Category Archives: DownBeat

A Group of Pieces on Robert Glasper: A Jazziz Feature From 2013; a Jazz.Com Interview from 2009; A Downbeat Blindfold Test, circa 2008; A Short Downbeat Piece in 2005; and the Liner Note for His First Record in 2002

 

Robert Glaser Jazziz Feature, Nov. 2013

In late September, Robert Glasper, his appetite restored after coming home from China the week before with stomach flu, tucked into a plate of South African-style wings at Madiba, a restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.

“I met T-Pain last week at a party,” Glasper remarked offhandedly after making inroads into his plate. He excused himself to look at drawings of angry monsters by his 4-year-old son, Riley, sitting beside him. “You draw so good, Boogie!” Glasper said, punctuating his praise with a kiss and fist bump. Resuming, he pinpointed his encounter with the twice-Grammy-awarded rapper in Shanghai, where — after an eight-day run in Japan that concluded at the Tokyo Blue Note — the Robert Glasper Experiment had performed on a program with singer-emcee Mos Def, for whom, during the past decade, Glasper has frequently served as music director.

“Mos Def told him, ‘I’m about to do an album with my man, Robert; it has a lot of hip-hop and jazz influence,’” Glasper said. “T-Pain was like, ‘I would love to be part of that. Please take me out of this R&B-hip-hop game.’”

Whether that proposed collaboration will happen is unclear. But if it does, T-Pain will join a cohort of high-profile performers looking for a piece of the sui generis sound that the Experiment revealed on Black Radio, which, upon its February 2012 release, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s “Hip-Hop and R&B” chart, No. 1 on its “Jazz” chart and No. 10 on its “Overall Albums” chart. The disc went on to earn a 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album, and has sold, to date, 200,000 units. As the flow unfolds over the course of a leisurely hour, ranging from hip-hop to pop to R&B to straight-up soul, the Experiment — pianist and keyboarist Glasper; singer (through a vocoder) and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave — complements hit-makers Erykah Badu, Mint Condition vocalist Stokley Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Musiq Soulchild, along with “underground soul heroes” (Glasper’s phrase) like Mos Def, Ledesi, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal Oliver. RGE’s idiomatic backgrounds and creative interjections impart the feeling of a cohesive body of work rather than a cobbled-together collection of tracks.

“I expected Black Radio to be an underground sensation, without getting much mainstream attention,” Glasper said. “But from the beginning, it did things I wasn’t expecting. We self-promoted big-time, doing Twitter and Facebook while we were making it, and people got excited. I think it’s another cycle for R&B, the epitome of crossing over hip-hop and jazz. Since you can only pick one slot for the Grammy, I put everything in R&B; I felt the R&B community understood it better than a lot of the jazz people.

“Remember when the neo-soul movement got big around ’99 or 2000, when D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Bilal came out, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ This is like a second coming of that wave — maybe a little different. That wave signified an opening to do music that didn’t sound factory-made or cookie-cutterish. In that era, being a real musician was cool and good, and you got a lot of work. The music felt good, and you could talk about more than one or two subjects. Since we won the Grammy, I think it’s opened the doors for many artists.”

Riley’s stomach hurt, and Glasper persuaded him to rest his head on Papa’s shoulder. As he dozed, Glasper discussed the recently released Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), whose participants include Brandy, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Common and Snoop Dogg. “My goal was to not make the same album twice, especially when everyone was wondering how I’d beat the first Black Radio,” he said. “So I decided to do just an R&B-soul album, less jazz-infused, not as loose. On the first record, I didn’t think at all. We just played and did it, and it became what it was. Here I did more thinking and processing and figuring things out.”

Although the feel on Black Radio 2 is less freewheeling, the playing is vivid and alive. Glasper wrote songs for each vocalist, sometimes collaborating with professional songwriters, sometimes eliciting lyrics from the singers. “I wanted either to put them in a place they’ve never been, or bring them back to their early stuff that everyone loves,” he said. The latter imperative was operative on the insouciant “Calls,” on which Glasper created for Jill Scott — whose forthcoming album he produced — “her sound when she first came out.” As examples of the former, the leader offers “Let It Ride,” on which label mate Norah Jones renders the lyric with an intense, growly purr before murmuring wordlessly over Glasper’s whirling piano figures, and “What Are We Doing,” which frames Brandy with stripped-down Rhodes-bass-drums instrumentation that Glasper describes as “a progressive, D’Angelo Voodoo vibe.”

Closer to the informality of Black Radio is “I Stand Alone,” which begins with original verses by Common — a Glasper employer and collaborator since the late ’90s — and ends with a paean to individualism delivered by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. A few hours before recording that track, a guest-free RGE cut a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” vocoder-crooned by Benjamin. A friend of Withers who was present connected the songwriter and Glasper on his cell phone for a brief conversation.

“When Common arrived, we played him ‘I Stand Alone,’” Glasper recalled. “He walked around, rhyming from scratch, but midway through the second verse he got writer’s block. We were chillin’ in the kitchen, and Bill Withers walked in. He talked to us for about three hours. We recorded everything. Common used some of his lines to finish his rhyme.”

At this point, Riley declared he was feeling better. “I’m going to draw,” he said, asking for a piece of paper. “Now we’re talking,” Glasper answered, delivering another kiss and fist bump before offering a back story for “Persevere,” with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco and Luke James. His friend Terrace Martin, the rapper-producer, “called to say Snoop loved Black Radio and wanted to talk to me,” Glasper said. “When I went to L.A., Terrace took me to a rehearsal, and Snoop and I talked about jazz for an hour. So I hit him up to be on Black Radio 2.

“Terrace got Snoop involved in a record Quincy Jones is doing with Clark Terry. They got in a private jet and went to Clark’s house in Arkansas. They hook up this equipment by Clark’s bedside, and Clark and Snoop Dogg are scatting, trading on the blues. I’ve seen the footage with my own eyes.”

[BREAK]

Toward the end of the Experiment’s set at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, Wallace Roney — who had hired Glasper for a 2005 tour, soon after he’d signed with Blue Note — sat in on “All Matter,” a Bilal Oliver song that, says Glasper, “is just F-minor; you don’t have to know to play it.” Propelled by Derrick Hodge’s surging bass lines and Mark Colenburg’s inflamed refractions of Tony Williams, Roney, standing stage right, assumed an implacably take-no-prisoners persona, posing a series of “let’s see what you’ve got” challenges to Benjamin, who rose to the occasion, delivering his responses with a dark, glowering tone that displayed his assimilation of alto saxophone vocabulary from Charlie Parker to Kenny Garrett.

Two months before, at a midnight concert before a full house of cheering, arm-waving 20-somethings at Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater, Glasper drew upon his own considerable command of modern jazz piano language on an extended preface to Benjamin’s vocodered reading of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” After a Coltrane-ish alto solo, on which Benjamin modified the pitch with foot pedals, Hodge segued to a Spanish-tinged statement on “No Church In the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay Z hit. While delivering the lyric of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Benjamin manipulated his voice with sound effects triggered in real-time on a keyboard synth, then counterstated with an intense saxophone declamation on which he built tension with fresh, electronically modified shapes and swoops. Colenburg embellished and subdivided the pulse like a human robot, coordinating into the grooves slaps and claps generated by his drum pad on covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Get Lucky” and “Time After Time.”

Throughout both concerts — and a dozen-plus performances posted on YouTube — the Experiment’s telepathic ability to reach emotional agreement was palpable. One factor influencing their mutual intuition is long acquaintance (Glasper, Benjamin and Colenburg have played together since they attended Manhattan’s New School during the late ’90s, while Hodge joined a year after the Experiment’s formative sessions at the Knitting Factory in 2005). The band has also spent a lot of time on the road together — eight months in 2013 — since Black Radio’s release. Furthermore, everyone has experience performing and conducting in the upper echelons of pop and hardcore jazz. Glasper, Hodge and Colenburg all cut their teeth as church musicians, learning to follow the arc of a sermon, to play for different guests, to illuminate different stages of the service and to address the unpredictable elements that differentiate one Sunday from the next.

“Coming up in church, you learn by ear,” Colenburg says. “There are no boundaries, no formulas telling you something has to be done a certain way. That helps with creativity. But knowing jazz means that you learn your instrument more thoroughly than in any other genre, so you understand how to have a voice in different genres.”

“Jazz is the spine of what we do,” says Benjamin, a native of Jamaica, Queens, whose c.v. includes work with Stefon Harris and Buster Williams. “Even on the biggest pop stage, we try to find some way of sticking in the jazz message.” As vocal influences, Benjamin cites Betty Carter for her “patience” on a ballad, Ron Isley for his phrasing and Withers for “his presentation, where it seems he’s just talking to you with the melody.” He credits Herbie Hancock’s phrasing and timbre on the 1978 LP Sunlight as the primary inspiration for his vocoder concept and Pat Metheny’s guitar-synth-playing on “Are You Going To Go with Me” for kindling the notion to electronically process his saxophone.

“You’d think Casey is the leader, because he’s singing the songs,” Glasper says. “I’ve never felt comfortable playing in the middle, unless it’s late-night TV, when the world has to know who I am pretty fast. Other than the songs we’re playing, everything is literally made up on the spot, but we come together so quickly that it seems things are arranged. There are no real roles. Everyone has the baton and can make something shift.

“Each of these cats can out-chop most people on their instrument, but they don’t let that override what needs to happen at a given time. I respect that so much. It’s harder to express yourself fully but honestly, and not feel you have to do certain things to please. They’re my favorite musicians in the world.”

However collective RGE’s orientation is when performing, the members acknowledge that Glasper sets the tone. “Black Radio was designed to mimic how the Experiment works,” Hodge says. “It’s a testament to Rob for being confident enough not to clench up in the studio. We came in laughing, cracking jokes, and then, ‘Oh, shoot, we’ve got to record something.’ Then we’d record it and before you know it, the album is done.”

“This baby was built because of my 11-12 years in the game,” Glasper says flatly. “Blue Note signed me. Also, I’ve taken my falls. Sometimes your band members make more than you, because you have to make things happen for your career. You have to be seen at a certain festival, no matter what it pays. I used to pay for the hotels and travel, and I wouldn’t make money, but the guys had to be paid. If you don’t have my liability, if you’re not losing what I would lose, then you can’t gain what I gain.

Black Radio 2 is for me to have longevity in this mainstream R&B game,” he continues. “I want to establish myself, like George Duke and Quincy Jones. I’m a jazz cat at heart, but I want an R&B bank account. I have a son. Living in Brooklyn ain’t cheap. I honestly don’t see myself doing the same jazz festival 50 times, and having to do them to make money to keep afloat.”

Financial considerations aside, Glasper has no intention of eliminating hardcore jazz expression from his musical production. “I love playing acoustic jazz, and I think my jazz lovers are missing it, even though I’ve only been gone for one album,” he says, referring to the Blue Note trio albums — Canvas, In My Element and the first half of Double Booked — that established his bona fides. “When I go back to jazz, I’ll do trio for sure, maybe live. I need to do a Village Vanguard album.”

Another possibility is a Black Radio gospel project. “It would bring everything back to the beginning,” Glasper says. “Most of the people I work with grew up in church, so there could also be people from the secular world — R&B or even jazz — as well as gospel.”

He recalls an end-of-April conversation with Herbie Hancock and the late George Duke at the United Nations International Jazz Day festivities in Turkey. “I asked Herbie’s advice, and he said, ‘Don’t stop anything you do. Do them all at the same time.’ I like where I am, because I feel I’m serving a bigger purpose than I could with just straight-up jazz stuff. Jazz trio is my favorite group to play in, but I don’t feel like I’m changing anything — though my version brings in a newer audience. But in the larger scheme, I can only go so far with it. To be able to live in both worlds, to understand both worlds, to be sought after in both worlds — that’s my whole thing. That I love.”

[–30–]

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Robert Glasper (Aug. 28, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com:

“I’m dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.

Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.

Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.

Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.

But you’re not double-booked for any of those.

I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.

So it’s a pretty even split.

It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.

Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.

Exactly.

Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.

For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note…

But it obviously got some attention.

Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.

For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.

For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.

My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.

Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?

Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.

Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.

Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.

The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?

[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.

We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.

Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?

For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.

There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.

Right.

You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.

Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on <i>Mood</i>, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.

Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.

Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.

No more Jackson 5.

No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.

By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too…

Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!

Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?

I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!

I think Bolt is safe for a while.

He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano… I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.

You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training.

Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.

A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.

Yes.

I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.

The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accidental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.

Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.

Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.

7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?

Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.

Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?

No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.

Was it being in New York for a while?

That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”

What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?

Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.

Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?

Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.

You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.

A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.

But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.

What’s the appeal of that time feel?

It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too…almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.

Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?

Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.

In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?</b>

Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.

Was this because of the church influence?

Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.

You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.

Yes.

Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.

The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.

It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.

Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.

Talk about each of them.

Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.

<p>Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.

Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records… And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.

That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.

In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”

Is Hiphop something else now?

No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is… You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.

Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening…

What do you mean by “back in the day”?

‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things…

How so? For you, for instance?

My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing…he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up… It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.

Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?

I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing, and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech….

Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.

Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.

I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?

It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.

A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.

First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.

I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.

You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?

As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.

Who are African-American?

Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.

But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.

Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.

Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.

Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.

Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.

You have to balance it.

You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.

I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums…

There was a studio scene.

Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.

This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.

Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’  I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.

I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.

You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?

I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.

You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith…

Jamire Williams.

There we go. Was that solely because of the high school? 

Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to… When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.

But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.

You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?

Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song…” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.

Were things that happened in the early ‘90s…Was MBASE an influence on you?

No.

Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?

I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really…

Once you got to New York, did MBASE…

No. It still doesn’t.

That approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.

No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.

You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?

I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff.

Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?

Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.

Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009

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Robert Glasper (Blindfold Test) – 2008 – Raw:

1. Joe Sample, “Shreveport Stomp” (from SOUL SHADOWS, Verve, 2004) (Sample, piano; Jelly Roll Morton, composer)

That’s some ragtime stuff going on here. Some strange moments. This is some Scott Joplin type. He doesn’t sound very comfortable doing it. He sounds cool, okay doing it, but it doesn’t sound like he’s very comfortable with the ragtime thing. But I guess the whole… I guess he’s not trying to push the envelope. The point is to play like within that time period, the Scott Joplin type style. It’s the kind of thing Marcus Roberts would do, but Marcus Roberts is a lot more comfortable with it. He makes you believe like he lived in that time period or something. I’ll give it 2 stars. He still needs to work some things out. Kudos to him, though. I can’t play ragtime!

It sounds like he’s trying to play a transcription; he hasn’t like digested the whole thing yet for real. Marcus does digest it. When he plays it, I believe that he lived then. But this cat, it seems like he’s not too comfortable with this time period yet. Some of the timing is strange, a little bit, and you can hear in the ragtime stuff that his left hand is not as comfortable, and the stuff he’s doing with his right hand is very worked out. You can tell it’s hard. I don’t know the tune, but it was in that whole Jelly Roll-Scott Joplin type joint.

2. Jason Lindner, “Monserrate” (from AB AETERNO, Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2006) (Lindner, piano, composer; Omer Avital, bass; Luisito Quintero, cajon, percussion)

I like the concept of the tune. It’s nice. His touch is a little bit strange, I think. I don’t really feel the compassion that it should have or that I want it to have from his playing. I like the percussion. Yeah, it sounds a little forced. It’s almost like forced passion, ha-ha, or something. I think I’ll give this 2½ stars. More the conception of the band… I’ll give it 2½ stars. No, take that back. 2 stars. I think I really just like the percussion. The percussion is nice. But it doesn’t really sound like a band. There’s an uneasiness to it. It sounds like it should be relaxed and it should be more free-flowing, but it sounds kind of jagged and forced—but the point is to be free-flowing.

It sounds like someone under 30…of a European descent. [Do you mean Caucasian descent, or European?] Perhaps. Either-or. Rhythmically it just wasn’t there. It didn’t sound like a cohesive band. I appreciate the concept, like the percussion and the way they started. But I don’t know. It sounded like it should have been more free-flowing, the kind of tune where it was effortless and free-flowing and beautiful, but it sounded like they were trying to force that idea.

3. Ethan Iverson, “Mint” (from The Bad Plus, PROG, Heads Up, 2007) (Iverson, piano, composer; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Definitely of a Latin descent. Sounds like some tune Gonzalo would do. Many sections. Get lost in the sections. You probably can’t hum the melody of the tune when it’s over. But good ensemble. Cohesive trio. It definitely has the touch and the sound and the chops and the writing conception of Latin descent. But I’m thinking Gonzalo—or maybe I’m wrong. Good band, though. They’re definitely together…in their randomness, they’re together. Organized randomness. He’s definitely checked out Jason Moran. The right hand gives me Jason Moran, but I don’t know. Because the group also has that sort of together-random but composition vibe that Jason’s group has, that no one else really has. That’s what makes Jason’s group so different. Once he gets to the solo section, I think it’s Moran. No, it’s not Jason! I thought it was. It’s definitely somebody influenced by Jason; Jason’s writing, definitely.

I don’t know this cat’s playing very well, but is it Vijay Iyer? No? I was saying it has a randomess. Like, in the writing it’s a cohesive randomness. There’s really many parts, and it’s kind of random, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but the group is together, so it’s definitely organized randomness, like Moran’s trio will do or kind of like Gonzalo writes, but it’s really tight… It gives you that vibe. At first I figured it was Gonzalo because of the way his attack and stuff was, and how it was at the beginning of the composition, a lot of shit going on but it was together. But then, once they started soloing, they sounded like Jason, right hand. And the composition sounded like Moran would write. I wouldn’t come home and put it on. 3 stars. Bad Plus? Gotcha. They’ve definitely been influenced by Bandwagon.

4. Kálmán Oláh, “Polymodal Blues” (from ALWAYS, Dot, 2004) (Oláh, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I’ve heard these songs before. It kind of sounds like a high school band. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as the cohesiveness of the group goes. I’m not really digging the ensemble at all, or the composition, or the cohesiveness of the ensemble. It’s just something that I’ve heard before, and it’s not really a good version of that. The drummer definitely checks out Jack DeJohnette. But it sounds like they all have different agenda or something; I don’t know.

I mentioned that the drummer definitely checked out DeJohnette. I don’t want to say it’s DeJohnette, but DeJohnette on not a good day. It sounds like that whole trio sat down and listened to some Keith Jarrett; it was like “Let’s try to do that.” But obviously, they’re all influenced by that trio. But I don’t dig what happened there. I don’t dig the tune. I don’t like the pianist, really. I mean, he can play the piano. He can play. But I don’t really like what he’s doing. It’s nothing I would get out of bed to go see…if they’re playing next door. 2 stars.

On “Hungarian Sketches”: They sound better doing this vibe. They’re more comfortable with this, it seems like. The swing tune sounded real pretentious, real not-comfortable. Whoever the piano player it, I can tell he’s one of them cats that would write something for a grant or something, like a really through-composed kind of cat. It kind of seems like it. They sound better doing this vibe. That’s a much better representation of the ensemble. So much better. The other one really gave me high school. But this one sounds good. I still don’t know what the melody was, even though I listened to it for three minutes. That’s kind of a new thing, I guess. Some cats just kind of write for the sake of writing, and there’s no real emotional purpose, or it’s just kind of writing to write, see what kind of bad shit I can write. But I like that vibe they had going on. 3 3 stars. The ensemble sounded great. The drummer was cool, and the bass…even the sound sounded better on this. When he was walking, he sounded like cats fighting in the alley. I don’t dig that style personally.

5. James Hurt, “Eleven Dreams” (from DARK GROOVES-MYSTICAL RHYTHMS, Blue Note, 1999) (Hurt, piano, composer; Francois Moutin, bass)

I like the pianist’s touch; the pianist has a really nice touch. I’m not buying the bluesiness of it, though. He sounds more into the composition, like that’s definitely his vibe. But once he starts swinging, trying to get the blues thing, he’s definitely out of his element. Sounds pretentious. But everything else sounds great. I’m not sure of the point of the solo, what’s going on with it. I’m not sure how he’s putting it together. It sounds like he’s warming up. Heh-heh. He should take a few breaths also.

He’s definitely European. Sounds European. Maybe not definitely, but he sounds European. Everything was cool until he started playing bluesy, then it was AGGHH… Strange. When he started soloing, it got strange. But as far as the composition, it sounded beautiful. But once it got to the solo, it was strange. I couldn’t tell you who it is. Because I don’t listen to that… 3 stars.

6. Eric Reed, “I.C.H.N.” (from HERE, MaxJazz, 2006) (Reed, piano, composer; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums)

This feels great. They all feel comfortable in what they’re doing. The pianist has a real nice touch, real laid-back with it. Like, he knows he’s swinging. He ain’t gotta try. He sounds like he has a cigarette in his mouth, hanging out the side, and a glass of ‘nac on the top of the piano. The bass and the drums have a really good hookup. Feels really good.

The band felt great. I forgot to critique. I was just listening, feeling it. The bass and drums had a great hookup. It’s great to hear something when it swings doesn’t sound pretentious. Some of it gives me a Jaki Byard vibe. Also, there’s a little jerk in the melody. I like the pianist’s touch. Had a really nice touch. Really laid back. You can tell he listened to a lot of old cats. He really dwells in it, but at the same time he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t know who it is. 4 stars.

7 Jean-Michel Pilc, “Spiritual” (from LIVE AT IRIDIUM, NEW YORK, Dreyfus, 2005) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Mark Mondesir, drums; John Coltrane, composer)

Nice touch The pianist has a really nice touch. Very warm. Not forcing anything.

I don’t know who it is, but I really like the pianist’s touch. It sounds really warm. It doesn’t really sound like he’s forcing anything. They sound natural and comfortable in what they’re doing as a trio. I kind of know the song. It’s a remake. It almost sounds like… I’ll give it 3½ stars. I used to see him play with Ari Hoenig’s trio. I actually subbed Ari’s gig like twice.

8. Esbjorn Svensson, “Goldwrap” (from e.s.t., TUESDAY WONDERLAND, EmArcy, 2006) (Svensson, piano; Dan Berglund, bass; Magnus Ostrand, drums)

I like the composition. It’s pretty. I can hum the melody, but at the same time it has a lot of things going on, but the amount of things going on don’t really overshadow the melody too much. I like that. Nice group. They sound good together. I’m not crazy about the pianist’s soloing, but…

I liked the composition. It’s pretty. There’s a lot of things going on, but at the same time, it’s not overbearing, and I could hum the melody. There’s a good mixture of complexity and something you can grasp onto. He doesn’t sound like he’s writing for other writers. A lot of people have that whole thing where the average person wouldn’t buy their record. They write for other musicians, to be like, “Wow, they can really write”—or other writers. Then they wonder why there’s like five people at the show—and all musicians. I don’t know who it is. I’ll give it 3 stars.

9. Stanley Cowell, “A Whole New World” (from DANCERS IN LOVE, Venus, 1999) (Cowell, piano; Tarus Mateen bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Alan Menken, composer)

I feel like I know this song, or maybe just a piece of that melody I can recognize. It reminded me of “Green Rainbow,” a piece of it. “Things to know. Ways to go.” The band sounds cool as a trio. I’m not too crazy about the solo the pianist is taking. Sounds like Nasheet on drums.

It’s definitely Nasheet. But it’s not Jason Moran and it’s not Tarus. It almost sounded like it could be Tarus, but at the same time it could be Charnett Moffett. It was Tarus? Okay. But the pianist, I don’t know… Judging from that, it’s probably…I don’t know… I liked it until he got to the solo section. It was cool. I could take it until they got to the solo section, then they got strange. The pianist’s feel wasn’t…it didn’t feel right to me. He could play. But it didn’t feel right to me, and his timing and… His sound got a little hokey for my taste. I hate to keep saying this; he sounded European. The composition is always cool, but then once you get into the solo section it always gets strange. That’s where you can tell that, okay, obviously there’s no blues clubs in Europe, they don’t have church, they don’t have things that… It just sounds like that to me. But hey, I could be fuckin’ wrong. 3 stars.

10. Antonello Salis, “La Dolce Vita” (from PIANO SOLO, CamJazz, 2006) (Salis, piano; Nino Rota, composer)

Beautiful touch. Nice chops. Very clean. Very sincere. Whoever it is checked out some early Keith Jarrett stuff, and probably some Latin type stuff.

He had a beautiful touch, and chops were off the chart—a lot of chops. At the same time, he’s really sincere. I could hear sincerity in his playing. He’s creative. He made my eyebrows raise once. That was good. Surprise! I mentioned that you could tell that he checked out some early Keith Jarrett type shit. I don’t know who it is, though. At first listening, I wanted to say Gonzalo, but going on, I don’t really know. 4 stars.

11. Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Light” (from HARMONY AND ABYSS, Thirsty Ears, 2004) (Shipp, piano, composer; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, programming [drum & synths])

Very interesting. I like it so far. The intro is really cool. The way they’re playing is really cool. They’re like sparse and random kind of free, but together at the same time.
I liked that! I liked that interlude, whatever you want to call it. That tune was cool. They were like playing free, separately, but at the same time it was together, even though there obviously was nothing written. It just sounded like raindrops. They were all acting like raindrops, but everything fit. Like a typewriter typing really fast, where everything fits together. 4 stars. I can appreciate that type of playing. You probably will never catch me checking it out at the crib, listening to it. Do I ever work with an avant-garde type vibe? Not so much avant-garde. Solo piano wise, I’ll do some stuff that’s kind of like that, on a Cecil Taylor type vibe. But even his shit is organized noise. It’s not free at all. People think it is, but no. That’s the tune! I checked the shit out with video. It’s just the tune. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

12. Cedar Walton, “Daydream” (from ONE FLIGHT DOWN, High Note, 2007) (Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Billy Strayhorn, composer)

The band sounds like a BAND. It sounds like a band in the sound. The pianist is losing the groove, to me. He’s playing all over in the solo section, kind of just losing the groove. I don’t know. Definitely sounds like an older rhythm section. It definitely has an Ahmad Jamal Trio vibe. But I don’t know. I like the drummer’s hi-hats!

I liked the feeling of it. The feeling felt good. I feel like I’ve heard the drummer before, definitely. The drummer and the bass player had a good thing happened. It sounded like they were older cats. Part of me wanted to say the pianist was Cyrus Chestnut, because some of it gave me some Cyrus vibe. But then half of it was strange. I was like, “I don’t know.” I haven’t heard a Cyrus record in a while, though. 3 stars.

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Robert Glasper , Downbeat Players Piece – 2005:

Accustomed to navigating complex, cerebral soundscapes, today’s twenty-something jazzfolk don’t always leave space to tell a story.

Not pianist Robert Glasper, who blends abundant technique with oceanic emotional content on Canvas, his Blue Note debut.

“I’m dramatic,” says Glasper, 26. “I feel like an actor and a painter — all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

Glasper is a 2001 New School graduate who apprenticed with hardcore jazzfolk like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and built profile as pianist of choice for prominent hip-hop and R&B singers like Bilal, Q-Tip and Mos Def. Through the first six tracks of Canvas, he articulates an expansive, soulful interpretation of the piano trio. Using all ten fingers liberally, he draws harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller, and his lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts.

“I’m not a singer, but I like to play things I can sing,” Glasper says. “If you constantly sing while you’re playing, then you probably won’t play bullshit!”

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Glasper inherited this aesthetic from his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, who was murdered last spring at the age of 45. Her spirit hovers over the proceedings, and her recorded voice — she’s singing a raunchy blues — opens the elegiac final track, “I Remember.”

“I wanted to make sure she was on my first record,” Glasper says. “I’m the spitting image of my Mom, totally like her in every aspect. My confidence level. Everything. She was a diva. Yes, sir. A diva.”

When Robert was 12, Kim Yvette Glasper taught him to play piano in the small Baptist church at which she sang. By 14, he was playing the service.

“Once I got better, I told myself I needed to make real money doing this,” Glasper relates. “I started playing at Brentwood, the biggest church in Houston, 10,000 people. During 11th and 12th grades, I played there every other Sunday at 11 o’clock, and I played in the Catholic church around the corner at 9. Saturdays I played the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My pastor in Houston knew the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, and I played there for two years once I got to New York.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period. It’s not Giant Steps. People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

On the last four tracks of Canvas, Glasper deploys his populist influences. He entextures “Chant,” another elegiac refrain, with Bilal’s moans and his own organ and kalimba, while on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” the date’s only cover, he signifies on Mark Turner’s fleet solo with capacious keyboard color on the Fender Rhodes, before uncorking his own fleet, percussive statement.

Glasper plans to support Canvas with trio tours this fall and winter, filling down time on jobs with the singers – he performs on Q-Tip’s Fall release, joining guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Derrick Hodge – as well as hardcore jazz work.

“You’ve got to have a balance,” he says. “Church can be a bad habit; everything you play can sound like a church chord if you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s part of my thing, so I put it in there, but I play a little Bud Powell so you go ‘Oh.’ I haven’t played in church for seven years. There’s some black churches up the street from my block, so sometimes I’ll check out the choir or musicians. I get more from them than I do from a lot of preachers. Everything is so damn corrupt, you can’t trust anybody. Only thing you can trust is the music.”

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Robert Glasper (Liner Notes for Mood – Fresh Sound – 2002):

“You can’t join the throng til you sing your own song,” Lester Young once quipped, his singular argot underscoring an eternal jazz truth that all aspirants, however learned or technically accomplished, must come to grips with.

The Prezidential imperative of individualism and self-expression is one that pianist Robert Glasper, 23, fully understands. Like much of his peer group, Glasper has the vocabulary of piano modernism — Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, and Oscar Peterson are among his reference points — at his fingertips. Unlike much of his peer group, he has no compunctions about using that language as a springboard from which to leap into his song of the moment. Or, as Glasper puts it, “I take small bits of information of from everyone and make up my own paragraphs.

Fortified by impeccable chops and uninhibited imagination, Glasper spins compelling tales throughout his conversational debut release. His core unit comprises young drummer Damion Reid and veteran bassist Robert Hurst, the latter until recently a long-time member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra after a decade playing hardcore jazz next to piano icon Kenny Kirkland in the high-visibility bands of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Augmenting on various tracks are tenor saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland (respectively, runner-up and third-place awardees at the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition), guitarist Mike Moreno, and popular Hip-Hop/Soul artist Bilal Oliver. All but Hurst were Glasper’s fellow students in the Jazz and Contemporary Music program at Manhattan’s New School, where the pianist matriculated in 1997 on full scholarship.

“The quality I like most about Robert is that he’s an improviser in the truest sense,” says Hurst, who in the spring released his own freewheeling earlier recording of the same trio [UNREHURST (Bebob Records)]. “He’s not afraid to fall flat on his face! He realizes something might or might not work, but he’ll try it, because he wants to do it differently than he did it last night. He listens and he doesn’t play licks. I feel that the music can go anywhere, which keeps me thinking on my feet.”

“I have to improvise,” Glasper agrees. “At my classical recital in high school, I was supposed to play three tunes. I played one, and then broke out and started ‘Giant Steps.’ Otherwise, I feel like I’m regurgitating what somebody else wrote.

“For instance, I love Keith Jarrett, but I can’t transcribe anything he plays. He just speaks. He doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean. I can hear Keith Jarrett over and over again, and always get something different. The way his trio works together is amazing. They’re real musical. They’re patient. They don’t mind vamping. They let the music breathe. Wherever it goes, they go. They don’t put a cap on it. Some cats have told me to make my tunes four minutes long, then take it out. But that’s not where the magic is. That’s not why people love Trane and Miles. They actually stretched out, tried to take the music someplace else, and when it’s over, then it’s over.”

Testifying through music comes naturally to Glasper. From toddler years he witnessed his mother — who was not inclined to entrust the care of her child to any third party — singing jazz, gospel, R&B and the blues at various Houston venues and home rehearsals. At 12, pianist Alan Mosley, newly recruited to his mother’s band, sparked the youngster’s jazz flames. Soon, Glasper enrolled at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, where such current luminaries as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland had studied. By 14, Glasper was playing the church service; by 16, he was earning steady money playing jazz and pop gigs around the Houston area.

Glasper kept working after he got to New York, attending jam sessions and taking obscure gigs around the city. One such was a weekly hit on “a broken-ass keyboard” at a Brooklyn bar called Pork Knockers not far from the apartment of pianist Anthony Wonsey, who happened by on a night when he was playing. Impressed, Wonsey asked Glasper to sub for him with Russell Malone, who became a frequent employer between 1999-2001. During those years he also worked with Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton, and Kenny Garrett. He’s played steadily with Bilal since the singer signed his record deal midway through their second year of school, and appears on Bilal’s recent record First Born, Second.

Such activity left little room for formal studies; Glasper notes, “I blew through school a little bit, and didn’t really take lessons, but the teachers were cool about it.” Meanwhile, he did develop instant simpatico with classmates Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland and Brandon Owens who share his aesthetic of not stopping until the piece is done (they’re documented on Marcus Strickland’s excellent quartet album, AT LAST, [FS-101]) and with drummer Damion Reid, a Los Angeles native who came to the New School after a couple of years at the Thelonious Monk School and the New England Conservatory.

“I play trio a lot different than I play with a group,” says Glasper, whose first instrument was drumset. “Damion and I call the way we feel time the circle. We don’t think straight-ahead, like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and come in together. Damion is really free, but in time. If your time isn’t strong within yourself, you can’t even play with a drummer like him, because it’s going to sound horrible.”

Hurst elaborates. “These guys were raised on Hip-Hop, and it influences what they play, even in the jazz tradition. In the same way, my generation grew up on P-Funk and Motown and Prince, and we weren’t afraid to let it affect our music. Some people rejected that, and I think the consequence is that they sound stiff and they sound old. Not that you have to put a funk beat on everything. But in my opinion, you have to embrace everything that’s around you, or it’s going to be stale.”

There is nothing stale or old-school about Bilal Oliver’s treatment of “Maiden Voyage.” Treating Herbie Hancock’s classic melody as a kind of ritual invocation, he puts some multi-tracked throatsong-to-falsetto vocalese on top of an affecting reharmonized vamp and a funk-with-a-limp straight-eighth beat.

The trio embarks on their own voyage with Glasper’s “Lil’ Tipsy,” using compression-expansion techniques to explore in painstaking detail a disjunctive dance of inebriation. Glasper uses the concluding vamp as a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to segue directly into “Alone Together.” There ensues an avid triologue, Hurst holding down the bottom as Glasper and Reid, with nonchalant confidence, weave through an obstacle course of rhythmic signatures.

On “Mood,” a quintet track, Moreno and Ellis offer beautiful contrapuntal section playing and pungent solos, capturing the composer’s intent to resolve from a melancholy opening to an impassioned feelgood vamp. Bilal ratchets the intensity on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a bluesy jazz ballad to which Glasper wrote the melody and the lyric. Glasper says: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

Glasper returns to ebullience on a creative and virtuosic treatment of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “There was a detergent commercial that used it during my first year in school,” he relates, “and I was singing it all the time. Then someone told me it was a jazz tune. I arranged it for a concert at school. A year later, I came up with this arrangement.

“‘Interlude’ happened because we kept playing after I faded out from the drum solo, and when I listened to the tape I thought the hip-hop part was hot. Hip-hop is a part of me, too, and I wanted to have that influence on the album.”

“In Passing” began as an elegy for Glasper’s Houston friend, Scooby, who died in 1999. “I never could finish the tune, but I started working on it again when Aliyah died,” Glasper says. “Not too long after that, 9/11 happened. That made me finish the song. It’s about how your time on earth is passing.”

