Category Archives: DownBeat

For Master Composer-Drummer (and Trombonist-Pianist) Tyshawn Sorey’s 37th Birthday, two interviews from 2007, a DownBeat Players Article from that Year, and a Blindfold Test from 2014

Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.


Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):

Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.

It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.

“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”

Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.

“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal,  and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”

Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”

“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”

Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.

“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”

These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.

“I want to keep the audience guessing,  and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”


Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):

TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.

SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane.  Much of my jazz influence comes from them.

TP:   This was as a kid in Newark?

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Who was this teacher?

SOREY:   He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.

In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.

So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…

TP:   Which books?

SOREY:   I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.

TP:   There aren’t that many.

SOREY:   Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.

TP:   The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.

SOREY:   Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.

TP:   You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.

SOREY:   Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.

TP:   But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?

SOREY:   Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.

TP:   Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?

SOREY:   It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to  write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.

This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.

TP:   In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.

SOREY:   Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…

TP:   Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?

SOREY:   A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.

TP:   Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?

SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.

TP:   So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.

SOREY:   It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.

TP:   Why?

SOREY:   For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…

TP:   Come on. You want to sound killing!

SOREY:   [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.

TP:   Working out those issues with music.

SOREY:   Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.

TP:   So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?

SOREY:   Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that.  Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.

TP:   Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.

SOREY:   That’s right.

TP:   What’s unsatisfactory about it?

SOREY:   It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…

TP:   So that, or not-that.

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…

SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.

Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.

TP:   Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?

SOREY:   No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.

TP:   No tambourine here, or castanets there…

SOREY:   Just a strict, regular type of drumset.

TP:   How many different projects are you leading now?

SOREY:   Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.

TP:   How do they differ in content?

SOREY:   The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.

TP:   Three very different fields of activity.

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?

SOREY:   Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.


Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):

TP:   I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?

TYSHAWN:   Just this past Friday? No.

TP:   How long have you been playing with him?

TYSHAWN:   This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.

TP:   So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?

TYSHAWN:   He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.

TP:   Who you’d known about since high school.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your  personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.

TYSHAWN:   I had a lot of fun. It  was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.

TP:   Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?

TYSHAWN:   Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.

TP:   The older musicians. This was in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.

TP:   How so?

TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process.  It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…

TP:   Pacing was one of them.

TYSHAWN:   Pacing was very important.

TP:   By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.

TYSHAWN:   Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.

TP:   When did you first start hitting the New York scene?

TYSHAWN:   Around 2002.

TP:   Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?

TYSHAWN:   Right.  In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   I was born in Newark. Born and raised.

TP:   You’re from downtown, urban Newark.

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. Right in the center.

TP:   Did you have musicians in the family?


TP:   What things drew you to music and the drums?

TYSHAWN:   I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.

TP:   Back when? When you were 2?

TYSHAWN:   No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.

TP:   You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?

TYSHAWN:   It was all music to me.

TP:   But where…

TYSHAWN:   I heard it at home.

TP:   Your parents had jazz records.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.

TP:   He’s into it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.

TP:   So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.

TYSHAWN:   Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.

TP:   Well, you were 5 or 6.

TYSHAWN:   Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.

TP:   How did your uncle know him?

TYSHAWN:   We didn’t know him at all.

TP:   He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”

TYSHAWN:   Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.

TP:   That’s when he had the United Nations Band.

TYSHAWN:   Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.

TP:   Were you playing drums by that time?

TYSHAWN:   No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…

TP:   Were you playing piano or trombone by then?

TYSHAWN:   I was playing piano and trombone by then.

TP:   Was that in the schools in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”

TP:   As opposed to trombone!

TYSHAWN:   As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.

TP:   Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, that kind of thing.

TP:   When did you start playing drums?

TYSHAWN:   I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.

TP:   Before that were you playing rhythms?

TYSHAWN:   I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.

TP:   I’m sure you had good time.

TYSHAWN:   Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church,  or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.

TP:   Was church a place where you could play?

TYSHAWN:   Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.

TP:   You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?

TYSHAWN:   Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.

TP:   Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…

TYSHAWN:   Exactly.

TP:   You would try to emulate these guys.

TYSHAWN:   Try to emulate these guys.

TP:   Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.

TYSHAWN:   Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.

TP:   You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.

TP:   Why?

TYSHAWN:   Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.

TP:   But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.

TP:   Do you think that’s a generational thing?

TYSHAWN:   It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.

TP:   You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…

TYSHAWN:   I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.

TP:   These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…


TP:   What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.

TP:   That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…

TYSHAWN:   It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.

TP:   It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.

TYSHAWN:   Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…

TP:   In church?

TYSHAWN:   No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.

TP:   During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.

TYSHAWN:   It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period.  But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.

TP:   But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…

TYSHAWN:   I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.

TP:   As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…

TYSHAWN:   No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.

TP:   Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…

TYSHAWN:   Right. Very straight-ahead.

TP:   I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…

TYSHAWN:   Shy away.

TP:   …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?

TYSHAWN:   It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”

TP:   So you dug that right away?

TYSHAWN:   Uh-huh.

TP:   Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?

TYSHAWN:   No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.

TP:   Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.

TYSHAWN:   Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.

TP:   But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…

TYSHAWN:   It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.

TP:   Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?

TYSHAWN:   No. Not at all..

TP:   This was before you went to college.

TYSHAWN:   This was in high school.

TP:   What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?

TYSHAWN:   In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.

TP:   Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?

TYSHAWN:   John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.

TP:   I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.

TYSHAWN:   Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.

TP:   I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.

TYSHAWN:   Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.

TP:   When you play bebop, who do you sound like?

TYSHAWN:   Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…

TP:   You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.

TYSHAWN:   Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…

TP:   Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…

TYSHAWN:   I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.

TP:   So that’s satisfying for you, too.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…

TP:   You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…

TYSHAWN:   Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.

TP:   Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?

TYSHAWN:   It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.

TP:   You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?

TYSHAWN:   Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.

TP:   After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”


TP:   I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head. 


TP:   I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.

TYSHAWN:   I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see  a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.”  I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.

TP:   So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.

TYSHAWN:   Not at all.

TP:   For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?

TYSHAWN:   I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.

TP:   Particularly the textural things you’re doing.

TYSHAWN:   Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself.  For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.

Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.

TP:   What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?

TYSHAWN:   A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.

TP:   You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?

TYSHAWN:   Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.

TP:   He was still with Flanagan then.

TYSHAWN:   Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.

TP:   Serious bebop playing. 

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.

TP:   What’s your kit like? Your setup.

TYSHAWN:   I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.

TP:   Are you particular about the tuning?

TYSHAWN:   I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.

Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night,  took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.

TP:   You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?

TYSHAWN:   It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll  change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.

But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.”  I  want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.

TP:   You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.

TYSHAWN:   That’s right.

TP:   Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?

TYSHAWN:   I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…

TP:   He used to play the wall, and his chest…

TYSHAWN:   He was playing his face, too, I remember!

TP:   How long have you been taking the kit apart?

TYSHAWN:   Five-six years.

TP:   Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…

TYSHAWN:   This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.

TP:   Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?

TYSHAWN:   I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end.  It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.

TP:   Apart from music, you’re teaching?

TYSHAWN:   I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.”  I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.



Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):

Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”

Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.

Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)

The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.

The Whammies
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)

I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.

Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)

Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.

Mike Clark
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)

The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.

Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.

Doug Hammond
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)

Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.

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For Drummer-Composer Kendrick Scott’s 37th Birthday, a Pair of Interviews From 2007, and a DownBeat Article From 2007

For the 37th birthday of drummer-composer Kendrick Scott, I’m posting a pair of interviews that I conducted with him in 2007—the latter one, specifically conducted for a DownBeat “Players” article, comes first. At the bottom of the post is a “directors’ cut” of the article.


Kendrick Scott (Aug. 15, 2007):

TP:   I want to talk about your New York experience, and I want to talk about your career as it is now and the label — I won’t have room to go through a lot of personal history, though I want  to address some of it, since I want to discuss you as a composer and how you accumulated vocabulary. But first, let’s talk about how you joined Terence. Also, have you played sideman with other major bands besides Terence? 

KENDRICK:   Actually, the first band that I left school to go with… Well, when I finished Berklee, I went out with the Crusaders. So I was booked to go with the Crusaders, but while I was in my cap and gown, Terence called me and asked me to join the band. So I had to turn him down and say, “Well, I’ve got these gigs with the Crusaders coming up.” So I played with the Crusaders that whole summer, and then when October came, I started with Terence.  That was 2003.

TP:   Was the Crusaders hookup a Houston hookup?

KENDRICK:   It was a Houston hookup. Joe Sample had moved home in I think 1998, and me and Walter Smith and Mark Kelly, a great bass player who played with Scofield, we had played for his homecoming back in Houston, and Joe sat in with us, and Joe remembered me from then. So through Walter’s father, who is also a tenor player… He was asking Walter’s father, “Who is that drummer?” So he asked about me, and then he called me up while I was at Berklee, and he flew me out to L.A. and auditioned me for like three days.

TP:   This was during your final year at Berklee?

KENDRICK:   Yes. The end of my final year at Berklee.

TP:   But he met you while you were in high school.

KENDRICK:   He met when I was in high school.  He remembered me from high school.

TP:   That’s when Terence met you, too. At a jazz camp.

KENDRICK:   Terence met me I guess in 1999, my second year at Berklee. The alliance was so strong between the Houston drummers, I always hung out with Harland, whenever I could go to see him. Especially when they were in Boston or any other city where I was, I would go hang out in New Orleans… At IAJE a lot of times. So it was great to meet Terence with Harland, and then, with the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead, that was in ‘99 at the Kennedy Center. That’s actually where he met me and Aaron Parks at the same time.

TP:   So he called you while you were on the stand, and you had to…

KENDRICK:   I was in the line.

TP:   So you missed gigs with him over the summer.

KENDRICK:   Yeah, I missed a lot of gigs. The Crusaders were booked solid until then, so I couldn’t really…

TP:   And I’m sure they paid good, too.

KENDRICK:   Yes, they did!

TP:   But apart from the pay, what was the value of the experience?

KENDRICK:   Well, the initial draw for me was to take myself out of the kind of straight-ahead barrier that I had kind of…well, I wouldn’t say consciously put myself in, but that I kind of just got in by being talented at what I do. I started getting so much work just playing straight-ahead stuff that I didn’t get any work playing more groove-oriented things, and I thought it was a huge blessing for me to be able to play that type of thing, and especially with those type of people and that type of stage. So I couldn’t deny that. To this day, that’s been a great experience for me.

TP:   There’s a groove aspect to your playing, to your flow certainly with Oracle. I was hearing that at Christopher Street, that you’ll do beats, and then you have interesting ways of playing the beats, and timbral things you would do. Is that a correct observation?

KENDRICK:   It is. I’m really in tune to space, dynamics, and groove. Those are the things that I love. When I listen to great drummers, it seems like they all have that. I concentrate on those type of things more than I do actually facility or those type of things.

TP:   Did playing with the Crusaders burnish your feeling for grooves, or the way you think about them?

KENDRICK:   It definitely did, because they have their own way of thinking about the groove, which is so specific that it really helped me in channeling my energy to the groove first, and then everything else lays on top of it. That’s what I try to do even with using space. So that’s one of the things that I always work on, trying, without playing notes or anything, to have the groove there. Most all the great drummers that I listened to did that. They didn’t have to play so many notes to play a strong groove. That’s what I love about drummers like Blade or Tony, and people like that. I really love that they can just leave it up in the air, but the groove is so strong. But the Crusaders were on the other side, “play a strong groove and then let us float over the top of it.” I really thought that was interesting.

TP:   During college, did you do any summer sideman work, or outside of Houston…road work with established bands?

KENDRICK:   Not really when I was in Houston. When I got to Boston, I had been playing with Darren Barrett, and we did a few tours here and there. While I was at Berklee, Joe Lovano was named one of the artists-in-residence, and we did some gigs with Joe, with another band I played with called Califactors. I did some other things… Actually, I played with Terence. That’s when the relationship really started with Terence… The summer of 2002 is the first time I played with Terence, and we went to Japan for 3 weeks. We played all the Blue Notes in Japan. That’s when it started. It was a rough thing. I’d just been in school, and you get taught how to play in school, but you don’t know how to play unless you’re playing the gig. It was on-the-gig training. Actually, I don’t know if Terence really liked me at first. It was definitely on-the-gig training. I just learned how to use everything that I’ve learned, but then totally abandon. At that time, I was struggling with holding on to those things, like trying to play like Max. “Oh, this section, I should play like Max.” Trying to play like Philly or trying to play like Al Foster. Really, I’ve come to such an enlightenment, actually letting what comes out to come out instead of filtering what I think I would play.

TP:   Did Terence encourage you?

KENDRICK:   Terence encourages that a lot with us, even now. He encourages mostly about honesty, which is what I try to center my music around nowadays. I don’t ever want to cloud my judgment on what I play by thinking about what the listener wants to hear, or how can I impress someone. I just try to do what I feel in my heart, and if it’s acceptable, cool, but if not, whatever.

TP:   You talked about the intense connection with the Houston drummers, spending a lot of time with Eric Harland. Is there an approach to drums that comes out of Houston, in your opinion? Or are there commonalities that you and Harland and Chris Dave…

KENDRICK:   Mark Simmons and Jamire Williams. I think the commonality is that we all came out of the church. Gospel music has such a feeling to it that I think the vocabulary that we have actually reflects… It’s funny, because it’s true of a lot of drummers nowadays, especially in the Afro-American community, that we come out of the church, and our vocabulary reflects people that we have been listening to, and these are people who maybe jazz people wouldn’t be listening… People like Marvin McQuiddy(?) or even people like Dennis Chambers. So we kind of fused that gospel mentality with jazz, and it created a fresh sound for us. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was just trying to emulate what Chris Dave and Harland were doing while I was playing. But the tricky part about it is, every generation has started to do that. Chris Dave looked up to Sebastian Whitaker, who is a great drummer. Actually, he’s a blind drummer in Houston. If you see him play, if you see the way he sets his drums up, you can see similarities between him and all of us. We all sit high and play low, into the drums. I felt it was so empowering but it was also so practical, because it means that all the instruments are down here and ready for me to play. It’s a better thing for your posture and all that type of thing. So learning that from a blind man… That passed on down from Chris to Eric to Mark Simmons to me, and to Jamire…

TP:   That’s also a New Orleans thing, no? It’s a parade drum posture. That’s how Idris plays, how Blackwell used to play. Now that I think of it.

KENDRICK:   Yes. It provides your body so much… You can put the momentum into the drums, instead of you sitting underneath them and going up to them.

TP:   So it was less about Sebastian Whitaker’s vocabulary than the way he addressed the drums.

KENDRICK:   Yes. Because his vocabulary was thoroughly rooted in Art Blakey. One of his records is One For Bu, which is a good record. We definitely took from that vocabulary, but us being church musicians, we were always hearing different guys coming out of church and we were like, “Well, what if we play these church type of ideas within our idiom.” For me, I got in a lot of trouble in high school trying to set up the band playing church fills, which didn’t work. But eventually, when I learned how to use them better, they did work.

TP:   Was it one particular church, or a network of Baptist churches in Houston?

KENDRICK:   No, it was just a network. In Houston there are a lot of mega-churches.

TP:   Were the music directors in those churches sympathetic to a jazz attitude, or was that a thing you had to keep quiet…

KENDRICK:   Not really. Especially with youth and young adults, I found it very encouraging that they would let us… They wouldn’t censor us, but they would definitely keep their eye on us and make sure we weren’t going too far. But they allowed us to express ourselves, how we felt, which was great, and which is what I see in music now. Sometimes I think we’re on the edge and we go too far, but I think that level of expression is something that is needed.

TP:   It’s a very interesting thing, not just with drummers, but overall with the African-American sector of the jazz community under 40, how many people do come out of the church experience. Do you have any observations on why that is? Is it because that’s where instruments are available, whereas in inner city high schools they’re not so readily available?

