybe not the audience.

TP: I know I’m harping on the story, but Omar related it with such delight… But I want to know why you decided at that moment…

PF: To play there.

TP: This was a solo concert of his, right?

PF: Yes.

TP: It wasn’t scheduled to be you and he. It was schedule to be he. And he didn’t know you were going to play.

PF: Well, because it was open air. There were a lot of trees there. The music was fantastic. And finally I decided to play with him. Now, he asked me before, “Maybe…” This is the reason why my instrument was with me. But finally, I think, “Ok, I play something with him now—but where? It is stupid that I play just close to him. There was no stage. Nothing. One tree was there. The place was a lot of trees. So the nature of things is that I go over the tree and play there. To be a part of the… Because in the festival in Sardinia, it’s a really special festival, because we have a big stage in the square, blah-blah-blah, and then all the other concerts are the free ones, the morning and afternoon, is inside the nature. This is fantastic, really fantastic for everybody. Last year, for example, Bill Frisell was a duo in the middle of nowhere. So now, people arrive, walking for 25 minutes. The music is really a part of the nature, and it is fantastic. And why not to play over the tree? Because the tree is one of the elements of this concert.
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TP: Sosa also said, as he’s been playing with you and spending time in Sardinia, he’s noticing correspondences between the structures of the music in Sardinia and abakua music, Afro-Diasporic music that aren’t necessarily explainable.

PF: No.

TP: Do you see this as well? Is carrying on a career in which you play duos with people who embody so many other cultures a way for you to do musicological or ethnomusicological investigations? Perhaps I’m being abstract here, and you don’t think this way at all, but you have to be fluent in all these languages.

PF: Of course.

TP: You cant just be dialoguing with Omar, and not know anything about Afro-Cuban music, I don’t think.

PF: No-no. But I think the Cuban music, for example, is more close for me than the American music. Because the Latin part of this world and this music is Cuba, it’s very close to Sardinia finally. Because in Sardinia… I speak with a bit Castiliano, fluent, because the language for Sardinia is very close to the Spanish language, because the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years…

TP: Barcelona held it.

PF: Barcelona. My wife is from Alghero. Alghero is the place in Sardinia… Spain is here. Sardinia is here. Here is Barcelona; here is Alghero…

TP: This was how long ago?

PF: This was 400 years ago. The people from Algheros play fluently Catalan language. So finally, the Aragona and the Catalan people…that this music came from Morocco, so the Africans. So the three people is like Morocco and then Spain and then Sardinnia. It’s the reason why Cuban culture is not far.

TP: Not when you put it that way. When you play American music with Uri, those standards like “Darn That Dream”… The first one has more American standards…

PF: “Everything Happens To Me.”

TP: A couple are a little brighter tempo than that. You sound like someone who had grown up playing that music, and someone who knows the lyrics, and it was perfectly natural but very erudite, and soulful at the same time.

PF: Yeah. Because I know Chet. In this case, Chet more than Miles. When I think about Miles… I hope now that I have my personality and the sound is myself, of course, but we need to drink milk when we are small. You know?

TP: Wine later, milk first.

PF: Wine later. Yeah, maybe. When I think about Miles, I think about the idea of the architettura of the music, for example. The system of construction of the music in the group for my quintet. But when I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, and the tempo always [TAPS QUARTER NOTES} in tempo, swing, and… I like this music, because finally it is very melodic and also creative in that you play one melody and then we try to move the melody in another way. It was very easy to play with Uri.

TP: You and he have a lot in common, I think.

PF: Yes, because we have the same idea also about it. For example, we like the classical music and the baroque music, and then we can play pop songs, and Handel-like pop songs… Handel was a pop star anyway, in the past. With Uri, it’s really, really easy to play. We don’t speak about music ever in those 8 years that we’ve played together. Sometimes we make the soundcheck on stage, and we start with something, with one standard, and say, ‘Ok, you know this one? Ok, go. Tonight we play this.’ Because with Uri, the most important thing is, it’s not the material that we play, but the attitudes with music. We can play…

I play with the same people for many years. My Italian quintet is 29. I think it is probably now the oldest jazz group in Europe, or one of them. In 1984, the first record together. The same people. Exactly the same people. We have a concert now the 7th of December. We are the same five people—more older than before, of course. The Angel Quartet was ten years, more or less. The new Devil Quartet, we released a record in February—now it’s 8 years. The trio with Antonello Salis and Furio diCastri, for many, many years. Now the project with the string quartet is maybe 8-9 years. With Uri, 7 years. With Ralph, 5 years. So when you play with the same people for many, many years, it is fantastic, because finally we have one sound. The sound is like Miles with his quintet with Wayne Shorter, with Coltrane, with George Coleman, or the trios of Bill Evans. So when I think about the history of jazz, I think first about the project, and then I go inside the music, the musician. Because for me, the SOUND of Miles is here. It’s like an identity, kind of. It’s very heavy. Or the sound of the quartet of John Coltrane. Wow.

So the sound of this music is the history of this music first, and then… So when you heard a concert live and you go home after, the first things that you remember is the sound of the concert, and then you say, “Ok, the saxophone player was fantastic, and the piano player, too, but the first idea of the menu is this—then you go inside…”

TP: The opening page, and then open the book.

PF: Yes. But if the cover is not good, then maybe you…ok, maybe the rest is not important. So the sound of the jazz in the past was the history of this music, and then, of course, Miles and then Chet and then Charles Mingus. But the architettura of the music for me was very fascinating. Because when I started with my quintet and my quartet, especially the real groups, the first thing was to create a good cover of the music, and for the cover, it’s not easy. You need to work a lot with the different covers, and then you can decide that this one is the good one. But after three-four years. And when the project is there, you can go everywhere. You can play jazz, you can play mainstream jazz, you can play standards, you can play pop, you can play world music.

All of this music is your music. It’s like when you play one standard for many-many-many times, many years. If you start to play “Round Midnight” or “My Funny Valentine” for ten years, after ten years you don’t know who was the composer—because YOU are the composer, the new one. I think that this is fantastic for jazz. I don’t know why you choose this standard or another one, but finally, it is important that this standard is YOUR standard. Because you play “Round Midnight”… Because 2,000 incredible players played “Round Midnight,” but it is important that when you play this version, your version is different than the 2,000 versions of before. This is very difficult.

TP: Two more questions, then I think I can let you go. You’re a prolific composer as well as an improviser, more for programmatic music, it sounds like—for dance, for film, for soundtracks, there’s a long list in your bio. I’m wondering where composition fits into your sense of yourself as an improvising performer.

PF: Well, I am a prolific composer because I have a lot of projects. I don’t write music if I am not one destination from them. I write music for film, for movies… When the people ask me, I write music during my flight or in the train, and then I need to sit at a piano to finish the material, of course.

I have two different lines in my composition. The first one is that I can write something for the musician, and I ask the people to change totally my music. This is the first one. The second one is the music that I write, for example, for movies or… One of them, my favorite composition, is “Fellini.” “Fellini” is a piece that I wrote the day that Fellini died. In this case, I asked the musicians to play exactly this song like classical music. This is the two different lines. So the first one is when I think of the composition like a classical composition, and I need that the people play exactly like this, and the second one is when I put the music on the table and this music can go everywhere, and it changes completely.

Then, I have a record under my name where I have none of my compositions inside. For example, the record with Mistico Mediterraneo, I have no one piece that was signed by myself. Because finally, the most important thing is the music. The music is not a composition, but the music is the FINAL result. If I play with Michael (?—1:20:25) and his composition is a good one, I don’t need to suggest my material, because like to play his material. So I think that for jazz, one of the durations is to use the material that we have. It’s not important if this one is mine, the other one is yours, this one is… It’s important the way that we can put together all this. Sometimes also the composition is very important, because it’s a good suggestion for the musicians. But finally, I play sometimes concerts with my groups where I decide the music on stage. Normally, we start on stage with nothing. We have no list, no track list, no idea about solos—nothing. So we go on stage, and I start with something, and then everybody follows me.

TP: Who is this that you do this with?

PF: With my quintet. With Omar, for example. Sometimes I play one concert without my music. Because it’s not important. It’s important that in this moment you know that you need something, and it’s like you are blind and you take something from the bag. You don’t know which is the material, but you know that in this bag you have something that you need in this moment. Is this for yourself, or is this a standard for other musicians from your band?

TP: Last question. When you were talking about your relationship with Omar, and the connections between Cuba and Sardinia, that’s one way, obviously, in which your background as a son of Sardinia has an impact on your musical production. Can you talk about other ways this manifests, how your Sardinian roots impact your musical identity?

PF: At first, I told you that I am a very big fan of the traditional music for the world. All the traditional music is for me… When I am home, I heard at home jazz, of course, but baroque music and classical music and music for the world. Because it is very close to jazz, in any case. I think that… So jazz today is nonsense word. Because which is the jazz today? Is it the music of Louis Armstrong? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Miles? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Ornette? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Keith Jarret? Yes. All the trumpet players that we heard today is jazz. But Louis Armstrong and Ornette is two very far worlds… It is jazz. All is jazz. But jazz is a very big, big world. Now, til the ‘80s to jazz, the reference was the music for the States, but now jazz is the music for every country in the world.

TP: One thing that’s interesting, though, is that there now don’t appear to be so many degrees of separation between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman? It seemed that way in 1960, but now continuities are evident, even between players who played with both of them, like, say, Garvin Bushell, the reed player, who played in the ‘20s and on John Lewis’ Jazz Abstractions project.

PF: Yeah, absolutely.

TP: So those big gaps don’t seem quite so big in 2012.

PF: Absolutely. The memory and the history is there. So all this, we can go so far. But finally, this is rare… This is rare that ….(?—1:25:27)…. is another color. But finally, the history of jazz is an amazing metaphor for the reality of today. It’s incredible. It’s fantastic, in a way, because everything that was there is a kind of mathematical world that you can move a little bit always, but it’s there. It’s elastic. It’s fantastic.

The idea is that…the example is the music of Cuba and the music of Spain, the salsa music and flamenco music. All these countries speak the Spanish language. All of these countries use the same words. But the Spanish language that we speak in Spain is…the melody, the swing of this language is completely different than the Castilian that people speak in Cuba. This is the reason why the Cuban people play Salsa and the Spanish people play flamenco, because two different histories. The melody of the idiom is different, and the music is exactly close to the idiom. So if I am from Sardinia, and to play jazz in Sardinia, my swing is different than the people that live in Rome or Milano, because the idiom that I play in Sardinia is different. Idiom, language, and music is the same thing. If I play another language, probably inside, the melody of the music will be different, because the melody of the other language is different.

This is very interesting, because this is the reason why the orchestra that played the Strauss valse in Vienna plays different than the Strauss valse in Rome. It is another culture. It is another culture. It is another history. It is another language. I think that the language and music is perfectly inside… This is probably also why black people in America play—not always but sometimes—different than the white people. Well, yes, now I know. The correct word is the “slang.”

TP: Slang.

PF: The slang of the language of the language is the photography of your background, and if your slang is different, you play different, because the slang is in the music and the slang is in the language. And the slang is your biography. The slang is your family, is your society, your history, your background. For me, Sardinian people that are growing up with the cow and the land in Sardinia, with a very poor family, it was ridiculous to play jazz exactly like Charlie Parker. You need to learn this language, and then you put this language in your world and you look forward to know if you have something to mix with this. I think it is very simple.

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A 2011 DownBeat Article, Blindfold/Winefold Test, and Full Interview With Enrico Rava

I’m flying to Milan tomorrow night for a ten-day stay at the Milan Jazz Festival, at which I’ll be conducting public interviews with Enrico Rava (Nov. 1) and Paolo Fresu (Nov. 4), and a public Downbeat blindfold test with Stefano Bollani (Nov. 10). I last spoke with Rava in November 2011, during my first visit to the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where he submitted to a Downbeat Blindfold Winefold Test at Monvinic, “the cathedral of wine,” where the wizardly sommelier matched a different vintage to each tune. I also interviewed him for an article of decent length. This post begins with the article, moves on to the Blindfold/Winefold Test, and concludes with the complete interview.

 

Enrico Rava Downbeat Article, 2011

In a few hours, the 400 concertgoers would be gone, the chairs removed from the floor, and Barcelona’s beautiful people would descend on Luz Da Gas, a fin de siècle cabaret, to dance and party until dawn. But now, toward the end of Enrico Rava’s set, the 72-year-old Italian trumpeter was cuing his quintet to segue from “I’m A Fool To Want You” into a tune that felt not unlike the imaginary soundtrack to a scene of disequilibrium in a Fellini movie.
After projecting the melody with dark tone and soulful articulation, Rava, with a gesture evoking Marcello Mastroianni, cupped his trumpet to his side, closed his eyes, leaned back and began to sway as trombonist Gianluca Petrella, 36, filled the room with resonant melody. His eyes remained shut as the band dropped out for Giovanni Guidi, 25, to launch an adagio, Keith Jarrett-like variation, transition into a quasi-tango and morph into a boogie-woogie on steroids. Rava opened his eyes and blew, spitting out fragmented, epigrammatic phrases from the Cecil Taylor playbook that coalesced into louche, strutting lines before resolving into the spiky lyric theme.
Rava wove together much of his cogent, 80-minute suite from the nine originals—ballads contemplative and noirish, songs informed by Italian and Brazilan folk music, groove tunes propelled by New Orleans and bebop beats—that constitute Tribe, his seventh studio outing for ECM since 2001, and the first featuring this personnel. A highlight is the leader’s simpatico with Petrella—their intuitive polyphony, breathe-as-one unisons and idea-trading solos. Another is the rhythm section’s control of dynamics and tempo—they’re kinetic without bashing and move seamlessly between soft rubato and high-energy feels. Six tunes hearken to various spots on Rava’s timeline; the session sounds summational, old master Rava and his acolytes taking stock of the raw materials that define his oeuvre.
The title track, he noted, leads off the 1977 album The Plot, a product of Rava’s first go-round with ECM, with his working quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. “Giovanni liked it and said we should play it,” Rava said earlier that day, referencing his pianist. “I was surprised he’d want to play a tune I recorded so long ago, but it sounded like I wrote it yesterday.”
Speaking softly, in excellent English, Rava offered an exegesis. “I feel all my bands are like a tribe,” he said. “Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization where nobody owned anything, everything was for everybody, and everybody used what they needed. It’s a perfect idea of democracy. In a jazz group, when it works, that’s what it really is. No one renounces their ego, but you don’t impose your ego on everyone else. It’s a perfect harmonic situation, like the cosmic balance, where everything is right. Maybe I bring a line, some chords, a little point where we meet and play what I want, but I leave everyone freedom within that frame to find what to add or take out. That way, I think the musicians who play with me give their best, better with me than when they play their own thing.”
Rava acknowledged Miles Davis’ impact on his predisposition for convening “not only good players, but musicians who are open to this music’s entire history” as a way to conjure consistently fresh contexts for creative flow. “Whenever my band starts becoming routine, even a very good routine, I change,” he said, noting that no quintet member except Petrella was with him 10 years ago. “Every tune we play, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. The day I get bored, fuck it, I’ll do something else.”
His affinity for full-bodied trombonists—he’s shared front lines with Roswell Rudd, Ray Anderson and Albert Mangelsdorff—dates to childhood in Turin, when he absorbed his older brother’s Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong recordings. “Listening to the trombone made the mechanism of their music so clear,” he said. “Already I loved the trumpet players, but I whistled all the trombone lines.” He got one at 14, from the trombone player in a local Dixieland band. A few months later, he joined the band, “but my father didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. I was so bad at school that the trombone was locked in a closet, and that was the end.”
A self-described “black sheep” and academic under-performer, Rava dropped out of school and started working “from the bottom” in the family business. Towards the end of 1956, Davis, Lester Young, Bud Powell and the Modern Jazz Quartet came to town. “I’d been listening to Miles’ records like ‘Blue Haze,’ and he was already my favorite,” Rava said. “But I didn’t imagine it could be so incredibly strong in person. The sound was filling the room. I kept the adrenalin; I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. Then I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself, playing with the records by Miles and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker. I wasn’t planning to be a musician. But after a few months, they started calling me at jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people.”
One of those people was tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who suggested Rava make music his profession. “One day, I woke up and told my father, ‘That’s it.’ It was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome in my little car to play with Gato. We played ‘Half Nelson,’ ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ everything by the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane. From then on, it was all natural and easy.”
Barbieri joined a group led by trumpeter Don Cherry in 1965, while Rava—now deep into Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler’s Spirits—joined soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s ensemble, playing Thelonious Monk and Carla Bley tunes in a quartet with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Rava recalled, “Since our improvisations had no relation to the tunes, we decided not to play the heads anymore, just to improvise from zero. That so-called ‘free music’ became the song of the young people’s revolution in Europe—it had a heavy political connotation. But at a certain moment, this amazing freedom became a routine, a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But when I played a melody, I immediately heard, ‘No, this is not free-jazz.’ It became almost like religion.
“In fact, by the late ’70s in Italy things got ridiculous, like Dadaism 40 years too late. We’d play a concert that was a Happening, where one guy played on top of a roof while another was on a horse. From the Fluxus point of view, maybe it was interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.”
By this time, Rava had spent much of the previous decade in New York. “My idea was to go where whatever you like to do happens,” he said. “You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, all the people I wanted to meet.” Given entree to the “new thing” crowd by Lacy and access to clubs by drummer Charles Moffett, who befriended him, Rava gigged with trombonist Roswell Rudd; sat in with Archie Shepp and Hank Mobley; heard Ayler and Jackie McLean at Slugs, and Davis and Monk at the Gate; partied at Taylor’s loft; delivered “political movies” by radical Argentine filmmaker friends to the Black Panther headquarters in Harlem.
“One thing I got from American musicians is when you play, you play like it’s the last time of your life,” Rava said. “We didn’t have this in Italy. The country was still very formal, we all looked like bureaucrats. So it was very impressive to be in New York. All these colors. Vietnam veterans marching in the streets. Kenny Dorham, one of my idols, came to watch me rehearse with Roswell. For a while I was looking at myself from outside, like a movie about an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening, and the main character was me. My first review in DownBeat was for a concert that I did with Roswell in ’67. It was almost incredible, something that until a year before had been a dream, a fantasy I never expected to happen. When I started doing this in Italy, to be a jazz musician only—like a poet, an artist, not just a professional musician—was like wanting to be the chief of the Sioux tribe.”
These days, Rava is generally acknowledged as the informal chief of a thriving tribe of Italian jazz folk. But he shoots down the notion of a generalized “Italian” style. “From hearing my mother play classical piano and what I heard on the radio, I naturally tend towards the lyrical,” he said. “But whereas the music in Argentina or Venezuela, even Spain, has a clear cultural background, it’s different in Italy, which exists only 150 years as a nation and is made by completely different regions. People in Sardinia have a very strong music that Alan Lomax described as prehistoric. So do people in Sicily. But I am from Turin, where the music is from the mountains, and it’s horrible. I might like Sicilian or Sardinian music, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know the codes. If I speak my dialect in Sicily or Calabria, they don’t understand me. It’s really much further away than New Orleans. The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is opera.”
In fact, Rava paid little attention to opera until marrying his second wife, Lidia Panizzut, “an opera freak” who inspired his intriguing cusp-of-the-’90s projects L’Opera Va and Carmen, which he performed earlier in 2011 with a French string quartet. “She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata and Tosca, and suddenly I found out that this thing is fantastic,” he said. “It’s incredible to see them make all that stuff work together. Then I felt like Puccini was the real father of the American musical. When I did ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ it was like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ’50s or ’40s—so beautiful, no?—or in a Gil Evans situation, which I did in Europe thirty years ago. But two records were enough. The context is too strict. With classical people you cannot say, ‘OK, I play one chorus more.’”
This will not be an issue with Rava’s next ECM project, a suite of Michael Jackson songs to be recorded after a performance three weeks hence with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab, a 10-piece band that he artistic-directs, at the Rome Jazz Festival.
“[My wife] laughs at me, because every morning, when I wake up, still with the eyes closed, I take my trumpet, which I have very close to my bed, and check whether the lips vibrate on the mouthpiece,” he said, describing a ritual he started after reconstructive dental surgery two years ago. “I used to consider myself more like a guy who organizes sounds”—he blew into a phantom trumpet—“and then sings, but I never fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music. But in my sixties I started practicing much more. I gained an octave. I found the right mouthpiece, the one Miles used to play, a Heim #1. Everything was going good until these implants. Of course, I lost that octave!
“Over the last two–three months it’s coming back. If I vibrate the trumpet, my wife knows I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. ‘Oggi vibra,’ ‘Today it vibrates.’” DB

*****

Enrico Rava Blindfold/Winefold Test (2011)

1. Roy Hargrove, “My Funny Valentine” (from EMERGENCE, EmArcy, 2008) (Hargrove, flugelhorn; Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Darren Barrett, Ambrose Akinmisure, trumpets; Jason Jackson, Vincent Chandler, Saunders Sermons, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone, arranger;
Bruce Williams, Justin Robinson, Norbert Stachel, Keith Loftis, Jason Marshall, saxophones; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums.