Glasper ends the program with the incendiary “L N K Blues,” setting up a John Ellis-Marcus Strickland tenor battle that implicitly affirms his connection to and extensions of the idiom that defined the sound of jazz in Houston from the ’40s through the ’60s. “My Mom sang in a lot of blues clubs,” he says. “And the church. Blues and church kind of go hand-in-hand. Instead of ‘I love you, baby,’ it’s ‘I love you, God.'”

Perhaps that foundation bedrocks Glasper’s heady blend of spirited play and formal discipline, and allows him to avoid the strut-all-your-stuff trap that so many ambitious young artists fall prey to on first releases.

“This album is not about ego or soloing on every tune,” he concludes. “A lot of jazz purists might not like it because of the way it starts off, with ‘Maiden Voyage’. But the product I’m giving you is based on my experiences with different music and with life. That’s true in the compositions and how I arrange them. That’s what it is.”

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For Henry Threadgill’s 76th Birthday, A 2018 Downbeat Feature and the Transcript Of A 1996 Musician Show on WKCR

Best of birthdays to maestro Henry Threadgill, who turns 76 today. In honor of the occasion, here’s my uncut version of an early 2018 Downbeat feature, and a transcript of the proceedings of Musician Show that we did in 1996 on WKCR.

 

Henry Threadgill, DownBeat Article, June 2018:

No one applies more creative mojo to naming a band or a song—or to conjuring out-of-the-box instrumentations to compose for—than Henry Threadgill. The 74-year-old maestro maintains that standard on Pi’s parallel spring releases by two recently configured ensembles.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus follows Double Up’s 2016 debut album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi). The earlier date coincided with Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize award, bestowed for In For A Penny, the sixth consecutive album by Zooid, which premiered in 2001 with Up Popped The Two Lips. Dirt . . . And More Dirt introduces 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, which combines personnel from Zooid, Double Up, and an as-yet unrecorded brass ensemble dubbed Dimples, which Threadgill premiered in 2014.

Threadgill’s well-turned epigrams complement the music’s singular character. Yet again, he continues to find new ways to address the raw materials that define his documented corpus since Air Song, from 1975, the first of a dozen recordings by Air, a trio with fellow AACM members Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, in which he sought to expand the possibilities of the saxophone-bass-drums format along organizational principles gleaned from Ahmad Jamal, whose trio Threadgill heard while growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

After the 1979 one-off recital X-75 by a bespoke nonet (four basses, four winds, and voice), Threadgill launched a six-album run by his seven-piece Sextett, framing his oracular, spirit-raising voice on alto and tenor saxophone and flute with trumpet, trombone, cello, bass, and two drummers. The players, who included rugged individualists like Olu Dara on trumpet and Craig Harris on trombone, rendered with panache and flair his sui generis pieces, in which Threadgill deftly refracted marches, rags, the blues, sacred music, Balkan strains, Afrodiasporic pop elements, and modernist Euro-canon harmony into his own extravagant argot.

There followed three albums by Very Very Circus during the early ’90s, on which Threadgill deftly sculpted polyphonic and contrapuntal tonal combinations from the potentially lugubrious admixture of saxophone, trombone, two electric guitars and two tubas, propelled by Gene Lake’s primal, funky grooves. On another three albums by Make A Move between 1995 and 2001, Threadgill added accordion, harmonium, vibraphone, and hand percussion colors to his palette, and delved into Pan-American and Pan-Asian flavors. Then, with Zooid, he pared down, framing his instruments with an austere guitar-cello-tuba-drumset ensemble, which improvised fluently within the rules of a rigorous, homegrown intervallic 12-tone system.

On In For A Penny, Threadgill began to loosen the reins, applying a process he describes as “free serialism.” He continues that practice with Kestra and Double Up, creating environments as timbrally lush as Zooid’s are spare, while removing his instrumental voice from the preponderance of the proceedings. To navigate them, he’s recruited a cohort of New York-based best-and-brightest Gen-X’ers and Millennials who match his job description of being “without preconceptions that music and art go one way, and one way only.”

To be specific, Double Up comprises pianists David Virelles, David Bryant and Luis Perdomo; alto saxophonists Roman Filiú and Curtis Robert MacDonald, and drummer Craig Weinrib, none of whom played in Zooid, from which guitarist Liberty Ellman, tubist Jose Davila and cellist Christopher Hoffman return. Augmenting that personnel in the Kestra (Perdomo is absent) are trumpeters Jonathan Finlayson and Stephanie Richards, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein, bassist Thomas Morgan, and—from Zooid—drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee, who pairs off with Weinrib.

“I use ‘free serialism’ as an analogy,” Threadgill said between sips of a double espresso in a café on Ninth Street and Avenue C in Manhattan’s East Village, a few blocks from the apartment he moved into in 1980. “There’s no other term I can use. These are technical issues only scholarly-type people are concerned with.”

After this demurral, Threadgill broached the matter with a pithy “serialism for civilians” explanation. “Serialism is a tone row of 12 notes arranged in order, and you follow that order strictly, over and over,” he explained. “If it’s free serialism, you’re using still only those 12 notes, but not strictly in that order. Something that goes 1-2-3-4-5, is now going 1-3-5-2-4. I really like Alban Berg, who just did things he wanted to do with his system. I like people like Debussy—people who just do what they want.”

“I think the musical language Henry uses to construct the pieces is so ingrained that he can extrapolate from it right away at any point,” Virelles said. “With the piano, you can hear his harmonies as more defined than some things he did in the past, when he distributed it between the wind instruments, the bass, sometimes even the drums. He tunes the drums specifically, in an orchestral and harmonic way, to add to the overall color he’s trying to put forth.”

Why did Threadgill remove himself from the mix? “It’s not necessary for me to play in every group,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a distraction to listeners; they focus on me as though the other musicians aren’t important. I brought these new young people on the scene with me because I think they’re extremely important.”

He added: “My music is a type of concept or system. It’s not something you can come in and do in any short period of time. Zooid rehearsed a year-and-half, without a gig in sight, before we started. That’s nothing unusual. I did it in Chicago with a number of people. I did it when I worked with Cecil Taylor during the 1980s. For these new people, I had to consider how I could modify my processes so they could be comfortable and use it.”

According to the band members, Threadgill’s modifications do not denote a concomitant decrease in the intensity of his rehearsals. Ellman noted Threadgill’s penchant for targeting areas of deficiency. “He started writing really high guitar parts, which were hard for me to read,” he remarked. “Henry said, ‘You’re wasting a whole lot of your instrument.’ But an improvising ensemble requires a lot of rehearsal to execute the music properly, with the required joy and freedom. We’re not playing every night. Henry wants the music to be tested and internalized so it really comes out as something that’s been mastered before we perform it.”

“Henry is always writing to push you to your limits, trying to expose something we’re trying not to expose,” said MacDonald, who has doubled as Threadgill’s copyist for several years. “He’ll completely change stuff on the fly. He’ll say, ‘I like that; do it again.’ He’s always curious, always listening to what other people are up to. He’s a sponge for all sorts of input and information.”

Why did it take Threadgill so long to write a consequential body of work built around the harmonic possibilities of multiple pianos? After noting his previous deployment of Myra Melford on piano and Amina Claudine Myers on organ and harpsichord on the 1993 album Song Out Of My Trees, Threadgill offered a characteristically blunt explanation.

“I always wanted to write for piano, but I haven’t used it because the pianos are so bad in New York City,” he stated. “With some of the clubs and venues we’ve had to play in, I couldn’t imagine asking a piano player to sit down at some of this junk. It’s taken this amount of time for me to feel comfortable with the physical instrument in this environment.”

Another motivation was Threadgill’s burgeoning friendship with Virelles, who moved to New York in 2009 at the instigation of Steve Coleman and Dafnis Prieto, who had alerted Threadgill to the Cuban pianist’s skills, and, in turn, brought MacDonald, Filiú and Weinrib into Threadgill’s orbit. “During our first few sessions, he’d bring me with him to hear the music playing in New York in a given week,” Virelles recalled. “We’d hear Muhal Richard Abrams with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, then a premiere by Elliott Carter, whoever was playing at the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery. We’d go to museums and galleries. I was with him or in touch with him almost every single day, talking about music or art.

“Every couple of weeks, I’d bring things to his house to work on. He’d give me directions as to how he thought I could expand and generate more material from what I already had, to transform any amount of information into something else, both for preconceived composition and improvisation. We’d have long discussions about composition and orchestration, which we still do. That’s how I became familiar with his way of thinking about music. After a couple of years, he started coming up with situations where he could use my voice.”

Although Threadgill emphatically does not see teaching as his calling, he acknowledges doing so in his ensembles. “Leaders lead people,” he said. “They trust you to lead them. You’ve experienced a lot more than they have, so you can make them aware of certain things. You have to know what you’re doing, or you shouldn’t be in that position.” His next remarks hearkened to his time in Vietnam, where in 1967-68 Threadgill served as an Army musician in Pleiku, an active combat zone. “Make the most dangerous, critical thing you can imagine, and everyone could end up dead if you get it wrong. You want the leader to be the person you believe can take you through.”

This being said, Threadgill evaluates his relationship with Virelles as a collaboration between equals. “I’d say David was using me more or less as a lead assistant,” he said. “He was a mature artist when I met him, not only an outstanding pianist but an accomplished composer. He knew my musical processes. We looked together at different ideas and problems he was exploring, and I showed him things I was working on, which he got into, examined and understood.”

In describing his interaction with Virelles, Threadgill mirrors his own 55-year friendship with the late Muhal Richard Abrams. They met when Abrams played a concert at Chicago’s Wilson Junior College, where Threadgill was an 18-year-old freshman, and then invited the aspirant to participate in the Experimental Band, the rehearsal group from which the AACM emerged. Threadgill mentioned the encounter to classmates Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors, who decided to investigate. In 1965, they became members of the newly formed AACM; in 1968, Threadgill—who had spent three years raising a joyful noise with a traveling evangelist before his time in Vietnam—joined them.

“Muhal was an example of the studious musician-student, the inquirer-scientist,” Threadgill said. “His level of intensity and the depth of his research went all past jazz and all past classical music. Once Muhal told me he was going to start tuning his piano. He took the whole piano apart. He said, ‘That leads up to tuning.’ When computers came out, he was the first one I knew who had books and materials about the systems. Next thing you know, he had three computers, including one he was opening up to see the mechanics. You saw him unravel the myths or mysteries behind things. His level of research cleared up what you had to do. It told you, ‘See, if you do this, you can go somewhere.’”

Like Abrams and his fellow AACM lifers, Threadgill weathered the ups and downs attendant to a career in creative music, before attaining golden years institutional recognition, as most recently signified by his Pulitzer.

“It was a great honor and privilege to receive the Pulitzer in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s certainly helped me get a bit more attention and have people take some of my work more seriously. Labels like ‘jazz’ put you in ghettos. I just say it’s improvisational-based music. There shouldn’t be a limit to what jazz is in terms of going forward.”

What kept him motivated over the years?

“This is what I do!” Threadgill stated incredulously. “This is what I’m here for. There’s nothing here to discourage me. If I let myself be discouraged, it’s my problem. I’m not supposed to let that happen.” He laughed. “I can’t control human agency.”

“I’m not sure you totally believe that when it comes to your compositions,” he was told.

Threadgill laughed again, and then mentioned the m.o. of his dear friend, the late conductionist Lawrence “Butch” Morris, a fellow Vietnam veteran, composer, flaneur, and Lower East Side neighbor, to whom he dedicated Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. “Butch was looking to get people out of the effect of habit,” Threadgill said. “I am, too. It takes time to understand what’s going on in music. In time, you see how people are doing things by rote almost. My idea—and what Butch was concerned with—is how to keep musicians away from automatic musical behavior. I take away all the symbols they’re used to, that tell them how to behave, and give them another set that allows them only to be spontaneous.”

In the manner of his generational cohort in the AACM, Threadgill sustains a fresh outlook through extra-musical artistic production (in his case, writing), nourished by consistent use of New York’s abundant cultural resources. As he puts it, “Why be here if you’re not going to use the museums and art galleries and libraries? Go to Paducah!”

In point of fact, Dirt . . . And More Dirt gestated in northern California, where Threadgiill was “maxing out” a 90-day Lucas Artists Residency at Montalvo Arts Center, while investigating the local “dirt and clay, huge trees, and vegetation” and the locally-based works of sculptor Stephen De Staebler and painter-sculptor-installation artist Walter De Maria. Conceptual artist David Hammonds, Threadgill’s and Morris’ mutual friend, “pointed me in their direction.”

“Sometimes I’m researching one thing, and it spills over into a manifestation musically,” Threadgill added. “I’m interested right now in arithmetic.”

Did he care to elaborate?

“Not yet,” Threadgill said. “That will become clear pretty soon.”

[END OF ARTICLE

 

 

Henry Threadgill Musician Show (7-24-96):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “Like It Feels” (1995), “Hyla Crucifer” (1993)]

TP: We have very diverse music that reflects many experiences of Henry’s. I’d like to begin by talking to you about your early experiences listening to music and playing music coming up in Chicago in the 1950’s as a youngster and a teenager. The first set will focus on the Chicago Blues. Was that some of your earliest listening experience?

HT: Yes, some was my earliest Blues listening experience. But I listened to all kinds of music, Western European Classical music, a lot of Polish-American music and American-Mexican music, and a lot of Black Gospel music, and what we called then Hillbilly music, and of course Boogie-Woogie piano.

TP: You’d hear this music in the community, or on records in the house?

HT: Most of it was on the radio. That was before radio was programmed the way it’s programmed today. It was pretty wide-open radio. And then I would hear some music in the community, mostly coming out of shops, because I was too young to go in places where they played music other than churches, where you could hear people like Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, people like that.

TP: What church would he play in?

HT: All around the South Side. But this was around Cottage Grove and 31st Street, 35th Street, 39th Street.

TP: In your home were there musicians in the family?

HT: No. I had an aunt, one aunt that was studying piano and voice. She was away in school, went away to a college. Then I had a cousin who played very fine piano, but I never knew it. My aunt married a musician, my uncle Nevin Wilson, a very fine bassist in Chicago. I was very close to them as a kid, because of the music. He was playing with Ahmad Jamal at the time, so I was around them for a lot of that experience.

TP: When did it occur to you that music was something you wanted to do? Was it a natural thing that happened, or was there a conscious choice when you were a kid?

HT: It was a gradual thing, just a gradual thing. By the time I started high school I knew pretty much that’s what I wanted to do, was to play music. But my ideas were very… You know the ideas of a young teenager… Well, not nearly the way teenagers think now. Teenagers nowadays, they think in terms of millions of dollars. We weren’t even thinking in terms of dollars; it was just a matter of wanting to be able to play the way we heard music being performed and played. That’s the way I thought, and my peers, you know.

TP: Did you have a peer group in junior high and high school of kids who were interested in music?

HT: Oh yeah. We had Absholom Ben-Sholomo, who was with Sun Ra, Richard Heard, Stephen Scott, the bassist Mchaka Ubu, my cousin Michael Wess. Arlington Davis, Jr.; his father, Arlington Davis, Sr., was a famous saxophone player from Chicago. There was the Pulliam family, which was a highly musical family in Chicago. I learned a lot from John Pulliam, the saxophonist. His younger brother and sister were my age. We all played together. And Milton Chapman. There were quite a few of us.

TP: At one point or another you’ve performed on nearly every saxophone and woodwind instrument, but it seems like alto has been the consistent main vehicle over the years? Was that first instrument?

HT: Oh, no, that’s my last instrument. I started out as a tenor saxophone player. Tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, the clarinet and bass clarinet, then I went to the flute, and I came around to the alto last.

TP: Did you start playing the saxophone in high school through a band?

HT: Yeah, in the band at Englewood High School in Chicago.

TP: Now, the famous high school is DuSable and Captain Walter Dyett…

HT: One of the famous high schools. Englewood was famous… [LAUGHS]

TP: I was leading up to ask you to tell us about the music program at Englewood High School.

HT: It was like all the high school programs, pretty much. It was a band program, and sometimes there would be small group rehearsals to work on Dance Band music or Jazz Band music. We called it Stage Band, besides being in the concert band… In other words, the concert band, the marching band, and then the stage band where we would play big band arrangements. There were a lot of great players at that school when I got there. Roscoe Mitchell, a great saxophone player Donald Myrick, Steve McCall had gone there, Oscar Brown, Jr., Satterfield, the trombone player. There were a lot of good players there.

TP: Who were some of the people who connected you into extending your research into music? Was Roscoe Mitchell one…

HT: No, I met Roscoe very late. The first saxophone player around that I really was influenced by that always was there with encouragement was Donald Myrick. Donald was older than I was, and he was a very fine saxophone player, very gifted when he was very young. There were band and solo city competitions, and he had won several of these for a couple of years. I was kind of following behind him to go to these contests, and play in the different groups. He would take me around to different sessions on Monday nights and Wednesday nights around the city.

TP: Were you listening to tenor players on records at the time? Were you starting to study different styles and approaches to the instrument?

HT: Well, I was listening to everything. But Chicago had a wealth of tenor saxophone players, and it was very difficult not to fall under the spell of Chicago tenor saxophone players, because they are very powerful players, very innovative players. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, Jay Peters. There was just a list of them that went on and on, so many fine tenor saxophone players. But I never did hear too many alto saxophone players. It was mainly tenor saxophone players that I would go around to hear you always.

TP: Were there any you tried to emulate?

HT: Oh, sure. When you’re learning there’s always people you try to emulate. Gene Ammons was one of my favorites. I always went every place Gene Ammons would play; I’d always turn up there if I could. Gene Ammons and Eddie Williams in particular, and also John Gilmore. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams and Gene Ammons, and then later Von Freeman. Those were like the strong tenor saxophone players around Chicago. Later I was very much an admirer of Clifford Jordan, who became one of my favorite people also.

TP: The first group that you mentioned were all playing around Chicago when you were in high school?

HT: Yes.

TP: Which would have ’58, ’59, ’60 or so?

HT: Yeah, ’58, ’59, ’60.

TP: Were you working at all on little neighborhood gigs at this time, or doing things outside school?

HT: Yeah, we would get a job every now and then.

TP: What type of job would it be?

HT: In a bar, in a club. We would get a chance to play in a bar somewhere every now and then. But mostly we would play at somebody’s house or in the basement of school or in the band-room. We would find someplace to work out our ideas.

TP: What sort of things would you work out on? Would you take tunes sort of in general currency?

HT: Yeah, right. The general repertoire that you heard, the popular Jazz pieces, the contemporary pieces of Charlie Parker. That’s what everybody was playing, learning how to play it. If they couldn’t play it, they were learning how to play it…

TP: So learning the harmonic language of Charlie…

HT: The technical language, harmonic language and melodic language, and the whole musical aesthetic attitude of that music.

TP: Now, there were a lot of venues to play music on the South Side of Chicago at that particular time.

HT: Oh, sure.

TP: That legacy went back many years, and it was kind of the end of that very fertile period of being able to hear a lot of music on the South Side of Chicago.

HT: Yeah, Chicago was like… It was just one place after the other on 63rd Street on the South Side from Martin Luther King Drive (which was named South Park) to the Lake, which was I don’t know how many miles. There was just one place after another where you could hear music nightly, every night, where great musicians played. You’d get to 63rd and Cottage Grove, there were really big places, big dance halls where Duke and Count and people like that would play — the Trianon, the Pershing Ballroom and places like that. The Pershing Ballroom had a ballroom and a bar where Ahmad Jamal worked, and later Sun Ra worked there. Dexter Gordon and these people would come, and you’d hear them in places like Basin Street. There were so many places there.

TP: I take it you were underage to get in, but you would have been able to soak up the whole environment.

HT: Sure, you could get in if you were playing music. We used to carry our instrument around, so they would let you in. They knew you were trying to learn, so they would let you in. They’d serve you Coca-Cola or whatever soft drink they had.

TP: Were you also playing the Blues at that time?

HT: Not at that time. I was playing in marching bands. I was playing in a host of marching bands, all types of marching bands, marching bands that were playing (for lack of a better term) something close to like Dixie, similar to the style of marching bands that you’d hear in New Orleans. That was one type of marching band. Another played military tunes…not military tunes, but tunes that were written for military bands — John Philip Sousa and pieces like that. then there were some things that were just arrangements by people for these different aggregations. But there were quite a few of these things on the South Side. Veteran organizations that had bands. Post bands. You could make money playing parades. That’s what I did.

It was a while before I started playing in Blues bands. That was in the late ’60s, when I started playing in Blues bands in Chicago.

TP: Nonetheless, for purposes of our Musician Show chronology, we’re going to start with Howlin’ Wolf and “Smokestack Lightning”.

HT: For me, Howlin’ Wolf is the greatest. Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters are two of the greatest people I ever heard. It had nothing to do with the Blues; they were just great, period, when you hear what they do and how they do it.

[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lighting” (1956); Muddy Waters, “Mean Mistreater” (1959); Rev. James Cleveland, “I’ll Do His Will”]

TP: Any general comments on the Blues and Gospel music in reference to what we just heard?

HT: The idea about the Blues that’s sometimes put forth in institutions and situations similar to what institutions put out, that the Blues has some kind of strict formal structure — it does not. The Blues is an internal thing. If one ever really heard the Blues, Blues had no type of structure until the Blues existed. That is, each piece presented its own development and own structure. It had nothing to do with patterns that’s often put forth, that the Blues is some 12-bar form or something like that. That’s really not true. Not this type of Blues. Maybe some type of Blues that’s gotten to be popular among certain type of musicians. But the Blues that I heard that was played on the streets of Chicago and probably played in the country, in the Delta, that Blues could take any direction and any form at any time.

Gospel music was the same way. It was music that was improvised music. It had a starting point, but you never knew exactly what was going to happen with this music. The Blues was the same way. You never knew what was going to happen with it. It was a spirit music, and the spirit was the strongest part of the music. It had the direction of the music. The direction was through the spirit, not so much through a lot of mental calculations and things of that nature. They would more or less play it by the spirit of what they were doing.

TP: If I’m not mistaken, you were out a couple of years on the road with a band for a traveling preacher.

HT: Yes, I used to play with Horace Shepherd, out of Philadelphia. It was a great experience. He was a traveling evangelist, so we got a chance to go to a lot of places, a lot of camp meetings and different churches where they would have him for a week. It was a large entourage of music people that traveled, similar to what Billy Graham has, but it was all Gospel and Sanctified people — singers, musicians that played instruments, pianists, organists, everything. Highly skilled musicians. The level of musicianship was really quite incredible.

It was a great experience because the music would just go off. It almost free. It was free because there was no expectation level. You couldn’t learn some patterns and do these patterns and think that was it. It didn’t work that way at all. You just had a place where you started, and where it ended up depended on what would happen in the emotions of church services.

TP: Did you travel the country?

HT: Yes.

TP: Did you go East to West, North to South with Horace Shepherd?

HT: Oh, yeah. We went to California, the South, the Midwest, the East Coast.

TP: Was that your first extensive experience on the road?

HT: Yes. That happened in 1963-64. It was a very new and very eye-opening experience, because I came in contact with people all around the country for the first time, and I got to see what America looked like outside of a geography book and newspaper clippings, and see real people and see what their attitudes and dispositions were.

TP: At the time you joined Horace Shepherd, the traveling evangelist, talk about where you were musically.

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but it wasn’t the AACM at that time; it was the Experimental Band. Muhal Richard Abrams and all the different people that were associated with the Experimental Band, like Fred Anderson, Steve McCall, Donald Myrick.

TP: For people who don’t know, what was the Experimental Band?

HT: The Experimental Band was a large or small orchestra at a place called C&C’s Lounge, when I came in touch with Muhal and the group. Muhal invited me over there to play and write a piece at that time, which was I guess about ’62.

TP: Was that the first time you’d written, or was it an interest of yours before?

HT: I started writing about that time. Prior to that I started writing, about 1961.

TP: You were still in high school when you began writing.

HT: Yes.

TP: What was your impetus for that? Did you have some sort of rudimentary composition class?

HT: No, it was just a natural thing. It was something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it without any kind of formal instruction or formal information. It was just something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it.

TP: How did you come to the Experimental Band? Was it something in the air…?

HT: No, Muhal Richard Abrams. He came and played at the school I was in, Wilson Junior College. We had a music club there.

TP: That later became Kennedy-King Junior College, I believe, and that’s where Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Jack de Johnette were all attending at that time.

HT: Right, and Eddie Harris, Bunky Green, Betty Dupree, they were all up there. There were a lot of musicians there at that time. But we had a music club, and we invited Muhal there to play with a group. That’s when I first met him. and we talked and everything. I don’t know what transpired, but I saw him again, and he invited me to come over there and play with the orchestra at C&C’s, to sit in the section and read the different charts they had.

TP: What was your impression of the music they were playing? Was it different than what you…?

HT: Oh yeah, because it was all original. They weren’t doing standards, and they weren’t doing the popular Bebop music at all. These were people who were writing music, coming from their own directions who were looking for a new direction in music.

TP: Had you heard any music up to this point, 1962, that gave you some kind of reference point to playing this music?

HT: Not really. Well, I would say Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. For playing the music, that was one thing; for writing the music, that was a different experience altogether. For playing the music, yes, I would say Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.

TP: You were already familiar with their recordings.

HT: Oh, yes. We were quite aware. They made a big impression on musicians all across America, all around the world, the step that had been made by them. Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. That move was a very significant move in improvised music in the Western world.

TP: Why so?

HT: Because it was the next move from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, people of that school — that move. Once that move had been made, it was like everyone began to learn this music and they began to formulize this music. It became formulized, the way polyphony in Western music had become formalized by Bach. Then it had fallen into more or less a set of known patterns and predictable outcomes, and consequently it was becoming stylistic and into periodicy, I would say.

TP: What do you mean by that?

HT: That it stayed within itself within that period and style, and it advanced as far as it was going to advance, and that was it. There were refinements and arrangements and beautiful solos, but the evolution had stopped. So with these other people we were speaking of, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon and others, the doors opened up again, and a number of artists around the country, like the AACM in Chicago were greatly influenced by this music. The later works of John Coltrane, which were in that direction, Eric Dolphy, they had a great influence on the players in the circles I was in.

TP: The next set will start with the only recording by Wilbur Ware, a bassist who was one of great spirit musicians of Jazz, who might start out from a point and take it wherever.

HT: Wilbur had a great influence on all the players I knew around Chicago, and here in New York, too.

TP: When did you first meet him?

HT: Oh God, I don’t even remember what age I was. He and my uncle Nevin Wilson used to run together. I’ve been knowing Wilbur Ware since I was a kid. I don’t even remember.

TP: He was a bassist and a drummer at one point. He lived with the great Chicago drummer Ike Day, and was I gather a very good dancer as well.

HT: Yes, exactly.

[MUSIC: Wilbur Ware, “The Man I Love” (1957); Gilmore-A. Hill-Hutcherson-Davis-J. Chambers “Le Serpent Qui Danse” (1964); Gene Ammons, “The Happy Blues” (1956)]

TP: I seem to recollect a conversation with you, Henry, some years ago, where you remembered Gene Ammons coming into McKie’s while Sonny Rollins was playing, or vice-versa…

HT: Yes, they played together a week on the same at McKie’s, in the Strand Hotel, the Sonny Rollins Quartet with Gene Ammons. It was quite incredible. I mean, I was a great fan of Sonny Rollins when I was growing up; he was one of my idols besides Gene Ammons. Now, you can often hear things live that will never get on record. I remember the last night that the played, the Sunday night, McKie’s locked the doors of the club around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and they wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until the next morning, and Gene Ammons was really… I had no idea he could play like that. He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section of the saxophone, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies like an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was really quite impressive. I didn’t even know he played up there on the saxophone! It was quite a lesson.

TP: Which goes to show that no artist is giving away all their secrets on any given performance.

HT: That’s right. But those two players were two totally different styles. Sonny Rollins had some Chicago roots, too, because he had a lot of family there and had spent a lot of time, so he knew quite a bit about the Chicago style of playing. I’m sure he was struck with Gene Ammons’ playing. There were very few tenor players of that age who were not struck by Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon coming out of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.

TP: A few impressions on Gene Ammons’ style and individuality on the saxophone?

HT: Well, I can’t say too much about Gene Ammons’ style, but his sound and the way… I used to run around behind him and watch him and listen very closely to how he would produce the sound on the instrument. It had to do with his physicality also, but he had a way of putting air through the instrument that was important for the production of the type of sound that he had. He had such a massive sound. It wasn’t so much loud as it was big. It was a huge sound that would permeate everything. He would play in a room without a microphone, and just fill up the entire room with sound. Then he played with such depth of feeling, too. He was a great balladeer. He really knew how to play a ballad. He could bleed you to death with his ballads! He was a type of minimalist player, I would say. He didn’t play a whole lot of information, the way Thelonious Monk played. He was an economy player.

TP: A few words about John Gilmore? Did you listen to the Sun Ra Band in the ’50s?

HT: Yeah, I used to be at their rehearsals. They used to rehearse on 63rd Street in Englewood, 63rd and Morgan. Ronnie Boykins lived in the area I lived, and they had a rehearsal space in a supermarket. Absholom Bensholomo and I used to be at the rehearsals every night when they would practice, so we would be back under Pat, Marshall and John on a nightly basis at the rehearsals — then also going to all the performances they’d play.

TP: So this was when you were 14 or 15..

HT: 13-14-15.

TP: What did the music sound like to you at 13, 14 or 15?

HT: It was very different. It was quite radical from anything on disk that we had been listening to. It was really quite radical. The music and the way that they improvised was really quite radical. I hadn’t heard anything like that. I heard Sun Ra before I heard Ornette Coleman or any of these people, and it was really beyond anything that was recorded that we knew of.

TP: Where would you see them perform?

HT: They played every week at the Pershing Lounge, and we’d go there every week. When they left for New York, they left from the Pershing Lounge. They finished at the Pershing, and they got in their cars and drove here to New York around 1961.

TP: A few words about the dynamics of John Gilmore’s style and individuality.

HT: His sound and his style, the information that he was playing was some very advanced harmonic and rhythmic information. His rhythmic approach was really quite amazing. John used to tell me about practicing out of drum books, when we used to go to the rehearsals, listening to them as kids, so I went out and bought a whole bunch of drum books, and I’d play with different drummers. Arlington “Butch” Davis and I used to practice together, and we’d only practice out of drum books. That gives you a grounding in certain drum rhythmics that you wouldn’t ordinarily have in your playing, playing a melodic instrument. Gilmore’s playing was very rhythmic playing. I don’t mean necessarily always busy. It could be busy, but very unusual rhythmic patterns in his playing. And also his harmonic language was extremely advanced. He and Coltrane used to consult a lot. and Coltrane used to come and listen to him play. Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, a lot of people knew about his musical thinking. He was a very sophisticated player, and totally original.

TP: Did you ever get to speak with Sun Ra as a teenager, or was it just from afar?

HT: Just a few words here and there. Not too much. I never had any long conversations with Sun Ra, not really.

TP: You mentioned Eddie Harris just now. Were you enamored of his sound and style at this time?

HT: Oh, of course. He was playing at C&C’s Lounge, a great group, with Sleepy Anderson on organ. They had a great band at C&C’s Lounge, with Doug Freeman, a trumpet player, I believe, and I think Ajaramu was the drummer. It was a fantastic band. It first had been Eddie Williams, a fabulous tenor saxophone player in Chicago, then Eddie Harris. That’s when I first met Eddie Harris. He was fascinating, the amount of information that was in him musically.

TP: He was also a pianist. I believe he played Mondays and Tuesdays at the Pershing when Ahmad Jamal was off.

HT: Oh, yes. He played a lot of piano. He was an all-around musician.

TP: Was Johnny Griffin around Chicago a lot at that point?

HT: No, he was pretty much gone by that time. But he used to come in there and play engagements at different clubs and play the theaters. The theaters at that time would have shows after the movie, and he and Jay Peters (another great saxophone player in Chicago) used to front a big band at the Regal Theater.

TP: Both went to DuSable High School. I believe Johnny Griffin succeeded Jay Peters in the Lionel Hampton band.

HT: Right. And they used to play together a lot, duelling tenors with a big band.

TP: A Chicago institution.

HT: Mmm-hmm!

TP: Was that something you’d engage in as a young saxophonist? Part of the Chicago musical ritual, as it were?

HT: Well, it wasn’t any formal ritual. But you had to fall up under the influence of these people because they were all original. They were very original. We were hearing a lot of the music disk coming from who was being recorded in New York, and it was a striking difference, the approach for tenor saxophone players that were out of Chicago.

TP: Presumably mature improvisers are individual in one manner or another. What was the nature of the Chicago individuality?

HT: It took a lot of chances and played a lot of information that was outside of what was being played in New York. Also the concept of sound was different, from what I was hearing on records — what people thought about sound.

TP: Different in what way?

HT: The aerodynamics of sound! The way they put the air in the instrument and what kind of sound came out. There didn’t seem to be a unison thought on that in terms of the Chicago school of players. There were so many people that was far to the left and far to the right in how they approached sound.

TP: So if you’re talking about Chicago players dealing with, say, the same tune that someone in New York was playing, it would come out in as many different ways as there were people to do it.

HT: Yes. Two of the greatest sound masters on the saxophone, in my opinion, are Johnny Hodges and Eddie Lockjaw Davis. But the Chicago school of people was operating on that same level. Von Freeman, John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, these are people that worked with sound in the same kind of way. It was a very sophisticated level of dealing with the sound.

TP: Von Freeman says that Ben Webster, one of the great sound masters, was around a lot during the early and mid ’50s.

HT: Mmm-hmm. So was Don Byas. He lived in Chicago. He stayed on 55th Street in Chicago for a long time. [I THINK HENRY MEANS COLEMAN HAWKINS, WHO LIVED THERE IN THE EARLY TO MID ’40s, ON GARFIELD BY THE NORTH-SOUTH EL]

TP: Next up is music by Ahmad Jamal, who by 1961 was an institution in Chicago. At what point did your uncle, Nevin Wilson perform with Ahmad Jamal?

HT: Oh, this was in Rockford, Illinois… Late ’50s, I believe. Somewhere in there. I don’t remember the years. But I had just fallen under the spell of Ahmad Jamal, who was not only a great pianist, but an incredible orchestrator and arranger at the keyboard. He’s still that way. He does what he absolutely wants to do at any time. He’ll play anything as long as he wants to play it. He’ll play one note for a minute if he feels like it. And his orchestrational thinking in terms of what the drums should be doing melodically and rhythmically, the tunings between the drums, the bass and the piano, has been so sophisticated over the years… It’s just incredible how still there’s not a lot of information written about Ahmad Jamal and what he’s done for music, American music. You can’t think about playing music on the trio level and bypass that. If you bypass that, you’re going to really miss some serious vitamins in your diet! I mean, you could fall dead if you don’t have that kind of information.

TP: I guess one of the reasons there’s such a dynamic interaction between he and his drummer was who his drummer was, the great Vernell Fournier from New Orleans, and inheritor of the drum traditions of New Orleans.

HT: Mmm-hmm. But those traditions were all up and down the Mississippi River. Those traditions were not unique to New Orleans at all. They were prevalent up and down that river, coming up to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago — straight on up. It’s a misconception that a lot of things was just in New Orleans. Not at all. It was up and down that river. The only time there was a lot of information in New Orleans was in the days there was mostly pianists operating in New Orleans. You know, Jelly Roll. After that, not really.

