Category Archives: DownBeat

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

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

 

Kenny Washington Blindfold Test — 2002:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Kenny Washington

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

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

*_*_*_*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upon hearing Galimidi’s proposal to partner on a label that would allow him “to make music without restriction” and eventually to own his masters,” Rubalcaba recalled, “I thought I was dreaming.” After an offer of “very significant money” for Rubalcaba’s entire Blue Note catalog fell through, they spent $5,000 to release him from a provision that gave Blue Note a three-album option over a 56½-month span.

Then they discussed names. “Gonzalo suggested taking number-5, cinco, and putting the word ‘passion’ (which in Spanish has one ‘s’) behind it,” Galimidi said. “If you say it in Spanish, it’s ‘syncopation.’ Gonzalo was raised in santeria, and the number of his saint, Oshún, is 5. My wife developed the butterfly-like figure in the logo, which we trademarked, so that you can read it as either one ‘s’ or two.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s so difficult to find someone who believes in the human being as a person, not in the numbers. I believe in Gary totally, and I know he believes in everything I do. We win together and we lose together.”

As if to signify on these sentiments, Rubalcaba launched 5Passion with (Faith), a solo meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz. He plays with restraint and refined intention, honing in on lyric essences. He followed it with XXI Century, a double CD with Brewer and Gilmore, joined on various selections by guitarist Lionel Loueke, conguero Pedrito Rodriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played on all of Rubalcaba’s trio and quartet albums between 1998 (Inner Voyage) and 2006 (Paseo). Fortified by several days of immersive rehearsal and studio time, they stretch out on pieces by Rubalcaba, Loueke and Brewer, and find fresh paths into works by Bley, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano.

On last year’s Suite Caminos, Rubalcaba unleashes the full measure of his powers on an eight-section recitative scored for alto saxophone (Will Vinson), tenor saxophone (Seamus Blake), trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), guitar (Adam Rogers), bass (Brewer) and drums (Ernesto Simpson), a coro of high-level Miami-based Yoruba practitioners, and himself on piano, synths, and church organ. He refracts the rhythms and melodies of specific Yoruba deities/orishas that, as author Ned Sublette writes in the program notes, “embody complex natural forces,” each “with its own gender and personality” and “its own set of multiple selves.” “The music was fearsomely difficult,” Vinson said, implying how Rubalcaba’s narrative represents the multi-dimensionality of his subjects. “We learned the parts over four or five days in the studio, but trying to feel your part, and fit it in with the rhythms, and navigate the sound and articulation in unison with Seamus and Alex made it 10 times more difficult.”

Suite Caminos gestated in 1995, after Rubalcaba completed Antigua, his first systematic exploration of Yoruban roots. During the ensuing 18 years, he worked not only with his own diverse bands, but performed Baroque, Impressionist and Spanish piano music and collaborated on tango projects with Richard Galliano and Al DiMiola, pan-Brazilian concerts with João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and on two albums of boleros—both instant classics—with Charlie Haden.

“I took risks to develop myself both as a piano player and a composer,” Rubalcaba said. “I put myself in contact with different spaces and musical visions, with people who wanted me to do things their way. Even when you are not totally comfortable with their ideas, you can always learn. Life is a palette with many tastes and flavors and colors and moments. If one moment is not sweet or illuminated, you try to be part of the darkness and force yourself to turn it into something bright. Even early in my career, when I had media exposure and Blue Note spent a lot to give me the privilege to play before large audiences at big venues around the world, I never was drunk with the applause. When I got home, I’d try to reset everything. I saw reviews or heard people say, perhaps with reason, ‘Well, he just played like that guy, he played fast,’ and so on. I considered every reaction, even when people didn’t express it in the best way. When you decide to live like that, the process is really long. You can feel really alone.

“So this work didn’t come to me like a revelation: ‘Ok, now I am in position to do this.’ It emerged from accumulating tools and reference and knowledge from a half-century of love, memory, and experience, so that I felt strong enough to do it as I did. In each tune, the chant talks about a specific issue of life for a human being.”

In Terry’s view, Suite Caminos “could only come from someone who immersed himself in the religious traditions that still exist in Cuba and prevail in the countryside. It contains a depth of spiritual understanding that speaks to a larger community than just musicians. I believe it’s the same spiritual feeling that was behind Mozart or Bach with the St. Matthew’s Passion or with the Requiem, and all of the great composers of sacred music.”

Rubalcaba explicates the opening selection, “Sendero De Aliento”—scored for vocals, Afro-Cuban percussion with batas, and church organ—as “talking about the very fine line between life and death,” he said. “The organ for me spiritually represents a lot of Christian and Catholic sound. When I visit cities like New York or Barcelona or Madrid, I try to visit churches, and often I’ve had the opportunity to see someone playing.” As an instance, he recalled being the only corporeal attendee at a female organist’s performance of a contemporary piece in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. “I believe that the saints were also there, and the spirits that I know as part of my family tradition—exactly what we are not commonly able to see,” he said. “I try to connect with that.”

In the wake of his father’s death in September, Rubalcaba is the last surviving member of his immediate family, no longer in a position to glean counsel and friendship from Lundvall, who died in May, or Haden, who died in July 2014. “I felt alone, but it’s not true,” he said. This notion is the animating imperative driving Charlie, on which Rubalcaba joins Vinson, Rodgers, Brewer and Gilmore through melodic, inflamed-soul treatments of his reharmonized charts of eight Haden originals and his own “Transparence.” The latter piece appears on the concurrently issued Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!), documenting an inspired 2005 Rubalcaba-Haden duo performance at Tokyo’s Blue Note.

“We created an environment for Charlie’s spirit to be there, rather than duplicating anything Charlie did on some day,” Rubalcaba said. “When we were recording, I was touring, talking, laughing with Charlie. We have to learn to continue life without the people we love, at least without seeing them every day. You have to find strong convictions about other ideas. This is what keeps you working, dreaming, living, playing.”

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

For Bunky Green’s 82nd Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2011 about Him and Rudresh Mahanthappa

In honor of the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green’s 82nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in DownBeat in 2011, profiling him and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Green’s one-time student with whom he was performing the previous behind the CD Apex, on the Pi label.

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

Bunky Green-Rudresh Mahanthappa, Downbeat Article, 2011:

On the surface, they make an odd couple. Vernice “Bunky” Green, Jr., 75, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida, is African-American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to parents who migrated from Arkansas and Alabama during the Great Depression and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rudresh Mahanthappa, 39, of South Indian descent, is the first-generation son of a physics professor in Boulder, Colorado. But on Apex [Pi], their co-led 2010 release, comprising a suite of tunes that both contributed to the project, the two alto saxophonists play so synchronously that it’s a challenging proposition to tell who’s doing what.

Prodded by Jason Moran on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and either Jack DeJohnette or Damion Reid on drums, Mahanthappa and Green blow like duelling brothers, each projecting a double-reed quality in their tones, Mahanthappa’s slightly “darker” and tenoristic, Green’s slightly more nasal and oboeish. Both work with complex note-groupings, flying over barlines while always landing on the one. Though the feeling is ‘free,” both work within strongly conceptualized structures, and are thoroughly grounded in “inside” playing and the art of tension-and-release, working with fluid harmonic structures that provide space to soar within the form. “It’s surprising what they came up with,” DeJohnette summed up. “They stimulated each other to the higher levels of creativity.”

Two days into a four-night CD-release run at the Jazz Standard in October, the collaborators convened at Green’s hotel. Green recalled their first meeting, in 1991 or 1992, when Mahanthappa—then a Berklee undergraduate to whom Joe Viola, his sax teacher, sensing an affinity, loaned a copy of Green’s 1979 recording Places We’ve Never Been—presented the elder saxman with a tape. “Sounds beautiful,” Green told him. “There’s only a few of us out here trying to think like this.’”

At the time, a short list of those “few” included M-Base movers and shakers Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who had discovered Green independently as ‘70s teenagers, and subsequently bonded in New York over their shared enthusiasm for his approach, poring over Coleman’s extensive cassette archive of location performances. Many years before, in Chicago, where Green settled in 1960, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill, then young aspirants, had also paid close attention.

“The level of expertise he displayed in his musicianship and expression were very clear from the moment I heard him,” said Threadgill, after witnessing the group’s final night at the Standard. He recalled a concert, perhaps in 1962, in which Green played pieces “structured in the way of free jazz, the so-called avant-garde category.” He continued: “Bunky was formidable, no one to fool with. I can’t think of another alto player at a comparable level in Chicago at the time.”

DeJohnette cited the “urgency, commanding presence and confidence” of Green’s early ‘60s playing. “Everybody would talk about Bunky,” he said, noting that Green had once brushed off his request to sit in during a gig at a South Side club. “He was legendary even then.”

For Osby, Green was less a stylistic influence than “a guru type figure who assured me I’m on the right track, gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that what I was doing was the right thing, not to let detractors sway me from my mission, that I was put here to establish new goals and force new paths.” Ten years later, Mahanthappa would respond similarly.

“I was around lots of tenor players who sounded like Coltrane and Brecker, and alto players wanting to sound like Kenny Garrett,” he recalled. “Bunky’s voice didn’t sound like anyone else. I needed that affirmation that it was ok to be an individual. I heard things—interesting intervallic approaches—that maybe I couldn’t play yet, but was thinking about. But I also heard the tradition in the music.”

Mahanthappa placed his hand at a 90 degree angle. “I often describe what I do as, ‘This is Charlie Parker,’” he said, then moved his hand to 105 degrees and continued, “and this is me. It’s all the same material, just rearranged a little bit—a different perspective. I heard Bunky doing that at the highest level.”

