Category Archives: DownBeat

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

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


Bill Charlap (Blindfold Test):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you bringing in new repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And lots of singers early on.

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

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

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

And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you were a close observer of it before.

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

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

It’s just music that I love.

Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?

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

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

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

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

Absolutely. I still do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you saw it always as cross-related.

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

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

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

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

300 East 51st Street.

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

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

Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.

Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.

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

Yup. New York.

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

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

What do you mean by “a kid”?

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

So jazz always appealed to you.

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

So the template was there.

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

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

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

But the references are there, because you heard them.

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

I can read it to you.

It’s ok.

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

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

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

Different cats.

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

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

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

At the beginning.

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

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

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

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

I’m talking about your aesthetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said pitfall.

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

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

That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he does great things with them.

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

It’s not for me.

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

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

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

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

You knew it intimately, though.

I guess so.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did not cut corners.

And you can’t either, can you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Tim Berne’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2009

Today is the 62nd birthday of Tim Berne, the master composer and alto saxophonist, who has been creating original music for close to 40 years. Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece on Tim in 2009—here’s the “director’s cut.”


Midway through 2009, Tim Berne dreamed up a new ensemble. “When I was sleeping I was playing in my brain with Marc Ducret, Paul Motian, and Mary Halvorsen—I can’t remember the bass player,” Berne related. “I actually heard the music; I woke up thinking I’d just done a concert. I thought, ‘Wow, this would be a great band.’”

In conjuring this imaginary two-guitar quintet, Berne drew directly from concrete associations. He’s deployed Ducret over the past two decades in such units as Bloodcount, Science Friction and Big Satan; toured with Motian in the early ‘80s groups that recorded Songs and Rituals In Real Time [Empire], The Ancestors [Soul Note] and Mutant Variations [Soul Note]; and, more recently, incorporated Halvorsen in Adobe Probe, a band that also includes such accomplished speculative improvisers as trumpeter Shane Endsley, bassist John Hebert, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and pianist Matt Mitchell.

Indeed, for Berne, to explore different sonic contexts and personnel combinations is more default m.o. than aberration. “It’s a compulsion, like I don’t have a choice,” Berne elaborated between bites of salad in an Italian restaurant several blocks from his southwest Park Slope home. Tall and trim at 55, the alto saxophonist wore his customary uniform of untucked shirt, blue jeans, running shoes, and several days growth of beard.

“Every time I say I’ll never lead a band again, two minutes later I’m starting one, or I’m thinking about it, or I’m writing,” he said. “I have to in order to feel good. A couple of my bands were together for four-five years. Then people got busy, it became an ordeal to rehearse and find dates in common, and I moved on. When I think I’m getting stale, I tend to seek out other players rather than try to change what I’m doing. Playing with different people changes me by osmosis, and I start getting different ideas—I’m too lazy to figure out how to do it myself at home.”

Reflecting this predisposition for change, Berne’s itinerary over the last two years includes several new, concrete configurations. After initial winter and spring ‘09 engagements, he toured last February with the coop quartet Buffalo Collision, comprising Bad Plus pianist and drummer Ethan Iverson and Dave King, and cellist Hank Roberts, a frequent presence on Berne’s reputation-making latter ‘80s recordings for Columbia and JMT. Their 2009 recording, (duck), on Berne’s Screwgun label, displays a collective sensibility that is at once highly organized and free-flowing—as the pianist put it, “Dave and I go in and out of interlocking, almost composed-sounding events, while Tim’s and Hank’s response is to keep searching for their pure, natural improvised selves.”

Over this period, Berne has played several engagements with BBC (now known as Sons of Champignon), also a coop group, with Jim Black, Berne’s drummer of choice with Bloodcount since 1994, and guitarist Nels Cline, now best-known for his contribution to Wilco.

Both units focus on tabula rasa collective improvisation, differentiating them in process from all but one of the various ensembles that performed the dense, multi-thematic compositions that define Berne’s thirty or so leader dates. “Partly it was practical, because it’s so hard to get people together to rehearse any more,” Berne said. However, over the past year Berne has been on a writing binge for two ensembles—Adobe Probe and a quartet called Los Totopos, with Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on percussion. The kindling spur was an encounter with a one-performance-only suite composed and performed by Julius Hemphill at the end of the ‘70s with Lester Bowie and Don Moye.

“I thought that I’d arrange this instead of trying to come up with something new,” Berne said. “Something about it is so organic and simple and complicated at the same time, and I started writing arrangements, just to get myself going. It put me into this space of, ‘Ok, I’m going to start working on music all day like I used to, and fuck all this other stuff. If don’t have any gigs—fine. I won’t have any gigs.’”

Bookings have been few and far between for Adobe Probe, partly because of its unwieldy size, but the Los Totopos c.v. now boasts close to 20 performances and, by Berne’s estimate, four sets worth of compositions

“I didn’t want to write a lot of hard music and then not be able to play it,” Berne said. He told Mitchell, Noriega, and Smith, “we’re going to do this, but we have to rehearse a lot—I want it to sound like a band.” Each member was amenable.

“They can all read flyshit and play ninety different styles, but that’s not really the point,” Berne said of his personnel. “I’m looking for people you can’t pigeonhole, who don’t play in styles. I get people who have a natural chemistry—who can recognize when things happen and not get in the way of it—and when I find them, I milk it as long as I can. I try to set up problems for them to solve. It’s like being a painter with a full palette of colors at your disposal to organize. The tunes are like provocations to motivate improvisation. If they aren’t forced to do something they ordinarily wouldn’t do, we might as well just jam.”


Berne is not one to talk about the specific vocabulary and strategies that he deploys to articulate his aesthetic. His recent partners, however, had much to say about the impact of his musical production.

“I grew up with Tim’s music,” said Iverson. “Buffalo Collision is two-thirds of the Bad Plus meets our formative influences.”

He referenced Berne’s two mid-‘80s recordings for Columbia, Fulton Street Maul and Sanctified Dreams, and his cusp-of-the-90s dates for JMT (Fractured Fairy Tales, Miniature, Pace Yourself), on which such virtuoso improvisers as Roberts, Bill Frisell, Mark Feldman, Herb Robertson, and Joey Baron uncorked some of the strongest playing of their early careers.

“When I moved to New York in 1991, it seemed like the coolest, newest stuff around,” Iverson continued. “I thought everybody would know them and regard them as the latest advance in jazz. I am firmly convinced that everybody who made music on the Downtown scene in the ‘90s—Dave Douglas, everybody else—owes an incredible debt to what Tim did. He plays great horn, writes great music, does this crazy improvising. There’s never any doubt about his intention. Whatever pitch Tim is improvising with on the saxophone, there’s a good melodic reason. In two phrases, you can tell he’s playing. It’s his language, his thing, and he plays it very strong all the time.”

Iverson honed in on Berne’s embrace of “eighth-note or Punk energy on vamps that evolve from the context of playing a lot of free music, beautiful rubato melodies—Tim put that in the world.”

“Tim has tremendous power both compositionally and as a bandleader,” Black said. “In Bloodcount, out of a two-hour set, you play about an hour-and-a-half completely improvised, seamlessly weaving together written material and improvisation, with different grooves, times, feels, vibes, attitudes and energies.”

Berne describes his rhythmic conception as osmotic and intuitive. Black broke down the components. “It’s totally James Brown and whatever was happening with funk-based music when Tim was growing up,” he remarked. “But there’s a thousand different ways to play a funk groove—depending on how much energy and action you wanted at the moment, you could play break beats over a James Brown feel. Tim uses odd numbers of bars to follow the shape of the line he’s writing. I would memorize his music by singing the melody, not unlike learning a Charlie Parker head, but more twisted.”

“I was into the idea of the epic within improvisational music, the way Tim integrates improvisation over a long form,” said Mitchell, 34. A decade ago, he purchased scores to “Eye Contact,” a 51-minute opus for Bloodcount from Paris Concerts, and “Impacted Wisdom,” an extended piece from the Caos Totale album, Nice View. These are but two examples of Berne’s penchant for creating, as Cline put it, “episodic journeys that gradually morph into virtually impossible (for me) to play melodic-rhythmic lines that are unbelievably long.

“This kind of drama was not common in a lot of the music twenty-thirty years ago, and maybe still isn’t common in that scene,” Cline continued. “Tim also has a certain amount of patience with improvisation. He’s always had an amazing ability to hone in on a musician’s individual aspects and, I daresay, eccentricities, and to capitalize on them and write for them, to play up those aspects of that particular musician’s style or sound or sensibility, and enable that musician to completely and confidently contribute their personality with absolute freedom.”


In his embrace of idiosyncracy, Berne has followed the path of his own formative role models, all graduates of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group, who, like Berne, migrated to New York in the first half of the ‘70s and became prime movers in the experimental hybrids that defined cutting-edge jazz of that era. Although Berne’s short list of influences includes Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill, his guru was Julius Hemphill, the late alto saxophonist-composer.

Berne contacted Braxton for lessons soon after purchasing his first saxophone in 1973. “I was a stone beginner,” Berne affirmed. “But I was so passionate about listening to the music. It transported me, helped me deal with life, in a way. I realized I had to find out whether I could do this, and I figured that if I took lessons, I’d have to do it. Otherwise I’d probably be too lazy.

“Studying with Anthony was systematic—play a C scale, come back, then play a D. But his career was starting to take off, and we couldn’t continue. He said, ‘Oh, you should try to find Hemphill.’ I didn’t know Julius was in New York. I was totally into him because of Dogon A.D. With Julius it was nothing systematic. He just drilled me on long tones. About the only thing I could understand was sound; I realized that’s what made all these guys different. As for the technical stuff, I’d ask questions, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, you figure it out—you could do this or you could do that.’ He was basically teaching me how to think for myself—the confusion he caused made me work harder. The first lesson, he said, ‘What are you interested in?’ ‘I don’t really know, because I’m a beginner.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about magic’—and that’s where we started. Now I know exactly what he was talking about. Why when we’re all improvising do we put this thing together at the same time without a conductor? Things happen that can’t be explained when you’re playing music.”

It seems almost magical that in 1979, five years after those first lessons, Berne released his first recording, The Five Year Plan, comprising all original compositions, on Empire, his first imprint label. “Tim’s aesthetic as a composer and bandleader was pretty much in place,” said Cline, who produced the date. “You could feel the influence of Julius, not only in the variety of the writing with rubato, free textural pieces with dense harmonic content, but also vamps and grooves that were more R&B-influenced, bluesy almost.”

“I started writing almost the first year I started playing,” Berne recalled. “I knew that all my influences wrote music, so I’d better start. I probably couldn’t have done it now. There was less emphasis then on career priorities. Julius was doing five gigs a year. Each of these guys had their own thing, and spent time developing it. They were like actors. I’m not saying it was pure, but there were fewer distractions. That’s what I’m trying to get back to, where you stop thinking about this gig, that tour.”

As we spoke, Berne was anticipating a September sojourn in Europe with a Ducret-led quartet, and various domestic and international engagements with bassist Mike Formanek—during the ‘90s, he recorded six times with Bloodcount in addition to duo and trio dates with Berne, who played on four of Formanek’s own ‘90s Enja albums—in support of the 2010 quartet release The Rub and Spare Change [ECM].

“It’s like a psychological vacation,” Berne said of the sideman function. “I’m only responsible for playing the music. Plus, Marc and Mike write such meaty music, and I’m immersed in their ideas for 10 or 15 gigs, which definitely informs what I write next. I don’t really care if I’m original or not.”

With Los Totopos, Berne navigates an acoustic context, after a number of years devoted primarily to plugged-in timbres, textures, and skronk. He is also aiming for a certain concision, a word never heretofore applicable to Berne’s oeuvre.

“Our recent concerts were pretty different from our first ones,” Berne said. “Just to see if I could do it, I tried to tame myself a little. Shorter, more focused tunes that aren’t as suite-like; the first thing that comes to my mind as opposed to working on something until it’s about six hours long. I’ve kind of succeeded. Also, the music itself is different. There’s more…dare I say…conclusive harmony.

“Whatever I’m doing a lot of, I want to do the other thing. I was doing a lot of electric stuff, but I got frustrated with soundchecks and equipment sucking—if the sound isn’t perfect, the electric thing gets to be a drag. Then I realized my music sounds good on piano. Then I got into the beautiful sound of the piano and clarinet. I get myself to that point where I say, ‘enough of this; now I’m going to do that.’ I reserve the right to change my mind.”

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For Lee Konitz’ 89th Birthday, a 2015 Downbeat Feature, a 2001 Downbeat Feature, and an Uncut 2004 Blindfold Test

Lee Konitz turns 89 today. I’ve been fortunate to intersect with him both during my years at WKCR (we did a 3-Sunday, 18-hour retrospective of his recordings in 1993) and as a print journalist. Representing my latter activity are three DownBeat features, the first written on the occasion of his induction into DB’s Hall of Fame last year, the second published in 2002.  At the bottom is an uncut Blindfold Test that we did together in 2004. (I’ve previously posted the 2001 DB feature and the Blindfold Test.)


Lee Konitz DB Hall of Fame Article (2015):

On the afternoon of May 4th, when Lee Konitz was informed of his induction into DownBeat’s Hall Of Fame, he was not in his apartments in Manhattan or Cologne, nor in his house in rural Poland. Instead, the 87-year-old alto and soprano saxophonist was in a London hotel room, preparing to hit a few hours hence at Ronnie Scott’s with trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Jordi Rossy, where they would play Douglas’ arrangements of tunes by Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano, interpreting, among others, “Subconscious Lee” (a contrafact of “All The Things You Are”) and “Kary’s Trance” (“Play Fiddle Play”) according to tabula rasa improvising principles similar to those Konitz and Tristano followed when they performed frequently between 1949 and 1952, at periodic intervals between 1955 and 1959, and a final time in 1964.

On the next day, Konitz and Bro, who had played three gigs in three days with Douglas, would depart for an eight-day, six-concert tour with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan in Iceland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Greenland, during which they would apply similar aesthetics to navigating Bro’s beyond-category 21st century songs, as they did on the Loveland albums Balladeering (2008), Time (2011) and December Songs (2013).

“I brought my heavy coat with me, just in case,” Konitz joked. He recalled first visiting Scandinavia in November 1951, as documented on spirited location broadcasts with local musicians that include “Sax Of A Kind” (“Fine and Dandy”), “Sound-Lee” (“Too Marvelous For Words”) and “All The Things You Are.” Seven months before, he had played those and the 11 other tracks that comprise last year’s release Lennie Tristano: Chicago, April 1951 (Uptown) alongside tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh in Tristano’s sextet at the Blue Note Jazz Club in the Loop. Proprietor Frank Holzfeind, who taped the proceedings, only booked top-shelf national acts, a category to which Chicago natives Tristano and Konitz had ascended after several critically acclaimed recordings during the two previous years—Tristano’s for Prestige and Capitol and Konitz’s for New Jazz. Before a friendly, not-too-loud audience, the sextet executes vertiginous unisons, stretching out soloistically and contrapuntally on the aforementioned, along with Konitz’s “Palo Alto” (“Strike Up The Band”) and “Tautology” (“Idaho”), Marsh’s “Background Music” (“All of Me”) and Tristano’s “No Figs” (“Indiana”). They also tackled the standards “I’ll Remember April” and “Pennies From Heaven,” which would spawn now-canonic variants like Tristano’s “April” and “Lennie’s Pennies,” and Konitz’s “Hi-Beck,” which he had recorded a month before with a sextet including Miles Davis, who had brought Konitz’s sui generis alto voice to the “Birth of the Cool” sessions for Capitol in 1949 and 1950.

That Konitz continues to seek and find new pathways through this core repertoire is evident from Douglas’ reports of the British engagements and a new CD titled Jeff Denson Trio+Lee Konitz (Ridgeway), on which, accompanied by partners the age of his grandchildren, Konitz uncorks stunning alto saxophone solos on “Background Music” and Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” (“Out Of Nowhere”).

A few days after returning from England, Douglas recalled his surprise at Konitz’s “radical approach to form” during rehearsals for the group’s March debut at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. “The language itself adheres to the rules of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano—and Lee Konitz,” Douglas said. “But everything starts as an improvisation, and the themes emerge from an unpredictable group improvisation. Everybody comes and goes. The song gets played in pieces. The full group is constantly involved in the elaboration of the form and the unfolding of the piece.

“Lee gave very specific directions. He said: ‘When one person plays a line and the other person enters, they should start on the note that the other person ended on, and use a bit of the phraseology that the person was in—this is the way I used to play with Warne Marsh.’ An intense ear-training thing. I think there’s a parallel between Lee’s ideas about how form and musical structure operate and the way Wayne Shorter works with his quartet.”

Unlike Shorter, Konitz does not use metaphoric koans to describe the process that he follows as assiduously today as he did in 1949. The son of Jewish immigrants who ran a laundry and cleaning establishment in Rogers Park during the Depression, he explains his own no-safety-net improvisational intentions with pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts terminology.

“When I play, I’m not thinking of expressing sadness, or some picture-idea, or some way to make an emotional effect,” he told collaborator Andy Hamilton in his authoritative autobiography, Lee Konitz: Conversations On The Improviser’s Art. “I’m thinking of playing a melodic succession of notes, with as accurate a time-feeling as possible. I don’t feel very poetic. I hear of people seeing colors, or images, or some spiritual motivation. I’m just playing the music clear, warm and positive—that’s really my motivation.”

Konitz’s 2015 explanation to Downbeat was even more to the point. “I start from the first note, and trust something will happen if I give it a chance,” he said. “It has to do with taking the time to let whatever note I’m playing resolve in some way, so I’m not just playing finger technique, one note after another non-stop, take a quick breath when you get out of breath. This is literally note by note.”

A key component of Tristano’s pedagogy was for students to sing the solos of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, to internalize them so deeply that they could then create their own composed variations and improvise upon them. That this remains fundamental to Konitz’s aesthetics is illustrated in a 2½-minute vignette in the documentary All The Things You Are, where Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer, en route to a duo concert in France in November 2010, scat Lester Young’s heroic declamations on “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy.” In recent months, Konitz said, he has begun to bring this heretofore private activity into performance.

“I enjoy making the singing feeling dictate the playing feeling, not the finger technique, which I tried to develop for many years, like most people,” Konitz said. “I’m a shy person to some extent, and I never had confidence to just yodel, as I refer to my scat singing. One day with Dan, I played a phrase and needed to clear my throat, so I finished the phrase, bi-doin-deedin-doden, or whatever, and then a few bars later Dan did something like that, so I said, ‘Oh, good—I’m in now; I can do this.’ I don’t get up to the microphone. I don’t gesticulate. I just sit in a chair, and whenever I feel like it, at the beginning of a solo or in the middle or whenever, I warble a few syllables. I’ve been warbling ever since, and feel great about the whole process.”

As a teenager in Chicago, Konitz—then an acolyte of Swing Era avatar altoists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter—played lead alto and sang the blues at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox, the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines. Seventy years later, he scatted with Douglas in England and with Bro in Scandinavia. Just three months earlier, he scatted several complete solos on the sessions that generated the new recording with Denson, following three meetings on Enja with the collective trio Minsarah—Standards Live–At The Village Vanguard (2014), Lee Konitz New Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard (2009) and Deep Lee (2007). Denson recalled that when he and his Minsarah partners, pianist Florian Weber and drummer Ziv Ravitz, first visited Konitz in Cologne, he immediately suggested they sing together.

“After several minutes, Lee said, ‘Sounds like a band,’” said Denson, 38. “For years traveling on the bus, we’d sing and trade and improvise, but never on stage until last October, when we were touring California. We went to extended phrases, then to collective improvising. We decided to record it, so I booked a show at Yoshi’s in February, and went into the studio.

“His vocal solos are beautiful. Lee told me that over the years he’s worked to edit his playing to pure melody. If you listen to the young Lee, it’s virtuoso, total genius solos. Now it’s still genius but a very different mode—all about finding these beautiful melodies. That sense of melody continues to capture me. So does Lee’s risk-taking, his desire not to plan some ‘hip’ line that he knows will work, but to take something from his surroundings so that the music is pure and truly improvised in the moment.”

On June 9, 2011, during soundcheck for a concert with Tepfer’s trio and Kurt Rosenwinkel in Melbourne, Australia, Konitz suffered a subdural hematoma and was hospitalized for several weeks. “He made an unbelievably miraculous recovery, and when we started playing again something had changed,” says Tepfer, 32, whose recorded encounters with Konitz include Duos With Lee (Sunnyside) and First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1 (Whirlwind), a four-way meeting in 2010 with bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams. “When I first played with him, Lee was open to pretty out-there experimentation. I realized he was no longer interested in anything that resembled noise. He was very interested in harmony and playing together harmoniously. That’s a real shift in his priorities, and it took me a while to get used to it. But we’ve done a lot of touring in the last six months, and the playing together feels powerful. We’re playing standards and some of Lee’s lines, which are based on standard chord changes; Lee is entirely comfortable with any harmonic substitution or orchestration idea as long as it’s clear and musical and heartfelt. There is tremendous freedom in that restricting of parameters.”

On the phone from Aarhus, Denmark, after the second concert of his tour, Bro, 37, described the effect of Konitz’s instrumental voice. “I’ve listened to all his different eras, and it seems the things he’s describing with his sound are becoming stronger and stronger,” he said. “When he plays a line, a phrase, it sounds clearer than ever. It has a lot of weight. I don’t know any young players that have it. Lee moves me so much. He plays one note, and I’m like, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ The sounds become more than music, in a way.”

Douglas recalled a moment in England when Konitz played “Lover Man,” which he famously recorded with Stan Kenton in 1954. “It was a completely new conception, of course with a kinship to that great recording,” Douglas said. “But what struck me most is how much his melodic invention is wrapped up in his warm, malleable tone that at times seems unhinged from notions of intonation or any sort of school sense of what music is supposed to be. It has a liquid quality, like the notes are dripping off the staff. Everyone was stunned that he pulled this out in the middle of the set.”

What these young musical partners describe—and, indeed, Konitz’s masterful 1954 invention on “Lover Man”—is the antithesis of “cool jazz,” a term that attached itself to Konitz for the absence of what he terms “schmaltz” and “emoting on the sleeve” in his improvisations with Tristano, the Birth of the Cool sessions, Gerry Mulligan’s combos, and during his two years with Kenton, when he emerged as the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that fully addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

“To me, Lee combines Lennie’s rigorous, almost intellectual manufacturing of the line, with a huge heart and a desire to communicate,” Tepfer said. “I clearly remember that what first struck me when I met him is that there was never any misunderstanding. If Lee doesn’t understand you, he’ll always ask you to repeat it. He often says, if you say something on the money, ‘You ain’t just beatin’ your gums up and down.’ What he stands for in music is very much that. I think there’s nothing worse to Lee than people saying things just to say things, or playing things just to play some notes. There always has to be meaning, and intent to communicate that meaning to other people. What I described about his current passion for playing harmonious music, playing together with no semblance of noise or discordance, I think comes from an even more intense desire to communicate as he’s getting older.

“There has to be a question of what improvisation is and why we would do it, and whether it’s a meaningful thing or not. I think of all the people in the world, Lee stands as a beacon of truth in improvisation. There aren’t many like him, where you listen and come away with, ‘Ok, that’s why we do this.’”

Konitz allowed that playing with Tepfer, or with Brad Mehldau (most recently his partner with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian on the 2011 ECM date Live at Birdland) or with Frisell (their June 2011 encounter at Manhattan’s Blue Note with Gary Peacock and Joey Baron comprises Enfants Terrible [Half Note]), “or whomever I’m playing with who’s really listening and pushing a little bit in some positive way,” makes him “less inhibited to open up.”

He was asked about overcoming that shyness when he came to New York in 1948, at 21, and plunged into direct engagement with the movers and shakers of late 20th century jazz vocabulary. “Lennie’s encouragement had a lot to do with the playing ability that I became more confident in,” Konitz said. “I was always so self-critical, it was sometimes pretty difficult. But I was sometimes able to play. Marijuana had something to do with it, I confess. But at a certain point, I stopped it completely. I appreciated that, because whatever I played, it was more meaningful to me, and I felt totally responsible for it.”

