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For Marcus Roberts’ 53rd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, a 2009 Interview on, and a 1999 interview for

A day late for the 53rd birthday of the singular pianist Marcus Roberts, I’d like to present a feature piece that I was given an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz in 2014,  a lengthy March 2009 interview that initially appeared  on Ted Gioia’s now-much missed ‘zine, and a 1999 interview for the Barnes and Noble website when selling CDs was still part of their business model.


Jazziz Article (“Visionary Man”) — Spring 2014:

Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.

During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?”

Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University — on a range of educational activities, and to play a concert with the pianist and record in the studio with Roberts’ trio, then comprising bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. Six years after that busy week in the Sunshine State, in November 2013, Roberts simultaneously released separate CDs of the proceedings — Together Again: Live in Concert and Together Again: In the Studio — along with a 2012 studio session titled From Rags to Rhythm, a 12-movement suite performed by his current trio, with Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. All three discs were released on Roberts’ imprint, J-Master Records.

The Together Again albums document the Marsalis-Roberts partnership for the first time since the 1991 performances included in the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 7-CD box set Live at the Village Vanguard. “We wanted to showcase the natural way we communicate, and we chose music you could play without much rehearsal,” Roberts says, speaking by phone from his Tallahassee home in December. “The playing is spontaneous and comfortable. We both know way more about music than we did when we were making records together. But the way we relate hasn’t changed, as it probably never will.”

The settled, old-master quality contained on the Together Again discs contrasts with the exploratory quality of earlier encounters like ]J-Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Marsalis Standard Time, The Majesty of the Blues, Blue Interlude and the three volumes of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. Those albums represent Marsalis’ shift from the vertiginous, high-energy rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of his 1983-85 quintet (with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts) to the blues-grounded, groove-oriented, orchestrally sophisticated, “all jazz is modern” conception that, after 1988, would define the Wynton Marsalis Septet and continues to bedrock the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“We attacked specific problems,” Roberts says of those albums. “When I entered the band, we were playing primarily original music, but our ballads sounded terrible. I identified that to Wynton as something we needed to work on. When we played standards from the ’30s and ’40s, that didn’t sound good. I remember mentioning that we needed to play more blues, but when we played them, it wasn’t that happening either. So the blues pieces on some of those records were us working on putting more human feeling into the music, making it more accessible to lay people.

“Wynton taught me a lot about how to identify the things you work on. With his notoriety and fame, he could easily have continued in our prior vein of music. But for him — and for me — it’s always been a question of dealing with the code of ethics that the music itself imposes.”

Those ethics were already in place in 1980, when Marsalis, then 19, met Roberts, a 17-year-old senior at the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, at the Jazz Educators Convention in Chicago. As his own career ascended, Marsalis stayed in touch, sent Roberts recordings by Thelonious Monk, brought him to various gigs to hang out and sometimes sit in. After Kirkland and Branford jumped ship to tour with Sting, he offered Roberts a job. Drummer Jeff Watts recalls Roberts’ command of the repertoire on his first gig with the band, in Salt Lake City. “What he played, I’m sure he would like to take back,” Watts says. “But he knew it cold. There was nothing that was going to prevent us from playing anything in our book. I use Marcus as an example to people who make excuses about not having one thing or another together. He is at the top with regards to work ethic.”

Himself no slouch in the hard-work-is-good-for-you department, Marsalis attested to Roberts’ diligence and his refusal to allow his disability to impede creative expression. “Marcus was still developing his playing then,” Marsalis said. “I called him because he had the most intelligence and depth of feeling and integrity — personally, as a man — of any musician I’d encountered around my age. I knew it from speaking to him, and I wanted to be around that kind of feeling. The size of his mind was good for me. I found out how serious and thorough he is about studying and learning and playing. We had long, long pieces, and he’d learn the music by ear before we could learn it by reading.

“From watching Marcus develop, I learned that your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a person. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker or play a more complex polyrhythm than somebody.”

For Roberts, putting in the hours is as much a matter of necessity as an ethical imperative. “Because of my disability, I’m not able to sight-read,” he says. “If I don’t learn the piece inside and out, the likelihood of something going wrong is greater. So from the time I was 12, I didn’t just learn what the piano was playing; I tried to understand the whole structure. I don’t learn music quickly; to this day it takes a long time to absorb it into my system. But when I really know something, I can hear what it should sound like based on what I can bring to it. It’s almost like I can manipulate it as I go along, hearing it in my head as I go, based on how I can use the piano to shape the overall architecture.

“After our first tour, I worked just on comping for two months, six hours a day, before our next set of gigs. I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington and Hank Jones. When we went out, everybody was shocked that I’d advanced so much in that short a time. But the bottom line was that if I was going to be out there doing it, it needed to be right. I was always taught there’s not much point in doing anything halfway. This music is only desirable to people if played at the highest level. Enlightenment comes from above, not below.”


Between 1988 and 2001, Roberts released 14 solo, trio and ensemble albums. Before the arrival of 2012’s Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite and Across the Imaginary Divide — on which his trio finds common ground with banjo giant Béla Fleck — and the three new albums, Roberts had released only two discs since 2001.

He began his recording career as a leader with The Truth is Spoken Here, an all-star ensemble gathering, which he followed with the first version of Deep in the Shed, a suite of original music with a unit that included Marsalis and other close generational contemporaries. Then came 1991’s Alone With Three Giants, a solo outing on which Roberts found new routes into repertoire by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Monk; 1992’s As Serenity Approaches, which contains solo and duo performances of original pieces and items from the American Songbook and stride-piano canons; and 1993’s If I Could Be With You, another solo recital. Portraits in Blue, from 1995, features Roberts improvising to the piano parts of orchestral works by George Gershwin and James P. Johnson, while on The Joy of Joplin, from 1998, he offers solo renderings of 16 numbers by early-century ragtime poet Scott Joplin.

On these albums, Roberts grapples with the vocabularies of the European canon and the foundational streams of American jazz, addresses the material on its own terms of engagement, interprets it with virtuoso execution and conceptual freshness, pulling a thick, sweet, legato sound from the piano. He advanced his goal of “always expanding while using the whole history of the music all the time” on a pair of late-’90s trio sessions (both released just after the millennium by Columbia, which then dropped him) with Guerin and Jason Marsalis. His statements on the 16 Nat Cole-Cole Porter-associated pieces that comprise Cole After Midnight and the 12 Ellington-inflected originals on In Honor of Duke incorporate elements of Ellington, Monk, James P. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Kirkland and Danilo Perez.

Roberts contends that From Rags to Rhythm represents the most comprehensive realization of his aesthetic. Composed in 2001 on commission from Chamber Music America, and reworked and refined as the aughts progressed, it’s a 12-movement work with interchangeable themes that reappear in various contexts as the piece transpires. Roberts explains why it, the 2006 session From New Orleans to Harlem (issued in 2009) and 2011’s Celebrating Christmas are his only trio releases of the 21st century.

“I’m sure a lot of folks wondered whether I’d disappeared or wasn’t doing much,” he says. “I recorded a lot of stuff during this time. But I was no longer on a major label, and the industry was changing. Possibilities on the Internet had not matured. So I decided to wait while figuring out methods and strategies to disseminate my work to the public. Also, I was exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together, so I needed to invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career. I was overhauling my technique, exploring a more refined approach to sound, expanding the amount of nuance I can play through voicing and pedaling, playing contrapuntally with a certain balance and articulation.

“I was happy with the trio, but didn’t want to record again until we were able to organically improvise that concept with a certain feeling. At this point it’s more a way of life, a philosophy, what we believe in. Whatever we play, it sounds completely different from night to night.”

“Marcus always plays experimentally,” says his 48-year-old bassist Rodney Jordan, who regards Roberts as a kindred spirit to a pair of his own early employers, outcat veterans Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder. “To my ears, he’s no different than them in terms of feeling free when you play music.”

Roberts takes the comparison in stride. “What interests me is that, whatever we’re playing, we all communicate and respond to what each person is playing, so that we can freely determine what should come next,” he says. Then he preemptively addresses brickbats thrown at him over the past quarter-century for paying too much attention to older styles and too little to bebop and beyond.

“Most people think I’ve been playing that stuff my whole life,” Roberts says, after observing that he didn’t begin to investigate Jelly Roll Morton’s music until 1988, for a “Classical Jazz” show that Marsalis presented at Lincoln Center. He notes that his formative sensibility gestated not only from playing piano in his mother’s church and accompanying her in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, but also covering ’70s hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Natalie Cole. He pinpoints his jazz epiphany to age 12, when a local swing era-oriented radio show exposed him to Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams.

“I’d never heard any chords like what Ellington played on the piano, and the sound interested me,” he says. “The music was from the 1930s or 1940s, but to me it was like new. It was modern. It was the same with Jelly Roll when Wynton got me into him, and I realized how profoundly difficult his stuff really is; it turned my approach and world of piano upside-down. As I got deeply into it, I saw relationships to the church music I grew up hearing. When I hear two styles, what intrigues me is not what makes them different, but where they intersect, how to unite those two sounds into something else.”

One way Roberts individualizes his sound is by utilizing orchestral devices initially borrowed from the Ahmad Jamal Trio. In the course of a single piece, he constantly modulates grooves, tempos and keys, plays separate time signatures with the right hand and the left, and, as he puts it, “flips around the roles of the piano, bass and drums by giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop the concepts and themes, to change the form, to get us where we’re getting ready to go.”

“I’ve always experimented with whatever music came into my environment and tried to figure out how to use it in my own way. ‘New’ is anything of value, anything that’s relevant to helping me do what I want to do right now. There’s no big agenda. The goal is just to play better every day. Your individual identity as a musician is there, just like the identity of the sound of your voice. The question is what vocabulary to use through that voice. That’s what Wynton and I always understood without having to state it. It’s never been about jazz, per se. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist or a stride pianist or a bebop pianist or a classical pianist. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”


Title: Leaning Classical

In 2012, Marcus Roberts composed a three-movement piano concerto, titled “Spirit of the Blues: A Piano Concerto in C-Minor,” dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. He premiered it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his trio on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination.

After receiving the commission in 2010, Roberts spent more than a year preparing and contemplating. “I didn’t want it to sound like a jazz guy who is dabbling in classical music,” he says. “I had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration scanned to Braille, and I studied them thoroughly.”

