Category Archives: Blindfold Test

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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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava

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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Filed under Blindfold Test, David Sanborn

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]

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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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For Drum Master Kenny Washington’s 59th Birthday, an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002

I was in over my head when I conducted the DownBeat Blindfold Test with the great drummer and discographical omnivore Kenny Washington in 2002. But today’s his 59th birthday, and it’s time to present the uncut proceedings.

 

Kenny Washington Blindfold Test — 2002:

1. Roy Haynes, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (from BIRDS OF A FEATHER: A TRIBUTE TO CHARLIE PARKER, Dreyfus, 2001) (Haynes, d; Kenny Garrett, as; Roy Hargrove, tp; David Kikoski, p; Dave Holland, b) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Roy Haynes! He gets a million stars. That’s the record, Birds of A Feather, with David Kikoski, Dave Holland is on it, Roy Hargrove, and Kenny Garrett. That’s a great record, man. Listen, man, Roy Haynes just continues to play better and better. Last time I saw him I said, “Man, can’t you slow down so that I’ll just be light years behind you?” I did all the drummers from the bebop era, of course; I studied them all. But Roy Haynes is really the only one that in the ’60s could have made Chick Corea’s recording, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, sound so contemporary. Not that the other ones couldn’t do it. But he had a certain freshness, approaching Chick’s music that was incredible. Of course, playing with John Coltrane, filling in for Elvin Jones, he sounded so fresh with that band, too. I mean, Roy Haynes has always been at the top of his game, all the time. And nowadays, he’s playing better than ever. He’s an amazing musician. I used to do transcriptions and proofread drum solos, and when you’re writing out Roy Haynes’ drum solos, you have to create map. Roy Haynes creates so many different sounds on the drums, so to get students to understand what he’s all about, you have to make an enormous map, do all these little diagrams, make notations of different sounds he makes on the drums. And he’s got tons and tons of different sounds that he just gets off the snare drum alone. We won’t even talk about the rest of the instrument. And look at the records he made with Gary Burton in the ’60s. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no other drummer from that era, the ’40s and ’50s, who could have made that music sound as contemporary as it did. Of course, it’s as fresh as some of the other drummers of that era, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and people like that.

But Roy has paid his dues. He goes back to Luis Russell’s band! One time I was on the radio, and I played some record of Benny Carter’s band with Max Roach. When I came back on the air, I talked about Max and how he wasn’t just a bebopper, that he’d played with some of the swing bands as well and knew all the swing styles. I go on to the next record, the phone rings in the studio. I pick up the phone. “Hey Wash. This is Roy Haynes.” I say, “Hey, Roy, what’s happening, man. How are you doing?” He says, “You know, I played with the swing bands, too. And you didn’t mention me. I said, “Haynes, I know, man. You played in Luis Russell’s band.” He got quiet. He said, “How did you know that?” I said, “That’s required reading, man. You kidding me?” I said, “Haynes, I apologize. I just happened to leave your name out. I didn’t mean anything by it.” Man, he’s a helluva cat. Nice man, too. He’s just as slick off the drumset as he is on. Full of vitality, a hip dresser, just a hip person out and out. I give that one a million stars. The band plays great. It’s a nice matchup. They all played well together. They all came to this session ready to play. It’s a great record, one of my favorite of Roy’s later recordings.

2. Wynton Marsalis, “Saturday Night Slow Drag” (from ALL RISE, Sony Classical, 2002), (Marsalis, comp.; Herlin Riley, d) (3 stars)

Well, it started out as a blues in A-flat. Probably Wynton. In the beginning there were a lot of problems pitch-wise. And it sounded like there were some double-reed instruments in the beginning along with the bass. There were a few pitch problems. But that happens with putting those kinds of instruments together. It was okay. It was cool. It’s like a cross between Duke Ellington’s voicings and Gil Evans’ close voicings. I’m almost 100% positive it’s Wynton and the band with… It might have been Wess Anderson on alto and Joe Temperley on baritone, probably Herlin Riley on drums, with a string orchestra. The piece was all right. I wasn’t completely knocked out. They got some nice sounds, though. To me, it went on a little bit long. For the writing… You have to put work into that. It was cool. Didn’t knock me out. But the writing was good, the musicianship was very high. So 3 stars.

3. Bill Charlap, “Blue Skies” (from New York Trio, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, Venus, 2001) (Charlap, p; Jay Leonhart; Bill Stewart, d) (5 stars)

That was a great arrangement of “Blue Skies” in 5/4 time. I’ve never heard that before. It’s got to be Bill Charlap. But the beginning was hip, man. At first, it sounded a little bit like Chick Corea. He’s got a hip touch anyway on the piano. But the way he played on 5/4 was real light, and the time just sailed. It wasn’t bogged down at all. The whole rhythm section just floated. That cat can play any style, man. I know it’s him by the way he thinks, and I also know the lines he plays — even in 5/4 time. The trio sounded just like they were playing in four. Sometimes, when you start playing in odd time signatures, you definitely have to think a certain way. But they sound as if they were playing in 4/4 time. It didn’t matter to them. They would play straight through the barlines. That’s a nice arrangement. That’s Bill Stewart on drums. I’d know that sound anywhere. Great drummer. Another one of them guys who can play in any style and he’s got his own unique sound on the drums. They played straight through as they were playing in four. I didn’t get a chance to hear the bass player solo, but the cat was rock-solid. He held down the time. Could it be Jay Leonhardt? There it is! I don’t have this record. 5 stars. High musicianship, man.

4. Dafnis Prieto, “El Guarachero Intrigozo (The Scheming Party Animal)” (from Caribbean Jazz Project, THE GATHERING, Concord Picante, 2002) (Prieto, drums & timbales; Richie Flores, congas; Roberto Quintero, perc.; Dave Samuels, marimba; Dave Valentin, fl; Dario Eskenazi, p; Ruben Rodriguez, b) (4 stars)

Man, I have no idea who that is. You got me on that one. It could be somebody like Dave Samuels, and the flutist could have been Dave Valentin. Any number of people who play that style. The arrangement was slick. The percussionists were great, tight as a drum. It’s not something I listen to all the time, but look, man, those guys played very well together. You could tell Dave Samuels knows something about playing changes. He was right in the middle of the chord changes. It’s a hard arrangements; it kept changing times and everything. Super slick. Slick arrangement, slick tune. It’s not something I would go home and play all the time, but the musicianship was high. What more can you ask for? But I don’t know who the drummers are. There are so many guys who play well in that style and can do that kind of thing. But the drum ensemble was very together. It almost sounded like the CD had skipped, because they played so well together. I don’t know how long it took them to get that tight. 3-1/2 stars.

5. Charlie Haden, “Blue Pearl” (from Charlie Haden, NOW IS THE HOUR, Verve, 1996) (Quartet West: Ernie Watts, ts; Alan Broadbent, p; Haden b; Larance Marable, d) (2-1/2 stars)

It’s Charlie Haden. That’s the West Coast Philly Joe Jones on drums, Larance Marable. It’s probably Ernie Watts on tenor. The tune is by Bud Powell, I think, but I can’t remember the name. I didn’t feel that Charlie and Larance hooked up as well as they could have. I wasn’t too bowled over by the bass lines. I like better bass lines than that. And he always plays bass lines like that. But I’m sure that was Larance Marable on drums. I’d know that drum sound anywhere. He’s one of the guys that brought the East Coast sound to the West Coast in terms of drummers. the other drummers out there, with the exception of Stan Levey and a few others, had a certain way of playing. But Larance Marable played just like a New York City drummer. As a kid, I always dug him. Like the record, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon. That record was a big influence on me, man. The records he made with Sonny Criss. He also made a bad record with Victor Feldman called Victor Feldman Plays The Music From ‘Stop The World, I Want To Get Off’ that’s never come out on CD. He played his ass off on that record! Nice man, too. One of the unsung heroes of drums. It seemed to me that when Larance got a chance to play the drum solo he got a chance to take all the shackles off, and he said, “Whoa! BAM!” He sounded like himself then, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a keeper of the bebop flame. The piano player was good, too. Was it Alan Broadbent? Good piano player, man. I just did a concert with Jane Monheit, and he was the conductor. Great musician. Great writer and arranger. He really knows what he’s doing with strings. I wasn’t bowled over by the way the rhythm section sounded, though. 2-1/2 stars.

6. Frank Wess, “Short Circuit” (from TRYIN’ TO MAKE MY BLUES TURN GREEN, Concord, 1993) (Wess, ts; Gregory Hutchinson, d; Richard Wyands, p; Steve Turre, tb.; Cecil Bridgewater, tp; Lynn Seaton, b) (4 stars)

That’s magic, man. Frank Wess. I learned so much from him, playing in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He used to sit right in front of me. He’s the kind of guy that if you didn’t do what you’re supposed to, he would tell you straight to your face that it wasn’t happening, and he’d tell you what you needed to do to get it together. So I learned a lot from him. And just hanging around with him, talking. He’s been on the scene for years, playing with Basie and Lucky Millinder. Great musician, man. It’s too bad he doesn’t record more. He’s a master of the flute, one of the pioneers of the flute, at least in modern jazz. Great writer and arranger, too. That might have been Steve Turre on trombone. The pianist is Richard Wyands. It’s hip how he threw in that quote from Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” Bass player could have been Lynn Seaton. That’s my nephew-in-law on the drums, Greg Hutchinson, early in his career. He plays a lot different now. He’s learned a little bit more about touch, about dynamics. The cat has hands. He always had the chops, as you can hear. Even, good swing, good time, comped well with his left hand. But now, the way he’s playing, he’s learned a lot more about the snare drum and he’s learned a helluva lot more about dynamics. He sounded great then, but since then he’s come a long way. I think this is a Concord record, “Turning My Blues Green” or something. Could the trumpet player be Terrell Stafford? Somebody like that. I can’t think of his name right off, but I can see his face in my mind’s eye. But it’s definitely Frank Wess, no question. Big tone on the tenor, swinging his ass off, great lines. 4 stars.

7. Ralph Peterson, “Smoke Rings” (from THE ART OF WAR, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Peterson, d, comp; Jimmy Greene, ts; Jeremy Pelt, tp; Orrin Evans, p; Eric Revis, b)

Ralph Peterson. That was a slick little tune, a hip tune. Those cats just play too damn loud, man. There were no dynamics. The only time there was some dynamics is when he went to the hi-hat near the end of the piece. To play like that, of course, takes a lot of energy and you have to know where one is. He definitely knew where one was. But there was no dynamics. It’s just loud, straight through the whole piece. There were no hills and valleys. In my opinion, if he could have taken that and just did something with the dynamics, it would have made it that much better. But I liked the tune, and the way he was playing around, all the time things… But it’s too loud. Too much. It’s too much ALL the time, as far as I’m concerned. Is that Orrin Evans playing piano? I know he’s trying to sound like Monk and everything, but… Whoever wrote the piece… Ralph wrote it? Nice tune. But I thought it was too loud all the way through. They didn’t seem to be playing any kind of dynamics at all. You’ve got to let things float sometimes, too. They’re just busy all the time. It made me nervous. He definitely knows what he’s doing. It’s just not my cup of tea. To sit up there in a club with the drums and everything that loud, I just don’t know. Ralph plays trumpet, too, and he plays piano. So he definitely knows something about melodies and harmonies. That’s definitely a hip tune. For what they were going for and that kind of playing… For the tune I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars. They knew what they were doing. But I didn’t hear any dynamics. Just loud and wild.

8. Dave Holland Big Band, “The Razor’s Edge” (from WHAT GOES AROUND, ECM, 2002) (Holland, b, comp., arr., Duane Eubanks, tp; Steve Nelson, vibes; Josh Roseman, tb; Billy Kilson, d) (3 stars)

Was that Steve Nelson on vibraphone? It’s probably Dave Holland’s big band. I like the tune. But I think it went on much too long. The band played very well together. That’s a hard piece of music. Did Dave write that? It figures. Great musician. Great bass player, too. Nice man. I didn’t think the rhythm section swung. The drummer sounded more like a cat that’s into R&B or a fusion-type drummer. It could have been somebody like Billy Kilson. When it came to the spangalang, to the swing, it really wasn’t IN there like… You could tell by the way the drums were tuned. To me, he’s not really a jazz drummer. Now, he played the ensembles wonderfully. But it sounded more like Fusion music. Plenty of energy. He played the hell out of the ensemble, though. But when it came time to play spangalang, to get in there and swing along with Steve Nelson, to me it really wasn’t making it. The drummer makes or breaks a band. The way a band sounds depends upon what the drummer does. But the band played great. Well in tune. Everybody sounds together. That’s a hard piece of music. 3 stars for the musicianship and the playing. High marks for the musicianship and the writing.

