Category Archives: DownBeat

In Response To The Passing of Bob Belden (Oct. 31, 1956-May 20, 2015) a WKCR Musician Show Interview From 1999, an Interview for the Press Bio I Wrote for “Black Dahlia” from 2000, and an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2002

Bob Belden, a renaissance man who functioned as a brilliant arranger-composer-conceptualist, a fine saxophonist, a skilled producer, encyclopedic historian, and a keen student of human nature, passed away earlier today, at 58, after suffering a massive heart attack on Sunday. I got to know Bob during the mid-’90s when he was  Director of A&R for Blue Note, while also finding time to arrange some of the decade’s seminal dates, including Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. I became friendly with him after he left that position in the late ’90s. Bob even once put me to work for him as a co-“producer” of a Carmen McRae “Round Midnight” CD, which involved culling and sequencing 14 selections from her Decca ouput of the ’50s.  We weren’t close buddies, but always cordial, and I learned a great deal every time we spoke, as did anyone who had an opportunity to hear him expound in any situation or to read his erudite, exhaustive, insider liner notes to the various editions of Columbia’s massive Miles Davis reissue project during the aughts. In February, he played in Iran with his group, Animation, the first U.S. band to play there in 35 years. It’s very sad, very disheartening; Bob had so much more to share with us.

There will be informed obituaries and memoirs from Bob’s many friends. I will contribute with two long interviews we did in 1999 and 2000, successively. The first contains the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show in April 1999. The second was conducted for the press bio for his amazing orchestral suite, Black Dahlia, which won a Grammy. After those, you’ll find his uncut responses to 14 selections presented to him for a DownBeat Blindfold Test in 2002.

 

Bob Belden (Musician Show, 4-14-99):

[MUSIC: BB, “Psalm #1 (For the Heavens)” – (1990)]

TP: A few words about this particular project. You said some road dues imparted a perfect edge to this date.

BELDEN: Generally, there’s always a perfect schedule, and there’s always the one they give you prior to leaving. Then they tend to change things. In this case, we thought we had a day off between the gig and another gig, because we were partying the night after (?), partying — just hanging, you know. Then we had to get up. Everybody sort of got onto the train, went to Paris, then we found out the hotel was an hour on the other side. You want to get in the hotel, you want to do your soundcheck, you want to go back to the hotel and then you want to do the gig. We were supposed to open, and then the other artist said, “Oh, I want to open.”

TP: Was this a somewhat regular ensemble of musicians playing your music?

BELDEN: It was oddly irregular. We started in ’89 in February, and we did a few significant gigs that year, then in 1990 we played a lot more. By ’92 we were history.

TP: Bob Belden is well known in the jazz community as a man who, to use a cliche, wears many hats, as a tenor and soprano saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer (he’s the man who put together the various Miles Davis packages on Columbia, the Complete Herbie Hancock, etc.). It’s hard to represent it within one three-hour show, but we’ll do our best. A little of the third degree. You’re a South Carolina native.

BELDEN: Yes. I’m from Goose Creek, South Carolina.

TP: A jazz hotbed.

BELDEN: Well, if you consider bludgeons jazz instruments, it’s a swinging spot.

TP: Is your family musical?

BELDEN: We had a piano, and at 3 I started playing piano. My brother and sister play piano. My mother used to sing in church; she used to sing for the ballgames. I had a friend of the family, Mrs. Martin, who taught me boogie-woogie at 4. That was at a period of time when being into music was considered part of being a civilized person. Goose Creek was great because I grew up in a very idyllic, carefree environment. The place was an old Southern plantation that had been converted into a golf course, so nobody lived there who couldn’t afford to live there. We had golf, and we had all kinds of adventures in the woods. It made just develop as a human.

My brother had a garage band, so we used to play with him all the time. “96 Tears” was my big keyboard solo. One thing led to another. I got in the high school band; I was a band nerd. It was amazing.

TP: Was the high school band where jazz started entering the picture for you?

BELDEN: Strangely enough, not really. We had a private music school called the Leonard School of Music, and they had the Sammy Nestico Swingphonic Series band, which was a jazz group with woodwinds. It was a studio band, and we used to play that. I was in the all-state trombone section from the Newberry Jazz Festival.

TP: Trombone section?

BELDEN: Yes. I played all the instruments in high school. I learned everybody’s instrument just to annoy them. So I did this concert on trombone. Our big feature was “Cotton Fields.” 1972, South Carolina. We had bowties. We looked really stupid! But I got out of there as far as I could and went to North Texas State.

TP: When did saxophone become the instrument of choice?

BELDEN: Boots Randolph without a doubt, because he was the most audible of all saxophone players in the south. And then when Rock-and-Roll came along, we had Walter Perezeder(?) from Chicago and Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears. I played alto in high school. Tenor I didn’t get into until I got to college.

TP: There are many musicians who aren’t that engaged in the history and arcana and pedagogy of the music, and you’re certainly an exception to that. You’re a detail freak in a lot of ways, as to who did what take on what day at what particular time. Was that always evident?

BELDEN: When I was a kid, I used to memorize almanacs and sports statistics. Track-and-field statistics; who ran the best 100 that year. Then I used to try to memorize encyclopedias, much to the chagrin of anybody trying to take a bath. Then I just got into this thing of trying to retain as much trivial information as possible. My mother used to complain that I knew too much trivia, which I informed her that was a small town in Alabama — she didn’t think that was funny. But I always felt you need to exercise your brain, because it’s easy to forget. Now I don’t write anything down as far as my daily plans or anything like that; I have to remember it.

TP: So in high school you’re playing all the instruments. You settled into the tenor sax…

BELDEN: Well, I was an alto player. I was technically the First Alto player in the band. I played tuba, percussion, bass guitar, regular guitar, clarinet (which I hated), flute, trombone (which I loved — my brother had one).

TP: So you came naturally for arranging and composition for large ensembles. A good prerequisite is playing all the instruments.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. I was always attracted to that disciplined color. In our band program… The marching band was the rigamarole, the horse and burnished brass, marching trumpets au lait. But in concert band… I played in the Goose Creek High School Band, the Berkeley All-County Band, the All-State Band, and then we had a region band, and then I had a private band. So I was playing throughout the year in five concert bands. We would just play a lot of music. Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed, Vittorio Gianini, transcriptions of classics like Shostokovich’s Fifth Symphony. I went to Brevard Music Camp in the summer of ’72, and we must have read maybe 200 classic band pieces that summer. Modern stuff. Paul Yoder. Private pieces written for that band. So by the time I left high school I had a lot of reading skills and a concept of what music is supposed to be about.

TP: Then you landed in North Texas State one year early.

BELDEN: Yes. I figured that my tenure in South Carolina was going to…that I had just done my highlight. So I pretty much applied as a history major, because you didn’t have to audition to North Texas to be a history major, and they accepted some odd credits I had in Sixth Grade… Because in Texas you only have to have 16 high school credits to go to college, and in South Carolina it’s 18. So they accepted a typing credit from my Sixth Grade year, and I got into college. It was wonderful. I had a private room, I had a bank account, I was 16, and there were all these…how would you say…bad influence wouldn’t be the right word, but it would be the most understandable.

TP: Hardcore jazz veterans of 20 in the early ’70s.

BELDEN: Yeah! I’ll tell you, these guys were hipsters.

TP: Let’s talk about the North Texas State experience as it affected you. You seem to be a particularly enthusiastic alumni.

BELDEN: Yes. Because my entire musical… The fact is that I can do anything, any kind of orchestration job, arranging job, producing job, analysis, dealing with copying music, running sessions. It all came out as a result of what you thought you had to get together before you left the school. See, part of college is illusion. It’s this illusion that things are going to go well for you because you’ve got a college degree. I didn’t buy into that illusion, because i could measure talent pretty easily, and I knew who was doing it and I knew who was not doing it. I just followed the guys who are doing it.

TP: From what it sounds like, what we call hardcore jazz doesn’t really enter the picture for you until you get to North Texas State.

BELDEN: Yes.

TP: Talk about psychically how that affected you as a musician.

BELDEN: Well, as plain as day I remember the moment things changed. I had gone down to the record store, and trying to prove how hip I am, I bought a Dave Brubeck record, Together Again For the First Time, with Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, and I showed it to my neighbor, a guy named Mike Winter, who was from Ohio, and he was very slick — a wise guy. And he takes the record and he throws it out the window like a frisbee, and he takes me over to his room and he plays Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue. He said, “If you don’t figure this out by the time you leave here, you’re an idiot.” And I bought it. I used to hang out with the better players, because they could play records for you. So I used to hang out with Sam Riney a lot, who was in the One O’Clock Band. My best friend was the youngest member of the One O’Clock Band at that time, and we were just complete renegades. I mean, I never went to class, but I got a 3.3 grade point average. But I never really spent much time as a student in the practical sense.

TP: What did you spend your time doing?

BELDEN: Playing, hanging out, partying. Texas was cheap. $4 a credit hour for school. So you could spend 50 bucks and get a full load. You rent a house for $300 a month max.

TP: So it sounds like you were gigging on a pretty functional level for most of this time. No? Yes?

BELDEN: Well, yeah. You have your horn band gigs, and you’d have an occasional… Very rarely any jazz gigs, because the pecking order there was so stringent. We had what we called a dorm circuit, and it took you a minute to get onto the dorm circuit. That’s where all the reputations got made — playing in the dormitories for the musicians?

TP: Is there a guiding aesthetic, as it were, to the musical philosophy that North Texas State imparts to you as opposed to other institutions?

BELDEN: The highest level of professionalism. Probably up there with Eastman. What they demanded was that you actually know what you’re talking about. Because a lot of the students who went there were kind of on the edge of having anything together. Mom and Dad footed the bill, they couldn’t get into podiatry, so they would go to school. And there were a lot of people who couldn’t really function in the music world. But it put you around musicians, and you met so many cats, and it was constant music. People were just hanging. You’d go to this guy’s house, you’d go to that guy’s house. Constant. There wasn’t time for school.

TP: Was there a particular area of composition and arranging that the faculty was interested in? Talk about the pedagogy.

BELDEN: I was the Composition Major. So my entire class load was spent essentially in private instruction with the senior faculty members. I mean, I had Martin Mehlman(?), and he only had 3 undergraduate students — and he was the only teacher who took undergrad students. Michael Doherty I’m sure you’ve heard of; he’s a composer of opera and orchestra music. Kevin Mayfield, who could listen to something once and write it out. It was uncanny. He was also completely anti-social, and a perfect-pitch-playing trombonist, which is a nightmare. And a guy named Christopher Pierson. He let me write jazz and pop oriented stuff, and Elliott Carter material, and Stravinsky-esque stuff. All he wanted us to be was creative. But not petty. Not just like, “Oh, I can do this.”

That’s the problem with jazz avant-garde, is that in my college that would be considered student pieces. A lot of the stuff that I hear would be considered student pieces in college, because that was the tail-end of the real intense avant-garde period, where guys wrote densely and thought densely, and had to tie it all back to Schoenberg and Mahler. So in jazz, they think that what they’re doing is modern, but it’s really not. It’s when you’re exposed to it and how it’s explained to you.

TP: This is also the attitude of a lot of musicians who were in dance bands in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, like the Boyd Raeburn band, Johnny Richards, a lot of the Kenton arrangers, and Woody Herman arrangers as well. And your first professional jazz experience was with Woody Herman.

BELDEN: Well, Woody was a real jazz band. When I was in the band, it was a very strange period. We were coming out of fusion, and he was coming back into his Nostalgia-Reagan Era kind of thing. In our band, our drummer played like Jack DeJohnette our bass player played like Dave Holland, and they played loud and they played unrelenting. These guys had this pulse [CLAPS] which is like the Miles Davis Quintet, which we used to listen to a lot. People wouldn’t dance to it. They used to dock us money. It was an incredible experience because I got to see what it was like being on the road. Roy Hargrove made a comment, “Yeah, we worked over 200 gigs a year.” My first year on the road, of the 365 days of the year, we worked 300-and-something days.

TP: What does that do for a band?

BELDEN: It makes it have an uncanny sense of phrasing. Woody’s band is just like Duke. The phrasing was passed down from generation to generation. So when you came on the band you couldn’t just read the notes. You had to listen, and eventually you just got into listening. And guys would change things every now and then. You don’t need the music. I mean, Smulyan memorized his book in a couple of days.

TP: A lot of talented improvisers who emerged in the ’80s came out of that band.

BELDEN: That was the jazz-rock period. As far as writers are concerned, Alan Broadbent really came out well. He’s just a brilliant musician. Of course, Lyle Mays, who actually did some interesting arrangements for the band that weren’t pursued as far as recording. Dennis Dotson, who is one of the most beautifully melodic trumpet players in jazz. In the late ’60s and early ’70s you had Ed Soph on drums, who was one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever met in my life — just cutting intelligence. Joe Lovano. That’s who I replaced, which was a trip. He actually came out and did a gig, and it was me, Lovano, Smulyan and Dick Mitchell. That was fun. He was the first real cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician. And the difference between him and almost everybody was that he had it in his blood from childhood because his dad was so supportive of this strange business. So to me, Joe was always Jazz. He was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz.

TP: Did that experience transform you into someone whose essence is jazz?

BELDEN: Yeah. I knew I couldn’t deal with… Because I’m very sensitive. I’m one of these guys, you know, a flower child; everything’s got to be beautiful and perfect. And a lot of the jazz business is pretty…

TP: You need a thick skin.

BELDEN: Well, you don’t need a thick skin. You just need to understand that there are some people who were raised by wolves. I just don’t like being around these kind of cats. When I first came up, I had a thicker skin. But now I don’t need to be around them. Life is beautiful, man!

TP: You brought along a tape of the Woody Herman band at the Hotel Catamaran, San Diego, May 28, 1979.

BELDEN: Frank Tiberi will play the first tenor solo, who is a completely unique saxophone player. He’s a combination of Al Cohn and Coltrane. That was supposed to be a dance, and we got there and the people didn’t dance. They didn’t want to. So we played pretty full-out. We had some disasters at dances.

[MUSIC: Woody, “Reunion At Newport” (Broadbent)]

BELDEN: I always felt that big bands had a sense of excitement in the way they can come across which you can’t get out of a five-piece band. With Woody it was unrelenting excitement. He believed in a hot band. He’s always had it. If you heard the band from the ’40s, it’s ridiculous. It’s the highest level of musicianship, execution, intonation, the arrangements were custom-fit for the soloists, and it’s a great organization. And you followed into that tradition — as much as Ellington’s tradition. Duke and Woody were very close, and Woody was Dukish in a way that he didn’t want to fire anybody who he really liked, and he would let us play. I mean, we played a lot. This was not a dance band.

TP: Was band material organized to personalities in a similar way that Ellington would set up his material? Was it Dukish in that way as well?

BELDEN: Yes. Well, when you had a chart written for a certain person, it only lasted as long as that cat was in the band, and then it got passed on. Sal Nistico had an arrangement done for him of “Easy Living” by Nat Pierce, and that went all the way through to Joe Lovano, and then Smulyan got it when I joined the band, and it got changed to a baritone feature.

TP: Did you get very much into the lore of the Woody Herman band, in terms of playing the old arrangements? Was it a very informing experience for you?

BELDEN: There were a lot of arrangement that were functional, because we did have to appeal to survival tactics, like Steely Dan stuff and Carole King’s “Corazon.” But you’d have charts that really reflected the high point of the Herman Herd. Especially Ralph Burns, “Summer Sequence.” I mean, “Four Brothers” was a lot of fun to play. One of the bouncy, chubby bebop tunes. We used to see a lot of the alumni. We’d run into Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond all the time. Everybody would come out. He was amazingly revered by professionals.

TP: Inspired loyalty.

BELDEN: There’s more people coming out of Woody’s band who made a career as a professional musician than any other band. You wouldn’t believe it. Go to Los Angeles, and whoa, half of the town had spent time with Woody. Even Bill Watrous played with Woody.

TP: Your tenure with Woody Herman is ’79…

BELDEN: ’79 to ’80. Then I freelanced around. I moved officially to New York in ’83. I did a lot of television work, a lot of ESPN arranging. I was an arranger for their company, doing sports themes.

TP: Do you get royalties, I hope?

BELDEN: Oh, no. But I got even, because I used to interpolate ABC News Show themes into the second theme of all the sports themes.

TP: Would you hum one of the sports themes?

BELDEN: Gee, I can’t remember. But I can hum the second themes I put in there [SINGS ABC NEWS REFRAIN] But yeah, I had a lot of fun doing that. Then I ended up doing a gig in Visiones, and got a couple of record deals.

TP: Was it basically New York is the mecca; you need to be here?

BELDEN: Oh, no. It was frightening. There wasn’t any real work. This was right before the jazz renaissance, and there were no CDs. You don’t make a living playing jazz, you know. I fortunately found a cheap pad, and I just stuck it out. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of TV movies. Farrah-Fawcett stuff, and Jackie Cooper, Paul Lemat. I would play keyboards a lot and I would do some mild arranging. I would do Country songs for Country shows, and Pop songs and stuff.

TP: Did your jazz affiliation emanate from your North Texas State and Woody Herman experience, people who’d come to New York who you knew?

BELDEN: Well, what was great was I knew a lot of people from Woody’s band, and when I started doing commercial work I would hire the cats for sessions. So I never was perceived as a threat to other saxophone players, which is why I know so many of them and get along pretty well with them. I never was taking their gigs. I was always hiring them for sessions and stuff. And when you pay guys money, they tend to think of you a little bit differently until you stop paying them money.

TP: Tell me about this gig at Visiones you’re speaking of. Because it would appear you were writing music for local workshop type ensembles…

BELDEN: No-no-no. About half of the ensemble music I had done…we had done some recording in 1985 with Wallace Roney. See, when I was doing ESPN stuff, I was taking the studio time that I was bringing to the studio and getting free time in the studio. So if we did about ten ESPN dates, I’d get a full day in the studio for nothing. Joe Chambers and I did a record, I did an ensemble record, I did two records with Wallace Roney, then a New Age kind of record, and some odd stuff for free. Because all I think about is the studio. I’m not interested in anything else. This is right after the Cabaret Law got beaten down by Paul Chevigny, and Visiones was going to have big bands, and Marc Copland handed them a tape and they called me up — February 6, 1989. I remember it very well, because after the first set Francois Zalacain came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set, Matt Pierson, who was at Blue Note, came up…

TP: And said, “We must record”?

BELDEN: Yes, pretty much.

TP: We’ll hear music from Turandot.

BELDEN: Turandot was sort of a misguided effort by me to make a good record, based on something that goes beyond just chords and changes and stuff like that. They gave me a lot of money, and we came in right at budget. I wanted to capture… It’s what I always feel is important, this overbearing kind of emotional context that big bands can get. I tried to kill the trumpet players because I believe in trumpet masochism.

TP: You mean you tried to kill their chops.

BELDEN: Yeah. Because the context of the piece is the princess during this ancient time is one cold woman. So she has people beheaded for not answering her enigmatic questions. But in this aria she comes to the realization that she is just totally messed up. She is completely cold, she has no emotion. And so… [END OF SIDE A] …the most perfectly in-tune playing you can imagine from these players. I mean, they are impeccable. And we did it at Capitol Studios, and it just has this incredible ambiance.

[MUSIC: Belden, “In Questa Reggia”]

TP: This was never issued in the States.

BELDEN: One of the most litigious companies was recording through their subsidiary, Herndon Music, and they just sue-sue-sue — “We refuse to allow a jazz version of an opera.” And under U.S. copyright law, shows that are dramatic in nature enjoy an extra level of protection that people who just write melodies don’t enjoy.

TP: Bob was talking about the intonation and in-tuneness of the trumpet section, and that was an amazing feature for Wallace Roney.

BELDEN: You have to have a voice to write for, and if you don’t have a voice that has some context, clarity and idea behind it — a sound — then you’re just making a high school band chart.

TP: In this next segment, I’d like to talk to you more about your compositional influences in jazz. I guess the most obvious name in terms of tone color, mood and so on, has got to be Gil Evans. You have cued up an unissued performance of “Dolores.” Did your Miles Davis obsession begin at North Texas State, when this fellow turned you on to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Because you could buy the records for $1.99 at the stores, and I just went down and bought them all. I figured, “This is it.” Miles Smiles always had a strong place in my heart, because it’s just the perfect record. And “Nefertiti,” once I remember discovering it was a drum solo at my sister’s apartment in Charleston, it just became revelatory. See, there’s so much detail in Miles Davis’ work, and especially in small group stuff, that whe you go to a school that encourages analysis you get into the details. We were trained to try to understand everything on every level — every detail.

TP: Did studying Miles Davis or the Kenton arrangers dovetail with the classical music you were listening to in a very natural way?

BELDEN: At that time we were all kind of college geeks, and we were doing the Elliott Carter trip, and generally music you’ll never get performed again and nobody will like, because it was about density and contours and tone clusters. People used to write without actually listening to music; they’d write mathematically. We had all kinds of people. Guys who would write only in C. People who would do these kind of like what Zorn would have been doing the collage cut-and-paste kind of mentality. I figured that anybody who can’t swing has a problem. Because swinging is the eternal rhythm of jazz. As much as people make it an issue whether you’re in the club or not, it still is the eternal clock in jazz. And there are a lot of people who couldn’t get it. They just couldn’t get the feeling. Because to me, it’s always about the feeling.

TP: In that regard, talk about Gil Evans’ work and his salient characteristics through the filter of Bob Belden.

BELDEN: Well, I listened to a lot of Gil’s stuff. The Cannonball record, Great Jazz Standards, is an incredible album. What Gil did best was capture the essence of the soloist in an environment that made him completely positive, and it also provided challenges to the artist, and it put him in an environment that he never-ever would experience again. Because nobody wrote like Gil. Nobody thought like Gil. Gil was coming from another planet as far as arranging is concerned. I only kind or am influenced by the slower stuff that he did, the tone poems. But his lighter writing, the Birth of the Cool and the Cannonball record… I mean, the Cannonball record is one of the greatest big band records — period. Of course, it’s out of print. But Gil had a way of capturing who he was writing for, and sometimes the talent wasn’t quite up to it and sometimes it was Miles Davis. I never really got into any of the later stuff, because I just think that he didn’t care per se.

TP: You’re talking about the electric bands post-’72.

BELDEN: Yeah. I mean, the guys didn’t seem to care in some cases. Because when I went to see them at Sweet Basil it was like, “What is going on here?”

TP: It could get a little sloppy.

BELDEN: Yeah. But see, Gil lived in the neighborhood, and I’d run into him every now and then. He just wanted a place to go and be around musicians. I understand that. Because he’s already done Miles Ahead. He’s already done Sketches of Spain. He’s already done those things. So why make the guy sweat and then say it’s not as good as the original. He had a good life.