Once the composing began, Roberts used CakeTalking for SONAR, a program developed by Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. “I established maybe 30 tracks, put an instrument on each track, and played in what I wanted each instrument to do,” he says. “To hear what the flute is doing at measure 32, I press a command, jump to the measure, solo the flute, and hear it exactly. Once I finished each movement, I exported the file into Sibelius, and my copyist and I would prepare it to [conductor] Robert Spano’s requirements. The tempos change constantly, so they had to be communicated clearly. Since I’m a blind guy playing a new piece with an orchestra, we wanted to make sure the transitions from section to section were seamless.”

Roberts modeled each movement after iconic concertos from the classical canon. The first movement, “The Blues,” connects blues chords to motifs refracted from Beethoven’s “Third Concerto in C-Major, Opus 37”; the second movement, “The Dream,” is inspired by the second movement of Ravel’s G-major concerto; the third movement, “Freedom,” whose Latin elements and percussive textures palpably connect it to the jazz continuum, evokes both Bartok’s second piano concerto and the third movement of Prokofiev’s third concerto.

Roberts is proud of more than the notes and tones. “In a weird way, it’s symbolic that I’m representing this struggle to independently compose a piece of this scale that blind musicians have faced for decades,” he says. But he also feels that the work embodies his aim of “continuing to push the envelope in bringing jazz and classical music together.”

“The orchestra authentically plays the classical part, the trio does the authentic version of the jazz,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve written into the composition how the two forms coexist and melded them into one unified entity that represents modern life, which is global.”


Interview with Marcus Roberts for, March 24, 2009:


Jazz criticism over the last two decades has usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of “conservative neotraditionalism.” But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.

A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot; abiding by the motto “fundamental but new,” he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without cliche.

“What I’m advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time,” Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At the time, he had recently presented his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio on a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter Cole After Midnight and a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington called In Honor Of Duke, augmenting a corpus that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplin’s corpus and customized arrangements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. Johnson’s “Yamacraw.”

“As an example,” Roberts continued, “Ellington was not somebody who was going, ‘Oh, there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.’ He was about using the logical elements of Bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”

Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1,”his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.

“Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with,” Wynton Marsalis told me a few years, reflecting on the ways in which Roberts, who replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band in 1986, helped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. “I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you can’t make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. What’s inside of you. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development.”
Is From New Orleans to Harlem the recording that you’ve been trying to find the right time to put out over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?

I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now I’m putting it out. It’s really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If I’m going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if I’m going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.

What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?

I can’t even put my finger on it. I just didn’t feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time I’d fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playing—honestly—so differently that it didn’t feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.

What are some of the reasons for that gap? It’s not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. You’ve been performing a lot.

It’s been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didn’t want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the Internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.

The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didn’t want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.

The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what you’re doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles you’re interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.

Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why it’s been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. I’ve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. It’s hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. I’m in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel I’m making a real contribution to the program.

Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?

I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulation—so Bach is perfect. Then, another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if I’m playing something soft. . .well, where is the threshold when I feel I’m starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors? You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if you’ve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, you’ll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you can’t get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.

 It’s hard to do consequential R&D when you’re on the road a lot, too, isn’t it.

Well, it is a difficult thing to do when you’re on the road. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the middle of presenting music that you’ve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictable—and I just don’t ever want to go there. I’ll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you don’t care enough about to work on. That’s just for me. Whether we want to call it “new” or “old” or “innovative” or whatever else, if you’re not investing in it every day of your life, then you’re not as serious about art as some great artists have been. That’s all I can say.

Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?

I have to say that they’re so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable… You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, “You know what? We’re going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.” He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows you’re there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of style—funk music, zydeco, Louisiana playing—and also has a love of Ron Carter’s role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltrane’s group—he’s figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.

What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talent, write arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. That’s one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OP’s virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment… Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybody’s view of a jazz trio is kind of, “Oh yeah, cocktail music” or “it’s kind of cute, it’s kind of nice…” Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.

Then the second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, they’ll be able to have equal access in bringing us where we’re getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.

You’ve been evolving that concept for some time, haven’t you. You were talking about this ten years ago.

We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. That’s the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether you’re going to really push and figure it out, or whether it’s going to be mainly conception.

Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I can’t help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giantsi, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composers—Morton, Ellington, and Monk—whom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Let’s talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.

When you’re putting any record together, you’re trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they don’t get tired in the process. I’ve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.

So you want an ebb-and-flow.

Yes. You want people to have time to digest what they’re hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; he’s at the beginning anyway, so why not? “New Orleans Blues” I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.

Most of the pieces on this CD I’ve been playing for years. There’s not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that it’s all trio, and the concepts are organic, because I’ve been playing this stuff for a long time, and I’ve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.

So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke,” which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the ‘90s…how do you see those now?

I don’t really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wynton’s rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because there’s no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. It’s matured. It’s grown-up. It’s no longer really a concept. At this point it’s more a way of life. It’s how we play, what we believe in.

At what point in your life did the notion of having entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? I’m sure it took a while to germinate, and once it begin to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?

I guess it’s always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, he’s the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know how to make them operational. You’ll get in the middle of it, then: “Oh, I didn’t consider it whole.” “What do we do now?” “I don’t know.” So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure. Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldn’t have you doing something that’s physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, what’s amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. He’s got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!

As far as when I started to think in terms of the history: Well, I’ve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I can’t even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. You’ll play or hear a melody, and you don’t know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. It’s timeless. It’s beyond the scope of our understanding. It’s like a subconscious-unconscious thing. Then, there’s the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it. That’s more “modern,” new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. I’ve always thought in terms of integration—of more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something “new.” I’ve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. I’m sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. It’s never been a problem actually to find new things to do.

One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.

That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. It’s a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. There’s the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. That’s my real view of blues—the tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means we’re imposing something on it against the ear. The ear’s got into this, and then we’re going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopation—your ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, here’s something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, we’ve got a third instrument. It’s a real complicated thing.

When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. They’re on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wynton’s philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. That’s that folk element I’m talking about. Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voice—she could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation you’re in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a “generation” is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! You’re thinking that it’s moving you right now. “Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?” If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me!—nobody would be mad! They’d say, “Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?” So we’ve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. That’s a delicate issue.

New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with “New Orleans Blues,” and ends in 1956 with “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.” So you’re spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American music—in Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?

Again, they solved problems. “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,” or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monk’s music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. He’s almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monk’s music is strictly jazz. Strictly. You’re not going to confuse it with German music, you’re not going to confuse it with African music, you’re not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, “Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,” well, you’d pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, you’d probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from <i>Kind of Blue</i>. I won’t speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldn’t go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldn’t go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldn’t go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness. Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington, all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what I’m interested in. For me, it’s always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. That’s the selfish component. Now, I’m not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because you’re talking about somebody’s life’s work, what they REALLY went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.

And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.

Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So I’m playing “New Orleans Blues,” which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,” I don’t know how many arrangements of that tune we haven’t thought up in this trio. We’ve played it all kind of different ways. “Honeysuckle Rose” is another one that we’ve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.

So I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didn’t really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholy—a kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. It’s an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesn’t impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, “Well, you’d better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system won’t acknowledge it.” There’s the science of it, and there’s the art of it, the creative element. Again, you’re always balancing the design with the conception.

Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By “contemporary,” I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and I’ve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wynton’s group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?

Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. He’d play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manner—because it still has the theory and this European training behind it.

Danilo is someone who understood another culture’s view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, it’s that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what he’d figured out. It’s just brilliant stuff. It’s well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playing—somebody who doesn’t understand that the sustain pedal is there and what you’re supposed to do with it. He’s a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesn’t get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if it’s your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. It’s a hard job. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

You were mentioning earlier that you’ve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?

Well, I can’t speak for anybody else’s experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I don’t know.

I’m thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.

That’s still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, you’ve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. That’s the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford… Look, they didn’t play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. That’s never enough. You’re not going to find anything great without it.

With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?

Well, I’ve been documenting a lot. That hasn’t been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But I’m just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly won’t be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.

Primarily trio, or a diverse range of contexts?

It’s diverse. I have a solo piano record that’s already done. I have another trio record of original music that’s done. I’ve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put out—I don’t know if I’m going to go in and redo it. But yes, I’m always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.

Any special projects for the spring and summer?

The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] We’re doing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. That’s important to me, because that’s the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that we’ve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; he’s a great conductor over there. So I’m hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. I’m talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, I’m interested in meaningful collaboration. It’s certainly a little more streamlined. I’m not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.


Interview with Marcus Roberts for, October 22, 1999:


TP: I would like to ask you first of all about a contention that you make several times in the press material, which is that your concept of the interactive trio and of all of the members of the trio being in a position to lead the proceedings at any given time is a new concept. You say “fundamental but new.” Now, I think the trio does it with great skill and imagination. But would you explain to me a little more why it’s a new concept, as opposed to what, let’s say, Ahmad Jamal was doing in the late ’50s and the ’60s?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we have to address the fact that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. “New just means that no one has done it.” If we’re talking about Ahmad Jamal, the way his trio was set up, the piano was fully out front, and Ahmad wanted space so that he could manipulate through cues, visual cues…so he could manipulate the direction of the music. What he would do is, if he wanted Israel’s voice to come out more here, he would leave space and point to him as if, you know, “Play”… In other words, he was a very-very hands-on, great trio… I mean, he put together, in my opinion, the best trio I ever heard! [LAUGHS]

TP: Was he very influential on your concept of trio playing?

ROBERTS: Oh my God, yes.

TP: Talk a bit more about the dynamics of that, and talk about your antecedent trio concepts that inflect the way your sound has evolved to this day.

ROBERTS: Well, we’ve been influenced specifically by Ahmad Jamal, and certainly Errol Garner’s playing has had a profound impact on me — that whole Pittsburgh school of piano playing.

TP: What are the characteristics of that Pittsburgh school?

ROBERTS: Well, they believe first and foremost in swinging and grooving, number one. In the case of Errol Garner, we’re talking about somebody who sort of was a transitional figure from the Big Band swing players and sort of the Bebop era. Errol became very popular in the ’50s at a time when everybody was kind of into the Hardbop of Blakey and Miles, but Errol Garner just had such a hard-driving swing. In his left hand he typically used to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, and then in the right hand he would play a lot of times what you might think of as saxophone figures or trumpet figures in a big band. So he organized this within a trio concept, and the power has always been very attractive to me — just the swing and the power of Errol Garner’s playing.

