Category Archives: Drummer

For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with jazz.com from April 2009, a Mid-Sized Article for Downbeat from 2005, and the Interview Conducted For the Downbeat article

For master drummer-bandleader-pianist-composer Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, I’m posting three separate pieces — at the bottom is a mid-sized article for Downbeat in 2005 on the occasion of his Readers Poll victory for “Best Drummer”; above it is an exhaustive Q&A interview that appeared in 2009 on the now-defunct and much missed http://www.jazz.com website (it contains a lot of information about his formative years in Chicago); above that is a piece for Jazziz in 2012  in responsed to his NEA Jazz Masters Award that year that is primarily focused on appreciation-testimonies from 6 colleagues and friends from different generations.

 

Jack DeJohnette (Jazziz Article, 2012):

Calls of “Happy Birthday” rang out from the sardine-packed house at Manhattan’s Blue Note as Jack DeJohnette positioned himself at the drumkit for the first of two sold-out sets on January 8th. Rather than inform his fans that their salutations were premature (he turns 70 on August 9th), DeJohnette opted for inclusion: “Say it as many times as you like.”

Two days hence, uptown at the Rose Theater, DeJohnette would receive an 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award. But on this evening, the iconic drumman-pianist-composer was celebrating that honorific—and a new self-released CD, Sound Travels [Golden Beams]—with his working quintet of the past two years (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski, double-neck electric guitar; George Colligan, piano and keyboards; Jerome Harris, electric bass) augmented by saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Reacting to Quintero’s imaginative postulations of the beat, DeJohnette uncorked a symphonic array of organic grooves that touched on swing, salsa, tango, calypso, funk, drum-bass, Indian, and open rubato feels. The unit cohered from the jump, listened closely, self-orchestrated instantly, shifting on a dime from one feel to the next while reimagining such DeJohnette standbys as “One For Eric” and “Tango Africaine” and fleshing out new jewels from  Sound Travels.

Centered around DeJohnette’s intense simpatico with Quintero, a steady partner since his clave-centric Latin Project from 2005, Sound Travels is a succinct, interactive date on which DeJohnette—who plays piano on all but one track, joined by Esperanza Spalding on bass—distills a lifetime’s assimilation of musical dialects, while embracing experiences on a cohort of more recent projects. Bruce Hornsby, who partnered with DeJohnette and Christian McBride on the 2007 instrumental date Camp Meeting, contributes lyrics and vocals on “Dirty Old Ground,” a 7/4 line that DeJohnette describes as “Levon Helm and the Band meets New Orleans.” On “Luisito Serena Salsa,” Spalding’s elegant vocalese, a spare solo by guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a clarion wrap-up by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire transpire over the DeJohnette-Quintero connection.

Sound Travels took shape while DeJohnette and his wife, Lydia, were in England last summer. “She’d been thinking we should plan something special for my 70th year,” he relates, noting his participation in the 70th birthday celebrations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “Then the NEA called.” They approached jazz impresario Chuck Mitchell to work with them on “a record that encapsulates my musical taste,” with “a focus on groove and beautiful melodies.” Mitchell assented, requesting only that DeJohnette play piano. Based in Nice during the Keith Jarrett Trio’s annual summer tour of Europe, DeJohnette took advantage of off-days to write the tunes on a Korg M3, playing the pieces over the phone to album producer Robert Sadin.

Like DeJohnette’s entire oeuvre, Sound Travels embodies, as DeJohnette puts it, “the spirit of playing with Miles Davis, the Gateway Trio, and Keith Jarrett—open, prepared for the unexpected, and willing to follow that where it takes us. It’s easy to say ‘come up with something different,’ but the challenge is to come up with something that’s different and also makes sense and communicates.”

Asked to self-assess his accomplishment, DeJohnette focused on collective imperatives. “I’ve always come to the table with an intention to help—to add my creative input and make someone else’s music be the best they want it to be. I do this with love and passion. I was thrilled and touched to be recognized as a ‘jazz master’ for what I love to do, to be in the category of those who laid groundwork for me to build my music vocabulary on. But I hope that I am doing something to inspire the younger players, too. It’s important to have that exchange. It keeps everybody connected. You’re learning on both sides.”

TESTIMONIES

TERI LYNE CARRINGTON:

I see Jack as a natural extension of Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a perfect combination of the two—of course, with his own sound and style. You can hear Roy’s influence in the crispness of his touch and articulation; you can hear Elvin’s influence in the elasticity of his beat. I fell in love with Jack’s drumming when I heard him playing with Charles Lloyd on Forest Flower. That’s what I wanted to play like, so I spent a lot of time with his jazz style. I appreciate all of his recordings, but one of the more inspirational things for me is the way he plays standards with Keith Jarrett. I always keep one of those CDs in my car; sometimes, in my brain, I’m still trying to get to that.

Jack and Lydia have been like my second family. When I was 18 and able to drive, he invited me to his house in upstate New York, and I’d spend weekends, leaving Monday at 6 a.m. to make a 10 a.m. class at Berklee. I was a jazzhead, closed in my personality and playing, and they helped open me up. They were listening to all kinds of things—reggae, music from Africa and New Orleans, ECM style music. Jack calls his music multidirectional, which I think is a more accurate description than jazz—he let me know that you define who you are. Sometimes he’d play piano and I’d play drums; once he told me I didn’t have to repeat he rhythm he played, but could complement it with my own idea. Jack understands the importance of passing on his knowledge more than anyone else I’ve encountered. He made himself available for me and other younger people, which is a lot of work. The older I get, the more I recognize how special that is.

GREG OSBY:

Jack seeks out eclecticism in players who are proverbial diamonds in the rough, and nurtures and hones them to fit his purposes as a bandleader, like a musical chef, using a jigger of this, a pinch of that. Then he lets the dogs loose. His philosophy is that if you have to make too many statements and judgments and modifications, then obviously you’ve hired the wrong people. He expects nothing other than experimentation, people walking the tightrope, having open ears and being responsive to what’s going on around them. Playing with him is like playing with an octopus, a multi-tentacled drummer-percussionist. You get so caught up in the vortex of what he’s doing that you have to slap yourself back into the moment. You just can’t believe you’re that secure. He’ll do what he calls ‘elastic time,’ playing cycles within the cycles, like a metrical embodiment inside this rhythmic rush.

When I played with him, he was very open to the experiments we were doing with the M-BASE Collective. His band was the best laboratory for me. Gary Thomas or I would make what we thought was a mis-step, but Jack would say, ‘That was some bad shit; keep that in there.’ That let me know he was listening, and I had license to stretch. He embodies the spirit of somebody who wants to know about everything; he’s probably the most curious person I’ve ever met. We’d be out on the road for six to eight weeks, and he’d carry a suitcase filled with hardcover books and cassettes. He’s always checking out different languages and cultures and folklore. It was like a furthering of my academic education, on-the-job training with somebody who was a professor of life and information.

JOHN ABERCROMBIE:

Jack sums up everything for me about jazz drumming—or just drumming in general. He can play audacious rock-and-roll; and he can play great open, free music; he can swing like mad; and when he feels like it, he WILL just lay down a beautiful time feel—there’s nothing that sounds and feels quite like that. To play with him is challenging and very abstract sometimes, but it always feels great, because he comes from how it feels and how it sounds, and not so much worried about WHAT he’s doing. When we recorded together in the ‘70s, his pieces were often very loose, but he also wrote very pretty songs that he liked to play on the piano, which became structured, with dense harmonic material, like things that I or someone like Ralph Towner was writing. I think we got along so well because we both liked to listen to everything. That’s why he can fit into any situation—he’s able to respond and get into what the music calls for, rather than just superimpose his thing on the music. Jack is very accepting. You don’t have to be the most killing musician, but if he hears something in your playing that he likes, he’ll play with you and make something out of it. I was a totally green kid when he found me, but he was open and brought me along into his little world.

DAVE HOLLAND:

In 1967, when I was still living in London, Jack was in town with Charles Lloyd. At the time, young musicians were using Ronnie Scott’s old place to do late night sessions, and I was there playing at 2 in the morning, my eyes closed, when suddenly I heard a change on the drums. It was Jack. It felt so easy, comfortable and familiar. We did a lot of playing together that month, and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Both of us had listened to and practiced with similar records—Coltrane’s Crescent and “Chasin’ the Trane,” We were working on the same ideas—the fast tempos, the relaxed, beautiful grooves that Elvin and Jimmy Garrison would set up. Perhaps that’s one reason why we hit it off so quickly, Jack brought his own set of parameters to the table. His understanding of harmony and melody helps him assimilate new music; I’ve seen him learn complex songs so quickly on recording sessions because he can recognize the form and changes right away.

When I came to New York in the summer of 1968 to start working with Miles, Jack and Lydia accommodated me at their small apartment in Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of people, which gave me a chance to get a foothold. He gave me a big opening in 1990, when he asked me to be part of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, which was a turning point in my career. We grew up in a time where we were inclusive about music, and both of us have stayed that way. We don’t consider categories to be limiting. Music is music, and we can use any aspect of it that feels creative.

ERIC HARLAND:

When you go to various drum festivals, Jack is the one drummer who brings something different every time, who isn’t afraid to have another drumset on stage and make music instead of a drum battle. He’s willing to play less for the sake of the music. Jack definitely has amazing technique, but he didn’t bog himself himself down with trying to be technically efficient. He’s not a classically-trained drummer, who uses a lot of finger technique, a lot of wrist, minimal arm movements. Early on, the way he held his sticks was unorthodox; I always wondered, “How is he playing that way?” But that’s how he taught himself. His musicality behind the piano and other melodic instruments helped him hear things that he forced out at the drumset. Drummers were always taught that in playing swing you need a washy cymbal, a loud cymbal that drives the band. Jack’s approach is closer to African music, where the cymbal is very dry, so it functions with the drums more like a unit. It’s like a mix between the rumbles of Elvin Jones and the clarity and back-and-forth skip from snare-to-bass drum of Roy Haynes, but more relaxed.

When you try to mimic drummers, you have to get into the body style, try to feel them as a person. When I try to pull off a little Jack, I notice that I have to become almost like a child. Which proves the innocence that you hear within his playing. He’s playing from a space that Herbie and them call ‘Why not?’—there is no right or wrong in music, and you can do anything you want. You can be supremely technical, or you can just be you.

GARY PEACOCK:

Playing with Jack is always an adventure. It’s always fresh. I love playing with him. There is this element called swing, which is undefinable, in some ways a lost art. Jack would refer to it as “lock”—when a bass player and drummer have a lock. It requires a total surrendering of whatever you think you are or whatever you think is going on, and you’re just there with a pulse of some kind—and when it’s swinging, the hair on the back of your neck comes up. He’s one of the few drummers that I can do that with forever and ever. There’s never a question about where Jack is when he’s playing. He’s always present. So many interesting nuances come out of that. He doesn’t trot out what he knows. He’s just there with the music, and he uses his array of drums and cymbals in a unique, intuitive way that’s always musical. He’s always adding something, playing the harmony. It’s amazing how he can bring a ballad to life with one little sound, You’re like ‘how the hell did that happen? How did he know?’ I don’t even think he knew. He was just responding. But it was absolutely perfect. You can’t learn that. You have to forget about yourself altogether. You have to be totally committed to the music. Can’t be about anything else.

SIDEBAR:

The piano is Jack DeJohnette’s oldest musical friend, but it’s been a while since he played it as much as he does on Sound Travels—he bookends the recital with two unaccompanied improvisations, uses it to dialogue with Bobby McFerrin and Quintero on “Oneness” (from the 1996 ECM date of that title), and both coheres and blends into the flow throughout.

DeJohnette began taking lessons at five from a private piano teacher, got more serious in mid-teens, and was working with a trio around Chicago’s South Side by the end of high school. He cites Ahmad Jamal’s famous Live At the Pershing: But Not For Me as a seminal influence, both for Jamal’s orchestrative approach to the piano, but also for Vernell Fournier’s brushwork. He also dug Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly, and local pianists Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace, and Muhal Richard Abrams; as the ‘60s progressed, he also got into Herbie Hancock, a neighborhood friend from teen years.

“I had a trio [Scotty Holt on bass; Harold Jones, Steve McCall, or Arthur McKinney on drums] that played tunes like ‘Empyrean Isles’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ and the pieces off of But Not For Me,” he says. “I did standards and originals, and learned how to interact with a rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist. The piano is a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. It’s like an orchestra, and I can translate that to my drumming—the way I tune the instrument, the way I hear cymbals.”

On Sound Travels, DeJohnette observes, “I’m using the piano to be of the fullest service to the music, not to show off what I can do. I’m not in competition with all the great piano players I play with. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like. In the future, I’d like to study and get some more knowledge and theory and harmony—get that done.”

 

In Conversation with Jack deJohnette  (April 18, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com

“I’ve always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist,” Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. “Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer, most recently on the CD Music, We Are [Kindred Rhythm], as pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patitucci title their equilateral triangle-oriented trio, which performed in April at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Seated before a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated an electronic sampler and his own customized bells, and also playing melodica, DeJohnette propelled the flow with an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project, with Jerome Harris on guitar, for which DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music “that needed guitar and six-string banjo,” Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of the Afro-Iberian diaspora—several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a unit called the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman, and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, on which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-‘70s group Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 partner with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds, which he assimilates, digests, and incorporates into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflected in 2005. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.”

 

TP: We were speaking how you handle this group. Have you been playing at all since 2005, when you did the Birdland gig that inaugurated this band?

JDJ: We played for the first time as a trio in Panama, the Panama Jazz Festival.

TP: Right. At Birdland, Jerome Harris was playing guitar.

JDJ: We’d played as a group with Jerome in Europe. So we had the experience of playing the three of us together. This kind of thing, with the grooves we get, was happening, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we talked about it, and put aside some time, and last February everybody came up, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. Of course, we had a great producer, Mirav Ozeri, who we asked to come and film the process. She did a great job—the interviewing, and asked great questions, the editing, and putting it together. We worked together on that.

TP: That’s the DVD that comes in the package.

JDJ: Yes. I think Danilo and John both talk about when how we all play together, the music has a level of quality, and also a risk-taking thing. They feel like they can take off and do different things that they don’t do in other situations than with me, because I’ve kind of got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. So even when you play abstract, there is some kind of connection. There is some kind of groove even you can’t kind of 1-2-3-4. There is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection.

TP: There’s also a lot of color.

JDJ: Absolutely.

TP: You don’t usually hear Danilo playing synth-keyboard.

JDJ: Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we’re not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion…

TP: John Patitucci also uses the six-string electric bass. A few years ago, you told me that you’d written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish sound, and you were hearing John and Danilo’s sound with that. Is that the base on which the next…

JDJ: No. It’s taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There’s plenty of room, even when it’s busy. So there’s lots of space, and each night the music is totally different, so we take different approaches to it, and we’re not afraid to follow where it might go, and we have a great time! The other thing about the group is that it connects with its audience, in the sense that we can connect with each other facially, and also our audience. So there’s this rapport that connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there’s a lot of smiles and stuff going on between us. So it’s like an intimate thing that’s shared, and it comes back from the audience.

TP: You played on Danilo’s first record. Is that where you and he met? Did you know him before?

JDJ: I knew of him, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Gonzalo, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

TP: How do you mean that?

JDJ: Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors and all of that. But it inspired him, in a way, to develop certain things. Certain things that he’s playing now came about when we were touring with Jerome in Europe, this way of… This sort of multi-directional pulling, with John playing in one direction, I’m playing in another one, and Danilo pulling two or three ways, but we all know where are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.

TP: Compression-and-release.

JDJ: Yeah. It’s like breathing. It’s fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it’s boring.

TP: I seem to recall you remarking that you first played with John in ‘96 or ‘97.

JDJ: The first time we played together was with Eugene Pow, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I was familiar with John through his work with Chick Corea, so I was excited to get the opportunity to play with him. I said to him, “Hey, man, you and Danilo sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.” I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

TP: Before that, they played with Roy Haynes.

JDJ: Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

TP: In 2005, when this group launched, you were in the middle of presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Quartet, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez… I’d like to ask the present status of these projects. There was the duo with Foday Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix thing with your son-in-law, Ben Surman. Last November, you did a month with a group of…was it African musicians?

JDJ: Yes. I actually did it at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritani, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abbar. She’s like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but most of the time it’s a desert, it’s very hot, no electricity… At any rate, he met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn’t do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She had a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She’s amazing. She’s like a goddess there. This soulful African-Moroccan-sort of Mali-ish… She’s got a lot of things. She’s powerful, man. She’s got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights there at the museum.

TP: That’s great to hear about. I was thinking of a month-long tour in Europe last November that’s on your website.

JDJ: This performance with Dimi Mint Abbar happened in March. The project you’re talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino in it, Jerome Harris, a couple of British horn players, Brian Waller on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small groups—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She’s from South Africa, from Johannesburg, and she’s amazing. I heard her in London. We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. So I heard Sibongile at the London Jazz Festival, and when I heard her I thought, “Oh, man, I want to play with her.” She’s amazing. She has this classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. Amazing. It’s like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. She’s very much into dynamics. She’d written some pieces. That first band had Danilo in it, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I’d like to do it at some point. It’s a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she’s going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody’s availability. Of course, I’m still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I’m working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczinski on guitar… In the horn section, I’d have Don Byron here, but if I go to Europe I’d have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

TP: Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

JDJ: That’s changed. I want to play some more of my music. That’s something I feel the need to do. Also, I want to write some new music. It’s fun playing my music! That’s the other part of it. I haven’t been writing prolifically for a while, so that’s coming back. The juices are flowing for that.

TP: In the ‘90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That’s not so much in the picture these days, is it.

JDJ: Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they’re struggling with that.

TP: As are you.

JDJ: Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. This release is really… We knew it was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more.

TP: This group?

JDJ: Yes, but also a group led by me. Hopefully, we’ll do some more things with the Music, We Are Trio.

TP: As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Frisell, and your New Age record, which you received a Grammy nomination for. I’m sure you’ve sold a ton of units…

JDJ: No, not yet. But it’s definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

TP: But one thing that occurred to me in observing how John and Danilo interact with you was what sort of people are best-suited to play with you. You’re a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You’re a force. What sort of people are you looking for to play with?

JDJ: I’m looking for people like Dave Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris, people who are not afraid to take chances and are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances, and like to interact. Because I always need…I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don’t know about themselves. That’s the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that’s stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Then, certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different things. Type of colors, different types of concepts.

TP: I’d like to ask you about your drumming, aspects of your personality on the drumkit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, what they call your “dry” snare sound that’s your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drumkit, how your identity developed, how it’s evolved over the years. It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you’d want to respond.

JDJ: Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I’m a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drumset is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. And I develop my own cymbals also, and the bells you saw that were there. So I’m always searching for ways to enhance the color. One of the things I like to develop, and I’m still working on it, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I’m playing, there’s a touch, a lightness to it, an uplifting spirit that happens. So the cymbals, again, are like the icing on the cake basically. I hear all kinds of colors and tones. And the sticks… The sticks create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives more of a tribal sound to the drum—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum sometimes can overshadow the rest of the band, because it’s got these wire snares underneath, and they just resonate when you put them on. So it gives more clarity when I don’t use the snare drum. But when I do use the snare drum, it’s pretty crisp. I just the hear the instrument as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar…

TP: At least this week, you’re using a huge kit.

JDJ: That’s the kit I always use.

TP: How many pieces?

JDJ: An 8-piece kit.

TP: Not including the cymbals.

JDJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t count those as a drumkit.

TP: So it’s drums-and-cymbals.

JDJ: Yes, I’ve been doing that for a while. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

TP: How did that evolve? In the ‘60s you weren’t using so many components.

JDJ: No. But that came maybe in the ‘70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it’s just more colors. There’s just two smaller drums, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drumset. So yeah, I love having those extra colors?

TP: Are beats colors as well as pitches?

JDJ: Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they’re played.

TP: I also wanted to ask you a bit more about your tuning system. How did it develop, and why did it take the shape it did?

JDJ: I try to tune the kit so it’s in a range that doesn’t clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abbar, I actually had tuned to a G dominant VII scale, so that it would be tuned… Because they sing in the same key all the time. So I’ll change the tuning for that. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I’ll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

TP: How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

JDJ: Not enough. I haven’t been doing that enough. Although with this group, I’m playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that in terms of writing, for writing new compositions, and I use the piano to write.

TP: Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

JDJ: It is. It’s still my friend.

TP: Your bio states that you started playing it at 5?

JDJ: Around 5, yes.

TP: What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

JDJ: I had a piano teacher come by.

TP: You had a facility for it?

JDJ: Well, I had a piano.

TP: Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

JDJ: I didn’t get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about your roots in Chicago, and discuss some of the information that’s on your site, which I can link to. There’s a photo of you as a little kid with a toy saxophone. Can you tell me where that picture is from?

JDJ: That was at the Pershing. That’s the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did “But Not For Me,” Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. I believe I was 7 or 8, and this was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing…I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I’m 7 years old. “How the hell did they know that?!” I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, “Look at this kid, he’s 7 years old, and he’s playing—he’s listening to the record.” So that’s what that was. I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

TP: Getting that feedback from grownups.

JDJ: Wow. They must have been like, “Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.”

TP: You also wrote on the site that your mother is the author of “Stormy Monday.”

JDJ: So she says. She sold the tune for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. “Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.” Then they’d put their name on them.

TP: Was she involved in music at all?

JDJ: No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

TP: So your uncle was the inspiration.

JDJ: My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

TP: At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

JDJ: When I was a teenager. About 16.

TP: What was making you think that?

JDJ: I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. Then I knew… It was something I was really good at it, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

TP: As a pianist, were you playing in the Ahmad Jamal style? Were you emulating him primarily?

JDJ: When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner’s stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who’s still around. Billy Wallace.

TP: He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter ‘50s.

JDJ: Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

TP: Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

JDJ: Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

TP: Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

JDJ: Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. But Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like “One Finger Snap” and “Empyrean Isles.”

TP: Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

JDJ: I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist, and I’ll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

TP: Was your trio Scott Holt and Steve McCall?

JDJ: Yeah, actually it was. That was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty also. You know Harold, right?

TP: He played with Ellington.

JDJ: Yes, but he also was the drummer on Eddie Harris’ Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with Eddie. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep’s in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

TP: Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington’s husbands.

JDJ: He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because they wanted Eddie’s band to play for her—she came with no band. So Eddie said, “Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.” The guy didn’t want to cough up what he had. Some Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, “Yeah, by the railroad tracks…” — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, “I might get a band together; maybe I’ll call you.” But she never did!

TP: So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you’ve put it, Eddie Harris steered towards concentrating on drums.

JDJ: He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I’d be more successful at it—and as it turned out he was right. When I came to New York in ‘64 or ‘65, I went up to Minton’s, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, “Hey, man, you got a set of drums.” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, you got a gig.” That’s when I decided, “Ok, I’m going to make drums be my main instrument.”

TP: What brought you to New York?

JDJ: Of course! It was the mecca.

TP: Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

JDJ: I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, “Ok, let me out of here.” Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton’s before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

TP: Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM. Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig…

JDJ: No-no, I was right in it. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal formed…he got a charter to form it. I was there when the whole thing started, and he found the building. We had the AACM Orchestra. Out of that orchestra… First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, another guy named James Willis. We used to actually go… Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn’t like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. But Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other’s house every day. I’d go to his house, or he’d come to my house, and we’d play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say “free”… I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

TP: They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

JDJ: Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

TP: You’ve also related a certain time when Coltrane came to Chicago and you were able to sit in.

JDJ: Yes. I’d been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh’s, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn’t return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I’d played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, “Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he’s a good drummer.” John said, “Ok,” and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

TP: Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

JDJ: No. It was the first time for that.

TP: Was it a transformative moment for you?

JDJ: Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energetic level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I’m happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

TP: It’s interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith—you’re the only one who went to New York at the time.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Which is apropos of nothing. But as a speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid ‘60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

JDJ: Maybe. I don’t know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

TP: You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton’s, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you go out with Charles Lloyd, which brings you onto another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

JDJ: Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that’s where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver. The musicians around at the time were Henry Grimes, Cecil McBee lived on 10th Street… It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles Tolliver was very influential; we became close friends and musical constituents. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, “When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you’re going to get a call from Jackie.” I’d gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn’t even remember me…

Anyway, it was great, man! There was just music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. But I was freelancing. I think I worked some with Betty Carter, with John Hicks and Cecil McBee. I remember we played a concert at Harout’s, and then I played a concert with Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz and Hicks and Cecil McBee.

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter…was it Pete LaRoca on drums… But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then I was playing with Charles, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was playing, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I’d worked with Cecil with Jackie McLean, I recommended him. He asked me about pianists, and I’d heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. So that became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon’s Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

TP: Being in New York, you’re all of a sudden in first-hand contact with all the drummers you’d been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony. Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You’ve mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then…

JDJ: No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Coltrane worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music. We can talk about the electric movement later.

TP: When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who was someone who deeply analyzed and emulated what other drummers did, or were the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that…

JDJ: More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. You can hear… I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations… The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble as well as solos. I’m not an analytical player. I’m more an intuitive player, really.

TP: But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

JDJ: Well, yeah. But the process is… That sort of happens in the instant that I’m creating something. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.” I just take it in.

TP: Were you a big practicer?

JDJ: Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity, playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could…you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers that was called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it’s kept me working all of these years.

TP: You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

JDJ: Yes. That’s something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it’s very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience of playing with Keith… If you look at my history, I’ve done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

TP: You joined Miles Davis in 1969, and you played with him for two years—‘69, ‘70, and ‘71.

JDJ: Well, ‘70. I came back in ‘71 to play one or two gigs with him.

TP: Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

JDJ: Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band, yeah, that changed… It changed before I joined him, really. So I was already set up for that, between Elvin and Tony. Miles and Jackie McLean both had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, “Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummer.” Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He’d heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that, they had to set up. “Ok, now you’ve got to set this way…” If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It’s in the rhythm.

TP: Did you box yourself?

JDJ: No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn’t want to get into it.

TP: You have to keep your hands safe.

JDJ: Yeah. No-no, I don’t want to mess with that. But I’m big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the… When guys are evenly matched, I like that. There’s a good match coming up, actually, with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Coming up on May 2nd. If you wait a week, you can watch it on HBO.

TP: Correct me if I’m wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new area of music that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix, and that he was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles’ music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I’m paraphrasing it correctly.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles’ music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

JDJ: One of the things Miles was trying… I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.

TP: You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn’t present for.

JDJ: Yeah. Because you can hear the development of it. Each night it was different. But Miles liked it because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I’d want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that’s what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that’s what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we’d already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

TP: there’s a difference in a music as nuanced as jazz between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-a-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

JDJ: Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there. Charles is doing ok now. He made a comeback. I heard him a few years ago in Turkey doing something with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And his group now with Jason Moran is nice.

TP: What’s also interesting is that you were so known for your deep grooves and energy, and then as the ‘70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through people like Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

JDJ: I think it was… Manfred Eicher had this vision; he’s a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, whether it be jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophone before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world…

TP: You were on so many sessions in the ‘70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

JDJ: Those recordings with Miles… Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, and extended that kind of creativity. He really heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. But as a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It’s been very valuable, even to this day.

TP: Talk about the ways in which it’s valuable.

JDJ: Well, it’s left a legacy of recordings that I did there, that are still relevant, still important recordings and…

TP: Did the experience refine your sense of playing the drumkit? Sometimes there’s a feedback loop with your production. As a musician or as a writer, you produce something, you see it, it might have some residual impact on what you do the next time, and you build on things incrementally. I’m wondering if the process of making those ECM records then had any sort of impact on your conception both of the drumkit and yourself as a musician, a composer or pianist. I’d also like to talk a bit about the evolution of your identity as a leader.

JDJ: I would say in that sense, yes, hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing, how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only by the sound quality, but what the musicians…the music that we were doing. People like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then my records as a leader, Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refining. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works… To learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You really have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don’t ring a lot. Because concert halls can tend to be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they’re made of, what type of walls and so on. So that also had an effect on me. I took consciously the idea of playing music in concert halls and bigger halls like that, learning how to adjust my playing. You asked me about being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that’s something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

TP: Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, it changes tonally—Lester Bowie was playing with you, and it became more abstract… I’d like to talk about why different groups took the tonal identity they did? Do you hear possibilities maybe a few years ahead and work towards them? Do you react to circumstances and respond to that with different personnel? I’m just trying to get to why different bands take on the personalities they take on.

JDJ: Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

TP: I seem to remember a concert at the Public Theater that Julius Hemphill played.

JDJ: He filled in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing, man. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, which when I go to universities and do orchestras, I take these charts. He really did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I’ve had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and Mick Goodrick, who was phenomenal.

TP: A very different sound with that band.

JDJ: Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio-Visual Scapes, Extra Special Edition. I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players, and then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

TP: It’s interesting how you’ve stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

JDJ: Yes. We can talk about that on my label, Golden Beams, on which we’ve got Foday Suso, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, to remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is just light years ahead of anybody else I’ve heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He’s a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We’re going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that’s a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

TP: When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

JDJ: Well, world music has always been there since the ‘60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records. Hamzel Al-Bin(?). I was listening to that.

TP: Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side…

JDJ: There was a lot of it going on. But I didn’t get into it til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. So that came a little later. But the Afro-Cuban thing, I really got into it, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez. I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That’s what I like about playing with Danilo…or also Gonzalo…but Danilo and John. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. Because I like to dance. We like to move. That’s why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

TP: Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions.

JDJ: He’s a great teacher.

TP: But you’ve told me that you more take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

JDJ: Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things which, independence-wise on the drumset, influence Danilo. Danilo says, “Man, you were doing that.” I said, “Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.” In other words, we’re feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we’ll discuss it, we’ll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. “Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let’s try this and this.” So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn’t get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that…

TP: Well, it is intellectual, but it’s intellectual because of the nature of what it is, not out of some intention you place upon it.

JDJ: Well, yes.

TP: Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your career as a professional musician, which spans about fifty years, you’ve been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you’ve been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want to live. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock…

JDJ: Oh, I love it.

TP: Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

JDJ: No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with the climate today, the way it is, I expect there will be some challenges in the years to come. But I’m trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favorable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

TP: But with your own label, you’ve also made the transition to being an entrepreneur, as many musicians have done, and you seem to have put together a pretty good business model.

JDJ: Well, the business model is the result of my wife, Lydia, and her ability to… She’s a better business person than I. I’m very grateful to her, and also for her ability to pick the right people to run the label. Jane Chun and Doug Yoel from Now-Forward Music have been great as label manager. Jane is now a co-manager as well. So we’ve all developed and created a business situation which we feel very good about. We’re still learning how to make it be more successful, and I plan to work towards attaining that goal.

TP: Could you give me a couple of minutes to talk about the Creative Music Studio and your experiences with it? Were you pretty involved in it in the ‘70s?

JDJ: Well, yeah. I mean, of course, because I had a name, and so it drew students to it. That’s one of the good things that came out of it. Sometimes it was kind of loosely put together. But it brought together some very interesting musicians. People like Cecil Taylor came up and did concerts, and we had people like Aïyb Dieng, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Walcott…

TP: Did that influence your own absorption of world music and beats and grooves from different cultures?

JDJ: Well, yeah. Oregon, which was on the label. Oregon still is quite a world music cooperative group. It was up near Woodstock, and Karl Berger and his wife had this idea for a school, and a lot of people came from all over the world. Since then, a student has written a book about it. It was really very interesting. I think it set up an environment to bring a lot of musicians together from different parts of the world, to work together and also pass on their knowledge to students. It’s become sort of a cult icon, you know, or a cultural situation that people look back on like something special. There were times when they were struggling financially, so my wife, Lydia, and a group of other people put together a benefit concert, which I think came out as a DVD, a Creative Music Festival with Braxton, Chick, Colin Walcott, me and John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Lee Konitz.

[PAUSE]

JDJ: Chicago used to be a very stimulating musical place. In fact, people who were going to New York would come up from St. Louis, or Indiana (like Freddie), would come to Chicago, and then go to New York. There was a lot of music happening. It was a music town. There’s still a lot of music there. Joe Segal is doing his Jazz Showcase.

