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For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.

 

Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.
________________________________________

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1—so it starts the sequence over and over again. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

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For Donald Harrison’s 55th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2002

Best of birthdays to the magnificent alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, who turns 55 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2002. (The restaurant, unfortunately, went out of business a few years ago.)

* * *

The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

This having been said, Harrison digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring his story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released New York Second Line [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

New York Second Line sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of Real Life Stories [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on Nascence [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do. The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing. Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on Indian Blues [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’ They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin — both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.'”

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Filed under Donald Harrison, DownBeat, Eddie Palmieri, Idris Muhammad, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans

For Monty Alexander’s 71st Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2010 and a Separate Interview

In acknowledgment of pianist Monty Alexander’s 71st birthday today, here’s a feature I wrote for DownBeat in 2010. I’ve appended below an interview that I conducted with Monty for a Ray Brown tribute that appeared in DownBeat after the bass grandmaster passed away in 2002.

* * *

Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:

The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” coined to convey the kindling effect of separation on romantic ardor, applies with equal measure to pianist Monty Alexander’s ongoing obsession with the music of Jamaica, his homeland, whence he migrated to Miami in 1961, at 17.

As a Kingston youngster, Alexander recalled, “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy and Miles, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung. I was fully aware of the rhythm-and-blues, my heroes on piano were Eddie Heywood and Erroll Garner, and, above all, Louis Armstrong was my king. I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music—no one more valuable than the other.”

Once in the States, though, Alexander compartmentalized, sublimating roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1970, he was a distinguished voice, with a c.v. citing long-haul trio gigs with various New York A-listers, as well as consequential sideman work in Los Angeles with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. By the late ‘70s, when he closed the books on his 300-days-a-year-on-the-road trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, he was an upper-echelon stylist, referred to by Oscar Peterson, himself descended from St. Kett’s and St. Croix, as “my little West Indian counterpart.”

“You come to America, you try to blend in and do what they do,” Alexander explained. “At first, I was even trying to speak like American people”—he demonstrated several voices—“so they wouldn’t keep asking, ‘Where do you come from?’ But as the years went by, I started expressing myself by claiming my heritage more. I said, ‘Wait a minute, home is as good as it gets.’”

In Orvieto, Italy, for a five-concert engagement at Umbria Jazz Winter 2010, Alexander spoke in the high-ceilinged sitting room of his hotel, which evoked a ducal mansion. With him for the week was a band comprising an acoustic trio with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas and a plugged-in Jamaican contingent—Wendell Ferraro on guitar, filling both soloistic and comping roles, Glen Browne on bass, and Karl Wright on drums.

Dubbed the Harlem-Kingston Express, this instrumental configuration—documented on the 2011 release, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma), comprising live dates at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and in Europe—is the most recent iteration of a series of Alexander-conceptualized efforts over the past few decades to coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” with the principles of hardcore swinging jazz. “I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” he said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that, and I’m not one to go scouting.” To recharge, he began spending quality time in Jamaica. “I’d go to the studio with Sly and Robbie, who know me from way back. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”

Later in the ‘80s, Alexander—whose first Jamaica-centric dates were the still-sampled mid ‘70s MPS groove albums Ras and Demento—started to present units with which he could incorporate Caribbean flavors, including an “Ivory and Steel” ensemble with steel drummer Othello Molyneaux and hand drummer Bobby Thomas “married to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” After signing with Telarc in the mid ‘90s, he embarked on a succession of recordings on which he reunited with musicians he’d known since teen years, among them several dates with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and one with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Four other recordings—Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle reveal Alexander’s take on Bob Marley’s music, while Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard address a broader Jamaican spectrum—hearken to mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso, descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century. Mento evolved into, as Alexander puts it, “a deep country Jamaican thing” with African retentions—a banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century progressed, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.

As Alexander delved ever deeper into these rediscovered interests, he found it increasingly difficult to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily convey them. “I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do,” Alexander said. “Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”

This feeling had permeated the previous evening’s concert. Alexander came to the piano, positioned stage center to the left of Shakur and Fludas. He opened with Ellingtonian chords, and launched a chugging train blues, transitioned to the changes of “Blue and Boogie,” then returned to an Ellington medley that resolved into “Caravan.” After brief remarks, a brisk stomp through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and some nachtmusik chords, the Rasta-dreaded Browne and Wright, who wears white driving gloves when playing, entered stage right, and laid down phat Reggae riddims. Playing percussively, Alexander soon segued into Ernest Gold’s “Exodus,” blew a melodica, quoted “let my people go” within his solo, returned to the piano bench, and ended with a flourish. With the trio, he played a shuffle blues, then a hard-swinging blues—midway through the latter, he stood, pointed to the Jamaicans, and orchestrated a metric modulation, quoting “Manteca” in his solo, before seguing into Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The back-and-forth proceeded for another half-hour, before Alexander concluded with a romping “Come Fly With Me” and a melody-milking rendition of “All The Way.”

“Recently I’ve been doing this with more commitment than before,” Alexander remarked of the real-time genre-switching. “I’m fulfilled, because it’s my own life experience. It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”

[BREAK]

Perhaps twenty years ago, Alexander got angry at someone, intended to hit them, thought better of it, punched the wall instead, and broke his hand. “Ever since that day, I don’t play as fast as I used to,” he said. “But instead of playing twenty notes that may or may not mean that much, I started playing six or seven that hopefully are soulful or meaningful. Sometimes I’m playing and the muscle tightens, and I look like a kid who takes one index finger and goes PLINK-PLINK-PLINK. I think, ‘Shit, that must look terrible to the audience, this so-called ‘good’ piano player playing with his index finger.’”

The chops are abundant on Uplift (JSP), a deeply swinging navigation of the American Songbook with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley that follows the 2008 trio dates, The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett and Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole [Chesky] as companion pieces to his excellent 1997 Sinatra tribute, Echoes of Jilly’s [Concord]. Rather than abstract the tunes, Alexander hews to the iconic arrangements, illuminating the music from within, deploying effervescent grooves, lovely rubatos, a killing left hand, an innate feel for stating melody, well-calibrated touch, harmonic acumen, and an ability to reference a broad timeline of piano vocabulary stretching to pre-bop. Each interpretation embodies a point of view. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into, while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”

“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” said Alexander, who experienced a transformational moment in 1956 when he saw Cole play on a package concert in Kingston with Louis Armstrong. “I grew up learning his songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. At first I confused him with Gene Autry. I was always connecting one thing with another—‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why for me, even now, it’s one world of music. I try to remove all the lines.”

By 1956, Alexander had already spent half his life entertaining people with music. “I’d emulate people my folks knew who played old-time stride,” he said. “I was playing boogie-woogie from the getgo, rockin’ the joint. I just had fun at the piano.” Later, he would extrapolate a conceptual framework from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic, “Poinciana.” “It was a merging of two worlds,” he said. “Sophistication on the piano, harmonic wonderment, and the nastiest jungle rhythm going on in the background. That’s Jamaica. It’s about dancin’, it’s about groovin’—it’s all one thing.”

