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For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with 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 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.”



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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) —

“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.


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.


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.


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For Marcus Roberts’ 53rd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, a 2009 Interview on, and a 1999 interview for

A day late for the 53rd birthday of the singular pianist Marcus Roberts, I’d like to present a feature piece that I was given an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz in 2014,  a lengthy March 2009 interview that initially appeared  on Ted Gioia’s now-much missed ‘zine, and a 1999 interview for the Barnes and Noble website when selling CDs was still part of their business model.


Jazziz Article (“Visionary Man”) — Spring 2014:

Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.

During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?”

Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University — on a range of educational activities, and to play a concert with the pianist and record in the studio with Roberts’ trio, then comprising bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. Six years after that busy week in the Sunshine State, in November 2013, Roberts simultaneously released separate CDs of the proceedings — Together Again: Live in Concert and Together Again: In the Studio — along with a 2012 studio session titled From Rags to Rhythm, a 12-movement suite performed by his current trio, with Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. All three discs were released on Roberts’ imprint, J-Master Records.

The Together Again albums document the Marsalis-Roberts partnership for the first time since the 1991 performances included in the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 7-CD box set Live at the Village Vanguard. “We wanted to showcase the natural way we communicate, and we chose music you could play without much rehearsal,” Roberts says, speaking by phone from his Tallahassee home in December. “The playing is spontaneous and comfortable. We both know way more about music than we did when we were making records together. But the way we relate hasn’t changed, as it probably never will.”

The settled, old-master quality contained on the Together Again discs contrasts with the exploratory quality of earlier encounters like ]J-Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Marsalis Standard Time, The Majesty of the Blues, Blue Interlude and the three volumes of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. Those albums represent Marsalis’ shift from the vertiginous, high-energy rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of his 1983-85 quintet (with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts) to the blues-grounded, groove-oriented, orchestrally sophisticated, “all jazz is modern” conception that, after 1988, would define the Wynton Marsalis Septet and continues to bedrock the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“We attacked specific problems,” Roberts says of those albums. “When I entered the band, we were playing primarily original music, but our ballads sounded terrible. I identified that to Wynton as something we needed to work on. When we played standards from the ’30s and ’40s, that didn’t sound good. I remember mentioning that we needed to play more blues, but when we played them, it wasn’t that happening either. So the blues pieces on some of those records were us working on putting more human feeling into the music, making it more accessible to lay people.

“Wynton taught me a lot about how to identify the things you work on. With his notoriety and fame, he could easily have continued in our prior vein of music. But for him — and for me — it’s always been a question of dealing with the code of ethics that the music itself imposes.”

Those ethics were already in place in 1980, when Marsalis, then 19, met Roberts, a 17-year-old senior at the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, at the Jazz Educators Convention in Chicago. As his own career ascended, Marsalis stayed in touch, sent Roberts recordings by Thelonious Monk, brought him to various gigs to hang out and sometimes sit in. After Kirkland and Branford jumped ship to tour with Sting, he offered Roberts a job. Drummer Jeff Watts recalls Roberts’ command of the repertoire on his first gig with the band, in Salt Lake City. “What he played, I’m sure he would like to take back,” Watts says. “But he knew it cold. There was nothing that was going to prevent us from playing anything in our book. I use Marcus as an example to people who make excuses about not having one thing or another together. He is at the top with regards to work ethic.”

Himself no slouch in the hard-work-is-good-for-you department, Marsalis attested to Roberts’ diligence and his refusal to allow his disability to impede creative expression. “Marcus was still developing his playing then,” Marsalis said. “I called him because he had the most intelligence and depth of feeling and integrity — personally, as a man — of any musician I’d encountered around my age. I knew it from speaking to him, and I wanted to be around that kind of feeling. The size of his mind was good for me. I found out how serious and thorough he is about studying and learning and playing. We had long, long pieces, and he’d learn the music by ear before we could learn it by reading.

“From watching Marcus develop, I learned that your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a person. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker or play a more complex polyrhythm than somebody.”

For Roberts, putting in the hours is as much a matter of necessity as an ethical imperative. “Because of my disability, I’m not able to sight-read,” he says. “If I don’t learn the piece inside and out, the likelihood of something going wrong is greater. So from the time I was 12, I didn’t just learn what the piano was playing; I tried to understand the whole structure. I don’t learn music quickly; to this day it takes a long time to absorb it into my system. But when I really know something, I can hear what it should sound like based on what I can bring to it. It’s almost like I can manipulate it as I go along, hearing it in my head as I go, based on how I can use the piano to shape the overall architecture.

“After our first tour, I worked just on comping for two months, six hours a day, before our next set of gigs. I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington and Hank Jones. When we went out, everybody was shocked that I’d advanced so much in that short a time. But the bottom line was that if I was going to be out there doing it, it needed to be right. I was always taught there’s not much point in doing anything halfway. This music is only desirable to people if played at the highest level. Enlightenment comes from above, not below.”


Between 1988 and 2001, Roberts released 14 solo, trio and ensemble albums. Before the arrival of 2012’s Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite and Across the Imaginary Divide — on which his trio finds common ground with banjo giant Béla Fleck — and the three new albums, Roberts had released only two discs since 2001.

He began his recording career as a leader with The Truth is Spoken Here, an all-star ensemble gathering, which he followed with the first version of Deep in the Shed, a suite of original music with a unit that included Marsalis and other close generational contemporaries. Then came 1991’s Alone With Three Giants, a solo outing on which Roberts found new routes into repertoire by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Monk; 1992’s As Serenity Approaches, which contains solo and duo performances of original pieces and items from the American Songbook and stride-piano canons; and 1993’s If I Could Be With You, another solo recital. Portraits in Blue, from 1995, features Roberts improvising to the piano parts of orchestral works by George Gershwin and James P. Johnson, while on The Joy of Joplin, from 1998, he offers solo renderings of 16 numbers by early-century ragtime poet Scott Joplin.

On these albums, Roberts grapples with the vocabularies of the European canon and the foundational streams of American jazz, addresses the material on its own terms of engagement, interprets it with virtuoso execution and conceptual freshness, pulling a thick, sweet, legato sound from the piano. He advanced his goal of “always expanding while using the whole history of the music all the time” on a pair of late-’90s trio sessions (both released just after the millennium by Columbia, which then dropped him) with Guerin and Jason Marsalis. His statements on the 16 Nat Cole-Cole Porter-associated pieces that comprise Cole After Midnight and the 12 Ellington-inflected originals on In Honor of Duke incorporate elements of Ellington, Monk, James P. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Kirkland and Danilo Perez.

Roberts contends that From Rags to Rhythm represents the most comprehensive realization of his aesthetic. Composed in 2001 on commission from Chamber Music America, and reworked and refined as the aughts progressed, it’s a 12-movement work with interchangeable themes that reappear in various contexts as the piece transpires. Roberts explains why it, the 2006 session From New Orleans to Harlem (issued in 2009) and 2011’s Celebrating Christmas are his only trio releases of the 21st century.

“I’m sure a lot of folks wondered whether I’d disappeared or wasn’t doing much,” he says. “I recorded a lot of stuff during this time. But I was no longer on a major label, and the industry was changing. Possibilities on the Internet had not matured. So I decided to wait while figuring out methods and strategies to disseminate my work to the public. Also, I was exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together, so I needed to invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career. I was overhauling my technique, exploring a more refined approach to sound, expanding the amount of nuance I can play through voicing and pedaling, playing contrapuntally with a certain balance and articulation.

“I was happy with the trio, but didn’t want to record again until we were able to organically improvise that concept with a certain feeling. At this point it’s more a way of life, a philosophy, what we believe in. Whatever we play, it sounds completely different from night to night.”

“Marcus always plays experimentally,” says his 48-year-old bassist Rodney Jordan, who regards Roberts as a kindred spirit to a pair of his own early employers, outcat veterans Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder. “To my ears, he’s no different than them in terms of feeling free when you play music.”

Roberts takes the comparison in stride. “What interests me is that, whatever we’re playing, we all communicate and respond to what each person is playing, so that we can freely determine what should come next,” he says. Then he preemptively addresses brickbats thrown at him over the past quarter-century for paying too much attention to older styles and too little to bebop and beyond.

“Most people think I’ve been playing that stuff my whole life,” Roberts says, after observing that he didn’t begin to investigate Jelly Roll Morton’s music until 1988, for a “Classical Jazz” show that Marsalis presented at Lincoln Center. He notes that his formative sensibility gestated not only from playing piano in his mother’s church and accompanying her in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, but also covering ’70s hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Natalie Cole. He pinpoints his jazz epiphany to age 12, when a local swing era-oriented radio show exposed him to Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams.

“I’d never heard any chords like what Ellington played on the piano, and the sound interested me,” he says. “The music was from the 1930s or 1940s, but to me it was like new. It was modern. It was the same with Jelly Roll when Wynton got me into him, and I realized how profoundly difficult his stuff really is; it turned my approach and world of piano upside-down. As I got deeply into it, I saw relationships to the church music I grew up hearing. When I hear two styles, what intrigues me is not what makes them different, but where they intersect, how to unite those two sounds into something else.”

One way Roberts individualizes his sound is by utilizing orchestral devices initially borrowed from the Ahmad Jamal Trio. In the course of a single piece, he constantly modulates grooves, tempos and keys, plays separate time signatures with the right hand and the left, and, as he puts it, “flips around the roles of the piano, bass and drums by giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop the concepts and themes, to change the form, to get us where we’re getting ready to go.”

“I’ve always experimented with whatever music came into my environment and tried to figure out how to use it in my own way. ‘New’ is anything of value, anything that’s relevant to helping me do what I want to do right now. There’s no big agenda. The goal is just to play better every day. Your individual identity as a musician is there, just like the identity of the sound of your voice. The question is what vocabulary to use through that voice. That’s what Wynton and I always understood without having to state it. It’s never been about jazz, per se. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist or a stride pianist or a bebop pianist or a classical pianist. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”


Title: Leaning Classical

In 2012, Marcus Roberts composed a three-movement piano concerto, titled “Spirit of the Blues: A Piano Concerto in C-Minor,” dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. He premiered it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his trio on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination.

After receiving the commission in 2010, Roberts spent more than a year preparing and contemplating. “I didn’t want it to sound like a jazz guy who is dabbling in classical music,” he says. “I had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration scanned to Braille, and I studied them thoroughly.”

Once the composing began, Roberts used CakeTalking for SONAR, a program developed by Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. “I established maybe 30 tracks, put an instrument on each track, and played in what I wanted each instrument to do,” he says. “To hear what the flute is doing at measure 32, I press a command, jump to the measure, solo the flute, and hear it exactly. Once I finished each movement, I exported the file into Sibelius, and my copyist and I would prepare it to [conductor] Robert Spano’s requirements. The tempos change constantly, so they had to be communicated clearly. Since I’m a blind guy playing a new piece with an orchestra, we wanted to make sure the transitions from section to section were seamless.”

Roberts modeled each movement after iconic concertos from the classical canon. The first movement, “The Blues,” connects blues chords to motifs refracted from Beethoven’s “Third Concerto in C-Major, Opus 37”; the second movement, “The Dream,” is inspired by the second movement of Ravel’s G-major concerto; the third movement, “Freedom,” whose Latin elements and percussive textures palpably connect it to the jazz continuum, evokes both Bartok’s second piano concerto and the third movement of Prokofiev’s third concerto.

Roberts is proud of more than the notes and tones. “In a weird way, it’s symbolic that I’m representing this struggle to independently compose a piece of this scale that blind musicians have faced for decades,” he says. But he also feels that the work embodies his aim of “continuing to push the envelope in bringing jazz and classical music together.”