Then sort of the finesse and the imagination of Ahmad Jamal, who again influenced… Most of what Miles Davis got done in the ’50s, he got pretty much directly from Ahmad Jamal, and Ahmad’s concept of expanding the form. So Ahmad would take a tune like “Autumn Leaves” that has a pretty straight-ahead AB kind of form, and he would expand the A-section until he just didn’t have to play on it any more. He’d point and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the bridge.” So it was a very-very flexible way of expanding form. Now, he might put a different kind of groove on the bridge. It just brings the whole tune to life, a whole different way. That’s something that I definitely was very taken by and very influenced by, that this was just a brilliant bandleader who knew how to make the piano sound like an orchestra, how he would make a single line played in the highest register of the piano ring, and then you’d hear Israel Crosby playing all kinds of hip stuff underneath; you know, Ahmad’s left hand wouldn’t be in the way or anything with the harmonic direction that Israel might want to go in…

But again, what I think we’re trying to do is introduce a concept that has an agenda that says that there are many times where the piano does not have to be out front, and rather, there are times where you have to relinquish not only a solo space, but an actual direction, an unanticipated direction that you as bandleaders don’t control, to the bass or drums. And this just isn’t done.

TP: In some ways, this is a very Ellingtonian notion, isn’t it. I mean, Ellington always had control, but it was always control based on his knowledge of what the untrammeled imagination of his improvisers would do. It’s like his concept was built around that intimate knowledge of each of his voices. Since the recording is called In Honor Of Duke, and you say it’s not Ellington repertoire but more an impression of Ellington, the idea seems consequential.

ROBERTS: We are certainly building on very, very fundamental aspects of what Ellington did. He wrote music, number one, specifically for the talents of all the men and women that he worked with throughout his career. And I think in his case, you’re talking about somebody who certainly preferred that his orchestra vision not necessarily be expressed from the standpoint of piano alone, but typically from the expanding of other people’s ability to shine. And he gave them tremendous flexibility, but he did tailor-make the music for them that allowed their imagination to come forward. But again, Duke Ellington did typically maintain control at the piano. This is why we have typically a piano introduction, because Duke Ellington was not going to risk the wrong tempo being set — he was not going to risk any of that stuff. So he did permit imagination, but you have to understand, it was definitely from the standpoint of him making sure that the environment was how he wanted it to be for that to happen. And he had very clear visions as far as what the bass and drums were going to be doing in the big band. He wanted that foundational groove there, and not being manipulated too much.

So again, if we’re talking about the bass and the drums, this is the issue that makes this new. The issue is that there hasn’t been a band that I know of where the bass and drums can dictate throughout an evening the direction that the band goes in. I haven’t heard it.

TP: Talk a bit about the cuing system you use to keep the collective spontaneous interaction organized in some sense.

ROBERTS: Well, we can have, for example, one cue that allows for anybody to either speed the tempo up or slow it down, on any tune. We have another cue system where the tempo can be changed above abruptly at any time. Then we have the music itself, which is organized in a way where there are moments where the direction of the music is in the hands of somebody other than myself, again both in terms of tempo… For example, on two separate occasions, that particular tune, every 8 bars in every break after the …(?)…, control shifts, and it’s beyond just taking a break. Typically when you take a break in jazz, you take the break at the tempo of the preceding material. Well, in this case, we don’t feel that you have to do that. The break could be at any tempo. And you can set up a whole different tempo after your break is done for the next person, so you are dictating the tempo that they play at. So that’s just like one small example of it.

So it’s just things like that. And it’s not to say it’s new like there is no relationship to using material or concepts about the form, because that is certainly not where I’m coming from at all. It’s just a matter of trying to identify things that you don’t feel have been done that can perhaps be a contribution.

TP: A quality you share with a lot of the older piano players is a very organic two-handed conception and orchestral conception of the piano within your trio concept. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but is there anything you care to say about that?

ROBERTS: Well, I agree with that 100 percent. I love to hear the piano explore with the sense that it could be an orchestra, because it certainly has the range to do it, and it has the ability for you to play many voices at one time. So yeah, I think that is one of the things I certainly strive for every time I play the piano.

TP: You make a comment here that as a youngster and someone with a gift for playing the piano, that Ellington was really the person who turned you around when you first heard him, when you were 12 years old.


TP: Who were some of the other pianists you encountered in your formative years, let’s say between that and going to Florida State University?

ROBERTS: Well, Teddy Wilson. Mary Lou Williams. Of course, I was listening to Classical music as well. I mean, I heard Horowitz the first time when I was 13 after one piano lesson. Art Tatum, obviously. And probably McCoy Tyner to a lesser extent.

TP: It differentiates you from a lot of your peer group who weren’t exposed to any of these prewar musicians at all until maybe later, and kind of came up with the orthodox piano lineage that’s taught in universities and academic institutions. It kind of puts you apart from a number of them.

ROBERTS: Well, the only thing that puts me apart from them, honestly, is just philosophy. You have to understand that in jazz music, typically (or more disciplines, I guess), people tend to look a generation back. That’s just what people do. Because they want to take issue with what’s been done, and either change it or agree with it or just totally reject it. So I think that what I’m advocating, and what somebody like Duke Ellington certainly advocated throughout his illustrious 50-year career, is that you should always use the whole history of the music all the time. That was obviously his conception. He was not somebody who was going, “Oh, now there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.'” He was saying, well, let’s use the logical elements of Bebop that make sense inside of his ever-expanding conception.

TP: It was an incremental concept.

ROBERTS: Yes. And this is where I think the power of Ellington’s legacy is second to none. Because it’s always expanding based on the whole history. My philosophy is, I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I mean, I study the whole history and try to develop sort of globally that way. For example, I studied Mildred Falls, so I could really understand how you should accompany a Gospel singer. She played behind Mahalia all those years; she must know something about that. So I mean, I studied her playing on about four of Mahalia’s records, so I could know, and correlate what I heard in Mildred Falls that I also heard in McCoy Tyner. What was I hearing in Teddy Wilson that was being passed down to Nat Cole and to Oscar Peterson? These are the things. Or how did Count Basie go from studying directly with Fats Waller and understanding that whole Harlem Stride thing, and then over time developing actually what a lot of people would think was a contradictory way of playing, with all this space.

TP: Actually, what I hear when I listen to you and reference older pianists is a kind of rhythmic affinity for the way Earl Hines phrases and sets off rhythms. It’s the most visceral connection I feel. Which may or may not have anything to do with your reality.

ROBERTS: Well, Earl Hines, man, that’s…again, that’s another… I try, you know. But I think… See, a lot of the young pianists that I talk to, they pick, like, an era that they’re into, or they respond to a particular philosophy that they don’t want to be associated with. You have some kids who maybe they’re just into claiming that they are expanding based on the 20th Century view of the European piano is what they’re doing, or some people make it clear that Bebop is what they’re interested in. Whatever it is. I mean, that’s fine, whatever a person is into. But I just encourage them to get as much information from the reservoir as you can.

TP: Which certainly puts you on a similar track to Wynton Marsalis, and hearing you say that makes it clear to me why the two of you have been so close over the years.

ROBERTS: Well, yeah. But again, like I say, we have a model far greater than Wynton and myself in Duke Ellington. We have a very clear example of somebody… Or Thelonious Monk. We have figures where this is not some newly discovered fact. I think in most disciplines, this is how things work. Now, we aren’t really suggesting that Einstein wasn’t influenced by Copernicus or Newton; we’re not really suggesting that. So to me, it’s kind of basic, kind of fundamental. I think that Wynton, certainly, just based on how he hit the scene and everything… A lot more is made of that really makes sense to me, but maybe that’s just because that was my experience and I was there.

TP: Let’s talk about your trio. You’ve been together four years now?

ROBERTS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few sentences about their individual qualities and the blend you’re able to get.

ROBERTS: Well, I think that first of all if we were to begin with Roland… Roland likes to groove. He comes from a generation where he’s got Parliament-Funkadelic records and Earth Wind & Fire records and all that stuff. He’s a lot like Reginald Veal in that he just loves to groove. Anything that’s got a groove on it, he’s interested. So he actually likes the traditional role of the bass and drums as just laying that groove down. In a strange way, that’s sort of what helped unlock this new way of thinking, to sort of fluctuate between those states in a seamless way. And he has, over time, developed a very-very strong solo vocabulary and has a lot of really nice things that he does, like with slapped bass based on Slam Stewart, and taking that to another level that I haven’t heard. So he brings strength and just a whole lot of soul and grit to the bandstand.

In the case of Jason Marsalis, this is just like a brilliant, genius kid who can hear three or four tempos simultaneously. He’s somebody who has a completely perfect photographic memory. You can tell him to play “a Roy Haynes conception, but I want the touch to sound somewhat like Tony Williams, and then when you come out of it I want you to play like Baby Dodds but in five.” So you can tell him that…

TP: Is that the way you talk to him?

ROBERTS: Oh yes. I can look right over to him and just say, “Baby Dodds,” and he will go immediately into like a modern depiction.

TP: So the image is correlated into a sound for him.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, he’s a genius. I have no idea how it happens, but I can tell you it’s like split second. A lot of it honestly is just there. I mean, from what I understand, he knew the solo to “Giant Steps” when he was 4 years old. I mean, he didn’t go to school and somebody teach it to him. Nobody knows. I mean, he’s somebody who just has an unusual, tremendous amount of natural talent.

But the other thing about him is that he is very dedicated, and in terms of this particular trio he has gotten very interested in taking a very active role in helping to develop it. One of the things that he told me that he’s doing… I asked him. Like I say, I’m not interested in me dictating every step. He’s interested in taking a lot of the drummers who were not trio drummers, like Max Roach and Elvin and Tony, and using their concepts in a trio context. A lot of drummers, if they play trio, they build pretty much from what we consider to be the traditional trio figures — Ed Thigpen, Vernell Fournier, etcetera. What Jason is saying is that he wants to contribute a modern dialogue with the vocabulary of some of the other drummers who are not associated with trio, and put it in that context.

TP: Just as those drummers would do when they found themselves in a trio context. Because Elvin and Tony and Max Roach and Roy Haynes all did play trios, but they weren’t “trio drummers.”

ROBERTS: Well, no. And I mean, they didn’t play trio in the way that Vernell did. They were not known as helping to develop a particular trio conception. But I think what he’s talking about is developing an identity inside of a trio that is based on not just the standard trio figures, but is (?).

TP: Was all this music more or less collectively developed over time? Talk about the process of composing the music for this trio.

ROBERTS: Well, the music for this trio really began with Time and Circumstance. That’s where my philosophy about piano, bass and drums really is put on record the first time.

TP: With another bassist.