Such formative experiences gave Alexander a certain ignorance-of-youth confidence when he started playing in “tough guy clubs” in Miami Beach, where hookers congregated and alcohol “flowed like crazy.” Within a year he was working at Le Bistro, a two-room joint where he shared the bill with a Sinatra impersonator named Duke Hazlitt. One night after a concert at the Fontainebleau, Sinatra came through with an entourage, including Sinatra’s consigliere, Jilly Rizzo, and Rizzo’s wife, Honey.

`“I’m playing, minding my own business, trying to behave, not to be too noisy,” Alexander recalled. “But I must have been kicking up a storm, because apparently Honey came in and told Jilly to come hear this kid play. In those days, I’d come in with all guns blazing. She told me, ‘We’ve got this club in New York, Jilly’s, and it would be nice to have you play in there, kid.”

About a year later, midway through 1963, Rizzo finally brought Alexander to his eponymous West 54th Street tough guy bar, which doubled as Sinatra’s late night office. Just 19 and residing a few blocks away in the Hotel Edison, Alexander joined Local 802, situated directly across the street from the club, and assumed his place among New York’s jazz elite. Within a few years, he was also working uptown at Minton’s Playhouse, “before a different crowd of tough guys; drug people and hot goods,” and at the Mad Men era Playboy Club.

“I remember sitting at Jilly’s piano bar, a few feet away from Miles Davis and Frank in deep conversation,” Alexander reminisced. “My crowning point was when Miles came to me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play that shit?’ Next thing, he writes his phone number on a little matchbook, and we’re hanging out at his house or going to the fights. Miles told me, ‘You got the right complexion.’” Alexander noted that his bloodline is an admixture of Lebanese, Spanish and African strains, and that the ambiguity as to his racial identity had a great deal with to do with his ability to comfortably navigate various circles in Jim Crow Miami as well as New York City. “At Minton’s they’d say, ‘What’s this Puerto Rican guy doing who can play jazz like that?’ When I first saw Ray Brown’s picture on an Oscar Peterson record cover, I saw the smile and the teeth and said, ‘Damn, Uncle Jim!’”

More than the familial resemblance, Alexander was drawn to Brown’s consistency, his tone, the truck-coming-down-the-road surge of his beat, and he tried to be around him whenever he could. “One night Ray was in town with Quincy Jones to make the album Walking In Space, and I asked him if he wanted to go out,” he recalled. “I took him to the Half Note to hang out with Coleman Hawkins and Major Holley. After he hung out with Bean, he said, ‘What’s going on uptown?’ ‘There’s a little bar called Docks, and Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones play duo there.’ ‘Ok, let’s go.’

“I got to know Ray better. I went to see him in L.A. at the Gaslight. When I got there, nobody’s listening, nobody cares, it’s the last set, and they had to play one obligatory tune. Frankie Capp walks to the drums, Mundell Lowe picks up the guitar, but the piano player is boozed-out at the bar. I asked Ray, ‘Can I play a tune?’ Within two choruses, he’s screaming, he’s groovin’ and I’m groovin’, and we’re as happy as kids in the candy jar. He said, ‘Where are you going to be this summer? I want you to play with me and Milt Jackson.’

“When you’re in company with people who are at a certain level, it upgrades your musicianship. I’d been smitten with the MJQ since I saw a record with these four dignified black men on the cover—they looked like funeral directors. I learned about the connections—John Lewis and Ray with Dizzy’s big band, Hank Jones telling Dizzy about Ray. I took that personal thing on the bandstand. I felt like I belonged to that crowd of people.”

[BREAK]

In spontaneously orchestrating the Harlem-Kingston Express band in live performance, Alexander seemed to be paralleling the bandstand procedures by which both Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington deployed their units to convey their intentions in real time. The pianist concurred.

“It’s a kind of joyful, loving dictatorship,” he said. “That’s why I use musicians who are willing and easy-going, who give me their trust and confidence and won’t question what I’m doing.”

Moreso than instant composition a la Jamal and Ellington as an m.o. for following the dictates of the moment, Alexander focuses on serious play. “I don’t read music and I play by ear,” he said. “You can chalk it up to a certain amount of laziness, because if I really wanted to read, there’s no reason I can’t. I took lessons with an older white lady from England who slapped my knuckles to play the scales. I learned to love her, because she meant well and she saw my talent—that taught me respect for the instrument and to get a sound, so the music starts to fly. But when I see paper in front of me, man, I start sweating. That part of my brain doesn’t function well. I don’t know how to play music that’s not coming from my instant, make-it-up stuff.

“I get bored with a planned format. I can’t repeat the same thing twice. I’m always reaching for now, live in the now, present tense, and I look for inspiration from wherever.”

This blank slate attitude inflects the aforementioned trio projects. “I just went in the studio,” Alexander said, referencing the 2008 Nat Cole tribute. “‘Haji Baba’ is from a movie with Nat, and I used to sing walking down the street when I was nine—I listened to the bridge on that and on ‘Again’ to make sure I had it right. But for the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality, its own soul, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling.

“I don’t understand what it is that makes me different, but I feel I have very little in common with anybody else. I seem to be my own strange character. If I’m right in my motivations and attitude, amazing things happen.”

 

* * *

Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

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Filed under DownBeat, Monty Alexander, Piano

For Jerry Gonzalez’ 65th Birthday, a “Directors Cut” Jazz Times Article From 2009 and an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003

In acknowledgement of master conguero-trumpeter-conceptualist Jerry Gonzalez’s 65th birthday, here’s a “Director’s Cut” of a feature piece I wrote for Jazz Times in 2012 about Jerry and basssist Andy Gonzalez, his brother, a pioneer in such rising-star young bassists as , among others, Carlos Henriquez and Luques Curtis, and an uncut, animated 2003 Blindfold Test with Jerry. (Here’s a link to my post last year of an uncut Blindfold Test  that I conducted with Andy in 2001.)

 

The Gonzalez Brothers: The Apache Way (Jazz Times) – 2012:

 

In control central of Andy Gonzalez’ compact apartment on 209th Street in the Bronx on the third Friday of October, the 60-year-old bassist and his brother, Jerry, 62, had some catching up to do.

In town from Madrid, his home since 2000, Jerry removed one CDR after another from his bag, presenting each offering with an enthusiastic “check this out.” A Symphony Space-produced DVD of an homage to the brothers by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra the previous weekend ran on a large monitor, which shared a wall obscured by stacks of electronic gear. A narrow corridor separated these holdings from less accessible piles of vintage audio equipment; boxes filled with 8-track tapes, printed matter, and bric-a-brac; several shaky metal shelving units piled with ancient LPs and ‘78s; and a couple of chairs.

As Andy burned duplicate disks, the brothers assessed the concert. It comprised 13 numbers, programmed by ALJO Artistic Director Arturo O’Farrill to convey the scope of their complementary careers, spanning close to half-a-century. O’Farrill commissioned fresh arrangements from the book of Jerry’s Fort Apache band, whose cusp-of-the ‘90s recordings Rumba Para Monk, Earth Dance, and Moliendo Café, set a paradigm for coalescing the vocabularies of swing-based hardcore jazz and clave-centric Afro-Cuban idioms. Two charts (the Pedro Flores standard “Obsesión” and Larry Willis’ “Nightfall’) and two original compositions illuminating the trumpeter-conguero’s current activity in Spain’s gypsy flamenco scene came from Spaniard Miguel Blanco, the guiding force behind Jerry’s well-wrought 2006 CD, Music for Big Band, who was on site to conduct.