At the time, Mahanthappa, spurred by a trip to India with a Berklee student ensemble to begin exploring musical paths by which to express identity, was absorbing an album by Kadri Golpalnath, an alto saxophonist from Southern India who, like Green, had systematically worked out inflections, fingerings and embouchure techniques to elicit the idiomatic particulars of Carnatic classical music. As important, he took conceptual cues from such Coleman recordings as Dao of Mad Phat, Seasons of Renewal, and Strata Institute. “Steve extrapolated African rhythm as I aspired to do with Indian rhythm and melody, not playing West African music, but doing something new with well-established, ancient material from a different culture,” he said. “It was an amazing template. Steve doesn’t need a kora player or a Ghanaian drum line to play with him, and I don’t need a tabla or mridangam in my quartet. We’re playing modern American improvised music.”

[BREAK]

In 1996, the third of his four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa invited Green to guest with his quartet for a weekend at the Green Mill. Green declined. “It was more about trying to do something special than about the music,” Mahanthappa reflected. According to altoist Jeff Newell, a rehearsal partner who had studied formally with Green, Mahanthappa “had developed a lot of the things he’s doing now,” projecting them with a “bright, shave-your-head sound,” as though, a local peer-grouper quipped, “somebody threw lighter fluid on Bunky.”

An opportunity for collaboration arose thirteen years later, when the producers of “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz” approached Mahanthappa—now leading several ensembles devoted to the application of Western harmony to South Indian melodies and beat cycles, each with highly structured, meticulously unfolding repertoire specific to their instrumentation and musical personalities—to present a concert at Millennium Park. In addition to his blistering sax and rhythm quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, to whom Coleman had introduced him in 1996 (he reciprocally sidemanned for years in Iyer’s own quartet, and they continue to co-lead the duo Raw Materials), Mahanthappa had recently conceptualized Indo-Pak Coalition, an alto-tabla (Dan Weiss)-guitar (Rez Abbasi) trio, documented on Apti [Pi]; and a plugged-in, ragacentric quintet called Samdhi, with electric guitar (David Gilmore)-electric bass (Rich Brown)-drums (Damion Reid)-mridangam (Anand Ananthakrishnan). Then, too, he was involved in a pair of two-alto projects: the quintet Dual Identity, which he co-leads with Steve Lehman, a fellow Colemanite (The General [Clean Feed]), and the Dakshima Ensemble, a collaboration with Golparnath, in which Abassi, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Royal Hartigan meld with Golparnath’s sax-violin-mridangam trio, to perform hybrid refractions of Carnatic music, documented on the widely publicized CD, Kinsmen [Pi].

“They wanted to present Dakshima and add some Chicago musicians, which sounded like a disaster and was budgetarily impossible,” Mahanthappa said. “But they thought Bunky was a great idea. Bunky made it clear that he didn’t want to play 7s and 11s and 13s—it was more about trying to find a comfortable place that would highlight what we both do. It was interesting to compose a blues (“Summit”) and a Rhythm changes tune (“Who”) that sounds like the same compositional voice I’ve done over the last decade. I’m trying to learn how to relinquish control of the situation and just say, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

Two of Green’s new tunes, “Eastern Echoes” and “Journey,” reflect his abiding interest in North African scales and tonalities, and another, “Rainier and Theresia,” is the latest addition to a consequential lexicon of searing ballad features. “I didn’t want to get involved in anything with a lot of changes,” Green said. “I don’t feel that music too much now. Our things kind of hover on the edge. There’s all kinds of room in what we write, and we both like that you can take it where you want to.

“Like Rudresh, I do a lot of analyzing. Maybe I play a phrase, and some experience comes up from my life or I see some beauty in it, and I decide to keep developing it, and it leads into a song, or pathways I can utilize on whatever I’m working on. To me, a tune can’t be just pretty. It has to fit into the way I feel about life, so I can express it. The blues, too. It’s not just a word, it’s a feeling. It’s something that you have, and right away, if you play the right notes, the feeling will be there. It’s bending notes. It’s moaning. How are you going to play about pain unless you’ve experienced pain? And how are you going to package it like Charlie Parker, who just cried over his horn? Those aren’t notes. It’s a man’s life.”

Green discovered Bird in his early teens, which coincided with the release of his studio sides for Dial and Savoy. He got them all. By the time he was 17, he said, “I could play everything Bird recorded in terms of imitating. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing. I was just stretching, trying to find the notes.”

Around this time, Green contracted viral pneumonia. “A doctor came to the house, and I overheard him telling my mother that he didn’t think I’d make it,” he recalled. “I decided that if I did live through it, all my friends would be ahead of me, so I should practice just in case—I could hear the ones in my head, so I didn’t need my instrument. I took the hardest songs I could think of—‘Cherokee,’ ‘All The Things You Are,’ ‘Just One Of Those Things’—and transposed them mentally through all 12 keys. The people my mother worked for brought in a famous doctor, who gave me new drugs, which knocked it out, but not until I experienced the white light at the end of the tunnel, the light closing, then fighting for air to come back, the light opening up again. When I was able to get back to my instrument, I was able to play everything I’d practiced.”

While attending Milwaukee Teachers College, Green worked locally with pianists Willie Pickens and Billy Wallace, walking the bar on rhythm-and-blues jobs, soaking up Gene Ammons’ spare, vocalistic approach to ballads like “These Foolish Things” and Lester Young’s poetic treatment of “I’m Confessin’.” He had New York on his radar, and first visited in 1957, staying in the Harlem Y across the street from Smalls Paradise, where Lou Donaldson held a steady gig. He sat in with Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham on the sayso of Wallace, then Roach’s band pianist. “I was always able to play fast, especially at that time, so I was able to hang in and do it,” he said. That fall, Donaldson recommended him to Charles Mingus.

The audition produced a second transformative moment, after Mingus told him, “the first tune we’ll play is ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus.’” Green continued: “I sat there, ‘Hmm, pithecan…’ ‘You know what that means, man?’ That’s the way Mingus talked. ‘No, I really don’t know.’ ‘That means the first man to stand erect.’ He said, ‘Play this’ and played something like BINK-DINK-DOM-DEEENNGG. I said, ‘Have you got that written down so I can see it?’ Then he went off on me—if he wrote it down, I’d never play it right. I said, ‘Then play it again.’ I was able to hear it and play it back, and he smiled, and moved on.

“Mingus validated how I was starting to feel about the music—that there must be a systematic way to break free of the major-and-minor system. He’d have you do things like take the neck off your horn and blow into the bottom part to get a very low timbre on ‘Foggy Day’ because he wanted you to sound like a ship out in the harbor.”

Mingus drove Green cross-country to a run at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. On the return trip, he dropped him off in Chicago so that he could attend to family matters in Milwaukee, with the expectation that Green would make his way to New York for more club dates and a recording. But Green stayed home, imbued with notions of the freedom principle, with the late ‘50s innovations of John Coltrane as his lodestar. Green continued these explorations in Chicago, where—unable “to afford New York at the time”—he moved in 1960. He quickly made his presence felt on a scene that he describes as “very fast, but more laid back than New York, so you could do yourself in a less frantic environment.” He cut a straight-ahead sextet date for Exodus with Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Wynton Kelly, Larry Ridley and Jimmy Cobb, and a quartet side for Vee-Jay with Wallace, bassist Donald Garrett, and drummer Bill Erskine. He frequently partnered with Garrett, on “out of the box” projects, including an exploratory trio that did a concert—Threadgill attended—on which they “just started playing and tried to interact—that was the whole gig.”

A third transformative moment occurred in 1964, when Green, in Morocco on a State Department tour after winning “Best Instrumentalist” and “All Around Musician” awards at that year’s Notre Dame Jazz Festival, traveled “through the back woods” to hear a performance. “We saw three musicians sitting on the floor in a circle,” he recalled. “One guy had a bagpipe, another had a small violin, and the third played a small drum that he put his hand into and played on top. I became mesmerized by the bagpipe player’s skill. It blew my mind, because he put together what I was hearing in my head. No chords. There was a drone of a fifth, and you played around that fifth and resolved it within yourself. Later, I started studying it and building from it, pretty much the way Rudresh visited his culture and started drawing on it. I’m not trying to copy the sound. I’m trying to get into the essence of their phrasing and how they circle the open fourth and fifth tonal centers that they use. I had to give up the standard jazz lines in order to do that.”

Ten years later, Steve Coleman, then 18, heard Green—at this point heading a newly-formed Jazz Studies department at Chicago State University—either at Ratso’s on the North Side or Cadillac Bob’s, around the corner from his South Side house. “Bunky worked out patterns that sounded calculated, like a deliberate effort to get to his own thing,” Coleman stated. “As a result, his playing is very clear, precise, direct, and I could dig into it, try to analyze it and find out what it was. I wanted him to show me what he was doing, so I asked for a lesson, but Bunky turned me down. He told me, ‘I only give lessons to cats who need lessons, and you don’t. You need to go to New York.’ So I decided I’d listen and grab what I could.

“Although I noticed the patterns early on, Bunky used certain devices that intrigued me. He developed a special fingering to get a hiccup quality that you hear in North African singers. He also picked up a lot of augmented second intervals, as well as quartile stuff and pentatonics, from that part of the world. Whereas in those countries, the pitches stay pretty much the same, Bunky moved the intervals around in different ways. To me the blues is basically a modal music, without a lot of progression. Bird managed to put sophisticated progressions in the blues that gave it motion, but let it sound like blues. Coltrane figured out a way to move the music that influenced him from Africa and India. Bunky figured out how to do this with the North African-Middle Eastern vibe.”