Wine: Emilio Lustau, Jerez-Sherry, Solera East India (Palomino): “A slow, deliberate, almost melancholy number, but with a full, opulent big band backing. We have chosen a fortified wine with intensity and persistence. Its sweetness offers volume and density. A wine which needs time and deliberation. Its toasty aromas of nuts transport us to an autumn setting, melancholy decadence, beauty and serenity.”

Rava: This is tricky. [AFTER 2 MINUTES] I have no idea who it could be, although… It’s very let’s say traditional playing, but it’s somebody that plays very well, has a big sound. I don’t hear that big personality. It could be somebody like Chris Botti or somebody like that. [REPEATS REMARKS] I was saying that I have no idea who it can be, because it’s a very traditional way of playing. He plays very well. He has a really good sound. I thought it was a flugelhorn, by the way. He reminds me, in a way, of a trumpet player who I just saw a video of—a DVD of this cat, called Chris Botti, who was playing exactly “My Funny Valentine.” I know it’s not him, but it reminds me of him. Who is it? [Roy Hargrove] No. [Italians mutter remarks] No! It’s incredible. I must say, I don’t know that well Roy Hargrove, but the little I know, I like him a lot. But I would never recognize him. I’m used to hearing more…how can I say… But I was very surprised when you said Roy Hargrove, because to me it didn’t sound like him. I’ve heard him playing a little bit like that in one record, the one with Shirley Horn, which was the homage to Miles Davis. But this was pretty different. But this was pretty different. Here it really sounded much… I’m used to hearing Roy Hargrove more wild, in a way. I could give it 3 stars. But only 3, because, although the arrangement was very good, the trumpet was played very delightful, but it didn’t really go anywhere, in a way. But it was very nice. It was nice to be out with a nice girl to dinner and have this record playing.

2. Avishai Cohen, “Art Deco” (from INTRODUCING TRIVENI, Anzic, 2011) (Cohen, trumpet; Omer Avital, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Vina Von Siebenthal, Valle del Aconcagua Carmenere 2007 (Chile): “A contemporary, modern, energetic and intense trumpeter. Chile is one of the so-called new world countries and a paradism in the elaboration of modern wines, with a strong presence of mature fruit edged with hints of aging in new oak. Dense, full and substantial wines. Ripening the Camembert grape can pose problems. It needs to be taken to the limit of maturity to avoid aggressive textures and vegetal notes.”

Rava: The tune is a Don Cherry tune. It’s called “Art Deco.” By the way, I am going to play this tune tomorrow. Donald Cherry. The trumpet player should be… Because I just played with him. It should be Avishai Cohen. Personally, I love the way he plays. Besides, I love the person, too. He’s one of the greatest today. [What is it about the tune that appeals to you?] The tune is fantastic because it had the roots in the real tradition of jazz. It could almost be a Dixieland tune, in a way—a New Orleans tune. But at the same time, it allows you to open up… It’s one of those tunes that have no limits. It is not limited to a certain period. It could be played by a New Orleans player, or by a free player. It’s very open and very easy to remember, too. I love melodies. It has a very catchy melody. It’s very smart, but is very poetic at the same time. One of the best tunes Don Cherry brought—although he brought so many beautiful tunes. But this one stands out. I love the way Avishai played it. On the little intro, he did something really… There you kind of got me, because I didn’t know who it could be, but then I recognized the attack. He has a very special way of playing. 5 stars for the tune, for the beautiful trumpet, and for the beautiful cat.

3. Jerry Gonzalez, “In A Sentimental Mood” (from Y El Comando de la Clave, Sunnyside, 2011) (Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Diego “El Cigala”, voice; Israel Suarez “Piana”, cajon; Alain Perez, guitar)

Wine: André and Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Savagnin, 2007 (France): “This number conveys the lament, the pain, the sentiment of flamenco (which we also find in the blues) expressed through the language of Cuban music and the improvisation of jazz. The wines from the alpine region of Jura have and always have had a lot in common with Andalusian wines, due to very similar winemaking techniques. Fusion? French spirit with an Andalusian accent.”

Rava: I have no idea. No idea. I think the idea is very good. I don’t think there is too much happening so far. The idea is nice, trumpet and voice. But then I’m not so sure they really interact… Maybe that was the intention, to keep something so quiet. [RAVA IS ASKED TO SPEAK UP] I was saying that I have no idea who he is. I think the idea was very good, to have this voice and trumpet interacting, but it is not really happening too much. It’s ok. I would give 2½ stars. Anyway, it is my taste. Maybe it is fantastic. But the way they did it, it didn’t get to me. [AFTER] Now I know why I didn’t know who it was, because I really don’t know at all Jerry Gonzalez’ music. Maybe I never heard him play. So there was no way to know him. He’s a good player anyway, of course. But today, everybody is good. [What do you think about this hybrid idea, of playing an iconic song like that in a very context than it’s normally done, with Cuban rhythms, as they did?] As I said, I think the idea is really good. Anyway, I think that every idea is good as soon as there is an idea. The problem is when there is no idea, but when there is an idea, it’s good. The only thing, I’m not crazy about the way they materialized this idea. But the idea was good. I was taken by the music. I was listening to it. Except I was waiting for maybe the two of them to have some more… I didn’t feel they interacted very much. But maybe it’s just me.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Marcin Wasilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurekiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Krzysztof Komeda, composer)

Wine: Prager, Wachau Riesling Federspiel Steinriegel, 2010 (Austria): “Modern and contemporary European jazz which transports us to a cold and mysterious place, yet also has a rich lyricism. The Riesling grape has an acidic, deep, hard, almost aggressive structure, yet is also refreshing and smooth, with beautiful aromas that flow from the glass and hang suspended, offering us subtlety and tonality.”

Rava: Here again, I don’t really know who it could be. It’s one of these new cats that play the hell out of the trumpet. It could be one of them. I’ll just say one name. It could be Ambrose. But it’s not. [Peter from Bremen Festival: The trumpeter is your age. Or almost.] Is my age. Impossible. Nobody is my age. Except dead people. Dead people are my age. He’s my age? [He’s a contemporary of yours.] A contemporary of mine. American? [No, not American.] I don’t know who could play like that in Europe, in this style. [Explain.] The people I know, that I like, that I know them, that I know the way they play. One is the Danish guy, for instance, but it’s not him… What’s his name, the Danish guy that I admire… Allan Botschinsky, but it’s not. [Peter from Bremen: It’s your record company.] [TP: You’re giving too much information now!] I don’t think I can get him. It was very nice. The guy was playing beautiful. I was not crazy about the tune. In fact, there was no tune. It was really a rhythmic phrase, but it was very good trumpet playing, and I’m very amazed that you say he’s a contemporary of mine and he’s European. Because Europeans of my age, the only is Tomasz Stanko—it’s not him. [It’s not?] No. [It is.] It is? Well, let me tell you that I know Tomasz so well, I’ve played with him so many times, and I would never recognize Tomasz. I never heard him play so straight and to phrase in such an orthodox way. I didn’t even know he could. I knew he was very good playing a certain thing. But I didn’t expect him to play like that—to play THIS. For me, it is a big surprise. I almost don’t believe it. I should see the picture! But being Tomasz Stanko, the only thing I can say is I hope he reads this in DownBeat and he listens to what I am going to tell him. Tomasz, you are playing really unbelievably. Congratulations. I always liked you, but I didn’t know you could play so well, like in this record. 5 stars for Tomasz. Not for the tune. The tune I didn’t really care for. But 5 stars.

5. Eddie Henderson, “Popo” (from FOR ALL WE KNOW, Furthermore, 2009) (Henderson, trumpet, composer; John Scofield, guitar; Doug Weiss, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Wine: Bodega Mas Alta, Priorat, Artigas, 2008 (Garnatxa, Carinyena): “A classical education, experimentation, and then back to the classical roots of hard bop, this is the journey of Eddie Henderson. And so we consider Priorat to be the alter-ego of Eddie Henderson. An historic wine region that was reborn in the 1980s through experimentation and reinvention, and has since returned to its roots byi giving more and more importance to its traditional varieties, the Garnatxa and Carinyena, and trying to concentrate more on expressing balance anxd freshness without losing any of the strength and body of the terroir.”

Rava: The problem is that when they play with the Harmon mute, they all sound alike. They all sound like Miles. That’s why I never play with the Harmon mute. It could be many people. For instance, Paolo Fresu sounds like that a lot—but it’s not him. It was nice. A nice feeling, a nice… It wasn’t particularly exciting for me. I’ll give it 3½ stars, whoever it is. It was a very good trumpet player, of course. But everybody today plays this instrument very well. I always say that we should have killed them when they were kids! It’s nobody I know, or maybe somebody I heard once or twice. [AFTER] He’s a trumpet player I don’t know too well. I used to hear him when he was playing with Herbie Hancock in the ‘70s, and sometimes I happened to meet him in some festival, but I don’t really know what he’s doing, so there was no way I could recognize him. Anyway, he sounded very good, of course. But the tune itself didn’t kill me.

6. Kenny Wheeler, “The Lover Mourns” (from WHAT NOW? CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass)

Wine: Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Pinot Noir, Devil’s Corner, 2008 (Australia). Wine: “The Pinot Noir grape well reflects many of the ideas that we find in the music of Kenny Wheeler, like delicacy, lyricism and poetry. Intense delicately suspended bouquet, smooth textures, and a restrained freshness and tension in this wine from the coolest region of Australia.”

Rava: This is an enjoyable piece, like 4 stars. The whole tune has a nice atmosphere. The trumpet player is excellent. There’s many people who can play like that. I must say that as much as I knew very well all the trumpet players of the ‘50s and ‘60s, now I have a certain problem with today trumpet players, because they all play to a very-very high level, but at the same time it’s very difficult to recognize… When you’re talking about trumpet players of the past, you hear one note of Chet and say, “Oh, this is Chet”; one note of Miles, “this is Miles; one of note of Clifford Brown… Everyone had a different technique, a different tone, a different… Today, I don’t hear that. Now, maybe it’s my ears that are not as good as they used to be! That is another possibility. This one had something I knew. Maybe once you tell me who it is I’ll say, “How could I not?” [AFTER] Oh, Kenny. Okay. This is another thing. As much as the Harmon mute, the flugelhorn tends to unify the sounds. Everyone, even my aunt, with the flugelhorn gets this beautiful warm and dark sound, but it takes away a little bit the personality of the trumpet player. Of course, Kenny is someone who I know very well. We even toured together with… I’m sorry. I should have recognized him. But I didn’t. It was a nice tune. Very enjoyable. Who was the piano player? John Taylor? Ah, that’s why it was so good.

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “What’s New” (from WHEN THE HEART EMERGES GLISTENING, Blue Note, 2010) (Akinmusire, trumpet; Gerald Clayton, piano; Bob Haggart, composer)

Wine: Bodegas Marañones, Vinos de Madrid, 30,000 Maradevies, 2009 (Garnacha). Wine: “We find many parallels between the two young talents of Ambrose Akinmusire, the new prodigy on the renowned Blue Note label, and Fernando Garcia, the young self-taught winemaker, who is working to recuperate Garnachas from the old vines of the Sierra de Gredos. With a very contemporary approach to winemaking, he aims for a fresh wine style, with little intervention, in an attempt to provide the maximum expression of the vineyard.”

Rava: Is that Uri Caine on piano? No? It sounds a little bit like him when he does this. [AFTER PIECE IS COMPLETED] Dave Douglas? No. I thought so from the sound of a certain phrase at the beginning. Then I thought no, but he’s the only one who came to my mind. I really liked what the trumpeter did. It was very natural, flowing, and also harmonically it was very interesting. The way the tune started, that they didn’t play the head, they started improvising—it was a very nice. It was a good idea. Nothing special, but anyway a good idea to play “What’s New” like that. It was a very nice duo. I have no idea… [Older players? Younger?] Well, at this point… Every time I say it’s a young one, it turns out to be 80 years. But this one sounds to me like a guy in his forties, 45 or 50 or something like that. Or maybe not. It’s a 12-year-old! You cannot say. I don’t know who it can be. Who is it? 4½ stars. [AFTER] Oh!! I swear I was going to say that. No-no, really. It’s true. I was thinking Ambrose. I only heard one record of Ambrose, but he plays much more…how can I say… I wouldn’t say… It’s not a negative thing; it’s a positive thing. There shows up most of the time more of his amazing technique. He’s one of the trumpet players who has really impressed me enormously lately, so much that I wanted to have him next year in the festival of which I am the director. That tells you how much I like this guy. What I heard of him on only one record really impressed me. He really goes up and down this instrument. Now, here it was much… I liked this thing very much. In fact, although I said 4½ stars, I could even say 5. The thing is, it didn’t last long enough. It was a bit short. 4½ for the tune; 5 for Ambrose.

8. Wynton Marsalis, “La Lamada De La Sangre [Blood Cry]” (from VITORIA SUITE, EmArcy, 2010) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, trombones; Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Walter Blanding, Jr., Joe Temperley, saxophones & woodwinds; Dan Nimmer piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.

Wine: Bodegas López de heredia, Rioja Viña Bosconia Reserva, 2002 (Tempranillo, Garnacho, Mazuelo, Graciano). “Wynton Marsalis was the arch revivalist of classicism in the 1980s. Impassive to criticism, he sought to rediscover classical jazz. The López de Heredia bodega is an excellent example of classicism, tradition and resistance. Almost all of the bodegas in Rioja, whether large or small, succumbed to the siren song of modernity. At López de Heredia, the third generation chose to maintain the legacy and character of their forebears despite the changes all around them and the pressures to alter their style. Now, faithful to this tradition, they are still the landmark winery they have always been.”

Rava: That’s a Miles phrase from Sketches of Spain. Is that trumpet or cornet? [I don’t know.] It sounded like an homage to Miles, some citation from Sketches of Spain, and then at the last minute it sounded like a kind of thing for Duke Ellington, with this kind of “Django”… It could be Dave Douglas. [Not Dave.] But it could. It could! It’s not forbidden. But it’s not. And it is… [Talk about the piece a little.] The piece got me. I like it. In fact, I’m glad I did this Blindfold Test where I didn’t get nobody except Avishai, because it gave me the will now to go out tomorrow here in Barcelona, where there is a very good store, to buy some records. Really, I heard something that is very interesting. I realize that… Maybe in my playing it doesn’t sound like it, in my groups and my music, but I’m still listening always to the same thing that I’ve listening to for fifty years. I still listen to Bix, to Satchmo, to Miles. So there’s a lot of things I don’t know, I don’t listen, and it’s probably a big mistake. So this Blindold Test gives me… Now I feel like going out to buy stuff. And also to retire, because people play so good.

As far as this piece, the composition was very interesting. It was a very nice arrangement, and the sound was… There was some Gil Evans stuff in it. In fact, in a way, it reminded me of some of Gil Evans’ things fifty years ago with Johnny Coles—even the way the trumpet player sounded. Because there was some Miles in it, but of course it was not Miles. It’s a nice record. I would like to buy it, in fact. But I have no idea who it is. I couldn’t even tell you now if I think this thing had been done today or forty years ago. In fact, this is another thing that confirms what I have been saying all the time, that the last big change in the language was done by Ornette in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and from then on, we still metabolize whatever we’d been doing before. Sometimes I listen to Maria Schneider doing some fantastic thing, but it could be something recorded thirty years ago. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way. In fact, I love it. Or some trumpet player 22 years old playing stuff that he could have been doing in the ‘60s or the ‘50s. I will give it 4½ stars. I could give more, but 4½ is a lot of stars. I wish I’d get 4½ often. [AFTER] You see, for instance, I have many records by Wynton Marsalis. I would never recognize him in this tune. He sounds different. It’s the same thing you did last time when it was Wynton playing some old stuff, and there was no way somebody could…unless you know that he did it or you heard the record before. Just the day before… Usually at home, to have fun, I play with records, and one of the records I play very often is Wynton Marsalis’ record Live at the House of Tribes, where he plays only standards. If you compare what he played on that record with what he plays on this record, there’s no way you could say it’s the same person. Also if you hear him play From Slavery to the Penitentiary, it sounds like another, third one. So what can I say? Anyway, ok, I didn’t recognize him; the tune was beautiful. It’s very interesting, because that makes my judgment much more real, because I was not influenced by… Of course, if I knew that this guy was Ambrose, or someone else… That’s why I say I love it. It makes me want to go to buy the record.

9. Amir ElSaffar, “Al-Badia” (from INANA, Pi, 2011) (ElSaffar, trumpet, composer; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Zafer Tawil, oud, percussion; Tareq Anboushi, buzuq; Carlo DeRosa, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Ferrer Bobet, Must. “Amir ElSaffar is an important contemporary trumpeter who fuses jazz and traditional Iraqi music, being a master of the traditional maqam style. Grape must symbolizes, surely better than wine, a cultural closeness. Sweetness and density which fuse with the exotic rhythms of the Middle East.”