The orchestra played impeccably, and the concluding section—kinetic, 13-horn performances of three staples from the book of Conjunto Libre, the salsa unit co-founded by Andy and the late timbalero Manny Oquendo in 1974, shortly after both left the employ of Eddie Palmieri—had the patrons dancing in the aisles. But Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are tough customers, and neither was entirely satisfied with this representation of their musical production.

“If it had been the Fort Apache band together, with ALJO surrounding us, it would have come out better,” Jerry said, before acknowledging that contractual issues (Fort Apache had an imminent booking at Newark’s NJPAC, which wanted metropolitan area exclusivity) forestalled this circumstance. “The band was like in the air. We touched upon some things, but it didn’t have the ferocity. That bugged me, but I went through it.”

“It was nice to be honored,” Andy said gently. But he noted the omission of the mid-‘70s records Concepts in Unity and Lo Dicen Todo by Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, a rumba ensemble that addressed historic Cuban and Puerto Rican repertoire with idiomatic authenticity and a funky South Bronx attitude.

“We’re talking about forty years of playing all kinds of different music in different bands,” Andy said gently. “We’ve done so much, it’s hard to make a representation of everything we got to do.”

“Andy and Jerry changed the face of Latin Jazz—in fact, they defined that hybrid,” said O’Farrill, who recalled 1970s listening sessions “at Andy’s house to Arsenio Rodriguez recordings that nobody had, or Bill Evans recordings that nobody had.” He added: “They’ve investigated, immersed themselves in, and appropriated each style.”

In a separate conversation, Jeff Watts—who met the brothers via pianist Kenny Kirkland at the cusp of the ‘90s, and has subbed several Apache gigs—cosigned that assessment. “Their music is definitely a reflection of their experience,” said the drummer. “There’s always something on Jerry’s hot list, which might tie into his perspective at the moment. He’ll play some old Cuban stuff, and show you how he’s incorporated a portion of that theme into an arrangement he’s working on.”

Then Watts offered this encomium: “What makes their thing special is that the jazz side is so well-informed. Listening to the Apaches over the years, you can hear the swagger and vibe of the Jazz Messengers at moments, the resonant spiritual side of Coltrane’s music, the heavy drama of Miles’ quintet, and of course what they do with Monk and Wayne. They have an intimate knowledge of how to achieve the moods associated with jazz. They’ve been successful with their hybrid without being blatant about it, just from trying to render the song with a certain dance feel. The Apache way is a template that you can use for combining a lot of different musics, by paying respect to all the music you’re trying to mix. They could get more credit for that. I think a lot of musicians refer to them as an example, whether they know it or not. But I don’t see a lot of people saying it.”

[BREAK]

“It’s Nuyorican,” Jerry said, pinpointing the sensibility that Watts described. “I listen to Trane, and I hear Muñequitos de Matanzas simultaneously in my head. It interfaces naturally. I heard how Monk would sound on the record before we did it.” He elaborated. “Our version of ‘Evidence’ is a combination of Frank Emilio and Muñequitos and Monk, together.”

This “bilingual” aesthetic stance gestated when the Gonzalez brothers were kids in the Edenwald Projects on 225th Street, home base until their teens. Their father was a gigging sonero and hi-fi buff, who passed down his old equipment to the boys when he upgraded, enabling them to listen closely to Tito Rodríguez, Arsenio Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Machito, Cortijo with Ismael Rivera and with his own combo. On Symphony Sid’s Latin-focused radio show, they heard Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaría. In elementary school, Andy learned bass and Jerry learned trumpet; in eighth grade, home-bound with a broken leg, Jerry taught himself the beats by practicing to those recordings on a borrowed conga. Soon, the listening got up-close-and-personal—downtown at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra; crosstown at Slugs, Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, and Lee Morgan (Jerry was playing in a teen band with Rene McLean, whose father, Jackie, helped him get past the gatekeeper). Uptown and downtown, they checked out Mongo and Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdéz, and heard Machito at a low-ceilinged boite on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx called Eva’s Intimate Lounge. By high school—Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art—they were entering the fray, first in Latin Jazz, later in típico contexts.

“If you look at the back page of Music and Art’s 1967 yearbook, there’s a photograph of a school desk on which somebody carved the words ‘Latin Jazz’,” Andy said.

“That was me,” Jerry interjected with a raspy, protracted laugh. “I graffitied ‘Latin Jazz’ every place I sat.”

“But that represents what we thought about the music,” Andy continued. “I didn’t start playing more dance-hall music until I got with Ray Barretto.” This transition occurred when Andy was about 17, not long after the brothers met ethnomusicologist and collector René López, who gave them access to his treasure trove of mid-century Afro-Cuban recordings, initiating them to the codes of rumba and helping them, as Andy puts it, “filter into that circuit little by little.”

“We refined our technique for that circuit,” Jerry said. “Before you even can sit down, there’s a certain way to do things. You need to know what the tumbao is, and what the quinto does, and how it matches in with the clave, where to phrase and where not to phrase. Now, the rumba shit wasn’t open publicly. Religion was one thing that separated it, but also family—if you didn’t know someone close to that circle, you couldn’t get pulled in. We got enough from the outside, listening to records. But playing in the real deal present, you find out how what you do is wrong or right. Do something wrong, they’ll tell you right there, man. They’ll give you a little bop on the head.”

As Andy “understood more about the role of the bass in the dance band form,” he coalesced an approach grounded in the earthy sound and fluid tumbaos of bassist Bobby Rodríguez with Tito Puente—and, subsequently, Cuban maestro Israel “Cachao” López—that blends, as Watts puts it, “bass player logic with heavy hand drum knowledge—he’s kind of the Ron Carter of this music.”

Jerry’s development of parallel tonal personalities on trumpet (“more intellectual”) and congas (“more physical and intuitive”) was a somewhat more complex process. “It was a shared experience,” Jerry said. “Congas is what I first played professionally, but I soon caught up to that level on trumpet, because I knew what I had to practice to get it together. On congas, my goal was to try to play like Los Muñequitos by myself—which isn’t easy. I was trying to figure the shit out—it was constant practice, constant focus, constant listening. And enjoying—it made me feel good all the time. I listened to a broad taste of drummers—Philly Joe, Roy, Elvin, Bu, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb. But I couldn’t play jazz congas. I like to superimpose my stuff on top of the swing. If it’s real, it just fits right in. If it’s corny, it don’t make it.”

The brothers made further refinements during a year with Dizzy Gillespie, who recruited Jerry in 1970, and hired Andy soon thereafter. The no-trapset quintet’s single recording, Perception, on which Gillespie plays at a peak of melodic inspiration over a melange of understated diasporic beats, does not hint at the “burning rhythms” the unit attained in live performance. “We were laying down our open Latin Jazz kind of playing,” Andy recalls of their 18-month run. “Dizzy came over to me a few times and whispered, ‘Where’s one?’ Maybe the rhythms were a little too intricate.”

Three years with Eddie Palmieri sealed the postgraduate education. “We played for the best dancers,” Andy said. “They need a good beat, and those who hold the best beat get the most respect. Your beat communicates to the dancers, they dance better, and that’s communicated to you. We were both coming from the Cuban school, so it was a perfect fit. Eddie was still wearing three-piece suits, but we were stretching, and he started hippieing out, doing long piano interludes between tunes.”