TP: But it seems that Chicago had a certain musical personality of its own apart from New York. It didn’t seem to rely so much on New York for musical models.

JDJ: Well, yeah. First of all, you’ve got to talk about the environment and the city’s rhythm. Chicago rhythm, Midwest rhythm is more laid back than New York. So you had more spaces, it’s more laid-out. But it doesn’t mean that the musicians who came out of there were all necessarily laid-back. Johnny Griffin, Herbie, me, Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. Ira Sullivan, who spent a lot of time there. Ira was a pretty phenomenal guy. I played with him when I was a youngster, then I went back to the Showcase and played with him. In fact, I have recordings of the Showcase with him and Von, with Jodie Christian. In fact, now that I think about it, those are historic recordings, because Jodie now has MS and it’s hard for him to play. He doesn’t go out much. But I have these recordings of Ira and Von—we’re doing standard tunes.

Now, we should talk about Wilbur Campbell, because he’s one of the legends of Chicago.

TP: Four years ago, you mentioned that he influenced you greatly, and Miles made the comment about you falling up the stairs.

JDJ: Right. Wilbur was that kind of drummer. I mean, he was a swing drummer. He played bebop really, really well, and he played marimbas—he knew harmony. Wilbur was an influence on me, in what they call…Danilo calls it “the washing machine.” Don Byron calls it this swirly, rolly kind of thing that’s not necessarily metric, but it’s really very abstract. Wilbur was the first cat I ever heard play that way in Chicago. He’d play some fours, he’d play this concept and you didn’t know whether he was going to get out of it.

TP: People say that Ike Day played like that.

JDJ: I never heard him, and there’s no recordings of him playing full-out.

TP: That stacked-rhythms approach seems to be the way he approached it, though.

JDJ: Fortunately, there are recordings on Delmark with Wilbur on them. There was another drummer named Dorel Anderson, who’s on Live at the Birdhouse. But Wilbur was special. Wilbur was like the Edgar Bateman of Chicago. Edgar’s another one who was a really unusual drummer. The same with Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith. Had some totally different stuff happening. So Wilbur I’d say was a real big influence on me in the sense of what you could play, how you could stretch 4 bars or 8 bars. I’d advise anyone to listen to those Delmark records by Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

Then there was another great guy from Chicago, who if he’d left Sun Ra might have given John Coltrane some problems, was John Gilmore. Gilmore had that ability, if he’d been in another situation and not stayed with Sun Ra, and been pushed and taken on being a leader… He obviously didn’t want to be a leader, because he stayed.

TP: It didn’t seem to be his personality.

JDJ: No. But he had something special..

TP: Then there was Wilbur Ware, another one-of-a-kind…

JDJ: Yes. Then the other bassist was Raphael Garrett, who had this unique way of playing rhythmically—and soulful. He was great. He moved to Seattle later, and he started making flutes and playing the bass.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_
Jack DeJohnette (Downbeat Readers Poll 2005 Article):

“I’ve got just one more project to tell you about,” says Jack DeJohnette, capping a conversation about the staggeringly diverse activity of his seventh decade.

At 63, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. He intends to document as many projects as possible on his imprint label, Golden Beams, which he launched in early 2005 with Music In The Key Of Om, a solo drums, cymbals and tuned bells recital intended, in DeJohnette’s words, “to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and get rid of stress.” In short order, he released Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, a set of improvisations with kora virtuoso and griot singer Foday Musa Suso. He followed up in October with Hybrids, on which sound engineer Ben Surman, DeJohnette’s son-in-law, layers Techno, Reggae and African grooves onto four Suso-DeJohnette tracks and three tracks by Brazilian singer Martui Miranda.

“Foday and I mix Africa with the African-American jazz sensibility,” DeJohnette says. “It’s light and buoyant, not weighty. We’re interested in breaking out of the groove while still respecting it. We inspire each other, and our chemistry grows every time we get together. Foday gets free, and starts flying; a lot of traditional kora players would have no idea what he is doing. He has his own technique, which borders on jazz improvisation.

“Ben kept the integrity of the original tracks and made new stories out of them. Hybrids moves us into areas like remixes, special club mixes, and outlets like electronica. But where a lot of remixes are looped and repetitive, these are soundscapes that tell stories and change in surprising ways, with a great balance between acoustic and electronica. I think it raised the bar of artistic meaning.”

To raise the bar or push the envelope—choose your cliche—is the mantra of Golden Beams, which has in the pipeline a 2001 duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell and a percussion discussion with Don Alias. These are the latest in a distinguished line of DeJohnette duos that include Ruta and Daita [ECM], a now-classic 1971 encounter with Keith Jarrett; Zebra, a 1985 worldbeat dialogue with Lester Bowie; and Invisible Nature [ECM], a hair-raising 2002 virtual concert with DeJohnette’s brother-in-law, John Surman, the English baritone and soprano saxophone master.

“You’re exposed in the one-on-one setting, and you hear differently,” DeJohnette says of his fondness for the format. “As with John, Bill and I used electronics—pre-recorded ambient things and my Roland Hand-Sonic percussion module—to get a bigger sound. Even though it’s two people, you’re still an orchestra.”

Recording duos is an efficient way for DeJohnette “get the label off the ground with projects that are doable both artistically and financially.” However, he emphasizes, “the label is meant to document new directions—although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path. I’ve always been curious about doing different things, like an alchemist. Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

Speaking of hybrids, DeJohnette recently has focused on grafting various Afro-Hispanic strains. As an example, he cites a quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris, who first convened in January 2005 at Manhattan’s Birdland, and will tour for a November fortnight. “I wrote some Andalusian-influenced music that needed guitar and 6-string banjo, which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting,” he relates. “We’ll record the live gigs and see what comes out.”

A member of DeJohnette’s late ‘90s ensemble with Alias and keyboardist Michael Cain, Harris, who will triangulate DeJohnette’s 2006 performances with Suso, performed on two DeJohnette concerts this year with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, an association which DeJohnette plans to nurture. Also to be released on Golden Beams is the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove.

Uniting DeJohnette’s flights of fancy is a “universal one” concept that he began to codify while playing drums with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1971. He draws beats from African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, aboriginal, and Near Eastern sources, processes them from the perspective of his own deep roots in jazz and funk, and incorporates them within the flow of his compositions and improvisations. He emphasizes that he doesn’t study the metric systems in a systematic manner. “I can certainly analyze, but I pick things up almost through osmosis, from listening, from the feeling,” DeJohnette says. “I tune the drums to different pitches of the intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, maybe a chord—so that whenever I’m accompanying or soloing I can build a motif or a melody.”

DeJohnette recontextualizes more familiar territory—specifically cusp-of-the-‘70s fusion a la Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis—on a forthcoming recording by Trio Beyond, a partnership with John Scofield and Larry Goldings that formed during a week at Yoshi’s in February 2004. For an-depth look at how DeJohnette found fresh solutions to merging populist and esoteric vocabularies back in the day, hear the crisply executed machine gun shuffles, polyrhythms, and rubato sound-painting that he contributes to a series of never-issued performances by Miles’ blues-fueled, psychedelic jukejoint band with Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, and Keith Jarrett on The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970. DeJohnette and Jarrett play with uncanny intuition and sensitivity, as they have done for the ensuing 35 years, not least during a 22-year association in Jarrett’s acoustic trio with Gary Peacock.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflects. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.

“The ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected keeps Keith’s trio interesting. Usually we just sit down and see what happens. That’s the whole idea of improvisation—always be prepared to play what you don’t know.”

 

Jack DeJohnette (Sept. 27, 2005) — Downbeat Readers Poll:

TP: Let’s talk about why you formed the new label.

JACK: I’m involved in lots of musical projects. One specifically that I’ve been involved with, and it just turns out that it comes up that way, is duo projects, which consequently I’ve done some duo projects for a number of years with John Surman. Over 15 years, we’ve done 2 CDs — well, three. Two duet records, and one bigger…

TP: One is London Brass from 2003, and the second duo was from 2000, Mysterium.

JACK: Right. At any rate, then I did a duet project with…a concert with Bill Frisell, which we’ll get into later. And Foday Musa Suso.

TP: I’ve just been watching the promotional DVD for that from Montreal 2003. Very inspiring.

JACK: Thank you. Foday is very inspiring and a very innovative kora player and griot and singer. I first became aware of him with Herbie’s duo project with him in 1984, on a record called The Village. Over a period of time, I’ve followed Foday’s development. He had his own group, the Mandingo Griot Society, and did some things on Bill Laswell’s label, Axiom. I always wanted to hook up with him, and the opportunity came when we met in London. He had this idea of just doing kora and jazz drums. He didn’t want to sing, because he really wanted to put the kora as a lead instrument. That in itself is unusual, but then with me he came up here to the house a few years ago, and we spent four days, I think—a couple of days jamming, and then went in the studio. In two days, we had all this material. Right away, we had this rapport like we’d been playing together for a few lifetimes. Since then we’ve done a European tour, and we did some playing at Joe’s Pub, and we’re going to be doing a tour next year. But at any rate, the art of the duo—there’s that project, the Hearts of the Masters. Then I have a little project that will be coming out sometime next year which is with percussionist Don Alias and myself.

TP: You did a video with him as well.

JACK: Yes. That’s called Talking Drummers. That has a forward by Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. It’s on Homespun. But we’re going to tie in these…

TP: How do you see this label vis-a-vis the other recording projects that you do? Is this for special things that might not otherwise find an outlet? For particular areas of your activity?

JACK: It’s doing projects—closer to your first point. Closer to projects that are artistically doable and financially doable. That’s why we’re doing smaller projects, just to get the label off the ground. But it’s also a unique thing, doing projects that are just different… Or different in some ways to me, although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path and doing interesting and different things. But I like to do things that captivate the listeners and inspire them, as well as other musicians.

TP: It seems to me that these projects take you in a different space than your jazz projects — to use the term broadly. Just these few. It’s not the way you play with the Keith Jarrett Trio or the way you played with Special Edition or with Danilo and John Patitucci. It’s a different orientation towards the beat and the groove and so on. It seems so to me, though it may be a superficial impression.

JACK: Well, the Foday duo is definitely interested in the groove, but also breaking out of it while still respecting the groove at the same time.

TP: That’s sort of what you did with Miles, too, isn’t it.

JACK: Mmm-hmm.

TP: You make that comment on the DVD.

JACK: Yes, it’s a similar thing. It’s a way of honoring tradition but also moving out of the tradition to something totally new and different.

TP: That’s really been your focus since you emerged on the scene, from the records with Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and Miles, of course… You’ve been able to find spaces in which to apply that notion throughout your career. It’s either luck or circumstance, but something tells me it’s not just luck.

JACK: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just always interesting… I’ve always been curious. Curious about doing different things. Like an alchemist trying different things. The music seems to be… Different genres of music seem to be cross-pollinating more now than they have been before. I mean, they always have been, but I think the rate of that is speeded up now.

TP: Do you think there are more people oriented to that now?

JACK: Yeah, I think so. I think that it isn’t jazz musicians. It’s much broader than that. I think a jazz sensibility… For instance, what Foday and I bring to this music is the African and the African-American jazz sensibility. You know what I mean? I think it’s stated in a clear way between us. It’s not straight-ahead, but it has elements of funk in it and grooves in it. But it’s light. It’s not weighty. It’s buoyant.

TP: You get that counting and not-counting thing at the same time. The groove is so stated, but he also talks about how when he’s in Africa he doesn’t count. And somehow, the two of you are able to able to access both qualities.

JACK: Right. He trusts me. He knows that I’ll come up with something and play something. If he plays something, I’ll find something to play with it. And when we improvise, man, I tell you, when we played at Joe’s Pub… Foday surpasses himself and we both kind of inspire each other. I mean, he comes up with things that he really gets free, and he just starts flying. I’ll tell you, some of that stuff a lot of the traditional kora players would have no idea of what he is doing. But he’s got his own technique, and it borders on jazz improvisation.  So the chemistry between he and I grows tremendously every time we get together. The beautiful thing about it is we don’t have to go into deep discussions about it. We can get right to the core of it.

TP: You’ve utilized African beats, you’ve utilized Afro-Cuban beats, you’ve utilized Indian beats, you’ve utilized beats from all over the world within the flow of your compositions and your groups. Have you studied those beats and metric systems in a systematic manner, or do you kind of improvise-learn them, pick things up and react intuitively?

JACK: Exactly. The second statement is more accurate.

TP: Sorry to give you these multiple choice questions.

JACK: No, it is more like that. I pick these things up almost through osmosis, from listening to the music, not by trying to analyze it. I can do that, but it’s the feeling of it. What does that feel like? I use my jazz sensibility or broad perspective of jazz sensibility and apply it to a composition or an improvisation.

TP: Another project, which you’ll be touring with in November, is the band with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris. How did that one come together?

JACK: Well, Danilo, as you know, is one of the premier Latin artists who has really made a stamp from the Latin American expression on the jazz scene. He hasn’t been afraid to use his roots to expand the jazz horizons or capabilities of music. But he’s also able to stay in tune with the tradition and move outside of it. Jerome has played with Danilo and I, and the trio, and basically Danilo… So we have a rapport with Jerome and Danilo. Then I had this idea. I’d written some Spanish-influenced music, or Andalusian music, and I wanted to have guitar and 6-string banjo, and Jerome plays guitar and he plays a few other string instruments, and he got a 6-string banjo. So I wrote this music which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting. Then John Patitucci, who is really well-versed in Afro-Cuban music and funk music, and is very broad, as well as having a really great feel and is a joy to play with… I wanted to do this with this quartet, with this group, because I felt the chemistry would come out and generate the vision I had for the music. We did a week at Birdland last January, and that was so good.

TP: How did the music evolve over the week? It’s such an interactive trio, and I suppose John and Danilo after four years with Wayne Shorter have the notion of exploding form in their bones!

JACK: Yeah, there’s a natural affinity we have. Each night got better and better actually. So now we’re going to be going for two weeks, playing pretty much every night. We’ll record the live gigs and we’ll see what comes out.

TP: Now you have the flexibility because of the label, should…

JACK: Yes, I have that. Whether it’s become a case of bigger projects… A case in point. There’s this cooperative project that I have with John Scofield and Larry Goldings, which we call Trio Beyond. Originally it was to celebrate Tony Williams, but we decided that Trio Beyond would… You know, I don’t want to be stuck with it having to be just Tony. But it was a good launching pad, because we all had an affinity and love for Tony, who was a great master drummer and composer…

TP: Did it start as revisiting and reinterpreting the Lifetime repertoire?

JACK: Yes, it did.

TP: How did it evolve?

JACK: It came together because the wonderful Montreal Jazz Festival every year has an artist-in-residency, and a couple of years ago I was called for an artist-in-residency — actually the first percussionist to be called for it.

TP: Was that 2003, where the Foday Musa Suso performance DVD comes from?

JACK: Yes. So I did four nights there with different groups. One with Herbie, Dave and myself, another with Foday and myself. I actually wanted to have John and Larry, but they were busy! But everybody got so excited about the idea of it that I said, “Okay, let’s go into a club.” So in February 2004 we played a week at Yoshi’s, and the place was sold out every night. The music evolved and evolved, and got better and better. Then last fall we did a European tour, and that was amazing, just playing this music all the time. By the way, we’re not just playing Tony’s music. We’re playing Wayne’s music, Miles music, some of Larry Young’s music, and John McLaughlin’s music, and some of our own music as well, our own originals. So it’s pretty broad. But on that tour, we made a recording in Europe, and we hope to put it out next year, and we’re going to do the summer festivals in late June-July.

TP: It’s interesting, because that’s a project that takes you back not to your earliest roots, but to your first mature professional roots.

JACK: Oh, yeah.

TP: How does that feel from this perspective, 30 years later? You never really left it, but that’s a particular time and space you’re articulating there.

JACK: Yeah, except that the space we’re articulating is in the present, not in the past. So that’s the difference. So I’m looking at it from fresh eyes. I’m not looking at it from looking back.

TP: But let’s look at how the fresh eyes differ from looking back. I’m assuming you’ve probably spent some time listening to the Cellar Door recordings, as you gave some public commentary on it. How has Jack DeJohnette of 2005 evolved from the player of 1970-71?

JACK: Well, from there to now I guess I’m more refined to some degree, on the one hand, and much looser in another way. I’m having more fun with the music.

TP: More fun?

JACK: Yeah, more fun. I had fun with it then. But it’s being older. I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open. So it’s more joyful to me, playing music.

TP: That’s a wonderful thing. Has that been a continuous process? Have there been ebbs and flows with your enjoyment with music? Has there ever been a time when music wasn’t fun for you?

JACK: Not too much. But there were times when it was better than others. which is natural in the course of life, to have these ebbs and flows.

TP: What makes it more enjoyable now? Is it that you have more freedom to do whatever you want?

JACK: Yeah. Also, the kinds of things… Yes, that’s a good answer for it.

TP: May I quote myself, then? “I have more freedom to do whatever I want.” Was Tony Williams a very inspiring figure for you when you were a young guy? You’re actually older than him.

JACK: Yes, but we’re still contemporaries, about a three year difference. But yes, he was very inspirational.

TP: When did you first see him play?

JACK: I saw him in Chicago right after 7 Steps to Heaven came out. The things he was doing — his touch, his concept, it all was different. And his drive, the way he could drive the band was different. Also some of his sideman recordings and also some of his leader recordings — his compositions were happening. I saw the Lifetime band when they did their first gig at Count Basie’s in Harlem, and that was really incredible, to see the band playing that material live. It was fantastic.

TP: Who were the people you were paying attention to before Tony? I gather you weren’t fully decided that you were going to be a drummer until fairly late.

JACK: Yes. Well, I had at some point played both of them, and then I decided to make drums the main instrument. I was listening to Elvin and Roy Haynes actually, who is still one of my favorites, who is still, I’m happy to say, going strong in his eighties, getting more attention than ever — and deservedly so. Philly Joe Jones. Art Taylor was a guy I really liked, although I never tried to imitate him, but I loved what he did on a lot of those Blue Note and Prestige records.

TP: Any local drummers?

JACK: There was a drummer in Chicago named Art McKinney who was an influence on me. Vernell Fournier was also a big influence when I started playing drums as far as brushwork was concerned. And Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that kind of inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Up stairs. Not down.

TP: In some of your own publicity, you very much emphasize that you never put music into categories and are fascinated by diversity. It seems so characteristic of so many musicians who came out of Chicago, particularly during that post-war period up through the ’60s. Any speculations on why that is?

JACK: Well, I don’t know. I can speak only for myself. I was just drawn to all kinds of music as a kid. I listened on the shortwave radio we had to music coming from Europe. I didn’t know what it was, but I used to listen to County-and-Western music, Grand Ole Opry, gospel music, I listened to soul music… I was curious about it. I just never put it in the category. Of course, I was listening to jazz when I was 4 or 5 years old.

TP: Was the scene in Chicago conducive to nurturing that sort of attitude?

JACK: Yeah, it was pretty broad. There were all kinds of people. We had the AACM, and then you had the regular gigs that you did, and the outlet of the AACM… In fact, I was in Chicago for the Jazz Festival there, and the AACM Orchestra was there, which had a big group of musicians — three drummers, two bass players, singers, woodwinds, brass. Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were there as guest soloists. I was in it at the beginning, with Muhal Richard Abrams, who was also a great mentor to me and still is… He got the idea to create a viable outlet for musicians who were thinking differently and wanted to create a different language. That’s what came out of that, musicians who totally knew the tradition, but wanted to find another language to express their creative views. This was perfect for that. So Joseph, Malachi Favors, Roscoe, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, all those people were around then, and it was a very exciting time.

TP: Do you see yourself as in the same line of sensibility as those people? Do you see yourself as an AACM musician? Or did you go past it, in a way?

JACK: I think that’s all just part of who I am, part of my experience. I also was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, and also very often played with him in New York. It’s very broad. You could say I’m a potpourri of all of that.

TP: Eddie Harris was the one who convinced you to stick with drums and make it your main focus?

JACK: Yes, he suggested it. Then it was later that I decided to do that. He thought I played good piano, but he said I was a natural drummer, and that if I would stick with it, I would be more successful.

TP: He was a smart guy, wasn’t he, Eddie Harris.

JACK: Oh, he was a genius. Great guy. He played all the instruments. That’s what he said. “I play all the instruments, but I had to make saxophone my main instrument.” He had to do the same thing for himself. You have to decide.

TP: Let me ask about a few other collaborative projects. One is the Ivey-Divey record, which had a lot of acclaim, although I gather you’re not playing that gig any more.

JACK: But that doesn’t mean that if something comes up and I’m available, I won’t go out and do it.

TP: What was that project like for you?

JACK: Don and I are good friends. I love Don. He lives nearby. When we were talking about coming from that lineage, Don is extremely broad, and he has a penchant for investigating all kinds of genres of music and juxtaposing his spin on it, which is very interesting. He talked to me about this project in the sense of a great jazz trio, which was an original recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and Lester Young. He wanted to do something based on that, without a bass — although he did add a bass, Lonnie Plaxico, on a couple of tracks, and Ralph Alessi on a couple of tracks. But the primary premise was to do some of those songs that they did, but do them in the present. I think one of the reasons that came off so great is that Jason had planned to listen to that recording, but he never got around to it. Well, I think he listened to it afterwards. But it was good, because then he wasn’t pre-frontloaded about how to approach this concept. So when he got there he was fresh, and approached it with a fresh concept — his concept. As a result, it was a surprising feeling that took over the music, and it was received really enthusiastically by the critics and by the public.

TP: Now, you knew that Prez-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich record.

JACK: Yes.

TP: What was it like for you to deal with material that’s iconic? But I suppose it’s old hat for you to find fresh ways to deal with received information.

JACK: Yeah, but there are some nods to the way the drums were played in the period. Like, in the introduction, the solo I played on I Want To Be Happy, you hear that nod to that type of playing, the 4/4 on the bass drum, and playing the solo on the snare exclusively. So you’ve got to move in and out of it as the music calls for it. You have to be there right in the present with that music, and not try to duplicate what it came off before. Sort of somehow it’s going to come out anyway, the past, the present and the future, all in that instant.

TP: And you’re still touring with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, so I suppose that’s another major part of your activity, at least for when the band is touring.

JACK: Yes, it is.

TP: It’s scheduled for later this year and 2006, too.

JACK: There are some things scheduled for that. I’m going to be touring with Foday in the fall of next year — October. The duo now has actually become a trio, with Jerome on bass.

TP: Do you know Jerome from Sonny Rollins?

JACK: Yes, actually through Sonny and through him playing with a lot of other musicians around New York. He’s such a versatile player and creative musician that he’s in demand all the time, and I’m fortunate to get him in quite a few of my projects. I also have a Latin project which involves Jerome and Don Byron and Giovanni Hidalgo, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero. I’ve recorded that band professionally, and I just haven’t… It’s great. I have an abundance of projects. We have another one, but before I get to that, in regards to Jerome: He just is so supportive and great as a person. He adds so much to the music. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him.

TP: Does the Latin Project have a different book than your quartet with Danilo and John Patitucci?

JACK: The Latin Project involves music written by Don, Jerome, Edsel and myself.

TP: So it’s a more cooperative band?

JACK: In a sense. I mean, it’s my band, my project.

TP: Are you concerned with playing idiomatically on that band, in other words, with not breaking clave, or are you bringing your typical expansive approach to that music?

JACK: We’re doing both things. Somebody’s always holding it together. There are grooves going in there. What breaks that is when I’m soloing behind anybody else, or if Giovanni is soloing he’ll break out of just playing steady rhythms and get abstract. I’ve noticed that… We did 8 dates for Artist Presenters concerts earlier this year, and as the band progressed, the percussionists got looser. So we do work off of the clave, but a lot of the music is written as Latin, but no straight-ahead swing stuff. It’s more or less in the Latin vein, but the way we treat it is very different.

TP: Again, we have the serious deep groove and then the elaboration of that groove. It occurs to me that you’ve played with Keith Jarrett now for about forty years.

JACK: No, it’s about thirty.

TP: With Charles Lloyd…

JACK: It’s about 30 years. A little over 30.

TP: Miles at the Cellar Door was in ’70, and you played with Charles Lloyd before that.

JACK: That was the late ’60s.

TP: So 36-37 years. It’s in my mind because I’ve just been listening to the Cellar Door recordings, particularly the ones before John McLaughlin joined in, and checking out the interplay between you when he was playing those keyboards and how open and intuitive it was, and how imaginative it was. I’m wondering how the relationship has evolved and your mutual impact on each other. I don’t know if there’s anything to say about it…

JACK: Well, there’s not a lot to say about it except that you hear it in the music. It’s a trust of each other. It’s a continuation of… I guess it’s experience that we bring together… Also with Gary, too. But the experience that we bring to the music, no matter what it is we’re playing, and the ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected, that keeps it interesting for Keith and I and Gary to play together. We don’t have to talk a lot about the music. Maybe for tunes or about an arrangement for a piece. But most of it is we sit down and see what happens. That’s always the way it’s been?

TP: Is that what you like to have in all your projects, a sit down and see what happens kind of thing? After due preparation, of course.

JACK: Yes. Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole idea of improvisation, to be prepared to play the unexpected. Always be prepared to play what you don’t know.

TP: It sounds like you’ve really been able to move yourself towards a one-sound concept, bringing everything you know into all the projects you’re doing. It’s a very nice position to be in.

JACK:  I’ve got a few other projects I want to tell you about. There’s a project which is coming out next month which involves remixes.

TP: I just listened to it this morning, before this conversation.

JACK: Good. My son-in-law, who is Ben Surman, who is a good musician and technical sound-engineer and a great remixer… We wanted to work together, and we decided to do a project called The Ripple Effect—and of course, the title of the CD is Hybrid. Ben and my daughter, Minya, on our website who does some of the covers, came up with it. But the idea for this, as Ben puts it on the back, is to take previously recorded tracks – duo tracks I might add (I call this the Art of the Duo series) – and to be able to keep the integrity of the original tracks but make new stories out of them. This is what Ben has done so incredibly well. He’s taken four tracks from Foday and I from The Hearts of the Masters, and remixed those, and three tracks from a very gifted and talented Brazilian singer and musician, Martui Miranda, So those have been remixed. And we have one track that Ben and I did together. I’m real excited about the results of that. This is moving into different areas, when you talk about remixes, special mixes for clubs, and different outlets, like electronica. But Ben’s ability to remix in such a way that it’s not like a lot of remixes, where you put on a loop and it’s repetitive, it runs on for a long time. These are soundscapes that tell stories, and they change in surprising ways, and there’s a great balance between acoustic and electronica, and I think it raised the bar of artistic meanings.

TP: Do you listen to much electronica? Have you been?

JACK: I’ve listened to some, yeah. Some chill music. I don’t listen a whole lot, but there and then. Will Calhoun comes up and he’ll keep up to date on what’s happening.

TP: There’s also the meditation record.

JACK: Yes, the meditation is the first of these Golden Beams. Again, that’s something I did for my wife Lydia. She does healing work.

TP: So this was her commission for you.

JACK: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and just get rid of stress.

TP: Do you use it for yourself?

JACK: Yes. When I’m on the road, I use it. It grounds me and soothes me. A lot of people do that. It turned out that I passed it out to friends and people said, “Oh, this is nice,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I should put this out.” The person who took the cover photograph liked it so much, he used it for yoga. People use it for healing work, to ground people. So it’s taken on a life of its own.

TP: It might be the most personal of all the records, then, if you’re using it to relax like that. Are you spending much time on the road now?

JACK: Yes, I’ve been on the road a lot. But before we get to that, I’ve got six weeks off, which I have a lot of work I have to do. Actually, another project that’s coming out by the end of January next year is a project that Bill Frisell and I did. While I was out with Keith at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 2001, he and I did a concert together.

TP: You’ve done a couple of records with him on other people’s projects, right?

JACK: Yes. And I did something with Tim Ries as well. Anyway, now I have to get this together by the end of next month. That will come out next year on Golden Beams, because there’s a quick window to get it in there and get it out. The label is allowing that to happen.

TP: So it just doesn’t stop for you, does it.

JACK: No, it’s great stuff. It’s just a lot of work for all of us.

TP: A musician these days has to be an entrepreneur, I suppose. You have play, you have to practice, you have to set up the gigs, you have to set up the technology, and you have to find people help you who know what they’re doing.

JACK: Koch Music will be our distributor here in the States, and in the next couple of months we’ll have European distribution. So we’re moving slowly. One other thing about the label which I think is important to mention. You’ll notice that within a span of a year, maybe 18 months into next year, there’s a lot of releases being released on this label. Normally, an artist wouldn’t do that. But the different CDs I’m doing seem to fit different areas. So we feel strongly that they don’t conflict. The electronica is one thing, the Hearts of the Masters is another, the duo with Frisell is another, the project with Don Alias will be another. The DVD with Don is about the making of that. It’s called Talking Drummers, but the CD will be called Welcome Blessing. We’re going to put that out a little later.

TP: Why do duos appeal to you so much?

JACK: They just seem to pop up that way! It’s a one-on-one, so therefore, you’re really exposed in that setting. You hear in a different way when it’s just two people playing. Like, with Bill, there’s some electronic stuff that we use that enables us to get a bigger sound, the same as it was with John Surman in the live performance, where we have pre-recorded ambient things, and I have my Roland (?)-sonic percussion module. So it gives you… Even though there’s two of you, you’re still an orchestra.

TP: I have many more things I can ask you, but not enough room to print it. We’ve covered your projects, which is what this is about.

JACK: Oh, one more project. This one is a Spanish project with Chano Dominguez. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. I first heard him in Cuba at the Free Jazz Festival, and Danilo Perez introduced me to him. This year I was able to do something with him, Jerome Harris, Luisito Quintero, and a flamenco singer named Blas Cordoba who sings with Chano. We did a few dates in Europe this year – one in Germany, one in Italy. We’re doing some of Chano’s pieces and some of mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing some more of that. Hopefully, I can bring Chano over to do some things in the States. So that’s another project I’d like to pursue in the future.

I’m also may be doing a project with Nigel Kennedy which may feature Herbie and Ron Carter. I’m also producing a project with Igor Butman, tentatively next year…

TP: Will that be a straight-ahead jazz project?

JACK: Yes. It’s a project of his arrangements of a Russian cartoon that was famous, and the music for that. He’s got somebody interested in seeing him record that music. Also, next January I’m going to be doing something with Chick Corea, John Patitucci, myself and a couple of guest artists. We’re going to go to (?).

TP: We need a book here, or at least a full website.

JACK: Well, that we’ve got.

TP: On your website, you make reference to your melodic concept of the drums, but you don’t elaborate on what the melodic concept of the drums is. How do you mean it?

JACK: First of all, tuning the drums, tuning them to different pitches of the intervals. In other words, fourths, fifths, thirds, or a chord maybe. It depends. But they’re tuned so that whenever I’m accompanying someone or playing a solo, I can build a motif or a melody that I can follow and somebody who’s listening can follow, so there’s always music happening on the drumset.

[—30—]

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Filed under Chicago, DownBeat, Drummer, Jack DeJohnette, Jazz.com, Jazziz

For Dafnis Prieto’s 42nd Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece

 

 

 

Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to [i]write[i] and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”

[BREAK]

Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music [as though for the] first time [], as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”
SIDEBAR

Title:

“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”

 

Downbeat, 2011 Feature

 

The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” he responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa in his living room-practice den, which held an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, keeping a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

[BREAK]
Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”

 

Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.

 

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Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

*-*-*-

Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer

For Jeff Watts’ 56th Birthday, A DownBeat Article From 2002 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2004

In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 56th birthday, I’ve appended two pieces that it was my honor to write about him for DownBeat more than a decade. On top is a Downbeat feature piece written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk, in 2002 (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below it is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.

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Jeff Watts (DownBeat):

When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.

The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.

“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”

For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.

“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”

Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.

“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”

“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”

“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”

Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”

That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.