[BREAK]

Along with what he does on Apex, Mahanthappa’s recent sideman work in DeJohnette’s new group with David Fiuczynski, George Colligan and Jerome Harris, and in Danilo Perez’ 21st Century Dizzy project (there are several open-ended Perez-Mahanthappa duos on Providencia [Mack Avenue], from this year), may go some ways towards countering a critique that his musical production—particularly the 2006 release Codebook [Pi], comprising original pieces constructed intervals drawn from Fibonacci equations, and Mother Tongue [Pi], on which the compositions draw from melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding, in their native dialect, to the question, “Do you speak Indian?”—is overly cerebral and insufficiently soulful.

“Everyone I look up to is simultaneously right brain and left brain, to use a dated term, or simultaneously intellectual and seat-of-the-pants instinctive,” Mahanthappa said. “Bartok played with Fibonacci equations. Bach played with Golden Section. Even Dufay’s motets, if you pick them apart, have a somewhat mathematical, formal approach. ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Central Park West’ are math jazz. A lot of non-Western music has a foot in math as well. A lot of algorithmic thought goes into the way South Indian beat cycles are constructed and played; when the players solo, they know exactly where to start this polyrhythmic thing so it lands at a certain spot two minutes later.

Throughout the recording, and on the bonus video clips offered as value added with an Apex download, Moran prods the flow into unexpected, “right brain” directions. He first recorded with Green on the 2004 date Another Place [Label Bleu], produced by Coleman, who persuaded Green to use him instead of the esteemed master bebop master pianist Green had asked for. “I wanted to hear someone interact with Bunky who wouldn’t just lay down a carpet for him to play over,” Coleman said. “Jason was one of the few piano players I could think of who had enough of the stuff Bunky wanted to hear—the sensibility of how to play a ballad, and so on—but could throw him some curve balls, push him in his thing so the album would represent something like the way he plays live.

“There’s a wild element, an abandon in Bunky’s playing. He lets his feelings out. It was there early on—he’s one of those cats that got it young. He has a very strong embouchure, and his pitch is very centered, his alto tone is crystal-clear, nothing muscly about it. But he does false-fingerings to offset this, to get more rawness in his sound. He plays in the upper register without pressing the octave key, so he gets a throaty split tone quality, an overtone sound, holding the pitch right in between the upper and lower registers, which is how an ancient Greek instrument called the aulos is described.”

Moran described his strategies. “When Bunky gets into his own language, I comp behind him in a way that uses some of what I gleaned from McCoy Tyner, not the chords or voicings, but the power,” he said. “He gets to an angular sound that kind of free-floats up into the stratosphere, and what’s attractive is that just when you think he has no further to go, there’s like another mile and a half, whether way up into the top of the instrument, or into deeper levels of rawness.”

Discussing Mahanthappa’s qualities, Moran referenced an old video game called Punchout. “You’d press ‘Body Blow’ and it said, ‘Body blow! Body blow!” he laughed, swinging his arms back and forth like a pendulum. “Or like Neo punching in Matrix, where you saw these multiple arms hitting the same spot. Rudresh has that kind of rapid fire, and when I play with him, I punctuate and jab. It isn’t just that he plays really quick ideas, but his tone and attack is very different from Bunky’s—more direct, while Bunky slides more.”

Both of Mahanthappa’s recent employers note his open mind and fierce, unmediated execution as a selling point. “Rudresh does things that remind me of a little kid, like, ‘Let’s go and play,’” Perez said, cosigning Moran’s analogy. “When he develops a line, there’s much excitement and raw energy, but he also improvises with great clarity.”

“There was a lot of commotion about Rudresh,” DeJohnette remarked. “He gets a sort of Indian flute or Arabic nai sound on the saxophone, and I’ve been interested in Indian scales and ragas and rhythms since the ‘60s, so I thought his sensibility—and the rawness he brings—would work out for my music.”

“I’ve been dying to play with Danilo and Jack forever,” Mahanthappa said. “There’s a certain validation in working with them, as well as Bunky. At Berklee or when I lived in Chicago, I was inspired when people who I thought were authentic, regardless of jazz genre, would say, ‘Yeah, man, keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Green himself intends to devote a greater proportion of the second half of his eighth decade to performing than has been his custom since the ‘60s.

“I’ve never been desperate about getting ahead,” he said. “All I ever wanted was some recognition for my place in history. I believe in my heart that I’m responsible for a stylistic thing that spread all around the country, and nobody really knew the source. That’s the only thing I’ve regretted, but now I seem to be getting credit. It always took someone else to motivate and push me. I’m not an aggressive person, and unless you’re aggressive you become complacent and don’t move. Maybe it would have been better for me if I had been, because I would be quite established now. But I’m going to keep pushing in terms of playing more and getting more exposure—and we’ll see what happens.”

[—30—]

Leave a comment

Filed under Alto Saxophone, DownBeat

For Herbie Hancock’s 77th Birthday, A “Director’s Cut” DownBeat Feature from 2003 and an interview with the Barnes & Noble Review From 2014

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the “director’s cut” of a DownBeat cover piece I had the opportunity to write about HH in 2003, and the proceedings of an interview he did with me on the occasion of the publication of Breaking The Rules for the Barnes & Noble Review ‘zine, in which he states: “Jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz.”

*********

Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

The opening sequence of Herbie Hancock’s new DVD, Future-2-Future, Live, follows Hancock, elegantly casual in a custom-tailored black suit, as he enters stage left at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory. Hancock bows, addresses a Korg Karma Roland MK-80 keyboard plugged into an Apple PowerBook computer, and triggers a series of ascending and descending swoops of varying duration. Against a backdrop of swirling rave images, bassist Matthew Garrison bows complementary tones, D.J. Disk interpolates whispery swatches of color, keyboardist Darrell Diaz plucks soft chords, drummer Teri Lyne Carrington elicits rubato, bell-like beats from her cymbals.

Then Hancock takes the microphone in his right hand. “Simply put, knowledge is the past,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “It is…” — he smiles, and sweeps his left hand across the keyboard — “…technology.” He pauses, cues an oscillating wash of sound, and continues, stretching out the words: “Wisdom is the future. It is philosophy. It is people’s hearts that move the age. While knowledge may provide a useful point of reference, it cannot become a force to guide the future. By contrast, wisdom captivates people’s hearts and has the power to open a new age. Wisdom is the key to understanding the age, creating the time.”

Concluding the invocation, from a text by his spiritual guide, Daiseku Ikeda, Hancock sustains the tone poem, setting up a Carrington chant, which is sampled polyphonically and to which she creates a complementary drumbeat on her electronic pads. Hancock shifts, sits at the acoustic piano, states the melody of “Kebero,” and launches a pithy, majestic solo, constantly developing the theme and sustaining a complex rhythmic dialogue with his drummer, deploying a precisely calibrated array of attacks to treat the piano simultaneously as both an orchestral harmonic instrument and a drum. Carrington’s sampled chant is a break chorus that paves the way for trumpeter Wallace Roney, who bobs and weaves through the rhythm with long combinations that sum up the harmonic material, not stopping until Hancock returns to the Korg with a declarative chord that winds up the piece.

Through the ebb and flow of the remaining 90 minutes of Future-2-Future Live, Hancock improvises through his entire timeline, bouncing off the ensemble to navigate seamlessly through electronic and acoustic environments with a holistic sensibility that he has not displayed on previous recordings. On “This Is D.J. Disk,” a call-and-response with the turntablist, Hancock uncorks a solo that evokes Inventions and Dimensions, his 1963 encounter with bassist Paul Chambers and two Afro-Latin percussionists. He creates a completely reconfigured 20-minute suite of “Dolphin Dance,” originally recorded in 1965 on Maiden Voyage, and one of several dozen Hancock compositions that stand among the sublime achievements of late 20th century jazz. He presents 21st century versions of “Hornets,” a Techno epic originally recorded in 1973 by the groove-based experimental coop Mwandishi on the aforementioned Sextant, and “Butterfly,” a soulful melody from Hancock’s late ’70s fusion period. On the encore, a balls-out “Chameleon,” he comps wickedly under an inspired Kurzweil solo by Darrell Diaz, then takes a thematic counterstatement on the Korg and an orchestral variation on acoustic piano.

Much of the repertoire comprises Hancock’s arrangements of material from his self-released studio CD, Future-2-Future [Transparent], refined over the band’s 50 or so dates during 2001-02. “We committed ourselves to Future-2-Future from an artist development point of view, going on the road and playing smaller clubs to younger audiences, almost as if Herbie was a new artist,” explains his manager, David Passick. On the CD, producer Bill Laswell situated Hancock in the Electro-Hiphop-Ambient-Techno dancefloor environment that he foreshadowed thirty years ago on such albums as Sextant — specifically the piece “Nobu,” built on scratch-like beats — and Dedication, and that he helped to launch in the ‘80s on Future Shock and Perfect Machine. Laswell collects beats from Detroit Techno producer Carl Craig, Afro-Brit drum-bass avatar Gerald Simpson, DJ Rob Swift, Grandmixer DXT, and tabla-percussionist Karsh Kale, deploys the resonant voices of Chaka Khan, Gigi, and Imani Uzuri, and calls on old master instrumentalists Wayne Shorter and Jack deJohnette – and a sampled drum track laid down by Tony Williams not long before his death – to impart gravitas and depth.