9. Duduka DaFonseca, “Bala Com Bala” (from SAMBA JAZZ FANTASIA, Malandro, 1999) (DaFonseca, d; David Sanchez, ts; Claudio Roditi, tp; Helio Alves, p; Romero Lubambo, g; Nilson Matta, b; Joao Bosco, comp.) (4 stars)

Is that Claudio Roditi on trumpet? I don’t know who the tenor player is. He played good, though. I can’t put my finger on that sound and phrasing. The drummer is very good. That’s a true art, to play brushes on a samba. Was that Duduka DaFonseca. Duduka DaFonseca is a bad dude, man. Nice man, too. The whole feeling of the thing was nice. He kept it light with the brushes, and it just floated along. It had that feeling. Of course, he knows about that. 4 stars. They all played their asses off.

10. David Hazeltine, “Horace-Scope” (from SENOR BLUES, Venus, 2001) (Hazeltine, p; Peter Washington, b; Louis Hayes, d) (5 stars)

That’s the real thing. It doesn’t get much better than that. David Hazeltine with my soul brother on bass, Peter Washington. Billy Higgins said you’re lucky in life if you get one bass player you can really hook up with. Well, the Lord smiled on me when they sent Peter to New York. That’s my favorite bass player to play with. I mean, very easy… Always plays the most sophisticated bass line ALL the time, better than any of the other bass players his age or younger. He knows what to play and when to play it, and at the right time. Of course, he checked out all the masters, like Paul, Percy Heath and especially Doug Watkins. My favorite bass player, easy to hook up with.

David Hazeltine is really the keeper of the bebop flame. He’s a great writer. He writes tunes like Horace Silver writes tunes — that was “Horace-Scope.” Anybody can get into them. He’s a great arrangers. Have you heard some of those R&B tunes he’s done arrangements of. He’s swinging his ass off! He’s coming out of Cedar Walton, Barry Harris, Buddy Montgomery and those kinds of guys.

And Louis Hayes! Listen, Louis Hayes is one of the only drummers, besides Mel Lewis, who took the time out with me when I was a teenager… I used to follow this cat around to all the clubs and the Jazzmobiles, and he used to see me all the time, and we got to talking. I’d say, “Hey, man, how did you get your cymbal beat like that, how did you get such great time, how did you get that sound?” He said, “Come up to my house, man, and I’ll show you.” I lived in Staten Island, and I’d go from Staten Island to all the way up in the Bronx, where he lives, and I would stay in his house all day and half the night. We’d stay up discussing Kenny Clarke records. I learned a lot about the right hand, that cymbal beat. He’s got the best cymbal beat outside of Kenny Clarke, who was of course his idol. You could take a handcuff and lock his left hand to the drum stool; he could make a date with just the ride cymbal, man, and you’d never know anything else was missing. That right hand could swing you into bad health. He’s one of my biggest influences. I grew up listening to them Cannonball Adderley records and Horace Silver records he was on. And he really helped me out in getting my stuff together, especially playing fast tempos, practicing the cymbal beat on the practice pad. I got that from him. So did Tony Williams, for that matter. Tony Williams asked Lou Hayes the same questions I did, and Louis told him the same thing — practice the cymbal beat on the practice pad and what have you. That’s how he got his cymbal beat together so he could play real fast. Louis Hayes taught me the same thing. Of course, later on I went on to play with Betty Carter and the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin, and it sure did come in handy. He showed me all I needed to know in terms of playing tempos. He’s got such a hellified feeling! In that middle tempo like that, it just laid right in there! It doesn’t get any better. He just swings his ass off.

It’s a great trio record. No one plays bass solos like that any more. Because Peter is one of the only bass players that took the time out to listen and study Israel Crosby and Ron Carter and especially Paul Chambers. He always plays great solos. 5 stars.

11. Teri Lyne Carrington, “Middle Way” (from JAZZ IS A SPIRIT, ACT, 2002) (Carrington, d; Herbie Hancock, p; Terence Blanchard, tp; Gary Thomas, ts; Robert Hurst, b) (3 stars)

Is that Jack DeJohnette on drums? It wasn’t Jack DeJohnette, huh? Well, if it wasn’t Jack, it’s someone who listened to Jack DeJohnette. I like the tune. It’s an interesting tune. That was Terence Blanchard playing trumpet, though. The tenor player could be that cat from Baltimore, Maryland. He plays with Steve Coleman, muscle-bound cat. Gary Thomas. Is it Joey Baron? It isn’t Joey Baron on the drums! Huh. I don’t know who the piano player could be? Is it Keith Jarrett? It could be Orrin Evans. Kevin Hayes? Billy Childs? The piece is nice. It’s kind of open, then they got into swinging in the middle. It sorta-kinda had the feel of an Ornette Coleman tune. I know it’s Terence playing trumpet, but I don’t know anyone else. But the drummer has the same setup as Jack, the cymbals with the real tight sound, them Paiste cymbals. The drummer sounded to me a lot like Jack, with a nice cymbal beat when they got into the groove. That’s the same approach that Jack would use. They played well together. Wait. I thought it could be Bill Stewart, but it didn’t really sound like him. I don’t know who that could be. I don’t know who the bass player is, the piano player, nor do I know who the drummer is. Most of the time I know the drummers, man, but this one is throwing me for a loop. What are these cats that are running around New York City? Who the hell could that drummer be, playing like that?! And it wasn’t Joey Baron… I give up. Who was it, man? 3 stars. [AFTER] Oh!!! Right, of course. That explains it. She used to hang out with Jack DeJohnette. She was very much influenced by him. Herbie on piano? Wow! So it was a California session. At least I guessed two of them.

12. Harold Mabern, “It’s You Or No One” (from STRAIGHT STREET, DIW-Columbia, 1989) (Mabern, p; Ron Carter, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Sounded to me like Harold Mabern with Jack de Johnette (I know that was Jack!) and Ron Carter. “It’s You Or No One.” While the three of them are great musicians, I didn’t think they played well together as a group, probably because they’d never played together in a trio setting. They didn’t sound like they were used to each other. They’re all great musicians, but to me the chemistry didn’t really work. They all played well, and you could see that the three of them were really listening, but the combination didn’t do much for me. Harold Mabern’s a great piano player. They call him Hands because he can play all them big, fat, pretty chords. Marvelous musician. Plays with George Coleman. Nice man. Knows everything about harmony that you want to know. It’s good for what it is. Three great musicians. What can you say about them? But 2-1/2 stars. I didn’t think it really hooked up. It wasn’t totally sad!

13. Branford Marsalis, “Trieste” (from REQUIEM, Columbia, 1998) (Marsalis, ss; Kenny Kirkland, p; Eric Revis, b; Jeff “Tain” Watts, d) (2 stars)

Sounded like Jeff Watts to me. Probably Branford. It went on too long, man. The stuff is too long, man. I could see they were going for something, but it didn’t knock me out. It didn’t do anything for me. It just went on and on and on. Pianist could have been Joey Calderazzo or somebody like that. Kenny Kirkland? That’s an earlier record. Well, ’98 is a while ago! It was okay. Those guys are good musicians. But I’m listening to this stuff, and I don’t really FEEL anything, man. It doesn’t really make me feel happy. It doesn’t make say, “Yeah!” It’s not that kind of feeling where you go into a club and say, “Hey, barkeep, give me another drink, man, and buy her one, too, or buy him one, too.” It didn’t have that feeling to me, man. Music’s got to have feeling. While these are great musicians, it doesn’t hit home for me. You’ve got to give them something for musicianship, because the guys can play! They played well together, they were going for a certain thing; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve been in this music all my life, and I’m thinking what does the audience, the public think? A lot of this music you’ve played, sometimes I can understand why the audience doesn’t come out to hear jazz. They stay home watching “The Sopranos” and whatever else it is they do. I’m a musician, I’ve been in this stuff all my life, and it doesn’t have the feeling. Sometimes, when you go to these clubs and hear some of these bands play, and they go on for 15-20 minutes, when you look at the audience… Especially a woman. She’s looking like she’s thinking about what’s happening tomorrow, or “I’ve got to wake up and go to work tomorrow.” Because after about 2-3 minutes of that stuff, you’re thinking about something else. You’re not really into the music. People have a short attention span anyway. So to hear this kind of stuff in a club for 10-15 minutes, I can understand why people… Sometimes people come up to me… I’m not talking about hipsters. People who want to go out and like jazz, they want to be entertained. They’ll come back to me and say, “Well, I heard such-and-such.” I haven’t said anything one way or another. They get this look on their face, like a confused, sometimes apologetic look. Then they start blaming themselves because they feel they just didn’t understand it. It’s just too much for them to understand. It’s too much for them to comprehend. They think jazz is a high art — and it is — and they blame it on themselves. But then they finally come out and tell me, “I didn’t really dig it too tough.” The I start laughing. I can understand why they didn’t dig it. They went on for 20 minutes with a tune, man! Of course they didn’t dig it. They won’t play anything that an audience can grab a hold of.

I’m not saying it’s cold. I’m saying it lacks… I don’t know what it is. It just doesn’t have that thing that makes you say, “Yeah!” It doesn’t make you say, “Hey, let’s stay, baby, and have another taste.” There’s no finger-popping there. Not really. While they all play great, you know… It doesn’t do anything for me. 2 stars for the musicianship. Because those guys can play. They’re great musicians. It doesn’t do anything for me.

14. Ken Peplowski, “If This Isn’t Love” (from LOST IN THE STARS, Nagel-Heyer, 2002) (Peplowski, cl; Ben Aronov, p; Greg Cohen, b; Lewis Nash, d; Roy Yokelson, engineer) (4 stars)

The musicianship was high. The clarinet player played his ASS off. So did everybody actually. It’s a tune you very seldom hear called “If This Isn’t Love.” Cannonball used to play this tune. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard it as a calypso. Felt good, man! Everybody was playing their ass off. The clarinet player was incredible. Good time. Swung. Played the shit out of the changes. Man, the only cat who plays clarinet like that… That’s Ken Peplowski. That’s who I think it is. He played his ass off! There aren’t a lot of clarinet players like that, who can play. He can play any style. He’s a helluva musician. He’s studied it all. Is this record brand-new? I’ve never heard it before? That’s the best record that Peplowski has made. He’s got a good rhythm section for a change. For me, he’s a great musician, but he always makes these records with hack drummers. Every one of the records he makes, the drummers don’t swing. That’s the most important part of the band. For once, he made a record with someone who really nailed all of it.

I think I know who the drummer is, but they screwed him for a drum sound. The bass is buried under everything. I know the engineer screwed up, because if the drummer is who I think he is, this man gets the best drum sound out of all of us. No matter where he goes, no matter how sad the engineer is, he always manages — I don’t know how he does it — to get a good sound on the instrument that sounds like him. But I’m telling you, if this is who I think it is, they screwed him royally on this one. I want to hear another track before I say who it is! If I could hear a fingerpopper or something… All right. That’s Lewis Nash. That’s the worst drum sound they ever got for him. Because he was playing some spangalang, I could tell it was him a little bit more. On the other tune, they were only playing swing like in the bridge for a few bars. But in a better studio… I don’t know if Lewis was using his drums, he might not have been, but even when Nash doesn’t have time to bring his drums, he always gets his sound in the studio, no matter what. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anything like him… It’s not his fault. Don’t get me wrong. It has nothing to do with him. The engineer should be slapped three times on each cheek, man.

To me, Nash has the best time out of all of us. You stomp it off, it’s like set it and forget it. If I have a gig and send him in as a sub, I can sleep that night, because I know the gig is taken care of. Great drummer, he can play in any style. We make all the records on the scene… This cat can do it all.

That’s a good record. I have to get it. I don’t even have to listen to anything else. It’s the best record Ken Peplowski has made. 4 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Kenny Washington

For Bill Charlap’s 50th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2001 and A Jazz.Com Conversation from 2009

A day late for piano maestro Bill Charlap’s 50th birthday, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001, a conversation for the jazz.com website in 2008, and a piece I wrote about Bill this year for Jazziz.