TP: Well, Jelly Roll came up to Chicago which gave it a different flavor.
HT: Louis Armstrong came to Chicago, too.

TP: It seems to me that one of the things about Chicago music is that the New Orleans musicians had such an impact there from moving there to work in the 1910’s and ’20s.

HT: Well, they did make an impact. They had to come up. That was the only way to come. You had to come to Chicago. The stockyards was in Chicago, and it was also the center of the railroads. It was like 42nd Street. You had to go to 42nd Street here to make changes to go all over town. So the only way you could get to any part of America was you had to come to Chicago. They came to Chicago because the logistics of transportation made it impossible for them to go any other way. If you wanted to go west or you wanted to go east, you still had to come to Chicago.

TP: I guess you could go to California to New Orleans in a different way…

HT: No, you couldn’t.

TP: Sure, by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

HT: No. They all came to the center of the country, through the shipping routes. The shipping routes is the way people traveled. The shipping routes had to do with the way America was being fed, which was around the stockyards, and where all the trains came through. That was the best way to travel. Also people tended to come to Chicago because of work. There was a lot of work on all kinds of levels. You’ve got to remember, people came from the south to the northern states via Chicago. Some went on to other places, Detroit, Cincinnati, etcetera. Others never left Chicago. That’s why you have such a large community of Southern people in Chicago.

TP: Some people call Chicago the northernmost Southern city.

HT: Yeah, they say “as far down South as you can get up North.” [LAUGHS]

TP: Any ideas on the impact of that phenomenon on the music of Chicago?

HT: Well, the Delta Blues and the Gospel was very strong in Chicago, which led into the whole Rhythm-and-Blues period. That music was pervasive, and people really responded to it. So it was a part of a musician’s background. If you became a musician, that was naturally a part of your background. It was hard to get around that. Mahalia Jackson was there, Clay Evans, James Cleveland and people like that would come through, Sam Cooke was there. You had to be struck by the artistry of these people. Howlin’ Wolf. It was incredible.

[MUSIC: Jamal-Crosby-Fournier, “Raincheck” (1960); Sun Ra-Gilmore, “Images” (1958); Von Freeman, “I’ll Remember April” (1992)]

HT: Von Freeman’s rhythmic and sound approach is very distinctive. It’s almost Eastern, what happens with the sound. Johnny Hodges often worked with the sound like that. It’s different from what a lot of players think… They have this idea about a just intonation, what’s in tune. What’s in tune is what’s in tune in your mind; not what is in tune physically, but what is internally in tune. That’s really an unusual approach for a saxophonist, because in so much of the tradition of the music everyone is trying to sound so much in classical unison. It’s a wider sound band that he’s playing in.

TP: Now, in Blues situations that’s not necessarily the case. You’re in tune in a different way.

HT: Exactly. I believe a lot of it is coming from there, because he comes right out of that Blues environment in Chicago. That’s the kind of foundation that these older saxophone players out of Chicago had, how they would play variants with the sound, which is something that I think kind of goes back to Africa possibly; it might have its roots there in terms of sound.

TP: That quality of working with sound is one of the characteristics of the new music of the 1960’s that inspired you as a young saxophone player.

HT: Yes.

TP: People like you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha…

HT: Roscoe named his first album Sound.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell has mentioned a great debt to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. There’s a phrase to describe the music that happened in Chicago post-Ayler Music, which it may or may not be. But I’d like to talk with you a little about those years. We spoke before about your introduction to the Experimental Band, and you were at Wilson Junior College in 1962 before going out on the road with Horace Shephard, the traveling evangelist, which is where you met Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell…

HT: Joseph and I were there in school together playing prior to Roscoe coming there. I think Roscoe had come out of the Service or something like that at that time. He came out of the Service, and then we started playing together. The three of us started playing together, rehearsing together after he came out of the Service.

TP: What sorts of things would you work out at these rehearsals?

HT: We started off with traditional things, Art Blakey or Horace Silver arrangements, and then we started to go into things — some of Ornette’s music and Coltrane’s music; basically those two.

TP: Were you with a rhythm section?

HT: Yes. That was Dracir(?) Smith on drums, Eddie Chappell(?) on bass, another bassist who played with us, and a pianist named Byron. There were about two or three pianists who used to try to work in that context, which was very difficult because the music had changed so much. We weren’t really doing anything with Muhal yet, who was quite qualified to work in that area, and Andrew Hill wasn’t around, so he wasn’t available! So it was some younger pianists who were working in that direction. Christopher Gaddy ended up being important in that circle.

TP: Was that a workshop band, or were you working…?

HT: Yeah, I guess you would call it a workshop situation. It was just a weekly thing that we did all the time.

TP: So you were doing that, there was the Experimental Band, and you were making forays at writing music.

HT: Right.

TP: This goes until 1963, when you go on the road with the evangelist minister Horace Shepherd, and you came back to Chicago when?

HT: I was in and out of Chicago. I wasn’t gone completely. Then I left Chicago in ’66 for a couple of years when I went in the Service, and came back in ’68. That’s when I started playing mostly Blues.

TP: Did you join the AACM when it was incorporated in 1965?

HT: I wasn’t there.

TP: But you kept your association.

HT: Yeah, I had some association. I really wasn’t playing too much music outside of the music I was playing with Horace Shepherd. That’s the only music I was playing at that time. I wasn’t playing Jazz or anything like that.

TP: So you went in a whole different direction in the middle part of the ’60s.

HT: Right.

TP: In the Service were you playing music?

HT: In the Service I was playing music.

TP: You were part of a band?

HT: Right.

TP: What was that experience like?

HT: Oh, it was a very good experience, because they had great bands, great musicians in these bands, large concert bands. A lot of great players I met in these bands in the States and overseas, fantastic musicians.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had very positive experiences in these bands as well.

HT: Many musicians. Wayne Shorter, Coltrane, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, all these people were in bands. You name it! That was one way people used to go. It was a place where you could work out your ideas, and only work on music, for one thing.

TP: What was the scene like when you returned to Chicago in 1968? Did you immediately go back to the AACM type situations?

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but I was playing with Phil Cohran also. Phil Cohran is a very important bandleader, composer, theoretician, historian, and also one of the people who founded the Afro-Arts Theater which was an important institution in Chicago, that presented a wealth of music-dance events. They had a lot of great musicians under his leadership. The original people from the Earth, Wind and Fire group were all there. There were a lot of great musicians in that particular camp. I worked with him, and I think Stubblefield was in the band with the guitarist Pete Cosey. Sonny Rollins’ aunt or cousin I think was in that band. There was a tuba player who later became a bass player, Tyus Palmer. Phil Cohran was very important, and he’s still very important in Chicago. He’s still a great musical thinker and leader in Chicago.

TP: What were the nature of activities when you came back to Chicago with the AACM?

HT: Mostly playing with the big band at that time. I didn’t do too many… I started doing some rehearsals with putting some small groups together, but basically playing with the AACM Big Band is what I was doing.

TP: What were some of the affiliations you started making in ’68 and ’69? I know in ’69 the Art Ensemble left for Paris, and people like Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall as well, the configurations changed.

HT: Well, we kept doing things. We still had a big band, but people were making some moves around the world to try to take the music on the road and to try to get some working situations for themselves over and beyond what they could get in Chicago and around the States. I left briefly in ’69 and came to New York, and I stayed for a while and played around here. Then I came back and started putting Air together, the trio that I had. After coming to New York I went back to Chicago and decided I was going to start another group. I had some groups I experimented with, but it was Air that took off.

TP: We’re going to play “Lonely Woman,” and I’d like you to say something about the impact of Ornette Coleman on the music that developed in the 1960’s. I think we can speak about him very comfortably with the other saxophone players in terms of projection and use of sound.

HT: Yes. Also a kind of new melodic direction came from Ornette Coleman. He’s such a great melodic thinker and lyrical player. They were such fresh new melodies that came out of what he was doing. They came out of the same place we were used to listening to in the traditional Jazz music. Also, the orchestrations within the framework of the instruments they had were very sophisticated, especially what Charlie Haden was playing. Where he would be playing in reference to where another instrument was playing was quite unique. It wasn’t just a bass, it was a bass part that moved in terms of registers that were in relation to what the other instruments were playing, which gave the music a sound and made it jump out and cause certain acoustical connections to happen. Say Ornette would be playing on a certain range on his instruments; then the bass would be in a particular range that made the alto sound a certain way — it gave the whole ensemble a certain sound. This was quite new, because the bass playing we had heard previous to that was a walking type of bass that kind of went up and down. It didn’t have these big register shifts like that, register shifts that had an ultimate orchestral effect on the music. So it was really a lot of new information that came out of this music which permeated all of my thinking and the thinking of all my peers.

TP: Well, certainly that sense of unifying sound or creating sounds in relation to each other was very evident in Air, which had a very spare instrumentation, where you were joined by two extremely resourceful instrumentalists and improvisers, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. I guess there’s some element of the Ahmad Jamal concept of orchestration, too, with a minimum of elements.

HT: Yeah. Exactly.

[MUSIC: Ornette, “Lonely Woman” (1959); Eddie Lockjaw Davis, “Whole Nelson” (1961)]

HT: Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I have to say, is probably the most original saxophone player I ever heard in my life. I’ve listened to all the different saxophone players, but I’ve never heard anyone play the saxophone like that. It’s the most convoluted style of playing that I ever heard in my life. You can hear a lot of players emulate Charlie Parker, Coltrane, all kinds of players. I’ve never heard anyone that can emulate this man, or anyone who can approach the saxophone in this way. It’s a strange style of playing, and the harmonic language is very different. His way of formulating sound on the instrument is extremely different; I don’t know what that was about. If you listen to Eddie Lockjaw Davis (most people haven’t listened to him, I don’t think), you will see that the notes don’t come out of the saxophone the way they do when other people play the saxophone. It’s very convoluted. It’s the most original thing I ever heard in my life. The most original.

TP: People use the phrase upside-down to describe his patterns.

HT: I don’t even know what he’s doing, to tell the truth. Maybe he was playing upside-down, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was the most original thing I ever heard. Because it’s not a linear way of playing. It’s convoluted. It’s a convoluted style, and I never heard anyone else play like that.

TP: You mentioned that you started as a tenor player and came to the alto saxophone last, a lot of the people we’re listening to in the course of the show are tenor players. A lot of people take the opposite tack. Given the choice between the alto and tenor, they find it’s easier to get an acceptable sound on the tenor, and move to that. You went in the opposite direction. What was it about the alto that appealed to you?

HT: It was when I was playing with this church band. The minister of the Church, when I first went to play for this particular church, asked me to play this particular piece of music, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” I played it that Sunday. Like I say, this was a sanctified church, and when I played it, the people were just polite; they just kind of looked up in the air. They usually just fell on the floor in front of my face! The minister told me, “I have an alto saxophone under the pulpit.” He told me to go put it in the shop and he would pay to have it fixed. So I put it in the shop, got it fixed, and then he said to me, “Now, play that same piece of music next Sunday.” I played it, and it was like a whole different reaction from the church when I played it. What I discovered was (I had been playing the tenor around there) that they just didn’t hear the tenor. It was too low. The tenor is great in playing the Blues, but it really didn’t work in the churches. And when I started coming across a couple of other people who were playing out there in that church circuit, they were all playing altos, too. So that’s how I switched over to the alto.

TP: Then in the AACM, multi-instrumentalism was…

HT: When I came back to the AACM I was playing all of the saxophones, the baritone and tenor, but eventually…

TP: I recollect seeing you play twenty years ago, there would be a floor of instruments on the bandstand.

HT: Playing everything. I just worked it down to…I just play mostly these days alto, flute and bass flute.

TP: In what sense did being in the AACM and being in that environment expand your compositional horizons and visions and sense of the possibilities of music?

HT: Oh, because the players were all composers, and they were all looking for and developing their writing skills and compositional language. So you would find out what other people were constantly doing, which enhanced what you were doing. Also, people’s general interest in world music. Somebody could tell you about listening to this person play music from some other country, or avail you of information to go hear concerts by the Chicago Symphony or the Chicago Chamber Players or anything of that nature. There was so much broad information now, all of a sudden. In that circle there was a broad resource of information being exchanged and previewed. It was not exclusively Jazz any more. It was music. The picture was music there. It was not a particular idiom any more.

TP: So it’s as though the musical language of the world is on your plate to do with what you will.

HT: Yeah, to investigate and whatever. Whatever approach you wanted to take to it. But it was wide open. Before that, the places I would go and be around, people were exclusively just trying to deal with just Jazz, and not looking at the music of Varese or Hindemith or Schoenberg or Stockhausen, or listening to Bishmallah Kahn. That wasn’t the case. Now in the AACM, there were a bunch of people that were aware of a lot of different music, were working within the context of different musics, and integrating it into what they were doing. The same had been done before. That’s the way it’s always done. That’s how advances are made, by infusing and accepting other things into what you’re doing until you come up with something that allows you to evolve in evolutionary terms.

TP: When you came to New York in the mid-’70s, Air continued, and then you focused on the Henry Threadgill Sextett, with two drummers, making it a 7-musician ensemble. We’ll hear a track from the last Sextett recording, Rag, Bush and All on RCA-Novus.

[MUSIC: “The Devil Is On the Loose And Dancing With A Monkey” (1988); “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket” (1983); Varese, “Ionization”]

TP: A few words about the current organization. I asked you before if you recycle compositions, or better put, rework them and re-orchestrate for different bands, and you said it’s almost entirely new music for new orchestras. You have a new group after Very Very Circus, which doubled the guitars and tubas.

HT: The new group is a five-piece group, Make A Move.

TP: In your writing are you hearing sounds and finding people to match the sounds, or are you hearing people’s sounds and finding ways to structure them within an ensemble? Is that a clear question?

HT: It’s a clear question, but I don’t know if my answer would be the answer you want. The answer is, no, I hear a totally different situation, and it’s about finding the right people for the situation. They bring a lot of new possibilities within that situation. I have a general idea of where I want to go and what I want to do, and then when somebody comes in, you see how much information they have, so it enriches your information as to what’s possible within this new framework that you put yourself in. That’s basically what happens.

TP: Well, I don’t think I wanted one answer or the other. I just wanted to know what the deal actually was, Henry!

HT: What the deal is. I don’t actually know what the deal is until the deal is done! It’s like that. You’ve got to know when to hold it and know when to fold it and know when the deal is done!

[MUSIC: Very, Very Circus, “Vivjanrondirski”]

[-30-]

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Filed under AACM, DownBeat, Henry Threadgill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ted Nash Blindfold Test: (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Ted Nash

For Danilo Perez’ 54th Birthday, Downbeat Features From 2010 and 2014

Best of birthdays to maestro Danilo Pérez. who turns 54 today. A few years ago on this date , I uploaded a post containing transcripts of an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001 and a WKCR interview in 1993. That post linked to a pair of Downbeat articles that it was my honor to write about Danilo in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Today I’m posting the texts of those articles.

 

Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014

At 2:30 in the morning on the penultimate night of the 2014 Panama Jazz Festival, Danilo Pérez hopped off the bandstand of his new, namesake club in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district. He was exhilarated, and for good reason. Pérez had just concluded the week’s final jam session—a fiery encounter with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Adam Cruz—with an exorcistic five-minute piano solo on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.”

“That was like Bradley’s,” Pérez called out, punctuating the point with an emphatic fist-bump. The reference was to the late-night Greenwich Village piano saloon where Pérez was a rotation regular from 1989, his first of three years with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, until Bradley’s closed in 1996. That was the year Pérez released Panamonk, cementing his status as a multilingual storyteller who renders Afro-Caribbean and hardcore jazz dialects without an accent.

Earlier that evening, Pérez had focused on his latest release, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), at a concert at the City of Knowledge, a 300-acre former U.S. military base along the Panama Canal where the festival transpired. The 12-tune suite evokes Panama’s half-millennium as a global crossroads, incorporating indigenous melodies and local variants of African-descended rhythms. On the recording, Pérez fleshes them out with structural and harmonic logics developed over a 14-year run with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and animates them by unleashing two intuitive rhythm sections—bassist Ben Street and Cruz from his working trio of the past decade, and Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his partners with Shorter—capable of matching the twists and turns of the leader’s open-ended improvisations. He phrases with a singer’s malleability and a drummer’s effervescence. The concert marked only the second public performance of the work, but Pérez and his unit—Patitucci, Cruz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and conguero-batá drummer Ramon Díaz—delivered it with precision and flair, overcoming a balky sound system, dubious acoustics, and several obstreperous attendees.

Throughout the week, Pérez, 48, multitasked efficiently despite minimal sleep. He fulfilled numerous extra-musical obligations, analyzing the big picture and extinguishing logistical brushfires. At an opening-day press conference, he displayed considerable diplomatic skills, communicating the festival’s educational mission and socio-economic impact in concrete language that the politicians and bureaucrats he shared the stage with could understand and support. He never removed his educator’s hat. There were visits to his Danilo Pérez Foundation, which offers top-shelf musical instruction and life lessons to several hundred at-risk children, 19 of whom have received scholarships to the likes of Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Furthermore, Pérez participated in an array of clinics, workshops and master classes conducted by faculty and an elite octet dubbed the Global Jazz Ambassadors [GJA], culled from the Global Jazz Institute, the 30-student enclave that Berklee hired Pérez to conceptualize and develop a curriculum for in 2010.

After a two-hour rehearsal on the morning before the “Panama 500” concert, and another one with Patitucci and GJA for an evening concert in which he would play timbales, congas and cajon, Pérez walked to the City of Knowledge food court for lunch. Over the next hour, he discussed his creative process, staying on point through periodic interruptions—a fan asked for a photo; a violinist and a documentary filmmaker stopped by the table for separate chats, as did Oswaldo Ayala, a popular Panamanian accordionist-vocalist who would debut a new project that evening when the GJA concert was done.

“Records for me are like signposts, and now we have to make a lot of new windows through which to enter and exit,” Pérez said. “They really need to know all the little details; otherwise, there are places where we could get lost in the mud. I’m excited about finding ways to open up and get those notes off the paper.”

The little details and the portals coexist in equal measure on Panama 500. In its formal complexity, Pérez hearkens to the specificity of intention that infused his ’90s recordings—The Journey and Motherland, both heavily composed meditations on Pan-American themes in which the drums power through, and also blowing-oriented dates like Panamonk and Central Avenue, on which he imparted a funky, Mother Earth feel to an array of odd-meter claves. But the mood is more akin to the spontaneous, fluid, experimental sensibility—a quality of instant composition—that palpably infuses 2005’s Live At The Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare) and 2010’s Providencia (Mack Avenue).

Originally, Pérez had intended to follow Providencia with a less speculative program of standards and originals, but experienced a creative breakthrough after the 2013 festival. “When I got back to Boston I knew what the record would be, that I wanted to tell the human path of what happened when the Spanish discovered—or rediscovered—Panama and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I started writing new material and improvising at the piano constantly for two weeks. I was writing for each person in the band to represent a certain aspect of the experience. The violin can be the Spanish colonizer, and then transform into the indigenous.”

Once in the studio, Pérez decided to give the two rhythm sections repertoire that they had not previously worked on. “I didn’t want the feeling on the record that people have complete understanding or control,” he explained. “The more familiar they were with a piece, I chose to go the opposite way. Before I joined Wayne, I would have been panicking that someone didn’t know all the details.”

Cruz recounted the milieu. “There was a lot to digest and process, and each section has a certain character,” he said. “So we were struggling—a fun struggle, but hard work. He’s looking for a way not to feel trapped by what he wrote, so performing it always feels fresh and pregnant with possibility.” By deploying this approach, Pérez mirrored what Street described as the “completely chaotic” environment that pervaded the making of Providencia. “I told his wife I thought we should make changes in the control room or ask people to leave,” Street said. “She looked at me almost pityingly and said, ‘Danilo thrives on chaos.’”

Upon hearing her words back, Patricia Zarate laughed long and hard. “It sounds weird for me to say my husband is special, but Danilo has a lot of charisma,” Zarate said. “He has a natural predisposition to turn really bad situations into good ones, whether it’s a band that sounds really bad that he makes sound really good, or being in the home of a student who lives in extreme poverty, transforming it into a great party. That comes from his father. I see chaos in front of me; they see a little light that I don’t see.”

Danilo Pérez Sr., a well-known Panamanian sonero of the Beny Moré school, became an elementary school teacher during the ’60s. He experimented with ways to use music as a learning tool in poor neighborhoods, and passed them on to his son, who was playing bongos by age 3 and began classical piano studies at 8. “My father clearly demonstrated to me that learning and playing a piece is not the beautiful part,” Pérez said, who played both piano and drums in his father’s bands from an early age. “It’s the struggle to get it. If you can connect to the actual lesson that the music teaches you, you have learned something profound in that process, and it will stay with you forever.”

Gillespie and Shorter, both musical father surrogates, reinforced this basis of operations. “Dizzy said that people need to simmer,” Pérez said. “Let it come from friction. Let people struggle until they find their place. Don’t try to accommodate it. Wayne also told us that. Don’t rush. Don’t make quick assumptions. A big attraction to working in Wayne’s context is that he took away everything that I could use to recycle. He said, ‘Function from the primacy of the ear and find your way in.’ Dizzy talked about that, too. ‘Listen, listen, listen, and then let the music guide you.’ That’s the way I’m doing things now. I’m just trying to redefine things that I have thought about or worked on for years.”

Patitucci, who hosted the Panama 500 rehearsals at his Westchester home, described how Pérez manifested this attitude. “Danilo’s process is long,” Patitucci said. “He came in at 9 a.m. with stuff, but it was just the starting point. He’d literally investigate sounds all day, have a short break, and then go to the gig. That makes him perfect for Wayne’s music, which is not about quick answers and cliches. It’s about probing, searching, the struggle of finding new sounds and dealing with them. Danilo is not in a hurry, and he won’t settle for something expedient. He’ll go for something much deeper.”

Pérez described this mindset as “almost obsessive-compulsive, like a dementia.” He said: “It’s almost like the time stops. I feel more joy and function better when I do that, like a kid finding and creating, doing one little thing for a long time. It’s beyond what my father explained to me. It’s the most human I feel.”

Again, he credited his embrace of this perspective to Shorter’s example. “I’ve been encouraged to take these risks,” Pérez said. “I’ve been allowed to think that the creative process is invaluable. I’m starting to get into an open door to come up with a vocabulary that has been with me for years, since The Journey and Panamonk. On each of them, I was falling in love with little things in my life, and I feel like they’re coming back at me. I’m not chasing them. They’re coming back.”

Pérez now finds himself at a crossroads not so dissimilar to the one he faced 14 years ago, when he decided to table his burgeoning career as a solo artist and commit to Shorter’s quartet. This summer, He will join Patitucci and Blade on the club and festival circuit as the Children of the Light trio, while Shorter, who pushed himself hard during 2013 with numerous 80th birthday events, stays home to compose. Pérez’s 2014 itinerary also includes several runs with the Panama 500 unit and a duo event with Miguel Zenón. He hopes to revive his long-standing partnership with tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, and a more recent relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar that developed during a 2010 project titled “Celebrating Dizzy,” as yet unrecorded, on which Pérez applied principles of nonattachment to Gillespie’s oeuvre. Speaking of recordings, he has several possibilities in mind—perhaps a singers’ project, perhaps documenting orchestral work, perhaps a solo piano recital on the kind of repertoire he played at Bradley’s back in the day, informed by such early mentors as Donald Brown, Jon Hendricks and Gillespie.

Topping Pérez’s aspirational queue is to generate sufficient income from his club to buy the building that houses the Danilo Pérez Foundation. “My dream is to create the best listening room in Latin America,” he said, noting that a 7-foot grand piano would soon be installed, and that Rob Griffin, Shorter’s sound-engineer/road-manager since the mid-’90s, will be overseeing the details. “We want to provide a creative space where the musicians who go from Panama to the United States can play and develop artistically when they return, and also bring international artists to perform at the club in a way that complements the foundation. I want the foundation to be there forever.”

The foundation’s genesis dates to 1984, when Pérez, a few months shy of 18, left Panama on a Fulbright scholarship to study electrical engineering at Indiana College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed a year before transferring to Berklee—also on scholarship—in 1985. “I promised that I would come back and give time every year,” he said. Pérez committed four days each year over a nine-year span to a music-social outreach project called Jamboree, assembled big bands and taught private classes. “Although Danilo saw all these things as part of his mission, they were disconnected and unsustainable because there wasn’t an institution that could take care of this mission,” Zarate said. “So in 2003 he opened a corporation to create a jazz festival that had a social component. ‘I really need to do this,’ he told me, ‘and I am going to put in the project all the money that I have saved to buy our first house in Boston.’”

Two years later, Pérez—who had been appointed Panama’s Cultural Ambassador in 2000—met K.C. Hardin, a controlling partner of the real estate development company Conservatorio, which was then purchasing numerous properties in Casco Viejo One of them was the National Conservatory of Music, a four-story structure constructed in the 1670s—it was Panama’s first Presidential palace—where Pérez had studied in his youth. Another was the American Trade Building, a 1917 mercantile structure across a small plaza from the conservatory, that had fallen into disrepair. Hardin offered Pérez the first floor of the conservatory for a decade, at no rent, to house the foundation; in 2013, he gave Pérez complete creative control of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club on the hotel’s ground floor.

Luis-Carlos Pérez (no relation), 35, a one-time DPF student who earned master’s degrees in jazz composition and music education from New England Conservatory, is the foundation’s director of education. “We try to teach the children human values and good habits through music,” he said in the foundation’s main practice room, which contains a Kawai grand piano, a Ludwig drum kit and a marimba. In a back room are two Apple computers with keyboards, and six PCs for students—five of them pay $40 per month; the rest are on scholarship—to do homework and access the internet.

Profanity is forbidden, as is fighting, and wearing shoes is mandatory. “We don’t teach music in a conservatory way,” Luis-Carlos Pérez said. “They need to play, to feel music like a game. We teach them to make different sounds with their body, that their body is their first instrument. Some kids may be sexually harassed; this teaches them to respect their bodies. We give them rhythm instruments, or melodicas on which they learn little tunes. We also teach teamwork, how to listen to each other. If a kid has an attitude problem, we know it’s because something is wrong at home, so we make them the leaders. That was Danilo’s idea.”

Danilo Pérez’s core notion of privileging process over product also infuses his vision for the Global Jazz Institute, whose students play in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to give them an opportunity to feel, as he puts it, “that their talent brings with it great responsibility.” “At the institute, we teach that everything is connected,” said Marco Pignataro, a Bologna-born saxophonist who has been GJI’s managing director since its inception. “The act of giving is going to affect what you do on stage. Danilo’s teaching reflects his experience with Wayne Shorter—his sense of harmony and orchestration, the idea that creativity and humanity exist at the same time. Offstage, you’re still improvising.”

“Danilo sees the world as one huge combination of things, instead of ‘music is here and other things are there,’” said Zarate, a music therapist whose mother is a neurologist in Chile. “He was a totally different person before Wayne, who totally connects to music therapy. But while I was trying to figure out how to restore movement in people with Parkinson’s Disease, Wayne was talking about how we’re going to move humanity with music.”

For all his preoccupation with the big picture, Pérez is a stickler for fundamentals and idiomatic assimilation of traditions. “I still believe that the core of this music’s sound design and architecture comes from listening to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who created a vocabulary that is so representative of North America,” he said. “I emphasize that the kids be aware of bebop. I want them to look at Charlie Parker as a superhero. Their backgrounds are very similar. You see this music speak to them; it comes from the barrio.”

Pérez describes his own background as “poor, working-class,” recalling how his mother, also a teacher, “saved a penny to a penny to raise our level.” He emphasizes that “to be poor then didn’t necessarily mean issues with crime and violence, whereas now it’s implied. It was a super-optimistic, honorable culture. My grandfather would say, ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey; possessions mean nothing if you’re a crook.’ Those values were passed on to us. My mother studied so hard! I promised myself that I want to learn all my life. That’s why I went to New York, and put myself in situations where I was uncomfortable. I think the ultimate heritage you can leave for your family is the desire not to want things to be easy. When I’d see Dizzy in a corner with a little pencil and music, or Wayne writing 100 bars, that is where it’s at for me: commitment and passion.”

These first principles will continue to inform Pérez’s implementation of his social-humanitarian vision. “I understood from early on that the component of education wasn’t only for musicians,” he said. “I see so many things that could be changed in my country, and I asked myself whether I wanted to be a person who produced the change or one who just complained about it. I decided I’d do whatever it takes that I feel is ethical and moral, that doesn’t go against the values my parents taught me. Another thing I learned from Wayne is that every time you feel resistance, it’s a sign to know you’re on the right path. Use resistance as a fertilizer.”

[—30—]

 

Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):

“I have to take a risk, otherwise I start to freak out,” said Danilo Perez, after downing a second double espresso at Saturday brunch in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I understood that early on, even when I was playing with great artists. They wouldn’t like it, because I wouldn’t do the same intro, and maybe I screwed it up the second time.”

The 43-year pianist was midway through a first-four-nights-of-April engagement at the Jazz Standard with a new project dubbed Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy, on which he and his newest band—alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir El Saffar, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, along with drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street from Perez’ working trio—were deconstructing iconic Dizzy Gillespie repertoire like “Salt Peanuts,” “Con Alma,” “Manteca,” and “Woody ‘n You.” It was only their third meeting, and Perez meant to use his ten club sets to coalesce the flow. There were arrangements, but Perez spontaneously reorchestrated from the piano, cuing on-a-dime shifts in tonality and meter, relentlessly recombining the unit into various duo, trio and quartet configurations.

Ultimately, Perez said, he hoped to extrapolate to the larger ensemble the expansive feel he’s evolved over the past eight years with Street and Cruz, one that Street positioned “somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions record.” Street added: “The music has a lot of emotional freedom, but also an unspoken subtext of rhythmic science that doesn’t always need to be directly addressed.”

“It takes time and patience to be able to go anywhere the music takes us,” Perez said. “Our mission is to uncover new territories inside what’s there to create something unique, and then write to that.” Elaborating as the conversation progressed, Perez referred several times to “writing with windows through which people can enter and exit.”

“I don’t want to write in a dictatorial way, that inhibits personality,” he continued. “I want them to put me in a weird spot.” Perez credited Wayne Shorter, his steady employer since 2001, as the source of this imperative. “Wayne writes you this amazing thing, but then says, ‘Forget that, and bring your own idea—I want to hear your opinion of what I wrote.’”

Cruz cosigned Perez’ consistent non-attachment to material. “If there’s even a smattering of routine on the gig, an ‘Oh, this is what we do’ feeling, Danilo immediately wants to throw a wrench—knock all these pieces over and start again,” he said. Mahanthappa added: “More than anyone I play with, Danilo loves loading a set with surprises to keep things fresh.”

Perez also attributed this predisposition to his experience with Shorter. “He’s given my life a dimension that wasn’t there before—to be committed and fearless, and not focus on the result, but let the stuff morph as it wants to,” he explained. “I’m thinking a lot about what in my life is important to portray, and then letting the music mold and take shape as it goes.” He referenced the title of his just-mixed new album, Providencia [Mack Avenue]. “It’s to prepare for the unknown, for the future, almost as though you’re watching something in forward motion. You let ‘providencia’ take place. I’m thinking a lot about movements and movies, even about struggle. And a lot about children—when I play now, images arise of how children make decisions, doing something and suddenly switching to something else, like organized chaos, but keeping the thread.”

Providencia is a tour de force, a kaleidoscopic suite woven from the core themes that mark Perez’ oeuvre since his eponymous 1993 debut and its 1994 followup, The Journey, on which he presented a mature, expansive, take on Pan-American jazz expression. There are dark, inflamed Panamanian love songs; original programmatic works addressing Panamanian subjects on which the woodwinds and voice that augment the ensemble improvise fluidly within the form; and improvcentric combo tunes that incorporate complex, intoxicating Afro-Caribbean meters—Panama’s tamborito on “Panama Galactic,” for example—and highbrow jazz harmony; a pair of cohesive, spontaneously improvised Perez-Mahanthappa duos towards the end. Throughout the proceedings, the pianist plays with exquisitely calibrated touch, extrapolating the beyond-category voice shaped in the crucible of Shorter’s quintet—Mahanthappa describes it as “the history of jazz piano and 20th century classical music, but improvised, virtuosic, reactive, and musical”—onto the ingenious clave permutations and capacious harmonic palette that established his early career reputation.

The precision of the language and clarity of intention on Providencia belies the loose methodology that Perez deployed in making it. Yet, rather than work with a preordained “text,” Perez, in the manner of a film director who convenes his cast several weeks before shooting to work out characters and plot, constructed his narrative after extensive studio rehearsals.

“I approached it more as a life event than a record date, different than what I’ve done before,” Perez said, referencing his earlier, more curated productions. “I’m living by the code of adventure, to play what I wish for, without preconceptions. I’m fascinated by human collaboration expressed through music, how people with different interests, different loves, can come together and create. The project was a response to an imaginary question from my two daughters: ‘What are you doing to prevent the world from disappearing? What is going to be left for us?’ It’s an invitation to get away from our comfort zone.”

Similar impulses influenced Perez’ decision to collaborate with Mahanthappa and El-Saffar, both high-concept leaders who work with raw materials drawn from South India and Iraq, their respective ancestral cultures, as well as Haddad, a Lebanese-American who specializes in articulating timbres and meters drawn from North African sources. At the Jazz Standard, Perez deftly wove their individualistic tonalities into the overall sonic tapestry. “I was curious to hear how I’d react to an unknown space, like traveling with a person that you never have traveled with or don’t know well,” he said. “I’m attracted to the connotation of globality—the global feel, the idea of bridging gaps.”

[BREAK]

“For me, jazz is the only place where globalization really works,” Perez remarked. He embraced that notion during a 1989-1992 tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s Pan-American oriented United Nations Orchestra, when his name entered the international jazz conversation.

“Dizzy was a global ambassador, and the idea of doing a project around him seemed appropriate now,” he continued. “I believe that this group can become a sort of healing band. Maybe go to Iraq or India and play a concert with musicians there—have the group reflect how the United Nations or the government should be working.

“When I started playing with Dizzy, I was listening a lot to Bud Powell. Once I played a solo over Rhythm changes, people were congratulating me, but Dizzy sort of said, ‘Yeah…but when are you going to deal with where you come from?’ Later, I somehow added something, and he went CLUCK-CLUCK with the baton, meaning, ‘Whatever you did, just keep going.’ I understand now that by not putting up barriers, Dizzy was practicing his Bahai faith. He wanted to create a cultural passport that functions all around the world, for everybody, and he should be credited for that.”

Mentored by mainstem jazz pianist Donald Brown at Berklee, and seasoned in the idiomatic nuances over a consequential year with Jon Hendricks, who “insisted that I know ALL the history,” Perez drew on Gillespie’s first-hand knowledge of the thought process of such seminal figures as Monk and Powell, whose vocabularies he would assimilate sufficiently to make the rotation at Bradley’s, Manhattan’s A-list piano saloon.

“The education system then was not what it is now,” he said. “They channeled information through the great music of the Western world, mixing that with the rhythms they were working with, and developed a new language. I heard Bach’s flowing lines in Bud’s music, and this helped me start to hear bebop. Dizzy would say, ‘Create counterpoint; if I play this note, find another one in the chord; don’t play all the notes. Position your hands, lift some fingers, and then listen to the sound.’ Wayne talks about it, too: ‘Find the tonal magnetism.’