TP: Give us some context for the Miles Davis track.

BELDEN: I figured that since I’m associated with Miles, I should play something from the underground. Because this is an incredibly rare track. It was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1967, and it just shows the band playing a tune they recorded in the studio but aren’t known for playing live.

TP: Any personnel variations?

BELDEN: Albert Stinson is on bass.

[MUSIC: Miles, “Dolores” (1967); Gil-Wayne, “Nothing Like You”]

TP: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Bob Belden is in the middle of producing a mammoth Miles Davis retrospective with full discographical detail of his Columbia work. The full collaborations with Gil Evans are out, the complete Bitches Brew, the complete Miles and Coltrane. Talk about the salient characteristics about Miles Davis filtered through you.

BELDEN: From a musician’s standpoint it’s like listening to Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There’s just so much detail in the work that you have a lifetime to listen to it. He’s one of the few artists that I can listen to over and over and over. Sometimes I’ll get into these obsessions. There’s a bootleg CD from Sinfingelden, and they do “No Blues,” and it’s just swinging-swinging-swinging. So I’ll listen to that for days on days, and only that.

TP: Is this band, Miles-Wayne-Herbie-Tony, the one that sparks you, or all of them in different ways?

BELDEN: Well, overall, because they were more classically oriented in terms of Romantic tendencies and form. They really concentrated on improvising complex forms. The band with Chick, Dave and Jack was just high energy, like a Rock-and-Roll band. And I like the Agartha bands, because again, we were talking about blocks of sound, how dynamics become the composition. It’s loud. You play loud. Then you play soft.

TP: There are people who will play Stockhausen and the Miles Agartha band side-by-side, so that comes through.

BELDEN: Well, Stockhausen can’t swing. He’s just improvising in their context. You have to notice Miles Davis, who if he wanted to could sit down and play “Royal Garden Blues” and really make you feel that he has a connection to something that goes deeper.

TP: So you’re saying that they’re classically informed, you’re referring either to their ability or interest in playing over more complex, longer forms, extended structures.

BELDEN: Yes, more disciplined structures. Because again, free jazz, or what people call free jazz, sometimes is not very free at all. It just has an attitude, and a lot of it is just the people who are buying it don’t know. Miles Davis once said, “White people will buy anything.” In a sense, a lot of artists are… They’re not successful. I don’t know anybody who makes abstract music and really is successful with the exception of Ornette Coleman, and he’s mellowed lately. But it’s very unusual to see guys develop a level of financial security in playing non-romantic music. Maybe after hearing what the show was prior to this one, that may change. But I think that…

TP: When you say “successful,” do you mean aesthetically successful?

BELDEN: I think the whole point is to get your music across to as many people as possible. It’s not about money. It’s not about a fancy house. It’s about having people who you’ve never met make comments in positive ways about your music. When people say it affects them, it has some effect. To me, it’s that they actually bought a CD of mine. That always throws me for a loop. I’m not involved in the entertainment side of my business. If somebody buys one of my CDs, I’m flabbergasted. Out of all the CDs in the store, you went and bought mine. To my dying day, I’ll never lose sight of that innocence about having people get your stuff.

TP: Talk about Miles Davis in his different periods. Because apart from a lifetime of immersing yourself in this music as a fan and student, you’re now immersing yourself in the music from the perspective of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on an entire corpus of work.

BELDEN: Well, we do a lot of that detail work just to eliminate mistakes in future research. Because musicians especially have a right to know what went down, so they can make a decision. The general public who happens to buy it will be overwhelmed by the information. It really won’t make much sense. But musicians (that’s all I think about) generally gain so much from these sets. Because they lay a story on them. We tell a story as much as we can. And not the information that the guy had a problem with something or his ex-wife or something. We don’t get into that too much. we get into the music. We get into the players, their perspectives. Unlike a lot of the reissue companies, we deal with the musicians straight-up. They get paid for bonus tracks. They get paid for unissued material that comes out. And they’re willing to work with us. It’s great to be able to call Dave Holland or Jack De Johnette to discuss an event, or ask Ron Carter to look over what you’ve done to make sure you haven’t said anything stupid. For us, that’s… We treat Miles like Classical people treat Bernstein or Rubinstein.

TP: After the complete ’50s Quintet and Sextet comes out, I believe there’s to be a collection of a lot of the live-unissued material?

BELDEN: Oh, that’s an interesting rumor. No, our plan is that after… These plans are subject to whim. So after the Coltrane box, which is a 6-CD set with a lot of bonus tracks (stereo alternates to Milestones; it’s pretty good), then we have three choices. We have the Jack Johnson sessions. We have In A Silent Way, which is assembled but not mastered. Then we have a period called Seven Steps To Berlin, which is the Hollywood ’63 sessions up to Berlin ’64.

TP: Again, if you’re willing, I’d like you to talk about Miles the musician in his different periods.

BELDEN: Well, Miles Davis has some different periods, definitely. To me, his most powerful period in terms of communicating to a listening audience, as well as musicians, was ’57-’58-’59-’60-’61. On the Milestones date, the alternate takes, Miles plays these perfectly constructed solos that swing hard, and every note is perfect. Every note is right. There’s no extraneous baggage on it. So he was striving, I think, to create real highly constructed melodic solos — because then his other guys would just go nuts. But his contrast to that was playing these perfectly melodic solos. And it peaked to me with the “Blues #2″ with Philly Joe, which is coming out on Someday My Prince Will Come. I have that solo memorized. I can play it on saxophone. He plays “Royal Garden Blues” as a quote. You can hear how he can always take his music back to that time. There’s a bootleg where he quotes “St. Louis Blues” very abstractly. But you can tell he really liked the older stuff.

TP: Well, he himself did talk about Louis Armstrong as fundamental in his conception even if the connection wasn’t transparently apparent in his music.

BELDEN: He liked Bobby Hackett a lot. He liked pretty players, people who had control over their instrument. A lot of the white guys had this Harry James thing to deal with, so they couldn’t play raucous; they had to play pretty and melodic. I think Miles liked that, because Miles gravitated towards sophisticated music and music that gave an air of sophistication. Which is why he didn’t keep playing Hardbop. His band with Wynton and P.C. and Jimmy Cobb was funky, and it was beautiful, swinging, melodic. Happy. You just felt happy listening to it. I think he really wanted to get there.

TP: You think that’s part of why that rhythm section was so successful for him, that it conveyed that mood.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You’ve got to smile every time you hear those guys. I mean, Wynton Kelly, for some reason, God gave him the talent to make people smile when he played.

TP: Now, you’ve talked fairly extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter about the formation of the band that’s called the classic band. Talk about how you see Miles’ intentions at the beginning of that band and how it panned out in ways he may or may not have foreseen.

BELDEN: I think Miles had tried to get Wayne for a couple of years, and the guys in the band finally said, “Hey.” Sam Rivers didn’t work out, and George Coleman, whom I love dearly, apparently he left the band. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to do his own thing. He was already formed when he joined Miles’ band. And Miles used to pick on him. I mean, I have tapes from a session where Miles was just picking on the guy. This is a funny story. They’re in Los Angeles and they’re playing “So Near, So Far.” Apparently, the arrangement had a coda written into it as part of the solo, and Miles didn’t make it. Right? So the band breaks down, and Miles goes, “What happened?” Victor Feldman said, “Miles, you didn’t take the coda.” Miles says, “What coda? What coda?” George apparently goes to the stand and points at it, and then says to Miles, “I’ll nod my head when it’s your turn to come in.” And Miles stops for a second and looks at George and goes, “You’ll nod your head? What is that George? Method thinking?” Because they’re out in Los Angeles. George goes, “Hey, man, back off.” Miles says, “You ain’t in New York any more, George.” George says something to the effect of “Why are you bugging me?” and Miles said, essentially, “Because I want to.” George goes, “You don’t pick on Ron” and Miles says, “Because Ron has three degrees.”

So there was some element of Miles just sort of wanting to get through all this stuff at the time. He was definitely in a bored period during ’62-’63. I think Wayne changed the band, because it gave him a complete unit. See, Tony and Herbie were already stretching when George was in the band, and it just seemed to go from Miles getting involved to George forcing himself to get involved, and then Herbie coming in. Herbie to me is the greatest jazz pianist.

TP: Let me pick up on two comments. Wayne Shorter changing the band; Herbie Hancock is the greatest jazz pianist.

BELDEN: Well, Wayne changed the band, and he brought music in eventually, but he had this kind of casual way of approaching stuff. What he does technically on the saxophone is pretty intense. His articulation is right on it. He was able to tongue every note. So he could get real intense articulations going, and he had this humorous side, which he used to play for Miles and get Miles to crack up on stage. He had this old Gene Ammons kind of tenor throw he would put in. You could hear him; he sounds like he was drinking a lot. That’s what Miles really liked. He liked that history.

TP: That Midwest thing that he came from.

BELDEN: Well, Miles played with Coleman Hawkins, so he was very accustomed to big-tone tenors.

TP: Well, he played with the Eckstine band with Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon.

BELDEN: I always describe Wayne as somebody who’s squeezing the cat. You got a cat and you’re holding him around the neck, squeezing, and the thing is squiggling and stuff, going RRROWWWRR…

TP: A wonderful image, Bob.

BELDEN: Well, I described one musician as his playing sounds like he’s molesting a child.

TP: The second part. Your intense admiration for Herbie Hancock.

BELDEN: Well, to me, I like hip. There’s something about somebody who is quintessentially and consistently hip. And Herbie is hip. He is able to make every context he does hip, much hipper than it would have been without him. And I am a big student of his commercial sideman dates. I mean, I have every one of them. There is something he brings to a recording session that, as a producer and arranger…he’s a genius. Everyone who worked with him in the ’60s said he would come into the session and bring life to the band. Mel Lewis said that he was always creating, he was always pushing forward. He did a lot of commercial dates where his solos were not commercial. They were very hip.

TP: We’ll move to the subject of Stan Kenton and some of the arrangers who informed you in various ways.

BELDEN: When we were in school, we had the Kenton library. He donated his library to North Texas. So I played almost 200 Kenton arrangers.

TP: He was close to the founder of the North Texas jazz program, Dr. Gene Hall. No?

BELDEN: Well, not as close as he was to Leon Breeden. Breeden was a big Stan Kenton fan. The Ken Burns documentary is coming out, and they were talking about the guy who runs the Jurassic Center Orchestra is bringing jazz education into the schools. I looked at the woman who made that statement and said, “Obviously, you’ve never heard of Stan Kenton.” As much controversy as people have about Stan not being particularly kind to Colored musician, as the common misnomer, and not allowing pot smokers in the band, I mean, he did have a vision and he had a sense of professionalism that overrode everything else. And he would hire the best arrangers and have great bands and make highly emotional music. Highly emotional music. Because he came out of the Germanic tradition. At North Texas we played a lot of the material, and we had to understand it. A lot of Bill Holman’s stuff, a lot of Bill Russo, and then we had guys who were writing for Kenton’s band from our school. That was the time of the stage band clinics that were started… Donald Byrd was involved. Stan Kenton was involved. Leon Breeden was involved. More musicians came out of that than any other single movement in jazz. Especially good musicians. Every year in Los Angeles they have this big Kenton-Fest, and it’s like cultish.

TP: So the general overall aesthetic comes out of a Germanic orientation.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Again, he came from a period of time… He lived in Los Angeles, he lived in California, and Hollywood films were heavily blown… Especially in his early period, it was like a bad film noir kind of thing; wild, flailing bongo drums and brass. You’ve seen those ’50s TV shows where they’re trying to show the demented person in a small apartment in New York, and they play loud, Latin-oriented jazz. To me, that always created…

TP: Sweat pouring down the face.

BELDEN: Edward Dymytrk. So you get this real intense visual image, and then that translates to your heart and you become emotionally involved with the music. I always liked that about him. He had a dark side to him.

[MUSIC: Kenton, “Vida Prada”; Mel Lewis, “Interloper”]

BELDEN: Thad Jones was literally a genius, in the sense that he never used a piano to write his arrangements. He would just write the parts out. Sometimes he would do five or six charts the night before the session. “Interloper” was one of them. He had this uncanny ability to just write and not worry about it. It was second nature. His language, his phrasing were all completely personal. I mean, he was just a complete-complete arranger and musician. That tune, “Interloper” was done in the later period, and he started putting emotion, a romantic kind of emotion into his music. That piece is very sad. That’s what I find attractive about musicians, is when you get past the brassy, extroverted kind of thing, you find guys who cry. I cry at Flintstones weddings. So for me, I search out musicians and charts, especially arrangements, that have an emotion to it. Also, I played in that band at that period of time, and to play that particular chart, you just were carried along on this ride, unlike almost any charts they had in there. The band just kept going and kept going. And they loved playing it. We all did. It’s a great tenor solo.

TP: Talk about the difference of playing in that band vis-a-vis with, say, Woody Herman a few years before. You were speaking about the difference in phrasing, how every band has its own personality.

BELDEN: Oh, this band, with Earl Gardner and John Mosca, they’re phraseologists. They constantly change stuff up and they have little background figures. They communicate to themselves, and they create interesting things — the sound of surprise. When Thad was there, they’d create backgrounds… He was great at riff backgrounds, and they just kept chugging along and making things exciting. I’ve seen Thad when Thad was directing the band a few times. A very great, exciting band.

With Woody the phrases would be subtle. We had an arrangement of “Laura” where the written part is like… [SINGS REFRAIN], and we did it completely rephrased, out-of-time, and we all nailed it — because eventually we had to learn it. So Woody’s band I think was really into laying back phrases big time, and Thad was into changing phrases all the time.

TP: Albeit that Thad Jones was a sui generis composer-arranger, who were his influences, as you see it?

BELDEN: Well, he liked all innovative… They all loved Fletcher Henderson’s writing, they all loved Jimmy Mundy; they were all influenced by the great writers of the time — Ralph Burns. Geez, there are so many cats from that period, the older guys. Not so much… I mean, Gil was really influenced by the older guys, because that’s the music of his childhood. But I think Thad was not really influenced by anybody, because his harmonic language was unique, completely unique, and his orchestration was unique. He always used dense chords in his voicings, and he’d always write the sections opposed to one another. So in the ’40s and ’50s, the chord would be based on block harmony, and they’d just move it in parallel. Eventually they got tired of that because everything sounded the same. I mean, Thad had no real method, even though there’s a book that tries to analyze it. He just wrote what he felt like. And you you play with those players, everything sounds good.

TP: Not unlike Ellington, Thad Jones (correct me if I’m wrong) would use that band as kind of a workshop. Pieces weren’t set it stone with him, and they would change and evolve, as befits a band that’s playing at least once a week for 30 years.

BELDEN: Well, I think Thad didn’t do anything until the date, and then he came in with five or six new charts. Then they’d edit it at rehearsal, and they’d go and record them. Sometimes the charts are a little different than what was recorded; little arrows going here and there. But he was such a genius. Literally. That mind. You just can’t see too many people with that kind of intelligence.

TP: And did you discover Thad Jones, again, at North Texas State, or…

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You automatically had to go down and buy the records. I mean, they were on Solid State, the charts were published, and we used to play them a lot. I mean, “Cherry Juice” was a big college favorite. They used to play it so fast. We’d be chugging and not making it.

TP: A New York tempo versus a Texas tempo, huh.

BELDEN: Well, North Texas liked to play fast. They just were a little stiff. They never approached the rhythm section from a jazz standpoint; they approached it from an ensemble standpoint.

TP: So in the mid-’80s, you’re doing this commercial work, you’re playing the Monday nights or various workshop type big bands and filling in, and you’re embarking on your personal writing and developing a cadre of musicians to play your music as well. All this is going on in the 1980’s.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s… There was a period from about ’82-’83 to about 1991 when I must have written a couple of hundred pieces. I had just gotten a synthesizer, and I had enough work to pay the rent and pay the bills, and plenty of free time. So rather than get into a life of decadence, I just sat home and wrote a lot of music. Because of the clarity of synthesizers, you can create chord structures that are very precise and clear, and that pushes you on to other things — intervals of fifths, spread-out fifth intervals. I would translate that kind of gothic approach on synthesizers to big bands.

TP: So there’s a very specific instance of how technology influences artistic creation.

BELDEN: Oh, synthesizers to me are the most under-utilized instrument in what we call jazz — because nobody can play. There’s one guy who is truly a synthesist — Scott Kinsey. Because he goes beyond the mindset of most synthesists, who are just playing paths and stuff. He will take a sound, and he will play a solo and he’ll edit the sound during his solo, so that the solo has a different level. It has the harmonic level, and then it has this kind of sonic thing. Things will pop in and out, noises and samples, and it’s incredible. Because his mind is so fast, he can improvise and set up… He plays an edit mode, so any time he touches the keyboard, he can change anything. And nobody is out there doing that. I’ve used him exclusively since 1993. I mean, I fly him out for any session I do under my own name. There are no really any-good synthesizer players in New York.

TP: We have cued up a track from the Ellington band in the ’50s that’s somewhat obscure…

BELDEN: I like “Jeep’s Blues” and so on, but I like this because it’s commercial — at the time. It’s like an Alan Freed kind of vibe. But listen to how hip the band plays. Incredibly hip. It’s got one of the greatest shout choruses in jazz.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Rock City Rock”; Belden-Denise Jannah, “I Didn’t Know About You”]

BELDEN: We had a Pop record to do of Prince’s music, and I got a huge budget, and I decided, “Well, I’m just going to go in the studio and record.” We did about 30 sessions over a period of like five months. I did the Pop record, and I went in and did a bunch of some originals and then all these Prince songs.

TP: There are several dynamics of Pop music translating into jazz. One is that jazz musicians sound like they’re slumming when they’re playing Pop music, and the stuff sounds sort of trite. That’s one of the pitfalls. I’m falling into the Bob Belden trap of A&R’ing here. Another is that you often lose the lyric content, which in Contemporary Pop music is crucial to the meaning of a song. And it’s said that Pop material is much more simplified now than 30-40-50 years ago, and so there’s less protein for the improviser to build on.

BELDEN: Have you ever heard the original version of “Body and Soul”? It’s pretty hokey. Jazz musicians are able to transfer Pop music, sometimes very successfully and sometimes very unsuccessfully, into a new appreciation for whatever melody there is. I mean, they used to write real melodies. On the Prince record, we did a thing called “Electric Chair,” which doesn’t really have a melody. We just made the drums real loud and made it a groove.

TP: What makes Prince’s music particularly suitable for this type of rearrangement and reinterpretation?

BELDEN: Because I can do anything I want to it. I don’t get into this argument of should you do it for jazz or not. Nobody tells me what to do.

TP: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what are the dynamics of his music that make it suitable for rearrangement. Is it just because you choose to do it, and therefore you do it?

BELDEN: Well, a lot of the tunes I wanted to do. The Pop stuff was pretty obvious. But the ones I wanted to shift into jazz mode, I got a lot off of bootlegs. There was a tune called “In A Large Room With No Light” which was phenomenal, but he had a fight with Wendy and Lisa and wouldn’t let me do it. And this song that we’re going to play called “Power Fantastic” was never issued. It was on a couple of these bootlegs; they thought it was Miles. I recorded it three times. The first time I sent it to Prince, nah; the second time I sent it to Prince, nah — because the versions were modest. And then we went into the studio and hit, and really made it powerful, and we sent it to him and he said, “Okay.” He put out “Power Fantastic” on his Greatest Hits, and that allowed us to get a mechanical license.

TP: So this was done in collaboration of some sort with Prince.

BELDEN: Well, not collaboration. Just “Can we do this tune?” Because he’s a composer, and why would he let somebody record his tune for the first time when (a) there’s no money in it for him, and we’re just some lowly jazz guys. But he’s into good musicians.

TP: But I still want to know why, in this particular case, Prince?

BELDEN: Because it’s a Pop record. We covered Prince in a Pop kind of context for Japanese — huge-selling records. I’d just finished the Sting record and I’d established some strange sort of… But the record did great in Japan and terrible in the United States because of unfocused company policies. But in Japan, huge sales — it really did well. Again, I’m one of these guys who, when I’m in the studio, I don’t waste time and I record a lot of stuff, a lot of my material. So I got a lot of stuff done on this.

This track just jumped off the page. It really has some power. It’s heavily electric, but it has a lot of emotion to it. If you can take anybody’s music and make it happen emotionally, it doesn’t matter. Nobody knows this melody. But it’s a beautiful, simple song. It’s something any jazz guy could do.

[MUSIC: Belden/Prince, “Power Fantastic”]

TP: Coming up is an interesting segue, from Prince to Herbie Hancock’s ’70s fusion music. Bob Belden was the arranger of The New Standard

BELDEN: Verve demotes me all the time.

TP: One way or another, you’ve been heavily involved in reinterpreting the popular music of the last 20-25 years in jazz contexts. You were talking about Herbie Hancock’s creativity on commercial dates.

BELDEN: Manchild was one of Herbie’s finest records, because it involves groove and it involves pretty serious electric playing, but it also involves orchestration. Herbie always colored his records in very Gil Evansish… That record and Sunlight has so much interesting stuff in terms of backgrounds. And nobody understands those records, they don’t listen to them… Only a handful of fans. But they show that Herbie can meld commercial music and art music better than almost anybody I know. His music is about feel. So if it feels good, the general public likes it and then he throws in some pretty intense… I mean, if you listen to this track, “Sun Touch,” you hear this bass clarinet-flugelhorn kind of ensemble, and compositionally it has this little bass line that they repeat, actual proof, where they lock into that bass line occasionally. It’s really a beautiful tune.

[MUSIC: Herbie, “Sun Touch”]

BELDEN: That’s commercial music and it still has intensity about jazz. We were talking about jazz musicians don’t improvise. For the most part, if you’re a bebopper, you’re not improvising. You’re playing things you’ve practiced all day and all night. The improvisation may be considered how you string them all together. But very few people are… Keith Jarrett comes to mind as somebody who can really improvise. But to me, a lot of people, they just play what they know, and they focus in on a sound that they know and they stick with it. Because you have to look at improvisation as something that’s totally free and open, something that’s very spiritual, or something that’s constructed into what you’re trying to express.

TP: Well, improvisation is supposed to be the essence of jazz expression.

BELDEN: Yeah-yeah-yeah… I hate the bromides, because they never really apply, and they often are used to keep people out of the scene. Like, “He ain’t swingin’.” “He doesn’t have the tradition.” There are all these cliches, and it really doesn’t matter. Once you get away from having to deal with jazz on a level where your daily bread comes from that… Because I’m doing a lot more Pop-oriented stuff.