KENDRICK:   That’s definitely a part of it nowadays, with arts being gone from the schools. But for me, when I went to elementary school, I can’t even remember… I think we had music, but it wasn’t music where we had the instruments to play. We would go in and play on small little tambourines or something. But for me, I was always going to church, so the instruments were always at church. My mother was an instrumentalist also, so I would always be at choir rehearsal… She plays piano. The way my family worked is, my mother played, my brother also played piano and organ (he’s ten years older), and my father was the sound man. When we went to the rehearsal, my mom was playing and my dad was working the sound for the choir. So when rehearsal was over, my dad would be wrapping things up, my mom would be talking to the director, and I would go jump on the drums. I would bother the drummer, whose name was Roderick (or the other drummer, Eric), and say, “Man, let me play!” Of course, there were four or five other kids there who’d want to get on the drums, too. But they would let me get on, and eventually my father asked Roderick to give me lessons. That’s where it started. I was around 6 or 7.

TP: You were just feeling it. 

KENDRICK:   I was just feeling it early on. I just love my parents for readily being there and saying, “Just go for it.”

TP:   Forgive me if this is stretching it too much, but one notion in the African-American church is the idea that when you’re playing music there’s a testimony going on, a very personal statement…

KENDRICK:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Which I think has had a lot to do, whether directly or indirectly, with the nature and course of innovation across the jazz timeline. I’m wondering if you feel in any way that’s something else you got from the church background.

KENDRICK:   I never tried to push religion on people. But for me, musically, that is my homage to God. When I play my instrument, that’s like the highest form of thanks that I can give for everything in my life, period. That’s why I take music so seriously, and that’s also why I think honesty is so key when you’re playing. When you start putting ego and things like that in your playing, that cuts you off from actually getting your blessing from playing.

TP:   Do you play with churches in New York?

KENDRICK:   I should. I don’t play with churches in New York, though.

TP:   Back to Terence. You said you had to get rid of what you knew. That was the biggest challenge?

KENDRICK:   It still is.

TP:   When you were learning, people are telling me that you’d obviously mastered a lot of vocabulary… One thing you said is that you were very blessed to be good at what you do, which is a straight-ahead drummer, so you were happy to be able to play the groove with the Crusaders.  For a 27-year-old guy, what does being a straight ahead drummer mean in 2007?

KENDRICK:  To me, nowadays, being a straight-ahead drummer just means the ability to get to the essence of what the master played. I’m still in a quest daily to get to that. But I feel I was talented enough to not only feel it, but get to playing it more, or get to the feeling of Max Roach or get to the feeling of Shelley Mane, rather than… I mean, other than other people who were able to get to the feel of Bernard Purdie before I could. Studying Bernard Purdie is something I’m doing now, whereas I just got so enthralled with listening to straight-ahead music as a kid, when I was 14, which I think was kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time, because now I’m kind of going backwards listening to other music. I think that’s what definitely helped me out.

TP:   Did you get to straight-ahead music through your parents? Your teachers at school? So many kids of your generation are just into what’s around them, what’s popular with their peer group. For instance, my daughter isn’t allowed to watch MTV or VH-1, but she knows every song and all the accouterments. It’s in the air.

KENDRICK:   Through my family life… My mother went to University of North Texas, and there she studied classical piano. Her classical training allowed her to do things in gospel music that were a little bit out of the realm. She would also play weddings and different engagements where she would pull out the Real Book and play around with stuff. I always thought, “Wow, that sounds kind of cool.” At the time, she didn’t have many jazz records per se, but she had a lot of things that were open… She had Stevie Wonder playing sometimes on the radio. I’d think, wow, it’s not jazz, but the way the chords were moving, it really drew me in. Then at age 14, I guess, I was graduating from middle school. I was telling you that mega-churches are big in Texas, but the biggest thing behind mega-churches is Texas football. I wanted to join one of the biggest high school marching bands in Texas, which was Willow Ridge—the Willow Ridge Marching Band. So for me, I wanted to play snare drum, because those were the most flashy guys, their chops were killin’,  and they were twirling sticks, they were dancing. My decision came when my mother said, “Look, I want you to go to this performing arts high school; I think you’re really talented and you might be able to do something with it.” But my head was, I want to play snare drum and then go on to Prairie View University, where my father went to school, which is right around the corner from Houston, because they had an awesome drum line.

TP:   That’s an all-black school.

KENDRICK:   Right, that’s an all-black. My Mom was like, “Look, you need to go and get with a teacher,” so she got me the teacher at Texas Southern University, which is another black school which is in Houston, and she got me with the teacher. He sat me down and he just showed me “Seven Steps To Heaven.” He showed me the record. Then I was like, “Wow, who is that?!” Then he said “Tony Williams,” whatever, blah-blah-blah. I said, “Okay, that’s kind of cool.” It wasn’t a hard decision. It wasn’t a point of decision. But it was definitely a point in my life where I could see the turn I was turning towards. So what I did for my audition for the performing arts high school is I played “Seven Steps to Heaven” on the drums. I had 5 toms, and I said, [SINGS MELODY]. I played the solo. That’s when it started. I had them tuned to that…

TP:   So your mother was able to give you really intelligent critique from early on.

KENDRICK:   Oh, a lot. She’s a great musician and also a great mother, to let me do what I do.


TP:   I’d like to talk to you about the group of musicians who…I guess we could speak about the people who are on your record. Apart from your compositional abilities and the overall arc of the record, it’s interesting how you to deploy everyone’s different sound. Just the guitar players, Lionel, Mike Moreno, and Lage, are three of the most creative and distinctive of the new guitar players. What’s different about them. What’s in common? What made you think you could use all of them?

KENDRICK:   I actually was talking about this with somebody. I think The Source actually turned out to be a snapshot of myself at one moment. But actually, the people that I used were…it shows you the timeline from high school all the way up until that point. I had been playing in high school all the time with Mike, and to be honest, Mike was always on the cutting edge, before any of us were. He would show us the records, and we would be, like, “Oh, okay,” and we would go check it out. Mike’s sound is so lush. Guitar is one of my favorite instruments, and partly why I had the three different guitarists is… I love texture, and each of them plays texture a certain way. Mike can float and sting like a butterfly. His things can be ethereal and on top.

I started playing with Lage right when I got to Berklee, and because he’s great friends with Jaleel, and I played with Jaleel a lot. I could always hear in Lage the influences of Grant Green and George Benson, and I always was drawn to those type of things with the jazz purist attitude I had at the time in school. For me, Grant Green and Wes…that was IT for me. So Lage’s sound draws me to that mindset. So I always played with Lage in school.

The funny thing was, Lionel and I played less than five times during my whole time at Berklee, though we knew each other. So when we got in Terence’s band, rhythmically, as a drummer, I’m still lost—I’m still trying to figure out where he is. For somebody to play the guitar in that way and involve all the rhythmic aspects that he uses, I was always flabbergasted.

So those were the parts of each person that I wanted to use, and if I could have killed each one of them and taken an attribute from all three, I would be a badass guitar player.

TP:   You used Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper.

KENDRICK:   Again, they represent two aspects of my growth. Robert and I grew up in the gospel community. His mother was a singer, and a blues singer, and a choir director also. She ran the gamut.

TP:   She sounds like quite a woman.

KENDRICK:   She was. Robert’s personality is very much an indication of how she was. She was a great young and inspired mother. The last piece on Robert’s recent CD, the eulogy that Joe Ratliff gave about her was so fitting, because when she lived, that was the best part. Like I said, she went from being a blues singer on Saturday night, and then a few hours later she was up at church. Robert came up in that, and he learned how to adapt. That’s really what drew me to Robert, because he knew how to adapt before I did. When I was a jazz purist, he was in the gospel thing, and he was more bringing his gospel into the jazz stuff, whereas I was kind of keeping them separate.

Aaron’s talent was so natural on the instrument, and I always thought that he had studied the instrument classically, although he actually hasn’t. For me, again, I am drawn to harmony and chordal instruments. Robert can run up and down the piano spontaneously, and he can create different cascading lines and so on, but I thought Aaron could lay down certain harmonic motions that would touch me in a certain way where he I could play… He would make me play something different every time. I always love that feeling, because I always felt that from a person like Herbie or Keith Jarrett or somebody like that. Again, that’s probably the way I would play if I were able to really play the piano, and I felt that Aaron could instantly read the chart and go beyond the page. That was like the top thing. Which everybody does, but I felt he could really sit down and read the music, and instantly hear other textures and other things that you weren’t even thinking about.

TP:   Were most of the tunes written for the record?

KENDRICK:   They weren’t written for the record. A lot of those pieces are really old. The piece “VCB:” was written in high school. I was hanging out with Robert one day, we were about to go to a party or something, and I said, “Rob, I’ve got this melody and I’ve got this form of this tune that I want to do—can you help me?” He said, “Sure.” At the time, we were seriously watching TV. He went to the keyboard, he was still watching TV, and I was singing the melody, and he was like, “Oh, oh!” Then I would touch a few notes, I’d be like, “This is kind of what I’m hearing,” and then he would play a chord and say, “That’s what you’re hearing?” I’d say, “Oh, yeah-yeah-yeah!!” He would literally watch the TV, came up with all the chords, and then I was like, “Rob, wait. Let me write it down.” He said, “Come on, man, I’m trying to watch this TV…’ That’s the way that tune got written—me singing and him being like, “What are you singing?” That was one of my first experiences at writing.

After that, I did a lot of writing in college. That was my junior year of high school. It subsided a bit my senior, with school and everything. I wasn’t hearing anything. Then when I got to Berklee, I started hearing a lot more things, just being exposed to so many different people and vibes. I’m mostly a singing composer.

TP:   Elaborate on that.

KENDRICK:   For me, the message, especially in gospel music, always takes precedence over everything else. Even when I went to church and I’d hear someone sing a cappella by themselves, and they would sing a message and they would hear the note, that would just hit you. That always gave me more goosebumps than when a drummer played the most flashy thing he could play. So I’ve always been drawn to that, and I’m always singing while I’m playing. When I’m sitting around, I’m always singing melodies and hearing melodies, and I think that’s partly the way I play and partly the way I write.

TP:   So you hear the drums melodically.

KENDRICK:   I hear the drums melodically. The funny thing is, I’m a drummer but I hear the drums subordinate to the music, to the band. There are times when I think… I definitely believe in give-and-take. That’s one of the biggest things I use in my playing, is give-and-take. If I’m going to play time for this much, then I’ll give you no time. If I’m going to play colors, maybe I won’t play any colors—I’ll just bash. The give-and-take is a great thing to use for me personally. But I’ve always had that feeling, and I think harmonically and melodically, stuff moves so well together that rhythmically you just have to give it a little push. I think that’s why my drumming is what it is—because I give it that little push. However, I’m working on becoming more of (I don’t know how to say it) a drummer’s drummer, and I’m always practicing those things…

TP:   By “drummer’s drummer,” do you mean having certain technical things and signature things?

KENDRICK:   Having more technical things and my signature things. The crazy thing of it was, I was teaching a lesson to a guy, and he was asking me about those type of things, and I told him that I practice all of that stuff. So I started playing some of it for him. I’ve been practicing claves  like El Negro or Antonio would play, and I started playing those things, and he said, “Wow, what are you doing?” I said, “I practice this stuff all the time, but you would never know it because I don’t use that stuff.” That’s partly because of the honesty thing that I talked about—if it doesn’t honestly come to me, I’m not just going to throw it in there just to play it. I’m still trying to work at that balance of bringing in new things, but being honest… Just because you practice it doesn’t mean you have to play it.

TP:   But you could write it. Do you write to give yourself things to play also?

KENDRICK:  That’s what I’m working on now, is getting myself to write to feature myself. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, is just say, “Okay, I want to write an up-tempo, I want it to feature the drums, I want it to do this and that.” It’s just one of those things that dove across my mind.

TP:   Are you working on another body of…

KENDRICK:   Right now I’m writing, and most of the tunes are coming out to be… It’s funny. I’d probably be one of the only drummers that would  write a ballads record. I don’t think this next record will be a ballads record, but the ballads are coming to me first. That’s all I’m hearing. It’s weird.

TP:   Another thing about the cast of characters on the record is that it’s such a diverse group of people, ethnically, geographically and the whole thing, which is a sort of microcosm of the jazz world today in many ways. For someone who grew up in New York City and saw how politicized and cliquish things got in the ‘80s, one got a sense of a certain ethnic-racial polarization that translated into musical style. But I notice that less with musicians over the last 15 years. A lot of people seem to be crossing those boundaries. Does that seem to be a fair statement to you?

KENDRICK:   For me especially, and for most of us from Houston because we all went to a certain high school. Our high school ranged from everything from Vietnamese to African-American to Indian to Caucasian—everything. So from age 14, and even before that… I went to a magnet school in elementary school that had so many different types of people. From an early age we were exposed to so many different types of people and cultures that we learned to embrace it at an early age—not really think about it, but just embrace it.

TP:   Does that translate to musical choices. Does Bjork or Radiohead mean as much to you as it might to…

KENDRICK:   To everybody else. I don’t know. I think it does. I think it does because… Maybe one of the reasons I would listen to Radiohead in high school is because one of my friends, whose music I wasn’t readily going to listen to, listened to it, and it opened my ears to that type of shit. I think I definitely benefitted from that, especially being around different artists from different genres. Because a lot of times, to be honest, maybe they weren’t listening to jazz. When they were doing their thing, they had different things on—maybe Joni or Rolling Stones or whatever. But I think that type of shit definitely translates to how we come together nowadays.

TP:   It seems like a very blended record. But on the other hand, Terence has that quality of being able to take in information from a lot of different places and create a unified sound out of it. It sounds like you were predisposed to do that, but that you learned a lot of the techniques…

KENDRICK:   I did. The funny thing about it is, when we were doing the record… Glasper’s just a funny guy. When we were in the studio, he was calling the record “The Terence Blanchard outtakes.” It has the feeling of some of those things that Terence does. I’ve always been in love with the cinematic approach to writing and to music, and with the singing thing as well, it’s perfect to the way I want to write music. So that was funny, because I had all those people at the studio at the same time, and Robert was cracking jokes. So before it was Kendrick Scott Oracle, it was called “Noah’s Ark,” because I took three of every instrument and tried to have it on my record. That was some funny shit, “Noah’s Ark.”

TP:   Any other sideman gigs over these last four years with major bands besides Terence?

KENDRICK:   I’ve been playing with David Sanborn of late as part of a trio of musicians. What’s funny is, when I first came out of Berklee, that whole summer the Crusaders and David Sanborn were doing double bills. He heard me then, and finally later we got to hook up and play. I was fortunate enough to play with the late, great Don Alias before he passed, which was a true honor for me. At the beginning of this year, I played with John Scofield in a trio with John Patitucci. We went to Uruguay and Argentina and other places. I played with Diane Reeves at the end of last year; we did some orchestra things with her. I played with Maria Schneider’s Big Band once. That was awesome. Her writing is awesome. I’m just drawn to writers.

Speaking of writers, with Terence we played with the Metropole Orchestra at Northsea, and Vince Mendoza was with them. Vince is a real hip cat. The way he writes is amazing. Now I’m listening to a few of Joni Mitchell’s records where he did the orchestration and conducting. Jimmy Greene…

TP:   Another Eric Harland connection.

KENDRICK:   Yes. Well, that’s the blessing of coming from that line of musicians. Harland got me in contact with Terence, and then Chris Dave got Harland in touch with Kenny Garrett. Everything kind of happens like that. Harland also got Jamire Williams with Jacky Terasson.