ROBERTS: Well, it was recorded with another bassist, but actually I’d worked on a lot of that stuff with Roland. Roland was not on the record, but believe me, he was very instrumental in the development of the music. Then it sort of went there. Time and Circumstance was composed probably over a 5 to 6 month period of time. In Honor of Duke was done in a 2-1/2 month period of time. But the key thing is that it was written specifically for those two improvisers, and that it was written specifically — honestly, from the very beginning — with the concept: How can we bring the bass and drums more up-front? How can we sort of flip-flop these positions, so that the position of the piano is not lost in power, and we’re not just having these sort of generic, traditional ways at times of playing behind bass players, which I hate. It’s like every time a bass player starts to play somebody starts playing on the sock cymbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why is that the only way that we can think of to play behind a bass solo? It’s ridiculous. So we try to find different ways to accompany instruments that are typically not out front.

TP: You use a lot of Latin flavors on this record, explicitly and implicitly. There’s specific clave and then that sort of New Orleans inflection which has an inherent Caribbean feel. Have you been exploring Latin rhythms a great deal in recent years?

ROBERTS: A lot of that has to do with having heard Danilo Perez play. I love what he’s doing. We sat down and played, and I explained some things to him about the sort of straight-ahead piano philosophy, and how he can continue to develop his very incredible, hip, innovative Latin was that he takes a lot of the jazz standards and things; and then he shows me a lot of the basics of Latin playing, and explained to me some things that I can do to sort of bring that into what I was already doing. What I figured out is that it’s another huge reservoir of material and conceptual knowledge out there about that. So that’s why you’re hearing that. It’s something I’m feeling very driven to explore.

TP: Is composition a constant process for you? Are you always writing, or project-driven?

ROBERTS: Well, both. I have an arrangement for Trio and Symphony Orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” that I’m almost done with. That’s really consumed a lot of this year, along with the Ellington. I have a solo record that I’m working on for Columbia of all ballads, because I haven’t ever done a record quite like that, solo. I’m always trying to think of different things to do, to sort of do two things. To keep me in touch with the Folk foundation of life, but also to always stretch my imagination, always stretch my mental intellect. Because I think it’s really the combination of both things without losing one or the other that keeps progress in modern thinking kind of moving forward.

TP: In terms of your own pianism, what do you feel you need to work on? I’m assuming you’re never satisfied with what it is you do, but I assume there are certain aspects of what you do that you’re more comfortable with than, let’s say, others — or maybe I’m wrong.

ROBERTS: What I’m working on is trying to get to the point where my playing is, for lack of a better word, beautiful and poignant and clear. Balanced. Playing of Bach and Beethoven sonatas and Chopin. Those are the things that right at the moment I’m interested in doing. I have not had a whole lot of time, but I am very interested in just playing through a lot of those things. Because, see, a lot of the European masters did write specifically for the development of piano. So it’s one of the few instruments that has such a huge history both in Europe and America, you see. It’s a huge history. So to the extent that I can understand as much as I can, that’s what I plan to do. I don’t know how much better I’ll get, but that’s essentially what I’m driving by.

TP: Do you see the European Classical tradition and Jazz as a seamless entity in your mind, or are there separate personalities that come out for you?

ROBERTS: For me it’s seamless in that it’s all put and organized in a context that is jazz-based for me. I’m not interested in playing note-for-note the Beethoven Third with the New York Philharmonic. I have no real desire to do that, because I don’t have the hours and the days that it would take to really authentically represent that repertoire. But I am interested in writing music that will showcase the piano in a jazz context, but being drawn from a lot of European roots and Latin roots and other sort of merging of sensibilities.

I’d like to mention that the music is always ultimately only valuable if there is an audience for it that you can reach. That’s the most important (?) thing of any of it.

TP: And therefore the extent of your educational activities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And not only that. You are being educated. When people spend two hours getting dressed up and showing up to your event, they are just as interested in communicating with you as you are in communicating with them. I think this is where Jazz music has introduced a whole nother element, this interactive element, which I think has had a tremendous impact on how quickly jazz has moved in the past hundred years.

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Filed under,, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Marcus Roberts, Wynton Marsalis

For George Benson’s 71st Birthday, an Interview from 2000

In acknowledgment of guitar icon George Benson’s 71st birthday, here’s the proceedings of a phone encounter from 2000 for the website on the occasion of his release Absolute Benson. He offered quite a bit of information about his formative years.

* * *

George Benson (My Favorite Things) – (5-19-00):

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON, there are a number of Latin tunes, a number of pieces that refer to the sound I remember from the late ’60s and early ’70s when your career was getting underway.  I wonder if you could tell me some of the people you were listening to seriously at that time, what records fed your attitude towards music.

BENSON:  When I entered into the ’60s, I was just starting to get serious about the guitar.  I was always a singer.  I’d done a lot of singing over the years, and was very popular locally, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But now I was venturing out… In 1963, I left my home, and I was now a national touring…or international, I should say…I was with a touring band.  I had just been listening to out of the ’60s Sam Cooke as a vocalist; Nat King Cole, who was a musician-vocalist — a pianist… I knew all the pop singers of the time, Sinatra and even Mario Lanza way back…

TP:    Can you name one or two tracks by any of those singers that stand out for you?

BENSON:  In the case of Sam Cooke, his recording of “You Send Me” was gigantic.  But he had lots of incredible things.  He did one called “the Chain Gang,” which was quite a unique song.  But it was style and the tonality of his voice that really came through.  He could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and it would sell.  In the case of Mario Lanza, who was really the first Classical singer to cross over into Pop so easily, “Be My Love,” which is still a very powerful song — his performances will last, I think, a long as there is music.

But I knew all of the popular singers of our time.  And remember, before that I was exposed to a lot of R&B from the old days.  I had heard Chuck Berry’s beginnings of Rock-and-Roll, and I had heard all of Elvis’ first records.  And Elvis was a powerful singer.  A lot of people underestimated him.  Of course, the kids liked him; he was a handsome guy and he was exciting.  But there was something about his voice that was very unique, and I recognized that, too, way back then, and I became a fan then.  I was pretty universal in my listening.

TP:    It sounds that way.

BENSON:  Just to mention on the jazz side, the things that really inspired me: Jimmy Smith had just made the organ a household word — brought it to the forefront.  Before it had been considered just a unique instrument; there were no masters of the instrument who stuck out, who were commercially received.

TP:    And it created a whole new market for guitar players.

BENSON:  And he put the guitar up front, so it was a great platform for guitar players.  So that’s where I was coming from when I was coming out in the ’60s.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith coming through Pittsburgh?  He recorded quite a bit with Stanley Turrentine, who was from Pittsburgh.

BENSON:  Yeah, that’s right!  And some of his best recordings were made with Stanley Turrentine.  In fact, some of his early recordings in the late ’50s were made with Stanley Turrentine, and just before 1960, when he came out with “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was a huge success pop-wise, which really made him household.

TP:    Do you have any favorite Jimmy Smith record?

BENSON:  I recorded one called “Ready and Able,” when I started my band which was a fantastic recording, and showed his prowess on the instrument…

TP:    That was a recording you were on?

BENSON:  I wasn’t it.  I recorded it with my own band.  Of course, his recording is awesome.  Ours was exciting, but his was an awesome performance technically.  It was a classic performance!  Anyway, I heard that stuff, and it made me interested in guitar players in a much larger way than I had before.  Because I only knew Charlie Christian and maybe Barney Kessel and some others.  But after that, when I came off the road to travel in 1963, I was exposed to Wes Montgomery, and people like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, who was also on those Jimmy Smith records.

TP:    I know you were hearing those people coming through town or criss-crossing paths, but I have to orient this towards records.  Can you tell me one or two favorite Grant Green or Wes Montgomery sides?

BENSON:  I can explain that.  When I was about 17 we started going to jam sessions.  Every Saturday we’d have a session at a local musician’s house.  He was probably the best guitar player locally.  He would pick up records for us to listen to.  We could steal licks from these records.  The records we were listening to were Jimmy Smith’s ALL DAY LONG, and also we were listening to Hank Garland’s recording called JAZZ WINDS FROM A NEW DIRECTION, and Grant Green’s first recording called GRANTSTAND — all these people.  And the new Wes Montgomery guy!  He was just becoming famous at the time.

TP:    After ten years of being famous in Indianapolis, he was becoming famous everywhere.

BENSON:  The record that woke me up by Wes Montgomery was from an album called SO MUCH GUITAR (Riverside) which was put out I think in 1959.  It featured the song “While We’re Young,” and when I heard him play that I knew that he was more than just a guitar player.  It convinced me that he was someone very special.

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON you have some covers in your style of tunes by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  What are some of your favorite recordings by them?

BENSON:  When I was a young man, my manager said, “George, if you listen to this guy named Raymond Charles (which is the name he used in his early years), you will be successful.  Copy him, because he is the best, and he is going to be very big.”  But after hearing his early recordings, I knew that he was incredible, and “Come Back, Baby” was one of my favorites, a very special song that he recorded years ago.  Had that Gospel feel, but it was different.  It was an honest approach that had everything in it.  It had Gospel-Blues-Pop…everything was in that one song.  So I immediately was a fan of Ray Charles way back then.

In the case of Stevie Wonder, who was very much like Ray Charles in being a prolific writer, a good musician, and excellent singer, above average in all the approaches… They didn’t specialize.  They did everything well.  If they touched it, it was done well!  So Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in a much more contemporary…of the later days, I should say.

TP:    You play Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” on ABSOLUTE BENSON.  Are there other recordings by him that will be eternally with you?

BENSON:  Oh, yeah, let me think now.  The one Barbra Streisand recorded of his…let me see, now.  My memory is loaded down.  It’s like a computer with so much stuff in it, it’s hard to sort things out.  Let me think about that a little.

In the case of Donny Hathaway, his recording of “For All We Know” is something I sing bits and pieces of almost every day.  I’ve been doing that since it was recorded, way back.  Because it was such an incredible impromptu performance.  I even know the story behind it.  I did hang out with him a little bit to get a chance to feel him out up close and personal, so I got a chance to understand where he was coming from with it.  At one point, I was in touch with him and we were writing songs together.  I went to his apartment and gave him a song that I was working on, and I found out later that he recorded the song, although it never came out.  Then he wrote two songs for me which I never got, because he passed on before I had a chance to get those songs.  But I did hear them.  He wrote them and played them for me, and I said, “When are you going to give those to me?”  He said, “I’m finishing them up; they’re not ready yet.”  But his vocal technique was quite unique, the timbre of his voice.  Those are the things as a singer I had to pay attention to.  But he had many recordings that were great, like the album he did with Roberta Flack called BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT.

TP:    There’s a real Latin tinge to this record also.  Have you always been attracted to Latin music and the Latin style?