“Bill thought it would be interesting if I worked with people who are creating this kind of music who were influenced by records I did when I was their age,” Hancock says. “What would be the future-to-future end product? Bill likes to prepare fragments — some harmonic material or drums or drum-and-bass — before he meets me. Stimulating things. On our past albums, I would evaluate what he prepared, decide what to do, and then go back in the studio and shape it into my record by adding and changing things. The technology has evolved, and when I heard his material I was in the studio in front of a keyboard with a ‘Record’ light on. Bill wanted my immediate first reaction, my my gut-level, right-brain response. I’m listening to something; I don’t know where it’s going or where it starts, or anything.”

“When we talk about Electronica, we’re speaking about programming, not playing as a jazz musician would,” says Laswell, reinforcing the point. ” But Herbie thinks in terms of playing and programming simultaneously. He can imagine a sequence as a repetition, not something that’s reproduced electronically, but a spontaneously played musical part. He hears patterns, and he thinks in terms of structures — very advanced harmonic structures.”

“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians,” says Roney. “Sometimes with them, we’re playing, it’s great, we’re having a good time. But with Herbie, from the first chord, the first run, my jaw would drop. You never knew what you were going to hear next and it always took your breath away. Every time.”

“In a way, improvising is like composing,” Hancock says. “I am interested in making it more spontaneous and less intellectual, getting the thinking brain out of the way and letting the music flow through. The structure or balance will inherently reveal itself as a natural consequence. Now, the Mwandishi band played very spontaneous music, and the Future-2-Future band comes from a perspective very similar to when I did Crossings and Sextant. But in the early ’70s it was more raw, whereas now it’s reached some kind of maturity. The music was unrefined, like laying your guts out, letting it all hang out, which a young person may do. Today I’m letting it all hang out, but there’s a sense of the importance of responsibility and other things you learn as you get older.

“Except on rare occasions, I haven’t practiced scales and exercises, the way we normally think of practicing, in many years. What I want to draw from is not technique. I’m no longer interested in being a piano virtuoso in any way, shape or form. That’s not what I’m about. I’m interested in allowing the innermost person to express itself, to respond to whatever the musical environment may be, moment to moment, and to encourage others to have the courage to not be afraid to walk into that kind of darkness.”

Although Hancock has numerous plans for the remainder of 2003, none involve touring the Future-2-Future band. Hancock’s next project will piggyback on his eighth Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World [Verve], a critically acclaimed response to the Gershwin Centennial. Joining forces with arranger-conductor Robert Sadin, who conceptualized the album, he will play his own music as well as compositions by Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington and Gershwin with philharmonic orchestras in America and Europe. Nor is he neglecting his distinguished legacy in hardcore jazz, with engagements booked for his quartet (Carrington, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and bassist Scott Colley) and with Verve labelmates Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove in the New Directions Band, which last year released a 2001 location date from Toronto’s Massey Hall, devoted primarily to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Massey Hall was the venue where, in 1953, bebop icons Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach convened to document the legendary “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” and Hancock will go there in May to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton.

It will also be roughly fifty years from the time when the 13-year-old Hancock – a classical prodigy who at 11 had played Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — heard a classmate play jazz trio at a variety show at Hyde Park High School. “I didn’t know anything about improvising then,” Hancock recalls. “I played Classical music and Rhythm-and-Blues. If it wasn’t on the page, I didn’t play it. I had no idea what this guy was doing, but it was organized and rhythmically it was cool. I became curious and decided to learn how to do it, and the more I investigated, the more I liked it. He was playing things that George Shearing had recorded, like ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ which we had at home. I found phrases I liked, and tried to find the notes on the piano or by singing the part. Then I’d write them down, continue until I got the whole phrase, and try to play the phrase by looking at the notes on the page. I noticed it sounded different from when George Shearing played it, and I looked more closely at what was happening. I noticed that some notes were louder than others, that he used accents, held some parts of the phrase longer — little nuances that made the difference. So when I was 14 and in high school, I was getting experience in ear training and sight-singing.”

Progressing rapidly, Hancock began to participate in the bustling Chicago scene towards the end of high school, going to jam sessions and picking up ideas from such reharmonization-oriented local pianists as Billy Wallace, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens and Muhal Richard Abrams, young progressives like Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, and Wilbur Ware, and future bandmates like George Coleman, Julian Priester and James Spaulding, the latter two members of Sun Ra’s ’50s Arkestra. He matriculated at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he initially majored in electrical engineering. During summer vacations he took club gigs, including one for which he recalls hiring Jack DeJohnette to play bass. With increasing regularity he attended the jam sessions, including one produced by Joe Segal at the Gate of Horn on the North Side. There he heard the blind pianist Chris Anderson.

“Right after I heard him, and wiped the tears from my eyes, because what he played was so beautiful, I studied with him for a week,” Hancock recalls. “His harmonic thinking and the heart that went into his playing stunned me. When I looked at him – blind, bones brittle, using a crutch — I said, ‘Who is this mother?’ Then he got up and played, and he was playing some harmonic things that Bill Evans was not dealing with at the time. I said, ‘I want to learn what this stuff is!’ For anybody at that time, to have studied with Chris would be a great advantage.

“I also heard Sun Ra a couple of times. Once he was rehearsing in the basement of the Sutherland, I somehow found out about it and checked him out a bit. I didn’t really dig it, but it was interesting. It was a bit much for me at the time.”

In a sense, Hancock is a prototype Chicago musician of his era, sharing philosophical affinities with fellow South Side products like Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Charles Stepney and Maurice White. In his preoccupation with process, technology, collectivity and self-determination, in the risk-taking imperatives that drive him, in his iconoclastic temperament, in his desire to express himself in populist and highbrow forums, to crack the codes of multiple musical languages towards humanistic narrative ends, he embodies the ancient-to-the-future perspective postulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the decade after he departed for New York and began his storied career.

“I describe the whole Chicago experience as school,” he says. “You learned all the basics and got exposure to elements coming from a wide variety of sources, from the total avant garde, which Sun Ra could be, to things from Gene Ammons, the blues, and the way different cats played bebop. The musicians and audiences always encouraged some form of experimentation. You didn’t have to have things perfect; Chicago’s jazz fans supported whatever you were into. Chicago was the best foundation I could think of for going to New York.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Hancock is a musician who actually has guided the future and changed the time. Personal modesty aside, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, and his music has a novelistic scope. Pianists acknowledge his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance, and since his days with Miles Davis — think of “81” or “Stuff” — he’s known how to switch on a dime from the highest highbrow abstractions to the most soulful soul brother funk. He defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“I think Herbie’s a genius to the point that when he chooses to go Pop, without sacrificing everything he is, he becomes authentic Pop,” says Roney. “When Headhunters came out, he changed the way pianists and keyboard players play R&B; now they all do that little tremolo and those comping riffs he does. Herbie listened to Sly Stone, and he and Stevie were friends, but he comes into the arena without offending it, and ups the ante. The jazz purists hate it, and the pure R&B people get mad. But you turn around, and everybody’s trying to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock.”

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You’re going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they’re thrilled,” Sadin says. “This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it’s reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they’re playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it.”

As in the Mwandishi days, Hancock, who authored some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in all of jazz history before his thirtieth birthday, has turned primarily to collaboration and recomposition in constructing the sonic environments in which he operates. In most cases, like his old friends Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, he works with younger musicians whose sensibilities coalesced in a climate that involved absorbing his music and forming their own conclusions from it, refreshing Hancock through their ability to interact with him on many levels.

“Writing was always a painful process for me,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work; I have to practically beat myself into it. When I was much younger, my perspective was narrower. I had a lot of time on my hands, everything was kind of new, and I wrote a lot of things. The more material you put out and the deeper you dig in for that material, especially if you’re a guy like me who doesn’t like to do something he’s already done, it gets harder. Also, I’m getting older, which I think makes it harder to do. Collaborating is a great way to extend yourself.”

Now collecting Social Security, Hancock is thinking about a project on which he’ll respond to some of the brightest lights in progressive Hip-Hop/Urban. “The Future-2-Future record represented a more international and European look at music,” says Passick, who cites discussions with Amir from the Roots, and also the producers Rashad Smith and J.K. “I see a great correlation between the Roots and Herbie’s Electric Funk period. He had a major influence. When I talk to prominent people in Hip-Hop, the amount of Herbie’s music that is prominent in their life is astounding.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he sums up. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”

***********

Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

No living musician hews more closely to the notion of “Renaissance Man” than Herbie Hancock, whose artistic production over the past half century continues to stamp the twenty-first-century soundtrack.

Consider the range and depth of Hancock’s career markers. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven. When he left the Miles Davis Quintet at twenty-eight to explore his own vision, Hancock was already a key figure in the jazz piano pantheon, had defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, and had composed some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in jazz history, some of them for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Two decades he would win an Oscar in that genre for Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.

By the early ’70s, Hancock was pioneering in ways to incorporate synthesizers into real-time musical flow with Mwandishi, his first working band, which led the curve in groove-based experimental, improvised music, and would influence numerous practitioners of electronica and other turn-of-the-century beat musics. Mid-decade, he led the curve again with Headhunters, his enormously popular band, and yet again in 1984 with the hip-hop/techno hybrid put forth on the album Future Shock, his first of fourteen Grammy winners. He earned a twelfth Grammy, in 2008, for River: The Joni Letters—only the second jazz album ever to earn an Album of the Year designation—on which he framed reinterpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the composer herself. His fourteenth Grammy, in 2011, acknowledged The Imagine Project, a one world–oriented extravaganza on which Hancock traveled to various locations around the world to record pop repertoire with an international cast of characters.