TP:   You’re talking about practicing montunos, playing with Don Alias. Another dynamic of jazz over the last 10-15 years is bringing all these rhythms into the mainstream of the music rather than being exotic. Not that it’s anything new, but it seems that a much larger percentage of working musicians need to know all this stuff to be able to function. So it sounds like you’re spending a lot of time listening to music of other cultures and Afro-diasporic music.

KENDRICK:   I definitely do. The thing I feel about Latin and World music that I find very interesting is that the music we’re studying is actually popular music in their cultures. So I’m trying to figure out a way to make jazz have the popular type of thing without necessarily making it too simple or dumbed down. That’s what I practice at home, is using those elements from those rhythms and actually making them sound in a way where people can accept them but also be challenged to listen to them. Latin and African rhythms are paramount.

TP:   Do you play hand drums, skin-on-skin?

KENDRICK:   I really don’t. I dabble a little bit, and I have a feeling for them, but I don’t…

TP:   I notice you use your hands on the drumkit.

KENDRICK:   Yes. I definitely have a feeling for the sounds. But actually making them, I leave that to the bad cats.

TP:   Tell me your impressions of Max Roach as someone you heard early on and were thinking about.

KENDRICK:   Early on, listening to jazz, I always listened for the bounce in the music. I noticed that certain drummers had that bounce. Roy Haynes was one of them and Max was the other. Listening to bebop, Bud Powell and Bird… I thought the bounce that he created while he was playing actually created the hump, so to speak, in the music, and that really grabbed me the first time I heard Max Roach.

Not only did it do that, but he’s always called a melodic drummer, and I think that is definitely so. The way he approached the drums, not only just the way he played them, but the tuning… The tuning of the drums and the cymbals that he used were all very important in his sound. I think that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, because those type of things separate the good drummers from the great drummers. He’s playing the hell out of the drums, but he’s also approaching them and tuning them a certain way, to really make it melodic. So he’s not only playing melodic; he’s making it melodic. That really affected me in a certain way, so that when I go home and practice patterns, that’s what I’m going for—to achieve a certain melodic flow within the drums like he had. You can get the feeling that he practiced figures, and later on, when he played, they became shapes. They became octagons and triangles when he played, but when he was actually at home practicing it, it might have been very simple—simple rudiments. I think he was just a master of creating shapes on the drums.

TP:   Are you familiar with his solo drum compositions?

KENDRICK:   Yeah. “The Drum Also Waltzes.” That stuff is amazing to me, because he was a pioneer in playing ostinatos.  It’s different now… It’s funny how these two things tie in. If you think of “The Drum Also Waltzes,” the type of ostinato he was playing—which was kind of simple, but not simple the way he played it—it’s the same type of ostinato you would hear when Antonio plays the claves and he’s soloing over the top of them. I think the lineage of drumming is still coming from Max and all the masters, which it should. I think that’s the great thing about drumming right now, is that we’re expanding, we’re going more outside, but it still keys in on things that the masters that we look at were doing.



Kendrick Scott (WKCR, June 28, 2007):

TP:   Kendrick’s record features a slew of musicians… [ETC.] Kendrick Scott is performing with Oracle, with different personnel, at Iridium at midnight as part of the Round Midnight series they do there. Let’s bring you to the audience through the mundane path of having you introduce the personnel.

KENDRICK:   Oh, no, that’s good. On piano we have Fabian Amanzar. Mike Moreno on guitar. John Ellis on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. Matt Brewer playing bass.

TP:   You’ve been playing with Terence Blanchard since 2003, four years. There’s a recording you did with him called Flow, where he seems to have tuned in to a lot of ideas that strong young musicians in their twenties are paying attention to—world rhythms and sounds, melodies from very highbrow contemporary pop music, and so on.

KENDRICK:   Right.

TP:   You on this seem to have brought in a lot of similar information and somehow filtered it into your own way of seeing things.

KENDRICK:   Right.

TP:   I’m sure you’ve garnered a lot from watching a master like Terence Blanchard in action, but this date doesn’t particularly sound like him. How did the pieces for this recording fall into place?

KENDRICK:   I’ll start with Terence, because it was interesting joining his band. I came at the time when Terence had just moved to Blue Note, and he was starting to branch out and get a lot of young musicians. I noticed more and more that Terence’s film career and the sound of things he would do in films was creeping into the writing for the band—the ethereal sounds, the drums, the beats, some of the world rhythms he was using. When we did Flow, that kind of happened on that CD. Then when I was doing my own CD, I started… I’ve always been drawn to those type of sounds. The writing on the CD actually spans from my college days, where I was in Berklee College of Music, and some of them even from high school, Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and up to about a few years ago. So I started compiling all of the songs together, and I actually went in and recorded a few times. I liked the first day and I didn’t like the second day. So a year later, I came back and fixed it all up and put it all together, just an amalgam of all the music.

TP:   Was a lot of the music written for the musicians involved? There are three guitarists—Lionel Loueke, Lage Lund and Mike Moreno; Myron Walden, Seamus Blake and Walter Smith are the saxophonists; Gretchen Parlato sings; Aaron Parks more and Robert Glasper less are the pianists and keyboardists. A lot of different sounds and tonal personalities…

KENDRICK:   Not all of it, but most of the music was written with a sound in mind. I’ll take, for instance, Lage, some of the songs that he played on—“The Source’ and also on “Psalm”—were written with his sound in mind. When we were at Berklee, we would have sessions and play as a band all the time with some groups. So everybody had a clear part to play in all of that music.

TP:   Was the record workshopped live at all?


TP:   So it all came together in the studio.

KENDRICK:   As you can see with all the talent I had on there, it’s kind of hard to get everybody… I’d always heard that, but as a bandleader I see what that’s all about.

TP:   And on Saturday night you’ll be playing primarily material from this recording?

KENDRICK:   Yes, primarily material from that. Just a few different things from other live shows that I’ve done.

TP:   Let’s hear “The Source,” which you mentioned. Robert Glasper plays fender Rhodes and Aaron Parks plays acoustic piano, Kendrick Scott, drums and voice, Myron Walden on soprano sax, Walter Smith on tenor sax, and Derrick Hodge on acoustic bass… [PLUS “Between The Lines”]

You and Mike Moreno attended high school at the same time, the same high school that Robert Glasper and Jason Moran attended, as did Eric Harland, from whom you inherited the drum chair with Terence Blanchard. Also on the track were John Ellis, Aaron Parks, Doug Weiss and Kendrick Scott. [ETC.] There seems to be something about the way music is taught at this high school in Houston that produces not only technically proficient musicians, but musicians who seem equipped to approach this business with their own point of view.

KENDRICK:   I think what mainly set our high school apart was the chances and opportunities we had to go and hear music, and to play music. As high schoolers we had 3 or 4 gigs a week, which is something people usually don’t do until they get to New York. Our high school teacher, our band director, Robert Morgan, got us gigs. You had to keep your grades up, and you can do some gigs. If you made a D or an F, no gigs this week. So it was an incentive. We were making a little bit of money, too. We learned so many things about going to the gig and being on time, those small things, but the greatest thing is that we were playing music so much.

TP:   Were they gigs of all kids from the high school, or gigs with experienced musicians?

KENDRICK:   They were all combos from the school. But the other great thing at the school was that a lot of artists-in-residence came through. While I was there, Kenny Barron and Cyrus Chestnut and so many other people came through the school week by week.

TP:   So it took the music off the paper.

KENDRICK:   It took the music off the paper. Everybody was self-motivated to practice on their own. So the practicality of playing was actually the best thing for us. That’s what I really appreciate about the whole experience, that I wasn’t so caught up with practicing in my little bubble. It was more about getting to play with people and learning the experience.

TP:   Did you play a wide spectrum of music back then, too.

KENDRICK:   Yes. My parents are gospel musicians, so I started playing drums pretty much in the church. Throughout high school I was playing church and I was playing a few other gigs here and there, but mainly jazz stuff. It was a great experience to be exposed…

TP:   Was it basically a backbeat sort of thing, or a more contemporary style of drumming?

KENDRICK:   The church where I was playing was pretty traditional. We did a few other things that were out of the normal traditional realm. But I would say modern gospel music, not too far removed.

TP:   Were there any sacred-secular issues in playing jazz for you as a young guy, or did they not come up so much?

KENDRICK:   It didn’t come up. Sometimes I would invite some of my church members to come see me play at the school, and they’d be like, “I don’t know, I don’t know about jazz,” and this and that. I’d be like, “Well, you know…” I don’t separate the two, because for me, my gift doesn’t have one place or venue that it’s supposed to go. I think it can be used for good in all venues.

TP:   When did jazz begin to come into your consciousness? When you entered high school?

KENDRICK:   Yes, at age 14. Before then, my main goal in life was to play the snare drum in a marching band. Because in Texas, marching bands are huge, so I was always like, “I want to play the snare drum in the marching band!” There was a great high school band called the Willow Ridge High School band, and they had all of these snare drums… The drum line was excellent, and I wanted to be a snare drummer. At that point, my Mom (bless her for doing this) said, “Look, you’re going to go to the Performing Arts High School; go in there and practice.” So what I did was, I got with a teacher and I learned how to play “Seven Steps To Heaven” on the drums. I tuned the drums a certain way to play it. And I got in somehow! Then that was that right turn. We’re going this way, not…

TP:   How did you know about “Seven Steps To Heaven”?

KENDRICK:   I had been listening to jazz on and off. I had a CD by Lionel Hampton called Ring Them Bells. Every now and then, I would hear jazz, and to tell you the truth I wasn’t totally sparked by it right away. But when I got into PVA, which is Performing Arts High School, it was amazing. I couldn’t believe it.

TP:   At a school like that, I suppose that you’re not going against peer pressure in playing jazz. It would have been a status thing, and not an oddball thing to be doing.

KENDRICK:   Not at all. Actually, the whole school embraces anything like that. We go to the theater department, and they’re studying all kinds of things. Talking about Terence, we actually did an artist-in-residence program in Moline, Illinois, for two weeks. I noticed that you get more inspired by being around people who are doing similar things to what you’re doing. Even though all of them weren’t actually musicians, being with artists and people in theater, all the people in the arts, really inspires you to do your thing. Also, it took the veil away from being this weird thing to just being open.

TP:   As a young guy in high school (1994-1998), who were drummers you were using as role models, picking up ideas? Were they the iconic older drummers, or people from the generation that came up in the ‘80s and beyond?

KENDRICK:   The most amazing thing to me about Houston right now is the amount of drummers coming out of Houston. The local drummers were like the big drummers now. Chris Dave, who played with M’shell Ndegeocello and Kenny Garrett, and Eric Harland, who’s playing with everybody, and also Mark Simmons, who plays with Al Jarreau, and then Herman Matthews, who plays with Tom Jones. So many people. But the biggest guy of all in town was Sebastian Whitaker. He pretty much taught us all. In that environment, all I had to do was just look around and go to a random place in Houston, go to the Convention Center or something, and I’d see Chris playing or somebody else playing. Those were my main inspirations at the time. Then I started listening to DeJohnette and Shadow Wilson and Roy Haynes, all these different people, and those were my big idols.

TP:   So you were plucking ideas from all across the timeline.

KENDRICK:   All across it. That was the great thing about our music library at the school, too. We had a lot of different things available to us.

TP:   You’re pretty busy. On the road with Terence Blanchard, playing in a lot of people’s bands, obviously doing a lot of composing, and running a label. Apart from the obvious reasons, why did you decide to take on this responsibility?

KENDRICK:   The label itself came along because I noticed a need for younger musicians to take snapshots of themselves, to take those pictures of their growth. I noticed that big labels aren’t doing that well now. So pretty much, it was one of those things where I felt that we shouldn’t wait for anybody to do anything for us—we should take the initiative.

TP:   A notion you share with countless jazz musicians before you. But actually putting that together, producing dates, recruiting artists, etc., is a lot of to do. Did you see it as an investment in the future?

KENDRICK:   It’s definitely an investment in the future. For ourselves… I feel if we start making these snapshots now, and making these records now, they’ll only get better with time. We need to document our actual growth and our writing at each moment. I realized that’s what all of my heroes did. I listen to Art Blakey, and he has all these records. I’m like, “wow, if I could just make half of these records, what can I work on between each one to take a new snapshot of myself and to develop my talent?”

TP:   Could you speak briefly about your interest in composing. You seem to be thinking about the whole ensemble as you’re playing. Everything seems to be covered. Does composing go back to high school?

KENDRICK: Composition has always been so unconventional for me, because… I wouldn’t say that theoretically I’m the best composer. But most of my songs come from me singing, actually, like me sitting at the drums and singing a melody. I think that my songs are more singable than anything, and I always felt like if I wanted to go hear myself play, I would want to go away from the gig singing something and remembering something. So I always try to make the songs in some way singable. Coming from the background I come from in the church, all it takes is one line or something that will catch you in a certain way. I also think compositionally on the drums that way, to leave space, so the messages can come through, and not totally bombard the music with drums themselves, but try to develop the band as the whole vibe and develop the message. That’s part of the reason why the band is called Oracle.

TP:   So a lot of the counterpoint would be coming out of a call-and-response attitude.

KENDRICK:   Yes, always call-and-response. But I always try to make the message simple.


Kendrick Scott (DownBeat Players Article, 2007, “Directors’ Cut”:

“I noticed a need for younger musicians to document their growth and writing at each moment,” said Kendrick Scott, explaining why he decided to launch World Culture Music, his imprint label, in 2007.

By evidence of his debut release, The Source, the 27-year-old drummer, a Houston native, is more than ready for prime time. Each of the eleven tunes, ten composed or co-composed by Scott, contain strong melodies, which he sets off with ethereal sounds and an array of world, contemporary and hardcore jazz beats. Although he barely solos, Scott asserts his footprint throughout, orchestrating the individualistic tonal personalities of a diverse cast of twenty- and thirty-something New York A-listers—guitarists Lionel Loueke, Mike Moreno and Lage Lund, pianists Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper, wind players Seamus Blake, Myron Walden and Walter Smith, bassist Derrick Hodge, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato—with sure-handed grooves across the tempo spectrum, impeccable dynamics, and a penchant for informed call-and-response. It sounds like anything but a first attempt, and it takes you on a journey.

“Kendrick is great at orchestrating, but he’s even better at trying new things every night,” said Terence Blanchard, who hired Scott out of Berklee in Fall 2003 after a three-week tryout the previous summer, featured him extensively on the 2005 release Flow, and continues to retain his services. “He experiments at being creative within the framework and context of the situation. He has amazing technique, but that’s not what he wants to display as a musician. He’s also a gentleman, with a lot of class, which translates into his musical personality.”

“I hear the drums melodically, as subordinate to the band,” said Scott. “I believe in give-and-take. I’ll play time for this much, then give you no time. I’ll play colors, then maybe just bash. I’m working on becoming more of a drummer’s drummer, having more technical things with my own signature, but if something doesn’t come honestly to me, I won’t play it. For me, the message always takes precedence over everything. Most of my songs come from sitting at the drums and singing a melody, and I like to leave space so the messages can come through—you don’t need a lot of notes to play a strong groove. When you start putting ego into your playing, it cuts you off from getting your blessing.

“With Terence, I learned how to use everything I knew, and then totally abandon it. Early on with him, I’d think, ‘This section, I should play like Max Roach,” or play like Philly Joe or Al Foster. Really, I’ve come to such an enlightenment, actually letting things come out instead of filtering what I think I ought to play.”

Scott developed the notion of music as testimony during formative years—his mother and older brother played keyboards professionally on Houston’s church circuit, and, as he puts it, “I was always at choir rehearsal.” It’s a background he shares with such fellow Houstonians as Glasper and drummers Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mark Simmons and Jamire Williams, all established professionals, who came up during the ‘90s under Robert Morgan at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Scott  nailed his high school audition by playing “Seven Steps To Heaven” on a drumset containing five tuned tom-toms.