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Bill Charlap (Blindfold Test):

1. Earl Hines, “My Buddy” (from HINES ’74, Black and Blue, 1974) (5 stars) – (James Leary, bass; Panama Francis, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] It sounds like Father. Probably quite a bit later. It’s lovely. It’s perfect. Four billion stars. He’s a genius of modern piano. Certainly, if not the first, one of the first rhythm section players. So much is implied in what he plays, and there’s so much space. He’s thinking about a lot more than just playing the piano per se. The song is “My Buddy,” of course. He just played a solo introduction, and now we’re with the rhythm section. It’s absolutely beautiful. Perfect music. I don’t have anything to say about it. I can’t identify the bass player and drummer. [How do you recognize Earl Hines?] The freedom. It’s wild. It’s fun. It’s so about playing time and… It’s just that it’s so feeling. It’s non-pianistic things on the piano, yet it’s still quite pianistic. It’s very gutsy. I mean, besides the technical things, of course; the voicings, the type of linear things he’s doing, the ways he’s using the tremolos and arpeggios, all that sort of stuff that we would call style. But it’s sort of beyond that. It’s just grooving like mad. I wonder if he told the drummer to play it as sort of a Bossa Nova — it’s sort of a funky Bossa Nova. The drummer reminds me of someone like Eddie Locke or Connie Kay, but I don’t think it’s either of them. It sounds like someone in that area. That is the spirit of jazz, through and through. It’s beyond style. He could play with anybody in any style, and it would work.

2. Herbie Nichols, “Too Close For Comfort” (from LOVE, GLOOM, CASH, LOVE, Bethlehem, 1957/2001) – (5 stars) – (George Duvivier, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums)

Of course I know the song; it’s “Too Close For Comfort.” I’m not sure who the pianist is. There’s echoes of Duke and echoes of Jimmy Rowles, but it’s neither. And I can’t place the pianist. Obviously, there’s a lot of Hines in this player. I keep hearing things that I know. It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s obviously based in a stride-oriented style, because the things are voiced and the way he’s thinking about basslines, it’s very clear that he — or she — is very cognizant of the movements. Once again, I don’t know who the bassist and drummer are. There’s a beautiful feeling to it. It’s got that little bit of recklessness I like a lot. A lot of blood and guts. You got me. It’s all feeling. It’s all music. 5 stars. [AFTER] Ah, that’s the next thing I was going to say. There were a few things I heard in there, and I’m used to hearing Herbie play his own music, of course. I noticed modernist tendencies along with more stride-oriented and earlier piano style things going on. That was absolutely the next thing I was going to say. I have this record; I haven’t heard it in a long time. There’s perhaps playing of his that might be clearer than that, and a little less of just getting down and having fun playing and more of really making a musical statement, a particular statement. There’s playing of his I think I appreciate more. But just for the sheer feeling alone, that’s jazz.

3. Dave McKenna, “I’ve Got The World On a String” (from GIANT STRIDES, Concord, 1979) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] “I’ve Got The World On A String.” That’s McKenna. I leaned forward, because at first I thought it was two pianists, which is interesting, ,because there’s so much definition between his left hand and right hand. Listen to that. What’s accompanying? And he’s really singing the melody. The funny thing about Dave is that you don’t think of him this way, or I don’t hear it talked about, but it’s almost like he has the type of pianistic command of someone like Chick Corea. You’ll hear him whip off some things getting right to the bottom of the keyboard. It’s perfect. I wish I had something enlightening to tell you, except that Dave McKenna is a genius. The man is a walking melody. That’s as great as solo piano playing has ever been. He is a complete original, and he’s exquisite. 5 stars. Another remarkable thing about Dave is that it’s almost as if he was fully formed when he hit the scene. Not to say that his playing didn’t grow. It got deeper and freer. But the first album he made, it was all there. [AFTER] Dave is his own extension of the whole tradition, too. There’s a lot of Stride thinking there. He’s hearing the whole bass line. He’s hearing the whole band. And the piano is a whole band, even if you’re dealing with… I’m trying to pick the right words. In stride piano, and even before that in ragtime, you had the bass line, which was like a tuba player; you had the chord, which might be like a banjo player, and you had the top part, which might be a horn player of some sort. The same thing happens all the way through the development of piano playing, even in someone like Tommy Flanagan or Bill Evans. Because you’re still sort of covering the entire orchestra on the piano. Those are my favorite kind of pianists, who think that way.

4. Bill Evans, “Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Needs Me)” (from THE LAST WALTZ, Milestone, 1980/2000) – (5 stars) (Marc Johnson, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Sure sounds like Bill Evans. Yeah, it’s Bill. I mean, there were things he was doing rhythmically which right away were him. I don’t know the song. [You’ve recorded something by the composer.] Now, wait a minute. No-no, I know the song. He’s just not playing the melody. “Who Can I Turn To?” It was his own melody on it. It’s Bill with Eddied Gomez, of course. No!? Is it Marc Johnson? Well, you can certainly see Eddied’s influence on Mark in the way he entered. He was all over the bass and playing a lot of contrapuntal things. Something tells me this is not Bill Evans-authorized. There’s an awful lot of stuff of his that came out after his death, as happens with a lot of jazz artists, which I have mixed feelings about. Of course, I love to hear it, because I want to hear their work if I can. On the other hand, gee, I wouldn’t want stuff of mine coming out that I didn’t feel was my best work. Now, I don’t think he can do anything that wasn’t worth more than anything could buy. An artist like this can’t do anything that doesn’t have a very high level of worth. But do I think it’s maybe his very best playing on record? No. It’s not. And I don’t think he did either. It doesn’t matter. It still towers over any lesser artists. Listen, it’s his language. He developed this original language. That’s what it’s about. McKenna’s got his original language. Earl Hines has his.

One of the very first things I thought, particularly from the intro, is that Bill is the real meaning of what a fusion musician is, to me. What I’m talking about is how… There’s a couple of things that are misunderstood about Bill. First and foremost is that he was a bebop piano player first, that he was a linear pianist, and it’s not just about impressionism and beautiful chords. But the other thing is that Bill is, in essence, putting together everything from romanticism and impressionism on the piano, and sort of everything from jazz piano up to the point of Bud Powell and Jimmy Jones and George Shearing and some others who Bill was growing on, without question. And Detroit, I think. I hear some Hank and some Tommy; Tommy is a contemporary. But if you want to figure out how Bill Evans learned how to do those things with his left hand where he’s sort of playing a rubato introduction to something like “Who Can I Turn To?” (not so much on this record, but perhaps if you listen to “Town Hall”), all you need to do is go to the Brahms Intermezzos. Go to the Intermezzo in A-major, and that’s where Bill’s left hand was coming from. But you take the harmony of French impressionism, Ravel and Debussy, and you put that all together with everything that happened in jazz, and you have the true synthesis of the Romantic piano literature, the European Classical piano tradition and composition tradition, and Jazz, put together in perfect balance in Bill. That’s to me what Bill represents. And of course, Bill is a composer, so you can’t separate that.

He recorded this piece throughout his life, actually, with Tony Bennett and also on… No, I’m sorry. I’m hearing Tony in my head because Tony had a hit record on it. No, I don’t think he did do this with Tony. Or maybe he did, and it was just released as an outtake on Rhino. But Bill did that at Town Hall as well, and I have a bootleg video from a London television performance with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker of Bill doing “Who Can I Turn To?” So that was a staple of his repertoire for many years.

5. George Shearing, “Memories of You” (from THE SHEARING PIANO, Capitol, 1956/2001) – (5 stars)

I don’t know who that is, but it’s beautiful already. Oh, it’s gorgeous! Mmm, it’s just gorgeous. That’s the original chord. That’s Hank, I think. No? Whoever it is has taken some very nice lessons from Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, and is doing some interesting harmonic things that are unlike some of the things you’ll hear from those two. Of course, it’s “Memories Of You.” Eubie. Wait a minute! It’s not Teddy. No, it’s got to be somebody after. There are harmonic things that are not from Teddy’s language. But some of the linear things, without question, are highly influenced. You’ve got me on this one. I’m not sure who it is. But it’s lovely playing. There are things that are so reminiscent of Tatum going on sometimes, but I’m not getting the feeling of a TIDAL WAVE of information that I usually get from Tatum that’s staggering, it’s almost as if you must come up for air after one performance. But whoever it is certainly loves him. Beautiful touch, beautiful playing. That’s great solo piano playing. 5 stars. [AFTER] No kidding! [Probably the reason you didn’t know it is because it’s an unissued track.] I have that record. That’s perfect piano playing. Perhaps if you had played me something of George which was from a later time period, it would have been easier to pick.

6. Geri Allen, “Move” (from Ralph Peterson, TRIANGULAR, Blue Note, 1988)

I don’t know who this is. I imagine it’s somebody younger. I really enjoy the spirit of this. However, there are things that I find about it that it loses my attention relatively quickly, within the third chorus or so. There’s a lot of pianism going on, a lot of drumming at the piano, a lot of things… It’s getting more and more busy now. but I’d like to hear a deeper rhythmic and melodic language and perhaps a little more discipline. [LAUGHS] I would never say anything is not good. This person is expressing themself in music and making a statement, and I appreciate it, and depending on the mood I’m in, I may be either quite moved by it or not interested in it. But instead of giving this a low number of stars, I’d rather just say it’s not my cup of tea. [AFTER] This for me is not dealing with the actual piece enough. I think it’s using the piece as a vehicle for a particular type of expression, but for me it’s out of balance. I have this record, by the way, and I have enjoyed it. But that’s just the mood I’m in today.

7. David Hazeltine, “Days of Wine and Roses” (from THE CLASSIC TRIO, Vol. 2, Sharp Nine, 2000) – (Peter Washington, bass; Louis Hayes, drums) – (5 stars)

Beautiful touch, beautiful piano playing — already. Somebody is playing “Days of Wine and Roses”. Interesting. Oh, yes. Well, this wasn’t recorded in the 1950’s! The harmonic language dips into a lot of different things right away. But you know, you’ll get surprised with somebody like Hank. He’ll just play everything. But that’s not who this is. I believe this is a younger pianist, maybe somebody closer to my age.. Though I’m not sure when I hear something like what he just played. It’s great piano playing. Not to make this just about me, but when I listen to piano playing like this, I so appreciate it, I so know that I can’t hear something harmonized in that way, because it becomes chords on the melody as opposed to something that makes the melody first and foremost to me. Like, when he gets to “days of wine and RO-ses,” that’s a key moment in the lyric, in the melody, that what he did harmonically, for me, obscured the peak of the line. I just couldn’t hear it. My inner ear won’t go there. This is a guess. Brad Mehldau. Okay. Really a guess, because I don’t really know his playing well. I just heard a very lovely touch. I do, however, find this harmonization quite intriguing. It’s a nice way of balancing the strong harmonic points of this song with perhaps some other colors. So I could see that, too. I’m a Libra. I end up always seeing both sides. There’s nothing I can do about it. I keep hearing things I recognize, but I can’t place. I will say personally that this performance wouldn’t be a huge hit on my list, because for me it lacks a bit of focus, and though it has a lot of warmth and expressiveness from the players, it’s taking a little too long to get to the point for me, and the point is not absolutely clear. [Any notion who the bassist and drummer are?] No. I keep hearing things I recognize. Well, what I hear is touches of McCoy Tyner, though I know it’s not McCoy Tyner. But whoever it is has embraced a bit of McCoy’s language. There are ways that he plays mordants(?) and some of the linear language. [BASS SOLO] Oh, that may very well be Peter. [LAUGHS] I heard some Peter’s language. [ON FINAL REHARM OF THEME] Now, wait a minute. That’s not David Hazeltine. That isn’t what I’m used to hearing from David. David is one of my very favorite pianists out there, really on the top class of people in our age group — he’s a bit older. But I’m used to hearing David play something with perhaps a little bit less of a freewheeling way of using space. I suppose that’s one of the things he did for the Japanese? [Sharp-9] I see. And the drummer is probably Farnsworth or Louis Hayes. I think I have that record. But again, what you heard right away was a wonderful harmonic sense, a beautiful touch, very fine piano playing. And perhaps a much cooler and more spacious way of playing than I’m used to hearing from David. But I love his playing all the way around. I’ll give him five stars for being such a great musician.