He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”

Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.

“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”

“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”

During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”

Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”

“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”

Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”

On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.

Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”

Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”

Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”

 

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Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.

But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.

The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.

2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)

Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!

4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)

Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.

5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)

That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.

6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)

Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.

7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)

Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.

8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)

That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.

9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)

Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.

10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)

Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?

11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.

12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)

It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.

13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)

The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.

14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)

Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!

You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

For Lewis Nash’s 57th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006, and WKCR interviews from 2005 and 2006

For the 57th birthday of the unparalleled drum master Lewis Nash, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article that it was my honor to write about him in 2006, and a pair of WKCR interviews from that year and from 2005.

 

Lewis Nash (Downbeat Article):

Midway through a late Friday set at a half-full Village Vanguard during the dog days of July, Lewis Nash stated a medium-slow groove on the brushes as 83-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder improvised six lovely choruses on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” It followed a series of songbook tunes and blues, and Nash could easily have settled for keeping time. But he was not, as the saying goes, merely “digging coal.” Instead, on each cycle through the form, Nash executed a different pattern and timbre on the snare drum, imperturbably articulating the beat with crisp precision. The back-of-the-bar patrons might not have noticed the subtlety and ingenuity of Nash’s design, but Wilder did, and he tossed his drummer a nod and a broad smile as he lowered his horn.

It was not an anomalous moment. As Andrew Cyrille noted several years ago in a 5-star Blindfold Test evaluation, Nash, now 47, has “dotted all the i’s while coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.” After remarking that “all the great brush players like Kenny Clarke, Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones would have to give kudos to that playing,” Cyrille added, “Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember whence we came and also what’s happening on the contemporary scene.”

If the vocabulary of the aforementioned masters and a timeline’s worth of hardcore swingers stretching from Max Roach to Edward Blackwell is encoded in Nash’s rhythmic DNA, so are ideas drawn from drumset abstractionists like Cyrille and Jerome Cooper, dance-infused grooves from the funk and R&B that Nash played in his pre-jazz years, and a bracing array of Afro-Caribbean meters. He weaves them together smoothly, conveying tried-and-true swing and Latin rhythms with idiomatic authority. Then he tweaks them, working with a full complement of pitches and intervals across the drumset to animate his beats, displacing figures normally articulated on one component and playing them on another, positioning his phrases to suit the overall architecture of each piece.

Nash titled his 1989 debut album Rhythm Is My Business [Alfa/Evidence], and continues to use the motto. The self-description is apt. He was one of New York’s busiest drummers in the ‘80s, building his reputation on prestigious gigs with Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and cementing it during a ten-year run with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. As the ‘90s progressed, Nash became an A-list freelancer, building a 300-plus album resume that includes Grammy-winners by McCoy Tyner (Illuminations), Nancy Wilson (R.S.V.P.), and Joe Henderson (Big Band); Gerald Wilson’s 2003 Grammy nominated New York, New Sound; important recordings by both Carters, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Horace Silver, Russell Malone and Regina Carter; and a slew of equilaterally oriented trios with Flanagan and such lustrous keyboard talents as Roland Hanna, Don Friedman, Kenny Drew, Jr., and Cyrus Chestnut.

“I am thrust into different situations day in and day out with people who may have completely different musical objectives and viewpoints,” Nash said last December from his Hudson Valley home. “I try to bring the same seriousness to each situation. If there’s written music, and time allows, I put the chart under a microscope. If you don’t assimilate the basic character of the piece, you can’t use your interpretative skills to be creative—you’ll still be hung up on how to get from this place to the coda.”

At the time, Nash was decompressing from a week in Osaka with a quartet of Japanese mainstreamers. That occurred not long after a one-nighter in Noumea, New Caledonia, with a pair of Hammond B3 organists, two weeks after he brought his own quartet to Taichung, Taiwan, for a four-night run. He was preparing for a week-long New Year’s engagement in Orvieto, Italy, to be followed by a three-day jaunt to Uruguay with pianist-composer Cedar Walton, an increasingly frequent employer.

“When you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid to try new things,” Nash said. “You’re manipulating time, beat, phrase, and timbre within a continuity of groove and feeling, so when the timbres change, people may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know something feels and sounds different than in the previous chorus. I try for subtle transitions. There has to be a certain sense of freedom, of not the commonplace. Sometimes a little craziness is necessary to break through.”

In a recent conversation, saxophonist Steve Wilson, Nash’s partner on a dozen or so speculative improv duo concerts since 2003, observed that Nash’s attitude that a form is less a ball-and-chain than an opportunity to stretch boundaries makes his tonal personality a first cousin to that of Billy Higgins, who suited the needs of such antipodal stylists as Walton and Ornette Coleman with equal effectiveness while always sounding like himself.

“Higgins was always listening, and that’s how it is with Lewis,” Wilson said. “He’s deeply aware of everything happening on the bandstand, and he addresses the entire legacy of jazz and the drums—all the way back to all the way forward. Everything he does is out of the logic of where the line is going.”

Since 2000, no leader has collaborated more frequently with Nash than Lovano, both on his bop-to-free nonet and his more recent freedom-within-structure quartet with Hank Jones. “Lewis’ rhythmic attack is precise, but his phrases are lyrical, not just patterns that you play over,” Lovano said. “If I say something in a melodic phrase, he will answer and say something back at whatever tempo. His approach is refined, but his playing makes you want to jump out of your seat; it’s a force of nature, but that force changes on every piece.”

Tommy Campbell, like Nash a Sonny Rollins alumnus, remarks on his encyclopedic command of the lexicon. “Lewis makes the most intellectual and technical things sound so natural and effortless that you forget about what it takes to play it,” said Campbell. “He uses so many different degrees of character on one groove or style. For example, he must have 20 ways to play a shuffle. He does all the little things, too. For example, he never makes unwanted sounds when he’s changing from sticks to brushes to mallets. In 20-plus years I’ve never seen him miss or muff a beat. He can go from soloing to the groove as fast as anyone. It seems he’s always in both places; it’s all one thing for him.”

“Lewis will stay right in the pocket, while doing some of the most creative stuff being played,” affirmed bassist Peter Washington, Nash’s long-time partner in Flanagan’s trio. “A lot of guys feel swinging and grooving holds them back. To him, it sets him free!”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know if I made a conscious effort to be adaptable,” Nash said. “I always played in a way that I felt would add flavor and variety rather than bring all the attention to me. I’m looking for the beauty in my instrument. There’s beauty in power as well. But a lot of sounds are available to utilize. People hear the tonal detail and clarity, and they tell me that my approach is like a percussionist in the symphony. But my concept comes out of hard-swinging jazz. I try to interject the energy and swagger of funky rhythms into swinging, straight-ahead music—although when you play the rhythms of R&B and hip-hop on a drumset tuned for playing jazz, the sound is not the same.”

Nash came to hardcore jazz rather late in the game. As a teenager he played football (cornerback) and played drums for fun in dance bands around Phoenix, Arizona, his home town, before catching the jazz bug.

“My mother listened to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and so on,” Nash said in July. A T-Bone Walker jump blues on the car stereo cosigned the statement. “I was less attracted to Rock elements in the drumming of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, and other guys who played fusion, than to the funkier, danceable things. My influences went from James Brown’s drummers or the feeling of Al Green’s Stax records to the people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. Fusion influences came later, as my knowledge of music increased, whereas that’s the first stuff some people from my age group got into.

“R&B wasn’t played as loud and hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More guys played time on the ride cymbal, like in jazz. Once disco and a certain period of funk became prominent, everything was on the hi-hats, and the bass drums and everything else got a fatter, heavier sound that you wouldn’t normally play in a jazz context, so the genres started to separate sonically.”

During the disco era, Nash, who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, was a fixture on the sparse Phoenix jazz scene, playing in local rhythm sections with hired gun saxophonists like Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper. He led his own combo, and wore bells on his ankles in a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase that opened for acts like Old and New Dreams, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

On the strength of a grant to study drums with Max Roach and a concurrent phone call to audition with Betty Carter, who hired him on the spot, Nash moved to Brooklyn in the winter of 1980-81. There he joined a talented crop of young drummers who included Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff Watts, and Ralph Peterson.

“We had a lot of leeway to pursue our individual approaches,” Nash said. “For instance, Art Blakey or Jimmy Cobb might influence how you kept time on the ride cymbal, while at the same time you’d study the solo concept of Max or Elvin. The major innovators from the ‘40s through the ‘60s dealt with a true swinging jazz conception that wasn’t terribly influenced by rhythm-and-blues, and didn’t drastically change that approach. But the advent of genre grooves from soul and funk and R&B, and the greater visibility of Latin and Afro-Cuban elements, caused the concept to adapt from the swinging, triplet-based ride cymbal feeling to a less linear straight-eighth feeling.”

Ensconced in New York, Nash refined his approach, going to clubs to watch Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and Freddie Waits, figuring out which techniques to use and which to discard. On the road with Betty Carter from 1981-84 and as an ongoing member of Ron Carter’s two-bass quintet and nonet for the subsequent decade, he found tough-love laboratories in which to apply his discoveries.

The singer insisted on precisely calibrated tempos and feels, but took great pains to discourage her young accompanists from playing sets by rote.

“My whole time with Betty, at every rehearsal, she stressed not to lean on clichés, to search for something fresh to play,” Nash recalled. “You knew you couldn’t go on automatic pilot; she’d turn and say, ‘You already played that; play something else.’ You’d be on edge, wondering what change of pace is coming.”

“Ron likes to use a lot of different colors,” he continued, adding that he considers the bassist a primary mentor. “He taught me a lot about tuning, and on some of his music I could be more percussionistic, and utilize finger cymbals, wind chimes and castanets. Steve Kroon often was playing percussion, and I incorporated what Steve did into my drumset.”

“Betty told me that he read music very well,” Carter said. “One thing to his advantage is that he plays the form. Many drummers don’t. I had Lewis take up vibes, to help him visualize the piano keyboard when he soloed. He did very well. He started to study composition, wrote some nice melodies, and expanded his view of the drums as more melodic than they normally are thought to be.”

“I tune the intervals wide enough to give the impression of melodic movement up or down a scale when I play a fill,” Nash elaborated. “I like to interject phrases not just to fill space, but to continue articulating the line I just heard the soloist play. If it’s a horn player taking a breath, I’m almost thinking of continuing his linear thought process until he returns the horn to his mouth, and maybe inspire his rhythmic direction.”

During the ‘80s, while Nash was refining these ideas, Marvin “Smitty” Smith developed ways to make complex meters flow with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Jeff Watts began to merge the rhythms of timba with the patterns of Elvin Jones. Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen and Herlin Riley layered New Orleans streetbeats into swing feels. Younger drummers went to their gigs, copied them, and mainstreamed each vocabulary increment into next-generation argot. With the exception of a year of steady touring with Branford Marsalis, Nash played with established, older musicians “with one foot in the history of the music,” and interacted less frequently with his peer group.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the lineage, to interact with movers and shakers in the music from further back,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose my desire to be creative or forget how to explore.”

Some think that Nash’s impact on the younger branches of the drum tree is less pronounced than it ought to be.

“Most of the younger drummers weren’t in the audience when Roland Hanna and Ron Carter and Tommy Flanagan were playing,” Washington said. “But on every level, Lewis brought something to the drums as unique as the guys who played with Branford and Wynton or M-Base.”

“Once critics hop on a guy’s bandwagon, young drummers looking for someone to listen to will go that way,” Carter said. “Lewis isn’t flashy or domineering in the negative way that drummers can be. I can’t think of another drummer in any age category who plays brushes so well. Not many read as well as he does, and even fewer know how to tune the drums. But critics are less aware of these aspects, and they don’t tune into Lewis when they talk about drummers who are important and can take the drum scene another step, unfortunately for them and for the history of the drums.”

“My influence would have more to do with the sound of the instrument and the clarity of execution than any stylistic development,” Nash remarked, and younger drummers agree.

“Lewis can play with authority like Elvin Jones and also the way Vernell Fournier played with Ahmad Jamal,” said Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor, a former Nash student. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. He’s the most musical drummer of our time period, one of the musical drummers ever.”

“A lot of situations that I play in cause Lewis to pop into my mind,” said Kendrick Scott. “I’ve studied his playing so much that I think, ‘Oh, what would Lewis play right here? It would probably be perfect.’”

[BREAK]

“We’re not supposed to stay where Tommy was,” Nash said during a January engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Coca, where a quartet under his leadership—Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and vibraphonist Steve Nelson—was performing Flanagan-associated repertoire. “He gave us a carpet and said, ‘Okay, I’m giving you these tools; now what are you going to do with them?’

“Tommy didn’t necessarily want me to play in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘40s or ‘50s or ‘60s. He wanted me to play with him right now—which was the ‘90s. He was an open book. When I did things that come out of developments more recent than you might associate with his roots, he’d look up and I’d see him smile and his eyes gleam. If you remain open moment to moment with all your intelligence and skills, and don’t preconceive or predirect where you’re going, that’s as fresh and modern as you can be, whatever style you’re playing.”

In 1998, Nash decided that it was time to augment his numerous opportunities “to interject my ideas and musical viewpoint in groups where I’m a sideman” and construct a context to allow him “complete freedom to express what I feel.” He organized a septet, and booked himself into the Village Vanguard, the first of several Vanguard combos of various sizes, comprised of long-time associates and talented youngbloods. Building on his yearly Vanguard gig, he’s expanded his activity, and in 2003 and 2004 recorded the Japan-market CDs It Don’t Mean A Thing and Stompin’ At The Savoy, with Washington, Nelson, and pianist Jeb Patton. As of this writing, his 2007 calendar includes 10 weeks as a leader.

During the JVC Festival in June, Nash played the Vanguard with a quintet comprising Wilson, Washington, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and pianist Gerald Clayton. The less-traveled repertoire, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, included well-wrought tunes by Walter Davis, Jr. (“Pranayama”), Don Pullen (“Sing Me A Song Everlasting”), Thad Jones (“Ain’t Nothin’ Nu”), Kenny Barron (“New York Attitude”), James Williams (“Alter Ego”), and Johnny Mandel (“I Never Told You”). Nash emceed and took a couple of drum features. Otherwise, he gave the soloists much rein, swung mightily, and functioned, as Washington noted, “as the same supportive, musical drummer.”

“Everything depends on how daring you want to be,” he said. “Parameters exist in any musical situation, and they force you to get the most from the least. You try not to limit yourself to ‘this is how you’re supposed to play this kind of music.’ You jump in, let your ears dictate, and keep all options on the table. I might borrow some sound or approach from an avant garde context that works in the middle of trading fours on a blues. Sound can cross genres and styles. It’s just a sound. It’s your job to figure out how to use that sound tastefully and in context. The more things you’ve done, the more you’ll be able to interject something new.”

————

Lewis Nash (WKCR, December 1, 2005) – re Nash-Wilson duo at Sweet Rhythm:

TP: [MUSIC: McCoy Tyner-Lewis Nash duo]

Duets. Lewis records so much and in so many different contexts and situations, that doing an hour on your work is like looking for the needle in the haystack. You’ll be quite present in NYC area in December and directly after the New York. Next week at Dizzy’s Room with Donal Fox and George Mraz. The following week is week one of Cedar Walton’s annual fortnight at the Village Vanguard with Roy & David. Then Umbria with Joe Locke. Then at Dizzy’s Room on January 10th with Flanagan tribute, with Renee, Peter & Steve Nelson. Frequent associates.

How did the duo project with Steve Wilson come to pass? You go back a ways, and you a few records with him on Criss-Cross in the early ‘90s.

LEWIS: That’s correct. Steve and I have played through the years in various situations. As far as the duo format, I enjoy that with the horns, and, as we just heard on the cut with me and McCoy Tyner, with the piano, and I’ve done duo with organ, of course, duo with guitar even. The duo situation is a challenge in many ways. In other ways, it’s pretty much just like any other time you go to play music. You deal with certain repertoire or whatever, with one another musician, and you try to make music as best you can interacting with that person.

TP: But this is a working duo, of sorts, and a duo you’ve both chosen to stick with. It’s not a one-off situation.

LEWIS: That’s right. Steve came to mind for me when I was thinking about doing this as someone I enjoyed playing with, number one, and also someone whom I felt I’d have a nice working rapport with musically for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his time is so great. So when someone has really good time internally, you can try a lot of different things which don’t necessarily have to spell out where you are metrically or in a form. A lot of times, Steve and I come out at the right place as if it just happened naturally. I don’t have to worry about making sure that I mark time for him when we’re playing. He’s one of the musicians I enjoy playing with in any situation, but particularly in the duo.

TP: How would it differ than playing in a rhythm section with Peter Washington or George Mraz, two of the master jazz bassists on the planet?

LEWIS: First of all, there’s a lot more space without the chordal instrument being there. How that would differ from a bass and drum situation is that the sound of Steve’s instrument, of course, won’t be in that bass range, to fill out some of that range I’ll often play different patterns or motifs between the low toms and the bass drum, things like that, to give some weight and low-end sound to the duo. Sometimes Steve will even play bass-type lines, whether walking or harmonically in the bass range. We basically try to give as much of a feeling of arrangement and orchestration as we can with the two instruments.

TP: You mentioned to me that your duo playing goes back to college days when you attended Arizona State University, where one of your fellow underclassmen was the saxophonist Allen Chase, who now runs the jazz department at New England Conservatory. I think you mentioned that you and he would open up as a duo for groups like Old and New Dreams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago…

LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. Sun Ra.

TP: George Adams and Don Pullen. So not all your fans may know that you have roots in that direction as well as creating modern extensions and variations on the masters of jazz lifeblood, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. People who played with those people appreciate your playing for your ability to put your own spin on what they did in an idiomatic manner, but they don’t necessarily know about that other aspect of your tonal personality.

LEWIS: Well, those were interesting times. It’s before I moved to New York. I was still going to college. It was a good time and a good place for me to experiment with some different things, and Allen Chase and I had a duo, and we played around Phoenix. We opened for those people you mentioned, groups like that. That’s when I first met Ed Blackwell, when he came to Phoenix, playing with Old and New Dreams. I met the guys in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was always open to fresh things. Even though, as you mentioned, a lot of fans and listeners may not be aware of that experience I’ve had in that realm, still I always try to bring, even to the more conventional (for want of a better word) situations I play in…I always try to bring a feeling of freshness and openness to those situations that you might expect in a more open musical situation.

TP: One thing that might also be surprising to some people is that you came to hardcore jazz fairly late in the game. You weren’t a teenage student of every record of Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. It didn’t really happen until college.

LEWIS: Right. In my high school years I was playing a lot of R&B, Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown type stuff, and I was playing football and playing sports, and being a jazz musician was the furthest thing from my mind.

TP: Is there any connection between the way you developed—not starting early, but learning rudiments, time, vibe, etc.?

LEWIS: You know, I wonder. I don’t know if I can say with any certainty. But the fact that it was always something I did for fun and I never thought in those earlier days about “this is what I want to do for a living, this is what drives me, this is what I’m here to do”—I didn’t have those thoughts. I was a broadcast journalism major, and my mentor…I didn’t know him, but Max Robinson, who used to be on ABC News, the first African-American anchor. I wanted to do things like that, and follow in those footsteps. But the music started to rope me in.

TP: When did it start to become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician and not a voice?

LEWIS: I’m a voice on the drums, I hope. But I had a professor at Arizona State whose name is Charles Argersinger. He still teaches in Washington State now. One day he pulled me aside in the hallway at Arizona State, and he asked me point-blank: “Lewis, you’re not a music major, are you.” “No.” “You’re not planning to go into music as a career, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”

TP: Why did he think that? Did he say?

LEWIS: He didn’t really spell it out, but I assume he’d heard a lot of young musicians and people he felt had potential or didn’t have potential, and he probably… He did say that “‘I think you’re someone who could go somewhere in this, and you should think about it.”

TP: What qualities were people hearing at that time? You were playing in Phoenix in rhythm section, behind Art Pepper or Sonny Stitt. What were those experiences like? Were they harsh? Were they supportive?

LEWIS: They were demanding, but not harsh. I met Sonny Stitt on the stage. I played a week. We had no rehearsal, we just came in as the local rhythm section. Of course, he used to do that all the time. The first tune he counted off I think was Cherokee at some breakneck, ridiculously fast tempo, and that was, “Hello, I’m Sonny Stitt.” Those kinds of experiences for a young musician…it’s great. It just throws you right into the fire.

TP: As far as learning the correct tone… Were you thinking by that time of the way Max Roach might be handling this situation, or Billy Higgins, or Philly Joe Jones, or Shadow Wilson, etc.? Were you trying to bring any of that vocabulary to bear by that time?

LEWIS: Definitely.

TP: How did you do that without seeing them? Drums is kind of a visual instrument, isn’t it? You have to learn to put your body in position to make transitions and so on.

LEWIS: That’s true. I didn’t have very much exposure to these great drummers—I should say none—in terms of watching them. I didn’t see any of the great names drumming-wise… Actually, that’s not true. I did see and hear Dannie Richmond with Mingus in the late ‘70s, and Blackwell. But Max and Elvin, Tony Williams, until I came to New York, I didn’t have a chance to observe them up-close, the way we do, putting them under the microscope and watching every little thing they do.

TP: How did you pick up vocabulary?

LEWIS: What I heard on the records, I tried to emulate and find the best way to reproduce those kinds of sounds and phrases, and hope that what I came up with was close.

TP: you came out of Phoenix with Betty Carter, didn’t you.

LEWIS: Yes, I did. Another into-the-fire type situation. Freddie Waits actually recommended me to her. I had met him. He came through Phoenix with the Billy Taylor Trio.

TP: I recall you saying that she was very specific and precise about tempos and feels, but wanted you to be creative within those parameters.

LEWIS: That’s very correct. It’s a good way of putting it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes we didn’t quite know how to give her that in the best way, but we’d try to find it. It was a challenge to play with her at that stage of my career. It was probably the best thing for me then.

TP: The same could be said for a number of musicians in your generation who came up in that tough-love crucible that was the Betty Carter band.

[MUSIC: “Stomping At the Savoy”; “Tickle-Toe”; then with Celtic Jazz Collective, w/ Paddy Keenan on bagpipes]

TP: You were saying that part of the appeal of performing with Steve Wilson is his musicality, his time. You both share a quality of being extremely well-grounded in the fundamentals. He plays a lot of big band sections, studio things, but when it comes to improvising and doing something creative, he’s completely prepared to do that as well. You’re a few years older, but coming out of similar experiences. Last year, there was a month when you did a weekly duo at Sweet Rhythm. How did it evolve from beginning to end.

LEWIS: Each time we did it, of course, you build on the previous time in terms of ideas, the way things evolve musically. That was good for us, because we’re both busy doing so many other things, and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to the duo projects. So when we had that string of performances, that really helped us to solidify the sound we heard for the duo at that time.

TP: Did the sound evolve over the month, or did it remain on the template on which it began?

LEWIS: I don’t know if the sound evolved, but the way that we approached probably became freer than when we first started. We’re still trying to find that happy medium, that balance between freedom and the opposite of that…

TP: Freedom and form, or whatever it is. You’re the kind of musician who’s able to find freedom within form in situations that other people might handle by rote. You take those fundamentals and you always seem to find a new twist or some vocabulary of your own. How much do you work on that off the bandstand? How much comes to you when you’re on the bandstand?

LEWIS: I would say that a lot of it comes while you’re on the bandstand in the middle of the moment. But you have to be daring, brave enough to take a chance in a particular situation where it’s easy to play it safe. I’m always trying to make whatever I play be logical. Just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it has to be corny or rote. But some of the most creative things done in a musical situation I think can be considered logically a part of what’s going on without them being done over and over again or something common.

TP: But you play on a lot of one-off sessions. You might not have played with the person before. You might be seeing the music for the first time. A lot of money is at stake—studio time. How do you keep both processes going, the imperative of trying to do something to at least satisfy even yourself that you’re not doing it the way it was done before, but also fulfilling the function? Is it a process of logic really?

LEWIS: It really is. I think so. I can think of many recording sessions where just what you mentioned is the case. You’re seeing the music for the first time. You’re probably not going to play it again after that live, it’s just for this recording, but maybe the music is challenging in certain ways, maybe form-wise or changing meters or something you’re just not familiar with, or maybe it’s musicians who you don’t play with all the time, so you’re still trying to establish the kind of rapport in the studio playing. So when you have these kinds of challenges, you always fall back on your basic musicianship. For horn players, it might be: Am I playing in tune? Am I reading this part correctly? Am I making these changes? And so on. For me in the rhythm section: “Am I setting up the figures, or am I making the transitions in the music smooth enough so there’s a certain flow where the other musicians can do whatever it is they need to do? Am I helping make sure that everyone who’s playing feels a certain comfort zone that allows them to play to the best of their ability? Is the time feel steady? Am I helping them to feel whatever changes might be going on in the music to the best of my ability from the drums?

TP: A lot of people in jazz particularly, when improvising on their instruments, think of other instruments. Trumpeters think of saxophones, that sort of thing. In that regard, I’ll bring up a comment I once read from Max Roach, which is that you don’t play melody on the drums, you play rhythmic designs on the drums, which is a slightly different thing, and almost gives the illusion of melody. I don’t know if you would subscribe to that statement or not. But one characteristic of your tonal personality is that you play rhythmic designs within the flow of a moment. Can you talk about creating in that way?

LEWIS: The melodic impression comes from the fact the rhythmic variations that may be played on the drumset give the feeling of a melodic line in the way the rhythms are put together. Every melody has a rhythmic component. So when you’re expressing yourself in phrases which have the same types of rhythmic components that melodic lines have, then you’re going to give the impression that you’re playing a melody. But this kind of linear approach to playing the drums of which Max Roach was the founding father in the music is something that really attracts me. It’s something I like to do or attempt to do. I’m always trying to find a way to keep that approach to playing the drums somehow involved in the evolution of the music, so that’s not just thrown away or thrown out as something that was done in the past, but it’s being made to find a contemporary way… I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting it. But a way of today’s creative jazz playing or creative improvising, utilizing that approach to the drums as well as all the other ones.

TP: Try to parse that a bit. By “today’s approach to the drums,” are you talking about incorporating the way drummers play in contemporary dance-oriented music, or the broader rhythmic palette that’s more commonly available to jazz drummers now?

LEWIS: I mean that in the sense that a lot of other influences have become a part of playing this music, influences from the various so-called world musics, and also in terms of the more recent developments in drumming going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s with Tony Williams and Elvin and Roy Haynes, who has been a part of it, it seems like, forever—and still is. That kind of freshness, without losing the approach of that linear style. I guess always trying to find a way to keep that as a part of the equation.

TP: Playing 100-150 gigs a year with Tommy Flanagan for ten years, and many gigs over a long period with Ron Carter, would be a very good way of honing those skills and that sensibility.

LEWIS: I would say so, yes. And all of the recording sessions as well. Because there you have a chance to hear back right away things that you try, and you can go in and listen and say, “Oh, okay, that didn’t come out quite like I wanted it to; I can go back and try a different thing again.” So being in the studio a lot has been helpful in refining or defining whatever it is I’m trying to do.

[MUSIC: From Sea Changes, “Verdandi”; Love Letters, NTB]

TP: You’ve done five-six dates for Japan with this group (Chestnut-Mraz-Nash), and performed about a month ago at Dizzy’s Room with them. By the way, wasn’t Elvin Jones the drummer on the original performance of Verdandi, which Tommy Flanagan made a staple of his ‘90s repertoire. With Manhattan Trinity, it’s a configuration put together for the studio that becomes a working group. It must be very different when you do it live.

LEWIS: Yes. Especially since we hadn’t really established a live group personality yet. Everything had been done in the studio.

TP: And the producer gives you the tune list and tells you to do something with it.

LEWIS: Yes. But given the level of musicianship with Cyrus and George, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted and make it work. So it’s a great situation to be part of.

TP: We were talking about being creative and fulfilling the function in the studio. We’ll play now one Grammy-winner and one Grammy-nominee record that Lewis was part of. You performed on Nancy Wilson’s RSVP this year, which won the 2005 Jazz Vocal Grammy, and you appeared on Gerald Wilson’s 2004 Grammy-nominated date, New York Sound.

[MUSIC: Nancy Wilson, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”; Gerald Wilson, “Jeri,” from In My Time]

TP: Since 1998, you’ve been leading ensembles of varying sizes—septets, quintets, quartets, trios, been in the Vanguard, been at Dizzy’s at the Kaplan Playhouse. No records yet, though. Only a couple of dates with trios for the Japanese market on somewhat circumscribed repertoire. It seems every year that you’re doing more and more, gradually building up repertoire and a base of concerts on which other people can draw in recognizing you as a bandleader. What are your aspirations in this regard?
LEWIS: I think they are never-ending for someone who desires to continue to grow musically. I think about various things I’d like to do every day that I haven’t done yet. Wearing the bandleader hat takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile to watch things come to fruition that began as just an idea or a thought. With that in mind, I’d like to do a lot more things in the future. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but we have unlimited possibilities.

[MUSIC: Diaspora, from Blues for Marcus]

[END OF CONVERSATION]

———-

Lewis Nash (WKCR, June 26, 2006):

[MUSIC: Kenny Drew Trio, Apasionata]

TP: That featured one of the most prominent drum-bass combinations of our time, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington, who’ve been playing on bandstands countless during the ‘90s with Tommy Flanagan, and are performing together this week in the Lewis Nash Quintet at the Village Vanguard. Since 1999, when you first seriously undertook leading groups and performing out with them… This will be your second group-leader gig this year on New York bandstands. You were at Dizzy’s Room in January. You’ve played often with a septet, and lately a trio as well with Steve Nelson and Peter Washington, and a duo with Steve Wilson. Is this quintet a new band for you?

LEWIS: The newness this week is basically having Gerald Clayton on piano. In the past, generally it’s been Mulgrew Miller or Renee Rosnes or no piano, and others on occasion. But Gerald is a fantastic young musician who is certainly going to make a name for himself. Many people are aware that he’s the son of bassist-arranger John Clayton.

TP: New repertoire this week?

LEWIS: A few things. We do have all this various repertoire in a soup, and each night, depending on the vibe or feeling, I decide whether we’re going to play it or not. Basically, this week is not so much about new repertoire, although I generally like to do a gig in town when I do have something new to offer. But I didn’t want to let a whole year go by without playing at the Vanguard. So this week really is about our creativity on the stage in the moment no matter what we play, because there won’t be any incredible unveilings of new material.

TP: Do you approach your role, your performance in any different manner when you’re leading a group versus playing as a sideman? Does your point of view become the guiding flow for the performances when you’re leading the group? Although of course, it would in other ways when you’re a sideman.

LEWIS: Of course, since it’s more or less my musical vision in that sense, I am providing some direction for how I want it to go pacing-wise and all of that. But I am actually trying to allow everyone else to establish a direction without dictating where I feel it should go. I don’t like that kind of dictatorial way of approaching it from a bandleading standpoint. I like to be open to the input from everyone else. So while I am selecting the set and the pieces, and kind of deciding how long they’re going to be and all that, I just give some basic parameters and then let everybody go where it’s going to go.

TP: You’ve also developed a circle of people around you, good friends with busy schedules who’ve made time to play on your gigs and help develop the sound of your band.

LEWIS: You bring to mind several things to me. For me, I was listening to and enjoying Bill [Stewart]’s interview on the way here, and some of the things you were talking about… As a sideman, I have a lot of different varieties of things that I’m really happy to do, and fortunate to be able to do. So I get a lot of different looks and feels, musically speaking, from all these different things I’m doing, so when I come to do my thing, I can bring elements of those various things to mind. But also, I don’t feel like I have to necessarily explore some of the other things that I explore in other situations to greater depth just because it’s my situation. I might feel like I can do some other things. And those things may change each time I play live as a leader. But I’m so satisfied that I don’t feel a need to explore so many different varieties of things in my own situation. I can concentrate on certain things.