“Kendrick already had a deep understanding about the music’s history,” Harland recalled. “Early on he could emulate Philly Joe, Max Roach, Lewis Nash. Later, he checked out different things and opened up his sound.”

“We fused a gospel mentality with the jazz idiom, and it created a fresh sound for us,” said Scott of his Houston cohort.“We also looked up to Sebastian Whitaker, a blind drummer with deep roots in Art Blakey. Through him, we all sit high and play low, into the drums. Then also, our high school—and my elementary school—had many different types of people, from Vietnamese to African-American to Indian to Caucasian, so we learned to embrace diverse cultures from an early age. For example, a friend listened to Radiohead, and opened my ears to that type of thing, which I benefited from.”

On down time from Blanchard’s band, Scott does not lack for employment—his recent c.v. includes engagements with David Sanborn, John Scofield, and Maria Schneider. Off the bandstand, he oversees his label; joining The Source in the World Culture Music catalog are Between The Lines by Moreno, Scott’s PVA classmate, and The Wish, by singer Julie Hardy.  “It’s an investment in the future,” Scott said. “We shouldn’t wait for anyone to do anything for us. If we start recording these snapshots now, they’ll only get better with time.”



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For Drum Master Ignacio Berroa’s 64th Birthday, Uncut Interviews From 2014 and 2008

To mark the 66th birthday of the great Havana-born drummer Ignacio Berroa, I’m posting interviews that I conducted with him in 2014 and in 2008. The latter interview was conducted over a leisurely breakfast one morning during the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, where Berroa was performing with a group that included the great conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, who contributed to the conversation. The earlier interview was conducted in May 2008 live on WKCR, to publicize a gig at the Jazz Standard.


Ignacio Berroa (Dominican Republic, Cabarete, Nov. 7, 2014):

TP:   Since you have a new recording and you’re performing your repertoire tonight, I’d like to know something about what you’re going for as a bandleader and composer in presenting it.

IB:   What I try to convey as a bandleader and as a composer… I am not a great composer actually. I composed one tune on my previous album, Codes, “Joao Su Merced,” and on this one I composed one called “Laura’s Waltz,” which I dedicated to my granddaughter. It’s a 3/4; a waltz.

But the message that I tried to convey in both my albums, and in the next album that I will do, is always to mix the music from my heritage with the music of my passion. That’s why the name of this album. Since I was a kid, as you can see in the liner notes, I fall in love with jazz, and I always want to be a jazz player. But coming to the United States, I figured that I have to do something that will be interesting. First of all, I didn’t want to be a Latin drummer, because not too many people to compete. The main reason why I left Cuba was because I always wanted to be a jazz drummer. But in order for me to be different from the others, what I figured was to mix my rhythms, the rhythms of my country with the straight-ahead of jazz, which, in my opinion, and as we know if you check history, have a lot of in common—because everything came from Africa. So rhythmically speaking, we’ve got a lot of things in common. The only thing is that in jazz they swing the notes, BING, BINK-A-DING, BINK-A-DING, and we might do BING-BING-PA-BING, BING-PA…— This is a triple feel from the Africans. [SINGS IT] On top of that… You can superimpose. [DEMONSTRATES ON TABLE] That’s it.

So for me, rhythmically speaking, it is easy to understand where we’re coming from. So mixing both cultures is what has made my drumming interesting. That’s the main reason why I became Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer for ten years. I always tell people… I don’t like to talk about myself because it seems like I’m bragging. The way I see it, and the way it is, in the history of American music I am the only drummer from another country (you can correct me if I’m wrong) that played with the master and the creator of bebop for ten years. Sometimes, when people try to pigeonhole me into that “Latin drummer,” I always tell them, “Well, but Dizzy Gillespie didn’t play salsa.” So I was with Dizzy Gillespie playing world music, if we want to call it that way, but I had to play a lot of straight-ahead. And if my ass was sitting in that chair for ten years, it means that… Dizzy was dizzy but not stupid. So he knew what he had in that chair. That’s what I always try to combine. That’s what differentiates me from other drummers.

TP:   Was that concept in place when you got here?

IB:   That was something that developed. When I arrived to New York, I didn’t know the meaning of “yes.” I had a great mentor. Mario Bauzá was my mentor. Mario Bauzá was the first one who told me, “Ignacio, in this country, what they pay is for originality. If you become another one, you are another one; if you become a clone of Art Blakey, you are Art Blakey’s clone. Or you are Philly Joe Jones’ clone.”

So I found my way to incorporate… As a matter of fact, I remember very clearly when I started playing with that… Dizzy used to play a tune called “School Days” which was a shuffle that he used to sing, and one day while we were playing “School Days,” I was playing the shuffle, and then suddenly, at some point, I started playing the Afro-Cuban clave. While keeping the shuffle, I put the clave. He turned around and he looked at me like I was crazy. But he kept singing because the beat was going on. He loved it. The only thing I did afterwards was changing that pattern from the cowbell to the cymbal. That was the beginning for me, when I said, “Wait a minute; I am going to start going for this.”

TP:   Dizzy must have been very supportive of all that. He must have loved that.

IB:   Dizzy was in love with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Very simple. It was Mario Bauzá who turned him on to that. It was Mario Bauzá who encouraged Dizzy Gillespie to move to New York, because Mario Bauzá met Dizzy in Philadelphia while Mario was playing with Cab Calloway. He met Dizzy at a jam session. Back then, musicians used to stay in Philadelphia to hone their skills before moving to New York. Mario met Dizzy at a jam session, and it was Mario who told Dizzy, “You are ready; go to New York; and when you go to New York, you call me.” It was Mario who put Dizzy Gillespie to Cab Calloway’s big band, because Mario was about to go do the band with his brother-in-law Machito. It was Mario who told Cab Calloway, “this is the guy that I met here,” and that was the famous phrase… Cab Calloway didn’t like Dizzy. Cab Calloway used to say that Dizzy played Chinese music. But Mario kept pushing, and when Dizzy proved that he was able to play the first trumpet book, Mario left and Dizzy stayed with Cab, but they became friends. It was Mario who put in Dizzy’s mind all the Afro-Cuban thing, and then it was Mario who told Dizzy in 1943 or 1944 [1946], when Dizzy said he wanted to do something new, Mario was the one who told him, “Why don’t you hire this conga player who just came from Cuba?”—that name was Chano Pozo.

TP:   Did Dizzy work with you on swing rhythms, or did you have it together?

IB:   No. I had it together, but then I learned about the language. Dizzy taught me… I learned a great deal with Dizzy about the language. The same way that I am never going to be able to speak English without this horrible accent, Dizzy told me about the language—about articulation, about phrasing. When he was doing a phrase, where to hit the bass drum. He said to me, “I’m playing a phrase, A-BEAT, BEAT, BEE-DO-BE-DU, BE-DA-BA-DOO-BI-DI, BEE-BAHP-BE-O—OH-OH. He said, “When I stop there to breathe, that’s where, in this language…”

Of course, another thing that I did and I am going to do until the day that I die, I continue listening to the masters. So I learn every day. Every day that’s something that I am going to do as long as my mind continues working.

TP:   Who are the American masters that you listen to? Who are the Cuban masters that you listen to?

IB:   Cuban masters? Anybody. From Los Muñequitos de Matanzas… I got that background because my father was a musician (violin). He’s still alive, but he’s 85 years old. He retired. But I grew up in a house where I used to listen to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Abelardo Barroso, La Sublime(?—10:17), (?) Gonzalez, Jose Fajardo… All those Cuban bands, that was in my house, and that was on the street. On my way from my house to the school, somebody would be playing in a jukebox in the court of my house Muñequitos. So that was in the air. My mom was crazy. In the house, the radio was always on. But dad was a musician. My grandfather was a musician.

TP:   So your path was not unlike Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Paquito D’Rivera, whose fathers were musicians.

IB:   More than that. Gonzalo’s father and my father… You want to know something very curious? You’re going to have to pay me for this. [LAUGHS] The first job that my father had as a professional, in a charanga band in Cuba, the pianist was Gonzalo’s dad. You know what? This is something that if you go to Cuba or if you want to go to Miami… From that era, there are just two guys alive. Gonzalo’s dad and my father. When those two guys die, there’s going to be nobody to ask about that era. Because those guys are the only ones alive—Gonzalo’s dad and my dad.

TP:   Who are the American drummers you listened to?

IB:   My first idol was Max Roach. My notebooks in Cuba, they used to say… I wrote in all my notebooks, “Max Roach, Max Roach, Max Roach.” He was my idol. That was the first bebop album I was exposed to, was the Max Roach band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land. So I listened to Max Roach while I was in Cuba. But don’t forget, I grew up in an environment that Cuba and the United States have no relations, Americans were our enemies, playing jazz was promoting the music of the enemy, and there were no more record stores. The second album that I had was Miles Davis, Four and More. So from Max Roach, I jumped to Tony Williams without listening to Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, Blakey… It was Max Roach, Tony Williams, then later I was able to listen to Relaxin’ by Miles Davis, and then I was able to listen to Philly Joe Jones. It was like that.

But then, after I arrived in the United States in 1980, I had the opportunity to check out everybody. Then I said, “Now I’m going to do my homework the way it’s supposed to be.” Then I discovered Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Papa Jo Jones. I did my whole homework. Also drummers that unfortunately were not very famous. One of the drummers who inspires me the most is a guy who used to play with Dexter Gordon, Eddie Gladden. He was one of the most inspiring drummers for me. I loved Jack DeJohnette. I love every drummer. If I have to pick one, my idol—Roy Haynes. He is my idol. When I grow up, I want to be like Roy.

TP:    On both records, you use a very expansive sound palette—electronic wind instruments, synthesizers.

IB:   Yes. It’s just that I want to do something different. It is a matter of taste. Some people are curious, and some people criticize that. I have learned in my 61 years that you cannot please everybody. We are in 2014, and it is an era where we have been using synthesizers for a long time. I remember being in Cuba when we were able to hear My Spanish Heart, and on all those Chick Corea albums he was using a lot of synthesizer. So I wanted for this album to have that sound, to have the EWI or the Yamaha MIDI control. So that’s going to be… To me, it gives a fresh sound, a different sound, but with the Afro-Cuban flavor behind. That’s what I want to get on this album… You miss the electric guitar. I don’t want to do another album that sounds… With all due respect to those purists, those people who think that mainstream jazz has to sound always like this, and Latin Jazz has to sound always like this. But I’m looking for something else. From my point of view as a drummer, what has to be happening is while you’re playing behind that. That’s what has to be happening. The way Miles Davis used to say, “When I put a band together, the first guy I look for is the drummer.” If the drummer is happening, the band is happening. So my conception is, I can have 5-6 guys for three organs, five guitars, two bassoons, three oboes, but I’m playing with Giovanni and we have that motor running, that’s the main thing.

TP:   Giovanni made a comment when you went off to get the record that he was waiting to get some drums, and that, as a conga player, he sees the drums as kind of his…did you say piano or orchestra?

GIOVANNI HIDALGO:   I was saying that I like to play drums, too. For me, the drumset is the piano of the percussion, and the conga player ….(?—18:26)…. That’s it. It’s exquisite like a great perfume, the drumset. That’s vast. You have to divide yourself not in four. In five. Because you’re playing four different things plus what you have in your mind—that’s five things in one.

TP:   How often are you able to perform live with this band?

IB:   Now that I have a new album out, I hope I do more. Unfortunately, I don’t work as much as I think I should be working. One of the things, in my opinion, in the 34 years that I have been in the United States, we drummers have always been seen as second-class citizens. We cannot be bandleaders. It has always been like that. I’ll give you a good example of the way people overlook drummers. When you hear people talking about the bebop era, everybody mentions Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. You almost never hear somebody mentioning Kenny Clarke. Why? Because we drummers are the guys who are sitting behind there to make everybody look good, and we drummers don’t have the capacity of being bandleaders. I hope some day that will change, because that’s not right. If you check history, the drummers that were able to make a career with the bands: Blakey with the Jazz Messengers, because he brought to those bands Lee Morgan, Freddie, Wayne, all the great musicians that we know. Elvin Jones, a little bit, with his Jazz Machine.

TP:   Tony Williams.

IB:   Tony for a while. But the only drummer that you might think of who was able to keep a band running for a long period of time was Blakey with the Jazz Messengers. It is hard for drummers. So nowadays, people, promoters at festivals…people who are in charge of festivals, they would rather hire a quartet by an upcoming piano player than the Giovanni Hidalgo Quartet. They see Giovanni as not what they call the “front line.” But nobody thinks how that front line will sound with a good drummer or a good conga player behind. So we have also the right to be a bandleader. This is my second album. The way life is, some people are going to like it, other people are not going to like it. But I see a lot of things out there in the festivals that are not as good as Giovanni’s band or my band or Dave Weckl’s band. It is always they think, “You are a drummer,” and when you are a drummer… Actually, I remember when I recorded that album for Blue Note, thanks to Bruce Lundvall. A lot of people in the company didn’t want to sign me, because from their point of view… And I agree. I’m not holding this against them, because in the end, this is a business. They told Bruce Lundvall, “Drummers don’t sell.” Thank God, Bruce Lundvall thought that the music on Codes was worth it for them to make an album. And do you know what? Codes sold very well—for jazz.

But it is a mental thing. Bill Stewart? He has to be sideman. But now, if Bill Stewart wants to go out with his band? No. I would like to work more. I don’t know if I am going to convince promoters, because that’s out of my hands. I don’t know if booking agents might want to sign me. When I released Codes, it was nominated for a Grammy. It was an album with Blue Note Records. I had my story behind playing with Dizzy, with Chick, with everybody. I called every booking agent in the United States, every reputable booking agent. Nobody took me. I don’t think Jeff Tain Watts works a lot with his band. We’re drummers and that’s the way they are seen. They are drummers.

I hope for the future generations, even after I die, that this conception will change. Because when you go to see the Roy Haynes Quartet, man, that’s a hell of a band. I think that what we have to change is the conception that because we are drummers, we cannot be bandleaders. That’s wrong.

TP:   Stepping away from the injustice of it or the need to do it…

IB:   I like that word, “injustice.”

TP:   Whatever the word… Do you do a lot of clinician work?

IB:   Yes, and I would love to do more. Because students need to know about their history. It is very important to know about the history. People need to know where the rhythms came from, our heritage. They need to know that the slaves were brought from Africa, that the slaves were not just brought to New Orleans but to the Caribbean and Brazil and to Peru, and that’s why all the connections exist, rhythmically speaking. People need to know. Even Cuban guys. Last night at the restaurant, my bass player, Armando Gola, who is a young guy, he doesn’t know about the history of Cuban music. He didn’t know where the danzon came from. He didn’t know where the cha-cha-cha came from. He didn’t know where the son came from, which is the foundation of the music that we have for years been calling salsa.

Another thing that I want to teach people is the conception of Latin Jazz. Because when you talk about “Latin,” you’re talking about a huge continent called Latin America that begins in Mexico and ends in Tiera Del Fuego, down there in Argentina. But when you hear Latin Jazz… I tell people, “Do you know that each of those countries has their own rhythms, their own identity?” Do you know that Mexico has a national rhythm? Do you know that Peru has a national rhythm? Do you know that Colombia has a national rhythm? Chile. Brazil, of course, is the only one that everybody knows. But each country has their own rhythm. Puerto Rico has its own rhythms. Haiti has its own rhythms. So I don’t hear many people playing Latin Jazz with any Venezuelan-Peruvian-Mexican influence. Everything is congas, an instrument that was created in the island of Cuba. Those patterns came from there. And the timbales…

So why Latin Jazz? Very simple. Because in the ’40s, when everybody started playing at the Palladium, when Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente, the Latinos who used to go to dance at the Palladium were just two groups—Puerto Ricans and Cubans. So the Americans used to say, “Let’s go to the Palladium to check the Latinos.” That’s how the name Latin Jazz came…

TP:   I guess Cuba had the big entertainment infrastructure, which helped develop the music as well.