8. Walter Davis, Jr., “Skylark” (from SCORPIO RISING, Steeplechase, 1989) (5 stars) – (Santi DiBriano, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums)

Somebody is playing “Skylark” and somebody has a C-extension. It’s funny. Something about the simplicity of the voicing reminds me of how Roberta Flack plays the piano. I like it. A lot. See, I’m very attracted to thing that are complete, and have a very clear focus and a statement to make. This is very pure, very simple harmonically, very beautiful. Now, there was a case, at the end of the second 8, where the melody wasn’t played correctly, and it didn’t bother me at all. I’m not a bookworm about that stuff. It has to do with intent of how you go about those things. I’m certainly not watching the score when I listen to somebody play. But there are ways of paraphrasing and there are ways of not. I love the melody reading of this! I don’t know who it is. But it’s very nice and very honest. Can’t pick the bass player or drummer either. See, there’s all kinds of HONEST sloppiness in this! When I say “sloppy,” I mean in terms of traditional piano playing. But it’s not sloppy when you make something expressive happen with the instrument. That’s just music-making. It’s not about notes. I’d never think about harmonizing anything like that, something I heard this person do when he gets to the end of… “I don’t know if you can find these THINGS…” — right there. 5 stars for feeling. [AFTER] I can only say that I don’t know Walter’s playing well. It was really gorgeous. And I really wouldn’t have guessed him, because there was such a purity to it harmonically.

9. Clarence Profit, “Body and Soul” (from CLARENCE PROFIT, Memoir, 1939/1993) – (5 stars)

Well, that’s the boss. [LAUGHS] Hold on. It’s incredible how much you hear of Tatum here, while it’s not Tatum. I’ve even heard Bud almost have a feel like this sometimes when he plays solo, hearing “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” or something like that. It’s not Bud. At least I don’t think so. The harmony is just gorgeous. It’s a bit too quirky to be Teddy! To me. I’d only be guessing. I’m not sure who it is. Somebody like Gerry Wiggins or… But it’s an earlier recording. Someone who’s got those things, who’s got some of Art’s feel. [AFTER] This makes sense. I’ve never heard Clarence Profit play. I’ve read about him in Billy Taylor’s book, and they talked about how Clarence Profit and Tatum used to throw choruses back and forth. So it may very well be that Tatum was drawing on Profit. It’s hard to know. But they said that he was one of the of the unbelievable harmonizers. And I must go out and buy this record IMMEDIATELY.

10. Jimmy Rowles-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (from AS GOOD AS IT GETS, Concord, 1977) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] This is Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown playing “Sophisticated Lady.” First of all, you’re talking about two sounds that are so distinctive that I wouldn’t even have to know the record. These are two men who absolutely express their souls with complete purity on their instruments. There is no division. There’s no wasted notes. There’s nothing without meaning. There’s nothing that isn’t played with meaning, if you know what I mean. It’s not just the notes, but the way everything is played, the sound, every single detail. Time, touch, and the choice. Nothing wasted. And the freedom. And the discipline. This has it all. This is a billion stars for both. Giants of American music, period. Giants of any music. [AFTER] Just one other thing to say about Rowles. That’s jazz piano in that you can’t write down the way he’s expressing himself. It’s not like playing a Mozart concerto. It’s about getting vocal and drum sort of things out of the piano. It’s both pianistic playing but very unpianistic playing in that it really is the piano as rhythm and a vocal instrument. You really can’t write that stuff down. That’s all about feeling.

11. Danilo Perez, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from THE ROY HAYNES TRIO, Verve, 1999) (4 stars) – (Roy Haynes, drums; John Patitucci, bass)

Somebody is playing “It’s Easy to Remember” with a different type of arrangement. This is such a beautiful song, such a pure song and such an emotional song that I think this arrangement is obscuring the intent of this song. One doesn’t need to do anything to flay this. There’s too much going on for the composition to get through. Once again, it’s the composition as a vehicle for an instrumentalist, and that doesn’t appeal to me all that much. But very fine players, obviously. I’m afraid that I don’t know who this is. [The drummer is the leader of the trio.] Just because the leader of the trio isn’t the one who sings the melody doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sung! [Does this remind you of any vocalist?] This might remind me of the way that maybe Betty Carter would do a song, but she could anything with anything, and it would be great! Understand that I wasn’t saying that you couldn’t sing it this way. That’s a different thing than saying perhaps that to really do this song the way that I think this song shows itself might not be like this. But Betty Carter could basically do anything, and still get it across, and maybe say something different with it. It’s like doing “Just One Of Those Things” as a ballad and making it mean something. [Any idea who the drummer is?] No, I don’t. For me, this is a bit unfocused. Nice for a live performance perhaps. But I want a sense of drama all the way through, and to me this doesn’t really keep that for me, even though they are all very fine players, obviously. 4 stars for all the players, just for playing very well. One star for the arranger. [AFTER] The fact that I thought that that was someone who was my contemporary, and it’s Roy Haynes, is just a testament to the fact that Roy Haynes may well be the world’s great modern drummer, and here he is in his seventies. Like Jim Hall is maybe the greatest modern guitarist. These people are absolutely cross-generational. There are no gaps in any areas, and that’s an absolutely remarkable thing. I have seen Roy Haynes do things that I have no idea how he does or where it comes from. It is as pure as I ever hear in any kind of music. That this particular trio performance didn’t come off maybe in a way that was completely satisfying to me is totally beside the point. Roy Haynes is a genius and deserves all the stars you can muster for everything he does. I don’t feel as a human being I have a right to judge any other human being. And I don’t like any rating systems. I got plenty of F’s and D’s in school. But the point is that you might be completely touched during a set by one thing and then left completely cold by the next thing that’s played.

12. Dick Hyman, “In The Still Of The Night” (from MUSIC OF 1937, Concord, 1990) – (5 stars)

That’s Dick Hyman playing “In The Still Of The Night.” That’s not hard. The funny thing about Dick is that I’ve heard people say, “Well, he plays a little like this and a little like this and a little like this.” Unh-uh! He plays exactly like him. That doesn’t sound like anybody else to me, and he has his own way of putting it together. One of the great solo pianists in history. Brilliant musician. Five stars. That’s from “Music Of 1937,” on Concord, the live thing he did at Maybeck. I know it well.

I’ve heard Danilo and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau and all of the people who are in my age group do things that nobody does better than them. That’s where it’s at. There are places where we live that are our truest places. When we do those things, there are no imitators. We’re doing what we do and saying what we say in the way that only we can say it. No snowflake is the same.

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Bill Charlap (May 23, 2009) – Algonquin Hotel, NYC:

Although he lives a half-hour’s drive from Manhattan, pianist Bill Charlap, when the demands of his schedule threaten his rest, often opts to bunk at the Algonquin Hotel, a block east of the Times Square theater district. Which is why Charlap asked jazz.com to meet him in the Algonquin’s lobby on Memorial Day Saturday, towards the end of week one of a fortnight engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, his trio partners since 1997.

“I’ve really been running the last two days,” Charlap said, referencing a duo recording he’d made on the previous afternoon with alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, a close friend since both were classmates at New York’s High School of Performing Arts at the cusp of the ‘80s. “I drove out after the gig on Thursday, stayed in the Delaware Water Gap, recorded with Jon, drove back to Manhattan, played three sets—I was really hurting.”

It was the trio’s first extended engagement since the end of 2008, when Charlap similarly performed at night while recording during the day with the Blue Note 7, an all-star group—Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—assembled for the purpose of playing iconic repertoire from the Blue Note Records catalog in observance of the label’s 75th anniversary. After four months on the road as the band’s pianist and de facto music director, Charlap was ready to return to his first love, the Great American Songbook, which was at its apogee during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when such classy writers and legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and S.L. Perelman frequented the Algonquin Roundtable.

A quick glance at Charlap’s recorded c.v. makes it clear how intimate a relationship he enjoys with this material. On the 2004-05 Blue Note albums Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul and Somewhere, and Begin The Beguine [Venus], made for the Japanese market, Charlap, now 42, celebrated repertoire, respectively, by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter. Stardust [Blue Note] is a vivid 2000 exploration of the world of Hoagy Carmichael, while Love You Madly [Venus], from 2003, is a kaleidoscopic tour of Ellingtonia. On eight other trio albums since 1995, Charlap has rendered incisive, nuanced interpretations of tunes iconic and obscure by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Alec Wilder, Jule Styne, and other luminaries of the period, including his late father, Moose Charlap, who composed the score for Peter Pan. Each performance expresses an informed point of view, articulated, as no less an authority than George Shearing remarked in the liner notes for All Through The Night [Criss-Cross], documenting Charlap’s first meeting with the Washington’s, “touch, swing, sound, precision, and just about everything you need in a well-rounded, well-schooled jazz pianist.”

“Usually, I will play a song at a tempo or in an arrangement where you could hear the lyric, because to me, words and notes are very much 50-50,” Charlap told me a few years back. “The lyric doesn’t always inform my approach; sometimes I choose, as an arranger and improviser, to paraphrase the composition. But if the lyrics are good, they drip off of the notes. For example, ‘Where Or When’ has many repeated notes, but each note has a word, and those words inform the playing.”

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This is the trio’s first extended run in some time, its longest period of inactivity since it formed. Has the layoff had an impact?

Well, I can only say—and maybe it’s just part of getting older and part of our experience together as a group—that I feel the value of playing together with Kenny and Peter more and more each time. I never take it for granted, and it feels very high on my priority list.

So being away from them…absence makes the heart grow fonder?

It’s not even necessarily about having been away, or working with the Blue Note 7, or anything like that. It’s that, as years go on, the things that are really important to you get more important, and things that are less important to you also become less important. I’m not saying that the Blue Note 7 was less important. That was very important, too. But the trio has a real family feeling, which I think continues to grow. I feel that, and I’m sure that Kenny and Peter do, too. If it’s not a challenge and it doesn’t feel like that, there wouldn’t be a reason to continue.

Are you bringing in new repertoire?

I recently brought in about seven new pieces, and that always helps. But also approaching things differently. Sometimes I’ll reassess a couple of things, or change tempos. I feel that it’s expanding in its scope—the organic qualities continue, and willingness to take things in maybe subtly different directions. The cues are very fast, organic and intuitive. That was always there, though. Chemistry is chemistry. We had chemistry right away, from the very first time we played. But the chemistry grows. Maybe sometimes when you rest on certain music for a little while, it does have a chance to gestate a bit. I’m sure that has something to do with it, too.

What’s the percentage of arrangement versus the percentage of improvisation, or the ways that they mix, within your concept of the trio?

To be honest with you, I never really sat down and thought about it. But as time’s gone on, I’ve realized that there is a side of me that is an arranger and loves to come up with concepts for the trio or myself—or ways of playing a piece. Sometimes an arrangement means a harmonic arrangement or a harmonic approach, maybe just a vibe. Sometimes it’s much more involved. Sometimes it does become a full arrangement inclusive of piano, bass, and drums, and counterpoint, and all that sort of stuff. So the answer is…I don’t know the exact answer. I think it’s a balance of a number of things. Sometimes I’ll call some tunes or play something that there is no real arrangement of, although because of the way that we play and how well we know each other, these things can also organically become an arrangement or the point of view from which we’ll approach it.

What I find happening in the trio—which is very gratifying and fun for me and for us—is that even the arranged parts become more pliable, and more subtle, and more able to be renegotiated in terms of phrasing, chord disposition, bass notes, the drum arrangement. None of those things are set in stone. They change all the time, very quickly. It’s almost like when you hear a concert pianist, like Rubinstein, play a Chopin waltz he’s played 300 times—the idea is not to waste any moment of it. It’s what I’m talking about in regard to one’s priorities as you grow as a musician—it becomes more important not to waste. Each time you play is precious, in the sense that… It’s that old song, “For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.” Nobody knows.

It’s really worth a lot each time you’re able to be in a situation like the Blue Note 7, which was very special. It would be wonderful if we should do something again, and I would not at all be surprised if we do. But you never know when you might look back and say, “wow, we never had a time like that again.” so it’s good to really value it all the time. I think that’s part of what I’m talking about in even approaching the arrangements.