What makes Hancock tick? Some answers appear in his memoir, Possibilities, released six months after the seventy-four-year-old UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Professor of Music at UCLA, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz fulfilled his obligations to Harvard as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry with a half-dozen lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.” It’s the latest step in an iconoclastic career driven by risk-taking imperatives; a preoccupation with process, technology and collective expression; an equal comfort zone in populist and highbrow forums; and a desire to crack the codes of multiple musical languages and refract them into his own argot. Hancock’s narrative—he collaborated with ghost-writer Lisa Dickey—vividly portrays these qualities. It’s as no-holds-barred as his jazz playing—intuitive and logical, refined and raw, pragmatic and utopian, real-world and spiritual. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: You were initially an engineering major at Grinnell College, and your relationship to technology is one of several through-lines that thread through the text. Another is your creative process.

Herbie Hancock: I’ve always been a very curious person. It’s in my DNA.  It’s in the book that I’d take apart watches and clocks and other things before I showed an interest in music. That curiosity led to my interest in jazz. When I was thirteen, I thought that to play jazz, you had to be older than I was, and I never paid attention to it because it didn’t make sense to me and didn’t move me.  Then I saw a kid my age playing jazz on piano, and got the sense that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t just a bunch of notes.  Rhythmically it was cool; there was a beat to it. I was a pretty good piano player at the time, and I decided then that I wanted to learn how to do it.  So that curiosity opened the door. Later, that curiosity led me to work musically in many different genres, to put things together that maybe hadn’t been put together before.

BNR: You describe how each of your encounters with various new technologies in beta phases—tablets, synthesizers, MIDI, musical software, the vocoder, drum machines, the mini-disc—stimulated an entirely new project, a new world of sound.

HH: That’s true. My curiosity enabled me to integrate the technology with music. Once I changed my major in college to music, I still would have been a geek and a gadget guy, but I didn’t think there would be a way to combine music and technology until synthesizers came along. That opened up new doors.

BNR: In actualizing your technological vision during the ’70s and ’80s you worked closely with Bryan Bell, who taught himself programming language and, in one vignette, from 1979, predicts, “We’ll be able to sell music on the computer.” Two years earlier, well before MIDI, he engineered a working synthesizer that powered and fully controlled all your keyboards.

HH: When I bought my Apple II+ computers in 1979, there were scarce examples of interfacing computers and music, but I was convinced computers would become a strong element in the music field. I could never have predicted how true that would be with iTunes and so forth today. Bryan always jokes that when something new arrived at my studio, the first thing I’d say was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” This would be something it couldn’t do, but Bryan would try to make it happen. That led to a lot of explorations that preceded commercial products made by someone else. We were just trying to make stuff that I could use.

BNR: How has your M.O. for research and development evolved? A different process than during the ’70s and ’80s?

HH: A new development in the way I look at my creative output, which is primarily due to my practice of Buddhism, is that I think about purpose when I make a record. In other words, what is it that you want to encourage in other people, not just share musically, but perhaps stimulate or point out or champion?

BNR: A passage in the second chapter portrays a moment in high school, when your parents punished you by not allowing you to attend a party. You assuaged disappointment and anger by thinking through the situation rationally. That theme of using logic to control your emotions—of detachment—is consistent.

HH: When I was young, I did that to avoid pain or punishment or whatever. Later on, I realized that in doing that I’m cutting off part of my own humanity. I didn’t realize how damaging it could be if carried to extremes. I also didn’t understand the concept of “no pain, no gain.” We know that applies to physical exercise. But suffering and challenges are part of life. Without them, you’d be bored to tears; if you let them control you, you are losing the battle. You can’t necessarily grow from nice things happening. So I don’t look at suffering as something I need to get away from, but can actually use to move forward.

Revealing my experience with crack was a difficult decision. My daughter and my wife felt that the book was the vehicle for talking about this. I had been trying to suppress this experience, as though it had never happened. But I should have known better. I thought I could accomplish a couple of things by discussing it. Most important is that someone struggling with addiction or whatever other challenge might benefit from seeing my path in winning this battle. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that my life hasn’t been all goody-two-shoes. So I freely pulled back the stuff I was trying to throw out of my life, to reconsider the reality of those things. In Buddhism, we talk about the phrase of “turning poison into medicine.” This is the way for me to do that.

BNR: You certainly do not paint yourself as a saint, particularly during the ’60s and early ’70s. Your depictions of several acid trips speak to your powers of description.

HH: That’s the way it was.

BNR: From beginning to end, Miles Davis is a constant presence. He was a mentor to you, a kind of father figure. Sometimes sons rebel against fathers, and I’m wondering if you expressed resistance to him in ways that inflected the course of your career.

HH: I was twenty-three when I joined Miles’s band. Tony Williams was seventeen. Now, Tony did have that kind of rebellion you’re talking about with Miles. But Miles wasn’t that kind of father figure for me, and I didn’t feel a need to be rebellious against him. I admired his music, and I admired many things about his ethics in music. He had so many aspects to his character that were valuable to the musicians who played with him. When people who played with Miles’s different bands have an opportunity to converse, we all have similar stories we can tell.

BNR: How do you denote a successful performance? What’s your metric for critique?

HH: That’s hard to describe. I’ve had the experience where I’ve thought something didn’t work so well when I was playing, but on the tour bus we’d listen to a recording from the mixing console, and, in fact, the stuff was killing!

BNR: You describe that dynamic in talking about the Plugged Nickel recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.

HH: Yes, that was a surprise. I guess when I play, I experience a certain freedom from spontaneous connection. When the music is flowing, and the joy of discovery is happening, and there’s a very open space for a wide variety of approaches to transpire moment to moment, and all of us feel that joy—to me, that’s a successful performance. Not the applause that comes from the audience. Of course, it’s nice. I love it. Who doesn’t love that? I’ve had eggs thrown at me, too, in Germany. But I knew that we were hot and the music was smokin’, so it didn’t bother me. It was maybe the first time I experienced that. But it gave me the opportunity to feel courage and conviction about what I was doing.

BNR: Throughout the book, whenever you refer to jazz, which you don’t try to define, you are eloquent and passionate about your relationship to it, as, for example, in your acceptance speeches for receiving an Oscar and a Grammy. You’re one of the very few who has both attained eminence in jazz as a stylist, an improviser, and a composer, and been a highly successful practitioner in popular music. Do you see the idioms as related or separate? Do different components of your personality come into play when you address one or the other?

HH: I don’t think I could do what I did if I drew a fine line between the two. But jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz. I’m fortunate that jazz is my foundation. Yes, I started with classical music, and classical music is also foundational for me. It’s through classical music that I learned to read music, to sit and hold my hands and fingers properly at the instrument. That’s a big reason why I’ve never had any physical problems. Granted, I don’t curve my fingers exactly like I did when I first started off, but that’s the nature of the process. You find your own space. From what you’re taught, from what other people have done, you find what’s best for you. We’re all different, and you have to personalize these things.

BNR: The notion of individualism is a component of jazz culture, too, particularly in the period when you were coming up.

HH: Absolutely. The cool thing is, in the ’60s, at the time I joined Miles’s band, rock ‘n’ roll was hot. Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come had become a landmark recording, and avant-garde, even though it was still kind of underground, was influencing the post-bebop musicians who were more visible. Of course, there was John Coltrane and the group we had with Miles. It was a very fertile time for creativity on all levels. Look what the Beatles did. Sgt. Pepper. Whoever thought rock ‘n’ roll artists would do stuff like that? Joni Mitchell! A lot of stuff was going on.

BNR: You developed very sensitive antennae, to pick up and assimilate these diverse sounds. I guess you were also absorbing James Brown and Sly Stone during those years.

HH: Right. When I did Head Hunters, I was thinking about Sly Stone. That’s why I named one of the songs “Sly,” as an homage to his influence, even though the music had nothing to do with him.

In the book, I describe that Miles’s attitude made me decide it must be cool to be open. Even though I didn’t admit it then, I liked James Brown’s music. I liked the beat. When I was a kid, I didn’t just listen to classical music and jazz. I was listening to R&B, and I played R&B. Things like Head Hunters and “Rockit” connect to my background, as offshoots of R&B, in a sense. I was born in 1940, so I’m a little older than the rock ‘n’ roll generation. I didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll, but I did like R&B. It’s funny that Jimi Hendrix was associated with rock ‘n’ roll, but he was basically a blues player. Of course, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll grew out of. What he played was perhaps . . . I was going to say more authentic, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe more connected with those roots.

BNR: Well, he had a direct and lineal connection to the real blues, the blues that was going on not far from your house on the South Side, not once-removed and studying records.

HH: Exactly. But the thing is, I wouldn’t even listen to Jimi Hendrix, because to me, his name was associated with rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t start checking him out until later, when the rumor was getting around that Miles and Jimi might do something together, which would involve me and Tony Williams and Ron Carter. That aroused my curiosity, but then he died.

BNR: Although it happened too late to be discussed in Possibilities, you served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard earlier this year, and presented six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.”

HH: I got a call from a representative of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard who told me that they wanted to bestow upon me the Norton Professorship of Poetry, which I hadn’t heard of. I had no idea how heavy that was until I saw names like Igor Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot and Leonard Bernstein. Then I was told that I’d have to do lectures. To make things fit with my career, I gave three in February and three in March. I ordered Bernstein’s lectures from Barnes & Noble, but the tone was too pedantic for me to emulate. He could pull that off, but I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be me.

One of the lectures is called “Breaking the Rules.” I wanted to share an important concept—that the people we study broke the rules, and created new ones. Whoever heard of the people that followed the rules? Of course, it’s important to learn the rules. I’m constantly in the process of doing that. But don’t confine me to those rules. It’s important to think outside the box, and not be stuck inside the comfort zone.