Sixty-seven years after arriving in New York, Konitz, belatedly, is a member of DownBeat’s Hall of Fame. “It’s the ‘ain’t over until it’s over’ syndrome, and I deeply appreciate it,” he said. “I appreciate being around to say thank you. It’s romantic and poetic, and I’m accepting it on that level, and for being honored for trying to play through the years.”

Then Konitz focused on his itinerary immediately after he turns 88 on October 13. “I’ve got a lineup of tours coming up, all over the U.S. the last part of October; all over Europe, day by day, in November,” he said. “I’m pleased that I can do it.”

DownBeat Feature, 2001:

Behold Lee Konitz, 74, the patriarch of “cool jazz,” perched atop a barstool center-stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Trim, bespectacled, with a mossy white beard, Konitz is resplendent in a custom-tailored blue pinstripe with wide lapels and burgundy shirt open at the neck. Ears cocked, eyes darting, he’s ready to embark on a round of spontaneous composition with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Marc Johnson, each capable, as Bley puts it, “of playing the gig solo if the others didn’t arrive on time.”

Konitz bends, envelops the alto saxophone mouthpiece in a brief, graceful motion, and blows a stream of notes, gradually forming a melody, articulating the flow with his signature wood-grained sound, smooth and round at the edges, with a touch more vibrato than he used to deploy. Finally he unveils the refrain of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.”  Bley, the mischievous Katzenjammer Kid, sets up sudden detours; Konitz, unfazed, cool as his rep, falls silent for one rest, another, intuits the note, and plunges into a new set of variations. The trio sustains the speculative mood for an hour, improvising continuously through the melodies of “I’ll Remember April” and “Stella By Starlight” with the attitude of adventurers working through virgin terrain.

“I start every day playing into a song that I know,” Konitz had said six months before, a few days after “being paid exorbitantly” for three nights of improvised duliloquy with drummer Paul Motian at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We sat in the living room of the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment that now serves as his New York pied a terre, the novels of Proust and Dostoevsky holding pride of place with a healthy collection of classical and jazz CDs. “I hear so many talented people who are obliged to learn many different kinds of musics to function as professionals. Which I was never really obliged to do. Don’t bug me! I just want to play ‘All The Things You Are’ in all the keys. I’ve been through the keys!”

At that moment, Konitz was pondering weighty matters. Having survived post-operative complications from a May 2000 angioplasty and subsequent open-heart surgery, his doctors had informed him that another angioplasty would be required, forcing him to cancel at least a month of engagements. He reflected analytically on the impact of the aging process on his sound.

“My breath control is a little shorter, and I tend to play shorter phrases,” Konitz commented. “But I’ve worked at it every day; all these little adjustments have been systematic in some way, and I’ve accepted them. Whatever change in my sound or in the way I play a line, I’m told that people can recognize me still from the first note I play. Which I consider a great compliment, since I’ve made a real effort not to keep doing the same solo over and over again, so to speak. Whether I played better in 1951 than I do now is a matter of taste, but now I am doing what I think is closer to my real musicality. I’ve studied over the years to try to eliminate the so-called intellectual imbalance in the playing — to play real notes. It’s been a process of editing, finding how to listen better, play in time better, relax better, and to stay inventive. I feel much stronger rhythmically. I hear much clearer and relate much more definitely to what I hear, and all of those coordinating factors are slowly developing. Being 74 doesn’t necessarily stop that process. It seems to be stimulating it in some way, because I know I don’t have that much time. And I have the good fortune of being able to play in public and get money! That completes the cycle.”

The doctors had given Konitz a false alarm, and he resumed his 60-year career with scarcely a glitch. From his Rhenish base in Cologne, where he lives with his wife of several years, Konitz executes the lone-wolf saxman function at festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe, working with whichever musicians cross his path. A week before the Blue Note engagement, for example, he and Bley had performed three nights of duos in Cully, Switzerland, preceded by a Genoa encounter with the excellent Italian tenorist Pietro Tonolo. That followed a Paris recital on which Konitz improvised to four-horn arrangements of his tunes by the Canadian arranger Francois Theberge, and a recording session for Owl on which he earned his one thousand dollar fee (“Not Euros, bucks!”) with five minutes of variations on “My Funny Valentine” as accompaniment to a reading by French essayist Alain Gerber on Chet Baker.

Since 1996, Konitz has recorded some of the strongest albums of his distinguished corpus. He blends his sound with a string quartet, improvising on 10 songs by French Impressionist composers over Ohad Talmor arrangements; interprets 12 ballads associated with Billie Holiday over Daniel Schnyder arrangements for string sextet and drums [Enja]; and channels Johnny Hodges on a luscious recital with the 40-piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland [Koch], making “the vibrato really schmaltzy.” There are two volumes of impromptu triologues with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau [Blue Note], and one apiece with Motian and bassist Steve Swallow [Enja], with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron [DIW], and with pianist Don Friedman and the late guitarist Attila Zoller [Hat Art]. For the Danish label Steeplechase, which has documented Konitz since the ’70s, there are several excellent sax-bass-drums trios and a contrapuntal flight of fancy with tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a friend since 1948. He meets Brown and guitarist John Abercrombie on the RCA album SOUNDS OF SURPRISE, and dialogues with rising tenor star Mark Turner for PARALLELS, on Chesky.

“Beginning before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Konitz reflected in March, a few days after arriving in New York for the first time since his October troubles. “So I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. The sideman mentality, I think, is part of that. Last night I went to the Vanguard and heard Mark Turner’s band, which is a real band; they played nice tunes, nice arrangements, nice solos. Bravo. I don’t seem to need that in my life. For some strange reason, I like to just go in and play with different guys.”

Consider how Konitz approached his 1998 encounter with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in Perugia.  “We rehearsed three days at his studio at 125th Street,” Konitz relates. As introspective in conversation as he is in music, Konitz analyzes the emotions that bedrock his improvisations with the same intensity he imparts to the practice by which he prepares to create them.

“On the first day, Ornette brought about 13 tunes, including a ballad for me. I saw quickly that the tunes were 8 or 12 bars long. Then I discovered that the pitches were correct, but he wasn’t playing them that way. Very typically bright Ornette themes. He gave me a tape after the first rehearsal, and I transcribed his playing so that I could it play it rhythmically more correct. I told Ornette I didn’t feel comfortable, and asked him to let me play the first solo after the theme, though I asked myself, ‘How could that possibly work?’ But it seemed to help a bit, and although I told Ornette I didn’t really fit, he and Charlie and Billy told me I was doing fine. So I accepted the good feelings they gave me and had my doubts about fitting in. After the set in Perugia, Ornette said backstage, ‘Do you want to play ‘All The Things You Are’?’  I said, ‘Yeah!’ We went out…and you never heard a version of ‘All The Things You Are’ like that!”

“I remember going with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh to hear him at the Five Spot one night, and not really knowing what to make of it. Ornette came up and asked me if I wanted to sit in. I said, ‘What do we play?’ or something like that, and somehow I guess I didn’t sound like I really wanted to sit in, so he didn’t pursue it. Sorry I didn’t. At that time, like a lot of people, I was resenting somehow this fact that he was eliminating everything that I’d spent my years trying to hone. But I gradually got over resenting it. Ornette’s concept is extraordinarily inventive and original, and of course had a great influence on a lot of the music’s development. He tried to explain some of the harmolodic theory on an airplane flight when we were sitting together. I said, ‘Wait til we get down on the ground, please.’ I really said that, because it’s so subjective that I didn’t want to face it up in the air. I never really learned his tunes. I’m too busy playing ‘All the Things You Are.’ By Jerome Kern. That guy must be turning over!”

Konitz is Coleman’s senior by three years, and by the fall of 1959, the date of their first encounter, he was a minor legend. An avatar in improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework, he was the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

Both accomplishments trace to Konitz’ intense two-decade disciple-master relationship with Tristano. The lessons began in Chicago around 1944, not long after Konitz — who grew up in Rogers Park — had begun to play professionally as a lead alto saxophonist in several white dance bands and in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox (the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines, who performed under the pseudonym Jimmy Dale), who assigned the pimply neophyte to sing the blues before curious audiences at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom. Tristano had Konitz — then an acolyte of swing era alto heroes Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges — duplicate solos by Lester Young (Konitz cites “Dickie’s Dream” and “Pound Cake” as two of many favorites) and Charlie Parker (“Don’t Blame Me”), laying the groundwork for the twisty legato patterns and behind the beat phrasing that remains his trademark.

In 1948, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Konitz arrived in New York for a fortnight’s residence at the Pennsylvania Hotel with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He never left. “52nd Street was the first place I went after I checked in,” Konitz says. “I heard Charlie Parker, I heard Art Tatum, I heard Roy Eldridge — one after another. Incredible. This was the big time, and I was totally impressed with the funky clubs, with the whole scene.”

Konitz quickly made his mark. Whitney Balliett’s 1982 essay, “Ten Levels” contains the best account of the manner in which he did it. There Konitz discusses how Gil Evans, an arranger with Thornhill, led him to the rehearsal nonet that became Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band; his pioneering “free jazz” recordings on Capitol and Prestige with Tristano’s sextet, and the bizarre course of their relationship; and his 16-month tenure with Stan Kenton’s brass-heavy aggregation. Konitz left Kenton in 1954, and embarked on the nomadic free-lance life he continues to lead, hewing to on-the-highwire imperatives through the tides of Hardbop, Soul Jazz, Coltrane, Avant Garde, Fusion and Neoclassicism.

“I had the model in Tristano and Warne Marsh especially, and before that with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I rejected a lot of what I heard around me on that basis,” Konitz says. “Which is kind of a traditional trap we can get into; there I was, in the ’60s, out of step with what’s hip, with what almost all of the younger people were studying.

“To this day I feel that Warne Marsh was one of the most real players in jazz. When he played, it was all substance and no attitude to speak of. I heard attitude in Charlie Parker, except that he was a genius so he could compensate for that — or cover it. ‘Attitude’ meaning that there was something extra-musical involved in this. Over-dramatic emotionality. Okay?  Coming from the ‘cool’ system, you can take that with a grain of salt. I love passionate expression as well as the next man, but sometimes it felt that all the emphasis was on trying to emote on the sleeve, so to speak. What really gets to me is hearing a really straight reading with great notes. great sound and great rhythm feeling. Warne was capable of doing that more than anybody I know.”

During the latter ’50s, as Konitz came to grips with Parker’s rhythmic language, he began to prove, as Paul Bley notes, “that he could be a muscular time player. Time was an Achilles heel of Lennie’s groups, and Lee went past that to incorporate a swinging approach, plus the intellectual. That’s the whole thing to match off — to be creative harmonically and melodically and at the same time have a mastery of rhythm sections.”

“Lee has a jarring rhythmic sense,” Mark Turner says. “Phrases are never in groups of 2 or 4 or 8 beats or notes, but in 7’s or 9’s or 5’s or 6’s. His lines are also very involved, long, connected, extremely lyrical. Until the ’70s, his playing was pretty complex, always lyrical and logical, always a strong rhythmic sense, with a unique sense of swing. Over the last five years, it’s a much simpler, more pared-down version of what was going on then. He’s very open minded and so free — and rooted as well.”

“I think what Lee needs from a drummer is strong, confident, concentrated time,” says Joey Baron, Konitz’ drummer of choice in recent years. “He plays on the REAL back side of the beat, and it’s important not to try to match where he’s placing the time. I think he expects some fire, some expression without impeding his aesthetic of music. It’s not about energy and texture. It’s more about his mastery of melody and continuity. He really appreciates when you listen, and he starts from scratch with whomever he’s playing with, which is unbelievable.”

Whatever distaste Konitz professes for proselytizing, his search for musical truth has the feeling of a monastic pursuit. “I came into a situation with Tristano that was a number of steps beyond what I was prepared to absorb,” Konitz says. “That meant weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard.” To exist so self-consciously must take a psychic toll, and Konitz, who “was never part of a religious group too much and left the Jewish thing early on,” found himself looking to outside sources for inspiration.

One crutch was marijuana, which Konitz used heavily during the ’50s and ’60s. “That had its effect one way and another,” Konitz says. “As Louis Armstrong said, ‘Where do you get your ideas from if you’re not smoking?’ I can see that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t all come together yet. I still think about it, because those were very special moments. Now I can get a different kind of satisfaction, but very complete, without having to do anything, and that has been a big lesson for me. I didn’t like the feeling of having a door open on something and then having it close up the next morning.”

Konitz began to wean himself from marijuana during a lengthy association with Scientology, which he became involved with around 1973. “It seemed to me that I would have a chance, step-by-step, to look at my life and things around me, and try to make some sense out of it,” Konitz says. “It provided me with the opportunity to continue studying, a discipline that I had stopped when I left high school. I left the Jewish thing early on, and had never been part of a religious group — or any group — too much. Besides the business part, which I objected to very strongly, it was clean, in a way. And whatever was hokey about it, I just accepted the part that felt it was to our benefit, to somehow clean up our acts.”

Free and clear of marijuana, Tristano and L. Ron Hubbard since 1990, Konitz relies on his ears and intuition “to communicate with the people I’m playing with, not just somehow register what they’re doing and continue to do what I do.”

“I understood early on that you’re supposed to study and then go off and think and make your own sense of it,” Konitz continues. “I think that’s what I was able to do. I wasn’t trying to be ‘original’ at any point. I’m quoting Ned Rorem, who said one of the most original things that I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”

“Lee is a master,” Bley says. “The master is not looking for anything. The master already has found everything. It’s just a question of revealing it to you. It’s the same on the bandstand. The master passing wind through the horn, without a note, is already art. The master is the art.”

Konitz the patriarch will have none of this. He continues to work through his process, moving around the world as a gigging troubadour. He offers some parting speculations. “I think all jazz comes from the Baroque music, basically. Bach is always swinging, and it’s got the long line, the great counterpoint and all the ingredients. Someone even said Bach had the progression of ‘All The Things You Are’ in one of his pieces!  But I haven’t come across that one yet.”


Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2004:

The inimitable Lee Konitz is mid-week at the Blue Note with an ad-hoc quartet of Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron. He’s played with each of them at various points along his timeline, but I believe this is their first encounter as a group. The booking coincides with the release of Live at Birdland [ECM], a discursive performance by Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian in which the elder altoist and younger pianist engage in high-level harmonic back-and-forth on six good-old-good-ones.

As the recent recording Knowing-Lee [Outnote]—a trio collaboration with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach—bears out, Konitz thrives on these kinds of encounters. An assignment to write the liner notes for this intense, no-roadmap, unfiltered, three-way conversation gave me an opportunity to distill some thoughts on Konitz’ achievement over 65 years as a professional improviser.

“Even before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Lee Konitz told me in 2002, when he was 74 years old. “I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. For some strange reason, I like to go in and play with different guys.”

    This self-description does not do justice to Konitz’ exalted position in the timeline of jazz expression. An avatar in the art of improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework (he did this in 1949, on a pair of sides with a Tristano-led sextet that included Warne Marsh), he would become the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality—at once cerebral and melody-centric, rhythmically muscular and behind-the-beat—that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking Bird’s style. Over the years, Konitz noted, he’s focused on “weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard,” towards the notion of “eliminating as much of the mechanical part of playing as possible to play some real notes. Ned Rorem once said that one of the most original things I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”    

    During his early career, Konitz developed his language in working bands—Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool nonet. But after leaving Stan Kenton in 1954, he switched his m.o. to that of gigging troubadour, free-lancing from one project to the next. Until the latter ‘60s, with several exceptions, he fronted blowing combos of varying size and instrumentation, propelled by swinging bass and drums. He’s expanded his scope over the past four decades, undertaking diverse projects—Daniel Schnyder’s arrangements of French Impressionist music and Billie Holiday songs for string ensemble; Ohad Talmor’s nonet orchestrations of Konitz compositions and transcribed solos; various one-offs with the excellent big bands that populate the European continent; specially convened units on which he improvises freshly on old standbys with several-generations-removed talent like Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson, and Dan Tepfer, and with such generational contemporaries as Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and Paul Motian.

In 1993, Lee joined me at WKCR over the course of three five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profile” shows to present and talk about his recordings, from the Thornhills on through  to what was then the present (of course, given his extraordinary productivity, he’s generated dozens and dozens of recordings over the intervening years).  Over the next decade-plus, he’d come to the station at regular intervals (usually walking the mile-and-a-half from his Upper West Side home) to publicize one NYC event or another. He is as uninhibited when speaking as he is  when improvising.

I wrote a DownBeat feature on Lee in 2002. Two years later, he sat with me for aDownBeat Blindfold Test.  Here’s the complete, pre-edit proceedings of the BT.

[Re what things sound like at the Blue Note, read Jim M.acNie’s excellent review

* * * * * *

1.    Clusone 3, “It’s You” (from AN HOUR WITH…, Hatology, 1998) (Michael Moore, alto saxophone; Ernst Reijsiger, cello; Han Bennink, drums) – (5 stars)

Was that applause at the end?  Well, that was really nice.  I appreciate very much that these guys chose my line to play on “It’s You Or No One.”  I think that was Michael Moore and Ernst Reijsiger.  I never heard Ernst play a line like that before, so that was really a pleasant surprise.  I don’t know who the drummer was, but he was right in there.  And Michael sounded beautiful.  I haven’t heard him play with that kind of intensity before either, but I haven’t heard that many of his records.  But that was really nice. I always wonder how you come out of a very eighth-notey kind of line like that.  He did what I frequently do, just leave some space and play little epigrams, and then kind of wind up.  But I always think that you should come out of that line even with a higher intensity.  That’s one of the challenges of playing that line instead of “It’s You Or No One.”  So that was really very nice.  And a little canon at the end when they played the line together; it was very effective.  I must send my compliments to those guys. Five stars!

2.    Jackie McLean, “Star Eyes” (from NATURE BOY, Blue Note, 2000) (Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (4 stars)

Well, that was very nice.  I enjoyed that. This is, if I may, bebop playing on a high level.  Very derivative bebop playing.  The alto player sounded a little bit like Jackie McLean. [It was.] The reason I doubted that is because the tendency was a little bit below the pitch, and that’s not Jackie’s wont.  He tends, like me, to go on top of the pitch.  And a lot of times he was holding a long note, which is our way of checking if we’re really in tune with the piano and everything.  I think that’s what he was doing.  The pianist sounded like it could be Barry Harris, but I’m not sure.  The rhythm section was very nice, but I don’t know any of them. [AFTER] Cedar sounded very nice.  And Jackie was playing what he knows very well. 4 stars.

3.    Marty Ehrlich, “Like I Said” (from LINE ON LOVE, Palmetto, 2003) (Marty Ehrlich, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Michael Formanek, bass; Billy Drummond, drums) – (5 stars)

That was very nice.  I enjoyed that very much.  I think that’s Arthur Blythe?  No.  A very fine saxophone player.  It sounds kind of familiar, but obviously I’m not sure who it is.  But a fine player.  The piano player was very nice, too; I don’t know who he is.  The bass player played a nice solo and the drums sounded very nice; I don’t know how to call any of the names.  The only thing that is difficult for me is, in this kind of modal playing, when the bass is playing a pretty free kind of line without specific changes, it sounds like a muddle to me.  I don’t know if that’s the recording or the music.  Frequently, when I hear freer music, the bass becomes almost inconsequential, in some way, melodically.  I think to the player it would be more apparent, but as an outsider, I can’t tune in to that.  Now the alto player has a very clear sound with very prominent vibrato, that sometimes can sound to me a little bit schmaltzy.  But this really feels all kind of cohesive in some way that I enjoyed.  And I know that Arthur can do that very well.  But Arthur’s tone is usually, not strident, but a little sharper, not in pitch but in quality.  But I know when you tell me who this is, I’ll know it.  Five stars. [AFTER] Aha!  I thought Marty Ehrlich, but I don’t know his playing that well, and I don’t remember him using a vibrato like that.  But he’s a marvelous player, obviously.

4.    Bud Shank, “Night and Day” (from BY REQUEST: BUD SHANK MEETS THE RHYTHM SECTION, Milestone, 1996) (Bud Shank, alto saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

That was very hot.  A very hot player.  I admire what he was doing.  I don’t know who that was, but a very fine player.  Negotiating that tune is not easy.  That’s a difficult tune to not sound kind of hackneyed on, and he was doing some interesting things to it.  The only thing is, sometimes, at that speed, at that breakneck tempo, which is very exciting to listen to up to a point, the dynamic level stays on one place, and after a while you wish it would let up a little bit and relax a little more.  But he did it very well.  The piano player wasn’t as interesting as the alto player to me.  The rhythm section was cooking all through. But I can’t name any names.  When you mention the alto player’s name, I’ll be pretty sure that I’ve heard him before. {Is it a younger or older player, do you think?] Older. He just sounds very certain about what he’s doing, and he’s doing some personal things, I think.  I don’t know if he’s black or white, for example.  That is a consideration that we frequently make in appraising a player.  He sounds black to me because of the emotionality.  I’m not saying this is a characteristic, but he’s wearing it on his sleeve a little bit.  But at that tempo, pshew, what do you do?  You just let it all kind of come through out of life-or-death struggle or something.  But I’d give that at least 4-1/2 stars for the alto player and the rhythm section. [AFTER] No kidding!  Congratulations! I just saw Bud’s name on the popularity poll, and I hadn’t heard him for a while, and I wondered how come he popped up all of a sudden.  Cyrus Chestnut?  Congratulations, Bud.  He really was not the famous Cool player that he was.  Great.  What I liked very much was what I call an emotional vibrato at the end of the phrase.  As compared to Marty Ehrlich’s, which was fixed pretty much…well, that was more in the delivery of the melody, not so much in the improvising.  But I love to hear when the vibration happens as a result of the intensity of the phrase.

5.    Benny Carter, “When Your Lover Has Gone” (from 3,4,5, Verve, 1954/1991) (Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Jo Jones, drums) – (5 stars)

We’re going into Schmaltzville now!  It’s nice to hear this kind of rhythm section, the piano player as a kind of reminder of how it used to be.  Very relaxed and not trying to prove anything somehow.  Oh, it’s very early Benny Carter. [AFTER] Benny Carter was a very special musician, a very special saxophone player whom I loved right from the beginning of my listening experience.  When I said about schmaltzy, he had a tendency to play a melody very sentimentally, but his variations were very musical.  I think this is post-Charlie Parker playing, because I hear some little eighth-note triplet pickups that I think he got from Charlie Parker.  But he never really got into Charlie Parker’s music.  He stayed pretty much to his own conception of playing, and I always loved him for that.  And he was a great saxophone player.  The pianist was very nice, but I don’t know who he is.  5 stars for Benny.  It was beautiful.  Thank you for that.

6.    Gary Bartz, “Tico, Tico” (from EPISODE ONE: CHILDREN OF HARLEM, Challenge, 1994) (Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums) – (4 stars)

I’m trying to anticipate how the alto player is going to come out of the theme into his solo.  It sounds like this might be the whole record so far.  But he’s playing it well.  I’m enjoying this. That was well done, I think, for that kind of Latin groove on “Tico, Tico.”  I can’t think of who the alto player is, but he did a much more interesting thing than I anticipated from the melody playing and that kind of Latin groove. He was really playing.  I have a feeling that this is something I might not want to listen to too many times; there’s a little bit of a rough edge in his expression that is effective more the first time, I think, than maybe the second or third time.  But of course, I don’t really know that until I’ve heard it two or three times.  But the rhythm section played well in that groove. The piano solo was not as interesting to me as the saxophone solo. But I’d give it four stars. [AFTER] Gary Bartz!  The rhythm section functioned well in that groove.  I didn’t recognize Larry.  Gary is a fine player.

7.    Julius Hemphill, “Leora” (from JULIUS HEMPHILL BIG BAND, Nonesuch, 1988) (Julius Hemphill, alto saxophone, composer) – (4 stars)

I was sort of relieved when that was over, actually.  But very fine saxophone playing.  I don’t know who it is.  To play against that kind of minimalist, repetitive kind of background, changing harmonically every once in a while, was a pretty good challenge, and I think he did a very interesting job.  But it got a little bit much after a while.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but I’d give it 4 stars.  First of all, listening to him, I’m reminded of how flexible the saxophones are, especially the alto and the tenor, in the sound qualities and the possibilities of expressive playing on each of them.  Every one of these saxophone players so far has had a slightly different approach to playing the instrument, and that’s fascinating to me.  I have my favorite kind of sound and playing.  Michael Moore struck home and Bud Shank, because they were playing the more familiar material.  But all these guys are trying these different frameworks for playing, and he was doing some interesting things with the instrument.