Rava: Is the player American? [Yes, American with a hyphen preceding it. He’s a first-generation American.] I don’t know him. I’ve heard a lot of things like that in Europe, like a trumpet player from Lebanon, Ibrahim Malouf. It wasn’t him. I’d imagine that later on they develop. But then they were just playing the head. It’s not the kind of thing that drives me to… It’s one of the things that you can do. Who is it? [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him. The only one I know is Nasheet Waits. I’m happy I heard a lot of good trumpet players. That’s for sure. It makes me feel like going out to get some more records, and stop listening to Bix and wasting my time!

 

***********

Enrico Rava (Barcelona, Nov. 11, 2011):

TP: You have a mute called the Peace-Maker mute, so nobody can see you…

ER: Yes, so nobody gets angry at me. My wife doesn’t…heh-heh… Peace is made, you know, thanks to the Peace-Maker.

TP: Did you develop it?

ER: No, I didn’t invent it. It’s something I bought years ago. It doesn’t exist any more. I tried to buy one again because this one is kind of dying, because it fell too many times—now it’s breaking up. But I didn’t do it any more, unfortunately.

TP: Let’s structure this conversation. Let’s talk about your group, your association with these musicians, the recording Tribe. You’ve done three recordings with Petrella on the front line. Talk about the process of making a record with Manfred Eicher. Do you go into the studio with a notion of how the record is going to sound when you get out? Or do you go in with the material you’re working with over that period, and then Manfred Eicher assembles it, as he often does? That’s a long-standing relationship.

ER: It’s not always the same. For instance, when I came back to ECM in 2004, with the record Easy Living, I had a band that played a lot. We played a lot, and we had a big repertoire. We didn’t record for a long time. So I went to the studio with everything… I could choose within my repertoire, and the material was ready—no problem. Then with the trio with Paul Motian and Stefano Bollani, and also with the duo with Bollani, it was really invented during the recording session. On both records, I brought some new tunes, and we played probably for the first time in the studio. Manfred, of course, was giving his opinion and kind of giving some input to us. But particularly with the duo, because on the duo, Bollani and me, we played a lot. We already made some records…

TP: On Label Bleu?

ER: On Label Bleu, but also on Philology. So I wanted to have completely new material. And since with the duo we play also some standards, and I wanted to play only original material, so I brought a bunch of new tunes that I wrote for the occasion, and Bollani brought a couple of tunes. It was a record invented in the studio. In fact, the record doesn’t really sound like the duo usually sounds. Even now, when we play, we’re still playing the standards thing. I think it was very interesting how it changed the music in a studio, making a record with new material for ECM… It changed so much. [WAVES TO GUYS IN BAND]

TP: Let’s talk about the band. I can find this out for myself tonight, but for you how does sound of the band on the recording differ from a live performance?

ER: It really sounds very different when we play live. You’ll see tonight. First of all, I think that studio music is a different music than live music. For instance, when you play live, there is also the visual aspect of it, and the excitement of the people, blah-blah. Something that if you hear it on a record, it might sound too long or annoying or whatever, when you hear it on a concert, looking at the musicians with the people around you, it works. But it doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. In fact, for me it’s very rare to hear a jazz live recording that I really like. Some of them are fantastic… When it happens, it’s fantastic. Sometimes, for instance… I bought them because I am a collector. I bought the complete live recordings of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Besides the fact that there are some amazing, extraordinary moments, like there is a Charlie Parker solo… But altogether, it’s almost impossible to listen to, because you’re just listening to long solos, you don’t really remember what was the tune at the beginning. But it worked. You can feel that people were very excited. But when you hear it at home, sitting down, you don’t enjoy it that much.

So in this, I agree very much with Manfred Eicher, because the record is a different thing. You think also how the music is going to be listened to; under what conditions people are going to listen to it. For instance, on this last record, he has a lot of very contemplative tunes. When I play live, I wouldn’t do that. I would have maybe a couple of moments like that, but I wouldn’t do like in the record, one after the other.

TP: Like those three towards the end.

ER: Yes. But I think in the record, it works. I wouldn’t do that live, because live you need something else. Also, live you get some energy from the people, you give it back to them, they give it back to you, so you get into a different… In fact, Manfred Eicher, last time he heard the group live, in Munich, he thought that we should make a record live, just to have another view of this band. But of course, if at some time we do that, it would be a live performance, and it would be different than the usual performance because you are conscious of the fact that you are recording it. So trying to be …(?—8:27)…

TP: There’s a title, Tribe, and a number of the tunes have titles with a tribal connotation. One is called “Choctaw,” for example. Is there some kind of implied narrative or extra-musical story to the recording that you’re thinking about while making it, or is it pure accident?

ER: Well, sometimes it’s pure accident. Sometimes… Tribe comes from the idea that I have that… Besides, it was the title of a tune that I wrote in 1977, and recorded for ECM with John Abercrombie. Giovanni Guidi, my piano player, who is 25, I think, liked it so much, he said, “Why don’t we play that tune?” I didn’t even remember. I was surprised that a young guy wanted to play a tune I recorded 30 years ago. But we played it, and it really worked; it sounded like I wrote that yesterday. But besides that, I really feel with the band, with all my bands… I always feel like a tribe. We are like a tribe. Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization that there was no sense of… Nobody owned anything. Everything was for everybody, and everybody used what he needed, and it was a perfect kind of idea of democracy. I don’t know if it’s true. But in music, in jazz, in a jazz group, that’s what it really is. When it works, it’s a perfect democracy that would probably never exist in reality, where everybody gives what is needed, everybody receives what is needed. Nobody renounces to his own ego, but…he doesn’t impose his ego to everybody. That’s when it works. When it doesn’t work, it is totally… But when it works, for me, this is the great experience of playing this music. For me, beside musical reasons, there is the reason of being in a perfect harmonic situation, where…so being in contact with a real balance, like the cosmic balance, which is the same balance of the body balance inside, where everything is right. When something is wrong, you get sick. So for me, this is the great experience of this music, and it’s something that, as far as we know, in jazz… Well, in all music, that way. But in jazz, it is particularly evident.

TP: Let’s explore that a bit. Because it’s still your vision, your sound, your band.

ER: Yes.

TP: You don’t seem to use much written material in arrangements. You set up situations where your bandmates have a lot of initiative.

ER: Yes.

TP: Then you bounce off it.

ER: That’s what it is.

TP: So you’re trying to create this situation.

ER: Yes.

TP: There is some agency involved. The situation doesn’t happen by accident.

ER: No.

TP: It happens because you want to create a situation like that.

ER: Yes. I must say I got that from Miles. Because I know that was the way Miles was organizing his music, especially with the quintet with Coltrane and with Miles. But the first thing is the choice of the musicians. I need musicians that… Besides they have to be good players. That of course. But also, they have to have the same vision that I have, and also to be open to the whole history of this music. They must be able to…you know… And then, I bring maybe a line, some chords of a tune, maybe a little point at which we have to meet and play what I want to be played. But for the rest, the example, the metaphor of that is if we are five people who have to paint, to make a painting on a white wall all together, and each one puts what is needed and doesn’t put… Finally, we are a painting that is made by a group of people because it’s logic… I might say what kind of feeling I would like to have, or I must make maybe an example. Not musical. I will say no. I am talking about maybe… I might talk about a book, or about the situation, the weather, whatever it is. In this, I also have the lines I write, the chords I give, but then I leave everyone to find what to add or what to take out. That way, I think that the musicians who play with me give really their best. In fact, talking also about the groups I had in the past, many of those musicians playing with me, they played better than ever—and they admit that, too.

TP: They played their best with you, you mean.

ER: Yes. Even better than when they play with their own thing. This is not me. I am not me telling that, but they are them, themselves, telling me that. Because I leave them really total freedom within the frame, which is the idea I have of the music and of that particular tune. But it works.

TP: But it’s not entirely altruistic. Another reason why Miles Davis did that, and I presume why you do as well, is to stay fresh and not repeat yourself…

ER: Absolutely.

TP: …and get feedback from fresh young minds.

ER: Absolutely. No-no, the altruism has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that I like to have a music that reflects what I think, but at the same time that it is fresh and it is surprising. I need to be surprised by the people I play with. In fact, whenever a band I have starts becoming into a very good routine…but routine, even if it’s a very good routine, I change. I change musicians. I change someone. The only one that is still the same in this last maybe ten years is Petrella. But with Petrella, besides that he’s an extraordinary musician, we also almost a telepathic thing when we play together. In fact, Petrella has his own projects, very interesting, very good, he played a lot…they have this group with David(?—17:12) (?)> He plays with a lot of people. But he always is free when he has to play with me. He always tries to be able to play whenever I call him. Because we have this thing together that works. It could work forever. Maybe it will not. But it could.

TP: You played trombone before you played trumpet, right?

ER: Yeah, but not really. I tried.

TP: For purposes of an interview, I want to ask you… You’ve played a lot with trombonists. The Roswell Rudd connection…

ER: Yes. Ray Anderson. Albert Mangelsdorff.

TP: I see a connection between Petrella and Ray and Roswell in the tonality, and the way they get around the whole trombone…

ER: Still, I like the instrument, and I love the musicians, of course. They were great. But I love the instrument. In fact, when I was a kid… I started listening to jazz when I was really very young. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My first big myth was, and still is, Bix Beiderbecke—and Louis Armstrong.

TP: You told me you have Bix in your car.

ER: I do. I have Bix and Louis in my car. Now I’m going to have all the new guys! Because next Blindfold Test I will get all of them! But so far, in my car… I will tell you what I have right now in my car. I have a lot of Lester Young. I have almost all Bix with Frankie Trumbauer. I have Hot Five and Hot Seven, Louis Armstrong. I have a couple of Miles. I have a Monk record. And I have a bunch of Michael Jackson records. That’s what I’m talking about in this last year. I am listening to those records all the time, all the same. Then maybe I will change, but… I don’t have an iPod. I like to have a CD. I have the thing in the car.

TP: I don’t have an iPod either.

ER: You neither. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea.

TP: I’m too lazy to download the stuff. Who needs that?

ER: Me, too. I like everything to be ready for me.

TP: But back to trombone. There’s a sort of expansive tonal thing. It’s funny.

ER: When I was a kid… Because listening to Bix and his gang, you know, “Jazz Me Blues” or the “Jazzman Ball,” or Armstrong Hot 7… Listening to the trombone, I understood the mechanism of this music, how it works. Because many people never understand. Sometimes they ask me, even now, “but why do you improvise? What do you do? How…” Listening to them, it was so clear, and the trombone made it so clear, that I remember more the trombone line when I was 8-9 years old than everybody else’s line—although I loved the trumpet players already. But still, I remembered all the lines the trombone was playing. So I was whistling all those lines. So eventually, when I was maybe 14, there was a Dixieland band that… [(?)Alma Turba(?)—21:38], they played pretty good… They had a trombone player who was a very good technician, but it was totally arhythmic. He had no sense of rhythm. And they knew, because I was always hanging around in the record store…they knew that I was whistling all those trombone parts. So they bought me a trombone and they said, “Ok, you have to learn the trombone as fast as you can.” So I drove… I was maybe 14. I drove my neighbors and my family crazy. But after a couple of months, I was able to play almost decently certain parts of these tunes. So I got into that band immediately, except that my father (I was very young; I was 15 at this point) didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. Then I was so bad at school that eventually the trombone was locked in a closet. I never came back.

TP: They locked the trombone up so you’d do better in school.

ER: That’s it with the trombone. So that was the end of my career as a trombone player.

TP: Just a digression. What sort of family do you come from? Intellectuals?

ER: I come from a bourgeois family, middle-high class, let’s say…

TP: They had a business?

ER: My father had a business. It was a family business. On top of it, he was also an economist, so he had an office. I was supposed to become a lawyer or something like that. My older brother, who is the one who had all the records that I listened to when I was a kid, of course he was very successful at school, had a very brilliant career as an economist—still is very respected in that field. Me, I was a dropout. I dropped out of school when I was 16.

TP: A ne’er do well, as they say.

ER: I was really the black sheep of the family. They were very worried about me. So then I started working in the family business.

TP: What was the business, if I may ask?

ER: It was an international transport business. I had to go to…how do you call it… Well, it doesn’t matter. It was a horrible gig. On top of it, my father thought that since I was supposed to become, with my cousin, the owner of the business, I had to start from the bottom, so I did the most horrible work, and I would wake up early in the morning, and on top of it I was working on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sunday morning. I could see really my life like in a tunnel. I said I will never…

But then, when I bought a trumpet, I did that because… In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of records. I had a lot of records, and I was crazy about Miles. I’m talking about Miles of the ‘50s. 1952, “Blue Haze,” that groove, all these records. When Miles came through Turino, it was ‘56, with…

TP: Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet…

ER: Yeah, and the French people, with Rene Urtregger… There is a record of that.

TP: “How High The Moon.”

ER: Exactly. And “What’s New.” And so, when I saw that concert… Already he was my favorite—he and Chet. But when I saw that concert, really I… Because although I loved what I was listening to, I couldn’t imagine that in person it could be so incredibly strong. And yet, such an amazing charisma that even… Because in the concert there was also Bud Powell to play alone. Even with Bud Powell and Lester Young, still everybody was looking at Miles, even when he wasn’t playing, when he was just standing in a corner. The sound… At the time, they didn’t have that incredible system or sound engineering, so it was almost acoustic, and the sound was filling the fucking room. I was totally shocked. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because I was still… I couldn’t turn myself down. I kept the adrenalin. And then, after a week or something like that, I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself.

TP: Oh, you’re self-taught.

ER: Absolutely. 100%.

TP: How about theory? Also self-taught?

ER: Absolutely. But I must say, my mother was a classical piano player, so I was listening to music, in fact, even before I was born. [PATS STOMACH] So I know a lot of things that I don’t know theoretically. But I wasn’t planning to be a musician. I was just trying to play with the record, particularly the easier tunes like “Solar,” “When Lights Are Low”… I was trying to learn those tunes, and I did. After a few months, they started calling me at the jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people. I met Gato Barbieri that way. He told me why don’t you do that seriously?

TP: But by then you were in your early twenties.

ER: Yes.

TP: So until your early twenties you were working in the family business and playing trumpet on the side.

ER: Yes.

TP: You said that Chet Baker also moved to your town.

ER: Yes. Because my best friend, who was a bit older than me, was his drummer when he came out from jail. You know that he was in jail in… Anyway, he was in jail in 1961 in Italy, one year, where he… By the way, he learned Italian very well. He spoke beautiful Italian. So when he came out, he was very popular, because the trial was a lot of scandal and everything…

TP: Like the Amanda Knox trial fifty years before.

ER: That kind of thing. Exactly. So he became very popular in Italy, and he had a band with my best friend on drums, and so when they had a day off he would be at my best friend’s house, sleeping there for two days. Whenever I knew… Whenever my friend, Franco, called me and said, “Chet is here,” I would just stop whatever I was doing, and go to Chet and stay with him. I couldn’t even talk because I was so paralyzed by this, just looking at him, that I couldn’t even put two words together. I was listening to him, bringing his trumpet and things.

In the meantime, my life was getting better because I was playing with better and better people. And then Gato told me, “Why don’t you just…you know, fuck that work?” and I said, “That’s right,” you know. One day I said to my father… I woke up and I said, “Listen, that’s it,” to my father. So it was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was really mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome to go to play with Gato, with my little car, and it was fantastic. From then on, it was all natural and easy.

TP: One thing led to another?

ER: Yes. Because from playing with Gato, that led me to play with Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy brought me to New York, and I started playing, I don’t know, with everybody, and eventually I met Cecil Taylor, all these people, and I was in Escalator Over the Hill, and then I played with the Roswell Rudd band. Then I started touring Europe with my own group, with John Abercrombie—that was ‘72. Then Manfred Eicher contacted me in New York, and I did my first record for him. Everything was, say… After a difficult beginning, everything was, I must say, very easy. I was very lucky, too, to be at the right moment.

TP: I played you the track by Stanko yesterday, and there are certain parallels in the way your musical aesthetic evolved. You both started off… I’m not sure how self-taught Stanko was. But you started off loving Miles and so on, then you started off playing very open music and speculative improvising, and were part of that whole aesthetic of the ‘60s, and you’ve gradually come back to playing harmonic music, within structures, and a very lyrical quality, where melody and lyricism is very important. That’s not to compare you to Stanko, but just a measuring point. Can you discuss the aesthetics of the early ‘60s and mid ‘60s when you were starting to establish your name and your sound?

ER: Yes. But let me say about Stanko, it’s funny that you say that… He studied. I think he went to the conservatory. I think he played in a symphonic orchestra for a while. It’s funny, because I met Stanko in ‘63, one year before I decided to be a musician, in a festival in Bled, in Yugoslavia, and immediately we had a very good rapport, because we liked the same music, we liked… Just to stay that I’ve been knowing him for such a long time. Anyway, I started listening to, and even playing with a trombone, Bix and all, but then of course, the one that opened the door to me for modern jazz really was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet, which is still for me one of the most imaginative groups I ever heard. Chet was amazing. From then on, I got into that. So when I started playing, I was trying to play in between Miles and Chet, and I played that music. With Gato, we had a band…we played all the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane in ‘64. We played “Half Nelson,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

But then I was listening to Ornette and this kind of turned me on very much. And then Gato went with Don Cherry and I went with Steve Lacy, and all of a sudden, this music that was just coming to Europe on records, like Albert Ayler’s Spirits and all that… All of a sudden, playing with Steve, we decided to open completely, not to play the heads any more, just to improvise from zero.

TP: It’s interesting, because Lacy was so into structure, even when he broke structure…

ER: I know. But in fact, even when we’d play completely free, it was kind of radical. As far as I know, we were the first band that played like that, without even a small head, without talking before. Our rule was that we don’t have to talk… In fact, in the beginning, the first two weeks that I played with his quartet, which was ‘65, we were playing Monk tunes and Carla Bley tunes. But then the improvisation was free. So this is exactly how it went. After a couple of weeks, I said to Steve, “Listen. It seems we improvise something that has no relation with it; why don’t we just start improvising…” So we tried one night, and it became our… For two years we played only like that. This was related to a lot of things. It was related also to what historically was happening. That music, the so-called “free music,” became the song of the young people’s revolution… Like, in Paris in ‘68, they would be playing that for the young people who were marching. It became… It had a very heavy political connotation. So we felt part of a musical movement that was also social and political.

The thing is that, at a certain moment, I felt that this amazing freedom that we had, it was freedom at the beginning, but then it became a routine. It became a routine with a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. That’s the way I started feeling. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But no. Because if I play a melody, immediately, “No, this is not free jazz.”