“When I came to the U.S., something drew me to the word ‘jazz.’ I don’t know any more what it means, but I know the feeling. I understand the emotion from being with the cats at Bradley’s or the masters I played with later. There’s a spontaneity, a moment of joy, something that drives your momentum and makes you feel more optimistic and aware. I realized I had to make a cultural decision to immerse myself in the environment, to hear how people talk, to learn. Then I started making connections—finding common tones. ‘That reminds me of the brothers in Panama—they talk kind of like that.’”

Such experiences bedrocked Perez’ quest to find a trans-Caribbean rhythmic context for Monk’s compositions during the ‘90s, documented on Panamonk [Impulse!], from 1996. The idea germinated, he said, on a 1994 tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra devoted to Wynton Marsalis’ arrangements of Monk repertoire.

“They approached that music in a sort of Monk-New Orleans-Panama folkloric way that resonated,” he said. “In Herlin Riley’s playing, I heard the connection between the tambores of Panama and second line rhythms, things that reminded me of danzon and contradanse—it all made sense. I had a similar experience playing with Paquito D’Rivera; I wanted to play jazz and swing, but he focused me on Venezuela and Panama.”

Sharpening that focus were occasional gigs with the Panamaniacs, a short-lived group led by Panama-born bassist Santi DiBriano, who introduced Perez to Panama’s contribution to the jazz timeline—saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianists Luis Russell and Sonny White, drummer Billy Cobham. Perez contends that the demographic diversity stemming from Panama’s position as a global port produces a cultural mix well suited to jazz expression. He referenced Panama City’s Central Avenue, for which Perez titled a well-wrought 1998 release.

“You hear an Indian cat kind of speaking Spanish, but not really,” he began. “Then a Chinese guy semi-speaking Spanish with Chinese. Then an Afro cat. It’s almost what New York feels like, but in one small country. That’s what one has to portray, that kind of mystical mess—but an organized chaos.”

Within the Panamanian melting pot, Perez was ideally positioned to become an improviser. A child prodigy who studied classical music from age eight, he received first-hand instruction in singing and percussion from his namesake father, now 72, a well-known bandleader and sonero of Afro-Colombian and indigenous descent.

“My father was my first school, my fundamental figure,” said Perez, who became a professional musician at 12, dual-tracking during high school as a math and electronics student at the insistence of his Spanish-descended mother who felt, perhaps from first-hand experience, that music was not a dependable profession. “Music was easy for me since I was little, a language I understood quickly, so he used music to teach me to look at things I needed to function in society—“two plus two is four; four plus four is eight.” At 6 I’d pick up the guitar and start singing, ‘Besame, besame mucho,’ and he would say, ‘sing a second voice.’ ‘Papi, that’s too low.’ Later he had me transcribe Cuban records. Imagine being in that environment 24 hours a day. That connected me to music in intuitively, while the electronics and mathematics—my mother’s side—gave me the discipline and ability to learn things on my own.

“My father said he knew that sooner or later I would decide in favor of music. I think now that I didn’t even have to choose, that I was already walking on the music path and wanted to continue growing on that path. From him I understood early on that being mentored was a key, and I surrounded myself with people that know. I always want to keep being a student, to be in situations I can grow in. Otherwise, I lose touch with how music first spoke to me.”

[BREAK]

In 2001, when he first toured with Wayne Shorter, Perez faced a crossroads. Then 34, fresh from three high-visibility years playing trio with Roy Haynes and John Patitucci, boasting a c.v. that already included several influential Grammy-nominated albums, possessing strong communicative skills and multi-generational peer respect, he appeared on the cusp of the upper echelons of jazz leaders. Instead, he subsumed such aspirations, constructing his next decade’s schedule around Shorter’s itinerary and a full-time professorship at New England Conservatory. He started a family with his wife, a Chilean music therapist, established a foundation in Panama to work with gang members, created the Panama Jazz Festival, became active in Panamanian cultural politics, and allowed his music to marinate.

“When I was 16, I promised that if I ever had an opportunity to go out and do something, I would return to my country and give back,” Perez said. “When I started playing with Wayne, his approach reconnected me with values that I learned with my father as a child. I realized that for my music to continue to flow naturally, I need to keep growing as a human being. I need to intensify my promise.”

In their essence, Shorter’s musical lessons were not so dissimilar from Gillespie’s earlier admonitions. “Early on we were playing ‘JuJu,’ and I was playing things I’d assimilated from earlier listening—McCoy—and Wayne looked at me like this.” Perez made his face blank. “All of a sudden, I saw a bunch of horses—I went with it. Wayne immediately turned and said, ‘That’s the shit right there.’ I kept going for that, to the point where it become a state of mind. Every time I thought about music, he looked at me like this”—he deadpanned—“and every time I disconnected myself and thought about an event, a movie, my daughter, my wife, he’d say, ‘That’s the shit right there.’”

Shorter has offered moral lessons, too, delivered as metaphoric koans but always landing precisely on the one. “Wayne made me realize that courage isn’t determined by trying to climb Mount Everest,” Perez said. “Courage is getting in a relationship and going through the struggle. He said, ‘Happiness doesn’t come for free. We have to fight for it every day, and we have to be inspired.’ He talks about no regrets—they leave wounds. He says, ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument—see who you are.’ Develop things. With Wayne you have to have a lot of tools together, but the most important tool is to be driven by your shamanistic side, your role in society as a musician.”

Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”
[—30—]

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For Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2017

In recognition of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th birthday, here’s the text of a long feature that I wrote about him for Downbeat last year in conjunction with his multiple “Critics Poll” victories as “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album”

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Late last December, just after Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith turned 75, well before Downbeat’s critics anointed him “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album” for 2017, John Lindberg spoke about “the rare arc” that has brought his old friend to “arguably the most productive time of his career.”

“That Wadada has elevated so much in notoriety, recognition and output of work speaks to his endurance, determination and sheer grit, his complete dedication and focus on his work for 40 years,” said Lindberg, who first played with Smith in a creative orchestra concert in 1978, has played bass regularly with Smith’s Golden Quartet and Organic ensembles since 2004, as well as in a long-standing duo, documented in 2015 on Celestial Weather: Midwest Duets. “It’s a coronation of the idea that true art can rise up in its purity and be recognized.”

Smith detailed his work ethic at his midtown hotel on the morning of April 22, day five of a six-night, six-event residency at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue. Only two of the concerts overlapped with his CREATE Festival, an eight-set, Smith-curated event that transpired on April 7 and 8 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut, where Smith lived during the 1970s and returned to in 2013, when he retired after two decades on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.

“The practice of making art has been my lifestyle,” Smith said. “I work the same way I worked when I taught school. Every day I get up at sunrise. I do my morning prayer. I have food and coffee or tea. I work until 11, 12 or 1 o’clock—another hour or so if I have a deadline. After that, I may visit my granddaughters and daughters. Then I come home. I cook my dinner. I watch a movie. I go to bed. I have no distortions or intrusions.

“I’ve always written a lot of music, on a scale that if I’d stopped writing ten years ago, I could still record for years. I’ve always been able to receive inspiration and transform it into scores, be they musical scores or literary scores. I read scores—opera scores, orchestral scores, string quartets—for my own satisfaction just like you’d read a novel. I’m looking for an intuitive, mystical connection with how those ideas came about—not with what they are. By doing that, you get a feeling for the decision as it was made, like when Shostakovich wrote that line where the strokes of the violin and various instruments in the quartet are only about dynamics.”

At CREATE Festival, Smith celebrated his Connecticut experiences. He presented a new score for saxophonist-flutist Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, both collaborators in New Dalta Akhri, the ensemble that Smith organized during his first New Haven stay, and members of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, which Smith founded there on the model of Chicago’s AACM, which he himself joined in 1967. Pianist-composer Anthony Davis, a Yale freshman in 1970 when he heard Smith, who had just moved there from Chicago, play a duo concert with Marion Brown in 1970 (he first recorded with Smith on the self-released Reflectativity in 1974 with Wes Brown on bass, recontextualized for Tzadik in 2000 with Malachi Favors), joined the RedKoral String Quartet to play Smith’s “String Quartet No. 10.” Drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who recorded with Smith and Davis in 1976 on Song Of Humanity, performed with the Mbira Trio, with extended techniques flute master Robert Dick and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen.

Smith also applied his 75-year-old chops to a solo recital mirroring his 2017 release Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM), and, both evenings, to repertoire from America’s National Parks (Cuneiform), the aforementioned Downbeat “Best Album,” on which cellist Ashley Waters, Smith’s one-time student at Cal Arts, joins Davis, Lindberg and akLaff, the core members of Smith’s Golden Quartet for the past decade.

DownBeat caught three concerts at the Stone, including an April 20 performance of “Pacifica” by the Crystal Sextet, on which four violists and electronicist Hardedge, prodded by Smith’s real-time instructions and exhortations, interpreted a graphic score depicting vertically stacked bands of color, progressively more opaque, representing how sunlight refracts in water as it penetrates to its depths. On April 22, Smith presented the kinetic, blues-infused suite, Najwa, using two guitarists (Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, his 21-year-old grandson) rather than the four who perform on a new Bill Laswell-produced release of that name (TUM), along with akLaff, Hardedge and Laswell on electric bass.

On April 23, Smith concluded his run with “Lake Superior,” a 19-page score drawn from the six-part Great Lakes Suite (TUM), with Henry Threadgill, Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette. For this occasion, Smith convened alto saxophonist Jonathan Haffner, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who conjured a kaleidoscopic performance after a half-hour pre-concert runthrough. Smith played throughout like a man possessed, leaving it “all on the field” on his final declamation, during which he roared through the trumpet with the power and heat of a practitioner half his age. At one particularly intense moment, he stood on one foot. After another, he leaned against the wall behind him. He took periodic pauses to mop his brow.

When they were done, Smith lifted the score for the audience to see. “I changed this—right here, right now—several times,” he said. “I create this magnificent gray zone where no one knows what’s going on except me. I’m exploring the dimensions of creativity. It’s not written. It’s not thought about. Then they solve the equation. My heart feels pretty incredible.”

He moved to the center of the “bandstand.” “I played the hardest I can possibly play,” Smith said.

The comment mirrored Smith’s remarks the previous morning on the phenomenon of playing with such boldness and in-your-face presence at his age. “I play as strong as I’ve ever played—in some contexts, much stronger,” Smith declared, noting a 2½-octave range, “starting from the bottom octave, around the G or the F#, all the way up to the high F or E, and sometimes G.”

He continued: “That’s a physical and emotional artistic gift. It has nothing to do with the way I practice or conceptualize making music. There’s a lot of misconceptions about making art. One is that you have to practice every day, as hard as you can. Another is that you have to warm up for hours before you play. None of those myths exist for me. I’m not bound by the idea that something has to sound a certain way or be done a certain way. What’s important to me is that, when an inspiration comes, I allow myself to receive it and try to read it the best I can, without inhibition or blockage.”

Smith offered a recent example in New Haven. “I got cramps in both rib sides five minutes after I started playing with the Golden Quintet,” he said. “I decided, ‘Ok, we’re going to see who wins.’ I stretched, which relieved the sharpness, and when I started playing I bent a little lower and didn’t think about it until it was over. When I pick up the trumpet and step out to play, I’m oblivious to everything. Therefore, I play as hard as I can every moment. To make live music—to make art live—is one of the most heroic feelings in the world. You have the possibility and actuality of losing yourself inside that for an hour. It’s cleansing. It regenerates your body, your human condition, your mental and spiritual state.”

Apart from spiritual dimensions, Smith added, “the trumpet came natural to my physique and my intelligence” from almost the moment he started playing it at 12 in Leland, Mississippi. “A few weeks later, before I knew all the notes, I wrote my first piece—for three trumpets,” he said. “I started playing live at 13. That got me out of having to go to the cotton field. In high school I played three nights a week, sometimes four. Even if we drove 150 miles from the gig, I still went to school every day. I learned how to do what I had to do. Trumpet is a tubular instrument, and to play it, you have to understand what happens when its physicality doesn’t match yours. When there’s a breakdown, it becomes traumatic for most people, and they try to correct it. But when the trumpet denies me access, I accept whatever it gives me, play what’s possible at that moment, make something out of it. After I do that, I gain the greatest sense of confidence. I don’t ever worry about if my lips are sore. I’ve played probably four or five mouthpieces for as long as I’ve played the trumpet.

“My sound is authentically me, and it comes from here.” Smith touched his diaphragm and his heart. “It doesn’t come from a mouthpiece. It doesn’t even come from an instrument.”

Smith developed his mighty embouchure by playing and practicing outdoors, both in high school and during his 1962-1966 tenure as an Army musician. “Your sound doesn’t bounce off columns or four walls,” Smith said. “The projection level is just after the bell.” He held his hands about 6 inches apart. “Once it gets past the horn that far, you can hear it almost anywhere, a half-mile or a mile away if there’s no trees.”

Roy Hargrove, presented with “Crossing Sirat” from Smith’s 2009 album Spiritual Dimensions on a Blindfold Test last year, described Smith’s sound as “majestic.” In a separate conversation, Jonathan Finlayson called it “regal.” A more granular, metaphysical appreciation came from Laswell, whose second duo recording with Smith, Sacred Ceremonies, comes out this summer on his M.O.D. label, along with a Smith-Laswell-Milford Graves trio titled Ceremonies and Rituals and a Smith-Graves duo titled Baby Dodds in Congo Square. In each instance, Smith weaves in and out of the rhythm, juxtaposing sound and space with fluid rigor, signifying on the cool, simmering Laswell-engineered ambience with a lustrous, blue-flame tone that contrasts to his white-heat declamations the last two evenings at the Stone.

“He doesn’t do much high-register stuff, which you also find in people like Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Olu Dara,” said Laswell, who documented his first encounter with Smith on the 2014 CD Akashic Meditations (M.O.D.). “When he’s playing warmer tones in the mid-range and lower register, he catches this blues quality without the form. There’s some kind of force with a natural element, not just based on the music experience. Wadada’s been here long enough to accumulate these different feelings and elements and experiences about the human condition, and he’s pouring it back on the world. He plays rivers and lakes and mountains and fields. You don’t find that so much in music. That’s why people are responding.”

In akLaff’s view, Smith now plays with more sustained intensity than when he first entered his orbit. “I remember people writing about my playing the austere and spare music of Leo Smith, and it wasn’t necessarily laudatory,” akLaff said. “During his thirties and forties, Wadada had direct experience with the energy people were playing with during that period, which cannot be repeated. He chose not to get in the fray. You could say composition won out over braggadocio. Now, as a septugenarian, Wadada has that in his pocket, and he’s chosen to be uniquely outstanding with it.”

“Wadada always had this inimitable, immediately recognizable, wide sound with this incredible concept of using space and texture and color,” Lindberg said. “But if someone asked me which trumpet player is going to blow the roof off the place every night, he wouldn’t have jumped to mind at the top of the list. But ever since 2004, when I joined the version of the Golden Quartet with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Vijay Iyer, I cannot recall a performance where he hasn’t played really hard. I don’t think he can help himself.”

Smith’s “gray zone” reference after the April 23 concert illuminated his penchant for deploying micronic control of timbre to maneuver and shape the flow within the diverse instrumentations and contexts that he explores. “Wadada’s notation system seamlessly represents composed, fixed elements while allowing for the spontaneous innovation of the player to be embedded within it,” Davis said. “His music was always developed and multifaceted, taking us as performers on a journey through different structures, moods, settings and techniques. You always have to be on your toes, because the structure can change on a dime. You look at the whole score, not just your part—according to what Wadada plays, you might have to go to a different section. That keeps the music fresh; the composition is a living, breathing thing.”

Davis regards America’s National Parks as “a natural progression” from Smith’s epic Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), recorded in late 2011, with the Golden Quartet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Smith took as his subject pivotal events, themes and protagonists in the African-American struggle for civil rights over a 145-year timeline. “Ten Freedom Summers was more turbulent than this album, which emphasizes the more lyrical side of Wadada’s music and playing, and has a beautiful flow,” Davis said.

In 2015, Smith was looking for “another project that would make sense and give me the opportunity to showcase another aspect of my art,” when he received a copy of Ken Burns’ American National Parks documentary. “I wanted to expand the idea of national parks, and also not make them into cathedrals, sacred ground for some kind of religious endeavor, as Burns did,” Smith said. In his vision, New Orleans, which gestated “the first authentic music in America,” is a national cultural park; Dr. Eileen Southern, author of the comprehensive, pathbreaking Black Music in America, is a literary national park. “New Orleans and Dr. Southern are common property for everyone, just like Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite, that should be held in trust for every generation of Americans coming forward to participate in, appreciate and understand,” Smith said.

Lindberg related that in the process of conceptualizing and rehearsing Ten Freedom Summers, Smith engaged in “literal depictions and discussions about the events that inspired certain pieces.” Conversely, when conceiving America’s National Parks, Smith followed a process of metaphoric refraction. “I’m not trying to achieve musical portraits of a spot or a piece of land or a book,” he said. “Through meditation, reflection, contemplation and research, I profile these entities psychologically and aesthetically to give me deeper insight into what that particular something means.”

Although he didn’t say so explicitly, Smith follows that refractive m.o. in Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, his fourth solo album, comprising four songs by Monk and four by Smith, among them an original titled “Mystery: Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium.” “I won’t resolve that mystery, but I’m fascinated to see how it’s taken,” Smith said of the implied narrative. He located his booklet note remarks on Monk on his iPhone, and read: In this life, I am closer to you than any other artist, not in the way you inform your music practice and ensemble intelligence, but in the way we calculate inspiration.

“I’m challenging the notion that Monk’s music is purely harmonic, saying it can be performed in multiple languages in a way believable to the listener,” Smith said. “I use melodic elements to evolve the solo passages. Some are composed as fragments, some as long extended lines. When I play through it, I spontaneously select from those composed melodic elements the portions that I need; what I select is based off what I played before, and also where I’m going from there.”

Where is Smith going as he progresses through the second half of his eighth decade? Among other things, he anticipates releasing another dozen or so completed albums, including his complete string and viola quartets, and a trio date with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette. Their release will likely generate further critical acclaim. He won’t turn it down.

“When I was a young, developing artist, my friends and associates in the AACM, and other independent artists whose viewpoints I respect, all thought of DownBeat as the most major component for this music,” Smith said. “DownBeat has covered this music for 80 years, and written about the major artists of our times. I’ve grown, of course, but I do the same thing I’ve done all along. I did it without wondering whether I’d ever get an award. So having Downbeat recognize in 2013 that I’m a composer of value with the Composer of the Year award for Ten Freedom Summers, and now Record of the Year, Artist Of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year—that’s like a grand slam, to use a baseball metaphor.”

Ted Panken

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Filed under AACM, DownBeat, trumpet, Wadada Leo Smith

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

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

 

Paolo Fresu Article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[—30—]

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

Paolo Fresu Blindfold Test (Raw):

[WINE DESCRIPTIONS ARE IN ITALICS]

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

López de Heredia Rioja Viña Tondonia blanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goyo Garcia Viadero Ribera del Duero Valdeolmos

Free Jazz.

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

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

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

Jerome Prevost Champagne La Closerie Fac-Simile Rosé

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

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

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

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

Valdespino Sherry Fino Inocente

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

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

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

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

Springfield Robertson Sauvignon blanc

Fusion Jazz with Caribbean rhythms

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

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

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

Bruno Lorenzon Mercurey Cuvée Carline

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

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

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

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

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

Navazos-Niepoort Andalucia 2010

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

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

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

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

Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

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

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

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

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

Fritz Haag Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Juffer Sonnenhur

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

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

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

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

Paolo Fresu (Nov. 13, 2012):

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

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

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

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

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

PF: Yes.

TP: It’s a very good one.

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

TP: Is there enough room for everyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Is your brother a good trumpet player?

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

TP: He gave it up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: It’s always collective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PF: Gavino Murgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PF: Yes.

TP: That’s pretty late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Evan Parker has mentioned that instrument as inspirational.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Might that also connect to operatic traditions?

PF: Yes.

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

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

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

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

PF: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Music you’ve composed for movies.

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

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

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

TP: You have many, many rooms.

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

TP: You really do. More than most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: When you walked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Are there two, or are they intermixed?

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

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

PF: Yeah, I was on the tree.

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

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

TP: And you were in the tree.

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

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

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

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

PF: Maybe.

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

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

TP: So stagecraft is part of it.

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

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

PF: To play there.

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

PF: Yes.

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

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

PF: No.

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

PF: Of course.

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

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

TP: Barcelona held it.

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

TP: This was how long ago?

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

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

PF: “Everything Happens To Me.”

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

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

TP: Wine later, milk first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Who is this that you do this with?

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

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

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

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

PF: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

TP: Slang.

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

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A 2011 DownBeat Article, Blindfold/Winefold Test, and Full Interview With Enrico Rava

I’m flying to Milan tomorrow night for a ten-day stay at the Milan Jazz Festival, at which I’ll be conducting public interviews with Enrico Rava (Nov. 1) and Paolo Fresu (Nov. 4), and a public Downbeat blindfold test with Stefano Bollani (Nov. 10). I last spoke with Rava in November 2011, during my first visit to the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where he submitted to a Downbeat Blindfold Winefold Test at Monvinic, “the cathedral of wine,” where the wizardly sommelier matched a different vintage to each tune. I also interviewed him for an article of decent length. This post begins with the article, moves on to the Blindfold/Winefold Test, and concludes with the complete interview.

 

Enrico Rava Downbeat Article, 2011

In a few hours, the 400 concertgoers would be gone, the chairs removed from the floor, and Barcelona’s beautiful people would descend on Luz Da Gas, a fin de siècle cabaret, to dance and party until dawn. But now, toward the end of Enrico Rava’s set, the 72-year-old Italian trumpeter was cuing his quintet to segue from “I’m A Fool To Want You” into a tune that felt not unlike the imaginary soundtrack to a scene of disequilibrium in a Fellini movie.
After projecting the melody with dark tone and soulful articulation, Rava, with a gesture evoking Marcello Mastroianni, cupped his trumpet to his side, closed his eyes, leaned back and began to sway as trombonist Gianluca Petrella, 36, filled the room with resonant melody. His eyes remained shut as the band dropped out for Giovanni Guidi, 25, to launch an adagio, Keith Jarrett-like variation, transition into a quasi-tango and morph into a boogie-woogie on steroids. Rava opened his eyes and blew, spitting out fragmented, epigrammatic phrases from the Cecil Taylor playbook that coalesced into louche, strutting lines before resolving into the spiky lyric theme.
Rava wove together much of his cogent, 80-minute suite from the nine originals—ballads contemplative and noirish, songs informed by Italian and Brazilan folk music, groove tunes propelled by New Orleans and bebop beats—that constitute Tribe, his seventh studio outing for ECM since 2001, and the first featuring this personnel. A highlight is the leader’s simpatico with Petrella—their intuitive polyphony, breathe-as-one unisons and idea-trading solos. Another is the rhythm section’s control of dynamics and tempo—they’re kinetic without bashing and move seamlessly between soft rubato and high-energy feels. Six tunes hearken to various spots on Rava’s timeline; the session sounds summational, old master Rava and his acolytes taking stock of the raw materials that define his oeuvre.
The title track, he noted, leads off the 1977 album The Plot, a product of Rava’s first go-round with ECM, with his working quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. “Giovanni liked it and said we should play it,” Rava said earlier that day, referencing his pianist. “I was surprised he’d want to play a tune I recorded so long ago, but it sounded like I wrote it yesterday.”
Speaking softly, in excellent English, Rava offered an exegesis. “I feel all my bands are like a tribe,” he said. “Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization where nobody owned anything, everything was for everybody, and everybody used what they needed. It’s a perfect idea of democracy. In a jazz group, when it works, that’s what it really is. No one renounces their ego, but you don’t impose your ego on everyone else. It’s a perfect harmonic situation, like the cosmic balance, where everything is right. Maybe I bring a line, some chords, a little point where we meet and play what I want, but I leave everyone freedom within that frame to find what to add or take out. That way, I think the musicians who play with me give their best, better with me than when they play their own thing.”
Rava acknowledged Miles Davis’ impact on his predisposition for convening “not only good players, but musicians who are open to this music’s entire history” as a way to conjure consistently fresh contexts for creative flow. “Whenever my band starts becoming routine, even a very good routine, I change,” he said, noting that no quintet member except Petrella was with him 10 years ago. “Every tune we play, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. The day I get bored, fuck it, I’ll do something else.”
His affinity for full-bodied trombonists—he’s shared front lines with Roswell Rudd, Ray Anderson and Albert Mangelsdorff—dates to childhood in Turin, when he absorbed his older brother’s Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong recordings. “Listening to the trombone made the mechanism of their music so clear,” he said. “Already I loved the trumpet players, but I whistled all the trombone lines.” He got one at 14, from the trombone player in a local Dixieland band. A few months later, he joined the band, “but my father didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. I was so bad at school that the trombone was locked in a closet, and that was the end.”
A self-described “black sheep” and academic under-performer, Rava dropped out of school and started working “from the bottom” in the family business. Towards the end of 1956, Davis, Lester Young, Bud Powell and the Modern Jazz Quartet came to town. “I’d been listening to Miles’ records like ‘Blue Haze,’ and he was already my favorite,” Rava said. “But I didn’t imagine it could be so incredibly strong in person. The sound was filling the room. I kept the adrenalin; I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. Then I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself, playing with the records by Miles and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker. I wasn’t planning to be a musician. But after a few months, they started calling me at jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people.”
One of those people was tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who suggested Rava make music his profession. “One day, I woke up and told my father, ‘That’s it.’ It was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome in my little car to play with Gato. We played ‘Half Nelson,’ ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ everything by the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane. From then on, it was all natural and easy.”
Barbieri joined a group led by trumpeter Don Cherry in 1965, while Rava—now deep into Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler’s Spirits—joined soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s ensemble, playing Thelonious Monk and Carla Bley tunes in a quartet with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Rava recalled, “Since our improvisations had no relation to the tunes, we decided not to play the heads anymore, just to improvise from zero. That so-called ‘free music’ became the song of the young people’s revolution in Europe—it had a heavy political connotation. But at a certain moment, this amazing freedom became a routine, a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But when I played a melody, I immediately heard, ‘No, this is not free-jazz.’ It became almost like religion.
“In fact, by the late ’70s in Italy things got ridiculous, like Dadaism 40 years too late. We’d play a concert that was a Happening, where one guy played on top of a roof while another was on a horse. From the Fluxus point of view, maybe it was interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.”
By this time, Rava had spent much of the previous decade in New York. “My idea was to go where whatever you like to do happens,” he said. “You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, all the people I wanted to meet.” Given entree to the “new thing” crowd by Lacy and access to clubs by drummer Charles Moffett, who befriended him, Rava gigged with trombonist Roswell Rudd; sat in with Archie Shepp and Hank Mobley; heard Ayler and Jackie McLean at Slugs, and Davis and Monk at the Gate; partied at Taylor’s loft; delivered “political movies” by radical Argentine filmmaker friends to the Black Panther headquarters in Harlem.
“One thing I got from American musicians is when you play, you play like it’s the last time of your life,” Rava said. “We didn’t have this in Italy. The country was still very formal, we all looked like bureaucrats. So it was very impressive to be in New York. All these colors. Vietnam veterans marching in the streets. Kenny Dorham, one of my idols, came to watch me rehearse with Roswell. For a while I was looking at myself from outside, like a movie about an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening, and the main character was me. My first review in DownBeat was for a concert that I did with Roswell in ’67. It was almost incredible, something that until a year before had been a dream, a fantasy I never expected to happen. When I started doing this in Italy, to be a jazz musician only—like a poet, an artist, not just a professional musician—was like wanting to be the chief of the Sioux tribe.”
These days, Rava is generally acknowledged as the informal chief of a thriving tribe of Italian jazz folk. But he shoots down the notion of a generalized “Italian” style. “From hearing my mother play classical piano and what I heard on the radio, I naturally tend towards the lyrical,” he said. “But whereas the music in Argentina or Venezuela, even Spain, has a clear cultural background, it’s different in Italy, which exists only 150 years as a nation and is made by completely different regions. People in Sardinia have a very strong music that Alan Lomax described as prehistoric. So do people in Sicily. But I am from Turin, where the music is from the mountains, and it’s horrible. I might like Sicilian or Sardinian music, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know the codes. If I speak my dialect in Sicily or Calabria, they don’t understand me. It’s really much further away than New Orleans. The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is opera.”
In fact, Rava paid little attention to opera until marrying his second wife, Lidia Panizzut, “an opera freak” who inspired his intriguing cusp-of-the-’90s projects L’Opera Va and Carmen, which he performed earlier in 2011 with a French string quartet. “She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata and Tosca, and suddenly I found out that this thing is fantastic,” he said. “It’s incredible to see them make all that stuff work together. Then I felt like Puccini was the real father of the American musical. When I did ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ it was like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ’50s or ’40s—so beautiful, no?—or in a Gil Evans situation, which I did in Europe thirty years ago. But two records were enough. The context is too strict. With classical people you cannot say, ‘OK, I play one chorus more.’”
This will not be an issue with Rava’s next ECM project, a suite of Michael Jackson songs to be recorded after a performance three weeks hence with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab, a 10-piece band that he artistic-directs, at the Rome Jazz Festival.
“[My wife] laughs at me, because every morning, when I wake up, still with the eyes closed, I take my trumpet, which I have very close to my bed, and check whether the lips vibrate on the mouthpiece,” he said, describing a ritual he started after reconstructive dental surgery two years ago. “I used to consider myself more like a guy who organizes sounds”—he blew into a phantom trumpet—“and then sings, but I never fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music. But in my sixties I started practicing much more. I gained an octave. I found the right mouthpiece, the one Miles used to play, a Heim #1. Everything was going good until these implants. Of course, I lost that octave!
“Over the last two–three months it’s coming back. If I vibrate the trumpet, my wife knows I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. ‘Oggi vibra,’ ‘Today it vibrates.’” DB

*****

Enrico Rava Blindfold/Winefold Test (2011)

1. Roy Hargrove, “My Funny Valentine” (from EMERGENCE, EmArcy, 2008) (Hargrove, flugelhorn; Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Darren Barrett, Ambrose Akinmisure, trumpets; Jason Jackson, Vincent Chandler, Saunders Sermons, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone, arranger;
Bruce Williams, Justin Robinson, Norbert Stachel, Keith Loftis, Jason Marshall, saxophones; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums.

Wine: Emilio Lustau, Jerez-Sherry, Solera East India (Palomino): “A slow, deliberate, almost melancholy number, but with a full, opulent big band backing. We have chosen a fortified wine with intensity and persistence. Its sweetness offers volume and density. A wine which needs time and deliberation. Its toasty aromas of nuts transport us to an autumn setting, melancholy decadence, beauty and serenity.”

Rava: This is tricky. [AFTER 2 MINUTES] I have no idea who it could be, although… It’s very let’s say traditional playing, but it’s somebody that plays very well, has a big sound. I don’t hear that big personality. It could be somebody like Chris Botti or somebody like that. [REPEATS REMARKS] I was saying that I have no idea who it can be, because it’s a very traditional way of playing. He plays very well. He has a really good sound. I thought it was a flugelhorn, by the way. He reminds me, in a way, of a trumpet player who I just saw a video of—a DVD of this cat, called Chris Botti, who was playing exactly “My Funny Valentine.” I know it’s not him, but it reminds me of him. Who is it? [Roy Hargrove] No. [Italians mutter remarks] No! It’s incredible. I must say, I don’t know that well Roy Hargrove, but the little I know, I like him a lot. But I would never recognize him. I’m used to hearing more…how can I say… But I was very surprised when you said Roy Hargrove, because to me it didn’t sound like him. I’ve heard him playing a little bit like that in one record, the one with Shirley Horn, which was the homage to Miles Davis. But this was pretty different. But this was pretty different. Here it really sounded much… I’m used to hearing Roy Hargrove more wild, in a way. I could give it 3 stars. But only 3, because, although the arrangement was very good, the trumpet was played very delightful, but it didn’t really go anywhere, in a way. But it was very nice. It was nice to be out with a nice girl to dinner and have this record playing.

2. Avishai Cohen, “Art Deco” (from INTRODUCING TRIVENI, Anzic, 2011) (Cohen, trumpet; Omer Avital, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Vina Von Siebenthal, Valle del Aconcagua Carmenere 2007 (Chile): “A contemporary, modern, energetic and intense trumpeter. Chile is one of the so-called new world countries and a paradism in the elaboration of modern wines, with a strong presence of mature fruit edged with hints of aging in new oak. Dense, full and substantial wines. Ripening the Camembert grape can pose problems. It needs to be taken to the limit of maturity to avoid aggressive textures and vegetal notes.”

Rava: The tune is a Don Cherry tune. It’s called “Art Deco.” By the way, I am going to play this tune tomorrow. Donald Cherry. The trumpet player should be… Because I just played with him. It should be Avishai Cohen. Personally, I love the way he plays. Besides, I love the person, too. He’s one of the greatest today. [What is it about the tune that appeals to you?] The tune is fantastic because it had the roots in the real tradition of jazz. It could almost be a Dixieland tune, in a way—a New Orleans tune. But at the same time, it allows you to open up… It’s one of those tunes that have no limits. It is not limited to a certain period. It could be played by a New Orleans player, or by a free player. It’s very open and very easy to remember, too. I love melodies. It has a very catchy melody. It’s very smart, but is very poetic at the same time. One of the best tunes Don Cherry brought—although he brought so many beautiful tunes. But this one stands out. I love the way Avishai played it. On the little intro, he did something really… There you kind of got me, because I didn’t know who it could be, but then I recognized the attack. He has a very special way of playing. 5 stars for the tune, for the beautiful trumpet, and for the beautiful cat.

3. Jerry Gonzalez, “In A Sentimental Mood” (from Y El Comando de la Clave, Sunnyside, 2011) (Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Diego “El Cigala”, voice; Israel Suarez “Piana”, cajon; Alain Perez, guitar)

Wine: André and Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Savagnin, 2007 (France): “This number conveys the lament, the pain, the sentiment of flamenco (which we also find in the blues) expressed through the language of Cuban music and the improvisation of jazz. The wines from the alpine region of Jura have and always have had a lot in common with Andalusian wines, due to very similar winemaking techniques. Fusion? French spirit with an Andalusian accent.”

Rava: I have no idea. No idea. I think the idea is very good. I don’t think there is too much happening so far. The idea is nice, trumpet and voice. But then I’m not so sure they really interact… Maybe that was the intention, to keep something so quiet. [RAVA IS ASKED TO SPEAK UP] I was saying that I have no idea who he is. I think the idea was very good, to have this voice and trumpet interacting, but it is not really happening too much. It’s ok. I would give 2½ stars. Anyway, it is my taste. Maybe it is fantastic. But the way they did it, it didn’t get to me. [AFTER] Now I know why I didn’t know who it was, because I really don’t know at all Jerry Gonzalez’ music. Maybe I never heard him play. So there was no way to know him. He’s a good player anyway, of course. But today, everybody is good. [What do you think about this hybrid idea, of playing an iconic song like that in a very context than it’s normally done, with Cuban rhythms, as they did?] As I said, I think the idea is really good. Anyway, I think that every idea is good as soon as there is an idea. The problem is when there is no idea, but when there is an idea, it’s good. The only thing, I’m not crazy about the way they materialized this idea. But the idea was good. I was taken by the music. I was listening to it. Except I was waiting for maybe the two of them to have some more… I didn’t feel they interacted very much. But maybe it’s just me.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Marcin Wasilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurekiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Krzysztof Komeda, composer)

Wine: Prager, Wachau Riesling Federspiel Steinriegel, 2010 (Austria): “Modern and contemporary European jazz which transports us to a cold and mysterious place, yet also has a rich lyricism. The Riesling grape has an acidic, deep, hard, almost aggressive structure, yet is also refreshing and smooth, with beautiful aromas that flow from the glass and hang suspended, offering us subtlety and tonality.”