TP: To throw the epigrammatic question at you: What constitutes Jazz for you? If improvisation isn’t necessarily it, swinging isn’t necessarily it… Bob is giving me a disgusted look.

BELDEN: Jazz is an attitude. That’s all it is. If you seem like a Jazz guy, you are a jazz guy. Let me ask you this. Have you ever met Rodney Kendrick?

TP: Yes.

BELDEN: He’s a jazz guy! No matter if he works with Wu Tang Clan or he works with Abbey Lincoln, he’s a jazz guy. It doesn’t matter what he does. He’s a jazz guy. You can tell a difference in how people play. Jazz musicians have confidence. Good jazz musicians can play anything. They can walk in any circumstance and sound good. True jazz musicians. A lot of players, they’re just so open and fresh, and they have the attitude, and they’re humorous and they’re fun to be around.

TP: Isn’t that improvising?

BELDEN: Well, in a contextual element. But if you’re talking about notes, very few people really improvise everything they play. But to give an emotional element to music is very spontaneous.

TP: Well, to project your personality I think is what you’re talking about, and to project that personality into any given situation that you may find yourself…

BELDEN: Well, that’s not improvisation. That’s having a style. If you have a style, you can project it over anything. I think that’s what’s sadly lacking today, is nobody wants to have a style. I get tapes in the mail, and I get records from other companies, and for the most part they’re terribly imitating records that have gone down in the past.

TP: Why do you think this is, in this particular time?

BELDEN: Laziness. It’s laziness, lack of a good musical education, and no vision. I mean, I can imitate Miles Davis as well as anybody, as you will hear from this next track. But it’s like, “Do we want to put this out?” Do we want people to think, “Oh, this is our stuff”? And generally, I don’t put the imitative stuff out. Even if people don’t like what we do. Again, almost all the things I’ve done in the last few years have been Hip-Hop, Rap, Drum-and-Bass and R&B, and I get to put my personality on that music.

TP: Why are you choosing those areas as opposed to what we might call “hardcore jazz”?

BELDEN: Well, we do play hardcore jazz. The Tim Hagans record is hardcore jazz. It’s coming out of Freddie Hubbard. It’s coming out of playing the trumpet at the highest possible level, in perfect time, with an unrelenting sense of direction. I did a Hip-Hop version of “When Doves Cry” with Cassandra Wilson that’s one of the most popular licensee tracks. I mean, 45 compilations have pulled that track. Because it has a jazz attitude. It’s dark as hell. It’s dark and it’s very mysterious, and for some reason people like it because it’s jazzy. I have a difficult time with going straight commercially because I’m an old-school guy, so I tend to like real instruments played by real people. But for the most part, it’s really the personality of the individual. And we don’t have that many personalities now. Guys play, the image you get from them is a Berklee classroom.

TP: Does this have to do with the institutionalization of jazz education, and taking it off of the street or the road? Is it a little too reductive?

BELDEN: Younger guys don’t have older guys yelling at them. They haven’t been screamed at. They haven’t been completely dressed-down publicly. So there’s a lot of confidence the younger guys have that their stuff is happening. I’ve worked with a few of the younger guys, and they’re all beautiful, serious musicians, but they’re having a difficult time really coming to grips with the next ten years. I mean, the hardest thing to make it in the jazz business is past-40. You get forgotten. Your music is marginalized. Most guys get dropped around that time. That’s a stigma that’s really a terrible thing in our business.

Coming up… Again, we were doing the Tapestry record, our paean to Smooth Jazz. At that time, I was the A&R director of Blue Note, so I said, “Hey, we’re just going to record; I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to slap my own wrists.” So we spent six sessions just recording, and I recorded a lot of my material and we recorded the Tapestry stuff. Tony had just passed away, and I wrote this thing for him, and it’s like a Wayne Shorter, mid-late-’60s Miles. It’s funny because it has a mood, and that’s the way we sound when we feel like playing that way.

[MUSIC: Belden, “No Title” & “Winter I (Vivaldi)”]

TP: Bob Belden’s rearrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Jazz and the Classics, with flautist Patrick Gaulois, Kevin Hays on piano, Ira Coleman on bass, Billy Kilson on drums. Another Belden project not available here.

BELDEN: We recorded it for Deutsche Gramophone through Verve, and typically it’s too progressive for Verve. They just wouldn’t put it out. They demoted me on some projects and dropped me from stuff. It was terrible. But again, it’s my theory that musicians have lost control of the business.

TP: And when did musicians have control of the business?

BELDEN: Oh, in the ’50s and ’60s for sure, and in the ’70s, which was the last time when musicians had influence over what people bought. But since then it’s all marketing people and promotion people. They look at you as a musician like you’re some kind of weird guy. I did a lot of reissues for a company, and I pick things from what sounds good musically, not historically, because that whole historical view is crap. It’s all revisionist anyway, because unless you know the people and you actually play and understand the nuances of what real music is all about, you’re just guessing. And we don’t guess.

TP: At the time you recorded this, or shortly thereafter, you then came under the employ of Blue Note as the A&R director, and were right in the belly of the beast, as it were, in the attitudes you’re referring to…

BELDEN: Everybody in record companies now is an A&R guy. The marketing guy, the radio guy, the assistant A&R guy, the President of the company, the General Manager… Everybody is an A&R guy except the A&R guy. Again, I’m not the kind of person who takes suggestions. Because I know what I’m doing. I don’t need help. I don’t need anybody telling me, “We should sign this guy” or “we should sign this guy” or “what do you think about this.” I know the musician scene so well that I know about cats far in advance of record companies. Because the word on the street comes around, “so-and-so is hittin’,” “so-and-so is shucking.” And the process is, they eliminate the element of musical taste and judgment from the mix. It’s all about marketing, the image of the artist.

The other day a guy complained, he said that Omer Avital’s record, the tracks were too long — nobody would play it on the radio. Then one of their strong radio-oriented jazz records got number-one for a couple of weeks and sold 5,000 copies. That’s it. Kevin Hays had a trio record that was #1 on the Gavin charts for 3½-4 weeks and he sold less than 1,000 copies.

TP: With Omer Avital’s record, you’re referring to something that was ready-to-go and packaged, and got dropped when Polygram merged…

BELDEN: Yes. It got Verved. Again, they’re making a business decision. But I think eventually musicians are going to become more business oriented, and not follow the trap of a company.

TP: In A&R there is room for different aesthetics or different ways of presenting a sound image imprint for your company. Bob Belden may have different taste than someone at another label, and it doesn’t become quite that absolutely a matter of musical taste. Or does it?

BELDEN: Well, if you’re given control, which I was never going to be given any kind of control… Yeah, I’m intelligent enough to make decisions and stick with them and follow through. But I just can’t deal with people who can’t sit down and talk to me about the music. Because it’s about the artist and what they play.

TP: Is there a self-marketing aspect in musicians and their choices? In the Pop projects you’re doing, say, are you thinking about the commerciality of the material?

BELDEN: Sure. What’s the point of making a commercial record. I mean, what’s the point? If you’re going to make a record that’s not going to sell, why waste people’s time and energy and money? Because right now we’re flooded by records that are not going to sell by artists who are not artists.

TP: Why does a record sell? Why does a record not sell?

BELDEN: According to most companies, what they want it to sell and what it actually sells are oftentimes wide apart. You just have to know how few you’re going to sell. Gerry Teekens knows he’s going to sell a couple of thousand records, and that’s all he cares about. But Verve everything they do has to sell a lot of records, and that’s a tremendous amount of pressure. There’s no challenge in what they’re doing, because they’ve signed all these artists who actually have reputations. I don’t think they can break a creative artist, or somebody who is kind of left-of-center. They dropped Geri Allen after one or two records. They dropped Jason Lindner. They dropped Omer Avital. Didn’t even tell them. It’s kind of a shame, because if they have a bad year, it’s going to be even worse up there. The Herbie Hancock record I don’t think is going to make any money for the except maybe over a long period of time. But at Blue Note, three months, they make an evaluation, and that’s it.

TP: Let’s give our audience a blindfold test. One clue.

BELDEN: Yes. He was 13 years old when he made this record. The other thing is, if you listen to how professional these guys were. The arranger is Ernie Wilkins.

[MUSIC: Stevie Wonder, “Get Happy” (1963)]

BELDEN: See, guys who are Pop-oriented are much easier to work with. The whole business side, Smooth Jazz and R&B. Especially independent labels. They’re enthusiastic about the music. They really like what they hear, and they go to the bat for you. There’s not like some jazz tradition you’ve missed out. I see it a lot in the business, how they marginalize talented musicians, especially musicians who have a high level of musicianship — and they tend to go to a fashion. Again, for a non-musician, they look at a person and notice what they’re wearing and what the color of their skin is, and they make decisions based on that. And it has nothing to do with the notes, which are the real deal going down. So when I deal with all the kind of Pop-oriented labels, they are just much more professional about what they want to do. They tell you what they want and they do it, and they pay you the money. And they don’t sit down and talk about, “Well, what market is this going for?” They are trying to sell it. Because they don’t know about the Jazz tradition, and frankly, they don’t care.

I mean, the Jazz tradition is strangling our music. Why should a trumpet player have anything to do with New Orleans parade music? Why should all these guys imitate cats who passed away, and a lot of them lived in obscurity and poverty? Why can’t you live in modern times? Miles said, “You drive a modern car, you watch a modern TV, you live in a modern apartment.” Why be…

TP: I will say that some of the people who play the parade music did play that music coming up if they grew up in New Orleans. There are people who played Second Line, for whom that resonates.

BELDEN: Woody Herman was King of the Zulus in 1980 in New Orleans. They brought the whole band down. We had Afro wigs, blackface, grass skirts, the whole routine. We played the Heritage Hall with Wynton’s Dad and Nicholas Payton’s dad, and we did two nights at Al Hirt’s. The Zulu’s Ball. It was nothing. It was those guys who were locals. And they were modern players. They were playing like Cannonball stuff and Miles stuff, and then all of a sudden… I think it’s a tourist and cultural thing. They created this funeral music image. I don’t like old-fashioned music.

TP: You were talking about that before. You were saying that pre-Bebop players don’t really appeal to you.

BELDEN: Well, first of all, if you think about what that music meant at that time, that was some hard dues. And those guys basically played in smoky clubs and they had really no chance. Many of them had to retire… There are so many — in the ’50s — ex-musicians that had day jobs or taught schools and so forth. There wasn’t any real prejudice against white musicians back then, so you had a comfortable intermingling among musicians. There’s Mexican bebop players and there’s Puerto Rican bebop players, and they used to interact deeply back then. Now musicians have managers and agents and they have this kind of hi-falutin’ look of what their contributions to jazz are. I know as a writer, if I really wanted to, you could go and minimize what people think their contributions are. It’s so easy to imitate the past. It’s so easy to copy somebody else’s record. The hardest thing is to not put it out. I hear modern stuff occasionally, and it’s lifeless to me. There’s no adventure because nobody is buying those records. They’ve made the audience so traditional-oriented. They’ve tried to define jazz as a certain kind of music that has a certain kind of look. That’s why Smooth Jazz is primarily Caucasian.

TP: Well, the look you’re talking about is very much about marketing and has to do with the function of media. Everything is branded, and that look becomes the brand of the music.

BELDEN: See, I don’t agree with that. I think most jazz musicians are horribly ugly. They’re just not appealing physically. Because they never strived in their early years to do their face up and get their hair cut. Smooth jazz is a very visual well-to-do Yuppie kind of music, but a lot of those guys do pretty well. And the audience is so much more enthusiastic than jazz audiences. Jazz audiences tend to hoot and holler, and they like to go to hear picnic jazz, festival jazz. But the real serious Hardcore Jazz has sort of been banished from the planet. None of the companies want to take any chances with creative music at a certain level. If you’re fashionable, they’ll give you a shot. But they won’t come to the conclusion that they have to diversify completely and follow through with it.

The last time jazz was popular in America was when the fusion era was around. Now they’re talking 1.9% of sales. That’s like nonexistent. They sell more bootlegs than they sell that. But in the ’70s, it was 7%-8%, because of Fusion. Then in the ’80s they just dissed Fusion and Electric Jazz to the point where somebody reading a modern jazz magazine comes to the impression that there’s only the guys at Lincoln Center and only the guys who could play with Art Blakey and there’s nothing else. And there’s the Downtown scene, which has about 7 or 8 good musicians and a bunch of posers, people latching on to a scene — because it’s a social thing. But the main guys… If you deal with Zorn, Zorn is a very-very evocative conceptualist, and he takes care of business. He’s one of the strongest entities in the jazz business because he doesn’t need it to survive. And Bobby Previte, Dave Douglas…they’re all dedicated and very serious about what they’re doing. Yet they’re going to really sell mainstream numbers. If you’ve ever sold 50,000 to 60,000 records, you know what it feels like to see sales. In my Japanese records, sometimes I make a tremendous amount of royalties because the records sell.

TP: And it’s 9 o’clock. The next show must go on.

BELDEN: I love to poke fun at Verve. You have to understand.

TP: Well, Bob, you have many idiosyncracies, and many of them have come out on this program.

BELDEN: I’ll get nasty letters from people.

TP: And phone calls hopefully.

[-30-]

* * *

Bob Belden (for bio) – (9-13-2000):

TP: I think we should talk in as much detail as possible about the form of this piece, the events surrounding the piece, and the various associations you have to the piece. Will all this be described in the liner notes?

BELDEN: To some degree, yes.

TP: I have a lot of stuff from the Musician Show on your bio. I assume you want things like, “The Goose Creek, South Carolina, native, started playing music as a toddler, and did blah-blah-blah and did this in the school band, and went to North Texas State and did this and that, and from North Texas State went to Woody Herman and did this and that, and came to New York in 1980 and did this and that, and wrote the ESPN theme…

BELDEN: No, I didn’t write the ESPN theme. I arranged many themes.

TP: But all of that is in this interview we did. So if you want that stuff in the bio I have all of it to draw on. When we first were speaking, you said you wanted a thorough document, because you didn’t feel that you had an adequate bio.

BELDEN: Well, I’m sure you saw them.

TP: No. They didn’t send them to me.

BELDEN: They probably didn’t want to be embarrassed. Most of the bios are sort of for morons.

TP: Let’s talk about the piece. I won’t worry about the liner note. You’ve done a number of extended suites before. Before we talk about the personal circumstances that led to the work, let’s talk about the work formally in terms of the progression-of or the line of composition that you’ve done for large ensembles and suites.

BELDEN: The first thing I ever did as a suite was a piece called “World of the Past,” which is kind of science fiction jazz, which I wrote in 1981, and I had it performed in Denton, Texas, by the One O’Clock Band in 1987. It was essentially a piece of music about a dead world and about just intensity… It’s a very intense piece, non-stop. It was a three-movement piece that was continuous. When I was in school, we had a lot of encouragement to create pieces that went beyond just a chart, because we came out of a tradition of composition for large ensemble. It’s unlike anything you will find today, with the exception of maybe Miami University at one time. But Eastman School of Music and North Texas are probably the two places where composition for a large “jazz ensemble” is still taken seriously. Then in 1985 I started work ona piece that eventually became part of Treasure Island, which was originally for a quintet. The completed piece was commissioned by the Atlanta Arts Festival, and we performed it in 1987. Then I expanded it for a large ensemble, which I performed in April 1989 at Visiones, with my band at that time. And I had performed in February 1989 at Visiones for the first time with a band under my own name, and I so impressed Francois Zalacain that he gave me a record contract.

TP: You said that after the first set Francois came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set Matt Pierson came up and said, “We must record.”

BELDEN: Yes. And then for the second gig, Matt brought Lundvall down. I thought, “Wow, this is easy.” But I had never played a gig under my own name in New York City until I was 32 years old. That was the first gig I ever played as a bandleader. Because I had pretty much not been interested in the jazz world in the ’80s, since they were reinventing the past, and I did not want to put together a band to imitate Miles Davis or Art Blakey or anybody, which seemed to be the de rigueur of the moment. Which I still have strong feelings about that whole thing. I felt that jazz musicians at that time looked at serious composition as a form of frustrated abstract expressionism. They hid behind the intense nature of abstract jazz to feign seriousness, when in reality I felt that there was very little beauty. In Treasure Island I tried to create a bridge between the two, between the intense abstractness and beauty. It was also the first piece that expressed my feelings about the search for eternal love, and how jazz music comes out of a tradition of romantic music that was first proffered by Romantic composers from the 19th Century. And I can’t deny the fact that I am influenced profoundly by Western music, and will not lay claim to any part of African-American culture, and will not coopt that… I never wanted to lay claim to the cliche of African-American culture.

TP: A cliche?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s a cliche in the sense that people wrap their aesthetic around without really understanding what jazz really is. Nobody can define jazz except in the most analytical sense of the word or a historical sense of the word. I define it as a feeling. That it’s one of the few forms of music (using the word “form” in a loose sense) that allows you to go deep into your heart for no other reason than to say what you have to say. That you can express yourself deeply without having to think of any kind of commercialness. Because it’s the most unpopular music in the world.

TP: People are terrified of it.

BELDEN: They really are. It’s getting worse and worse, simply because people don’t care any more. They have to go to movies to cry. They can’t cry because they think about things. People only cry when they are surrounded by a tragedy. But I am surrounded by sadness all the time. I see it in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they act, the way they feel, the way they talk. “Love” is an abstract word that’s become commercialized. Miles Davis loved songs. It’s the same music, but it’s in a package. People say, “Oh, love; oh, Valentine’s Day; oh, makeout music.”

With Treasure Island I just decided, “Okay, what do I want to express about the idea of being in love.” And the idea of being in love has many implications. But to me there’s true love and eternal love. And to some people, love is a form of possession. So I wrote this piece…

TP: You addressed this in the earlier interview. But it sounds to me like the core of your ability to articulate your inner self as a writer of music really stems from your experiences at North Texas State.

BELDEN: No. I learned the tools from that. But I learned how to express myself from living in this place, in New York City, being alone for so many years…

TP: So North Texas State gave you the most thorough apprenticeship and training, and then you honed this living in New York in the ’80s through your various navigations of the sharkpit.

BELDEN: Well, I went on the road with Woody Herman, and that introduced me to the real life, the real world of jazz. It gave me experience going around the world and playing in every state in the United States and Europe and South America. I got to see things that… I looked for things. I felt things. And I realized that music was a viable way to make a living, even though the rest of our culture tends to dismiss it because for some reason they feel that their inadequacies as human beings prevent them from dedicating their life to something like this. So New York City brought everything good and bad in the world here, in front of your face every day, all the time. So having lived alone for a long time in New York City, my social circle was mostly musicians, and it was hard to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman because my intensity scared them. So I said, “Hey, I’m better off just thinking about it rather than dealing with it.” So Treasure Island was a real just crying-out to say, “Hey, I have a soul; I’m a sensitive person; I have dreams about these things, but I can only express them in music.”

TP: So it’s 1989, and you do Treasure Island and you record for Francois, and then Bruce Lundvall hears you.

BELDEN: Well, actually, right after I recorded Treasure Island, which was in August, I was in the studio for Blue Note in December working on the Sting record. Which was just one of those moments of inspiration. I had met Sting at the David Sanborn show and invited him to sit in with my big band, and then said, “Well, geez, if I invited him, I might as well write some music.” And I just listened to some of his music and said, “You know, there’s something there,” and went to Matt Pierson and said, “This is what I want to do,” and six minutes later I had a record deal with Blue Note.

TP: I don’t think I ever heard it.

BELDEN: Like most records today they go out of print faster than… Their out of print life is greater than their on-the-shelf life.

Then I recorded in October 1990 in Paris at La Cigalle, and there was a piece on there called “Psalm #1.” In 1984 and 1985 I had a bunch of free time, because I was doing all this stuff for ESPN and I was bringing this work to the studio, and they gave me free time. So I used it as a lab to record music. I did a couple of records with Wallace Roney, and one of them was half of an album with this ensemble. It was an intense piece that was a Valentine’s gift for someone, which was totally misunderstood. I played it on a gig, because I wanted to at least have it on record.

But then I did the Sting record, which went from a straight-ahead record to a commercial record, because Matt Pierson sort of… I just wanted it out. I wanted to have a record out on Blue Note, because I’m a big Blue Note nut. It’s a dream come true.

Then I did Turandot, and that changed my life. Turandot was an extension of finding a way to express deeper emotional feelings in music, and the subject matter and the melodic nature of Turandot were exactly what I wanted to deal with. It was about love, as most tragic operas are, and it was about the quest for unrequited love and eternal love set against a society and a social backdrop that put obstacles in the way. For instance, if you’re a musician, a very creative musician who is sensitive, who is into romantic music, into music that carries a sense of like sadness in it, which is essentially the melancholia, it’s hard to relate that to a female, especially when you haven’t quite gotten to yourself as an artist, simply because society has a prejudice against artists because they never make any money — the starving artist kind of syndrome. In reality, what we are…some people are really the heart and the essence of the tenderness of the human heart. I did this record because it was…you know, nobody had ever done it before — covering an opera. And I did it in such a way that I was able to transform the musicians who were involved on the record into following the personalities of the characters in the opera. It started out with Tim Hagans playing a certain role, and it ended up with Jim Powell playing that same role but having been affected by falling in love. Because Jim Powell was a very sensitive, very romantic player, and Hagans was a very confident player. I had Wallace Roney play the part of this Princess, a cold, heartless Princess, and I told Wallace to play it that way, and he played it just perfectly — just a very detached kind of lonely, searching kind of thing. He was the only one who could do that. I had Lovano play and Migliore play, the two main Italian Tenor operas, because they’re Italian, and coming from their upbringing, they understood that.

TP: It sounds in a certain way like Black Dahlia is the next step from Turandot.

BELDEN: Well, what happened was that Turandot was suppressed by the publisher because of some prejudice that the Classical Music Establishment has against all forms of music that come from human suffering, as opposed to the aristocracy. It put me into a state of artistic depression that you would not believe. Because I felt I could not express myself any more than that record at that time. And I stopped writing music. I started doing arrangements, mostly arranging and producing for other people. What I would do was take well-known material and twist it, so it sounded like Turandot or Treasure Island, so you will hear in all of these records I did, the records on Prince’s music and Carole King and the Beatles record… I would twist these things, so that I was able to maintain my skills and my sound, and further develop my sound using other people’s music. Because that way I wouldn’t have to deal with… The fact that Treasure Island is still in print is only because everything on Sunnyside will stay in print because Francois Zalacain owns the company, and he loves music, and he’s not interested in sales, he’s interested in having stuff available.