Back to the answer to your question. There are so many different ways of arranging pieces that I couldn’t say there’s a percentage. Certainly, though, I like having a point of view for each piece. Even if it’s improvised, I think the arranger’s aesthetic is there from all of the things that we have done with arrangement within the group. A quick nod or a quick musical cue could mean double-time now, or break the double-time, or all kinds of things. Kenny orchestrates at the trap set. He’s so fast at listening to everything, the right and the left hand, all the cues, that he’ll hear something, and tailor it. right away. Sometimes it’s intuitive—often, as we know each other musically so well now, we’ll hear each other giving the cue, and take educated guesses that sometimes come out right. Even when they don’t, the pieces of the puzzle, at its best, fit like a good Swiss watch.

Let’s talk about Blue Note 7 for a bit. It was put together as kind of front group to market Blue Note’s seventieth anniversary, and probably a chance to make some good music. Tell me how it was presented to you, how you conceptualized it once the basic parameters were presented, how the personnel coalesced, how you interacted with the personnel. One thing, parenthetically: When I interviewed Bruce Lundvall after Christmas, he said he was impressed with the way you had focused an ensemble of musicians with different points of view, mostly leaders, strong-willed artists, towards your point of view, as he interpreted it.

I appreciate Bruce saying that. But I didn’t make anyone come to my point of view. You had six musicians and myself, who are accomplished and classy and respect each other, and they were very professional and gracious in being able to have someone to be an organizing force. But I was not forceful in any way. I do think that it’s useful in a band to have somebody who does that. It’s not always the easiest thing to have a group where you have seven heads of state. I’m not even saying that I’m the head of state…

Well, you’ve made a similar comment about the trio as well.

Yes. Well, I think it’s good to say, “What do you feel like playing tonight?” Or, if somebody says, “Let’s do this,” maybe that’s not what you want to do that night, but figure out a way to make that work. You really should allow people to do what they want. That’s where they’re going to play their best. It’s not a solo gig, so it’s good to have some direction, but you don’t need to be a boss. Ever. I think there is a way of allowing everybody some space. That doesn’t mean there might not be a time when you say, “Well, I really don’t want to do that right now; let’s do that the next set.” That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a leader.

But back to the Blue Note 7. The way that it worked was Jack Randall, who is my primary booking agent at Ted Kurland Associates, gave me a call. He said, “We’re thinking of putting together a septet with a number of players, playing classic Blue Note material.” I said to him, “What do you mean by ‘classic Blue Note material?’”—just trying to get him to clarify it. It was clear that we were on the same page, the page that pretty much anybody might choose, which is mid-‘50s to late-‘60s, essentially the great period of modern jazz when you’re talking about the classic albums of the great composers-players—Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Art Blakey. All the great ones.

Of course, right away it was an attractive idea to me, because it’s music I love to play anyway. It’s music I cut my teeth on, that we continue to be inspired by, that is the best rhythm section playing, the greatest jazz compositions, some of the greatest recorded music, some of the greatest small group music—it is still the paradigm of small-group playing in terms of all the music that’s there. And all of us in this group grew up with that music. We all grew up with Maiden Voyage and Blue Trane and In and Out and Speak Like a Child and Ju-Ju and the The Real McCoy, The Amazing Bud Powell—all the records.

So that was attractive right away. I said, “Well, that’s repertoire that I can certainly wrap myself around. Who do you imagine is going to write all these arrangements, though? This is a septet. We can’t just call these tunes. Plus, how do you pick it?” Then the obvious question: “With over a thousand albums, and all of them great, many of them classics, how do you choose?”

Jack said, “Well, we were hoping that you would do that.”

I said, “Well, that’s very nice, but this is a group of very accomplished, important players, and I wouldn’t think of being the sole person responsible for that. But I could help organize it, and my idea is that we should probably spread out the arranging and probably spread out the choices of the pieces. What kind of pieces do you have in mind?” They thought it could really be anything that works, along with some commercial ideas, such as “Sidewinder” and “Song for My Father.” Later, Nicholas Payton wrote an arrangement for “Song For My Father,” but it was very far afield from the original “Song For My Father.”

That was very good, because finally, the idea is to pay tribute to those pieces without… It’s repertoire band, but not a repertory band. My idea of a repertory band is a band that almost plays the same original arrangements, maybe even some of the same solos (some bands are like that)—Smithsonian Institution type of things. That wasn’t the idea. You have seven players who are playing jazz in 2009 and should play the way that they play, and should approach the pieces the way that they would want to approach them.

However, of course, we want also to have the essence of those pieces. That’s very easy to do. After all, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are master composers. Their pieces are so strong, the aesthetic is there. Everything is there. All you have to do is start with the correct raw materials, and then,if you approach it your way, with taste, generally the pieces will speak. It has to do with taste and it has to do with experience. Any of these players could have done anything with any of the pieces. I think because of the respect for the material, they didn’t want to recompose them so much as illuminate what’s so beautiful about them in the first place, and not to get rid of the elements of swing and bebop and the blues and great rhythm section playing. That’s just a natural. Nobody was told, “do this and do that, and don’t do this.”

So, the first thing was the idea that, ok, everybody can contribute. And the ideas of players made sense. I worked as a guide in some cases, and in other cases it was right on the money, just in terms of the musical and personal chemistry of the players. We lucked out. Seven equal members. That’s all that it should have been.

Finally, we made the album very quickly, with one or two rehearsals. We did it last winter, recording during the day while I was playing at Dizzy’s at night. I can’t do this kind of thing any more; it’s really getting too tiring. But I made it happen—and everybody wanted to make it happen. The players’ mutual respect and love for this music made everyone stay late in the recording studio, to burnish these things and polish them to be the best they could be. The album is very good, in my opinion. It came out beautifully and naturally. But it was done before we went on the road. Of course, things grew organically, and if we had recorded the album in April, it would have been quite different. Anyhow, we actually did hire a recording engineer to record all six nights at Birdland, so I’m sure we will eventually have something. Those were our final performances, and we stretched out on things, so it will be interesting to hear those recordings in contrast.

Anyway, after thinking about what artists we had to represent, as I say, somebody had to be a guiding force so you wouldn’t have all up-tempos, or all ballads, or all swinging things—all just one aesthetic. You want to have a well-balanced meal. So I picked one or two things for each player who wanted to arrange something and asked: “What do you think about this? It would be nice if we had a piece representing this musician, and I thought this would be a good piece to have.” Usually, the player said, “Yeah, that appeals to me; that works for me; I’ll do that.” Or sometimes someone said, “well, that’s good, but I like this a little better.” Always I would say, “Yes, ok, that’s fine; sounds good to me.” Again, have players do what they want to do.

Certainly as an apprentice, you sidemanned with some quartets as an apprentice, worked a long time, have done a lot of duos, as well as leading the trio…

And lots of singers early on.

But of your recordings for Blue Note, only on Plays George Gershwin is there an ensemble. Can you speak to the way you approach the flow of a piece when you’re not the lead voice?

It’s balance. Just like anything else, you make a concert, you want to make sure everybody’s got some space to shine and that everybody gets a chance to play enough. There’s a big band aesthetic, because you can’t solo on every piece. We had mature musicians who understood that and chose their moment to shine, and would always defer to each other. You might even have in the band a player who said, “Hey, why don’t I give my solo to him? He hasn’t played too much.” That’s the type of maturity I’m talking about.

But as for me, I’ve certainly played plenty with horn players and in large ensembles, big bands. Maybe not recorded myself that way under my own name. I’ve been in that situation well enough times to know what to do. Like everybody else, I played every gig that was worthwhile that I could.

And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.

Sometimes not. But they’re all worthwhile when you’re cutting your teeth. Play with a lousy singer who plays in the weirdest keys and can’t quite keep things together—because it will teach you.

You’re also artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street YMHA, and your fifth season is coming up.

Yes. This means putting together six concerts each year, each one with a different point of view, thinking about either a different artist’s work, or a different type of presentation (each one a presentation), and then, of course, putting together the music that the musicians will play, amassing the cast for each of the concerts. I play on every one of the concerts, and I am the Master of Ceremonies, and basically put the whole thing together, inasmuch as I can, and then allow the musicians to put the rest of it together. That’s what it’s about.

Dick Hyman did that for twenty years before me. He’s my distant cousin on my father’s side, and he’s always been a great mentor to me. When I was in my early teens, he took me around when he was doing record dates, or playing solo concerts, or film scoring, just about anything he was doing, and I would sit as a fly on the wall and watch him operate. He’s such a great artist and professional, I learned a great deal from that. Types of things you couldn’t learn at a traditional piano lesson. When he asked me if I would like to be artistic director of that series, he said to me, “Well, if you want to do this, do it your way. Don’t feel like you have to do what has been.” I took that exactly in the spirit that it was meant, and it was very generous of him. Of course, I would do that anyhow. But to know that’s how he felt about it was very freeing.

Would you talk a bit about the role that this event has within the structure of New York City jazz life?

I can really only speak about it during my tenure so far, and I’m in my fifth year.

But you were a close observer of it before.

Yes. It’s a New York jazz festival, and what’s great about it is you have a very high percentage of some of the greatest jazz musicians. Just this year alone, we have Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath and Mulgrew Miller, Barbara Carroll—so many great people who are world-class on any level. Over the last five years, we’ve had everyone from Billy Taylor to Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis… In a sense, these are all New York players, so it’s really a New York festival. In fact, one of the concerts this summer is a New York concert. “A Helluva Town,” is the title. That is cast across the generations and across some musical styles as well, playing everything from Joplin to Coltrane, and New York songs, too.

There’s also a concert devoted to Sondheim and Jule Styne. There’s a piano jam in tribute to Oscar Peterson, a saxophone jam, a tribute to Gerry Mulligan, and a Vince Guaraldi tribute. Were these all ideas that you had on the back burner?

It’s just music that I love.

Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?

I always loved Vince’s music. This is one of the places where jazz has gotten into people’s souls without them necessarily knowing it. It holds a special place in American popular culture, in that there is some real jazz playing that everybody knows. Everybody knows the sound of it. Vince had something. His music communicated. It was very hearable for maybe a non-jazz listener. But the feeling was really warm, with that little Latin tinge as well. It’s really soulful. There was a lot of optimism in his sound. Anyway, it’s perfect that it was the soundtrack for Peanuts. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the producer, Lee Mendelson. He heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, which was a hit record, and said, “I’ve got to find out who that guy is; that’s the music I want.” Well, both “Cast your Fate to the Wind,” and then “Linus and Lucy,” the classic that everyone knows, have a similar feel, both in the way that they’re played and the concept of it. But there’s a lot more Guaraldi music. “Christmas Time Is Here,” which we’ll do, even though it’s summer in July at a Jewish institution. But that’s ok. It’s New York, like I said. I was born into a Jewish family, though we were never religious, but we always had a Christmas tree. What can I tell you? That’s what I mean by New York.

It would seem that only one of the concerts, Saxophone Summit, doesn’t draw directly on some component of your experience. Sondheim and Styne is another layer of songbook repertoire, musical theater repertoire. “With Respect To Oscar”—I don’t know how much you were an Oscar-phile in your youth, but…

Oh, in a major way. Oscar was one of the first and foremost pianists, both the trio aesthetic and his overwhelming, comprehensive command of the piano.

Was he someone you were looking to as a young guy?

Absolutely. I still do.

The Mulligan Songbook is a major component of your musical consciousness as a professional, and several of his tunes are in your regular trio book.

That’s true. I love Gerry’s music. Something he used to say is, “Well, I shot for 42nd Street, and I over-shot and ended up on 52nd Street.” What he meant by that is, of course, that his jazz compositions are just this side of popular song. They’re very tuneful. You leave the theater singing them, in a sense. So there’s a great influence there. Yet they’re certainly jazz compositions.

Apart from the visibility that you accrued by being with Mulligan when you were 22-23-24 years old, you also have spoken of the way that his expectations of the piano’s function in his group shaped your approach to piano playing and shaped certain aspects of your style.

I felt lucky to be with him. Gerry Mulligan was a really original arranging voice in jazz. Dave Brubeck said about him, “You hear the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time.” He had an open mind, yet a love for bebop, but a love for Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford, and equally a love for Prokofiev. There was a lot of dimension to his music. And lyricism. So Mulligan the arranger was important, and of course, since he played the baritone saxophone, though often in the register of a cello, almost like Lester Young… That was, I think, his paradigm of playing, unlike Pepper Adams, who was, of course, a super-virtuoso, and also one of the all-time greats. Very different aesthetic. Because Gerry played the baritone saxophone, you had to think a little differently at the piano because of range and register. Also, Gerry was an arranger who didn’t want the piano player to just comp along. He wanted a more orchestral approach. It got me thinking. That’s all. I also would pull his coat about some of his classic things, particularly Birth of the Cool and the nonet things that he did later. I’d ask, “What are those voicings? What were you thinking? What were you doing? Will you write that out for me? Would you show me that at the piano?” And he did. He was generous about that. Just naturally, that probably opened up a lot of thinking for me. I realized it later. I’d start writing something, or playing something, or arranging, and say, “Hmm, Gerry’s a piece of that.” I was lucky that before he passed away, I got a chance to tell him that he would be a part of every note that I play for the rest of my life, and I was grateful for that.