There is a story that is true (I don’t know who told me that; I think it was Eberhard Weber) that they were playing at the Free Meeting in Baden-Baden by Joachim Berendt. I was there many times, too. He was playing with Wolfgang Daumer, I think, and they were playing completely free. Then at a certain moment, I don’t know why, Wolfgang started playing kind of on a tempo and in time, and immediately Berendt stopped. “Stop. Remember, this is a FREE jazz meeting.” So that tells you how un-free it could be, this thing…

TP: It sounds very Germanic.

ER: It is, in fact. [LAUGHS] But that happened for real. In fact, sometimes maybe… I remember when I was in Buenos Aires with Steve Lacy and Moholo and Johnny Dyani, sometimes the three of us, me, Johnny and Louis, we would go to play with Argentinean musicians to play some standards. We felt we had to get out… It became almost like a religion.

TP: There’s a parallel to the development of some aspects of the European Left.

ER: Yeah. But in fact, in Italy in the late ‘70s, things got really ridiculous, the freedom of the music. It was like Dadaism forty years too late. We would play a concert where one guy would play on top of a roof, the other one was on a horse… This was a Happening. In fact…

TP: From Fluxus.

ER: Yes. From the Happening point of view it was maybe interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. In fact, I remember many of the musicians in Italy involved in that situation sometimes would say, “Wow, I can’t wait until we start again to play in theaters instead of playing on a boat or in a bus…” So I felt that I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.

TP: Also, though, you go to New York, and unlike a lot of Europeans… You and Karl Berger seem to be the two European musicians of that time who made the biggest impact in New York, or got around the music. Well, Mike Mantler came, but his was a different sort of impact. There must be others. But anyway, you spent ten years in New York, and then I guess New York was your base, but you kept an Italian passport and you traveled around.

ER: I had a green card. I lived in New York. But once or twice a year I would do a tour in Europe, or sometimes they would call… For instance, they called me with Globe Unity, which is this German band…

TP: Totally free.

ER: Totally free, but there were compositions, too. But I was living in New York. I had a green card. I could have got the American passport after five years, but at that time, to have the American nationality, you had the renounce to the Italian. I didn’t want to renounce the Italian for many reasons, but one of those is that with the Italian passport I could work freely all over Europe, whereas an American, for certain countries, needed a visa. Particularly with France there were a lot of problems. At the time we could not have… Now it would be possible, but at that time you could not have the two passports.

TP: But for a couple of reasons for this article… One is the memoir. I’m under the impression that in the memoir you write a lot about your experiences in New York. But also, your early influences are American musicians, but it’s primarily a New York influence… It’s the opposite of the artists of the 18th or 19th century coming to Rome or Venice, or writers going to Paris in the early 20th century…

ER: Yes, of course.

TP: You’re a jazz musician, and you come to New York in the ‘70s. Talk about the dynamics of that scene. You came back 34 years ago, and I’m sure you thought about this when writing the book. How did your ten years in New York shape you as a musician and help you to evolve?

ER: That’s for sure. One thing that I got from American musicians, is: When you play, you play, you know, like it was the last time of your life. This is something that we didn’t have.

TP: Did Lacy impart that to you?

ER: No. I got that from coming to New York, and going around, listening to people. But anyway, there was very… When I came to New York… Besides, I must say that when I checked all the great musicians living in New York in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, almost nobody was from New York. They were coming from all over the States to New York. I always felt that you go where whatever you like to do happens. So in those years, if you wanted to play jazz, I really thought you have to be in New York if you make any sense… You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in the south of Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, where all the people I wanted to meet, the people…

It was very interesting, because when I came to New York, first of all, many of the greatest jazz musicians who invented jazz were still alive and playing. So you could see Monk. I saw Miles play at the Village Gate. I saw Jackie McLean. Then the new people—Albert Ayler playing at Slugs, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp. I was friends with Charles Moffett. He would bring me to every club to sit in with Shepp and we hung out…

TP: So Moffett brought you around the New Thing and introduced you to the militant guys.

ER: Well, I did that through Steve. But then Moffett, since he was the only person I knew who had a car, would pick me up and make a tour of all the clubs, introduce me always to the owners so I didn’t have to pay maybe next time, and helped me sit in. So I sat in with Hank Mobley, with Shepp when he had the band with two trombones… In those years, there was still the Vietnam War, so every day you had veterans marching the streets, some of them blind, some without arms, some only with a piece of body with the head… It was very, very strong. Andy Warhol was happening at the time.

It was the time of the Black Panthers. I would go to the Black Panther… They had their headquarters in Harlem, and they had their house, it was about a 3-story house, more or less, it was blue, electric blue, with a big flag with the Black Panthers. I had two friends from Argentina who were making political movies, so they sent me movies that I was supposed to bring to the Black Panthers. I brought this…we called it ‘pizza,’ the documentary thing…to the Black Panther headquarters. It was a trip. The first time I couldn’t believe it… I thought it would be something a little bit more clandestine, but instead, BOOM, you could see it from a satellite. It was blue electric, with the flag, with the cats with the leather jackets and shit, with guns and shit, you know—big people. I was giving them…

There was the Weathermen. My best friend, an Italian friend who was in New York working for a diplomatic thing, but he was a bass player, too… I brought him to Bill Dixon in Bennington. Anyway, he lived in an apartment on 10th Street… In that apartment, the one that Dustin Hoffman was in, that when the Weathermen…

TP: Next door.

ER: Next door. When they blew up the building next door, that apartment was destroyed, and Dustin Hoffman left. Then they rebuilt the wall and the flat, and he got THAT apartment, Dustin Hoffman’s apartment. The top floor was Angela Lansbury. And his daughter, with a dog, every day… I was going to my friend’s almost every day, so I would say, “Hello, Miss Angela.” A little bit more, two or three more doors towards 6th Avenue, there was a thing that said Charles Ives lived in this house from blah-blah-blah… So it was very impressive. The whole thing was very strong from a…

TP: I think Hendrix was living on 10th Street or 12th Street at that time.

ER: Jimi Hendrix? I didn’t know that. Edward Hopper lived most of his life near Washington Square. The thing is that… It’s difficult to understand. For me, coming from an Italian middle-class family, from a country that in the ‘60s was still very formal, everybody was dressed in a tie, all looked like bureaucrats… Being in New York, all those colors, all those things happening, and playing… I was playing with Roswell. We were rehearsing at St. Peter’s Church with Garcia-Gensel, and maybe Kenny Dorham would come to listen to us because he was a very good friend of Roswell. So I had one of my idols there, listening to our rehearsal, and I was talking to him. Then I was going to parties at Cecil Taylor’s house. For a while, I was looking at myself like from outside. It was like a movie, and in this movie there was a main character that was me. It was an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening.

For instance, the first time I had a review in DownBeat, which was in ‘67, for a concert that I did with Roswell, for me it was almost incredible. Because for us, in Italy, DownBeat was something so far away… Since you are American, you grew up with that, you cannot imagine how big the impact was to be all of a sudden part of something that until a year before, it was like a dream. A dream that was something I would never expect to happen for me.

TP: It seems like a fantasy almost.

ER: Absolutely. Because when I started doing this thing in Italy, being a jazz musician…leaving… Being a jazz musician only…I’m not saying a musician; no, a JAZZ musician…was really like willing to be the chief of the Sioux tribe in Italy. Because it didn’t exist as a reality. There were only three people with me who were playing this music in Italy. One was a trumpet player, but he had a gig in the radio, but was playing only jazz. A very good trumpet player. He was called Nunzio Rotondo. The other one was a piano player my age, Franco D’Andrea, because he was playing with Nunzio and me. Everybody else… We had very good jazz musicians, but they either played in the orchestra or the radio; the other one played with a singer in a nightclub; or a studio musician. But people being a jazz musician as I intended to, like an artist, like a poet, not like a professional musician. Like an artist. Nobody… Now there are hundreds of them in Italy. But then there was only three.

So it was really like you said before, like a dream, like a fantasy.

TP: One thing I’ve noticed talking with musicians from other countries who settle in the States is that once they get there, away from home, they start to look at their own native traditions. The first one who’s coming to mind is pianist Edward Simon, from Venezuela, who grew up playing in a family band, and all he’s thinking about is playing jazz, but he gets here, and Paquito D’Rivera says, “You need to play Venezuelan music, you need to play your music,” and all of a sudden he starts examining his culture and bringing it into his own music. I look at you, and you’ve done recordings on arias and operas, ballads that are kind of like arias, you do South American things, things that have flavors of different areas of Italy. I’m wondering if being in America for ten years helped you to access those components of your culture, or if it’s not applicable to what you’ve done.

ER: I know that dynamic very well, but it didn’t really happen that way. It happened another way. Like, I have naturally, because of how I grew up, my mother, the music I heard on the radio… I have naturally a tendency toward very lyrical… But at the same time, you have to consider that Italy… In Venezuela or Argentina, even Spain, they have a very clear cultural background musically. In Italy, it’s very different, because Italy as a nation exists only since 150 years ago, and it’s made by regions that are totally different. For instance, somebody like Paolo Fresu is coming from Sardinia. In Sardinia, they do have a very-very-very strong music of their own that Alan Lomax described as prehistorical, because of the way they use the voice, etc. People from Naples have very strong… But where I come from, Turino, we don’t have…
TP: You were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

ER: No. No-no, no-no. There was Milano… We fought against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and we won, and we conquered the rest of Italy from Turino. You see? In fact, they don’t like us. But our music is the music from the mountains. It’s really horrible. I would never… The only music that somehow everybody in Italy… The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is the opera. It is not folklore, but let’s say it was an ironic way… So it was the only thing… See, if I listen to Sicilian music or Sardinian music, I might like it, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know it. I have no idea. I don’t know the codes. It’s much further away than New Orleans really. So it’s different.

I understand a guy… There’s a famous story of Astor Piazzolla, he wanted to be a contemporary composer, so he went to Paris when he was young to study with Nadia Boulanger, and he was very good. But anyway, one day Nadia Boulanger said, “Listen, but you are from Argentina; you have a beautiful music which is tango.” He confessed that he played bandoneon, but he would hide it… She said, “Ok, you are good, but take your bandoneon, and go back to Argentina and work on your music.” This is very understandable, because there is a music that touches everybody in Argentina, and it’s so strong, the tango. But we don’t have that. I mean, we DO. But not we as Italians. Now, in Naples, they do. But Neapolitan culture is so far away and different, even the language. If I go to Sicily, I speak my dialect. Nobody understands me. They don’t even know vaguely what I am talking about—and vice versa. Or I go to Calabria. No way. When I went to Little Italy sometimes when I was in New York, to those Italian stores…

TP: They’re mostly Neapolitan and Calabrian.

ER: …they’d start talking to me in a language that I didn’t understand, because it was the Calabrese that maybe their grandfather talked, and I understand. “Ah, you are not Italian,” they would tell me. So it’s very different. It depends. Of course, if you come from Brazil to be a jazz musician in New York, after a while the Brazilian thing… But the Brazilian thing is something that every Brazilian knows, every Brazilian relates to. It doesn’t happen that way for us. So whatever you can feel that is coming from me that might sound Italian is only because, in fact, I am Italian. So there is something I absorb that comes out naturally. But not from, let’s say, a process of recuperating my culture. No.

TP: It’s hard to say, when I listen to you and something sounds Italian, if it’s because there’s something Italian or because I know you’re Italian. It’s similar to the process of taking the Blindfold, of why do you perceive a sound a certain way, and what a sound actually contains. But it does seem that in your recordings of the last 10-15-20 years, you work with several different genres and weave them together. Those sort of lyric, aria type things, this sort of trans-Mediterranean materials that include a lot of flavors, a little contemporary composition, and jazz standards, and so on… Did this happen naturally, or did you make some decision… There’s some funky stuff, like things you did with Abercrombie in the ‘70s. How deliberate is all of this?

ER: It’s very natural, very organic. Of course, I am a very… I am a listener. I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. Really a lot. A lot of music, I love. Jazz more than everything, but also many other things—Brazilian, classical, contemporary. Somehow I metabolize these things, and eventually it comes out someday. But deliberately, very little. The only deliberate thing I did was the work I did on the opera, which were two records for Label Blue, Opera Va and Carmen. It was deliberate in the sense that when I got married again, my actual wife, she was a big opera freak…

TP: This is your current wife.

ER: Yes. She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata, Tosca, and all of a sudden I found out that this thing is fantastic. One thing is to listen to it. The other one is go and see the old stuff, because it’s so incredible, especially when you’re talking about a very high level, like La Scala. It’s so incredible how they can put all that stuff, make it work together. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic. And then also particularly with Puccini, I really felt all of a sudden that he is really the father of the American musical. When I did, like, La Tosca, when I did “E lucevan le stelle” I almost felt like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ‘50s, the ‘40s—so beautiful, no? Because in fact, Puccini, when he was in America, he got very interested in jazz when he wrote the Fanciulla del West. He wanted to get more into it, but then he died, so he couldn’t get into… [1924]

So I felt almost like… In the moment I was playing that stuff, I felt I was playing in a Gil Evans situation. Which I did. I played with Gil in ‘82 or ‘83, I don’t remember.

TP: In Europe?

ER: In Europe, si. I really felt I was in something like that. Also, Carmen was an idea of my wife, but also for me it was… Maybe nobody understood that, but it was a kind of homage to Sketches of Spain, to Miles. I wanted to play with that, to play with that Miles thing. I had a lot of fun doing it. In fact, I did it twice and that’s it. It’s not something I wanted to go on, Rambo 3, Rambo 4. I did two records. That’s enough. I did it again this year, L’Opera, with a fantastic French string quartet. But in fact, the problem with those things for me is that they are too strict. You cannot move around. Especially when you play with classical people, you cannot say, “ok, I play one chorus more,” because no, you have to write down all the number of bars.

For me, it’s so important to be able to change the music every night. In fact, every tune that we play with this band, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. Either we change the tempo, or we change the… I need to… Because if not, I get really bo… I cannot get bored. If I get bored, I stop playing. The day I get bored, ok, fuck it, I’ll do something else. Because it’s such a big pleasure to play, but it has to be a pleasure. If it becomes a gig…no.

TP: you were saying that if there’s anything Italian that I discern in your playing, it’s because you’re Italian. Is there anything in the culture of Italy that connects to jazz in a way that would… Let me ask it this way. What do you think it was in the world you were growing up in when you were a young guy…

ER: That connected me.

TP: …that made you connect to jazz the way that you did?

ER: I’ve got to tell you, this is the best question somebody ever made to me. I am ready for that. Because jazz… I have to tell you some information. At the beginning of the century, or at the end of the 19th century-the beginning of the 20th century, there was a direct line from Palermo to New Orleans with the boat. That’s why in New Orleans there were plenty of Italians and Sicilians, and that’s why the first jazz album ever recorded was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose leader was a Sicilian.

TP: Nick La Rocca.

ER: This is history. Now, they were the first people recording a jazz record probably because they were white. Still, they were the first people that recorded…

TP: Didn’t Freddie Keppard also turn down an opportunity to record because he didn’t want anybody to steal his shit?

ER: I know. Yes, and also he went to play on the street with a handkerchief around his hands. In fact, I have one record of Freddie Keppard.

TP: They say it didn’t capture him at his best.

ER: No. It doesn’t sound that… But they say he played like Buddy Bolden…they say. Another one they say played a little like Freddie Keppard…it was also Natty Dominique, the one who was playing like Johnny Dodds.

Anyway, there were plenty of Sicilians. For instance, Louis Armstrong always said that he was very influenced by the opera. Anyway, there’s plenty of Italian musicians in the early jazz, like Leon Rappolo…

TP: Well, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti…

ER: Yeah, Salvatore Massaro, the first one that phrased with a guitar. Also, as much as there were a lot of Germans, Bix, Frankie Trumbauer, all these people; as much as there were a lot of French people, because all these Creoles, Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, or Ferdinand Giuseppe Lamenthe… All these people… This is one of the reasons why jazz immediately, at the time when the communication was really very, very little, was at the very beginning… There was no TV, there was no… Jazz expanded immediately in Europe. It immediately became so popular. Why? Because everyone found something that relate to him…I think. It’s not only because of the power of America. Because we are talking about the very beginning of the century, so America didn’t have yet this impact. But still, their music spread so quickly, and it was accepted so much immediately. Because in this music… In fact, it didn’t come from Africa. It came from America, from blacks that had their rhythm…which wasn’t the African rhythm, because African rhythm was cancelled from their mind. They couldn’t play their own music. They couldn’t have their own gods. They couldn’t speak their own language. Like, the Spaniard and Portuguese is different, because they could keep their stuff. In fact, today still in Cuba, people that are maybe the fifth generation in Cuba still have a rhythm original from Congo. But in America this didn’t happen. So that rhythm that became the jazz rhythm is only a memory, you know, of something. That confused… But it came out this amazing rhythm that became the rhythm of jazz. Maybe it was coming also from the marching bands. I have no idea. But in that there was some English sacred music, French music, opera—all together, it made this fantastic… It’s the music of that century.

And immediately in Europe, people related to that, because there was something that… Somehow the roots… There were some common roots for sure. When I got into that thing, I was really young. I was eight years old. There was no cultural…you know… I just listened to my mother…

TP: Just what you heard your mother play.

ER: Yeah. Because I heard a lot of music. But still, I listened to that. Immediately I could relate to that. I understood how it works, as I was saying—the improvisation, the structure… But the melodies. Because the melodies are incredible. No? When you hear something like “Singin’ The Blues,” “I’m Coming, Virginia,” “Potato Head Blues”… It’s something that’s very, very singable… There is so much singing in it, and drama…

Anyway, yes, I think that there is a strong relation. There are some common roots for sure.

TP: that might bridge us into a wrap-up question. You said you’re listening to a lot of Michael Jackson, and your next project is a suite of Michael Jackson arrangements, also inspired by your wife.

ER: Yes.

TP: Very singable, very melodic, very rhythmic, very different than the music of the early 20th century, but assumes a similar role in American and international culture at the end of the 20th century.

ER: Absolutely. Yes.

TP: Talk about this project, and the next year, as you can see it.

ER: I will say that when I came to New York after about ‘67, one year later or two years later, I don’t remember exactly, there exploded the Jackson Five. But at the time I was so monomaniacal about jazz, everything else for me didn’t exist. Still, there were a lot of songs that I heard in jukeboxes and radio that I really liked. But I was little interested that I thought that beautiful voice was a girl. Only lately I discovered that it was Michael Jackson; it was a guy…a kid. But then, it was something that went parallel to my life for… Sometimes I heard some nice song, also in this last year, but I said, ‘Ok.’ I didn’t really care. By the way, I did that also with the Beatles. I got to the Beatles…I understood the greatness of the Beatles only about 15 years ago—I started really listening to them.

In all this, there is also very strong the presence of my wife. She is much younger than me, so beside the opera, she loves the Beatles, she loves Michael Jackson… Anyway, when Michael Jackson… It was an incredible, beautiful night in Rome. Ornette Coleman played before us, this group. It was a great concert. And we played after. There was some magic that night. We played a beautiful concert. People were happy. Then while I was walking to the dressing room, somebody told me that Michael Jackson died a few days before.