“I was playing a lot with Rashied Ali then, breaking all the clave rules on conga,” Jerry relates. “So one night with Eddie after a típico, I decided to do some crazy shit when it was time to solo. He started shaking his head, going ‘No. No! No!!’ ‘What the fuck—it’s my solo; I can do whatever I want.’ At the end of the night, when they were paying everybody, he wouldn’t talk to me. He told someone, ‘I never want that motherfucker to play in my band again.’ I was hurt real bad. It made me go home and study my tumbador playing so I could try to come up to the level he wanted. When I got the gig again, he made me use just one drum for a whole year. I just played tumbao and wouldn’t riff at all. That discipline illuminated how powerful it is to just play time when it grooves.”

By now, the Gildersleeve Avenue house to which the Gonzalez family had moved-on-up midway through the ‘60s was a destination for a Pan-American cohort of the famous—Gillespie, Machito, Dorham, McLean, Patato, Ali, Larry Young, and Rubén Blades—and obscure, attracted by the brothers’ global perspective. Devoid of ethnic chauvinism, they treated the idioms not as separate entities but as extensions of each other. “Even people who never went there, say they were,” Andy jokes. “We’ve always been able to surround ourselves with people who played well and wanted to involve themselves in the things that we were doing.”

These informal sessions begat Grupo Folklórico, which followed a process analogous to the Kansas City era Basie band’s practice of spontaneously generating riffs for dancers out of shared experience with vernacular materials.“We created a lot of music without a sheet of paper,” Andy said. “We weren’t just playing folklore. We were experimenting with it.”

Further workshopping ensued at New Rican Village, a multidisciplinary venue at 7th Street and Avenue A, which named Andy musical director in 1977. Proximity to the vibrant East Village culture mix—the space was within striking distance of contemporaneous “loft jazz” presenters like the Tin Palace and Studio Rivbea, as well as The Kitchen in Soho— brought wider visibility and caché from outsiders.“Nobody was playing this kind of shit downtown,” Jerry says. “When jazz people would come up to play, they didn’t know how to deal with it.”

On these sessions, as well as shows at Soundscape, a loft at 10th Avenue and 52nd Street, Jerry worked out the repertoire documented that year on Ya Yo Me Curé, on which the first, 12-piece edition of Fort Apache—trumpet (Jerry), saxophone (Mario Rivera), two trombones (Papo Vazquez and Steve Turre), electric guitar (Edgardo Miranda), piano (Hilton Ruiz), bass (Andy), a lead vocalist (Frankie Rodriguez), and four percussionists— navigated Monk, Ellington, Shorter, and three rumbas of various flavors. Although he continued to gig and tour with this configuration throughout the ‘80s, as documented on The River Is Wide and Obatalá [Enja], Jerry—whose gigging circle was expanding to include such varied jazz voices as McCoy Tyner, Kirk Lightsey, Jaco Pastorius, Kirkland, and Charles Fambrough, and was beginning to make his presence felt at mainstream jazz rooms like Bradley’s and Sweet Basil—gradually developed a smaller, more jazz-centric, booking-friendly iteration. Joining the brothers on Rumba Para Monk, from 1988, were tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson (formerly with Woody Shaw), pianist Larry Willis (who was sharing Jerry’s large Walton Avenue apartment), and trapsetter Steve Berrios, who could articulate a jazz-to-clave rhythmic lexicon as encyclopedic as Jerry’s—their turn-on-a-dime breaks from clave to swing feels, executed with grace and slickness, remain a key signature of the Fort Apache sound.

[BREAK]

Since Jerry’s relocation to Madrid, the Apaches have convened only sporadically. Still, at an August one-off at the Blue Note, and October concerts in Hartford and Philadelphia (a freak snowstorm wiped out the Newark show), with MacArthur Grant awardee Dafnis Prieto at the drum chair, the forceful precision and head-spinning rhythmic flow were intact. Nor did the leaders’ intensity seem at all diminished by the travails of aging—the toes on Andy’s left foot were amputated in 2004 due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his health is intermittent, and he is often in a wheelchair; Jerry, who walks with a pronounced stoop, has recently had surgeries for a hernia and fused vertebrae, and his fingers are gnarled and swollen from years of striking the drums.

“Congas is like running a marathon,” Jerry said. “You’ve got to have endurance, and there’s a certain way you have to hit the drums to get the sound crispy, the way you want it. Then after I’ve been beating the drums, I’ve got to come in with the hand and grab the horn real quick, and get my oxygen back, and be in there, automatic, instantly.”

“Sometimes the adrenaline takes over and you forget you’re sick, and just play,” said Andy, who had been in the E.R. with a fever on the morning of the Symphony Space concert.

The brothers’ abiding bilingual stance and mono-focused perfectionism are two reasons why the Apache personnel has remained relatively stable over its quarter century. Another is an ornery, take-no-prisoners attitude to music-making reflecting the wild west ambiance of the South Bronx barrio during formative years.

“The Bronx had a gritty edge in the ‘70s, and Fort Apache was a band of pirates and swashbuckling raconteurs,” O’Farrill says. “If you played in it, it means you understood the clubhouse gang atmosphere. If you could PLAY, Jerry would say, ‘Yeah, you’re an Apache.’”

Some Apaches were on the fence about whether to welcome Prieto to the club. “Everything changes when one person isn’t there,” said Jerry, noting that Prieto, while one of the truly innovative drummers of this period, does not share Berrios’ deep assimilation of the codes of swing as articulated by the likes of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Arthur Taylor. “Dafnis is coming from somewhere else, and it’s a big difference. Not everybody in the band agrees with it.”

“It will evolve into another flavor of Fort Apache,” said Andy.

A new recording on Sunnyside, Jerry Gonzalez y El Comando de la Clave, documents several parallel flavors that Jerry has developed over his Spanish decade. The “Comandantes of Clave” are a quartet of Madrid-based Cubans—Javier “Caramelo” Masso on piano; Alaín Pérez on electric bass; and Kiki Ferrer on drums. All get ample room to stretch. The group feels looser, more contemporary than its American counterpart, discoursing in a manner that sounds like a more refined edition of Grupo Folklórico cojoined with a less hardbop-oriented Fort Apache, playfully transitioning from guaguanco voice-and-drums passages to balls-out blowing and elegant, soulful balladry. Behind Jerry’s on-point solos, Ferrer plays homegrown Afro-Cuban grooves and textures with exemplary force and finesse, while Pérez, a quality sonero who also possesses prodigious bass chops, uncorks a formidable string of solos, which Jerry propels on congas as he did on not-infrequent but undocumented interactions with Jaco Pastorius during the ‘80s.

For the set-closer, Tito Rodríguez’s “Avísale a Mi Contrario,” Jerry brings in vocalist Diego “El Cigala” and Ismael Suárez “Piraña” on cajón, continuing an ongoing dialog with the best-and-brightest of Spain’s gypsy nuevo flamenco community that was first documented on the 2004 date Y Los Piratas del Flamenco [Lola], which also included guitarist Niño Josele. “Jerry gets inside the flamenco rhythms,” says pianist and flamenco-meets-jazz pioneer Chano Domínguez, who did a series of concerts with Gonzalez in 2003. “People in Spain love his music, and love him, and he wants to play with everyone he can. He can play any standard in any style. When I heard Moliendo Café in the early ‘90s, it suggested a way to put together flamenco and jazz, and made me feel that I was on the right path.”