“The orchestra authentically plays the classical part, the trio does the authentic version of the jazz,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve written into the composition how the two forms coexist and melded them into one unified entity that represents modern life, which is global.”


Interview with Marcus Roberts for, March 24, 2009:


Jazz criticism over the last two decades has usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of “conservative neotraditionalism.” But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.

A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot; abiding by the motto “fundamental but new,” he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without cliche.

“What I’m advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time,” Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At the time, he had recently presented his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio on a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter Cole After Midnight and a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington called In Honor Of Duke, augmenting a corpus that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplin’s corpus and customized arrangements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. Johnson’s “Yamacraw.”

“As an example,” Roberts continued, “Ellington was not somebody who was going, ‘Oh, there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.’ He was about using the logical elements of Bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”

Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1,”his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.

“Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with,” Wynton Marsalis told me a few years, reflecting on the ways in which Roberts, who replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band in 1986, helped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. “I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you can’t make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. What’s inside of you. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development.”
Is From New Orleans to Harlem the recording that you’ve been trying to find the right time to put out over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?

I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now I’m putting it out. It’s really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If I’m going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if I’m going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.

What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?

I can’t even put my finger on it. I just didn’t feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time I’d fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playing—honestly—so differently that it didn’t feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.

What are some of the reasons for that gap? It’s not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. You’ve been performing a lot.

It’s been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didn’t want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the Internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.

The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didn’t want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.

The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what you’re doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles you’re interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.

Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why it’s been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. I’ve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. It’s hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. I’m in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel I’m making a real contribution to the program.

Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?

I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulation—so Bach is perfect. Then, another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if I’m playing something soft. . .well, where is the threshold when I feel I’m starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors? You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if you’ve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, you’ll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you can’t get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.

 It’s hard to do consequential R&D when you’re on the road a lot, too, isn’t it.

Well, it is a difficult thing to do when you’re on the road. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the middle of presenting music that you’ve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictable—and I just don’t ever want to go there. I’ll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you don’t care enough about to work on. That’s just for me. Whether we want to call it “new” or “old” or “innovative” or whatever else, if you’re not investing in it every day of your life, then you’re not as serious about art as some great artists have been. That’s all I can say.

Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?

I have to say that they’re so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable… You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, “You know what? We’re going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.” He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows you’re there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of style—funk music, zydeco, Louisiana playing—and also has a love of Ron Carter’s role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltrane’s group—he’s figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.

What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talent, write arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. That’s one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OP’s virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment… Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybody’s view of a jazz trio is kind of, “Oh yeah, cocktail music” or “it’s kind of cute, it’s kind of nice…” Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.

Then the second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, they’ll be able to have equal access in bringing us where we’re getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.

You’ve been evolving that concept for some time, haven’t you. You were talking about this ten years ago.

We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. That’s the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether you’re going to really push and figure it out, or whether it’s going to be mainly conception.

Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I can’t help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giantsi, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composers—Morton, Ellington, and Monk—whom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Let’s talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.

When you’re putting any record together, you’re trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they don’t get tired in the process. I’ve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.

So you want an ebb-and-flow.

Yes. You want people to have time to digest what they’re hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; he’s at the beginning anyway, so why not? “New Orleans Blues” I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.

Most of the pieces on this CD I’ve been playing for years. There’s not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that it’s all trio, and the concepts are organic, because I’ve been playing this stuff for a long time, and I’ve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.

So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke,” which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the ‘90s…how do you see those now?

I don’t really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wynton’s rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because there’s no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. It’s matured. It’s grown-up. It’s no longer really a concept. At this point it’s more a way of life. It’s how we play, what we believe in.

At what point in your life did the notion of having entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? I’m sure it took a while to germinate, and once it begin to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?

I guess it’s always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, he’s the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know how to make them operational. You’ll get in the middle of it, then: “Oh, I didn’t consider it whole.” “What do we do now?” “I don’t know.” So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure. Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldn’t have you doing something that’s physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, what’s amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. He’s got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!

As far as when I started to think in terms of the history: Well, I’ve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I can’t even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. You’ll play or hear a melody, and you don’t know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. It’s timeless. It’s beyond the scope of our understanding. It’s like a subconscious-unconscious thing. Then, there’s the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it. That’s more “modern,” new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. I’ve always thought in terms of integration—of more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something “new.” I’ve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. I’m sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. It’s never been a problem actually to find new things to do.

One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.

That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. It’s a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. There’s the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. That’s my real view of blues—the tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means we’re imposing something on it against the ear. The ear’s got into this, and then we’re going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopation—your ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, here’s something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, we’ve got a third instrument. It’s a real complicated thing.

When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. They’re on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wynton’s philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. That’s that folk element I’m talking about. Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voice—she could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation you’re in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a “generation” is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! You’re thinking that it’s moving you right now. “Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?” If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me!—nobody would be mad! They’d say, “Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?” So we’ve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. That’s a delicate issue.

New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with “New Orleans Blues,” and ends in 1956 with “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.” So you’re spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American music—in Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?

Again, they solved problems. “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,” or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monk’s music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. He’s almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monk’s music is strictly jazz. Strictly. You’re not going to confuse it with German music, you’re not going to confuse it with African music, you’re not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, “Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,” well, you’d pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, you’d probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from <i>Kind of Blue</i>. I won’t speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldn’t go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldn’t go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldn’t go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness. Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington, all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what I’m interested in. For me, it’s always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. That’s the selfish component. Now, I’m not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because you’re talking about somebody’s life’s work, what they REALLY went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.

And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.

Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So I’m playing “New Orleans Blues,” which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,” I don’t know how many arrangements of that tune we haven’t thought up in this trio. We’ve played it all kind of different ways. “Honeysuckle Rose” is another one that we’ve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.

So I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didn’t really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholy—a kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. It’s an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesn’t impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, “Well, you’d better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system won’t acknowledge it.” There’s the science of it, and there’s the art of it, the creative element. Again, you’re always balancing the design with the conception.

Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By “contemporary,” I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and I’ve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wynton’s group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?

Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. He’d play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manner—because it still has the theory and this European training behind it.

Danilo is someone who understood another culture’s view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, it’s that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what he’d figured out. It’s just brilliant stuff. It’s well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playing—somebody who doesn’t understand that the sustain pedal is there and what you’re supposed to do with it. He’s a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesn’t get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if it’s your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. It’s a hard job. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

You were mentioning earlier that you’ve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?

Well, I can’t speak for anybody else’s experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I don’t know.

I’m thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.

That’s still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, you’ve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. That’s the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford… Look, they didn’t play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. That’s never enough. You’re not going to find anything great without it.

With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?

Well, I’ve been documenting a lot. That hasn’t been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But I’m just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly won’t be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.

Primarily trio, or a diverse range of contexts?

It’s diverse. I have a solo piano record that’s already done. I have another trio record of original music that’s done. I’ve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put out—I don’t know if I’m going to go in and redo it. But yes, I’m always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.

Any special projects for the spring and summer?

The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] We’re doing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. That’s important to me, because that’s the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that we’ve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; he’s a great conductor over there. So I’m hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. I’m talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, I’m interested in meaningful collaboration. It’s certainly a little more streamlined. I’m not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.


Interview with Marcus Roberts for, October 22, 1999:


TP: I would like to ask you first of all about a contention that you make several times in the press material, which is that your concept of the interactive trio and of all of the members of the trio being in a position to lead the proceedings at any given time is a new concept. You say “fundamental but new.” Now, I think the trio does it with great skill and imagination. But would you explain to me a little more why it’s a new concept, as opposed to what, let’s say, Ahmad Jamal was doing in the late ’50s and the ’60s?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we have to address the fact that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. “New just means that no one has done it.” If we’re talking about Ahmad Jamal, the way his trio was set up, the piano was fully out front, and Ahmad wanted space so that he could manipulate through cues, visual cues…so he could manipulate the direction of the music. What he would do is, if he wanted Israel’s voice to come out more here, he would leave space and point to him as if, you know, “Play”… In other words, he was a very-very hands-on, great trio… I mean, he put together, in my opinion, the best trio I ever heard! [LAUGHS]

TP: Was he very influential on your concept of trio playing?

ROBERTS: Oh my God, yes.

TP: Talk a bit more about the dynamics of that, and talk about your antecedent trio concepts that inflect the way your sound has evolved to this day.

ROBERTS: Well, we’ve been influenced specifically by Ahmad Jamal, and certainly Errol Garner’s playing has had a profound impact on me — that whole Pittsburgh school of piano playing.

TP: What are the characteristics of that Pittsburgh school?

ROBERTS: Well, they believe first and foremost in swinging and grooving, number one. In the case of Errol Garner, we’re talking about somebody who sort of was a transitional figure from the Big Band swing players and sort of the Bebop era. Errol became very popular in the ’50s at a time when everybody was kind of into the Hardbop of Blakey and Miles, but Errol Garner just had such a hard-driving swing. In his left hand he typically used to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, and then in the right hand he would play a lot of times what you might think of as saxophone figures or trumpet figures in a big band. So he organized this within a trio concept, and the power has always been very attractive to me — just the swing and the power of Errol Garner’s playing.

Then sort of the finesse and the imagination of Ahmad Jamal, who again influenced… Most of what Miles Davis got done in the ’50s, he got pretty much directly from Ahmad Jamal, and Ahmad’s concept of expanding the form. So Ahmad would take a tune like “Autumn Leaves” that has a pretty straight-ahead AB kind of form, and he would expand the A-section until he just didn’t have to play on it any more. He’d point and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the bridge.” So it was a very-very flexible way of expanding form. Now, he might put a different kind of groove on the bridge. It just brings the whole tune to life, a whole different way. That’s something that I definitely was very taken by and very influenced by, that this was just a brilliant bandleader who knew how to make the piano sound like an orchestra, how he would make a single line played in the highest register of the piano ring, and then you’d hear Israel Crosby playing all kinds of hip stuff underneath; you know, Ahmad’s left hand wouldn’t be in the way or anything with the harmonic direction that Israel might want to go in…

But again, what I think we’re trying to do is introduce a concept that has an agenda that says that there are many times where the piano does not have to be out front, and rather, there are times where you have to relinquish not only a solo space, but an actual direction, an unanticipated direction that you as bandleaders don’t control, to the bass or drums. And this just isn’t done.

TP: In some ways, this is a very Ellingtonian notion, isn’t it. I mean, Ellington always had control, but it was always control based on his knowledge of what the untrammeled imagination of his improvisers would do. It’s like his concept was built around that intimate knowledge of each of his voices. Since the recording is called In Honor Of Duke, and you say it’s not Ellington repertoire but more an impression of Ellington, the idea seems consequential.

ROBERTS: We are certainly building on very, very fundamental aspects of what Ellington did. He wrote music, number one, specifically for the talents of all the men and women that he worked with throughout his career. And I think in his case, you’re talking about somebody who certainly preferred that his orchestra vision not necessarily be expressed from the standpoint of piano alone, but typically from the expanding of other people’s ability to shine. And he gave them tremendous flexibility, but he did tailor-make the music for them that allowed their imagination to come forward. But again, Duke Ellington did typically maintain control at the piano. This is why we have typically a piano introduction, because Duke Ellington was not going to risk the wrong tempo being set — he was not going to risk any of that stuff. So he did permit imagination, but you have to understand, it was definitely from the standpoint of him making sure that the environment was how he wanted it to be for that to happen. And he had very clear visions as far as what the bass and drums were going to be doing in the big band. He wanted that foundational groove there, and not being manipulated too much.

So again, if we’re talking about the bass and the drums, this is the issue that makes this new. The issue is that there hasn’t been a band that I know of where the bass and drums can dictate throughout an evening the direction that the band goes in. I haven’t heard it.

TP: Talk a bit about the cuing system you use to keep the collective spontaneous interaction organized in some sense.