TP: Did he die that day?

ER: He died that day. I was very impressed… But then, when I came back home, my wife… She wasn’t with me in Rome. She was not in Rome. I went home, where we live now, and when I entered the house she was looking at the DVD she’d just bought that was Michael Jackson in Bucharest, live in Bucharest. So I just, you know, released my suitcase and …(?—1:18:16)…, and then all of a sudden I started being attracted by that, and even without taking my shit off, I just sit down and I looked until the end of the concert, completely fascinated, and said, “How can it be that all these years I didn’t try to look at it, to…” So from that day, I bought all the CDs there are, DVDs, everything, and for a year in my car there was all day Michael Jackson. Every day I would find something else, particularly the last records that are the less popular, but to me they stay to Michael Jackson’s stuff as The White Album is to the Beatles. In Invincible and HIStory, there are a couple of tunes that are really amazing, from musical…from something different…

Then, since I have a band that is the band of the Auditorium of Rome… I am the artistic director of this band with ten people, and I have to make four projects a year. I did it one year, and I did another year… I had to do the fourth project, and I wanted to do a project called “Old And New Pops,” going from the pop music from the ‘30s coming to Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, I said, “Why not just Michael Jackson?” So that’s what we did. We started working with the trombone player of the band, who is another very good trombone player, and he wrote the arrangement. I gave him some instruction; he wrote an arrangement. I choose the tunes, particularly among the newer…the last two or three records, except “Smooth Criminal”—that riff is too infectious, and I have to have that. And “Thriller,” too. Also because I remember a beautiful version of Lester Bowie of…you know the one? In fact, “Thriller” is the only tune that somehow we’ve redone the Lester Bowie arrangement. It was just for fun. But then, when we rehearsed, we started really getting excited playing the music. Then the concert was an amazing success.

So from then on, now they are asking for that concert, and we are going to record it in about 20 days. We will do a concert at the Auditorium in Rome, and it is going to be recorded by ECM. It is very exciting music, I must say. Rhythmically, it is just impossible to stand. The first time when we played this concert, at the end people… There were 2,000 people, and they were all dancing in this incredible auditorium in Rome. We had fun. It had nothing to do with commercial point of view. No-no. It was fun. I have a lot of space. I play in it exactly like I play. I don’t change a bit of my playing.

TP: Let me ask you this. Tina Pelikan from ECM sent me the different bios, and in one, maybe for Tati so five or six years ago, you said you’d pushed your technique, and you’d gained a half-octave… Let’s do a little trumpet talk and discuss your evolution as an instrumentalist.

ER: Well, I…

TP: You were talking about your teeth at breakfast, but we don’t have to…

ER: Anyway, I can tell you that being self-taught and lazy is another important part of my personality. I never really studied. Whatever I learned, I learned playing, you know. Including writing music and everything. I had to, so I tried. I always considered myself more like a guy who organizes sounds and then sings.

TP: You made a gesture like playing trumpet when you said “sings.”

ER: Yes, sings with the trumpet. But I never got really into the instrument. Then in this last year, for the last year…when we did Tati, so we are talking about years ago… I finally really fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music—just the instrument itself. So I start practicing much more than I ever did before. In fact, I gained an octave… Besides, I found the right mouthpiece for me, which was the mouthpiece Miles used to play, which is a Heim #1. So everything was really going very good until about two years ago, I had to do this big work with my teeth, so now I have implants. My teeth are not there any more. I have new teeth. Of course, all that octave that I gained, I lost it again!

Only in these last two-three months, I feel that it is very slowly coming back, thanks also to a couple of things that Dave Douglas gave me when we played this summer on this tour with Avishai Cohen—three trumpets. It was Dave’s project, and he told me a lot about this beautiful teacher Laurie Frink. In fact, when I come to New York next February, I’ll go to see her. Anyway, the few things that he gave me, they are helping me really to get back what I’ve been losing, putting in new teeth. It’s a big event in your mouth when you’ve changed everything. The material of which false teeth are made is so different, it’s so harder, and it’s really a different feeling in the mouth. For a while, I was really worried. I remember we were in Korea, playing in the festival in Seoul, and I got on the stage, and for the first tune, the notes didn’t come out. No notes, no sound coming out. Then somehow I was able to. But it was a moment of real panic.

Now it’s coming back. I think there are a couple of things that I am doing every day that Dave gave me, that I really feel them daily that they are working. But of course, David at that is very good, because as far as I know, he had a lot of problems many years ago, so he had to solve the problem with the right exercises.

TP: there’s a lot of problem-solving and physical adjustment attendant to trumpet playing.

ER: There is.

TP: I guess saxophone players go through their own embouchure things, but it’s a different animal.

ER: Yes. In fact, Ira Sullivan, when I played with him many years ago, he told me that he could not play maybe a couple of weeks the saxophone, then if he had to go to play a concert he wouldn’t play at his best, but he could. But with a trumpet, after 2 or 3 days, that’s it. For me, if I don’t touch the instrument let’s say the maximum three days… After three days, it is impossible… If I go to play, I feel that that the sound…I have no harmonics, I have no resistance. To play trumpet is to be like a runner who goes to the Olympic Games for the 100 meters. If he doesn’t train every day, he will be the last one. He’ll never get to the… This is a kind of punishment. Except there are people who have it natural. For instance, Franco Ambrosetti, the Swiss trumpet player, who is my age, more or less—he is naturally talented for this instrument. Now he only plays, but for years, all his life, he had been a big industrialist, so he’d had to go to work and talking at a very high level of business, but then maybe he would come to play when he hadn’t touched the trumpet for three days, and he’d play like Miles. He has a natural thing for the trumpet, which I don’t have. I have a very natural thing for music. Not for this instrument. So my rapport with this instrument has been very conflictual [sic] all my life. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it keeps me fighting, and that’s helped me to keep young, let’s say. I don’t get bored at all. Besides my wife is laughing at me, because now, every morning, when I wake up, the first thing… I have the trumpet very close to my bed. I wake up, I take the mouthpiece, and first thing, I still just… Still with the eyes closed, I take the trumpet and I check if the lips vibrate. If nothing comes out, I say “shit, today…” If I vibrate it, I say, “ok, today it vibrates,” so my wife knows that I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. Sometimes I do that, and nothing happens. BFFFPPP…ok, it vibrates.

TP: I like that image.

ER: It vibrates. Vibra, I think in Italian. “Oggi vibra,” “today it vibrates.”

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For David Sanborn’s 73rd Birthday, An Unedited Blindfold Test From 2012

A day late for master alto saxophonist and iconic bandleader David Sanborn’s 73rd birthday, here’s an uncut Blindfold Test that we did over the amazing speakers in the listening room of his townhouse in 2012.

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Next Collective, “Twice” (from COVER ART, Concord, 2013) (Logan Richardson, alto saxophone, Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Gerald Clayton, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Jamire Williams, drums)

I like the way the tune unfolded. It started out…I thought it was going to go a whole different direction, and then it went into this really kind of nice, almost folk-like melody. I also liked the way the alto solo…it’s like they took their time to kind of just…in a very unhurried, unforced, very natural way, the way the saxophone solo unfolded. Nobody was showing off. It was just this really beautiful piece of music. It’s so hard to play over those odd meters that to do it in a way that sounds natural, where you just kind of flow over, you’re not being a slave to the meter, is really hard to do, and when somebody does it well, like whoever this was, it’s noticeable. I liked the way saxophone solo unfolded, very unforced; it felt natural, like singing. Whatever he was playing, it just felt like it was what it was supposed to be, integrated into the rhythm section, but still… He took it someplace else. And I love the melody. The melody was beautiful. Excellent track. I really enjoyed it. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve heard Logan Richardson’s name. As a matter of fact, I just saw his name associated with somebody. There’s a collective, right? I liked the way it went kind of effortlessly from the odd meter stuff to the more straight meter stuff. It felt very natural to me.

Miguel Zenón, “JOS Nigeria” (from Miguel Zenón AND THE RHYTHM COLLECTIVE, Miel Music, 2013 (Zenón, alto saxophone; Aldemar Valentin, electric bass; Tony Escapa, drums; Reynaldo De Jesús, percussion)

Like a little island thing. My little suede flip-flops! A really nice, hip little meter change in the bridge there. Beautiful sound. The saxophone player has a beautiful sound. I like the drummer a lot. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s an older player. I don’t mean Old-old, like my age, but a player who has some maturity and a lot of playing under his belt. The way that the solo felt so self-assured, especially playing mostly an eighth-note feel. Somebody who has a lot of confidence. And the great time. And once again, a beautiful sound. I liked the drummer a lot, too. The bass player, too. But just the interplay and the fact that it felt very natural. 5 stars. [AFTER] That makes a lot of sense. It’s his feel. I liked the way the time turned around on the bridge, just spun out. But it just flowed very naturally. Beautiful sound. Great intonation, too.

TARBABY and Oliver Lake, “Unity” (from THE END OF FEAR, Posi-Tone, 2010) (Lake, alto saxophone; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That took me a minute to get into it. It’s a kind of angularity that doesn’t pull me in right away. Once I got into it, I started to dig it. What I liked about the way everybody was playing was they move very easily between playing kind of more inside and more out. I always like it when guys can blur the line between playing in and playing out. But it did have a bit of a relentless feel to it. That made it at times just a little overbearing to me. But I certainly can’t fault the playing, and I like the saxophone player a lot. Great sound. I like the way he used honks and high registered stuff, and the way he used accents and the way he rhythmically placed things I thought was really interesting. I have no idea who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Oliver Lake? Was it? That was a Sam Rivers tune? It’s not one of my favorites. But I think they handled it really well. I really like the way Oliver plays, and particularly played on this? That was Nick on trumpet? Everybody sounded great. Like I said, the way they went from in and out… I mean, that’s kind of Oliver’s thing. He has a unique sound. I’m surprised I didn’t recognize him. What I find really interesting about Oliver’s playing is that his sound can go to so many different places. He can play with so many different kinds of sounds, it’s like a character actor almost. It’s not like he assumes other identities. They’re all facets of his personality and his playing. But there’s a real variety of approaches, the way he plays, that I find interesting.

Greg Osby, “Whirlwind Soldier” (from ST. LOUIS SHOES, Blue Note, 2003) (Osby, alto saxophone; harold O’Neal, piano; Robert Hurst, bass; Rodney Green, drums)

It’s really nice the way the melody was all in that mid-low range of the alto. It’s such a beautiful range of the horn. To kind of stay down there as long as he did was really nice. Once again, it sounds like a more mature player. There were points when it reminded me of Kenny Garrett. That would be my guess. Once again, with that kind of assurance that comes with maturity. Beautiful. Very well-recorded, too. It’s always nice when you can hear the full range of piano and all the instruments. But it was nice, how the alto player stayed in the mid-low register for a lot of it. Once again, nobody was showing off, and it sounded really beautiful. I like the tune. I like the drama of it. It felt very touching. Emotional, too. 5 stars. [after] It’s funny. I have that album. But that tune doesn’t sound familiar to me. It makes sense that it’s Greg.

Kenny Garrett, “Du-Wo-Mo” (from SEEDS FROM THE UNDERGROUND, Mack Avenue, 2012) (Garrett, alto saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Nat Reeves, bass; Ronald Bruner, drums)

That really sounds like Kenny! Yeah. The SOUND. There wasn’t a single uninteresting moment in that whole tune. Kenny just kills me, man. Nothing was wasted in that solo. He played a long solo, and it was consistently engaging from the beginning to the end. He’s got such a unique way of phrasing. I love his tone. The way he spits notes out, it reminds me of the way Cannonball did it. He’s got that Woody Shaw harmonic concept that he’s taken and made it evolve into his own language. I find him the most interesting alto player around. He’s my favorite alto player, bar none. So if I can give it more than 5 stars, I would. That’s off the charts good to me.

I want to go back to the Oliver Lake track. The 4 stars was more for the tune. I’d give the playing 5 stars. The playing was great. Just the tune didn’t engage me that much. But this Kenny thing, man, that just made my day. Kenny always puts me away, man.

Tim Berne, “Scanners” (from SNAKEOIL, ECM, 2012) (Berne, alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega, clarinet; Matt Mitchell, piano; Ches Smith, percussion.

When it started out, I really didn’t like it. Then as it unfolded, I really got into it. I ended up really loving it. I think what turned me off initially is the recording felt very distant. Like, everything was really far away. I didn’t get much of a sense of presence on the recording. It sounded like it was recorded in a big hall with just a couple of mikes. I like recordings that have a little more presence. But man, the clarinet player was KILLIN’ me. Amazing control. Unbelievable control. Got to me somebody who has a lot of experience under their belt, because that was amazing. The clarinet playing was spectacular. I have to give that 5 stars. As I said, at the beginning, I didn’t particularly like the composition. It felt like it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Some of the dynamics seemed a little flat to me. But I think a lot of that had to do with the way it was recorded. But as it developed and I got pulled in more, I kind of heard past some of the sonic limitations that I was hearing, and got to what was there, and it felt great. I’d have to go back and listen to the top again to get a sense of where it was from the top, but as it went on, I kind of acclimated to the sound and ended up really loving it. [AFTER] I love Tim and I love his playing. The recording felt a little distant to me. I don’t think it did the music as much service as it should have. Once it got into it, I really liked it, and then at the end, I liked the composition. That’s why I said I’d like to go back to the top and hear it again. It’s very intricate, just the way things are structure, and it felt very assured, everything from beginning to end, and it felt like there were a lot of dynamics that weren’t immediately apparent to me. 5 stars. Tim’s stuff is always great. I wish I would have heard more of him. But man, Oscar Noriega played unbelievable. It sounded great. It felt very natural. It didn’t feel stiff. It’s just that I found myself straining at the beginning to hear what was going on.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Sweet Dreams” (from RISE UP!, Palmetto, 2008) (Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Herlin Riley, drums)

It sounds like the organ player’s date. Sounds like the Eurrhythmics. Is that the cover of a pop tune. “Sweet dreams are made of this…” I have no idea who that is. It’s not Joey, right? Is it Lonnie Smith? Who’s playing alto? It sounded good, sounded like an older player, but I have no idea. I was going to say Lou Donaldson, but it’s not Lou. I liked what he played. The tune kind of stayed in one place, so it was kind of hard. I sympathize with trying to play over something that kind of keeps a very insistent thing. It’s kind of hard to really stretch on that. But within the parameters of what the saxophone player was given, he played very well. 4 stars. [AFTER} the nature of the song and the approach was such that it didn’t really allow him to go a lot of different places. Within the confines of what the song was, it was great, and Donald is a great player. I’d prefer hearing him on his own stuff. I love his tunes. They’re great.

Steve Coleman, “Hormone Trig” (from FUNCTIONAL ARRHTHMIAS, Pi, 2013) (Coleman, alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Anthony Tidd, bass; Sean Rickman, drums)

Is this Steve Coleman? Steve is great, man. He has so much flexibility and control over time signatures, and he makes that shit swing. That’s what’s great about Steve. He has it all. Originality. Control. And he swings; swings his ass off. He can manage to make the most potentially uninviting kinds of circumstances…he can imbue them with an emotional content and a spirit of originality that is just amazing to me. He’s one of the true originals that’s come along in the last 20-30 years. He’s in a class by himself, really. I give this 5+ stars. It’s funny. There are times when he and Kenny Garrett remind me of each other. I think it’s the fact that they both have this innate sense of swing. Maybe it’s their connection to the tradition. I’m not sure. I don’t know what it is. But Steve is brilliant, and the music is amazing. Every time I listen to him, it’s completely engaging to me. On this one, it’s based on the rhythms of the body. Who’s playing trumpet? Jonathan Finlayson? Sorcerer’s apprentice. But the difference with Steve is that he has such a great sound, and he plays with such assurance. It’s so definitive.

Clayton Brothers, “Souvenir” (from AND FRIENDS, Artist Share, 2012) (Jeff Clayton, alto saxophone; John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano; Obed Calvaire, drums)

Very Strayhornesque piece. Again, very well-recorded. A lot of presence. A lot of warmth in that track. It sounded a little bit like Wess Anderson, but it had that kind of warmth to it. Warm-sounding and a nice Johnny Hodges kind of bending of the notes. Just beautiful. Very simple, straightforward. 4 stars. Absolutely beautiful. It was extremely sensitive, and the alto player, Jeff, took his time. The reason I gave it 4 stars is I wanted to hear him play more. It would have been nice to hear him stretch out a little bit. But I understand he wanted to state the tune in a very straightforward way. But absolutely beautiful. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

John Zorn, “Hath-Arob” (from ELECTRIC MASADA AT THE MOUNTAIN OF MADNESS, Tzadik, 2005) (Zorn, alto saxophone; Marc Ribot, guitar; Jamie Saft, keyboards; Ikue Mori, electronics; Trevor Dunn, electric bass; Joey Baron, Kenny Wolleson, drums; Cyro Baptista, percussion)

That souinded like John Zorn. Had to be. Nobody plays with that kind of insanity and humor. Just the composition was so great. Just the way all the elements grew out of each other, and came out and went back in. There’s so much texture there. Was there another saxophone player? That was all him? It’s an amazing piece of music. 5 stars. I loved it. I love John. John always makes me laugh, makes me smile. [Can you recall for these purposes what it was like to have him on your show?] I enjoyed meeting him. Marcus Miller and Omar Hakim were on it. But I find his music really interesting. He put out a series of records during that time with that group Naked City. Who were the two drummers? Oh, Joey. When you hear something like that, you really hear what a sense of composition John has. There’s this shape to it that’s got…the interior feels very natural, and the way things unfold feels very natural. So much energy, and such a unique way of playing the saxophone. He reminds me a little of Marshall Allen, one of the few other people I know who plays, in a way, similar to John—and I know John was very familiar with Marshall’s playing. But he’s so unique, you have to judge him on his own terms. I enjoy his music, and I enjoy his playing. I enjoy his approach. It’s fresh. It’s an original voice to me. I just like it.

Tim Green, “Pinocchio” (from SONGS FROM THIS SEASON, True Melody, 2012) (Green, alto saxophone; Kris Funn, bass; Rodney Green, drums)

Almost sounds like a soprano. A very kind of pure sound from the saxophone player. Amazing articulation, and flexibility and facility, especially up in the upper register. He managed to get around that Wayne Shorter tune with a lot of dexterity and ease. The sound to me was a little bit not what I kind of… I don’t really respond as well to that kind of sound as one that’s a little more resonant, a fuller sound, but I appreciate it. It was very pure. The articulation was flawless. It certainly was swinging. The playing is 5 stars. Overall, I give it 4 stars.