8.    Bunky Green, “The Thrill Is Gone” (from HEALING THE PAIN, Delos, 1989) (Bunky Green, alto saxophone; Billy Childs; Art Davis, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (4 stars)

That was very interesting playing. I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  Again, I think when you tell me, I’m going to admit that I have heard him, but I’m not sure who it was.  Again, playing the standard, “The Thrill Is Gone,” in a special arrangement which was very interesting, and as I listened to the theme I was wondering how the variations are going to sound.  This alto player has a virtuosic ability to play over the rhythm section, almost independent of what the rhythm section is doing.  He could be doing that by himself, which I think he does in his preparation for this kind of playing, and it’s some very contemporary intervallic rhythmic things, very well done.  Sometimes that kind of virtuosic ability, as impressive as it is to me as a saxophone player, gets in the way of the actual music.  I love to hear when the soloist is really playing with the rhythm section, really reacting to what the rhythm section is doing, rather than using them as a backdrop, as I think is the case here.  That’s frequently the case, I feel.  But it was very well done.  The piano solo was very nice.  The rhythm played the groove very well.  I don’t know who any of the people are. [AFTER] That’s definitely 4 stars.  I never heard Bunky too much.  I remember him as more of a bebop player, and he’s obviously moved to the next step in the process.  Very well done.

9.    Miguel Zenon, “Mega” (from CEREMONIAL, Marsalis Music, 2004) (Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, electric piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums) – (5 stars)

Very nice saxophone player.  I like his feeling and sound very much. He never really over-blew the horn, as I think of it.  A lot of the players I’ve heard so far had a tendency to over-emote in some way, and this guy was really playing very beautiful expression.  Very interesting lines.  The electric piano solo sounded very nice, too.  I wish the drummer wouldn’t have clobbered on that beginning and ending.  That got kind of too much.  But he played right through it.  I don’t know who it is, but I think when you tell me I’ll recognize that I’ve heard him before.  It was an interesting rhythmic configuration that they were playing, except for the clobber on 1 and 3. Five stars. [AFTER] David Sanchez told me about him. Very nice player.  David said that he has really studied the players, me among them, and I hear a little bit of that kind of tone concern.  I appreciate that very much. His playing is beautiful.

10.    Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages” (from IN ALL LANGUAGES, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) (Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s Ornette with his beautiful sound!  As passionate as he gets in his expression, the sound is never irritating as some of the shouting high register players can be — kind of a grating sound that’s a little bit like fingernails on the blackboard. But Ornette sounds beautiful on this.  It’s a lovely kind of hymn, I guess. I presume that could be Don Cherry on the little harmony thing.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  It was Charlie?  [Who did you think it was?] I can’t remember his name. [You thought it was David Izenson?] Yes. [So it sounded older to you.] Yes.  I could hardly hear the drummer. But I’d give that 5 stars.  Ornette is a fascinating player.  He manages to sound like Ornette all the time with whatever level of phrasing he chooses.  Folk tunes or nursery rhymes or bebop slides, a variety of material that he uses very effectively, and it all sounds authentic to him.  I can just remember my first feeling of kind of resentment of Ornette avoiding playing on changes and avoiding all the things that I was trying to develop, and thinking, “Gee, how can you slip from that and get a personal thing going like he’s got?”  Then certainly, over the years, I realized what he was able to do and enjoy it more all the time.  I played with him once, with Charlie and Billy, rest his soul, and it was a very unique experience.  He’s a very nice man and a special poet on the instrument.

11.    Frank Strozier, “The Man Who Got Away” (from LONG NIGHT: QUARTETS & SEXTET, Jazzland/OJC, 1960/2002) (Strozier, alto saxophone; Chris Anderson, piano; Bill Lee, bass; Walter Perkins, drums) – (4 stars)

That was some good saxophone playing, I thought, in that standard piece, “The Man Who Got Away.” I had a little problem with that kind of double-time stuck in.  It was done very well.  It’s very derivative kind of double-time, and playing the melody pretty straight and then suddenly running convulsively a few bars, a few meters or whatever.  It doesn’t ring bells with me too much.  But it was very well done.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  The sound he’s making sounds kind of familiar and is a nice sound, I think.  4 stars.

12.    Jimmy Giuffre-Paul Bley-Steve Swallow, “All The Things You Are” (from FLY AWAY LITTLE BIRD, Owl/Universal, 1992/2002) (Giuffre, soprano saxophone; Bley, piano; Swallow, electric bass) – (5 stars)

Sounds like Steve Swallow.  Paul Bley.  I wonder when he’s going to change key.  Ah, there it is.  I love to hear the way Paul Bley reacts to the soloist. It’s a very familiar feeling, having played with him, which I enjoy.  I don’t know who the soprano player is.  That was enjoyable.  It was a case of people playing for each other, reacting to each other. I don’t know who the sopranist was, as I mentioned, but I appreciate that he was really interested in what Paul was doing and reacting to it.  5 stars. [AFTER] Jimmy Giuffre?!  Really.  Wow, I never heard him play soprano. But obviously, there was a real affinity between the three of them.  I enjoyed that.  His sound was a little bit reedy, I would say.  There wasn’t as much real soprano quality as I like.  Thinking of his clarinet playing, and I would have expected it to be a fuller sound.

13.    Charlie Parker, “All of Me” (from MORE UNISSUED, VOL. 1, JEAL Records, 1951/1990) (Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Lennie Tristano, piano; Kenny Clarke, brushes on phone book) – (5 stars)

That’s Charlie Parker with Lennie Tristano, and maybe Kenny Clarke on the telephone book. Thank you for that.  That was very interesting!  Charlie Parker almost sounds like an imitation of himself, in some way, being so familiar now, over fifty years later, with his playing, and how fixed in many ways that his playing was, with his great phrases that he put together in this very ingenious ways.  But he relied on them.  I would have thought, playing with Lennie, somehow he would have tried to improvise a little more in some way.  When I heard some of this playing before, I was also surprised that Charlie didn’t give Lennie much of a chance to play.  He did most of the playing.  But it was nice to hear that, of course. 5 stars.

[AFTER ANOTHER TUNE] It’s very nice to hear “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me.” Lennie sounded very nice on that couple of choruses, and Bird sounded as if he was improvising a little more.  I haven’t heard a record of Bird’s in a while now, and I’m reminded of what a definitive player he was and how he changed the music so effortlessly.  Tristano was playing very interestingly, and I think somehow he got shortchanged in the whole process. [Were you ever in a club when Bird played with Tristano or at any performances they did?] I was at the studio for that radio show, the Battle of the Bands. [But was it a general dynamic that Tristano got shortchanged when he played with Bird?] Yeah, I think so.  Bud Powell did also. I think Bird heard some things that he didn’t want to hear.  He was used to being the boss all the time, intimidating Miles Davis and things like that.  So when he heard someone playing a little fresher line maybe he didn’t know how to handle that.  He was used to being the Man.  And he was, for the most part.  He was the Man! [LAUGHS]

But I appreciate very much hearing these 13 guys.  I missed Johnny Hodges, I missed Phil Woods, I missed Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, Herb Geller, Charlie Mariano, Art Pepper… There’s a whole array. Eric Dolphy.  There’s a nice tradition of alto players in this music.  I’m happy to be one of them.

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lee Konitz

For Steven Bernstein’s 55th Birthday, a 2001 DownBeat Feature, an Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musicians Show From 2001 and the Proceedings of a WKCR interview in 1999

For arranging maestro and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s 55th birthday, here’s documentation of several encounters, including an uncut Blindfold Test from 2009 (Steven’s responses were so detailed, that the printed version only had room for 5), an uncut Downbeat feature from 2001, and WKCR interviews from 2001 (a far-ranging Musicians Show) and 1999.


Steven Bernstein Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Wynton Marsalis, “School Boy” (from HE AND SHE, Blue Note, 2009) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Sounds like Wynton to me. Sounds just like him. I love this. First of all, 5 stars for a guy who has a totally recognizable sound even when he’s playing in an older style, because he’s just the greatest trumpet player. There was a little arco bass thing in I think the second 8 bars before the saxophone came in, a beautiful, tiny little counter-melody. That’s one of the things that made me think it’s him, because he’s such a good arranger. It’s beautiful. It almost sounds like  it’s a cello, it’s so high up there. That to me makes the whole arrangement. That’s it for me. Once you do that, you win me over. Something like that… See, I’m always into specifics. The more speciic an arrangement is… Like, don’t waste an opportunity. That’s my feeling. I always tell arrangers, “Don’t waste an opportunity.” I love that. Is this his new piano player? He’s good. Wynton’s been playing this kind of music for a long time, and he has a real unique way of doing it that’s his. A lot of it has to do with phrasing and dynamics. You know me. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. [TRUMPET SOLO] It’s interesting. Even when he plays this style…when he plays eighth notes, you can hear still the way he played when he played with Art Blakey. There’s a certain phrasing he developed. He knows how to get house, get those little…waits to the very end to do the flutter notes. He’s a smart musician, man. What can you say about a guy who built a multi-million dollar jazz place? [PIANO SOLO] Wow, that guy’s a good piano player. What can you say? Ends on a major-VII. I always feel that if something sounds just like a person, then who am I to say it’s not great? Even if it’s not exactly the way I would do something, that is totally… Is that one of the things from Jack Johnson? That’s great writing, too. The guy has his world, and he trains his musician to play like him. It’s very interesting, the piano player really is an extension of him, and he’s done a great job surrounding himself with people who populate his vision. That’s what a musician is supposed to do.

One thing that’s interesting about Wynton is that he has incorporated so many techniques. Every time he splits a note… Everything he does, to me… In the old days, when people split notes, it’s because they miss notes. But Wynton took that and made it part of the jazz technique, and he has it… It’s one of the things you can always tell it’s him, because where he puts his split note…it’s just one of the many techniques he has. The man has integrated so many different techniques for the trumpet, and that’s a real interesting thing he’s done, which is taking the split note, and controlling it so it’s part of his technique.

2.  Lenny White, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from MILES IN INDIA, Times Square, 2008) (White, drums, Wallace Roney, trumpet; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; A. Sivamani, percussion; Vikku Vinayakram, ghalam)

It sounds great? Is this Wallace Roney? All techniques basically are old techniques now, so it’s all fair game, whether you’re talking about Miles from Jack Johnson or dealing with Louis Armstrong in 1928. These are all basically ancient techniques from a different era that people have been able to incorporate. Wallace, of course, has done an incredible job of taking Miles’ and making it his own. Wallace is another master trumpeter. Anyone who’s a master, I have to give 5 stars to, because they’re masters. I heard Wallace playing with Art Blakey, and he was a master then, when he was musical director of that band. And the sound is so good. Both records you’ve played me sound so good in so many different ways. Both are modern reflections of incredible  music that is now seen through the prism of modern living musicians. These guys are contemporaries of mine. I met Wynton when I was 17. I heard Wallace on probably his first gig with Art Blakey when he was subbing for Wynton at Grant’s Tomb, probably in ‘81 or ‘82. See, he doesn’t sound like Miles. He sounds like Wallace. There’s things he does that are so Wallace. But it’s like that particular part of Miles’ technique became Wallace. That’s how he hears music. That’s him. What can you say about him? He’s incredible. Beautiful sound, too. To me, all environments are the same, whether you’re dealing with an environment that’s related to 1920, with modern technology, or an arrangement like this that’s related to more like 1972 but with modern recording technique. It’s just good arranging. There’s plenty of room. Every soundscape needs its own balance, and it’s really well-balanced, well-mixed. The trumpet sits really nice in it. Sometimes it’s hard to put a trumpet in this kind of sound and not make it sound corny, because the trumpet is such a knocking-down-the-walls-of-Jericho type of instrument. But it fits in really nice to the mix. Who’s the guitar player? [You tell me.] Good guitar, man. Nice. It reminds me of Pete Cosey. Really? That’s why it reminds me of Pete Cosey. I didn’t know he recorded with Wallace. I guess he did. Well, good work, Wallace! You got the man! Oh, is this the Miles in India thing? Wow. Cool. No wonder it sounds so good, because Bob Belden is really good at arranging records. Not that Wallace isn’t good at arranging records, too, but it’s a really wide soundscape. I will say that I was surprised that the tablas weren’t mixed louder. I’m surprised they didn’t have the higher tabla sound running in…but I don’t have the rest of the record. It took me a long time to figure out… I didn’t immediately go, “Oh, it’s Miles In India.” I jusrt figured it’s a Wallace Roney record. I didn’t hear it in the context of the whole record. There were so many low tones, I was surprised they didn’t have that really high tabla running through there. 5 stars. But again, what can you say? Pete Cosey is a master, Wallace Roney is a master. Great-sounding track.

3.  Satoko Fujii, “Sanrei” (from Orchestra Nagoya, SANREI, Polystar, 2007) (Satoko Fujii, conductor; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet solo; Tsutomo Watanabe, Takahiro Tsulita, Misaki Ishiwata, trumpet; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru:alto sax; Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax, Yoshihiro Hanawa, tenor sax; Yoshiyuki Hirao, baritone sax; Tomoyuki Mihira, trombone; Toshinori Terukina, trombone, euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino, tuba; Yosuhiro Usui, guitar; Atsutomo Ishigaki, bass; Hisamine Kondo, drums)

There’s two trumpets on this. Sounds like Satoko Fujii’s music, which is funny. I’m on her records. It is? Then it’s her Japanese band. That’s a pretty unique way of writing, so it would make sense that it’s her. She writes a lot of different stuff. Every record I’ve made with her is different. Sometimes she’ll have a lot of harmonic information and sometimes there’s no harmonic information. I don’t think it was Nats on trumpet. Nats usually plays beyond the trumpet. To me, that trumpet solo was good, it was ok, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, because… Nats usually plays more sound-oriented stuff. [DON’T USE THIS] What I like about her writing is that it leaves a lot of room for individual voices, which is a really important part of the jazz way of writing, not just writing something that is allowing the musicians’ individual tonation to come out. I’m into the word “tonation” these days. Not “intonation,” but “tonation.” They don’t use it in education any more. I don’t know if they ever did. But you hear all the musicians talk about it.

4.  Terence Blanchard, “Levee” (from A TALE OF GOD’S WILL, Blue Note, 2007) (Blanchard, trumpet, composer; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; The Northwest Sinfonia, orchestra)

[IMMEDIATELY] Terence. Can I give him 6 stars? I think Terence is so great. His sound is so immediately recognizable. It’s interesting, being a writer, when I hear the string thing in the beginning, I’m like, “That’s cool, I like it, I wouldn’t have done anything quite like that, but…” It’s a little classical, the way it’s played. I like things where there’s a little more roughness in it. But then, of course, when Terence’s sound comes up against it, it makes a nice foil. He probably recorded it in L.A. with studio musicians. Well, it’s an orchestral piece. At the beginning, you don’t know if it’s a jazz piece or what. But it’s orchestral. Ok, that’s why they play it that way. They’re orchestral musicians. Oh, this is from that big piece from New Orleans, that beautiful piece he wrote. I saw the TV show that it was a soundtrack for. Most musicians are afraid to speak about politics, because everyone is so afraid to say anything controversial in this post-Reagan world. But it was great on that TV show to have Terence speak the truth. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. I was weeping during that TV show. Hearing this music makes me want to weep, because you could feel the pain—it’s so beautiful. He’s taken the trumpet and really made it his own instrument. He plays one of these very heavy trumpets that these guys play now. Wow, man! In general, I don’t particularly like what those trumpets do, but Terence…What I love about Terence is he wears his heart on his sleeve, his scope is huge, he has a great working band…  It’s very interesting, because you’ve played me three guys who are my age, came to town, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and have all done really different things with their lives. They all played kind of similar when they were young. Anyway, each one of has not just a distinct sound, but it’s a distinct style. As great as Wynton is, he would never do what Terence just did… Not never. But I’ve never heard him just blow so hard that you don’t even know what’s going to come out of the trumpet. He’s more controlled, even when he’s not playing… That’s not his vision to music, to me. Of course, this is a very emotional piece. But also, on a trumpet level, both Wynton and Terence, and also a lot of these young guys, play a very thick trumpet, made of heavy metal… See, THAT phrase right there, that comes from the style that he and Wynton share. If you’re not a trumpet player, you can’t even understand it, because it didn’t exist before those guys. It’s something that they worked out. Here you can hear the Miles thing coming out. I tend not to like those… Well, not that I don’t like them. I’m a fan of older trumpet styles, so there’s a certain thing that can’t happen when the metal is that big. There’s a certain vibration that physically is not going to happen. But with Terence I don’t miss it. And Terence also…his history also brings in Lester Bowie, which not many trumpet players have done. That’s part of his vocabulary, too. I don’t know if he purposefully does it, but a lot of those things he does, before Lester… Well, not no one did it before Lester. Rex Stewart did that stuff. But Lester brought it back into the lexicon.

5.   Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Malachi” (from NON-COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF THE CITY: LIVE AT IRIDIUM, Pi, 2006) (Corey Wilkes, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, reeds, percussion; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion)

It sounds like the Art Ensemble without Lester.  So this is Corey Wilkes. I met Corey. We had some nice drinks in Italy, at the Balsamo Festival. Nice guy. Now I get to hear how he plays. But you hear Malachi… How many bass players can you say you can hear them in four notes? Malachi you can hear in four notes, man. I hear four notes and… Is it Malachi or is it Jaribu? I thought it was Malachi, but it could just be that it’s Don and Roscoe made me think it’s Malachi. Now, here’s a guy who listened to Lester. A lot of fire. I like fire. I don’t know if it is Malachi. It might be Jaribu. It just sounds stronger than Malachi would be at this age. At the beginning, it sounded like Malachi, but at the end Malachi couldn’t play like this, at this tempo. But when you hear that kind of bassline and you hear Don Moye, it’s just that he really felt like Malachi at the beginning. During the melody, it really felt like Malachi. [Well, the piece is called “Malachi.”] The piece is called “Malachi.” There you go. Well-written piece. By Roscoe, I assume. Powerful trumpet player, man. Very powerful. I wasn’t going to give him five stars… Oh, it’s live. That’s why it sounds like this. It’s a live gig, so he’s not close enough to the mic. But you know what? That’s such a great solo that he doesn’t deserve five stars yet, but I’ll give him 4½—he’s not a master. I’ll be interested to see what happens to someone like him… The way he’s playing trumpet is very physical, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Is he going to keep it at this heavy level? Will he smooth it out? I haven’t seen him play live… It’s a live gig, and you’re really hearing him go for it. It’s amazing. He’s not a master yet, he’s a young man, but he’s playing great. I grew up listening to the Art Ensemble. I’ve been hearing them live since I was 14 or 15 years old, when I met them. How many people can you tell from their composition? How long did I listen to that? 5 seconds, and two of the original guys were gone. It’s like some Ellington thing. You don’t even need the original guys, because it’s such… Well, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be like that. You heard a Messengers tune, it didn’t matter who was in the Messengers. It was the Jazz Messengers.  Don Moye deserves a lot of credit. No one talks about him, but talk about a guy who created a unique style of drumming. I heard one guy somewhere… You know who did? Dave King of the Bad Plus. He played somewhere and I said, “Hey, man, you’ve got some Don Moye in you.”

6.  David Berger, “Serenade in Blue” (from I HAD THE CRAZIEST DREAM: THE MUSIC OF HARRY WARREN, Such Sweet Thunder, 2008) (Berger, arranger, Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, trumpet; Harry Allen, Joe Temperley, Matt Hong, reeds; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Isaac Ben Ayala, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums)

Wow!  Beautiful trumpet tone. It’s interesting, you hear a lot of Clifford Brown and you hear a lot of Clark Terry in it. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I’ll wait til the solo. It’s a young guy? It really has that Clark Terry vibrato. It’s obviously not Clark. But let me keep listening. This is great. The arrangement’s great, too. Nicholas can play like this, but I don’t think it’s Nicholas. This is someone who really-really knows the jazz tradition. The arrangement is great, too. It’s not Warren Vache. It’s someone who’s played with a lot of older musicians. That’s the way the vibrato is. When you play with the vibrato like that, to me it’s someone who’s been around. It has so much truth in the way they’re playing. The arrangement even has some Gil Evans type things going on. I don’t know who it is, but someone who can really play and understand music. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Brian for years. I was on David Berger’s band. It’s interesting, because Brian would be someone who understands Clifford and Clark Terry. Someone who really knows how to arrange. That’s Dave. Someone who’s really played a lot of swing music. That’s Brian. When I first heard it, I said, “I know who this is.” Because I’ve sat right next to Brian when he plays like that, except I never think of listening to Brian on a CD.

7.  Bobby Bradford, “Compulsion” (from Nels Cline, NEW MONASTERY: A VIEW INTO THE MUSIC OF ANDREW HILL, Cryptogrammophone, 2006) (Bradford, cornet; Cline, guitar, effects, Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Andrea Parkins, accordion, effects; Devon Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums; Alex Cline, percussion)

[AT BEGINNING] You can hardly hear the trumpet in the mix. [SOLO] Sounds like Leo. Oh, it’s not Leo. I was thinking it could be the Yo Miles thing. Sorry, Leo, it’s definitely not you. It’s an interesting piece of music. Interesting construction. Not haphazard at all. A lot of nice compositional elements. I like it. I don’t know who the trumpeter is. I could guess, but what’s the point. It almost sounded like a cornet player to me. I liked it. It was good. Ah, there was a little bit of Don Cherry flavor in there. I liked that. It’s blowing like it’s a cornet—a very fuzzy sound. Cornet makes me think it could be Rob Mazurek, but it’s not. But it might not be a cornet; it might be the way the guy is blowing. It’s interesting, because the person is using the lower register of the horn a lot, and it doesn’t sound like someone who is so much a traditional musician, but more like this is really the comfort zone. It doesn’t sound like a guy who plays contemporary classical or anything like that. I like it. Good solo. Short. Good flow of ideas. Obviously coming from the Don Cherry type of thing. I’ve got no idea. 4 stars. It’s a little less defined than some of the other music we’ve heard, so it’s hard, when you’ve heard all this very defined music, to hear this music that’s much more open. Some good things going on in there for sure. [AFTER] Cornet! I said cornet. So it was Nels Cline on guitar! I was going to say Nels. Man, I should’ve said it. I should’ve known it was Bobby Bradford. I did say cornet, though. I wasn’t thinking, man. I’m getting tired. I should have put 2 and 2 together. So is it Ben Goldberg on bass clarinet.

Addendum to Bobby Bradford. It was a short solo, so it was hard for me to tell. At Bobby’s age, it’s a different thing… You hear all these solos by these young musicians, and they’ve got a lot of power to come through and play these long solos. But when I think back to what Bobby played, of course, it was a total Bobby Bradford solo, but so much shorter and so much more concise than the other guys—because at his age, you can’t play the cornet that much. Brass is very physical. So he does what he can with his physicality. When you think about it like that, it’s like Brian Pareschi, who is 40 years old and plays Broadway for a living—he has a lot of power, he can play an incredible trumpet solo. For Bobby Bradford as a musician, 5 stars. For that particular solo, in this context, I didn’t hear all the power I’m used to hearing on the trumpet. He’s a master.

8.  Olu Dara, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (from James Newton, AFRICAN FLOWER, Blue Note, 1985) (Dara, cornet; James Newton, flute, arrangement; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Rick Rozie, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

Modern “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This is Olu and James Newton. 5 stars. I remember this well. I love this. This was a groundbreaking record, and sometimes I’m sorry that music didn’t go more in this direction, because this is a very exciting direction to me. It’s Roland Hanna on piano, and Billy Hart on drums, and Rick Rozie on bass, and Olu. The idea of mixing all these different musicians and showing each other mutual respect and making the most out of the tradition… I think James Newton is a towering figure in this music (I don’t mean just physically, because he’s a big guy, too). He’s one of the few people I’ve never worked with whom I’d really like to work with. This particular solo by Olu influenced me a lot, I must say. I was like, “Wow, you can play trumpet like this. Why not?” So many people take a vocabulary and they pick this and this, but I think, “No, your vocabulary can be everything. Your vocabulary can be as large as you want it to be.” What Olu has done with this, he’s taken some vocabulary from an early-early way of playing trumpet and made it modern by the fact that it’s him. I think it’s an incredible recording. 5 stars for the whole record.