ROBERTS: Well, we can have, for example, one cue that allows for anybody to either speed the tempo up or slow it down, on any tune. We have another cue system where the tempo can be changed above abruptly at any time. Then we have the music itself, which is organized in a way where there are moments where the direction of the music is in the hands of somebody other than myself, again both in terms of tempo… For example, on two separate occasions, that particular tune, every 8 bars in every break after the …(?)…, control shifts, and it’s beyond just taking a break. Typically when you take a break in jazz, you take the break at the tempo of the preceding material. Well, in this case, we don’t feel that you have to do that. The break could be at any tempo. And you can set up a whole different tempo after your break is done for the next person, so you are dictating the tempo that they play at. So that’s just like one small example of it.

So it’s just things like that. And it’s not to say it’s new like there is no relationship to using material or concepts about the form, because that is certainly not where I’m coming from at all. It’s just a matter of trying to identify things that you don’t feel have been done that can perhaps be a contribution.

TP: A quality you share with a lot of the older piano players is a very organic two-handed conception and orchestral conception of the piano within your trio concept. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but is there anything you care to say about that?

ROBERTS: Well, I agree with that 100 percent. I love to hear the piano explore with the sense that it could be an orchestra, because it certainly has the range to do it, and it has the ability for you to play many voices at one time. So yeah, I think that is one of the things I certainly strive for every time I play the piano.

TP: You make a comment here that as a youngster and someone with a gift for playing the piano, that Ellington was really the person who turned you around when you first heard him, when you were 12 years old.


TP: Who were some of the other pianists you encountered in your formative years, let’s say between that and going to Florida State University?

ROBERTS: Well, Teddy Wilson. Mary Lou Williams. Of course, I was listening to Classical music as well. I mean, I heard Horowitz the first time when I was 13 after one piano lesson. Art Tatum, obviously. And probably McCoy Tyner to a lesser extent.

TP: It differentiates you from a lot of your peer group who weren’t exposed to any of these prewar musicians at all until maybe later, and kind of came up with the orthodox piano lineage that’s taught in universities and academic institutions. It kind of puts you apart from a number of them.

ROBERTS: Well, the only thing that puts me apart from them, honestly, is just philosophy. You have to understand that in jazz music, typically (or more disciplines, I guess), people tend to look a generation back. That’s just what people do. Because they want to take issue with what’s been done, and either change it or agree with it or just totally reject it. So I think that what I’m advocating, and what somebody like Duke Ellington certainly advocated throughout his illustrious 50-year career, is that you should always use the whole history of the music all the time. That was obviously his conception. He was not somebody who was going, “Oh, now there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.'” He was saying, well, let’s use the logical elements of Bebop that make sense inside of his ever-expanding conception.

TP: It was an incremental concept.

ROBERTS: Yes. And this is where I think the power of Ellington’s legacy is second to none. Because it’s always expanding based on the whole history. My philosophy is, I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I mean, I study the whole history and try to develop sort of globally that way. For example, I studied Mildred Falls, so I could really understand how you should accompany a Gospel singer. She played behind Mahalia all those years; she must know something about that. So I mean, I studied her playing on about four of Mahalia’s records, so I could know, and correlate what I heard in Mildred Falls that I also heard in McCoy Tyner. What was I hearing in Teddy Wilson that was being passed down to Nat Cole and to Oscar Peterson? These are the things. Or how did Count Basie go from studying directly with Fats Waller and understanding that whole Harlem Stride thing, and then over time developing actually what a lot of people would think was a contradictory way of playing, with all this space.

TP: Actually, what I hear when I listen to you and reference older pianists is a kind of rhythmic affinity for the way Earl Hines phrases and sets off rhythms. It’s the most visceral connection I feel. Which may or may not have anything to do with your reality.

ROBERTS: Well, Earl Hines, man, that’s…again, that’s another… I try, you know. But I think… See, a lot of the young pianists that I talk to, they pick, like, an era that they’re into, or they respond to a particular philosophy that they don’t want to be associated with. You have some kids who maybe they’re just into claiming that they are expanding based on the 20th Century view of the European piano is what they’re doing, or some people make it clear that Bebop is what they’re interested in. Whatever it is. I mean, that’s fine, whatever a person is into. But I just encourage them to get as much information from the reservoir as you can.

TP: Which certainly puts you on a similar track to Wynton Marsalis, and hearing you say that makes it clear to me why the two of you have been so close over the years.

ROBERTS: Well, yeah. But again, like I say, we have a model far greater than Wynton and myself in Duke Ellington. We have a very clear example of somebody… Or Thelonious Monk. We have figures where this is not some newly discovered fact. I think in most disciplines, this is how things work. Now, we aren’t really suggesting that Einstein wasn’t influenced by Copernicus or Newton; we’re not really suggesting that. So to me, it’s kind of basic, kind of fundamental. I think that Wynton, certainly, just based on how he hit the scene and everything… A lot more is made of that really makes sense to me, but maybe that’s just because that was my experience and I was there.

TP: Let’s talk about your trio. You’ve been together four years now?

ROBERTS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few sentences about their individual qualities and the blend you’re able to get.

ROBERTS: Well, I think that first of all if we were to begin with Roland… Roland likes to groove. He comes from a generation where he’s got Parliament-Funkadelic records and Earth Wind & Fire records and all that stuff. He’s a lot like Reginald Veal in that he just loves to groove. Anything that’s got a groove on it, he’s interested. So he actually likes the traditional role of the bass and drums as just laying that groove down. In a strange way, that’s sort of what helped unlock this new way of thinking, to sort of fluctuate between those states in a seamless way. And he has, over time, developed a very-very strong solo vocabulary and has a lot of really nice things that he does, like with slapped bass based on Slam Stewart, and taking that to another level that I haven’t heard. So he brings strength and just a whole lot of soul and grit to the bandstand.

In the case of Jason Marsalis, this is just like a brilliant, genius kid who can hear three or four tempos simultaneously. He’s somebody who has a completely perfect photographic memory. You can tell him to play “a Roy Haynes conception, but I want the touch to sound somewhat like Tony Williams, and then when you come out of it I want you to play like Baby Dodds but in five.” So you can tell him that…

TP: Is that the way you talk to him?

ROBERTS: Oh yes. I can look right over to him and just say, “Baby Dodds,” and he will go immediately into like a modern depiction.

TP: So the image is correlated into a sound for him.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, he’s a genius. I have no idea how it happens, but I can tell you it’s like split second. A lot of it honestly is just there. I mean, from what I understand, he knew the solo to “Giant Steps” when he was 4 years old. I mean, he didn’t go to school and somebody teach it to him. Nobody knows. I mean, he’s somebody who just has an unusual, tremendous amount of natural talent.

But the other thing about him is that he is very dedicated, and in terms of this particular trio he has gotten very interested in taking a very active role in helping to develop it. One of the things that he told me that he’s doing… I asked him. Like I say, I’m not interested in me dictating every step. He’s interested in taking a lot of the drummers who were not trio drummers, like Max Roach and Elvin and Tony, and using their concepts in a trio context. A lot of drummers, if they play trio, they build pretty much from what we consider to be the traditional trio figures — Ed Thigpen, Vernell Fournier, etcetera. What Jason is saying is that he wants to contribute a modern dialogue with the vocabulary of some of the other drummers who are not associated with trio, and put it in that context.

TP: Just as those drummers would do when they found themselves in a trio context. Because Elvin and Tony and Max Roach and Roy Haynes all did play trios, but they weren’t “trio drummers.”

ROBERTS: Well, no. And I mean, they didn’t play trio in the way that Vernell did. They were not known as helping to develop a particular trio conception. But I think what he’s talking about is developing an identity inside of a trio that is based on not just the standard trio figures, but is (?).

TP: Was all this music more or less collectively developed over time? Talk about the process of composing the music for this trio.

ROBERTS: Well, the music for this trio really began with Time and Circumstance. That’s where my philosophy about piano, bass and drums really is put on record the first time.

TP: With another bassist.

ROBERTS: Well, it was recorded with another bassist, but actually I’d worked on a lot of that stuff with Roland. Roland was not on the record, but believe me, he was very instrumental in the development of the music. Then it sort of went there. Time and Circumstance was composed probably over a 5 to 6 month period of time. In Honor of Duke was done in a 2-1/2 month period of time. But the key thing is that it was written specifically for those two improvisers, and that it was written specifically — honestly, from the very beginning — with the concept: How can we bring the bass and drums more up-front? How can we sort of flip-flop these positions, so that the position of the piano is not lost in power, and we’re not just having these sort of generic, traditional ways at times of playing behind bass players, which I hate. It’s like every time a bass player starts to play somebody starts playing on the sock cymbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why is that the only way that we can think of to play behind a bass solo? It’s ridiculous. So we try to find different ways to accompany instruments that are typically not out front.

TP: You use a lot of Latin flavors on this record, explicitly and implicitly. There’s specific clave and then that sort of New Orleans inflection which has an inherent Caribbean feel. Have you been exploring Latin rhythms a great deal in recent years?

ROBERTS: A lot of that has to do with having heard Danilo Perez play. I love what he’s doing. We sat down and played, and I explained some things to him about the sort of straight-ahead piano philosophy, and how he can continue to develop his very incredible, hip, innovative Latin was that he takes a lot of the jazz standards and things; and then he shows me a lot of the basics of Latin playing, and explained to me some things that I can do to sort of bring that into what I was already doing. What I figured out is that it’s another huge reservoir of material and conceptual knowledge out there about that. So that’s why you’re hearing that. It’s something I’m feeling very driven to explore.

TP: Is composition a constant process for you? Are you always writing, or project-driven?

ROBERTS: Well, both. I have an arrangement for Trio and Symphony Orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” that I’m almost done with. That’s really consumed a lot of this year, along with the Ellington. I have a solo record that I’m working on for Columbia of all ballads, because I haven’t ever done a record quite like that, solo. I’m always trying to think of different things to do, to sort of do two things. To keep me in touch with the Folk foundation of life, but also to always stretch my imagination, always stretch my mental intellect. Because I think it’s really the combination of both things without losing one or the other that keeps progress in modern thinking kind of moving forward.

TP: In terms of your own pianism, what do you feel you need to work on? I’m assuming you’re never satisfied with what it is you do, but I assume there are certain aspects of what you do that you’re more comfortable with than, let’s say, others — or maybe I’m wrong.

ROBERTS: What I’m working on is trying to get to the point where my playing is, for lack of a better word, beautiful and poignant and clear. Balanced. Playing of Bach and Beethoven sonatas and Chopin. Those are the things that right at the moment I’m interested in doing. I have not had a whole lot of time, but I am very interested in just playing through a lot of those things. Because, see, a lot of the European masters did write specifically for the development of piano. So it’s one of the few instruments that has such a huge history both in Europe and America, you see. It’s a huge history. So to the extent that I can understand as much as I can, that’s what I plan to do. I don’t know how much better I’ll get, but that’s essentially what I’m driving by.

TP: Do you see the European Classical tradition and Jazz as a seamless entity in your mind, or are there separate personalities that come out for you?

ROBERTS: For me it’s seamless in that it’s all put and organized in a context that is jazz-based for me. I’m not interested in playing note-for-note the Beethoven Third with the New York Philharmonic. I have no real desire to do that, because I don’t have the hours and the days that it would take to really authentically represent that repertoire. But I am interested in writing music that will showcase the piano in a jazz context, but being drawn from a lot of European roots and Latin roots and other sort of merging of sensibilities.

I’d like to mention that the music is always ultimately only valuable if there is an audience for it that you can reach. That’s the most important (?) thing of any of it.