TP: Talk formally about how your sound developed between Turandot and now, in terms of what you were looking to develop and hearing it evolve.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s, when I was doing commercial music, I was doing a lot of television and film. I would finish all this work and I would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning almost every night writing music. I had a group with Smulyan and Powell and Hirschfield and Jay Anderson and Marc Copland, and we would rehearse every Wednesday. I would write for sextet, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with it because from a standpoint of harmony you can do things, but from a standpoint of orchestration, you couldn’t. When I bought the Yamaha DX-7, it allowed me to hear a certain kind of harmony that you couldn’t really hear on the piano, and I started developing a sound, a (?) of how chords should sound, and I started being attracted to certain kinds of chords, really dark minor chords, minor chords in like C-sharp-minor or E-flat-minor or A-flat-minor — dark, very dark, and they have a certain sound. I got away from writing in guitar keys, which are sharp keys, or string keys, which are sharp keys, because they are brighter. I really was gravitating towards darkness. I just felt it. There’s a Gil Evans arrangement of “The Barber’s Song” from The Individualism of Gil Evans which was profoundly affecting me, not only in the fact that it was dark, but the tempo was dark. It was just surrounded in this kind of darkness. Which is what New York was to me. Because I used to hang out at night all the time. I used to walk around at night. And you feel that even though there is sunshine, there is intensity here. There is a lot of evil here, a lot of evil in this city, and there is a difference between Good and Evil. I’ve been there.

So I developed a sound, the sounds of chords. I don’t write music that’s happy, like Kenny G or any smooth jazz per se. When I did Carole King, I turned her record into darkness. I found the sadness beneath the surface, and I exploited that. The record started kind of light and smooth, and it went further and further into abstract darkness, where you lead way over yonder. And at the same time I was developing a sound with three keyboards, because I couldn’t afford to go on the road with a big band, I couldn’t afford… I got frustrated. With Turandot that was like 26 musicians on one session, 64 total involved in the project. On Shades of Red, Shades of Blue, 104 musicians were involved in the project. I managed to arrange these Blue Note tunes and to twist them into the way I heard them. “Song For My Father” I totally twisted around to make it sound like my tune. And I got players who I thought could get the sound. In 1995 I did a piece for Deutsche Grammophone based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and I twisted that into my thing. You can hear stuff from Treasure Island and Turandot in that. They rejected that completely because it scared them. Because they see the word “jazz,” and they think, “Light, happy, bouncy, peppy dance music.” Then when you come out of… I was heavily influenced by Alban Berg, heavily influenced by music that accompanied noir pictures. Chinatown to me is one of the greatest movies for music. So I was just essentially writing arrangements, and… I just wanted to see if I could make a million dollars in five years. And I did. I mean, it all went to the Federal Government, for the most part, because we live in a state that’s a welfare state.

TP: So it’s ’97 or so.

BELDEN: In ’97, I read an article in the Village Voice which totally, totally freaked me out. Because I realized that something was wrong with me. I became the A&R director at Blue Note during that time, in the summer of ’97. On the one hand, it was a dream come true, and on the other hand it was terribly disappointing. Because I had learned how to produce records and I had learned how to conceptualize records, and I had learned how to take musicians and put them into environments where they sounded better than they did on their own records. Because I knew how to recognize strengths and weaknesses in players. I would study them. I would check them out. When I started working for Blue Note, musicians there who I was dealing with were essentially… It was a foretelling of the situation we have today in that musicians will not let their egos down enough to make a good record. Miles Davis trusted Gil Evans and he trusted the people at his record company to put him in an environment on the odd occasion that would take his music and sound into another world. That’s why those records, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, will last forever, and will define a certain kind of ultimate expression in jazz. And there are only a few musicians who would ever trust me enough to do that, one of them being Tim Hagans, and another one being Gary Smulyan, who unfortunately was not on Blue Note at the time. But certain musicians, a guy like Joe Lovano, would let me work with them on certain things and just allow me to do my thing.

But I realized I was fighting a losing battle, because cats these days want to produce their own record because they want to say, “I’m a producer.” But most people produce records that are basically average. They are the same record that they’ve recorded a month ago, or two months ago, or two years ago. And Blue Note was in a period where they were signing certain guys who had no conception of how to make a record, nor did they want to know, because they were having peer pressure, they wanted the New York Times to love them, and they felt that they had to make records that sounded a certain way as opposed to finding out who they were.

TP: But just to hold off for a second, this stuff won’t be in the bio.

BELDEN: But it’s going to lead to it. So I got frustrated, and then I found out that I was not well. That was in October 1997. And it was such a shock that I said, “I can’t do this any more. I have to write my own music again. I can’t be a producer who is just there to tell musicians how good they sound. I’m not a babysitter.” So that’s when I started writing Black Dahlia. Because the subject material was something that I found just totally intriguing.

TP: Let’s address the subject material, then.

BELDEN: You’ll get the information, then you’ll come up with it, then you’ll figure it out. See, the web-site is irrelevant. There’s three levels to the Black Dahlia. One is the legend. Number two is the crime. And number three is the human being. You’ll find out all about the legend on the website, and there was a TV movie, and James Ellroy wrote a book. The crime is a real thing. The crime was a crime of murder. But the story is of a human being who is born innocent into an indifferent world, a world filled with sadness and desperation. This girl, Elizabeth Short, had dreams, and like most kids from her generation, had to escape the drudgery of the Depression. And society created this dream world called motion pictures, and she became totally involved in this fantasy world of falling in love and being famous and being rich and happy. She had one of these childhoods that was dreadful in that there was no hope, so she moved to different places, and eventually settled and resettled in Los Angeles in order for herself to find love and find happiness, to free her spirit. Because that’s essentially what she was. But the problem is, when you move to a place like Los Angeles, the exterior of it is very misleading. Palm trees, sunshine, beautiful people, Hollywood. But at the same time, it’s still the wild, wild West. It’s a place where people move to to escape, and they brought themselves with them. So Hollywood, on the one hand… If you read any of the books about Hollywood, like City of Nets by Otto Friedrich being one, Hollywood was a horrible town. Hollywood was a place that was essentially greedy, selfish, narcissistic people surrounded by defense workers and servicemen and Oakies. So on one hand you had the glamour of Hollywood and you were surrounded by trash, you were surrounded by essentially kind of a low-level experience — no sophistication.

Hollywood was all fake. And I think she found how fake it really was. But by then it was too late. For her, it was becoming a nightmare instead of a dream. If you think about people who get caught up in the dream world of New York, and it slowly becomes a nightmare. Woody Shaw. Miles Davis got caught up in it. You know, Miles Davis almost killed himself, out of loneliness and desperation, in 1979. People come here with dreams. They can be shattered. Others have their dreams fulfilled. I saw this. I read about her in this book called Severed by John Gilmore. It talked about her, and it talked about the crime, and it talked about the real environment around her. And I read City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. And I got a feeling for how a human being can get trapped in this world. Because I was trapped. I lived in a dream world here, because I was totally focused on music and being a musician and being an artist, somebody who expressed their innermost feelings in music. It took me into the hardest part of New York City, the darkest part of the city.

In ’97 I realized that I had to write this music. And little by little, as my health deteriorated, I got focused more and more on the music, and I would write little bits here and there, little bits and pieces, and I would rewrite it and rewrite it. This is what I had to do, was eliminate the idea that these would just be little pieces that had no connection. And I had to create a theme that would be running throughout the music, which is the theme of her life. And I had to create themes that would capture episodes, moments in her life. That’s how the piece is. Every theme is exploited, just like Wagner. The piece starts at the moment of death, and it’s a flashback. It’s her life. She’s reliving her life. “Genesis” is the point of birth — death and birth. And the melody that enters is this lonely trumpet sound, and it’s the sound of one soul being born against this solo piano, which is the backdrop, just the simplest essence of creation. Then it develops into a full-blown orchestrated theme, which is how people’s lives develop. Then there is this little section which transitions to the solo, which is essentially the love theme. The harmonic basis of “Danza D’Amour” is right there. Then it goes into “In Flight,” which is when she is desperate to leave. “Genesis” ends with this triumphant kind of screaming-out, like “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m a human being.” Then the last three phrases are, “But I must cry, I must sigh, and I must die.” Because those chords that end “Genesis” are the chords of Death that follow her throughout the piece.

On “In Flight” she’s leaving, trying to escape the world she was born into. In “Dawn,” she’s at dawn and she’s overlooking this misty kind of valley and she has no idea what lies ahead. Then “City of Angels” is the moment when the city is revealed, and this artificial world, beautiful, a kind of a gauze, a golden gauze that holds over the city, and she looks around and sees movie stars, mansions, people who are just everything she ever fantasized about. She was there. Hollywood. California. Yet at the end of the piece you hear the essence of evil striking out, this moment of like uncertainty. But then she blows it off and just starts, you know, “I believe that I will see; when I believe, I will see.” She just accepts this as her world. Then “Dream World” is the world where she becomes an adventurer in a dream world.

TP: That’s where you enter.

BELDEN: That’s where I play the saxophone.

TP: And Hagans is playing most of the trumpet up to there. You play the soprano saxophone solos?

BELDEN: There’s no soprano saxophone solos. That’s English horn. Charlie Pillow. “Dream World” is the world she’s in at that moment, the fantasy world of California. “Prelude to Love” is the moment she stops and thinks, “What is it I’m missing? What is it I really want? I want to be in love.”

In “Danza D’Amour,” Joe Lovano plays the character of the potential suitors, the different men in her life that she fell in love with but who never could love her. And it ends tragically. The theme starts out very nostalgic, very period in some way. And it dances in and out of little harmonic cells which constantly modulate and change, and gets more intense and more intense until it kind of dwindles out. Because when you fall in and out of love, the feeling just peters out, you know. And it goes back into the theme again. But it ends incredibly tragic, and that’s the end of what her life was as Elizabeth Short. She could never fall in love because she did not have the capacity to fall in love, like the Princess in Turandot or like the characters in Treasure Island.

TP: Didn’t she specifically have…

BELDEN: That was irrelevant. Because love has nothing to do with sex. She wanted to find somebody who loved her because of all of her situations. So then “Zanzibar” is when she sort of starts hanging out in the nightlife, becoming a night creature. And “Black Dahlia” is the moment she becomes this person who transforms herself into someone who will draw people to her. In other words, she knew she could not fall in love with a man; she had to have men fall in love with her.

TP: Or desire her.

BELDEN: Well, pretty much one and the same. And she can control it. She became the Black Dahlia. And there’s a phrase that’s basically one of the melody phrases, which is “When your day becomes your night” in the beginning, and then at the end it’s “when your night becomes your day.”

Then there’s this piece called “Edge of Forever.” It’s her last night at the Hacienda Club. The Hacienda Club was a dance hall, and I envisioned it being a proto Kenton-Dizzy Gillespie band, these wild, extreme trumpets. Each soloist becomes a different phase of…

TP: The trombone soloist is Conrad Herwig?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s Conrad. Migliore on alto and Lou Soloff. At the end, there’s the famous Gene Krupa-Harry James kind of maddening trumpet-drum thing, where we wanted to get to this frenzy. There’s kind of a cliche… Like, if you’ve ever watched the Twilight Zone episode with Richard Conte; it’s really like this wild, crazy… I described it to Tom Evered as “bongo madness.” Just an intense bongo kind of driven piece that evokes the Afro-Cuban kind of dark, evil, sinister thing that they used that music for in movies. And it was her last night on earth. Then there is the piece called “Freeway (101 North),” which is the Hollywood Freeway. She was using that, heading toward the mountains. The way that was written, it was improvised, but I told Kevin Hays to imitate traffic, visualizing driving half out of your mind, desperate to leave, to get somewhere. I don’t even know if she drove, but in a car, going somewhere, and seeing lights…you know, being distorted in the headlights, headlights being distorted in the windshield, and creating this kind of illusion and this intensity, cars zooming by, horns honking, and just like total paranoia.

Then “Elegy” is basically in four parts. On “City Lights” she’s on top of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, wondering what has gone wrong with her life. It’s late at night, she overlooking the valley, and she’s wondering what has gone wrong with her life. Why is she in this position? Because in her real life, she had been involved with criminals, people like robbing houses, and she was a setup for robbing houses. She’d become a petty thief. She knew too much, and she probably was going to turn people in. She wanted to get out of that life and she wanted to have those people put away so she could be safe. So she’s up on the mountain, looking over the city, seeing all these little street-lights, and thinking, “For every light that I see in Los Angeles, that means their soul has died and gone to heaven to become a star in the night sky.” Then she prays, “God, if there is a heaven, then that’s where I want to be. I want my soul to live forever, for all eternity.”

Then as in most tragic operas, she starts walking to her destiny, to the moment… She knows she is going to die, and she accepts that. And she is going to walk to the place where she is going to meet the person who is going to kill her. And she starts thinking about how sad her life has been, and trying to glimpse into her mind the moments of happiness. When you hear the strings score up, she starts crying, crying like, “Why? Why? God Almighty, why do I deserve this? What have I done?” Then when the trumpets come in screaming her theme, she is back to the moment, like, “I started out innocent, and now my life is just intertwined with Evil and bad people.” Then those last moments, it’s like the emotion overwhelms her, to where she’s face-to-face with Jack the Ripper, the personification of Jack the Ripper, who begins cutting her up. Then there’s this big tympany roll, and then she screams — the last sound she ever utters. A scream. But it wasn’t a scream that anybody heard but her, in her mind.

Then you hear this like little low note, and then you hear a string note, and it’s like the very beginning. The trumpet comes in. And she looks down upon the crime scene, this vacant lot, and sees her body, and sees a little kid come up and see it and go and run. Then she sees the kid’s mother. Then the police come. It’s like dissolving from one to the other, happening, like floating… The time is like speeding up. It’s no longer like slow in real time. It’s like getting faster. She’s in Purgatory. She doesn’t know whether she’s going to ascend to heaven or if her soul will spend eternity in Purgatory. She is suddenly bathed in a light, and she looks up and sees this light just enveloping her soul, and she hears a voice and it says, “Please come to me, my little child.” That’s the voice of God inviting her to Heaven. So you can hear it go into tempo, and it just starts getting more intense, and the strings start playing a little higher and higher and higher. She’s ascending into Heaven, going higher and higher, until she breaks above the boundaries of the earth into this beautiful…like what people dream Heaven is. It’s a clear blue sky, the most beautiful blue. It’s Heaven. And the clouds is the cushion beneath you. She knows she’s made it, she’s done it. Her one dream, to live forever, will be achieved. Then the light intensifies and intensifies, and it becomes so bright to where it disappears into total blackness. Then suddenly a star appears in Heaven, and then a light appears in the City of Los Angeles, and then the Sun comes up over the mountains. Then you hear those three chords saying, “The Black Dahlia will live forever.” And that’s the story.

TP: You mentioned a few times Gil Evans. He seems a primary inspiration for the way you think about music. Not so directly tied into the sounds on this. But for instance, you said no one had done an opera, but he reimagined a different type of opera. Other things as well. Maybe this is a totally fallacious line of questioning, but I want to talk to you about tangible landmarks in your intellectual journey.

BELDEN: Well, simply: Alban Berg, Lulu. Puccini, Turandot. Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. And Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown. This record has nothing to do with Gil Evans. I talked to Gil. Gil and Miles were thinking of doing Tosca, and I asked him once, “How come you didn’t do it?” He said, “There wasn’t enough there.” But see, Gil could never conceptualize a unified work on his own, because he never thought like that. Basically, Gil could deal with one voice effectively, which was Miles. He could wrap Miles around in something. But he could not really deal with the idea of putting together…to create a work that told a story.

TP: That said, you spoke of what happened to you psychically after Treasure Island and Turandot, which was more a reimagination of the opera than a rearrangement, so we can call them creative works… Do you see this as in line with a late 20th century opera? How would you describe…

BELDEN: How about an early 21st Century opera? Well, it has the elements of opera and it has the elements of tone poems, which is like Richard Strauss — “Das Sprach Zarathustra,” “Der Eulenspiegel.” It’s a tone poem. It’s a work that tells a story, that’s based on themes. It comes from that tradition.

TP: But it deals with improvisers as the voices.

BELDEN: It deals with people who can improvise emotion, who can improvise feeling. Because there’s not a lot of improvisation in there. Because it’s about telling a story. It’s about telling a melody. It’s saying that melodies can become human characters.

TP: Lovano has a phrase, “tonal personality.”

BELDEN: Yeah. But I don’t even know if I’d call it that. Because I create the personality that the musicians will… I have to put that musician into a point where they can instinctively play that. Before we played the first piece, “Genesis,” I turned to Tim Hagans and said, “Do you remember how I felt last year?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Play like that.” He knew what I meant. And he played like that. He played like somebody who thought they were going to die. You never heard Hagans play like that. I got Lawrence Feldman to play that alto solo on “Black Dahlia” because I knew he would play exactly what I had written. We talked about that. I had him come over to my apartment in August 1999 and go over that with me, and I told him, “This is what I want you to do. I am writing this for you because I know you know what I want.” His solo was written out.

TP: What voice are you when you’re playing saxophone?

BELDEN: I’m just one of the characters… In “Dream World,” I am basically her as an existing human being in a situation. And when I am playing the last piece, I am like her watching herself die, which is when I watched myself slowly die. Because this shit is not your normal record, man. This has things in it that are so deep to me, and stuff that I really can’t talk about, because people won’t understand. They have to know that this purely emotion. This has nothing to do with the jazz tradition as people think of it. It has to do with the tradition of Germanic music. It goes beyond just a jazz record. Like, Keith Jarrett’s solo piano record. You can hear how bad he felt when he was trying to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, trying to get over an illness that was sapping his life out from under him. When you are at a point in your life when you can’t do anything, you have no strength to do anything, and your mind is like completely left to just ponder your fate, it’s terrible.

* * *

Bob Belden Blindfold Test (11-15-02):

1. Oliver Nelson, “Blues O’Mighty” (from MORE BLUES & THE ABSTRACT TRUTH, Impulse!, 1964/1997) (Oliver Nelson, arr.; Thad Jones, cornet; Phil Woods, as; Pepper Adams, bs; Roger Kellaway, p) – (4 stars)

The pianist sounded like it came from a deep source, like he has everything in it. And the bass player, the only guy who can play like that is Richard Davis, so it has to be Roland Hanna. It sounds like a Thad Jones tune. The baritone is a very, very different kind of Pepper — if it were Pepper. Outside of that, a funny reverb on everything. That’s as close as I can come. In terms of rating, it sounds like a basic record date, a blues, but if it’s those guys, they’re always quality musicians, so I would say four stars. If it were somebody else, I would say 2 stars for imitating.

2. Daniel Schnyder, “With the Devil On The Backseat” (from TARANTULA, Enja, 1996) (Schnyder, comp., ts; Hubert Laws, fl.) (3 stars)

I guess the drummer was out getting high or something. That’s a very intriguing way of dealing with that kind of cluster voicing that Brookmeyer and Gil Evans use so well. The flute player was great. There’s very few flute players who can have that tone. It could be Lew Tabackin. So it could be Toshiko’s band. Tabackin has that kind of tone. It’s a big tone and it’s uniform throughout the register. Jazz flute is kind of a dying art form. The saxophone player I couldn’t really tell, because the changes were kind of tricky for him, and it didn’t sound like it was something written specifically for that person’s phrasing technology, so to speak. But the arrangement is interesting, and it has certain intellectual qualities which are apparent. But it’s just all right. It’s okay. You know? If it’s Toshiko’s band, it has to be Frank Wess. But if it’s not, it could be Kenny Wheeler; he writes like that a little bit. Kenny Werner writes like that. I don’t know if Maria… She can, she has the potential to write like that. All these people kind of write in the same similar thing, where the music is more based on how much ensemble they can manipulate in between solos. My philosophy has always been the drama created from the hero, the antagonism between the hero and the society, as opposed to everybody being a communal player. And that music was framed around little solo vignettes for the soloists, but there was no emotional focus or where they were going to end up. It just sort of was a piece, something like you would write in college. For the concept, four stars. For the emotional thing that hit me, 2 stars. So three stars.

[AFTER] I wouldn’t have thought Hubert Laws, because he’s been kind of off the scene. But he has that big tone like Lew, a classical tone. I know who Daniel Schnyder is, but I don’t really follow his music that much. I get stuff in the mail from him. I know he wrote for Lee Konitz a couple of years ago. But I’m into just intense maniac stuff. I’m not into this kind of thing.

3. Cindy Blackman, “Green” (from CODE RED, Muse, 1990) (Cindy Blackman, d, comp; Wallace Roney, tp; Steve Coleman, as; Kenny Barron, p; Lonnie Plaxico, b) – (5 stars)

Okay, I think I know who that is. Cindy Blackman had to be the drummer, and probably Mulgrew Miller on piano, which means the bass player could have been… It’s a Muse date. I can tell by the fact that the recording quality has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But the trumpet player can be nobody else but my man Wallace Roney, and anything Wallace plays is 5 stars. The Muse dates were kind of like the Prestige dates. You could tell that if they had just focused on this tune and another two tunes for a session, they could have gotten what Wallace really wanted. But it’s Wallace, and it’s killin’. I can tell by the articulation. [Any guesses on the saxophone player?] I know who it is, but I can’t remember. There’s this whole line of alto players who come out of Spaulding in a way, this angular kind of Spaulding thing. There’s Kenny Garrett… This might have been an early Kenny Garrett, because they were a tandem for a moment there. But I could be wrong again. [Whose date was it?] Well, I’m not sure. These days there’s no… It’s kind of not really a Wallace Roney kind of tune. It’s a Cindy Blackman date probably. It’s the drummer’s date, because the tune was written around the drummer. I could be wrong again. But there would be more space if it were a Wallace Roney date. Five stars for Wallace. The record, because of the way jazz records are made, I’d say is not 100% of what they could have done with the people they had. But under the circumstances, that’s all they could get out of it. But I’ll give Wallace five stars for anything he plays. Cindy Blackman deserves a four star record, but she could have done a five-star record if it was her record… So four stars.

[AFTER] I remember Steve Coleman mostly as an alto player on Thad Jones & Mel Lewis’ band, and next thing you know, he’s got this system of music out in Brooklyn. I was going to say Osby, but it was too bebop for Osby. Greg has refined that whole concept, I think; has distilled the art of deception to an incredible length. But I guess he is severely influenced by Coleman.