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Herbie Hancock, Piano

For Pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 79th Birthday, A 2013 DownBeat Feature

I’m a fan of the German pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, a pioneer in the development of speculative improvising in Germany and on the broader European scene, both through his involvement in Globe Unity Orchestra, his long-standing trio work with Evan Parker, his own ensembles, his comprehensive investigation of the Thelonious Monk’s corpus, and his concept of improvising in a 12-tone context. I had an opportunity to interview Schlippenbach in Heidelberg in November 2012, and to document that encounter in Downbeat in an early 2013 issue. I’m posting that piece in honor of his 79th birthday.

***********

In 2004, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach observed the sixtieth birthday of his old friend Evan Parker by presenting him with a folio containing the complete works of Thelonious Monk, hand-transposed in pencil from the key of C to a saxophone-friendly B-flat.

While this extravagant gesture denoted Schlippenbach’s loving esteem for a kindred spirit, it also encapsulated his decades of immersion in Monk’s music, as documented on Monk’s Casino [Intakt], a 3-CD opus from 2005, on which Schlippenbach assembled a quintet to perform Monk’s entire corpus in a single evening of three 75-minute sets. Seven years later, Intakt released Schlippenbach Plays Monk [Intakt], a solo piano meditation on which he intersperses less-traveled Monk repertoire with original works and improvisations based on 12-tone material, a subject that Schlippenbach explored on the intense, mid-aughts solo recitals Twelve Tone Tales (Volumes 1 and 2) [Intakt], and on 2011’s Blue Hawk [Jazz Werkstadt], on which he and trumpeter Manfred Schoof, a his collaborator for more than half-a-century, perform 15 duets. Serial music refracted through a jazz sensibility is also part of the fabric of Iron Wedding [Intakt], documenting a 2008 two-piano encounter with pianist Aki Takase, Schlippenbach’s life partner.

“In the same way that Alex is an undying fan of Monk, he’s also an undying fan of Schoenberg,” said Parker, who first played with Schlippenbach in 1968. In 1972, he joined Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens in a still ongoing trio—most recently heard on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], from 2007—that has remained steadfast in its commitment to tabula rasa improvising over the ensuing forty years.

“He’s assembled a huge arsenal of patterns and vertical structures,” Parker continued, noting that these raw materials are the bedrock of the spontaneous conversation undertaken by the trio—or the international ensemble known as the Globe Unity Orchestra, of which the trio is the core—in any performance. “Nothing is discussed in advance, and everything is allowed. What matters is what happens after the first gesture.”

Schlippenbach launched the Globe Unity Orchestra in 1966 at Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, a premier showcase for European contemporary music. It was a ground zero moment in what Joachim-Ernst Berendt has termed “Die Emanzipation,” denoting the process by which a trans-national cohort of young musicians from Britain and the Continent, initially inspired by such American avatars as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, broke away from their models and started to develop their own sounds.

“Globe Unity was like a hopeful political metaphor,” said George Lewis, who referenced his own long history with GUO in the program notes for the 2006 date Globe Unity—40 Years [Intakt], on which he also performed, augmenting recent collaborations with Schlippenbach in both the Trio and various chamber configurations. “He’s addressing European contemporary music, which is perceived as a very elite, high-culture art form, and he says, ‘I am going to play jazz and jazz is going to be part of the European high-culture consensus.’ That challenged a lot of fundamental ideals—nationalist ideals, even racial ideals.”

Lewis noted that Schlippenbach, concerned that the term “free improvisation” “might be used to distance him from the jazz tradition,” was firm about describing his music as “free jazz.” “At this point you have to say that he is part of the jazz tradition,” Lewis said. “He likes to make the piano ring, like Fred Anderson made the saxophone ring. There are these sharp, intense gestures, and he gets into this trance of ecstasy, which he then cuts back on, so there’s an awareness going on at the same time.”

That awareness was evident at last November, at a lecture-performance at a “Jazz and Social Relevance” conference sponsored by the University of Heidelberg’s American Studies Department, where Schlippenbach, 74, followed a brief recital with a pithy discourse—in English—that traced, as he stated, “the emergence of free jazz in Europe” and GUO’s origins. Later, he sat with DownBeat for a conversation.

* * *

DB: What’s your personal history with Monk’s music?

AVS: I have been busy with Monk, strange enough, almost from my beginning with jazz. For one year at the end of the ‘50s, there was a jazz school connected with the Cologne Musikhochschule, where I had a very nice piano teacher—the only jazz piano teacher I ever had—named Francis Coppieters, a Belgian from the radio band. He introduced me to the Monk piece called “Work,” which I rehearsed and played. I found it quite interesting and very different from the other jazz with all the well-known cliches. So I tried to find a way to learn Monk’s other pieces, and over the years they came together.

All 70 of his tunes are gems, each with its own strong character; this is what I appreciate most about him. But I don’t think there is much of a link between Monk’s music and my style of playing. When I improvise, I am trying to find a way to keep with the theme, not just do brilliant choruses on the changes like most of the piano players do, but to get the IDEA of the piece.

DB: Through what threads in your consciousness did you relate to Monk’s music?

AVS: There was a guy in my boarding school who could play the boogie-woogie, which impressed me, and I tried to imitate him. I learned the blues with this. Through the years, every night from 12 to 1 a.m., I listened to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover, which was very important—it gave me good information about new things. All my money went to buy records, which I transcribed and copied, trying to play bebop and traditional jazz. I heard Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and it changed my life. Oscar made an impression on me—one of the greatest piano players in the history of jazz, with fantastic technique and swinging and can play blues and everything… Horace Silver was a great influence as well. I copied all his records. I wouldn’t say he has any cliche. He has his own very strong style, which is true of all the great jazz musicians. Nowadays in school, they learn from books how the blues scale works, and then they can do anything with it. This makes things flat, I would say.

Then at the beginning of the ‘60s, when all these changes happened, we heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, just to mention those two. We were fascinated with this new language, this new sound. We quickly adapted that influence and developed it, writing little tunes that we used as a boost to do something somehow more free. At the same time, I was a student of composition in Cologne, where I was in contact with contemporary composers like Bernd Alois Zimmermann, worked with them, and got some experience in what’s called “serious contemporary music.” Zimmermann had places for improvisers and jazz players in his later compositions, which I performed with the Manfred Schoof Quintet. In 1967 and 1968, Penderecki and Luigi Nono tried to get in contact after they heard Globe Unity Orchestra.

DB: I gather around 1965 you played a gig at the Blue Note in Paris with Gunter Hampel opposite Kenny Clarke, after which you’d attend a jam session that Don Cherry was doing at Le Chat Qui Peche.

AVS: Yeah, it was fantastic. We always could hear their last set, because we were quite interested about the way Don Cherry led the band with his horn—he’d raise it, suddenly there was a new motive, a new theme that the band immediately followed. This was quite impressive for me. I can relate to this the way we play today, especially with Rudi Mahall, a fantastic bass clarinet player, who I play with both in duo and with a rhythm section. We have these Monk tunes and Eric Dolphy stuff, and he’ll change, then I’ll follow, as though we’re not only playing one piece, but can surprise ourselves as different things come up.

DB: You recorded Dolphy’s songs solo on Twelve Tone Tales. He seems to be as important to you as Monk.

AVS: Yes. His tunes went more in the new, freer direction than Monk’s music. I heard him with Mingus in the ‘60s, and I heard him perform with Coltrane in Stuttgart, and also on radio recordings. I listened to his records—especially Out To Lunch was one that gave me an enormous idea where jazz can go. Monk was a pianist, so it’s piano music. Dolphy was not a piano player, but a melody-maker, and I was curious how to play his pieces—some of which are literally extended bebop—on the piano. Of course, you have to see what you can do with the other hand, so it’s not just the melody.

DB: Does your thematic orientation when interpreting Monk and Dolphy remain in the completely improvised context of your trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens?

AVS: When I play with Parker and Lovens, this is completely different. No themes at all. It’s what we call improvising without any prior agreement. We never speak about what the program is, so we don’t have pieces. We have all our certain material. Motifs. Evan has his scales. I have my very full chords which are built up for the right hand and for the left hand in a convenient way for the piano. I have, of course, also other things to do in my improvisational material. Paul has developed his own way of drumming through all these years, and since we’ve worked together continuously, we have developed our own style, which is I think quite unique. It’s not so much adapted from any American jazz. Nothing against the bass, it has its function, but I do like groups without bass, so I can do more things with my left hand and feel freer. Of course, I heard Cecil Taylor’s trio with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons at the Montmartre. I also liked the old Benny Goodman Trio with Gene Krupa.

DB: How is consensus reached on the first gesture of a performance? The first sound that generates everything else?

AVS: Usually I start with some motif, but it can come from Evan or from Lovens. Of course, we know each other, and when they start, I can immediately jump in, or pick up something, and go on. But the way we do that is not predictable. It comes out of the moment.

DB: Do you listen back to the performances? Do you analyze them after the fact? Or do you just let them go?

AVS: I more let them go. If the thing is done, it’s done, and I go to the next thing.

DB: So you don’t listen to yourself to find, say, patterns that might exist.

AVS: Not so much. More by chance. Sometimes, by chance, I listen to things we recorded 40 years ago, which is quite interesting to listen to…

DB: What do you think of Schlippenbach forty years ago?

AVS: Forty years ago, he was more kind of an angry young man, I think. The music was quite fresh, quite new at that time. We were very optimistic, just go in and play as much as possible. We were very convinced of what we were doing.

DB: Can you speak about the interplay between your considerable technique and your compositional and improvisational interests?