TP: Has being a leader evolved your own drum technique or sense of flow as a drummer? Do you find that you do certain things that are idiosyncratic to you more readily than you would in sideman situations? Ways of hitting beats…

LEWIS: Not so much now. Maybe in the earlier years of deciding to do things as a leader, that might have been the case. But I’m not even sure then how much it was the case. Because so much of how I approach the instrument and how I approach making music with people is consistent, no matter what. So whereas there may be things I’m less apt to do in one situation versus another because of the type of music or the style or whatever, I think generally there is a consistent thread that you can hear running through everything. I can tell it’s me. Whether it’s a piece of music that’s quirky and out, or if it’s a piece of music that’s straight down the middle, swinging, I know how I touch the drums, I can hear that same consistency throughout that. I think that’s an important thing.

TP: You went out with Betty Carter in 1981. So you’ve been a working professional New York musician for 25 years. There’s 25 years of musical history that you’re part of now. In an overall sense, what are some of the salient things you’ve seen change in the musical ideas people are articulating now vis-a-vis 1981, when you came up. There are continuities, but it’s a very different world.

LEWIS: You could say that in many respects. I’m not sure I’d be the best arbiter of that. I came here in 1980 the first time, and I was going around to hear as much music as I could possibly hear. At the same time, I was taking some lessons with Freddie Waits. There were certain guys who were working quite a bit. Billy Hart seemed to be everywhere in those days; he was playing every week somewhere, or it seemed like two different places a night at times! Some of the greats were still leading bands—Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter (whose band I was in). There were these kind of iconic leaders who were still around, and young guys wanted to be in their bands and hone their craft and whatnot. For me, I tried to bring a certain sensibility to the music. When I got here to play with Betty, before that in Arizona, I had been playing a lot of different things with people who’d come through town—Sonny Stitt and people like that when they’d pick up a rhythm section—but I also had an ear to the more exploratory things. I had a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase, and we opened concerts in Phoenix—before I even moved to New York—for Old And New Dreams, which is how I met Ed Blackwell and Dewey and Don and Charlie Haden. Then we opened for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we opened for Sun Ra., playing this duo. I had bells on my ankles. We were doing a lot of interesting and exploratory things. So I always had an ear to those kinds of things. But what I realized was that I didn’t want to marginalize myself… I don’t know if that’s really the right way of putting it. But I wanted to take advantage of whatever I could get from the people who had been the movers and shakers in the music further back, the Betty Carters and Ron Carters and Tommy Flanagans and people like that. I didn’t want to not be able to associate myself with that lineage.

TP: You didn’t want to cut yourself off.

LEWIS: No. So I felt like, okay, at some point in the future, I can always… I’m not going to lose my desire to be creative, I’m not going to forget how to explore. So I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in where the music was coming from to such an extent that I had an opportunity to interact with these great players. So over time, I have fortunately been able to do that. People like Horace Silver and McCoy and all these different people I’ve played with, all of that has contributed to whatever it is I’m offering as a bandleader, I hope.

TP: Another thing I touched on a little earlier with Bill, we were discussing about the ways in which over the last 15 years odd meters and world rhythmic structures have become more part of the musical vernacular rather than slightly more exotic, as it was in the ‘80s. From your perspective, as someone who became established during the ‘80s, before people like Danilo Perez and Ed Simon came to town, and when Steve Coleman was just starting to deal with the things he did with Dave Holland… How do you see those developments affecting the rhythmic template of jazz these days? Has that changed a lot?

LEWIS: I think it’s just become more of a wide palette, I guess. The stuff has always been there, people have been exploring things from Max and Brubeck and various people in the ‘50s, and there’s already a precedent in world music. So I think the foundation was already laid for people to explore a lot of different things, whether it’s odd meters, whether it’s interesting and different harmonic ideas or structural things with tunes that are not necessarily 32-bar song forms of AABA. People have been exploring a lot of different things for a long time. What you have to learn how to do is incorporate all of it, and not be afraid of any challenges, and then also not be afraid to be basic, too. You can be complicated and simple, and both things work. Also, everyone has a different thing to contribute to this thing. We’re not all supposed to do the same thing.

TP: Did anything new happen in the last 15 years? How would say the sound of jazz in 2006… If you’d left the planet in 1990, came back now, and hadn’t heard any jazz since, what changes would you discern?

LEWIS: I leave the planet on a regular basis, but I do come back. You know, Ted, I really never think of it in those terms. But I suppose the same way there’s new technologies… If you left the planet, came back 15 years later, and the Internet. So I imagine for your ear, yes, but when you’re in it, you can’t hear or observe the changes so clearly, I guess. It might be like if you go away and come back home and see someone who was an adolescent when you left, and when you come back they’re grown up but it’s the same person. That probably didn’t answer your question.

TP: It didn’t, but that’s fine. As Charlie Parker once said immortally on that video, “music speaks louder than words.” In 2003-04, or maybe in 2004-05 you did a few recordings for M&I, the Japanese label…

[MUSIC: “Tico, Tico”]

What’s it like to play so much with the same bass player? You’ve played a lot with George Mraz over the years, with Christian McBride and Ron Carter. But the names Washington and Nash go together in a certain interesting way. How has it evolved?

LEWIS: There are certain vibes that you feel from musicians when you play with them for the first time. Even though I’ve played with a lot of different bass players, as you’ve mentioned, the special rapport I have with Peter… I have a special rapport with the other guys you mentioned as well. But with Peter, I don’t have to worry about whether he’s going to be doing what I need him to do to make everything come across like I’d like it to. You were asking me if I’m thinking about the directions of how things are progressing as we’re playing with my group. With Peter as the bass anchor, there are certain things I know are going to be in place, and I don’t have to worry about those things. They are unspoken things. It’s telepathic almost. So it’s kind of a comfort zone, a comfort level having him there that allows me to feel free to do a lot of things that I might not attempt.

TP: Can you name what a couple of those things might be?

LEWIS: He can sense when I’m orchestrating things a certain way and breaking the time, exactly what to do to keep the forward momentum of the time going, so it doesn’t seem like we both pulled the rug out from under everyone else. In other words, we kind of share the duties of keeping the forward propulsion of the music going. Also, sometimes I can just look to him and nod if I want to change the feel, and he knows to go wherever I’m trying to make it go. His ears are wide open. He picks great notes in his walking bass lines. I’m often keying off of the bass for the harmonic structure and framework of the tune much more than the piano comping or something like singing the tune in my head. I’m more focused on the movement of the bassline.

TP: I recall reading Max Roach saying that there’s no such thing as melodic drums, but there is such a thing as rhythmic design, and people sometimes confuse rhythmic design for playing melody on the drums. You seem always to be very conscious of rhythmic design within the forward motion. How has that concept evolved for you?

LEWIS: That rhythmic design that Max was talking about, in the sense he’s speaking about the melodic interpretation… Another word I’ve heard for it is linear. I tune the drums in a way that the intervals are wide enough that it can give the impression of melodic movement. If I play certain fills, and the drums are extremely close in the tuning, you don’t get the sense of separation and you don’t get the sense of movement up or down a scale. So if I tune the drums at wider intervals, then it seems to give more of an impression that I’m playing some types of melodic things. I like to interject phrases that are not just drum fills, but maybe necessarily a continuation of the line I might have heard the soloist just playing, except I’m articulating it on the drums, so when he takes a breath (if it’s a horn player), I’m almost thinking in terms of continuing his linear thought process on the drums until he puts the horn back to his mouth, and maybe inspire him to go rhythmically in one direction or another, rather than just a drum fill for the sake of filling space and very drum-oriented—I might make it more linear.

TP: Let me repeat a couple of questions I asked Bill Stewart before. I asked him early on in his career how aware he was of the history of the drums in reference to his own development, and, if he emulated other iconic drummers, who some of those drummers might have been. That led to asking him at what point he got beyond those influences and began to assimilate them into his own thing.

LEWIS: Of course, anyone who gets involved in this music at the drums is going to have to go through a certain group of players if they’re really going to say that they’ve studied the music and the history of jazz drumming. For me, in my earliest development, before I really started playing jazz, I was playing a lot of R&B and funk, and that’s pretty much what I was playing. So I wasn’t as… Coming from an R&B, funk and blues… My mother used to listen to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and that stuff. Coming from that kind of background, I wasn’t necessarily as attracted to the Rock elements, the fusion stuff so much. Even though I could appreciate the drumming aspects of Tony and Billy Cobham and the guys who played in the fusion genre, I was more attracted to the funkier, danceable things at that time, in those earlier years. Then once I became aware of people like Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, and all the various people, then I started to explore the possibilities of that approach to playing the drums. So my influences went from James Brown’s drummers and the Stax records, Al Green and that whole feel, to the guys I just mentioned in straight-ahead jazz, Kenny Clarke and those people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. So in a way, I have less of the influences of, say, the fusion era, like Tony and Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, in that context. That stuff actually came later rather than earlier, whereas for some guys that’s some of the first stuff they got into. Whereas for me, I got into the other stuff, and then I kind of backtracked. With my knowledge of music being a little greater, than I think I was able to appreciate and assimilate more of the elements of the more modern players…

TP: How would you assimilate vocabulary? Playing along with records and trying to replicate the style?

LEWIS: Yeah. Playing along. Because then you turn it up loud, or you have headphones and you’re playing along, and you can almost interject yourself into the band, in a sense. That’s one way of beginning to assimilating some of the vocabulary, just playing along.

TP: Were a lot of these guys coming through your town?

LEWIS: No, not that many people came through Phoenix. I didn’t see much.

TP: Probably you’d heard Ed Blackwell before you opened for Old & New Dreams.

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: But seeing him probably put a whole different spin on what he was doing.

LEWIS: Definitely. But I didn’t get to see that many great players. Only towards the end, before I eventually came to New York in the late ‘70s… As I mentioned earlier, Sonny Stitt came through town and I played with him, and I’d meet and see other people that way. I heard Tony Williams with VSOP I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah, I began to see and hear a few people like that. But coming to New York and being able to sit in the front row of the Vanguard to watch and listen to Elvin, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that going on in Phoenix, I’m afraid.

TP: Many young aspirants will be sitting in the catbird seat or the Vanguard this week, and get there when the doors open at 8:15 to get a bird’s eye view of Lewis Nash and quintet… This puts you together with Billy Hart, who as you said was playing everywhere when you came to town… Dark Shadows.

[MUSIC: “Dark Shadows:; Ray Bryant (RRB), “Glory, Glory”; Hannibal-George Adams, Cry]

We heard Lewis getting into a very African conception of the trapset. I think you said you heard Sunny Ade’s talking drummers and were trying to get that quality, as well as Edward Blackwell. And it doesn’t get any more fundamental than Glory, Glory.

We’ll hear recordings Lewis made with several people who recently passed on. Jackie McLean, and John Hicks, with whom you performed on three Joe Lovano nonet recordings. Did you ever record trio with John?

LEWIS: I didn’t record trio with John, but I made gigs in trio with him. He brought something special to any situation. But in the Lovano dates and in the nonet, John was such an integral part of the sound of that group.

TP: That nonet gig is an interesting one, because there’s lots of room for you to roam and travel rhythmically and sonics to weave in and out of. Since Lovano himself likes to play drums… Unfortunately, the only tracks that are applicable are 10-16 minutes…

[MUSIC: w/ Jackie McLean, “Little Melonae”]

LEWIS: It was an interesting date, because I think that may have been the first time that Jackie and Junko met, in the studio. Of course, that happens quite often in jazz anyway. I remember it very well, because I remember someone in the studio mentioning something about intonation, probably someone associated with the label, some peripheral person, and I remember hearing Jackie say, “I’ve played out of tune my whole life; why should I start playing in tune NOW?” I thought that was the funniest thing I had… It was tongue-in-cheek, it was just everything. It lightened up the session and allowed us just to go ahead and play. It was a funny comment.

TP: When you hear Lewis Nash, you’ll be hearing someone who’s embodied the experiences of playing on a regular basis, at one point or another, for ten years with Tommy Flanagan, on many occasions with Tommy Flanagan’s good friend Sonny Rollins, with Ron Carter for years, with Betty Carter, with McCoy Tyner, with Don Pullen, and with just about every significant musician who made a mark on jazz from the 1940s on up, and even going to a date with Doc Cheatham and Benny Carter and Hank Jones. All those experiences are encoded in Lewis’ playing and performance and presentation in one manner or another, and you should not miss him when he’s leading a band.

[MUSIC: w/ McCoy Tyner from Illuminations, The Chase]

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Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Lewis Nash, WKCR

For Lenny White’s 66th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2010

For drummer Lenny White’s 66th birthday, here’s the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that I conducted with him in May 2010. His remarks were unfiltered and trenchant. We did this in a high-end midtown recording studio, which I mention because of Lenny’s comments on how the positioning of the drums in the mix of several of these recordings affects our perception of what the drummers are doing.

 

Lenny White Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (LOVE LETTERS, Sony, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass)

This is one of the six masters. This is the history of jazz right here—the living history of jazz. Do I have to say who it is? Roy Haynes. He’s the living history of jazz. He’s played with everybody, done everything, and he’s one of my six heroes. The others are Philly Joe, Max, Elvin, Art Blakey, and Tony. It’s Roy Haynes! That’s all you’ve got to say. All the drummers that I named transcend the instrument. They’re not drummers. They are musicians who happen to play drums. Because they have such a unique approach to playing music, they don’t play just drums—they play music, and the drums are the instrument that they use to interpret the music. 9 stars. I’m not even listening to the other cats. No disrespect, but Roy commands such attention when he plays the instrument… Is that Christian on bass? I wasn’t listening to the piano player, so I didn’t hear his solo. Is this Marcus Strickland on tenor? No? I’ve got to tell you a true story with Roy Haynes that helped shape my musical life. Roy Haynes used to have a group that he called the Hip Ensemble, and every night, the last tune he would play on the set would be the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At the end, he’d go, BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, and he’d play a drum cadenza. He was playing at Slugs’, and he knew I was there, and said BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, stopped, and called me up on the stage, and had me play the drum cadenza. That’s all I’ve got to say.

2. Jason Marsalis, “Puppet Mischief” (from John Ellis & Double Wide, PUPPET MISCHIEF, Obliq, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Marsalis, drums; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone)

Is it Dave Holland’s band? No? That’s very interesting, because of the use of the tuba, and they can negotiate their way through 7/4 pretty seamlessly. The drummer is playing within the music, doing an admirable job within the music. I haven’t a clue. It’s cool. He’s not getting in the way. You know what’s interesting with the younger guys? I think they’re very technically proficient, but there’s no particular emphasis on a sound—an identifiable sound, whether it’s choice of cymbals, or how they tune their drums, to the point where I say, “Oh, I know who that is” immediately. It sounds great, though. 3 stars.

3. Kendrick Scott, “Short Story” (from REVERENCE, Criss-Cross, 2009) (Scott, drums, composer; Mike Moreno, guitar; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kenny Dorham, composer)

Is it Tain? No. I like it. He’s killing. I like the organic sound of everything. It sounds great. My only problem, sometimes, is how the recordings are today. See, what drives the music is the ride cymbal. A lot of the guys now play more drums than play cymbal. See, I don’t get a sense of the real hard drive with the music with a lot of drums. It got it when they were playing in open 7, but when they started to swing over the changes it didn’t work as well. From that standpoint, I’d like to really hear some hard swinging. 5 stars. Kendrick Scott? A new guy. But when they start to play straight-ahead stuff, it’s a little weird. From another perspective, what music is, is how you break silence.
So when you make a statement, it better be good. If you’re coming back from silence… That’s why it’s a little strange. There’s this flood of music, and then the music has to compete with movies, it has to compete with games. So the emphasis is not on art, like it used to be, or the art has been fragmented.

4. Brian Blade, “Joe Hen” (from John Patitucci, REMEMBRANCE, Concord, 2009) (Blade, drums; John Patitucci, bass, composer; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

John Patitucci, Joe Lovano, and Brian Blade. I don’t know the record, but I know them. It’s ok. 4 stars. I like Brian’s playing. [If I run this entry, it would be nice if I had a little more than “I like Brian’s playing.”] What is it that you want me to say? [Just your response…] Let me ask you what do you think? [Of this piece.] Yes, and Brian’s playing. [Open, interactive piece, Brian’s responding on a dime like he always does…] Everybody that you’ve played me so far has done exactly the same thing. Everybody’s responded and played, and it’s great. The drums sound great. The sound is great. The thing about it is that conceptually…what defines concept, or helps make up concept, is your choice of cymbals, how you tune your drums, and hopefully that will come out in a recording. This is recorded well. The drums sound fantastic. In conjunction with the music, it still sounds great, and all of that. I think it’s great. 4 stars.

5. Dafnis Prieto, “Si o Si” (from SI O SI QUARTET, Dafnison, 2009) (Prieto, drums, composer; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone; Manuel Valera, piano; Charles Flores, bass)

You’re giving me all these weird time changes. I like this, though. Great composition. Is it the drummer’s composition? Tain? It’s great. I love the composition. It shows that drummers can be musicians, too. That’s why I think I know who it is, but I don’t want to say yet. Is it Jack deJohnette? No? Who is it? Dafnis Prieto? Nice, man. You can tell that he wrote this composition. Very musical. It says something when someone comes here who is not from the United States, and they take their culture and adapt it to jazz. He’s not trying to play jazz; he’s playing jazz within his culture, which is cool. Oh, it’s live. I really like it. Who’s the piano player? [Manuel Valera.] Are they all Latin? [The tenor player isn’t.] It’s killer. Very believable, very honest, and they were going for it. It’s not as much as Roy Haynes, but 6 stars. Whoo!

6. Teri Lynne Carrington, “The Eye Of The Mind” (#2) (from Tineke Postma, THE TRAVELLER, EtceteraNOW, 2009) (Postma, piano, composer; Geri Allen, Fender Rhodes; Scott Colley, bass; Carrington, drums)

Great-sounding recording. Whoever this is has been influenced by Jack. Unless this is Jack. No? Oh, Teri Lynne Carrington. The statement was accurate. I thought it sounded great. It’s kind of hard for me, because I don’t want to sound cynical or jaded, but I have such… The best way that I can explain it is that jazz is not a style of music to me. It’s my heritage. The reason why I say that is that those six heroes I mentioned all took me aside and told me things about how to interpret and represent the music. I got a lot from listening to their records, but it really made sense when they said what they said, when you sat and listened to somebody and they’d say, “Ok, you see that? This is how you make that turnaround.” Or, “You see this? This is what you need to…” Every one of those guys I mentioned actually did that with me. So they gave me their perspective of how to represent the music the right way. That’s why for me it’s a heritage. Everything you’ve played is a very good representation of where the music is today, or where it’s going. But you haven’t played anything yet that was a true sense of swing from the perspective of all of those guys that I named, and all those guys that I named, maybe with the exception of Philly Joe and Buhaina, they took the music from a straight-ahead swing situation, and amped on it, and made it into something else, to what this is right now. But I still haven’t heard that link back to those guys yet. I’ve heard great representations of what the music is today, but with the exception of what I just heard with Teri Lynne, I can’t say where the influences of the drummers have come from. She sounded great. 4 stars. You haven’t played me anything that I did not like and which sounded bad—and was a bad representation. And I would hope you wouldn’t write about either! It’s just from the standpoint that what keeps a music pure is that there’s a source point, and you can trace the lineage from A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and it goes down the line. But when there’s an offshoot that is something that doesn’t have a point on the chain, it becomes something else. Now, it might be totally valid. I’m not saying that nothing else is valid. That’s not what I’m saying. Just that to this point you haven’t played me anything where I can see a link. The reason I haven’t been able to recognize some of the people is because I don’t hear those influences in their playing. When you played me Roy Haynes, I knew who it was in a second.

7. Ali Jackson, “Dali” (from Ted Nash & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, PORTRAIT IN SEVEN SHADES, JALC, 2010) (Nash, composer; Ali Jackson, drums)

Does anybody play in 4 any more? Not a clue. Don’t know who the band is. It could be Gil Evans—I don’t know. There’s not too much the drummer can do, because he’s playing in odd time, and it’s pretty much arranged—so he’s kind of in handcuffs. Is it a ‘50s or ‘60s recording? [Neither. It’s 2010.] Whoa! I was just thinking of how far back the drums are. [Ali Jackson with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.] That’s really interesting. See how far back the cymbal is? I know Ali, and I like his playing. But this doesn’t represent his sound. They’re probably all great musicians, but there’s no drive. You can’t hear any drive. All you hear is the bass, but the drums have no drive.

8. Ernesto Simpson, “We See” (from Manuel Valera, CURRENTS, MaxJazz 2009) (Valera, piano; James Genus, bass; Simpson, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This must be the piano player’s record. That’s all you can hear. You can’t hear any drums. Well, you can hear the drums, but you don’t hear any cymbals. When was this recorded? A year or two ago? The piano is so out in front, you lose perspective. I spent a week playing with Danilo and Avishai Cohen when he was doing the Panamonk stuff in the ‘90s, and I had a ball. It was great. [Did you play Afro-Caribbean music, salsa, when you were a young guy?] I did a lot. I played in a band called Azteca. I actually did a record called Afro-Cubano Chant with Bob James, Gato Barbieri, Andy Gonzalez, Mike Mainieri, and Steve Berrios, and we did all stuff like that. We played Lonnie Hillyer’s “Tanya” from the Soul Sauce album, Cal Tjader. But I don’t know about this…

9. Cindy Blackman, “Vashkar” (from ANOTHER LIFETIME, 4Q, 2010) (Blackman, drums; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Doug Carn, organ; Benny Rietveld, electric bass; Tony Williams, composer)

This is Cindy Blackman. This is her Tony record. I don’t like the sound of the recording, but I love what Cindy’s playing. The recording is weird. No clarity. Cindy knows how to tune the drums, she has a great choice of drums and everything, but I don’t really get that. It sounds muddled. It sounds like drums and guitar. You’ve got to be able to HEAR the drums. That’s Mike Stern on guitar and Doug Carn on organ. I knew it exactly because I know the music and I knew they made the record. The guitar is way too loud. I’ve been reluctant to do a tribute album for Tony. His playing comes out so much in me, I didn’t think I had to do that. I’m not saying that Cindy shouldn’t have done that; I’m not saying that at all. But I’ve managed just to be able to trace through him and find what I needed to find. And anybody that listens to me play can hear his influence on me. If there’s any negative about this, it’s the sound of the recording. That’s all. 4 stars. It sounds like the snare drum and bass drum in the mix. There’s a whole bunch of stuff she’s playing that you miss. Cindy’s playing some great stuff, but you don’t hear it. Who’s the bass player? [Benny Rietveld.]

10. Paul Motian, “Abacus” (from LOST IN A DREAM, ECM, 2010) (Motian, drums, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano)

Ringing snare drum. See how far back the bass drum is from the snare drum. These engineers and producers make jazz records try to sound like pop records. Jazz music is ambient music like classical music. You need to hear the air around the instruments, and then you hear it in direct proximity. You don’t hear a first violin louder than the viola. It’s a section. It’s a drumkit; you should always hear the whole kit, not the snare drum louder than something else. Is this a younger guy? [No.] I didn’t think so. It’s Paul Motian, but it sounded like Roy Haynes, from some of the things he did. I liked it. 3 stars.

11. Jeff Watts, “Caddo Bayou” (from John Beasley, POSITOOTLY!, Resonance, 2009) (Beasley, piano, composer; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone; James Genus, bass; Watts, drums)

Finally we have somebody swinging. Same thing, though. The cymbal is not loud enough. The music doesn’t swing if you don’t get… And the guy can be really swinging, but it suffers in the mix. I believe what happens is that guys are set to play, and they’re not content enough to make the band swing just playing the ride cymbal. They want to play a whole bunch of drums, and it overpowers everything. So the producers that make these jazz records bring down the drums because they’re afraid that it’s going to overpower everything. But you miss the ride beat. It doesn’t swing if you don’t hear that. It just sounds like a rolling thing. You hear the bass, but you hear the low end of the bass. You don’t really hear any finger noise. And you hear the soloist way up front. So the rhythm section has this rumbling thing, nondescript. Is this one of them new trumpet players? Now, let me ask you a question. Listening to the drummer, who is his influence? [This sounds more coming out of Tony with Miles than anything else, at least in intention.] No way. Because the stuff Tony played, he played off of a ride cymbal. [Is that from the recording or the actual vocabulary the drummer’s playing?] A little bit of both. I mean, the stuff that Tony played was so intricate, it wasn’t just a rolling thing. There was great coordination between hands and feet, and a ride pattern. It was the cymbal beat which keeps the rhythmic perspective, so that when he played some other stuff, it was really amazing, because he played it against and coordinated with the cymbal beat. This just sounds like it’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, but there’s nothing to keep it focused. I don’t know who it was. 2 stars.

I honestly think that the recording made Tain’s contribution suffer there, because I know he has more of a cymbal ride beat than that, because you couldn’t hear it. That’s what made me say what I say. [This is  illuminating for me. Because so many records sound like this, I’m used to projecting what I hear live onto the record, and it becomes like a ghost sound…] See, the problem is it’s as if you went to a jazz club and heard a classical orchestra, and you got used to that sound, so that when you went back and heard a classical orchestra in a correct auditorium, you’d say, “Wow, that’s really interesting, because I’m used to hearing it in….” One of the things that is important in maintaining the history and giving the right perspective about the music is how you record it. When I listen back to the records I came up listening to, the Blue Note records and Columbia records, it had a sound that we all loved and got used to hearing, and it was a quality sound. It didn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. {Is that because of compression?] I think it’s basically attitude from the producer and the engineer. The engineer gets the sound, but the producer says, “This is the sound that I want,” and the artist usually leaves it up to the producer. Or maybe the artist doesn’t know enough to say, “Hey, let’s use this amount of compression on the piano, let’s use ribbon mikes on the cymbals so we can get a sweeter sound.” They don’t take that impetus or study enough to get a great-sounding record. And if the record doesn’t sound good, how are you going to get what it is you want to get across to people? Today we listen to music on phones! It’s like, “Please!” It’s gotten to that point. So I think basically what made Tain’s sound suffer for me was the way it was mixed.

The reason why I became a producer was out of… I was so disgusted playing on someone’s session, and someone sitting behind a glass telling me to do this, and listen to the sound, and the sound sounded horrible. I said, “Man, I’ve got to think and do my homework to find out what it takes to have a good drum sound, and record it.” If I want to make records, then I’m going to need to know how to make my drum sound. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else, to say, “Ok, that sounds good.” No. So I had to take control.

[These aren’t self-produced recordings, but are independent labels, producers who have a point of view, so I’d suspect they think they’re putting some effort into the sound… For example, Paul Motian is on an ECM record; Manfred Eicher puts out a very curated sound…] Yes, and that sounded eons better than the last one. [But you were critical of the sound on that.] No-no. The point is… Yes, I have my opinion. But that was much more of a representative sound of what the music was like. It was a live recording. He had a very open bass drum, and I don’t know who decided, but some producer decided, “We don’t want to have ringy drums like that, we don’t want the snare drums to ring, so we’ll put tape on it and do this and do that.” Motian probably took control and said, “No, this is my sound, this is what I want to…” That’s why I said I knew it when I heard it. Roy Haynes plays a big open bass drum like that, too.

See, Ted, I just want to go on record as saying that what I say is not gospel. It’s just my perspective on it. When I am asked about it, I say what my perspective is. It took me a while to decide to record a record again, because I had listened to what the landscape was and thought about it and said, “Well, do I really want to make a statement in this particular landscape?” My statement is a lot different than what I just heard. But it’s my statement, and I take pride in how to make my instrument sound and how to mike it and all of that. I would hope that would come out in my recording. That’s why I’m so critical about the sound, because I don’t want great artists to make statements and for them not to be heard—and I’m talking about not to be heard while listening. It’s one thing that you don’t hear the record, but if you don’t hear the statement that they’re making while the record or CD or MP3 is being played…

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Lenny White

For Terri Lyne Carrington’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2011

To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz  magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with  Larry Applebaum.)

* * *

When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”

That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.

With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”

“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”

Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.

On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.

“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”

Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.

Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”

In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”

“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.

“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”

[BREAK]

Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”

Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”

Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”

For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”

She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”

It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.

“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”

It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.

“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”

Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.

Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.

“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”

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Filed under Drummer, Jazziz, Terri Lyne Carrington

For the 83rd Birthday Anniversary of the late Paul Motian (1931-2011), Some Unedited Interviews Between 1993 and 2005

Paul Motian (1931-2011) was born 83 years ago today in Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after his death, I posted a few encounters with Paul — one link gives you a 2008 WKCR interview that I published on the www.jazz.com ‘zine and a 2001 feature article for DownBeat; another takes you to  an uncut Blindfold Test from around 2000.  I’ll use the occasion as an excuse to post several complete interviews that I had an opportunity to do with Paul over the years. . I actually can’t remember what the occasion was for the 2005 encounter — maybe a DownBeat Readers or Critics Poll article (that text is somehow mysteriously missing from my files). There follows a 2007 conversation for a lengthy obituary of Max Roach that I wrote for DownBeat. Then comes an interview from 2000 — I think this was done live on WKCR — in which many topics are addressed, not least his Electric Bebop Band. Finally, I’ve posted my first interview with Paul, from 1993 on WKCR, during one of the many weeks he did at the Village Vanguard with the trio he formed in the early ’80s with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Finally, as a reward for plowing through all this stuff, the post concludes with a full set of  interviews that I conducted with various PM associates and musical partners (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron) that I conducted for that 2001 DownBeat article.

 

Paul Motian (Ted Panken) – (July 30, 2005):

TP: I need to ask you about the scope of your activity right now.

PAUL: One thing I’m excited about is that the week after next I’m going to mix the last Electric Bebop Band record I did, which we did in the studio last November for ECM. On some of the tunes, there’s three guitar players—Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jacob Bro. It’s the same band that played the Vanguard last January. [Malaby-Cheek]

TP: So these days you’re playing in New York and doing special hits in Europe…

PAUL: No, I haven’t been in Europe… I haven’t traveled for almost two years. I got burnt out. I hate it.

TP: All these projects with Enrico Pieranunzi that came out on CAMI-Sunnyside were in 2002-03. One’s a duo, with a few trios with Potter; one is a quintet date on Fellini music; one is a trio with Charlie Haden and him.

PAUL: Those were done a couple of years ago in Italy at Morricone’s studio. Nice. Charlie Haden didn’t like it, but I liked it.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry, you’ve got the Electric Bebop Band, and there are a few records coming out that Tina Pelikan has sent with, with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani.

PAUL: Those are nice. I like that.

TP: Then this thing with Bobo Stenson.

PAUL: That’s nice, too. I just got a copy. I’m surprised how good that was.

TP: You went to Europe for those?

PAUL: No-no.

TP: They had to come here.

PAUL: Right.

TP: Everybody’s got to come to you now.

PAUL: Right.

TP: You only go out of New York for vacation?

PAUL: I don’t go on vacation. I go to the Vanguard. That’s my vacation! You know what I was excited about? I just played the Vanguard the first week of June with my band that’s called Trio 2000 + 1. That was great. [Poo Kikuchi, Chris Potter, Larry Grenadier; maybe another record]

TP: Are you now contracted to ECM?

PAUL: No, I’m not contracted to anybody. But I have been working with ECM lately. The last trio record with Frisell and Lovano we did for ECM, and the very first record with that trio we did for ECM.

TP: That was the end of your first go-around with them.

PAUL: Sure. It was in 1984-85.

TP: But you did your first trio records, with Izenson and Brackeen for ECM. So this is your second go-around with ECM. How is it?

PAUL: Great. Manfred Eicher is great. I trust him 2000%, especially during the mix. He’s got such great ears. Wow, he’s incredible. I love the sound of that trio record we did with Frisell and Lovano. Also the sounds of Enrico’s record and Bobo’s record. So I’m really looking forward to this Bebop band record.

TP: This thing started again when you went into the studio with Marilyn Crispell a few years ago.

PAUL: That’s kind of true, I guess.

TP: How did this happen? You had a very productive relationship going on with Stefan Winter from about 1987-88 until maybe three years ago.

PAUL: I must have done more than a dozen records with him.