Lou Donaldson, “Sweet And Lovely” (from LUSH LIFE, Blue Note, 1967/2007) (Donaldson, alto saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Jerry Dodgion, alto saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Al Harewood, drums; Duke Pearson, arranger)

You think that trumpet player was influenced by Freddie Hubbard? [LAUGHS} The alto player sounds like someobdy who is definitely using the language of bebop. Either they’re doing it as a tribute, or that’s who they are—like James Spaulding or someone like that. But I don’t think it’s James. I don’t know who it is. I liked it. It’s extremely well-recorded, and beautiful playing on the part of the saxophone player. A lot of quotes from Bird. 4 stars. It was nice. It didn’t push the limits that much, but within the confines of what it was, it was beautiful. Wayne Shorter was in the horn section? McCoy. Wow, that’s how old THAT was. That’s definitely New York.

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For Vijay Iyer’s 46th Birthday, a “Directors’ Cut” Downbeat Cover Story from 2012, a Long Essay in “Rave” From 2008, a Mid-Sized Downbeat Piece about Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa From 2001, and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2007

A day late for pianist-composer-educator-conceptualist Vijay Iyer’s 46th birthday, here’s an omnibus post, containing a “director’s cut” of a 2012 DownBeat cover piece, a 2008 feature in the Indian magazine Rave, a 2001 article focusing on him and then-partner Rudresh Mahanthappa, and an uncut Blindfold Test from 2007.

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Vijay Iyer DownBeat Cover Article, 2012:

Coming of age during the ‘90s and early ‘00s, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer considered it almost as essential to define his terms of engagement as to express himself in notes and tones. “I had to find a way to create a space for myself to do what I wanted,” Iyer explained in April. “A lot of that involved generating language that would surround the music itself so that people could understand it,”

Unopened boxes dotted the parlor floor of Iyer’s triplex in a Harlem brownstone. He was barely acclimated: a month earlier, directly after closing the deal, he’d hit the road behind his March trio release, Accelerando [ACT]. In a few hours he’d join bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore for night three of a week’s run at Birdland, to be followed by a fortnight of one-nighters in Europe where Iyer would stay for a few gigs with Fieldwork, the compositionally ambitious trio in which he collaborates with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

“As Muhal Richard Abrams would say, it was a response to necessity,” Iyer elaborated on his early self-advocacy. “My parents came to the U.S. in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act; I’m from the first generation of Indian-Americans. People didn’t know what to make of someone like me doing what I do, and their imaginations sometimes ran a bit wild. So it was about introducing myself to the universe, but also about finding my way: ‘What is it that I am revealing?’”

Having effectively addressed the query (consider his top-of-class honors in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group, Piano, and Rising Star-Composer categories in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll), Iyer, 40, now leans to a “deeds, not words” approach. But neither critical acclaim nor middle-age perspective inhibited Iyer from stating his bemusement, if not irritation, at a pervasive, ongoing “mad scientist of jazz” trope that he perceives in discussions of his albums and performances.

“The Immigration Act opened the door, in a very targeted way, to non-Westerners who were technically trained professionals,” Iyer said in calm, measured cadences. “It selected for a scientific-oriented community within these cultures. That’s the template by which people like me are still understood. I’ve read literally thousands of reviews over 16 albums, and a certain cerebral or mathematical thing keeps getting pegged. I can play ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ and they’ll still call it nerdy.”

Nerdy or not, it is undeniable that Iyer—who dual-majored in Math and Physics as a Yale undergraduate, and completed a Ph.D at U.C.-Berkeley (his thesis quantitatively analyzed the neurobiology of musical cognition)—is, as his late ‘90s mentor Steve Coleman understated it, “an analytical, super-intelligent guy.” That said, Iyer is less concerned with the life of the mind in isolation than, as he put it in a 2009 article for the Guardian (a link is on his website), the “dialogue between the physical and the ideal.”

In the piece, Iyer noted his propensity to mesh math and music to reveal unexpected sounds and rhythms. As an instance, he cited the trio’s surging, anthemic treatment of the ‘70s soul jazz hit “Mystic Brew” on Historicity [ACT], their then-current release, constructed by transmuting successive asymmetric Fibonacci (“golden mean”) ratios—specifically 5:3, 8:5, and 13:5—into an angular 21-beat cycle that sounds, he wrote, “simple and natural—like a buoyant, composite version of the original’s 4/4.” To deploy such elaborate rhythmic schemes, Iyer asserted, is no abstruse exercise. Rather, it connects directly to non-western musical traditions grounded in social ritual—the classical Carnatic and folk musics of south India (“intricately organized, melodically nuanced, and rhythmically dazzling, full of systematic permutations”); the African rhythms that antecede “nearly every vernacular music we have in the west.”

On the Grammy-nominated Historicity, Iyer was clearly the lead voice, uncorking a series of solo declamations that explicitly reference and refract into his own argot such key personal influences as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and Andrew Hill. On Accelerando, his strategies hew closer to an approach that Coleman described as “more compositional and contextual” than addressing “the actual content of the playing, which Bud Powell and that generation concentrated on.”

“An emergent property of the ensemble is that groove has become paramount,” Iyer said. “A certain wildness you hear in some of my earlier ensembles might be smoothed out; instead a profound sense of pulse propels you through the whole experience. The positive response to Historicity allowed us to tour and opened some doors. In the course of performance, our priorities developed in a direction that has to do with music as action, which is literally the way rhythm works. When we listen to rhythm, a sort of sympathetic oscillator that’s an internal version of the rhythm gets turned on in the brain. That’s what dance is made of.”

The trio has refined its own dance since 2004, when Gilmore joined Iyer’s quartet with Crump and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who sidemanned with Iyer on four Bush-era leader albums (Iyer reciprocally played on three of Mahanthappa’s contemporaneous quartet dates) comprised primarily of original music that explored issues of dual cultural heritage. Accelerando shares a common thread with Historicity and the 2010 recital Solo (ACT)—all are age-of-Obama productions—in situating the trio within a palpably “American” landscape.

“It was like the room changed color,” Iyer recalled feeling after Obama’s victory. “As artists of color, we didn’t feel like we were in as embattled a position. It was like we could dream big all of a sudden—stretch and imagine and be ourselves, and not have to force things.”

Titled for a piece that Iyer composed for choreographer Karole Armitage, Accelerando contains four other Iyer originals, and covers of six American composers ranging from Rodney Temperton (“The Star of the Story”) and Flying Lotus (“Mmmhmm”) to Henry Threadgill (“Little Pocket Size Demons”), Herbie Nichols (“Wildflower”) and Duke Ellington (“The Village of the Virgins”). Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment. This quality surfaces even more palpably in Youtube concert clips: Crump carves out supple vamps, thick ostinatos, and the occasional walking bassline; Gilmore details with multidirectional pulse and rhythm timbre; at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into (Crump’s words) “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors.”

“I felt the trio had reached a state where it’s as much about how we play as what we play, and the how-ness could be transplanted to another context—still the trio but doing something else,” Iyer said. “But also, I’ve written a lot of music, and when ACT approached me, I wasn’t ready to write a bunch more for the trio.” In fact, Iyer asserted, he had two other recordings in the can. However, ACT’s top-selling group, e.s.t., had recently dissolved after the death of its leader, pianist Esbjörn Svensson, and label head Siegfried Loch wanted to establish Iyer’s trio in the marketplace before releasing other projects. Feeling he’d already “reached a certain level in the United States,” Iyer agreed, hoping to exploit ACT’s strong European presence as a source of “infrastructure for supporting tours or taking out ads or relationships with the media.”

“In retrospect, I can see that to establish a composer-pianist in a certain sphere, it makes business sense to somehow put that person in front,” Iyer said. “Then you can do things that vary from that more classic format. The trio sensibility already was up and running. I wanted to see if we could shine it on something else, including a few of my older tunes, for at least half the program.”

[BREAK]

In settling on the trio as his most visible vehicle of self-expression, Iyer effectively put on hiatus his artistic partnership with Mahanthappa, who is himself an ACT recording artist. “It became a logistical reality,” Iyer explained. “We both had things going on, and weren’t able to play together that much. But also, we experienced what we called the ‘you guys’ phenomenon; people would say, ‘When are you guys playing next?’ or get us mixed up. At some level, we need to be able to establish independent trajectories.”

In Crump’s view, the “trio instantly became a more organic beast.” He assessed: “Even though the music was always forward-reaching and everyone was searching, the quartet’s functionality was essentially conservative—a horn and piano front line, melodies-solos, with a rhythm section. There’s potential magic in a trio, and each element has to expand. So the trio enabled more avenues of expression and development, and more engagement in the ensemble’s exploration and overall experience. We’re able to shape-shift so much more.

“In the early days of the quartet, Vijay and Rudresh were working things out. They were mutually very supportive, and helped each other grow, both musically and career-wise. But in a way, it always got to the same place, a blasting, dense zone. Vijay had to get through that to get to the other side; now he’s a much broader and more mature musician.”

Coleman, who introduced them in 1996, stated, “Outside of their shared concern with heritage, I didn’t hear a big connection in their tendencies and tastes.” Mahanthappa agreed. “Our compositional approaches are very different. As a saxophonist, I’m writing for what I can do on an instrument that can play only one note at a time. A lot of Vijay’s writing is based on the rhythmic interplay he can produce between both hands, and how that fits onto the drums.”

“We’re both idiosyncratic musicians, with our fixations, which turned out to be compatible,” Iyer said. “Rudresh went to music school; I didn’t. Maybe my orientation was more composerly, on the level of ensemble and sound and larger structure; his was more playerly, about projecting real intensity. We were trying to deal simultaneously with Carnatic and Hindustani elements and with Monk—I was the Monk guy—and Coltrane—he was the Coltrane guy. Coltrane had dealt with Indian music, so that point of reference was already in the vocabulary of so-called ‘post-bop’ language. When Marcus joined my band, without shedding the rhythmic language we’d been developing, the different elements seemed to become clearer. I became more reserved with the amount of detail I was trying to infuse into the pieces. I guess it’s called maturing.

“The quartet records Rudresh and I did together—and the early Fieldwork albums—articulate the idea of pushing ourselves to the brink of what we can hear, or understand, or execute. Rudresh and I did all this work that got a lot of critical acclaim and attention. On the other hand, it received a response from the musical community that didn’t feel exactly like hostility, but more like bewilderment and willful shunning. To me, the subject was to assert this new reality that speaks through us as a new kind of American. How American are we? How American are we allowed to be? How American are we seen as? You could say it was about articulating and negotiating identities and all those kinds of ‘90s multiculturalism words. But it was really about insinuating ourselves into the country. I’m also drawing on a heritage that includes M-BASE and the AACM, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, Pop Music and Electronica. It’s like trying to imagine a new world music, kind of following Wadada Leo Smith’s directive from the ‘70s, a sort of world-making with a modernist aspect—to develop something singular and at variance with other things in the world.”

Over the course of their collaboration, Iyer—a self-taught pianist who initially felt “dwarfed” by Mahanthappa’s titanic chops and “solid melodic improvisational concept”—developed his instrumental facility. In recent years, Crump suggested, “the element of being a virtuosic pianist has taken form in Vijay, which in combination with his development as a composer is just beastly.”

“I still wouldn’t say that I have highly refined technique,” Iyer demurred. He cited a remark by the dancer Roseangela Silvestre, whom he met during his immersive late ‘90s apprenticeship with Coleman. “She said technique is a process, about knowing your limits and being able to work within them, but also seeing how you can gently push on or reach beyond those limits. It’s about being able to express yourself with what you have. For me, composition became challenging myself to write things I could barely play, and then having to rise to meet the challenge.

“From playing so many concerts during the last few years, especially a bunch of solo concerts on amazing pianos, I discovered multiple extra dimensions of subtlety on the instrument that I hadn’t been able to access before. Now I find myself addicted to dealing more with things like testing how quiet you can be and still be heard and have an impact. Often in the trio concerts, I’ll play a solo standard in the middle of a set. It’s about things that I can make the piano do, sonic experiences—sonorities and timbres I’ve been finding, the continuum between timbre and harmony, the relative weight of different notes, and relative attack and articulation. It’s been this new-found bounty of exploration, like playing in a garden.”

[BREAK]

A month after our initial conversation, Iyer participated in two tribute concerts to Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. He, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Taborn played solo and duo homages to the maestro; Amiri Baraka read several choice verses, accompanied by Iyer, who began playing with the poet soon after his 1999 move to New York. The day after the first concert, which Taylor had attended, Iyer spoke of Taylor’s impact on his aesthetics.

“You sense this all-encompassing approach to creativity, the perspective of music as everything one does,” said Iyer, a Taylor acolyte since the early ‘90s, when he was gradually transitioning from physics to music as his life’s work. In a 2008 article, he described a raucous 1995 Bay Area performance of Taylor’s creative orchestra music in which he played violin, his first instrument. During a summational solo, Taylor deployed a chord with which Iyer had been experimenting obsessively since hearing Taylor play it on the ballad “Pemmican,” from the live solo album Garden (hat Hut). “It had an uncommon stillness, as if it predates us and will outlast us,” Iyer wrote for Wire. “For all its animated surface qualities and notorious tumult, Taylor’s music somehow possesses a motionless, timeless interior; this chord was proof. I couldn’t conceive of his music as transgressive any more; at moments like these, it seemed to exist as incontrovertible fact.”

This experience, Iyer continued, focused him on the question of “what is hearing or what is sound.” He increasingly honed in on a notion that improvising is the equivalent of being “empowered to take action as yourself.” He wrote: “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds. You jump to the level of what’s making that sound rather than a level of abstract analysis that considers the sounds in and of themselves. It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Over the last two decades, Iyer has explored this issue within multiple, sometimes overlapping communities. In the Bay Area, he played and composed experimental music with Taylorphiles like Glenn Spearman and Lisle Ellis, with such AACM-influenced Asian Improv collective members as Mia Masaoka, Francis Wong and Jon Jang, not to mention AACM icon George Lewis, his thesis advisor (during the ‘00s, Iyer has gigged consequentially with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith). He and trans-genre-oriented peer groupers like Liberty Ellman, Elliott Kavee, and Aaron Stewart established an AACM-inspired infrastructure, setting up bands to present original music that took into account elements drawn from hip-hop, electronica, and sampling. He regularly attended concerts of Carnatic music targeted to the Silicon Valley’s sizable Indian-American population, and took group classes with Ghanaian drummer C.K. Ladzekpo that taught him to “execute rhythms in a way that would motivate people.” On jobs with world-class local drum elders Donald Bailey and E.W. Wainwright—and with his own working trio—he garnered functional experience in the jazz tradition. All these associations prepared him for life with Coleman, who brought Iyer on fieldwork trips to Cuba, Brazil, and India, and offered a platform upon which he could consolidate ideas.

Now, within the trio, Iyer seems to be coalescing these parallel, long-haul investigations into a unitary voice. “Vijay’s relationship to what I call ‘composite reality’ has definitely progressed,” Sorey said, using Anthony Braxtonesque nomenclature. “We’re at a time and place where the idea of cosmopolitanism is such an important tenet in our music. Vijay doesn’t want to classify himself. When I play with Fieldwork or sub with the trio, it no longer feels like there’s any parameter.”

Iyer was spreading his wings in the broader playing field as well. He’d spend the latter third of May at Canada’s Banff Centre, co-hosting the 2012 International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music with Dave Douglas, from whom he will assume the position of Director in 2013. Furthermore, in April, Iyer received an unrestricted $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and a $30,000 commission from the Greenfield Foundation for a new work to be performed in 2014. With such honoraria in the pipeline, not to mention another large commission for a collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava marking the hundredth anniversary of Rite of Spring, and a cohort of talented private students (among them Christian Sands, Christian McBride’s current pianist-of-choice), it would seem that either the jazz “mainstream” has caught up to Iyer, or that Iyer has caught up to it.

Given Iyer’s earlier frustrations at “finding a home in the jazz landscape,” he regards the proposition as complex. “It’s more that I’ve reached a position of acceptance among people who present concerts in this area of music,” he countered. “That allows me to play in front of large audiences, and step by step, I have opportunities to connect that weren’t there before.

“To me, the notion of a jazz mainstream is a peculiar take on a music that was always oppositional and kind of defiant. It’s not fiction, because it exists in a market. But the real mainstream is perhaps more tolerant of aesthetic radicalism. I’ll hear a hip-hop beat that’s made from drops of water in a cup, and some cheap Casio bass drum and tom sounds that are almost comical—aesthetically shocking. Then I’ll look on Youtube and it has 20 million hits—not just a few people underground. I also have to say that, touring with Steve Coleman or Roscoe or Wadada, I’ve seen rooms filled with 3,000 people completely connect to some very intense stuff that we can do in those contexts.”

For now, Iyer was still processing the heady turn of events. “I’ve been in constant motion, and the Doris Duke award dropped on me in the middle of it,” he said. “Two days ago, I woke up, had an appointment in Midtown, and then just walked around New York, and tried to breathe and exercise my shoulders and observe and just be in the world for a change, not running like a crazy person. I’ll continue to do a significant amount of work and gigging. But I’m hoping to transform my day-to-day, so I’m not so anxious all the time.”

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Across Two Worlds (Rave—2008):

 

In the liner notes to Tragicomic, his twelfth album, the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer cites the use of the adjectival descriptive by Cornell West, the African-American philosopher-aesthetician, to denote the sensibility at play in the blues aesthetic, a world view that bedrocks much of 20th century jazz, black popular music, and the blues as such.

“West described the blues aesthetic as stemming from a sustained encounter with the absurd conditions African-Americans faced after slavery was abolished in the United States,” Iyer says. “Suddenly they found themselves categorized as a new kind of person, who previously had been owned as property and now had a certain amount of freedom, but also still faced injustice everywhere, and still had to find a way to continue being who they were. It’s not exactly humor. Irony, I guess, is the word.”

As an American of South Indian descent, born to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the 60s and earned advanced degrees, Iyer, 36, won’t compare his formative experiences to the conditions faced by the direct descendants of American slaves. But in his view, he shares with these aesthetic forebears the imperative of “having to establish and define and create an identity with no real precedents in American culture, of being different in a way that forces you into a critical perspective on what’s around you.”

Hence, in 2006, when he recorded and titled the 11-piece suite, Iyer relates, “I was thinking about what it means to be American today. I have a particular transnational scope; my perspective is very much American, but inflected and informed by Indian histories and heritage. It’s tragicomic – joy and sadness come together. This blues sensibility, rooted in African-American culture and history, has global relevance. We can all learn from and participate in it. The blues is not just a kind of music. It has to do with having a certain kind of cry, a desire to be heard, a refusal to be silenced.”

One of the most visible experimentally-oriented jazz musicians of his generation, Iyer factors his dual cultural heritage into his musical production. With a minimum of motion above the elbows, he uncorks torrents of intricately calibrated sound, sculpting declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa, illuminating symbolic connections between the notes and tones that comprise his musical vocabulary, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual, and the stories that he uses them to tell. The overall effect is one of stately, almost archetypal grandeur.