4. John Patitucci, “Isabella” (from COMMUNION, Concord, 2001) (Patitucci, 6-string-electric bass, comp; Chris Potter, ss; Ed Simon, p.) – (2-1/2 stars)

Is that Michael Brecker on soprano saxophone? Oh, man! I said Brecker first, but it sounds Liebmanish. Dave Liebman has a conception on the soprano saxophone. It’s hard to say. I only liked the last 30 seconds. The melody is quasi-Weather Report, quasi-quasi, but the last one, they just stayed on that groove, the low pedal, and just stayed there, kept what sounded to be like a berimbau or something of that nature in there. That was cool at the very end. Had that been a Miles Davis date, Teo would have just looped the last end for about 20 minutes. On a record date like that, the vamps are when all the shit happens, because people are over all the agony of having to play the tune, and by the finish of the tune, they’ve already had an orgasm, and now it’s kind of like they’re relaxing and mellowing out, like lighting up the cigarette, and the music is just going into another world. I think that when people play, they should just let the thing run out, even if it’s a 20-minute ending. Because you can always edit it. But you get amazing things from the finish of tunes. And that tune had a great finish. I have no earthly idea who it is. The recording quality is pretty miserable, too. Everything is dark and muddy. So it could be the bass player’s record. The only guy who’s like approaching that stuff is…like, Richard Bona has a worldly approach. But it’s hard to say. The cliche of Fusion, as Zawinul once said to me, is that everything has got arrangements. That tune there was so many different tunes within the tune. Just the vamp could have been tune. Just the melody. You could have just played around with that melody, like “Nefertiti,” and not ever played a solo, and just let the melody breathe. Sometimes you don’t have to develop things. Sometimes you don’t have to make an issue out of things. But then, it’s their record, not mine. 2-1/2 stars for the last 30 or 40 seconds of the piece. The soprano player was nice, but again, there’s all these things in there. It’s all Coltrane-based. Very Coltrane-based. I mean, anybody who plays the saxophone can do that without thinking about it. And I think he should send at least $1.40 to Coltrane’s family.

[AFTER] Chris Potter, my man! But yeah, the bag is you get into those Middle Eastern kind of grooves, and the tendency is go on to Coltrane, and the thing is that you’ve got a slash mark that says whatever the tonal center… Say it’s A-concert, and that’s an open string for the bass, so he’s able to jump off and do all kinds of interesting stuff. But for a horn player, you’ve got this one note, and you’ve got to have everybody on the same wavelength, and then you can play melodies to it instead of playing the Slonimsky kind of stuff. But it’s just basically the kind of thing where he wrote a tune… They all write tunes, and they’re tunes, and it’s not really about the actual music that happens on the tune. Just the arrangement happens. Patitucci is a guy who comes from that area. All his influences are evident in that kind of thing. But record companies put pressures on guys to write tunes as opposed to letting the music just happen. Personally, I’d have just let them go for a half-an-hour on that little vamp, and got the Sonic Solutions out. But again, those guys are all 100% musicians. It’s just they’re making records, as opposed to making momentary snapshots of the way they feel about life that day. It’s a very abstract way of making music. But to me, it’s the only way of making music that is a true testament to how you feel about life. Otherwise, you’re just making a date with a bunch of all-stars.

5. Brecker Brothers, “Slang” (from OUT OF THE LOOP, GRP, 1994) (Michael Brecker, ts, comp.; Randy Brecker, tp.; George Whitty, keyboards, arr.; Dean Brown, g; James Genus, b; Steve Jordan, d; Steve Thornton, perc.) – (3-1/2 stars)
Right there’s another one, man. They get into it on the fade. The back end of the tune is killing. They get into a groove. It’s like it’s all focused on that. What I heard is two different record covers. It’s almost like a hip Saturday Night Live band. The first part is all Brecker Brothers, the voicings, the Hindemith descending fourths, very early Miles-’80s, the muted trumpet, bebop licks… It’s just a lot of stuff in there. And at the very end, it gets into this kind of groove, and kind of very Pop, and then they fade out. It’s a tune that’s five tunes in one. You’re on an emotional roller-coaster ride there. Like, where are you going? It’s again about two stars! Because that’s all I ever want to hear it. I don’t want to ever hear it again. I don’t need to hear it again. It will stick in my mind forever because it was getting nice towards the end, and I’ll probably steal a few voicings. But outside of that, wow. Who was it?

[AFTER] Man, the Brecker Brothers! Yeah. I was thinking that if it was somebody STEALING the Brecker Brothers, then it should be 2 stars. But that’s George Whitty. See, I was going to say George Whitty. But they’re the only guys that are doing that stuff. It’s totally Brecker Brothers language. Now that it’s a Brecker Brothers record, it’s 5 stars. No, you have to understand. If it’s an imitator, then it’s definitely 2 stars, because there’s groups out there that imitate very well. I’m thinking, my God, a band has come out, and they’re copying the Brecker Brothers note for note. Because that’s George Whitty and that’s Robbie Kilgore doing the programming. I know the record, but since the car accident, my memory has just gone. But I knew that was the Breckers, because Randy is the only guy who does that. And I knew it was Michael. But then again, there are so many people who imitate Michael Brecker note for note, to the point where it’s scary. And I dare venture a guess, and I’d rather make a hip remark about somebody imitating them than to give them… Because this kind of music is so easy to imitate, because it’s note for note transcription. It’s an arrangement. It’s something that starts and finishes with endings and beginnings. And the kind of music that’s more difficult to imitate is the music that…to imitate or capture the feeling that went into making the music in the original. That was Dennis Chambers on drums, right? I saw that band live. Barry Finnerty was on guitar. It wasn’t Dennis Chambers. Oh, Steve Jordan. But Dennis Chambers did the live shows. But yeah, that had to be… I knew that was Randy Brecker. Nobody does what he does. But again, I don’t think it’s the best example of their band. The best stuff they ever did was in the ’70s on Arista. That was ridiculous. And nobody has imitated that. Well, actually they have. I take that back. I heard a group at the Blue Note one night, but it was fake Brecker Brothers from the ’70s. But it’s hard. Michael is the kind of guy… I feel bad for Michael, because he’s the first guy that synthesized Stanley Turrentine and Coltrane, and he made the connection because Turrentine dug Coltrane, and they all came out of Gene Ammons, and they all came out of the big tenor tone — Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Michael Brecker just took that and made it his own thing, and then everybody…even Chris Potter can sound like that if he wants. So I have a difficult time even distinguishing him sometimes. Which is why when you played the thing with Patitucci, I thought that was Brecker on soprano. I thought somebody was giving him a break, and having him play soprano. Because there were so many lines there, patterns that saxophone players play, and articulation. It’s very gender-specific. It’s like a code. I can tell somebody who’s… I know the record collection. I know the record they got it from. On the one hand, it’s great. But when you put it out on your record as being your thing, then it’s kind of disingenuous, because the guys who made the music in the original to begin with suffered enough.

For Randy Brecker, five stars. For Michael Brecker, 5 stars. For the track, 2 stars. There is a distinction. They are 100% artists making a 50% album. I’ll make it easy. 3-1/2 stars, with 5 for the Breckers, for Randy, and for the conception, 2 for the tune, and average it out for the fact that everybody steals from them and they don’t pay them any money.

6. Benny Carter, “Blue Star” (from FURTHER DEFINITIONS, 1961/1997) (Carter, as, comp, arr.; Coleman Hawkins, ts) – (5 stars)

I’m going to make a stab. Marshall Royal. No? I mean, that’s a really tight saxophone section. It could be Bobby Plater. It’s very bizarre. Like, the old-school vibrato, reverby room… Wow, that is so out there. Because there’s a record with the Count Basie sax section and Coleman Hawkins, and Marshall has that kind of sound. But I’m trying to think… [Do you know the tune?] [SINGS REFRAIN] Yeah. The bebop tune that’s based on “How High The Moon.” Yeah. I have no earthly idea. It’s from the ancient days. [You think you recognized Coleman Hawkins, though.] No, there’s a record called “Coleman Hawkins and The Big Sax Section.” It’s with the Basie Sax Section and Coleman Hawkins… [A Savoy record.] A Savoy record, yeah. But no, there’s only a handful of these kind of sax ensemble records that exist in this old-school stuff. Earl Bostic… Benny Carter. Yeah. I’m not familiar with the recording, but I’m thinking who plays like that? There’s only a handful of guys who can play like that, and it’s an elegant kind of thing. I knew it wasn’t Woody Herman. He’s the other guy who plays that style. It’s a touch of Johnny Hodges, but what Johnny Hodges brings to it is a skilled… It’s very elegant. Everything was very precise. The vibrato was very precise. It was a lot wider than Hodges. Why I say Marshall Royal is because Marshall is from L.A. and was profoundly influenced by Benny Carter, and Marshall plays exactly like Benny Carter when he solos. So I don’t think I was too far astray. But yeah, Benny Carter, and I can’t venture to say who was in the section. But if the readers could hear it, the tenor players, when they played their ensembles, they played it perfectly in the same…no vibrato. I knew it wasn’t any of the Ellington guys, because the pitch would have been all over the place and the vibrato would have been all over the place, so you’d have had that fuzz. This was done by meticulously trained musicians…who were probably sober at the date. [But you think the tenor player was Coleman Hawkins.] I couldn’t tell. [Well, it was.] Okay. [Do you want to know who the other saxophone players were, just for professional curiosity? The other tenor player was Charlie Rouse and the other alto player were Phil Woods.] See, I told you, man. They played like not on the road, playing the same music every night. You could tell when the tenor counterline came in, they were playing the same vibrato and the same phrase. Benny Carter, 5 stars. The arrangement, 5 stars. It’s a very specific kind of writing. There are six saxophones… [Four.] So there’s not a trumpet in there. I guess I’m hearing the reverb… Oh, the guitar. So the guitar is playing some of the notes, too. But it sounds a lot bigger than it is, and that’s a testament to his writing. It’s also a testament to the reverb.

7. Jack de Johnette, “Where Or Wayne” (from EARTH WALK, Blue Note, 1991) (de Johnette, drums, comp; Gary Thomas, ts; Greg Osby, as; Michael Cain, keyboards; Lonnie Plaxico, b)

A black hole. That’s the only rating I can give this. Do you know what I mean by that? There are no stars in a black hole. It sucks out all the light. The only guy I can think of would be Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone, or Billy Harper, because of that certain kind of sound. But I just didn’t like it at all. I guess this is what happens when you go to Berklee. Again, for the composer, for the people who are making the music at that moment, to have an arrangement and to have the structure and to have polychords in little spots for the soloists to work out all the things they work out… It lacks any sense of spontaneity, and it’s derivative of almost every inner city fusion record of the ’70s and early ’80s. I have no idea who it is. I probably know them, and they’ll probably smack me in the face. But it’s very Downtown. Very Downtown New York. Again, something like this, it’s hard to say. They’re going for something. It’s jazz guys trying to play fusion music. It’s like a burgeoning thing. And forgetting that fusion music in itself was a natural evolution of a certain kind of playing of hard-bop. So where do you take it? What is Fusion of today? The fusion of today is far more electronica than groove-oriented, than beat-oriented, than backbeat-oriented, than repetitive chord sequences. [When did it sound like it was made?] Definitely in the ’80s and ’90s because of the string synths. It’s hard to say.

8. Bill Holman, “I Didn’t Ask” (#5) (from A VIEW FROM THE SIDE, JVC, 1995) (Holman, comp.; Ron Stout, tp.; Pete Christlieb, ts) – (5 stars)

Is this the Vanguard Orchestra? Holy shit. That’s a sound. The only guy sick enough to write this is Bob Brookmeyer. It’s not Brookmeyer? He’s the only other guy I know who’d be sick enough to write something like this. [Besides who?] Thad Jones. Jim McNeely… [You’re thinking of the wrong clique.] But see, it’s the same sound. It all comes from Brookmeyer’s tune, “ABC Blues,” and Thad Jones, from his first record. That’s a Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band tune. It’s a Basie and Gerry Mulligan. [You’re in the wrong clique.] In the wrong clique. It’s bizarre. It’s a good… I don’t know this specific album. But that’s definitely not a… [It’s lineally connected to all the people you’re talking about.] So it’s very current, right? [It’s a recent recording.] That’s what I’m saying. It has to be a radio band in Europe or something. They’re the only other ones who can rehearse that well. No? Who is it? I’m dumbfounded. I’m not up on what goes on… Well, the composition style is basically an imitation of the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis record, of “ABC Blues,” which came out of the Concert Jazz Band, which was like a combination of Gary MacFarland and Gerry Mulligan, and they had this kind of conception. But Thad Jones had that kind of Basie pop thing, so there’s these interrelated rhythms going on in between. so it’s a guy who’s amalgamated those particular kinds of sounds. Or it might be a woman. It might be Maria, and Julie Cavadini did a record — she’s pretty much into the Brookmeyer kind of thing. But it’s hard to say, because it’s such an identifiable… [It’s a cousin of Brookmeyer.] Manny Albam? No? [Or maybe an uncle.] An uncle. Not Gil. No, of course not. Who is it? [You’re not only in the wrong clique; you’re on the wrong coast.] A West Coast guy, a cousin of Bob Brookmeyer. Bill Holman! That makes total sense, but I would not have guessed it, because I know the source. The source comes out of Gerry Mulligan. I’m one of these guys who goes back to the source of it. Gerry Mulligan comes out of Lester Young, and that goes back to Count Basie, and you know where that comes from. And it’s the blues. But all of these things you’re playing me, not one person has played anything that remotely resembles anything to do with the Blues in any of their playing or any of their tunes. There’s nothing that has that essence of it. Just the Brecker Brothers tune had a moment of it, I think. And the deJohnette tune had just a moment of it… The Oliver Nelson tune was a straight blues. But everything else, the fusion stuff, is all devoid of that feeling. So it becomes like a guessing game. With Oliver Nelson, I could pretty much tell who the main stars were, but it wasn’t their best playing. For Bill Holman and the fact that it’s an L.A. band, the miracle of that coming out of L.A. is five stars alone. Bill Holman is a genius, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve compared him to Bob Brookmeyer and the Gerry Mulligan Jazz Band at all, because that’s the sound he’s fighting for. He wrote a chart for Mel’s band called “Just Friends,” which is the art of taking Tristano’s idea and bringing it to a big band. He’s truly a brilliant musician who, unfortunately to us, lives on the West Coast and doesn’t hang out here where it’s cold and damp. Five stars. It was a great performance. It was very cool in terms of big band writing… The soloists I didn’t particularly find fascinating, because what could you possibly play after that writing? With Miles and Gil, Miles played written out solos on a lot of the stuff, especially the “Miles Ahead,” because what could you possibly think of, improvise off the top of your head that will follow what you’ve just heard from the mind of somebody like Bill Holman?

9. Jeremy Pelt, “Madness” (from INSIGHT, Criss-Cross, 2002) (Pelt, tp.; Jimmy Greene, ts; Myron Walden, as) – (4 stars)

To play that tune that way, which was “Madness,” a Herbie Hancock tune, it’s like playing Vivaldi with electric violins. See, I have the alternate take of that. There’s an alternate version of the way they approach the melody, and Miles just says, “Well, let’s just play a feel.” They also recorded that in the summertime. They played differently. Miles played differently in the summertime than he did in the wintertime. If you listen to all those Miles records from the summer, which is “Nefertiti” and “Sorcerer” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way”… If you listen to “Bitches Brew,” “Nefertiti,” “Sorcerer,” “Filles De Kilmanjaro,” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way” and the stuff from the early “Jack Johnson” sessions, you hear the difference in the way guys play summer and winter. And the feeling on that tune, “Madness,” is about getting to a point or a place. And these guys… It’s Jeremy Pelt, right? He’s one of the few young guys out there looking at this kind of music like Wynton did in the early ’80s. But it’s not doing the tunes, because the tunes were just captured in the studio by Miles at that day, and if they ever played them again, they probably appeared in quotations of other tunes, as they did on the Plugged Nickel, where you hear Wayne go into a tune from “The All Seeing Eye” or you hear on some of these live tapes where they go into “Prince of Darkness” and actually play “Dolores” on the gig. So musicians tend to go by the recording, and extant bootlegs of certain things, and they base that on how they approach this kind of music as opposed to using a particular kind of method to it. Of the younger cats out there in the city, he’s one of the most serious guys about playing the instrument and being involved in the music, and I’m on his case all the time about just this thing, about dealing with this kind of music in a way where you just do it privately, and publicly, you try to create an image of yourself as a musician who is on top of everything that’s going on in the world around you. Because to play that kind of music, you’ve got to recreate the environment. That tune sounds great in a big studio like the 30th Street Studio in Columbia, where the ride cymbal can ring out into the room, and you’ve got a great classical engineer like Fred Plath, who made the most of it. But I think this was a Fresh Sound recording, or a Criss Cross recording… Criss Cross. So it’s from Systems II, and the drums bleed into everybody. Was that Ralph Peterson? This record was a long time coming for Jeremy. I met him a few years ago, hanging out at this club, Assault(?), where all the up-and-coming young hard boppers would play. I see him all the time, and we talk all the time. Was the tenor player Mark Turner? Oh, Jimmy Greene. My man. All these guys are having to deal with things that they didn’t think they’d have to deal with, which is what to do with their sound and where to put it and place it in the modern world, not in the world of the mythology of jazz. In the world I live in, we recreate the… On Legacy or Blue Note, when we do these reissues, we can set a tone for a style of music, and it can come back to haunt you, where people are imitating the records you put out as reissues. If guys lose themselves so much into somebody else’s identity, they will eventually lose themselves in the identity of the world, because it’s getting bigger and bigger for us as musicians. And by being bigger and bigger, it’s harder and harder to show yourself as distinguishable from somebody else. The amount of pressure on guys like Jeremy and Jimmy Greene is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Four stars for Jeremy Pelt. He could do better, and he knows it, and he… The conditions for making Criss-Cross records are like the old days, where you have to go in, and a lot of times the guys don’t go in with working bands, they go in with all-star bands, or guys go in with rhythm sections that are dovetailing from another session. These guys played the music, but they didn’t work on the music for this record intensely. Horace Silver said that he would work on his music for months with his band, and he would invite Alfred Lion down to hear the music, and Alfred would say, “Yeah, that’s great, all this is great, this one maybe not,” and then he’d go into the studio, and boom. And you’d get the feeling like they’d have it down. What Jeremy wants to get is a group telepathy thing going, and it’s hard to get it going on a record date where you’re going in to make a whole record in one session. The guy that he is aspiring to be…the feeling of this track… That was done with one or two other tunes in a three-hour session in the middle of June or July in 1967. They weren’t thinking of making a record. They were just in recording, of how they felt that day, and they were working at the Village Gate that night. So the conditions of making recordings today are so inverse of the way they used to be, and yet, they’re expected to have the same visceral effects as the recordings of yesteryear.

10. Bob Brookmeyer, “Seesaw” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.; John Hollenbeck, d.) – (4-1/2 stars)

Man, that’s an amazing arrangement, because the arranger made 8 minutes seem like 20. I daresay who could possibly be. But whoever it is doesn’t play solos for a living. They like to write. It’s a lot of ensemble writing, and it was hard for me to discern a melody that anything could be based on. Like most of the things you played for me, the ones where people are trying to become complex, they don’t establish any kind of groundwork, anything that says “this is the thing that I want this moment, that we’re forcing you to listen to, to be.” Especially with ensemble writing, the tendency is to get carried away, and to just write-write-write, and instead of going, “Well, man, let the tenor player open up, let the trumpet player open up, let things open up and be free…” Some bands are like that, mostly the European bands. But I couldn’t venture to guess. Maria could potentially write something that complex, but… For the arrangement, I would say like a 4.5-4.75 arrangement. That’s a serious arrangement! But it was just an arrangement. It was a tour de force, so to speak, for the arranger. So I’d say 4 stars. It was really good. You can’t say there’s anything bad about it. It’s a matter of an aesthetic opinion, a difference. But still it’s a stellar, an amazing performance.

[AFTER] Brookmeyer is the only one who could play like that. Bob is in that phase where he’s not like into just opening up and blowing all the time. I mean, he is into having the form structured and stuff like that. The beauty of that music is it’s composition. It’s not really about soloing. And I’m lazy. I’m a Southerner. And I just like to write slash marks out for cats to play, and I like to write whole note melodies. Bob is much more developed in terms of composition. In his modern day writing there’s no… This tune wasn’t a long-form melodic thing. It was gestural writing. He had phrases, he had a recapitulation. But I thought it was a little too happy to be Bob Brookmeyer. But he told me he was thinking of moving to Canada, so maybe this was his “I’m moving to Canada” piece. But 4-1/2 stars. Bob Brookmeyer is one of the best in the world. But again, my concept of having fun with a big band is road trips, hanging out with them, and letting them all play long, boring solos. But he likes to write music. I went to a college where that’s what we did all the time, so I left school to be a Bohemian. And he was a Bohemian, and now he’s really a composer. But he’s the only guy who could play the trombone solo like that.

11. Marcus Miller, “Visions” (from TALES, Dreyfus, 1995) Miller, bass clarinet, bass guitar; keyboards, rhythm programming, sound programming; Michael “Patches” Stewart, tp.; Kenny Garrett, as; Poogie Bell, d.) (5 stars)

Kenny Garrett. Of course. Five stars for Kenny Garrett. The tune was really nice. I vaguely recognize it. It’s a pop tune. [Is it a new standard?] I don’t know. But it’s Kenny Garrett, and that’s all that matters. Because he has a SOUND. When you hear it, you know it’s him. That’s the beauty of Kenny Garrett. It doesn’t matter what he plays. He has yet to make his ultimate record, I think. [Was it Kenny’s record?] Uh…no. No. Could that have been a Don Byron record or something? There was a bass clarinet player. Was that Marcus Miller? Yeah, Marcus Miller. [END OF SIDE] …”In A Silent Way” sequence. But Kenny Garrett and Marcus, they’re coming out of the way “Tutu” derived from the “In A Silent Way” thing. You can tell, because there’s more blues in that. There’s more of that darkness in the Marcus way of doing it. Because they think that way all the time. And that’s why I can hear that thing, just sort of that floating down and letting it slip out every now and then. Where some cats, they don’t let it slip at all. Jazz comes from basically the deepest feeling of all, the feeling of sadness. And you can hear it from Kenny’s playing, you can hear it in the way he plays every note. He’s one of my favorite musicians, just to hear him play. “Tutu” to me wasn’t a jazz album; it was an ambient album with Miles Davis involved. It was a textural, ambient record. That’s what I have to say.