“A lot of people in Spain tell me, ‘Thank God you came and stayed here, because you put a chip on everybody’s ass and made them strive for more,’” Jerry said, evincing no false modesty.

Asked to sum up their achievements, both brothers cited the “strive for more” trope as much as their extraordinary music. “Generations of people have learned from the things that I’ve done, and became better musicians through my mentoring,” Andy said. “You can’t ask for better than that.”

“I’m a nice guy, a sharing person, a serious musician—and I can get evil if you fuck with me,” Jerry concluded. “At Symphony Space, I was brought to tears at moments. I never expected something like that to happen. We’re still alive. We’re lucky they caught us in time.”

* * *

Jerry Gonzalez Blindfold Test:
1. Art Blakey, “Drums In The Rain” (from DRUMS AROUND THE CORNER, Blue Note, 1958/1999) (Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones: drums, tympani; Roy Haynes: drums; Ray Barretto: congas; Lee Morgan: trumpet; Bobby Timmons: piano; Jymie Merritt: bass) – (3-1/2 stars)

Unh-oh. UNH-oh!! That’s Candido, that’s for sure. I’d recognize Candido anywhere. The man of a thousand fingers! Ha-ha! That’s Candido, that’s for sure. For as old as he is, he still burns. I remember, we played Lincoln Center, man, with Chico O’Farrill, and he walked his drums over from his house to Lincoln Center. He walked them over! Rolled them! He had them on stands. I said, “Lincoln Center, you should ashamed of yourselves for doing that shit. You should have had a limo for his ass, and a roadie to pick his shit up.” [It’s not Candido.] It’s not Candido? That’s Ray Barretto, then. [I’d know Ray Barretto anywhere.] I do, too!! Yeah, I was gonna say that. But he was imitating Candido. That was Ray Barretto. This the Drum Orgy shit. This is Art Blakey. Yeah. With Donald Byrd? [It has a way to go.] Okay, we’ll find out. Now it’s starting to sound like Elvin. That is Elvin, huh? Not A.T. But that one is Bu. There is more than one drummer. Or was it Art Blakey all the time? Yeah, Bu, go ahead! [There are two other drummers, and you know them both well.] Is it the one that played with Dizzy’s Big Band? [It isn’t Charlie Persip.] No? Max? [Max isn’t on this date.] Is it Roy Haynes? I hear some of Roy Haynes. Ha-ha! I hear Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. They’ve just got their language that I know. Now, that sounds like Max, but it ain’t. Who the fuck is that other drummer? I know that’s Bu’s hi-hat! Bu, Roy Haynes… Come on, give that Cozy Cole shit…that “Topsy” shit. That’s the one I don’t know. The third one got me stumped. I can’t figure that. Well, at least I got two out of three. [AFTER] I liked it. I’ll give it 3-1/2 stars. Because this is when they were first starting to do that drum shit, they were first starting to record that stuff. I think the first percussion stuff that was recorded was TP. Tito Puente did the “Top Percussion” record, and I think that was the first time that any Afro-Cuban percussion was recorded on record just solely for the sake of the rhythms. It wasn’t an orchestra or nothin’ like that. I think they were recorded on RCA. And I think it’s the first time that America got a little taste of some drum stuff from the Afro-Caribbean in a real high quality performance and organization. After that, Sabu Martinez hooked up with Art Blakey and was trying to push him to do the drums orgy stuff. So around that time, this was like late ‘50s-early ‘60s, those things were starting to come out. People were starting to do rhythm records, just rhythm… [Art did a ton of them.] Yeah. [“What did you think of the way they organized it?] I think it was cool. It was organized well. There was some good dialogue going on. I’m still stumped on the third drummer, man. [It was Philly Joe Jones.] Oh, goddamn!!! ‘Scuse me. All right. Well, I could have guessed that one, but I just lost the words. DRUMS AROUND THE CORNER? I haven’t heard it.

2. Conrad Herwig, “Impressions” (from THE LATIN SIDE OF JOHN COLTRANE, Astor Place, 1996) (Eddie Palmieri: piano, arranger; Conrad Herwig: trombone, arranger; Ronnie Cuber: baritone saxophone; Brian Lynch, Ray Vega, Mike Ponella: trumpet; John Benitez: bass; Adam Cruz: drums; Jose Clausell: timbales, percussion; Milton Cardona: congas) – (2 stars)

That’s a Conrad Herwig record, Coltrane… Yeah. He’s got Palmieri on this, right? Go ahead, Eddie. Palmieri. I was telling him to do this shit when I was in his band. And this motherfucker said, “No, I don’t want to play that.” I was saying, “You’ve got to do some stuff for the horns, give them some meat to play on. That little montuno vamp…” I was telling him to do “Giant Steps’ back when I was in his band, and he wouldn’t pay no mind to me, man. I was just a little young kid, man, who was coming to play drums. I didn’t know nothin’, supposedly. He didn’t know my head. But after YA, YO ME CURE came out, he found out where my head was at! It surprised him. But I was trying to talk to him, and he was just like, “Get away, young kid, you’re bothering me” kind of shit. I said I had some ideas that could hook this band up in this groove way before this happened. But he wouldn’t listen, so I just had to do it myself. It’s cool, but I don’t hear the rhythm section. Where is the conga on this record? No conga in that mix. You dig? You hear Palmieri, you hear the timbales a little bit, the trap drums you hear a lot, but the conga is gone. Where is he? And who is he? Because if I can’t hear the conga, I can’t hear who it is. The trumpeter is cool. That’s Brian. At least Eddie respected Brian enough to listen to Brian, because Brian was talking to him about that. But I had about ten years on Brian. I told that shit to Eddie ten years before Brian started. Maybe even more, 15 or 20 years before. Because I was 18 when I was playing with fuckin’ Eddie. He was a turkey, though. He burned everybody, man, for their money and shit. He still owes me money, that motherfucker! [LAUGHS] I want Eddie to read this shit so he’ll know that I had some shit for his ass, but he wasn’t ready for it. Too little, too late with your shit. It’s all right for “Impressions,” but I would have taken it and put the drums up front. 2 stars. The piano solo is probably going to get 4 stars. But sorry, he ain’t got no rhythm section in here, man. I’ll give it 2 stars. He left the congas out of it. You got to know how to mix this shit. [Who do you think is playing congas?] I would think Richito is playing it. But I don’t hear it, so I can’t tell. [Milton Cardona.] Okay. Bad rhythm section. I mean, bad like bad, not too good. Adam Cruz is cool. He’s gotten a lot better; he’s kicking ass now. But Clausell and Milton…not a good mix. He’s lucky he got Eddie playing on this record. That’s an old Eddie lick from Azucar Patie(?). That tag is Azucar Patie(?). That’s Eddie’s shit. Conrad, I love you, but I got to tell you to put it down where it’s at! Ha-ha, ha-ha-ha. You jumped on the bandwagon late, Jack! But it was a nice track. It was a good idea. He just didn’t pull it off. Yeah, I got some rumbas for everybody’s ass. Because I do want to do a couple of more Monks, a rumba for Duke, a rumba for Wayne Shorter, a rumba for Coltrane. I got rumbas for everybody’s ass!