TP: I think you did. And he gave you a lot of opportunity to put out all your different projects.

PAUL: Yes. In fact, there are still some records coming out now that have been re-released. A trio record with Frisell and Lovano that was recorded at the Vanguard that’s coming out now. We’re going to be playing in September at the Vanguard for two weeks.

TP: Has the trio been working?

PAUL: We played Carnegie Hall. That’s it.

TP: Were most of the pieces on this new record fairly recent?

PAUL: Yes. By not going on the fucking road, I’ve been staying and writing music. I think there are 7 or 8 new pieces I wrote for that record, and there’s I think six new pieces I wrote that will be on the bebop record.

TP: This bebop band record won’t be repertory…

PAUL: Well, there are a couple of Mingus tunes on there. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it; I’ve forgotten most of it. There’s a lot of my new tunes, and I think we did Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, and I think we did a Charlie Parker blues.

TP: You played with Monk that one week in Boston.

PAUL: Right. In 1960.
TP: You said you were scared to death, but you got through it.

PAUL: I was.

TP: You also said that Monk had you sing him your beat, and then he said play it this way.

PAUL: “Try it this way.”

TP: I don’t think you ever played with Bud Powell.

PAUL: No.

TP: And you didn’t play with Bird.

PAUL: I saw Bird play once.

TP: Did you play with Mingus ever?

PAUL: I sat in with him once at the Vanguard. I never really worked with him. I hardly remember it. I heard an interview with Jackie Paris once on WKCR, and he said he was with Mingus on the Vanguard, and he remembered a night when he threw everybody off the stage except Paul Motian. And I wasn’t working with him. I must have been sitting in or something. In those days at the Vanguard, there was always two bands. I might have been playing with Bill Evans opposite Mingus.

I’ll tell you, man, I forget a lot of shit. Somebody asked me, “Did you ever play with Jimmy Nottingham, the trumpet player?” I said, “No.” Then they showed me a picture of me playing with him.

TP: I’d figure that playing with Mingus would be a fairly memorable moment. And you have the gig book.

PAUL: No, it was mostly.. I did play a lot with Oscar Pettiford, though.

TP: The reason I’m asking is that at the time you put together the Bebop Band, there was almost a coming full circle quality. You came up in bebop, you expanded your vocabulary, your way of playing, your notion of time, and in your sixties, as a fully mature player…

PAUL: What’s happened with the bebop band now is that I started incorporating my own music. It started out only bebop, and then we went from that to putting in some standard songs, and then I introduced a couple of my tunes, and now I’m playing a lot of my songs. I’m just mixing the whole thing up.

TP: The way you approach the band changed. Initially, it was a head-solo-solo-solo-head kind of thing, but then you started changing up the arrangements, doing shout choruses…basically orchestrating it. I think it was the first time you used a larger ensemble as a vehicle for your music.

PAUL: Yes. It’s nice having that instrument. All those players, all those instruments…man, it’s great. Did I tell you the story of what Ornette said one time? I had just come from a rehearsal of the bebop band. This was years ago. I met Ornette in the street, around Broadway and 72nd Street. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I just came from a rehearsal with the bebop band, we were playing bebop tunes, and everybody was playing in unison. Ornette said, “all music is a unison.” I said, “Oh great.” That made me feel good!

TP: Lee Konitz told me about rehearsing with Ornette, and he was a bit nervous about there not being changes, and Charlie Haden told him and said, “don’t worry, we play changes…”

PAUL: That’s the story Dewey Redman says. They were rehearsing for a recording, and they were playing this melody that had no changes. Dewey said to Ornette, “Man, it would be great if this had changes.” So the next day Ornette came in with the same tune, and there was a change over every single note. So Dewey said he never asked him about changes again!

TP: You told me a story about Max Roach sitting in on your drums and telling you they were very hard to play, because they were so tightly tuned.

PAUL: Yes. That was at the Half Note.

TP: So the Electric Bebop Band recorded in November…

PAUL: It will probably be a year before that comes out! The record I did with Bobo Stenson is just coming out now, and I did that record when I did the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. [April 2004]. The bebop record I did around the same time I did Enrico Rava’s record.

We did the MFL record date right after I had a root canal. I had a fuckin’ toothache like… I called the dentist, and I went in, I had a root canal around 9 o’clock in the morning, and I went to the studio around 10, and we did that whole record that one afternoon.

TP: That’s very old-school, Paul.

PAUL: Well, I’m old. Anyway, we’re going to play in the Vanguard with the bebop band in January. It would be great if the record would come out at that time, but I doubt it.

TP: What is it about the way Manfred Eicher hears you…

PAUL: It’s him, but it’s also the engineer. James Farber was the engineer on just about all those records we’re talking about, and he’s got my sound down great. He’s got my sound on my drums that’s really wonderful. He’s really good at that. I’m very happy about that.

TP: In some of these conversations you’ve said contradictory things about drum-sound. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter to you what drumset you play, you just go out and deal with it. You said you decided not to take your drum-key on a tour, and nobody had a drum-key on the whole tour, and you just dealt with it. You’d hear a sound and you’d play it. But on the other hand, you said that starting with Paul Bley, really, after you left Bill Evans, you became much more acutely conscious of the sound and timbre of the different components of the kit, and that this set off a sea change in the way you conceptualized the drums. Is that more or less how it was?

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But the thing is, when I went to Europe, I didn’t have my drums, so I had to deal with whatever I got. But I sort of managed to get through it and I was still able to play how I play. That’s what I meant. The sound was nowhere near what I really love, which are my own drums. Being in New York and playing just here and recording and always having my own drums, it’s a pleasure. I love that. But I have to deal with that stuff in Europe, playing on other drumsets. Sometimes I would manage to get my sound, but not really my sound as if I get them on my own drums.

TP: Are you still a Gretsch artist? Can you articulate what you like about the kit?

PAUL: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just the sound of the drums, the way they’re tuned. There’s kind of a bottom sound that I really love, especially with the bass drum and the tuning of the drums, the intervals between each individual drum. It’s great. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s very musical. I played at Dizzy Gillespie’s Coca-Cola Room with Joe Lovano, Mulgrew Miller and George Mraz, and it seemed different to me. I had my own drums and my own cymbals, but it seemed like after the second or third night I changed the cymbals. That’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. It seemed that in that room, the cymbals I was using didn’t quite sound right. There’s a huge glass wall behind you, there’s a wooden stage, and there’s a wooden floor in the club. People in the club say the sound is great, but for me it was very different. I changed the cymbals. But after I changed my cymbals, I was satisfied. It sounded good.

TP: I guess another first for you is playing with Hank Jones on these several hits with Lovano. But you didn’t tour with Lovano, did you.

PAUL: No.

TP: You can only play with him and Hank if it’s in New York. How was it playing with Hank Jones?

PAUL: I loved playing with him. It was great.

TP: That isn’t totally a straight-ahead record, but it sort of is. I guess that never goes away, does it.

PAUL: No. Somebody sent me a CD of something I did with Andrew Hill, and I’m just playing straight-ahead 4/4 time. I don’t really do that any more. It’s a Blue Note record.

TP: I recall that Blackwell was sick in the early ‘90s, you subbed for him with Lovano.

PAUL: I don’t remember that. I remember playing with Dewey Redman when Blackwell got ill.

TP: Joe had a bunch of tunes that were kind of customized for Blackwell, and you dealt with them very much in that style. I hadn’t heard you do that before.

PAUL: Oh. Okay. [LAUGHS] There was a club on West Broadway years ago [Axis], and Dewey had the gig and he called me up. Blackwell was there, but he was so weak, he couldn’t play. I went down and played. Blackwell was really weak, and he was there trying to set up the drums. He was bent over, so weak that he couldn’t put the drumkit together.

TP: In 2001 when you were at the Vanguard, I was standing to the left of the doorway, watching you, and some musician was next to me and said, “Lovano and Frisell are playing the time; Paul isn’t playing the time.” You told me that was true. A lightbulb clicked on or a door opened, and I started hearing certain things. When did you stop hearing 4/4 time within the framework of your own music? You certainly were a helluva time player; you satisfied very demanding people. Why is it no longer part of your customary palette?

PAUL: It depends on the music. It depends on what I’m playing, who I’m playing with and what they’re doing. I’m sort of feeding off of them. The time is there. It’s already there. You don’t have to beat it to death, I don’t think. There was no one particular time when a lightbulb went off and I said, “Oh, man, I’m going to change, I’m going to do this or that.” I never thought that way at all. I never thought about doing anything special or doing anything on purpose. It just happened. It depended on who I played with. I remember the day when I first played with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, the way Scott LaFaro was playing. I’d never played with a bass player who played like that before. I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, people who just played straight-ahead 4/4 time. Here was Scott LaFaro playing… People used to say, “He sounds like a guitar player.” All of a sudden, the time started to break up. I guess maybe during that period was when I first started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe. Now it seems that every bass player plays like that. But in those days, it seemed that nobody played like that. Maybe Gary Peacock might have, but I didn’t know Gary yet.

TP: I think he came to New York a couple of years later. So the trio is playing in September. Do you discern any difference in the way the trio sounds? Might it be just the way Lovano and Frisell have evolved? I assume you listen to these records pretty closely?

PAUL: I think I take it more or less for granted now! I don’t think Frisell or Lovano play that much better now than they did 20 years ago. They played great then. But if I told people about it, they wouldn’t…

TP: You said “they were famous then, but no one would believe me.”

PAUL: That makes sense! I guess they’ve made some progress, I would hope!

TP: Both of them have 20-year careers as leaders, but when they play with you they blend together, and it’s interesting to hear it because of who they’ve become…

PAUL: Yeah, that’s true. I was playing some of that older stuff recently, and the difference is in their sound. They’ve developed different… To listen to Frisell from the first quintet record we did to now is really different. Lovano is not that different, but still there’s some difference in their sound.

TP: Does that have to do with the instruments they use, or the way they think about projecting…

PAUL: Partly. Frisell was using a lot of electronic shit in those days, too, and sometimes now he’s not.

TP: Then he was playing with Zorn and doing a lot of wild shit…

PAUL: This was even before that. I talked to him recently. He’s up in Canada now playing with a group, and it sounds like they’re playing folk music festivals.

TP: Another thing I was wondering: As a kid of Turkish-Armenian descent, and having listened to a lot of that music then, were those complex, wild rhythms ever part of your palette?

PAUL: I don’t know about the rhythms. The melodies would be more of an influence. The melodic part, not the rhythmic part. A lot of the music I heard as a kid, if I hear now… Not only Turkish and Armenian, but some Persian music and music that comes out of Iraq and Iran—the Middle East… Some of that music is dear to me. Some of those melodies are really beautiful. I heard something the other day by the Egyptian woman singer who passed away in the ‘70s… I can’t remember her name, but she was really great. She was singing on television with a 20-piece orchestra playing behind her. It blew me away. It was beautiful.

TP: Do your current compositions draw on those early experiences?

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure.

TP: Do you still listen to Middle Eastern music?

PAUL: Sometimes.

TP: You said you listen to classical music as well.

PAUL: Yeah.

TP: Are you listening to much jazz at all?

PAUL: I don’t know!

TP: Are you hearing anything you like?

PAUL: I’ve been pulling stuff out and listening. I haven’t heard any new stuff that’s come out. If I listen to stuff it’s probably older… As a matter of fact, the other day I was in a restaurant and I heard something that blew me away. It was Miles Davis, and I was sure it was Kenny Clarke. It just sounded great, and I went on a research and bought a bunch of records until I found what it was, and it was the the soundtrack from the movie, Elevator To the Gallows. There’s this one track with just trio, Miles and Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot. Boy, it’s fuckin’ great! Kenny Clarke was one of my big, big loves.

TP: You told me you wondered how he could get so much music out of such a small drumkit. You use not such a huge drumkit yourself.

PAUL: It’s just a normal set. Bass drum, two tom-toms, floor tom-tom, two cymbals, hi-hat, snare drum.

TP: Do they customize it for you?

PAUL: No.

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?

PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…

PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.

PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”

PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

PAUL: No.

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.

PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…

PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]

TP: Has that always been your attitude towards music, from when…

PAUL: When I was first in New York playing with all these fuckin’ great giants of jazz, man, I was thrilled to be doing it and I was happy to be doing it, but when I think about it now, I think I was just lucky to have the opportunity to do that. Someone asked me, “Did you ever play with Sonny Rollins?” I did play with Sonny Rollins. One night at Birdland. It was like a Monday night in Birdland. Sonny Rollins, Tony Fruscella playing trumpet, Curley Russell playing bass, and it was the piano player’s big, Bill Triglia. Bill Triglia called me to make a Monday night at Birdland. I went in there and played, and those were the people I played with. I was kind of scared at the time, when saw it was Sonny Rollins and all these people. But I did my best, tried to play my best, tried to play with them, and learn…I don’t know, just play!

TP: What was the quality in your playing that got you entrenched on the scene? You were working 300 days a year for five-six years, and that probably started around ‘55.

PAUL: Looking at that gig book, there was a time when I played every single night.

TP: So it’s not just luck. You had skills. It can’t be just luck. What was it about you that got all these very diverse personalities to call you?

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: What do you think?

PAUL: I don’t know, man. Even with Edgar Varese, man. I rehearsed with Edgar Varese, and he recorded it on a tape. Teo Macero still has that tape, man. I don’t even know who called me for that.

TP: Is it just because you had really good time.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: Do you think you had really good time?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe I was getting high with somebody and they liked me.

TP: But no speculations?

PAUL: Somebody would call me for a gig, and I would be really happy that they called me for the gig. For instance, that night when I played with Sonny Rollins and those cats at Birdland, Zoot Sims was in the audience, and he asked me to go to Cleveland with him. He heard me play that night there, so he must have liked what he heard, and he needed a drummer to play that gig in Cleveland, and he asked me to play that. I did it, and I ended up playing with him and Al Cohn at the Half Note quite a bit. I guess because I was on the scene, and playing so much all over town and in a lot of places, people heard me, and if somebody needed a drummer and liked what they heard from me, they called me. I don’t think it was anything any deeper than that.

TP: By the time you got to New York, you had enough skills together that you could fit into the scene.

PAUL: I don’t know. That time when I played with Monk, I didn’t know his music. I just kept my fingers crossed that I didn’t fall on my fuckin’ ass!

TP: Moving to the present with Bobo Stenson and Enrico Rava: These were set up to put them together with you, I’d think. What sort of preparation do you do? Any rehearsing beforehand?

PAUL: No. We didn’t get together beforehand. No rehearsal. I don’t do that with anybody.

TP: Why not?

PAUL: I just don’t. What for? I’ve been playing long enough. I’m old enough to know what the fuck I’m doing at this point in my life! I don’t need a rehearsal. I’d rather depend on my own skills and my own whatever to play good and play well when the time comes. I don’t want to rehearse. I think a rehearsal takes away from the beauty of the music.

TP: Is that the case with the Bebop Band also?

PAUL: No, we don’t rehearse. The time we rehearse is when we’re setting up and getting ready for a gig.

TP: The soundcheck is the rehearsal.

PAUL: Yeah. That’s what I’m going to do with Bill McHenry, too. On Tuesday I’ll go down there at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and we’ll go over a few tunes, and that’s it. That’s what happened on the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. We didn’t rehearse. I brought the music in, I showed them the music. We might have tried a few things in the studio, but we didn’t have any specific rehearsal time.

TP: Even though you’re more involved in composition than ever, the aural quality of music is still very important to you.

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure. I thought this was going to be a short interview!

TP: When you were a kid learning drums, did you… I think you said you played in high school bands. Did you learn to read, to play in big bands?

PAUL: Yes.

TP: You have those skills.

PAUL: Well, I don’t…

TP: Or had.

PAUL: I did that, sure. I took drum lessons and read the drum books, went through that. I played, even in pre high school, in the band. I was 12 years old when I started, and any time there was an opportunity to play in a band in school, I did that, and as soon as I got out of school I played. I went on tours with the big band throughout New England before I went into the Service, before the Korean War. Then I played in the band during the Korean War when I was in the Navy. I was in a band!

TP: How did Bill Evans rehearse the band? Was it a bandstand process? You told me you’d go to his apartment and play?

PAUL: It wasn’t rehearsals. We would play. He had an apartment on 82nd or 84th Street.

TP: You said there were a lot more sessions then anyway, so those sessions were like de facto…

PAUL: Right. I saw Bob Dorough the other day, and we talked about that. He used to have a place in the east 70s. I used to play there a lot, up four-five flights of stairs and play. Sessions around town. I used to play all the time. That’s the way it went.

TP: that was the musical culture of the city then.
PAUL: People don’t do that now, I suppose.

TP: How did the association with Bill McHenry begin?

PAUL: He called me to record with him. I guess he knew me. I had never met him. I might have heard about him. I’m not quite sure. But he called me to record with him, and I did, and when I did the record, I really liked it. I liked his music, and I liked playing with him and the band, and the recording was really good. Then when he got a gig at the Vanguard, he called me and I said okay. I think this is the third or fourth time for us at the Vanguard. I think we’re going to record live in the coming week.

TP: Did you decide to do it after he sent you a tape of his stuff, or you just liked the way he approached you?

PAUL: I don’t think he sent me a tape.

TP: What are you looking for in the musicians you play? You seem to keep adding young musicians to your circle.

PAUL: I’m a little careful about what I’m doing. In fact, somebody called me recently from Boston, left a message on my machine, told me he was a piano player and told me his name, and told me the name of the bass player, and said they wanted to come to New York and do a record, and they wanted me to make a record with them. I didn’t return the call. I didn’t know who they were.

TP: But you knew who Bill McHenry was.

PAUL: Yeah. Somebody calls me out of the blue like that, I won’t even react to it unless I talk to the person and they tell me what they do and what the project is about, and maybe I might get interested. I don’t know. But if I don’t know them, I’m not going to get involved.

TP: Are you looking for any particular qualities?

PAUL: Good music.

TP: It seems a lot of your band members have come into your bands on recommendations. Bill D’Arango told you about Lovano, Pat Metheny told you about Frisell… Frisell told you about Kurt Rosenwinkel… But it’s the recommendations.

PAUL: Yes, that happens a lot. Matter of fact, with Malaby, Chris Potter was playing with me, and then he couldn’t anymore, and something else happened, and when I asked about other saxophone players I think he mentioned Tony Malaby…or it might have been Chris Cheek. But that’s the way it goes. Somebody would recommend someone, or I’d ask about someone… If I trust someone’s… Like, Masabumi Kikuchi has been telling me recently about Greg Osby. I don’t know Greg Osby; I don’t think I’ve heard him play. But Masabumi told me he likes him, and he recommended him, and I trust Masabumi. So if it came up that I wanted some… [END OF SIDE A]

TP: You would have no compunction about calling him, and might respond if he called you.

PAUL: Yeah.
TP: But you’ve heard of him. You know of him by reputation.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry next week, and it’s been going on for several years. Then you’re going to mix the Bebop band record, and that’s maybe the 7th or 8th record by the Bebop band, but the first for ECM, and they’re going to play in January at the Vanguard. Then Lovano-Frisell-Motian is two weeks in September at the Vanguard. Any other new projects? We have the Enrico Rava and Bobo Stenson records…

PAUL: We’re talking about playing Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room at the end of November with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani. But I haven’t heard back from Todd Barkan, who books the room. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But I would hope it happens; I’d like to do that. In fact, the sound in the room with that trio might be more to my liking since there’s no bass.

Also I think I’m going to do two nights at Birdland with Enrico Pieranunzi and Marc Johnson in March. In April, I’m playing the Vanguard again with Trio 2000 + 1. Also, the two weeks with Lovano and Frisell at the Vanguard again, too. We do it every year around August-September. I love playing at the Vanguard. It sounds great in there. The sound is beautiful in there! I just love it. Every time I play in another club, it’s never as good. It’s amazing, isn’t it, man? I think the first time I played in there, it must have been in fuckin’ 1954 or ‘55. I played in there with Lee Konitz. I think it was 1955.

TP: You have a gig book entry for New Year’s Eve, 1956. Fifty years at the Village Vanguard.

PAUL: Yeah! I’m sorry I’m not more articulate. Some people are so good at that. Keith Jarrett is great at that. Bill Evans was incredibly articulate.

TP: How’s your book project?

PAUL: I’m looking at it now. It’s on the floor. Every couple of months I pick it up and look at it, and then I correct it. A lot of the stuff I’ve told you is in there.

TP: Last time I spoke to you, you said you had an editor.

PAUL: I don’t know any more. Sort of an ex-girlfriend of mine is a writer and screenwriter and filmmaker, and she helped me a little bit and said she would be an editor. But she lives in Canada, man. I was enthusiastic at one point, but now sometimes, when I read over some it, it sounds kind of stupid. My next door neighbor works for a publishing company. He said, “come on, Paul; just let it go.” Publish it!

TP: You wouldn’t do that with your drumming.

PAUL: It’s quite different, man. I’m not that good at writing.

TP: During the’50s and ‘60s, a lot of the artists were tight with… There was a lot of back-and-forth between the different artistic communities. Did you have a lot of painter friends, writer friends during the time?

PAUL: I remember there used to be sessions at Larry Rivers’ place in the Village. I think he played. Then he had another friend who was a painter that played saxophone. I think that kind of thing was going on. But my memory isn’t that good about it.

TP: Were you part of the Five Spot scene?

PAUL: I don’t think I ever played in there. That’s when I met Charlie Haden for the first time.

TP: I guess you didn’t have time to hang so much, did you. You were always playing, always working.

PAUL: Pretty much. Now everybody wants to hang and I don’t! I don’t have the time. Charlie Haden’s called me four times already to come to the Blue Note. I’m not going down there.

I knew Alvin Ailey. He used to live in my building. Matter of fact, one time he asked me if Keith Jarrett was black, and when I said no, he said, “Oh, fuck him,” and then he used his music anyway! [LAUGHS] That was funny because Alvin wanted to use his music, and then when he found out he wasn’t black, he wasn’t going to use it. Then he used it anyway!

I knew Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. They used to be on the scene.

I was just looking through part of my book where I wrote about Pee Wee Marquette. One was about the pronunciation of my name at Birdland.

TP: If you didn’t tip him, he would pronounce it wrong.

PAUL: Right. Then finally I gave him $5 one night, and he said something like, “Paul Mo-tee-ann!” Some shit like that. It was funny! Then I saw him later on when he was in front of his Hawaiian restaurant on Broadway, sort of like a street hawker. I stopped and talked to him for a while, and that was the last time I saw him. I remember once talking to him, when after a gig at Birdland he asked me where I was playing next, and I told him I was playing at the Vanguard. He didn’t know where it was. He asked me where it was. When I told him, he told me that he’d never been below 42nd Street in his life!

TP: It’s interesting. There were no clubs in the Village presenting modern jazz until the Bohemia until 1955. There were sessions, but it was Nick’s and Eddie Condon’s and that sort of thing.

PAUL: Well, the Bohemia, we used to play sessions in there before they… The Bohemia was one of the places where you could have sessions, where I used to go to play, to have sessions. Then they opened up as a jazz club, and Charlie Parker was supposed to open it, and he died. It was just a bar to go to have sessions, just like Arthur’s Tavern. These were places where you could go and play. There was no money involved; it was just a place for jam sessions.

TP: Randy Weston told me he did his first gig at Arthur’s in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

PAUL: Wow!

TP: Where was Take 3?

PAUL: I think it was on McDougal around the corner from where Visiones used to be. I think it’s the third or fourth building north of Bleecker on McDougal on the west side of the street. I think there was a basement part and another part that was upstairs. That’s where I played with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore…

[—30—]

 

Gretsch Artist:

Bass drum, 20″
Snare drum, 5-1/2″ wood
TwoTom-Toms on the bass drum, one is 8″ x 12″, the other is 9″ x 13″
Floor Tom-Tom is 14″ x 16″

Two cymbals. One is A. Zildjian, 20″ w/ rivets (had it for 50 years)
Other one is Paiste 22″ Dark Ride

Hi-Hats are 14″. One is a Paiste 14″ dark cymbal. The other is old Zildjian Army cymbal that he got in a parade somewhere (over 50 years)

Gretsch Permatone Drum Heads which are the closest thing to the old calf-skin heads. “They really make the difference. A lot of drumsets now have these seethrough plastic heads, which are good for rock-and-roll, but they’re not good for me.”

* * *

Paul Motian on Max Roach (Aug. 19, 2007):
TP: I assume you first heard Max Roach on the Charlie Parker recordings from the ‘40s and other bebop records.

PAUL: Yes. I was pretty young at the time. I was up in Providence, Rhode Island, maybe still in high school… I remember listening to live broadcasts from New York, maybe from Birdland, maybe even before Birdland opened. Birdland opened in December 1949, and I guess I was out of high school by then. But I heard stuff on the radio that Max was on, and I remember sending letters and money to whatever address it was in New York, and they send me back a 78 disc of the recording that I wanted that had Max on it. I used to get that in the mail, and that was the first time I heard Max, I guess. When I heard it, I was kind of in shock. I was pretty young at the time, and I didn’t know too much. But I loved what I heard, and I thought it was interesting and really great, and I wanted to have those records and recordings, so I used to send away for it, and I got these 78 discs.

Of course, he was a very strong influence on me. What he played seemed to be so hip and so modern and so great, and different from… Kenny Clarke was one of the important people in my life who influenced me, but Max was doing something a little bit different. His solos were a little bit different, and just seemed to be really hip and fit right in with what Bird was doing, and the bebop music that was being played. It just seemed really hip and strong, and very well done, and really great.

Did you ever see that movie with Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) that Max was in, where they play music that’s sort of from Carmen? It was made in the ‘50s. With Harry Belafonte…

Then when I came to New York in the mid ‘50s, and I saw Max play when he had the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land, and later with Sonny Rollins… That’s when I first saw him play. There was a club called Basin Street. That might have been the first time. No, there was another time. I had just graduated from high school, and Birdland had just opened, and I drove to New York. I had an old car, and I was 16-17 years old, and I went to Birdland. I saw a band that had Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, all these all-star great jazz bebop players, and I thought the drummer was Max. I remember telling the story to Art Blakey one time in a dressing room when I was in Japan, and Art told me, “No, that wasn’t Max; that was me.” But I still feel like it was Max. That might have been the first time. If it wasn’t, then the first time had to be one of those times when I saw him in New York in that band with Clifford Brown.

TP: For Ratliff you chose “Carolina Moon” by Monk which Max was on. That was in ‘52.

PAUL: I didn’t see that. I heard it on record.

TP: You used to live a few blocks away from him also, on CPW.

PAUL: Yeah, right near me. I used to see him here a lot. If I was walking on Central Park West… I remember bumping into him a couple of times when he was standing in the street in front of his building. We used to talk, and he’d tell some stories. I remember we were talking about Bud Powell, and he told me that when they did the recording with Bud Powell where they played “Un Poco Loco,” he started playing a pretty standard Latin beat on the drums. DING-DING-DA-DING, DING-DING-DA-DING. That’s a pretty standard beat. He said he was doing that on “Un Poco Loco,” and Bud Powell stopped the shit and said, “Max, what are you doing? You’re Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything better than that?” That’s how Max came up with the beat he played on that recording, which is so great.

TP: I heard Max relate that as “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

PAUL: Could have been. Then Max said he bumped into Bud Powell in Harlem after the recording, and he said, “Bud said to me, ‘Hey, Max, you fucked up my record.” Max was telling me, “You know Bud. He was crazy.”

TP: You remarked to Ratliff that once you saw Max with a bass player, Al Cotton, and he told you to watch how Max addressed the drums.

PAUL: How he played and how he moved. Al was saying, “Check him out. Listen.” I seem to remember that there was a balcony or something. I was kind of far away and sort of looking down on the stage, and he said, “Watch how Max plays. He’s not just using his hands and wrists; he’s using his whole body. Look how he moves.” I was checking that out and saying, “Yeah, man, that’s really got something to do with it. You use your whole body. It’s not just in your hands.”

TP: You also talked to Ratliff about the precision and clarity of his arrangements, specifically “Delilah,” but that’s characteristic of the sound of the Brown-Roach band.

PAUL: That’s true. I remember saying that. I love that record, and I play it now and then. The arrangements with that band are so great—and probably all the bands Max was involved in. How meticulous it was, how great it was. There was always an arrangement. There was always an introduction… It wasn’t just always the standard way, like “this guy plays, then he plays, then you take it out.” It seemed like it had something extra in it, it was something special, and it was arranged so beautifully, man. That shit was incredible.

TP: You also spoke about how Max played the form of the song, both accompanying and leading into the solo. Anything you can say to me about that?

PAUL: Well, just that. You can use what I told Ben. Max plays a great solo on that Monk record where they play “Brilliant Corners,” a great chorus.

On the day that Max died, it’s really strange… Before I knew that he died, I was on my computer and went to iTunes, and I played “Koko” by Max with Charlie Parker. Max plays a chorus on “Koko” that’s incredible. Really great. Then later on, on ABC News, they talked about Max, that he had just died, and I had already heard that Max had died, and then they played a clip on TV that was his solo on “Koko.” Sometimes people say that magic is all in your head and it’s not really true, but I think that’s bullshit. Sometimes there’s shit in the air that just happens like that. I guess it’s by coincidence, but it’s hard not to believe that there’s magic in the air sometimes.

TP: as a kid, did you try to play that solo, get it under your hands?

PAUL: Not that particular solo…

TP: But other solos by him?

PAUL: Sure. I tried to copy what I heard. Sure. I did that with a lot of drummers.

TP: Can you talk about what he did that distinguished him from Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey or Roy Haynes?

PAUL: I wish I could. One of the things is sound. Kenny Clarke played great, Art Blakey played great, Philly Joe played great, but they all had their own sound. Big Sid Catlett. If I listen to these guys, I can hear a different… Max’s sound was different from those.

TP: Was it his drum tuning?

PAUL: Could be. That would have something to do with it. But also his technique. The technique that he had, it wasn’t just technique—it was musical. He made music out of the technique that he had. I guess they all did that, but his sound was a little bit different. It could have been in the tuning of the drums, could have been the way that he played… Boy, it’s really hard. I wish I could make it clearer. I just read an interview of Sonny Rollins from Vanity Fair, and he said some stuff in there that’s hard for me to understand. He was asked about people he admires, and he said there really wasn’t anyone. But for me, I admire people like that, who can explain stuff in words that I can’t do.

TP: Some of the younger drummers say, for one thing, Max tuned his drums higher than other people, so he was able to set up intervals to enable his melodic concept of soloing.

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But I have another story for you. I was playing with Tony Scott at the Half Note in the late ‘50s, and my drums were down there on the stage, I was all set up, but I had another gig that day, so I was late when I got to my gig at the Half Note, and when I got there Max Roach was playing in my place on my drums. I said, “Wow, isn’t that great; my man, Max, is playing on my drums. I felt great, I felt proud, I felt privileged.” Then when he came off the stage, he said to me… At that time, my drumset was made by a company called Leedy, and I used to tune my drums really tight. The heads were…I guess the word is taut. It’s not easy to play drums when they’re tuned like that. But Max came off the stage and came up to me, and he said, “Man, I just subbed for you, but your drums were really hard to play. You keep those drum heads really tight.” He found them hard to play. But he played his ass off. Of course, he played great. But when the drums are like that, you can’t fake anything. You’ve got to play the shit, and he did. But he did tell me that it was difficult.
TP: I guess that was a good compliment.

PAUL: It sure was. My drums aren’t tuned like that now, but they were then. He had a hard time with it.

TP: People have also talked about the way he incorporated Afro-Caribbean rhythms and even East Indian rhythms into his beat flow, that he was ahead of the curve.

PAUL: I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I was aware of any of that. Although there were things in the paper about different groups he had, and M’Boom, with all the drummers, and the band he had later with Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater… I didn’t hear that much of that. When I was really into it… The thing that killed me and knocked me out was the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land and Richie Powell—and Sonny Rollins later—and George Morrow. Actually, that was my first experience of being involved in the jazz scene, and learning about people dying and being killed. When Clifford Brown and Richie Powell got killed in that car crash on the turnpike, that was my first experience of that, and it was really devastating. Since then, there’s been multitudes of people! But that was the first time that ever happened to me, and that fucked me up.