BENSON:  When I moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ’60s to play with Jack McDuff, I had a cousin who lived in Spanish Harlem.  So whenever I was in New York, which was very little during my traveling years because we were usually out on the road… But when we came home, what we called home (New York City was my home base), I would stay with my cousin, who lived on 108th and Third Avenue, which was considered Spanish Harlem.  And by the way, I have a son who is Spanish and so does he.  My cousin married a Puerto Rican girl, and my son is half Puerto Rican.

But anyway, we had a lot of association and we heard a lot of the music.  We heard the Joe Cuba records, which were gigantic — “Bang, Bang” and the song “To Be With You,” which was on the jukebox for over ten years around New York.  We were in touch with Johnny Pacheco when I started recording; he was recording with us.  We saw the whole beginning of Salsa music, how it was unacceptable at first to… A lot of Latinos around the world didn’t particularly like Salsa because they considered it a bastard music, but we saw it grow out of that, and now it’s full-grown with Santana!  So things do move.  You know, it was the a lot of the music of that era when we were living in New York.

TP:    Did you listen to très players at all?

BENSON:  Strangely enough, my office was one floor down from Tito Puente.  So my manager and he were very good friends, and he introduced me to him, and him and I became good friends, and eventually we ended up working a lot of the same gigs later.  When my manager introduced me to him, at the time Latin music was not so acceptable to persons who were not in the Latin world.  My manager introduced me to him and said, “George, this is the greatest Latin musician in the world right here.”  I said, “Yeah?!”  From that point on, I began to pay attention to the name Tito Puente.  Sure enough, the whole world has accepted him as being one of the great icons of Latin music.

TP:    Any particular favorites by Tito Puente?

BENSON:  His version of “On Broadway,” which is based on my version, which won him his first Grammy award, is a great example of what he can do.

TP:    Has Joe Sample been part of your world for a long time, or is your collaboration on ABSOLUTE BENSON a first?

BENSON:  No.  Joe and I have been on the same gig, but we’ve never worked together.  It’s usually his band and my band working different sets.

TP:    Well, the Crusaders were a paradigm of the type of band that was covering all the bases and putting them into some sort of very digestible and very musical form in the ’60s, when you were starting out.

BENSON:  That’s very true.  And when jazz music started to wane a little bit, and we had a hard time getting it played on the air, they dropped the name “jazz” from the Jazz Crusaders and became the Crusaders.  But the group was the same.  They did what you mentioned earlier.  They really connected with the audience.  They could take any tune to do that with.

TP:    Were you a fan?

BENSON:  Yeah.  I like uniqueness, and they were unique.  “The Young Rabbits” was the thing that probably… It was more jazz-oriented than anything, but it had a real feel to it.  You didn’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate it.

TP:    Would you say that when you went out on the road in the early ’60s, your guitar concept was fully formed?

BENSON:  No.  There was a young man in San Francisco… When I decided to go out on my own in 1965, I happened to be in San Francisco, and I spent several days out there.  I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and by quite by accident I walked into this club, and I heard a piano player playing who was very good.  I told him who I was, and he said, “Go get your guitar.”  So I went home and got my guitar and came back.  He gave me a lesson in harmony.  He stopped playing for the public… He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano (you know the scenario) for the dollars to be dropped in, and people making requests.  Well, he stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about.  Because I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me.  He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them.  He would say, like, “C!” I’d play a C, and he’d say, “No, not that C.”  I said, “Wait a minute.  There’s more than one C?”  And he began to explain.  And man, what I learned has been with me to this day.  His name was Freddie Gambrell.  There’s not much on him.

TP:    Was he blind?

BENSON:  Yes, he was blind.

TP:    He did a record with Chico Hamilton, one trio record.

BENSON:  Is that right?  You know a lot, man!  Freddie Gambrell, man.  He was quite unique!

TP:    In other words, you were an ear player, and as the ’60s developed and your career developed, you learned much more about theory and you’ve been able to continually apply it.

BENSON:  Yeah.  I think people began to notice me when I started to apply the theory that I embarked on after spending that little time with Freddie Gambrell.  I began to experiment.  And what I learned from him I think separated me from the normal guitar thinking.  So I think that made me interesting to other players, who used to ask me all the time, “Where you coming from, man?”

TP:    So he gave you a kind of pianistic conception of harmony which you were able to put on what you did.

BENSON:  That’s right.

TP:    What have you been listening to lately?

BENSON:  I just came back from Hawaii, so I heard a lot of Hawaiian music, and there are a lot of Latin musicians over there.

TP:    You heard them in person.

BENSON:  Yes.  Then they gave me their records, and I listened to their records.  I’ve been listening to Rodney Jones’ latest album, THE UNDISCOVERED FEW.  He’s got some new stuff happening that’s really wonderful.  So he’s reaching out and stretching out!

TP:    A couple of others?

BENSON:  I’ve been listening to a guitar player from Spain called Tomatito.  He’s the newest hot guitar player from Spain.  He’s second only to Paco De Lucia.  Everybody is into him right now.  Tomatito is the cat I’m listening to.  It means “little tomato,” I think.

Let’s see what’s in front of me.  What I do is take stuff and just throw it on.  You’re going to be surprised at this one.  I went back in my archives and put on the Anthology of Smokey Robinson.  The reason why, there’s a song on there that nobody knows about it… You ask people if they’ve ever heard this song, and they say “No.”  It’s called “Bad Girl.”  You ever heard of that?

TP:    I might have… No, I’m thinking of “My Girl.”

BENSON:  “My Girl.”  I think he wrote that, too.  I think Smokey Robinson was one of the writers on “My Girl.”  But this song is called “Bad Girl.”  And the reason why Smokey Robinson is still on my mind is because we used to perform with them.  Whenever they came to my home town, we would be on the same show with them.  That’s way back in like 1959 or the very early ’60s.

TP:    When everything was mixed up, and there would be five-six bands on one show.

BENSON:  Uh-huh.  Well, see, I had a singing group then.  We had the most popular singing group in Pittsburgh.  So they were brand-new, and he was the first artist on Motown when they came out in 1959.   But the song “Bad Girl” was one we used to sing all the time from their early recordings, something he wrote that we sang all the time.  That’s the reason  why I picked up the CD.

TP:    One more, then I’ll let you go.

BENSON:  Let me think of something  that people will recognize.  I don’t want to get too much…

TP:    We can be esoteric and right down the middle, too.

BENSON:  All right.  Whoo, boy.  Well, what’s happening now is people are going back to Django Reinhardt, man, because the French guitar players… Oh, I’ll tell you something else that’s exciting.  Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck, POLARITY.  There’s some exciting stuff on there!  I was up with Bruno the other day.  I went up to see him at the club in New York, and they lit the place up, though Joe Beck wasn’t with him.

TP:    And you’ve been listening a lot to Django?

BENSON:  to Django, yes.


BENSON:  Tell Barnes & Noble to send me that!


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Filed under, George Benson, guitar, Interview

Interview From 1999 with Pat Metheny, Who Turns 57 Today

On September 18th, five weeks from today, Pat Metheny will embark on a 2-1/2 month tour, the first leg in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier in various U.S. venues, with the second leg comprising six weeks of one-nighters in Europe in trio with Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. This trio first launched in 1999, a while before I had my first opportunity to interview the master guitarist-composer for the editorial component of, in conjunction with the contemporaneous release of the soundtrack recording A Map Of The World.

Metheny also graciously submitted to a bit of sillness that we titled “My Favorite Things,” a short-lived series in which various musicians cited favorite recordings, instrumental influences, and the like.

The questions at the end about Michael Brecker were for a DownBeat feature I was putting together at the time about Michael.

What follows is the unedited  transcript of our conversation.

* * *

Let’s address the various recordings you’ve done in recent years, beginning with the soundtrack that the record company is interested in, Imaginary Day.  I haven’t seen the movie.  Would you tell me something about the logistics of how A Map Of The World came to be.

It’s a very well known book.  It was a best-seller a couple of years ago, written by a great author, Jane Hamilton, who has written several really nice books in the last couple of years.  It’s one of those projects that I feel lucky to have been asked to do.  The thing of doing film scores in general is something that I’ve done a bunch over the years.  I did a bunch of them during the early ’80s, Under Fire, The Falcon and the Snowman, and one called Twice In A Lifetime, and a couple of smaller independent ones, one called Big Time, which had Mia Farrow in it, one called Little Sister which was with John Savage, one called Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon.  I’m a big movie fan, I love movies, and from a young age thought, “Wow it would be cool to write movies someday,” and did that bunch over a few years.  Then I realized at that point in my life, and in some ways it’s still true, that if I was going to take three or four months to do something, I’d rather do a record or do a tour — do the things that I do.

You commented in one of these old interviews that’s on your website (and I read all of them this afternoon) that you found it very difficult to really get to your sound on a film soundtrack. You said if somebody gets 2 minutes of good music out of a movie, your hat goes off to them.

Yeah, it can be a very difficult process on the sort of committee level.  One thing about films is that it’s usually the last thing that happens, and it’s at the point in the film where people are often kind of desperate for things to come along and make things better.  More than anything, music is one of the subjects that many people feel that they can talk about, including producers’ wives, girlfriends, buddies, everything else, and have opinions without necessarily knowing that much about it, and it’s a hard thing to do in a consensus way.  It’s a little different than visual arts, where somebody can say, “Oh, I don’t really like the purple part over there.”  You get somebody who doesn’t know about music talking in those kinds of terms, and you can really wind up with a kind of Frankenstein, committee-ized version of something that might not have been that great in the first place!  Those aspects of it are part of what every major Hollywood kind of guy can deal with… A lot of it is just human skill.  I actually don’t interface with Hollywood well at all.  I kind of figured that around the time of Twice In A Lifetime

Are they a bit too oblique for you?

Well, part of it is that I’m really spoiled.  I’ve been able to make my own kind of music kind of on my own terms pretty much from day one.  On the other hand, the part of film scoring that I really love is, in fact, the collaboration of it.

This particular project, Map Of The World, was sort of like a dream.  It was a complete pleasure on every level right from the beginning.  It was a great story.  The acting is amazing.  Sigourney Weaver has probably never done anything this great in her career.  It’s her career performance, no question about it.  It’s the director’s first film, but he’s actually quite a well-known theater director here in New York, heading an interesting theater group called The New Group.  I was the guy that he wanted to do the score, there was no one else they were really even considering… In a way, it’s kind of gotten me back in the thing of, like, “Wow, doing film scores is kind of cool again.”  It was a very pleasant and very rewarding experience.