As far as Sondheim and Jule Styne, I’m trying to recall whether you have or haven’t incorporated Sondheim repertoire in your trio.

There’s one Sondheim tune in my book. It’s called “Uptown, Downtown.” It was cut from Follies.  It’s a wonderful tune, one of the few Sondheim songs that you can really swing. I’ve played Sondheim’s music before, but not with the trio. Actually, I did a Sondheim concert around ten years ago at the 92nd Street Y for Dick Hyman when he was the Artistic Director, probably coming into about ten years ago, where we played two pianos. I also played with Kenny and Peter on that concert. So I got to learn some more of that music there. I love Steven Sondheim’s theater music; he’s the logical extension of all of the giants.

It’s often been remarked that, perhaps because you’re so immersed in the lore and content of musical theater, you do something that many people find challenging, which is improvise upon that repertoire in a very open way, but also wrap your improvisations very much around the nuances of the lyrics. Can you speak to how you accumulated this knowledge? It couldn’t all have just been bloodline.

Born around it. Born around the aesthetic. Born around the love for it. My father, Moose Charlap, was a theater writer. Naturally…

And I’m sure your mother knew a ton of songs.

Oh, yeah. So there is that. But I just loved it. It made sense to me. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, different than Gershwin, different than Arlen, different than Kern, different than Porter. What was it about them, about their songs, that made a stamp? It’s not just a standard. To call it a tune is too small a word for these guys. They were master composers of the blueprints that they made. One thinks of what it is about Monk’s songs that makes Monk sound like Monk. Well, how can you recognize Rodgers? It was interesting to me. As I learned the composers, I started to see what their personal slants were, and all of the pieces started to fall into formation. This process continues; it’s not something I’ve mastered, by any means. In any event, as a jazz fan, as you get to learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. Well, you start to see where Jerome Kern sits in relation to Gershwin, in relation to Rodgers. It’s just another huge piece of American music, and a HUGE piece of the repertoire for jazz musicians. So to me, it didn’t make any sense not to have that be a very large part of my aesthetic.

Again, Mulligan loved the songwriters. He thought that way. It was nice to be around somebody from that generation, who was certainly a master jazz musician, who had that kind of awe of and respect of another way of thinking. This was my father’s world, so I knew what it was to write a score, and launch a show, and have an arranger, and have a producer, and out-of-town tryouts—and all of that world. But I’m a jazz musician. I am lucky to have had a window into that world. So that’s all.

But I think it accumulated both naturally, just amassing maybe a knowledge of the lyric and the song and all of those things. But when I say “naturally,” it means listening to many albums and scores; and reading through many books on composers; talking to people; being around people like Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Jule Styne, and a lot of people who were around in my life when I was a kid.

At what stage of your life did you start to become obsessed with jazz? Someone like Michael Feinstein, for instances, knows everything about musical theater, but he isn’t a jazz musician.

Well, I don’t know everything about musical or everything about anything else. What I mean to say is that Feinstein certainly has a much more vast knowledge of that type of thing than I would.

That being said, you did your jazz interest run in parallel?

The whole thing is one giant, cross-related thing!

So you saw it always as cross-related.

Everything. Not to mention Bach and Schoenberg. They were in there, too! I was interested in what makes American music. What makes this repertoire? Why are we playing Rhythm changes? Why do we play the blues? Why do we play these songs? Why do we keep going back to these songs? Then, in relation to that, what makes Monk’s compositions great? Not just in relation to that, but also its own thing. All of that. So it was a natural thing for me, I guess.

Also, in learning the songs (and frankly, this is not something unique in any way), I figured, “Well, this is part of what you do.” One of the first gigs I did was at the Knickerbocker when I was in my teens—I was given Monday nights to play solo piano. A guy came in and asked, “Do you play some Irving Berlin tunes?” I said, “Maybe I do” or something like that. Or I knew maybe one or two. I thought, “I should be able to rattle off fifty of them; he’s too important.” So a light went on in my head. I said, “Well, you should probably be able to say yes.” But it’s never scholastic with me. Really I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Wayne Shorter and I’m a fan of Irving Berlin.

But the one point I wanted to make is, in learning the songs, to me, it’s learning the lyrics, too, because they’re part and parcel of the same thing. The lyric will inform you how to phrase a melody. Or, what it is that you’re doing in not phrasing the melody. I just want to have a full box of tools before I make the choice.

I’m trying to thread some of these themes along the New York idea.

300 East 51st Street.

300 East 51st Street. Jewish family. Part of a line of…

Not that Jewish. Jewish in culture, but not Jewish in religion.

Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.

Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.

But 300 East 51st Street. Town School. High School of Performing Arts.

Yup. New York.

But not that many New York based professional jazz musicians are actually from New York. Apart from a place to grow up, New York is also a melting pot. Can you speak to the challenges of being an aspirant musician from New York and the opportunities that it affords?

It’s both. When I was a kid, I could go to the Village Gate and hear Junior Mance, or go to Lush Life and hear Kenny Barron, or go to Bradley’s and hear Red Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was all…

What do you mean by “a kid”?

In my teens I was able to do that. So when you’re exposed to musicians of that level, as close as you could be in a place like Bradley’s… You could sit right there. Geez! Tommy Flanagan’s playing right in front of you. What better lesson is that? I like what Ed Koch said about New York. I’m misquoting, but he said something like, “If you’re one in a million, there’s ten of you in New York.” What I mean by that, of course, is that the level of competition is incredibly high. Even going to the High School for the Performing Arts, there were kids in my class in freshman year who could play all the Chopin Etudes, letter-perfect technique. I was never geared towards being a classical pianist. Not that I didn’t study classical music, but it was way later. I was already playing theater songs on my own, improvising, and whatever else I was playing—it didn’t really have a name. But the bar was set really, really high. And you know the energy of New York. Things go at the speed of light. The cultural milieu is huge! Jackie Mason said something funny when he said, “Oh, I could never leave New York, because it has the ballet.” “So do you ever go to the ballet?” He says, “No, I never go to the ballet. But it’s there!”

So jazz always appealed to you.

My parents were listening to it, and it was always part of the sound around my house anyway. Not to mention that my father passed away when I was 7 years old, and my mother was remarried a number of years later to a trumpeter called George Triffon. He was my stepfather. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was a great trumpet player, not an improviser, but played third and second trumpet in Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, he was on the Merv Griffin Show—a professional in his generation who was always listening to Bill Evans and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan and Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer…

So the template was there.

Yeah, it was all there. That’s what they were listening to.

Well, when [bassist] Michael Moore is telling Whitney Balliett that not too many kids your age have absorbed Jimmy Rowles, or when Balliett in this 1999 New Yorker piece  describes you as having “ absorbed every pianist worth listening to in the past fifty years” within the flow of your improvisational thinking…

It was nice of him to say, but it’s not true.

But the references are there, because you heard them.

There isn’t anyone that he mentioned that I don’t love. There are many more he didn’t mention that I also love. And I don’t remember what the short list was.

I can read it to you.

It’s ok.

No, I’ll read it. “Starting with Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rowles, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson, then moving through Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans, and finishing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron.”

Well, there’s a lot more. Did he say Sonny Clark? Did he say Earl Hines? Did he say Red Garland? Did he say Wynton Kelly? Did he say Ahmad Jamal? There’s a lot more that I love, who are giants.

This morning I was listening to the dates you did for Criss Cross before the trio with Peter and Kenny, and it was a different sound. More abstract, different time feel…

Different cats.

Different cats. But there was a difference in the way you were approaching material, it seemed to me.

I was growing, and you continue to grow. It also had to do with the chemistry between whoever those rhythm sections were, and then maybe what I was thinking about musically at that time. All of that stuff comes together. It gives your music dimension. I never thought of cutting away something. Maybe it’s a matter of you get more focused.

One thing struck me. I was listening to “Confirmation” from the 1995 Criss-Cross record, Souvenir, and it was very abstract, almost 12-tone…

At the beginning.

I don’t think you would do something like that with this trio, for instance.

Well, I might have some element of that existing in there. I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Things have happened like that. It’s a matter of taste, that’s all, or whatever…

Everybody grows, everybody crystallizes their ideas, everybody develops an aesthetic that suits them for the different places they find themselves. I’m just wondering if you can reflect on how your aesthetic has evolved over this last 12-15 years, or what role the trio has played in your aesthetic evolution.

It’s very hard to say that. It’s almost something I can’t answer without contradicting myself, without contradicting how I really feel about it. Because finally, I really love a lot of music, and appreciate a lot of people’s aesthetics. I don’t need them to be the same as mine to really appreciate them.

I’m talking about your aesthetic.

I wouldn’t even want to say I’m trying to do this or I’m trying to do that. Because I can’t think that way. Both Kenny and Peter have such a beautiful originality in the way that they play their instruments and approach their music, yet they are so deeply informed also by the history of the music and the focal players on their instruments. Their aesthetic is very mature, very experienced. The depth of their time playing is very high. Maybe there’s a purity to the aesthetic that appeals to me. I just like beauty. What can I say?

You’ve made that statement: “Truth and beauty.”

Well, I didn’t invent it. It’s what Bill Evans told Tony Bennett before he died. I think that it’s right there in the music. If anyone wants to know what it is that means the most to me, all they have to do is listen. It’s right there.

You have another trio, the New York Trio, with Jay Leonhart on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, that you don’t perform with, but record with, which has made almost as many records, all for the Japanese market, as this trio.

I wouldn’t exactly say, though, it’s another trio that I have. It’s quite different, because this is a trio that has only existed in the recording studio on those albums. We did one gig once. So this is a band I’ve recorded with, but I still wouldn’t…

But it’s the same three people over a period of years, and the musical production is documented, and the notes and tones come from you.

True. It has to do with a bunch of things. First of all, I know going in that we’re going to record an album. We’re not going to be working on this material over time. Also, if an album is brought to me, it may be the producer’s concept: “We’d like to do a Richard Rodgers album.” Well, I think about these players playing this music, and maybe wouldn’t approach it the same way as I would with Kenny and Peter, and purposefully leave things in a way that allows the players to approach the pieces with ease. Because after all, we’re not rehearsing. We’re recording right away, going right to it, and letting it go. Often, it’s just a harmonic arrangement of a tune, or something like that.

Do you approach ballads differently now than you did 10 years or 12 years ago?

They mean more to me. They always meant something to me, though. I hear my mom singing them over the years. It’s the song. The song is meaningful to me. A ballad is not always a song. We played “Search for Peace” of McCoy Tyner, which is gorgeous, with the Blue Note 7. I love playing that.

Now, the Blue Note 7 repertoire, for the most part, is not repertoire you would play with the 

Oh, it might be. We were playing “Criss Cross” for a little while. Not to mention, Blue Note 7 really was a Blue Note 8, because Renee Rosnes, my wife, was the arranger of four of the pieces that were staples of our book. So she contributed in a very big way to the sound of the band.

She has the piano chair in another put-together-for-a-purpose group, the SF Collective, which has a very different approach.

Oh, you made me think of something I wanted to say. Although the Blue Note 7 did come from a commercial idea, what appealed to me was the idea that we could have a group that would exist in a non-commercial way. Not that it’s not an honor to tout Blue Note, and not that we would not want to tout Blue Note. Forget about if I was signed or not. But the idea was that it be also not be just a gig. A band is a band. A band has to want to be a band. That’s what you want. As musicians, we are in the incredibly lucky position that we’re able to work and get paid for doing what we love doing. It’s been said many times before, but my idea is that I am lucky to do things that I really care about on a very non-commercial level. The records I’ve made for Blue Note with my trio are the exact same records I would have self-produced. I feel that way pretty much of any project I’ve done that hasn’t been done with somebody else’s idea of what it should be, and that’s very fortunate. So the reward is right there in the music.