TP: Do you recall when you first met Max Roach to get to know him? Did he come to hear you play, or at a Monday night at Birdland?

PAUL: It could have been. But I must have known him before that Monday night when he subbed for me at the Half Note.

TP: For one thing, you were playing with Tristano all the time, so he must have…

PAUL: I was. But the other thing is, there was an interview with him in Downbeat back then, in the ‘50s, and they asked him if he heard any new young drummers on the scene in New York, and who did he hear and who did he like, and he named me and Elvin as the two drummers he heard and liked. That made me very proud, and I felt really good about that. The other thing was, I did this recording with George Russell, one of the first recordings I did, and I remember going to the Café Bohemia with George Russell, and we walked in, and there was Max sitting at the bar. That might have been the first time I met him. George Russell went up to Max and said, “Max, this is Paul Motian; he just recorded with me. I wanted to know if I could use that quote of yours that Paul and Elvin are two young drummers you heard that you liked.” Max said, “Yeah, you can use that.” That made me really feel good.

TP: Among your peer group in the ‘50s, was Max respected as the main guy?

PAUL: I suppose. I don’t know. I would hope so. I would guess so. One thing that makes me sad is that Big Sid Catlett died pretty young, and he was still alive when I was in New York…

TP: He died in 1951, I believe.

PAUL: Oh. I wasn’t in New York then. But I never saw him play. That’s too bad.
TP: You saw Papa Jo Jones play, though.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you continued to know Max, but it sounds like you weren’t so up on what he was doing after the early ‘60s.

PAUL: I guess maybe not.

TP: What did you think of his solo compositions? Did you check them out?

PAUL: Sure. There was another time I was in Europe, Sicily maybe, at a jazz festival, where the bands played. It was outdoors. He played a solo. I remember seeing and hearing that. It was great! He put that shit together so good!

TP: During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s he was studying composition formally, and orchestral percussion and so on. Another thing people are talking about are the components of his kit. He had a floor tom with a pedal that was set up to sound like a tympany, and he used a little tom-tom on the snare that he’d use. So there were certain tonal things that were part of his sound.

PAUL: I didn’t know any of that. One thing I remember, though, that surprised me that I didn’t know about… I didn’t know too much about his history or what he studied. But I remember being in the Vanguard one time, and I don’t know if I was playing there or not, or if I was just there, or if Max was playing there… I don’t know. But there was no one playing at the time, it might have been at the end of the night, and Max was sitting at the piano, playing the piano. Knocked me right on my ass! I didn’t know. I said, “Wow, isn’t that interesting. He knows what to do on piano. I should have known that anyway, but I didn’t. But when I saw him play piano, I was a little surprised, and thought that was really great. It made me want to study music more, and get into composition, which I wasn’t at the time. I’m not sure if I was playing with Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett; it was a while ago. But when I saw that, it sort of turned me on to want to do more… Because I didn’t get into composing and trying to study piano and all of that until I was in my mid forties. So when I saw that at that early time, it made me think about that, and wanting to be better at what I did, and getting more into learning more about music. When I first studied drums, I didn’t know that a song had 32 bars, or changes, or whatever. But seeing Max do that, and then getting into that, just turned me on.

TP: Do you think a lot of drummers were like you, not as trained, and Max inspired that?

PAUL: Yes. The joke always was, “Oh, he’s not a musician; he’s a drummer.” That made me mad! [LAUGHS]

Max was very intelligent and very articulate. He knew what he was talking about, and he made people like me understand… He wasn’t a fuckin’ dodo, man. He knew what he was talking about, he was very articulate and very sure of what he said, and very strong.

Look at all the stuff that he did. He wasn’t just a drummer who had a band and shit. He had the double quartet, the M’Boom thing, the Freedom Now Suite, all those different things. He was incredible. He was great. What about that documentary about him, where he plays with the hip-hop group. That documentary also has a clip of Kenny Clarke and a clip of Big Sid Catlett.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

* * *

Paul Motian (9-7-00):

TP: Vis-a-vis the electric bebop band, what was the motivation for going back to the repertoire that I suppose you began with?

MOTIAN: Well, that band started ten years or so even before that, but I didn’t do anything with it. I just had a rehearsal with different people. It was Mike Stern and Bill Frisell on guitar and Mark Egan on bass and myself. We had a rehearsal in my house, and I taped it, and then I kind of forgot about it. then ten years or so later, I was on tour with Charlie Haden, and Charlie’s son, Josh, who is also a bass player and has a band of his called Spain… I just mentioned it to Josh, about bebop music and what I was doing back then, and he said, “Oh, that sounds really interesting; I’d like to hear that. At that time I was playing at the Vanguard with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden, and I said, “Okay, in the afternoon let’s get together and we’ll have a little rehearsal. So we did, with Josh Haden and Kurt Rosenwinkel and another guitarist, Dave Fiuczinski. That was the late ’80s or so. Then I got interested in it again. About ’90 or ’91 or ’92, Kurt came over to my house and we talked about it, and then we put this band back together, and it was just two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. The bass player was Stomu Takeishi at the time, and Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. It grew out of that.

TP: You’ve played the whole realm of improvising and been on the forward tip of it at any particular time you’ve played in, playing with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and Oscar Pettiford in the ’50s, and getting into the true outer partials in the ’60s, actually leaving Bill Evans to do that, with Keith Jarrett’s very influential band in the ’70s, and of course the trio with Frisell and Lovano that’s influenced so many younger musicians. Why moving back to bebop?

MOTIAN: Oh, I love bebop!

TP: Does it feel fresh?

MOTIAN: Yeah!

TP: Was it something you had to not do for a while to really appreciate.

MOTIAN: Well, no, it’s not a thing about that. It’s just that that’s the music I kind of grew up with, you know, when I first came to New York in the early ’50s, and it’s the music I love, and I was involved in it… I think it’s great music. There’s a lot of great players, a lot of great players that came out of that, from Dizzy and Monk and Bud Powell to Tadd Dameron.

TP: The tunes are unbelievable. It’s like an endless well of repertoire.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah! I just keep finding more stuff, more stuff. We played and recorded a Herbie Nichols tune recently, and someone was telling me about all his great music, and someone else was talking to me about Elmo Hope and all the great music he did. So there’s no end to it, man.

TP: One thing that distinguishes you is your direct contact with masters. You sat in with Thelonious Monk, and did you say once you’d sat in with Bird…

MOTIAN: No, I never played with Bird. I saw him play once, but that was it.

TP: I guess you came to New York in ’53, and you got into the mix pretty quickly.

MOTIAN: Mmm-hmm.

TP: How does the instrumentation affect what you do with the material? Also, what you do as the leader, as the drummer, in shaping the flow. What’s your intent in working with this music?

MOTIAN: I like to play good music. I like to play great music. I don’t know about any intent outside of that. It just keeps growing. I keep finding people, and… It started out, like I said, with just two guitars, bass and drums, then I said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be just that.” Then I added a saxophone, who at the time was Joshua Redman. Then we were playing in Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, and Josh could do half the week, and I hired Chris Potter to finish the week, and one night they crossed paths and two of them played. So I heard two saxophones, I said, “wow, I really like that,” and I hired two saxophones. So it got to that.

TP: It certainly gives you a lot of options. The band sounds very full now. People are doing spontaneous orchestrating. There’s always something going on.

MOTIAN: Yes. I wanted to get away from the usual thing of melody-solos-melody-end. So I try to arrange it. I try to make everyone aware. And I make them kind of be aware of it. I make them arrange it. I’m sort of like, “Step in it, man; go ahead; see what you can do. Why don’t you trade off with this guy and do this and that.” And they’re growing inventive about that. so it’s just growing into becoming more arranged and playing a lot of piano player’s music with no piano and stuff like that.

TP: It’s also interesting that there’s such a wide pool of strong young musicians who want to explore that music, which might not have been the case 20-25 years ago.

MOTIAN: Right. And I appreciate that. These guys are willing to go with me on tour. It’s rough out there! [LAUGHS] We went to Beijing, played in Shanghai… It’s been great.

TP: You travel a lot.

MOTIAN: Yes. But it’s not going all year long. You know what I mean? Maybe four months out of the year I’m on the road.

TP: But there are a lot of players who know your sound and want to articulate a musical experience that has the Paul Motian sound, whatever that may be. The next offering is from a recent collaboration of that nature.

MOTIAN: I was contacted by two French musicians, Bruno Chevillon, a bass player, and Stephan Oliva, a pianist. They really told me that they loved my music and they wanted to play with me. They said that they had arranged my music, and would I come to France and play a concert with them — which I did. It was very successful. People liked it a lot. Then we did it again at a festival in Paris. Then they arranged a recording, so we did a recording for the French BMG label. It’s mostly all my music, and I really appreciate what they did with it. It’s really great. We did play at a club in Paris for a couple of nights, too, which was a lot of fun.

TP: Did you do it before the recording as a sort of rehearsal.

MOTIAN: No, those gigs in Paris came afterwards. Before the recording we had played two concerts. That was it.

TP: What do you do when you go into a situation cold with musicians you haven’t known before, and you sit down and it’s unmistakably your sound imprint. You just go in and hear and play?

MOTIAN: I just play from what I hear. Sure. I sit down and play, and I react to what I’m hearing and play that. That’s it.

[MUSIC: Fantasm, “Interieur Jour”; Solal-Johnson-Motian, “Night and Day,” “Gang of Five”]

TP: Paul was saying that 37 years ago you performed with Martial Solal in his American debut at the Hickory House, and didn’t see him again…

MOTIAN: Right. Teddy Kotick on bass.

TP: You didn’t play together again for 35 years.

MOTIAN: Wow. [LAUGHS]

TP: Do these ironies present themselves in the moment of playing, or in retrospect?

MOTIAN: I guess so, yeah.

TP: You certainly sounded like you played together let’s say one week a year…

MOTIAN: Well, I played the Hickory House gig with Bill Evans one time, with Martial Solal another time, and with Joe Castro another time. That was a gig that went on for months. You played in this club for two or three months at a time. It was a steakhouse actually. I didn’t play with Martial for 30-odd years or more.

TP: You said he was a raconteur, very humorous. He’ll say, “Here’s the piano player” and point to the bench.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he’ll point to the bench. Actually Enrico Pieranunzi does that, too. [LAUGHS] These guys, I don’t know…

TP: It’s a European thing.

MOTIAN: Could be. He reminds me of Victor Borge, in a way.

TP: This record combines originals by you, Martial Solal, and a few rearrangements. You must have a book of a hundred or so compositions?

MOTIAN: No, not that many. About 50 or so.

TP: You’ve been composing for a long time.

MOTIAN: Not that much. But I don’t feel too bad about it Somebody told me Monk didn’t write that many songs either — 50 or 60. That’s fine with me. I was into it more… I’m not into it so much… I’m not doing so much writing now.

TP: So the ’70s and ’80s were a time when you were generating a lot of…

MOTIAN: Yes. Because I was putting together… Starting in ’76, when I put together my first trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, and I started writing. I was studying piano and writing and trying to learn. Then it went to a quintet, and I had to write stuff for that. I did a lot of writing at that time.

TP: Let’s take you back to ’63 when you did those couple of months with Martial Solal at Hickory House. At that time you were still part of the Bill Evans Trio, which you left the next year. You spent the ’50s playing with Oscar Pettiford, you played with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, you played with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and numerous gigs. Let me take you into some well-trod territory with those years. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

MOTIAN: Right. Born in Philadelphia, then the family moved up to Providence; I couldn’t have been more than 2 years old.

TP: You became interested in drums around 10 years old?

MOTIAN: I started at more like 11 or 12. I took some drum lessons and whatnot, went through the usual stuff. I started playing professional gigs I guess when I was still in high school ,which is the late ’40s.

TP: By then bebop had hit. Things like “Shaw Nuff” coincided with your beginnings as a musician.

MOTIAN: I used to listen to jazz radio from New York and I’d send away for 78 records. I used to hear records by Max Roach, Bud Powell and Monk, and I’d send to New York for them and get these 78 vinyl records in the mail. I listened to a lot of big bands when I was a kid.

TP: Who were the drummers who impressed you early on?

MOTIAN: The first drum teacher I had was a drummer in the neighborhood, who really wasn’t a teacher; I heard him playing one day and got really interested in it, and asked him to show me some stuff. He gave me a couple of lessons, and then I went to another teacher. But he played me a record with Gene Krupa on it, and that impressed me right away. Then I heard Max Roach, and like I said, I was sending away for records from Max.

TP: The early Charlie Parker releases, “Koko” and that sort of thing?

MOTIAN: Right.

TP: So it just developed from there. And you said were playing professionally in high school. Were you working as a musician and going to high school simultaneously?

MOTIAN: No. Maybe a couple of gigs on a weekend. I hooked up with a neighbhorhood musician or musicians in bands, and a couple of players from high school — maybe we played a couple of weddings and stuff like that. Not really that much jazz. Playing in clubs and bars, stuff like that.

TP: When did it become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician?

MOTIAN: I guess right from the beginning. I never thought about anything else, I never did anything else, and I didn’t plan it or anything. It just happened. I just went along with the flow.

TP: That seems the operative thing. You seem to go along with the flow and surround yourself with strong personalities, and you have a strong personality, and…

MOTIAN: Well, I love music, man. [LAUGHS]

TP: You mentioned that you joined the Navy because you wanted to go to the Navy School, because it was a great way to get a higher education and get it paid for.

MOTIAN: And not have to go to Korea to a war zone. The deal at that time was, I was about to get drafted in the Army. I was the right age for that. Then I heard that there was a school of music, that if you joined the Navy you could pick what you wanted to do if you volunteered. I heard about their music school in Washington, D.C., so that’s what I did. I volunteered for the Navy and went to that music school, and then I got ill and never really spent any time there — and then they shipped me out! [Europe]

TP: Were you playing over there?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was in the band. I was part of a band that was the Admiral’s Band, the Admiral of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. We were his band. Where he went, we went. When he transferred from one ship to another ship to another ship, we went with him. That was the deal.

TP: That wasn’t such a bad way to spend your Service time.

MOTIAN: No, I enjoyed it. Working out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with nothing else around except the sea and sky and air. It introduced me to Europe. It was great. I was 19 years old.

TP: You’re one of the many musicians who came up at the time you did who got a good deal of education in the Armed Services. Then you were stationed in New York, you were living around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you were released and got into the scene.

MOTIAN: I got really lucky. Because when people got transferred… You did a tour of duty on a ship. I did I think two years. That was usually what happened. Then you would get transferred, and you have no choice; where they send you, they send you. I got lucky, man. They sent me to New York! It’s called the Central Receiving Station, which was across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But I had an apartment in Brooklyn. I’d go to work in the morning, there would be a band rehearsal, and then you’d go home, unless there was some dignitary coming into town who you had to play for or a parade. Otherwise, that was it. There were some nice musicians in that band, and we started playing then. Then when I came out, I just stayed in New York.

TP: You came here in ’53. Did you start hanging out right away?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I went everywhere. Wherever anybody played, I was there. I’d take my drums on the subway. Anything.

TP: You mentioned being at the Open Door quite a bit.

MOTIAN: Yes. There were a lot of things happening at the Open Door, a lot of sessions there. That was on Lafayette and Third Street, around that area. It’s all probably part of New York University now.

TP: Same buildings but much more expensive.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I heard Charlie Parker there, man. It was incredible. And there were sessions there you’d go to. A lot of people, man. You played. It was great. There were other places. There was a place called Arthur’s Tavern in the Village that had sessions. There were sessions at a lot of places. You’d go to people’s houses. I met Bob Dorough; we used to have sessions at his house on the East Side up in the 70s. There was a pianist named Don Rothenberg who used to have sessions. I met Ira Sullivan there, and we used to play there. Every chance I got. There was a place up on 110th Street, a bar in Harlem where you lined up, man, took your turn and played.

TP: When did people start hiring you? You mentioned that Monk took you to Boston for a week around ’55 or so?

MOTIAN: No, that was ’60. January 1960. I played for a week at Storyville in Boston with Monk, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse. I was scared to death!

TP: But by then, you’d already played with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans. I’m just looking for how you began to form the network of associations that kick-started your career.

MOTIAN: Well, in those days, when all those sessions were happening, you were out there. You were quite visible. People heard you and people called you and people hired you. Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill Evans. Actually, when I met Bill Evans, there was a clarinet player named Jerry Wald, who used to have a big band, then he had a small group. Through the grapevine, I heard he was auditioning people to take a band on tour. So I went to that audition. This was almost after I got out of the Service. I went to that audition and Bill Evans also went to that audition, and I heard him play and said, “Wow, who’s that piano player? He sounds great.” Someone said, “Oh, that’s Bill Evans from New Jersey; he plays really good.” So I was thinking, “Wow, I hope I gets this gig and he gets it. He sound really good.” So we both got the gig and we went on tour with Jerry Wald. We went to Puerto Rico, we went around the East Coast different places. It was a sextet with a vibraphone player and a guitar player, a singer. Then somehow, Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill. We went on tour with Tony. That was kind of the beginning. I guess with Jerry Wald it could have been ’55. With Tony Scott, 1956-57, in there.

TP: You must have taken advantage of the opportunity of being in New York and being able to go around and study all the great drummers first-hand, who you could hear almost any time. I mean, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson and on and on. I know all those people impressed you, but talk about how it worked. Your transition from being talented to being a working New York professional.

MOTIAN: I don’t know if I can follow that path! But at Birdland at the time, the original Birdland, which was on Broadway and 52nd Street… I heard Art Blakey in there with his band. It wasn’t called the Jazz Messengers at that time. It was with Horace Silver and Curley Russell maybe. Anyway I heard that band a lot. Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell; I heard that band. At Cafe Bohemia, Kenny Clarke playing with Oscar Pettiford and George Wallington. I was in those places daily, nightly, all the time, man, listening to those people.

TP: The most amazing education you could get.

MOTIAN: I thought that was par for the course. Everything happened like that.

TP: We’ll hear something that wasn’t released until a few years ago, the Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh Quintet at the Half Note with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. You played quite a bit with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz has been a friend and recording colleague for years.

MOTIAN: True. There was a club downtown called the Half-Note run by the Cantarino family, and they talked Lennie Tristano into coming out and playing. Lennie hadn’t played or performed in public in a long time, and he didn’t plan to. Anyway these people called him and got him to come out and play at the Half Note, and I played there a lot with Lennie in the late ’50s-early ’60s for two or three years. One time we played at the Half Note ten weeks. Ten weeks at the Half-Note, man. And Lennie kept me and used ten different bass players during that time, everyone from Teddy Kotick to Paul Chambers to Peter Ind, Red Mitchell, Whitey Mitchell, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes… It went on and on. [LAUGHS]

TP: He was very specific about wanting his drummers to keep things within a certain area.

MOTIAN: He never said anything about it, but you felt that your job was to keep time, man, and let these guys go and play. One time we were exchanging fours, and he said, “You know, Paul, your fours sound like a drunk falling down stairs.” I said, “Oh, that’s great. Thanks a lot, man.”

TP: I’ve heard that said about other drummers like Dave Bailey. Anyway, Lennie Tristano wasn’t in the house the night this was recorded.

MOTIAN: Yes, Tuesday was Lennie’s night off. He was teaching on Tuesday nights. So on Tuesday nights we would play sometimes without a piano player sometimes with. That particular Tuesday it was Bill Evans. Bill had been playing with Miles Davis, and he had just left and was about to start his own stuff. It was around that time.

[MUSIC: w/Konitz-Marsh, “April”; Konitz-Swallow-Motian, “Johnny Broken Wing”]

TP: The Electric Bebop Band plays a repertoire that mines the amazing compositions of the period when Paul Motian came musically of age, between 1945 and 1960… [ETC.] At once idiomatic and contemporary. The sound has evolved…

MOTIAN: We’re doing some of my music with this band, which is interesting. I have some very open kind of pieces where I like to have everybody playing at the same time and trying to make some music out of it. Interesting.

TP: In the next set, we’ll hear music with Paul Bley, who you’ve been playing with since the mid-’60s, and Keith Jarrett, with whom so many people heard you during the late ’60s-early ’70s. Let’s go through your bio again. You began playing with Bill Evans in Jerry Wald’s Sextet, and you’re on Bill Evans’ first trio recording in 1956 for Riverside. How did things develop? Did the trio work a fair amount up to 1959, when the next recordings are?

MOTIAN: Yes, we were playing. We were doing gigs. We didn’t go on the road. We played mostly around the New York area. Then Scott LaFaro came on the scene, the next record was with him, and then we did go on the road!

TP: In that interim, you were playing and touring with Oscar Pettiford. You were playing in one of his tentets, and he took an integrated band to Florida in ’57 or so.

MOTIAN: Yes, it was ’57. We played at the University of Florida, we played in Virginia. Went by bus from New York on quite a bus ride.

TP: You have an amusing story about Oscar Pettiford about the drumsticks.

MOTIAN: okay. We were playing at Small’s Paradise in a quintet with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Sahib Shihab on baritone saxophone, Dick Katz on piano, myself and Oscar Pettiford. At that time I had these very light, skinny drumsticks, 7-A’s, and I was playing with those. After the set, Oscar picked up one of the drumsticks, and he said, “What kind of sticks are these, man?” He sort of was bending them; they were almost like rubber in his hand. He said, “Get yourself some sticks, man.” So I went downtown to the drum shop, got some heavy sticks, came back the next day and played.

TP: He must have been a strong man.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he was great. He played great. People used to say, “Man, you’re playing with O.P. He’s death on drummers, man. How are you doing, man? What’s going on?” I said, “I guess he likes me.”

TP: Apparently so. And you were also playing a lot with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

MOTIAN: Yes, we used to play at the Half Note quite a bit. I loved those guys; they sounded so great. It always confused me, because it seemed like everyone always talked about Zoot and not many people talked about Al, and Al had this great big sound, played so great. Well, both of them; they were incredible. I couldn’t figure out how they… They used to drink so much. I couldn’t figure out how they could play so great and drink so much alcohol.

TP: I heard a story where Zoot Sims said he practiced that way.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I guess so. And someone else told me another thing about Zoot, that Zoot walked into this bar on 52nd Street called Jim & Andy’s dressed in a tuxedo, and everyone freaked out. They said, “Zoot, what are yu doing in the middle of the day in a tux; what’s going on?” He said, “I don’t know; I woke up like that.”

TP: Let me ask you a question about drums. How has the drumset changed from when you started playing up until when you were playing with Bill Evans and to today? Has it changed palpably? Has the sound of drumming changed because of changes in the way they’re made?

MOTIAN: Wow. I don’t know.

TP: Are you very particular about the size and make and composition of the cymbals?

MOTIAN: No. I’m interested in sound. I don’t care what it looks like, what size it is. It has to sound musical. It has to sound right to my ears. People say to me, “Oh, we’ve got this rider that you’ve got to have this 18-inch bass drum. I say, “Man, I don’t care. It could be a 50-inch bass drum. If it sounds good and musical, I’ll play it. That’s the way I feel about it. Also, I like musical sounds, man. I want it to be pleasing to my ears. I don’t tune the drums to specific notes or anything like that. It’s just pleasing to my ears.

TP: When you go on the road for one of these long European excursions are you taking…

MOTIAN: No. I don’t take anything any more except for some drumsticks and brushes. Last tour I didn’t even take a drum key, and that was a disaster. Because no one seemed to have a drum key everywhere we went. So I dealt with it. So I have to deal with the drums, and that’s kind of a drag, but there’s no getting around it.

TP: Apparently, if recorded evidence is worth anything, which I think it is, I think people will know it’s you on whatever set of drums. But you’ve been an informed observer of drum construction for about fifty years now, so I wondered about your perspective.

MOTIAN: I guess the first drumset I had was during World War II, and the rims were wood instead of metal. Then they came up with more stuff. They just kept coming out with more stuff. I mean, cymbal stands that do certain things, boom stands…there was none of that when I first started.

TP: Before this digression, we were discussing your early years with Bill Evans. So the records came out in ’59, and the records became popular and an incredibly influential entity.

MOTIAN: Well, that kind of happened later. A lot of gigs we did, we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping when we played. I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with Bill and Scott LaFaro with only 4 people in the club, and talking to Max Gordon and saying, “Hey, man, can we go home; there’s only four people,” and he says, “Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.”

TP: And it was probably the third set.

MOTIAN: Oh, in those days, man, we used to play from 9 or 10 at night til 3 or 4 in the morning. I didn’t see the sunlight. And we went from one club to another club to another club. You never went out of town. All the gigs were in New York. You went from one club to another, from Birdland to the Vanguard to the Half Note, then back to Birdland. Like I said before, we played ten weeks at the Half Note with Lennie Tristano, nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. Then we’d go back to Birdland for three weeks, then go back to another club, and then maybe go to Boston for a couple of gigs and then go back. It’s the way it was. In those days you spent $2 in a taxi to get to a gig, and it took you maybe half-an-hour to get there, and you played for 6 hours or more. Now it’s like 8 hours on a plane, and play one hour, and 8 hours in a plane back. [LAUGHS] It’s quite different.

TP: It must make things sound different as well. Then as far as the Bill Evans Trio, as time goes on, there’s ferment in music in New York.

MOTIAN: Yeah, there was a lot going on.

TP: And you left Bill Evans to be part of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah, I left Bill Evans in 1964. I came back to New York and was playing with Paul Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra at the time. There was a lot going on.

TP: And your affiliations with that scene began during your tenure with Bill Evans. That’s when you met people like Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden?

MOTIAN: Well, I met Charlie when I was playing with Bill Evans at the Vanguard, and Scott LaFaro said to me, “You know, there’s a really great bass player playing over at the Five Spot with Ornette Coleman. I want to introduce you. I want you to meet him. Come on over. So I went over and Scott introduced me to Charlie. That had to be ’59.

TP: So you heard Ornette Coleman when he hit New York?

MOTIAN: Yes, at the Five Spot.

TP: In ’59 were you open to it? Did it sound right to you?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was. You know, it was very different, and I was interested. Sure, I thought it was great.

TP: So basically, you’re aware of everything that was going on around you and you wanted to partake of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah. I was on the scene a lot. A lot more than now.

TP: You and Paul Bley have done numerous recordings, and we’ll hear from a Soul Note date from 1990 called Memoirs.

[MUSIC: Bley-Haden-Monk, “Monk’s Dream”; Keith-Peacock-Motian, “You And The Night and Music”]

TP: When did you begin playing with Keith Jarrett? ’68 or ’69?

MOTIAN: I’m not sure. When I met him was with Tony Scott. There was a club in the Village called the Dom. Tony Scott was playing there, and he called me. It was a Monday night. I was playing somewhere else, and I had the day off Monday, and Tony Scott calls and says, “I’ve got this gig for you, man,” and I said, “No, it’s my night off,” and he said, “No, come on, you’ve got to do this gig.” So I went and did the gig, and when I walked in the club Keith Jarrett was playing piano. I said, “Man, who’s that? Cat sounds great!” He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett; I discovered him.” Tony always said he discovered everybody. Bill Evans. Everybody. I think Henry Grimes was playing that night. So I met Keith then and we played. We played with Charles Lloyd together in ’68.

TP: So when Jack De Johnette left Charles Lloyd, you became the drummer with Charles Lloyd.

MOTIAN: Right. I did that for about a year. We did a very interesting tour at that time. We went to Laos and to Malaysia and Singapore, Japan, Okinawa, the Phillippines with Charles Lloyd, but Keith didn’t go because they were trying to draft him, put him in the army to go to Vietnam, so he couldn’t leave the country. A pianist named Jane Getz did that tour with us. But I had met Keith; we toured the country with Charles Lloyd then. Then when Keith wanted to put together his own trio, he called me and he called Charlie Haden, and he said the reason was that he always liked the work that I did with Bill Evans and the work that Charlie did with Ornette, and he thought that would be a good combination. That’s how that started. It had to be around ’68-’69.

TP: The sound of the music is palpably different than what you did with Bill Evans in the early ’60s, and I guess the role of the drums also becomes very different. Was it a transition for you?

MOTIAN: Yes.

TP: How did you approach that? Was it hard for you to change your mindset or did it happen very naturally?

MOTIAN: It did. Because there was a lot of stuff going on. Just little by little. When I first started playing with Scott LaFaro with Bill, I started breaking up the time and playing more open stuff, then that grew and grew and grew. Before I played with Keith, I was playing a little with Paul Bley. Then there was the Jazz Composers Orchestra where the music was getting more out and freer. Then joining Keith and seeing the way he played, that seemed perfect for me. I was really happy with that. It seemed like that was the way to go. It seemed like an improvement, it seemed like an evolution… Let’s play!

TP: At that time, did you change the drums you played?

MOTIAN: No-no.

TP: It was never about that in any way.

MOTIAN: No. It’s all inside.

TP: For you, in your learning process, were you ever someone who would internalize what other drummers were doing and try to do that as close as you could?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I tried to copy them! Yeah, man, until you find your own voice.

TP: Who were those drummers?

MOTIAN: Kenny Clarke mostly. Max Roach. Art Blakey.

TP: With Kenny Clarke it was the way he played time?

MOTIAN: Yeah, just the sound. And the way he played, and how he played, and how he got such music out of a little amount of equipment! Boy, when he was playing at the Bohemia, I was there every night checking that out. It was great. Then Art Blakey and Max. Listening to Max Roach on record and trying to play like that, to copy it exactly, and do the best you can that way. I remember listening to Charlie Parker and trying to play his phrasing on the drums, and stuff like that. That’s the way you learn. Then eventually, hopefully, you develop your own voice and take it out there!

TP: With Keith Jarrett it was a steady-working entity for about eight years.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. It went on for a while.
TP: Dewey Redman joined when, in ’71 maybe?

MOTIAN: In ’72 at Slugs, the jazz club that was down at the East Village. Lee Morgan was shot on a Sunday night, they were closed Monday, and we opened Tuesday. And the vibe was very strange in that place! That’s when Dewey joined. That was ’72.

TP: Was the band very interactive? An equilateral triangle type of situation?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I mean it was his music. He wrote the music. We didn’t play standard tunes. Also, I had my first trip to Europe with Keith.

TP: So at the end of your tenure with Keith Jarrett you start forming your own groups.

MOTIAN: Right around ’76 is when I started doing that

TP: And I suppose your interest in composing music gestated while you were with Keith Jarrett’s band.

MOTIAN: Exactly.

TP: Was it again a gradual thing, you had to do this…

MOTIAN: Well, I never felt compelled, that I had to do anything. Like I said before, I play from what I hear and I’m listening and trying to make music, and integrate myself and my playing into the music, and go from there.

TP: I think your first record is in ’74 or so, Conception Vessel?

MOTIAN: My first record I guess was a trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

TP: I just want to take you up to the trio of twenty years standing with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. I personally was very struck by the records with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

MOTIAN: There were two. There was another record with J.F. Jenny-Clark, who died recently.

TP: But that particular sound and the Brackeen-Izenson trio; I’m interested in the personnel and in the way you were hearing. Basically you made a transition to being a bandleader, doing your music.

MOTIAN: Basically, the reason that happened is I was playing with Keith Jarrett, and at that time I was starting to think about doing my own stuff, and I asked the agent who was booking Keith, “If I put a band together, would you get me some gigs?” He said, “Sure.” So I put together the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson, and he got us one gig. In Michigan. That was it. And I was stuck with being a leader. Well, there you go. Okay, Paul, you got it.

TP: And I guess you kept doing it. Well, I guess part of your activity is that and part is these freelance assignments with various associates. Let’s hear the most recent recordings by the Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, from a pair of recordings documenting the band at the Vanguard in ’95, Sound Of Love and You Took The Words Right Out of My Heart.

[MUSIC: “The Sunflower” & “Misterioso”]
TP: …one of the most influential bands of the ’80s and first part of the ’90s, when they played together with great regularity. Paul informs me that “You took the words right out of my heart” comes from a Bob Hope movie with Dorothy Lamour.