Rava: Here again, I don’t really know who it could be. It’s one of these new cats that play the hell out of the trumpet. It could be one of them. I’ll just say one name. It could be Ambrose. But it’s not. [Peter from Bremen Festival: The trumpeter is your age. Or almost.] Is my age. Impossible. Nobody is my age. Except dead people. Dead people are my age. He’s my age? [He’s a contemporary of yours.] A contemporary of mine. American? [No, not American.] I don’t know who could play like that in Europe, in this style. [Explain.] The people I know, that I like, that I know them, that I know the way they play. One is the Danish guy, for instance, but it’s not him… What’s his name, the Danish guy that I admire… Allan Botschinsky, but it’s not. [Peter from Bremen: It’s your record company.] [TP: You’re giving too much information now!] I don’t think I can get him. It was very nice. The guy was playing beautiful. I was not crazy about the tune. In fact, there was no tune. It was really a rhythmic phrase, but it was very good trumpet playing, and I’m very amazed that you say he’s a contemporary of mine and he’s European. Because Europeans of my age, the only is Tomasz Stanko—it’s not him. [It’s not?] No. [It is.] It is? Well, let me tell you that I know Tomasz so well, I’ve played with him so many times, and I would never recognize Tomasz. I never heard him play so straight and to phrase in such an orthodox way. I didn’t even know he could. I knew he was very good playing a certain thing. But I didn’t expect him to play like that—to play THIS. For me, it is a big surprise. I almost don’t believe it. I should see the picture! But being Tomasz Stanko, the only thing I can say is I hope he reads this in DownBeat and he listens to what I am going to tell him. Tomasz, you are playing really unbelievably. Congratulations. I always liked you, but I didn’t know you could play so well, like in this record. 5 stars for Tomasz. Not for the tune. The tune I didn’t really care for. But 5 stars.

5. Eddie Henderson, “Popo” (from FOR ALL WE KNOW, Furthermore, 2009) (Henderson, trumpet, composer; John Scofield, guitar; Doug Weiss, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Wine: Bodega Mas Alta, Priorat, Artigas, 2008 (Garnatxa, Carinyena): “A classical education, experimentation, and then back to the classical roots of hard bop, this is the journey of Eddie Henderson. And so we consider Priorat to be the alter-ego of Eddie Henderson. An historic wine region that was reborn in the 1980s through experimentation and reinvention, and has since returned to its roots byi giving more and more importance to its traditional varieties, the Garnatxa and Carinyena, and trying to concentrate more on expressing balance anxd freshness without losing any of the strength and body of the terroir.”

Rava: The problem is that when they play with the Harmon mute, they all sound alike. They all sound like Miles. That’s why I never play with the Harmon mute. It could be many people. For instance, Paolo Fresu sounds like that a lot—but it’s not him. It was nice. A nice feeling, a nice… It wasn’t particularly exciting for me. I’ll give it 3½ stars, whoever it is. It was a very good trumpet player, of course. But everybody today plays this instrument very well. I always say that we should have killed them when they were kids! It’s nobody I know, or maybe somebody I heard once or twice. [AFTER] He’s a trumpet player I don’t know too well. I used to hear him when he was playing with Herbie Hancock in the ‘70s, and sometimes I happened to meet him in some festival, but I don’t really know what he’s doing, so there was no way I could recognize him. Anyway, he sounded very good, of course. But the tune itself didn’t kill me.

6. Kenny Wheeler, “The Lover Mourns” (from WHAT NOW? CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass)

Wine: Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Pinot Noir, Devil’s Corner, 2008 (Australia). Wine: “The Pinot Noir grape well reflects many of the ideas that we find in the music of Kenny Wheeler, like delicacy, lyricism and poetry. Intense delicately suspended bouquet, smooth textures, and a restrained freshness and tension in this wine from the coolest region of Australia.”

Rava: This is an enjoyable piece, like 4 stars. The whole tune has a nice atmosphere. The trumpet player is excellent. There’s many people who can play like that. I must say that as much as I knew very well all the trumpet players of the ‘50s and ‘60s, now I have a certain problem with today trumpet players, because they all play to a very-very high level, but at the same time it’s very difficult to recognize… When you’re talking about trumpet players of the past, you hear one note of Chet and say, “Oh, this is Chet”; one note of Miles, “this is Miles; one of note of Clifford Brown… Everyone had a different technique, a different tone, a different… Today, I don’t hear that. Now, maybe it’s my ears that are not as good as they used to be! That is another possibility. This one had something I knew. Maybe once you tell me who it is I’ll say, “How could I not?” [AFTER] Oh, Kenny. Okay. This is another thing. As much as the Harmon mute, the flugelhorn tends to unify the sounds. Everyone, even my aunt, with the flugelhorn gets this beautiful warm and dark sound, but it takes away a little bit the personality of the trumpet player. Of course, Kenny is someone who I know very well. We even toured together with… I’m sorry. I should have recognized him. But I didn’t. It was a nice tune. Very enjoyable. Who was the piano player? John Taylor? Ah, that’s why it was so good.

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “What’s New” (from WHEN THE HEART EMERGES GLISTENING, Blue Note, 2010) (Akinmusire, trumpet; Gerald Clayton, piano; Bob Haggart, composer)

Wine: Bodegas Marañones, Vinos de Madrid, 30,000 Maradevies, 2009 (Garnacha). Wine: “We find many parallels between the two young talents of Ambrose Akinmusire, the new prodigy on the renowned Blue Note label, and Fernando Garcia, the young self-taught winemaker, who is working to recuperate Garnachas from the old vines of the Sierra de Gredos. With a very contemporary approach to winemaking, he aims for a fresh wine style, with little intervention, in an attempt to provide the maximum expression of the vineyard.”

Rava: Is that Uri Caine on piano? No? It sounds a little bit like him when he does this. [AFTER PIECE IS COMPLETED] Dave Douglas? No. I thought so from the sound of a certain phrase at the beginning. Then I thought no, but he’s the only one who came to my mind. I really liked what the trumpeter did. It was very natural, flowing, and also harmonically it was very interesting. The way the tune started, that they didn’t play the head, they started improvising—it was a very nice. It was a good idea. Nothing special, but anyway a good idea to play “What’s New” like that. It was a very nice duo. I have no idea… [Older players? Younger?] Well, at this point… Every time I say it’s a young one, it turns out to be 80 years. But this one sounds to me like a guy in his forties, 45 or 50 or something like that. Or maybe not. It’s a 12-year-old! You cannot say. I don’t know who it can be. Who is it? 4½ stars. [AFTER] Oh!! I swear I was going to say that. No-no, really. It’s true. I was thinking Ambrose. I only heard one record of Ambrose, but he plays much more…how can I say… I wouldn’t say… It’s not a negative thing; it’s a positive thing. There shows up most of the time more of his amazing technique. He’s one of the trumpet players who has really impressed me enormously lately, so much that I wanted to have him next year in the festival of which I am the director. That tells you how much I like this guy. What I heard of him on only one record really impressed me. He really goes up and down this instrument. Now, here it was much… I liked this thing very much. In fact, although I said 4½ stars, I could even say 5. The thing is, it didn’t last long enough. It was a bit short. 4½ for the tune; 5 for Ambrose.

8. Wynton Marsalis, “La Lamada De La Sangre [Blood Cry]” (from VITORIA SUITE, EmArcy, 2010) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, trombones; Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Walter Blanding, Jr., Joe Temperley, saxophones & woodwinds; Dan Nimmer piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.

Wine: Bodegas López de heredia, Rioja Viña Bosconia Reserva, 2002 (Tempranillo, Garnacho, Mazuelo, Graciano). “Wynton Marsalis was the arch revivalist of classicism in the 1980s. Impassive to criticism, he sought to rediscover classical jazz. The López de Heredia bodega is an excellent example of classicism, tradition and resistance. Almost all of the bodegas in Rioja, whether large or small, succumbed to the siren song of modernity. At López de Heredia, the third generation chose to maintain the legacy and character of their forebears despite the changes all around them and the pressures to alter their style. Now, faithful to this tradition, they are still the landmark winery they have always been.”

Rava: That’s a Miles phrase from Sketches of Spain. Is that trumpet or cornet? [I don’t know.] It sounded like an homage to Miles, some citation from Sketches of Spain, and then at the last minute it sounded like a kind of thing for Duke Ellington, with this kind of “Django”… It could be Dave Douglas. [Not Dave.] But it could. It could! It’s not forbidden. But it’s not. And it is… [Talk about the piece a little.] The piece got me. I like it. In fact, I’m glad I did this Blindfold Test where I didn’t get nobody except Avishai, because it gave me the will now to go out tomorrow here in Barcelona, where there is a very good store, to buy some records. Really, I heard something that is very interesting. I realize that… Maybe in my playing it doesn’t sound like it, in my groups and my music, but I’m still listening always to the same thing that I’ve listening to for fifty years. I still listen to Bix, to Satchmo, to Miles. So there’s a lot of things I don’t know, I don’t listen, and it’s probably a big mistake. So this Blindold Test gives me… Now I feel like going out to buy stuff. And also to retire, because people play so good.

As far as this piece, the composition was very interesting. It was a very nice arrangement, and the sound was… There was some Gil Evans stuff in it. In fact, in a way, it reminded me of some of Gil Evans’ things fifty years ago with Johnny Coles—even the way the trumpet player sounded. Because there was some Miles in it, but of course it was not Miles. It’s a nice record. I would like to buy it, in fact. But I have no idea who it is. I couldn’t even tell you now if I think this thing had been done today or forty years ago. In fact, this is another thing that confirms what I have been saying all the time, that the last big change in the language was done by Ornette in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and from then on, we still metabolize whatever we’d been doing before. Sometimes I listen to Maria Schneider doing some fantastic thing, but it could be something recorded thirty years ago. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way. In fact, I love it. Or some trumpet player 22 years old playing stuff that he could have been doing in the ‘60s or the ‘50s. I will give it 4½ stars. I could give more, but 4½ is a lot of stars. I wish I’d get 4½ often. [AFTER] You see, for instance, I have many records by Wynton Marsalis. I would never recognize him in this tune. He sounds different. It’s the same thing you did last time when it was Wynton playing some old stuff, and there was no way somebody could…unless you know that he did it or you heard the record before. Just the day before… Usually at home, to have fun, I play with records, and one of the records I play very often is Wynton Marsalis’ record Live at the House of Tribes, where he plays only standards. If you compare what he played on that record with what he plays on this record, there’s no way you could say it’s the same person. Also if you hear him play From Slavery to the Penitentiary, it sounds like another, third one. So what can I say? Anyway, ok, I didn’t recognize him; the tune was beautiful. It’s very interesting, because that makes my judgment much more real, because I was not influenced by… Of course, if I knew that this guy was Ambrose, or someone else… That’s why I say I love it. It makes me want to go to buy the record.

9. Amir ElSaffar, “Al-Badia” (from INANA, Pi, 2011) (ElSaffar, trumpet, composer; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Zafer Tawil, oud, percussion; Tareq Anboushi, buzuq; Carlo DeRosa, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Ferrer Bobet, Must. “Amir ElSaffar is an important contemporary trumpeter who fuses jazz and traditional Iraqi music, being a master of the traditional maqam style. Grape must symbolizes, surely better than wine, a cultural closeness. Sweetness and density which fuse with the exotic rhythms of the Middle East.”

Rava: Is the player American? [Yes, American with a hyphen preceding it. He’s a first-generation American.] I don’t know him. I’ve heard a lot of things like that in Europe, like a trumpet player from Lebanon, Ibrahim Malouf. It wasn’t him. I’d imagine that later on they develop. But then they were just playing the head. It’s not the kind of thing that drives me to… It’s one of the things that you can do. Who is it? [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him. The only one I know is Nasheet Waits. I’m happy I heard a lot of good trumpet players. That’s for sure. It makes me feel like going out to get some more records, and stop listening to Bix and wasting my time!

 

***********

Enrico Rava (Barcelona, Nov. 11, 2011):

TP: You have a mute called the Peace-Maker mute, so nobody can see you…

ER: Yes, so nobody gets angry at me. My wife doesn’t…heh-heh… Peace is made, you know, thanks to the Peace-Maker.

TP: Did you develop it?

ER: No, I didn’t invent it. It’s something I bought years ago. It doesn’t exist any more. I tried to buy one again because this one is kind of dying, because it fell too many times—now it’s breaking up. But I didn’t do it any more, unfortunately.

TP: Let’s structure this conversation. Let’s talk about your group, your association with these musicians, the recording Tribe. You’ve done three recordings with Petrella on the front line. Talk about the process of making a record with Manfred Eicher. Do you go into the studio with a notion of how the record is going to sound when you get out? Or do you go in with the material you’re working with over that period, and then Manfred Eicher assembles it, as he often does? That’s a long-standing relationship.

ER: It’s not always the same. For instance, when I came back to ECM in 2004, with the record Easy Living, I had a band that played a lot. We played a lot, and we had a big repertoire. We didn’t record for a long time. So I went to the studio with everything… I could choose within my repertoire, and the material was ready—no problem. Then with the trio with Paul Motian and Stefano Bollani, and also with the duo with Bollani, it was really invented during the recording session. On both records, I brought some new tunes, and we played probably for the first time in the studio. Manfred, of course, was giving his opinion and kind of giving some input to us. But particularly with the duo, because on the duo, Bollani and me, we played a lot. We already made some records…

TP: On Label Bleu?

ER: On Label Bleu, but also on Philology. So I wanted to have completely new material. And since with the duo we play also some standards, and I wanted to play only original material, so I brought a bunch of new tunes that I wrote for the occasion, and Bollani brought a couple of tunes. It was a record invented in the studio. In fact, the record doesn’t really sound like the duo usually sounds. Even now, when we play, we’re still playing the standards thing. I think it was very interesting how it changed the music in a studio, making a record with new material for ECM… It changed so much. [WAVES TO GUYS IN BAND]

TP: Let’s talk about the band. I can find this out for myself tonight, but for you how does sound of the band on the recording differ from a live performance?

ER: It really sounds very different when we play live. You’ll see tonight. First of all, I think that studio music is a different music than live music. For instance, when you play live, there is also the visual aspect of it, and the excitement of the people, blah-blah. Something that if you hear it on a record, it might sound too long or annoying or whatever, when you hear it on a concert, looking at the musicians with the people around you, it works. But it doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. In fact, for me it’s very rare to hear a jazz live recording that I really like. Some of them are fantastic… When it happens, it’s fantastic. Sometimes, for instance… I bought them because I am a collector. I bought the complete live recordings of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Besides the fact that there are some amazing, extraordinary moments, like there is a Charlie Parker solo… But altogether, it’s almost impossible to listen to, because you’re just listening to long solos, you don’t really remember what was the tune at the beginning. But it worked. You can feel that people were very excited. But when you hear it at home, sitting down, you don’t enjoy it that much.

So in this, I agree very much with Manfred Eicher, because the record is a different thing. You think also how the music is going to be listened to; under what conditions people are going to listen to it. For instance, on this last record, he has a lot of very contemplative tunes. When I play live, I wouldn’t do that. I would have maybe a couple of moments like that, but I wouldn’t do like in the record, one after the other.

TP: Like those three towards the end.

ER: Yes. But I think in the record, it works. I wouldn’t do that live, because live you need something else. Also, live you get some energy from the people, you give it back to them, they give it back to you, so you get into a different… In fact, Manfred Eicher, last time he heard the group live, in Munich, he thought that we should make a record live, just to have another view of this band. But of course, if at some time we do that, it would be a live performance, and it would be different than the usual performance because you are conscious of the fact that you are recording it. So trying to be …(?—8:27)…

TP: There’s a title, Tribe, and a number of the tunes have titles with a tribal connotation. One is called “Choctaw,” for example. Is there some kind of implied narrative or extra-musical story to the recording that you’re thinking about while making it, or is it pure accident?

ER: Well, sometimes it’s pure accident. Sometimes… Tribe comes from the idea that I have that… Besides, it was the title of a tune that I wrote in 1977, and recorded for ECM with John Abercrombie. Giovanni Guidi, my piano player, who is 25, I think, liked it so much, he said, “Why don’t we play that tune?” I didn’t even remember. I was surprised that a young guy wanted to play a tune I recorded 30 years ago. But we played it, and it really worked; it sounded like I wrote that yesterday. But besides that, I really feel with the band, with all my bands… I always feel like a tribe. We are like a tribe. Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization that there was no sense of… Nobody owned anything. Everything was for everybody, and everybody used what he needed, and it was a perfect kind of idea of democracy. I don’t know if it’s true. But in music, in jazz, in a jazz group, that’s what it really is. When it works, it’s a perfect democracy that would probably never exist in reality, where everybody gives what is needed, everybody receives what is needed. Nobody renounces to his own ego, but…he doesn’t impose his ego to everybody. That’s when it works. When it doesn’t work, it is totally… But when it works, for me, this is the great experience of playing this music. For me, beside musical reasons, there is the reason of being in a perfect harmonic situation, where…so being in contact with a real balance, like the cosmic balance, which is the same balance of the body balance inside, where everything is right. When something is wrong, you get sick. So for me, this is the great experience of this music, and it’s something that, as far as we know, in jazz… Well, in all music, that way. But in jazz, it is particularly evident.

TP: Let’s explore that a bit. Because it’s still your vision, your sound, your band.

ER: Yes.

TP: You don’t seem to use much written material in arrangements. You set up situations where your bandmates have a lot of initiative.

ER: Yes.

TP: Then you bounce off it.

ER: That’s what it is.

TP: So you’re trying to create this situation.

ER: Yes.

TP: There is some agency involved. The situation doesn’t happen by accident.

ER: No.

TP: It happens because you want to create a situation like that.

ER: Yes. I must say I got that from Miles. Because I know that was the way Miles was organizing his music, especially with the quintet with Coltrane and with Miles. But the first thing is the choice of the musicians. I need musicians that… Besides they have to be good players. That of course. But also, they have to have the same vision that I have, and also to be open to the whole history of this music. They must be able to…you know… And then, I bring maybe a line, some chords of a tune, maybe a little point at which we have to meet and play what I want to be played. But for the rest, the example, the metaphor of that is if we are five people who have to paint, to make a painting on a white wall all together, and each one puts what is needed and doesn’t put… Finally, we are a painting that is made by a group of people because it’s logic… I might say what kind of feeling I would like to have, or I must make maybe an example. Not musical. I will say no. I am talking about maybe… I might talk about a book, or about the situation, the weather, whatever it is. In this, I also have the lines I write, the chords I give, but then I leave everyone to find what to add or what to take out. That way, I think that the musicians who play with me give really their best. In fact, talking also about the groups I had in the past, many of those musicians playing with me, they played better than ever—and they admit that, too.

TP: They played their best with you, you mean.

ER: Yes. Even better than when they play with their own thing. This is not me. I am not me telling that, but they are them, themselves, telling me that. Because I leave them really total freedom within the frame, which is the idea I have of the music and of that particular tune. But it works.

TP: But it’s not entirely altruistic. Another reason why Miles Davis did that, and I presume why you do as well, is to stay fresh and not repeat yourself…

ER: Absolutely.

TP: …and get feedback from fresh young minds.

ER: Absolutely. No-no, the altruism has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that I like to have a music that reflects what I think, but at the same time that it is fresh and it is surprising. I need to be surprised by the people I play with. In fact, whenever a band I have starts becoming into a very good routine…but routine, even if it’s a very good routine, I change. I change musicians. I change someone. The only one that is still the same in this last maybe ten years is Petrella. But with Petrella, besides that he’s an extraordinary musician, we also almost a telepathic thing when we play together. In fact, Petrella has his own projects, very interesting, very good, he played a lot…they have this group with David(?—17:12) (?)> He plays with a lot of people. But he always is free when he has to play with me. He always tries to be able to play whenever I call him. Because we have this thing together that works. It could work forever. Maybe it will not. But it could.

TP: You played trombone before you played trumpet, right?

ER: Yeah, but not really. I tried.

TP: For purposes of an interview, I want to ask you… You’ve played a lot with trombonists. The Roswell Rudd connection…

ER: Yes. Ray Anderson. Albert Mangelsdorff.

TP: I see a connection between Petrella and Ray and Roswell in the tonality, and the way they get around the whole trombone…

ER: Still, I like the instrument, and I love the musicians, of course. They were great. But I love the instrument. In fact, when I was a kid… I started listening to jazz when I was really very young. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My first big myth was, and still is, Bix Beiderbecke—and Louis Armstrong.

TP: You told me you have Bix in your car.

ER: I do. I have Bix and Louis in my car. Now I’m going to have all the new guys! Because next Blindfold Test I will get all of them! But so far, in my car… I will tell you what I have right now in my car. I have a lot of Lester Young. I have almost all Bix with Frankie Trumbauer. I have Hot Five and Hot Seven, Louis Armstrong. I have a couple of Miles. I have a Monk record. And I have a bunch of Michael Jackson records. That’s what I’m talking about in this last year. I am listening to those records all the time, all the same. Then maybe I will change, but… I don’t have an iPod. I like to have a CD. I have the thing in the car.

TP: I don’t have an iPod either.

ER: You neither. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea.

TP: I’m too lazy to download the stuff. Who needs that?

ER: Me, too. I like everything to be ready for me.

TP: But back to trombone. There’s a sort of expansive tonal thing. It’s funny.

ER: When I was a kid… Because listening to Bix and his gang, you know, “Jazz Me Blues” or the “Jazzman Ball,” or Armstrong Hot 7… Listening to the trombone, I understood the mechanism of this music, how it works. Because many people never understand. Sometimes they ask me, even now, “but why do you improvise? What do you do? How…” Listening to them, it was so clear, and the trombone made it so clear, that I remember more the trombone line when I was 8-9 years old than everybody else’s line—although I loved the trumpet players already. But still, I remembered all the lines the trombone was playing. So I was whistling all those lines. So eventually, when I was maybe 14, there was a Dixieland band that… [(?)Alma Turba(?)—21:38], they played pretty good… They had a trombone player who was a very good technician, but it was totally arhythmic. He had no sense of rhythm. And they knew, because I was always hanging around in the record store…they knew that I was whistling all those trombone parts. So they bought me a trombone and they said, “Ok, you have to learn the trombone as fast as you can.” So I drove… I was maybe 14. I drove my neighbors and my family crazy. But after a couple of months, I was able to play almost decently certain parts of these tunes. So I got into that band immediately, except that my father (I was very young; I was 15 at this point) didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. Then I was so bad at school that eventually the trombone was locked in a closet. I never came back.

TP: They locked the trombone up so you’d do better in school.

ER: That’s it with the trombone. So that was the end of my career as a trombone player.

TP: Just a digression. What sort of family do you come from? Intellectuals?

ER: I come from a bourgeois family, middle-high class, let’s say…

TP: They had a business?

ER: My father had a business. It was a family business. On top of it, he was also an economist, so he had an office. I was supposed to become a lawyer or something like that. My older brother, who is the one who had all the records that I listened to when I was a kid, of course he was very successful at school, had a very brilliant career as an economist—still is very respected in that field. Me, I was a dropout. I dropped out of school when I was 16.

TP: A ne’er do well, as they say.

ER: I was really the black sheep of the family. They were very worried about me. So then I started working in the family business.

TP: What was the business, if I may ask?

ER: It was an international transport business. I had to go to…how do you call it… Well, it doesn’t matter. It was a horrible gig. On top of it, my father thought that since I was supposed to become, with my cousin, the owner of the business, I had to start from the bottom, so I did the most horrible work, and I would wake up early in the morning, and on top of it I was working on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sunday morning. I could see really my life like in a tunnel. I said I will never…

But then, when I bought a trumpet, I did that because… In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of records. I had a lot of records, and I was crazy about Miles. I’m talking about Miles of the ‘50s. 1952, “Blue Haze,” that groove, all these records. When Miles came through Turino, it was ‘56, with…

TP: Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet…

ER: Yeah, and the French people, with Rene Urtregger… There is a record of that.

TP: “How High The Moon.”

ER: Exactly. And “What’s New.” And so, when I saw that concert… Already he was my favorite—he and Chet. But when I saw that concert, really I… Because although I loved what I was listening to, I couldn’t imagine that in person it could be so incredibly strong. And yet, such an amazing charisma that even… Because in the concert there was also Bud Powell to play alone. Even with Bud Powell and Lester Young, still everybody was looking at Miles, even when he wasn’t playing, when he was just standing in a corner. The sound… At the time, they didn’t have that incredible system or sound engineering, so it was almost acoustic, and the sound was filling the fucking room. I was totally shocked. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because I was still… I couldn’t turn myself down. I kept the adrenalin. And then, after a week or something like that, I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself.

TP: Oh, you’re self-taught.

ER: Absolutely. 100%.

TP: How about theory? Also self-taught?

ER: Absolutely. But I must say, my mother was a classical piano player, so I was listening to music, in fact, even before I was born. [PATS STOMACH] So I know a lot of things that I don’t know theoretically. But I wasn’t planning to be a musician. I was just trying to play with the record, particularly the easier tunes like “Solar,” “When Lights Are Low”… I was trying to learn those tunes, and I did. After a few months, they started calling me at the jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people. I met Gato Barbieri that way. He told me why don’t you do that seriously?

TP: But by then you were in your early twenties.

ER: Yes.

TP: So until your early twenties you were working in the family business and playing trumpet on the side.

ER: Yes.

TP: You said that Chet Baker also moved to your town.

ER: Yes. Because my best friend, who was a bit older than me, was his drummer when he came out from jail. You know that he was in jail in… Anyway, he was in jail in 1961 in Italy, one year, where he… By the way, he learned Italian very well. He spoke beautiful Italian. So when he came out, he was very popular, because the trial was a lot of scandal and everything…

TP: Like the Amanda Knox trial fifty years before.

ER: That kind of thing. Exactly. So he became very popular in Italy, and he had a band with my best friend on drums, and so when they had a day off he would be at my best friend’s house, sleeping there for two days. Whenever I knew… Whenever my friend, Franco, called me and said, “Chet is here,” I would just stop whatever I was doing, and go to Chet and stay with him. I couldn’t even talk because I was so paralyzed by this, just looking at him, that I couldn’t even put two words together. I was listening to him, bringing his trumpet and things.

In the meantime, my life was getting better because I was playing with better and better people. And then Gato told me, “Why don’t you just…you know, fuck that work?” and I said, “That’s right,” you know. One day I said to my father… I woke up and I said, “Listen, that’s it,” to my father. So it was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was really mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome to go to play with Gato, with my little car, and it was fantastic. From then on, it was all natural and easy.

TP: One thing led to another?

ER: Yes. Because from playing with Gato, that led me to play with Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy brought me to New York, and I started playing, I don’t know, with everybody, and eventually I met Cecil Taylor, all these people, and I was in Escalator Over the Hill, and then I played with the Roswell Rudd band. Then I started touring Europe with my own group, with John Abercrombie—that was ‘72. Then Manfred Eicher contacted me in New York, and I did my first record for him. Everything was, say… After a difficult beginning, everything was, I must say, very easy. I was very lucky, too, to be at the right moment.

TP: I played you the track by Stanko yesterday, and there are certain parallels in the way your musical aesthetic evolved. You both started off… I’m not sure how self-taught Stanko was. But you started off loving Miles and so on, then you started off playing very open music and speculative improvising, and were part of that whole aesthetic of the ‘60s, and you’ve gradually come back to playing harmonic music, within structures, and a very lyrical quality, where melody and lyricism is very important. That’s not to compare you to Stanko, but just a measuring point. Can you discuss the aesthetics of the early ‘60s and mid ‘60s when you were starting to establish your name and your sound?

ER: Yes. But let me say about Stanko, it’s funny that you say that… He studied. I think he went to the conservatory. I think he played in a symphonic orchestra for a while. It’s funny, because I met Stanko in ‘63, one year before I decided to be a musician, in a festival in Bled, in Yugoslavia, and immediately we had a very good rapport, because we liked the same music, we liked… Just to stay that I’ve been knowing him for such a long time. Anyway, I started listening to, and even playing with a trombone, Bix and all, but then of course, the one that opened the door to me for modern jazz really was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet, which is still for me one of the most imaginative groups I ever heard. Chet was amazing. From then on, I got into that. So when I started playing, I was trying to play in between Miles and Chet, and I played that music. With Gato, we had a band…we played all the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane in ‘64. We played “Half Nelson,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

But then I was listening to Ornette and this kind of turned me on very much. And then Gato went with Don Cherry and I went with Steve Lacy, and all of a sudden, this music that was just coming to Europe on records, like Albert Ayler’s Spirits and all that… All of a sudden, playing with Steve, we decided to open completely, not to play the heads any more, just to improvise from zero.

TP: It’s interesting, because Lacy was so into structure, even when he broke structure…

ER: I know. But in fact, even when we’d play completely free, it was kind of radical. As far as I know, we were the first band that played like that, without even a small head, without talking before. Our rule was that we don’t have to talk… In fact, in the beginning, the first two weeks that I played with his quartet, which was ‘65, we were playing Monk tunes and Carla Bley tunes. But then the improvisation was free. So this is exactly how it went. After a couple of weeks, I said to Steve, “Listen. It seems we improvise something that has no relation with it; why don’t we just start improvising…” So we tried one night, and it became our… For two years we played only like that. This was related to a lot of things. It was related also to what historically was happening. That music, the so-called “free music,” became the song of the young people’s revolution… Like, in Paris in ‘68, they would be playing that for the young people who were marching. It became… It had a very heavy political connotation. So we felt part of a musical movement that was also social and political.

The thing is that, at a certain moment, I felt that this amazing freedom that we had, it was freedom at the beginning, but then it became a routine. It became a routine with a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. That’s the way I started feeling. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But no. Because if I play a melody, immediately, “No, this is not free jazz.”

There is a story that is true (I don’t know who told me that; I think it was Eberhard Weber) that they were playing at the Free Meeting in Baden-Baden by Joachim Berendt. I was there many times, too. He was playing with Wolfgang Daumer, I think, and they were playing completely free. Then at a certain moment, I don’t know why, Wolfgang started playing kind of on a tempo and in time, and immediately Berendt stopped. “Stop. Remember, this is a FREE jazz meeting.” So that tells you how un-free it could be, this thing…

TP: It sounds very Germanic.

ER: It is, in fact. [LAUGHS] But that happened for real. In fact, sometimes maybe… I remember when I was in Buenos Aires with Steve Lacy and Moholo and Johnny Dyani, sometimes the three of us, me, Johnny and Louis, we would go to play with Argentinean musicians to play some standards. We felt we had to get out… It became almost like a religion.

TP: There’s a parallel to the development of some aspects of the European Left.

ER: Yeah. But in fact, in Italy in the late ‘70s, things got really ridiculous, the freedom of the music. It was like Dadaism forty years too late. We would play a concert where one guy would play on top of a roof, the other one was on a horse… This was a Happening. In fact…

TP: From Fluxus.

ER: Yes. From the Happening point of view it was maybe interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. In fact, I remember many of the musicians in Italy involved in that situation sometimes would say, “Wow, I can’t wait until we start again to play in theaters instead of playing on a boat or in a bus…” So I felt that I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.

TP: Also, though, you go to New York, and unlike a lot of Europeans… You and Karl Berger seem to be the two European musicians of that time who made the biggest impact in New York, or got around the music. Well, Mike Mantler came, but his was a different sort of impact. There must be others. But anyway, you spent ten years in New York, and then I guess New York was your base, but you kept an Italian passport and you traveled around.

ER: I had a green card. I lived in New York. But once or twice a year I would do a tour in Europe, or sometimes they would call… For instance, they called me with Globe Unity, which is this German band…

TP: Totally free.

ER: Totally free, but there were compositions, too. But I was living in New York. I had a green card. I could have got the American passport after five years, but at that time, to have the American nationality, you had the renounce to the Italian. I didn’t want to renounce the Italian for many reasons, but one of those is that with the Italian passport I could work freely all over Europe, whereas an American, for certain countries, needed a visa. Particularly with France there were a lot of problems. At the time we could not have… Now it would be possible, but at that time you could not have the two passports.

TP: But for a couple of reasons for this article… One is the memoir. I’m under the impression that in the memoir you write a lot about your experiences in New York. But also, your early influences are American musicians, but it’s primarily a New York influence… It’s the opposite of the artists of the 18th or 19th century coming to Rome or Venice, or writers going to Paris in the early 20th century…

ER: Yes, of course.

TP: You’re a jazz musician, and you come to New York in the ‘70s. Talk about the dynamics of that scene. You came back 34 years ago, and I’m sure you thought about this when writing the book. How did your ten years in New York shape you as a musician and help you to evolve?

ER: That’s for sure. One thing that I got from American musicians, is: When you play, you play, you know, like it was the last time of your life. This is something that we didn’t have.

TP: Did Lacy impart that to you?

ER: No. I got that from coming to New York, and going around, listening to people. But anyway, there was very… When I came to New York… Besides, I must say that when I checked all the great musicians living in New York in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, almost nobody was from New York. They were coming from all over the States to New York. I always felt that you go where whatever you like to do happens. So in those years, if you wanted to play jazz, I really thought you have to be in New York if you make any sense… You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in the south of Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, where all the people I wanted to meet, the people…

It was very interesting, because when I came to New York, first of all, many of the greatest jazz musicians who invented jazz were still alive and playing. So you could see Monk. I saw Miles play at the Village Gate. I saw Jackie McLean. Then the new people—Albert Ayler playing at Slugs, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp. I was friends with Charles Moffett. He would bring me to every club to sit in with Shepp and we hung out…

TP: So Moffett brought you around the New Thing and introduced you to the militant guys.

ER: Well, I did that through Steve. But then Moffett, since he was the only person I knew who had a car, would pick me up and make a tour of all the clubs, introduce me always to the owners so I didn’t have to pay maybe next time, and helped me sit in. So I sat in with Hank Mobley, with Shepp when he had the band with two trombones… In those years, there was still the Vietnam War, so every day you had veterans marching the streets, some of them blind, some without arms, some only with a piece of body with the head… It was very, very strong. Andy Warhol was happening at the time.

It was the time of the Black Panthers. I would go to the Black Panther… They had their headquarters in Harlem, and they had their house, it was about a 3-story house, more or less, it was blue, electric blue, with a big flag with the Black Panthers. I had two friends from Argentina who were making political movies, so they sent me movies that I was supposed to bring to the Black Panthers. I brought this…we called it ‘pizza,’ the documentary thing…to the Black Panther headquarters. It was a trip. The first time I couldn’t believe it… I thought it would be something a little bit more clandestine, but instead, BOOM, you could see it from a satellite. It was blue electric, with the flag, with the cats with the leather jackets and shit, with guns and shit, you know—big people. I was giving them…

There was the Weathermen. My best friend, an Italian friend who was in New York working for a diplomatic thing, but he was a bass player, too… I brought him to Bill Dixon in Bennington. Anyway, he lived in an apartment on 10th Street… In that apartment, the one that Dustin Hoffman was in, that when the Weathermen…

TP: Next door.