12. George Garzone-Joe Lovano, “The Mingus I Knew” (from FOUR’S AND TWO’S) (Garzone & Lovano, ts; Joey Calderazzo, p; John Lockwood, b; Bill Stewart, d) (3 stars)

First I said Joe Lovano, because the first phrases the tenor player played were like pure Lovano. Then I realized Mark Turner, and I thought this has got to be a Criss-Cross date. So it’s got to be like Orrin Evans? [You’re getting cold.] But it is a Criss-Cross date. It’s not a Criss Cross date. It sounds like a Criss-Cross date. But it’s just sort of a jazz date. The tenor players were both young modernists… Well, one guy seemed to have a little older phrasing in him, but it just didn’t…it was just sort of there. It was just a tune. 3 stars for Jason Koransky. Now, on the composition end of it, it had the schizophrenia of a Mingus composition, the bipolar nature of a tune, and the spirit of it was that kind of thing. It’s like when guys do faux Ornette tunes; like, they all copy “Lonely Woman.” When people copy a Miles tune, they do something that sounds like “Madness” or they write their own “Nefertiti.” Everybody’s an homage. I guess that’s the whole thing. Because it’s very difficult to come up with something unique or to be brave enough to let people hear it. [So at first you thought it was Lovano…] Well, the phrasing… Modern saxophone players, in my opinion, who are being recorded on a regular basis… This does not include college players or part-time players. But the guys who are disseminated in the recording world, the younger guys have an influence… Like, Chris Potter is seriously influenced by Joe Lovano, as is Mark Turner, as is Joshua Redman. Joe gets it from Dewey Redman, and Dewey gets it from basically living in Texas. But there’s this kind of flow, and it’s a phraseology kind of thing. If you keep up with guys… There are guys like Seamus Blake and Mark Turner who will probably acknowledge their many influences, and Joe being one of them, not only for the fact of the way he plays, but that he’s accessible as an artist and they’re able to deal with him as a real-time jazz musician. He’s been on the scene. So I would say that the presence of Joe Lovano is within the saxophone players. [It was Joe Lovano and George Garzone.] Wow. I got it. The first one I knew had to be Lovano. The second one was the one I wasn’t sure of. Because that’s why I mentioned Mark Turner. But again, I don’t know. Because all these guys sound like Lovano. But I would rather say who I think it really is, and then say, “But these other guys copy his stuff.” It’s like with Brecker. So to me, it’s always a dilemma, because I’m very precise on the notes. I can tell you what note somebody steals from somebody. It’s that sick. Like, Lewis Nash…it sounded like Lewis was the drummer. Bill Stewart? Wow, he was pretty straight-ahead there. Wow, Bill! I would never have guessed the bass player, but Calderazzo I might have guessed because of the sudden shift into a more modernistic approach on the bridge of his solo when he got a chance to burn. It’s not the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard any of those guys do, especially Lovano. I’ve heard some of the most ridiculous stuff. 3 stars.

13. Ellington, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (from DUKE ELLINGTON: THE REPRISE STUDIO SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1966/2000) (5 stars)

Duke Ellington selling out. That’s just amazing. The only other hip version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is Grant Green’s version, with Hank Mobley and Larry Young. But Duke Ellington did a track, it’s very obscure, called “Rock City Rock,” from 1957. It’s the best Rock-and-Roll tune performance ever done! And at heart, he was really a Rock-and-Roll musician. As you can tell, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to do it. But that’s Johnny Hodges playing that little break there, and I think that’s… Around that time, Basie did a Beatles album as well. Everybody likes those melodies, because you know it right away, and I found from rearranging standards of popular music that you can do anything you want, anything artistically, once you establish the fact that you’re doing somebody else’s well-known song. All they have to know implanted in their mind on this end is “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” And you can hear it. So they know it’s that, and so they’ll follow along with it, as long as you make it interesting. It’s kind of an illusion that clever arrangers use. You’re a magician. What you hear is a popular song, but what you’re actually hearing and seeing is something totally different. I’d say for the sheer balls of it all, five stars for Duke Ellington, and five stars for the A&R guy who got drunk and had him do it.

14. Ben Webster, “There Is No Greater Love” (from MUSIC FOR LOVING: BEN WEBSTER WITH STRINGS, Verve, 1955/1995) (Ben Webster, ts; Ralph Burns, arr.)

Isham Jones, “There Is No Greater Love.” The saxophone player has a direct connection with Benny Carter. You can hear it in the phrasing. Because they grew up around the same time. The way they ended their phrasing… It’s like those romantic violin players in restaurants, when we see the cliched gypsy violin, how they do the phrasing, and they put tremolo on it, and they dovetail their phrasing. That’s from doing vaudeville shows and being involved in all kinds of other-world kind of music. He always wanted to do a string album, and he did it, and people put him down for it. He was like one of the first jazz guys to really adapt well to this kind of string environment. Am I correct? [Who did you say it was?] I said he and Benny Carter were contemporaries, more or less. Although this particular saxophonist started his early years with a blues singer. And he used to get on his knees and play, and he also used to play clarinet with her. Then he became probably the most famous jazz virtuoso in all the world. [If you’re saying it’s Coleman Hawkins, it wasn’t.] There’s only two people who play like that. Victor Goines… Well, Joe Zawinul would kill me. It’s the king of the boudoir saxophone, Ben Webster. [I knew you’d know that. I wonder what you thought of the arrangement.] For a musician, they all have a soft spot, especially saxophone players…not necessarily exclusively. But they all want to get over with women. And Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins especially… Coleman made a string record that was widely criticized by the jazz purists because it was commercial, but probably for him, it allowed him to make quite much ado with the young ladies who frequented the jazz spots he performed in.

But with the arrangement, it’s like you were replacing a vocalist. That’s how the vocalist arrangements… Strings were orchestrated in an upper range as to not allow them to interfere with the range of the tenor. It’s as though he were Mario Lanza in the midst of all this, just going freely throughout this, and it’s a very Puccini-esque orchestration, the strings glittering up high. The way they do it is they basically keep a lot of violins, and then they just double the melody line with a viola, and it gets this rich texture, and then in the middle you have the saxophonist flying all through it. It’s a very simple arrangement, obviously for the jukebox, obviously to facilitate a more commercial approach to his sound. The Boudoir Tenor is a very romantic kind of thing, a very affected playing. [Any sense of who the arranger might be?]

Well, to do a Ben Webster date, it’s not going to be… It could have been Quincy, it could have been… Well, with Quincy you never know either, because he farmed it out. But Ernie Wilkins could write like that, and Ralph Burns could write that style. But that kind of arranging, that was the style. It’s like a particular kind of voicing. It was Ralph Burns! I couldn’t tell the pianist… [Teddy Wilson] I was going to say Teddy Wilson. He had that Nat Cole touch. That was about the only guy I would say. Again, you’re talking about recording sessions, and a lot of guys are great soloists, but on a recording date, they go in and they freeze. They can’t play. And certain guys, they nailed sessions. They were just the consummate professionals. Teddy Wilson could read music. He could comprehend the form and the texture of an arrangement. But the only two guys who could adapt to a jazz soloists effectively in that style were Ernie Wilkins… He did a record with Stevie Wonder, and he got that sound. But Ralph Burns. It wasn’t Nelson Riddle, because Capitol would not have let Nelson do a record like that.

A lot of these records, you can hear the business involved. You can hear the effect of being on top of a trend, or the pressure to get a record done in six hours because the guy is too cheap to pay for two extra hours of a rehearsal. And you can hear that in the rushed tempos, in the uncertainty of… Everything is getting put into one thing. [In this date you can feel that?] On this date, no. This was a commercial date, where they probably ran it down once or twice and they nailed it. Norman Granz wasn’t a spendthrift in the studios, but he was professional and the sound was good.

Overall, the pieces like Brookmeyer’s piece require lots of rehearsal and lots of patience. That’s probably a European orchestra. The Bill Holman piece, he has a rehearsal band, and they are very dedicated to his music. That’s what it takes to make that kind of music. And it replaces the environment of the touring bands. But the small group jazz people always have the ghost of the past haunting them. It’s caused a quandary within the industrial circles as to what to do with those pesky hard-boppers.

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bob Belden, DownBeat, Uncategorized, WKCR

For Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th Birthday, a Blindfold Test From 2007 and a Jazziz Article

In recognition of Hammond B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th birthday today, I’ve posted three separate pieces I’ve done with him over the years — a 2007 Blindfold Test for Downbeat, a 2006 profile for Jazziz, and a publicity bio for his 1999 concept album Goodfellas, on Concord.

 

Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

1. Sam Yahel, “Saba” (from TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Origin, 2007) (Yahel, Hammond B3; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s nice. That’s got a Larry Young influence. I’m trying to figure out who the horn player is. This is not typical organ stuff, which is nice. Some guys trying to do something different. Once they get into the thing, I might be able to know who it is. There’s a lot of arranging here. It’s a nice sound on the organ. It’s a nice recording. It’s definitely something more modern. It kind of reminds me of Larry Goldings. But is it Sam Yahel? They’re very similar. I knew it was one of those guys. Sounds great. I don’t know who the horn player is. That’s not Josh Redman. Is it Josh? I kind of thought so. But he can play so many ways. Sounded like his sound, though. I love it, man. Who wrote that? Sam did? I like it. It’s a nice piece. It’s difficult. What are they, in 7? It’s all over the place. Brian Blade is on drums. That’s right, this is a group that was working. I don’t have this record, though. Oh, it’s brand-new? It’s nice to hear people doing some different things with the organ like that. It sounds a little like it’s difficult just for the sake of being difficult. But there’s still a great feeling there. I mean, they can do it, so why not? I like Sam. He’s got a lot of facility and a lot of harmony. He reminds me of Larry, but Sam to me has more fire than Larry does. He gets a little funkier sometimes. But I love Larry, too. Sounds great. I love Brian Blade, of course. We’ve never played together, though; that’s one guy I haven’t played with, but he’s a great drummer. 4 stars.

2. Mike LeDonne, “At Long Last Love” (from LIVE AT SMOKE, NYC, Savant, 2006), (LeDonne, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Cole Porter, composer)

This is the way of recording the organ that… Everybody is really trying to get that old Rudy van Gelder Blue Note sound, because that’s the staple. “At Long Last Love,” that’s the tune. Frank Sinatra, man. “That’s what I’m feelin’, for real…” Yeah! Look out. Is this something new also? Recent? This is traditional here. Good organ music here. Nice guitar. The guitar player sounds NICE. Got a little Grant Green in there. I like when the organ player is playing in that low register. It’s a nice, warm, bell-like sound with the percussion. Ah, Lonnie Smith. No? I’ve got to listen a little more. He’s building it like Lonnie. Tony Monaco? No? Oh. That’s Mike LeDonne. I love Mike, man. See, you’ve got to listen. When somebody’s building, it could sound like a lot of different things, but then there’s signature things, and there it is. He’s got a lot of harmony, and he plays the organ in a swinging tradition. Is that at Smoke? That sounds great. So that’s Pete on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. I don’t have this record, and I never heard it, but I’ve heard about it. I know about… [BREAK] Whoo! Ha! He’s got a lot like Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith… A lot of similar influences that I have. I guess that we all have. That’s nice. This always feels good. The drummer’s playing what they used to call a conga beat. Hey, man, 4 stars. He’s building and building and building. I’m going to have to get that. Again, really nice recording, and that’s live. That organ isn’t easy to play in there. That B3 organ at Smoke is a tough organ. He plays it all the time, though, so he’s probably really used to it. It’s got a great sound, though, and the way… See, he’s building up to the big full organ… Now, you get the Leslie spinning on tremolo. Everything’s out. All the stops. Smoke was interesting. When I first played there, they took a direct signal out of the organ, straight into the system, as well as miking the Leslie, and that’s how Rudy Van Gelder… That was his big secret, how he recorded, that nobody could figure out all those years—then finally we did. That’s how we play live now, too. Because you get that nice fatness straight out of the organ for the bottom end and all that. That style there comes from Wild Bill Davis—the shout. Because it’s like a big ball when it gets into the shout chorus. This system does sound… Man!

3. Gary Versace, “Gallop’s Gallop”(from Loren Stillman, THE BROTHERS’ BREAKFAST, Steeplechase, 2006) (Versace, Hammond B-3; Stillman, alto saxophone; John Abercrombie, guitar; Jeff Hirschfield, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This has got some nice humor in it. Everybody you’ve played so far uses the Jimmy Smith setting. That’s just a staple. I mean, you’ve got to play with your own style, but as far as how you set the organ, he really set the ground rule. Whoever it is has got some imagination. Yeah! Is this somebody new? [It depends on what you mean…] I don’t know who that is. I liked it, though. The approach is similar to where I’m at, what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking different. But I like that. When you say the name, I’ll probably know who it is. I’m not sure, though. I like the saxophone player, but I don’t know. [How do you mean similar to what you’re doing.] Harmonically, going outside the vocabulary with a different language a little bit. He’s got nice technique, too. Who wrote the tune? Monk? I figured it was someone like that. “Gallop’s Gallop” is a rare tune. I’m going to learn this. Well, the bass line isn’t swinging as hard as I would like. But I don’t know if he wants to do that. It might be a kind of implied thing. [polyphonic section] Wow. Definitely a piano player first, whoever it is playing. I can’t recognize anybody. You got me! 4 stars. This tune is a bitch.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Note Bleu” (from THE DROPPER, Blue Note, 1999 (John Medeski, Hammond B3; Marc Ribot, guitar; Chris Wood, electric bass; Billy Martin, drums)

This sound is a very over-driven sound. That’s what we call that, when you push the Leslie and get that little crunch in the sound. Which is sometimes a cool little effect. There’s a bass player on this one. A minor blues. This guy really likes a dirty sound on the organ. It’s a little too much for me. Too much overdrive—distortion. It’s a little jerky style for me. It’s okay, though. It’s still good. I don’t like all that overdrive, though; it’s just too much. Especially for something like… I mean, if you want to play some high energy rock or something, that’s the sound for that. 3 stars. I don’t know who that is. Medeski, Martin & Wood? That makes sense. Too much distortion, John. That’s his sound, though. But for something a little mellower like that… But he still has the organ set the same way we all do, except he uses a little bit…on the vibrato part, the chorus, he’s got a little bit less depth on it. That’s for the organ geeks out there.

5. Count Basie-Oscar Peterson, “Memories of You” (from NIGHT RIDER, Pablo, 1978) (Basie, organ; Peterson, piano; John Heard, bass; Louis Bellson, drums)

Now, I like this. This is happening. This is old…I think. Is this from the ‘80s? Earlier? I can tell just by the sound. With the piano in there… This is a very old-school style. He’s got the Leslie on tremolo, fast speed. Not as percussive a sound. It’s very pretty. “Memories of You.” Is that Milt Buckner? It’s the older style like that. Is that Ron Carter on bass? Somebody influenced by him, though. That style. It’s definitely an older player. Is the pianist Oscar Peterson? You can tell that. Is it the Count on the organ. Man, I’ve got to get this. I’ve heard about it. That’s Oscar and Count. Is it Bobby Durham on drums. [No, Louis Bellson] And Ray Brown. [John Heard] I have the two-piano things they did, but Count’s playing organ here. I knew it was Oscar, and I knew the organ player was somebody from back in the day. Milt Buckner played with Lionel Hampton, and he kind of played like Count. 5 stars, man. That’s easy. The way he sets the Leslie is very old-school. See, when the Leslie speakers first came out, they weren’t supposed to be turned on and off. They just were on to add tremolo to the organ, to add vibrato to the organ. Then really, the jazz people and the pop people started to think, ‘If we could turn this in and out, it would be very dramatic.” That’s how that started.

6. Larry Goldings, “Sound Off” (from Michael Brecker, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, Impulse, 1999) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Goldings, Hammond B3; Pat Metheny, guitar; Jeff Watts, drums)

Pat Metheny on guitar. That sound is unmistakable. Michael Brecker. Great. Whoo! On the drums, is that Jeff Watts? Oh, and Larry Goldings. I don’t have this record. But everybody on there is so unmistakable, such a strong style. Pat Metheny, Michael, Tain… Tain is killin’, man! The tune has a lot of rhythm in it, there’s a lot of hits, and it’s a little brisk, too. It’s also modal; not a lot of changes in it. A minor kind of thing. Who wrote this? I thought it was Larry. I could tell. It’s his harmonic approach to stuff. Larry’s got a nice bassline. He doesn’t play much foot, though. But he doesn’t like to play it. He don’t want to play it. Now, he can play. I love Larry. He swings. 5 stars. He hasn’t soloed yet, but it’s gonna be good. I want to hear it. I love Jeff Watts. A lot of fire. I’ve played with him quite a bit. I regret that I never played with Michael. We talked about it. We were going to record a record at one time. I often thought about recording two organs with Larry. We’re so different. But same, too, in a lot of ways. He plays perfect, man. Every note is the right note. He’s got wonderful feeling. He’s influenced a lot by Larry Young. Fantastic player. Smooth. Pat’s compin’ nice behind him. I’d like to play with Pat. I’ve never played with Pat either. I’d like to just get in there and play with that whole band. Isn’t Elvin on this record, too. I’m going to have to go out and get this. It’s interesting for Pat Metheny, too, because he doesn’t have his delay and all that shit out. It’s just guitar. And Pat can play his ass off. 5 stars there, man, for sure. A bunch of bad motherfuckers.

7. Melvin Rhyne, “Light Life Love” (from TO CANNONBALL WITH LOVE, King, 1992) (Rhyne, Hammond B3; Carl Allen, drums)

I don’t recognize the tune. I think I might know who the organ player is, but I’m going to listen a little more. It’s a very organic sounding recording. See, there’s a touch of the overdrive I was talking about before, but it’s nice. [That little burry thing?] Yeah. It’s a growl, kind of. It’s an older player, I think. Is this just a duet thing? I don’t hear a guitar comping, but he could be laying out for now. Is it Mel Rhyne? I know his style. When he played with Wes, he had a different sound, and later on, he used different settings. I like it better. But I know his style. Very melodic. Played around the changes. Very bebop, old-school—wonderful style of playing. Who’s on drums? Carl Allen? Ah, now he’s playing the foot with the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right, which is really the legitimate style of organ playing. That’s great. Mel Rhyne, man. 5 stars. Is this a ballad he wrote? Very nice. Wow, I don’t know this record. I don’t know any of these! I mean, I heard of some of the ones you played, but I definitely don’t know this one. It’s happening.

8. Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense” (from David Murray, SHAKILL’S II, DIW, 1991) (Pullen, organ, composer; Murray, tenor saxophone; Bill White, guitar; J.T. Lewis, drums)

Nice. They’re playing something in 5 here. He got a different kind of sound on the organ there! These guys sound a little uptight. They don’t sound relaxed. It’s not swinging. It’s not 4/4, it’s 5/4, but you’ve still got to groove. They’re rushing a little bit. You gotta relax! It’s obvious they know what they’re doing. Who’s the tenor player? David Murray. He knows what he’s doing. But now that I know who he is, he’s going for a more edgy thing. He can play in, but he played more out. He had like a nice combination. He’s playing an organ setting, man. That’s pretty cool. This must be from a while ago. I have a pretty good idea who the organ player is. It sounds like Don Pullen. I have a video of him playing with John Scofield, so that’s how I know. Don was an organ player, man. A piano player, but he knew what he was doing with that organ, too. These are the Out guys playing In. But it’s edgy, man. It’s rushing. It’s not real relaxed. But they didn’t play that way that often. But they knew how to play inside. At one time, probably that’s what they did. For many years, most of David Murray’s stuff was way out. So this is cool. But that’s why I’m hearing that little edgy thing. I’ve still gotta give it 4 stars. I have a lot of respect for these guys, the tremendous body of work and things they’ve done. But I stand by it’s not relaxed-sounding. He’s got some weird sounds on the organ, too. He’s got a weird vibrato, like UHHUUHHHUUHHH… I use that sometimes for an effect. But he’s playing the organ the way you play it, got the left-hand bass going and… There are his Pullenisms. There’s still Jimmy Smith in that. There’s still a Jimmy Smith influence in the style. A lot of people don’t know that Jimmy could be out as could be! He had a very avant-garde approach. If you knew him and heard him play on his own… But a lot of the things Pullen is playing here, you know he definitely dug Jimmy Smith. I mean, I don’t think he could play the organ without… Anybody who says anything different than that, they’re lying.

9. Pete Levin, “Uptown” (from DEACON BLUES, Motema, 2007) (Levin, Hammond B3, composer; Joe Beck, elec. guitar; Danny Gottlieb, drums)

It’s amazing. There really are a lot of organ players. You think there’s not that many, but… I’ve got to figure out who this is. Too much melody, man, for too long! It’s not interesting enough to be that long. I mean, you get into the soloing… All right, here we go. The guitar player went into Wes Montgomery right away—the octaves. A lot of Wes Montgomery influence here, which is great. The organ player is playing too much behind the guitar player. The guitar player is playing block chords. You’ve really got to play minimal, almost no chords, just bassline, and leave it open for the guitar when he’s playing that fat. Otherwise, it gets too busy-sounding. He shouldn’t be playing any chords there—in my opinion. It’s a little corny-sounding. It’s not real greasy. Even if you play out or avant-garde or harmonic, there’s got to be a certain amount of grease in there, funkiness and… This is very choppy. I don’t know who it is. Now, the guitar player was really into Wes. But the organ is real stiff-sounding. It’s not necessarily wrong. But it doesn’t move me. 2 stars. [AFTER] He’s probably not an organ player. Right? I like Joe Beck. Joe sounded like Wes there, man. I did a record with Joe, one of those Japanese releases. It was all songs named after ladies.

10. Trudy Pitts, “Just Friends” (from Pat Martino, EL HOMBRE, Prestige, 1967) (Pitts, organ, Martino, electric guitar; Mitch Fine, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, “Just Friends.” I love Trudy. I grew up… Trudy was like a musical mother, man. I know Trudy and Bill Carney, her husband, Mister C, since I was 8 years old. In fact, we just did a concert together… I didn’t have to hear too much of the playing. I just knew what it was right away. [You probably know every note on the solo.] Oh, yeah. Pat plays his ass off on here. His choice of drummer on here… I asked him years later. I said, “That drummer on there wasn’t really up to par, Pat.” He said, “Yeah, but the guy was a sweetheart, and I really liked him, and he was my friend, and he was excited to do the date.” But Trudy sounds great on here, so does Pat. I could do without the bongos. But this is 5 stars easy. I haven’t heard it in years, but this is one of those things you just know. This solo Pat takes here influenced generations of guitar players. For me, this is Pat’s best playing. The feeling he played with, and he was bluesy, and he swung hard, and he listened more. I love this period of Pat. And Trudy is playing so great here. Trudy is underrated. She never got the due she should have. That’s Orrin Evans’ godmother. I’d love to have heard this with a great drummer, though. Pat basically played like Wes Montgomery, but with a pick, and a little more percussive and aggressive attack. But this is definitely out of Wes—totally. Grant Green. He’s probably 19 or 20 there. Swinging like crazy. They did a record, Bar Wars, a Willis Jackson record. That’s some shit there. That’s Charlie Earland and Idris. Charlie Earland was very limited, man, but he could swing like crazy. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you’d rather hear.

11. Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Invitation” (from Ximo Tebar, GOES BLUE, Omix/Sunnyside, 1998/2005) (Smith, Hammond B3 organ; Tebar, elec. guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums)

Well, there’s no question of the drummer. That’s Idris. I’ve played with him a lot. He just swings his ass off. That’s Ximo Tibar and that’s Lonnie Smith. I’ve played with Ximo and Idris. Boy, listen to Idris. Ximo is directly out of George Benson, Pat Martino…and that’s the Doc. Let it play, though. Ximo’s my man. I love Ximo. Now he lives here. But being Spanish, at this time… I think they made this record before the record we made. He did a lot of funny things sometimes, quotes that… We used to tell him, Idris and I, “Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.” Or “If you go to New York and you play that, they’re going to laugh at you.” He wasn’t aware of certain things. We used to have a lot of fun. One night he said, “I can’t play this. I can’t play that. I can’t play… What am I going to play?” We said, “We’re helping you, man, filter all this shit out so people don’t laugh at you.” He’s such a great player, but he would put little corny things in there. Now he’s even better. Is Lou Donaldson on this record, too? [3 tracks] Of course, this is “Invitation,” a standard. Now, there’s the Doc. I love Doc. Lonnie Smith plays better now than he ever did. In the ‘60s, when he was with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, he was just learning how to play the organ. But he had such a great FEELING that he could pull off… But now…oh yeah, he plays his ass off. 5 stars. Idris and Lonnie, man! Plus Ximo. Lonnie’s got some showbiz in him, too. A lot of showbiz. Lonnie’s from Buffalo, N.Y., and there was a guy in Buffalo named Joe Madison that he learned pretty much everything from, and he does sound a lot like him. My family, except for me, is from Niagara Falls. My Dad kind of learned from the same cat. So Lonnie’s and my father’s groove always reminded me of each other, and then I figured out why. Idris is so lyrical, man. He plays that Second Line and funky stuff just unbelievable. Killing, man. I love that. Lonnie’s playing that full organ sound.

12. Jeff Palmer, “A Happy Trail” (from SHADES OF THE PINE, Reservoir, 1994) (Palmer, Hammond B3; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, elec. guitar; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums)

One thing I know right away, it was recorded at Rudy van Gelder’s. I know that sound. That’s fast, man! Blues in B-flat. Is that Marvin Smitty Smith on drums? Who the heck is this, man? Whoa! John Abercrombie? That’s Jeff Palmer. I’m not aware of anything he’s really recorded. [He hasn’t recorded much since this record.] I have a record he did years ago by himself. It was a solo organ record. I think Marvin Smitty Smith and John Abercrombie played together some. And John did another record with Jeff, and maybe Adam Nussbaum. [He did a few records with Jeff. One with Rashied Ali, one with Victor Lewis.] I want to play with Rashied Ali. Let’s see if I know who the horn player is. Is that Bob Berg? No. Who is it? Oh, is that Bill Pierce? Jeff is a nice player, man. I think underrated. It’s a shame more people didn’t talk about him and he didn’t have more recordings. I like Jeff. 4 stars. He likes to play tempos, man. A man after my own heart. Great, swinging player. He’s got a nice imagination. Doesn’t play the norm. He’s stretching it out nice. He’s got a lot of chops, man. He can play. He isn’t swinging real, real hard, but it’s still happening. I played with John Abercrombie once, and I liked the way he accompanied. He comped real nice.

13. Larry Young, “Luny Tune” (from Grant Green, TALKIN’ ABOUT, Blue Note, 1965/1999) (Young, organ; Green, guitar; Elvin Jones, drums)

This is the shit, man. “Luny Tune.” Larry Young, Elvin Jones and Grant Green. What can I say, man. Larry was influenced by Jimmy Smith, but he took it into a little different vibe, with the influence… When McCoy started playing with Trane, and playing fourths and things like that, that influenced Larry. Grant Green just swings so damn hard. And Elvin… How can you go wrong here? This we’re going to have to give 10,000 stars. This is some of Larry’s best playing on record. Is this Talkin’ About J.C.? I covered this tune on a date for the producer Milan Simich, with Lenny White, Kenny Garrett, and a guitar player, Tony…an Italian name. We did it. It was cool, but nothing’s going to be like this. There’s a warmth and feeling to this. Elvin played so great on here. Just a big huge, rolling sound. That’s such a big pad to play over. You never heard a Rhythm change swing so hard, man. That is really, really swinging! And Elvin’s just stomping that sock cymbal, man—hi-hat as they call it now.

[END OF SESSION]

* * * *

Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

It’s noon on the last Saturday of June. Joey Francesco is sitting on a couch in the front section of his bus—a fully outfitted unit in which he sleeps, cooks, showers, and hauls his Hammond B-3—as it ambles along the Delaware River into South Philadelphia.

“I love the B-3,” muses DeFrancesco, who, above his bare feet, is dressed comfortably in a T-shirt and pajama trousers. “They have a certain smell with the motors and the oils and the wood—especially if it was in a smoky club for years. It’s organic, like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. All the sounds and power you can get—very brash or obtrusive, and at the same time mellow and warm, just like a person. It’s a moving, human sound if it’s played right. And it’s the most spiritual of instruments, which is why it’s used in church. I was born to play it. There’s nothing on organ that I can’t do, and a lot of stuff that most guys that play it can’t do.”

Asked precisely what that “stuff” is, DeFrancesco elaborates. “Maybe the way I can play a tempo and the bass line never moves. Then my energy level and the way I never play anything that’s not swinging. I feel so at home behind that instrument. It’s an extension of me. I own it. It doesn’t own me.”

DeFrancesco, who titles himself “The World’s Greatest Jazz Organist,” now owns a dozen or so Hammonds, including a portable 1958 B-3 that Jimmy Smith used on the road for most of his life. Smith gave it to him, along with a baby grand and Yamaha upright piano, not long before he died in 2005, symbolically transferring to his protégé the keys to the organ kingdom.

Originally a pianist out of Norristown, a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, Smith singlehandedly turned the organ trio into a jazz genre with several dozen LPs for Blue Note and Verve between 1956 and 1966. Onto the aggressive, extroverted sound of the popular Wild Bill Davis, who played big, stomping block chords and percussive left hand bass figures, Smith extrapolated the virtuosic single-note approach of Bud Powell, with whom he played when Powell lived in Philadelphia in 1954. That year Smith formed a trio with John Coltrane, and became the first organist to separate the bass and horn functions, conjuring modern basslines to support harmonically sophisticated solos that he executed with impeccable technique and unending groove.

Smith was the right voice for the time. “In the ’50s and ’60s,” DeFrancesco says, “people who owned lounges and beer gardens realized it was cheaper to have someone carry in their own organ than to own a piano. Organ and drums, you have a gig. Add a guitar or saxophone, you have a bigger gig. So every club around Philly had an organ. It was big in the blue-collar world, because they played this very soulful, bluesy, spiritual stuff that moved people when they needed it. It was the same thing they heard in church—that rocking, grooving sound.”

That sound was out of fashion in 1989, when DeFrancesco, 18 and fresh from a year playing keyboards with Miles Davis’ “Amandla” band, signed with Columbia and released the first of five organcentric sessions with the label. Wynton Marsalis, along with various editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, had brought hardcore ’60s jazz back into the consciousness of the post-Baby Boom generation, but as in the years before 1956, the organ was perceived as a poor relation. In the wake of DeFrancesco’s success, such ’60s soul-jazz icons as Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, John Patton, and Shirley Scott—all of whom were recording for small labels and gigging in various hotels and inner-city lounges—found new audiences.

“I was kind of the savior for the instrument,” DeFrancesco says without affectation. “I say that humbly and with no ego—it just happened. I might have played terrible, but it made everybody interested again. My first record sparked an interest. I’d worked with Miles, and things were rollin’ nice. People who’d forgotten about organ said, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing.’ People who still loved it were happy it was happening again, and people who’d never paid attention or younger ones who thought it was brand new wanted to check it out. There was a demand for that sound again. It needed a new face, and I was young and white. As Jack McDuff said, white people never had a white organ player to cheer for.”

DeFrancesco was always much more than a Great White Hope. He started playing at 4, inspired by his father, a gigging Philadelphia B-3 organist known as “Papa John,” who in 1978 took the prodigy to hear—and sit in with—Smith at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. At 10, DeFrancesco bought his first B-3, a used model, for $900. Before puberty, he had played weekend jobs around Philly with the likes of Hank Mobley, Bootsie Barnes, and Philly Joe Jones. How deeply he assimilated their work is apparent on his latest release, [i]Organic Vibes[i] [Concord], titled for the presence of Bobby Hutcherson and also notable for two guest shots by veteran tenor sax virtuoso George Coleman. Playing with authoritative, old master relaxation, eschewing tricks, licks, and long-held notes, DeFrancesco guides the icons through a broad range of genres—Coltranecentric postbop, on-the-one bebop, testifying ballads, travel-the-spaceways funk, pork-chops-and-pasta soul.

The rhetoric of organ marketing rankles DeFrancesco. “Jimmy [Smith] was as sophisticated harmonically as he was soulful,” he says, “but everybody latched onto [i]Back at the Chicken Shack[i]. Of course, Jimmy had a lot to do with that, because he latched onto those hits and had the same set for almost 40 years. I get that, too. Every ad, every marquee, every poster says, ‘greasy, soulful, gutbucket.’ Now, I love the blues. But I’ve played with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. What about when I play Coltrane tunes? His influence is one reason why I play a lot of notes sometimes. My guitar player’s role is the piano in a quartet. Trane would play a tune’s head, then McCoy built for a while, and Trane entered when the fire was stoked and took off from there. The organ is nice for that.”

But DeFrancesco has few other complaints. “I’ve always pretty much stuck to my guns and done what I wanted to do,” he says. “For some reason, people like it. I played recently in Dayton, Ohio. There was a nice middle-aged to older black crowd who wanted the hits and some white college kids who were calling out all the Wayne Shorter stuff. I catered to them both. As long as everything comes from your heart, you’re going to be okay.”

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

In production from 1955 to 1975, the tone wheel-based, analog Hammond B-3 organ weighed 425 pounds and was a sonic universe unto itself. It had two 61-note keyboards (manuals), and players could incorporate various effects—percussion, chorus and vibrato, adjustable attack and decay. Each keyboard had 9 preset keys and two sets of stops (drawbars), representing the harmonic wave patterns of an orchestral array of instruments. Add to that a two-octave set of foot pedals with two pedal drawbars built into the console, an expression pedal built into the base, and massive Leslie speakers with a pair of rotating treble horns at the top of the cabinet, a pair of rotating horns at the bottom, and a bass woofer that enhance the organ’s vibrato.

“The very early ones sounded good, but the sound we love so much, the way Jimmy Smith sounded when he started recording for Verve, is from the models after 1958,” says Joey DeFrancesco. “They made little refinements to the technology that no one really knew about. But it became too expensive to make them—all handmade, a lot of parts, a lot of screws.”

In 1977, Hammond launched a transistor-based model called the B-3000. “It wasn’t too successful,” DeFrancesco says. “Then they attempted one called the Super-B, which was a nightmare, with all kinds of problems—people still weren’t happy.” In 1988, Suzuki Instrument Corporation bought the name and, as DeFrancesco puts it, “got serious about rejuvenating the legend.” In 1993 they introduced a line of digital, MIDI-adaptable organs, and as the decade progressed, with help from DeFrancesco, continued to work on sampling techniques to tweak the nuances, an effort that culminated in 2002 with the “New B3,” which uses a digital tone generator.

“They’ve come a long way,” DeFrancesco says, of Suzuki’s exertions to replicate the B3’s nuances digitally. “ Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell the old and the new apart.”

While every electromechanical B3 was idiosyncratic, like a piano, the digital iterations are consistent. “That’s good, because I know what each one will sound like,” says DeFrancesco. “On the old model, everybody had their own sound. But these new ones represent the ideal sound that we all love.

“To bend a note before, you’d shut the motor on and off, like Groove Holmes used to do, but now you can actually hold a note—there are pitch bend wheels which weren’t on the original. With MIDI, I can put strings on my lower manual, play the organ on the top, and put an upright bass on the foot. I can switch from organ to piano trio with my own upright bass. Another band.”

Bio for Goodfellas, 1999
“The whole concept of Goodfellas,” organist Joey DeFrancesco comments, “was three Italian guys playing music that we grew up listening to. We all in common love Mafia movies and Italian-oriented films. All the tunes are hand-picked to associate being young as an Italian, growing up with all Italians around, the music that we listened to and played — living the Italian life. The whole thing — the food, the music, and a lotta love.”

Joined by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and crisp swing-to-bop drummer Joe Ascione, the 28-year-old South Philadelphia native puts forth a varied paean to the Italian-American experience with musicality and brio, displaying his characteristic blend of jawdropping chops, attention to nuance, and high comfort zone for playing many styles and colors of music with a singular idiomatic voice. “I’ve always been a chameleon with everything I do,” he remarks. “If I’m talking to somebody with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I don’t even do it consciously. And it rubs off in my music. I can get pretty much into any bag with anybody.”

It’s as though DeFrancesco was born to play the organ. His father, “Papa John” DeFrancesco has gigged steadily on the Hammond B-3 around Philadelphia and its immediate environs since the ’60s. “I started playing when I was 4,” he recalls. “I could just play. I was already hearing Jimmy Smith and stuff like that around the house, then one time my Dad brought the organ home from the gig, and when I heard that sound I really got into it. He guided me in the right direction, the dos and the donts, but he was never very forceful about it.” His father began taking the prodigy to clubs at 7 or 8, and he began playing for money on weekend gigs at 10 years old. By high school DeFrancesco was working steadily around Philadelphia, receiving first-hand instruction from the top-shelf organists who populate and come through the City of Brotherly Love, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and numerous others. During those years his trio was named “Best High School Combo” at MusicFest USA, a student competition; he was also the first winner of the Jazz Society of Philadelphia’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship.

“I went five years to music school,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay attention, never learned how to read a note. I love to play and I love to listen, and pretty much whatever I hear I can play pretty quick. I’ve been influenced by everything — Miles, Coltrane, piano players like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal. Whatever music is prevalent in my life at the time comes out in my approach. If I’m listening to a lot of horn, I’ll play horn-like, single-note lines; if I’m listening to a lot of piano, I’ll play pianistically. Ray Brown and Ron Carter influenced my bass lines, but I don’t even have to think about them. They’re like another brain that’s just there. I can totally concentrate on my right hand; the coordination has always been easy.

“I love Jimmy Smith; to this day he’s the king. The Blue Note records he did in the late ’50s are very innovative; he was doing things that Coltrane did five-six years later. He’s a great hardbop single-note player with impeccable technique, but blues-drenched with an amazing groove. He’s all-around great! Larry Young’s the one who put the John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner approach to the organ. He didn’t swing as hard as Jimmy Smith, but his touch was so nice.”

You could appropriate DeFrancesco’s description of Jimmy Smith to describe his style. He swings ferociously, executes spot-on single-note lines and imaginative bass lines underneath them, can dig deep into the pocket or float over the time. He’s told his story with equal comfort in a panoramic range of idioms — power postbop, on-the-one bebop, abstract reharmonizations, funk that travels the spaceways and soul jazz of the pork chops-and-pasta variety. His high-visibility career kicked off when Miles Davis asked the 17-year-old organ wunderkind to join his late ’80s band (he appears on Amandla and Live Round The World). Then he signed a contract with Columbia that resulted in five varied records from 1989 to 1994. He’s worked extensively during the ’90s with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (see After The Rain and The Free Spirits [Verve]), and been a sideman in bands led by guitarists Dave Stryker, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, Danny Gatton and Paul Bollenbeck, his band guitarist for many years. He’s been in the studio with saxophonists like Houston Person, Ron Holloway, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Eric Alexander.

Though assembled specifically for the date, the “Goodfellas” trio plays with the synchronous intuition that long-standing interaction imparts to a unit, finding fresh approaches to the classic material. “If something swings, I like it,” DeFrancesco enthuses. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s grooving. I’m more of a Miles Davis-John Coltrane approach kind of player, but the stuff on Goodfellas is more Louis Prima oriented! It’s grooving. It’s swinging. It’s supposed to be fun, but on the other hand the musicianship is impeccable. We weren’t goofing off and making fun of it.

“Frank Vignola’s sound goes way back into the Swing Era — Freddie Greene, Django Reinhardt. “He’s got a lot of soul and a very clean way of playing that makes me play more in the mode of traditional, older school jazz, like before Bebop, more like Count Basie big band style. I accompany him like I’m the whole horn section, little stabs here and there, comping. Frank brought Joe Ascione on the date; this is the first time we’ve played together. He played great, and he knows this bag very well.

“If you’re going to do an album about Italians and having influence from Mob movies, you’ve got to have the theme song from ‘The Godfather,'” DeFrancesco continues. “Am I right?” Yes, Joey. The trio addresses “Speak Softly Love” with “Jimmy Smith’s version of the Erroll Garner approach; the tune’s probably never been played like that — Frank’s got Freddie Greene happening on it.”

“Volare” evokes images of Italian crooners like Vic Damone and…Jerry Vale. “My favorite!” DeFrancesco laughs. “Those tunes are great. See, I heard jazz all my life, mostly. But when we went over to our family’s houses on Sunday for pasta, sausage or meatballs, this was the stuff that your aunt or uncle or grandmother was playing in the background. That’s part of the tradition.” The band gooses up the tune with a heartbeat-steady up-tempo groove treatment directly out of the Louis Prima textbook.

“Fly Me To The Moon,” “All The Way,” and “Young At Heart” are direct tributes to Frank Sinatra, a huge presence in the aural soundtrack of DeFrancesco’s life. “Sinatra is like a God for Italians, especially from South Philly, where I grew up,” DeFrancesco states. “Now, they liked him more because he was Italian and had a good voice. But when you’re a musician, especially a jazz musician, and you listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane and guys like that, you start to realize how great he was. His phrasing was perfect! He sounded like an instrument. Many of the ballads Miles would play were Sinatra tunes, and Miles played them like Sinatra phrased them. He always credited Sinatra for his phrasing. I really got hip to it when I started playing with Miles. He told me, ‘You’ve got to listen to more Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Well, I do listen to him.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to listen to the way he’s singing those notes.’ He was truly a jazz singer, particularly in the early days, the ’50s and the ’60s. He took a lot from Billie Holiday, too, the way he slides, and from Dorsey with those long notes. He had that sound, and he swung like crazy. That’s why guys like Miles and Trane loved it.

“‘Fly Me To The Moon’ is the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie arrangement in trio form. It’s a great tune. We played ‘All The Way’ very sweet; I like the way it came out. We played the melody of ‘Young At Heart’ straight. It’s one of my Dad’s favorite tunes; he always used to sing it when I was a kid, and the song became one of my favorites.”

The trio swings the “O Solo Mio” aria; opera influences DeFrancesco’s shaping of melody and phrasing. “Opera is very powerful, with a lot of dynamics and emotion. It comes out in my playing. That’s why I play so wild, like such a maniac sometimes, and then I can come down and play something real sweet.”

There’s Italian vernacular (“Mala Femina”, taken as a boogaloo, and an album-closing “Tarantella”), and three originals that take titles from Mafia argot. Ascione’s “Whack ’em,” a blues based on Jimmy Smith’s arrangement of “Organ Grinder Swing,” takes inspiration from hit-man dialogue in the Martin Scorsese film that gives the album its title. “You See What I’m Sayin'” references a trademark declamation by Robert DeNiro, a DeFrancesco hero; “it’s an Uptown ‘Rhythm’ changes with a ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’ vibe on it.” The title track is a slow blues in the organ tradition, collectively developed by the trio. The trio is jazz all the way on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” also known as “Justice,” where DeFrancesco floats with fire over the angular harmonies.

Goodfellas is DeFrancesco’s debut as a leader for Concord, after a sideman appearance with guitarist (and fellow South Phillyite) Jimmy Bruno [Like That, C-4698] and a co-led two-organ date with mentor organist Brother Jack McDuff [It’s About Time, C-4705]. It’s the latest chapter for the protean young veteran with a firm grip of the jazz lingua franca; like all his records, it celebrates the music’s eternal values of communication, intelligence and swing.

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, organ

In Honor of Steve Coleman’s 2014 MacArthur Award, A 2011 DownBeat Feature

Heartiest congratulations to the visionary alto saxophonist-composer-conceptualist Steve Coleman on his 2014 MacArthur Award. Here’s a  feature piece that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2011.

* * *

Around 5:30 on the final day of spring, nineteen hours before the summer solstice, Steve Coleman sat in his Prius, parked a few steps from the Jazz Gallery, where he’d soon conduct the penultimate installment of his seventh season of Monday night master classes at the venue. Dressed down in a red t-shirt with “Ancient Waves” logo across the chest, baseball cap worn backward, baggy jeans, and hightops, he was relaxed and focused after a 90-mile drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania, his home since 1992. Rather than adjourn to a restaurant for a sitdown conversation, Coleman, a road warrior par excellence (his itinerary over the past two decades includes lengthy fieldwork sabbaticals in Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, South India, and Indonesia), decided to stay put, taking advantage of the unmetered space.

Later that evening, and at the two other Coleman workshops I attended in June, attendance was decent. Still, it seemed odd that more aspirants didn’t shell out $15 for a hands-on encounter with the figure who, as Vijay Iyer says, “of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, has done the most work, and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity, of output and impact.”

It is Coleman’s signal achievement to have dissected rhythmic, tuning, and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrated them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experience and cultural roots. Operating via the ritualistic practices that contextualized these sounds in their original iteration, he frames his own sere alto saxophone voice within a matrix of interlocking, layered  beat cycles, sometimes whirling, sometimes stately, sustaining continuity with a self-devised harmonic logic.

He’s been remarkably effective at communicating his principles. During the ‘80s Coleman imparted fresh ideas about working with pulse and uneven meters to such experimentally oriented, like-minded, Brooklyn-based contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the loosely grouped collective known as M-BASE, an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations. In the latter ‘90s, Osby, who referenced Coleman in a piece called “Concepticus,”  described him as “my main motivator,” adding, “if I ever reach an impasse, he’ll say something that will transport me to another area.” A few years ago, Wilson was similarly praiseful. “Steve told me that if I could hold my own in his context, I’d have something else to bring to standards,” she said. “He was right. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, you develop an elasticity when you work with 4/4, because you’re always certain about your time.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Coleman as a “guru-Grand Poobah” figure for his M-BASE collaborators, many of them major forces on the timeline. But the term fits when assessing his impact on consequential post-Boomers like Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, who have drawn upon Coleman’s subsequent investigations—documented over the past quarter century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies—in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities. “This idea of conceptually dealing with stuff from a different culture and from the roots of one’s culture was an amazing template,” Mahanthappa said recently. “It seemed like the real deal. It was modern American improvised music.”