9.  Nicholas Payton, “Fleur de Lis” (from INTO THE BLUE, Nonesuch, 2008) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, fender rhodes; Vicente Archer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Christian Scott? I thought it was him from the mixture of those chords…from the bass and the drum part and the chords. Oh, it’s Nicholas. What trumpet player records with percussion? Nicholas does. All he’s played so far is whole notes, and I couldn’t tell from the whole notes. But I knew from the orchestration it was him. I know Danny Sadownick, the tambourine player, really well. So I was listening to the tambourine, and I noticed it was Danny. Nicholas is another one of these guys who’s such a master… He’s as talented as any musician I’ve ever met. For him as a musician, 5 stars. I’m not crazy about this track, because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s a little just 6/8, you know.

10.  Masada, “Ash-nah” (from MASADA: 50th ANNIVERSARY, #7, Tzadik, 2003) (John Zorn, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums)

See, this is good. This has mystery. I have to figure out who’s doing what. Sounds like something Dave Douglas would do right there. I don’t know if it’s Dave. It’s interesting to hear things that remind you of yourself… Oh, it’s Zorn and Dave. See, it’s interesting. When Dave did those sounds…Dave wouldn’t play that on his own record. He played that on Zorn’s record. I was thinking who the alto player was, then I was listening, and I realized it was Zorn on alto. That’s why Dave did that, because, as any great musician, you serve your leader. He’s a great sideman, too. He doesn’t like to be a sideman that much, but he’s a great sideman. Again, these are master musicians and Zorn is a master organizer. When it first came on, I said, “It’s a mystery.” I didn’t know what I was hearing. I have to give this band 5 stars, because I’ve heard so much and it’s consistently invigorating, and even if they play a song you don’t like, you know the next song you’re going to love. What I like about a band like this, and what I didn’t like about the last piece, is this is four equal voices. That’s why Zorn is such a great organizer, and he gets these great musicians. Each person’s voice carries its own weight. I think that always makes a pleasing musical experience. But it’s funny that I said it sounds like me, too. Because there is that Masada thing… What influenced Masada also influenced me. Not that my music sounds like Masada, but certain elements of Masada… Well, it’s also a way of writing without using piano. Using two horns and bass and drums, I do that all the time. So how do you write for these instruments? How do you organize for these instruments, make the most of harmony and melody and rhythm? Dave’s another guy who’s really created his own… A very non-traditional virtuosic trumpeter. Not a classical trumpeter. Very much a jazz triumpet player. He created his own technique. That’s the thing about the old-style jazz virtuosos, was they were JAZZ virtuosos. They created their own technique that didn’t exist before. This is an objective look at it. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying the idea of creating your own technique and taking that to virtuosic levels is different than having classical technique and being a jazz virtuoso. He has both. But once you’re a classical virtuoso, you can’t not be a classical virtuoso. It’s just what you are. He’s both. But he’s a new thing. That didn’t exist before. No one did that before him. The closest is like Doc Severinson. But Doc couldn’t play jazz like Wynton. He could play a solo. But he wasn’t like Wynton. He couldn’t sit there with Art Blakey. No offense. 5 stars for middle-aged masters. Old masters in Greg Cohen’s case.

11.  Taylor Ho-Bynum, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from THE MIDDLE PICTURE, Firehouse 12, 2005) (Bynum, cornet; Matt Bauder, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorsen, Evan O’Reilly, electric guitar; Jessica Pavone, electric bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums)

Odd. I don’t know what it is. But I love this. Oh, it’s Ornette on trumpet!  Take that back. It’s definitely not Ornette on trumpet! Is that me? I don’t remember making this record. I’m laughing. I love this arrangement. This is the happiest arrangement I’ve heard so far. I’ve never heard them… It could be Kneebody. But I’ve never heard them. I heard a couple of things on the radio that were Shane, and every time I thought, “who is this great trumpeter?”—it was Shane. Finally a big band hit. First big band hit we’ve had the whole time! Nice. The reason I thought it was Shane is that he uses a lot of mutes, and there’s a lot of mutes in here. So somebody who knows how to use a mute. 5 stars for the tune, and since there’s no trumpet solo, I don’t know who it is. Five stars for the arrangement. [AFTER] So it was Mary on guitar. I should have guessed that. He loves Ellington. He loves Rex, but he doesn’t sound like him.

12.  Duke Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (from THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: 1927-1962: Vol.1) (Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, trumpets;

This is Basie. Oh, that jumped out of my mouth without thinking. No, it’s Duke. Ah, this is Rex. I’m sorry. It was swinging so hard, I was like Basie! It’s a total Count Basie introduction. I’ve heard this song so many times, so when it comes on, I’m like “Yeah.” I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve had this track since I was in 11th grade. The very beginning was swinging pretty hard. I said Basie, then I heard this song, like, “Wait…” But it sounded like an old aircheck. That’s Rex. That’s Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Is this a live version? A studio recording? It’s a good mastering. I’ve never heard it on CD. It’s interesting hearing something on CD; it’s different. Sounds like a radio broadcast—it’s brighter.




Steven Bernstein (Downbeat article, 2001):

On a recent Friday afternoon, Steven Bernstein was driving home to Rockland County from Lou Reed’s Greenwich Village apartment, having presented seven horn charts to frame Reed’s interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe stories for a forthcoming Hal Willner-produced album.   After grabbing dinner and putting his kids to bed, he’d return to Manhattan for a midnight show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic, a dimly-lit, art-brut venue where he has appeared the preponderance of Friday wee hours since 1998 with one of the three bands he leads.  MTO is a nine-piece unit with rotating personnel devoted to executing 35 charts – the repertoire includes 25 reefer songs — that Bernstein has transcribed from his voluminous collection of recordings by obscure black orchestras of the ’20s and ’30s; guided by Bernstein’s in-the-moment conduction, they construct statements that have the feel of Don Redman encountering Donny Hathaway encountering Sun Ra.

Another of Bernstein’s bands is the tentet Diaspora Soul, which had performed at Tonic the previous night.  During a lull in the second set, Bernstein told the sparse crowd about the on-stage antics of Courtney Love at a Monday benefit where, on Willner’s recommendation, he led the horn section.  He revealed how at a post-show hang at the Russian Tea Room he charmed the diva with a gift of a t-shirt fronted with the logo of Sex Mob, his most popular band.  He added that Ms. Love had pulled down the top of her dress and donned the one-size-fits-all girlie-tee with effusive thanks.  “It looked great!” he exclaimed.

Bernstein was working a wedding when he came up with the inspired conceit for the self-titled recording [Tzadik] that marked Diaspora Soul’s debut.  He transcribed a dozen soulful Jewish songs from various old cantorial albums, and orchestrated them with the unison sax grooves of ’50s New Orleans rhythm-and-blues (think R&B guru Dave Bartholomew), with clave rhythms, with a touch of keyboard skronk a la psychedelic Dr. John by way of Eddie Palmieri, and with his own impassioned trumpet declamations.  He spontaneously arranges each performance, and as the second set proceeded, the sax (Peter Apfelbaum, Michael Blake, Paul  Shapiro and Briggan Krauss) and percussion (Johnny Almendra, Willie Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez) sections locked into gear and built an irresistible momentum.  Like a vintage 8-cylinder Cadillac, the machine appeared to drive itself, but Bernstein — wisecracking, shouting out chords and rhythmic figures, tweaking the dynamics with emphatic hand gestures — firmly steered the ship, the master of the game.

“I’m Neil Hefti with an earring,” Bernstein joked over his cell phone.  The comment was revealing: Old-school to the core, he mixes as comfortably with musical elders as with his post-jazz peers.  For example, playing “button trumpet” at a recent concert with an Art Baron-led sextet before a tough audience at a Duke Ellington Society concert, he crafted a remarkable solo on “Perdido,” using shapes and phrases to build an idiomatic, structurally cogent statement that went beyond the notes.  He spent large chunks of 1998 and 1999 as fourth trumpet in arranger David Berger’s “Harlem Nutcracker” big band, rubbing shoulders with Ellington veterans Baron, Britt Woodman and Marcus Belgrave, and grizzled modernists like Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion; on the cast album.  On the cast album [Such Sweet Thunder] his peppery open horn solo on “Dance of the Floreadores” channels the jaunty spikiness of Ray Nance, while his plunger solo on “Swingin’ At Club Sweets” reveals a command of timbre and keen timing evocative of Cootie Williams’ heirs in the Ellington canon.

Bernstein is fascinated with the tropes of early jazz, and he conceptualized Sex Mob (Briggan Krauss, saxophones; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums) as a vehicle for his slide trumpet, on which he projects a sound completely his own, wild and gritty, deploying a pronounced vibrato reminiscent of such ‘20s and ‘30s blues-function brassmen as Sidney DeParis, Lee Collins, and Punch Miller.  He uses the slide to elicit tiny increments in pitch that produce vocalized sounds of the sort that Ellington signifier Rex Stewart got through his half-valving techniques in the ’30s and ’40s.  The context is wholly modern, informed by a global world-view akin to that of the late avant-pop guru Lester Bowie, an early role model.   He’s owned the instrument since 1977, and began playing  it seriously about a decade ago on gigs with Spanish Fly, an open form trio with tubist Marcus Rojas and slide guitarist David Tronzo devoted to a repertoire as Bernstein puts it, of “songs everyone knows.”

That’s Bernstein’s operative model for Sex Mob, which has worked hundreds of times since it assembled six years ago for Thursday night hits at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar.  It’s a virtuoso unit, and their modus operandi is incessant collective improvisation; the band book comprises some 150 songs, which they are prepared to blow gleefully to smithereens and rebuild from the ground up.  The sound is Sophisticated Primitive, and the range is kaleidoscopic, jumping from “new standards” (Kurt Cobain’s “About A Girl”) to “classic jazz” (Theater and Dance, a privately produced CD that Bernstein sells at gigs, is a Bernstein-arranged suite of Ellingtonia commissioned by choreographer Donald Byrd) and Blues (Leadbelly) to such neo-kitsch as a suite of music from James Bond films due for fall release on Rope-A-Dope.

“I see Sex Mob as a return to the earliest roots of jazz,” says Bernstein, who named his son Rex Louie.  “People took pop songs of the time and improvised on them in new styles, with different rhythms and dynamics, in the way they felt like playing them.  Jazz was louder than any music of its time; it was played on a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville or minstrel song.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.

“With music that doesn’t have much harmonic structure, you must arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  You can’t play ‘Raspberry Beret’ the same way you play ‘My Funny Valentine’ — it’s that simple.  When the band started, I’d sit on the subway and write a bare-bones chart of whatever song I’d been listening to, throw the chart in front of them on the gig, rehearse in front of the audience, and play it.  I grew up playing free improvisation as well as standards, and free improvisation is about creating instant arrangements.  I still do that on the stage in Sex Mob.  The tunes evolve through an audience’s reaction.  People tend to overwrite, but you don’t need to give great musicians too much information.  It’s not the amount of elements you put in; it’s how good the elements are.”

Bernstein was just your normal teenage “total jazz snob” as an adolescent and teenager in the polyglot milileu of ‘70s Berkeley, California, where avant-garde, vernacular and traditional streams converged comfortably.  He began playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardymon, the teacher who jump-started present-day luminaries like Craig Handy, Josh Redman and Benny Green.  In sixth grade formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the multikulti Hieroglyphics Ensemble.  The youngsters went to shows by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner, and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll.  “Finally,” Bernstein relates, “we went to see our heroes, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at the Great American Music Hall.  Peter and I went backstage and played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they invited us in.  Mr. Hardymon always told us we had to learn to play the changes better before we got involved in that kind of music.  He was right.  But it was in the air, and we wanted to play it.”

In eleventh grade, Bernstein looked up John Coppolla, a respected trumpet teacher who had played with Woody Herman, Billy May and Stan Kenton.  “When I came to my first lesson, I was being a snotty kid,” Bernstein recalls.  “I said, ‘Man, I’m into Lester Bowie!’  Mr. Coppolla was a middle-aged Italian gentleman.  He said, ‘Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex Stewart was doing back in the ’40s.’ He threw on ‘Menelik, Lion of Judah.’  That changed my life.  I started listening to Ellington’s 1940 band, with Rex and Cootie together in the trumpet section, and I knew it was the greatest music that ever existed. I still listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.”

Throughout high school Bernstein and Apfelbaum worked steadily on a 360-degree range of Bay Area gigs.  Somehow he maintained his grades, and he matriculated at Columbia University in 1979 intending to continue his work-study parallel track. Within two years, music won out.  Perhaps in response to an encounter with Wynton Marsalis in a Paul Jeffrey rehearsal band (“I thought everyone in New York had to be that good when they get here”), Bernstein avoided his hardcore jazz peer group  (“I was bored with those hangs socially; I wanted to be around girls and young people”) and religiously attended concerts by Defunkt — the seminal Avant Funk unit with Joe Bowie, Kelvin Bell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronnie Burrage — at the Squat Theater on West 23rd Street.

“That band changed my life again,” Bernstein recalls.  “In Berkeley, no one approached music with that hard an edge.  You either played free or you played R&B.  My dream was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix; they made it clear that you could put these approaches together.”

Bernstein found a West 109th Street apartment for $300 a month.  He enrolled at NYU, became a protege of the iconic lead trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, and spent the ’80s apprenticing in a slew of rehearsal bands, in Haitian and Latin units, in “eight million” obscure Lower East Side bands that featured original music, in art music bands like Kamikaze Ground Crew, and in Spanish Fly, which became a point of entry into Bernstein’s music for John Lurie and Hal Willner, the trumpeter’s two great patrons of the ’90s.

“The original idea of Spanish Fly was what Sex Mob is — to play songs everyone knows,” Bernstein notes.  “I played trumpet like an arranger.  Instead of soloing, I might play an equivalent of a Freddie Stone guitar part or a second alto part from an Ellington type of thing, with the trumpet as the vehicle.  It taught me to think on my feet, and I developed my mute vocabulary.  And it taught me about presentation; Spanish Fly was a collective, but I was always the emcee.”

In 1990, Lurie recruited Bernstein for a new edition of the Lounge Lizards; he remained a band-member throughout the decade.  Bernstein credits Lurie as a mentor.  “John would trust his intuition in putting music together, and I saw that it worked,” Bernstein states.  “He’d tell you to add one part, then another, then he’d listen to us play it, suggest another approach — and a piece would be made.  John organizes shows theatrically; the sets have a long arc, like a movie, as opposed to your typical jazz show.  He’d would send me tapes from Costa Rica of him playing, say, soprano sax or his little Casio, and I’d transcribe it.”

While Bernstein’s tenure with the Lounge Lizards brought increasing visibility, his ’90s work on a variety of Willner-generated projects have made him au courant in the high-stakes worlds of film and Hipster Pop.  They became close when Willner produced Spanish Fly’s first album, Rags to Britches [1994], a process that involved editing 12 hours of tape into a record, Teo Macero style.  “A lot of people don’t want to listen to 12 hours of music,” Bernstein says.  “I like doing that.  So does Hal.  We’d meet and make notes, and it turned out that we liked all the same stuff.”

In 1994, Willner called Bernstein to research songs and help assemble musicians for Robert Altman’s Kansas City.  Willner sent “boxes of tapes” of music apropos to 1934, when the narrative takes place, and Bernstein spent several months absorbing it.  Once on the set, when it became apparent that the promised “arrangements” in the film’s library were useless stocks, Willner put Bernstein to work writing arrangements on almost a nightly basis.

“I still haven’t recovered from that,” exclaims Bernstein, who had just transcribed a 1928 Chocolate Dandies recording for MTO.  “The orchestrated music from that period moves me.  Every phrase has a direct relation to the beat.  I love the attention to sound, to detail, how organized everything is — loose and bluesy, but with a specific framework, because you only had three minutes.  Nothing was wasted.”

The drudgery paid off.  “John Zorn used to ask, ‘Why are you always doing that work for Lurie and Willner?'” Bernstein laughs.  “But that’s how I learned to be an arranger.”   He’s experienced too many ups and downs to let brushes with celebrity go to his head, sustaining the “it’s all good” attitude of a seasoned New York professional.

“I’m a good trumpet player,” he states.  “I do a lot of studio work.  Ask me to play something, and I can play it.  It’s all about balance.  I’m raising a family, and you’ve got to make money where you can.  Playing weddings and barmitzvahs teaches you a lot about improvisation.  Everyone knows ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.  But you might not know what key it’s in when they start it.  There’s no music in front of you, but all the stuff is in your ear, and you’ve got to translate it into your horn and play the right notes.  That is a challenge.

“Doing those jobs makes you more grateful for the chances you have to play your own music.  I don’t take my midnight gig at Tonic as just another gig.  I’m going to write a new chart and present something good.  It all means something to me.”



Steven Bernstein (Musician Show, 2-28-01):

[Sex Mob, “Holiday of Briggan”]

TP:    Steve Bernstein, aside from being the guiding intelligence of the group Sex Mob, having produced the record Diaspora Soul, and being a ubiquitous and ebullient presence on the New York scene, is also a connoisseur of traditional trumpet styles, particularly those with blues connotations.  He’s brought by my request a bunch of Kansas City material, Lee Collins, ’50s arrangers, and we’re prepared to go in many different directions.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, and into the future.  We’ve got some of the goodold-goodolds from the latter part of the century, as radio guys say who try to be witty.  The latter part of the century as opposed to the first part..

TP:    We’ll begin with Hot Lips Page from the Spirituals to Swing concert, 62 years ago.

BERNSTEIN:  Something like that.  But this is when he was reunited with the Count Basie band, which he had been the star trumpet player of, but by the time they recorded he was not in the band any more.  Anyway, he wanted to have his own career and blah-blah-blah…

TP:    You’re almost 40, and you came up in the Bay Area playing a lot of modern, future-oriented music.

BERNSTEIN:  I brought a bunch of that.  Early Hieroglyphics music and stuff from growing up in Berkeley.  You could hear Frank Lowe play in Berkeley, and the Art Ensemble was there all the time… Sun Ra was there.  We had people into the African drumming thing.  After the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band broke up, there were still elements of that in the Bay Area — Julian Priester had his own band, Eddie Henderson had his own band.  It was a pretty far-out time.  I hate to say “far out” on the radio, but I did.

TP:    That said, how did you become such a connoisseur of older trumpet styles?  A lot of your generational peer group isn’t interested in anything that happened before World War 2.

BERNSTEIN:  It was my trumpet teacher.  See, I was really lucky.  There were so many great musicians out there.  There was a guy named Warren Gale, who I started studying with in the ninth grade.  He was a totally modern trumpet player, and I was just a little kid, and we were playing Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Lee Morgan.  That was his thing.  So at that age I was totally exposed to that whole world of trumpet playing.   So I’m this kid, I’m buying every Blue Note record I can get my hands on.  Of course, I don’t understand the harmony at all, but I can understand the music.

The next trumpet player was a guy named John Coppola.  Now, John and Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion all came together, and he was part of that world.  I have one quick story.  Like most high school kids would, I tried to be really cool.  I get to my first lesson, and at that point I figure… He’s an older musician, in his early fifties.  I say, “I’m really into modern trumpet, I’m really into Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble.”  I don’t even know this guy.  He just looks at me and goes, “Oh yeah, Lester Bowie.  I like the kid.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He does the Rex Stewart thing.”  And then he just puts on this record, which I also brought, and he plays me this Rex Stewart solo, which I guess we’ll listen to second.  I realized he was totally non-judgmental.  He wasn’t saying, “Oh, man, I don’t like that music.”  He was saying, “Yeah, that’s part of the music tradition.”  So basically, he got me hip to Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.  He’d talk about Dud Bascomb.  He’d talk about Bill Harris.  This is a man who was on the road with Bill Harris for years.  He sat in the second with Conrad Gozzo.  He played with Dizzy.

TP:    Apart from the harmonic innovation that happened after World War Two, how would you characterize the prewar trumpet players in terms of sound quality and aesthetic intent vis-a-vis the subsequent generation?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s obviously more sonically and rhythmically oriented.  Definitely more sonically oriented.  Because the longer you hold out a note, the more the sound becomes apparent.  If you’re moving eighth notes, the sound is actually really optional.  The velocity and the movement of those eighth notes is what’s creating the movement in the solo.  With Louis Armstrong, people always talk about the vibrato.  It was a timed vibrato, which a lot of people don’t know about.  The timed vibrato means that the vibrato was actually in time with the music.  They said, “How does Louis Armstrong do it?  He holds the note but he pushes the band.”  Well, because while he’s holding that note, that vibrato is actually right on top of the beat, and it’s pushing the whole band with just the intensity of the air.  There’s a great Sidney deParis solo that I brought from the ’20s… The sound of what these people were playing is so incredible.  That I think is the main thing.  Because music’s music.  I mean, it’s different styles for different beats.

[MUSIC: Hot Lips Page, “Blues For Lips”; Rex Stewart, “Menelik, the Lion of Judah”;  Archie Shepp, “Keep Your Heart Right”; Ellington, “The Flaming Sword”]

TP:    People have done variations on the half-valving technique, but no one did like Rex.

BERNSTEIN:  No.  From what I heard from my trumpet teacher, back in the days when everyone knew each other, there would be parties at his house where guys would come over after shows, he was very interested that both Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan could sing along with all the Rex Stewart solos on the ’78s.  There are guys who were real Modernists who listen to Rex.  He was definitely a special musician, and people were aware of it… He was self-taught.

TP:    It’s interesting in the period after Cootie Williams left the band to join Benny Goodman, while Ray Nance was getting his feet wet, so there are a number of recordings and airchecks where you hear playing the Cootie Williams part.  He was a total trumpet player.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yes.  And he was a firebrand, too.  I have a jam session with Rex and Charlie Shavers where everyone obviously is in their cups.  But Charlie  Shavers lays down this incredible stuff that would be impossible to play on the trumpet, and Rex tries to play it right back, but  using his own fingerings and stuff like that, so it sounds a little different than Charlie Shavers.  But I think Rex made his living as a guy people know… My Dad knows who he was.  “Oh yeah, we used to go see Rex Stewart.”  He was something special.

“Keep Your Heart Right” is by Roswell, and that piece kind of is what made me create Sex Mob.  The great thing about it, it sounds like jazz when you hear it.  Man, they’re swinging!  It’s like jazz.  But when you actually hear what they’re doing form-wise, it’s not like jazz, like with your eight-bar form or whatever.  It’s so much more free.  I think those times were very free.  I think people didn’t want to hear 8 bars.  That’s why they went to hear the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.  Their minds were expanding.  So if you heard things come to 8 bars, you’d go, “Man, this is square.”  Even if it’s so hip, you’re immediately going to say it’s square.  But with Archie and Roswell it was so free that people could really get into it, and meanwhile it had that jazz feeling.

TP:    Maybe so.  Also, a paraphrase could be the term “beyond category.”  What we’re about to hear is a section from an as-yet unreleased suite of Ellingtonia arranged by you for the Donald Byrd Dance Company.