IB:   From my perspective, it’s very simple. The geographical location of Cuba is what gave Cuba the advantage of having more rhythms. Why? Because it was the biggest island. It was the island that needed more slaves. And the Spaniards brought slaves from different groups. So the Arara, the Abakua, the Congo, these different cultures were forced to live together. Everybody had their rhythm. People that didn’t like each other, and they were forced to live together. So that atrocity led to the rhythmic richness that we have today. Puerto Rico was a smaller island. Puerto Rico was the last island in the Caribbean that got into the slave trade. When Puerto Rico got into the slave trade, it was the tail end. So Cuba, because it was the biggest island and they needed more labor, they brought more people. So in other words, in my opinion, the island got lucky.

Second thing. Their position geographically. When someone was coming from Europe to perform in Venezuela, to perform in Argentina, to perform in Peru, Cuba was at most a stop. They had to stop in Cuba to refuel, to get food. So Enrico Caruso was coming to perform in Argentina. Caruso would stop in Havana, and he would perform in Havana, because he had three days to stop in Havana. That gave Cuba the advantage over the other islands as far as musical development. Because it was the biggest island. They needed more of the slaves for the sugar, for everything they were doing in Cuba.

TP:   Also, a lot of the American jazz musicians came there in the ’40s and ’50s, after World War 2.

IB:   I’m talking from the origins. Then, Cuba is 90 miles away from the United States, so a lot of Americans going to Cuba. So definitely, the geographical position of the island is a key role on the development of the music in Cuba. We got lucky, because if the island of Cuba had been off the coast of Argentina, that would have been our ass!

TP:   So playing with Dizzy didn’t just teach you swing rhythms, but also to bring in all the national rhythms of Latin America. I’m assuming you had to play those specific rhythms in the United Nations Orchestra.

IB:   This is another thing that I want to clarify. A lot of people relate me with Dizzy to the United Nations Orchestra. I started playing with Dizzy Gillespie in 1981.

TP:   I understand that. I’m only following up on your point about every country having its own rhythm…

IB:   Yes, and in the United Nations Orchestra, what Dizzy wanted to do was to bring together that that’s what we need to do.

TP:   I guess my point was to ask if that influenced you as well. He schooled you on American swing, and I wondered if he influenced you in that regard.

IB:   No, I think I already was into that. I think that my encounter with Dizzy was meant to be. We were supposed to run into each other, and exchange ideas, and the United Nations Orchestra was something that was supposed to happen, and luckily, it happened, because he gathered the greatest musicians from the different countries. He had Giovanni, he got Airto, he got Danilo Perez, he got me, he got Arturo Sandoval, he got Paquito, Moody, Slide Hampton. That’s also what I’m trying to do nowadays. I’m trying to mix the music and play also with other musicians, with American musicians, and see what happens. Because when you play just with a musician that knows your music, that’s very easy. That’s what I tell people. Some people don’t like that I came to the United States, and that I play straight-ahead and that I want to play straight-ahead. Oh man, you should play Cuban music. No. Why? I wanted to compete. There is nobody… How many people am I going to compete with here in the United States? The late Steve Berrios. Who else? I arrived in New York in 1980, and I’m going to compete with Steve Berrios? So I came all the way from Cuba to compete with one guy? It makes no sense. I want to compete in the good sense of the word. Compete. Learn. I want to compete with my heroes. I want to see what they have done. That was the challenge.

TP:   It’s like, in writing, Joseph Conrad or Nabokov, who were born and raised in another culture, and wrote great novels in English.

IB:   Yes. But if you come from a country…

GIOVANNI:   What he’s saying is the truth. Because the first one to come to New York and Puerto Rico to bring another area of the songo was Ignacio Berroa. In 1980, and from that year until the end, that was because of him. That was another approach, another vision to the drummers. You never saw that before. We are in 2014, and he’s still right here.

TP:   The only drummer I can think of… What Willie Bobo did on Inventions and Dimensions was pretty remarkable, I think.

GIOVANNI:   Bobo was William Correa, a Puerto Rican guy, but he was with the Cubans… Amazing. When Tito Puente, him, Patato, they did the Puente Percussion… Boom. It was an explosion. I am telling you, to be brief, still, when you put all of those recordings… Ignacio came…

TP:   I think Art Blakey’s drum records in the ’50s raised consciousness.

GIOVANNI:   Blakey was ahead, because he was using… Remember this album with Kenny Dorham, Afrodisia? It was Patato on congas. This album from Max Roach, Supercussion—that was Patato on congas.

TP:   Blakey would have three percussionists, 2-3 trap drummers—he did a few of those for Blue Note.

GIOVANNI:   Amazing. He did one with Charlie Persip, Blakey, and Papa Jo Jones. But ….(?—37:09)….. all that time over here, and he is one of our mentors, and one of our examples forever, how to play the drums approaching with the Latin, with the Jazz, with the Afro. The rudiments for that… I’m telling you, always what he said before, Cuba, Puerto Rico… It’s amazing. He’s amazing. Even for me. I’m still learning. Like, I’ve been playing since I was 3 years old, but I’m still learning, and it’s never-ending. In the world of drums, which is the leader of percussion, with sticks and with the hands, that’s another beautiful thing… Like I said, deep. Very vast, and so…how you call that… Hovering or…the flowing…

TP:   Flowing.

GIOVANNI:   Flowing. You know what I mean? Now much better, because now… I’m going to agree with what Ignacio said, because it’s the truth. We’re in 2014, and I believe… As far as I am concerned, many of those young drummers are good ones, but I believe they are missing something. Like I do always, Ignacio and myself, we don’t forget the pioneers.

IB:   The tradition.

GIOVANNI:    The tradition. We don’t forget the analog. Ok? The digital era is so good, but if you forget the analog, if you forget the pioneers, forget about it. Stay at home and forget about it.

IB:   So we were talking about going to universities, and I was saying that. Universities meaning… That’s an interesting conversation that we were having yesterday. For example, universities… We all know that we are facing economically difficult times, but for example, certain universities, in the same way that you go to any major university in any place in the world, and the Classics department has 96% money, and the 4% goes to the jazz department, even though in the jazz department… It is rare to see a jazz department bringing a drummer for a residency, for a master class, because universities are more concerned about bringing this guy who is going to teach the students about harmony, the voicings, this-and-that… But you have to put your things in rhythm. So what I mean is that there should be a balance, and heads of jazz departments in different universities, have to be aware, “Ok, this is the budget that I have; I am going to bring this guy, this guy, but I am also going to bring Ignacio, Lewis Nash…” Because those guys have something to say that is going to benefit all the students. When I go to universities, the most important thing I request is that everybody attends my clinic. I tell the guy, “I want every jazz musician in my clinic.” Because I am going to tell them about the history. I am going to tell these guys who write music, the arrangers, when you’re going to arrange a piece of music, you have to know about the clave, you have to know… Based on the style of music you’re going to write, you need to know about the articulation, how you’re going to phrase, how you’re going to do… [SINGS THEME OF “EVIDENCE.”] If you’re going to play that as Latin rhythm, before you sit down and open Finale or whatever on the computer, you need to know about that.

TP:   Last year I did a piece for Jazz Times where I talked to 10 musicians from Cuba about their formative years. Almost all of them told me that in the conservatory, in ENA and the regional schools, Cuban folkloric music was treated the same way as jazz—both were out of the curriculum.

IB:   All those guys are younger than me, except for Paquito.

TP:   I wanted to ask you about your musical relationship with Gonzalo. You played with him…

IB:   Ten years.

TP:   Haven’t you played during the last decade?

IB:   Actually, no, I didn’t. I played with Gonzalo until we recorded the album Paseo. Paseo was the last album that I recorded with him, and then we toured that album, and then after that… I think I stopped playing with Gonzalo in 2006-2007, when I recorded my album, Codes, and then I went on my own. I think that in 2008 we did a short tour in Europe as a trio.

TP:   But I wanted to ask you about that partnership. It seems to have taken music forward.

IB:   Things happen for a reason. Gonzalo is ten years younger than me. I was a very good friend of Gonzalo’s brother, Jesus Rubalcaba, who passed away. We went to the same school together, and when I left Cuba, Gonzalo was in his teens. We played for the first time in 1996 in Puerto Rico, at the Heineken Jazz Festival, by accident. I was playing at the festival with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz All-Stars, and I was also playing with Danilo Perez Quartet. Gonzalo was performing there, but the United States denied a visa to his drummer at that time. I was living in Miami, and the guy from the festival called me and said, “Ignacio, do you have any problem playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba?”—because of the political situation. I said, “Ask him if he has any problem playing with me. I have no problem playing with Gonzalo. I live in Miami, but I don’t care. Music is music.” In fact, in 1995, I did an instructional video, and I invited Changuito to the video.

Anyway, we played as a trio, Gonzalo, Eddie Gomez and myself. Then I think the following year Gonzalo moved to Miami, and he called me, and that was the beginning of our ten years collaboration. It was something I’ve always called “love at first sight.” We started playing and we clicked. We’re coming from the same background. Even though I was ten years older than him, he brought me to his level, the way he sees music. That was a challenge for me, because when I recorded those albums with Gonzalo, I was already an old guy. It’s like when Roy Haynes recorded “Question and Answer” with Pat Metheny. So it was something very special, and I think that something beautiful came out of that. Paseo is an album that everywhere I go, when I teach at universities, everybody comes to speak to me about Paseo or Supernova. All the kids remember those albums. So it was a very special collaboration, and I hope that some day people may want to see that again. But aside from that, Gonzalo is one of my best friends.

TP:   And he is the producer of your record.

IB:   He is one of my best friends. I am very happy. I think it was something that was meant to happen, the same way that I think my encounter with Dizzy Gillespie was meant to happen. In my mind, there is no doubt that there is something external that has to do hold the things together. Ok, you’re going to meet this guy, you’re going to meet this guy, and you’re going to go… The same way that Parker and Dizzy met. I don’t want to compare us to Dizzy and Parker, but you know what I mean?

TP:   People cross paths.

IB:   Crossed paths. Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say.

I was saying at the beginning that the people in the industry, booking agents, promoters, I think they should be more open-minded and realize that I’m a drummer, but that doesn’t mean that I just have to be a sideman. People also have to be open, like… I’m Cuban. I think that’s not an issue now, but it was an issue for years. I’m Cuban, but my taste playing straight-ahead has been proven. Some people still always try to box me or pigeonhole me. “Oh, Ignacio. Latin. He’s the king of Latin.” It’s hard for them to accept, “Man, Ignacio came here and he became a great straight-ahead… Ignacio came here and absorbed our language. Ignacio did his homework.” In the same way that I would be proud if Blakey would have gone to Cuba, and end up playing in Cuban bands. I’d be happy. Because someone, a foreigner, came to our country and absorbed our music, and became so good that he’s playing with all the Cuban bands.


Ignacio Berroa (May 22, 2008) – (WKCR):

[From Codes, “Matrix”]
TP:   Ignacio Berroa is performing Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Standard with a quartet, featuring pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and saxophonist Ben Wendel.
Over these performances, will you be performing primarily music from this record?

IB:   Pretty much, and also some new music that we have been playing, planning to do the second album, but I don’t know yet when I’m going to do it, or which company I’m going to do it with. We’re going to be playing mostly the music from Codes and some new material.

TP:   Is this your first album as a leader?

IB:   My first one. I haven’t done any.

TP:   A long time in the making. You’ve been a professional musician in the U.S., and before that in Cuba, for what, 40 years probably.

IB:   Oh, man, for a long time. I started my professional career in 1970. I left Cuba in 1980, with the Mariel boat lift. In fact, this coming Monday is going to be my 28th year since I arrived in the United States.

TP:   Congratulations.

IB:   Thank you. I feel very happy about it. It took me a while to do an album, even though a lot of people always were encouraging me about doing my own project. My friend Dizzy Gillespie was always asking me about, “When are you going to do your album?” But I didn’t feel I was ready to do what I really wanted to project in an album. I always tell people who ask me, “It would have been very easy for me to do another Latin Jazz album in the early ’80s, and have Dizzy Gillespie as my guest artist.” It would not have cost me a penny; I mean, it would have been a success.

TP:   Why didn’t you do it?

IB:   Because musically speaking, I was not ready. I was not ready to do… I’m the type of person that, you know, I don’t like to do something that I’m not going to feel proud later on. So musically speaking, I think I was… Maybe it is in my mind, but in my opinion, I was not ready, because I didn’t want to do another Latin album. Unfortunately, a lot of people have the vision that when you are from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, what you have to play is just son montuno, cha-cha-cha, because you are a Latino. My passion since I was a kid was jazz. I always wanted to be a jazz drummer, and my mission is to mix Afro-Cuban rhythms with the jazz language. Believe me, Ted, back in the early ’80s… And I was struggling with a lot of things. I left Cuba in 1980. My wife at the time and my kid stayed behind. The Cuban government kept them for many years. I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language. So I had to support my family in Cuba, deal with all the new situation—it was very hard. So my mind was not in the right frame in order to say, “Ok, I am going to do an album that I will be proud of.”

TP:   You were trying to survive.

IB:   I was trying to survive, and I was trying to keep my family in Cuba, dealing with the Cuban government, trying to allow my family to leave the island—which they didn’t for four years. So it was rough.

TP:   With this recording, you’ve assembled some of the finest musicians in the world, American, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to perform with. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose group you’ve been part of for many years…

IB:   We’ve played together for ten years.

TP:   Edward Simon as well. David Sanchez and Giovanni Hidalgo. A slew of high-level Cuban musicians like Armando Gola and Felipe Lamoglia, who you played with in Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s quartet. But you assembled them differently within the framework of your compositions, and each tune has its own identity, so it’s evident that you put a lot of care into making this, and into the sounds you put forth.

IB:   Sure. It wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the great musicians who participated in the album. But yes, it took me a while. I really thought about it. It was a long process about realizing what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do the tunes, to make the arrangements, which were made by Felipe Lamoglia. It took a lot of time, Felipe and I getting together, and me explaining to Felipe what I wanted, the way I want to phrase the melodies—like what I did with “Matrix.”

TP:   So you conceptualized it and he executed it.

IB:   Exactly. Most of the arrangements were done by Felipe Lamoglia. The only thing that I did was tell him, “I want to play ‘Matrix’ this way; the melody has to go like this; we’re going to do it this way.” The same with “Pinocchio.” Things like that.

TP:   Listeners may be curious about aspects of your formative years. You said you became a professional musician at 17, 1970, in Cuba, and you always wanted to be a jazz drummer.

IB:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   During the years when you would have wanted to be a jazz drummer, there was sort of an official proscription from the Cuban Government, I think…

IB:   You said “sort of”? You weren’t there! [LAUGHS]

TP:   I wasn’t there. Being tactful doesn’t work sometimes. First of all, how did the interest gestate? Are you from a musical family?

IB:   Yes. My father used to play the violin. My father also is a jazz lover. So I was lucky that one day my father came to my house with two albums, one by Nat King Cole and the other one by Glenn Miller. I was 10 years old, and when I heard the music, I fell in love with that music. It was like love at first sight. Glenn Miller, “Moonlight Serenade,” Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall In Love.” When I heard that music, something got me. I said, “that’s what I want to do.”