Anyone with an Internet connection can find interviews and essays in which Coleman postulates and analyzes his intellectual first principles, which are as complex and audacious as the raw materials he works with. He believes strongly that music symbolically represents universal truths and, therefore, human experience on the most fundamental level. Freedom emerges via contingent pathways—rigorously elaborated structures that he actualizes with non-traditional notation—through which creative expression manifests. Numerological I-Ching trigrams denote rhythmic values, each part cycled in thick harmonic layers among the various horns, or, as Marcus Gilmore notes, within the trapset itself, “intertwining and interweaving until they meet up at some point.” A chart representing lunar or solar phases might involve pitch values and voice leading. Another, mapping a celestial moment, can gestate an entire composition, as in “060706-2319 (Middle Of Water)” and “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation) on the 2010 release Harvesting Semblances and Affinities [Pi] and “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” on this year’s follow-up, The Mancy of Sound. Patterns of dots on the cover of the latter document symbolize the Yoruba philosophical and divination system called Ifá; transcribed, they comprise the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic form of a four-piece suite.

With this backdrop in mind, I asked Coleman whether proximity to the solstice would impact the evening’s proceedings. “In an intangible way, it does all the time,” he responded. “I believe there’s a specific energy happening at any moment, in any place, and that we have the ability to tap that energy consciously.” He mentioned core influences—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Danish composer Per Nørgård—whose musical production incorporates such metaphysics. “Each person has to figure out their relationship to it. A lot of people who think about these things won’t talk about them publicly. My view is that we’re in a new kind of information age, and there’s less need to be secretive.”

Coleman reached into his bag behind him, and pulled out a book entitled The Unified Cycle Theory by Steven J. Puetz. “I spend a lot of time studying cyclical thought,” he continued. “I’m always paying attention to eclipses and equinoxes, symmetrical nodes where energy intersects. I was well aware of the event tomorrow, or any time we get near these points. Then I focus to see if I can pick up something that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Am I deluding myself or imagining things? You could say that about almost anything that you do. Definitely, if you’re tuned into it, you can feel something special that doesn’t happen in other moments. After a while, you start noticing patterns and start trying to see how you can use these things, how they can work out, what the differences are.”

On the two recent CDs, Coleman seems to be consolidating, loosening forms, transmuting cross-cultural correspondences gleaned from his travels into musical shapes and inserting them into an increasingly epic narrative. Tyshawn Sorey, who plays drumset on both recordings—by himself on Harvesting and in tandem with Gilmore on Mancy—pinpointed the interweaving quality to which Gilmore referred when describing the evolution in Coleman’s rhythmic language from his “much more sonically dense” music of the ‘90s. Sorey traced the transition to the composition “Ascending Numeration,” from the 2002 recording The Ascension To Light, on which “it takes at least a minute” for all the different meters—he calls them “time spans”—to align. “The structures are much more elaborate now,” Sorey said. “The music breathes more. Vibrationally it feels different. I remember thinking in the ‘90s that the music was cold, that it was hyper-technical but lacked emotional content. I played some of that music when I first joined the group. In the music he’s written since then, there’s a lot going on, but it hits you emotionally in some way.”

Recorded in 2006 and 2007, the Pi sessions represent an early stage of this development. But over the past year or so, Coleman said, he’s been “reshuffling,” addressing “pre-composed material ever more spontaneously, using compositions almost like cells of information and recombining them in different ways,” trying to give his musicians “greater responsibility for their part.” Towards this end, he toured Europe last fall and this spring with no drums or bass, presenting consequential challenges for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist David Bryant, and vocalist Jen Shyu.

“The music was written with bass and drums in mind,” said Shyu, a Coleman regular since 2003. “It’s not that hard to play each single part, and it’s difficult but achievable to be able to clap one part and sing another. The hardest thing is to improvise and be free over that, and not be locked into, ‘ok, I have to keep my place with this line.’ Steve wants you to hear it as a gestalt—all the parts together, internalizing how they fit, and never lose your place. The compositions are getting more difficult. They’re based on extra-musical things, I think a cycle of Mercury, so the progressions are unusual and harder to hear.”

Coleman described the effect of this drummerless experiment as akin to a colonic. “There was stuff encrusted inside me for years, and when that layer was stripped away, things became crystal clear,” he said. The logical next step, he continued, is to “jettison” the precomposed fragments and move towards “creating spontaneous forms on the spot for the first time.” He added: “It’s not like free improvisation, where whatever sound you make and whatever sound I make, it’s cool. It’s having an intelligent conversation with somebody on the street where you don’t know what you’re going to say, but it makes linguistic sense. It has to be as sophisticated as something you might create if you composed it with pencil and paper, and you have to be able to retain it so that you can repeat it, not verbatim, but as you would a written compositional form. I never write out set lists. We come out, and I blank out my mind and feel what’s coming from the audience and what’s happening on stage. From that comes my first impulse, and I make a sound. Then I start developing and weave a thread.

“The temporal moment has a character, and it imposes on us a certain vibe which we then deal with. Place has something to do with it. The land has an energy that affects us. When I’m in central Java for three months, I create different shit than I would if I stayed here. I get different ideas in south India or Brazil. Usually the effect on you is unconscious. I study all this esoteric stuff to try to figure out what it is. Almost everything I do starts with some vague interior, intuitive, spiritual feeling, which I then try to figure out how to technically work with. In the end, I’m dealing with a craft. I’m dealing with music, and something’s got to be developed out of that music.”

Coleman traces this predisposition to investigate inchoate feelings to childhood. He grew up at 68th and Cregier on Chicago’s South Side, four blocks east of Stony Island Avenue, where the Blackstone Rangers gang dominated street life. “They were recruiting cats my age, but I didn’t want to run with that kind of element,” he says. “They preyed on people with maybe weaker minds. I was the kind of kid that if a cat called me a chicken, I’d be like, ‘well, that’s your opinion.’ I wouldn’t get mad, just indifferent. Before he died, my father told me, ‘What you’re doing musically and the way you are, I saw it in you early. You were a hard-headed baby who wanted to go your own way, and could sit in the corner by yourself and play your own game for hours.’”

Initially attracted to Charlie Parker through his father’s record collection, Coleman received subsequent hands-on mentoring from Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, and Bunky Green, all regular presences in neighborhood clubs like the Apartment Lounge and Cadillac Bob’s. He traced the origin of his rhythmic explorations to a realization that the quality he most appreciated in Bird and his teachers was “their identity, a strong vibe that told you this was their thing,” and that “the primary ingredient in that strong identity was the rhythm.”

“The main element of their rhythmic base stemmed from the dance music of the time, and I realized that I’d have to look for something different,” he said. “I started to think about Motown, James Brown, the Meters—which I heard as a folk music—and how to do something more sophisticated with it. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. I feel soul and funk more than what Charlie Parker and Max Roach and those cats did, because it’s what I grew up on. In blues, you have the sophisticated line, the less sophisticated line, and the stuff in the middle, a breadth of feelings, everything from Ma Rainey to Coltrane and in between. I didn’t feel that breadth existed with this music. I thought it could be wide-open. I felt you could take it as far as what Trane was doing with ‘Expression’ and ‘Transition,’ and I was determined to do it.”

Once settled in New York, Coleman—who took gigs with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, with drummer Doug Hammond, and with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan ensemble, and often played on the street with cornetist Graham Haynes—heard  recordings of tribal, rural folk music from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. “I was shocked, because in the singing and drumming I heard rhythms that I heard in Charlie Parker,” he said. He absorbed their phrasing of the rhythms, “the sensibility they did it with and the looseness with which they expressed it. Graham and I were trying to work our way into feeling these things, like groping in the dark. You hear back a piece on tape and keep what works, and expand on it.” He cited a eureka moment—“Armageddon” from the 1990 recording Rhythm People, on which Reggie Washington played bass and Smitty Smith played drums. “I had a dream about how the music was going to sound, and something on the bridge of that song was the closest it got. I began to analyze that and go deeper. When I went to Ghana, I saw similarities between what they were doing and what I was doing (and differences, too), and realized that what really attracted me was the cyclic element.”

As the ‘80s  progressed (he described the decade as “complete experimentation”), Coleman needed every bit of bullheaded resolve to stay on course and withstand the slings and arrows—some were self-inflected—hurled his way. “Von Freeman warned me that if I was going to go the route of developing my own music, it would take me twice as long,” he said. “I could easily have been one of the Young Lion crowd. All I had to do was play the game and put on a  three-piece suit. Instead, I was in this underground direction, wearing overalls. Stanley Crouch called me ‘the Jim Jones of Brooklyn’—leading everybody to their musical suicide.  That was a good one; if you’re going to signify, you might as well be clever.” Nor was approbation unanimous within the M-BASE community. “I was aggressive in pursuing ideas, let’s put it that way. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. My response was always, ‘Hey, nobody’s got to follow me; I’m not starting no school.’

“Fortunately, I talked to cats like Max Roach, and played with cats like Thad, who had no idea what I was trying to do, but told me, ‘you have to find your own way, whatever it is.’ Von and Bunky told me the same thing. When things got hard, I’d remind myself that Charlie Parker hoboed on a train. Motherfuckers couldn’t come through the same door or drink from the same fountain. They were on drugs. Coltrane took a deluge of negative criticism. What am I bitching about? I was like, ‘You did what you wanted to do; you didn’t let anybody alter your thing.’”

It was now 17 hours before the Solstice, time to leave the air-conditioned Prius, enter the Gallery, order takeout Thai, and prepare for the evening’s business. “You’ve got to eat healthy, and stay in shape,” Coleman said. He recalled the classic cover of Von Freeman’s 1972 debut LP, Have No Fear, on which the tenor master, then 50, stands in a Chicago back alley in a sleeveless tee. “In ‘79, I saw Von pick up some cat and shove him through the door with one arm. I was kind of scrawny as a kid. I thought, ‘Ok, you need to take care of yourself.’ You want to be able to still move around. If you like young girls and all that, too, then you really have to do it. If anything kills me, it will be that—or an accident.”

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For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

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Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation and a 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

* * *

IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU


Below is the first part of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out jazz.com’s Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldau tracks, and the essay“Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career.”


 

by Ted Panken

 Brad Mehldau, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose!

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor’s note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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For Bassist John Clayton’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2010

John Clayton, who continues to make his mark as top-tier bassist, composer and bandleader, turns 62 today. I had the pleasure of several conversations with him in late 2009-early 2010 when researching and composing a feature piece for DownBeat, which I append below.

* * * *

One of John Clayton’s favorite sayings is that he doesn’t do stress. “I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get the job done,” Clayton said. “I might have to go without sleeping, deal with difficult people, maybe have people scream at me—but it rolls off my back.”

It was the second Tuesday of January, and the bassist, 57, was anticipating the final installment of an eight-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Clayton Brothers Band, which he co-leads with his brother, Jeff Clayton, to be directly followed by two days in the studio to record The New Song and Dance, a follow-up to Brother to Brother [Artist Share], a 2010 Grammy nominee. He had arrived in New York directly from a week at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, where he performed four duos with bassist John Patitucci and another four with pianist Gerald Clayton, his son.

On the previous evening at Dizzy’s, the only screaming came from a packed house of NEA Jazz Masters, who ate salmon, drank wine and mineral water, and rose up and hollered in response to a surging, well-paced set. “That band is great,” 2010 awardee Kenny Barron said later, summing up the prevailing opinion. “It reminds me of why I wanted to start playing jazz in the first place.”

Such approbation made sense: Since 1977, when the Claytons co-founded the unit, they’ve connected to the hip populism and presentational values that defined the musical production of such predecessors as the Adderley Brothers, Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Horace Silver, the Ray Brown-Gene Harris Trio, and Count Basie. Now they’re a pan-generational ensemble, with forty-something trumpeter Terrell Stafford sharing the front line with Jeff Clayton on alto sax and flute, and twenty-somethings Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire on piano and drums. At Dizzy’s, CBB articulated old-school aesthetics in a non-formulaic manner, addressing sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic raw materials with a sell-the-song attitude and acute attention to detail. John Clayton radiated the cool, composed affect of which he spoke—alert to all the nuances, he smiled encouragement at his band-mates, goosing the flow with consistently melodic basslines and ebullient, surging-yet-relaxed grooves.

“When I was 16, I studied with Ray Brown,” Clayton explained. “Milt Jackson was like an uncle to me at 17. Their music was extremely deep and serious, yet they had no problem allowing the joy that they were deriving from it to be expressed on their faces and in their body language.”

Known as Ray Brown’s protégé since those years, Clayton holds an undisputed position in the upper echelons of bass expression—in addition to his considerable jazz bona fides as both an ensemble player and soloist, his peer group gives him deep respect for having held the principal bass chair with the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years during the 1980s.

“One of John’s talents is picking things up quickly—understanding concepts,” said Jeff Clayton. “I practice long and hard. John practices smart—always has. In preparing to audition for the Amsterdam Philharmonic, he just added another hour or so to his practice.

“ I was practicing a lot anyway, so I just added the orchestra audition material to what I was practicing,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “Classical is just another kind of music. You’ve still got to push the string down to the fingerboard. You have to play detached notes or legato notes, forte or piano. Now, the instrumentation or the groove or some other aesthetic might be different—you learn those things.”

“I’ve always been analytical,” he added. “I’m more comfortable if I try to figure out why the characters in a situation say what they do or act as they do. Rather than play something from my lesson 300 times, I’ll play it 50 times, and each time analyze, say, what my elbow or wrist is doing.”

Clayton has applied his penchant for compartmentalization and mono-focus towards mastering various non-performative aspects of the music business—indeed, he does so many things so well that it is possible to overlook how distinctive a niche he occupies. “John is a visionary, who says, ‘Five years from now, I’ll be here,’ and then gets there,’” said Monty Alexander, with whom Clayton spent the better part of three years on the road during the middle ‘70s. “When John says he’s going to do something and then it transpires, it’s not by chance,” his brother adds. “We would write down goal sheets and follow them; once we’ve made it to ALL of our goals, then we set new ones.”

One platform is the area of composition and arrangement for small groups, big bands, and orchestras, a craft that Clayton learned in the crucible of the late ‘70s Count Basie Orchestra. While in Amsterdam, he continued to refine his aesthetic, creating charts for a radio big band. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he found steady work in the studios, and set to work establishing himself as a film writer.

“I was involved in a lot of film sessions as the only African-American musician in a 75-piece orchestra, and I thought as a writer I could help change that situation,” Clayton said. “But when it looked like the doors were starting to open, it became less interesting to me. I realized I was getting into it for the wrong reason; I’d be focusing on a lot of music and an environment that doesn’t define me. If you’re lucky enough to work with the great directors or producers, then fantastic. But to work with unqualified shlocks who are telling you what to do, and have no taste in music… I always say that jazz saved my life. I don’t make the kind of money that a successful film writer makes. But I smile a lot.”

Instead, Clayton focused on establishing the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band as a primary locus for his musical production, transmuting vocabulary from various Count Basie “New Testament” and Woody Herman arrangers, Duke Ellington, and Thad Jones into his own argot in the process of creating a book. As the ‘90s progressed, he served as arranger-for-hire, producer, and conductor on numerous recordings and high-visibility concerts, adding to his duties administrative responsibilities as Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 to 2001. While multi-tasking amongst these activities, he also taught at the University of Southern California (he retired at the end of the 2008-09 academic year), developing a comprehensive bass pedagogy.

In discussing his first principles as a bassist, Clayton referenced his initial encounter with Ray Brown at a weekly “Workshop in Jazz Bass” course at UCLA in 1969, which he rode four buses to get to.

“Ray came through the door, took out the bass, and showed the whole class what we had to learn,” Clayton recalled. “He played every major scale, every minor scale, all the arpeggios in every key. Later, he brought in recordings of Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Israel Crosby, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, and Scott LaFaro, none of whom I’d ever heard of. He saw how hungry I was, so in love with the whole thing, so he’d invite me to his recording sessions or club gigs in the area. I can pick out Ray in the middle of a 150-piece string orchestra. But he still has lessons for me, whether about tone, how to handle a groove from one tune to the next, and on and on.”

Mentorship evolved to friendship and ultimately productive partnership in Super Bass, the three-contrabass ensemble that united Brown, Clayton and Christian McBride from 1996 until Brown’s death in 2002. Most tellingly, Brown bequeathed to Clayton his primary bass—Clayton played it at Dizzy’s and in Orvieto. “It’s like a talisman,” Clayton said. “It’s as though by touching this instrument, I am infused with confidence, not egotistical, but as if to say, ‘You’re touching this bass, the music needs this, you can supply this.’ I tell my students that creativity begins from nothing and silence. When you touch the instrument, before you play a note, allow some silent moments so that you are immediately cool and chill and calm—and THEN give the music whatever it demands.”

[BREAK]

“I’m playing the piano, and standing next to me is this patriarch guy, caressing everything and making what you’re playing better,” Monty Alexander said, recalling Clayton’s comportment as a 22-year-old in his trio. “Sometimes I got mad because I wanted to say, ‘Hey, respect seniority here!’ He had a way about him that just made you happy to play.”

“My dad finds a way to translate his approach in life better than a lot of people,” Gerald Clayton remarked. “He’s got such a big heart, he’s thankful for the situation, and he brings that energy and love and honesty into the music. Even if he’s telling you to do something, it’s more like an invitation—sort of intimidating but loving, like a big bear.”

Asked to comment on this patriarchal trope, Jeff Clayton said: “Our mother raised seven kids as a single mom, worked ten hours a day at the Post Office, went to choir rehearsal, taught the junior and senior choir Tuesdays and Fridays and went to church all day Sunday, and took one class per semester, one night a week for 12 years, and got her degree in theology. As the oldest brother with that many kids, John had to be responsible.”

“Billy Higgins used to say, ‘You don’t choose the instrument; the instrument chooses you,’” John Clayton said, “I think that surely applies to me. People look to bass players as glue. We’re the go-between for the egos of the drums, or the piano, or the vocalist, or the trumpet—we understand where everyone is coming from. That molds your personality, and you move more towards what the bass represents.”

Clayton’s personal rectitude and groundedness, his impeccable craft, his insistence on privileging ensemble imperatives above solo flight, his staunch identification with the bedrock codes of jazz tradition, can impart the superficial impression of aesthetic conservativism. But his comments on  what he considers distinctive about his voice reveal an incremental sensibility.

“The changes and contributions I make to the structures we work with are inside, subtle, upper-level things,” Clayton said. “I was inspired by the way Israel Crosby, with Ahmad Jamal’s trio, superimposed within his bassline a tune on the tune he was playing. Or when Monty played a solo, the way he would anticipate my bassline and harmonize it before I created it. Now I’m listening to Terrell, and create my bassline based on a melody fragment he’s just played in his solo.

“Our ultimate goal as musicians is to become one with our instrument, and singing is the barometer that tells us this is happening. In fact, any time that my playing starts to go south, all I have to do is remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not singing,’ and it automatically clicks back into place.”

Prefacing his first Orvieto duo concert with Patitucci, Clayton introduced his partner as “a faucet that turns on and turns off and plays melody.” It could have been self-description. Performing such iconic bass repertoire as “Tricotism,” “Whims of Chambers” and “Ray’s Idea,” songbook chestnuts like “Squeeze Me,” “Body and Soul,” and “Tea For Two,” and baroque music, they engaged in open dialog, intuiting each other’s moves, playing as authoritatively with the bow as pizzicato, taking care to stay in complementary registers, switching from support to lead on a dime.

“It was the best musical experience I’ve ever had playing duos with a bass player,” Patitucci said. “He’s a consummate musician. The pitches lined up, which made the sonorities much richer; he’s so well-rounded that you could throw up anything and read through it, and it worked.”

The father-son duos at Orvieto proceeded along similarly open paths, the protagonists addressing blues, spirituals, standards, and originals by Clayton fils with abundant reharmonizations, and polytonal episodes, with a stylistically heterogeneous stance. Pere Clayton kept things grounded with a relentless pocket and elevated the mood with a succession of transcendent arco solos, including an introduction to John Lewis’ to “Django” that channeled Bach in grand Koussevitzkyian fashion.

“Each situation is about passion,” Clayton said of his unitary interests. “You immerse yourself in that language, and try to make it part of what you do, because you’re so crazy about it. I love classical and jazz styles 50-50, and I think that’s what you hear.”

On The New Song and Dance, the Clayton Brothers place tango, New Orleans streetbeat, and complex time signatures into the mix towards the notion, as Jeff Clayton put it, “that swing is part of a large cauldron of many ideas that we are allowed to visit in each song.” “It shows the wide span of creativity that the group represents,” John Clayton said. “The project is pushing me in ways I haven’t been pushed before; my brother’s songs don’t sound anything like songs he wrote four years ago. Gerald stretches us, too. If people thought they knew what we sounded like, they’re going to be surprised with different sounds.

“The things I write for the Clayton Brothers that I’m less happy with lean too close to being over-arranged. I always look for that balance to have it organized yet allow for a lot of freedom. With the big band it’s a little different. I want it to be a blowing band, but then other times I’ll write a chorus with no improvisation at all.”

Clayton anticipated a light touring schedule over the summer, the better to focus on expanding “Red Man, Black Man”—a programmatic 2006 opus commissioned  by the Monterey Jazz Festival as a collaboration between the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Kurt Elling, that year’s artist-in-residence—from a 25-minute investigation of the affinities between Native American and African American music into a concert-length performance. To frame Elling’s reading of original lyrics and poems apropos to the subject, Clayton orchestrates a Shawnee tribal stomp (“the singers were using call-and-response, the notes were primarily the blues scale, and the shaker pattern was CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING”) with radical techniques—the musicians blow silence, the saxophone section plays the transcribed stomp with wood flutes, chains and anvils strike the ground at measured intervals to represent a chain gang.

“I’m interested in different cultures and their music, and always tried, somehow, to incorporate them in what I do,” Clayton said, citing an unaccompanied bass feature that combines “Lift Every Voice And Sing” with “Danny Boy,” and, on a meta-level, the fall 2009 release, Charles Aznavour and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra [Capitol Jazz-EMI], on which  Clayton’s subtle arrangements—the guests include pianist Jacky Terrason and Rachelle Farrell—reimagine the iconic chanteur’s hits, and some choice new repertoire, in a swing context.

However his milieu evolves, Clayton does not intend to be left behind. “In the big band era, there were way fewer choices,” he said. “Now we can listen to so many categories of music. Many young musicians say, ‘There’s too much for me to absorb and learn and be held responsible for.’ I think, ‘That’s great—get busy.”

[—30—]

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