With the exception of Live at the Village Vanguard, which documents a performance, most of your recordings for Blue Note have thematic. I’m wondering if you can speak to the benefits and pitfalls of doing repertoire-directed sessions where the repertoire is arbitrarily selected.

They’re all different; each one begs a different answer. There’s no downside to it. I wouldn’t call it a downside; it’s a challenge…

I said pitfall.

There’s also no pitfall. It’s like doing Bernstein’s music. The only pitfall (and I wouldn’t call it a pitfall; I’d call it a challenge) would be how to approach this music and give it integrity within our context, and also keep the integrity from the context it comes from. That’s a challenge. But it’s a welcome challenge. The reason for doing a composer or a point of view? Very simply, it’s like a concert pianist doing a program of all Beethoven. It certainly helps to round out your performance and tie it all together, not just because they have their name signed on it, but because it has a personality. Hoagy Carmichael’s music has a personality. Gershwin’s music has a personality. Bernstein has a personality. So finding a program that works as a program…again, it’s like the Blue Note 7. You don’t want eight ballads. You don’t want eight up-tempos. You don’t want all the same music. So you have to find a way to make that work. Then you also want to make sure that you feature the bass and the drums all the way around.

It’s music that has a personality, but then it also has to suit your collective personality.

That’s true.

It’s not like a cabaret performance of the repertoire.

Well, you try to do that as naturally as possible. Of course, these are things I give great thought to. But in an organic way. Not any other way.

Is there a contemporary songbook? Is there a songbook of the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s that you consider to be ripe for similar interpretation?

It’s different. Most of these songs, the great songs, come out of American Musical Theater, and there really wasn’t that much from American Musical Theater in the same way… Our culture changed. It completely changed. People weren’t excited about, oh, the next Gershwin show or the next Rodgers and Hammerstein show. They were talking about other things. They were talking about the Jefferson Airplane perhaps.

Or they were talking about the choreography on Chicago or Cats. The theater may have become more about spectacle for the most part…

Not in the case of Sondheim. But also, it’s the English infiltration of the theater when you’re talking about Lloyd-Webber and all of that. But the aesthetic changed, too. Cy Coleman and my father and a couple of writers continued on, and were at the tail end of the great theater writers.

Is there a songbook? Well, there are still some beautiful songs, certainly of Sondheim, although, because he expands the musical theater, he expands it a little bit away from us as song players. Like Bernstein, too, who was expanding things, and more through-composed… With Bernstein, that was the challenge, I think, that you didn’t want to throw away all his underpinnings, all his orchestration, because they were as much a part of the composition. After all, he was a real composer from soup to nuts. That doesn’t mean that Kern was not a real composer. I don’t think Bernstein could have written a Kern song any better than Kern could have written West Side Story.

But the question is: Is there a contemporary songbook? There are beautiful things written by people like Stevie Wonder. There are beautiful things written by people like Michel Legrand—although you may consider him part of an older tradition of writing, and that’s probably true. Johnny Mandel. It’s different. Much of the popular music today wouldn’t appeal to me. Not that it isn’t good. Not that it’s not expressing something viable and real, and that its creators are not brilliant musicians. But certain things simply are not there for a jazz improviser, particularly in that they are triadic in nature, that they deal with three-note chords, not four-note chords—and that’s a big, big deal for us. You almost have to recompose them to make them right for us. Their blueprint is not a blueprint like “All The Things You Are.” The blueprint needs to be rewritten. “All The Things You Are” does not need to be rewritten. They also often rely upon the performer. I don’t think there’s a better performance of a Beatles song than by the Beatles themselves, whereas I do think that there are often more quintessential performances of some songs from, say, Oklahoma, though they’re quintessential in American Musical Theater in their original forms… Coleman Hawkins playing “Climb Every Mountain” means a lot more to us as jazz players than it does within The Sound of Music, albeit that it’s perfect within The Sound of Music.

So the answer is: I think they are few and far between. I believe that there is repertoire for us, but it’s very differently-built. That’s not necessarily bad.

So you would be coming from a different place than some people situated just across the border of the generational divide from you. Someone like Brad Mehldau, born in 1971, addresses Radiohead and Bjork…

And he does great things with them.

I’m not asking you to judge what he does, but that sort of repertoire…

It’s not for me.

You yourself are 42, and your teenage years, the years in which you developed most rapidly, coincided with the “young lions” coming to New York, in ‘81-‘82-‘83…

Stevie Wonder’s pretty good! I’m sorry. I was still answering the other question. I’d like to play “If It’s Magic.” That’s gorgeous.

In any event, did that development have an effect on you, or were you so tied into the older generation…

I mean, I never was tied into the older generation.

You knew it intimately, though.

I guess so.

You have a certain time feel with this group, that’s very much a bebop time feel.

Sure.

I’m sure that’s partly because of Kenny’s presence…

No, it’s not just because of Kenny. That’s the center of my musical world for sure.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the intuitive feel for most pianists born after the Baby Boom. For me, that’s also a New York thing, in a way.

Could be. But I think a lot of my generation grew up with that. Renee, Dave Hazeltine, Mike LeDonne… There’s all different places within it, everywhere from Wynton Kelly through Herbie Hancock. But it’s still about swinging. It’s still about playing within a rhythm section. Maybe I happen to feel post-bop things and bop things—and beyond—all together. There’s a lot of that together. If you think about Oscar Peterson, he’s playing harmonically all kinds of things, but there’s a swing feel to his playing that’s not really like Bud Powell. It’s more Nat Cole. Then you just get into personalities. He had such a strong personality that it’s Oscar Peterson music. It’s just not categorizable any more.

But as far as the “young lions,” when I was coming up I didn’t feel negative about it at all. I always felt, “Well, that’s good; it’s good that people are immersing themselves in something that’s really valuable and some tradition.” Of course, the media was jumping on it as a way of promoting a way of thinking, and maybe there was a sociological current going on with that then. But I always saw it in perspective, even when it was happening, which was: Well, that’s for now, and that’s a good thing. That won’t last forever. Nothing else lasts forever. That’s a good thing, because finally, the bottom line is that it just forced players to learn how to play well. There was a criteria of playing well.

Now, I don’t really care too much for any idea that says, “Well, this is the only way to do it” or “this is not worthwhile because this is really the stuff.” I don’t feel that way. I don’t think most great musicians do. It just doesn’t interest me to think that way. But also, if you really, really love something, and if you’re an artist, there is sometimes some myopia. You have to have it. You have to be able to focus very finitely on something. So it’s a delicate balance. It’s personal. I just thought, “Well, that’s another way to do it; that way is good, too.” That’s how I really felt. I never felt that it negated what somebody else who didn’t do that, did, and I didn’t feel that they negated what… Quality is quality. That’s all.

You played with Jim Hall. You played for a long time with Phil Woods. You played duo with Michael Moore. You played duo with Gene Bertoncini. Real serious New York purists, and very demanding taskmasters. Can you make some general comment about your apprenticeship and the value of those sorts of gigs to what you do now?

Those guys are masters. You get around any master, they’re going to show you the path in ways that are technical, in ways that are very clear, and then in ways that are about being around their experience that you continue to learn from. It never ends. Things that you can’t put into words. There’s a feeling there.

Someone who was very important to me was Eddie Locke, the drummer, whom I’ve known since I was in grade school. He was always talking about the feeling of the music, the great musicians he played with, like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. He’s from Detroit, close friends with Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, whom he had a trio with. Eddie has lived the center of the music, and is about the human feeling in the music. He’s been like family to me over the years. There’s been a lot to glean from being around a person like that. I also was lucky that I had great teachers. Jack Riley, a wonderful pianist, a composer, classical pianist and jazz pianist, and a great musical intellectual as well, very able to impart technical things about the music—a natural of a teacher. Eleanor Hancock, a great concert pianist who was a pedagogue of the pianist, Dorothy Taubman, part of a technical school of playing the piano that was valuable for me in terms of production of sound, getting me to think.

They all showed the way. From each person you learn some very special thing, or many special things. I’m lucky. I always saw that the benchmark was really high, and you know, just try to play better every night.

The another thing, which might seem obvious, is learning to play your instrument with command. All those players are virtuosos of playing their instrument. I think that it’s not too small of a point to make that a comprehensive approach to expressivity on your instrument is essential. One of the things that makes Kenny Washington’s and Peter Washington’s playing so great, is that they are virtuosos on their respective instruments—and Phil Woods, and Gene Bertoncini, and all those people. The bar is very high in terms of their command and sound production. None of that is wasted. I think that’s a key thing for young musicians to understand, is not to be satisfied with just the ability to do some things. There are so many colors out there. That’s what differentiates a Coleman Hawkins from a very fine, educated tenor player—all those colors, and then, of course, the personality. Which will come through. But you have to take care of making a full box of tools, and not cut corners.

That particular cohort of older musicians you played with are not the type to let things go.

They did not cut corners.

And you can’t either, can you.

You can’t. Not if you want to honor how great this music is—and also not if you want to keep the gig. And why would you want to? Finally, to me, it’s all just about being a fan. A couple of nights ago, I heard Barry Harris play “It Could Happen To You.” It was a solo version. And he told such a story on it with so much nuance, it was inimitable. Of course, it was looking down from a lifetime of music and experience. But it was certainly educational, and certainly held up how far away that is.

Is there still such a thing as New York jazz that’s relevant to you?

Well, I don’t know. I only know what I know. Not to quote a lyric…it’s in “Time After Time.” Not Cyndi Lauper’s. But there probably is such a thing. Maybe it has to do with bebop and swinging. But I’m 42, so I’m not on the street with the 20-year-olds any more. I think things are changing a great deal. I don’t think it’s about bebop maybe as much. These days, it’s about odd time, changing time signatures, and not always about swinging. To me that’s a shame. Because if you’re missing that quarter-note and that feeling, you’re missing something very important to the sound of our music. Not to sound like an old fogey, but I think that’s absolutely central. The blues is central. Being part of a family tree musically is central. There’s no outsider art in jazz. It’s too high of an art form. It would be like being a great writer, and not knowing Faulkner and Melville and Thomas Mann. You have to be part of a continuum to say something original. I don’t think you can really bring something “original” without being a part of the canon, and I don’t think you can seek out just being original. I mean, you can’t think of someone more original than Monk, but Monk wouldn’t be Monk without Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. It wouldn’t exist that way. Coltrane wouldn’t have sounded like Coltrane without Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.

I will say this. My mother and my father were very influential. I saw my Dad’s intensity. Even though he died when he was 7, I watched him at the piano, I heard him play his music. He had great time and he had a great expressiveness in singing and playing his own tunes.

Anything else to say about your mother, Sandy Stewart? You’ve recorded together.

She’s a beautiful singer. She really reads a lyric, and she’s a great musician. We’re going to perform next year again at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, as we have on a yearly basis.

After Jazz in July, are there any special projects, or is it primarily the trio?

There is. I’m going to record a two-piano album with my wife. Renee is a giant of a musician, and a perfect duo partner. She has perfect ears, brilliant time, and taste.

Ted Panken interviewed Bill Charlap at the Algonquin Hotel on May 23, 2009

* * * *

Bill Charlap Feature in Jazziz, 2016:

“You can’t invent chemistry,” Bill Charlap says. “Generally it happens instantly, like when you meet a friend you get along with very easily, or when you fall in love.” The observation occurred as Charlap communed with a hunk of New York strip steak at a chophouse in the New Jersey suburb where he lives with his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes, but he was referring to the sparks that flew that transpired when he first made music with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at a December 22, 1997 recording session for Criss Cross. “That was it,” Charlap recalls. “We had maybe one rehearsal, and we sounded like a band right away.”

The ensuing album, All Through the Night, marked Charlap’s first recording of exclusively his arrangements culled from the Great American Songbook. It inspired the eminent jazz journalist Whitney Balliett to write a laudatory article in The New Yorker in 1999. Balliett described Charlap, born in 1966, as “a lyrical repository” and “the best, but least well-known pianist” of his generation. He even compared Charlap’s declamation on Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” from the 1995 CD Souvenir to an elite pantheon of recorded solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Paul Gonsalves and Joe Lovano that, in Balliett’s words, “catch you by surprise and send tremors up your spine.”