TP: And therefore the extent of your educational activities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And not only that. You are being educated. When people spend two hours getting dressed up and showing up to your event, they are just as interested in communicating with you as you are in communicating with them. I think this is where Jazz music has introduced a whole nother element, this interactive element, which I think has had a tremendous impact on how quickly jazz has moved in the past hundred years.

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Filed under,, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Marcus Roberts, Wynton Marsalis

For George Lewis’ 64th Birthday, A Lengthy Interview from 2009, A DownBeat Feature from 2009, and WKCR Interviews from 2006, 1995 and 1994

Today is the 64th birthday of George Lewis, who has deeply impacted the course of jazz and experimental music over the past 45 years in multiple spheres of activity, for reasons described in the introduction to the extended interview we did together in Perugia in 2009, which initially appeared on the no-longer-active website. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about George over the years, most recently this spring for Jazz Timesand in a piece in which I talked to him and Muhal Richard Abrams about the CD Streaming. That article appears below the interview, as do verbatim interviews conducted in 2006, 1995 (he was in the studio on that occasion with Wadada Leo Smith) and 1994, respectively, on WKCR. (Here’s a vignette for the NPR show Studio 360 that we did together in 2002 on the subject of Voyager, the interactive real-time improvising software that he developed during the 1980s and 1990s.)



Standing in the wings of the Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater shortly after lunch on July 14th, as George Lewis rehearsed the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble for the first of their six concerts over three nights at this summer edition of Umbria Jazz, Marija Sepac, who has observed musicians closely over her eleven years as a quasi-chaperone for the festival’s various performers, marveled at the singular nature of this particular cohort.

“They are very precise—more than 20 people, and they work as one,” she said.

“Concentration. Many hours of hard work. Everybody in an excellent mood all the time. I got a feeling that the people in the orchestra are honored to play with George Lewis, but that they really like him. I can feel the connection which goes beyond respect and professionalism. It was beautiful staying with them yesterday. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s amazing!”

At this moment, Lewis was systematically checking that each sound in the orchestra—the GBME instrumentation comprises five reeds and winds, including the entire saxophone family, various clarinets and flutes, and didgiridoo; three trumpets; two trombones; cello; violin; piano; three vocalists; two basses, trapset; congas; and Lewis’ own electronics—was properly accounted for in the mix. After this was done, there was an hour to rehearse—or, better put, run through—the repertoire he had prepared for the five o’clock concert.

Sparse preparation or no, an inspired performance ensued. Lewis set the tone with a rambunctious opening trombone salvo, then put down his horn to conduct his five pieces, swaying, dancing, cuing, and, when appropriate, leaving the stage to allow the musicians to figure out their next step on their own. Over the next five concerts, which transpired at 5 p.m. and midnight over a three-night span, GBME members Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Renee Baker, Tomeka Reid, and Saalik Ziyad presented compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities presented by the 21-member unit, which executed each chart with the world-class technique, high collective intelligence, and an open attitude that has been characteristic of musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since it convened in 1965.

Himself an AACM member since 1971, and now entering his sixth year as Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, where he also chairs the Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis chronicled the organization’s history in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], published in the spring of 2008. It’s a landmark work. The bedrock of the text is an exhaustively researched linear narrative history, constructed on over 90 interviews from which Lewis traces keen portraits of numerous members; AACM archival records; encyclopedic citations from contemporaneous literature, both from American and European sources; and vividly recounted personal experience. Furthermore, Lewis contextualizes the musical production of AACM members—a short list of “first-wavers” includes such late 20th century innovators as Muhal Richard Abrams, who stamped his character on the principles by which the AACM would operate; the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye); Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, and John Stubblefield—within both the broader spectrum of experimental activity and the critical theory that surrounded it, expressing complex concepts with rigorous clarity and elegant prose.

A native of Chicago’s South Side who earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Yale, Lewis established himself as one of the major voices on the trombone tree during the ‘70s, for his seemingly unlimited technique and singular tone, setting new standards on his instrument with bandleaders as diverse as Braxton, Count Basie, and Gil Evans. As the ‘70s progressed, Lewis turned his attention to interactive computer music, eventually imagining and creating Voyager, a software program that improvises either in real time with a musician partner or on its own initiative. In a sense, he breathed anima into the computer, enabling it to function as an autonomous, social entity.

Over the course of two interviews last summer, here welded together into a single “conversation,” Lewis discussed these subjects.


What’s been your previous relationship with the Great Black Music Ensemble?

The genesis of my working with them was that somehow the Sons D’Hiver people (which is a kind of French play on words, “winter sounds” but it sounds like “diverse sounds” somehow to my untrained ear in the French language) managed to get the entire Great Black Music Ensemble to come to Paris in 2008 and do concerts there. So they asked me to sort of collaborate with that (because I’m not really a member of it), actually to make pieces. So I was also able to bring in some people, like the violinist Mary Oliver, who lives in Amsterdam; the bass player, Leonard Jones, who lives near Düsseldorf-he was also in Perugia; and my spouse, Miya Masaoka, the kotoist and sound artist. So I made kind of a triple concerto format surrounding them, and I made three pieces for the first half of the concert. We’re playing all of those three pieces here, plus a new piece that I wrote for them, because it’s stable enough so that I know who is going to play, and I know who can do what and who likes to do what—not what they can do, but the comfort zone. That’s what you want to do with any group of musicians.

Actually, more and more, I am inclined to just write music, and not worry about what people can and can’t do. We always hear about the Duke Ellington model, that a lot of that work apparently was improvised, although the scholarship on that is kind of spotty—it’s more like anecdotes and stories. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really sat down and said, “Look, how did you guys do it?” Part of the problem always with the interview process is that people are kind of performing, and the people who are interested in anecdotes and so on don’t really get into process that much. I would have been fascinated to find out how they improvised these parts, but there’s nothing written on what they did and how they did it. You wouldn’t be able to get that unless you bring in somebody who had the interest in documenting that part of the process, and also the outlet for being able to publish it or put it out there, and then the constituency of people who really want to read it. Because I imagine that a lot of times the musicians say, “do you really want to know this?” Or “Are you really qualified to receive this knowledge, or somehow equipped…” Not “qualified.” I guess that’s more of an insider’s viewpoint. We want to get beyond the everyday, mundane stuff; we want to get to the deep parts of this. A lot of people feel they don’t want to do that with people they don’t feel can really understand it. It’s a funny way of thinking about things.

But in any event, when I work with the group, I concentrate on the written music, and I write a lot of stuff for them. For the first concert, I wrote a lot. I’m not a “conduction” sort of person. I don’t like to improvise conducting. It’s too centralized for my work, and I’m not good at it anyway. I want people to make it up on their own, and I kind of like the idea of large ensemble improvisation without some center person pointing to people and making them do things. They should think it up on their own. But that takes a lot of time to develop, a kind of personal transformation, and a method of sorts, and we didn’t really have enough time here to develop that to the degree I’d like.

We’ll get another chance in August in Chicago. They’re having a tribute to Fred Anderson, this wonderful musician, a mentor of mine, while he’s alive (which is great—he’s 80 years old), and I’m writing a piece for the Great Black Music Ensemble surrounding his work. It emanates from Paul Steinbeck, my Ph.D student who’s going to be a post-doc at the University of Chicago this fall. He published a book of transcriptions of Fred’s solos. I took one of these solos, and I’m sort of orchestrating it. But not like Super Sax. It’s more like counterpoint. The idea is that everybody has a piece of Fred’s solo, and the solo kind of proceeds on its own logic. Looking at it on paper, being able to listen to it over and over, and reflecting on it, and so on, you realize that Fred’s solos do have an inner logic, and it’s not really that capricious. It’s pretty well-organized and very stable, and hangs together. So tearing that up and imposing your own order on it—it’s a clash, a dissonance you can feel. You’re sort of stepping on very important stuff. So I try to avoid that. I want to find ways to support from below what’s going on, and the solo just emanates. That’s the approach for that. But you can do that, once again, because the [GBME] personnel is stable. You get to see how three voices might interpret Fred’s music, or how a group of trumpet players might interpret it, and so on.

Can you elaborate on the pieces of yours that they played during the week?

There’s “Chicken Skin II,” which I actually wrote in 2003, for a group in Munich, the International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble, or ICI-Ensemble, which also has pretty stable personnel. They were great at playing the written music. Nicole Mitchell and Leonard were there, too, and Mary Oliver, so they played as a part of the group.

My feeling now is that I like to go and work with professional artists to realize things, but I also want to bring some people that I know well. It’s not so much that I want to have my people there to make sure that the solos are going to be good. A lot of people can play today; it’s not a question of that. But I like the idea of diverse experiences that come from the cultural exchange in the group. That’s very important to me.
There’s also “Fractals,” which is based on Brownian motion—1/F², statistical stuff. It’s not real 1/F². It’s not algorithmically made. I just made an impression. It would have taken more time to make an algorithm than just write it out of your head.

Then “Angry Bird,” which is a reorchestration of a small section of my orchestral piece from 2004, “Virtual Concerto,” for the American Composers Orchestra. The original piece had a solo piano part played by a Yamaha Disklavier with software that we made to play piano and listen to the orchestra, and be interactive. Basically, the orchestra played the written music, and the computer basically improvised its part the whole time, except for some little parts where, for a certain section of the music, a certain algorithm would come in. There’s a sort of violin part that got orchestrated. The nice thing is that GBME has this super violinist, Renee Baker, and a super cellist, Tomeka Reid, who both have the classical training, so that they can really play that part, that way. Then everybody kind of plays it. Then, “Shuffle,” which is a shuffle, I guess, an interpretation of that.

The big problem in working with any kind of ensemble of this kind nowadays, especially in jazz, is the social and infrastructural area. It was unusual to have a scene like that week at Umbria Jazz where all we did was rehearse, think about the music, and figure things out. You see that more often in non-jazz scenes that I’m a part of. The Morlacchi Theater is fantastic. It was built in 1780 and has a great sound. So we did have more time to do things than we did in Paris.

So I write these pieces down for ensembles with that milieu in mind. I don’t think that much about writing difficult stuff. The idea is that even if people don’t necessarily play all the right notes, it will sound good anyway. It’s sort of diverse enough so that wrong performance will still sound right, so people can feel good about what they do, and they’re not obsessing over minuscule passages and all that, and I don’t worry people about, “oh, this is a quintuplet you’re not doing”—if it ends up being a sextuplet or a bulltuplet, it will still work. So that’s ok. It’s deliberately noisy, with a lot of room for that.

The last thing, which we are going to rehearse for, which I really want to do and get on tape, because it’s new, is called “Triangle,” and it’s inspired by something I heard a while ago. A young percussionist in a New York based contemporary ensemble called Wet Ink whose name is Ian Antonio, who also does noise improvisation, performed an Alvin Lucier piece called “Triangle,” alone, amplified slightly and subtly processed. The piece was 20 minutes, and all he did was DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING for the entire 20 minutes. After the first five minutes my arms started to fall off sympathetically just watching Ian doing this.

When I was creating my gloss on Alvin’s piece, I thought, “Well, this will be a great start.” I didn’t think I wanted to have Turk Burton playing triangle for 20 minutes, though. I just wanted to give the impression. Then I didn’t know whether people would really do that, or maybe they would get bored doing it. But Turk has fantastic rhythm, so he’s playing the triangle in a super great way, and I don’t really have to conduct. People hear the triangle, and they’re on rhythm. Then there’s all this stuff surrounding it. It’s a pretty ambitious piece, so we didn’t have time to prepare it all.

You said yesterday that you’d never seen me do this kind of extended composition and conducting. Not many people in the U.S. have. It’s not like I do these things all the time. But when I do them, I tend to do them somewhere other than where I live, in another country. say. I don’t think I’ve ever really done it in Chicago except for bringing the NOW Orchestra from Vancouver to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2001 or 2002.