3. Ron Miles, “Still Small Voice” (from LAUGHING BARREL, Sterling Circle, 2003) (Ron Miles: trumpet; Brandon Ross: guitar; Anthony Cox: bass; Rudy Royston: drums) – (4 stars)

I like the trumpet. Nice sound. I can’t recognize this right now. It’s probably because I don’t know him. Because I’ve never heard this; I don’t know who it is. I haven’t bought too many new releases of anything. But I like it. So far, I like it. He’s did a little tweety thing in there, man, that sounds just like Wynton does it. I got a little confused. But then the rest of the sound is not like that. He’s got a little Chet Baker kind of sound. He sounds like a little Chet with Wynton and shit! Nice sound. I like it. Just guitar-bass-drums-trumpet. [AFTER] Stumped me with that one, Ted! I liked the sound, I liked the tune, I liked the concept. I like the man on trumpet. I don’t know who he is. Who is he? I’ll give him 4. [AFTER] Never heard him. The tune had that kind of Colorado feeling. Ron Miles. Uh-huh! Anthony! Great bass player. Too bad he left town. New York is hard for some people, you know.

4. Diego Urcola, “Blues For Astor” (from SOUNDANCES, Sunnyside, 2003) (Diego Urcola: trumpet; Juan Dargenton: bandoneon; Guillermo Romero: piano; Hernan Merlo: bass; Oscar Giunta: drums) – (3 stars)

Unh-oh, some TANGO shit!! Ha-ha! The only thing I could think of right now is that this is the cat that plays with Paquito; the trumpet player that plays with Paquito’s band – an Argentinean cat. Diego Urcola. That’s the only cat I know that could be playing tango shit. He’s a good player. So I nailed this. This is Diego Urcola, a tango record. But I couldn’t tell you who the other players are. Oh, not that shit! Everybody’s trying to get that Wynton sound. Go ahead, Diego! [Sings tango lick.] That’s a tango thing. For me, it would work just being straight tango. Playing jazz on top, but the rhythm, instead of trying to do the rhythm a little jazzy – that back and forth. To be committed more to a typical Argentinean folklore tango, and then play the way they play on top of it, I would have dug it better. The drummer is like too crossover, you know. It’s cool if it was combined – for me. [Do you think they’re Argentine or American musicians?] There might be a few Argentine and a few American. They’re all Argentine? Well, they’ve been listening. They’ve got a groove. At this point, most of the musicians in the world are tuned in, and they’ve caught up, or trying real fast to catch up. Now they don’t hire Americans any more! At the international jazz festivals, they’ve got their own people now. They don’t call Americans to play jazz any more. Everybody else is tuned in. I guess once the world found out that the Japanese had it first, they had to catch up! I’ll give them 3 stars. [AFTER] Diego’s cool. Pablo Ziegler. Federico Lechner. A lot of those cats split Germany and went to Argentina, and became Pablos! I liked Ron Miles better. His sound. I liked his sound.

5. Caribbean Jazz Project, “Against The Law” (from BIRDS OF A FEATHER, Concord Picante, 2003) (Ray Vega: trumpet; Dave Samuels: marimba; Dario Eskenazi: piano; Ruben Rodriguez: bass; Dafnis Prieto: drums, timbales, composer; Robert Quintero: congas, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

The only thing I can think of is the Caribbean Jazz Project. Only because of the marimba. [Which version of the Caribbean Jazz Project?] I don’t know yet. I don’t know the versions. I don’t know which versions they are. I’ve actually never heard them. [DRUM BREAK] Oh. Ha-ha! I’ve never heard any of their records. I just know that they exist. Is Dafnis playing on this? I can tell it’s Dafnis. I know his sound. I like Dafnis. I love him a lot, man. He can swing his ass off, too. I’m trying to figure who the piano player is. The piece is interesting. It sounds like something Dafnis wrote. [Very good.] Ha-ha!! Yeah, Dafnis is a talented young man. I don’t know who the trumpet is. It almost sounds like Diego. I like him. That’s Ray Vega?! Go, Ray! He was a student of mine a long time ago, when I was teaching at the Johnny Colon School of Music. He was in my class. Go ahead, Ray, you got some shit! That’s the best I’ve heard Ray play, man. He sounds good, man. Keep it up, bro. This is Dave Samuels, right? He had something way back before he got into the Latin thing. The Latin thing seems to be the place where, if vibraphonists are going to someplace, they’re going to go there. Because there’s not too much vibraphone happening anywhere else. But it has a natural place in this Latin thing – vibes and rhythm. Who’s the conga player? Robert Quintero? Oh, he’s a Venezuelan cat. I know him. I was going to say it might have been a Venezuelan cat. [Why would you say that?] Just the way he plays. He’s functional. He puts the right shit where he’s supposed to do it. A solid drummer. From Venezuela, he’s one of the only ones there doing the shit like this. I’ll give this one 4-1/2 stars, for my man, Ray Vega, and for Dafnis.

6. Wayne Shorter, “Angola” (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Brad Mehldau: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Teri Lyne Carrington: drums; Alex Acuna: percussion) – (3 stars)

I like this!! Ha-ha! Is that bass clarinet? It’s got a bass clarinet kind of sound. It reminds of Dolphy, when he did “It’s Magic.” That’s the sound. But it’s a tenor, but it’s got another sound to it. It sounds like a tenor-bass clarinet. It doesn’t sound like a bass clarinet, but it’s got that tone. It almost reminds me of Bobby Pinero’s writing. Bobby Pinero was writing like that before anybody – that kind of stuff. [Any idea who the tenor player is?] I don’t know. I can’t recognize the sound. This isn’t Bobby Pinero? It sounds like some of his shit. [Soprano enters] It’s Wayne Shorter. He did some different shit there on the tenor to the sound. I wouldn’t have recognized that tenor sound. I never heard this tune before. But this is Wayne’s shit now. It’s Wayne’s harmony. But that’s definitely Bobby Pinero’s rhythmic shit. He’s from here, man. From Coop City! But I recognized Wayne’s sound, man, quickly. I have no idea who’s playing percussion. Once somebody I knew was playing congas with him, and Wayne said, “We don’t want none of that Fort Apache shit here!!” Thanks a lot, Wayne! Ha-ha! I remember when I first met Wayne, I was playing with Tony, and Tony goes, “Come here, Jerry, I want you to meet Wayne.” And I went, “Oh, yeah, Wayne!” He was one of my heroes. I went, “Wayne, man,” and stuck out my hand to say hello, and the motherfucker just stared at me, like, deadpan, and I’m waiting for him to take my hand and shake my hand. Nothing. I just said, “All right, man, sorry.” He just turned around and walked out. I said, “This motherfucker is out!” But I love you, Wayne, any fuckin’ way. Jive motherfucker. Should have hired me to play with your ass, and not my students. But you got to pay my like a motherfucker! Ha-ha! Been a long time I haven’t heard some new Wayne shit. It’s okay. But it reminds me of Bobby Pinero. The only thing that sounded like Wayne in there was his saxophone, his soprano sound. That’s why I was able to nab your ass. But Bobby was writing this kind of shit way before Wayne. But nice track. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] I like Bob Sadin a lot. He’s always been an Apache fan and a supporter. Sadin’s a good man. I wish I could get some collaboration with him, because I’ve got this idea for doing… Since I’ve been living in Spain the last three years, I’ve been checking out a lot of flamenco, man, and there’s some shit we’ve got to do that’s beyond SKETCHES OF SPAIN. I’ve got to get this Spanish project out. I’ve been living there, I’ve been paying some dues for this shit now, and now Chano goes and plays at Lincoln Center and Wynton sits in with him, and all of a sudden they’re going to try to do a Sketches of Spain thing, and I’ve been thinking about this before them, and I want to get the first punch out. I want to beat you motherfuckers to the punch with this shit. I’m already talking to people about a collaboration of Fort Apache orchestration and the gypsies and me to do another version of Sketches of Spain, but with another vision. I’d like to collaborate with Larry Willis and Sadin with orchestration, and Javier Limon, the cat that was the engineer on the record I did with the gypsies. He’s a great composer, a great lyricist, and he’s got some great ideas. And he knows all the Spanish rhythmic shit; he’s got that stuff down. So between the three of them – Sadin, Willis and Javier Limon – we could get some shit happening like a motherfucker. And even if they do beat me to the punch, I’m gonna kick their ass. Easy.