Was there an Americana aspect to the film that made it felicitous with your aesthetic, or the way a lot of people perceive it anyway?

Yeah.  The movie takes place in a small town in Wisconsin, and has a very strong Midwestern theme to it in the sense that… Well, actually one of the interesting things about it is that it’s sort of a look of the darker side of that.  By that I don’t necessarily mean the evil side of it.  But there’s this Americana thing that people think of as whatever that thing is.  But having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, there’s also a lot of sort of closed-minded, ignorant kind of stuff there, too, that kind of gets shoved under the rug of all those major chords! [LAUGHS] This film really just deals with that.  And the film also…

It’s the underbelly of Americana type of thing.

Yeah.  It also deals with a certain aspect of current American culture that’s interesting, which is the thing of, like, when something does go wrong, this incredible need to find a place to put blame, to identify somebody who fucked up, and how it’s sort of just like an obsession right now.  The music doesn’t really get down and dirty with all that stuff.  The music functions in the film as kind of the… I hope to try to keep it sort of neutral to several different things…

Is it used ironically in the film?  Because it doesn’t have a very dark sound, frankly.  Are they using it as ironic counterpoint to certain scenes?

I would say that it’s not ironic at all.  It’s kind of neutral.  Hopefully, it’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s just kind of the way it is.  That’s kind of the tone I wanted it to have.  And that’s a zone I try to address often anyway, this kind of thing, especially on a melodic level, where things don’t necessarily push it too much one way or the other in terms of the actual notes that are on the page.  It’s just kind of like almost making a commentary on what the thematic element is.  If you had to say the movie is about one thing, it’s about forgiveness.  That’s the tone of it.  There’s all this other stuff that happens, but I really wanted to keep the music in that specific shade of forgiveness.

Does that shade have a color for you?  You’ve said you think in colors, and you think of your compositional process as sound painting in a certain sense.

Yeah, but I would say that the color of it only would exist in the syntax of music.  It doesn’t exist outside of that realm.

Why the use of the full orchestra?  Was that a directorial choice, or was that the way you were hearing the music?

That’s the way I heard it.  To do a score for me, there’s a moment early on where I either sort of hear it or I don’t know, what the basic sound of it is.  To me, this was very clearly acoustic guitar and orchestra.  That’s what the tone of it was for me.  Also, it was great, because that’s an area of writing that I love to do and hadn’t done that much of in recent years, so it was a great chance to explore that kind of writing, too, again.  The feeling of the scenery and everything is big.  It’s out there in the spaces, and it kind of needed something bigger like that to represent that.

Before I get to Imaginary Days, this might be a good place to segue to Missouri Skies, the duo with Charlie Haden.  I know he’s been such a significant musical figure for you over the years, from close to the beginning of your getting out into the great wide world as a working musician.

Yeah, we’ve known each other for a really long time.  When I first started playing with Gary Burton’s band, which I guess was in 1974, we’d play opposite Keith Jarrett’s band of the time, all the time.  That’s when Charlie and I became friends.  We didn’t really start a strong musical relationship playing together until ’80/’81, and from that point on it seems like we’ve played together on project after project.  I’ve just always had a thing.  It may be because we’ve become such good friends, or may not be — I can’t even quantify what it is.  But there is a thing that happens when we play together that we can anticipate each other.  I mean, Charlie is good at that with anybody he plays with.  But for me, the way we play together, it almost becomes like one instrument, and that’s something rarer and great to participate in.

Is there a certain vibe for you of a very acoustic feeling in playing with him?

I mean, that word “acoustic” is one that gets thrown around so…

Oh yes, you’ve had much to say about it in many of these interviews.  I shouldn’t have opened that can of worms.

Yeah.  To me, Charlie is just Charlie, and whether he’s plugged into his amp or not doesn’t have too much to do with the Charlieness of it all.

So the vibe that the two of you have is an ineffable thing.

Yeah.  To me it all boils down to listening.  All of the musicians that I really love playing with have one thing in common, and that’s that they’re able to sort of absorb and respond to what’s happening on a sort of microsecond-by-microsecond basis, and come up with really cool answers to whatever question the music is asking at a moment’s notice.

In his liner notes Charlie Haden says that he calls your sound “contemporary impressionistic Americana.”  Can you talk about the arc of that record?

Well, that was a special one, and one that kind of surprised me, because I never would have guessed that record would become as successful as it’s become.  That’s going to be one of the most successful records I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so proud of that record, because it’s so direct, it’s so intimate.  At the time we were making it, it was almost like we weren’t even making a record.  We were just kind of hanging out, playing, and we’d work on something, then we’d do another one, and about ten tunes in I remember turning to Charlie and saying, “Charlie, it seems we’re doing an awful lot of ballads here!”  “Yeah, I know, I know, that’s what I want to do.”  I was like, “Well, okay.”  It’s probably not something I would have thought of, to do a whole record of ballads like that on acoustic guitar, and yet at the same time I’ve learned so much about the way I play, and that record kind of reveals a side of me as a player that I didn’t even know.

Can you quantify what that is?

No.  I guess I didn’t realize that somehow over the years I had gotten a thing going on acoustic guitar that I just didn’t know about.  I mean, I would play a tune here or there on acoustic guitar, but Charlie would always rave about my acoustic guitar playing to other people and to me.  I didn’t get it exactly.  But now I listen to that record, and I… “First Song” especially.  It’s like, I get it, man.  It’s like, “Oh yeah!”  I don’t think anybody else really plays like that on an acoustic guitar.  So that’s good.

So the record gave you a sense that you have a singular sound on that end of the spectrum.

Yeah, more than just… I guess I always knew I did that and I could do that.  I didn’t realize… It’s something I guess I can’t even put into words.  Maybe I can’t really quantify what it is.  It’s a way of playing melodies, where the melodies can really stand on their own, without there necessarily being any chords, where it’s just sound.  That’s about as close as I can get to it.

Let me segue to another record you did a few years with Derek Bailey that was almost all about sound… It was interesting to read these interviews, because in the early ’80s you were talking about the dangers of basing compositions only on sound because it was too easy to get new sounds, and so therefore the pieces might tend to wane in value in a few years.  Then as time goes and these new sonic options make themselves open to you, you’re moving more and more to this incredibly expansive sonic palette.  It’s interesting to read all those interviews in one spot, and brave of you to try to put all that stuff in one spot…

That’s an interesting comment from the early ’80s.  I mean, in a lot of ways I still stand by that.  Especially my regular group… A big part of what my group is, is the sound of it.  That’s been true right from the very beginning.  Yet at the same time, Lyle and I, being the guys who write most of the music, are aware of the temptations of just using sound as the final thing.  At the same time, we’re aware of the power of that.  The idea is to get a lot of things working together.  That’s to me one of the fun and exciting things about being a musician at this particular moment in time, is that we have all these options, we have all these possibilities, and we have a whole set of new things to explore and try.  In that range of possibilities, to me, is included acoustic guitar, duets with Charlie, playing the way that I was playing with Derek, playing with synthesized stuff and combining it with acoustic instruments, like we do with the group, using an orchestra for a film score, or playing solo guitar, or playing in a quartet or something like that.  All of those to me are very viable, sort of real, everyday kind of musical situations that I feel very lucky to get the chance to address.  And all of them are primarily about sound.  All of them are kind of within a palette or a range of sonic color that’s very familiar to me.  Yet at the same time, the sound is just the envelope, and what you put inside that has to do with kind of everything that’s happening to you outside your life as a musician.  I think that might be more what I was talking about in the ’80s there.

So it’s not about style for you.  It’s really about sound.  It’s like one enormous palette.

It was never about style for me.  To me, style is the easiest to talk about and the least resonant aspect of what music is.  In fact, that’s the area that I would say 90% of — for lack of a better word — criticism is talking about, is style and idiom, both of which are absolutely meaningless to me and to most people, I think, post-1965 or so.  I mean, it’s just not an issue now.  I think that hasn’t completely sunk into the culture yet, how deeply that’s been obliterated from the scope of the world that we live in.  I mean, we live in a world where everything is completely smashed together.  For those of us who are making records and trying to work as musicians or as artists or whatever, it can be extremely confusing.  But I welcome that confusion, too.  That’s part of it.  And to try to avoid that confusion by retreating into a world of nostalgia or some, like, mythical purist kind of way of thinking of style or idiom or whatever, it’s a real copout for me.  It’s much more valuable to just, “okay, be confused.”

That said, the Pat Metheny Group does operate within a certain sonic parameter.  Or not.  I mean, you’re not going to step out, for instance, and do what you do with Roy Haynes, say, when you’re a sideman with him.

I would say that if you look at however many group records there are now, 10 or something like that, the range of sound from the earliest group record through Imaginary Day, and including records like Quartet or Off-Ramp or whatever, you can find things on those records that absolutely refers to the way I play with Roy Haynes.  In fact, Roy has even covered several of the group tunes on his records.  I do think that there is sometimes a perception of the group that is based on two or three tunes.  I mean, a lot of bands have this same thing.  But if you really go deeper into some of the records, there’s a lot of other stuff going on there that maybe isn’t as noticed as some of the other stuff.  Addressing your question in particular, there are things on Quartet, which is the group record right before Imaginary Day, that would be way too far out for a Roy Haynes record.  So it’s  hard for me…

Let me change gears.  This band has been together for 20 years now, right?


And how much are you still touring… Oh, here’s another quote from about 15-16 years ago.  You said, “I don’t expect to be on the road 300 days a year when I’m 50.”  Now you’re 45.

45, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Are you close to meeting that aspiration?

It has changed a little bit.  Although the year following the release of Imaginary Day, I think we did do 220 shows or something like that.  Also, the scene in the world is wildly different now than it was when I did that interview.  There’s fewer places to play, and it’s harder to get gigs for everybody.  That may have been the last time, actually, that jazz was not separated from Pop music.  Since then, there’s been a strong movement to get jazz to be something more like Classical music, like almost a defined little branch separate from the sort of like mainstream music that was just people’s music.  We used to play like in the same places that Rock bands would play and everything like that.  The generation immediately after me kind of gave up on that, and took what for me is the easier route of playing for much older people rather than playing for their own generation, and kind of dressing and acting like people much older than they were, while we were… Like I say, I think we were the last generation of guys who really were of the generation we were in.  There’s of course lots of exceptions to that, but I’m talking about on a sort of larger scale.  Now I think there’s been two or three generations of kids, jazz is just not part of their world because they’ve never had people their own age playing it.  The people who were their own age were playing it for people older than them.  And that’s made it harder, because the scene sort of lost its momentum.