You’re playing in the concerts devoted to the music of the other members. So you’re functioning not just as a composer and conductor of your own music, but as a member of the ensemble, which is very much in line with AACM principles.

Yes. The curious thing about that is they’ve been rehearsing this music, but I have to get the parts and rehearse, and then play catchup. I’m also trying to document all the concerts. So I kind of have this split brain, where I’m sitting next to the hard disk recorder, on which I did all these sub-mixes and stuff, both recording and then also playing the music. But I’ve been doing this sort of divided attention thing for a long time. I documented the AACM concerts as far back as ‘71 on my high-test cassette recorder, the first sort of so-called hi-fi cassette stereo things. I’ve got all those tapes, and this is in that kind of tradition. Setting up mikes and stuff. I can do that.

They let us say what we wanted to say about presenting the group, and I preferred it as the AACM Great Black Ensemble With George Lewis instead of Featuring George Lewis. Otherwise, you’re expected to do a lot of stuff, and I’m tired of meeting expectations. I just want to do what I want on stage. You’re supposed to play an improvised trombone solo on every piece or something, and I’m not going through that—and so I don’t. So the strategy for the first piece, the first evening of my music, was to play an improvised solo at the beginning, and then that was it. I didn’t have to play any more. I had a lot to do. The music doesn’t stand or fall on whether I play the trombone or not, just like my book doesn’t stand or fall on that. The book is the book, and if it’s any good, it’s supposed to be good because of the scholarship, and not because of some insider knowledge. So basically, you want the stuff to stand by itself.

Also, the AACM is a collective, and so it’s supposed to be a collective enterprise, and there’s no reason for me to hog the entire thing. I began to realize that it would be very boring for me to be the only composer for six concerts, not because I don’t have six concerts worth of music, but because all those other composers would just be sitting there, and that’s not a good thing to do. When you’ve got all that diversity, you want it to come out.

Could you apply some of the methodologies that you apply to the history of the AACM in A Power Stronger Than Itself to the Great Black Music Ensemble? For example, you explore ethnography, personal history, analyzing the individuals who comprised the AACM by class, by family background, and so forth. Who comprises this ensemble? Are they primarily members of the second and third wave of the AACM, with a few fourth wave people? Break it down.

I don’t remember what I said in the book about waves. If I did adopt that terminology wholesale, I was still a little murky about it. If I’m part of a second wave, then I would say Nicole would be a representative of a third wave, and then people like like Saalik Ziyad and Tomeka Reid would be representative of a fourth wave. Basically, every 7 to 10 years a new wave kind of comes about. For example, Mwata Bowden and I would be second-wave people. It’s partly generational, but the wave thing doesn’t necessarily correspond with the age of the people involved. Someone like Taalib-Din Ziyad is more of a third wave person, but he’s older than me, I think, or close in age, and his son Saalik is in the group—they’re both super singers. It’s very complex.

The book is mainly about people up to the third wave. There’s not a lot to be said about the fourth wave, because I didn’t have a chance to interview all those people. It changes a lot when you get to the fourth wave, because there’s less international visibility, which has always been one of the AACM lifebloods from the beginning. It’s not an organization that stands or falls on, let’s say, the standard hinterland-to-New York model of the jazz experience. Early on, people sort of flew over New York to Paris.

The book’s approach is to place personal experience and personal background in dialogue with what was said by scholars and historians, sociologists and historians in particular, about the experience of black people. The Great Migration, the urban sociology that came out in the ‘40s through the ‘60s about conditions in Chicago—that’s all critical to the experience of these people. So when Malachi Favors, for example, talks about how he remembers rats in the street all the time–well, that’s something that comes up in a lot of the sociological literature. Chicago has had this ongoing problem with rats in the street. If you remember, they would always post things in the alley about to watch out because they were using Warfarin to kill rats. Then Malachi talks about fires all the time, and that’s another big thing. There were thousands of fires, and a lot of them apparently were set deliberately by landlords. People got killed. That comes out in a lot of the urban sociology literature. But the other thing about that is, people didn’t know why there were so many fires. They just knew there were fires.

So what I wanted to do was to give back to these people, to kind of say, “Well, here’s why these problems came up.” They weren’t necessarily equipped to know why. For example, Oliver Lake blaming the demise of Black Artists Group on himself when, in fact, the foundation that was supposedly supporting them was planning their demise under the table. How could they know that? That only came up twenty years later through archival research with people like George Lipsitz and Ben Looker. So the approach isn’t just the ethnography itself. The idea is that somehow the stories dovetail with what’s said in a more dispassionate way, which ends up, first of all, validating the experience of the musician on another level, and showing how those experiences become emblematic of the period.

One of the overarching continuities of your analysis of the AACM is that the organization and its cultural production represents a cohort comprised primarily of working-class origin, many of them first-generation Chicagoans (although some not)—that it’s the expression of their agency. Is it your sense that the AACM still reflects a similar set of circumstances, or if the background of the membership has evolved in line with the evolution of African-American life over the years?

This is a very brief answer, by necessity. I don’t really know. African-American people, even the people who have the so-called “middle class” background, which is an increasingly growing group… In other words, maybe they were born into the working class, but a lot of them have been to college now. That wasn’t really so true of the earliest generation. A lot of them have master;s degrees or whatever, and a lot of them are searching for higher education in different ways. Things that weren’t available so much to people in the earlier generation.

I have the working-class background but I also have the Ivy League background and basically a prep school background, so that’s a strange combination. You go back into the so-called ghetto at night after coming from the University of Chicago Lab School during the day. That kind of bifurcation is part of the experience of a lot of African-American people, going back quite a long time.

So I am going to say that my initial impression is that it’s still primarily a working-class group, even for those who have managed, at this point, to develop another kind of living for themselves. Another thing about the Chicago AACM is that a lot of people do music, but they also have other jobs. They’re not necessarily on the road all the time. They have families. They’re people who have managed to combine two careers successfully. It’s always been like that. They don’t necessarily try to actively cultivate the aspiration of being like a working musician in that sense. The idea of experimentalism being supported by other kinds of work in order to supplement it, in the old days, was considered like, “Oh, you have a day job; that’s terrible; fuck that”—to be a real full-time musician, that’s great, authentic. That aspiration isn’t a big part of the thinking of a lot of people. I think this example shows it’s not as important as people think it is. It’s probably a little self-serving, in a way. A little too romantic. The idea is if you’re doing the music, you’re doing the music. That’s it. Who really cares whatever you have on the side?

It also occurred to me that you yourself, over the course of your career as a musician, which is 38 years…

I’ve always had jobs. First of all, I didn’t think of music as a full-time career all the time. I always had jobs. In New York, I had a job. For two years, I was the Music Curator at the Kitchen. That was a paying job. It was that kind of day job that musicians dream of, where you can go on the road. In Paris, I did concerts and stuff, but I also had a job. I had a commission from IRCAM, the French computer music institute, and I could have income there. Also in Holland. The time when I really had a full time itinerant position as a musician, which was in New York from about ‘87 to ‘88, I had a pretty hard time doing that. Then I started getting into academic life. So it’s not the same experience as people who have a full-time occupation. That hasn’t been a big part of my career.

You moved to New York in 1977, I believe.

Around there. There was a transition period of ‘76 and ‘77.

So in ‘76, you play with the Count Basie Orchestra for two months. Then you join Anthony Braxton, you’re on the road with him for a year—he was pretty visible, working a fair amount.

He did a lot of gigs.

You’re on recordings in 1978 and 1979 with Sam Rivers. It seems to me that during the latter half of the ‘70s, you’re a full-time musician, and that’s when you established your tonal personality very strongly.

I’m counting back from ‘82. In 1980, I started at the Kitchen. So maybe for three years from 1977 to 1980, I don’t know if I had any part-time jobs.

And a lot of activity was packed into those three years. There’s a body of documented improvised trombone playing that people still refer to when they think of your tonal personality.

I’m just basically saying that I come from the working-class background, but I’ve been very lucky, because a lot of musicians had extreme privation during those years. I really didn’t. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky to have that.

You have quite a bit of experience with orchestral music in the jazz and creative music traditions. I’m wondering if you could position the Great Black Music Ensemble within the full spectrum of such units you’ve worked with. Also, if you don’t find it too anecdotal, could you relate some of the experiences you had in big bands in the ‘70s that influenced your thinking of music as a full-time career.

Let me go first to the part about situating this group. I’ll start with the AACM. Now, the AACM has always had a tradition of supporting research in composition. In fact, from my perspective, the AACM began as a composers’ collective. In my time, at the AACM School, mainly you got lectures in composition from people like Muhal or Wallace MacMillan, or whoever showed up. They didn’t teach instruments. No one was talking about improvisation and stuff like that. Then you were always encouraged to compose your own work and present it; that was kind of a requirement. You were always encouraged to compose, and if you said you didn’t want to compose any more, people would complain. In that regard, the AACM membership itself would play your music, provide opportunities for you to explore large-form compositions, because there was no other way to do it. People weren’t receiving commissions from anybody to do anything like that. As far as I can see in Chicago, no one was calling up Douglas Ewart on the classical side to produce anything, and I’ve been on various panels where the classical ensembles are reviewed by funding organizations, and I’ve had a chance to kind of complain that these organizations never interface with the black community, and they should be called to account for that. It would be obvious that these experimental contemporary music ensembles should logically interface with the AACM. That’s one way of situating it.

For example, let’s imagine the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble in conjunction with various hybrid kinds of structures, which is the way the AACM was going. The book cites the first press release of the AACM, which Muhal and Ken Chaney wrote, which said that their mission was essential to the advancement of new music. I don’t think they were necessarily talking about the next Count Basie. I think they were trying to figure out a way to situate themselves in the broader tradition of musical experimentalism. That was really clear. I don’t want to narrow that focus.

So when you look at the various AACM big bands, as they called it, there was always this thing called the AACM Big Band, which was their way of interfacing with the big band tradition. Its precursor before that was the Experimental Band, and before that there were people like Muhal and Marshall Thompson and Eddie Harris who got together and created a rehearsal band, just to try out some ideas. The whole big band experience had kind of ossified, and a lot of people couldn’t get work going on the road—there was no longer that kind of work. As Eddie said—wasn’t that in an interview he did with you, Ted?–you didn’t learn certain things about how to perform or compose. There was no real infrastructure for that. So people had to make it themselves and create it.

Now, I think that there was a deliberate decision taken by people like Mwata Bowden—in particular, Mwata, I think—to recast that in a different way. In other words, they decided to change the name of what they were doing to the Great Black Music Ensemble. That was an important step also not in breaking with tradition, but establishing a new discourse surrounding their relationship to the AACM. Very important. They didn’t have to be the AACM Big Band any more. It wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s the next edition of the AACM Big Band.” What I realized, sitting in the band for those three nights, was that I played in all the AACM big bands, or a lot of them, for many years—the ones with Muhal, the ones with Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, and all these people who people think about from the first generation. I was kind of their student, in a way. But there was nothing like this. They didn’t have four singers or five singers. They didn’t really have cellists and violinists. With all respect to these great people, I don’t want to say that this is ‘better,’ but it’s a fundamentally different kind of animal, and it’s really, in a way, the most diverse set of possibilities that I have seen in any AACM ensemble. Things happen in this ensemble that never happened before in the AACM Big Band. Plus, they have women, a lot of women, not just a few, like we did back then.

And they’re not just singers.

And they’re not necessarily singers. They’re great players. Some of them sing and some of them don’t. With that in mind, GBME has a fundamentally different and very particular identity that they’ve established through regular rehearsal and through modification of a discourse which ends up causing everyone to reflect on how we are doing OUR thing and not necessarily just doing the AACM’s thing. That’s one thing. I was pretty impressed with that. The things that happened during those three nights couldn’t have happened in the same way with those earlier people. The earlier people should be proud of that. I certainly found myself being very proud of it.