[Villa-Lobos piece.] Threnody for the victims of Wally Cleaver! Wally Cleaver seems to be the President now. We got a real Wally Cleaver for President! But he’s deadly, Wally Cleaver. He’s betrayed by his father, Dracula. He’s Nosferatu. No, Nostra-dumb-ass! Ha-ha!!!

7. The Conga Kings, “Descarga De Los Reyes” (from THE CONGA KINGS, Chesky, 1999) (Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdez: congas; Joe Gonzalez: bongos; Jose Francisco Valdes: clave; Guillermo Edghill: bass) (3 stars)

Yeah, this is Candido. The first hit. That’s him! Is this the Conga Kings? Nailed it!! Giovanni. Patato-Patato-Patato! That’s Candido. Patato and Candido are the most melodic conga players on the planet. They sing with their congas. Giovanni machine-guns. [Do you think that has to do with when they came up and when Giovanni came up?] Well, both of them played melodic instruments. Patato played a bass and he can play a tres, and Candido does, too. Because of that, they sing on their congas. They don’t just play rhythmic slickness. They play melodic slickness. [You play machine guns sometimes.] I don’t think I was ever a machine gunner. I ain’t got the chops for a machine-gun. Ah, that’s Giovanni. That’s an old Tito Puente break, from TOP PERCUSSION. That was cool. I’ll give it a 3. Well, I’ll give it 5 because Patato and Candido and Giovanni are dealing with it, but for musical content I’ll give it 3.

8. Woody Shaw, “Dat Dere” (from IMAGINATION, Muse, 1987) (Woody Shaw: trumpet; Steve Turre: trombone; Kirk Lightsey: piano; Ray Drummond: bass; Carl Allen: drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Dis-here, dat-dere. Bobby Timmons. Sometimes I get confused between Timmons and Weston because of that “Hi-Fly” thing. It has the same kind of groove. Freddie. He’s got the phrasing. Lee? Oh, that’s Woody! Ha-ha! Go ahead, Woody! See, Woody got all that shit. He got the Lee shit, he got the Freddie shit, and he got his own shit. So I figured it was in there. I loved Woody, man. He’s one of my favorites. In fact, the favorite. Aside from Lee, him and Lee, you know… Before that, it was Booker Little. That’s Steve Turre. Conch-head! So then I imagine this is Victor Lewis… No? Oh, I know. The drummer played with me on AFRICAN VILLAGE with James Williams. Carl Allen. Is the pianist Onaje? It sounds like an older cat. But I don’t know who it is. [It’s someone you know well.] Larry Willis? Ronnie Matthews? Damn! There’s too many cats on the Rolodex. But if I could have listened again, there’s a thing he does… 3-1/2 stars for the music. 5 stars for Woody. Woody showed his Freddie showed his Freddie Hubbard kind of shit, he showed his Lee Morgan shit, and then he came into his own. He did a little graduation of the thing. It was nice. Very hip phrasing. I loved it.

9. Irvin Mayfield, “Latin Tinge” (from Los Hombres Calientes, VODOU DANCE, 2003) (Irvin Mayfield: solo, lead & 2nd trumpet, composer; Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez: drums; Bill Summers: percussion; Ronald Markham: piano; Edwin Livingston: bass; Aaron Fletcher: alto saxophone; Leon Brown: 3rd trumpet; Leon Brown: trombone) – (5 stars)

Is that Wynton? He’s got his Louis Armstrong and Charlie Shavers shit down. I love this! Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead!! Who the hell is this? Is this Nicholas Payton? Go ahead. It ain’t Faddis. [LOUD LAUGH] He’s a bad motherfucker, whoever he is! I can’t get it, though. I’m trying to figure it out. He’s GOT that Louis shit. I should know this guy, huh. [END OF BREAK, BEGINNING OF MONTUNO] Ah, ha-ha, ha-ha!! Ah, what was that?!! That was some funny shit, man! I didn’t expect that to happen. This ain’t Brian? [Do you know who’s playing trap drums?] Horacio. I can tell Horacio’s playing. He’s cool. I like the trumpet playing. He’s showing his history. He’s got trumpet players’ things in there. He’s got the Charlie Shavers, the Louis Armstrong shit, and a little bit of Roy Eldridge in there, too. But damn, I can’t figure this cat out. I don’t know who it is. But this is all trumpet. The rhythm section I don’t like. Nothing happening. Horacio is cool. But the way the piano player is playing, I don’t like it. He could be playing some other shit instead of just the montuno. Sometimes they think because it’s Latin, they’ve got to play a montuno, and it’s not necessary all the time. Because then they get stiff when they just play a montuno. If they were playing themselves, it would be hipper. I don’t know the trumpet player is. Irvin Mayfield? I never heard him. I’ve heard of Los Hombres Caliente, but I’ve never heard the music. He’s a bad motherfucker. New Orleans. That had to be a New Orleans player. Well, New Orleans is hooked up with the Caribbean shit. A lot of the cats in the Preservation Hall Band were from the Caribbean – Perez, Rodriguez. Great trumpet player. I enjoyed that. Irvin Mayfield. Never heard of him before. I liked it. I’ll give him 5. He’s playing some shit. That 5 stars is all the trumpet. The rest of the shit, you know, it’s all right. It’s just too plain. But the trumpet was the special shit on it. I’ll give the 5 stars to my man on trumpet. The music, I’ll give it 2. He’s got to figure out what to do with the piano. They don’t have to play a montuno all the time to identify something Latin. He got to learn the piano styles of the cats of the ‘20s and the ‘30s. They’d be playing a montuno, but it would be all over the place. It doesn’t stay in a corny, locked cell.