Partly thanks to Balliett’s encomium and an ensuing Blue Note contract, the Bill Charlap Trio quickly progressed, in Peter Washington’s words, “from a couple of weeks a year at Zinno’s” — a convivial Italian restaurant-cum-piano room on W. 13th Street in Greenwich Village — “to the Village Vanguard.” Washington stood at Birdland’s bar after a sparkling set on the second night of a week’s run supporting the trio’s recently released CD Notes From New York (Impulse!), its seventh recording, and first since 2007. Recorded immediately after a fortnight at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in May 2015, it’s a nine-tune program on which the partners sustain the mutual intuition established during their maiden voyage almost 19 years and a few thousand gigs ago. Their elegant, freewheeling triangular conversation on songs written between 1941 (“Not a Care In the World,” by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche, from an Eddie Cantor Broadway vehicle called Banjo Eyes) and 1975 (“Little Rascal On a Rock,” by Thad Jones) embodies the attitude that the pieces are not repertory, but collectively articulated repertoire. The overriding sensibility, as Charlap once said, is “cooking like the pot is boiling but with the lid on the pot, not obscuring the songs, but each of us playing ourself.”

This remark aptly described the flavor of this night at Birdland, where the trio displayed customary levels of creativity, craft and cogency. One highlight was Charlap’s solo on Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put On a Happy Face” (1963), which spanned a vocabulary timeline from Willie “The Lion” Smith to Bud Powell without shoving the historical references in your face. Another was an achingly gorgeous reading of Ira Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful” (1919), to which he applied his dynamic command and penchant for phrasing notes and tones to convey the essence of a lyric. Lucky Thompson’s blues “Prey-Loot” (1964) provoked another stride-to-modernism invention demonstrating that the trio needs no text as an armature around which to sculpt musical narrative.

That they performed not a single tune from Notes From New York denotes the scope of Charlap’s vast book. He’s gestated much of it on recordings that explore the oeuvres of George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Bernstein; on others with the New York Trio — a nonperforming unit with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart that makes CDs exclusively for the Japanese market — of material by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter; and on Charlap’s Grammy-winning 2015 collaboration with Tony Bennett, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. He’s generated other arrangements for a half-dozen theme-oriented shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2006, and while curating and music-directing some 70 concerts for the annual “Jazz in July” series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA since 2004, when the polymath pianist Dick Hyman, a distant cousin, passed him the baton.

“We could have made three or four records,” Kenny Washington says of the two days it took to record Notes From New York. “This was the most relaxed one we’ve done. It was just like playing a gig.”

“I remember thinking that this was the very best I’d ever heard Bill,” Peter Washington adds. “On some earlier records we did a million takes, but this was unscripted, a unique experience.”

Kenny Washington first played drums with Charlap in the semifinals of the 1993 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, in which Jacky Terrasson, Peter Martin and Edward Simon finished first, second and third. “In my opinion, Bill should have won,” Washington says. “Everybody else was showboating; this cat was playing music!” The feeling was reinforced a few years later, when Charlap called him for a no-rehearsal brunch engagement at the Blue Note.

Charlap recalls Washington remarking at their first studio meeting that he sounded like a “modern-day Teddy Wilson,” then adds, “I wasn’t trying to play somebody’s language or not to play somebody’s language.”

“The first thing that hit me was Bill’s touch and lyricism,” Washington clarifies. “He plays with his heart on his sleeve. This cat will lay you out on a ballad. At almost the end of the tune, there might be a pause; people are so quiet, you can hear a rat piss on cotton. We have the audience in the palms of our hands.”

Before participating in All Through the Night, Peter Washington, then midway through a 10-year run with Tommy Flanagan, had frequently partnered with the identically surnamed drummer (no relation), but never with Charlap. “I grooved to him right away,” Washingon says. “He’s very purposeful and has terrific time; it’s easy to play with him. He plays those standards without making it sound like a Sunday-school lesson. Playing standards and playing as straightahead as we play will never be out of favor, but it’s not fashionable. But Bill has been that way all along. He doesn’t care.”

“I love to play songs more than anything else,” Charlap says. “That’s not a great revelation to anybody who knows what I do. I love the songwriters. I love their mastery of the form. I love what those forms are for an improviser. I love their canvas. I like the stories that they tell. I love the lyricists—the whole scene.”

BREAK

Charlap was the only person in the chophouse dining room in a suit and tie — one of several understated, well-tailored blue Ermenegildo Zegnas that he uses for a performance uniform. He’d worn it for an afternoon meeting with fundraisers at William Paterson University, which, last September, appointed Charlap director of jazz studies, replacing the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. During the just-concluded school year, Charlap taught six separate ensembles, focusing on works by Harold Arlen and Horace Silver in the first semester, and Irving Berlin and Billy Strayhorn in the second.

“I enjoy learning the idiosyncracies and special talents of young musicians,” Charlap says. “I want to help them develop a full box of tools, and understand things contextually. If they’re learning ‘Body and Soul,’ for example, be aware of the iconic recordings of that song by Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Know how the song is built, who Johnny Green is, what the lyrics do, what the original stock arrangement might have done. Have a comprehensive idea of the song so when you approach it, you won’t be stylistically limited. You want your students to fall in love with it, to experience something that makes them say, ‘That made me feel something I’ve never felt before.’ As you fall more deeply in love with something, don’t you want to know every angle of it? Aren’t you wasting your feelings to not know it as intimately as possible?

“As a jazz fan, as you learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, than Gershwin, than Arlen, than Kern, than Porter. What was it about these master composers that made a stamp? As I learned the composers and read about their lives, all the pieces fell into formation.”

I observed that to juggle so many variables in real time mirrors Charlap’s own aesthetics. “The best thing you can do is be yourself,” he responded. “I follow Dick Hyman’s advice, which was ‘take the gig.’ That’s how you learn how to do it. If rhythm changes are difficult to play in the key of B-major, you should probably be practicing that. Run towards the cannons.

“A teacher becomes an advanced student. You learn more about what’s important to you, what you can offer that’s unique to your perception. When I listen to Coltrane, it’s to try to figure out how he can help me, but when I listen to my students it’s my job to help them. You’re not just listening for notes and time and sound and technique. You’re also listening for those intangible things that touch us — where someone’s heart is coming from.”

That Charlap’s heart so palpably connects to hardcore jazz and the Songbook links directly to his Manhattan upbringing. Born in 1966, he launched his musical education at 300 East 51st Street, where he lived with an older brother and two older sisters; his mother, Sandy Stewart, a popular singer in the ’50s, with whom he has recorded two CDs; and his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, a songwriter best-known for writing most of the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan, who died at 45, in 1974, when Charlap was 7.

“I imitated my dad, who composed at the piano and was very passionate and intense when he played,” Charlap says. “He was such a pro that he was doing it all the time. He wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was making stuff up, composing somehow out of the blue.” Early on, Charlap listened to Peter Pan, but also enjoyed “hearing the intervals and picking out the notes” of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor. Strouse and Jule Styne, whose songs he played at the Birdland set, were family friends, as were Yip Harburg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. After his mother remarried, the family heard his stepfather’s LPs by, among others, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Brookmeyer and Count Basie. “I remember getting Heavy Weather, some Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and a Miles Davis twofer all around the same time,” Charlap recalls. “It was all speaking to me. It was one giant, cross-related thing.”

He began to coalesce his interests while attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, where the student body represented the full ethnic scope of the New York City melting pot. “It put me in a conservatory atmosphere,” Charlap says. “You had brilliant jazz musicians, classical musicians, gospel musicians, everybody bound together by talent, some already at a professional level. It was New York — the incredible energy, intensity and culture.”

At 15, Charlap sometimes played hooky at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the General Motors Building at One Times Square, where he used Fats Waller’s piano, housed therein, as a practice instrument. There he met songwriter Walter Bishop, Sr., whose namesake son had played piano with Charlie Parker. “He’d been friends with Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and he encouraged me,” Charlap says. “I wanted to be a whole band, so I’d walk the basslines. I remember him saying, ‘Yes, Billy, when you jump down the sixth it’s very effective.’” A pianist who worked in the office recommended him for a gig with the improv-oriented First Amendment Comedy Troupe. “It was like being a silent movie pianist,” Charlap says. “I underscored whatever they were doing, and as people came in I could play anything I wanted — Chopin or Scott Joplin or ‘What Is This Thing Called Love.’ I wouldn’t say I had it under my fingers, but I was learning. I could do the gig.”

Thus “pushed towards jazz” as a serious commitment, Charlap reinforced his skills until graduation in private studies with the distinguished Jack Reilly. Then he matriculated at SUNY-Purchase as a classical-piano student “to develop the technique that didn’t come easy,” but concluded his formal education after two years. “I was spending too much time with Beethoven,” he says. “I needed to work more on my craft, on American music and the world music that jazz is.”

In July 1987, Hyman presented Charlap, just 20, at a solo-piano tribute concert to Teddy Wilson at the 92nd Street Y that featured heavyweights Hyman, Marian McPartland and Roger Kellaway. “I played ‘Danny Boy,’ a very impressionistic harmonic treatment from Dick’s book, and ‘Somethin’ Special’ by Sonny Clark,” Charlap recalls. “I don’t know if I’d want to hear a tape, but I did the gig.” Leading up to All Through the Night over the next decade, he did plum sideman jobs with crusty perfectionists Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, accompanist jobs with many singers, and jobs as a leader and sideman in duos and trios at various New York boîtes.

So, when he encountered Peter and Kenny Washington in 1997, Charlap knew how to recognize their chemistry when it emerged; over the years, to paraphrase the Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyric, he’s known how to keep the music playing. “I remember locking eyes with Kenny as he played brushes, this exact moment where it didn’t feel like we’re just making a date,” Charlap says. “It happened with Renee, it happens when I play with my mom, and it happens with Kenny and Peter. We have a sound. Part of that sound is how much we each love all the angles of the music, have spent a lot of time getting to know it very well, and understand where we stand.

“It’s like when you go through what it is to stay in love. There’s so much unspoken trust. You uncover things about yourself individually, and experience them together. Then hopefully we get better. Hopefully, my logic of the line has improved. Hopefully, my rhythmic ideas have become more interesting, varied and personal. And hopefully, we’ve developed more command and confidence in every choice we make, more ability to listen even more deeply to each other and to ourselves. We’re not trying to be everything, just what we are.”

SIDEBAR:

Title: Dancing With Tony

Bill Charlap first listened to Tony Bennett when he was 10 years old. For some two decades, Bennett has been a fan, frequently attending Charlap’s New York appearances, sometimes sitting in, sometimes calling him for a gig. So Charlap takes special satisfaction in their shared 2016 Grammy for Look For the Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Sony). Here’s his account of the session.

“Tony said, ‘We should make a record. I thought maybe it should be Jerome Kern.’ I said, ‘Perfect.’ Kern is the first great American theater writer, the Bach figure of songwriting. He’s got one foot in Europe and one foot in America. He writes songs like ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ that couldn’t be more colloquial, more American, and songs that are more light-opera-ish, like ‘The Song Is You.’
“More than that, one of my favorite records was my mom and Dick Hyman doing Jerome Kern songs. [Sings the Songs of Jerome Kern — With Dick Hyman at the Piano] It’s unclassifiable. It’s not cabaret. It’s somehow this great jazz songbook, but it’s also theatrical. All the songs are in my heart from my mom singing them and Dick Hyman, who was probably my greatest pianistic influence, playing them.

“Tony asked if we should do it as a duo or with the trio, or with Renee. He loved the album Renee and I made together — the uncluttered transparency of it, how it becomes like a new piano player. I thought we should do all three. Each song lends itself to a different orchestration, so you can explore their unique qualities, while it’s all of a piece.

“Tony made a list of songs. We got together with Renee at Steinway Hall for an afternoon, and played through a bunch of them. I wrote a few trio treatments, and he had strong ideas that were definitive. He heard ‘I Won’t Dance’ in 3/4. It was perfect.

“He gave his heart to it. Tony’s the red carpet for the composer. He’s got all that natural show business understanding. It’s not show business corny, it’s show business deep, like telling the story in almost a Shakespearean way. Tony is a jazz musician, in the sense that he responds to what he’s hearing. If I’m playing a harmony, he responds to it. If the rhythm section hits something, even subtle, he responds to it right away. Tony never sings it the same way, so it wasn’t like doing a million takes and pick from here and pick from there. He likes to be extemporaneous, and he wants to feel loose. We inspire each other. He sings something, and it makes me play something. We’re listening to each other. It’s a dance. It’s a conversation.”

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