Now, the next part of your question, asking me to situate this in the context of other experiences that I’ve had in various kinds of big bands…that’s hard to do. A lot of people who did experimental improvisation ensembles like Globe Unity Orchestra weren’t necessarily thinking about themselves as reacting to traditional big band music. They were just trying to create something different based on a broader interpretation of how you combine improvisation with composed stuff. Certainly, the standard big band model that we know and in which people have created wonderful music was based on that, in some way. The band was playing music, then you took your solo, and so on. But they didn’t have that much collective improvisation. They didn’t have everyone in the band writing a piece. For example, in Count Basie, we were playing pieces by Eric Dixon and so on, but it wasn’t a big feature. Thad Jones wrote most of the music for his orchestra, fantastic, classic pieces, like “A Child Is Born.” But it wasn’t that everyone in the band was encouraged to write music. Duke Ellington, the same thing—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. I don’t seem to remember Duke Ellington’s Orchestra playing standards, so-called, too often. That makes sense. It was his band, and it was his music, and why not?

In this ensemble, anyone can contribute. That’s like the AACM thing. As Joseph Jarman said, the difference between the AACM and Sun Ra is that in Sun Ra’s band it was Sun Ra who could say and do, and in the AACM everybody could say and do. That’s a huge difference. It’s actually a very different political model, too. You can think about it in terms of notions of radical democracy, egalitarianism, different models of ethical conduct that comes out of music. It’s not a negative example, but it’s more of a difference in orientation.

I was talking about the Globe Unity Orchestra. Basically, Alex Schlippenbach would do a lot of the writing, if there was writing, but a lot of the time there was no writing, and people would just improvise the entire gig. It was great. You had all these people who, really, that was their metier, and they specialized in it, and they knew what do in that environment. I’m not sure this band does that in the same way. I would like to see that happen at some point, where we could say, “OK, let’s improvise the entire concert with no music.” But that takes a particular kind of orientation to personal training, which might take time to develop. Maybe a retreat somewhere, a funded retreat of the sort that people coming from the jazz-identified area don’t really get, where you’ll have an ensemble come together… Composers get this. I’m going to Rome for two months in 2010, at the American Academy, composing music. I’m not going to spend my time in Rome going around and playing in bands and presenting stuff. I want to sit in Rome and compose, and talk with people, and learn about what’s happening there. But that’s the idea. Imagine if you had an ensemble for a week to play together and work this out. We did that with a smaller group in Portugal. In August in Lisbon we’re presenting the electro-acoustic project called Sequel, which we recorded in 2004—eight improvisors working with both acoustic and electronic instruments.

One of the festival chaperones told me that she had never, in eleven years, of shepherding bands around in Umbria and Orvieto, encountered a group of musicians as disciplined, organized, and good-humored as this group.

I do know where that sense of discipline and order comes from. I had never thought of this until J.D. Parran mentioned it, that the AACM people always were very organized and disciplined—he used that word, too. I never thought of us as particularly disciplined, but in fact, I had to ask people for their dietary requirements. My thing was, “Just give me some good Italian food,” but all these people were very specific about their requirements—“I’m a vegan” or this or that.

I don’t want to say this in the wrong way, but I think the reality of the jazz industry (I think I want to use that term) is that a lot of the bands that are brought to a place like this, they don’t come out of the collective experience, but out of the experience where someone gets a gig and they are hired by this or that person. They’re always on a bit of an edge, because they’re competing with a lot of other people who could also have been hired, but in fact they weren’t, so if they don’t do the right thing or play the music in the right away or don’t have the right attitude, they could get fired. I mean, nobody can get fired from the AACM. You can’t even resign voluntarily! Once you’re in, you’re in, and even if you say you’re out, you’re still in. So people don’t feel they can get fired. What are you going to do? Are you going to fire yourself? It’s a collective. Who’s going to fire you?

Isn’t what you’re describing a sort of collective characterological trait that’s been passed down from the beginning through Muhal Richard Abrams, and then various other members who had experience in the military? Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman both talked about their military experiences as crucial to what they did when they got to Europe, to their ability to survive and be self-sufficient.

You could say that.

I’m wondering if that attitude might run continuously throughout the AACM experience.

Maybe it could be. But I don’t know how many people of the younger generation had military experience. I mean, I didn’t, and then it’s whole different thing with these younger people. Volunteer army. Who wants to volunteer? People don’t want to do it. So maybe some people did. But there’s also a different kind of experience. Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad had the experience of being disciplined within the East Side Disciples, a gang! That’s a really different thing.

But you’re disciplined because this is your thing, and you’re encouraged to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the decision, whereas if you’re playing in a regular band that tours, you don’t have much personal responsibility other than to show up and do the music and do what you’re told. I don’t care whose band it is. Here you have to take on responsibility for playing your music and other people’s music. You’re contributing to the collective experience because it could be your turn next time to play the music of someone else, your colleagues. So it’s a stronger sense of collegiality than the standard kind of working-for-hire situation. We’re clearly not doing that, even though we are being “hired.’ But we’re working for ourselves as much as anyone else. We weren’t formed in response to some industry mandate, or “I’ll form a band and try to sell it.” It’s more that we form a band because we want to do this music. So we have full responsibility for it, and nobody tells us what to play. If we get hired for something, they hire us because we’re us.

I think that’s one thing that’s very important about discipline and collegiality and congeniality. It adds to the atmosphere. I remember working in bands where you were subject to one person’s way of looking at the world. There are people who like to have those kinds of groups, but I don’t. I’m more of a composer type. My band is kind of virtual. It’s on the paper.

Your mention of the Globe Unity Orchestra makes me reflect that this residency in Italy is part of a long timeline of AACM-Europe interactions, that the AACM bypassed New York and went directly to Paris at the end of the ‘60s. Indeed, you yourself had a great deal of personal experience in Europe during your formative years. I was thinking of questions of mutual influence: How you see the AACM having affected European notions of experimentalism and, conversely, ways in which European notions of experimentalism, the European avant-garde, impacted the AACM, whether in the early years or later on.

This ensemble is very interesting to me for several reasons. Early on in the history of the AACM, among the first generation of people, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, for example, studied with Richard Wang. Richard Wang was teaching them serialism and stuff like that, and they were looking at those models and trying to figure out “What’s my relationship to this?” So when a guy like Joachim Berendt says, “Well, European musicians have a closer relationship to Stockhausen than the Americans,” he seemed to be thinking about the fact of their being Europeans, but in fact music crosses those kinds of lines. Lots of U.S. musicians have studied European contemporary music as closely as anyone else. Certainly, Muhal and Roscoe and those guys knew about this. I mean, I heard about Elliott Carter from Muhal. He had the score of the First String Quartet sitting in his house. In fact, that was my introduction to scores, Stravinsky and all that. He had the scores sitting there. Phil Cohran, too. They all knew that.

But by the time you get to, let’s say, Ernest Dawkins, he says, “Well, we weren’t really so much into Stockhausen; we were trying to look at more sort of ‘black’ models.” I’m trying to put words into his mouth, unfairly perhaps. But he basically said that. It reinforces the idea that there are several models of experimentalism. Why not have an experimentalism that comes out of the black experience and doesn’t necessarily assume that any routes of experimentalism run through Europe? So you started to see that this version of the AACM doesn’t owe very much to those models of experimentalism in improvisation that arose at that time. I don’t see a lot of influence or even contact there. Now, Nicole has had more experience in that way than some of us do. Or Leonard Jones, who moved to Germany, who is much older, of course.

Now, I have had those kinds of experiences, and I find there’s a productive interchange, because I can bring to the table aspects of that experience that others did not have. This generation of people is young enough to think about, let’s say, going to composition school and studying composition in a graduate composition program, like the one I teach in at Columbia University.

As I point out in the book, the traditional route for African-American musicians was that we studied music education. You get something to fall back on, a teaching credential, and all that. That means that all of the composition programs in the U.S. mainly comprise white male composers and mainly white—and a few Asian—composing students. So I was talking with some of the younger AACM members, who were saying, “I’m going back to school.” So I told them, “Why not go to composing school?” They hadn’t thought about it. “Well, what’s going to keep you from doing it?” Then there was all this stuff about how they might have to write fugues to get admitted. People don’t do that any more! [LAUGHS]

The funny thing about jazz studies programs is that they’re probably the only programs in the world that actually require someone to learn both jazz and European music, so you have to be, like they say about anything black, “twice as good.” And they’re usually very well equipped. But the problem is that, in many cases, the model of twentieth century European music they learn is a little outdated—Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky. So as someone who’s a little older and is involved in this kind of program, my advice for people of that generation is that they can always do their jazz and other things without having to reinforce it by taking it in jazz school. Just go into a regular composition program, and learn all you can there. If you don’t know enough right at the beginning, you might have a little extra work to do.

So I have this thing now for my younger AACM colleagues that I call “modernism boot camp.” [LAUGHS] It’s really just an There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. But when you teach yourself, let’s say, orchestration or composition, the reality is that you are generally learning from books and recordings that are 20 or 30 years out of date. If you want to hear what’s happening now, you’ve got to go into one of these programs, and learn it from there. Since I’m in one of the programs, I can say, “well, here’s what people are doing.” Matthias Spahlinger, Olga Neuwirth–they haven’t heard about it. There’s no book published in English that you can read about people like this. You can’t get the scores unless you know where to look.

So I just sort of present the people they should listen to; sure, Stockhausen is on the list. You say, “Well, here’s the people who come out of this; here’s the generation, another generation, and I’m going to take you up to about 1985, and after you listen to these, let’s say, one hundred people and look at the scores, then you’re good until about ‘85.” Now, that’s still twenty years out of date. But it puts you in a space where you can go into a composition program and you’re not left behind, because you know who’s doing what. Then you’ve also got your jazz experience. So you know what spectral music is, or things like that. Then you’re in a position to do what, let’s say, Steve Lehman is doing in the Columbia program, which is combining spectralism with parallel ideas coming out of Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean to make this super hybrid. It’s amazing work. Tristan Murail, one of the founders of this area of music-making, loves it. It’s taking his ideas into areas he never thought were possible.

The second part of my question was your speculations on the AACM’s impact upon European musical production, experimental or otherwise.

The second and third generations of European and Asian improvisers were more influenced by the AACM than the first. They had a chance to listen to recordings and concerts, and they also are trying to do composed music more than the first generation. They are trying to combine improvisation and composition. So you get something like the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which is great. There’s the Instabile Orchestra here in Italy. They all know about the example of people like Roscoe and Braxton in particular, who have spent more time here than the others. I wouldn’t say the experience is overweening. I would just say that the AACM thing has become part of the reference mix. People who are looking to do these kinds of hybrid things can’t consider themselves informed about the possibilities without having looked at the Braxton model at least, or the Threadgill model and then other models of how to do it.

The Art Ensemble coined the “Great Black Music” component of GBME, and the question of who that term does and does not include has been part of the ongoing discourse around the AACM. In the book, you talk about creolization as an overriding strategy that you follow. GBME is entirely comprised of people of African descent. I’m wondering to what extent the AACM today reflects strategies of creolization, or if it denotes an entirely black experience. As it’s an organization situated on Chicago’s South Side, it makes me consider the journey taken by President Obama, himself a biracial person, who formed his mature sensibility by intersecting with the many worlds that exist on that same terrain.

Well, in the US, everybody is already creolized. We hope that Obama is thinking about the AACM,

Well, Jeremiah Wright certainly knows about it. Reading your account on Vandy Harris’ memorial, I was thinking about that.

I went there. I had never heard Jeremiah Wright before that. I was stunned. He went off on this Iraq thing, relating it to a Biblical text about hubris.