10. Kenny Dorham, “My Ideal” (from QUIET KENNY, Prestige, 1959) (Kenny Dorham: trumpet; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Art Taylor: drums) – (5 stars)

Ah, Kenny Dorham, I love you, man! I hung for many years with Kenny Dorham. [SINGS SOLO] Is this with Charles Davis and… Oh, it’s another record. He had such a sweet sound. Ha-ha. Lyrical as a champ, too. Go ahead. Hit like a motherfucker. Underdog like a motherfucker, K.D.! I love him. God bless him. His sound brings tears to my eyes. Yeah. I’m not bullshitting either. I’m wiping them, jack. That’s Flanagan on piano. I’ll give that 10 stars. I was very fortunate to hang out with K.D. for three years. We went to New York College of Music together. In fact, that’s how I met him. I was doing an audition for New York College of Music, and K.D. was there. So I’m practicing in the room, and K.D. walked in the room. I didn’t know what he looked like then. He had these big sunglasses on. He looked at me and said, “you sound nice, man.” So I said, “I’m Jerry Gonzalez, how are you?” He says, “Well, I’m Kenny Dorham.” I hit the floor. I said, “Oh, no shit! What are you doing here?” He said, “Well, I’m taking an audition, just like you.” I said, “What? You should be teaching here. You should be a professor already. What do you mean, coming here as a student, auditioning?” I went with him to the Newport Festival in 1969, and that’s when I first saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, everybody, with the original members. I was hanging with K.D. all the time, man, and I was very fortunate to have been around that wonderful trumpet player. God bless him.

11. Steve Coleman, “Ascending Numeration” (from ALTERNATE DIMENSION SERIES 1, MBASE, 2002) (Steve Coleman, alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Pedro Martinez, percussion; Sean Rickman, drums; Yosvany Terry, clave; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Regg Washington, acoustic bass).

Steve Coleman. I’ve been into this shit a long time, and he never acknowledged anything. When he went to Cuba, he got his head turned around. I was telling him about this shit long before that, but he was still in another space. The communication wasn’t that open between us. What can I tell you? He’s a late bloomer on this. But this is cool. Got a little scientology shit in there. It got that vibe in it. [You mean mathematical?] Yeah. Is that Anga on conga? Is the trumpeter Graham Haynes? I like the trumpet player. I’m glad Steve discovered the drum thing. Trumpet players I don’t know personally, I haven’t heard them, so I’ve got to figure them out. It’s a good trumpet player, he’s playing some interesting shit. He’s actually looser than Steve. It’s not Richie Flores. It’s not Giovanni. I don’t know who it is. Oh, Pedro! He plays with Puntilla. I’ve played with him. Pedrito’s a bad motherfucker. Sings his ass off, too. I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars. It’s interesting. But it stays in that Frankenstein mode. I like to feel some happy shit every now and then. When you get some rhythm shit, you’ve got to be happy. You can’t be too dark. When you get dark, Frankenstein comes out.

12. Dizzy Gillespie, “Con Alma” (from AFRO, Verve, 1954/2003) (Dizzy Gillespie: trumpet, composer; Alejandro Hernandez: piano; Robert Rodriguez: bass; Jose Mangual: bongo; Candido Camero: conga; Ubaldo Nieto: timbales; Rafael Miranda: percussion) – (5 stars)

Dizzy Gillespie. My papa! “Con Alma.” This is with Candido and the Machito rhythm section. That was some futuristic shit. The Machito band was a futuristic band. Even in its beginnings. Stan Kenton even acknowledged that, said that they were playing some super advanced music. Rhythmically it influenced him. Yeah, drum thing! The drum is so important. This ain’t the ’49 one. This is later. The ’49 one was Mongo and… He did the “Manteca” with Mongo. Alvaro Vega, Peraza, Mongo and Patato, they all came at the same time, and then they stayed. Dizzy first was Roy Eldridge. That was his model. Then he broke into his own voice from there. Dizzy was a drummer and dancer at heart. I remember him showing me the shim-sham-shimmy when I was with his band. One time we played with Dizzy… I was 18 when I played with Dizzy. That was before I even played with Palmieri. A lot of people forgot I played with Dizzy, because we didn’t record anything significant with that band. I wish that we had, because when they have those tributes to Dizzy and all that, nobody ever calls me to come down and play. They call all the new cats who were in the band, David Sanchez and Danilo and Giovanni, but I was in way before those cats. And they never give me any light on that. It pisses me off a little bit. I learned a lot from Dizzy. But when he found out I played trumpet, he used to try to put me out to play then, and I was scared because I didn’t have it together then. I said, “No-no, I’ll sit down and play my conga and take my trumpet lessons from you, and when I’m ready I’ll let you know.” So maybe 10-15 years passed, and I had the Fort Apache band, and we had Dizzy as a guest with us once at the Village Gate. I have that recorded. This was like ’84. It was Machito’s band with Fort Apache and then Dizzy playing with both bands. That was a great night. Jaco Pastorius was there hanging with us, and he wanted to play, and I didn’t want to let him play because he was a little…not-cool, you know. So he ran out and he bumped into Herbie Hancock that night, and brought him down to check us out, and Herbie sat through the whole set. At the end of the set, Jaco tells me, “Hey, man, I want to introduce you to Herbie.” So he introduced me to Herbie, and then I sat there and said, “wow…” Before I met Herbie, the plan was for the second set we were going to open up with “Nefertiti,” and Herbie goes, “Could I sit in with the band?” And I went, “Goddamn, yeah! Sure.” Dalto was playing piano with the band at the time. So I said, “Well, guess what. We’re going to play ‘Nefertiti’ for the first set. You were on the original, man. You’re gonna have FUN with us.” And sure enough, Dalto was playing the first solo on “Nefertiti,” and then he announces Herbie Hancock, and then Herbie takes the whole thing out and then plays the whole night with us. I have that recorded, man. It was deep. “Caravan” time! 10 stars.

13. Arsenio Rodriguez, “Kila, Quique y Chocolate” (from ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ Y SU CONJUNTO: 1946-1950, Tumbao, 1950/1993) (Arsenio Rodriguez: tres, composer; Chocolate Armenteros, Felix Chappotin, Carmelo Alvarez: trumpet; Luis Martinez: piano; Lazaro Prieto: bass; Felix Alfonso: conga; Antolin Suarez [Papa Kilo]: bongo)_

Arsenio Rodriguez. This is “Kila, Quique y Chocolate.” Ay tumbao bongo! Arsenio Rodriguez with Papa Kilo on bongo, La Chocolate on conga… Bad motherfucker. This is still fresh as today. In fact, it’s hipper than some of the shit from today. The professors know this, that our rhythm lacks something. Tin-GOR! So when you got the bongo of Papa Kilo and Chocolate, you know, here’s what they say. Yeah, “the people are always asking to dance to tumba bongo”! This was a prophetic tune. It was telling you what’s coming for the future, what the people want. Tumba bongo! And this was 1950, man, so they were sounding the alarm way ahead of time. It took Steve Coleman a long time to catch up! This was like really early. I was fortunately born into this. This was like first conga lessons! This is not machine gun conga. This is playing tumbao with some grace and slickness. It’s deep, man. A lot of young cats miss that essence. A lot of young cats miss this era. They’ve got the Giovanni era, and the speed machine guns, but they didn’t get to this. This is before that, and this is slicker. It has more essence than the machine gun era. This is definitely classic. 10 million stars! Ha-ha, ha-ha! Yes.

Yes, sir. Thank you, Ted. That was a great one. Yeah, you had some goodies for me, man. I enjoyed that Blindfold Test.

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Filed under Andy Gonzalez, Arturo O'Farrill, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazz Times, Jerry Gonzalez

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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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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