A lot of the young players hear it in school.  They sort of get tracked onto it, I think.  Whereas you are from a generation who was able to grow up in proximity to smaller cities and play with very strong musicians and work out your own ideas about music in a situation that was without orthodoxies and without an academic program, as it were.

Yes, I’m so lucky for that.  I look back on that often and think what a lucky thing it was for me to be near Kansas City, where there was this very real kind of scene — and also lucky to be able to participate in it when I was 14-15-16-17 years old.

And you were working fairly much from the age of 15 or 16?

Yeah.  By the time I was 16 I was working five or six nights a week.

By that time, when you were 15 or 16, did you have any inkling in your mind’s ear of the type of sounds that you eventually started moving toward during your time with Gary Burton?  Talk about the development of that inner ear.

I think there was a certain kind of harmony that I always liked and a certain kind of rhythm thing that I always felt good playing.  When I look back on it now, kind of in retrospect, those two areas were what defined a lot of what I do even now.  I never had any fear of triads.  A lot of jazz guys, if there’s not at least four notes happening, they’re going to stick one in there.  For me, triads were always a viable option.  I think when people talk about Midwestern blah-blah-blah, a lot of that is just simplicity.  I’ve always loved to play simple.  As much as I like playing things that are very dense and complicated now, underneath all that is this thing where I just love playing real simple things.

It seems you’re also able to find the essence of simplicity within very complex forms, and get right to the point, which I’m sure is one reason why you’ve stayed so popular for so long.

Well, it’s a hard thing to do, what you just said.  Now, you want to talk about Brecker’s thing.  To me, that’s one of the real challenges of playing his music, is that it’s so dense.  I mean, that is the hardest music I could ever imagine playing.  And that’s true on all three records of his that I’ve been on.  He’s another guy who can really find ways of playing sort of straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I would aspire to try to be at that same level.  I mean, Brecker is one of the guys I really look up to, like Herbie is.  Those two guys kind of remind me of each other in that respect, in that harmony becomes…it’s just not an issue because they’re so advanced harmonically.  What I try to do is, I aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom, but I also really want to play things that even if you don’t know anything about the chords you could still kind of sing it.  That’s kind of what I try to go for.

Do you look objectively at your records once you’re done with them, or do you just let them go and move on to the next project?

I just have to let them go and move on.  I think everybody’s like that.  You do your best and… For instance, the first record I made, Bright-Sized Life, which almost 25 years ago now…that record for me was just a horror at the time and for maybe ten years after it came out.  I thought, “God, how could I have blown my first record that much?”  Yet there were people who kept talking about how good that record was, and how it was a really nice record and all that sort of thing.  I’d go, “Oh, people are just nuts, man!”  Then about ten years afterwards I was somewhere, and I heard it, and I was like, “Well, that’s not so bad.  Now, 25 years later, I listen to it and I think, “Man, I was 19 and Jaco was 20… We were onto something!”  It’s something I would never have gotten for years after it.  On the other hand, there’s records that at the time I made them I thought, “Ooh, that’s really good,” and now it’s like, “Whoa, what were we thinking?”

Tell me a bit about the arc of Imaginary Days.  You mentioned that each record tells a complete story and set of circumstances unto itself.

I think that’s one of the better group records.  And I’m only a couple of years away from it now, so what do I know?  But it’s a record where I think we upped the ante on several levels in terms of what the group could be, sonically and in terms of the instrumentation, and also just in terms of the density of the writing.  We kind of had an idea early on, which was to try to get this arc of a day.  Even if that doesn’t come through in the music, it gave us a place to start and get our foot in the door, which sometimes is enough.  The group’s thing… I think that a lot of people like the group for the sort of trip quotient, the way that we have these long pieces that really kind of develop over these 9- and 10-minute periods as opposed to just a little tune where everybody solos or something like that.  We really try to write fairly elaborate environments for improvisation to live in.  And it always does boil down to the improvising, but the settings are particular to the possibilities that are available to that band, with those people and the instruments that are available to us, and the way of making records that are available now.  We try to address all those things, and tell a story about them.

You’ve certainly always embraced technology wholeheartedly.

Well, to me, because I’m a guitar player and all that…

You had to plug in.

My first musical act was plugging it in.  If you’re a guitar player, you have no choices, because the acoustic guitar really has, in my life, one true function, and that’s if I want to play a tune for my girlfriend sitting on the bed.  Beyond that, there’s going to be a mike or an amp or a pickup or something like that, and if I want to play with a drummer there’s got to be.  I’ve spent a fair amount of energy examining those details to try to be hopefully creative and hopefully musically responsible with what those things offer.  And it’s exciting.  It’s an exciting time to be a musician right now.  I’m always a little bit puzzled by what appear to be creative musicians who, from what I can see, have their head in the sand as to what’s possible now, like preferring to just deal with the tried and true.  I can dig that, too; it’s easier.  But there’s some stuff that a lot of people could be doing now, and aren’t, because… I don’t know why they’re not.  There are some cool things out there.

That’s a good segue to ask you about your duo with Jim Hall (Pat Metheny and Jim Hall).  You’ve said that along with Wes Montgomery he’s the guitarist who had the biggest impact on you.

Definitely.  I’ve said this before, that I call him the father of modern jazz guitar, in the sense that all of us — Frisell, Sco, Mick Goodrick, Abercrombie, especially the five of us — are all very easily traceable through Jim’s thing, yet at the same time we don’t sound very much like each other.  That’s an interesting thing.  I think you could say the same thing about Charlie Christian and Jim and Wes.  They both point to Charlie Christian, yet they don’t sound like each other either.  It’s an interesting thing.  To me Jim is also a bit like Roy Haynes in the respect that there’s Jack and Tain and all those other guys who would talk about Roy without really sounding like each other.  It’s like Jim, especially with The Bridge and Undercurrent, sort of opened up a door of thinking.  And when I think about the way I actually play, it doesn’t have too much to do with the way Jim actually plays.  It’s more just a way of thinking of what the guitar can mean than anything else.  I think that there was a point where guitar was a little bit of an odd piece in the puzzle.  Let’s say prior to The Bridge, even, you had guitar players who were leaders, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and various other guys, but they weren’t playing in major bands.  It was sort of this other thing.  Then you’d have guys like Herb Ellis who were half rhythm guitar players and half single note or soloist kind of players.   But to me, until The Bridge, there wasn’t a guy who kind of said, okay, the guitar can really function in this sort of in between zone, the way Jim…

Not Wes Montgomery?

Well, Wes didn’t really play in those kind of bands.  Wes is one of those guys who came on the scene as a leader.  Wes is like the original Joshua Redman or something like that, just kind of showed up and became a leader instantly.  That’s very rare.  Nowadays that seems to happen more.  But in terms of players who make a major impact it’s very rare that somebody comes along just out of the blue like that.


One other recording I think we should address, because it seems to be a very summational thing for you, is Like Minds on Stretch, with Gary Burton and Roy Haynes.

That was a fun record to make, actually.  It was really easy.  Actually, we did that record in a day.  I think Gary had booked three days, and we did it in one day.  You do a take or two, and…

Nothing else to say.

Right.  It was real fun, because everybody knew each other and had played together in different situations, even though we hadn’t all played together… I mean, the criss-cross lines of the different situations that everybody had played in was kind of funny almost — how many different contexts we all had shared at various points.  But it was a great, pleasant experience.  Gary to me is a musician who is kind of underrated, even though he’s famous and everything like that.  Having been around at this point a lot of really good improvisers, some of the best improvisers around, from Herbie to Sonny Rollins to Ornette, all the different guys I’ve had the chance to play with, in terms of somebody who can really come up with the stuff at a high level night-after-night-after-night-after-night, and really just play… I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Gary, who can just deal like that in terms of melodic-harmonic invention, and playing his ass off, and grooving, and just coming up with the goods! — and really making stuff up.  He is something else, that guy.  Because it’s the vibes and because he plays with four mallets and there’s a lot of ringing going on and stuff, I think sometimes people miss it a little bit with him.  But he’s an incredible improviser.  He’s a heavy cat.

And that band put you in the big leagues real quick, I mean, with Steve Swallow and Mick Goodrick…

Oh, I was so lucky to get that experience.  I mean, I was 18 really when I started playing with those guys, and all four of them, Swallow, Mick, Gary and Moses, just had a major-major-major impact on the way that I play to this day.  They were already an incredible band, and they had to make room for me, in a way, which kind of caused them all to have to talk to me in very specific terms about, “Do this; don’t do that” kind of thing. Which was actually kind of difficult at the time.  First of all, it would be hard for me now to walk into a situation as perfectly balanced as a vibes, guitar, bass and drums quartet, and make it a quintet with another guitar.  It was just hard.  There wasn’t an obvious thing to do and an obvious place to be.  Combined with the fact that, like you say, I wasn’t exactly green prior to that, because I had played a lot with great musicians even, but I hadn’t played with people at that level night after night after night before.  It was a fantastic experience.

Why don’t we do the “My Favorite Things” component of this interview now. So you’re still traveling a huge amount…

This year it’s been a little bit less, but generally speaking, yes.

What CD or CDs would be things you would want to accompany you if you’re flying from New York to, say, a gig at the Japanese Blue Notes?

The honest answer to that question is nothing.  Because I rarely listen to music except when I can really like sit in front of a good stereo and sort of hear it.

In that case, what five CDs are in your rotation at this point?

Let me go over here, because I’ve been listening to a bunch of stuff lately.  Well, the new Keith Jarrett solo piano record is in there.  Larry Goldings’ new trio record. Larry is something.  I’ve got actually Brecker’s record sitting here.  I’ve got Tenor Madness, Sonny Rollins.  And I’ve got Brad Mehldau’s new trio record, Live At the Vanguard, which for me is the release of the year.  I’ve loved Brad ever since he came on the scene.  In fact, my favorite prior to this one was that Live in Barcelona one that he did.

What albums, if there were albums, inspired you to get into music?

Oh, there are some real specific ones.  There’s four sort of like big records for me.  New York Is Now is one.  Miles Davis, Four and More is another one.  Four and More is really the reason I became a musician.  In fact, it has probably as much to do with Tony Williams as it does with Miles.  I heard 10 seconds of that ride cymbal and it just blew my mind.  Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At the Half Note.

Two sentences about New York Is Now and Smokin’ At the Half-Note.

I got New York Is Now I got when I was probably about 12, and I had no idea about the controversy surrounding Ornette or anything.  I didn’t know there was any difference between the way Ornette played and the Beatles and marching band music.  To me it was all music that was on record.  All I knew was they were on records.  To me, it just sounded like they were having a lot of fun.  I just remember thinking, “It’s fun.”  I think in a lot of ways that’s the essence of what Ornette’s thing is, is that it’s fun.