BERNSTEIN:  We were actually supposed to perform this piece at Lincoln Center.  The original concept, which would have been beautiful, was to have Eric Reed do the piano trio stuff from Piano Reflections, and then my idea was to do the second movement, and the third movement being the Lincoln Center Orchestra.  I had worked with Donald on the Harlem Nutcracker for three or four years, and it was obvious we were kind of birds of a feather; we’d been around the same areas of New York at the same time, seen some things.  I knew he had worked with Vernon Reid and Geri Allen, and I said, “Oh, do you know them, they’re friends of mine,” blah-blah-blah.  We started talking about music and things we liked, and then  we started talking about Ellington and I was saying how I think it’s very interesting that there was this side of Ellington that’s a very carnal side… Of course, everyone makes an icon out of somebody, like they want to present this…the whole Ellington shtick.  But he was a human being, and he was a pretty funky guy.
TP:    What he called himself in his book was the master bullshitter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, he was a pretty funky guy!  He had a dark side, too.  And I said, “It would be nice to celebrate that part of the music, instead of always presenting it so immaculately done.  Because to be honest, that band also didn’t sound immaculate.  I remember once talking to Al Porcino, and there were certain guys who were great musicians and maybe couldn’t appreciate the Ellington thing, because they were around during the ’50s, and they were probably like that Kenton sense of everything’s in tune and hits together, and that thing with the trumpet shakes, and you might hear the Ellington band, especially at certain periods, and say, “man, that doesn’t sound that good.”  So the idea of the funkiness of the Ellington band, that it could be a very funky band, it wasn’t all spit-and-polish.

TP:    Well, the band was traveling 250-300 days a year, and you can’t humanly  be in the sort of form you’re talking about.  Different circumstances, different sounds, venues…

BERNSTEIN:  That was just a tangent.

TP:    It was.  But anyway, was this eventually realized?

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  It happened at the Joyce Theater for a week.  But then the idea was to present it later in the summer but record the music.  He couldn’t afford to have us do it at the Joyce.

TP:    And it didn’t get performed at Lincoln Center because of the carnal nature at the core…

BERNSTEIN:  The reason it didn’t get done is that this music had gotten so carnal that he had it worked out that the dancers all come out, and at one point the males and females both have enormous breasts and enormous phalluses.  Each is just for one movement… Well, for each one there was a matching phallus and breast.  Like, they could be in zebra-colored or psychedelic-colored, or a tie-dye set, or a polkadot set…

TP:    And thus it didn’t make it to Lincoln Center.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  It shouldn’t have been.  It was supposed to be for Lincoln Center Outdoors.  You can’t have people bring their children to see it.  It was not appropriate.  But that’s what happened.

[Sex Mob, “Black and Tan Fantasy”]

TP:    That song has such a strong character and defined identity that people who tackle it rarely break it up and mess with it as enthusiastically as you did.  You’ve done a lot of work in rearranging and reformulating the music of the ’30s and ’40s, on Kansas City, this project, many things.  Did your arranging develop in parallel to playing the trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s one of those things in being a professional musician, having someone go, “Can you make an arrangement?” and you go, “Yeah, how much does it pay?”  I talked to Manny Albam who did these arrangements called “Three Dimensional,” where it was three different bands playing three melodies, like the way Mingus did “Exactly Like You” and “A Train,” and finding one more song.  He had three different ensembles, and he had it in Trivision Stereo or something.  I called him and asked “How did you arrange that?”  He said, “Oh, I was in Wingy Manone’s band, and Wingy said, ‘Hey, Manny, can you make me an arrangement?'”  He said yeah.

That’s kind of how it happened, how it started — doing Haitian music.  “Hey, Steve, can you make an arrangement?”  Then I started working with John Lurie.  There were things in between…

TP:    You started working in Haitian bands when you came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  Pretty early on.  That’s one of the first gigs I had that was kind of…

TP:    You got here?


TP:    You were 18, right out of high school.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.

TP:    You get here and try to make your way in the fray.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s a funny story because I get here.  Me and Wynton are the same age, and he was going to Juilliard and I was going to Columbia.  I made it there a few years.  Lifestyle’s too hard, man.  I couldn’t keep up with the druggies at Columbia!  I had to quit!  I’m not really made of that kind of stuff.  I don’t have those kinds of genetics.

TP:    No one here does that these days, you know.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, growing up I had been a professional musician, I thought I was good, all these things, and I move to New York and think “Oh, man, I’m going to play.”  So I get there and I meet another trumpet player at rehearsal band.  See, I’m really good at rehearsal bands.  Paul Jeffrey’s rehearsal band.  I’ve been in town for three days, and this young trumpet player from New Orleans, obviously my age, big Afro, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  And man, he played so good.  And I kept hearing him.  And see, I thought that’s how good you had to be.  I thought man, everyone in New York has to be that good when they get here.  And that was Wynton, you know.

TP:    that was discouraging for you?

BERNSTEIN:  Whoo!  To hear a guy play the trumpet like that?  At that age?  So for a second, I just kind of hung out.  Then I kind of got more into it again.

TP:    But you started to work professionally while you were an undergraduate.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah, I started doing gigs immediately.  But I meant the whole… I had done this record when…

TP:    How did you get networked into those gigs?  Who did you know?

BERNSTEIN:  I met people.  I knew Butch Morris from the Bay Area.  He gave me my first recording session.  I’d been to the East Coast before, and some people knew me.  I had some trumpet teachers, and they’d say, “oh, go to this rehearsal band” or “do this Latin gig for me.”  I knew Jimmy Owens.  I knew Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu.  I took lessons with all those guys.

But what I wanted to play like… What I was doing was checking out Defunkt.  That’s what I did when I first moved to New York.  Every weekend I was at the Squat Theater.  That was my band.  I think that really changed my life.  Because in Berkeley no one had really approached the music that hard-edged.  Where I’m from, the music was so much softer.  It was good, but suddenly you’d hear Defunkt, man, and Joe Bowie was playing so much trombone… Melvin Gibbs, Kelvin Bell, Ronnie Burrage.  It was this great band, and I’d never heard anything like it.  It was my dream, was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix and all this music I loved.  I said, “Yeah, man, you could just play them together.”

TP:    And at the same time you’re playing with people who are very well versed in the bebop and postbop vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah,  but that was never what I wanted to do.

TP:    So the ’80s proceed, you fade away from Columbia and settle into the life of a professional musician, doing Haitian gigs, Funk gigs, various gigs.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  And I was in every East Village band.  Tons of band.  When I got there, now a lot of guys were into that kind of music… I could really well.  If people gave me a chart, I could play it.  Because I come from playing big bands and having teachers who were really serious about playing the trumpet.  Trumpet is a hard instrument.  There are great self-taught trumpet players, but man, it’s hard enough even if you’re well-taught.  I mean, these guys really knew how to play the trumpet.  They taught me about playing in time.  I really believe in playing in time.  I mean, I love playing out of time, too.  But time is very specific, and there’s a lot of ways to approach it.  My trumpet teachers were Jimmy Maxwell.  John Coppola, who sat next to Gozzo.  I mean, that’s a certain concept of where the time should be, which I think is very important.  When I moved to New York, I found a lot of people didn’t feel time  that way.  They felt that much more bright type of time, on top of the beat, and that also was not attractive to me.  I appreciate that modern style of big band, but it doesn’t really interest me that much.  I’ll do anything as a job, but…

TP:    So you started doing arrangements for Haitian bands, and you learned more or less by trial-and-error.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, you’d just figure out… But I always had a natural affinity for it. I could hear the range of the horns in my ear.  Anyway, John Lurie was starting to get to be more high-profile, then Hal Wilner asked me to do stuff, and now I have my own band.  So I’m just writing all the time.

TP:    We’re going to Mezz it up!  This isn’t coming from a CD of the session nor from an LP compilation.  It’s from a Blue Note LP 33-1/3 Microgroove 10″, 7027!  “Mezzerola Blues.”

BERNSTEIN:  Lee Collins.  You can say his name again!

[Lee Collins/Mezz, “Mezzerola Blues”; Charlie Johnson/Sidney DeParis, “The Boy In The Boat”; Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In the Dark”]

BERNSTEIN:  Trumpeters.  Great trumpeters.  Lee Collins I didn’t know about until very recently.  I was on the road in Portland with Kenny Wolleson, and he brings me Lee Collins’ autobiography from Powell’s.  I’m reading about him, and I said, “Man, this sounds incredible.”  Because this guy was a contemporary of Armstrong, a little bit younger than him, but that’s who he grows up listening to.  He comes to Chicago, but he’s his own trumpeter, but Armstrong’s the guy from his town who’s a couple of years older than him.  I found this record in my collection which I hadn’t really checked out, and I put it on and heard it, and realized that to me the beauty of it was that he’s playing in the style of Armstrong in the ’20s, but then developing on that.  Most guys, when they use some Armstrong and put it in their playing, use the ’40s thing,  more obvious, more stated, everything was more tongue.  This almost sounds like Armstrong’s cornet style, a little more sliding around.

TP:    Let’s take a tangent.  Your observations on the evolution of Louis Armstrong’s style.

BERNSTEIN:  When you hear him with King Oliver, he’s playing lower in the register.  Then you hear him play in Fletcher Henderson and the Hot Fives, and he’s starting what became known as the solo style.  He’s playing these beautiful melodies that he just knew.  Musicians know this about Armstrong, but if you’re not a musician you might not be that aware of it.  I don’t think he ever played a note out of the chord.  And chords are not simple on those old songs.  You hear a lot of blues musicians play New Orleans music, and they play a basic diatonic blues over it.  It doesn’t always work, because you have what are called three-chord… You have chords where there’s notes that are actually very clearly outside of the blues scale.

Well, Louis Armstrong always hit those notes perfectly and musically, and led to them.  It was always there.  So he started playing in this softer style.  With Fletcher Henderson I guess he switched to the trumpet and was using more of the upper register.  The more instruments are below you on the trumpet, the easier it is to play in the upper register.  If you’re just playing with two other horns, they can’t really support your note up there.  If you start playing with the big band… Then he had his big band, and that’s when his style became this really super-virtuosic style, that whole thing with “Swing That Music” and you play 40 high Cs and you end on a double high-F, and he’s doing it every night, six shows a night, then doing recordings in the afternoon.

Then when he started going back to play with the All Stars, now he’s mixing the two styles together.  That’s the style of New Orleans trumpet playing most guys use from Louis’ All-Stars.  It’s up in the register.  It comes from that big band playing.  He’s playing really high and he’s stating the beat very directly.  With the early stuff, there’s more mystery in there.

TP:    Now back to Lee Collins.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  He’s mystery.  When you hear him, there’s just a lot of mystery, and it sounds great.

TP:    Sidney De Paris.

BERNSTEIN:  Don’t know much about him.  Him and his brother had a band and were called the New Orleans Jazz Band. [Blue Note and Atlantic] His brother played with Duke Ellington.  He was just another great trumpeter.  Obviously could really play.  Whether it’s his hand or his plunger, however he’s doing, that solo is unbelievable to me.  It’s one of those gems.  When I heard it, I just went back and listened to it over and over again.  Punch Miller was a guy from that same era.  When you listen to the guys of that era when they were young… Trumpet is a hard instrument.  So obviously, when you heard Punch Miller or Sidney deParis in the ’60s, it’s a lot different.  They didn’t have the physicality to keep playing that way.  But when they were young, man, they sounded amazing!

TP:    On the last track we heard the great Clark Terry, who seems to subsume just about everything that ever happened in the history of trumpet in his own style.

BERNSTEIN:  And he’s the greatest guy in the world.  I’ve known him for a long time.  I hung with him this summer.  He’s such an inspiration.  I read an interview with him where he said he keeps his horn by his bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll just get up and play a few notes.  That’s when I just kind of realized how serious playing the trumpet is.  If you really want to be a trumpet player… I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and some days I’ll skip practicing — or I did, up until three or four months ago.  Then I decided, “You know what?”  I’m never going to skip aa day of practice.  Trumpet is serious.  It’s a really heavy instrument, with the amount of dedication it takes to make your lips work properly on the trumpet.  And Clark is one of those guys… He’s almost blind, he can barely walk, he’s diabetic, and every time he puts his horn to his face, man, beauty comes out.  You cannot believe how incredible he sounds.  He’s an inspiration.  And the greatest person in the world.   And hilarious.  I was hanging out with him and Alan Smith, who is in his seventies, and a 91-year-old drummer, and Roger Glenn, the son of Tyree Glenn, who lives in Oakland.  It was so funny!  The drummer was Eddie Alley, the brother of Vernon Alley, the bass player who lived in San Francisco.  He’s not doing so much playing.  He said maybe he’s going to stick to contracting, because he’s 90 and he’s not been working that much.

TP:    On Diaspora Soul Steven put traditional cantorial music to New Orleans beats.

BERNSTEIN:  It was more like traditional songs to beats… Well, the beats are really a lot of Afro-Cuban beats and Cha-Cha beats.  They’re actually not New Orleans beats.  But the bass parts and piano parts are coming from that tradition of music. The beats actually were mixing like mambos and cha-chas.  But on this I just got right down to the rhythm.  This is with a Rumba rhythm.  I took it from a Polish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, originally written in 1921.  It’s an Ashkenazi piece, but it sounds very Sephardic, just the tonality.  But it’s not.

[“Habet Mishomayem”]

TP:    We’ll hear a track by Yusef Lateef from The Symphonic Blues Suite, another take on the blues, and another way of articulating the blues.

BERNSTEIN:  Growing up, those Atlantic records were very important to me, the whole thing with Yusef and Eddie Harris and Fathead and Rahsaan… See, it’s Rahsaan who brought us into this.  Rahsaan ruled the Bay Area.  I saw Rahsaan about ten times in high school.

TP:    You were a Keystone Korner guy.

BERNSTEIN:  Me and Peter Apfelbaum were in the front… We’d get there early.  And we were slick.  We had a thing where I’d get a Coca-Cola in  Chinatown and stick it in our pocket, and we’d order water as soon as we sat down, drink the water, save the ice, and pour the Coke in real fast, and I had the can again, and it looked like they had brought us Coke for the minimum.  We were criminals, hard-core.

But we’d go see Rahsaan, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I think about music this way.  Those Atlantic productions, you’d get these records, and it seemed like you were entering this world where each record was a brand-new world.  Like, Blackness.  Do you remember Natural Black Inventions, where it’s just him?  We’re kids and looking at this and saying, “wow, this is so great.”  It wasn’t the idea that records was a bunch of guys getting together to play. It was like each record was a world you could enter.  Yusef made some great… The Search, which I wish I still had.  Me and Peter would just sit around and practice and play records.  It’s part of my history.

[Yusef, “Minuet, Hybrid-Atonal”; Gil Evans-Johnny Coles, “Davenport Blues”; Rahsaan-Quincy, “Charade”]

TP:    Quincy Jones did a lot of amazing arrangements in the ’60s, and the dynamic range and precision, but it’s never like a machine…

BERNSTEIN:  It’s never bad.   I’ve been thinking about it.  Quincy is kind of like Mingus with a little TV added to it.  It’s like that good.  I really feel Quincy is that good.  It’s so full of life, so exploratory, celebratory… The fact that he would have Roland Kirk playing the solo.  Who else would love music that much?

TP:    Rahsaan was under contract to Mercury at the time.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but check this out.  Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Jimmy Maxwell, Osie Johnson and Milt Hinton.  I meet drummers all the time, and they don’t know who Osie Johnson is — or Gus Johnson.  Those guys were so great, and their time was so great, and there was a certain level f musicianship… Look, the world changes.  It’s always different.  But at that period of time, man, the level of musicianship was so high, because everyone was playing every day, they’d all been on the road for years, they had all that skill under their belts of having played three sets a night for years.  Then you go into this high quality recording, and people are playing at night… When I hear music like we just heard, I just love this music.

TP:    Before that we heard Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Davenport Blues” with Johnny Coles playing the Bix role, from the great Gil Evans for Pacific Jazz where he arranged all the standards.

BERNSTEIN:  I was probably in tenth grade when I heard this for the first time, and it was just like… That’s one of those solos that’s so pure to me.  When I heard that, I just couldn’t believe it.  It’s so sympathetic, the arranging.  Gil Evans is a whole nother kind of arranger.  That kind of arranging is so beyond me.  It’s so unique.  The interesting thing is that Jimmy Maxwell and Gil Evans grew up together.  They had a high school band in Tracy, which later became the Skinny Ennis Band.  Maxwell told me that Gil would babysit his kids sometimes.  He left the house and go see a movie with his wife or something, and Gil’s sitting at the piano with Maxwell’s son, David, and he’s sitting there playing a chord, and David’s sitting next to him on the piano.  They get back three hours later, David is in the same place and Gil’s still playing the same chord.  That’s the way he was.  It seems to me he really thought so much about every single interval.

Another interesting thing about Gil Evans, he always talked about unison.  People asked him later on, in Sweet Basil, why he wasn’t writing these big orchestrations like we just heard.  And he said, you know, trying to get the band to make unison… I didn’t understand what he said.  But lately I think what he was talking about was that Basie thing of the unison.  Because as I’ve been doing more and more writing, I realize it’s much easier for a band to play harmony than to play unison.

TP:    Why is that?  Because you have to breathe as one?

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  Because the harmony, if it’s a little bit off, the beauty and strength of the harmony can carry you.  But if it’s unison, it’s really got to  be played with this feeling.  It’s really powerful, but it’s much harder to get to.  Maybe there’s a science to unison, but I’d say it’s kind of almost a magic thing that you have to reach out to through time.  You can’t learn it.  You have to spend time to get it.  And you have to start with something else.

I think it’s easier to mess with something with a strong melody.  The stronger the melody is, the more it can withhold.  It’s like a really strong  building.  If it’s a really strong frame, you can hit it with as many hammers as you want and it’s going to hold up.  I’m trying to hit it with many hammers.

[Sex Mob, “The Mooche”]

TP:    Steven was talking about unisons.  When you talk about unisons and breathing-together, you’re talking about riffs.  And nobody ever did the riff function better than the Count Basie Orchestra, at least not on record.

BERNSTEIN:  This is true.  This was always in the air around me, but when I went on the Kansas City film, my job there started off kind of being the research guy.  Hal Wilner, every two days or so I’d get a big box of tapes to listen to, and my daughter had just been born… I swear to God, I think this is why she’s the way she is, which is really special, but the first couple of months all she heard was music from 1928 to 1938.  That was it.  That’s all I listened to in the house.   It kind of seeped into my body, it seeps into one’s body when you listen to it… What do you call that process?

TP:    Osmosis.

BERNSTEIN:  Thank you.  Gesundheit.  It kind of started a disease with me, because now after listening to so much of that music, it’s like I can’t stop listening to it.  And my daughter is 6, so that was 6 years ago.

TP:    There’s a bunch of Basie airchecks from the late ’30s and early ’40s, and apart from the greatness of the band, one of the pleasures is to hear Lester Young play a bunch of choruses.

BERNSTEIN:  And on this one Jo Jones has woodblocks and cowbells… It’s really good.  It’s also before the band had four trombones.  It’s three trombones.

TP:    Here it’s the Basie band playing for dancers at either the Savoy or the Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.

[Basie, “I Got Rhythm”; Benny Moten, “Toby”; KC-6, “Countless Blues”]

TP:    Talk about organizing that style for a group of modern musicians, whose approach to making music is different than musicians 60 years before, developing that organic feeling.

BERNSTEIN:  When we did it for the movie?  Man, these musicians are all so great that it was easy, because they all knew what to do.  It really freed me up, because for some things it could be really skeletal and they could put it together.  Riff music continues to be the music of our generation.  It’s just changed harmonically and rhythmically.  But all Popular music is riff music.  The concept of unisons, as a lot of jazz has strayed from that, has gone to Pop music.  One thing about James Brown is the unisons.  You hear great unisons in a lot R&B music and a lot of dance music.  That’s why it makes people want to dance.  It’s the power of all that happening together.  You hear that in African music a lot.  There’s unisons and there’s… Obviously, the rhythms are different, but a lot of people in unison in different rhythms often.

The band Spanish Fly had… I remember Frank Perowsky, who is the father of a friend of mine and a great saxophone player, came to one of our gigs.  This was a band with trumpet, slide guitar and tuba.  He’s really a modern jazz guy.  He said, “Steve, as I’m listening to this, I’m wondering what is this that they’re playing.”  And I realize it’s unison.  Because if you hear a slide guitar, a trumpet and a tuba playing unison, that’s a very specific kind of unison.  Every unison is different.  So there’s a whole world of unison out there.  You hear it in Parliament-Funkadelic.  You hear a lot of good unison out there.

Obviously, you don’t hear arranging.  Actual arranging has gotten away from that.  Because people are much more into putting a lot of things on top, a lot of different moving lines.  But for dancing, of course, it really moves people.

TP:    We’ll move to music now by the trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who was a primary mentor for Steven when he came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  It was just a miracle.  I went to NYU, and he was there teaching.  You had a choice of trumpet teachers, and I’d been hearing about him.  When I moved to New York, a lot of people studied with Jimmy Maxwell, so I had a lot of opportunity to study with him.  He really took me under his wing.  I’d take lessons at his house, and he’d send me home with tapes and records, and books about Zen, and food.  I’d spend all day there, he’d cook a huge breakfast, we’d take a walk, we’d play, we’d cook… He taught me about cooking.  It was one of those things where someone talks to you about things.  And he’d just seen so much in his life.  Here’s a guy who was 17 years old on the road with Skinny Ennis, then he replaced Harry James basically in Benny Goodman’s band when he was 18 years old.  18 years old, and he joins the most popular band in the United States of America…
TP:    Replacing the most popular trumpeter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  It was big news back then.  It as if someone had replaced John in the Beatles or something like that.  What he saw living that life was  really amazing, and being able to pass some of that on to me was great.  He’s a very spiritual guy.  The lessons were much more than just music.

The first piece starts with solo trumpet, and it’s a great chance to hear his sound.  One of the things Jimmy taught me about was timed vibrato.  When I first started playing gigs after taking lessons with him, other trumpeters were looking at me like I was crazy, because I’d be playing these parts with this really pronounced vibrato, which of course is not the way you play in modern music.  But when you’re young and studying with someone, you’re trying to emulate what they teach you, and sometimes that might not be the right thing to do in a certain situation.  But eventually, the vibrato has brought me a lot of good things.

[Jimmy Maxwell, “Estrelita,” “The Trolley Song”]

TP:    Now some live Ellington.  Hearing live Ellington airchecks and recorded performances is one of the great pleasures of jazz collecting.  You have them going back to the early ’30s and all through his career.  These come from 1948-49, when Ben Webster joined the band.

BERNSTEIN:  Right.  These are just trumpet features.  This is “Tooting Through the Roof,” which he wrote for Rex and Cootie.  It’s pretty impossible to play.

TP:    This is where the Ellington band would be that precision instrument

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly. “Braggin’ In Brass” is more rhythmically difficult.  “Tootin’ Through the Roof” is just…as far as the range, it goes all through the trumpet to the very top.  This is when he had Al Killian in the band, who was a great lead trumpet who people don’t talk about so much.

TP:    Talk about lead trumpet versus the soloistic approach.  I did a liner note for someone who’s a protege of Clark Terry, and he spoke of Clark Terry embodying that ideal of playing trumpet with the lead trumpet type technique with the feeling…

BERNSTEIN:  Right, of a jazz player, which is difficult.  Most people… It’s the natural thing that would happen when you’re trying to play things consistently and the same all the time.  We’re talking about balance.  That could shift the balance from being able to be really spontaneous and pulling things in different directions.  That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s what we heard Maxwell do.  He was a very lead style trumpet player.  The Ellington style was a little more… He told me that he didn’t like Chet Baker when he heard him, and then he saw a written-out Chet Baker solo and played it, and then he liked.  I heard him play the Chet Baker solo.  But he’s not playing it like Chet Baker would play it; he’s playing the notes and interpreting it his own way.  Then he could appreciate the rhythmic and melodic beauty of it.  But for him, the way  Chet played wasn’t the way the trumpet should sound.  He comes from another school.  He doesn’t play any more, but when I studied with him he was still playing all the time.  He was playing every night and sounding incredible.

He’s the person who taught me about all these trumpet players.  He talked about Billy Butterfield all the time.  Who talks about Billy Butterfield.  But when he was doing sections, he was telling me that in Mildred Bailey’s show the trumpet section was him, Billy Butterfield and Roy Eldridge.  Now, think about that.

TP:    The different sounds, for one thing.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but also the level of playing of those three guys.  Billy Butterfield was a great trumpet player, a great lead and jazz stylist.  Jimmy always described him as having the best intervals in the  business; his intervals were perfect.  And Shorty Baker, who is the lower of the two lower tessitore trumpet players in this next piece, a trumpet player from St. Louis, has a beautiful sound.  It sounds like he really influenced Clark Terry.  Beautiful tone.  Didn’t Miles talk about Shorty Baker?  Trumpet players know about him, but now everyone will.

[Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (Killian-Baker); “Boy Meets Horn”; Teagarden & Ben, “St. James Infirmary”]

TP:    This “Boy Meets Horn” may be the ultimate of all the “Boy Meets Horns” I’ve heard, which are two or three.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s why I played it.  At the end there’s a cadenza that Rex would always play.  By the way, my son is named Rex.  But that was a set piece, and this is the extended version.  Here Ellington plays piano behind him, and it’s neat, the backup line he plays — a little counter-melody.

TP:    And from 1948 we heard “Tootin’ Through the Roof.” on an Italian collectors label called Raretone.

BERNSTEIN:  At the end, Al Killian and Shorty Baker don’t really make the end the way Cootie and Rex did; they articulated so much stronger on the recording.

TP:    Before the next set, I’d like to speak about Sex Mob.  Each of your ensembles has had a general vibration or sound or signature.  How did this band come to be?

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob came about as a vehicle to explore the slide trumpet.  I only play slide trumpet in Sex Mob, and I’d been playing it in different groups… I bought a slide trumpet in 1977 and I’ve been playing it since then, but never that seriously until about eight years ago, when I decided to really start practicing it.  It’s a really difficult instrument.  So when I originally played it, I would just play in a few keys I could kind of get around in, and it would just be something I could pick up and play.  But then Dave Douglas suggested I practice it.  Smart man.

So I wondered I could take the instrument if I had a band where this was the only instrument I’m taking to the gig.  I just figured let’s see what kind of repertoire I could develop that I could play on this instrument.  And this is a great band.  We’ve pretty much had regular gigs in New  York for five years.  We play usually Friday nights at midnight at Tonic.  It’s Tony Scherr on the bass, Kenny Wolleson on the drums, and my partner in sonic crime, Briggan Krauss, on alto.

TP:    What does the slide trumpet give you that the valve trumpet doesn’t?

BERNSTEIN:  One thing it does is, it frees me.  It frees me from the history of the trumpet.  Most trumpet players feel this… There’s a weight on your shoulders in a sense, an obligation to all those who came before us.  Especially when you grow up like I did, really listening to a lot of trumpets… I listened a lot.  So you listen to Clifford, you listen to Lee, you listen to Booker Little, to Roy Eldridge and Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, etc., Louis Armstrong, obviously… You have all these people you’re thinking about.  I used to see Dizzy all the time.  I should have brought that thing where Dizzy plays just like… Dizzy got so many things from Rex Stewart.  Dizzy is the one who plays like Rex, not Clark Terry.  In fact, Dizzy was on that aircheck of Rex we just played.  Taft Jordan was another great trumpet player that people don’t talk about.

So it allows me to play an instrument… I manipulate it the way I play the trumpet.  I use my airstream in the same way.  But it’s a whole nother instrument.  It allows me to explore other avenues.  The other thing is, funlike the buttons… When you press a button down, you get this approximate pitch as the button shoots air through the trumpet.  But with the slide, you’re just moving the slide back and forth, and it gets all these tiny increments in pitch.  If you want to play below the pitch a little, you can hold it there, or above the pitch — all these different places.  It’s much easier to get there.  Much easier to play like a voice.   Much easier to play like Otis Redding.  Much easier to play like a slide guitar.  Much easier to play other sounds you might be hearing in your head.  So it allows me to express other sounds.  And it’s loud.  And it’s quiet.  That’s really good.  There’s something about the instrument…

TP:    Why don’t more people play it?

BERNSTEIN:  Because it’s really hard.

TP:    You mean controlling those increments of pitch?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s really difficult to get.  I’ve developed a style based on being out of tune, so I have an excuse.  I’m not trying to play like J.J. Johnson on it.  That’s not what I’m going for.  But even the way I play it, it’s really hard.  And eventually, probably someone will come up and figure out how to play like that.

TP:    So as opposed to the trombone it’s out of what the just proportion would be for it to be in-tune….

BERNSTEIN:  No, it’s the same proportion.  but if a trombone has an inch between each half-pitch, I would have half-an-inch.  If you’re a little bit off on trombone, most people can’t hear it.  But if you’re that same physical distance off on the slide trumpet, everyone can hear it.  The second grade music teacher can hear it.  Everyone is checking it out.  It’s one of those long and strong instruments, without a doubt.

[Sex Mob, “Harlem”]

TP:    That was the concluding piece on the CD, so obviously the concluding section of the dance.  All the arrangements kept the essence of Ellington with a contemporary rhythmic connotation, timbre and attack.

BERNSTEIN:  I listen to a lot of modern music.  Most of my inspiration for producing sound comes from what people call the Pre-War period.  But then, I love what it feels like to be alive today, so this is why I play as though I were a living person.

TP:    We’ll enter the here-and-now in the last half-hour, though you were a toddler when Mama Too Tight was recorded.  A mono LP!

BERNSTEIN:  I was 13 the first time I heard this.  This is another record I remember hearing the first time and thinking… Another story going back to Jimmy Maxwell and Archie Shepp.  He taught lessons in a little studio in the Charles Collin studios on 53rd-54th Street, and he told me one day he was giving a lesson, and suddenly he heard something that sounded more like Duke Ellington’s band than anything he’d ever heard.  He ran out of his rehearsal studio, ran into the next, and it was Archie Shepp playing his arrangements of Ellington.  I thought it was very interesting for someone who grew up listening to Ellington to say that.

[Shepp, “Mama, Too Tight”; Apfelbaum, “Chant 49”; Codona, “Coleman Wonder”]

BERNSTEIN:  We have pictures of Peter, Jeff Crestman and Peter in sixth grade, playing gigs — after school.  We were into it, man.

TP:    What is it about Berkeley that produces all these open-minded musicians?

BERNSTEIN:  And it’s funny.  The later they were born, the more money they make!

TP:    Were you a product of that particular teacher?

BERNSTEIN:  Yes Phil Hardymon.  Phil Hardymon, Dick Winnington, a piano player, and Herb Wong, the educator and noted humanist who started the program around 1970.  I got there the second year of it.  I got to Berkeley the first time in ’69, so it must have been in ’72.  Hardymon was incredible.  He was a no bullshit kind of person.  He basically said, “Look, this is good music, this is bad music,” and he would not tolerate us listening to bad music.

TP:    What was bad music?

BERNSTEIN:  You know, bad big band music.  You know…

TP:    Brassy, peppy…

BERNSTEIN:  Well, that’s not necessarily bad.  Brassy doesn’t mean bad.  You know what’s bad?  Out of time.  Out of tune.  Not swinging.  That’s what’s bad.  Those are the elements of jazz that you need to have, is it needs to be in time, it needs that element of melody that makes it jazz.  Whether we’re talking about somebody like Chet Baker, or you’re talking about Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis in the ’60s, with all very different tones and styles of trumpet, but they’re all real, they all have whatever those essential elements are.  And of course, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and Woody Shaw.  Hardymon would take us to gigs… Mr. Hardymon.  We always just called him Hardymon.  He had this little Karman-Ghia, he’d drive us to Keystone Korner.  He took us to see the Art Ensemble the first time.  And he’d put up with it.  I know at first he couldn’t quite get why we were listening to the Art Ensemble, but when he heard them live he figured it out.  He always told us, “Man, you guys got to learn to play the changes better before you start doing all this.”  He was right.  But that was the music that was in the air.  We wanted to play it.  I saw Lester Bowie play a solo in Berkeley.  I saw Baikida play a solo, I saw Oliver Lake play a solo.  These people were all coming through town when I was growing up.

TP:    Well, the Art Ensemble spent a lot of time out there.

BERNSTEIN:  Right, and they had friends they’d hang with.  I still remember once we went to see Lester solo, and the next day we went to play a Reno Jazz Festival.  We used to get up in the Reno Jazz Festival and play free jazz.  Everyone else was playing Bill Holman…well, Bill Holman is hip… Like, Sammy Nestico, those kind of real typical high school arrangements.

Coming up is some music I heard, real Berkeley-style — recorded in New York.

[Lowe-J/L Bowie, “Play Some Blues”]

BERNSTEIN:  Beaver Harris is someone who was really influential on me and Peter.  He was a good friend of ours.

TP:    We’ll conclude with a track that I noticed is on the top of the Knitting Factory charts…

BERNSTEIN:  I have Sex Mob, I have the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and Diaspora Soul.  I’ll have records by all three out in the Fall.

[Sex Mob, “About a Girl” (Kurt Cobain)]



Steven Bernstein (WKCR, 6-3-99):

BERNSTEIN:  I’m the world tallest slide trumpet player.  You got a problem with that?

TP:    Is that documented in the Guinness Book of World Records?  I want to see documentation.

On the cover of Steven’s new record, Den of Iniquity, is a very fine likeness of Steven with red horns on his head and some red outline around him that looks like a shadow cape.  Looks like you’re channeling something there.

BERNSTEIN:  It was all stream of consciousness, and no Biblical aspirations.  Some people saw some anti-Semitic undercurrent in there, but it was all completely done…

TP:    With innocence.

BERNSTEIN:  Innocence and inspiration.

TP:    it was more of a Zap Comix vibe, I would say, than…

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  I would say more Zap Comix than Michelangelo.  Is that the one who did the Moses with the horns?

TP:    There’s a good segue.  Because one thing not everyone might know about you, given your extremely contemporary persona, is your devotion to the old guys in the music — and your intense study of the older forms of the music.  You’re a virtual encyclopedia of ’30s big bands and jump music, and I guess al that inflects what you do with Sex Mob.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m trying to.  I see Sex Mob hopefully as a return to what I feel is the earliest roots of jazz.  After it came out of New Orleans and moved to Chicago, you had basically a blank slate of new music where people were taking pop songs of the time and playing them in new styles.  They were playing them with different rhythms, they were playing them with different dynamics, and they were playing them with improvisations.  That’s what Bud Freeman and all those guys heard when they would go to the Royal Gardens.  It was this music where people basically took pop songs and played them in the way they felt like playing them.  These people were young, brash geniuses.  This music was louder than any music of its time.  This music was certainly being played on let’s say a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville song or minstrel song would have been played.

TP:    And accompanied by some pretty psychedelic liquor, too.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  Exactly!  Guys were getting out there.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.  People talk about the problem of having an audience for jazz.  And so many people are scared of jazz.  Because when they hear it, they have no familiarity with the songs.  The last real popular era of jazz you had Miles Davis.  Miles did the same songs.  Miles did “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” songs that everybody knew.

TP:    The songs of the day..

BERNSTEIN:  Songs of the day.  Even Coltrane did “Inchworm” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and all that stuff.  So that’s what I’m trying to do.  On my last record I do a piece by the Cardigans, I do “Live and Let Die,” I do a piece by Prince, I do a tune by Duke, Leadbelly — songs that everyone knows.

TP:    A lot of improvisers are trying to incorporate “the new standard,” one of two pieces from the ’60s or ’70s that they do some rearrangement of.  How do those tunes hold up as vehicles for improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  In my opinion, it matters how well you arrange them.  I won’t say who I saw, but I saw one person, an amazing musician, doing a concert of that kind of music and the arrangements weren’t suiting the music.  So when you’re talking about music that doesn’t have a lot of harmonic structure,  it’s very important that you arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  Because what’s happened in Pop music is there’s been a digression of harmonic material over the last 50 years, where it went from the long form of the march, which had an intro and had the opening strains and the second strains and the third strains, all these different parts; and then we got down to the Tin Pan Alley form of music, which has the verse and the chorus with the bridge; and then you got to the point where you just had songs which were AABA form; and then we got to kind of doo-wop songs which were the same AABA form, but now we’re just having a I-VI-II-V harmonic form instead of going into a lot of different keys, and still usually going to the IV chord no the bridge; and then people let go to the bridge, and that’s when you got some early music of Sly Stone and James Brown, where you just had a I-VI-II-V; then pretty soon it got the point where you had one single melodic bassline which became the entire harmony for the song; then you got the ’80s where you just had a synthesized bass riff; and then you had Public Enemy where it wasn’t even about any harmony at all, but a sample suddenly became your harmonic basis for the song.

So with this new music it’s very important to realize we’re dealing with arrangement, and you’ve got to create interest in the arrangement.  You asked how they will hold up.  As long as the arrangement allows interest and allows growth, and then you have great improvisers, it’s going to be fine.  You can’t play “Raspberry Beret” by Prince the same way you play “My Funny Valentine.”  It’s that simple.

TP:    In your career as a musician has Pop music and jazz music always existed on an equal plane for you in terms of your study and interest?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  When I was a kid I was a total jazz snob.  I started playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardeman in Berkeley, California, who started us playing jazz… We had improvisation in fifth grade.  Phil died last year, and a lot of people came from under his tutelage — Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, etc.  He believed in taste.  He believed everyone should play in taste.  We weren’t really big into  playing a lot of music over the changes.  More into melodies.  He was into playing us ’50s Miles and Chet Baker and of course Duke.  Then Peter Apfelbaum and I started getting into other types of music.  The first concert Peter took me to, we saw Eddie Harris at Keystone Korner.  We were in seventh grade.  Then later on in seventh grade we went to see Sam Rivers Trio with Sonny Fortune opening.  That was the second concert we went to.   Then we finally got to see our heros, the Art Ensemble.  The Art Ensemble has known me and Peter since we were 13 years old.  We’re talking about 1975 is the first time I saw them, at the Great American Music Hall.  Roscoe had taken a sabbatical, and it was just Joseph and Lester.  It was unbelievable.  We went backstage.  We had learned some of their songs, and we played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they came out and see these two little kids banging on the wall, and they invited us in.

Berkeley was amazing.  Not only did I get to get to hear Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner, there was also a series of solo concerts at a place called Mapenzi, and I heard Leo Smith solo, Lester Bowie solo, Oliver Lake solo, Baikida Carroll.  We heard a lot.  Plus my trumpet teacher was a guy named John Coppola, who is now in his early ’70s, and he played with Woody and Billy May and Kenton, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Cootie and Rex.  I was being a snotty kid and I came to my first lesson, we were talking and I said to him, “Man, I’m into Lester Bowie.”  I’m talking to this older Italian gentleman.  He said to me, “Oh yeah!  Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex was doing back in the ’40s.  And he throws on this record.  I go, “Oh, man, this is the same thing!”  So I started listening to Cootie and Rex in 11th grade, and that really changed my life.  When I heard Ellington’s ’40s band, with Jimmy Blanton, with Rex and Cootie in the section together, and Ben Webster, I knew that was the greatest music that ever existed in the world.  That was it.  And it still is for me.  I listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.

I love talking about music.  I was talking to Joe Wilder yesterday for about an hour.  We were talking about Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Billy Butterfield, Dud Bascomb.  Do you know Dud Bascomb?  Both Miles and Dizzy appropriated his licks from the “Tuxedo Junction” solo, and played them in later solos.  Dud Bascomb was one of the important links between Swing music and bebop.  But people don’t talk about him.

TP:    Now we’ll move into the “new standard” aspect with Sex Mob’s arrangement of a tune by Prince.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s “Sign of The Times,” our arrangement, with the help of our great friend and engineer Scott Harding, who also works with Wu Tang Clan and Prince Paul and who I think is as much responsible for this arrangement as we are.

[Sex Mob, “Sign of The Times”; “Rock of Ages”]

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob has played at least once a week every night for the last year.  We have a steady night at Tonic.  We do midnight shows, and they’ve been getting wilder and wilder.  People have been making me CDs, and there’s a great one with Eyvard Kang from Bill Frisell’s band sitting in and Wayne Goodman from the LCJO playing together.  Trombone and violin is an incredible orchestrational device that has not been used enough.  There’s always special guests.  The next one will be Thursday the 10th at midnight, and then on Friday the 25 Sex Mob plays the music of Little Richard with special guest Brian Mitchell.

TP:    Tell me about the evolution of the band, the personnel, what it takes to play with you.

BERNSTEIN:  The bass player Tony Scherr is responsible for this.  We were playing what we might call almost a freebop kind of gig at MOMA with Michael Blake.  Ben Allison, the regular bass player, couldn’t make it, and Tony Scherr came.  I’d never played with him.  He has this very muscular way of approaching the bass, where he holds it away from his body.  I looked at this guy, and I was scared.  I was scared to play with him.  I told Michael, “I’m not good enough to play with this guy.”  Anyway, he turns out to be a great guy, we start talking, and he loved the slide trumpet.  He said to me, “Man, I love that slide trumpet.”  I said, “One day when I get better I’m going to put together a band where I only play the slide trumpet.”  Tony said, “You’re ready to do that now.”  I said, “You really think so?”  Now, Tony’s a guy who’s been through all the big bands, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody, blah-blah..  He’s a heavy hitter.  So he gave me the courage to say, “Okay, if this guy thinks I can really play this instrument…”

So I called up Briggan Krauss, whom I’d met in Seattle, who is a virtuoso alto player but not a virtuoso in the sense… Most virtuoso alto players play a kind of traditional alto style.  He plays a very modern, expressive style, working with styles, but he can read anything, play anything, play any tempo, play any sort of pitch, and in his own style.  Kenny Wolleson, who I’ve known since he was a kid in California — another person able to play with anybody.  And Tony.  We started playing originally with Dom Falzone on bass, because Tony was always busy.  We did Thursday nights at 11 at the Knitting Factory tap bar.  We did that for two years.  After about four months Tony joined us.  And we just developed a repertoire.

Most bands either have no arrangements or else they rehearse.  But we had one rehearsal.  After that, every night I’d bring down whatever song I’d been listening to, I’d sit on the subway and write a chart out, I’d get to the gig, and throw the chart in front of them, and we’d do it.  I still try to do that at every gig.  I try to bring a song they’ve never played before with a real bare-bones chart, I rehearse it in front of the audience, and we play it.  We have a repertoire of over 100 songs.

TP:    Each tune evolves through performance.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  And it evolves through an audience’s reaction.  Which again is something that jazz used to do more.  But lately I think jazz has developed in a bubble, where you have songs developing under the guidance of a producer in a studio or at home, in some guy’s little house.  But actually, our entire repertoire is evolved in front of an audience.

TP:    I think in jazz there’s always been a studio aspect to generating tunes, but people used to have long residencies.  A band would be at the Vanguard for three weeks, or at the Village Gate for two weeks, or the Five Spot for a month, and the things would happen.

BERNSTEIN:  You listen to band that actually had arrangements… One of the great bands people don’t talk about was the original Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams with Duke Pearson doing the arrangements.  That was a band that worked and had… Arrangements are important to me.  I’m an arrangement type of guy.  We were talking about Shorty Rogers before.

TP:    Steven left a message asking when he was coming, and said “Listen to this arrangement, bye,” and it was a Shorty Rogers arrangement of “Un Poco Loco.”

BERNSTEIN:  I had thought Shorty Rogers was a shtick of guy, and it turned out to be this amazing… I don’t think you could find people who would be physically able to play this stuff.

TP:    Did your interest in arranging start with your discovery of older jazz nd Ellington, shaping the course of improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  But it also comes from growing up playing free improvisation as well as standards.

TP:    You were doing both.  Parallel track for you.

BERNSTEIN:  Parallel track.  Obviously you can tell I spent more time playing free improvisation than standards.  But when you play free improvisation, it’s about instant arranging.  It’s creating instant arrangements.  That’s kind of what I do on the stage in Sex Mob.  Then when you actually write arrangements, you have the power with your pencil and your brain to envision these arrangements and then have them come to life.

Another band that influenced me was Archie Shepp’s band with Roswell and the two basses, which was interesting because it was a real swinging jazz band, but it didn’t follow jazz forms, as far as the 8-bar form of a song.  But it had the feel of a jazz band…and they wore suits.

[Sex Mob, “Roswell,” “Come Sunday”]

TP:    Tell me about the slide trumpet and why that’s your medium.

BERNSTEIN:  I’ve had one since 1977.  Peter Apfelbaum and I were up at the Creative Music Studio, and we stopped by this little guitar store and saw these two slide trumpets on the wall.  The guy wanted $25 each for them.  So we both bought one.  And I’ve always had one.  A couple of things I could play  naturally in it, and I used to play it with Spanish Fly on a few tunes, and I’d notice the audience reaction whenever I played it… You could just feel it.  It was very visceral.  One time, I was playing at a festival in Austria, and Dave Douglas was there with Tiny Bell, he was listening to the Fly, and he said to me afterwards, “Man, that instrument is so incredible, why don’t you practice it the same way you practice the trumpet?”  And Dave is such a brilliant guy… Maybe I’m just dumb.  But I’d never thought about that.  I’d never thought about practicing it… In trumpet we have this whole series of books.  We do the Arbins(?) book and the Clark book, these traditional trumpet studies.  I’d never done that stuff on the instrument.  I’d never actually gone and played the classical type of trumpet playing.  So I started practicing it.  I mean, I still make my living as what I call a button trumpeter, but with Sex Mob it’s interesting that this is the first band of the many I’ve done that’s really gotten out into the world and people are really reacting to, and part of it is the slide trumpet.

TP:    What is it about the dynamics of its sound?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s as much… Well, the instrument can do anything. . The instrument can approximate a voice much easier than a button trumpet can, because you can move the slide wherever you want as far as pitch.  With a button trumpet, basically you push down a button and then you have that amount of tubing to go through and  you’re stuck with very close to what that  pitch is.  A slide trumpet is just much more expressive.  Also personally, I’ve always felt a little laden down by the tradition of the trumpet.  Because you listen to Clifford Brown… I’ll never be able to play… If I practice every day for the rest of my life, I’d  never be able to play as good as Clifford Brown.  I’d never be able to play as good as Wynton Marsalis, that’s for sure, even if I practiced every day of my life.  But certainly, you can go back to Clifford, you can go back to Booker Little, you can go back to Lee Morgan — these giants of bebop.

TP:    So there’s a tradition of virtuosity on the instrument.

BERNSTEIN:  And these guys, they staked it out, as far as I’m concerned.  Clifford alone, man, and Freddie.  I used to go see Woody Shaw a lot, and Woody was the last guy, man…  Woody wrote all that music.

TP:    Who really extended the vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  And not only that.  He wrote songs that featured his style of playing.  So he would play these songs, a lot of them he wrote when he was 19 or 20, songs like “The Moontrane,” and he continued to play, where it set up a sort of harmony where he felt very comfortable and where he could, within that harmony, keep extending it, as opposed to playing other people’s songs or playing standards, when he would play his own songs that he had written to feature his harmonic vocabulary.

With a slide trumpet, I feel like there’s no one to compare it to, I just play the way I want to play it.  Then, of course, it gave me this whole other tradition to explore.  Because I’d always felt like I’ve been as much a student of music as a professional musician, and suddenly here I am, and every day I go home and boom,” Dickie Wells, J.C. Higgenbotham, Tricky Sam, all these incredible trombone players.  The slide is its own world.  There’s a world of the slide, where the slide gives you the vocabulary.

TP:    Are there any antecedents in jazz of improvisers who played the slide trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  There’s a picture of Louis Armstrong playing one with King Oliver’s band.  There’s no recordings.  There’s two great slide whistle solos which I transcribed.  One is from “Froggy Moore.”  I don’t remember the other one.  There’s a picture of Freddie Keppard holding one, that pre King Oliver trumpet, kind of that era between March and Jazz.  There was a guy who played it with Kenton’s band.  I’m spacing on his name, but one of those guys who was with Kenton and Woody in the ’50s.  Joe Wilder’s trumpet teacher played it in the style of the time, the ’30s and ’40s.  I don’t know if it was quite jazz.  But I’ve found no recordings of anyone playing it.

TP:    Who were some of your trumpet mentors after coming to New York?  Apart from whatever lessons you may or may not have taken, I know you’ve cultivated relationships with older musicians.

BERNSTEIN:  Well, the main one has been Jimmy Maxwell.  When Jimmy 18 or maybe 20 he joined Benny Goodman’s band replacing Harry James, and he sat next to Cootie Williams.  After that he went on to become probably the greatest studio and lead trumpet player in New York City for 30 or 40 years.  He’s a giant of a man.  When I say “giant,” this is one of the biggest people you will ever see in your life.  He’s old school.  He’s 6’5″ and he looks like a very large grizzly bear.  The trumpet was a toy to him.  Here’s a guy who sat next to Cootie, so when he would show me plunger, he would show me the way Cootie showed him, and he would show me things about vibrato… These are things that people just don’t know any more.  He showed me things about time.  He is also a very brilliant man who taught himself Japanese and Chinese and was one of the first people in the United States who studied Zen philosophy.