AVS: I have developed improvisational material on 12-tone chords. Already when I started I’d been interested in this for many years, and it came out stronger and stronger. So I found things convenient for the piano that I practiced a lot to improvise with that material. I was working sometimes with Steve Lacy, who showed me chords where you can press two notes with the thumb or with other fingers, which means you can put six-tone chords in one hand and six-tone chords in the other, which together is 12. I practiced on a couple of chords and scales and material to improvise with, and did it in a specific jazz way. For me, the difference between jazz and classical music is mainly that jazz has a rough, forward driving force. That’s always what I was most interested in, and I tried to transfer this element to my improvisation. Through this mode of practice, I developed maybe a specific technique.

DB: I think the most obvious reference point is that Cecil Taylor was a jumping-off point for you. I’m wondering if he was or if he wasn’t.

AVS: He was, of course. I saw him first in the ‘60s and also as a solo pianist in Amsterdam, and I was really overwhelmed. It was something very new. It was just air from the other planet at this time. I followed him to Rotterdam to the next concert, and I was very impressed about his ability to play the piano with a new sound and a new approach even to the music. It was exactly at that time when we also found out about our own possibilities. But he is still for me maybe the most important piano player in what we call the new jazz.

DB: In the mid ‘80s, after Jimmy Lyons died, Taylor started to work a great deal with European improvisers. Can you describe the maturation of European new jazz during those years of consolidation? You yourself have stated that in Globe Unity Orchestra the concept became more refined, more intuitive.

AVS: Yes. This is something that happens in music, I think. In the beginning, when the thing was completely new, many musicians, even beginners, tried to jump the train, as they say, even if they are not so great on their instrument. There were no fixed rules, that you have to know this tune, or play on the harmony. They could feel like, “I can do anything.” Of course, this is a basic error, because you have to make music, and you have to find a way to make people understand the music is not just fooling around or anything and saying, “this is free” and “this is not free.” So there was some chaos in the beginning, but after a while the wheat separated from the chaff—it became evident who is really serious about playing. The language became clearer. Nowadays we know with whom we want to play, and what we want to do. Today I would say there has never been so much free jazz as now. In Berlin, there’s a third generation of younger musicians who are working on their stuff with great passion, exactly as we did. I can feel this new movement, because I am playing around all the time. The seed grows up.

My trio with Evan and Paul is a kind of nucleus of Globe Unity Orchestra. Since we are always improvising, the band has gone more and more in a direction that we call ‘complete improvisation.’ Sometimes there is a little idea to start with something on overtones, or something with single notes—but not more. There is no need to talk about it. You can hear it, and then it comes from itself.

DB: Was music in your family background?

AVS: There is nothing to say about that. My father played a nice accordion, and my mother played a little piano. But I grew up after the war, when there was nothing to be done about music…

DB: You had to survive.

AVS: Survive, yes. So I started with piano when I was about 10 years old, relatively late. Then I saw this guy with the boogie-woogie, and I listened to jazz, and I got amazed about jazz…

DB: Were you from an aristocratic family?

AVS: Yes. This is a very long story. I am not a specialist about the family history, but I know it goes back to the 9th century or something—very old roots. Everything is lost anyway, because the high nobility of Prussia was put down after the war to nothing, or even worse sometimes. I try to hide my real name as a musician. I say “von.” But I am “Graf.”

DB: Graf is Count.

AVS: Yes, I’m a Count. But I don’t use it. I leave it to Count Basie.

DB: What music do you like to listen to now?

AVS: I like to listen to the old bebop, to the real bebop, the original bebop. Some things in contemporary music. Some things of new players, but not so much. I am very busy with my own things.

DB: What’s the quality that grabs you?

AVS: I find in this something of a darker side of jazz. That music was very strict in the form, with real tension, very convincing and very strong.

DB: Do you feel there’s a darkness in your music?

AVS: I can be light and a little bit funny with that. But if I use the chords, there’s a certain darkness in it, yes.

DB: You like to play in a lot of different ways—within forms and also total improvisation. Are they separate files of activity, or interrelated?

AVS: I think my way of playing—a certain touch, certain material—comes through even if I play traditional forms. But it’s always ME that plays. I don’t say, “Now I play like Horace Silver” or “I play like Monk.” I play maybe a piece of him, but I do it in my way.

DB: Is it your opinion that you’ve developed your own language?

AVS: Yes, of course. We all start following some idea, try to imitate even great musicians from another generation. You learn from it. Now I’ve developed my own language in terms of my own improvisational stuff and material, and someone who knows my music and hears me could say, “This is Schlippenbach.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Alexander von Schlippenbach, DownBeat, Evan Parker, Piano

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

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

*-*-*-

Bill Charlap (Blindfold Test):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*-*-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you bringing in new repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And lots of singers early on.

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

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

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

And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you were a close observer of it before.

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

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

It’s just music that I love.

Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?

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

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

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

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

Absolutely. I still do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you saw it always as cross-related.

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

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

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

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

300 East 51st Street.

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

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

Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.

Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.

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

Yup. New York.

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

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

What do you mean by “a kid”?

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

So jazz always appealed to you.

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

So the template was there.

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

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

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

But the references are there, because you heard them.

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

I can read it to you.

It’s ok.

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

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

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

Different cats.

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

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

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

At the beginning.

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

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

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

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

I’m talking about your aesthetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said pitfall.

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

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

That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he does great things with them.

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

It’s not for me.

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

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

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

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

You knew it intimately, though.

I guess so.

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

Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did not cut corners.

And you can’t either, can you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

Bill Charlap Feature in Jazziz, 2016:

“You can’t invent chemistry,” Bill Charlap says. “Generally it happens instantly, like when you meet a friend you get along with very easily, or when you fall in love.” The observation occurred as Charlap communed with a hunk of New York strip steak at a chophouse in the New Jersey suburb where he lives with his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes, but he was referring to the sparks that flew that transpired when he first made music with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at a December 22, 1997 recording session for Criss Cross. “That was it,” Charlap recalls. “We had maybe one rehearsal, and we sounded like a band right away.”

The ensuing album, All Through the Night, marked Charlap’s first recording of exclusively his arrangements culled from the Great American Songbook. It inspired the eminent jazz journalist Whitney Balliett to write a laudatory article in The New Yorker in 1999. Balliett described Charlap, born in 1966, as “a lyrical repository” and “the best, but least well-known pianist” of his generation. He even compared Charlap’s declamation on Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” from the 1995 CD Souvenir to an elite pantheon of recorded solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Paul Gonsalves and Joe Lovano that, in Balliett’s words, “catch you by surprise and send tremors up your spine.”

Partly thanks to Balliett’s encomium and an ensuing Blue Note contract, the Bill Charlap Trio quickly progressed, in Peter Washington’s words, “from a couple of weeks a year at Zinno’s” — a convivial Italian restaurant-cum-piano room on W. 13th Street in Greenwich Village — “to the Village Vanguard.” Washington stood at Birdland’s bar after a sparkling set on the second night of a week’s run supporting the trio’s recently released CD Notes From New York (Impulse!), its seventh recording, and first since 2007. Recorded immediately after a fortnight at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in May 2015, it’s a nine-tune program on which the partners sustain the mutual intuition established during their maiden voyage almost 19 years and a few thousand gigs ago. Their elegant, freewheeling triangular conversation on songs written between 1941 (“Not a Care In the World,” by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche, from an Eddie Cantor Broadway vehicle called Banjo Eyes) and 1975 (“Little Rascal On a Rock,” by Thad Jones) embodies the attitude that the pieces are not repertory, but collectively articulated repertoire. The overriding sensibility, as Charlap once said, is “cooking like the pot is boiling but with the lid on the pot, not obscuring the songs, but each of us playing ourself.”

This remark aptly described the flavor of this night at Birdland, where the trio displayed customary levels of creativity, craft and cogency. One highlight was Charlap’s solo on Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put On a Happy Face” (1963), which spanned a vocabulary timeline from Willie “The Lion” Smith to Bud Powell without shoving the historical references in your face. Another was an achingly gorgeous reading of Ira Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful” (1919), to which he applied his dynamic command and penchant for phrasing notes and tones to convey the essence of a lyric. Lucky Thompson’s blues “Prey-Loot” (1964) provoked another stride-to-modernism invention demonstrating that the trio needs no text as an armature around which to sculpt musical narrative.

That they performed not a single tune from Notes From New York denotes the scope of Charlap’s vast book. He’s gestated much of it on recordings that explore the oeuvres of George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Bernstein; on others with the New York Trio — a nonperforming unit with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart that makes CDs exclusively for the Japanese market — of material by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter; and on Charlap’s Grammy-winning 2015 collaboration with Tony Bennett, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. He’s generated other arrangements for a half-dozen theme-oriented shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2006, and while curating and music-directing some 70 concerts for the annual “Jazz in July” series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA since 2004, when the polymath pianist Dick Hyman, a distant cousin, passed him the baton.

“We could have made three or four records,” Kenny Washington says of the two days it took to record Notes From New York. “This was the most relaxed one we’ve done. It was just like playing a gig.”

“I remember thinking that this was the very best I’d ever heard Bill,” Peter Washington adds. “On some earlier records we did a million takes, but this was unscripted, a unique experience.”

Kenny Washington first played drums with Charlap in the semifinals of the 1993 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, in which Jacky Terrasson, Peter Martin and Edward Simon finished first, second and third. “In my opinion, Bill should have won,” Washington says. “Everybody else was showboating; this cat was playing music!” The feeling was reinforced a few years later, when Charlap called him for a no-rehearsal brunch engagement at the Blue Note.