Music played a major role in the social rituals followed by Iyer’s parents, both practicing although “not extremely devout” Hindus. “We sang bhajans with other Indian families in the area, and, since there were no temples in Rochester, New York, we made pilgrimages to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Toronto to worship with others. Now temples are everywhere, and there’s even one in Rochester! During the ‘60s and ‘70s we were building a community. Now there’s a critical mass, the community exists, and we have an infrastructure, a culture, an identity – we can have a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kal Penn, a Mira Nair, a Harold and Kumar. That gives people growing up something to look up to, like, ‘Well, I could be that person.’ It’s a very different scenario from my own experience. It wasn’t just skin color that set me apart from most of the people around me, but also having a foreign name, which nobody knew anything about, and just the fact that we were a new kind of American. People didn’t understand who we were or why we were here. It’s not that I experienced this major injustice, but it did create a certain alienation that had to be broken through.”

On the other hand, Iyer notes, “a critical sensibility” also informs the way he processes his Indian heritage. “My parents left India for a reason,” he says. “We visited several times when I was growing up, and my mom and sister would stay with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. For an American visiting India, there’s this cliché of the sensory overload, with all sorts of new things you’ve never seen before. But for me it was also very much a homecoming, getting to be with family I barely knew, but were still family – and I felt a bond with them. But aside from the family, my parents never felt that connected to what was happening in India culturally. So I grew up with that ambivalence as well.

“Still, I came to find that my parents couldn’t relate to the idea of self-actualization, even though, at some level, that was one of their goals when they came to the US. But they didn’t see it as that. Their major life choices were mapped out in terms of what they would study, who they would marry, where they would live. It was a new perspective for people like them, from our community, the idea that you do what you want and choose the career you love, even if it seems difficult and will take you away from your family.”

In grappling with these issues, Iyer turned increasingly to music, gradually constructing an artistic response to the question of “Who am I?” A self-taught pianist who discovered jazz in high school, he found himself drawn to the New York pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), whose percussive approach and unique harmonic language continues to influence the jazz sound. “Every sound Monk makes sounds like it’s come through this hard-won process, this life-long search for sounds in the instrument,” Iyer says, explaining Monk’s resonance. A math and physics major at Yale, he discovered “the experimental tradition of creative music – jazz” and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C. Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics PhD candidate, and, while researching a thesis on the neurobiology of musical cognition, began the process of intersecting with the Bay Area’s various “creative communities” by which he developed his mature sound.

“It took me a while to realize that I was going to be a musician,” Iyer says. “I’m sure that’s nothing new to Indian audiences—almost every Carnatic musician I’ve met has an advanced degree in something besides music. Prasanna is a nautical engineer; he learned how to build ships. Umayalpuram Sivaraman has a law degree. It became a common thing to have something to fall back on, because you can’t rely on music as a career and it’s impractical. That’s still true!

“But when I hit the ground in California, I suddenly became a professional, playing in town, doing my thing. I continued my research in physics for two years, burning the midnight oil, playing gigs late at night and somehow waking up for an 8 am quantum mechanics lecture! Finally, it reached a crisis point, where I realized that I would never really be happy if music was not at the center of my life. That decision came when I was 23, and it was traumatic – my mother cried – but I worked through it.”

Ensconced in the Bay Area, Iyer immersed himself in the cadential rhythmic formulas of Carnatic music, which he knew superficially, but not as an artistic discipline to be analyzed. “I decided that if I was going to try to speak some kind of truth or make any authentic statement, I needed to figure out what this music is – or at least, on my own terms, what it means to me. In the Silicon Valley, there’s a big Indian community – technically trained IIT graduates from South India – and they would host a lot of concerts of touring Carnatic musicians. I saw dozens of concerts, got lots of recordings and books, studied how to permute the rhythms, how I might create music that Carnatic musicians could understand and work with.”

In 1996 Iyer also met alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, his partner on many subsequent investigations, most recently Tragicomic.  The son of a South Indian physics professor who emigrated to the States to earn a Harvard PhD, Mahanthappa, who grew up in Colorado, blends a piercing, double-reed-like tone with uncanny technical facility and a sense of line that incorporates wild intervallic leaps.

“We had a lot of aesthetic overlap, were both serious, almost the same age, and in the same predicament, which was trying to figure out how to do this with no points of reference besides ourselves,” Iyer says. “When we met, it was almost an unspoken understanding that if this was going to work, it would only happen by doing it together. What does it mean to be an Indian-American artist coming into the new millennium? What’s the first thing you do? What’s the next? What issues do you want to explore? We were both novices in dealing with ideas from Indian music, but we worked hard and complemented each other. I was interested in rhythm, the moras and korvais, as well as the percussive jazz piano tradition that Monk embodied. Rudresh had been checking out Parveen Sultana, Bishmillah Khan, and Coltrane – the melodic side of everything. It was like he was the voice and I was the drums. We call our duo Raw Materials. The principle is: How can we take these rigorous ideas for putting music together, but address them in a very open way, as improvisers and people who are straddling multiple traditions?”

Although well-aware of the “Indo-Jazz” stylings of the British-Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, Don Ellis and John McLaughlin, as well as the immense influence of Indian sounds on 60s pop, Iyer drew inspiration most directly from the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane.

“Coltrane for me is the towering figure,” he says. “In the early 60s he hung out with Ravi Shankar and tried to learn about Indian music, not because he wanted his music to sound Indian, but because he had a voracious appetite for all systems of music and thought and was interested in the decisions people made so that this music sounds the way it does, why this music exists. After he died, Alice Coltrane started her own ashram in Southern California, took on a spiritual name, and made devotional music. She actually adapted these bhajans that I sang as a child into a sort of gospel-Detroit funk setting. It wasn’t created to prove a point, with the intent of fusing Indian music and jazz. It was functional music, made to do something. That’s what interests me in general – not these fusion experiments where people try to mix X with Y, but music that emerges out of necessity. I wouldn’t put my music on the same level as Alice Coltrane’s, but all my choices came out of necessity in terms of trying to come to terms with my own relationship to India, to Indian music, to Indian culture. I never imagined myself as an expert on Indian music, but I wanted to harmonize with it, have it play a central role in who I am.”

For that reason, Iyer took deep satisfaction from a 1998 performance at a festival in Mumbai, his mother’s hometown, when he played with his Bay Area band, Jazz Yatra. “I played in clubs and did a big concert with my band, and it was an amazing experience,” he says. “I got exposed to side of Mumbai life – the jazz aficionados and bon vivants, the sort of playboy culture of the city – that I never would have seen hanging out with my relatives at the time. Maybe today I would, because they’re independent, mobile people.

“When we played at the festival, there was a real embrace from the audience. Rudresh was in the band, and they could hear what I guess you’d call the quasi-Indian content in what we were doing. For them to see this band on stage that’s half-Indian, playing real music, not just throwing them a bone, but really serious music coming from their countrymen, had an impact. There weren’t any other people like us on the program. Also, I had a row full of relatives in the audience at this big amphitheater at St. Xavier’s College, and that was also important for me, for my family to see what it is I do.”

It is evident from Tragicomic that Iyer has not tempered his rigorous formalism, but he has increasingly made it his business to place his vision of abstract notes and tones at the service of the word, as evidenced by a steady association and two fully staged collaborations with same-generation poet Mike Ladd, most recently documented on Still Life With Commentator (Savoy).

“I’m interested in the idea that all these traditions are fluid and always changing,” he says. “That’s so with jazz, which was always urban music, cosmopolitan, aware, hybrid and alive, drawing from multiple sources, Likewise, Indian music today is vast, very much connected to the rest of the world. Bollywood music sounds like something you’d hear in a club down the street. I mean, all the Indian cities seem to have a lot of very vibrant activity, probably due to the new technology-related economies. The landscape has changed rapidly in the last decade, and accompanying the growth is more improvisation at every level of culture, where new realities are incorporated and people are coming to terms with their new identities and speaking from that new perspective. So we’re all connected, basically, and all the traditions are interacting. Anyone can learn from them and create new music that’s authentic to who they are. I’m interested in standing still and feeling it all speak through me.”

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Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa (Downbeat-2001):

“The tradition in African-American music is not about making sounds for their own sake. There is always an instrumentality connected with sounds; you make sounds for pedagogical purposes, to embody history or tell stories.” – George Lewis
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On October 30th, before an intense audience at Joe’s Pub, a classy lounge tucked away in Manhattan’s Public Theater, pianist Vijay Iyer and his quartet (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Derrick Phillips, drums) imparted a touch of catharsis to an audience of frazzled natives. Celebrating Iyer’s recently issued Panoptic Modes [Red Giant}, the unit authoritatively executed a challenging succession of Iyer compositions marked by declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa. For all their intensity, Iyer’s pieces — he describes his role as “putting together musical situations” — radiated a stately, almost archetypal grandeur. Mahanthappa projected a keening, invocational sound, raw but centered, redolent of microtonal nuance. Phillips transmuted complex metric equations into cogent drum chants that traversed the full timbral range of the trapset. The composer illuminated precise symbolic connections between personal imperatives and the stories, images and states of mind encoded in the rhythms he deploys, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual.

Both Iyer and Mahanthappa are 30, and their personalities are complementary. Iyer is slight-framed, soft-spoken, cerebral, a vegetarian who drinks nothing stronger than tea; with a minimum of motion above the elbows, he unleashes choreographed torrents of calibrated sound. More Vishnuesque but no less brainy, Mahanthappa favors beer and cigarettes and meat; blowing, he stands erect and still, a leonine mane of black hair framing his arched-back head. Both are first-generation Americans from highly educated South Indian families that immigrated to the United States during the 1960s. Both grew up in communities where Indian descent made them distinct among their peer group, and felt a certain disconnect from Indian culture. For both, cracking the codes of ritual-based music and sustaining a dialogue with it was part and parcel, as Mahanthappa puts it, “of coming face to face with notion of not really being American and not really being Indian.”

A self-taught pianist whose jazz obsession began in high school, Iyer honed an early affinity for the percussive orientation of hardcore New York School piano — Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor — during undergraduate years at Yale, where he majored in math and physics and led a trio and sextet. He discovered “the experimental tradition of Creative Music-Jazz” in an undergraduate course with Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C.-Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics Ph.D candidate. He led a weekly bop-to-freedom jam session attended by such distinguished elders as Smiley Winters and Ed Kelly; aligned himself with forward-thinking Asian-American composer-improvisers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Miya Masaoka; studied with Berkeley-based Ghanaian percussion master C.K. Ladzekpo; collaborated with progressive hip-hop artists; and played original music with several ensembles comprised of like-minded peer-groupers Liberty Ellman, Aaron Stewart and Elliot Kavee, all up-and-comers in New York.

So music was about to push physics aside when Steve Coleman arrived in the Bay Area to undertake a six-week residency in the Bay Area that launched the young pianist on his systematic exploration of the science of rhythm and meter. Iyer helped Coleman connect with local venues and promoters, began to sit in with his band, and got a call in March 1995 to play with Coleman in Paris over a productive week that produced three influential recordings. Subsequently, Iyer has done projects with Coleman in Cuba, Senegal, and India, soaking up information, yet keeping in mind that “the different musics are very alive, not fixed, ahistorical entities. The people I interacted with represent a particular aspect of these vast traditions; there may be other containers and vessels who might have different shapes. Maybe the mentality that I apply to jazz masters like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk is the same template or hermeneutics that I apply to these musicians from other traditions.”

Iyer’s training in the abstractions of theoretical science served him well in grappling with Coleman’s ideas. “I have a mind for complexity, and could see Steve’s concepts as mathematical progressions,” Iyer says. “Steve permutes and conjures with numbers, and he saw that I could grasp his structures pretty quickly, although it’s one thing to conceptualize these complex structures and another to internalize them in your body. Steve upped the ante, making such fresh, spontaneous music from such rigorous ideas. I was used to getting by with whoever was willing even to try to play my music. Then I saw what can happen if you put in the time that he does with his band.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to Steve about his directions and intentions. He always has a working theory about how different cultures connect historically and metaphysically, and he investigates or queries these hypotheses musically, trying to tie them together in an experimental way. It’s a continual process, and you don’t have to subscribe to the same ideas to engage in it. I ended up focusing more on the percussive music of South India, mainly at the conceptual level; I wanted to draw from those ideas in order to invigorate my own music.”

In 1995 Iyer met trombonist/computer installation artist George Lewis, who imparted to Iyer the notion of “framing improvisation itself as a kind of inquiry, or critique or intellectual discourse, without losing the soul or heart of the music.” Lewis and Berkeley faculty members David Wessel and Olly Wilson helped Iyer launch an interdisciplinary Ph.D project exploring music and cognition from a rhythmcentric perspective. That Fall he participated in a Cecil Taylor creative orchestra music project, and that summer he worked at a Coleman-led workshop at Stanford University where he met Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa reached that Stanford crossroads by a very different route. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, his high school sax idols were Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker; he attended Berklee School of Music from 1990-92, then moved to Chicago. He led a Monday night jam session at a Lincoln Park attended by a small cadre of players who “didn’t fit into the straight-ahead scene or the avant-garde scene — I always felt like I was fighting the system.” In response, Mahanthappa focused on original music, incorporating various South Asian rhythms and scales and melodies into a format congruent with jazz, and evoking the sonic properties of the shenai and nagaswaram, the double-reed instruments of India, on the alto saxophone.

Mahanthappa says that he turned to Indian music “as a way of processing my own identity. Not to mention that it comes very naturally to me; I’ve had that sound in my ear since I was a kid, especially the vocal style. When I heard Steve Coleman’s work with concepts of West African percussion in the early ’90s, it started making even more sense. It’s not necessarily the sonic qualities; Steve doesn’t have a Ghanaian drum line playing with him, and he doesn’t need to. Nor do I feel like I need to have tabla and mrdangam in my quartet.”

Neither Mahanthappa nor Iyer had met another Indian-American jazz musician when Coleman introduced them, and their simpatico was instant. “We bring a lot of the same issues to the table,” Mahanthappa says. “Our musical relationship is amazing; we can do a lot of things that we don’t really have to discuss. I think everyone should be grateful to find one person who they can have such a close bond with in their career.”

After four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa moved to New York, and immediately joined forces with guitarist Ben Monder and groove-masters Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin. “After six months, I felt like I was playing at a higher level,” he says. “In New York there’s a sense of mutual appreciation for music that’s done well. You could get a band to rehearse three times for a gig that paid 40 bucks at the Internet Cafe!”

“The pace is faster in New York,” says Iyer, who arrived in 1999. “You’re always running around and there’s so much to cope with. My aesthetic has shifted. I used to play a lot less. Not as dense or fast, fewer notes, maybe the chords were sparser. That approach is still part of me, and it informs everything that’s come since. But here you feel you have to release it all every time you play. Maybe it was easier in the Bay Area not to feel like you’re in this rush to say everything.”

Meanwhile, Iyer and Mahanthappa inhabit the diverse improvisational, intellectual and cultural worlds of New York, adding to their personal well of narratives and contributing to the larger pool of knowledge. Having the chance to interact with the elders who walk the same streets and ride the same subways makes history live, strengthens their connection to the jazz lineage.

“The ultimate gratification is to find our work embraced by people like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and even Muhal and Andrew Hill, who I’ve idolized for more than a decade,” says Iyer, who works in Mitchell’s Note Factory. “They’re coming to our gigs and giving us fatherly advice! They’re also human beings, living and working, and getting through life. It’s so much easier to relate to them, and you can imagine placing yourself in at least the same frame of mind.”

“When I run into one of those guys on the street, I’m glad I moved here,” Mahanthappa agrees. “I’m part of the real jazz community. That would have never happened if we had stayed where we were. I can’t think of a lifestyle that allows me to control so many variables, not only the music itself but my entire life! Both of us had tons of options out of high school, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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Vijay Iyer (Blindfold Test) – Raw:

1. Joachim Kuhn, “Rabih’s Delight” (from KALIMBA, ACT, 2007) (Kuhn, piano, composer; Majid Bekkas, percussion; Ramon Lopez, drums)

I’m kind of stumped as to who that first one was. It had a nice sense of space in it, and I liked the composition, although I felt that when they went into the improvised section, it was a little formally vague. It sounded a bit unfocused at times in the middle. I liked the drummer. I liked the overall use of space in the way that the whole thing was put together. The percussionist I wasn’t so sure about. I was trying to think of who this might be. At first I thought maybe Omar Sosa, but actually it doesn’t sound like his playing. The way whoever it was dealt with rhythm, when he would play the more rapid figures and stuff, it didn’t sound like his feel to me. Although maybe it was. I haven’t heard him in a few years now. It wasn’t? Okay. I’ll give the overall feel of it 3½ stars, the composition 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it might be an elder. There’s a certain sense of warmth and composure and I’d say dignity that one finds in the elders.

2. Stephen Scott, “My Funny Valentine” (from Ron Carter, DEAR MILES, Blue Note, 2007) (Carter, bass; Scott, piano; Peyton Crossley, drums; Roger Squitero, percussion)

It’s “My Funny Valentine” played at a crawl. I don’t know about those chimes either. I don’t know who this is either. I get the idea. It’s a very capable and delicate execution. There’s nothing stylistically bold happening, but it’s accomplished. All these auxiliary percussion and the drums are kind of cracking me up, I have to say! The ending saved it. I’m glad I listened to the end. For me, in terms of my overall reaction, I liked the delicacy and the lushness at the end, even with this rhythmic figure that they closed with. But I don’t know who it was. Some names came and went in my head as I was listening. I thought for a moment Hank Jones, but I don’t think it’s Hank, because it seemed, in a way, a little bit more derivative than I would expect of Hank. So I don’t know. [Do you think it was the pianist’s record?] That’s an interesting question. It changes things when I think about it that way. The pianist was kind of playing safe, so that leads me to guess perhaps not. Since you said that, I’m going to guess that it was the drummer’s record. Ron Carter? Ah. Stephen Scott. There was another moment in the beginning, before the band came in, when I thought it might have been Ahmad Jamal. Ron kind of took a back seat considering it’s his record, which is interesting. For originality…it’s not original. This is a new record? Well, it is Ron Carter, who’s done everything. He’s played on some of the most landmark versions of this tune that there are. For me, doing an in the pocket version of “My Funny Valentine” in a record in 2007…that’s just not the choice I would make. But in terms of stars, for execution… The people played it safe, but they did it very smoothly and with elegance, so 3½.