ER: Next door. When they blew up the building next door, that apartment was destroyed, and Dustin Hoffman left. Then they rebuilt the wall and the flat, and he got THAT apartment, Dustin Hoffman’s apartment. The top floor was Angela Lansbury. And his daughter, with a dog, every day… I was going to my friend’s almost every day, so I would say, “Hello, Miss Angela.” A little bit more, two or three more doors towards 6th Avenue, there was a thing that said Charles Ives lived in this house from blah-blah-blah… So it was very impressive. The whole thing was very strong from a…

TP: I think Hendrix was living on 10th Street or 12th Street at that time.

ER: Jimi Hendrix? I didn’t know that. Edward Hopper lived most of his life near Washington Square. The thing is that… It’s difficult to understand. For me, coming from an Italian middle-class family, from a country that in the ‘60s was still very formal, everybody was dressed in a tie, all looked like bureaucrats… Being in New York, all those colors, all those things happening, and playing… I was playing with Roswell. We were rehearsing at St. Peter’s Church with Garcia-Gensel, and maybe Kenny Dorham would come to listen to us because he was a very good friend of Roswell. So I had one of my idols there, listening to our rehearsal, and I was talking to him. Then I was going to parties at Cecil Taylor’s house. For a while, I was looking at myself like from outside. It was like a movie, and in this movie there was a main character that was me. It was an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening.

For instance, the first time I had a review in DownBeat, which was in ‘67, for a concert that I did with Roswell, for me it was almost incredible. Because for us, in Italy, DownBeat was something so far away… Since you are American, you grew up with that, you cannot imagine how big the impact was to be all of a sudden part of something that until a year before, it was like a dream. A dream that was something I would never expect to happen for me.

TP: It seems like a fantasy almost.

ER: Absolutely. Because when I started doing this thing in Italy, being a jazz musician…leaving… Being a jazz musician only…I’m not saying a musician; no, a JAZZ musician…was really like willing to be the chief of the Sioux tribe in Italy. Because it didn’t exist as a reality. There were only three people with me who were playing this music in Italy. One was a trumpet player, but he had a gig in the radio, but was playing only jazz. A very good trumpet player. He was called Nunzio Rotondo. The other one was a piano player my age, Franco D’Andrea, because he was playing with Nunzio and me. Everybody else… We had very good jazz musicians, but they either played in the orchestra or the radio; the other one played with a singer in a nightclub; or a studio musician. But people being a jazz musician as I intended to, like an artist, like a poet, not like a professional musician. Like an artist. Nobody… Now there are hundreds of them in Italy. But then there was only three.

So it was really like you said before, like a dream, like a fantasy.

TP: One thing I’ve noticed talking with musicians from other countries who settle in the States is that once they get there, away from home, they start to look at their own native traditions. The first one who’s coming to mind is pianist Edward Simon, from Venezuela, who grew up playing in a family band, and all he’s thinking about is playing jazz, but he gets here, and Paquito D’Rivera says, “You need to play Venezuelan music, you need to play your music,” and all of a sudden he starts examining his culture and bringing it into his own music. I look at you, and you’ve done recordings on arias and operas, ballads that are kind of like arias, you do South American things, things that have flavors of different areas of Italy. I’m wondering if being in America for ten years helped you to access those components of your culture, or if it’s not applicable to what you’ve done.

ER: I know that dynamic very well, but it didn’t really happen that way. It happened another way. Like, I have naturally, because of how I grew up, my mother, the music I heard on the radio… I have naturally a tendency toward very lyrical… But at the same time, you have to consider that Italy… In Venezuela or Argentina, even Spain, they have a very clear cultural background musically. In Italy, it’s very different, because Italy as a nation exists only since 150 years ago, and it’s made by regions that are totally different. For instance, somebody like Paolo Fresu is coming from Sardinia. In Sardinia, they do have a very-very-very strong music of their own that Alan Lomax described as prehistorical, because of the way they use the voice, etc. People from Naples have very strong… But where I come from, Turino, we don’t have…
TP: You were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

ER: No. No-no, no-no. There was Milano… We fought against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and we won, and we conquered the rest of Italy from Turino. You see? In fact, they don’t like us. But our music is the music from the mountains. It’s really horrible. I would never… The only music that somehow everybody in Italy… The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is the opera. It is not folklore, but let’s say it was an ironic way… So it was the only thing… See, if I listen to Sicilian music or Sardinian music, I might like it, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know it. I have no idea. I don’t know the codes. It’s much further away than New Orleans really. So it’s different.

I understand a guy… There’s a famous story of Astor Piazzolla, he wanted to be a contemporary composer, so he went to Paris when he was young to study with Nadia Boulanger, and he was very good. But anyway, one day Nadia Boulanger said, “Listen, but you are from Argentina; you have a beautiful music which is tango.” He confessed that he played bandoneon, but he would hide it… She said, “Ok, you are good, but take your bandoneon, and go back to Argentina and work on your music.” This is very understandable, because there is a music that touches everybody in Argentina, and it’s so strong, the tango. But we don’t have that. I mean, we DO. But not we as Italians. Now, in Naples, they do. But Neapolitan culture is so far away and different, even the language. If I go to Sicily, I speak my dialect. Nobody understands me. They don’t even know vaguely what I am talking about—and vice versa. Or I go to Calabria. No way. When I went to Little Italy sometimes when I was in New York, to those Italian stores…

TP: They’re mostly Neapolitan and Calabrian.

ER: …they’d start talking to me in a language that I didn’t understand, because it was the Calabrese that maybe their grandfather talked, and I understand. “Ah, you are not Italian,” they would tell me. So it’s very different. It depends. Of course, if you come from Brazil to be a jazz musician in New York, after a while the Brazilian thing… But the Brazilian thing is something that every Brazilian knows, every Brazilian relates to. It doesn’t happen that way for us. So whatever you can feel that is coming from me that might sound Italian is only because, in fact, I am Italian. So there is something I absorb that comes out naturally. But not from, let’s say, a process of recuperating my culture. No.

TP: It’s hard to say, when I listen to you and something sounds Italian, if it’s because there’s something Italian or because I know you’re Italian. It’s similar to the process of taking the Blindfold, of why do you perceive a sound a certain way, and what a sound actually contains. But it does seem that in your recordings of the last 10-15-20 years, you work with several different genres and weave them together. Those sort of lyric, aria type things, this sort of trans-Mediterranean materials that include a lot of flavors, a little contemporary composition, and jazz standards, and so on… Did this happen naturally, or did you make some decision… There’s some funky stuff, like things you did with Abercrombie in the ‘70s. How deliberate is all of this?

ER: It’s very natural, very organic. Of course, I am a very… I am a listener. I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. Really a lot. A lot of music, I love. Jazz more than everything, but also many other things—Brazilian, classical, contemporary. Somehow I metabolize these things, and eventually it comes out someday. But deliberately, very little. The only deliberate thing I did was the work I did on the opera, which were two records for Label Blue, Opera Va and Carmen. It was deliberate in the sense that when I got married again, my actual wife, she was a big opera freak…

TP: This is your current wife.

ER: Yes. She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata, Tosca, and all of a sudden I found out that this thing is fantastic. One thing is to listen to it. The other one is go and see the old stuff, because it’s so incredible, especially when you’re talking about a very high level, like La Scala. It’s so incredible how they can put all that stuff, make it work together. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic. And then also particularly with Puccini, I really felt all of a sudden that he is really the father of the American musical. When I did, like, La Tosca, when I did “E lucevan le stelle” I almost felt like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ‘50s, the ‘40s—so beautiful, no? Because in fact, Puccini, when he was in America, he got very interested in jazz when he wrote the Fanciulla del West. He wanted to get more into it, but then he died, so he couldn’t get into… [1924]

So I felt almost like… In the moment I was playing that stuff, I felt I was playing in a Gil Evans situation. Which I did. I played with Gil in ‘82 or ‘83, I don’t remember.

TP: In Europe?

ER: In Europe, si. I really felt I was in something like that. Also, Carmen was an idea of my wife, but also for me it was… Maybe nobody understood that, but it was a kind of homage to Sketches of Spain, to Miles. I wanted to play with that, to play with that Miles thing. I had a lot of fun doing it. In fact, I did it twice and that’s it. It’s not something I wanted to go on, Rambo 3, Rambo 4. I did two records. That’s enough. I did it again this year, L’Opera, with a fantastic French string quartet. But in fact, the problem with those things for me is that they are too strict. You cannot move around. Especially when you play with classical people, you cannot say, “ok, I play one chorus more,” because no, you have to write down all the number of bars.

For me, it’s so important to be able to change the music every night. In fact, every tune that we play with this band, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. Either we change the tempo, or we change the… I need to… Because if not, I get really bo… I cannot get bored. If I get bored, I stop playing. The day I get bored, ok, fuck it, I’ll do something else. Because it’s such a big pleasure to play, but it has to be a pleasure. If it becomes a gig…no.

TP: you were saying that if there’s anything Italian that I discern in your playing, it’s because you’re Italian. Is there anything in the culture of Italy that connects to jazz in a way that would… Let me ask it this way. What do you think it was in the world you were growing up in when you were a young guy…

ER: That connected me.

TP: …that made you connect to jazz the way that you did?

ER: I’ve got to tell you, this is the best question somebody ever made to me. I am ready for that. Because jazz… I have to tell you some information. At the beginning of the century, or at the end of the 19th century-the beginning of the 20th century, there was a direct line from Palermo to New Orleans with the boat. That’s why in New Orleans there were plenty of Italians and Sicilians, and that’s why the first jazz album ever recorded was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose leader was a Sicilian.

TP: Nick La Rocca.

ER: This is history. Now, they were the first people recording a jazz record probably because they were white. Still, they were the first people that recorded…

TP: Didn’t Freddie Keppard also turn down an opportunity to record because he didn’t want anybody to steal his shit?

ER: I know. Yes, and also he went to play on the street with a handkerchief around his hands. In fact, I have one record of Freddie Keppard.

TP: They say it didn’t capture him at his best.

ER: No. It doesn’t sound that… But they say he played like Buddy Bolden…they say. Another one they say played a little like Freddie Keppard…it was also Natty Dominique, the one who was playing like Johnny Dodds.

Anyway, there were plenty of Sicilians. For instance, Louis Armstrong always said that he was very influenced by the opera. Anyway, there’s plenty of Italian musicians in the early jazz, like Leon Rappolo…

TP: Well, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti…

ER: Yeah, Salvatore Massaro, the first one that phrased with a guitar. Also, as much as there were a lot of Germans, Bix, Frankie Trumbauer, all these people; as much as there were a lot of French people, because all these Creoles, Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, or Ferdinand Giuseppe Lamenthe… All these people… This is one of the reasons why jazz immediately, at the time when the communication was really very, very little, was at the very beginning… There was no TV, there was no… Jazz expanded immediately in Europe. It immediately became so popular. Why? Because everyone found something that relate to him…I think. It’s not only because of the power of America. Because we are talking about the very beginning of the century, so America didn’t have yet this impact. But still, their music spread so quickly, and it was accepted so much immediately. Because in this music… In fact, it didn’t come from Africa. It came from America, from blacks that had their rhythm…which wasn’t the African rhythm, because African rhythm was cancelled from their mind. They couldn’t play their own music. They couldn’t have their own gods. They couldn’t speak their own language. Like, the Spaniard and Portuguese is different, because they could keep their stuff. In fact, today still in Cuba, people that are maybe the fifth generation in Cuba still have a rhythm original from Congo. But in America this didn’t happen. So that rhythm that became the jazz rhythm is only a memory, you know, of something. That confused… But it came out this amazing rhythm that became the rhythm of jazz. Maybe it was coming also from the marching bands. I have no idea. But in that there was some English sacred music, French music, opera—all together, it made this fantastic… It’s the music of that century.

And immediately in Europe, people related to that, because there was something that… Somehow the roots… There were some common roots for sure. When I got into that thing, I was really young. I was eight years old. There was no cultural…you know… I just listened to my mother…

TP: Just what you heard your mother play.

ER: Yeah. Because I heard a lot of music. But still, I listened to that. Immediately I could relate to that. I understood how it works, as I was saying—the improvisation, the structure… But the melodies. Because the melodies are incredible. No? When you hear something like “Singin’ The Blues,” “I’m Coming, Virginia,” “Potato Head Blues”… It’s something that’s very, very singable… There is so much singing in it, and drama…

Anyway, yes, I think that there is a strong relation. There are some common roots for sure.

TP: that might bridge us into a wrap-up question. You said you’re listening to a lot of Michael Jackson, and your next project is a suite of Michael Jackson arrangements, also inspired by your wife.

ER: Yes.

TP: Very singable, very melodic, very rhythmic, very different than the music of the early 20th century, but assumes a similar role in American and international culture at the end of the 20th century.

ER: Absolutely. Yes.

TP: Talk about this project, and the next year, as you can see it.

ER: I will say that when I came to New York after about ‘67, one year later or two years later, I don’t remember exactly, there exploded the Jackson Five. But at the time I was so monomaniacal about jazz, everything else for me didn’t exist. Still, there were a lot of songs that I heard in jukeboxes and radio that I really liked. But I was little interested that I thought that beautiful voice was a girl. Only lately I discovered that it was Michael Jackson; it was a guy…a kid. But then, it was something that went parallel to my life for… Sometimes I heard some nice song, also in this last year, but I said, ‘Ok.’ I didn’t really care. By the way, I did that also with the Beatles. I got to the Beatles…I understood the greatness of the Beatles only about 15 years ago—I started really listening to them.

In all this, there is also very strong the presence of my wife. She is much younger than me, so beside the opera, she loves the Beatles, she loves Michael Jackson… Anyway, when Michael Jackson… It was an incredible, beautiful night in Rome. Ornette Coleman played before us, this group. It was a great concert. And we played after. There was some magic that night. We played a beautiful concert. People were happy. Then while I was walking to the dressing room, somebody told me that Michael Jackson died a few days before.

TP: Did he die that day?

ER: He died that day. I was very impressed… But then, when I came back home, my wife… She wasn’t with me in Rome. She was not in Rome. I went home, where we live now, and when I entered the house she was looking at the DVD she’d just bought that was Michael Jackson in Bucharest, live in Bucharest. So I just, you know, released my suitcase and …(?—1:18:16)…, and then all of a sudden I started being attracted by that, and even without taking my shit off, I just sit down and I looked until the end of the concert, completely fascinated, and said, “How can it be that all these years I didn’t try to look at it, to…” So from that day, I bought all the CDs there are, DVDs, everything, and for a year in my car there was all day Michael Jackson. Every day I would find something else, particularly the last records that are the less popular, but to me they stay to Michael Jackson’s stuff as The White Album is to the Beatles. In Invincible and HIStory, there are a couple of tunes that are really amazing, from musical…from something different…

Then, since I have a band that is the band of the Auditorium of Rome… I am the artistic director of this band with ten people, and I have to make four projects a year. I did it one year, and I did another year… I had to do the fourth project, and I wanted to do a project called “Old And New Pops,” going from the pop music from the ‘30s coming to Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, I said, “Why not just Michael Jackson?” So that’s what we did. We started working with the trombone player of the band, who is another very good trombone player, and he wrote the arrangement. I gave him some instruction; he wrote an arrangement. I choose the tunes, particularly among the newer…the last two or three records, except “Smooth Criminal”—that riff is too infectious, and I have to have that. And “Thriller,” too. Also because I remember a beautiful version of Lester Bowie of…you know the one? In fact, “Thriller” is the only tune that somehow we’ve redone the Lester Bowie arrangement. It was just for fun. But then, when we rehearsed, we started really getting excited playing the music. Then the concert was an amazing success.

So from then on, now they are asking for that concert, and we are going to record it in about 20 days. We will do a concert at the Auditorium in Rome, and it is going to be recorded by ECM. It is very exciting music, I must say. Rhythmically, it is just impossible to stand. The first time when we played this concert, at the end people… There were 2,000 people, and they were all dancing in this incredible auditorium in Rome. We had fun. It had nothing to do with commercial point of view. No-no. It was fun. I have a lot of space. I play in it exactly like I play. I don’t change a bit of my playing.

TP: Let me ask you this. Tina Pelikan from ECM sent me the different bios, and in one, maybe for Tati so five or six years ago, you said you’d pushed your technique, and you’d gained a half-octave… Let’s do a little trumpet talk and discuss your evolution as an instrumentalist.

ER: Well, I…

TP: You were talking about your teeth at breakfast, but we don’t have to…

ER: Anyway, I can tell you that being self-taught and lazy is another important part of my personality. I never really studied. Whatever I learned, I learned playing, you know. Including writing music and everything. I had to, so I tried. I always considered myself more like a guy who organizes sounds and then sings.

TP: You made a gesture like playing trumpet when you said “sings.”

ER: Yes, sings with the trumpet. But I never got really into the instrument. Then in this last year, for the last year…when we did Tati, so we are talking about years ago… I finally really fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music—just the instrument itself. So I start practicing much more than I ever did before. In fact, I gained an octave… Besides, I found the right mouthpiece for me, which was the mouthpiece Miles used to play, which is a Heim #1. So everything was really going very good until about two years ago, I had to do this big work with my teeth, so now I have implants. My teeth are not there any more. I have new teeth. Of course, all that octave that I gained, I lost it again!

Only in these last two-three months, I feel that it is very slowly coming back, thanks also to a couple of things that Dave Douglas gave me when we played this summer on this tour with Avishai Cohen—three trumpets. It was Dave’s project, and he told me a lot about this beautiful teacher Laurie Frink. In fact, when I come to New York next February, I’ll go to see her. Anyway, the few things that he gave me, they are helping me really to get back what I’ve been losing, putting in new teeth. It’s a big event in your mouth when you’ve changed everything. The material of which false teeth are made is so different, it’s so harder, and it’s really a different feeling in the mouth. For a while, I was really worried. I remember we were in Korea, playing in the festival in Seoul, and I got on the stage, and for the first tune, the notes didn’t come out. No notes, no sound coming out. Then somehow I was able to. But it was a moment of real panic.

Now it’s coming back. I think there are a couple of things that I am doing every day that Dave gave me, that I really feel them daily that they are working. But of course, David at that is very good, because as far as I know, he had a lot of problems many years ago, so he had to solve the problem with the right exercises.

TP: there’s a lot of problem-solving and physical adjustment attendant to trumpet playing.

ER: There is.

TP: I guess saxophone players go through their own embouchure things, but it’s a different animal.

ER: Yes. In fact, Ira Sullivan, when I played with him many years ago, he told me that he could not play maybe a couple of weeks the saxophone, then if he had to go to play a concert he wouldn’t play at his best, but he could. But with a trumpet, after 2 or 3 days, that’s it. For me, if I don’t touch the instrument let’s say the maximum three days… After three days, it is impossible… If I go to play, I feel that that the sound…I have no harmonics, I have no resistance. To play trumpet is to be like a runner who goes to the Olympic Games for the 100 meters. If he doesn’t train every day, he will be the last one. He’ll never get to the… This is a kind of punishment. Except there are people who have it natural. For instance, Franco Ambrosetti, the Swiss trumpet player, who is my age, more or less—he is naturally talented for this instrument. Now he only plays, but for years, all his life, he had been a big industrialist, so he’d had to go to work and talking at a very high level of business, but then maybe he would come to play when he hadn’t touched the trumpet for three days, and he’d play like Miles. He has a natural thing for the trumpet, which I don’t have. I have a very natural thing for music. Not for this instrument. So my rapport with this instrument has been very conflictual [sic] all my life. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it keeps me fighting, and that’s helped me to keep young, let’s say. I don’t get bored at all. Besides my wife is laughing at me, because now, every morning, when I wake up, the first thing… I have the trumpet very close to my bed. I wake up, I take the mouthpiece, and first thing, I still just… Still with the eyes closed, I take the trumpet and I check if the lips vibrate. If nothing comes out, I say “shit, today…” If I vibrate it, I say, “ok, today it vibrates,” so my wife knows that I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. Sometimes I do that, and nothing happens. BFFFPPP…ok, it vibrates.

TP: I like that image.

ER: It vibrates. Vibra, I think in Italian. “Oggi vibra,” “today it vibrates.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava

Lorraine Gordon (1922-2018) R.I.P. – A 2005 interview and a 2005 article in the New York Daily News re the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, plus a link to a 2005 Downbeat piece on the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village

I admired Lorraine Gordon tremendously, though on my various trips to the Vanguard over the years, I did my best to stay out of her way — and out of her line of fire…you never knew when you might get zapped. She was an intense and highly informed listener, dating back to the early ’30s, but never allowed nostalgia to inform her judgments when booking the VV after Max Gordon died. She always remained in the here-and-now, and kept the Vanguard on the cutting edge of the music.

In 2002 she asked me to conduct an oral history with her for the Hatch-Billops Oral History collections. We did it, and I transcribed it, but unfortunately don’t have the text of that interview, which is in the Hatch-Billops Archives at Emory University. If you’ve read her autobiography, pretty much everything we discussed is in there anyway, and she also told elements of her life story in an oral history conducted by Anthony Brown for the Smithsonian after she was dubbed an NEA Jazz Master (this is easy to find on-line if you’re interested). I did have a chance to write about her in 2005, in a Downbeat piece framed around the Vanguard’s 70th anniversary. (You can find it on my blog, if you google my name and Lorraine’s.)

I’m linking here to the full Downbeat piece, which was about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s; and am pasting below a more targeted and pithy article for the New York Daily News about the Vanguard’s 2005 anniversary, and the interview that I conducted with Lorraine Gordon for this article.

 

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Lorraine Gordon (Village Vanguard, Jan. 20, 2005):

TP: …the decor hasn’t changed. Over the banquettes on the west end of the club, paintings of the Vanguard, vintage jazz photographs–Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Thad Jones, Charlie Haden, Cecil Taylor, Joe Henderson, Sphere, etc. There’s the Butero painting over the bar, which looks like it hasn’t been clean or lit in 70 years. A big euphonium against one wall. Old posters…

LORRAINE: Here I am. Let’s go sit over here, if you don’t mind. It’s cold here.

TP: All right, Lorraine. At 70 years old, the Vanguard, it seems to me, doing a quick guess, is roughly 45 years older than any other jazz club in New York. It seems the Blue Note would be second. Why has the Vanguard lasted so long?

LORRAINE: Hmm. Which answer do you want? Column A, B or C?

TP: Why don’t you give me all of them?

LORRAINE: Because it just happens to be a special room that is the way it almost was 70 years ago. It’s not exactly the same. It’s been cleaned up, gussied up, painted. The shape is the same. The atmosphere is the same. So it’s a room that hasn’t been transformed with some glitz and glamour to keep up with today’s instant times. It tries to be what it IS—a jazz room. Right now, it doesn’t serve food. It did years ago. So that’s one reason that people like to come here. They’re familiar with it—the ones that have been here before, obviously. And even the ones who have never been here are always amazed to see what a simple room it is, but so aligned to the feeling of jazz with the photos on the wall, and the bandstand so close to the people. When they come here, the’re not sitting out in Siberia. So there’s an intimacy about the room as far as jazz music goes, because if you’re going to sit in a hall with 5,000 seats, you’ll hear things, but you’re not getting the essence of at least what I think is real jazz.

[LORRAINE’S FRIED RICE ARRIVES]

TP: Do you recall when you first went to the Vanguard?

LORRAINE: Oh, I certainly do. I remember standing back at the bar with my friends at the Newark Hot Club. I didn’t know who Max Gordon was. He was sitting over there by the bar, and we were in the corner there. We came from Newark. Right there at that left corner. The globe wasn’t there, the painting wasn’t there. No, I was 16 or 17. It was the dark ages. We were kids, came from Newark, because it was good jazz here. I came to see Leadbelly, who I particularly loved, or whoever was here—if we could get the fare to take the train from Newark to here. We didn’t have a lot of money. We came here, and we’d have a beer, a couple of beers, and pass it around between us. I heard a little man by the cash register, I thought I heard him say, “Get rid of those kids.” Whoa! I vowed revenge.

TP: So you married him.

LORRAINE: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

TP: So apart from the accoutrements, the banquettes are as they were?

LORRAINE: Everything is the way you see it. But the pictures on the wall were cockeyed. Max had no eye to straighten pictures. And there weren’t as many as these. We had done the whole walls with the photos, at least made them audible to the eye. Before they were just helter-skelter. The original murals were done by Paul Petrov, the most fabulous murals in the wall. I wonder why Max took them down. I have copies of them on long paper. But they were so sophisticated, so elegant. I remember those murals more than anything, exactly, because you were just captured by them. Paul Petrov. He’s alive and well, living in Washington, and we keep in touch. But those were the most terrific murals. They were so New York! They were so sophisticated! But then they disappeared.

TP: So when you came here from Newark, you were coming to hear Leadbelly and coming to hear hot jazz mainly, right?

LORRAINE: The only jazz I knew was hot. But before I came here, I used to go to 52nd Street when somebody would take me. So there’s the golden age of jazz, 52nd Street. If you haven’t been there, and obviously you’re too young, that’s where kids like me hung out—if our parents would let us to go to New York. We were very young. So I would go with whomever would take me to hear… Well, let’s put it this way. On one night, you could hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Max Kaminsky… I mean, just go from one club to the other. It was a very romantic period in my life.

TP: So this was your late teens and early twenties when you were going…

LORRAINE: Yes.

TP: And did you go at all to the… About when did it start for you? Around 1940-41? A little later.

LORRAINE: It started for me in Newark at the Club Alkazar(?), which was a black club in the black neighborhood where Jabbo Smith was playing. No whites ever went there, except us kids from the Newark Hot Club who were allowed in. Because we were a phenomenon. What were these white kids doing here? Then when Benny Goodman came to town, I ran over to the Adams Theater where the Benny Goodman band was playing. I never went to school when he was in town. And I started collecting jazz records. That was my life.

TP: As far as some of the 52nd Street clubs, did you ever go the Famous Door?

LORRAINE: Yes, that’s on 52nd Street. That was one of them. The Famous Door, the Onyx Club, the Three Deuces… They were just lined them up one after the other. Little places.

TP: Were they all the same to you, or did they have distinct identities?

LORRAINE: Well, the identity of the clubs was… They were like long, narrow first floors in brownstones. Mind you, a lot of these clubs during Prohibition were Speakeasies. So there was a long narrow. There were banquettes on this side, there was a bar as you come in at the right, and they served food as well. Nobody bugged you. You sat down, you ordered a drink or something to eat. There were no minimums or things like that. What did you ask me…

TP: I asked if the clubs had distinct characters, or if they were very similar to each other.

LORRAINE: No, the characters was who played there. Is Billie Holiday the same as Art Tatum? Or you’d go to Jimmy Ryan’s. That was more of a Dixieland (I hate that term, but that’s what we have to call it today) type of musician—Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Marsala, people like that. Then you go down the line… It depends who’s playing there. I ran always to hear Billie Holiday. But not always. I didn’t go that often, believe me. Every visit there was just a rapturous treat. And I couldn’t go. I was a kid in New Jersey. But it was an experience. And that will never happen again in jazz clubs in New York.

Then after that came Broadway, with Birdland, the Royal Roost… It kept changing. But it wasn’t the same for me. Even though great artists played there, it was nothing to capture the essence of 52nd Street, which was small and intimate. Like the Vanguard. You’d go to 52nd Street, you’re sitting… You could touch the musicians. They were small and beautifully happy places. That’s all I remember.

TP: Did you ever go to the Spotlite Club, which Clark Monroe owned?

LORRAINE: No, I don’t think so. I was not a specialist. I was glad my mother let me out certain nights.

TP: So you’re trying to maintain in some way the ambiance you recall on 52nd Street in those years.

LORRAINE: I used to love to go to Café Society Downtown, which had Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Albert Ammons… This was a very fancy place, fancier than the Vanguard. And that was a great treat to be able to go there. You had to really get dressed up a little.

TP: Can you remember any details about Café Society?

LORRAINE: Yes, it was a wonderful room, with also fantastic murals of the New York scene. Very sophisticated. I think the Vanguard and Café Society, before it all went uptown to the East Side, were very sophisticated clubs, as far as their decor.

TP: So the Vanguard used to be more sophisticated…

LORRAINE: Well, they both were. Because who had murals? These were murals done by very good artists who captured the essence of the New York scene. What can replace the murals that were here when Paul Petrov did this… There’s a huge baby grand piano, and a horse is playing it, and two people are leaning over the hood of the piano listening to the horse… I mean, incredible! I have copies of the murals, which are simply remarkable.

TP: Was Café Society at 1 Sheridan Square, where the Sheridan Square Bookstore used to be?

LORRAINE: Yes. It’s now a theater or whatever it is.

TP: Then you got in the club business after you married Max Gordon.

LORRAINE: No, I didn’t get in the club business at all. I got into the motherhood business, and I had two daughters with Mr. Gordon. I never worked for Max in my whole life until the day he died. I did not get involved with his business. This was his baby.

TP: You had no involvement?

LORRAINE: No, none whatsoever. I had another job. I worked other places, other things. I came to hear the music. But…never.

TP: But how did the Vanguard develop, let’s say, between when you started having kids and when Max died?

LORRAINE: Well, he never gave up the club. He used to have a club uptown, very elegant (I used to be there a lot) called the Blue Angel. Very uptown, East Side, where the beautiful people hung out, shall we say. I spent a lot of time there, because we lived on the East Side, on East 79th. Max was in that club a lot. So this was left, hunkering along somehow. And we had other clubs. We had an old-fashioned ice cream parlor across from the Plaza Hotel, and Max and his partners took over what was Café Society Uptown, and it became Le Directoire. So there was so much action, it’s a miracle I’m talking to you today! Because this is what I did all night. Besides raising the children, being in the peace movement, and being with my husband at night—because we were night people now. There was no daytime except for me to take the kids to school. We had a housekeeper then. All of those accoutrements come into play.

TP: The Vanguard in the late ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t book so much jazz, did it.

LORRAINE: Well, it always had some jazz. It didn’t start out as a jazz club. When we started out… Well, read Max’s book. It’s all in there. It started as poetry. Max was a homeless person in the Village who lived in furnished rooms and hung out at some cafeteria over there on Fifth Avenue where all the poets hung out. Max was a poetic man. He wrote poetry. He was a writer, graduated from Reed College, a very intellectual man. So he really wanted to be with these people whom he admired, but there was no place to go. That’s how he opened the Vanguard. He opened another one around the corner for a little while, and then he came here for the remainder of the 70 years. So this place was simply for poets to go up there and declaim their poetry. There were barrels to sit on. There were war posters maybe from World War One on the wall, political posters. People threw money on the floor. That’s how people got paid. Max didn’t have a fancy bar, and nothing grandiose, no rugs on the floor.

That’s how that started, until the moment one year when these four people came in and asked Max could they maybe introduce themselves, and he should listen to them, and he said, “Sure, go ahead,” and they went up there, and he thought they were brilliant, and he hired them, and the poets went out, and the revuers came in, who turned out to be Judy Holliday, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and a couple of other people in the act. So Max was off on a new tangent. He suddenly discovered, hey, there’s talent out there beside the poets! So he started listening around and getting more and more people. So that’s how that started. So now he had folk singers, he had vocalists, he had all kinds of talent. But all good talent. Nothing commercial or stupid. It was all very high-class talent, which he would book here and train here, and then bring them up to the fancy Blue Angel on East 55th Street. So Eartha Kitt got up there, and Pearl Bailey got up there, and Harry Belafonte got up there. They all started here.

TP: Then you had the hipsters and the comedians later on, in the ‘50s.

LORRAINE: Yeah, then there was Lenny Bruce. Irwin Corey forever [1942], the funniest man in the world.

TP: Kerouac.

LORRAINE: Kerouac was not a comedian, but he was here. He came always in the back. We kind of looked at him…

TP: By that time, when Lenny Bruce and the comedians were here, was the Vanguard booking primarily jazz?

LORRAINE: Look, this place became a jazz club when television took all the artists away that Max could employ. Stand-up comics, singers, whatever. Television wiped out the Blue Angel, and could have wiped this place out. So Max switched to jazz in the early ‘80s.

TP: Late ‘50s, I think.

LORRAINE: I meant ‘50s. I’m sorry. You can correct that.

TP: You get the last word.

LORRAINE: No, not with you. I try hard, though. It’s a fight to the finish.

TP: Most people who read the Daily News aren’t jazz aficionados, and they’re not going to know that there have been how many records recorded at the Vanguard since 1957? 50? More than 50?

LORRAINE: Over 100 recordings. Look on our website. They’re all on there.

TP: I guess beginning with Sonny Rollins.

LORRAINE: Some people say that. Sometimes I think the first one (I may be wrong)… [COUGHS, PAUSE]

TP: Granted you weren’t here much during those years…

LORRAINE: During what years? I was here…

TP: The ‘50s and ‘60s.

LORRAINE: Why wasn’t I here?

TP: Oh, you did come down.

LORRAINE: Of course I came down to hear the music, or whatever I wanted to hear. If I could make it, I did. I had a job of my own, by the way. I worked…

TP: What were you doing?

LORRAINE: I worked in an art gallery for many, many years. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for many years. I worked in the peace movement for many years. I’m not an idle person.

TP: What were you doing in the peace movement?

LORRAINE: I was running it. I saved the world. Look at the condition we’re in! I did a rotten job.

TP: Which organization?

LORRAINE: We were not an organization. We were a grass roots movement called Women’s Strike For Peace. Women who had children suddenly realized that nuclear testing was very dangerous, because Stronthium-90, CC-131, settled in the grass that cows eat, and our children drink the milk that’s poison. That’s one part in a movement of women who wanted nuclear testing to stop in the Soviet Union and in the United States of America. Okay? That was a big project. To me. It went on for years, and I gave all my time and devotion to that that I could. A non-paying job, but full time. To protect everyone’s children, if possible. That was it. Then when that faltered… It didn’t falter, but when I had to get a job, I went to work in a gallery for 15 years. It was a poster gallery called Poster Originals a very fancy place on Madison Avenue. It’s out of business. Fifteen years I ran the place. It was the wrong time. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for five years. About that time, Max was getting a little shaky. So I’d go to the museum and leave there at 3, and come here to open up for him if he couldn’t make it.

TP: So while you were at the Brooklyn Museum and started coming down, that was around ‘80 or so?

LORRAINE: I guess so. Max died in ‘89. That’s the date I remember.

TP: Let me bring up some iconic moments in jazz. I’ll ask what you can remember about the protagonists, and if you can’t I’ll move on to the next one.

LORRAINE: I probably can’t. I don’t know what iconic means.

TP: Iconic means landmark…

LORRAINE: I know that.

TP: I know you know. Miles Davis. Do you have any memories of…

LORRAINE: Lots of memories of Miles, because I lived through two husbands with Miles. Don’t forget, my first husband was Alfred Lion from Blue Note Records, and he recorded Miles a lot. So I was a part of his business more than a part of Max’s business. I worked for Alfred.

TP: Didn’t you tell me you introduced Alfred to Monk?

LORRAINE: Not Alfred. I introduced Max. Alfred and I were introduced to Monk by Ike Quebec. We didn’t know who he was… Well, we may have heard about him through the musicians, but not really. So I introduced Max Gordon to Monk, who he had never heard of in his life.

TP: Let me ask you about Monk after Miles Davis.

LORRAINE: What about Monk after Miles Davis?

TP: Basically, any particularly pungent memories about any of these people.