Charlap recalls Washington remarking at their first studio meeting that he sounded like a “modern-day Teddy Wilson,” then adds, “I wasn’t trying to play somebody’s language or not to play somebody’s language.”

“The first thing that hit me was Bill’s touch and lyricism,” Washington clarifies. “He plays with his heart on his sleeve. This cat will lay you out on a ballad. At almost the end of the tune, there might be a pause; people are so quiet, you can hear a rat piss on cotton. We have the audience in the palms of our hands.”

Before participating in All Through the Night, Peter Washington, then midway through a 10-year run with Tommy Flanagan, had frequently partnered with the identically surnamed drummer (no relation), but never with Charlap. “I grooved to him right away,” Washingon says. “He’s very purposeful and has terrific time; it’s easy to play with him. He plays those standards without making it sound like a Sunday-school lesson. Playing standards and playing as straightahead as we play will never be out of favor, but it’s not fashionable. But Bill has been that way all along. He doesn’t care.”

“I love to play songs more than anything else,” Charlap says. “That’s not a great revelation to anybody who knows what I do. I love the songwriters. I love their mastery of the form. I love what those forms are for an improviser. I love their canvas. I like the stories that they tell. I love the lyricists—the whole scene.”

BREAK

Charlap was the only person in the chophouse dining room in a suit and tie — one of several understated, well-tailored blue Ermenegildo Zegnas that he uses for a performance uniform. He’d worn it for an afternoon meeting with fundraisers at William Paterson University, which, last September, appointed Charlap director of jazz studies, replacing the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. During the just-concluded school year, Charlap taught six separate ensembles, focusing on works by Harold Arlen and Horace Silver in the first semester, and Irving Berlin and Billy Strayhorn in the second.

“I enjoy learning the idiosyncracies and special talents of young musicians,” Charlap says. “I want to help them develop a full box of tools, and understand things contextually. If they’re learning ‘Body and Soul,’ for example, be aware of the iconic recordings of that song by Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Know how the song is built, who Johnny Green is, what the lyrics do, what the original stock arrangement might have done. Have a comprehensive idea of the song so when you approach it, you won’t be stylistically limited. You want your students to fall in love with it, to experience something that makes them say, ‘That made me feel something I’ve never felt before.’ As you fall more deeply in love with something, don’t you want to know every angle of it? Aren’t you wasting your feelings to not know it as intimately as possible?

“As a jazz fan, as you learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, than Gershwin, than Arlen, than Kern, than Porter. What was it about these master composers that made a stamp? As I learned the composers and read about their lives, all the pieces fell into formation.”

I observed that to juggle so many variables in real time mirrors Charlap’s own aesthetics. “The best thing you can do is be yourself,” he responded. “I follow Dick Hyman’s advice, which was ‘take the gig.’ That’s how you learn how to do it. If rhythm changes are difficult to play in the key of B-major, you should probably be practicing that. Run towards the cannons.

“A teacher becomes an advanced student. You learn more about what’s important to you, what you can offer that’s unique to your perception. When I listen to Coltrane, it’s to try to figure out how he can help me, but when I listen to my students it’s my job to help them. You’re not just listening for notes and time and sound and technique. You’re also listening for those intangible things that touch us — where someone’s heart is coming from.”

That Charlap’s heart so palpably connects to hardcore jazz and the Songbook links directly to his Manhattan upbringing. Born in 1966, he launched his musical education at 300 East 51st Street, where he lived with an older brother and two older sisters; his mother, Sandy Stewart, a popular singer in the ’50s, with whom he has recorded two CDs; and his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, a songwriter best-known for writing most of the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan, who died at 45, in 1974, when Charlap was 7.

“I imitated my dad, who composed at the piano and was very passionate and intense when he played,” Charlap says. “He was such a pro that he was doing it all the time. He wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was making stuff up, composing somehow out of the blue.” Early on, Charlap listened to Peter Pan, but also enjoyed “hearing the intervals and picking out the notes” of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor. Strouse and Jule Styne, whose songs he played at the Birdland set, were family friends, as were Yip Harburg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. After his mother remarried, the family heard his stepfather’s LPs by, among others, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Brookmeyer and Count Basie. “I remember getting Heavy Weather, some Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and a Miles Davis twofer all around the same time,” Charlap recalls. “It was all speaking to me. It was one giant, cross-related thing.”

He began to coalesce his interests while attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, where the student body represented the full ethnic scope of the New York City melting pot. “It put me in a conservatory atmosphere,” Charlap says. “You had brilliant jazz musicians, classical musicians, gospel musicians, everybody bound together by talent, some already at a professional level. It was New York — the incredible energy, intensity and culture.”

At 15, Charlap sometimes played hooky at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the General Motors Building at One Times Square, where he used Fats Waller’s piano, housed therein, as a practice instrument. There he met songwriter Walter Bishop, Sr., whose namesake son had played piano with Charlie Parker. “He’d been friends with Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and he encouraged me,” Charlap says. “I wanted to be a whole band, so I’d walk the basslines. I remember him saying, ‘Yes, Billy, when you jump down the sixth it’s very effective.’” A pianist who worked in the office recommended him for a gig with the improv-oriented First Amendment Comedy Troupe. “It was like being a silent movie pianist,” Charlap says. “I underscored whatever they were doing, and as people came in I could play anything I wanted — Chopin or Scott Joplin or ‘What Is This Thing Called Love.’ I wouldn’t say I had it under my fingers, but I was learning. I could do the gig.”

Thus “pushed towards jazz” as a serious commitment, Charlap reinforced his skills until graduation in private studies with the distinguished Jack Reilly. Then he matriculated at SUNY-Purchase as a classical-piano student “to develop the technique that didn’t come easy,” but concluded his formal education after two years. “I was spending too much time with Beethoven,” he says. “I needed to work more on my craft, on American music and the world music that jazz is.”

In July 1987, Hyman presented Charlap, just 20, at a solo-piano tribute concert to Teddy Wilson at the 92nd Street Y that featured heavyweights Hyman, Marian McPartland and Roger Kellaway. “I played ‘Danny Boy,’ a very impressionistic harmonic treatment from Dick’s book, and ‘Somethin’ Special’ by Sonny Clark,” Charlap recalls. “I don’t know if I’d want to hear a tape, but I did the gig.” Leading up to All Through the Night over the next decade, he did plum sideman jobs with crusty perfectionists Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, accompanist jobs with many singers, and jobs as a leader and sideman in duos and trios at various New York boîtes.

So, when he encountered Peter and Kenny Washington in 1997, Charlap knew how to recognize their chemistry when it emerged; over the years, to paraphrase the Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyric, he’s known how to keep the music playing. “I remember locking eyes with Kenny as he played brushes, this exact moment where it didn’t feel like we’re just making a date,” Charlap says. “It happened with Renee, it happens when I play with my mom, and it happens with Kenny and Peter. We have a sound. Part of that sound is how much we each love all the angles of the music, have spent a lot of time getting to know it very well, and understand where we stand.

“It’s like when you go through what it is to stay in love. There’s so much unspoken trust. You uncover things about yourself individually, and experience them together. Then hopefully we get better. Hopefully, my logic of the line has improved. Hopefully, my rhythmic ideas have become more interesting, varied and personal. And hopefully, we’ve developed more command and confidence in every choice we make, more ability to listen even more deeply to each other and to ourselves. We’re not trying to be everything, just what we are.”

SIDEBAR:

Title: Dancing With Tony

Bill Charlap first listened to Tony Bennett when he was 10 years old. For some two decades, Bennett has been a fan, frequently attending Charlap’s New York appearances, sometimes sitting in, sometimes calling him for a gig. So Charlap takes special satisfaction in their shared 2016 Grammy for Look For the Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Sony). Here’s his account of the session.

“Tony said, ‘We should make a record. I thought maybe it should be Jerome Kern.’ I said, ‘Perfect.’ Kern is the first great American theater writer, the Bach figure of songwriting. He’s got one foot in Europe and one foot in America. He writes songs like ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ that couldn’t be more colloquial, more American, and songs that are more light-opera-ish, like ‘The Song Is You.’
“More than that, one of my favorite records was my mom and Dick Hyman doing Jerome Kern songs. [Sings the Songs of Jerome Kern — With Dick Hyman at the Piano] It’s unclassifiable. It’s not cabaret. It’s somehow this great jazz songbook, but it’s also theatrical. All the songs are in my heart from my mom singing them and Dick Hyman, who was probably my greatest pianistic influence, playing them.

“Tony asked if we should do it as a duo or with the trio, or with Renee. He loved the album Renee and I made together — the uncluttered transparency of it, how it becomes like a new piano player. I thought we should do all three. Each song lends itself to a different orchestration, so you can explore their unique qualities, while it’s all of a piece.

“Tony made a list of songs. We got together with Renee at Steinway Hall for an afternoon, and played through a bunch of them. I wrote a few trio treatments, and he had strong ideas that were definitive. He heard ‘I Won’t Dance’ in 3/4. It was perfect.

“He gave his heart to it. Tony’s the red carpet for the composer. He’s got all that natural show business understanding. It’s not show business corny, it’s show business deep, like telling the story in almost a Shakespearean way. Tony is a jazz musician, in the sense that he responds to what he’s hearing. If I’m playing a harmony, he responds to it. If the rhythm section hits something, even subtle, he responds to it right away. Tony never sings it the same way, so it wasn’t like doing a million takes and pick from here and pick from there. He likes to be extemporaneous, and he wants to feel loose. We inspire each other. He sings something, and it makes me play something. We’re listening to each other. It’s a dance. It’s a conversation.”

1 Comment

Filed under Bill Charlap, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazz.com

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

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

*-*-*-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Tim Berne