3. Robert Glasper, “Of Dreams To Come” (from IN MY ELEMENT, Blue Note, 2007) (Glasper, piano; Vicente, Archer, bass; Damion Reid, drums)

Robert Glasper? Ah, I’m right. He’s doing these… I haven’t heard his latest record, but it has all the qualities that I associate with him, like a harmonic maze going on, but there’s also an insistent rhythm. He has a really nice touch. He’s really controlled with his touch; I admire that about him. Some of the pianistic things… He does certain kinds of turns and filagrees and ornaments that I associate with him, some of which are sort of gospelish. I like it. And I like his band. [AFTER] I enjoyed that. I’m still trying to get a handle on Glasper in general. I admire him, and I think he’s very accomplished, and I like his tunes. But something about the way he plays them, there isn’t as much space in his own soloing, and his soloing tends to focus on the kind of higher register, so it’s sort of like this lyrical soprano range almost, for most of it. Sometimes I crave a little more space in his playing, and a little bit more exploring the whole range of the piano, particularly in the times I’ve heard him with his trio. But I think he’s a fantastic musician, and I really like seeing band live. Stars? You and your stars! I’ll give the tune… Everyone has to know, so that no one gets offended, that I am being very sparing, and almost nobody in the world will get 5 stars. I’ll give the composition 3½, and I’ll give the playing 4.

4. Danilo Perez, “Epilogo” (from LIVE AT THE JAZZ SHOWCASE, Artist Share, 2004) (Perez, piano, composer; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

The old studio fade on a live record! That was pretty happening! I have to say, that was kind of smoking. Again, I had a bunch of names in my head. At first, I thought it might have been Gonzalo, but there was a little bit more abandon in it than I usually hear from him, so I’m not sure. Then there were some things I’ve heard Pilc do before, when the piano solo reached a certain climax, and he did all these kind of demented diminished chords kind of ascending into the insanity. But I don’t know. I can’t honestly say it’s either of those guys. In fact, something about the montuno, the way it was played, sounded like it couldn’t have been Gonzalo. I’ll give the whole thing 4 stars. Danilo? That makes more sense. I guess Danilo should have been my next choice. I’m so used to hearing him with Wayne, I’ve forgotten how he’ll get down in his own music. Nice playing, Danilo. Thank you. Fantastic playing by everybody.

5. Brad Mehldau, “She’s Leaving Home” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums; Lennon-McCartney, composer)

Is this Brad? I thought so. I’m not a huge Brad listener, but I know enough about him that I figured it had to be him. Mainly, actually, what it was about it… Well, one, obviously, he covers lots of pop tunes, and everybody knows that. But that wasn’t it. It was more that I’ve read him say that Monk is his main influence, and actually I heard that in here, even though he’s doing a Beatles tune, and it’s rendered in this way that’s a little… It’s a little bit poppy, but it isn’t entirely that. But I think mainly the way he got this ringing sound out of the instrument and marshaled the power of the instrument in this way that Monk would, that very few other people did. Anyone who has really thought deeply about Monk will tend to think in those terms. And he seems to be pushing himself, which I admire. The way he’d treat the melody, it was like he was reaching for it. That quality makes it compelling. It’s done in a way that’s very likeable, and it’s nice. It’s a great trio. Was that Larry on bass? It’s fantastic bass playing. They’re really supporting what Brad is doing really well, and they help drive his ideas home. Was this a live record? I guess I think that the arrangement could have been more concise, given that it’s a studio record in particular. It sort of takes you there, and back again, and then there again. Like, it could have… The reason I let it play for so long is that I wanted to know… The thing about when you handle these pop songs… What was the name of this song? “She’s Leaving Home,” that’s right. When you cover these tunes that are so loaded with significance for people… Certainly, there’s a sector of listeners who are just going to get off on the fact that it’s this Beatles song that they love or something. But to me, I think it’s important to have an angle on it, and have a reason for doing it besides that it’s just a beautiful song. But that’s just me. That’s probably my problem more than Brad’s. Brad doesn’t have any problems actually! Anyway, I’ll give the idea of covering this song 3 stars, but I’d give the execution 4 songs.

6. Dave Brubeck, “Georgia On My Mind” (from INDIAN SUMMER, Telarc, 2007) (Brubeck, piano)

I guessed Hank Jones at first, but I had misgivings about doing so, because he doesn’t usually wear his blues thing on his sleeve like that. But some of the chords in there definitely reminded me of Hank. So I’m trying to think who this could be, then. Gosh. I don’t know. This is a new record? Brand new? It’s really about the inner voices in his chords, which not many people have. They’re like the subtle gradations in these voicings that come from decades, obviously, of real careful decision-making. When you have the benefit of that many years of experience… Whoever this person is, it’s either someone who’s older or who’s really kind of grotesquely imitating an elder person. I hope it’s not the latter. Just certain things. Like, he’d add this little leading chromatic thing on a middle voice that would create a progression where there would be none otherwise. So it’s just these sort of inner pathways between parts of the song that people like Hank will find… I have to stop talking about Hank, since it’s not that person. So who does that leave? I don’t think it was Barry Harris. I guess it could be… I get the sense that whoever… I was going to say maybe it’s Kenny Barron, but I don’t think it was, because Kenny would put more variety in it than what I heard. This is really a very direct, lyrical, and heartfelt version of “Georgia on My Mind,” by somebody who feels that song. I don’t know who that is. You want me to grade it before I know who it is? Well, see, the thing is that it’s not just about music in a vacuum. To me, it matters where the shit is coming from. But I’ll give it 4½ stars.

7. Hiromi Uehara, “Time Travel” (from TIME CONTROL, Telarc, 2007) (Uehara, piano, composer; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Tony Grey, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

That was Hiromi with Fuze on guitar, and I’m glad to see he’s getting some space to stretch on something, because I haven’t heard much from him lately. That was a little bit hilarious—perhaps partly intentionally so. Well, it’s the return of fusion. It’s the return of things that happened 30 years ago, in all the good and bad parts of it. I guess one of the good parts about it is the exuberance that’s evident relentlessly throughout! The bad parts have to do with taste, I guess. I don’t want to say bad, but one of the parts that I don’t go for about this piece and about other things like this is that it’s so overly arranged that it’s almost impossible for it to really seem spontaneous. People get their little moments to shine on vamps or on, as we call it, “fusion swing” sort of grooves (that’s meant in not the most positive way). But everybody has blazing musicianship and stuff like that, and so it’s like foregrounding chops and musicianship and really tight intricacy of arrangement, but there’s so little room for discovery in the course of music like this, because it’s sort of like it’s been all tightly packed together in a… It’s all been wrapped up in a bow, basically. It doesn’t really take the listener through a real-time process. It’s like listening to something that’s so pre-ordained that it’s almost as if the listener isn’t really taken along. That’s I guess one of the drawbacks about music of this nature. But Hiromi is doing great in her career, and I’m really happy that that’s even possible in this day and age. I read that she sold 100,000 copies in Japan or something crazy like that! Very few people are achieving that level of success in this music. That’s cool. Also, in a lot of her music, there’s this kind of cuteness factor, like this “Look at this cool thing that we can do” kind of thing. Perhaps she’ll move past that and get into some other things later in her career. She has plenty of time, because she’s still very young, and the world is her oyster. 2½ stars.

8. Kalman Olah, “Hungarian Sketch #1” (from ALWAYS, Merless, 2007 (Olah, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I don’t know who that was. I don’t think I’m going to guess right, even if I try. I liked the tune. I liked the composition actually. There’s a chord they kept returning to that reminded me of Andrew Hill chords; that will always win points with me! I guess I was a little bit… It didn’t exactly grab me as a performance. It was nicely done, but I have to say that it’s hard for piano trio music to hold up in the midst of a blindfold test, because they all start to… At their worst, they start to sound the same. Just like when it doesn’t jump out at you, and you’re reminded of the other things that didn’t jump out at you. Not that good music needs to jump out at you all the time. And this was good music. It just wasn’t all that unique to me. The pianist was good, and kept his technique in reserve in a nice way, so there was a moment when he flashed some virtuosity. That was sort of a surprise. So I respect that kind of choice. It was nice. But I don’t know who it was. [Can you discern any ethnicity encoded in this, or in fact, ethnic codes in any of the music we’ve been playing?] I guess the first one was sort of wearing that more on its sleeve. The Kuhn thing. Because of the inclusion of some kind of Moroccan percussion instrument, but also the modal kind of… There was a tinge of exotica going on in that piece, which I am often on the fence about the use of. See, the thing is, in the case of that Kuhn piece, Randy Weston can do something like that, and it doesn’t raise that question mark for me, because it feels like it’s integrated into his whole relationship to the piano. Because he has such a deep thing about sound that when… Because he dwells so much on kind of the basement range of the piano, in those lower octaves, and he explores the overtones that emerge out of that, so that affects his entire harmonic language in this way. But to me, the Kuhn thing was a little bit more like it was a certain kind of journey into exotica. But this piece didn’t really strike me so much as that. Like, it had some Lydian chords in it or something, but that doesn’t… 3 stars. I was kind of neutral about it. To me, the piano playing was accomplished but a little generic for 2007.

9. Lafayette Gilchrist, “In Depth” (from LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST 3, Hyena, 2007) (Gilchrist, piano, composer; Anthony “Blue” Jenkins, bass; Nate Reynolds, drums)

This person is kind of out! This insistence on dwelling on these kind of… Well, the harmonic approach was so consistently strange, but in a very interesting way. I like that aspect of it. I have one guess, and the other is just… The first guess is Michelle Rosewoman. Oh, okay. Then it seems to me like somebody who has ties to… Well, it’s interesting. It’s a strange little that’s like a blues, but it’s dealt with in a very… Altered would be just the tip of the iceberg, really, for what this person is doing, because it’s not altered in a conventional way. It’s this very unique approach to harmony. I was reminded at times of Horace Tapscott and at times of Sun Ra. But obviously, it’s not either of those people. Also, I was thinking that this person seems to have connections to the… I guess the choice of rhythm section, even just for that kind of generic funk beginning to this tune, and using electric bass and the backbeat—everything about that was a bit jarring compared to the way the pianist was playing. The pianist was a little bit looser with rhythm and with time and so on. Though not that it went astray. Just the feel of it was looser. That’s all. I like the tune, so I’ll give the tune 3½ stars. As for execution, I admire that this person stuck to his or her guns harmonically, and really just stayed there, to the point that this is the character of the piece in a very consistent way. But it was a little… Just the whole thing felt a little goofy. So 3 stars.

10. Luis Perdomo, “Tribal Dance” (from AWARENESS, RKM, 2006) (Perdomo, piano, composer; Hans Glawischnig, Henry Grimes, bass; Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, drums)

Well, I’m real glad you played that. I guessed that it was Luis’ album. I haven’t heard it, but I knew of its existence, and particularly the fact that there are two bass players on it, and one of them was Grimes. There aren’t many records that are going to sound like that! I remember running into him at Iridium the night of the day of that recording session. Cecil was playing at Iridium. He told me about it, and I was like, “What?” I was excited to hear what that wound up sounding like. To me, Luis is one of the baddest cats on this scene. He has so much command, and he’s dealing like a motherfucker. He’s really great. But people tend to put him squarely in the mainstream, or even on the Latin side of the mainstream, by virtue of his origins. But to me, he has a really broad scope, and I admire the fact that he made such a bold move on his record as to make it this, as to have… I don’t know if the entire record is this format. But just to have this second album feature something like this on it is… It’s not like he wrote a lot of stuff to happen in that particular tune. But also, he set up a situation that was kind of brilliant, I thought. He’s uniting these different sectors of the New York scene in this one move. It starts with this sonic screech, and then you hear him play this kind of modal figure, but it’s all in this groove that’s really tight, and it all kind of falls together, and you get these like very appealing elements from all these different sources that all fall together very nicely. Was that Nasheet I heard in there? I thought so. I really admire that he did this, and I enjoyed it, too. I think that the drum duet… Who was the other one? Eric McPherson? It seemed they were really taking chances in the studio, like, “Okay, we’re going to play this and then see what happens.” So it sounded like there was a little bit… Just towards the end of the drum duet, there was a little bit of like, “What do we do now?’ There was just one moment when it was like that. But other than that, I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad that it happened. So 4½ stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, Vijay Iyer

For Master Composer-Drummer (and Trombonist-Pianist) Tyshawn Sorey’s 37th Birthday, two interviews from 2007, a DownBeat Players Article from that Year, and a Blindfold Test from 2014

Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.

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Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):

Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.

It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.

“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”

Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.

“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal,  and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”

Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”

“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”

Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.

“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”

These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.

“I want to keep the audience guessing,  and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”

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Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):

TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.

SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane.  Much of my jazz influence comes from them.

TP:   This was as a kid in Newark?

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Who was this teacher?

SOREY:   He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.

In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.

So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…

TP:   Which books?

SOREY:   I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.

TP:   There aren’t that many.

SOREY:   Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.

TP:   The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.

SOREY:   Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.

TP:   You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.

SOREY:   Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.

TP:   But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?

SOREY:   Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.

TP:   Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?

SOREY:   It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to  write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.

This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.

TP:   In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.

SOREY:   Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…

TP:   Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?

SOREY:   A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.

TP:   Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?

SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.

TP:   So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.

SOREY:   It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.

TP:   Why?

SOREY:   For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…

TP:   Come on. You want to sound killing!

SOREY:   [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.

TP:   Working out those issues with music.

SOREY:   Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.

TP:   So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?

SOREY:   Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that.  Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.

TP:   Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.

SOREY:   That’s right.

TP:   What’s unsatisfactory about it?

SOREY:   It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…

TP:   So that, or not-that.

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…

SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.

Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.

TP:   Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?

SOREY:   No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.

TP:   No tambourine here, or castanets there…

SOREY:   Just a strict, regular type of drumset.

TP:   How many different projects are you leading now?

SOREY:   Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.

TP:   How do they differ in content?

SOREY:   The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.

TP:   Three very different fields of activity.

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?

SOREY:   Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.
[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_*_

Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):

TP:   I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?

TYSHAWN:   Just this past Friday? No.

TP:   How long have you been playing with him?

TYSHAWN:   This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.

TP:   So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?

TYSHAWN:   He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.

TP:   Who you’d known about since high school.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your  personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.

TYSHAWN:   I had a lot of fun. It  was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.

TP:   Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?

TYSHAWN:   Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.

TP:   The older musicians. This was in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.

TP:   How so?

TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process.  It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…

TP:   Pacing was one of them.

TYSHAWN:   Pacing was very important.

TP:   By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.

TYSHAWN:   Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.

TP:   When did you first start hitting the New York scene?

TYSHAWN:   Around 2002.

TP:   Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?

TYSHAWN:   Right.  In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   I was born in Newark. Born and raised.

TP:   You’re from downtown, urban Newark.

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. Right in the center.

TP:   Did you have musicians in the family?

TYSHAWN:   No.

TP:   What things drew you to music and the drums?

TYSHAWN:   I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.

TP:   Back when? When you were 2?

TYSHAWN:   No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.

TP:   You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?

TYSHAWN:   It was all music to me.

TP:   But where…

TYSHAWN:   I heard it at home.

TP:   Your parents had jazz records.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.

TP:   He’s into it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.

TP:   So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.

TYSHAWN:   Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.

TP:   Well, you were 5 or 6.

TYSHAWN:   Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.

TP:   How did your uncle know him?

TYSHAWN:   We didn’t know him at all.

TP:   He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”

TYSHAWN:   Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.

TP:   That’s when he had the United Nations Band.

TYSHAWN:   Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.

TP:   Were you playing drums by that time?

TYSHAWN:   No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…

TP:   Were you playing piano or trombone by then?

TYSHAWN:   I was playing piano and trombone by then.

TP:   Was that in the schools in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”

TP:   As opposed to trombone!

TYSHAWN:   As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.

TP:   Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, that kind of thing.

TP:   When did you start playing drums?

TYSHAWN:   I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.

TP:   Before that were you playing rhythms?

TYSHAWN:   I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.

TP:   I’m sure you had good time.

TYSHAWN:   Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church,  or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.

TP:   Was church a place where you could play?

TYSHAWN:   Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.

TP:   You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?

TYSHAWN:   Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.

TP:   Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…

TYSHAWN:   Exactly.

TP:   You would try to emulate these guys.

TYSHAWN:   Try to emulate these guys.

TP:   Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.

TYSHAWN:   Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.

TP:   You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.

TP:   Why?

TYSHAWN:   Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.

TP:   But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.

TP:   Do you think that’s a generational thing?

TYSHAWN:   It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.

TP:   You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…

TYSHAWN:   I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.

TP:   These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…

TYSHAWN:   Yes.

TP:   What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.

TP:   That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…

TYSHAWN:   It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.

TP:   It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.

TYSHAWN:   Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…

TP:   In church?

TYSHAWN:   No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.

TP:   During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.

TYSHAWN:   It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period.  But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.

TP:   But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…

TYSHAWN:   I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.

TP:   As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…

TYSHAWN:   No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.

TP:   Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…

TYSHAWN:   Right. Very straight-ahead.

TP:   I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…

TYSHAWN:   Shy away.

TP:   …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?

TYSHAWN:   It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”

TP:   So you dug that right away?

TYSHAWN:   Uh-huh.

TP:   Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?

TYSHAWN:   No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.

TP:   Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.

TYSHAWN:   Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.

TP:   But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…

TYSHAWN:   It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.

TP:   Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?

TYSHAWN:   No. Not at all..

TP:   This was before you went to college.

TYSHAWN:   This was in high school.

TP:   What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?

TYSHAWN:   In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.

TP:   Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?

TYSHAWN:   John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.

TP:   I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.

TYSHAWN:   Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.

TP:   I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.

TYSHAWN:   Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.

TP:   When you play bebop, who do you sound like?

TYSHAWN:   Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…

TP:   You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.

TYSHAWN:   Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…

TP:   Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…

TYSHAWN:   I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.

TP:   So that’s satisfying for you, too.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…

TP:   You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…

TYSHAWN:   Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.

TP:   Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?

TYSHAWN:   It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.

TP:   You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?

TYSHAWN:   Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.

TP:   After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”

TYSHAWN:   [LOUD LAUGH]

TP:   I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head. 

TYSHAWN:   [LAUGHS] Right.

TP:   I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.

TYSHAWN:   I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see  a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.”  I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.

TP:   So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.

TYSHAWN:   Not at all.

TP:   For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?

TYSHAWN:   I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.

TP:   Particularly the textural things you’re doing.

TYSHAWN:   Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself.  For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.

Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.

TP:   What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?

TYSHAWN:   A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.

TP:   You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?

TYSHAWN:   Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.

TP:   He was still with Flanagan then.

TYSHAWN:   Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.

TP:   Serious bebop playing. 

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.

TP:   What’s your kit like? Your setup.

TYSHAWN:   I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.

TP:   Are you particular about the tuning?

TYSHAWN:   I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.

Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night,  took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.

TP:   You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?

TYSHAWN:   It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll  change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.

But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.”  I  want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.

TP:   You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.

TYSHAWN:   That’s right.

TP:   Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?

TYSHAWN:   I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…

TP:   He used to play the wall, and his chest…

TYSHAWN:   He was playing his face, too, I remember!

TP:   How long have you been taking the kit apart?

TYSHAWN:   Five-six years.

TP:   Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…

TYSHAWN:   This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.

TP:   Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?

TYSHAWN:   I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end.  It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.

TP:   Apart from music, you’re teaching?

TYSHAWN:   I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.”  I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_

Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):

Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”

Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.

Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)

The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.

The Whammies
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)

I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.

Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)

Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.

Mike Clark
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)

The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.

Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.

Doug Hammond
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)

Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.

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