LORRAINE: Well, when Max and I went on my maiden voyage to Europe, and went to Italy, Max had some splendid shoes made to order in Italy. Gorgeous. Had his foot measured and all that. They were going to send it to us at home, which they did eventually, and he tried them on and they were a little bit too short, a little too tight. He couldn’t wear them. So Miles Davis was next in line. He was playing here, and Max gave him these beautiful, brand-new shoes. And it killed me! Because he loved them. But wow, I figured… Well, that was it. Miles was wearing Max’s shoes at that particular time. I know that’s thrillingly exciting.

TP: Did Miles have a cordial relationship with Max?

LORRAINE: That’s interesting. Alfred and Miles had a very cool relationship, because Alfred Lion was… They knew he knew jazz. They were not fooling around with him when they did recordings. And I was there; you know, we would hang out, we’d be up all night at the Royal Roost or whatever, hanging out. When he came here to play with Max, I knew him from the Alfred days, he was a cooler guy. Of course, he played with his back to the audience, which bugged Max. I said, “What do you mean? So what? He doesn’t have to look at them and smile and say ‘hi guys, how you doing?’ He’s playing for his musicians that way.” It never bothered me. I kind of liked his insolent manner. It didn’t bother me. I thought it was kind of terrific. I’m listening to the music, not to what he looks like or what he’s wearing.

One thing bothered me about Miles towards the end, when he was not going to be here any more and he was going into his fancy clothes, dresses or whatever, changing his gender! Max was at the bar with him and some other people, just hanging out talking, as we always did, and Max came up and he said, “Hi, man,” some innocuous thing. Miles said, “Hey, don’t ever say ‘man’ to us. You’re not black. Remember that?” I was there. I said, “Would you rather be called ‘boy?’” Okay? End of that story. That was very nasty and insulting to Max. I couldn’t stand that. That was I guess the end of Miles. Not because of that incident. Because he went on to where, as I say, beads and dresses and glamour, and played some terrible music.

TP: The Vanguard survived a period that none of the other clubs survived, when Rock came in.

LORRAINE: That’s right.

TP: How did the Vanguard do that?

LORRAINE: Well, plenty of bad times here. Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy. Plenty of slow times. We survived it, because Max wouldn’t do it, and I would… The little I had to say would certainly be listened to. He knew I knew music. Max was not overlooking whatever I felt I could contribute by talking about it. We had lots of ups and downs, many-many-many. And who knew if he was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how, but he did. He was a very tenacious man, and he had to do bookings, and he did get wonderful men…artists to play here who weren’t even that well known. I mean, who the heck was Gerry Mulligan? He had Ornette Coleman when nobody ever heard of him. He had Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He had so many people that it’s mindboggling to think who passed through these rooms. Who’s the one wrote “When The Caged Bird Sings?” Maya Angelou used to play guitar here. She was a folk singer. I used to hear her a lot, and I liked her. And Abbey Lincoln played here many times. Hardly anyone didn’t pass through at some point.
TP: Monk played here quite often, didn’t he?

LORRAINE: Monk was introduced in this room. I brought him here in those years. Max didn’t know… Nobody knew him.

TP: They knew him uptown, not downtown.

LORRAINE: Some musicians knew him. He had no public at all at that time. And he laid a big egg here, and Max was furious with me. “What are you doing? You’re ruining my business. This man gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’” Max says to me, “What kind of an announcement is that?” I said, “Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.” Some years later, when Max brought him back, I hear him telling people, “Hey, I want you to hear this genius.”

TP: This was way before the Five Spot.

LORRAINE: Way before any spot, except inHarlem.

TP: Sonny Rollins told me that Monk hired him when he was 17 to play a gig at Barron’s. How about Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Well, he was very beautiful. One of my favorites. I would hang out here a lot in front here just to hear him. Everyone was crazy about Bill Evans, even through his…what shall I call it…his bad long periods where he could only play with one hand, but it was so beautiful. And he had a checkered career as far as his habits went. But he always played here, and everybody just… He was just beautiful. He had a beautiful trio, where he had Paul Motian, a wonderful bass player who was killed in a motorcycle… That was a very sad time, because Bill loved him.

TP: Did you have a personal relationship with Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Not me. Max may have had one more than me. Because you know, I didn’t hang out in the kitchen, you know, talking with the guys. I’m a different person, Max’s wife or whatever. I’m not a hanger-outer in that sense. I did all my hanging out with Alfred Lion. All those clubs up there on Broadway, and the record studios, and recordings. That was hanging out.

TP: A few more names. Dexter Gordon, who made… He’d bee playing in the States, but working at the Vanguard in ‘76 had an impact on the jazz world…

LORRAINE: Are you talking about when he went to work?

TP: I’m talking about the so-called “homecoming.”

LORRAINE: Well, his wife, so-called, was responsible for bringing Dexter back. She certainly communicated with Max about doing it, and Max was more than happy. After all, we had put on a big concert with Dexter and Johnny Griffin…
TP: But that was two years after he played the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: Whatever. They had a relationship, and Dexter was absolutely phenomenal and beautiful. And where was he going to go in New York City but the Vanguard? It was home.

TP: He played Storyville once…

LORRAINE: I don’t know where he played. The man has played all over the world. I don’t keep track of their gigs. I barely can keep track of whatever is going on here. I can keep track of it, but that’s enough.

TP: When you were married to Alfred Lion, in your hanging-out days, you spoke about the Royal Roost. Can you talk about the ambiance?

LORRAINE: The ambiance? [LAUGHS] Loud. They had bleachers. You could sit in the bleachers. You could get up and go out and come back. It was a very loose place, very loose going. Then you’d all congregate on the sidewalk afterwards, and then we’d go around the corner to a place called the Turf. We used to call it the Turd. It was a bar, where they stood in the back and they drank their heads off. I was pretty young and naive. I wasn’t exactly a swinger in the sense of… I’m Alfred’s wife. I’m part of his business. But I went along, and I guess I enjoyed it, because I did it.

TP: Did you like bebop when you first heard it?

LORRAINE: Not at all. Not at all! I was living in California for a very short time. My parents had kind of moved there. There was a man there who had a record store, Ross Russell was his name, and I used to go there because it was very close to my father’s little business. I sat on a bar-stool, and who was sitting next to me but Charlie Parker. I disdained that music. I was not interested in him, or making an acquaintance, or the music. No. I must say no. I was deeply involved with people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday… All the great artists who were there before bop came to rule the roost. I was not into it. Not at all. Today when I hear people say bop is old-fashioned, I look at them kind of surprised. To me it’s still very modern! And I like a lot of it. I mean, I can get with it if it has a beat.

TP: What’s interesting about the Vanguard is that of all the major clubs, it probably has the most progressive outlook of any of them in the booking. Consistently, week-in, week-out…

LORRAINE: Yes. Well, because I understand that music changes. I listen to records or CDs constantly at home if I’m not here. I listen to music here. I’m aware of what’s giong on in the world of jazz. I’m very keen about jazz, to keep it alive, to observe who is good coming in. You know, everybody was not Coleman Hawkins. We have new guys. We have Dave Douglas, we have so many different people who I listen to very carefully. I’m here a lot of nights. I may not stay til closing. I don’t have to. I have wonderful people who work here, who’ve worked here for years, who help me. I don’t do everything alone. Nevertheless, I’m listening very carefully… I’m not listening carefully. I’m listening, and if it moves me and I dig it… I mean, I dig Brad Mehldau and I dig Bill Charlap, two entirely different artists, and I love them each for what they do, because they’re very pure and jazz is very pure. You know it when you hear it if you really know what it’s about. You can’t fool me. Well, you can a little bit. But most jazz lovers hang in with what’s really terrific. And if it’s new, just coming up, they have to recognize it. Suddenly these new acts become big! You don’t know that this is going to happen to Brad Mehldau. We couldn’t even spell his name in the past. So today he’s a star. I love him. He hates being compared to Bill Evans. He doesn’t feel that way about it. It’s just his look. He’s got that dreamy, sexy look.

TP: Let me ask you about some of the famous Village clubs? Did you go to the Bohemia?

LORRAINE: I know these names, but I don’t think so. Maybe I did. Not enough to force me to remember.

TP: How about the Five Spot?

LORRAINE: Maybe once or twice. I was loyal to the Vanguard. And once you’re loyal to a place… I mean, who’s got the time? I didn’t run around all night. I still had children and I still took kids up to school and made dinner, and I liked to cook. I still had a home life. You know, I wasn’t rousting about all night.

TP: With Alfred, did you ever go to Minton’s?

LORRAINE: Oh, yes. I can’t tell you much. It’s not there any more, though it has a sign. It was just a perfect club in Harlem that was very mysterious as a kid to me. I mean, I thought this was really livin’ it up! I never went to the Cotton Club. It’s not my style, and I was too young for that anyway. But Minton’s was a hangout, and that record that came out with Monk and Joe Guy, I believe, a quartet, was done at Minton’s. I can play it all the time, and it brings me back to this smoky club, filled with musicians or their friends and patrons. What is there to remember? It was a square room, and it was a famous place at that time. It did not maintain itself, although it’s made some efforts, but…

TP: They were around throughout the ‘50s. Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Ike Quebec were there…

LORRAINE: Everybody was there. There’s no doubt that people were there all the time. It was a real jazz club. Of course. I wasn’t following everyone’s career, frankly. That would be hard to do. I’d read something or meet somebody, but that wasn’t my whole life. It was a segment of it, to know what’s happening. I actually didn’t have to know what was happening. It wasn’t going to further my knowledge of anything. [ICE CUBES CRASHING INTO MACHINE] The ice revue! I know.

We’re not that modern here. We really need a big facelift. But I don’t want to do it. I just signed a new lease, honey. I have a lot to do. Ten more years. I just have a lot of things to sign, and liquor licenses, and Department of Health licenses, and the Fire Department, and this and that. I just took out that big old stove, the Vulcan that was there for a million years. I got rid of it, and I gave it to a wonderful young man who’s got a restaurant, but he’s going to try to use it in his home which he just bought upstate. But it’s gone. I had a wonderful man who came here and put up a beautiful wall, which is now being covered with coats. That’s not how I saw it! I want to get rid of the coats. But the stove is gone. We don’t serve food, and it’s just a thing sitting there.

TP: A general question. You’ve been following jazz for about sixty years, maybe more.

LORRAINE: More. Me following jazz is… I hate to tell you!

TP: Tell me.

LORRAINE: I’ve been collecting records since I’m a teenager. There goes the ice! No skiing here, please. [One more.]

TP: It’s very old-school. Ice during the bass solo.

LORRAINE: Yeah. Ha. Well, I could modernize every square inch here, but I do a little at a time. It’s a big job for me, and I don’t have contractors to come in. I have my good friends who are carpenters and this and that, who do things for me.

TP: So you’re not running the Vanguard on the business school model, or hotel or restaurant management school.

LORRAINE: Not at all! If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability. But a big pain in the neck here was that post up in the front of the bandstand where the drummer always sat. It was a big post, and everybody complained and complained. “That post, it’s impossible; I don’t want to sit there, I want to sit here.” So one day, I had my friend Robbie, who works for me occasionally when he’s in town… “Let’s go look at this post. Open a hole. What’s inside?” So we did. And in there is a pole this big. So he took the whole outside of that little post down, and put the smallest one possible. Wow, hey, you can almost see the drummer now! That was a great step forward.

TP: A great innovation for the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: And how!! Because those are the meaningful things in this room.

TP: Have you ever added things for the acoustics, or have the acoustics just been what they are because of the way the room is made?

LORRAINE: No, we have fabulous equipment in the little music room back there, the most expensive kind of equipment. Well, it’s not new any more; it’s been there a while. The speakers and the equipment were upgraded long ago, and they’re fantastic. I did do something remarkable for people who are looking for the men’s room or the ladies room. I put hot water in the… [LAUGHS]

TP: That was a great innovation.

LORRAINE: Yes. [Can I have something in there? Anything you desire. Because my throat is getting dry. I talk so much.] Yes, and I have to thank the Department of Health. Because in almost seventy years, this place was never inspected for anything. I mean, I stopped smoking down here over ten years ago when J.J. Johnson played here. I cut the smoking out. And we don’t serve food. So I didn’t even know there was a Department of Health. I’ve got all the other departments on my back. I won’t go into the whole story. It’s a long one.

TP: But they made you put in hot water.

LORRAINE: Yeah, they came. Max never put hot water in. I didn’t know how to put… How do you put hot water in? “Yes, we have plenty of cold water.” So they said, “Well, how do they wash their hands?” I said, “You use soap. Soap and water. Hot or cold.” Never mind. You’ve got to have hot water. Well, I fortunately found a master plumber, a wonderful guy, who attacked… He knew all the pipes in that kitchen. If you look at the kitchen, there’s a million pipes. And he found the one to connect to the men’s room and ladies room. He even put in new sinks, and we have hot water! I think that’s an innovation here. People have come out to congratulate me!

TP: I would have if I didn’t think I’d get yelled at.

LORRAINE: I wouldn’t yell at you if you’re saying something nice.

TP: As I said before, you’ve been following jazz for a good chunk of your life, which is a little older than the Vanguard, right?

LORRAINE: Yes, it’s a lot. But I’m not going to tell you. I know you’re angling, but I’m not going to help.

TP: But having followed jazz for all those years, and on a rather personal level, what’s the same? What are the continuities. One thing that’s so unique in this music is that a young artist has to be connected to things, even if they don’t know it, that were current 70 years ago. Tenor saxophonists still use devices Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, pianists still play the vocabulary of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, bassists still do things that Jimmy Blanton did. There’s an inter-generational continuity. What qualities are similar in musicians, and in what ways are they different?

LORRAINE: Well, if someone invents a new chord change, that’s different. He picked it up from someone else, changes it around… “How High The Moon” has 15,000 different chord changes, and you don’t know what the heck you’re listening to, but it’s there. It progresses. The musicians have very lively minds; when they playing their instrument, they experiment all the time. They pick up all kinds of things. They write their own music, that’s never been played before. It has to change. It’s not a dead art. That’s the beauty of jazz. It’s alive and well.

TP: I’m also talking about the personalities and characters of the musicians.

LORRAINE: Well, I don’t know. They’ve all got a different character and their personalities vary from God knows what.

TP: But you know what I’m asking.

LORRAINE: No, I don’t.

TP: Can you generalize through your experience… Every musician is a different person, but they also have certain things in common…

LORRAINE: Same girlfriend. I will leave you on that happy note! I can’t think of all the things! Of course they all look at each other, play together, jam together, take from each other. I don’t know how to answer that. They’re all basically accomplished!

TP: The musicians who are 30-40 years old today, do they have a different attitude than the ones you encountered back in the day?

LORRAINE: I think musicians are doing a lot better today financially than they were long ago. I do believe that. They have much more opportunity. They’re playing all over the world. There are so many jazz festivals, sometimes it’s hard to hire somebody here because they’re playing in Oslo, or Nizhni-Novgorod, or on a boat, or God knows where. They’re all over the lot. So jazz has certainly grown immensely, I think. And they play in other countries, they pick up sounds from other countries, they come back and play the Swedish something or other… The men are alive and well, and always listening and learning, and always…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP: Music isn’t the only thing they talk about.

LORRAINE: Well, when I’m around. When I leave, who knows? I’m going home now.

TP: Can you tell me anything about the Half Note?

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you anything about it because I was not there in a sense, nor involved. The musicians who played here, played there. Look, I was not loyal to any club but here and the Blue Angel uptown. That’s where my loyalties lay. I had no time to run around to other clubs. They were there. Obviously, they were important clubs, and the same musicians played there that played here. Sometimes they got more publicity playing there. I mean, Monk got all the publicity playing at the Five Spot, when he had played here!
TP: That’s because he had a six-month gig there with Coltrane.

LORRAINE: Coltrane played here all the time… I don’t know about the other clubs. I can’t give you dates or times or who did what to who. I’m not everywhere, and I’m not all things to all clubs. Or musicians. Now I am only all things to myself.

TP: No credit cards also.

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you how many people are grateful for that. But we do have a website that takes credit cards. http://www.villagevanguard.com. They will take credit cards. A certain amount; it’s a small club. But we have instituted that. That’s a step ahead.

TP: In a certain way, you do things the way you did them 30-40 years ago, with the exception of the website. And you’re the only one that does.

LORRAINE: Well, look. We don’t serve food. If you serve food, you should have credit cards. What you get here is what you pay for at the door. Is it worth having a credit card for $25, and so you’re going to order another beer, it’s another $5? It doesn’t pay. We tried it once. It was a total failure. It doesn’t pay. If you serve food, then you should have credit cards, of course. I don’t serve food. I simplify life. This club caters to people who really love jazz, or people who want to learn about jazz who don’t know anything. Many people call and they say, “Well, I’ve never been there before. How does it work? What do you do?” Then if I get insolent, they holler at me. [LAUGHS] “Don’t come here.”

TP: Then you tell them not to come if they speak back.

LORRAINE: This guy who just came here, I talked to him today on the phone twice, told him how it worked. They had left a message on the machine, and it came out like “raisonette.” You could barely understand what they were saying. For six people. I took that, made up what I thought. Then he called on the phone, he said what the name was, I cleared that up, and made it four people. I gave him everything. “You have a reservation; you pay when you get to the door.” So now he’s there, just wanting to pick up his tickets. You know what I mean? As much as I explain, they are also into their own thing, too, of how things work everywhere else but here.

TP: How have the audiences changed over the years?

LORRAINE: I don’t think so. I know we have so many new people because nobody can find the men’s room or the ladies’ room. So I know there are new people. They haven’t changed. The only way they’ve changed, they’ve grown older, and their children are coming, and in some cases the grandchildren are coming. That is one thing that’s changed—growing up and growing older. So audiences haven’t changed, to my way of thinking. I mean, they’re not going to hear Sidney Bechet here, because he’s not alive and it doesn’t exist. So they’re going to come to hear, well, whoever happens to be there, if it’s Don Byron or Chucho Valdes when we’re lucky enough to have him, or Branford. Wynton is coming to play for one night for the 70th anniversary. Next month, the 20th, is the seventieth anniversary of the Vanguard. We’re closed Monday night for a party here. I’ll give you your invite. I’ll save a stamp. It’s going to be very glorious. I don’t want entertainment. I want friends and drinks and food and a party. I have no room at home to have a party.

I want the ten-year-lease off the record.

TP: But that is one question people would logically ask about the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: I cannot tell you every darn thing that exists!

TP: But to stay 70 years in one place without ever having owned it, which Max talks about in the book and which you spoke to me about.

LORRAINE: It’s wonderful.

TP: Great landlord, then.

LORRAINE: You’re darn right. I appreciate it. We do have a wonderful landlord. But leave that section out. Nobody cares. It’s none of their business. You got me talking. There are certain things I regret saying, and if I have the privilege…

TP: You told me it’s off the record.

LORRAINE: Do you have more questions? I have to go.

TP: That’s it.

LORRAINE: Oh, good.

[-30-]

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

New York Daily News ©
http://www.nydailynews.com One giant step at a time
BY TED PANKEN
Sunday, February 13th, 2005

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” said Lorraine Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard on a frigid recent afternoon. The heating unit was off, so Gordon, wearing a sweater and down jacket, sat next to a struggling steam radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.
“We’re not that modern here,” she continued. “We need a big face-lift. But I don’t want to do it.”
Hundreds of jazz clubs have come and gone since the Village Vanguard first occupied the triangular basement at 178 Seventh Ave. South in 1935.
Flourishing where other clubs have withered, the Vanguard ignores modern ideas of hospitality management. It doesn’t accept credit cards and doesn’t serve food. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. The ice machine, often heard punctuating bass solos, is an artifact, as are the red banquettes and dime-size tables. Complaints? Gordon or her waitstaff will quickly put you in your place.
To celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Vanguard begins a week-long festival on Tuesday. Spanning a 30-to-80 age range, the acts – Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, the Bad Plus, Jim Hall, the Heath Brothers and the Bill Charlap Trio – all have long histories with the club.
As Gordon reminisced about the Vanguard, she looked at the back corner of the bar, where she sat 60 years ago with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club and heard Leadbelly sing the blues.
“Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We’d have a couple of beers and pass them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”
The little man was Max Gordon. After a brief marriage to Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, Lorraine married Gordon. When he died in 1989, she inherited the Vanguard.
He had been born in Lithuania in 1903 and raised in Portland, Ore. A wannabe poet, he relocated to Greenwich Village in the mid-’20s. In 1932, he opened a café on Sullivan St. The police closed it. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Gordon opened the Vanguard in a shuttered Charles St. speakeasy. A year later, he moved the club to its current premises and launched it with a poetry slam.
The room drew attention outside the Village in 1939, when Gordon booked a young comedy troupe called the Revuers, comprised of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Over the next two decades, Gordon – who also ran a posh East Side spot called the Blue Angel – launched performers like Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Woody Allen, and Nichols and May. Priced out of such acts by TV in the late ’50s, he turned the Vanguard into a jazz-only venue.
HOME OF CLASSICS
Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Coleman Hawkins all worked the Vanguard. More than 100 live-at-the-Vanguard albums exist, including classics by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis and the Paul Motian Trio.
The latest addition to the list is “Magic Meeting,” guitarist Jim Hall’s release on ArtistShare. “I like to move forward and not live in the past, but the Vanguard has so much poignancy. It’s the ambience, the memories, the photos on the wall…” said Hall, who performs on Thursday. He got married during a Vanguard gig 40 years ago, and first played there opposite Miles Davis in 1958.
“The Vanguard has the atmosphere I like to play in, and I’d go when I wasn’t playing, too,” said tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath of the Heath Brothers. “I like the sound, the intimacy, the clientele, the owners.”
Gordon compares the Vanguard’s atmosphere to the feeling of the joints that filled the ground floors of the brownstones lining 52nd St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. before the block became an urban canyon.
“It was the golden age of jazz,” she said. “On a given night, you could go from one club to another and hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Max Kaminsky. They were small, happy places. You could touch the musicians. Like the Vanguard.”
However vivid her memories, Gordon is no slave to nostalgia. She books as progressive a schedule as anyone in town, regularly presenting such cutting-edgers as Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Greg Osby and Jason Moran.
“This club caters to people who love jazz, or want to learn about it,” she said. “Nobody can find the men’s room or ladies’ room, so I know there are new people.”
The customers have “grown older, and their children and grandchildren come,” she said. “They won’t hear Sidney Bechet here or John Coltrane. They’ll come to hear… whoever happens to be here.”

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For Vijay Iyer’s 46th Birthday, a “Directors’ Cut” Downbeat Cover Story from 2012, a Long Essay in “Rave” From 2008, a Mid-Sized Downbeat Piece about Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa From 2001, and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2007

A day late for pianist-composer-educator-conceptualist Vijay Iyer’s 46th birthday, here’s an omnibus post, containing a “director’s cut” of a 2012 DownBeat cover piece, a 2008 feature in the Indian magazine Rave, a 2001 article focusing on him and then-partner Rudresh Mahanthappa, and an uncut Blindfold Test from 2007.

*-*-*-

Vijay Iyer DownBeat Cover Article, 2012:

Coming of age during the ‘90s and early ‘00s, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer considered it almost as essential to define his terms of engagement as to express himself in notes and tones. “I had to find a way to create a space for myself to do what I wanted,” Iyer explained in April. “A lot of that involved generating language that would surround the music itself so that people could understand it,”

Unopened boxes dotted the parlor floor of Iyer’s triplex in a Harlem brownstone. He was barely acclimated: a month earlier, directly after closing the deal, he’d hit the road behind his March trio release, Accelerando [ACT]. In a few hours he’d join bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore for night three of a week’s run at Birdland, to be followed by a fortnight of one-nighters in Europe where Iyer would stay for a few gigs with Fieldwork, the compositionally ambitious trio in which he collaborates with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

“As Muhal Richard Abrams would say, it was a response to necessity,” Iyer elaborated on his early self-advocacy. “My parents came to the U.S. in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act; I’m from the first generation of Indian-Americans. People didn’t know what to make of someone like me doing what I do, and their imaginations sometimes ran a bit wild. So it was about introducing myself to the universe, but also about finding my way: ‘What is it that I am revealing?’”

Having effectively addressed the query (consider his top-of-class honors in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group, Piano, and Rising Star-Composer categories in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll), Iyer, 40, now leans to a “deeds, not words” approach. But neither critical acclaim nor middle-age perspective inhibited Iyer from stating his bemusement, if not irritation, at a pervasive, ongoing “mad scientist of jazz” trope that he perceives in discussions of his albums and performances.

“The Immigration Act opened the door, in a very targeted way, to non-Westerners who were technically trained professionals,” Iyer said in calm, measured cadences. “It selected for a scientific-oriented community within these cultures. That’s the template by which people like me are still understood. I’ve read literally thousands of reviews over 16 albums, and a certain cerebral or mathematical thing keeps getting pegged. I can play ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ and they’ll still call it nerdy.”

Nerdy or not, it is undeniable that Iyer—who dual-majored in Math and Physics as a Yale undergraduate, and completed a Ph.D at U.C.-Berkeley (his thesis quantitatively analyzed the neurobiology of musical cognition)—is, as his late ‘90s mentor Steve Coleman understated it, “an analytical, super-intelligent guy.” That said, Iyer is less concerned with the life of the mind in isolation than, as he put it in a 2009 article for the Guardian (a link is on his website), the “dialogue between the physical and the ideal.”

In the piece, Iyer noted his propensity to mesh math and music to reveal unexpected sounds and rhythms. As an instance, he cited the trio’s surging, anthemic treatment of the ‘70s soul jazz hit “Mystic Brew” on Historicity [ACT], their then-current release, constructed by transmuting successive asymmetric Fibonacci (“golden mean”) ratios—specifically 5:3, 8:5, and 13:5—into an angular 21-beat cycle that sounds, he wrote, “simple and natural—like a buoyant, composite version of the original’s 4/4.” To deploy such elaborate rhythmic schemes, Iyer asserted, is no abstruse exercise. Rather, it connects directly to non-western musical traditions grounded in social ritual—the classical Carnatic and folk musics of south India (“intricately organized, melodically nuanced, and rhythmically dazzling, full of systematic permutations”); the African rhythms that antecede “nearly every vernacular music we have in the west.”

On the Grammy-nominated Historicity, Iyer was clearly the lead voice, uncorking a series of solo declamations that explicitly reference and refract into his own argot such key personal influences as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and Andrew Hill. On Accelerando, his strategies hew closer to an approach that Coleman described as “more compositional and contextual” than addressing “the actual content of the playing, which Bud Powell and that generation concentrated on.”

“An emergent property of the ensemble is that groove has become paramount,” Iyer said. “A certain wildness you hear in some of my earlier ensembles might be smoothed out; instead a profound sense of pulse propels you through the whole experience. The positive response to Historicity allowed us to tour and opened some doors. In the course of performance, our priorities developed in a direction that has to do with music as action, which is literally the way rhythm works. When we listen to rhythm, a sort of sympathetic oscillator that’s an internal version of the rhythm gets turned on in the brain. That’s what dance is made of.”

The trio has refined its own dance since 2004, when Gilmore joined Iyer’s quartet with Crump and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who sidemanned with Iyer on four Bush-era leader albums (Iyer reciprocally played on three of Mahanthappa’s contemporaneous quartet dates) comprised primarily of original music that explored issues of dual cultural heritage. Accelerando shares a common thread with Historicity and the 2010 recital Solo (ACT)—all are age-of-Obama productions—in situating the trio within a palpably “American” landscape.

“It was like the room changed color,” Iyer recalled feeling after Obama’s victory. “As artists of color, we didn’t feel like we were in as embattled a position. It was like we could dream big all of a sudden—stretch and imagine and be ourselves, and not have to force things.”

Titled for a piece that Iyer composed for choreographer Karole Armitage, Accelerando contains four other Iyer originals, and covers of six American composers ranging from Rodney Temperton (“The Star of the Story”) and Flying Lotus (“Mmmhmm”) to Henry Threadgill (“Little Pocket Size Demons”), Herbie Nichols (“Wildflower”) and Duke Ellington (“The Village of the Virgins”). Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment. This quality surfaces even more palpably in Youtube concert clips: Crump carves out supple vamps, thick ostinatos, and the occasional walking bassline; Gilmore details with multidirectional pulse and rhythm timbre; at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into (Crump’s words) “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors.”

“I felt the trio had reached a state where it’s as much about how we play as what we play, and the how-ness could be transplanted to another context—still the trio but doing something else,” Iyer said. “But also, I’ve written a lot of music, and when ACT approached me, I wasn’t ready to write a bunch more for the trio.” In fact, Iyer asserted, he had two other recordings in the can. However, ACT’s top-selling group, e.s.t., had recently dissolved after the death of its leader, pianist Esbjörn Svensson, and label head Siegfried Loch wanted to establish Iyer’s trio in the marketplace before releasing other projects. Feeling he’d already “reached a certain level in the United States,” Iyer agreed, hoping to exploit ACT’s strong European presence as a source of “infrastructure for supporting tours or taking out ads or relationships with the media.”

“In retrospect, I can see that to establish a composer-pianist in a certain sphere, it makes business sense to somehow put that person in front,” Iyer said. “Then you can do things that vary from that more classic format. The trio sensibility already was up and running. I wanted to see if we could shine it on something else, including a few of my older tunes, for at least half the program.”

[BREAK]

In settling on the trio as his most visible vehicle of self-expression, Iyer effectively put on hiatus his artistic partnership with Mahanthappa, who is himself an ACT recording artist. “It became a logistical reality,” Iyer explained. “We both had things going on, and weren’t able to play together that much. But also, we experienced what we called the ‘you guys’ phenomenon; people would say, ‘When are you guys playing next?’ or get us mixed up. At some level, we need to be able to establish independent trajectories.”

In Crump’s view, the “trio instantly became a more organic beast.” He assessed: “Even though the music was always forward-reaching and everyone was searching, the quartet’s functionality was essentially conservative—a horn and piano front line, melodies-solos, with a rhythm section. There’s potential magic in a trio, and each element has to expand. So the trio enabled more avenues of expression and development, and more engagement in the ensemble’s exploration and overall experience. We’re able to shape-shift so much more.

“In the early days of the quartet, Vijay and Rudresh were working things out. They were mutually very supportive, and helped each other grow, both musically and career-wise. But in a way, it always got to the same place, a blasting, dense zone. Vijay had to get through that to get to the other side; now he’s a much broader and more mature musician.”

Coleman, who introduced them in 1996, stated, “Outside of their shared concern with heritage, I didn’t hear a big connection in their tendencies and tastes.” Mahanthappa agreed. “Our compositional approaches are very different. As a saxophonist, I’m writing for what I can do on an instrument that can play only one note at a time. A lot of Vijay’s writing is based on the rhythmic interplay he can produce between both hands, and how that fits onto the drums.”

“We’re both idiosyncratic musicians, with our fixations, which turned out to be compatible,” Iyer said. “Rudresh went to music school; I didn’t. Maybe my orientation was more composerly, on the level of ensemble and sound and larger structure; his was more playerly, about projecting real intensity. We were trying to deal simultaneously with Carnatic and Hindustani elements and with Monk—I was the Monk guy—and Coltrane—he was the Coltrane guy. Coltrane had dealt with Indian music, so that point of reference was already in the vocabulary of so-called ‘post-bop’ language. When Marcus joined my band, without shedding the rhythmic language we’d been developing, the different elements seemed to become clearer. I became more reserved with the amount of detail I was trying to infuse into the pieces. I guess it’s called maturing.

“The quartet records Rudresh and I did together—and the early Fieldwork albums—articulate the idea of pushing ourselves to the brink of what we can hear, or understand, or execute. Rudresh and I did all this work that got a lot of critical acclaim and attention. On the other hand, it received a response from the musical community that didn’t feel exactly like hostility, but more like bewilderment and willful shunning. To me, the subject was to assert this new reality that speaks through us as a new kind of American. How American are we? How American are we allowed to be? How American are we seen as? You could say it was about articulating and negotiating identities and all those kinds of ‘90s multiculturalism words. But it was really about insinuating ourselves into the country. I’m also drawing on a heritage that includes M-BASE and the AACM, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, Pop Music and Electronica. It’s like trying to imagine a new world music, kind of following Wadada Leo Smith’s directive from the ‘70s, a sort of world-making with a modernist aspect—to develop something singular and at variance with other things in the world.”

Over the course of their collaboration, Iyer—a self-taught pianist who initially felt “dwarfed” by Mahanthappa’s titanic chops and “solid melodic improvisational concept”—developed his instrumental facility. In recent years, Crump suggested, “the element of being a virtuosic pianist has taken form in Vijay, which in combination with his development as a composer is just beastly.”

“I still wouldn’t say that I have highly refined technique,” Iyer demurred. He cited a remark by the dancer Roseangela Silvestre, whom he met during his immersive late ‘90s apprenticeship with Coleman. “She said technique is a process, about knowing your limits and being able to work within them, but also seeing how you can gently push on or reach beyond those limits. It’s about being able to express yourself with what you have. For me, composition became challenging myself to write things I could barely play, and then having to rise to meet the challenge.

“From playing so many concerts during the last few years, especially a bunch of solo concerts on amazing pianos, I discovered multiple extra dimensions of subtlety on the instrument that I hadn’t been able to access before. Now I find myself addicted to dealing more with things like testing how quiet you can be and still be heard and have an impact. Often in the trio concerts, I’ll play a solo standard in the middle of a set. It’s about things that I can make the piano do, sonic experiences—sonorities and timbres I’ve been finding, the continuum between timbre and harmony, the relative weight of different notes, and relative attack and articulation. It’s been this new-found bounty of exploration, like playing in a garden.”

[BREAK]

A month after our initial conversation, Iyer participated in two tribute concerts to Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. He, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Taborn played solo and duo homages to the maestro; Amiri Baraka read several choice verses, accompanied by Iyer, who began playing with the poet soon after his 1999 move to New York. The day after the first concert, which Taylor had attended, Iyer spoke of Taylor’s impact on his aesthetics.

“You sense this all-encompassing approach to creativity, the perspective of music as everything one does,” said Iyer, a Taylor acolyte since the early ‘90s, when he was gradually transitioning from physics to music as his life’s work. In a 2008 article, he described a raucous 1995 Bay Area performance of Taylor’s creative orchestra music in which he played violin, his first instrument. During a summational solo, Taylor deployed a chord with which Iyer had been experimenting obsessively since hearing Taylor play it on the ballad “Pemmican,” from the live solo album Garden (hat Hut). “It had an uncommon stillness, as if it predates us and will outlast us,” Iyer wrote for Wire. “For all its animated surface qualities and notorious tumult, Taylor’s music somehow possesses a motionless, timeless interior; this chord was proof. I couldn’t conceive of his music as transgressive any more; at moments like these, it seemed to exist as incontrovertible fact.”