The rest was very hard. There is something that I always like to talk… Some people have been asking me about writing a book, and it is about my generation from the ’70s, the musician generation… For us, it was very hard. These days a lot of people see that in Cuba they have a jazz festival, and there has been a kind of openness now for the music. I should say, in my opinion, that happened after 1980. But in the ’70s it was very, very hard. It was prohibited to play jazz. I remember, for example…just to give you one example…playing at the Radio and TV orchestra, and the conductor… We’d be playing an arrangement that had 16 bars of swing, and I remember seeing the conductor from the podium saying, “Ok, guys, those 16 bars, we’re going to play cha-cha-cha.” Because it was playing jazz; it was playing the music of the enemy. The way my generation was raised in Cuba was that Americans were our enemies, and playing their was music was trying…they were trying to penetrate our ideology…their ideology through music. So that’s hard it was for my generation. We had it very hard in the ’70s. That’s something that a lot of people don’t know.

TP:   You’re 5 years younger than Paquito D’Rivera, who’s written about this in his autobiography. Are you from Havana or somewhere else?

IB:   I’m from Havana, too.

TP:   What were your steps in learning the drums? And I’d also like to ask if folkloric music was part of your upbringing…

IB:   That was also prohibited in the ’70s, because it had to do with the Yoruba religion, and anything against the Communist ideology was prohibited.

So I am a self-taught drummer. In Cuba, in my days, everything was a classical training formation. I went to the National School of the Arts, where I studied percussion. I had a great teacher who studied here in New York in the ’40s with Henry Adler. But you’ve got to take this into consideration. There were no drums. Playing popular music was prohibited. Any kind of popular music. Jazz was the music of the enemy. Playing bata drums and Yoruba things was something that was not within the Revolution ideology, so it was also prohibited. The religion was prohibited—kind of. People would…

TP:   People went underground with it.

IB:   Underground. Very underground. If you want to do something in Cuba… People who practiced the religion openly were like in ostracism. You were not able to go to the university. You were not able to travel. You were nobody. I really admire those brave people who really practiced the Yoruba religion very openly in the late ’60s and the ’70s.

TP:   As far as your identity as a trapset drummer, were you listening to people for models? Were there people in Cuba…

IB:   No. I was lucky. Don’t forget, before Castro took power, Cuba was a very prominent country, very close to the United States, and a lot of people who were jazz fans had albums… Like I said to you, my dad came to my house with a Nat King Cole and a Glenn Miller album.

TP:   So you had albums to listen to, and models.

IB:   The young musicians, we had to go to the old musicians’ houses and listen to the albums, so we had some information. But also, the most important thing is…what I always say is this is what saved our life…was the proximity of Cuba to the United States. Just 90 miles from Cuba to Key West, so when the weather was good we were able to listen to the radio station coming from Key West, and some people also were able to see some TV shows. So that’s what kept us informed of what was going on.

I never had any drums lesson. I’m a self-taught drummer. The only people I was able to listen to was on albums… To give you an example, my first exposure to modern jazz was Max Roach with Clifford Brown. So Max was my first influence. Then I was able to listen to an Art Blakey album. From there, the jump went to Miles Davis, Four and More—Tony Williams.

TP:   Well, you did pretty good.

IB:   [LAUGHS] Yeah! I was listening to those albums every day, and play the drums by myself, and also I had no drumset—there were no drums in Cuba. So it was very tough.

TP:   As a young guy were you seeing relationships between what those drummers were doing… Max Roach was influenced to a certain degree by Haitian drums and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Africa had been to Africa. Did you discern correspondence in the patterns…

IB:   Yes, I knew that since I was there, and I knew that American musicians like Dizzy Gillespie were very much into Afro-Cuban music. So yes, I was able to hear it immediately.

TP:   Were you in contact with any of the Cuban musicians and a little older who became the first wave of post-Castro jazz musicians that Americans knew about, such as Chucho Valdes, or Emiliano Salvador (who they didn’t know so much about), or Paquito…

IB:   Oh, yeah. We used to play… Sometimes we used to do jam sessions, on-the-ground jam sessions. I remember in 1977-78, there was a club in Havana called the Rio Club. It used to be called the Johnny’s Dreams. We were allowed to play jazz just Mondays. So I was in contact with those musicians, and also with Emiliano Salvador. We played together in the same band from 1975 to 1979—for four years.

TP:   What was he like? Americans don’t know so much about him.

IB:   Emiliano Salvador, in my opinion, was a great piano player. He was my favorite piano player. Chucho is a great piano player. For my taste, Emiliano was my guy—let’s put it that way.

TP:   What was the difference for you?

IB:   The difference for me at that time is that Emiliano sounded more like McCoy and Chick Corea. He sounded more to me like a New Yorker. Back in the days, I remember it was Emiliano who introduced me to my favorite drummer, Roy Haynes. It was Emiliano in 1975 who told me, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” I don’t know how he got the recording. Probably through the guitar player, Paolo Menendez, who was American, and he was able to come over here, to this country, while living in Cuba, and he used to bring some records. Emiliano told me one day, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” So Emiliano was to me, and for a lot of people in Cuba back in the days…he was the guy. We always have this thing, “who’s the best?” It’s not a matter of who plays more. Who’s the best?

TP:   It’s your taste.

IB:   For my taste, Emiliano Salvador was the guy.

TP:   I know Enrique Pla was the drummer in Irakere. Was that an exciting band for you? It’s very influential on the way Cuban music sounded subsequently.

IB:   Irakere was a great, great band. It was a band composed of the best instrumentalists in Cuba at that time, and it was a big influence. Also, I have to say it was only band. It was the only band that the Cuban government allowed to do that. Also, in my opinion, Irakere was a band that they wanted to play jazz, and they had to put in the percussion in order to cover what they really wanted to do. Because with no percussion, there would have been no Irakere. But those guys back in the day, Paquito and Arturo and Chucho, what they really wanted to play was straight-ahead jazz. That was their passion. That’s what they wanted to play. But Irakere was a very influential band in our life. Like I said, the greatest musicians, the greatest instrumentalists in the ‘70s were in that band. It was also the only band that the Cuban government allowed during that period.

TP:   You just mentioned 1975-1979 playing with Emiliano Salvador, and during those years is when Dizzy Gillespie precipitated the Havana Jazz Festival…

IB:   1977. It was not a jazz festival. What happened was… For some reason, a boat that left New Orleans…

TP:   It was a cruise ship, I think.

IB:   Some musicians were on it… I don’t know how that cruise ship stopped in Havana for two days. How? That’s something that we have to ask the Cuban government and the American government.

TP:   Well, whatever it was, Dizzy Gillespie came in, and I presume you met him around then…

IB:   I didn’t meet… I want to straighten this out. I didn’t meet Dizzy Gillespie that day. I was lucky that I was able to get a ticket to see the concert. It was one concert in 1977. Dizzy Gillespie played. The late Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines also played. I don’t remember who else. I was able to see Dizzy with his quartet—Mickey Roker, Ben Brown on bass, Rodney Jones on guitar. I remember that when I left, when the concert was over, we were standing on the sidewalk and I told my friends, “Well, I can die already; I saw Dizzy Gillespie.” I don’t know how that was arranged.

Then in 1979, it was the big Havana Jam, where Bruce Lundvall, who was the President of Columbia… I also don’t know how that was arranged through the Cuban government. They did those three days, Havana Jam. But the first time we were exposed to Dizzy Gillespie was in 1977, when he did that concert. I was not able to speak to him. I’m still trying to learn how to speak English, so you can imagine that 28 years ago… As I said to you, when I arrived into this country, I was not able to say “yes.” So I met Dizzy Gillespie officially the day that Mario Bauza introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie, here, in New York.

TP:   In 1980, you left Cuba under not-luxurious-conditions to come to the United States…

IB:   For them, back then, I was a traitor. I left Cuba because I always wanted to leave the island. I was always looking for freedom, and I want to play jazz, and I was not allowed to do that in my country. But I also have to add to this that even… I always tell this to people. Even if Cuba had been a free country, I was coming to New York anyway, because the musicians I wanted to play with were here. So I would have come here anyway.

TP:   So you came here through the Mariel boat-lift…

IB:   It was the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left the island. I landed in Key West, and from there I went to a camp, Indian Town Gap, and I spent 36 days there going through the process. By that time, the American government realized that Castro had sent a lot of spies. So after 36 days at the Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania, I came here to New York, where I have family. I had an aunt who was living here… She left Cuba in the ’40s. So I was lucky to have my family here; they were very supportive. So the first time I went to Miami, I went there as a musician.

TP:   So you became an American professional musician in New York.

IB:   This is my town. I was born and raised here in New York.

TP:   What sorts of things were you doing early? Latin Jazz and Salsa, or…

IB:   It is hard for me to remember. The first gig I did with my good friend, the late Mario Rivera, who was a great musician. He had a band called the Salsa Refugees, and I think that was my first gig. That band was composed of the late Hilton Ruiz, Andy González, Jerry González, Steve Turre and Mario Rivera. Then I started playing with a band called Tipica Novero(?—30:18), where I was playing timbales. That was the first time in my life I played timbales. I never played timbales in Cuba. I never played percussion in Cuba.

TP:   You never played percussion in Cuba.

IB:   Ever. In my life. No. Also, don’t forget, I was a rebel, and I wanted to be a jazz drummer, and that was the music that was prohibited. I was reluctant to play other things. Which I regret. Also, the first time I started playing congas, I realized that my hands hurt a lot. I said, “No-no-no, this is not for me.”I didn’t want to have any callouses on my hands. I like my soft hands.

TP:   So you moved from Cuba into a very different pan-Latin community, New Yorkers but also people from different parts of the Afro-Caribbean region.

IB:   Yes.

TP:   What was that like for you aesthetically? Did it have an impact on your way of thinking about music?

IB:   No, not at all. Well, I put things into perspective, and I said, “Well, this is a different ballgame now—you have to adapt.” I like baseball a lot. You have to adapt now to this new league. Believe me, I was very happy to be here. My main concern back in the days was that the Cuban government had my family as hostage in Cuba and that I didn’t know how to speak English. It was terrible. I always tell people, “Can you imagine if I take you now to Beijing and I leave you there and say, ‘now you’re going to live here.’” It was terrible.  I don’t want to remember that. It was terrible being in a city, in a place where people were around you, talking, and you didn’t know what they were saying. I also remember that my friend, Andy González, Jerry González, they were very helpful back in the days.

But musically speaking, it expanded my horizons. I said, “Wow, this is something else.” Because I was living in a small pond, in Cuba, and then suddenly I was in the ocean, where you see every kind of fish! So it really opened my mind. It made me conscious of what I really wanted to do.

TP:   Andy and Jerry González had played with Dizzy around 1970, and I guess they were really getting into their own concept of hybridizing jazz rhythms with Afro-Cuban rhythms, which I imagine must have had a great appeal to you.

IB:   Oh, yes. I was very attracted to their approach to the music. That’s something they always tried to do, and I said, “This is what I want to do playing the drums.” But also, I have to be honest. I want to play straight-ahead jazz! That is my passion, and that’s what I’m here for.

TP:   Straight-ahead jazz means something a little different now than it did 25 years ago. Straight-ahead jazz means incorporating timba rhythms, 7/4, 9/4, as well as 4/4, and you’re someone who probably laid down a little bit of the information that helped some people do that.

IB:   Yes. But still, for me… I am going to be 55 years old in July. For me, my passion is playing straight-ahead swing—DING-DING-A-DING. Swing.

TP:   Not 7/4, not…

IB:   No. That’s my life.

[MUSIC: “Joao Su Merced”]

TP:   Hearing that brings up something we were discussing off-mike, that over the last 20 years, rhythms from Cuban popular music, from timba, have become part of the jazz mainstream, 7/4, 9/4 and so on, and your remark was, “I like that, but I like to play straight-ahead,” and also that in African music and Cuban music odd meters don’t really come into play.

IB:   Yes, that’s my opinion. I have never heard any bata or any Yoruba percussion rhythms playing 7/4 or 11-by-5 or… Probably I am getting old. I really respect and admire all the musicians who like to play those odd meters. But in African music, I don’t think there is any 11-by-something or 13-by-something. In Yoruban religion, I have been in a few ceremonies, and I have never seen anybody playing something for any saint in 11-something. Everything is 12/6. That’s what it is. I think that there is so much still that we can do with those meters.

Also, my theory about this is: I don’t talk in 11/4, I don’t walk in 9/4, I don’t walk in 6/4. So everything is like a 4. Everything has to swing. I haven’t found yet where those odd meters swing. That’s just my opinion. But in Afro-Cuban music, not odd meters. You don’t hear any… Now it is called timba, which I remember in the ’70s. That is not a new word. In the ’70s, when someone used to play with a popular band, like Van-Van or Ritmo Oriental or Conjunto Rumba Havana, if you asked me, “Hey, Ignacio, what is Tony doing?” my answer to you would be, “Oh, he’s playing timba; he’s playing with a timba groove.” That was in the ’70s. But when you listen to that kind of music, when you listen to timba, you’re not going to hear odd meters. The first thing that we have to keep in mind is that it is dance music, and the only people who dance with odd meters are countries where that music is the popular music, like Bulgaria for example. But in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, the Caribbean—no odd meters.

TP:   When did you join Dizzy Gillespie?

IB:   I joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1981. August…

TP:   You played with him pretty much until…

IB:   The story is, the first time I played with Dizzy Gillespie was by accident. That was in December 1980, when his drummer at the time got stranded in Boston, and Mario Bauza heard me playing in a rehearsal at Mario Rivera’s house, and he was the one who called Dizzy and told him about me. So by accident, I played with Dizzy that night, since his drummer got stranded and he called Mario and I went there and played with Dizzy. But I joined his quartet in 1981. Then I had to leave the band, because I had no status in the country. It was very hard for marielitos to travel. I left the band in 1983. When I became an American citizen in 1986, he called me back, and I was back with his quartet… Back then, it was a quintet with Sam Rivers on tenor. That went on until he died, doing his big bands, the 70th Anniversary Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, and then came the United Nations Orchestra. Most people think that I started playing with Dizzy with the United Nations Orchestra, but it was way before.

TP:   What things did you learn from him? He was almost as eminent a teacher as a musician, in terms of conveying information to further his concepts.

IB:   I learned a lot from Dizzy. We should blame him for this terrible English that I speak. He taught me… [LAUGHS] I learned a lot from him about the jazz tradition. I also learned a lot from Dizzy about the human aspect. But I learned a lot from the jazz tradition.

TP:   Was he very hands-on in showing you information?

IB:   He was a great human. Yeah. He was always teaching people, everybody, and always wanted to learn also. Dizzy used to call my room when we were traveling. He used to call me at 1 a.m. to talk about rhythms. I’d say, “Dizzy, man, I’m sleeping; come on, let’s talk tomorrow.” He was always into that.

TP:   A night owl. Through much of the ’90s, you were part of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s bands.

IB:   Yes, I started playing with Gonzalo. After Dizzy passed away, I played for a while… Tito Puente put together a band called The Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars. I think that band went on for four years or so. Then in 1997, I started playing with Gonzalo. We played together for ten years. First we were playing as a trio. We recorded his first album for Blue Note, Inner Voyage, then came Super Nova, and then we recorded Paseo as a quartet. That’s when he hired Felipe Lamoglia, and we played as a quartet for a while. Then, when I did my album and I went on my own, I think it was time for me to do my thing, and he also wanted a change, I think…

TP:   Talk about the collaboration. The band evolved greatly during that time, and it could go from great complexity, complex polyrhythms, to elemental swing.

IB:   Yes. Gonzalo’s music is very complex. So the point for me was to make those complex things look easy. We talk about it. He knew what I was able to do. He was very hard on me. The stuff that he wrote for me, he make my life miserable, but he knew that I was able to do it. For example, that record Paseo is one of the greatest things that I have ever recorded, as well as one of the most difficult, or the most difficult thing that I have recorded. The thing is to make that look easy. But still, as much complex as it is, you can hear…

TP:   The music breathes.

IB:   Exactly. The Cuban music is there.
[MUSIC: “Woody ‘n You”]

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For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.


Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”


In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”


In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”


Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.



Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.




Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”


Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?


TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.


TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.


TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.


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Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

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

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


Kenny Washington Blindfold Test — 2002:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Kenny Washington

For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 54th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2015

The singular pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 54 today. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about Gonzalo, most recently in 2015, when I spent some time with him and the members of his amazing group, Volcán, in Barcelona. I’ve pasted below that most recent piece (written for Downbeat), which also discusses the circumstances behind his epic CD Suite Caminos.


On November 24th the quartet Volcán—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, all 52, and electric bassist Jose Armando Gola, 37—convened at Barcelona Conservatory’s L’Auditori for the opening installment of a fortnight of consecutive concerts across Europe. To conclude their 90-minute soundcheck-rehearsal, the drummers launched the dark, elemental rumba beats that bedrock Rubalcaba’s “Sin Punto,” documented on Volcán’s eponymous 2013 CD [5Passion]. Hernandez flowed through endless clave permutations; Hidalgo, unable to hand-strike his six-conga set because of an infected finger, deployed sticks in a way that made them sound like a new instrument; Rubalcaba goosed the dance with darting lines, stacking and signifying upon the rhythms.

“We travel through time,” Hidalgo said shortly thereafter in the dressing room. “Every night, we jump from 1910 to the present, differently every night. It’s one of the most avant-garde groups ever.” This was a spot-on description of the ensuing concert, in which the ensemble synchronously navigated seven Rubalcaba charts with kinetic grace and freewheeling discipline, switching on a dime between ideas suggested by the codes of danzon, son, mambo, guaguanco, rumba, songo and timba. Rubalcaba himself improvised with an orchestral conception, executing harmonically erudite, percolating lines and phantasmagoric shapes on piano and Korg, sometimes at levels of propulsion and metric complexity that transformed him into the ensemble’s third drummer, sometimes at levels of dynamic nuance that evoked conductor Simon Rattle’s encomium that he is “the world’s most gifted pianist.”

“Gonzalo makes even something very complicated very easy,” Hernandez had remarked the previous evening. “He writes transparently, logically, super-precise, putting on paper exactly what he hears in his head.” He observed that, whereas three decades ago in the pathbreaking, Havana-based ensemble Grupo Proyecto that they co-founded in 1984, Rubalcaba “sometimes experimented with a chord or a rhythm at a certain point, now there’s nothing to change. Then, Gonzalo was the centerpiece of everything—the arrangement, the improvisation. Now he shares more. He lets the others help.”

In 1992, Rubalcaba moved from Cuba to the Dominican Republic; in 1996 he moved to Miami. Concurrently, Hernandez migrated to Italy, then settled in New York. They next made music together in 2012, when guitarist Stefan Glass called Rubalcaba, Hernandez, Hidalgo and Gola—Rubalcaba’s frequent partner since 2001—for a Miami recording session.

On the second day, Hidalgo approached Rubalcaba—they first met in 1980, when the conguero came to Havana with the Puerto Rican group Batacumbele—with a proposition: “We need to do a quartet, and its name is going to be The Fourth Volcano.”

“That was it,” Hernandez confirmed. “We didn’t have to say it twice.”

“My response was, ‘Of course we should do that,’” Rubalcaba said. He immediately began to coalesce repertoire. “The idea is to propose a new music—to play original pieces but also versions of important compositions in the history of Latin music, whether Cuban, Brazilian, North American or Mexican, that contain both the past and the way we see it now. Everyone has a strong relationship with jazz vocabulary and a deep connection to Cuban and Afro-Cuban roots, not only musically but spiritually and as a religion. Everyone has space to expose what they can do individually, but at the same time the band works as a band. Our purpose is musical creation, not a commercial thing.”

Volcán was Rubalcaba’s third recording for 5Passion, which he co-founded in 2010 with Gary Galimidi, the CEO of Gables Engineering, a South Florida-based manufacturer of avionic controls. They met that March, after Rubalcaba played a concert in Homestead, Florida, supporting the 2008 CD Avatar, which featured a New York-based quintet comprising Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was his 14th album for Blue Note, concluding a relationship that began in 1990 with Discovery: Live in Montreux, a trio date with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian that introduced Rubalcaba’s pianistic and recompositional brilliance and abiding soulfulness to the international jazz community.

Circa 2008, Rubalcaba was looking for “people who provoke me to react differently. It’s better they use their own speech, even if they phrase differently than a Cuban musician. I become a reference, an example in some way that seduces them to trust what I am doing. I was thinking that New York is home to a new generation of players, many of them friends, even roommates, with a new voice that results from a new technology, a new way to listen to music, to get information, to dress, to live.”

For Terry, Rubalcaba’s musical production has consequentially influenced the contemporary New York sound. “I hear Gonzalo’s influence in many people, not just Cuban musicians or pianists,” he said. “Musicians I work with have Gonzalo’s CDs in their iPhones or iPads or iPods. Pianists are looking at the sound he produces, his choice of notes and rhythms, the musical decisions for his compositions. Drummers are fascinated because of the challenge he poses. He played the instrument, and all the parts make sense—he writes specifically for the exact register, color and timbre he’s looking for.”

“I did piano for a career, but the truth is that I have a percussionist inside,” Rubalcaba clarified. His father, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, ran rehearsals at home that included master percussionists Tata Güines and Changuito, from whom Gonzalo learned the Afro-diasporic codes by example. He “showed aptitude” for timbal, claves and bongos, and received a drum for his sixth birthday. “I saw the drum, sat down, took the stick, and played.” Soon thereafter, Hernandez recalls, his parents called him to the television to see Rubalcaba, in short pants, drumming in Guillermo Rubalcaba’s family band.

“I had many different simultaneous references,” Rubalcaba said. He soaked up folkloric chants, dances and rituals in his Centro Havana neighborhood, and heard his father’s LPs of jazz, Cuban music and the Euro-canon. His older brother, Jesus, practiced Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven on a daily basis. “But percussion had a special space. It wasn’t just for colors and flourishes. It was a first plane, a first voice. When I write music, I see myself playing the drum part and the percussion part. The percussion is essential in the musical speech I am trying to put together, so the percussionists in my band will be pushed to do a lot.”

Rubalcaba pushed hard to bring Avatar to fruition. Although Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall was a life-long friend, the label, itself circumscribed by sagging music industry economics, had long ceased to provide adequate infrastructural support for tours or album marketing, and was reluctant to provide Rubalcaba a budget sufficient to actualize the project to his exacting standards. Still, Rubalcaba decided, as the saying goes, to turn lemons into lemonade. “In Cuba we had nothing, not even instruments in good shape or places to rehearse, and were able to execute the music at a high level,” he said. “I realized I could spend my own money, or find an investor. The important thing was to connect with new musicians.”

When he met Galimidi, with Avatar concluded, Rubalcaba figured he had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Blue Note and was looking for a change. So was Galimidi, who “had been saving my money and was thinking about getting into some other business.” A long-standing fan of Rubalcaba and a self-described “frustrated musician” who “plays badly,” he’d purchased 20 tickets to the Homestead concert for his employees. One, who had known Rubalcaba in Cuba, asked the pianist to receive his boss backstage. Galimidi recalls that he shook Rubalcaba’s hand and received an autographed piano key; in Rubalcaba’s version, they didn’t meet. Whatever the case, the employee called Rubalcaba on the following day to extend Galimidi’s invitation for lunch. Himself an habitue of flight simulators and one-time owner of a high-octane Porsche, Rubalcaba accepted.

Their connection was immediate. Galimidi recalls Rubalcaba’s comment “that the money had dried up, which I understand—you put in a tremendous amount of money and don’t get much out.” He continued: “You need to be doing this for some reason other than return on investment. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I could fund his records, I’d learn about music and recording, and my wife, who is a graphic designer, could be involved. To me, it was a no-brainer, because Gonzalo can produce the shit out of anything. You just give him money, a studio, and help him call the people.

“I want people to know who he is, that what he does is divine. He plays, and he grabs your soul. You have no choice but to listen.”

Upon hearing Galimidi’s proposal to partner on a label that would allow him “to make music without restriction” and eventually to own his masters,” Rubalcaba recalled, “I thought I was dreaming.” After an offer of “very significant money” for Rubalcaba’s entire Blue Note catalog fell through, they spent $5,000 to release him from a provision that gave Blue Note a three-album option over a 56½-month span.

Then they discussed names. “Gonzalo suggested taking number-5, cinco, and putting the word ‘passion’ (which in Spanish has one ‘s’) behind it,” Galimidi said. “If you say it in Spanish, it’s ‘syncopation.’ Gonzalo was raised in santeria, and the number of his saint, Oshún, is 5. My wife developed the butterfly-like figure in the logo, which we trademarked, so that you can read it as either one ‘s’ or two.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s so difficult to find someone who believes in the human being as a person, not in the numbers. I believe in Gary totally, and I know he believes in everything I do. We win together and we lose together.”

As if to signify on these sentiments, Rubalcaba launched 5Passion with (Faith), a solo meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz. He plays with restraint and refined intention, honing in on lyric essences. He followed it with XXI Century, a double CD with Brewer and Gilmore, joined on various selections by guitarist Lionel Loueke, conguero Pedrito Rodriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played on all of Rubalcaba’s trio and quartet albums between 1998 (Inner Voyage) and 2006 (Paseo). Fortified by several days of immersive rehearsal and studio time, they stretch out on pieces by Rubalcaba, Loueke and Brewer, and find fresh paths into works by Bley, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano.

On last year’s Suite Caminos, Rubalcaba unleashes the full measure of his powers on an eight-section recitative scored for alto saxophone (Will Vinson), tenor saxophone (Seamus Blake), trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), guitar (Adam Rogers), bass (Brewer) and drums (Ernesto Simpson), a coro of high-level Miami-based Yoruba practitioners, and himself on piano, synths, and church organ. He refracts the rhythms and melodies of specific Yoruba deities/orishas that, as author Ned Sublette writes in the program notes, “embody complex natural forces,” each “with its own gender and personality” and “its own set of multiple selves.” “The music was fearsomely difficult,” Vinson said, implying how Rubalcaba’s narrative represents the multi-dimensionality of his subjects. “We learned the parts over four or five days in the studio, but trying to feel your part, and fit it in with the rhythms, and navigate the sound and articulation in unison with Seamus and Alex made it 10 times more difficult.”

Suite Caminos gestated in 1995, after Rubalcaba completed Antigua, his first systematic exploration of Yoruban roots. During the ensuing 18 years, he worked not only with his own diverse bands, but performed Baroque, Impressionist and Spanish piano music and collaborated on tango projects with Richard Galliano and Al DiMiola, pan-Brazilian concerts with João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and on two albums of boleros—both instant classics—with Charlie Haden.

“I took risks to develop myself both as a piano player and a composer,” Rubalcaba said. “I put myself in contact with different spaces and musical visions, with people who wanted me to do things their way. Even when you are not totally comfortable with their ideas, you can always learn. Life is a palette with many tastes and flavors and colors and moments. If one moment is not sweet or illuminated, you try to be part of the darkness and force yourself to turn it into something bright. Even early in my career, when I had media exposure and Blue Note spent a lot to give me the privilege to play before large audiences at big venues around the world, I never was drunk with the applause. When I got home, I’d try to reset everything. I saw reviews or heard people say, perhaps with reason, ‘Well, he just played like that guy, he played fast,’ and so on. I considered every reaction, even when people didn’t express it in the best way. When you decide to live like that, the process is really long. You can feel really alone.

“So this work didn’t come to me like a revelation: ‘Ok, now I am in position to do this.’ It emerged from accumulating tools and reference and knowledge from a half-century of love, memory, and experience, so that I felt strong enough to do it as I did. In each tune, the chant talks about a specific issue of life for a human being.”

In Terry’s view, Suite Caminos “could only come from someone who immersed himself in the religious traditions that still exist in Cuba and prevail in the countryside. It contains a depth of spiritual understanding that speaks to a larger community than just musicians. I believe it’s the same spiritual feeling that was behind Mozart or Bach with the St. Matthew’s Passion or with the Requiem, and all of the great composers of sacred music.”

Rubalcaba explicates the opening selection, “Sendero De Aliento”—scored for vocals, Afro-Cuban percussion with batas, and church organ—as “talking about the very fine line between life and death,” he said. “The organ for me spiritually represents a lot of Christian and Catholic sound. When I visit cities like New York or Barcelona or Madrid, I try to visit churches, and often I’ve had the opportunity to see someone playing.” As an instance, he recalled being the only corporeal attendee at a female organist’s performance of a contemporary piece in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. “I believe that the saints were also there, and the spirits that I know as part of my family tradition—exactly what we are not commonly able to see,” he said. “I try to connect with that.”

In the wake of his father’s death in September, Rubalcaba is the last surviving member of his immediate family, no longer in a position to glean counsel and friendship from Lundvall, who died in May, or Haden, who died in July 2014. “I felt alone, but it’s not true,” he said. This notion is the animating imperative driving Charlie, on which Rubalcaba joins Vinson, Rodgers, Brewer and Gilmore through melodic, inflamed-soul treatments of his reharmonized charts of eight Haden originals and his own “Transparence.” The latter piece appears on the concurrently issued Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!), documenting an inspired 2005 Rubalcaba-Haden duo performance at Tokyo’s Blue Note.

“We created an environment for Charlie’s spirit to be there, rather than duplicating anything Charlie did on some day,” Rubalcaba said. “When we were recording, I was touring, talking, laughing with Charlie. We have to learn to continue life without the people we love, at least without seeing them every day. You have to find strong convictions about other ideas. This is what keeps you working, dreaming, living, playing.”

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Filed under DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

For Bunky Green’s 82nd Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2011 about Him and Rudresh Mahanthappa

In honor of the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green’s 82nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in DownBeat in 2011, profiling him and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Green’s one-time student with whom he was performing the previous behind the CD Apex, on the Pi label.


Bunky Green-Rudresh Mahanthappa, Downbeat Article, 2011:

On the surface, they make an odd couple. Vernice “Bunky” Green, Jr., 75, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida, is African-American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to parents who migrated from Arkansas and Alabama during the Great Depression and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rudresh Mahanthappa, 39, of South Indian descent, is the first-generation son of a physics professor in Boulder, Colorado. But on Apex [Pi], their co-led 2010 release, comprising a suite of tunes that both contributed to the project, the two alto saxophonists play so synchronously that it’s a challenging proposition to tell who’s doing what.

Prodded by Jason Moran on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and either Jack DeJohnette or Damion Reid on drums, Mahanthappa and Green blow like duelling brothers, each projecting a double-reed quality in their tones, Mahanthappa’s slightly “darker” and tenoristic, Green’s slightly more nasal and oboeish. Both work with complex note-groupings, flying over barlines while always landing on the one. Though the feeling is ‘free,” both work within strongly conceptualized structures, and are thoroughly grounded in “inside” playing and the art of tension-and-release, working with fluid harmonic structures that provide space to soar within the form. “It’s surprising what they came up with,” DeJohnette summed up. “They stimulated each other to the higher levels of creativity.”

Two days into a four-night CD-release run at the Jazz Standard in October, the collaborators convened at Green’s hotel. Green recalled their first meeting, in 1991 or 1992, when Mahanthappa—then a Berklee undergraduate to whom Joe Viola, his sax teacher, sensing an affinity, loaned a copy of Green’s 1979 recording Places We’ve Never Been—presented the elder saxman with a tape. “Sounds beautiful,” Green told him. “There’s only a few of us out here trying to think like this.’”

At the time, a short list of those “few” included M-Base movers and shakers Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who had discovered Green independently as ‘70s teenagers, and subsequently bonded in New York over their shared enthusiasm for his approach, poring over Coleman’s extensive cassette archive of location performances. Many years before, in Chicago, where Green settled in 1960, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill, then young aspirants, had also paid close attention.