MOTIAN: When I first heard it was on a Thelonious Monk record. Monk was playing it. That’s what turned me on. Then I copied it off the record and started playing it. Then I saw a film that was made in the mid-’30s, in 1934 or something like that, called The Big Broadcast of ’34 or some year, with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and Dorothy Lamour is singing this in this film! But I heard Monk play it first.

TP: The process of hearing things backwards didn’t just start with this generation of musicians.

MOTIAN: That’s right.

TP: A few words about Lovano and Frisell, and the chemistry.

MOTIAN: It started out as a quintet. First it was Billy Drewes and Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Ed Schuller. Then it became Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano. We did three records for Soul Note that I like very much. I guess they’re hard to find, but I think there’s some great music there. We were playing one night somewhere in Italy, and there’s one piece of mine that just called for the bass to lay out, and for a few minutes it was only Joe and Bill and I playing. At that moment I thought I could play my music with this trio without having a quintet. Economics was involved, and I liked the idea of playing without a bass and just to give it a try. That’s how that happened.

TP: That trio became one of the more influential bands of the time. A lot of musicians speak of hearing that trio just as people like Joe Lovano or John Scofield cite the Keith Jarrett Quartet as having an impact on the way they thought about music. It gave them a sort of paradigm shift, hearing what you did with Monk’s music, or the three albums of deconstructed show tunes. Did you embark on those projects as concept records, or were they part of the imperative of what you were doing?

MOTIAN: During all the years of playing, there were a lot of songs that I felt associated with, songs that I played with Bill Evans, song that I played on commercial gigs or whatever, and I just wanted to record those songs that I felt close to and that I had experience with. So I added Charlie Haden, and we did two records also for JMT…

TP: It’s been a great producer-artist relationship.

MOTIAN: Yes. Except you can’t get those JMT records any more. They’re gone. That’s too bad. So we did three records of standard songs, called Paul Motian on Broadway. There’s a funny story that the cover designer for the first of those records walked to Broadway and took a photograph of me and threw it up in the air and took a picture of that, and put it on the album cover. Then the third one was the same band with the addition of Charlie Haden plus Lee Konitz.

TP: Did your choice of material have to do with personnel?

MOTIAN: No, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about the songs. They were songs I felt close to, and I wanted to record them. I did a lot of research. I was checking out all the composers. There was some great music there — Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter. I love that stuff.

TP: In the last five-six years, as Lovano and Frisell both have such busy careers, it’s hard for that band to get together. But obviously, when you do hit, you hit with a vengeance. Just a few sentences about Lovano’s qualities, Frisell’s qualities, the simpatico you feel. You said for one thing about Joe Lovano that he remembers everything, that you can pick up something you did eight years ago, and he’ll remember it.

MOTIAN: Yes, that’s what’s great. I don’t want to think about it if I don’t have to. I give it to Joe, man. He’s great for that.

TP: Anything salient about Frisell, how his sound meshes with you?

MOTIAN: I don’t know. I just like it. I tried to put together a band after the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson and then with J.F. Jenny-Clark. I wanted to put together the quintet. I talked to ECM at the time and they said, okay, they’d record. I heard Michael Gregory Jackson, the guitar player, play in New York one night, and for the first time I heard the guitar sound with synthesizers or whatever, and I thought, “Wow, the guitar can sound like a violin; isn’t that great.” Then I was playing with Pat Metheny, and the quintet was going to be Pat Metheny and Michael Gregory Jackson and Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden and myself, and it was going to record for ECM. We did a quartet gig in Boston with Michaael Gregory Jackson. But then it sort of didn’t happen, and the quintet I ended up with was the continuation of that. Pat was the one who recommended Bill, and I heard Bill getting this sound I’d heard before that could do so many things, and that got my interest up. So that’s how it started.

TP: So it gave you a broader orchestral palette, as opposed to the more monochromatic spectrum of the Izenson-Brackeen trio. This is the The Paul Motian Trio Plus One, from 1998. Core trio is Chris Potter and Steve Swallow, and coming in on tracks are Poo Kikuchi and Larry Grenadier.

[MUSIC: “Three In One” and “Sunflower”]

TP: Back to 1983 for a track with the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, which you played with throughout the ’70s into the ’80s, and maybe the only big band I can remember you playing with as such. You didn’t do very much big band playing.

MOTIAN: Not much, no. The Oscar Pettiford Big Band for a little while. The Jazz Composers Orchestra was quite a big band. Charlie Haden.

TP: What memories do you have of the Jazz Composers Orchestra?

MOTIAN: Oh, I thought it was a great experimental kind of scene. There was some great music, the music was changing, getting more free. I met some good players. It was a nice scene.

TP: In ’64-’65-’66, who are some of the people you were playing with? Did you do gigs with people from the whole sonic range?

MOTIAN: It was mostly Paul Bley during that time. I never did play with Albert. I heard him a lot, of course. Also, there was a period for me during that time when I didn’t have that many gigs. Before I joined Keith Jarrett, there weren’t that many gigs. I took a bunch of commercial gigs. For a while I was playing floor shows and stuff like that in New York.

TP: So it was like taking a day job so you could do the things you wanted to do.
MOTIAN: Well, it was hard to do what you wanted to do in those days actually. For me it was. I mean, the time after I left Bill and then before I got with Keith Jarrett. Rock-and-Roll was more and more popular, and jazz was sort of not…

TP: Passe.

MOTIAN: Kind of. So there weren’t that many gigs around. I wasn’t hooked up with anybody special at the time. I did what I could. So I took a lot of commercial gigs, and sometimes didn’t gig at all, and no money, no nothin’!

TP: That was probably the last period when you could live in New York, however meagerly, and do that.

MOTIAN: True. Rent in an apartment… You could get by with $100 a month and have a decent apartment.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden LMO, “El Segador”; Pietro Tonolo(?), “Wig Wise”]

TP: We’ll conclude as we began, with the Electric Bebop Band, drawing on the vast wellspring of music composed between 1945 and 1960, drawing on Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Herbie Nichols, and some original music as well…

A lot of musicians who came up in the ’50s and ’60s played a lot of Latin music as rent gigs. Was that part of your scene?

MOTIAN: No. No. Didn’t do that.

TP: The show demonstrates the interconnectedness of personalities in jazz. It seems in this music there’s only two degrees of separation! I think this afternoon is a living embodiment of that in addressing the career of Paul Motian, who since arriving in New York in 1953 has played with or shared bandstands with or been in proximity to every major improviser you can think of, from Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett and Dewey Redman and on and on, and always stamping his own sound on the music. So truly one of the legends of jazz music, and still thriving, about to go on a three week tour that will put you 20 flights in three weeks.

MOTIAN: Or so. One time we did a tour with the Broadway quintet, with Lee Konitz, Frisell, Lovano, myself, Mark Johnson. In three weeks we had 35 flights.

TP: So while 40 years ago, the life wasn’t the healthiest life, playing from, say, 9 to 4 a.m. every day, and the various hazards of the jazz culture, but now you’re going off flying every day on these extended tours.

MOTIAN: There’s always some dues to pay, man. If you don’t want to pay any dues, don’t do music. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: “Split Decision” & “Celia”]

* * *

 

Paul Motian (6-15-93):

Q: I’m very glad to introduce to the New York radio audience, his first WKCR appearance in 25 years, the drummer-composer Paul Motian, who is leading the Paul Motian Trio at the Village Vanguard this week, one of the most creative ensembles in the world of improvised music. Welcome back to WKCR, Paul Motian.

PM: Thanks. Nice to be here.

Q: This trio has been working together for 12 years, is it?

PM: Just about. I think so.

Q: How did you find these guys? Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are now famous musicians, but in 1981 they weren’t.

PM: Yeah. I tried to tell people that in 1981. They wouldn’t listen to me!

Q; That they were famous?

PM: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I said, “These guys can play, man. Check ’em out.” Anyway, it takes time. I found them through the usual thing, word of mouth, other musicians. Yeah. Pat Metheny recommended Bill Frisell to me, and I think it was bassist Marc Johnson that recommended Joe Lovano. In the beginning, before this trio happened, it was a quintet, and before that it was a quartet with Marc Johnson, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano and myself. Then Marc ended up leaving, he went with Stan Getz, and blah-blah-blah…

Q: Was there an instant empathy?

PM: Yeah, there was. I mean, there were other people involved, and then it just… When it got down to the nitty-gritty, it ended up with Bill and Joe and I. And it’s worked out great.

Q: It’s a group that takes the ethos of improvising to real heights.

PM: Yeah.

Q; Nothing is ever treated the same way on a given night.

PM: Right.

Q: That must be very stimulating to you.

PM: Yeah, hopefully. Yeah, it is. It is. Because we’re playing some of the same music we’ve been playing for years, and it’s always a little different. And especially now, since Bill and Joe also have their own bands and we don’t get together as often as we used to, it’s really taken another turn — and it’s great. I love Bill and Joe. We’ve been together now for this while, and we’ve done lots of tours together, a lot of gigs together, records, and it works out good. They are both very helpful. Joe is great, Bill… I mean, they remember tunes and arrangements, and you know, also have suggestions and things; we work things out. It’s been great.

Q: There are very few bands with that type of longevity around.

PM: Uh-huh. Well, I don’t know. What about the Modern Jazz Quartet?

Q: Well, I said very few. I didn’t say none! The band plays this mix of standards and your original music that you’ve recorded.

PM: Right.

Q: You must have a huge book by now to draw on.

PM: Yeah, there’s a lot. But I mean, sort of like it’s settled into a few favorites, as it usually does, ha-ha…

Q; Define “few”.

PM: I don’t know, about ten or twenty tunes. [LAUGHS]

Q: I believe this is the first time that this band or a band under your leadership has appeared at the Village Vanguard. Am I right?

PM: That’s true… There were other bands that were…you know, there were coop sort of bands with trios and stuff that I was part of. But this is actually the first time for my own thing, yeah.

Q: However, your history at the Village Vanguard…

PM: Goes back.

Q; …goes back maybe a year or two.

PM: Heh-heh, it goes back, yeah.

Q: You were telling me your first appearance at the Vanguard you can definitely pin down…

PM: To New Year’s Eve, 1956, with Lee Konitz. ’56, let’s see…thirty…

Q: 37 years ago.

PM: Something like that. And I think I may have played in there earlier, because I was in New York actually in ’53, even though I was in the Navy at the time, but I was living in Brooklyn… So in ’53-’54, I was in New York then already. So I could have been in the Vanguard before ’56. But I started keeping a record in ’56, so I know that for sure.

Q; [ETC.] Tell us a little bit about Motian in Tokyo. We’ll be primarily hearing your own compositions.

PM: This is a record that was done in Tokyo, in Japan, a couple of years ago, a live recording, mostly my compositions. I think there’s one Ornette Coleman tune on there, but it’s mostly my tunes. A lot of them were pretty new at the time. We were actually reading the music and stuff. But there’s some nice things on here. I’d like to hear this track called “Mumbo Jumbo” that we play pretty often.

[MUSIC]
Q: We heard three offerings by the core of the Paul Motian Trio, augmented by Lee Konitz and Charle Haden on the last two selections. That, of course, was “Tico, Tico,” preceded by “Handful of Stars.” That comes from the most recently domestically issued release by the Paul Motian group, Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 3. [ETC.]

I’d like to talk to you about your background in music. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

PM: Right.

Q: Did you start playing drums very early?

PM: I was about 12 years old when I started.

Q; Did it really start at 12? Were you doing rough-hewn, hand-made percussion, or banging on things?

PM: No, I took my first drum lesson from a neighbor who was a drummer at that time. I was around 12 then.

Q: Was there music around the house, in your family?

PM: The music around my house, in my family was sort of Middle Eastern music, Arabic music, Armenian, Turkish, that kind of music. Old 78 records, and the wind-up phonograph… That’s what I heard as a kid.

Q: Did you ever get to go out and hear music? Was music part of family functions?

PM: No, not really. They liked that music, the records that they had. They enjoyed that. But as far as I know, there were no musicians in the family or any big interest. As a matter of fact, my mother was against me playing drums. She didn’t want me to do that.

Q: It must have made a racket around the house.

PM: Yeah.

Q; So what happened? You just took to the drums…

PM: I just took to the drums. I did. I did. I loved it. And still do! [LAUGHS]

Q; So this neighbor gave you the rudiments.

PM: Yeah, he gave me one or two lessons. He really wasn’t a teacher. And then I found a more legitimate teacher, and then played in school in the bands, you know, in junior high school and high school, like that.

Q; When did you first start listening to Jazz and to Jazz drummers?

PM: I guess I heard… When I was in high school in Providence, Rhode Island, from the radio, from broadcasts from New York, from other musicians that turned me on to stuff. I remember I was in about the tenth or eleventh grade in high school, and someone took me to a record shop and played me a Charlie Parker record.

Q; So you heard Max Roach there.

PM: Yeah. Right.

Q; So what did you think about that at that time? How did that sound to you?

PM: I loved it.

Q; Yeah?

PM: Oh, I loved it. I feel for it right away. And then I started sending away for records. I used to send to New York for records, like 78 records. I’d get them in the mail.

Q: What were some of the records you were hearing then?

PM: I’m talking about Bird and Max Roach, some of those, and some big band stuff, like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and like that. But I guess it must have been radio. I was hearing stuff on the radio.

Q: Were you listening to that analytically, in terms of yourself as a drummer…

PM: No.

Q: …or just in the total sound of the music?

PM: Yeah, to the music. I wasn’t analyzing it, no.

Q: When did you start really being serious as a drummer with the idea that it would be your life?

PM: I don’t know. Probably not much longer after I got out of high school, and then went into the Service and played in the band in the Navy. I guess from then on… And then started… When I was in the Navy and I was stationed down South, I used to go to jam sessions and try to find places to play all the time. I was about 19 or 20 years old at the time. And around that time, I guess, I was getting pretty serious.

Q: Now, for a lot of musicians of your generation the Army really was a great musical training ground.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that how it was for you?

PM: Well, in a way. I mean, the reason I went into the Navy was… It was during the Korean War, you know, and a lot of friends of mine were getting drafted and getting killed and stuff. And then I heard that there was a music school, that the Navy had a music school, that if you joined, enlisted, you could go to this school. Which I did. But it ended up I didn’t go to the school very much because I got sick, and I was in the hospital, and then they shipped me out! [LAUGHS]

But I met a lot of great, interesting people during that period, and I’m still friendly with some of them. And one of them is a bass player, Jack Six, that plays with Dave Brubeck — a close friend.

Q: Other well-known musicians you came in touch with?

PM: No. But I mean, through that music school… I know Bill Evans went through that school, and so did Eric Dolphy.

Q: What school is that?

PM: This is called the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. I didn’t see them, I didn’t meet them there at that time. But they were in there sort of. We kind of, you know, passed…

Q; Well, you wound up, as you said, in New York in 1953 or so.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that also through the Navy?

PM: Yeah, I was stationed in Brooklyn.

Q; Were you in a band?

PM: Yup. But I was living in… I had an apartment in Brooklyn. And we used to go in at 9 o’clock for a band rehearsal, and have a rehearsal, and then go home. Unless there was some function that you had to take part in, play in a parade or something like that — you did that. And I was there for about 10 months, I guess.

Q; So you got to New York in ’53, and I take it you took full advantage of the opportunities of being in New York.

PM: Oh yeah. Yeah, sure. Then after I got discharged, I stayed — stayed here.

Q: So you hung out a lot, you heard a lot of music.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Did you go to Birdland…

PM: Yeah.

Q; …and different clubs…?

PM: Yeah! Saw Bird play at the Open Door. There was a place called the Open Door. It’s down where NYU is now, Lafayette and 4th Street or 3rd Street, something like that. I saw Bird play there one afternoon. And actually, I got to play with Thelonious Monk there once. I went there to hear Monk, and Arthur Taylor was supposed to be the drummer and he wasn’t there, so Bob Reisner, who was running concerts at that time, knew me, he’d seen me around town, and he said, “Paul, if you want to play with Monk, go home and get your drums — you can play with Monk.” I said, “Wow, great, man.” So I ran home, got the drums, and played that night with Thelonious. That was at the Open Door. And that was in 1955. Because Donald Byrd was playing at the time, and recently I ran across Donald Byrd in Europe, and he told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk that night — that afternoon or whenever it was… I don’t even remember if it was night. I guess it was night. That was in ’55, man.

Q: ’55? I guess that’s before…? Was Monk’s cabaret license reinstated at that time?

PM: I don’t know.

Q; I take it you were also gigging around this time.

PM: Right.

Q: You were working with a number of people.

PM: Actually, I met Bill Evans at an audition for… There was a clarinet player at that time named Jerry Wald. He was putting a band together. He was auditioning musicians for some gigs on the road, a sextet — he had a sextet. And I went to the audition, and that’s where I met Bill. I think that was in ’55. And at that time also I was playing with Tony Scott, also with Bill Evans playing piano. And doing… You know, gigging around town, doing gigs, doing commercial gigs, doing jam sessions, doing whatever.

Q: I have here a liner note to a 1957 release that you appeared on with Warne Marsh, by Nat Hentoff, and he says: “He has worked with Oscar Pettiford, Tony Scott, Don Elliott and Zoot Sims, among others.”

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Was that a one-off thing, or a semi-regular thing?

PM: Well, I was playing one night at Birdland on a Monday night, which was the off-night in Birdland; I was playing in there one night with Sonny Rollins. And Zoot Sims came in and heard me, and hired me — he took me to Cleveland with him for a gig. That was the first time I met Zoot. So that was in the mid-Fifties, probably ’55, ’56, something like that.

Q: What was it like working with Oscar Pettiford?

PM: Great. Oh, I loved him. People used to say to me, “Hey, man, how are you getting along with O.P.?” You know,, they’d say, “He’s death on drummers, man; he kills drummers.” And I said, “Man, I don’t know. He must like me!” [LAUGHS] But one day we were playing at Small’s Paradise, and after the set he grabbed my drumstick. At that time I was using these drumsticks that are called 7-A. They are very thin and very light. And he took the drumstick and he said, “What is this, man?” — and he started to bend it. He said, “This ain’t no drumstick, man.” He says, “Go get you some drumsticks.” So the next day I went down and got me some heavier sticks!

But Oscar was great, man. I learned a lot. He was a great bass player.

Q: Did other people give you… Was that type of advice-giving…?

PM: Yeah.

Q: That was a kind of frequent thing?

PM: Yeah, sure.

Q: What are some other things that people told you that you can relate to us?

PM: Monk asked me…he said, “Sing me your beat.” [HEARTY LAUGH] And I went, you know, “DING-DINGADING-DINGADING.” He said, “No, no, man. He said, “DU-DING-DING-DADING-A-DING…” [LAUGHS] I mean, stuff like that; you know, that came up.

Q: Do you think there was more collegiality among musicians then? That musicians were more open with each other in a certain way…?

PM: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if it was more or less. But I got along pretty good! [LAUGHS]

Q: I guess where you really came to prominence in the broader world of Jazz was through your work with the Bill Evans Trio.

PM: Yeah, I guess so.

Q: You’d worked before that, you were on records, but this is where your name really became…

PM: Yeah. It’s funny, too, because I mean, at the time you didn’t really think about it. And I remember when we did the Village Vanguard and we did the Vanguard recordings, which was the last time we played together, and as we were packing up we kind of said, “Well, let’s try and play more; let’s try and do some more things and play more often” — and that it would really be nice to make a music that didn’t have a date on it. And at the time I didn’t realize… One never thought about if that would happen — and actually it somehow.

Q: I guess the first recordings by the trio were in 1956.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But were you working fairly steadily together from then through the first records that really made their splash?

PM: Oh, I don’t know about steady. We worked… We didn’t work 365 days a year, you know, but we put in a few months a year. But I was pretty tight with Bill. We used to hang out a lot and play at his house a lot. But it was always music, you know. I mean, we’d be involved in it one way or another. If it wasn’t actually a gig, it would be a session I’d play or go somewhere. I used to take my drums on the subways, on the ferries, on the buses all over.

Q: We’ll hear a few selections from Portrait In Jazz, Scott LaFaro’s first session with the Bill Evans Trio. These are selections you picked out amongst the…?

PM: Well, it’s all good, man. I like this record. I think this is one of my favorites, if not my favorite Bill Evans Trio record.

[MUSIC: “Turn Out the Stars (Paul Motian/Bill Evans, JMT)

“What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Portraits in Jazz, Bill Evans Trio.

Q: Before we continue, just a few words about Bill Evans and your sense of him as a person, a colleague, a friend.

PM: Well, I always kind of felt like he was an older brother, you know. He was a couple of years older than me. We were very friendly. We hung out together. Close friends. Great pianist. He influenced a lot of people. I had great times with him. I’m glad I have those memories, man. It will last forever. Great music.

And this thing you just played, “Turn Out The Stars,” I never played that with him, actually. I guess he wrote that after I had left. So that was a pleasure to do that. It was a pleasure to do the record.

Q: You said that in the late Seventies you were starting to really listen to the compositions…

PM: Oh yeah.

Q: …and get that together with him somewhat.

PM: Well, the thing was that when I left Bill, it was in 1964 or something like that, and then I didn’t see him, or we didn’t really hook up for many years — you know, ten years, fifteen years went by. And then, a few years before he died, I guess about four years before he died, we got together. He had a birthday party at his house, or it might have been a Thanksgiving party or something where he was living in Fort Lee, New Jersey. And I went there, and we hung out, and it was great to see him and great to hang out with him again. I took him a tape. I had a tape from an old radio broadcast that we had played together on from Birdland, and he played that. And it was nice getting back together with him again.

At that time, I was kind of getting into writing more, and… Actually, he called me. He asked me to play with him again. He called me and he said Philly Joe Jones was playing with him, and had just quit, and would I play with him again. And I had to turn him down, because at that time I had just formed my own trio with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, and we were about to go to Europe on a tour. So I had to turn him down. And then when I was on tour in Europe, I was thinking, “Gee, it’s nice to get back with Bill and to hang out with him. I can learn so much from him, and now that I’m into writing music…” But then he died, so that was the end of that.

Q: Was that sort of the genesis way before of this project, of the Bill Evans project?

PM: No, not really. This Bill Evans project came up much later.

Q: Well, it’s one of a number of concept records, for lack of a better word…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: …that you’ve done for JMT. There are three volumes of Motian on Broadway…

PM: Right.

Q: …with your own singular reorchestrations of…

PM: Standard songs.

Q: …standard songs, so to speak, and this, and there’s also an album of your orchestrations of Monk’s music as well, Monk in Motian.

PM: Well, the Monk In Motian idea was from the record company. They approached me. That was my first record for JMT. And Stefan Winter from JMT Records approached me about that. He asked. He thought it was a good idea if we did a Monk record with the trio. So that was kind of the beginning. And the Broadway records are songs that I just love and that I have been associated with through the years. And I think that the writers of those songs from that period, the Twenties, Thirties, Forties are some really great, great music! And I researched it and picked out the songs that I felt close to or ones that I liked, and tried to vary the different composers. Then I started reading autobiographies and biographies of George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and…heh-heh, on and on. So I spent a lot of time researching that and picking out the tunes — it was a lot of fun.

Q: You also would have been playing in situations where this music was being played…

PM: Right.

Q; And I’m assuming behind vocalists as well.

PM: Sure.

Q: Who are some of the vocalists you’ve performed with over the years?

PM: [LAUGHS] Well, I did get to play with Billie Holiday once. That was great.

Q; What was that like?

PM: That was incredible. She was in the audience. I was playing with Tony Scott at a club called the Black Pearl, which was on First Avenue up in the Seventies somewhere; First Avenue, Second Avenue, somewhere on the East Side. Sam Jones was playing bass, Kenny Burrell was playing guitar, it was Tony, myself, and I think Jimmy Knepper was playing trombone. Billie Holiday was in the audience. And Tony just… Tony Scott got to the microphone and just started saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday. Let’s have her sing, get her up here.” And she was shaking her head, no; she didn’t want to get up there. But Tony was insistent. So she came up. So I got to play a couple of songs with Billie Holiday, which I love! I was in Heaven playing with Billie Holiday. I also played opposite her at one time, once or maybe twice.

And other singers…I remember playing with… Well, when I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, somehow we ended up… We were playing at Birdland with Chris Conner. I remember doing a gig or two with Anita O’Day once. Like that. Not too many, though.

Q: But all the music on these project albums has a real visceral connection to you?

PM: Sure. Well, I mean, they’re songs that I feel connected to.

Q: It’s part of your life experience in a very tangible way.

PM: Sure. I would say that. Mmm-hmm.

Q: When you’re thinking about the reorchestrations… I know we’re kind of shaky territory talking about why you make the kinds of creative decisions you make…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The melodies are always there, but they are always twisted in a certain way. Maybe just take one of the songs, and talk a little bit about why you decided to treat it the way you did.

PM: Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t anything written out. There was just my ideas about who should play where and when and with who. I mean, that kind of thing. That was all. There was nothing really…

Q: So you’re leaving a lot of the content to your musicians, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

PM: Yeah. I mean, I may have an idea about, like, who should play the first solo, or who shouldn’t, or who should lay out here or lay out there, and when people should play together, you know, depending on how I hear it. And I would explain that to them or tell them about it, and try and do that. And we may have tried something that didn’t work, and I might want to change it or not, you know… It was like that. It wasn’t anything… I didn’t sit down and write stuff on paper.

Q: Another area of music that’s touched you very closely is the Bebop music of the 1940’s and early ’50s that you came up under.

PM: Sure.

Q: You’re currently leading a new band that I guess has been together maybe a year now…?

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band. [ETC.]

PM: Bebop, that’s the music I grew up with, man. I mean, that’s…. And I love it. And I just wanted to play the music, but I didn’t want to do it in the sort of standard way with trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums. I wanted to do it a little different. And the idea was to have two guitars, two electric guitars, electric bass. It started out like that. Then later on I added the saxophone. The music that I grew up with, the music that I loved…

Q; How did you recruit these musicians?

PM: How did I recruit these musicians…? [LAUGHS]

Q: Josh Redman is the tenor player in the group. One of the guitarists is Brad Schoeppach…

PM: Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel. You know, the same way that the trio stuff happened, and before the trio, the quintet — from word of mouth. Actually, I think Bill Frisell recommended both of those guitar players. Bill heard Kurt Rosenwinkel in Boston in a band. And when I was putting this thing together, I was… Actually, the first time I tried this was about ten years ago, and I had it with a band with Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Mark Egan. We did a rehearsal at my house, but it really didn’t work. But at the time, we were kind of playing my music and not so much Bebop music. So that was kind of the beginning of the seed or whatever you want to call it.

And then it was kind of like word of mouth; someone would recommend someone. I had a couple of other guitar players. But the two that ended up on the record and now that did the tour with me, it’s working out real well.

[MUSIC: “Scrapple From The Apple,” Paul Electric Bebop Band; “Gaia,” Kikuchi-Peacock-Motian, Tethered Moon; “Monk’s Dream,” Bley-Haden-Motian, Memoirs; “Birth,” Keith Jarrett-Redman-Haden-Motian, Birth.]

Q: That set reflects one particular musical association with Keith Jarrett, who you played with from the late 1960s until the late 1970’s.

PM: Yeah, about ten years, I think. I think there’s maybe 13-14-15 albums I did with Keith.

Q: It was a very popular group at that time.

PM: Umm… I don’t know. [LAUGHS] It was fun. I loved the music. We had fun. It was great. And we did work fairly often.

Q: Do you find that the albums reflect the true quality of the group, for the most part?

PM: Mmm…yeah.

Q: Yeah?

PM: [LAUGHS] Sure.

Q: What was your hook-up?

PM: With Keith? Actually, Tony Scott called me to play with him at a club that was down on Eighth Street. What was that called? I forgot the name of that place already. So I went down with Tony, and when we walked into the club, Keith Jarrett was playing piano with Henry Grimes on bass, and I don’t know who else, and they were playing “The Song Is You.” And I said, “Hey, Tony, who’s that guy? He sounds great” — the young piano player. He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett. And that’s when we met, and that’s when we hooked up.

And then we started playing together a little bit. Then after Jack DeJohnette left, I played with that band for about a year or so. And then we did his trio stuff, and then it became a quartet. The quartet started in 1972. I remember we played at that club down on the Lower East Side where Lee Morgan got shot… What was the name of that place?

Q: Slugs.

PM: Slugs! Right. That’s when Dewey joined the band. We played in there the day or two days after Lee got killed in there. It was a very strange vibe! It was! So that’s how it started with Keith, hearing him at that club downtown and then getting together and hooking up.

Q: And during the existence of this band is when you start putting together your own groups and recording under your name for ECM.

PM: Yeah… I was actually thinking about Keith… When Keith formed that trio with me and Charlie Haden, he said that he had always wanted to do that because he admired my work with Bill Evans and Charlie with Ornette, and he always wanted to do that.

But anyway, I wasn’t really writing then. It was after that that I got into it. I did write a couple of things when I was back with Bill Evans, but I never pursued it too seriously.

Q; Your collaboration with Charlie Haden continues, particularly on record.

PM: Right.

Q; I don’t know how much you get to perform together in concert situations.

PM: Well, not so much any more, since he’s living in California now. But I’m still part of the Liberation Music Orchestra. As a matter of fact, we’re going to be doing a European tour next summer. And this coming September, we’re doing some gigs with the Liberation Music Orchestra, at the Monterrey Festival and a couple of other things during September. But I haven’t seen him now for a while. But yeah, we’ve been involved with different groups together.

Q; And does your relationship with Paul Bley go back to the Sixties, Fifties…?

PM: Oh yeah. Sure. With Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, we did a recording back in the mid-Sixties, a little later, that came out eventually on ECM…

Q; Was that the one with John Gilmore?

PM: No, this was before that. And I remember playing with… We used to play at a club down in the Village, around the corner from where Visiones is now; I forgot what that was called. But that was with Paul Bley. We used to make a dollar, two dollars a night! And it was Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore, Albert Ayler and myself. It was a hell of a band.

Q: Now, in the early 1960’s, you were working with Bill Evans, but you were also involved in a wide range of…

PM: Right.

Q: It seems you’ve always been involved in things that would just totally confuse anybody…

PM: [LAUGHS HEARTILY]

Q: I mean, to think of you playing with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler at the same time…

PM: Uh-huh.

Q: Do you feel that all things are possible in music?

PM: Yeah, man. It’s all music, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the main thing. I mean, when I was playing with Bill, I was also playing with Lennie Tristano, I was playing with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Oscar Pettiford — a lot of people. I mean, just playing with Bill, I don’t think I could have made a living actually. We didn’t work that much.

Q: You had to be flexible over the years.

PM: Yeah.

Q; You certainly seem to epitomize that. We’ll now hear a set of Paul Motian Trio recordings… [ETC.] I guess I first really became aware of you as a writer in the late 1970’s with the release of two albums on ECM when you had the superb saxophonist, Charles Brackeen, in your band, and David Izenson was the bassist early on. [ETC.]

PM: Mmm-hmm. I think it was around 1976 when the Keith Jarrett band broke up; that was the end of that. And I kind of wanted to see if I could do something on my own. I can’t remember how or why I got together with Charles Brackeen somehow… It might have been from his record. He did a record called Rhythm X…

Q; With Blackwell and Charlie Haden.

PM: Right. And David Izenson, I can’t remember the specifics.

Q: You probably had hooked up at some point…

PM: Well, I knew David from before. I mean, we had played together and we had done some projects together. And I was starting to write; you know, I was starting to write some music. And I was with ECM, and at that time ECM put together tours, European tours. So we did the record and we did a tour. And that’s how that was.
Q: The date on the record is 1977. We’ll hear “Dance,” the title track, and then a few more contemporary recordings by the Paul Motian Trio… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Motian on Broadway, Vol. 1.

PM: We still play “Dance.” It’s one of the pieces that stayed with us, stayed with me.

Q: So there’s really a process of weeding out.