This experience, Iyer continued, focused him on the question of “what is hearing or what is sound.” He increasingly honed in on a notion that improvising is the equivalent of being “empowered to take action as yourself.” He wrote: “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds. You jump to the level of what’s making that sound rather than a level of abstract analysis that considers the sounds in and of themselves. It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Over the last two decades, Iyer has explored this issue within multiple, sometimes overlapping communities. In the Bay Area, he played and composed experimental music with Taylorphiles like Glenn Spearman and Lisle Ellis, with such AACM-influenced Asian Improv collective members as Mia Masaoka, Francis Wong and Jon Jang, not to mention AACM icon George Lewis, his thesis advisor (during the ‘00s, Iyer has gigged consequentially with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith). He and trans-genre-oriented peer groupers like Liberty Ellman, Elliott Kavee, and Aaron Stewart established an AACM-inspired infrastructure, setting up bands to present original music that took into account elements drawn from hip-hop, electronica, and sampling. He regularly attended concerts of Carnatic music targeted to the Silicon Valley’s sizable Indian-American population, and took group classes with Ghanaian drummer C.K. Ladzekpo that taught him to “execute rhythms in a way that would motivate people.” On jobs with world-class local drum elders Donald Bailey and E.W. Wainwright—and with his own working trio—he garnered functional experience in the jazz tradition. All these associations prepared him for life with Coleman, who brought Iyer on fieldwork trips to Cuba, Brazil, and India, and offered a platform upon which he could consolidate ideas.

Now, within the trio, Iyer seems to be coalescing these parallel, long-haul investigations into a unitary voice. “Vijay’s relationship to what I call ‘composite reality’ has definitely progressed,” Sorey said, using Anthony Braxtonesque nomenclature. “We’re at a time and place where the idea of cosmopolitanism is such an important tenet in our music. Vijay doesn’t want to classify himself. When I play with Fieldwork or sub with the trio, it no longer feels like there’s any parameter.”

Iyer was spreading his wings in the broader playing field as well. He’d spend the latter third of May at Canada’s Banff Centre, co-hosting the 2012 International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music with Dave Douglas, from whom he will assume the position of Director in 2013. Furthermore, in April, Iyer received an unrestricted $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and a $30,000 commission from the Greenfield Foundation for a new work to be performed in 2014. With such honoraria in the pipeline, not to mention another large commission for a collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava marking the hundredth anniversary of Rite of Spring, and a cohort of talented private students (among them Christian Sands, Christian McBride’s current pianist-of-choice), it would seem that either the jazz “mainstream” has caught up to Iyer, or that Iyer has caught up to it.

Given Iyer’s earlier frustrations at “finding a home in the jazz landscape,” he regards the proposition as complex. “It’s more that I’ve reached a position of acceptance among people who present concerts in this area of music,” he countered. “That allows me to play in front of large audiences, and step by step, I have opportunities to connect that weren’t there before.

“To me, the notion of a jazz mainstream is a peculiar take on a music that was always oppositional and kind of defiant. It’s not fiction, because it exists in a market. But the real mainstream is perhaps more tolerant of aesthetic radicalism. I’ll hear a hip-hop beat that’s made from drops of water in a cup, and some cheap Casio bass drum and tom sounds that are almost comical—aesthetically shocking. Then I’ll look on Youtube and it has 20 million hits—not just a few people underground. I also have to say that, touring with Steve Coleman or Roscoe or Wadada, I’ve seen rooms filled with 3,000 people completely connect to some very intense stuff that we can do in those contexts.”

For now, Iyer was still processing the heady turn of events. “I’ve been in constant motion, and the Doris Duke award dropped on me in the middle of it,” he said. “Two days ago, I woke up, had an appointment in Midtown, and then just walked around New York, and tried to breathe and exercise my shoulders and observe and just be in the world for a change, not running like a crazy person. I’ll continue to do a significant amount of work and gigging. But I’m hoping to transform my day-to-day, so I’m not so anxious all the time.”

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Across Two Worlds (Rave—2008):

 

In the liner notes to Tragicomic, his twelfth album, the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer cites the use of the adjectival descriptive by Cornell West, the African-American philosopher-aesthetician, to denote the sensibility at play in the blues aesthetic, a world view that bedrocks much of 20th century jazz, black popular music, and the blues as such.

“West described the blues aesthetic as stemming from a sustained encounter with the absurd conditions African-Americans faced after slavery was abolished in the United States,” Iyer says. “Suddenly they found themselves categorized as a new kind of person, who previously had been owned as property and now had a certain amount of freedom, but also still faced injustice everywhere, and still had to find a way to continue being who they were. It’s not exactly humor. Irony, I guess, is the word.”

As an American of South Indian descent, born to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the 60s and earned advanced degrees, Iyer, 36, won’t compare his formative experiences to the conditions faced by the direct descendants of American slaves. But in his view, he shares with these aesthetic forebears the imperative of “having to establish and define and create an identity with no real precedents in American culture, of being different in a way that forces you into a critical perspective on what’s around you.”

Hence, in 2006, when he recorded and titled the 11-piece suite, Iyer relates, “I was thinking about what it means to be American today. I have a particular transnational scope; my perspective is very much American, but inflected and informed by Indian histories and heritage. It’s tragicomic – joy and sadness come together. This blues sensibility, rooted in African-American culture and history, has global relevance. We can all learn from and participate in it. The blues is not just a kind of music. It has to do with having a certain kind of cry, a desire to be heard, a refusal to be silenced.”

One of the most visible experimentally-oriented jazz musicians of his generation, Iyer factors his dual cultural heritage into his musical production. With a minimum of motion above the elbows, he uncorks torrents of intricately calibrated sound, sculpting declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa, illuminating symbolic connections between the notes and tones that comprise his musical vocabulary, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual, and the stories that he uses them to tell. The overall effect is one of stately, almost archetypal grandeur.

Music played a major role in the social rituals followed by Iyer’s parents, both practicing although “not extremely devout” Hindus. “We sang bhajans with other Indian families in the area, and, since there were no temples in Rochester, New York, we made pilgrimages to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Toronto to worship with others. Now temples are everywhere, and there’s even one in Rochester! During the ‘60s and ‘70s we were building a community. Now there’s a critical mass, the community exists, and we have an infrastructure, a culture, an identity – we can have a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kal Penn, a Mira Nair, a Harold and Kumar. That gives people growing up something to look up to, like, ‘Well, I could be that person.’ It’s a very different scenario from my own experience. It wasn’t just skin color that set me apart from most of the people around me, but also having a foreign name, which nobody knew anything about, and just the fact that we were a new kind of American. People didn’t understand who we were or why we were here. It’s not that I experienced this major injustice, but it did create a certain alienation that had to be broken through.”

On the other hand, Iyer notes, “a critical sensibility” also informs the way he processes his Indian heritage. “My parents left India for a reason,” he says. “We visited several times when I was growing up, and my mom and sister would stay with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. For an American visiting India, there’s this cliché of the sensory overload, with all sorts of new things you’ve never seen before. But for me it was also very much a homecoming, getting to be with family I barely knew, but were still family – and I felt a bond with them. But aside from the family, my parents never felt that connected to what was happening in India culturally. So I grew up with that ambivalence as well.

“Still, I came to find that my parents couldn’t relate to the idea of self-actualization, even though, at some level, that was one of their goals when they came to the US. But they didn’t see it as that. Their major life choices were mapped out in terms of what they would study, who they would marry, where they would live. It was a new perspective for people like them, from our community, the idea that you do what you want and choose the career you love, even if it seems difficult and will take you away from your family.”

In grappling with these issues, Iyer turned increasingly to music, gradually constructing an artistic response to the question of “Who am I?” A self-taught pianist who discovered jazz in high school, he found himself drawn to the New York pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), whose percussive approach and unique harmonic language continues to influence the jazz sound. “Every sound Monk makes sounds like it’s come through this hard-won process, this life-long search for sounds in the instrument,” Iyer says, explaining Monk’s resonance. A math and physics major at Yale, he discovered “the experimental tradition of creative music – jazz” and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C. Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics PhD candidate, and, while researching a thesis on the neurobiology of musical cognition, began the process of intersecting with the Bay Area’s various “creative communities” by which he developed his mature sound.

“It took me a while to realize that I was going to be a musician,” Iyer says. “I’m sure that’s nothing new to Indian audiences—almost every Carnatic musician I’ve met has an advanced degree in something besides music. Prasanna is a nautical engineer; he learned how to build ships. Umayalpuram Sivaraman has a law degree. It became a common thing to have something to fall back on, because you can’t rely on music as a career and it’s impractical. That’s still true!

“But when I hit the ground in California, I suddenly became a professional, playing in town, doing my thing. I continued my research in physics for two years, burning the midnight oil, playing gigs late at night and somehow waking up for an 8 am quantum mechanics lecture! Finally, it reached a crisis point, where I realized that I would never really be happy if music was not at the center of my life. That decision came when I was 23, and it was traumatic – my mother cried – but I worked through it.”

Ensconced in the Bay Area, Iyer immersed himself in the cadential rhythmic formulas of Carnatic music, which he knew superficially, but not as an artistic discipline to be analyzed. “I decided that if I was going to try to speak some kind of truth or make any authentic statement, I needed to figure out what this music is – or at least, on my own terms, what it means to me. In the Silicon Valley, there’s a big Indian community – technically trained IIT graduates from South India – and they would host a lot of concerts of touring Carnatic musicians. I saw dozens of concerts, got lots of recordings and books, studied how to permute the rhythms, how I might create music that Carnatic musicians could understand and work with.”

In 1996 Iyer also met alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, his partner on many subsequent investigations, most recently Tragicomic.  The son of a South Indian physics professor who emigrated to the States to earn a Harvard PhD, Mahanthappa, who grew up in Colorado, blends a piercing, double-reed-like tone with uncanny technical facility and a sense of line that incorporates wild intervallic leaps.

“We had a lot of aesthetic overlap, were both serious, almost the same age, and in the same predicament, which was trying to figure out how to do this with no points of reference besides ourselves,” Iyer says. “When we met, it was almost an unspoken understanding that if this was going to work, it would only happen by doing it together. What does it mean to be an Indian-American artist coming into the new millennium? What’s the first thing you do? What’s the next? What issues do you want to explore? We were both novices in dealing with ideas from Indian music, but we worked hard and complemented each other. I was interested in rhythm, the moras and korvais, as well as the percussive jazz piano tradition that Monk embodied. Rudresh had been checking out Parveen Sultana, Bishmillah Khan, and Coltrane – the melodic side of everything. It was like he was the voice and I was the drums. We call our duo Raw Materials. The principle is: How can we take these rigorous ideas for putting music together, but address them in a very open way, as improvisers and people who are straddling multiple traditions?”

Although well-aware of the “Indo-Jazz” stylings of the British-Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, Don Ellis and John McLaughlin, as well as the immense influence of Indian sounds on 60s pop, Iyer drew inspiration most directly from the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane.

“Coltrane for me is the towering figure,” he says. “In the early 60s he hung out with Ravi Shankar and tried to learn about Indian music, not because he wanted his music to sound Indian, but because he had a voracious appetite for all systems of music and thought and was interested in the decisions people made so that this music sounds the way it does, why this music exists. After he died, Alice Coltrane started her own ashram in Southern California, took on a spiritual name, and made devotional music. She actually adapted these bhajans that I sang as a child into a sort of gospel-Detroit funk setting. It wasn’t created to prove a point, with the intent of fusing Indian music and jazz. It was functional music, made to do something. That’s what interests me in general – not these fusion experiments where people try to mix X with Y, but music that emerges out of necessity. I wouldn’t put my music on the same level as Alice Coltrane’s, but all my choices came out of necessity in terms of trying to come to terms with my own relationship to India, to Indian music, to Indian culture. I never imagined myself as an expert on Indian music, but I wanted to harmonize with it, have it play a central role in who I am.”

For that reason, Iyer took deep satisfaction from a 1998 performance at a festival in Mumbai, his mother’s hometown, when he played with his Bay Area band, Jazz Yatra. “I played in clubs and did a big concert with my band, and it was an amazing experience,” he says. “I got exposed to side of Mumbai life – the jazz aficionados and bon vivants, the sort of playboy culture of the city – that I never would have seen hanging out with my relatives at the time. Maybe today I would, because they’re independent, mobile people.

“When we played at the festival, there was a real embrace from the audience. Rudresh was in the band, and they could hear what I guess you’d call the quasi-Indian content in what we were doing. For them to see this band on stage that’s half-Indian, playing real music, not just throwing them a bone, but really serious music coming from their countrymen, had an impact. There weren’t any other people like us on the program. Also, I had a row full of relatives in the audience at this big amphitheater at St. Xavier’s College, and that was also important for me, for my family to see what it is I do.”

It is evident from Tragicomic that Iyer has not tempered his rigorous formalism, but he has increasingly made it his business to place his vision of abstract notes and tones at the service of the word, as evidenced by a steady association and two fully staged collaborations with same-generation poet Mike Ladd, most recently documented on Still Life With Commentator (Savoy).

“I’m interested in the idea that all these traditions are fluid and always changing,” he says. “That’s so with jazz, which was always urban music, cosmopolitan, aware, hybrid and alive, drawing from multiple sources, Likewise, Indian music today is vast, very much connected to the rest of the world. Bollywood music sounds like something you’d hear in a club down the street. I mean, all the Indian cities seem to have a lot of very vibrant activity, probably due to the new technology-related economies. The landscape has changed rapidly in the last decade, and accompanying the growth is more improvisation at every level of culture, where new realities are incorporated and people are coming to terms with their new identities and speaking from that new perspective. So we’re all connected, basically, and all the traditions are interacting. Anyone can learn from them and create new music that’s authentic to who they are. I’m interested in standing still and feeling it all speak through me.”

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Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa (Downbeat-2001):

“The tradition in African-American music is not about making sounds for their own sake. There is always an instrumentality connected with sounds; you make sounds for pedagogical purposes, to embody history or tell stories.” – George Lewis
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On October 30th, before an intense audience at Joe’s Pub, a classy lounge tucked away in Manhattan’s Public Theater, pianist Vijay Iyer and his quartet (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Derrick Phillips, drums) imparted a touch of catharsis to an audience of frazzled natives. Celebrating Iyer’s recently issued Panoptic Modes [Red Giant}, the unit authoritatively executed a challenging succession of Iyer compositions marked by declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa. For all their intensity, Iyer’s pieces — he describes his role as “putting together musical situations” — radiated a stately, almost archetypal grandeur. Mahanthappa projected a keening, invocational sound, raw but centered, redolent of microtonal nuance. Phillips transmuted complex metric equations into cogent drum chants that traversed the full timbral range of the trapset. The composer illuminated precise symbolic connections between personal imperatives and the stories, images and states of mind encoded in the rhythms he deploys, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual.

Both Iyer and Mahanthappa are 30, and their personalities are complementary. Iyer is slight-framed, soft-spoken, cerebral, a vegetarian who drinks nothing stronger than tea; with a minimum of motion above the elbows, he unleashes choreographed torrents of calibrated sound. More Vishnuesque but no less brainy, Mahanthappa favors beer and cigarettes and meat; blowing, he stands erect and still, a leonine mane of black hair framing his arched-back head. Both are first-generation Americans from highly educated South Indian families that immigrated to the United States during the 1960s. Both grew up in communities where Indian descent made them distinct among their peer group, and felt a certain disconnect from Indian culture. For both, cracking the codes of ritual-based music and sustaining a dialogue with it was part and parcel, as Mahanthappa puts it, “of coming face to face with notion of not really being American and not really being Indian.”

A self-taught pianist whose jazz obsession began in high school, Iyer honed an early affinity for the percussive orientation of hardcore New York School piano — Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor — during undergraduate years at Yale, where he majored in math and physics and led a trio and sextet. He discovered “the experimental tradition of Creative Music-Jazz” in an undergraduate course with Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C.-Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics Ph.D candidate. He led a weekly bop-to-freedom jam session attended by such distinguished elders as Smiley Winters and Ed Kelly; aligned himself with forward-thinking Asian-American composer-improvisers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Miya Masaoka; studied with Berkeley-based Ghanaian percussion master C.K. Ladzekpo; collaborated with progressive hip-hop artists; and played original music with several ensembles comprised of like-minded peer-groupers Liberty Ellman, Aaron Stewart and Elliot Kavee, all up-and-comers in New York.

So music was about to push physics aside when Steve Coleman arrived in the Bay Area to undertake a six-week residency in the Bay Area that launched the young pianist on his systematic exploration of the science of rhythm and meter. Iyer helped Coleman connect with local venues and promoters, began to sit in with his band, and got a call in March 1995 to play with Coleman in Paris over a productive week that produced three influential recordings. Subsequently, Iyer has done projects with Coleman in Cuba, Senegal, and India, soaking up information, yet keeping in mind that “the different musics are very alive, not fixed, ahistorical entities. The people I interacted with represent a particular aspect of these vast traditions; there may be other containers and vessels who might have different shapes. Maybe the mentality that I apply to jazz masters like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk is the same template or hermeneutics that I apply to these musicians from other traditions.”

Iyer’s training in the abstractions of theoretical science served him well in grappling with Coleman’s ideas. “I have a mind for complexity, and could see Steve’s concepts as mathematical progressions,” Iyer says. “Steve permutes and conjures with numbers, and he saw that I could grasp his structures pretty quickly, although it’s one thing to conceptualize these complex structures and another to internalize them in your body. Steve upped the ante, making such fresh, spontaneous music from such rigorous ideas. I was used to getting by with whoever was willing even to try to play my music. Then I saw what can happen if you put in the time that he does with his band.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to Steve about his directions and intentions. He always has a working theory about how different cultures connect historically and metaphysically, and he investigates or queries these hypotheses musically, trying to tie them together in an experimental way. It’s a continual process, and you don’t have to subscribe to the same ideas to engage in it. I ended up focusing more on the percussive music of South India, mainly at the conceptual level; I wanted to draw from those ideas in order to invigorate my own music.”

In 1995 Iyer met trombonist/computer installation artist George Lewis, who imparted to Iyer the notion of “framing improvisation itself as a kind of inquiry, or critique or intellectual discourse, without losing the soul or heart of the music.” Lewis and Berkeley faculty members David Wessel and Olly Wilson helped Iyer launch an interdisciplinary Ph.D project exploring music and cognition from a rhythmcentric perspective. That Fall he participated in a Cecil Taylor creative orchestra music project, and that summer he worked at a Coleman-led workshop at Stanford University where he met Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa reached that Stanford crossroads by a very different route. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, his high school sax idols were Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker; he attended Berklee School of Music from 1990-92, then moved to Chicago. He led a Monday night jam session at a Lincoln Park attended by a small cadre of players who “didn’t fit into the straight-ahead scene or the avant-garde scene — I always felt like I was fighting the system.” In response, Mahanthappa focused on original music, incorporating various South Asian rhythms and scales and melodies into a format congruent with jazz, and evoking the sonic properties of the shenai and nagaswaram, the double-reed instruments of India, on the alto saxophone.

Mahanthappa says that he turned to Indian music “as a way of processing my own identity. Not to mention that it comes very naturally to me; I’ve had that sound in my ear since I was a kid, especially the vocal style. When I heard Steve Coleman’s work with concepts of West African percussion in the early ’90s, it started making even more sense. It’s not necessarily the sonic qualities; Steve doesn’t have a Ghanaian drum line playing with him, and he doesn’t need to. Nor do I feel like I need to have tabla and mrdangam in my quartet.”

Neither Mahanthappa nor Iyer had met another Indian-American jazz musician when Coleman introduced them, and their simpatico was instant. “We bring a lot of the same issues to the table,” Mahanthappa says. “Our musical relationship is amazing; we can do a lot of things that we don’t really have to discuss. I think everyone should be grateful to find one person who they can have such a close bond with in their career.”

After four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa moved to New York, and immediately joined forces with guitarist Ben Monder and groove-masters Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin. “After six months, I felt like I was playing at a higher level,” he says. “In New York there’s a sense of mutual appreciation for music that’s done well. You could get a band to rehearse three times for a gig that paid 40 bucks at the Internet Cafe!”

“The pace is faster in New York,” says Iyer, who arrived in 1999. “You’re always running around and there’s so much to cope with. My aesthetic has shifted. I used to play a lot less. Not as dense or fast, fewer notes, maybe the chords were sparser. That approach is still part of me, and it informs everything that’s come since. But here you feel you have to release it all every time you play. Maybe it was easier in the Bay Area not to feel like you’re in this rush to say everything.”

Meanwhile, Iyer and Mahanthappa inhabit the diverse improvisational, intellectual and cultural worlds of New York, adding to their personal well of narratives and contributing to the larger pool of knowledge. Having the chance to interact with the elders who walk the same streets and ride the same subways makes history live, strengthens their connection to the jazz lineage.

“The ultimate gratification is to find our work embraced by people like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and even Muhal and Andrew Hill, who I’ve idolized for more than a decade,” says Iyer, who works in Mitchell’s Note Factory. “They’re coming to our gigs and giving us fatherly advice! They’re also human beings, living and working, and getting through life. It’s so much easier to relate to them, and you can imagine placing yourself in at least the same frame of mind.”

“When I run into one of those guys on the street, I’m glad I moved here,” Mahanthappa agrees. “I’m part of the real jazz community. That would have never happened if we had stayed where we were. I can’t think of a lifestyle that allows me to control so many variables, not only the music itself but my entire life! Both of us had tons of options out of high school, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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Vijay Iyer (Blindfold Test) – Raw:

1. Joachim Kuhn, “Rabih’s Delight” (from KALIMBA, ACT, 2007) (Kuhn, piano, composer; Majid Bekkas, percussion; Ramon Lopez, drums)

I’m kind of stumped as to who that first one was. It had a nice sense of space in it, and I liked the composition, although I felt that when they went into the improvised section, it was a little formally vague. It sounded a bit unfocused at times in the middle. I liked the drummer. I liked the overall use of space in the way that the whole thing was put together. The percussionist I wasn’t so sure about. I was trying to think of who this might be. At first I thought maybe Omar Sosa, but actually it doesn’t sound like his playing. The way whoever it was dealt with rhythm, when he would play the more rapid figures and stuff, it didn’t sound like his feel to me. Although maybe it was. I haven’t heard him in a few years now. It wasn’t? Okay. I’ll give the overall feel of it 3½ stars, the composition 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it might be an elder. There’s a certain sense of warmth and composure and I’d say dignity that one finds in the elders.

2. Stephen Scott, “My Funny Valentine” (from Ron Carter, DEAR MILES, Blue Note, 2007) (Carter, bass; Scott, piano; Peyton Crossley, drums; Roger Squitero, percussion)

It’s “My Funny Valentine” played at a crawl. I don’t know about those chimes either. I don’t know who this is either. I get the idea. It’s a very capable and delicate execution. There’s nothing stylistically bold happening, but it’s accomplished. All these auxiliary percussion and the drums are kind of cracking me up, I have to say! The ending saved it. I’m glad I listened to the end. For me, in terms of my overall reaction, I liked the delicacy and the lushness at the end, even with this rhythmic figure that they closed with. But I don’t know who it was. Some names came and went in my head as I was listening. I thought for a moment Hank Jones, but I don’t think it’s Hank, because it seemed, in a way, a little bit more derivative than I would expect of Hank. So I don’t know. [Do you think it was the pianist’s record?] That’s an interesting question. It changes things when I think about it that way. The pianist was kind of playing safe, so that leads me to guess perhaps not. Since you said that, I’m going to guess that it was the drummer’s record. Ron Carter? Ah. Stephen Scott. There was another moment in the beginning, before the band came in, when I thought it might have been Ahmad Jamal. Ron kind of took a back seat considering it’s his record, which is interesting. For originality…it’s not original. This is a new record? Well, it is Ron Carter, who’s done everything. He’s played on some of the most landmark versions of this tune that there are. For me, doing an in the pocket version of “My Funny Valentine” in a record in 2007…that’s just not the choice I would make. But in terms of stars, for execution… The people played it safe, but they did it very smoothly and with elegance, so 3½.

3. Robert Glasper, “Of Dreams To Come” (from IN MY ELEMENT, Blue Note, 2007) (Glasper, piano; Vicente, Archer, bass; Damion Reid, drums)

Robert Glasper? Ah, I’m right. He’s doing these… I haven’t heard his latest record, but it has all the qualities that I associate with him, like a harmonic maze going on, but there’s also an insistent rhythm. He has a really nice touch. He’s really controlled with his touch; I admire that about him. Some of the pianistic things… He does certain kinds of turns and filagrees and ornaments that I associate with him, some of which are sort of gospelish. I like it. And I like his band. [AFTER] I enjoyed that. I’m still trying to get a handle on Glasper in general. I admire him, and I think he’s very accomplished, and I like his tunes. But something about the way he plays them, there isn’t as much space in his own soloing, and his soloing tends to focus on the kind of higher register, so it’s sort of like this lyrical soprano range almost, for most of it. Sometimes I crave a little more space in his playing, and a little bit more exploring the whole range of the piano, particularly in the times I’ve heard him with his trio. But I think he’s a fantastic musician, and I really like seeing band live. Stars? You and your stars! I’ll give the tune… Everyone has to know, so that no one gets offended, that I am being very sparing, and almost nobody in the world will get 5 stars. I’ll give the composition 3½, and I’ll give the playing 4.

4. Danilo Perez, “Epilogo” (from LIVE AT THE JAZZ SHOWCASE, Artist Share, 2004) (Perez, piano, composer; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

The old studio fade on a live record! That was pretty happening! I have to say, that was kind of smoking. Again, I had a bunch of names in my head. At first, I thought it might have been Gonzalo, but there was a little bit more abandon in it than I usually hear from him, so I’m not sure. Then there were some things I’ve heard Pilc do before, when the piano solo reached a certain climax, and he did all these kind of demented diminished chords kind of ascending into the insanity. But I don’t know. I can’t honestly say it’s either of those guys. In fact, something about the montuno, the way it was played, sounded like it couldn’t have been Gonzalo. I’ll give the whole thing 4 stars. Danilo? That makes more sense. I guess Danilo should have been my next choice. I’m so used to hearing him with Wayne, I’ve forgotten how he’ll get down in his own music. Nice playing, Danilo. Thank you. Fantastic playing by everybody.

5. Brad Mehldau, “She’s Leaving Home” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums; Lennon-McCartney, composer)

Is this Brad? I thought so. I’m not a huge Brad listener, but I know enough about him that I figured it had to be him. Mainly, actually, what it was about it… Well, one, obviously, he covers lots of pop tunes, and everybody knows that. But that wasn’t it. It was more that I’ve read him say that Monk is his main influence, and actually I heard that in here, even though he’s doing a Beatles tune, and it’s rendered in this way that’s a little… It’s a little bit poppy, but it isn’t entirely that. But I think mainly the way he got this ringing sound out of the instrument and marshaled the power of the instrument in this way that Monk would, that very few other people did. Anyone who has really thought deeply about Monk will tend to think in those terms. And he seems to be pushing himself, which I admire. The way he’d treat the melody, it was like he was reaching for it. That quality makes it compelling. It’s done in a way that’s very likeable, and it’s nice. It’s a great trio. Was that Larry on bass? It’s fantastic bass playing. They’re really supporting what Brad is doing really well, and they help drive his ideas home. Was this a live record? I guess I think that the arrangement could have been more concise, given that it’s a studio record in particular. It sort of takes you there, and back again, and then there again. Like, it could have… The reason I let it play for so long is that I wanted to know… The thing about when you handle these pop songs… What was the name of this song? “She’s Leaving Home,” that’s right. When you cover these tunes that are so loaded with significance for people… Certainly, there’s a sector of listeners who are just going to get off on the fact that it’s this Beatles song that they love or something. But to me, I think it’s important to have an angle on it, and have a reason for doing it besides that it’s just a beautiful song. But that’s just me. That’s probably my problem more than Brad’s. Brad doesn’t have any problems actually! Anyway, I’ll give the idea of covering this song 3 stars, but I’d give the execution 4 songs.

6. Dave Brubeck, “Georgia On My Mind” (from INDIAN SUMMER, Telarc, 2007) (Brubeck, piano)

I guessed Hank Jones at first, but I had misgivings about doing so, because he doesn’t usually wear his blues thing on his sleeve like that. But some of the chords in there definitely reminded me of Hank. So I’m trying to think who this could be, then. Gosh. I don’t know. This is a new record? Brand new? It’s really about the inner voices in his chords, which not many people have. They’re like the subtle gradations in these voicings that come from decades, obviously, of real careful decision-making. When you have the benefit of that many years of experience… Whoever this person is, it’s either someone who’s older or who’s really kind of grotesquely imitating an elder person. I hope it’s not the latter. Just certain things. Like, he’d add this little leading chromatic thing on a middle voice that would create a progression where there would be none otherwise. So it’s just these sort of inner pathways between parts of the song that people like Hank will find… I have to stop talking about Hank, since it’s not that person. So who does that leave? I don’t think it was Barry Harris. I guess it could be… I get the sense that whoever… I was going to say maybe it’s Kenny Barron, but I don’t think it was, because Kenny would put more variety in it than what I heard. This is really a very direct, lyrical, and heartfelt version of “Georgia on My Mind,” by somebody who feels that song. I don’t know who that is. You want me to grade it before I know who it is? Well, see, the thing is that it’s not just about music in a vacuum. To me, it matters where the shit is coming from. But I’ll give it 4½ stars.

7. Hiromi Uehara, “Time Travel” (from TIME CONTROL, Telarc, 2007) (Uehara, piano, composer; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Tony Grey, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

That was Hiromi with Fuze on guitar, and I’m glad to see he’s getting some space to stretch on something, because I haven’t heard much from him lately. That was a little bit hilarious—perhaps partly intentionally so. Well, it’s the return of fusion. It’s the return of things that happened 30 years ago, in all the good and bad parts of it. I guess one of the good parts about it is the exuberance that’s evident relentlessly throughout! The bad parts have to do with taste, I guess. I don’t want to say bad, but one of the parts that I don’t go for about this piece and about other things like this is that it’s so overly arranged that it’s almost impossible for it to really seem spontaneous. People get their little moments to shine on vamps or on, as we call it, “fusion swing” sort of grooves (that’s meant in not the most positive way). But everybody has blazing musicianship and stuff like that, and so it’s like foregrounding chops and musicianship and really tight intricacy of arrangement, but there’s so little room for discovery in the course of music like this, because it’s sort of like it’s been all tightly packed together in a… It’s all been wrapped up in a bow, basically. It doesn’t really take the listener through a real-time process. It’s like listening to something that’s so pre-ordained that it’s almost as if the listener isn’t really taken along. That’s I guess one of the drawbacks about music of this nature. But Hiromi is doing great in her career, and I’m really happy that that’s even possible in this day and age. I read that she sold 100,000 copies in Japan or something crazy like that! Very few people are achieving that level of success in this music. That’s cool. Also, in a lot of her music, there’s this kind of cuteness factor, like this “Look at this cool thing that we can do” kind of thing. Perhaps she’ll move past that and get into some other things later in her career. She has plenty of time, because she’s still very young, and the world is her oyster. 2½ stars.

8. Kalman Olah, “Hungarian Sketch #1” (from ALWAYS, Merless, 2007 (Olah, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I don’t know who that was. I don’t think I’m going to guess right, even if I try. I liked the tune. I liked the composition actually. There’s a chord they kept returning to that reminded me of Andrew Hill chords; that will always win points with me! I guess I was a little bit… It didn’t exactly grab me as a performance. It was nicely done, but I have to say that it’s hard for piano trio music to hold up in the midst of a blindfold test, because they all start to… At their worst, they start to sound the same. Just like when it doesn’t jump out at you, and you’re reminded of the other things that didn’t jump out at you. Not that good music needs to jump out at you all the time. And this was good music. It just wasn’t all that unique to me. The pianist was good, and kept his technique in reserve in a nice way, so there was a moment when he flashed some virtuosity. That was sort of a surprise. So I respect that kind of choice. It was nice. But I don’t know who it was. [Can you discern any ethnicity encoded in this, or in fact, ethnic codes in any of the music we’ve been playing?] I guess the first one was sort of wearing that more on its sleeve. The Kuhn thing. Because of the inclusion of some kind of Moroccan percussion instrument, but also the modal kind of… There was a tinge of exotica going on in that piece, which I am often on the fence about the use of. See, the thing is, in the case of that Kuhn piece, Randy Weston can do something like that, and it doesn’t raise that question mark for me, because it feels like it’s integrated into his whole relationship to the piano. Because he has such a deep thing about sound that when… Because he dwells so much on kind of the basement range of the piano, in those lower octaves, and he explores the overtones that emerge out of that, so that affects his entire harmonic language in this way. But to me, the Kuhn thing was a little bit more like it was a certain kind of journey into exotica. But this piece didn’t really strike me so much as that. Like, it had some Lydian chords in it or something, but that doesn’t… 3 stars. I was kind of neutral about it. To me, the piano playing was accomplished but a little generic for 2007.

9. Lafayette Gilchrist, “In Depth” (from LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST 3, Hyena, 2007) (Gilchrist, piano, composer; Anthony “Blue” Jenkins, bass; Nate Reynolds, drums)

This person is kind of out! This insistence on dwelling on these kind of… Well, the harmonic approach was so consistently strange, but in a very interesting way. I like that aspect of it. I have one guess, and the other is just… The first guess is Michelle Rosewoman. Oh, okay. Then it seems to me like somebody who has ties to… Well, it’s interesting. It’s a strange little that’s like a blues, but it’s dealt with in a very… Altered would be just the tip of the iceberg, really, for what this person is doing, because it’s not altered in a conventional way. It’s this very unique approach to harmony. I was reminded at times of Horace Tapscott and at times of Sun Ra. But obviously, it’s not either of those people. Also, I was thinking that this person seems to have connections to the… I guess the choice of rhythm section, even just for that kind of generic funk beginning to this tune, and using electric bass and the backbeat—everything about that was a bit jarring compared to the way the pianist was playing. The pianist was a little bit looser with rhythm and with time and so on. Though not that it went astray. Just the feel of it was looser. That’s all. I like the tune, so I’ll give the tune 3½ stars. As for execution, I admire that this person stuck to his or her guns harmonically, and really just stayed there, to the point that this is the character of the piece in a very consistent way. But it was a little… Just the whole thing felt a little goofy. So 3 stars.

10. Luis Perdomo, “Tribal Dance” (from AWARENESS, RKM, 2006) (Perdomo, piano, composer; Hans Glawischnig, Henry Grimes, bass; Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, drums)

Well, I’m real glad you played that. I guessed that it was Luis’ album. I haven’t heard it, but I knew of its existence, and particularly the fact that there are two bass players on it, and one of them was Grimes. There aren’t many records that are going to sound like that! I remember running into him at Iridium the night of the day of that recording session. Cecil was playing at Iridium. He told me about it, and I was like, “What?” I was excited to hear what that wound up sounding like. To me, Luis is one of the baddest cats on this scene. He has so much command, and he’s dealing like a motherfucker. He’s really great. But people tend to put him squarely in the mainstream, or even on the Latin side of the mainstream, by virtue of his origins. But to me, he has a really broad scope, and I admire the fact that he made such a bold move on his record as to make it this, as to have… I don’t know if the entire record is this format. But just to have this second album feature something like this on it is… It’s not like he wrote a lot of stuff to happen in that particular tune. But also, he set up a situation that was kind of brilliant, I thought. He’s uniting these different sectors of the New York scene in this one move. It starts with this sonic screech, and then you hear him play this kind of modal figure, but it’s all in this groove that’s really tight, and it all kind of falls together, and you get these like very appealing elements from all these different sources that all fall together very nicely. Was that Nasheet I heard in there? I thought so. I really admire that he did this, and I enjoyed it, too. I think that the drum duet… Who was the other one? Eric McPherson? It seemed they were really taking chances in the studio, like, “Okay, we’re going to play this and then see what happens.” So it sounded like there was a little bit… Just towards the end of the drum duet, there was a little bit of like, “What do we do now?’ There was just one moment when it was like that. But other than that, I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad that it happened. So 4½ stars.

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