He also did a recording with Wynton Marsalis. He gives the sermon on The Majesty of the Blues.

First of all, Ingrid Monson said an interesting thing—the ethnomusicologist from Harvard whom I work with quite a bit, most recently on a seminar on postcolonialism in music. She said that African-American culture is majoritarian in jazz culture. That is to say, African-American spiritual, cultural, and psychological values are majoritarian, even in all-white bands or all-European bands. So they adopt jazz models. You see people here, they’re using black slang routinely. That means that African-American ways of thinking…there’s a creolization present even in an Italian jazz ensemble. You hear it all the time. You heard it at Perugia with that marching band, Funk Off.

The second thing is that the people in the Great Black Ensemble, although it comes out of a black milieu, don’t seem averse to having Mary Oliver play, or having Miya Masaoka play. So there’s a lot of creolization there, if you want to identify that with black-white mixing, which isn’t really what the concept is about.

What I think will happen eventually is the creolization of individual ethnic provenance, which is something that the AACM is not necessarily that into on an organizational level. Although one day it could. I think it might. This is probably the moment, as Joseph said, when the third generation, or the fourth, could really entertain that notion. But it’s very difficult to do that in the context of the history of American race relations. Because there may be a majoritarianism of black culture, but there is also a sense that whiteness is still the ruling ideology of the country in terms of the distribution of infrastructure, and that tends to produce a kind of divisiveness that many organizations can’t support. Now, that may still be true, and it may not be true. A lot of people are reluctant to risk the integrity and the tradition to find out.

So anyone who does that has to be someone of whatever non-African-American provenance who understands that reality of race. It can’t be some naive, “we are the world” color-blindness strategy. That’s not going to work. It has to be someone who understands politically the complexities. That’s possible in Chicago, I think, as well as anywhere else. You need people on both sides of the aisle who understand when to account for politics and when to leave politics out. I’m talking about racial politics. You see racial politics coming into the organization not through the people, but through unconscious pressures that are being placed on them… For example, the pressures of identity politics that caused [vibraphonist] Gordon Emanuel to be put out. The organization couldn’t withstand that, which was too bad. Gordon took it quite personally. Why wouldn’t he? It was too big for him to understand. It was too big for a lot of the people who are in it to understand.

Hopefully with this book, which was written as much for the AACM as for anybody else, people will look at this example and say, “Well, how can we do better? How can we construct a multicultural, multiracial AACM?” Maybe the possibility would be that the first person is someone who is not of U.S. origin, but is an African person, an Asian person or a Brazilian person, or something like that. There are all kinds of possibilities. Then you get out of the black-white dichotomies which people get stuck with all the time routinely, without even thinking about it. Even a question like this. We are constantly being asked to evaluate things in terms of white and black because of the historical struggle that takes place. You cannot just blank that out. So even in my early scholarly articles, I tried… Like the Afrological-Eurological thing that I wrote about, which people in the scholarly world have taken up and are sort of waving around. I’m a little wary of it now. It’s uncomfortable. But it does reflect a certain historical reality. So to do better, you still have to be aware of that historical reality, and to overcome that using a revised discourse is as important as anything else.

There are not that many collectives in Europe, as far as I can tell. I also don’t see even a lot of multiracial ensembles over here, even though Europe is becoming—even Italy is becoming—increasingly multi-racial. Look on the streets–it’s incredible. You never used to see these kinds of people. I think that’s we’ll see that increasingly as a part of the new reality of Europe as well.

You mentioned writing A Power Stronger than Itself for the AACM as much as anything else. What were some of the other reasons why you wrote the book? It took ten years of your life. A lot of labor was involved, a lot of detective work, and you had many other contemporaneous duties.

Why I wrote the book really has everything to do with why I got involved in academic scholarship. I was teaching at UC-San Diego, where we were trying to teach improvisation, and, at the time, being from the performance world and not the academic world, I had a few very inchoate ideas about how to teach that. At a certain point, I was brought up short by one of my faculty colleagues. I think I write about that in the book, actually. Basically, he said, “Where’s the bibliography? How are you going to teach it if you don’t have a bibliography?” Then I thought, “Actually, he’s right.” So where is the bibliography? This was in the mid ‘90s, and the new work in jazz studies was just coming out. But even that work didn’t seem to touch upon the experience and implications of what improvisation was—what it produced, what kinds of contexts it made, how it altered our thinking, how improvisation became imbued in our everyday life experiences, and how improvisation relates to an understanding of humanity, political situations, everyday interaction, and so on. It just seemed as though that literature was not really as present.

I think the first article I got published was an attempt to come to grips with a lot of that stuff. It was sort of long, too long, and still it got published in Black Music Research Journal in ‘96. It’s that article on the Afrological-Eurological thing that I just mentioned. The issue is much more complicated than I was making it out to be. It’s nice to know that you can grow and change, and revisit a lot of the ideas you had.

We also had a couple of smart graduate students at UCSD, Dana Reason and Jason Robinson, who organized a conference on improvisation. We were trolling for people who were confronting improvisation in the scholarship, and confronting it in a different way than, let’s say, the way that early ethnomusicological studies addressed improvisation. We weren’t so interested in finding practices and forms, and finding order and vindication of improvisation as an art form. We could see that improvisation was, in fact, an everyday critical practice, and we didn’t see a lot of people talking about improvisation as a critical practice. We mainly saw them interested in looking at alternate classical traditions—Persian improvisation or Indian improvisation—and concerned to find out what forms were being used, the rhythms, the compositions, and once you identified those forms, your work was done.

It just seemed to me that your work hadn’t even started! We were having these cross-cultural discussions with people at UCSD, and we would ask them questions that were burning in the Western classical music community. We would ask these Indian improvisers questions like, “Do you think about global form?” “What?!” We’d get no response at all. [LAUGHS] So we were at a cross-cultural space in thinking about improvisation, and there was a very important musical community that had no interest in these things that are burning in the Western contemporary music community, where it’s generally said that if you don’t have the aspect of global form your music is basically worthless, or not of any intellectual interest. But this is obviously not the case.

So you had to ask yourself how are these people getting along without thinking about these things, and why don’t they think about them? Why is it so unimportant to them if it’s so important to everybody else? Because we are being sold, as improvisers, a whole bill of goods about how formless the practice is, or how it didn’t produce this or didn’t produce that, and a lot of moral posturing purely based on the writings of John Cage or people like that, which was already distorting a lot of what those people did, but somehow enlisting his words towards finding improvisation lacking.

So there were enough reasons there to write anything. If you really wanted to start writing, get started. Since then, we’ve been able to find a global community of people attacking this problem from many different standpoints. I’d say the book comes out of that more than anything else.

Beyond that, the AACM is a very important organization. It seemed that it needed to be given its due in terms of its achievements and influence and impact, and also that it needed to be contextualized historically along with other movements. But there was not enough material available to do that. So the book’s purpose also was to provide some of that material so that future scholars can come in and perhaps elaborate on things that the book only touched upon, or that didn’t get talked about at all. Maybe some people would be interested in musical analysis, which I hardly spent any time with. So many things could be done on the AACM that, as large as the book is, it’s more like an amuse bouche, in a way.

So there were a lot of reasons why it was important to me to get this work done. On the other hand, it took a long time just because I was learning a lot about, first of all, how to write a book. Then secondly, the AACM was developing while I was writing. It was kind of a moving target. It wasn’t a dead chicken or anything. It kept moving. It’s hard to pin down, but at an arbitrary point it had to be pinned down.

The book itself was probably a moving target while you were writing it. Is the final product somewhat in line with what you envisioned when you embarked upon it in the mid ‘90s?

This is the reason why I have such trouble writing. A lot of people complain that the work is always late. It’s because I can’t work like, “Oh, here’s Chapter 1, which is going to be about this, and Chapter 2 is going to be about that.” First of all, I tried to assemble and read what’s been written about the AACM in several languages. Then there was this ambitious project to interview just about everybody. I got pretty far—I didn’t interview absolutely everybody, but I interviewed more than 90 people. I wasn’t even able to use all the interviews. In the middle of that, I found a communitarian aspect. In other words, people were excited to be interviewed. They were excited that a book was going to come out. They were also afraid that it wouldn’t come out. A lot of it was sort of like the idea of Obama getting elected, and then hoping he doesn’t get assassinated or something. People are used to these projects not coming to fruition. So I got a lot of moral support. No one said they didn’t want to be interviewed. Everybody was into it, even people who I didn’t really know well, like Phil Cohran. So that was OK. I met new people through doing it.

So I sort of started in the way I generally start, which is to collect everything I could collect, and then plow through it and read it all, then throw it up on the wall and see what sticks. Then, at a certain point, it’s got to take shape in the form of chapters. Of course, some things get left out—for example, a whole section on the Harlem Renaissance. The reason is because I was the only person who was interested in it. At a certain point, it was like hardly anyone in the community of the AACM referenced the Harlem Renaissance. There was no reason for me to put a chapter in there and say, “somehow I feel this has relevance to the AACM.” Well, of course it does. Anything has relevance to the AACM. I put in stuff about the Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. But at a certain point, if I did a whole chapter on it, it would have been a little out of place. So basically, I had to save a lot of material.

I first worked on it during a six-week residency in Umbria, Civitella Ranieri. When I came out of there, I already had 400 pages of writing. Plus, I had to transcribe all those tapes. I was in a castle, and there was a field with sunflowers, looking out on all this beautiful weather every day, and I’m basically sitting in a room, sitting in a virtual meeting in Chicago, on the South Side, listening to these tapes of people arguing about this and that, and being obtuse and being brilliant, and occasionally just not being able to help myself and sort of barging in, and then realizing that no one is listening to me! I’m listening to the thing, and this is stuff that is already thirty years old. But it was so present! People I didn’t know. People I knew.

What you’re referring to is the meeting at which the principles of the AACM were formed, which you describe in detail in one of the chapters.

Not just that meeting, but a bunch of them. I had a lot of meeting tapes, but only referenced a few. But yes, in general, it was that early period of the first couple of years of the AACM’s formation, when they were taping all the meetings in which I recognized voices of various people I knew. They had a rule that you had to say your name anyway, so even if I didn’t know the people, I could identify who spoke. A great idea. And people stuck to it.

In our conversation on WKCR in 2008, you wanted to be very clear that a lot of the boilerplate narratives of jazz historiography don’t work with the AACM.

That’s true.

The book explores multiple narratives, in addition to the broader, linear narrative—how the AACM was formed, its antecedents, its different stages, the people who comprised it. I’d like to throw out a few of the narratives that seem important, a few that you mentioned yourself, and see what you have to say about them now. One is that A Power Stronger than Itself is a narrative of an organization that expressed the agency of a group of working-class African-Americans. Another is the notion that the AACM also expressed the agency of people who had been impacted by migration, both the in-migration from the South, but also their own out-migration from Chicago once the AACM was established. Can you offer some statement on how those narratives became clear to you?

Of course, the book reflects my own experience, even though I am just one person. But I think the key image that brings all of those strands together is mobility. And the extent to which people fight for mobility. They fight against being stereotyped—all these things that tend to place you in fixed contexts, tend to root you to some spot and not let you leave. I wrote about Farah Griffin’s book on the migration. She references Foucault, who has an idea about about agency and power expressed through being able to move. At some point, these southern-based people were able to get out. As I discuss in the book, a lot of people were unhappy to see this super-exploited labor force leave the South, and even went to various agencies of the government to say, “Can’t you make some laws to keep these people here?”

That’s one kind of mobility. Then you’ve got another kind, where people start to say, before even the term comes up: “We don’t want to be stuck in one place. We want to do any kind of music that strikes our fancy. And not only any kind of music. We want to get involved in the visual arts, we want to get involved in theater. We want to do everything connected with art-making.” Performance art. People like Jarman or Muhal or whomever. That’s another kind of mobility.