PM: Yes, there is.

Q; You write prolifically, and then you decide and establish…

PM: Yeah. You know, depending on what seems to work best of the ones that I choose or we choose.

Q: [ETC.] We’ve mentioned many different projects you’re involved with. There’s the Electric Bebop Band, you perform still with Paul Bley…

PM: Occasionally, right.

Q: The Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra. What are some of the other…

PM: I just did a record with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and the trio with Masabumi Kikuchi and Gary Peacock is ongoing. I just did another record and a tour in Europe with bassist Marc Johnson and a very nice pianist, Enrico Pieranuzzi. And there’s more… I’m afraid that now I’m going to leave out some people; they’re going to get mad at me. But I mean, I’m involved in a few things. For me it’s all music, you know. Anything that’s happening that’s musical to me or to my taste, I’m going to get into it.

Q: We’ll conclude with two dates from a 1958 recording with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz that produced two records. You played a fair number of times with Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz…

PM: Right, with Lennie Tristano. I’d say in the late Fifties, ’57, ’58, ’59, in there, ’60…

Q: A few words about Warne Marsh.

PM: Oh, wow. Well, a great player. As I was saying before, there was one night in particular we were playing at the Half Note, where he played so great that it just shocked me. It was incredible. A really great player.

[PLAY “YARDBIRD SUITE”]

Q: You hadn’t heard that for a while…

PM: Yeah, it sounds great.

Q; You mentioned with the trio that when selecting the standards, you did a lot of research.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Do you sing? Were these songs that you were coming up with even before you were playing?

PM: No. No, I don’t sing. But when I was researching, I was also trying to get into the lyrics, too, and try to really check them out…

[ETC.]

[-30-]

* * * *

Paul Motian Colleagues (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron):

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

STEFAN WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time in Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen to them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can do, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

[BREAK]

TP: Let me take you back to the ’50s and recall your early encounters with Paul and what the affinities were? You worked together quite a bit from ’56-’57 on. Earlier?

LEE KONITZ: I don’t know about “quite a bit,” but we did work together, and I always liked Paul very much. He played with Lennie’s group a few times. Once I remember at the Half Note where the record came out with Bill Evans playing instead of Lennie, Paul and Jimmy Garrison really sounded great together, and Bill was sitting back a lot, not being part of the rhythm section too much, for whatever reason. But they sounded beautiful together.

TP: Do you have any particularly vivid memories of early encounters?

KONITZ: No, not really. I didn’t know Paul that well. I just loved the way he played. He played like a man who was listening and interpreting what he was hearing immediately.

TP: That was always part of what he does.

KONITZ: Always. Yes, as far as I know. In all the contexts that I heard him with Bill and with Keith Jarrett especially, and to the later days when he played with his own different situations, he was always very much interested in what everybody else was doing.

TP: Do you remember when you first did play with him? Was it the period when he was playing with Lennie Tristano?

KONITZ: That’s what I remember most. I’ve forgotten a lot of thing, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit to that.

TP: In our conversations he’s painted a picture of the New York scene in the ’50s where people would play month-long engagements at one place, then go into another place for a week, and let’s say the Half Note to the Vanguard…

KONITZ: I was the second band in the original Half Note for 13 weeks. I recall that. I’m wondering if I recall accurately. Mingus opened the club, he was in for a long time, then he moved on to the Vanguard or something, and recommended me. Then he wanted the gig back and tried to talk them out of having me there. That was extraordinary. Usually a week was still a good period.

TP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing 13 weeks straight?

KONITZ: Well, the obvious one is that you get to play a lot and get to pay the rent with a minimum of anxiety for that two months or three months. And mostly the opportunity to be out and playing.

TP: So not too many disadvantages to the situation except for fatigue or getting into a rut.

KONITZ: Yeah, you can get into a rut if you don’t stay fresh.

TP: You’ve developed a rather substantial friendship with Paul, yes?

KONITZ: I feel very close to Paul these days especially. He’s done some things recently that were very sweet, and I appreciate it very much.

TP: When do you recollect that your friendship started becoming something more than professional?

KONITZ: Well, we both lived in the same place on Central Park West for a while, and although I didn’t really see him that much, there was that kind of affinity. He asked me to do the project with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, and that kind of endeared me a little more. Being asked into that environment was really nice. Most recently, I was playing in Vicenza, Italy, and I had a big kind of unpleasant scene with Ray Brown one night, and the next night Paul was in with Bill Frisell, and he cancelled that out immediately by extending himself in a very spontaneous way. So it’s just been increasing. Now we’re supposed to play… I asked for this Duos on the Hudson in October. I was supposed to do it with Martial Solal, but he didn’t do it, so I recommended Paul. I’m really looking forward to that.

TP: You were talking about his listening, and perhaps that’s a sufficient description. But is there anything more you can say about Paul in relation to his contemporary trapsetters of the ’50s and ’60s?

KONITZ: Well, Paul has a great sense of time, and that’s still the function of the traditional playing, and doing it with everybody else in the year means that you can do it with the right volume and get a sound. That’s still kind of a special ingredient for that instrument. There’s still a tendency to overplay the instrument. Joey Baron is another guy who can do that. There’s a lot of fine drummers who are very interested in what’s going on, and try to get a sound and a blend. But Paul was one of the first ones that really did that.

TP: Did you play with a lot of different drummers with your bands in the ’50s? On some of these ’50s Verve records, there’s Dave Bailey, Shadow Wilson on one of them, Nick Stabulas maybe. Was it difficult to find a drummer who suited you? Were there more of them around in the ’50s?

KONITZ: No, I don’t know that there were more around. I was just really trying to find out how to play with a rhythm section, and the drummer was the most problem for me usually in terms of getting a natural balance. So I always appreciated when someone like Paul was available to play with.

TP: Well, it sounds like he was pretty much an infinitely adaptable drummer. He played with Oscar Pettiford, he played with Lennie Tristano. Those are two very different concepts of what the beat should be.

KONITZ: Well, that’s to be considered in his overall ability to play. I just know him from my standpoint really, but I know that he did all these other things, and that just indicates how much he loved the music and could adapt to it.

[BREAK]

TP: But the first thing I want to ask is, at the point when you joined Paul were you pretty much aware of his persona as a drummer, and what at that point did his persona as a drummer mean to you?

BILL FRISELL: Yes, I was very much aware of it. For me, it was sort of like getting the Miles Davis phone call. I had been in New York for a couple of years, and things were getting gloomier and gloomier. It seemed like I was doing more weddings… I was getting pretty discouraged. I was getting to play a little bit of music of what I wanted to do, but I was getting kind of dark. And then, sort of out of the blue, the phone rings and it’s Paul. Oh my God, what’s this? It totally freaked me out. Because this was a chance to… I had done a few little things, mostly jam session things, or I was playing with Bob Moses a little bit, doing little things around town. But this was what I sort of think of as the first chance for me to really… He wasn’t calling me because I was a guitar player. He was calling me for…he wanted my personality, me as an individual. There’s a pretty big difference between working as a guitar player and trying to fill in some role that someone…

TP: You worked quite a bit in the ’80s as the trio, and less so in the last eight-nine years. Would you say that experience of working and rehearsing with him is something that helped open you up and helped you find your sound?

FRISELL: Yes, because it was just wide-open. It’s still like that whenever we play. That’s what’s amazing. We’ve been playing for 20 years, and every time we play, I still don’t know what’s going to happen.

TP: It seems that he takes pains to make it that way.

FRISELL: Yes. Every note he plays is like the first and last note that he’s ever… Every time he hits the drums, it’s like somehow he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else. You know people say he plays like a little kid. He hits something and it’s like, “wow, what is that?” But at the same time, there’s this virtuosity in there, too.

I don’t know how he has managed to… Well, there’s some kind of genius in that, where he’s so deft and he has the technique and everything, but it never… The music always overshadows the instrument somehow. Ornette said something once… He did a recording, and he did two takes. He said, “the first take I played the song, and the second one I played the music.” There’s something about Paul that’s always…it’s like he doesn’t play the drums; he plays the music.

TP: But that said, is he unique amongst drummers you’ve played with? You’ve played with a strong personalities who are drummers. Would you say that the qualities you’re describing are the salient aspects of what makes him him, and not so much the actual ideas he executes on the drums?
FRISELL: Oh man, that’s a hard question. There’s nobody else on the planet like him. He’s absolutely unique. Also, there’s that history. It’s such an honor to stand next to that… I really don’t get that from anyone else, where his experience… When you play a tune with him, he played with Oscar Pettiford and Monk and Sonny Rollins, and he sat in with Coltrane and everything else that everybody else knows. These days that’s going pretty far back into the deepest recesses of the history of the music. So when we play a standard tune or a Monk tune, to get to do it with him, it just takes on a whole… That’s pretty rare these days. It’s really first-hand. He’s handing it to you straight from the source. He didn’t learn it off a record. He learned it from playing with those guys.

TP: When I saw you last August, it was the first time you’d played in the year 2000.

FRISELL: Right. And we haven’t played since until this week at the Vanguard. That’s what it’s been over the last few years. We play usually a few times a year. We haven’t rehearsed in I don’t know how long. At the beginning, when I first started playing with him, we rehearsed for like nine months before we ever did a gig, and at the beginning there was a lot of working out of arrangements… Not so much talking about stuff, but it was more worked out. We tried to figure out what we were doing. But then after a number of years, it got to be where we don’t have to talk about anything.

TP: I don’t know how you’re listening to the music as it’s going on. Do you see the not-rehearsing affecting the music in any particular way? My sense hearing you last night is that you’re talking as many if not more chances than ever, but there’s something very clear about it. That probably has to do with you and Joe continuing to grow and grow and become more defined in how you think about things.

FRISELL: I hope so. Sometimes I wish I could come outside of it and see it from the outside. When we start playing, it’s like you just enter into this thing. It’s like whatever kind of real intense sort of conversation that we’re having. I’m not really sure what’s coming out the front. It’s like I just jump into this thing and you’re in there, and when we finish playing I come out of it. So what you’re saying is encouraging. I hope it’s clear.

[BREAK]

TP: Paul said that Bill D’Arango recommended you to him? He told Paul that you and Billy Drewes played well together.

JOE LOVANO: Bill might have mentioned me to Paul. Paul knew Bill. But Marc Johnson was rehearsing with Paul and Bill Frisell as a trio, and they had some saxophone players come up. Paul was wanting to have a quartet at that time. Marc and I had played with Woody Herman together and we were playing with Mel Lewis, and Marc told me he had been telling Paul about me. Then one Monday night Marc said, “do you want to come up and play with Paul this week?” I didn’t even talk to Paul. I went up there, and we played quartet. From that moment, we started to play, and it was a quartet. Right at that time Marc got the gig with Stan Getz. Then I got Ed Schuller on the thing. Then we played as a quartet for a while. Eddie and I and Bill and Paul did one gig in Boston, and Paul wanted to have two horns, and I got Billy on the thing. It was a quintet for that first tour we did, and recorded Psalm.

TP: You played and recorded extensively with the trio for a decade. That was a rather frequent gig.

LOVANO: Yes, all of the ’80s. We went to Europe two-three times a year for a long time, most of the ’80s. We were recording for ECM at the beginning, and then Soul Note, when Jim Pepper joined the band. Then the trio emerged in 1984 really on a quintet tour with Pepper, and we recorded for ECM, It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago. Throughout the ’80s I was in heaven, man. I was playing with Paul, Mel Lewis and Elvin. In 1987 especially I toured with the three of those cats, and for the whole year I was playing in the most amazing situation.

Paul is one of the rare drummers that dares to be so creative and free from within the world of swing. He knows how to accompany in any direction. He could play for anybody in whatever style. But to play with him, how he… He plays with total feeling, and creates such an amazing texture within the form of a tune. Especially with the trio, with no bass, within the structure that we play, Paul plays with all different elements within the music. He plays like a pianist, where he’s playing the melody, he’s playing the changes, he’s playing the rhythm, and he doesn’t have to just play a repetitive beat. He leaves a lot of spaces. There’s a lot of counterpoint and things that happen. Paul is one of the most creative musicians in jazz.

TP: It often sounds in the trio like you’re the one who’s playing the time.

LOVANO: Well, we’re all implying the tempo as we move around. the tunes that we’re doing have really formal structures. Some are just a melody and are very free, but we’re approaching them and trying to create inner structures. But the implied tempos let’s say in one chorus of any given tune… A tune like “Crepuscule With Nellie,” let’s say. One time through that chorus can move at different paces throughout the chorus. Sometimes we can move through the whole form quickly. Sometimes we’ll stretch out a certain chord here or there, or a certain phrase. We’re trying to actually create the music as we’re playing. So the structure and melodies and harmonies are all there, but the freeness in the way we’re putting the time together… So there could be implied tempos on certain phrases or chord, and we’re just trying to follow each other and build it together as a group, instead of just counting a tempo off and letting the beat kind of give us the way of playing. Paul is one of the few cats you can play like that with and create that magic.

TP: When did you feel that the group came into its sound? Around maybe ’87 or ’88? Paul said that you rehearsed extensively the first few years.

LOVANO: We were playing a lot. We used to play at my pad all the time, and up at his place. Mainly we’d rehearse for recordings or for tours and stuff, and putting a lot of repertoire together. That was so great, because now we have such a deep reservoir of compositions and things we can draw from, and throughout an evening cover a lot of different music, from Monk’s music and Bill Evans’ music, standard Broadway tunes, some of Billie Holiday’s music and Paul’s originals. Both Bill and I have had the opportunity to have Paul play with us in our ensembles and record with us, too. That’s been really a great and beautiful education. Paul is on my second record for Soul Note, Village Rhythm and he’s also on a record called Worlds: Live At Amiens, that actually Bill and Paul are on. There’s some trio moments on that recording. It features Gary Valente and Tim Hagans as well.

TP: When you first met Paul, you’d first heard him playing with Keith Jarrett in the early ’70s, and you had to have known the Bill Evans stuff, and probably the stuff with Paul Bley as well…

LOVANO: His way of playing I was attracted to years before I ever met him, or even heard him live with Keith. The sensibility and the tone he played with, and the way that he was such a… He wasn’t just a drummer in the Bill Evans Trio. It was a trio experience when you listen to those recordings. I was drawn into that style and way of playing from digging the stuff that Max Roach was doing. I heard Max in Paul’s playing early on, in his sound and the way he tuned his drums. At that time he was playing more kind of traditional as a drummer, but not really. He made the Bill Evans Trio be so creative like that. Any other drummer in that group, I don’t think Scott LaFaro would emerged, and the way they played together would have never happened.

TP: He says that developed that way of playing through listening to Scott LaFaro, and it become logical that that was the way to do it. As he puts it, he follows the sound.

LOVANO: Well, there you go. You play with the people you’re playing with at the moment, and you don’t really think about it, and stuff happens.

TP: But then he’d do ten weeks… We went through his gig book from ’57 to ’60. I put it all on the tape. He’d have ten weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note and with Eddie Costa the other two nights, or almost five consecutive months with Bill Evans, or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

LOVANO: He was playing in different ways and having fun in every situation. And you know what? A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing in the last ten years has been a lot like that, too. Playing in different groups with different… It’s your personality and your tone, but if you can execute your ideas within the different genres and feelings in the music, man, it’s so expansive. Playing with Paul and digging his career and the way he’s done that has given me a lot of confidence to put myself in different situations a lot. I’ve learned so much from him.

TP: Would you say that’s the main impact that being with him has had on you as far as your own career?

LOVANO: Well, that has been one big thing. And compositionally and also just putting ensembles together and trying to play with people and create music together with trust.

TP: Can you break down compositionally the impact and say a few words about his tunes?

LOVANO: Well, yeah. As a player, as an improviser, all the songs that you play and study, no matter what they are, teach you something about how you can put ideas together for yourself. If you wanted to. Some cats play and they never write. There’s a lot of great improvisers and players who only play other people’s music. But I’ve tried to learn from every tune I’ve studied, to try to put ideas together with their own melodic invention or harmonic structures. Experiencing Paul’s music and playing with him, from his roots, the kinds of tunes he’s written from playing with Keith or Bill Evans… When you’re actually there and experiencing the music, it gives you confidence and ideas. It’s hard to say how. But a lot of my tunes… I do a lot of writing on the road. Trio Fascination, let’s say, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, we were on tour with Paul and Bill prior to that recording, the year before or something, and I was preparing for that date. After gigs, after we’ve played in such a creative way, man, I’m just full of ideas. I go back to the hotel and I’m hearing all these things. Of course, it’s 2 in the morning or whatever, you can’t take your horn out, but I sit and starting writing out ideas and sketches and stuff. I put a lot of my tunes together like that on the road, being inspired from a performance or something that happened during the gig. Touring with Paul all these years has been one of the most incredible, creative parts of my life.

TP: And that said, it’s obviously harder and harder to get the trio together. If it weren’t so satisfying, it probably wouldn’t exist any more, because it seems you and Frisell have to make a real effort to get the thing to happen.

LOVANO: And Paul, too. He has several different things. In the last four or five years, of course, Bill and myself have had a lot of bands and we’ve been on the road a lot as leaders. Paul also has been doing a lot of different projects with a lot of people himself. When we come together, it’s a real special moment. Last year we played one set all year, at Carremour. Man, I was looking forward to that set for months and months and months! Even though, yeah, okay, it would be great to play a three-week tour or something. But just that one set was perfect. At this point, it’s nice to come together like that. Because most of the ’80s we were on tour quite a lot. It’s been a thrill playing with Paul. He’s one of the most creative musicians in this music.
JL: [1995] Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.
TP: Paul Motian and I went through his gig books, and talked about a very dramatic moment when he left Bill Evans at Shelley’s Manne Hole in California to join you in New York. He says that playing with you opened him up in many ways. When did you first hear Paul, what are your early impressions of him, and what chemistry allowed the two of you to work together so felicitously in the mid-’60s?

PAUL BLEY: We’ve been playing together so long, I can’t really answer the question. I don’t remember not working with him. I do remember that he and Sonny Murray were two of maybe a dozen players that introduced free playing to drumming. The drums were the last instrument to get free. Because the bass players were free, the horn players and the pianists were free, but the drummers felt a need to keep time. And eventually, one day in 1964, somewhere around the Cecil Taylor-Albert Ayler post, the drums woke up one day and said, “You know, if these guys are going to play waves, I’m going to play waves.” Now, up until then, through the Ornette period, the audience was still with the musicians. It was difficult, but they could understand the fact that it was done against drum time, and that meant they saw the continuum. Anyway, the drums were the last to realize that there was no necessity to play time, because everybody else in the band was playing waves. Now, the public thought that that, instead of being an incremental advance, was a revolutionary advance, and after having lost a good percentage of the audience by the other musicians playing free when the drums played free, the audience just said, “Forget it, get me a Capitol record of the Beatles, I don’t want to hear about it any more,” and they made a right turn. That left the musicians high and dry with the label “avant-garde.” The mainstream was over, and now the musicians were on their own. Even though not one musician in New York had changed their style, the fact that the drummers joined them made it extremely radical, even more radical to the public than the microtonality that preceded it.

TP: I would presume that you heard Paul with Bill Evans, or with Lennie Tristano or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and those gigs where he was playing time, which was his quotidian for most of his first decade in New York?

BLEY: Right. I heard him in all those gigs..

TP: And what about what he was doing in those gigs made it evident that he would be able to make that transition in as sensitive a way as he did?

BLEY: Well, there was nothing in those gigs which indicated that he would make the transition. Of course, I had the same situation with Barry Altschul.. He was a recording engineer assistant, which meant that he got to sweep up the recording studio after the record session. We had a chat, and we talked about the fact that there hadn’t been free Latin, there hadn’t been free Indian, there hadn’t been free any of the other genres, that “free” just meant playing as fast as possible and as loud as possible and as free as possible for as long as possible! It was a single stroke that everybody jumped on, regardless of the instrument. I thought at the time that all the history of jazz could be advanced by using those principles. Barry agreed. So we had this chat, we had dinner and so forth, and we put together a trio which in ’65-’66 was at the same point as Paul was. He and Barry and I, in terms of drummer and keyboard, were simpatico. I took a band with Barry to Europe. I didn’t take Paul to Europe. Paul had heard that band… This is not gospel. My memory is not worth quoting without checking with the other people.

TP: But what do you remember about this gig on McDougal Street with Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, Paul, Gary Peacock and you?

BLEY: I remember a lot about that. It was a snowy winter (I’m not sure which month), and I had gotten a call from Gary, who was going to be the bandleader at the Take 3, which was on Bleecker Street (not McDougal) just opposite the Village Gate on the second floor. So Gary called and said he had this gig, and we were going to do a double gig. He and I and Paul would be the rhythm section for the double gig, and on one of the gigs it would be Gilmore and on the other gig it would be Albert Ayler. So we did one set with the one and one set with the other. The drummer also changed, as I remember. Paul was on one of the gigs, and Sunny Murray was on the other. The recording that came out for that on my label was the Gilmore record with Gary and Paul. The one with Albert and Sunny Murray was not a recording. And it paid $5 a night.

I accepted the job two or three weeks in advance, and after accepting the job I got a call from the drummer who was working with Miles at the moment (this was in December-January, snowy New York City), and he said, “How would you like to come down to the Caribbean and do a month with a band…” It was an all-star band in the Caribbean. I really got pissed with him. I said, “I’m really angry about this.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I just accepted a $5 gig with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian and John Gilmore. I would have loved to go down to the Caribbean, but the reason I am going to stay on Bleecker Street is that I have the feeling that jazz is going to change on this gig.” That was my quote. And you know, I’ve been doing crystal-balling for a while.

TP: But this wasn’t the first time you played with Paul. The first time was after he left Bill Evans in California in ’64. Had you ever played together before that?

BLEY: I’m positive we had, but I don’t have the record.

TP: So basically we could say that Paul, while playing with Bill Evans and Tristano and Al and Zoot is partaking of the events that were percolating in New York in the early ’60s.

BLEY: Yes, you could say that.
TP: Let’s jump ahead in time. You play with Paul until about ’68-’69, and then you go electronic and Paul goes with Keith Jarrett? Is that pretty much how that works?

BLEY: I’m very bad with the dates and times. [ETC.] Check the book. I wrote the book so I could get the dates straight!

TP: But in the last 15-16 years, the relationship has flourished, resumed and become quite fruitful. Maybe more like the last 12-13.

BLEY: Well, it was always on… Same with Gary. There was always a strong relationship. It’s just that the philosophy with these musicians is you don’t marry your mates, you’re promiscuous.

TP: Can you break down the qualities of his playing to you, how you hear him within the lineage of drummers, or other drummers that you play with. Give me some sort of paragraph or two about his sound.

BLEY: Well, the joke about Paul Motian’s is that it sounds like he fell down the steps of the Village Vanguard with a full set of drums, and it made a great idea.

TP: Is that the soundbyte? Please be a bit more elaborate than that on how you hear drums through the medium of Mr. Motian.

BLEY: In the case of Paul, he has since that time where I quote him… There is a famous painting of a woman walking the stairs, where she’s all disjointed (“Nude Descending the Staircase” – Duchamp). Well, that’s exactly how I heard Paul in that period, in the ’60s, was random. Now, the update on Paul in the last ten years is that in terms of the soloist he’s become an idea man as opposed to a language man. So I hear one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea, and it has nothing to do with accompaniment per se. It’s way beyond that. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.

[BREAK]
KEITH JARRETT: Let me get dumb. When tape recorders go on, things are never as good as when they’re off.

TP: This is for “Downbeat” and it won’t be so verbatim.

JARRETT: Okay. Then I can say anything at all. I was only kidding.

TP: A very basic question. In your formative years, when were you first aware of Paul Motian’s identity as a drummer?

JARRETT: Oh, it must have been with Bill. Actually, I wouldn’t say that was the first I was aware of his identity. The first I really knew of his identity was when I heard him play with a free player in Boston named Lowell Davidson. I don’t really remember much about what he did. If there’s a way to say this, maybe it was somewhere between Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley or Bill Evans, but that would be a very banal way of saying it. He had a touch, so that probably presented a little more of Bill’s direction. I thought Lowell’s playing was interesting, but what struck me is that when I heard Paul on a tape, I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know who it could be. Then at some point I ended up sitting in at the Dom, on 8th Street, with the clarinet player…

TP: Paul ran this down. Tony Scott told Paul to come down on a Monday night, that he had to hear this piano player, who was you. So that was the first time you played with Paul.

JARRETT: Right. I hadn’t met him, but I had heard him with Bill in Boston when I was coming through town with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians when I was 15 or 16. The bass player in that organization and I both went to the Jazz Workshop, and I saw Bill there. Paul was sitting, looking really like businessman in his suit, the way some of the pictures from those early Riverside recordings suggest, and he was sitting pretty still, using brushes. Then the next I knew, I was hearing this Lowell Davidson tape with Paul, and I thought, “Who is the drummer?” I must have found that out when I heard the tape, but I can’t remember the circumstances.

TP: Did you hear him with Paul Bley as well during the ’60s?

JARRETT: No, not that I know of.

TP: Let’s get to your recruiting him for your trio when you formed it, not so much the how you did it, but the why.

JARRETT: Well, the Why was that the enormity of the difference between how he played with Bill and how he played with Lowell (and maybe there were other players he played with in a free context) made me think that he was not one of those players who would decide ahead of time what he liked and what he didn’t. It’s true. I mean, the guy worked with Arlo Guthrie while he was playing with Charles Lloyd! He doesn’t seem to have any categoristic…if that’s a word; it’s probably not…he doesn’t have a thing about categories. A lot of players maybe would say they don’t, but in their playing you’d hear that they prefer certain things. Paul is open in a way that… Paul likes music, and he was actually the first drummer I ever knew and probably the most vivid example of a drummer who liked music above his own involvement in it. Like, he would request that we play ballads in the early trio with Charlie.

TP: None in your experience had, I take it.

JARRETT: Well, not in the consistent way Paul… Paul just loved good songs. And that was one of the principles I would look for in a player, somebody who… We would be listening to Bartok together. We’d be listening to whatever was good.

TP: I’d forgotten before calling you about that year with Charles Lloyd, which Paul said was 1968. So you’d spent a good deal of time on the road with him by the time you had the trio.

JARRETT: Actually, he was in the trio first. I’m not sure about the chronology. I’m writing my own book, and I’m still not sure of the chronology. I think we started rehearsing… If my memory serves, I was rehearsing with Paul and Steve Swallow the very first time for a possible gig at the Vanguard. Whether it was for that or for a record, I don’t know, but we were allowed to use the Vanguard to rehearse, because we had no other place. And Steve was too busy with I think Gary Burton at the time, and he didn’t know if he could do both things. Then I used Charlie. That was probably ’65 or ’66, and at that time maybe I had started with Charles and Jack was in that band. Jack was in the band a couple of years more, if I’m not mistaken. Paul might have joined the band at the cusp of the end of the ’60s.

TP: [ETC. on dates] I guess it was about an eight-year steady musical relationship, until about ’76. Can you discuss how associating with Paul impacted your concept of music and composition and improvising, how the feedback went from him to you.

JARRETT: That’s not exactly an easy thing to know, not to mention answer.

TP: Speculate.

JARRETT: I don’t know. See, already I was in some way affected by the Middle East in terms of philosophy. I was involved in Sufism and Gurdjieff, and a lot of Paul’s heredity was involved there to some extent, being Armenian. He has this way of tuning his drums that isn’t a traditional jazz way. At least he did. We’d go into a studio, and they’d want to use a mute on the bass drum because it sounded too much like a real drum, and he never wanted to do that. If I was going to say how that kind of thing was working from Paul to me, it was that he was presenting that side also. Jazz drummers are generally jazzy, and Paul isn’t particularly jazzy. He sounds to me very much like who he is in terms of his background and his… His Armenian-ness comes through.

TP: He did say his parents played that music, and he has vivid memories of it from pre-school, and it had a huge impact.

JARRETT: Yes. He plays like he’s on a caravan. You know? [LAUGHS] I think what he ended up being able to contribute was this feeling of openness that wouldn’t have come if he were — I don’t know — even a hip jazz drummer. We had a group whose strangeness was both accidental and on purpose, the way we played. Everybody was an individual. And Paul was definitely not going to play like any other drummer, nor would he be able to be forced to at gunpoint. [LAUGHS] He just wouldn’t do it! Sorry! That was good for me, because I was younger than the rest of my band. I needed to know that there was this kind of openness that was deeper than just a whimsical thing. Now, if I were the same age now, I don’t know who I’d be able to have in my band. If we were talking about being the same age as Paul and Charlie. If I was told by a George Avakian type of guy “you can choose anybody you want and I’ll produce an album,” man, that wouldn’t be easy.

TP: Well, none of us would be the same person if we were a different age than what we are.

JARRETT: That’s true. That’s why “ifs” are important.

TP: I think you’ve given me a sense of that essence. I know you haven’t played together very much since the early ’80s. I do love that one record from the Deer Head Inn, which I think is very special. Can you address how you’ve heard his concept and playing evolve in the last 25 years?

JARRETT: When something evolves, it’s something… I don’t know what people think of when they hear the word “evolve.” Sometimes I think they think it’s a linear thing. You know what I mean? I don’t see that with the greatest players, and with Paul I don’t see it either. If it is evolution, which I think I would say it is, I might define it as remaining in some way yourself while being more and more inclusive of things, and Paul has certainly been able to do that. I never heard him swing as hard as he does on that Deer Head recording, and he wasn’t playing much, nor does he ever play that much as far as technical stuff is concerned. But I’ve played “Bye Bye Blackbird” with my present trio quite a few times, and that version on the Deer Head in terms of swing would stand up under all circumstances!
I think he was surprised, too. I don’t know if he had swung… That’s what makes Paul special. He probably didn’t know… It’s not like he brings his tool kit with him. He just brings himself along, and if something starts to click, he falls right in. It’s almost like he has no choice.

That whole quartet was like that. Although Charlie and Dewey had much more preference…they liked and didn’t like certain types of things. Paul would play everything, no matter what it was; he would try to find something that was appropriate to it. Otherwise, how could he play with Arlo Guthrie and enjoy it? But there is something that closes up in some players… Even though people would say they’re evolving, I might not agree if whatever that is closes on them or they close it themselves. Their playing can evolve, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same as keeping the doors open. And that’s what Paul has done. He’s kept the doors open.

TP: Let me take this from one other angle. If you put on something representing Survivors Suite and then heard him on a record from 2000, is that instantly recognizable as the same tonal personality?

JARRETT: I don’t know, because actually it’s been so long since I’ve been listening. I’ve not been listening to anything for a while. But it’s a fair question. I have a feeling that the answer would be that I would recognize Paul right away. But it wouldn’t be because he has gimmicks. It would be because he’s always himself.

TP: There are no stylistic tropes. It’s his process of functioning in the moment all the time.

JARRETT: Yeah. It’s almost as though he’s purposely eliminated stylistic sophistication in order to stay pure. But that can really be a problem. If you get hipper and hipper, then all you’ve got left is hipness.

[BREAK]
BRIAN BLADE: I’m a big fan of Paul Motian. When you hear him… Or particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records. I sort of discovered them when I went to school, but he wanted me to listen a lot to Paul Motian, because he liked Motian a lot. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. A lot of people sometimes miss it, that Motian really moves the music and gets inside of it. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

[BREAK]
JOEY BARON: Around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school — the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad. That was also a really big influence, because ballads are great to play. There’s lots of time to listen to what’s going on, to think about and comment on it. That was a whole different approach that I started listening to parallel to Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. I was kind of interested in being able to do both, because I liked them both. I didn’t bring with me this record called Ramblin’ by Paul Bley with Barry Altschul and Marc Levinson, who now makes high-end sound equipment. Hearing the way they played on that record, sometimes you couldn’t tell where the time was. Was it that important that you couldn’t tell where it was? The feeling was just incredible. It was a very forward-moving feeling. That intrigued me as well as the straight up-and-down kind of grooves that were coming from people like Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Drummer, Joe Lovano, Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, WKCR