“The level of expertise he displayed in his musicianship and expression were very clear from the moment I heard him,” said Threadgill, after witnessing the group’s final night at the Standard. He recalled a concert, perhaps in 1962, in which Green played pieces “structured in the way of free jazz, the so-called avant-garde category.” He continued: “Bunky was formidable, no one to fool with. I can’t think of another alto player at a comparable level in Chicago at the time.”

DeJohnette cited the “urgency, commanding presence and confidence” of Green’s early ‘60s playing. “Everybody would talk about Bunky,” he said, noting that Green had once brushed off his request to sit in during a gig at a South Side club. “He was legendary even then.”

For Osby, Green was less a stylistic influence than “a guru type figure who assured me I’m on the right track, gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that what I was doing was the right thing, not to let detractors sway me from my mission, that I was put here to establish new goals and force new paths.” Ten years later, Mahanthappa would respond similarly.

“I was around lots of tenor players who sounded like Coltrane and Brecker, and alto players wanting to sound like Kenny Garrett,” he recalled. “Bunky’s voice didn’t sound like anyone else. I needed that affirmation that it was ok to be an individual. I heard things—interesting intervallic approaches—that maybe I couldn’t play yet, but was thinking about. But I also heard the tradition in the music.”

Mahanthappa placed his hand at a 90 degree angle. “I often describe what I do as, ‘This is Charlie Parker,’” he said, then moved his hand to 105 degrees and continued, “and this is me. It’s all the same material, just rearranged a little bit—a different perspective. I heard Bunky doing that at the highest level.”

At the time, Mahanthappa, spurred by a trip to India with a Berklee student ensemble to begin exploring musical paths by which to express identity, was absorbing an album by Kadri Golpalnath, an alto saxophonist from Southern India who, like Green, had systematically worked out inflections, fingerings and embouchure techniques to elicit the idiomatic particulars of Carnatic classical music. As important, he took conceptual cues from such Coleman recordings as Dao of Mad Phat, Seasons of Renewal, and Strata Institute. “Steve extrapolated African rhythm as I aspired to do with Indian rhythm and melody, not playing West African music, but doing something new with well-established, ancient material from a different culture,” he said. “It was an amazing template. Steve doesn’t need a kora player or a Ghanaian drum line to play with him, and I don’t need a tabla or mridangam in my quartet. We’re playing modern American improvised music.”


In 1996, the third of his four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa invited Green to guest with his quartet for a weekend at the Green Mill. Green declined. “It was more about trying to do something special than about the music,” Mahanthappa reflected. According to altoist Jeff Newell, a rehearsal partner who had studied formally with Green, Mahanthappa “had developed a lot of the things he’s doing now,” projecting them with a “bright, shave-your-head sound,” as though, a local peer-grouper quipped, “somebody threw lighter fluid on Bunky.”

An opportunity for collaboration arose thirteen years later, when the producers of “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz” approached Mahanthappa—now leading several ensembles devoted to the application of Western harmony to South Indian melodies and beat cycles, each with highly structured, meticulously unfolding repertoire specific to their instrumentation and musical personalities—to present a concert at Millennium Park. In addition to his blistering sax and rhythm quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, to whom Coleman had introduced him in 1996 (he reciprocally sidemanned for years in Iyer’s own quartet, and they continue to co-lead the duo Raw Materials), Mahanthappa had recently conceptualized Indo-Pak Coalition, an alto-tabla (Dan Weiss)-guitar (Rez Abbasi) trio, documented on Apti [Pi]; and a plugged-in, ragacentric quintet called Samdhi, with electric guitar (David Gilmore)-electric bass (Rich Brown)-drums (Damion Reid)-mridangam (Anand Ananthakrishnan). Then, too, he was involved in a pair of two-alto projects: the quintet Dual Identity, which he co-leads with Steve Lehman, a fellow Colemanite (The General [Clean Feed]), and the Dakshima Ensemble, a collaboration with Golparnath, in which Abassi, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Royal Hartigan meld with Golparnath’s sax-violin-mridangam trio, to perform hybrid refractions of Carnatic music, documented on the widely publicized CD, Kinsmen [Pi].

“They wanted to present Dakshima and add some Chicago musicians, which sounded like a disaster and was budgetarily impossible,” Mahanthappa said. “But they thought Bunky was a great idea. Bunky made it clear that he didn’t want to play 7s and 11s and 13s—it was more about trying to find a comfortable place that would highlight what we both do. It was interesting to compose a blues (“Summit”) and a Rhythm changes tune (“Who”) that sounds like the same compositional voice I’ve done over the last decade. I’m trying to learn how to relinquish control of the situation and just say, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

Two of Green’s new tunes, “Eastern Echoes” and “Journey,” reflect his abiding interest in North African scales and tonalities, and another, “Rainier and Theresia,” is the latest addition to a consequential lexicon of searing ballad features. “I didn’t want to get involved in anything with a lot of changes,” Green said. “I don’t feel that music too much now. Our things kind of hover on the edge. There’s all kinds of room in what we write, and we both like that you can take it where you want to.

“Like Rudresh, I do a lot of analyzing. Maybe I play a phrase, and some experience comes up from my life or I see some beauty in it, and I decide to keep developing it, and it leads into a song, or pathways I can utilize on whatever I’m working on. To me, a tune can’t be just pretty. It has to fit into the way I feel about life, so I can express it. The blues, too. It’s not just a word, it’s a feeling. It’s something that you have, and right away, if you play the right notes, the feeling will be there. It’s bending notes. It’s moaning. How are you going to play about pain unless you’ve experienced pain? And how are you going to package it like Charlie Parker, who just cried over his horn? Those aren’t notes. It’s a man’s life.”

Green discovered Bird in his early teens, which coincided with the release of his studio sides for Dial and Savoy. He got them all. By the time he was 17, he said, “I could play everything Bird recorded in terms of imitating. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing. I was just stretching, trying to find the notes.”

Around this time, Green contracted viral pneumonia. “A doctor came to the house, and I overheard him telling my mother that he didn’t think I’d make it,” he recalled. “I decided that if I did live through it, all my friends would be ahead of me, so I should practice just in case—I could hear the ones in my head, so I didn’t need my instrument. I took the hardest songs I could think of—‘Cherokee,’ ‘All The Things You Are,’ ‘Just One Of Those Things’—and transposed them mentally through all 12 keys. The people my mother worked for brought in a famous doctor, who gave me new drugs, which knocked it out, but not until I experienced the white light at the end of the tunnel, the light closing, then fighting for air to come back, the light opening up again. When I was able to get back to my instrument, I was able to play everything I’d practiced.”

While attending Milwaukee Teachers College, Green worked locally with pianists Willie Pickens and Billy Wallace, walking the bar on rhythm-and-blues jobs, soaking up Gene Ammons’ spare, vocalistic approach to ballads like “These Foolish Things” and Lester Young’s poetic treatment of “I’m Confessin’.” He had New York on his radar, and first visited in 1957, staying in the Harlem Y across the street from Smalls Paradise, where Lou Donaldson held a steady gig. He sat in with Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham on the sayso of Wallace, then Roach’s band pianist. “I was always able to play fast, especially at that time, so I was able to hang in and do it,” he said. That fall, Donaldson recommended him to Charles Mingus.

The audition produced a second transformative moment, after Mingus told him, “the first tune we’ll play is ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus.’” Green continued: “I sat there, ‘Hmm, pithecan…’ ‘You know what that means, man?’ That’s the way Mingus talked. ‘No, I really don’t know.’ ‘That means the first man to stand erect.’ He said, ‘Play this’ and played something like BINK-DINK-DOM-DEEENNGG. I said, ‘Have you got that written down so I can see it?’ Then he went off on me—if he wrote it down, I’d never play it right. I said, ‘Then play it again.’ I was able to hear it and play it back, and he smiled, and moved on.

“Mingus validated how I was starting to feel about the music—that there must be a systematic way to break free of the major-and-minor system. He’d have you do things like take the neck off your horn and blow into the bottom part to get a very low timbre on ‘Foggy Day’ because he wanted you to sound like a ship out in the harbor.”

Mingus drove Green cross-country to a run at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. On the return trip, he dropped him off in Chicago so that he could attend to family matters in Milwaukee, with the expectation that Green would make his way to New York for more club dates and a recording. But Green stayed home, imbued with notions of the freedom principle, with the late ‘50s innovations of John Coltrane as his lodestar. Green continued these explorations in Chicago, where—unable “to afford New York at the time”—he moved in 1960. He quickly made his presence felt on a scene that he describes as “very fast, but more laid back than New York, so you could do yourself in a less frantic environment.” He cut a straight-ahead sextet date for Exodus with Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Wynton Kelly, Larry Ridley and Jimmy Cobb, and a quartet side for Vee-Jay with Wallace, bassist Donald Garrett, and drummer Bill Erskine. He frequently partnered with Garrett, on “out of the box” projects, including an exploratory trio that did a concert—Threadgill attended—on which they “just started playing and tried to interact—that was the whole gig.”

A third transformative moment occurred in 1964, when Green, in Morocco on a State Department tour after winning “Best Instrumentalist” and “All Around Musician” awards at that year’s Notre Dame Jazz Festival, traveled “through the back woods” to hear a performance. “We saw three musicians sitting on the floor in a circle,” he recalled. “One guy had a bagpipe, another had a small violin, and the third played a small drum that he put his hand into and played on top. I became mesmerized by the bagpipe player’s skill. It blew my mind, because he put together what I was hearing in my head. No chords. There was a drone of a fifth, and you played around that fifth and resolved it within yourself. Later, I started studying it and building from it, pretty much the way Rudresh visited his culture and started drawing on it. I’m not trying to copy the sound. I’m trying to get into the essence of their phrasing and how they circle the open fourth and fifth tonal centers that they use. I had to give up the standard jazz lines in order to do that.”

Ten years later, Steve Coleman, then 18, heard Green—at this point heading a newly-formed Jazz Studies department at Chicago State University—either at Ratso’s on the North Side or Cadillac Bob’s, around the corner from his South Side house. “Bunky worked out patterns that sounded calculated, like a deliberate effort to get to his own thing,” Coleman stated. “As a result, his playing is very clear, precise, direct, and I could dig into it, try to analyze it and find out what it was. I wanted him to show me what he was doing, so I asked for a lesson, but Bunky turned me down. He told me, ‘I only give lessons to cats who need lessons, and you don’t. You need to go to New York.’ So I decided I’d listen and grab what I could.

“Although I noticed the patterns early on, Bunky used certain devices that intrigued me. He developed a special fingering to get a hiccup quality that you hear in North African singers. He also picked up a lot of augmented second intervals, as well as quartile stuff and pentatonics, from that part of the world. Whereas in those countries, the pitches stay pretty much the same, Bunky moved the intervals around in different ways. To me the blues is basically a modal music, without a lot of progression. Bird managed to put sophisticated progressions in the blues that gave it motion, but let it sound like blues. Coltrane figured out a way to move the music that influenced him from Africa and India. Bunky figured out how to do this with the North African-Middle Eastern vibe.”


Along with what he does on Apex, Mahanthappa’s recent sideman work in DeJohnette’s new group with David Fiuczynski, George Colligan and Jerome Harris, and in Danilo Perez’ 21st Century Dizzy project (there are several open-ended Perez-Mahanthappa duos on Providencia [Mack Avenue], from this year), may go some ways towards countering a critique that his musical production—particularly the 2006 release Codebook [Pi], comprising original pieces constructed intervals drawn from Fibonacci equations, and Mother Tongue [Pi], on which the compositions draw from melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding, in their native dialect, to the question, “Do you speak Indian?”—is overly cerebral and insufficiently soulful.

“Everyone I look up to is simultaneously right brain and left brain, to use a dated term, or simultaneously intellectual and seat-of-the-pants instinctive,” Mahanthappa said. “Bartok played with Fibonacci equations. Bach played with Golden Section. Even Dufay’s motets, if you pick them apart, have a somewhat mathematical, formal approach. ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Central Park West’ are math jazz. A lot of non-Western music has a foot in math as well. A lot of algorithmic thought goes into the way South Indian beat cycles are constructed and played; when the players solo, they know exactly where to start this polyrhythmic thing so it lands at a certain spot two minutes later.

Throughout the recording, and on the bonus video clips offered as value added with an Apex download, Moran prods the flow into unexpected, “right brain” directions. He first recorded with Green on the 2004 date Another Place [Label Bleu], produced by Coleman, who persuaded Green to use him instead of the esteemed master bebop master pianist Green had asked for. “I wanted to hear someone interact with Bunky who wouldn’t just lay down a carpet for him to play over,” Coleman said. “Jason was one of the few piano players I could think of who had enough of the stuff Bunky wanted to hear—the sensibility of how to play a ballad, and so on—but could throw him some curve balls, push him in his thing so the album would represent something like the way he plays live.

“There’s a wild element, an abandon in Bunky’s playing. He lets his feelings out. It was there early on—he’s one of those cats that got it young. He has a very strong embouchure, and his pitch is very centered, his alto tone is crystal-clear, nothing muscly about it. But he does false-fingerings to offset this, to get more rawness in his sound. He plays in the upper register without pressing the octave key, so he gets a throaty split tone quality, an overtone sound, holding the pitch right in between the upper and lower registers, which is how an ancient Greek instrument called the aulos is described.”

Moran described his strategies. “When Bunky gets into his own language, I comp behind him in a way that uses some of what I gleaned from McCoy Tyner, not the chords or voicings, but the power,” he said. “He gets to an angular sound that kind of free-floats up into the stratosphere, and what’s attractive is that just when you think he has no further to go, there’s like another mile and a half, whether way up into the top of the instrument, or into deeper levels of rawness.”

Discussing Mahanthappa’s qualities, Moran referenced an old video game called Punchout. “You’d press ‘Body Blow’ and it said, ‘Body blow! Body blow!” he laughed, swinging his arms back and forth like a pendulum. “Or like Neo punching in Matrix, where you saw these multiple arms hitting the same spot. Rudresh has that kind of rapid fire, and when I play with him, I punctuate and jab. It isn’t just that he plays really quick ideas, but his tone and attack is very different from Bunky’s—more direct, while Bunky slides more.”

Both of Mahanthappa’s recent employers note his open mind and fierce, unmediated execution as a selling point. “Rudresh does things that remind me of a little kid, like, ‘Let’s go and play,’” Perez said, cosigning Moran’s analogy. “When he develops a line, there’s much excitement and raw energy, but he also improvises with great clarity.”

“There was a lot of commotion about Rudresh,” DeJohnette remarked. “He gets a sort of Indian flute or Arabic nai sound on the saxophone, and I’ve been interested in Indian scales and ragas and rhythms since the ‘60s, so I thought his sensibility—and the rawness he brings—would work out for my music.”

“I’ve been dying to play with Danilo and Jack forever,” Mahanthappa said. “There’s a certain validation in working with them, as well as Bunky. At Berklee or when I lived in Chicago, I was inspired when people who I thought were authentic, regardless of jazz genre, would say, ‘Yeah, man, keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Green himself intends to devote a greater proportion of the second half of his eighth decade to performing than has been his custom since the ‘60s.

“I’ve never been desperate about getting ahead,” he said. “All I ever wanted was some recognition for my place in history. I believe in my heart that I’m responsible for a stylistic thing that spread all around the country, and nobody really knew the source. That’s the only thing I’ve regretted, but now I seem to be getting credit. It always took someone else to motivate and push me. I’m not an aggressive person, and unless you’re aggressive you become complacent and don’t move. Maybe it would have been better for me if I had been, because I would be quite established now. But I’m going to keep pushing in terms of playing more and getting more exposure—and we’ll see what happens.”


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