We would take these 10-hour long lessons at his house.  I would come to his house, we’d eat an enormous breakfast.  The first thing he’d say to me, “How many eggs do you want?  Six or eight?”  That was my choice.  Then he’d expect you to eat like four bagels and a half-slab of bacon, then we’d walk along the beach and talk about music and he’d tell me stories,  then we’d play for a few hours, and then we’d cook, and he’d play me more Ellington music, and we’d tape it, and he’d always send me home with really obscure Ellington tapes of Rex and Cootie and other players, and also would always send me home with a book of Zen philosophy and leftovers.

TP:    Leftovers and Zen.  There’s a title.

BERNSTEIN:  He explained to me, if you want to be a professional trumpet player you should learn to cook.  Because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to make money.  So learn to cook at home and feed yourself.  Because you have to be strong to play the trumpet.  It’s a very physically demanding instrument.  Then he explained to me, “If you do this kind of session, here’s what you should eat before.”  It’s about always being physically prepared to play.

He was my main older inspiration.  When I was younger I studied with Jimmy Owens, who helped me a lot, and Kamau Adalifu (Charles Sullivan).  To be honest, most of the other ones have been my contemporaries.

TP:    You’ve also been active in recent years in film music and programmatic music.  “Get Shorty,” etc… Some of it must come out of working with John Lurie in the Lounge Lizards.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s funny, because my first movie scoring came from working with Hal Wilner, who produced the first Spanish Fly record and has been a big-big supporter of me.  He brought me out and we did Kansas City.  So my film career started with hanging with Robert Altman, doing Kansas City, being on the set every day.  The next film I did was Get Shorty, which was with John Lurie.  It’s all been downhill from there.  How can you get any bigger than a Robert Altman film and then basically the biggest film of the year, the biggest soundtrack of the year.  I’ve done three other soundtracks with John Lurie.  Also that same summer I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet, for Spanish Fly, called Fly By Night, for Christopher Debase(?), who is an amazing choreographer.  I’ve done three movies with John Lurie and I’ve done two movies of independent films with my own scores, and I’ve done a couple of TV jingles.  It’s all music to me.

TP:    Are you a self-taught writer?

BERNSTEIN:  Completely.

TP:    Did this start from transcribing older material, or functional things?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, I shouldn’t say I’m totally self-taught.  I took a semester or two of arranging in college.  But I was pretty out of it most of the time.  But when I’d write an arrangement, I’d always just hear it in my head first, and then I’d just write it out, and what I wrote was basically the same thing that was in my head.  So I realized I had a gift for that.  The way I study writing is I listen, and I try to identify what’s happening.  Writing is a science.  It’s very physical.  The feeling you get from hearing music is emotional, but it’s all physical elements that create those emotions.  So I listen to things and try to identify what physically is happening there, and if it’s something good, I try to steal it the best I can — and since I never get it quite right, it sounds like me.

The next track is arranged in the style of Dave Bartholomew, who’s     still alive, a trumpet player from New Orleans who was the musical director for Fats Domino, did most of the sessions for Little Richard.  This was written for trumpet, three tenors and baritone. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “Mazeltov,” “Mack The Knife”]

TP:    Is Spanish Fly still running parallel to Sex Mob, or is Sex Mob it for you now?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, basically Spanish Fly is no longer.  We were together for a long time, and it’s a group that was based on improvisation and communication… It’s the thing where everyone’s life changed and people had different ideas about music, and we weren’t able to play the kind of music we had originally played, so it was kind of silly to keep doing it.

TP:    So it came to an organic and amicable…

BERNSTEIN:  An organic end.  It was like it composted itself.

TP:    We were speaking off mike about sources and antecedents, and you’re taking yours very explicitly from the older swing, or I’d call them more blues trumpet players, like Rex Stewart and Hot Lips Page and Cootie Williams and Dud Bascomb…

BERNSTEIN:  That’s a good word to call them.

TP:    …and also the polished approach to lead trumpet that developed in that period, and free improvisation.  But though you’ve talked about admiring bebop trumpet players, it doesn’t seem an area you’re as interested in exploring.

BERNSTEIN:  As we said before, I always felt that hearing Clifford Brown… It was a real epiphany one time.  I was listening to that Tadd Dameron big band record with Idris Sulieman and Clifford Brown.  It literally sounds as if it was a Star Trek episode… The band is good, but it’s kind of ragged.  It sounds like everyone is a little out of it and the arrangements weren’t that polished.  But whenever Clifford solos, it sounds like a weird Star Trek thing where someone had been transported from the future.  He’s just like a laser light!  Every note is impeccable.  At that point, I was practicing ten hours a day, I was in my early twenties, and I realized, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  I called up Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu, and I said, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  He said, “Yeah, that’s right; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can be at peace with it.”

That’s not really the reason I don’t play bebop, but it certainly helps.  As I also mentioned, other people my age who are phenomenal technicians which allows them to navigate chord changes in rapid tempos.  But also, part of learning bebop… You were mentioning the concept of apprenticeship.  I don’t know if you want to say a few words about that.

TP:    Well, there are very proficient players who are dealing with bebop and postbop vocabularies who put in very serious apprenticeships within those situations, learning the language, who come up with a sound of their own.  It amazes me how fresh the vocabulary remains, among all the other things that are going on.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s true.  But something I never wanted to do (and this goes all the way back to when I was a kid) was I never wanted to play other people’s licks.  It was not something I wanted to do with music.  I don’t know what brought that about.  I don’t know if it was being exposed so early to people like the Art Ensemble where you’re hearing this very fresh music not coming necessarily from a harmonic base.  But I never felt comfortable going in and playing other people’s licks over chord changes, which is something you really need to do get to that next level.  So it wasn’t where I put my energy.  And again, as far as listening goes, because I am so arrangement-oriented, it’s not as interesting for me as something I want to put my stamp on for people to listen to.  Because the whole concept of the head, the multiple solos, and another head with no backgrounds is just not something I’m interested in.  I’m much more interested in earlier music that has very extensive arrangements.  If you go to Louis Armstrong’s big bands or Jelly Roll Morton’s small groups, or things as modern as Tricky and Bjork and Porno for Pyros, where you have these very incredible sonic arrangements, that’s what fascinates me.

TP:    You said that coming to New York is when you started to understand Pop music.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  Also, when I went to college at Columbia… I’d been living in Berkeley, which for me was reality, but for the rest of the United States it’s another world.  And so suddenly I’m with all these white people, and what do they listen to?  They all listen to Rock-and-Roll.  So I’m hanging out with these guys, trying to be fit in, be one of the guys, and this is 1979.  I’m trying to dig Popular Couture, and at that time it was James White and the blacks and Defunkt.  These guys were the bridge for me, especially Defunkt.  That was the bridge.  Because it took all the energy of New York Modern Downtown Punk music, which was coming from Rock-and-Roll, which is coming not so much from an Afro-American tradition of music; and mixing that energy with the Avant-Garde music, Joe’s incredible trombone playing; and then taking Hendrix’s sonic kind of music with the electric guitars and Joe’s overblowing, and that was kind of… I started to understand…

TP:    Plus the horn band concept of Black acts in the ’50s and ’60s.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  That showmanship thing.  That, and then just being at these clubs… I kind of became a person of the times, and I felt much more comfortable going to a club like the Mudd Club or Danceteria than walking into Sweet Basil or the Vanguard, where I’d walk in and feel like I was some guy from outer space.  And as I’d hang out in these clubs, you would hear the music they were playing and you were living that life, and as you’re living that life and hearing that music, being in the club, being one of those people of the time just started to make sense to me.  I started to explore more of that music coming through — the early rap music.  And as my ears opened up, I heard more and more music.  I never even knew what the Grateful Dead was.  It was…

TP:    And you’re from the Bay Area.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m from the Bay Area.  But I’d hear it so much, I just thought it was a style of music.  I thought it was like hippies playing country music.  I didn’t know that was the Grateful Dead.  You’d hear it coming from people’s VWs.  It sounded like Country music with the harmonies sung wrong!  The time was really bad and they’d sing the harmonies out of key.  But I just figured it was a style of music.

TP:    When did the hanging-out aspect start to morph into your being a musician on the scene and becoming actively involved in creating the life that people were going to hang out to hear?

BERNSTEIN:  It had all started pretty early.  It was my first summer in New York.  I’d known Butch Morris since I was a kid living in Berkeley, and I went down to hear Sahib Sarbib’s band at some pier that isn’t there any more on the West Side.  And this blew my mind, because this is something I could relate to.  It kind of was like the music Peter Apfelbaum had been writing for the Hieroglyphics, but it had Sunny Murray on drums, and everyone in the East Village was there.  I said, “You know what?  I can play this music.  I can play this music as good as any of these guys and I can relate to this music.”  I dug the people on stage and I dug the scene.  So I called up Butch, who was playing, and I said, “Hey, man, can I meet this Sahib Sarbib?  Can you send me to a rehearsal?”  And Butch, being the way he is, says ,”Well, you know what?  They have a recording on Wednesday, and I haven’t been playing my cornet.  Why don’t you just show up?”

So here I am, I’m 19 years old, and I just show up at this recording, and at this recording is basically most of the people on the scene.  There’s Jameel Moondoc and Paul Shapiro and Booker T and Lee Rozi and Roy Campbell, Ahmad Abdullah, Dave Sewelson, Dave Hofstra, all these guys.  We did this recording for three days, and then Dave Sewelson says to me, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down Sunday morning at the Ear Inn and sit in?”  So here I am 19 years old, I show up Sunday morning at the Ear Inn, and it’s the Microscopic Septet, which also at that time also included John Zorn.  So here I am meeting Phillip Johnston, John Zorn, at that time John Hagen was in the band, Dave Sewelson, and sitting in was Elliott Sharp, hanging out was Bobby Previte, Wayne Horwitz — I met all these guys.

So within four days I met everyone in the East Village, and here’s this relatively fresh-faced, bleary-eyed, 19-year-old trumpet player willing to do anything.  And there weren’t many trumpet players on the scene back then.  I  had certain skills that were pretty useful. I was a good reader, I had good ears, and I was really enthusiastic.  If John Zorn said “I’m doing a Sonny Clark concert,” I said, “Oh cool,” because I knew not tons of Sonny Clark tunes, but I knew four or five Sonny Clark tunes, and I’d come and sit in.  But I loved the music of the time, more noise-oriented music, shall we say.

TP:    And here we are with Sex Mob playing Friday and off and around New York. [ETC.] This is from a tribute to James Brown…

BERNSTEIN:  Like I do anything, I don’t know if it’s from my Talmudic background…

TP:    By the way…

BERNSTEIN:  No, I don’t have a Talmudic background at all.  It’s kind of a joke.

TP:    I was wondering about the Radical Jewish culture thing, and its resonance for you.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m just very Jewish.  Socially I’m about as… My name is Bernstein.  I’m a Jewish guy.  There’s not much you can say.  It’s pretty obvious when you meet me.

TP:    And proud of it.

BERNSTEIN:  And proud of it.  That’s right, man.  Say it loud.  So anyway, they said, “Do you want to do this James Brown compilation?”  I already had tons of James Brown, but then I was like, “Man, I’m gonna get all the James Brown,” so I could hear everything.  I had always dug “Please, Please, Please” off a record called Hell, which I’d had since I was in 11th grade.  It’s a Dave Matthews arrangement with cowbells, sort of salsa-style, and he sings it.  Then I went and found… I said, “Well, that’s the tune I want to do,” because I always loved this tune, not knowing this was James Brown’s first hit.  Then I found live version from the year when Bootsy was in the band, and they do it really fast.  Then I went back to the very first version which is called the Fabulous Flames, not even James Brown — that’s a gospel quartet.  So what I did, I transcribed the original version, and I’m playing what he sang on the slide trumpet, then we do a segue to the Bootsy version for the outro to the song, and the original version of “Turn Me On” is somewhere in my head.  That’s what it is.

[MUSIC: “Please, Please, Please”, “Live and Let Die.”]

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Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, Steven Bernstein, trumpet, WKCR

For Matt Wilson’s 52nd Birthday, a 2001 Blindfold Test and a 2012 Feature in Jazziz

In recognition of drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson’s 52nd birthday, I’m posting the uncut  proceedings of the DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2001, and the text of an article that ran in Jazziz in 2012.


Matt Wilson Blindfold Test:

1. Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great. I really like it. I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker. But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon. Just sort of the feeling. But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz. Oh, this is swinging. It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.” That’s obvious! The bass sound is great. Is it Jacky? The answer is no! I like this, though. I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player. I like the environment. They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe. Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel. I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there. I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that. I have to say it was Leon Parker. No? [Because there wasn’t the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon. But just the great upbeat vibe. Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3. There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat. It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way. That’s the great thing about playing them. That’s why I love playing them. It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material. It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe. It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it. They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow. I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night. But I totally dig Jason’s playing. When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth. I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes. In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it. I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2. Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune! I know there’s versions of this. I’m trying to go by the sound. I know the vibe of the drummer. I can’t quite place him. It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound. Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it. Nice. Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great. Yeah! I can almost always tell how generations are. I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing. Swing is changing. But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is. Could it be Louis Hayes? It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative. But that’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end. Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth. Especially with the second-line, the march feel. It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow! The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris. I know Idris’ playing pretty well. But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller. I know he uses a smaller ride. The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4. It’s a good connection with him and Charles. “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever! Anything he plays on with Steely Dan. And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel. It was amazing. I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle. You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom. His ride cymbal was sort of less defined. I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell. But man, it was great. Bernard rocks, man!

3. Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect. But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this. I just didn’t have this ability. Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do! I respect it, though. It’s really great, and I dig it. But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be. Is it my man Mark Walker? [It’s the drummer’s composition.] I had a feeling it might be. I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff. The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts. I hear stuff more from a melody concept always. Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me. The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed! I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to. So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college. But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be. Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing. There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that. They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah. Am I totally wrong? [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic. But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein. I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again. But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music. Again, it’s more of a personal affinity. I don’t really hear that sound perception. But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow! He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe. The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out. I know he’s got so much together. It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se. Who else is playing? Oh. Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance. I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo. I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band. Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice. It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more. I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards. I want to hear Dafnis again. Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with. I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4. Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it! Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that. He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into. I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat. It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is. Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell. From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be. There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me. 3-1/2 stars. The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer. Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there! I would never have thought it was Billy. I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys. I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank. Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be. But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper. Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually. It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros. But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.” That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time. To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure. To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much. But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5. Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great. My man can shift on a dime! I’ll probably be wrong! It won’t be Jim. No, it has to be. If it’s not, I’m going to leave! I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept. To me, sound is the king in music. When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry. That’s acoustic bass. It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone. I like this piece a lot. I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it. I call this episodic composition. I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes. And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey. They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed. Or not. That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited. Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound. They made a good sound together. That’s what I was digging. I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle. I liked it. 4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting. Again, it had these mood shifts. I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing. That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque. I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out. It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different. His vibe is so amazing. All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6. Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.” And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal. To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is. Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal. I love this music! When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated. It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together. To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel. I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty. Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal. But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it. And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa? The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You’re on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough? No. It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented. 4-1/2 stars. I love collective improvising. To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this. The feeling of a band. This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically. But this was different to me. These guys were really throwing it out there to each other. You could tell their connectedness. Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal. When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys. And they did it so amazingly. That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever. One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did. He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close! The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound. It oozes out at you. It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way. Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you. The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud. I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live. But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do. They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7. Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great. Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars. Again, it’s a different perspective. I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was. But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it. That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player. If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something. And this person did that. They waited. At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment. And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways. I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful. The whole thing was very playful. That’s what I really liked about it. It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music. It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully. Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college. I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first. I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing. This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings. You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm. That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this. It has a warm feeling. And he played it kind of wild. It was pretty loose. But the beat was still swinging. The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8. Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave. Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha? I had to get one in there!! I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it. Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo. And he creates a zone. All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on. Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully. One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined. He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man. The hell with it. He’s living life. What the hell! But he swings his ass off. I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa! This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it. But it’s carefree. I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record. They’re just here to play this music. It’s so for that moment. It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth. It’s not cute. People might think that. But it’s not. It’s for real. Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad. You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him. It’s amazing. Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York. He’s a real inspiration. He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him. You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him. Things are emerging from him all the time. I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did. That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9. Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that. A twist! Is it Reggie Washington on bass? I love Reggie Washington. It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally. For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it! Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to. Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago. But I totally dig it. Man, this guy can play over a vamp! Is it Gene Lake? I know it’s Steve Coleman. The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty. Is this one of those JMT re-releases? I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe! I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars. Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!” For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time. I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff. But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away. I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup. He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff. I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that. Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10. Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart. I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge. Is this him with Carrothers? I’m doing better! Bill has a very identifiable sound. Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill. But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him. One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed. Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed. He just goes for it! Not that everybody else doesn’t. But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner. Yeah, this is great. 4-1/2 stars. It doesn’t sound like a duo. It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo. They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration. Again, the roles are less defined. They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra. It’s great. All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless. It’s just music. I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever. They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign. I love that. It’s warm. This is a really warm-feeling recording. He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree. It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them. That’s how I feel music should be. The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11. Fred Anderson-Hamid Drake, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not. The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound. I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason. I’m dumb! It’s powerful. I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove. Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment. But you’ve got me. 4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar. He sounds older to me. I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more. I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together. I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way. I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling. Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling. Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top. But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself. The sound was looser. Man, Hamid is great.

12. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great! Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great. Is it Nasheet Waits? I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him. The bass drum sound seems a little dead. That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get. Is it Lewis Nash? Whoo! I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing. His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him. Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively. I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit. 4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy. They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding. It didn’t sound frantic. Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great. I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip. Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune. When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you. You feel the whole picture. That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical. The head was about these hits. I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13. Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great! It’s moving all over the place. I love that. The drummer has a great sound. He’s dancing, man. This guy playing soprano is a great improviser. It’s really expressive. Talk about rhythmic feel, too. Wow. Everybody has a great sound. I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy. When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit. The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great. The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.” But to me, that didn’t really take away. Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong. And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great. 4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow! I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!! That was really great. We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor. I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away. I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound. I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound. And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting. Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel. Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel. That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises. Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus. Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels. They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.


Matt Wilson Jazziz Article, May 2012 Issue:


Over lunch with Matt Wilson on the first Friday of March, the pressing topic was Arts & Crafts — his quartet with trumpeter Terrell Stafford, pianist-organist-accordionist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind — who would, in a few hours, begin night four of a week-long stand at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, their first run of that duration in a New York City venue.

“I started it to contrast with some of the Quartet’s wildness,” the drummer said, referring to his other primary outlet, the Matt Wilson Quartet — presently comprising saxophonist-woodwindist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Chris Lightcap — that he launched in 1997. “But as time has passed, Arts & Crafts has gotten more to the left and the Quartet has become a swinging band. So now it’s down to the personalities.” He noted that Versace’s chordal presence imparted a thicker sound than the Quartet’s “more transparent” ambiance, and also facilitates working with “classic repertoire that I’ve always wanted to do.” But the only substantive difference, Wilson emphasized, was the instrumentation.

“In both bands, everyone is an amazing musician and a great person,” Wilson said. “The community-family aspect is what I value most. It makes my life easier to know that everybody is totally hip to be with. A lot of people can play but that extra thing is essential. We drove 5-1/2 hours from the University of New Hampshire on Tuesday straight to Dizzy’s —started like that rather than coming in from our homes. It was a great way to keep the flow going.”

Wilson is a father of four who will celebrate his 25th anniversary in July. He owns a house, has two cars, and he’s an elder in his Long Island town’s Presbyterian church. He’s also an uncompromisingly creative musician who doesn’t purvey the tried-and-true. “You have to be incredibly crafty to make it all work,” he said. “I’m a hustler, but I try to do it creatively and to have as much fun as possible. The way I see it, being a musician should be just like being a plumber or a school teacher or whatever you do. You can have a family, live in a house, do things with your kids. A few years ago, my wife and I chose to try to be more involved where we live, to participate in our community rather than feel like we just live here. It’s nice to get out of the music world.”

Nonetheless, as was apparent from his crammed itinerary, Wilson, silver-haired and baby-faced at 47, would be immersed in the music world for the remainder of March. Already in gig shape after several February engagements behind their new CD, An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto], Arts & Crafts would reconvene a fortnight hence for an intense docket of gigs and clinics — one-nighters in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Columbia, Missouri, followed by a six-day residency in St. Louis highlighted by a weekend at the Jazz Bistro. During the interim, Wilson would play two nights with singer Amy Cervini at the 55 Bar, then one-offs at Smalls with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, with pianist Falkner Evans, and with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Upon returning home from St. Louis, Wilson would fly to New Mexico to meet pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, his partners in Trio M for shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to support their second CD, Guest House [Enja]. (They’d meet again two weeks later for single nights at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 and Manhattan’s Kitano). Then he’d head to Western Illinois University to perform with pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Linda Oh, both of whom would join him the next day at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Illinois, Wilson’s home town, to play a concert with Preminger.

“I like keeping busy,” Wilson said. “Some people have said maybe I shouldn’t do all these other things, and focus more on the group. But why would I do that? Sometimes with Mark and Myra, we play places where the audience is different than for the jazz crowd I travel with. It’s been fun to meet these different circles, like bringing together another community.”

Clearly Wilson’s ability to coalesce musicians from a broad spectrum of improvisational worlds and authoritatively inhabit each one of them, mirrors his consistently communitarian focus.

“Matt makes you part of his experience, and he makes you laugh by being brought into his mind,” says bassist Buster Williams, a frequent bandmate over the last decade in pianist Denny Zeitlin’s trio, Williams’ own group, and on a recent Lederer-led Albert Ayler project, documented on Sunwatcher [Songlines]. “He has a great gift of finding humor in everything. He plays things you don’t expect, but can anticipate. I can hear the lineage in him, and because it’s so alive in his playing, it expresses itself as Matt Wilson. He’s his own drummer.”

Stafford cites Wilson’s “big, fat beat” and his penchant for “finding beautiful melodies all over the drums.” Lederer — who collaborated with Wilson on the drummer’s 2010 release, Christmas-Tree-O [Palmetto], a recital of surprisingly effective Ayler-to-prebop treatments of 14 Yule season standbys — notes Wilson’s feel for texture, his knack for “gluing his sound to what’s happening around him,” his “magical way of turning four musicians, no matter who they are, into a band.”

“Everything Matt plays is honest, clear and pure,” Stafford says. “He plays drums like Chet Baker would play the trumpet, taking less and making more. Nothing is overdone. It’s all about the feel and the connection. He’s a genuine, caring person who makes sure always to reach out and see that everyone is OK. I was insecure about playing freer music. I had no idea what to do. Through Matt — and listening to records, and trusting and experimenting — I found my way to do it, and a comfort zone to do it in. That’s the sign of a great leader — to make someone who hasn’t experienced something not feel like a complete idiot or less musical.”

Lederer emphasizes Wilson’s flexibility to move with conversational flow, musical or verbal, without steering it to a place outside anyone’s comfort zone. “He’s unique in his genuine ability to encompass the history of swing in all its forms, even in more open contexts, when the pulse is free,” he says. “He has a million different, subtle ways to swing — pushing the beat forward, bringing it back, or putting it right in the middle, sometimes all within one phrase. His sound palette on a ride cymbal just within playing quarter notes is exceptional, ranging from a ping to a splash, and a broad range in between.”

Wilson expressed his view indirectly when, midway through lunch, he cited that day’s New York Times obit for Red Holloway in which the tenor saxophonist was quoted: “I was down to play whatever kind of music I could do to make a living, and my goal was just to make whatever that music is swing.”

“I thought that was a cool way to think about it,” Wilson said. “He was just trying to make everything he does feel really great. To me, swing is not just a beat. Swing is an attitude of how music can be. Swing to me is that flexibility — or that community feeling — on a bandstand.”