Smokin’ At the Half Note for me is the record (I think everybody has got one or more) where you actually learn every note that every person on the record plays.  I mean, there was a time I could sing you every note of every solo on that record.  It’s not only a great Wes Montgomery record or a great guitar record.  That’s a great jazz record.  I mean, that’s people playing together the way people are supposed to play together.  And also the sound of that record always… It’s just so stuck in my brain, the tone of that record.

The fourth one is actually the Gary Burton Quartet, Live In Concert at Carnegie Hall on RCA, which I don’t think was ever reissued, and isn’t very well-known record.  It’s Gary, Swallow, Moses and Larry Coryell.  That record blew my mind in a whole other way.  It was jazz, and yet at the same time it was guys sort of addressing the other stuff, the kind of Country and Rock thing, but not doing it for any reason other than you could tell it was natural for them to do that.  I guess a lot of people point to Bitches Brew as sort of the beginning of a movement.  To me it happened some years before that, and it’s somewhat uncredited, which is, you know, Gary’s band of the time, and there were a couple of other bands like the Fourth Way and Jeremy Steig’s band in ’65 or so… What those guys were doing kind of predates the Miles thing significantly, and in some ways it’s a little bit more interesting.  But that particular record has a few things about it… Larry Coryell on that record is just staggering.  He’s a musician who is still around and still plays really good and everything, but what he was suggesting on that record is kind of mindblowing to me.  And it still blows my mind.  I still get that record out every now and then, just to check out what Larry did on there.  I’m a fan of him in general, but that record is just light years past anything else he ever did.  In particular his solo on “Walter L,” which is just a blues, is one of the greatest blues solos anybody ever played.

Speaking of Gary Burton, he said in his liner notes he thinks you carry around a secret list of people you want to play with and you just walk around, do a project and cross it off.  Is there such a list, and if so, or even not, what artists haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

You know, I saw that Gary wrote that, and actually it’s funny, because I don’t really think of it that way at all.  In fact, honestly… Playing with people that I don’t know is not something I do easily or casually.  For the things that I’ve ended up doing compared to the things that I’ve been asked to do, it’s a small sub-group.  If I’m going to play with somebody I have to first of all really love what they do, and also, more importantly, feel like I can play with them.  There’s musicians that I absolutely love but I know I wouldn’t play that well with them.  For me, each time I go into a project, I go into it with the same commitment to making it as good as it can be that I put into my own band or any records I make on my own.  So it’s not really that easy for me to go playing with people.  On the other hand, I look at the list of people I’ve played with, and in fact, it does include literally all of my favorite musicians, with one exception, and that’s Joe Henderson.  We’ve talked about doing something two or three times over the years, and it just never happened for one reason or another, most recently because he’s been ill.  But I think that he and I could play really well together, and that’s one thing I haven’t done.  The other one was Elvin, and I actually would love to play with Elvin more.  It was so much fun playing with him!  But I got to do that on Brecker’s record, and that was a real thrill.

Given that the premise for this interview is the film score, give me five of your favorite films, and perhaps you can mention soundtracks in there as well.

Let’s do it featuring the soundtracks.  Number one would be Cinema Paradiso.  I recorded a couple of the songs from that on Missouri Skies because I love it so much.  Ennio Morricone is awesome, just the greatest really.

Schindler’s List, besides being one of the most incredible movies anybody’s made, also has for me one of the greatest scores ever written.  People almost dismiss John Williams, oh, Star Wars and Spielberg and all that.  He is such an incredibly great writer, and he’s got such a great mind for texture and kind of density and… With him, I really get this feeling of a canvas, and the way he places colors and everything is really something.  Even on a craft level, just what he does with those really big movies… It’s kind of hard to do that.  It’s hard to keep something going for 45 minutes buried underneath explosions and everything like that, and have it still kind of swing, in a way.  Swing in the sort of broadest sense of the word, glueing everything together with this forward motion thing.  He’s a heavy cat, John Williams is.  But that score in particular also has some incredible melodies in it.

Henry Mancini.  You could pick a number of scores, but in particular “Two For the Road,” which I covered on Missouri Skies.  It’s a score that basically is that one song sort of repeated endlessly.  In fact, a number of Mancini scores were like that.  You can say Breakfast at Tiffany’s with “Moon River”… He just had this thing where he could actually write an amazing melody that you really wanted to hear over and over again.  So many film scores have a theme, and you do hear it over and over again, and you couldn’t sing it if your life depended upon it two seconds after you walk out of the theater.  Mancini, it’s like the first time you hear it, it’s like stuck in your brain forever.  Then he can really do something with it, too; his sense of how to develop those themes was kind of unparalleled.

Sticking with a contemporary guy, James Newton Howard to me is the best of the current guys who do a lot of scores.  That David Mamet play about real estate, Glengarry Glen Ross, with Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin… His score for that is incredible.

One more is a guy who people have a little bit of the wrong impression about because he can do other things, and that’s Danny Elfman.  His score for Dolores Clairborne is one of the most interesting harmonic pieces of music that I’ve heard in several years, just for this sort of floating, like nondescript harmony thing he gets going, which is absolutely perfect for the movie, but just to listen to as a kind of modern composition is really advanced.  Also, his way of writing, from what I understand, is wildly different than a conventional composer who sits at the piano and writes notes on a page.  He’s almost doing it in a sort of intuitive way, it sounds like.  But the result is really special.

I should also ask you about your favorite guitar players.

Of all time?  Number one would be Wes Montgomery.  Wes was the guy who embodied everything about music that makes me love music.  He had incredible time and one of the great rhythm feels of any modern improviser.  He has the most incredibly soulful, inviting, warm persona as a musician, which I think more than anything is what made his music accessible to people who  maybe only have one jazz record in their collection.  They can feel it.  They get it.  To me, he’s like Stevie Wonder that way.  You know, everybody digs Stevie Wonder.  If you’re a musician, you can dig it because of all the incredible melodies and the aspects of it that deal with Funk and all that stuff.  But everybody digs it because it’s just THERE, and Wes has that same thing.  It’s just there.  You can’t help but dig it.  It’s just there.

Django Reinhardt would probably be number two for just finding a way of making the instrument sound that no one before him and no one after him has ever even approached.  I mean, he was completely singular.  There may be somebody who could imitate that a little bit, but even the people who have tried to imitate it sound kind of silly.  It’s like he just found a voice.  And that voice sort of crosses time and space.  It’s like hearing Bird.  It just doesn’t sound old.  Like, you hear all these things around him that sound old, and his thing sounds as modern now as it must have been when he was playing it, just like Bird.  Maybe he’s the only guitar player who has that quality of sort of transcending the time that he actually played in.

I have to mention Jim, who opened the door for the guitar’s place in modern music with a very subtle touch and a very quiet way of presenting the instrument.  He sort of expanded its voice more than if he had turned it up to 10!  Somehow through reduction he expanded things.

I’d have to pick amongst my contemporaries John Scofield, who for me is everything that a great musician should be, and he happens to be a guitar player.  He makes everybody around him sound better and play better.  He is an incredibly interesting and inventive and exciting improviser.  He can deal with harmony in a very expanded way, but he can also play blues probably better than almost any other jazz guy on any instrument right now.  He’s such a great blues player, and that sort of informs everything he does and gives it the spirit that makes it… Again, anybody can dig John.  They don’t have to be a jazz fan.

Just a few questions about Michael Brecker.  You gave me a very nice quote about his being so authoritative harmonically.  You and he have been close for many years, and he said that being in the ’80/’81 band opened him up in a certain way, it gave him a sense of freedom he’d never experienced before, even in his first days in New York in that sort of Coltraneish loft scene out of which a lot of things emerged.  How do you see his sound having evolved from 1980 and when you first knew him to now?

I’ve heard him say that a lot of times, and some of his friends from that time have said that, too, that he came back from that tour kind of a changed person.  Which makes me feel really good!  Because that music really was written for him. That way of playing was the way I imagined he sounded like.  It’s a little bit like me with Charlie.  Charlie showed me a way that he thought I sounded that I didn’t even know I sounded like.   Sometimes in this kind of broad community of musicians that every guy functions in, the guys you play with sometimes illuminate your own thing to yourself in a way that you might not notice.  So it makes feel good that Mike feels that way.  I think that there is kind of a pre-’80/’81 Mike and a sort of post ’80/’81 Mike that exists even on his own records.  I think it’s a more adventurous.  I always felt like his first record, that Michael Brecker one, was kind of the followup to ’80/’81.  It’s basically the same band, and we kind of took up where that record left off.  The thing that I have seen evolve, and starting with that record, is what a great composer Mike has become.  You could see that coming in the Brecker Brothers records.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing on there, Randy and Mike, is really advanced.  There’s very little three-horn writing going on today in any sphere that approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record.  I mean, I go down to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that are that hip.  And that’s 25 or more years ago.

Mike’s thing for coming up with tunes that you play like night after night after night I think has evolved as he’s become a bandleader, which has been going on now for almost 15 years.  For me, it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on his records.  It was flattering the first time.  Then Tales From the Hudson for me, of all the dates I’ve done in the past few years, or really ever, as a sideman, is the one I point to as the most satisfying.  It was just a great record to be a part of.  I thought the band was absolutely perfectly suited for the music.  Everybody played well together, and played as a band.  To me, that’s what Modern Jazz is in the ’90s.  That kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way that the record felt as a whole… I was really proud to be on that record.  Now the new one is sort of a continuation of that Tales From the Hudson thing, and compositionally it’s the best of them all in terms of his writing.

He’s a heavy cat, Brecker.  I said the same thing about Gary Burton before, but I mean… Again, he’s famous and everything, and I think well-respected and all that, but sometimes I see people put Brecker down.  Like, you would know the criticisms the same way I would, some people say, “Oh, Brecker…”  I’d like to see any of those guys follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced.  There are very few musicians on any instrument who can follow Brecker.  And it’s because he’s deep!  You can say, “Oh, it’s technical and it’s flash.  No.  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  Yes, I can sit here and talk all day long, and it’s true… In terms of harmonic knowledge and really understanding what Trane did, there are not too many people at his level.  Yet at the same time, he’s not about that any more.  What makes him, him, is what he does to people.  He drives people crazy!  People will like start screaming and stuff.  He can just keep going.  It’s kind of the way Herbie can do that, too.  He just gets people where they live.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.  It’s what he does to people.  He whips them up.

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