On An Attitude for Gratitude, Wilson navigates the “inside”-“outside” m.o. that’s marked his output as a leader since his 1996 debut, As Wave Follows Wave, with Dewey Redman and Cecil McBee — his two major employers at the time — and keyboardist Larry Goldings. There’s a multi-sectional, through-composed set-opener, “Poster Boy,” with complex harmony in which each solo section requires a different metric signature. A straight-up reading of “Happy Days Are Here Again” proceeds as a ruminative ballad with Stafford and Versace milking maximum beauty from the melody. From the drum kit, Wilson expertly orchestrates the Sunday-morning-meets-Saturday-night narrative of Nat Adderley’s “The Little Boy With the Sad Eyes.” He propels the Latin-ish “You Bet” with his own refraction of Billy Higgins’ “Soy Califa” beat from the Dexter Gordon album [i]Go[i]; on “Bubbles,” after a melodic opening solo, he channels the ebullient four-on-the-snare that was Higgins’ signature when employed by Ornette Coleman. He reharmonizes “Out Of Nowhere” (“No Outerwear”), and plays it straight, tipping a la Mel Lewis for Stafford’s clarion solo; puts an impressionistic, straight-eighths feel on Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town.” After Stafford’s soulful, unaccompanied reading of “There’s No You,” Wilson ignites the jets on “Stolen Time,” evoking the high-octane multidirectional whirl of ’60s “New Thing” drumming while propelling Stafford’s turbulent declamation. Then he tamps the flames, switching to brushes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” interpreted by Versace as a quiet hymn.

Events during the 10 months before the recording are palpable in the notes and tones. “I was thinking how quickly things literally can change,” Wilson says of the emotions in play when he began putting the recital together in the fall of 2010. His parents had recently died. So had his close friend, Dennis Irwin, who played bass with Arts & Crafts when the group launched in 2001. Another close friend, Andrew D’Angelo, who plays saxophone with the Quartet, had undergone — and survived — a serious illness. Most overwhelmingly, that October, his wife, Felicia, was diagnosed with leukemia.

During the early stages of her arduous recovery, Wilson occupied himself in the hospital by writing and organizing repertoire. “I had to think about something else,” he says. “I got us some bookings, too — partly out of need. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to have to really be hustling here.’ You go through different stages dealing with this kind of illness. Felicia had her bone marrow transplant a few months before we recorded, and we were in a sort of holding pattern, so things were rather calm. I don’t want to sound like a cult, but the recording is a celebration that she’s OK, of gratitude that we have an opportunity to play this music or do whatever we have in mind. Felicia’s doctor came to the club last night, and we dedicated the set for her. In the medical community, like everywhere else, you see people who do their jobs and also have that extra-special thing in their souls, the way they handle themselves.”

Wilson was also grateful for the deep support offered by his “music family.” “Everyone was great,” he says. “The longer you do this, you develop bonds that you don’t get from school or the academic world. Musicians in the older days got that sense of family and community at a much earlier age — they were out on the road with big bands, and a lot of them were in the Army. When I’d hear bands as a kid, I’d see them hanging out and think they sure looked to be having fun, whether they were or not. I imitated what they seemed to be like.”

Growing up in the rural milieu of southwestern Illinois, Wilson — with his parents early on, with his buddies after 16 — drove long distances to workshops and to concerts by such icons as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, the members of the Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich and Quad Cities native Louis Bellson. “They were all characters,” he says. “I don’t mean weirdos; I mean distinct — you’d know who they are.”

He wasn’t shy about approaching his heroes. “Once I asked Buddy Rich for an autograph. He goes, ‘I’ll sign them on the bus.’ I didn’t hear it. I said, ‘Auto…’ ‘I’ll sign them on the bus!’ But I went out there. I was like, ‘OK, I want to meet this guy.’

“Never let opportunities go by. Dewey Redman heard me play in 1992, handed me his phone number, and said ‘Keep in touch.’ If didn’t take that seriously, I’d never have played with him, and maybe a lot of opportunities I’ve had would never have come around. I said, ‘He was interested — call him.’ I called every month for a year-and-a-half — ‘Hey, Dewey, this is Matt Wilson. If you need somebody, let me know’ — before he picked up the phone.”

Wilson applied similarly pragmatic, open-minded principles to learning his trade. He started drums in second grade, heard Rich and Max Roach by fourth, and began to play for pay at 14. (“I never had to have a job,” he says.) His teacher, a bassist, improvised the lessons with him, enabling Wilson to master the beats “not strictly from a page in the book saying your right hand does this,” but from “hearing the sound. I learned I could do those beats my way, with my shapes.” He assimilated jazz vocabulary from the sound samples of Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Tootie Heath contained in Billy Mintz’ book Different Drummers, and from the 4-LP ABC-Impulse compilation, The Drums, which documented drum thinking from Baby Dodds and Connie Kay to Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray. ECM records and cassettes were easy to find then, and Wilson became fascinated with Jack DeJohnette, particularly DeJohnette’s album New Directions: Live in Europe, on which Lester Bowie played.

“That got me into different things,” he recalls. “I always was fascinated with music that seemed to have a cinematic quality, that conjures up images, which that did beautifully. I was always looking to be resourceful, to be loyal to the music, but try things differently within it rather than dramatically change anything. Swinging was hip, but so was playing music by Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble and Old and New Dreams. I didn’t know you had to sign up and get a card that said you were part of this or that.”


“I have no evidence, but I have this inkling that something new is coming around the corner,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what it is.”

He raised two possibilities — perhaps one band comprised of 20-somethings, perhaps another with musicians who share Wilson’s southern Illinois roots. Or maybe the next step will emanate from one of the combinations of musicians he put together as music director for the 2011 edition of the Lost Shrines Festival, which includ[ed] an homage to ’40s prebop and a celebration of Afro-Cubanism that co-joined Arts and Crafts and the iconic nonagenarian conguero Candido Camero.

Wilson hopes at some point to do an “improv potluck,” a kind of meta performance piece with Lederer. They’ll drive a van around the Midwest, stopping each night in a different town, preferably populated by fewer than 20,000 souls. After a brief ballyhoo, they’ll jam with local musicians, followed by a cook-up in the van.

“Sometimes I want to know these towns a little bit more than just coming in and out,” he said. “And it would be fun to have people become part of the process. People could crochet. Painters could bring their stuff. Welders could bring their welding. Then we’d eat and talk. Food is a great way to bring people together and celebrate community.”

“One thing I try to do as a teacher is give people what a friend of mine calls ‘small victories,’” Wilson said from his Santa Fe hotel room at the end of March.

“I give them one suggestion they can try, and they’ll immediately sound better to themselves. Maybe that clarity will open the rest of their sound, or the ability to play with other people, or to receive other people’s sound. If you inspire them by improving their sound immediately, they’ll continue to work on things.”
Wilson had followed this method in St. Louis the previous week with Arts & Crafts, which visited seven schools, (suburban and inner city), conducted afternoon sessions for a free afternoon program called Jazz U, and augmented their four-set weekend commitment at the Jazz Bistro with concerts in the playroom of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and at Sax Quest, a saxophone store-museum.

“I played some funky drums, a five-piece set that reminded me of the way Max Roach would tune and set up his drums in his later years,” he said. “It inspired me to play some stuff I’d never play. It’s nice to improvise in each setting.

“Kids were playing well, but they’re not characters yet. That’s what we wanted to promote — respect the tune, but put your own vibe on it. By the end of the week, kids who were looking at us like we were from Mars were going, ‘Wow, we really dug this.’ If they’re the next generation of players, great. But I think they’ll be fans, and will take this encouragement of being characters — being themselves — into everyday life. I hope we helped them on all fronts.”

Another side of Wilson’s pedagogy comes through on Webop: A Family Jazz Party [Jazz At Lincoln Center], commissioned by the Jazz For Young People department of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wilson directs 16 musicians from different communities — from his two bands, from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, four main vocalists, and Candido — through a program that, as he puts it, “expresses a lot of what I really like to do overall.” Shuffles, different blues iterations, standards, bebop and the Afro-Caribbean tinge commingle with made-up instruments, freebop and free jazz. In the Sesame Street vein, each song has a lyric with a kid-friendly message: an ABC song is set to “Syeeda’s Song Flute”; on “Free Jazz Adventure,” Ornette Coleman’s “Free” morphs into “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” into Don Cherry’s “Infant Happiness” into “Bingo”; “My Style” is a lyric set to Monk’s “Nutty.” On “Your Own Blues, Doug Wamble explains how to sing the blues and asks Wilson’s son Ethan to demonstrate.

“I dig that this kind of gave everyone permission to be the way we really should be in playing,” Wilson said. “It was an old-school feeling in that we were all in the same room. Maybe that’s what it was like when people were doing these great ensemble dates in New York in the ’50s and ’60s — that kind of musicianship and feeling, coming in, doing it, having fun and then go on to something else.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazziz, Matt Wilson

For Gary Bartz’ 76th Birthday, the Uncut Proceedings of a 2006 DownBeat Blindfold Test

For alto saxophone master Gary Bartz’ 76th birthday, here’s the raw copy of a DownBeat Blindfold Test he did with me in the fall of 2006.  For those interested, several extensive interviews that we did during the ’90s can be found at this link.


1. Greg Osby, “Mob Job” (from CHANNEL THREE, Blue Note, 2005) (Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Ornette Coleman. Whoever it is loves the hell out of Ornette!! As I do. It wouldn’t be Sonny Simmons, would it? It’s an Ornette Coleman lover. They’ve got Ornette down. I can’t think of his name… Is this guy dead? Oh, okay. I like it. But if I want to hear Ornette, I’ll listen to Ornette. I’d like to hear what he does rather than hear his version of what he does. [You don’t think he differentiated himself enough from Ornette…] No, I don’t. He’s got Ornette’s inflections, he’s got his whole style… See how he does those bends and stuff. That’s Ornette. I’d have to hear something different. Maybe he does an Ornette style, and maybe his next cut would be somebody else’s style. But I want to hear his style. Does he have a style? 2 stars because I don’t hear originality, and that’s what this music is, above anything else. [AFTER] I love Greg! I’ve heard him when I knew it was him. But that sounded like Ornette. You should have played me some of his originals. You wanted to trick me.

2. Antonio Hart, “Like A Son” (from Jimmy Heath, TURN UP THE HEATH, Planet Arts, 2006) (Hart, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Jeb Patton, piano; Heath, composer, arranger)

The player sounds like young. I don’t hear a voice. I hear an alto, I hear trumpet, but I don’t hear a voice as if it was a human voices… Like, you know people’s voices. If somebody calls me up, I know immediately. I don’t hear that. I hear a generic voice. I love the arrangement. I don’t think the arranger is young; I don’t have a clue who he is. The alto player reminds me a little bit of Kenny Garrett, though I know it isn’t him. Trumpet I couldn’t tell either. I’m enjoying it. But once again, I don’t hear… It sounds like a recreation of something that has gone before. I just don’t hear the originality. 3 stars, because of the arrangement. [AFTER] That was Antonio! I love Antonio, of course, and I’ve always loved Jimmy Heath. So that’s putting the generations together. That’s a good thing. Because in this music, you have to have old and young. That’s the way the music grows. [Is it complex for a young guy like Antonio to try to find an individual…] That depends. If he was trying to recreate that era or that particular style, then that’s where he would go. If you’re trying to be original, that’s a whole other thing. Of course, he was playing within that context.

3. Bruce Williams, “Gallop’s Gallop” (from Ben Riley, MEMORIES OF T, Concord, 2006) (Williams, alto saxophone; Riley, drums; Don Sickler, trumpet, arranger; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Jay Brandford, baritone sax; Freddie Bryant, guitar; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass)

This sounds like an older guy. See, it’s a big difference. I can always tell. As John Hicks always used to say, “it’s grown-up music.” It’s more than just the sound. It’s an essence. I don’t know how to say it, but you can just tell. I guess it’s a difference between learning something generations later and being in on the ground floor when it’s actually being created. The arrangement also sounds like an older musician’s arrangement. At first, I thought it was Lee Konitz, but I can’t tell who. Sounds like a Monk tune! I like it. I don’t know this tune, though. Oh, yeah. I never learned that. [AFTER] Bruce! He sounded like an old guy. I hadn’t heard this record, but I know the band and I know about the record.

4. Benny Carter & Phil Woods, “Just A Mood” (from MY MAN, BENNY/MY MAN, PHIL, MusicMasters, 1989) Woods alto saxophone (first solo); (Carter, composer, alto saxophone (second solo); Chris Neville, piano; George Mraz, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

It’s not Benny Carter? The first guy sounded like Johnny Hodges, but I don’t think they did a record like this. He’s got his style, I guess. This is the maestro here. Benny was the beacon for musicians, period; not just alto players, but musicians, period. Because Benny was out there so long, almost as long as Coleman Hawkins. They were like the first stars of the saxophone. So you have to go through Benny. It sounded like a Benny Carter song.

Oh, Phil Woods!? That threw me off, because I didn’t know they made a record together. I love Phil. He’s one of my favorites. I think, though, he was bowing to Benny Carter there and not sounding as much like Phil. He was more playing in the context of that music. I played with Phil many times, and he didn’t sound like that. He’s very flexible.

5. Miguel Zenon, “Mariendá” (from JIBARO, Marsalis Music, 2005) (Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Now, this sounds like Greg Osby! It sounded like the first song you played me. But the alto player sounds like Greg Osby, like Greg sounded like Ornette on that particular cut. Technically, I heard this saxophone player do things Greg did on the first cut. Even this sound and approach… Even though this is not an Ornette type groove, it is a little more free, and it sounds like younger musicians. He’s a good musician. Everybody I’ve heard is a good musician. Now, that’s not Dewey on alto? But this piece doesn’t have enough energy for me. I guess it’s a ballad, but it’s not a ballad that you would necessarily hum. I love the sound of the alto; he has a beautiful sound. 2½ stars. I thought it was boring.

6. Bobby Watson, “Eeeyyess” (from HORIZON REASSEMBLED, Palmetto, 2004) (Watson, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Edward Simon, piano; Essiet Essiet, bass; Victor Lewis, drums, composer)

Another young guy, right? Sounds like it to me. It’s hard to say why. I can’t hear the history. I hear trying to sound like what they think it’s supposed to sound like, rather than trying to push forward and trying to find your own style. I understand you have to go back and get the foundation, but you don’t want to sound like that. You want to sound forward. I hear that in a lot of younger musicians, they’re going back and sounding like older musicians, where the older musicians wouldn’t be playing like that now. So I don’t get it. They’re good musicians. I love what they’re doing. It’s been done. I want to hear something that hasn’t been done. That’s what this music is supposed to be about. I mean, it’s not a museum piece. Is that Lewis Nash? I can’t tell the drummer from the sound of the drums. That was Bobby!? Young guy. I’m 66. I like the song and everything. I just want to hear more original… I guess if you’re playing older music, you will tend to… But even then I don’t think you should go that way, unless that’s what it’s about.

7. Loren Stillman, “Evil Olive” (from IT COULD BE ANYTHING, Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2005) (Stillman, alto saxophone; Gary Versace, piano; Scott Lee, bass; Jeff Hirshfield, drums)

It’s funny. Everything you’re playing sounds the same to me. There are things that older musicians… They have worked with so many different masters and have picked up different things from different masters, that… In a way, it’s not fair even to judge it by that. But it’s noticeable. It’s noticeable, some things that older musicians wouldn’t do that younger musicians do. I hear that here. The concepts… In a way, it almost sounds like “this is what I think jazz should sound like.” Which is a problem, because if you’re trying to sound like a word, then you’ve got a problem, rather than just play some music. Don’t get caught up in “this is jazz, this is rock, this is country.” Play music. You pigeonhole yourself when you’re trying to play a style. Jazz is a style. Music is infinite. I’d like to hear music rather than hear a style. [You play jazz.] I don’t think so. I don’t consider myself that. I consider myself as a musician. Now, if you want to call it something, you can call it that, but I don’t call it that. Never have. [AFTER] Everybody I’ve heard are excellent musicians. It’s funny. I saw a show not too long ago, and there was just no energy. So it started me thinking, “What happened to the energy in this music.” I think it’s because people say, “I’m a jazz musician.” What is that? I’m a musician. I don’t want to get pigeonholed into a style, because that limits you. I don’t want to be limited. I want to be able to play anything. I felt like this is their idea of what that style is. 3 stars. These musicians get caught up in words, and you can’t get caught up in words. You play music. If it comes out like that, that’s what it is. If it comes out in some other way…

8. Arthur Blythe, “Come Sunday” (from EXHALE, Savant, 2002) (Blythe, alto saxophone; John Hicks, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

It sounds like Frank Morgan and George Cables. It’s not John, is it? It’s Hicks! I can’t place the alto player. I like him. He’s mostly just playing the melody, so I can’t hear how he would compose a solo. But I like his sound. I like the way he’s reading the song. Because he’s playing the melody. He’s singing it. He’s not improvising on the melody. You get a chance to do that when you solo, but when you read the melody, you should play the melody as it’s written. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve loved Arthur for many, many years. First time I heard him, I thought he had a very unique alto sound, and that endeared him to me. He wasn’t trying to sound like… That’s what I mean.

An older musician understands that you have to have a voice. You can’t sound like somebody. If you’re going to even have a career, if you’re going to sound like somebody, then you’ll end up with people calling, “Get me somebody who sounds like so-and-so.” [Is that a generational thing?] No, I don’t think so. That’s a THING. It’s funny. When I was coming up, that was foremost. That’s what we were all trying to do, was to find our own voice. Yeah, we could imitate people, you could mimic, but you wouldn’t do that on your gig. You might do it for fun sometimes, but ultimately you’re trying to find your own voice. I don’t hear that so much nowadays. A lot of guys sound similar. I guess every generation has its different ways of doing things, but lately I hear musicians going back, and rather than to go back and take something that they like and add it to their thing, they just take something that they like and that’s what they go with. As an example, Archie Shepp went back and he was more like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. But the music he was playing had nothing to do with what he was playing in those days. Therefore, he ended up with a style of his own. But nowadays, I hear younger musicians going back and they’re just sounding like what the older musicians sounded like. Like, I hear a lot of the trumpet players sounding like Louis Armstrong. Well, Louis Armstrong wouldn’t be sounding like that nowadays, because he was going forward. I don’t hear so many younger musicians going forward; I hear them going backwards. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

9. David Binney/Chris Potter, “Bastion of Sanity” (from BASTION OF SANITY, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Binney, alto saxophone; Potter, tenor saxophone; Jacob Sacks, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass; Dan Weiss, drums)

Almost everybody you’re picking for me sounds similar, in a way. A similar approach. He’s more on the bottom of the horn, which I really love. Even from the first one you played, except for the Benny Carter, which was totally different, everything is similar. Just the approach mainly. It’s a pretty diverse selection. Some I’ve heard. Some I know and love, and some I’ve never heard. I don’t hear originality. That’s the main thing I don’t hear. That bothers me. See, when I listen to music, I want to listen to someone I can learn something from. I’m not hearing that. That’s first and foremost. I like to enjoy it, too. But I want to hear something that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know how to say this; I’ve heard it before. The thing about it, I think the musicians of today are better musicians. But they’re not doing anything with it. They’re just recreating… I don’t know what they need to do! I think a lot of it has to do with not having any bands around. Bands are laboratories to learn to experiment. Nowadays, most of the younger guys, there’s nowhere for them to experiment. In order for them to learn and to keep that energy, it has to be a combination of older musicians and younger musicians. Music has always been innovative in that way, older and younger. The older musicians bring their knowledge, the younger musicians bring their energy, and between them they create something. Nowadays, most of the groups are either older or younger, and you don’t see that combination. When I came up, there were so many bands to play in, and each one was a master, from Mingus to Max Roach to Art Blakey to Horace Silver—you could go on and on. They were schools to learn things. Nowadays they just have to come out and play, and there’s no direction in certain respects. I don’t hear it anyway.

When I worked with Mingus, I was with Eric Dolphy, I was with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I was with great… So you’re learning from each other. I was young then. But I watched the way Mingus did it, I watched the way each one of those musicians did and approached… Each one of them was definitely individual. I like this musician. I’ve liked every musician you’ve played. You have to have an identity… This sounds like what a group of musicians, if you said, “Play me some jazz,” and this is their concept of what jazz is. Which is why I hate that word. Because the word pigeonholes you. I’d rather hear, “Play me some music.” That’s a whole different ballgame.

To me, there’s no such thing as jazz. This is my personal opinion. There is music. We’ve all got 12 notes. I don’t care what kind of music it is. You either like it or you don’t. I mean, if I like it… [Human beings need something…] To guide them? There was a wonderful article that Ornette wrote, and he was saying the same thing. From Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Max Roach to most of the great musicians I’ve been around, they don’t accept that word. And I am one of them. I won’t accept that word because it doesn’t mean anything. “Jazz it up.” What does that mean? [I’m not talking about jazz as a verb. I’m talking about jazz as a noun.] But jazz is not a noun. Music is a noun. Jazz is an adjective. [Does classical music mean something to you?] No. Classical music means nothing to me either. [Does music out of a certain tradition mean something?] Maybe. Yeah. That makes more sense than to lump everything into one style of music, because within that particular style there are thousands of different concepts. If you stopped someone on a corner and said, “who is your favorite jazz musician?” one person would say John Coltrane, one would say Charlie Parker, another would say Kenny G, another would say Al Hirt, another would say Louis Armstrong. To me, that doesn’t make sense. No one knows what it even is. But what it is, is music. That’s ultimately what it is. If I listen to Beethoven, if I listen to Mozart, if I listen to John Coltrane, I’m listening with the same ear. I’m not listening to hear a style. I call this composing. Because at the high end, we compose music on the spot that will live on into the future. So I think we’ve raised the bar from Beethoven’s time, even though Beethoven’s concerts, which would last sometimes for 8 hours… Most people went to his shows to hear him improvise. That was always the highlight, to hear him compose off the top of his head. That’s what we do. [They used to call that section ‘concertizing,’ in jazz.] Yeah. But we compose music on the spot rather than sit down and write it out. So each time out, it’s different. That in itself takes it away from trying to play a style. If you want to call it something… It’s got to swing. To me, Beethoven swings. He has his own way of swinging. Then I hear some things which have no elements of swing—to me. [It’s a different pulse.] A different pulse, yes.

10. Steve Slagle, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” (from LATEST OUTLOOK, Zoho, 2006) (Slagle, alto saxophone; Lovano, tenor saxophone; Dave Stryker, guitar, composer; Jay Anderson, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

It’s a tune by Mingus. It’s beautiful! See, this sounds like somebody I heard earlier, one of the records. It’s not Bobby Watson, because you played him for me. But it sounds like that. 5 for the composition and 3½ for the performance. It’s a beautiful performance. I really like this. See, I wouldn’t call this jazz. He’s playing a beautiful song, a beautiful piece of music. [the drums to me make it jazz. There’s no other music where you have the drums being part of the beauty, part of the inventive flow in real time.] Well, it’s got that swing, it’s got that pulse to it. [AFTER] I thought about Steve, too.

11. Ornette Coleman, “Turnaround” (from SOUND GRAMMAR, Phrase Text, 2006) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Of course, that’s Ornette’s tune. That’s Ornette!? It is? I’ve never heard this version. See, he’s not even playing it like he played it the first time. You’ve got to move forward. I guess he could have gone back and play it the same way. But why? He’s King Ornette! With the two basses. This has to get 5. It’s original, it swings, it’s what music should be. Energy, exciting… He’s played this song probably many times, but it’s still like it’s new.

You can’t get the context of the full album, because to me, an album is like a book. So it’s like reading the first chapter, and trying to say this is a certain writer or player or whatever, but you can’t see where it’s going.

If you’re playing a sad song, it should be sad. If you’re playing a happy song, it should be happy. I take the way I’m going to approach a song a lot of times from the title of the song. So if it’s “Lester Left Town,” I’m going to try to give you the flavor of Lester. I might play some quotes from Lester. I want you to hear that it’s Lester.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Gary Bartz

For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.


Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.



Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.


TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]



Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

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