I saw the AACM fundamentally as a sort of successful struggle to achieve mobility. One saw also how this mobility was very hard-won. There is a discourse of immobility which you have to combat. I love that interview that’s on the web that I think Fred Anderson and other people had copies of on tape, where Charlie Parker is being interviewed who are asking him the same question over and over again, hoping to get a different answer. The answer that they want is that his music is a logical outgrowth of the work of European classical music. At a certain point, he comes out with one of these Charlie Parker type licks. His spontaneity is incredible. He says, “Not a bit of it was inspired or adapted from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, et cetera.” That’s an incredible lick. That’s like the great alto break. For me, that says it all. Encapsulated classical music history. First of all, proving right away, in a sense, that he knew that tradition well enough to be able to do that. Then secondly, the idea that not only was he connected with that, but he had his own music. I felt that this kind of mobility—the freedom of reference—was important to bring out in the book.

The problem with this kind of mobility is that you cross-cut a lot of communities, but it’s hard to find a home base. It’s hard to find the people who will support you no matter what. You’re in this world for a while, in that world for a while, but it’s not as though there is one place where you can count on a certain kind of support. That’s why the AACM was important, because it did provide a group of people who would really support you no matter what. Even though they were critical, certainly, but the critique was offered with the idea that you were part of a community that DESERVED this kind of critique, who were invested in you by making this kind of critique. So wherever you went and whatever you explored, you would have this kind of home base, and it’s a home base that’s totally in your mind, which is where the most powerful stuff generally is.

Charlie Parker’s remark on the source of his music prompts me to double back to my question about the mutual relationship between the AACM and Europe. In our 2006 conversation, you stated that you saw the AACM and the European experimental music organizations as parallel streams. Both were interested in John Coltrane, in post-Webern music (Stockhausen, Xenakis), in collective practice, in developing certain sorts of social networks. Then you said: “Both the European improvisers and the AACM have a peculiar relationship to European classical music. That is, the AACM people, people like Braxton, like Muhal, like Roscoe, are actually working inside of those traditions as well. You don’t really find that in the European improvisers, who are working against that tradition, with the large exception of Alex Schlippenbach—but even there, they have an oppositional stance, which is partly political, to this thing which is actually very close to them, this hegemony of European classical music.”

I thought that was a pretty great riff. We could call it the great trombone break! ]

I suppose, except that it didn’t come out of my horn.

You said there was no reason for the AACM people to oppose European classical music, because for them, European classical music was the thing they were being kept out of. So for them, engagement with it was actually overcoming strictures of race.

Not just the AACM either. That’s an ongoing trope in American history and black American music history, the idea that somehow you’ve been kept out of something, and so to gain that knowledge becomes the object. Not necessarily to become part of the community. That’s more complicated. But certainly, to be in touch with that knowledge and be in dialogue with it becomes important.

Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.

Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and you’re not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesn’t come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others aren’t really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe you’d rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you don’t have the liberty to do so. We’re not in the post-racial place yet. I don’t see that.

You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. “Well, let’s get a lot of races in there. Let’s not just have one or two.” You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white that’s defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Let’s not have that. Let’s see if we can mix it up.

Let’s see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like “black experimentalism,” which was Ronald Radano’s construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being THE pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that we’ve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?

I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show he’s having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesn’t handle it very well at all. It’s part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, “what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?” If you say it means nothing, that’s ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed around—and he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, I’m going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. There’s no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesn’t mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.

So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: “Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?” He’s born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.

Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So he’s not disconnected from that world, and he’s not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naivete about the current state of theorizing on race. That’s another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they don’t know who’s doing good work—people like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.

Anyway, there’s a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, “Well, this would be a good article just because of the person who’s writing it.” I said, “No, that’s not enough; it can’t be that.” It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority can’t be derived from those outside factors—that somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. That’s the problem with a lot of writing these days.

You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadn’t played or who people didn’t know.

But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people don’t trust you, you’ll get a different response. That’s why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the people’s trust, people have to know they’re not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, it’s more acute because of being an insider.

One of the things that I discovered about so-called ‘authority’ is they’re often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who weren’t actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, it’s not whether you were there that’s important. Also, I wasn’t there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, it’s a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, “I don’t care if George Lewis was this guy or not; he’s wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and here’s why.” That’s real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you can’t question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact they’d forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didn’t forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.

Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?

My joke about the book is it’s just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, “Why do we face the East?”—“I don’t know, we just do it.” Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.

That’s one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, “Born too soon,” “born too late,” all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isn’t this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of “What is the AACM doing now?” or next trend to come out of the AACM. I’m not a trend-spotter. My response is, “Well, what’s Napoleon doing now?” Well, nothing. He’s dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact—the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasn’t stopped functioning.

A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (that’s how I took it; you don’t know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that weren’t at the center of my interests. That’s very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe you’re just like them, and you’re really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but it’s not enough for you—it’s enough for them. The fear that generates in people. I’ve had to experience that as I was doing this.

Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?

I don’t remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadn’t talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. It’s the idea that somehow you’re already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, “Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?”—which finally is a work of scholarship. If it’s a different kind of work, if it’s fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So I’m still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.

The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still aren’t resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I can’t remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.

For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. I’m sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, that’s not going to fit. Oh, this one over here… I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because you’d go to rehearsals with Michel, and he’d bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of music—I don’t care what clef it’s in, anything—and pick up his clarinet and play some of it. He’ll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, “Non. Pas ça.” Put it back in the box. “What are we going to play?” I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what I’m calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.

How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?

I was talking to somebody who said, “You aren’t really like a bandleader type person.” I said, “Well, that’s right; I’m not a bandleader type person.” I mean, I’ll lead the band if no one else is around. But I’ve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I don’t want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. That’s been true for a number of years. I don’t often get to do that. It’s like with the book. It’s done. It’s out there. I can’t come to your house and read it to you. So I’m more like the composer type.

Now, in the field I’ve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, that’s not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why I’ve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldn’t say “this person is a physicist” or “this person is a composer.” They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.

Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, there’s a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreates this and that. Well, what is Blood on The Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. That’s different. But what I’d like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you can’t really play the music unless you’ve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. It’s too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals.

See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You can’t do that in a jazz band. It won’t get played. Can’t do it. So there’s a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.

What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Center’s jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the ‘50s. I mean, Leonard Bernstein’s crew didn’t have any problem playing hard music. I’d like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.

Now, as to the playing part… See, that’s the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. That’s a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of what’s possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.

At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxton’s quartet colleagues—Barry Altschul, Dave Holland—and an AACM group—Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called “free” players, whatever that means, couldn’t play regular music, whatever “regular music” means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were the not-free jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don’t encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called experienced readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.

With Braxton’s quartet, it got to the stage where we really didn’t have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play them—and that would be it.

After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didn’t have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were… It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon you’re on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.

Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early ‘50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon. People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didn’t think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was “King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.” That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it it… This is stuff you don’t really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, “We didn’t want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.” [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play “Donna Lee,” because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called “new music” people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so on—he wanted make that point about genre transgression.

Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyone’s going, “Well, we’re going to play our normal repertoire.” Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, “Here’s what we’re going to play.” There was no “Donna Lee” on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. That’s sort of the AACM idea, which is basically we’re playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.

You can’t create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literature—or perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation. What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change what’s possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalis’ have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. There’s a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.

So that’s how I look at what I’m trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I don’t want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fred’s improvisations. It’s not like Super-Sax, though that was cool—not that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed “Giant Steps” and Coltrane looked at it and said, “I can’t play this.” I looked at Fred’s solo and said, “well, I could practice this for 20 years; I’m not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but they’re not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?” So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If he’s playing… [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fred’s music. It was pretty faithful to Fred’s timing. I stretched out very few parts—a couple of repetitions. But basically, it’s what was on the record, except that it’s orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.

I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily sound—in other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and reconceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.

Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?

I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. I’m not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, it’s like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop, that I can pull it out, hook it up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itself—to me, that’s settled technology.

Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, “Well, that’s X, Y and Z.” Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. That’s very cool, too.

But I don’t necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. I’d like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. That’s why I’m not working on it as much.

Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?

I’ve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. It’s a cousin of the piece called “Rainbow Family” that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisers—Joelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.

The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around ‘87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.

Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?

I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers aren’t controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. That’s been my take right from the beginning.

When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?

I’d say around ‘94 or ‘95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out

Who can’t play with Voyager?

That’s kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser is manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.

How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?

There is the question of multidominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foreground—in fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of information—rapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.

But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experience—that is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computer—at least mine—the same as I treat anybody else. I don’t want to be in charge and I don’t want anyone else to be in charge. I’d like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation. By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signalling, and an absence of hierarchy. That’s especially in the computer environment because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just don’t think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.

What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?

Well, since it became kind of settled, I don’t intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbett’s books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. Jon said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. That’s sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, I’m interested in both the process and the result. Now, Jon’s notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologies—timbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdom—if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call ‘getting your own sound.’ So sound becomes very personal. I think Jon was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.

I’m interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?

You know, it’s very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You don’t want to aestheticize form. You don’t want to aestheticize experience. What you’d like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent you’re able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, you’re taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesn’t fit. It’s sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If they’re smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if they’re not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesn’t fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the system’s responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, it’s constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but it’s not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.

So no licks are contained in the computer’s vocabulary. Or that’s not a good way of putting it…

Oh, that’s fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. I’d been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, “Well, that doesn’t sound right, but let me try it anyway.” So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I don’t have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.

The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments aren’t programmed into the machine in any way. They’re just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.

What are the first principles by which the computer’s vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?

Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (that’s your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (that’s the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. That’s basically the same way Voyager works. Let’s say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call them—Position 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, it’s 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then there’s a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. There’s also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various… They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.

That’s the output side. Then there’s the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what it’s detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.

These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of what’s going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.

One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what you’re doing. So if you’re playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if you’re playing fast, it will play slow, or something like that—a contrasting mode. The third mode—which is kind of the critical one, it turns out—is that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because that’s where difference is asserted. In other words, that’s where we find out that the computer really is asserting “a personality,” when it’s very clear that it’s not paying attention or that it’s deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, that’s where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.

There’s a fourth mode, too. When you’re not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you don’t have to really be there. That’s very good, because it means I don’t have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesn’t have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether it’s working or not working. In a group setting, that’s quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, “Well, I feel like playing now,” and if I don’t feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it won’t feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group that’s practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.

Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?

In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didn’t understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. I didn’t know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governors State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music people—but he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. You’d get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governors State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuff—learning about remote control and so on.

A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying… I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbia—for example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, there’s no book about them. I didn’t learn about who they were until I got to New York between ‘75 and ‘77.

But around ‘77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there… I think I was staying in David’s house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking “this sounds like Quadrisect,” which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computer’s doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.

So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and John—they had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it–got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didn’t go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.

I hesitate to call David a father figure. But I’ll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didn’t have the answer, which he usually did, he’d have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didn’t really have a technical background—and really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word 5, because there was no Word 5—or not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didn’t understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I can’t even turn it on; I don’t even understand how it works. I called David. He says, “Well, I had to read the book 8 times.” I thought, well, here’s a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.

The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a critic’s remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.

OK. I didn’t want to put that in there, but it had to be…

Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basie’s trombone section, and you played in the ‘80s with Gil Evans and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years you’ve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?

A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: “I am not a number, I am a person.” When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because I’d set up the gig. Then people kept saying, “Well, are you going to play on our pieces?” I’d sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and I’d contribute in any way that I could. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with anybody’s piece. So people would say, “Well, you take a solo here,” and it would be interesting because I’m sitting, thinking, “I haven’t done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebody’s thing.” I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where I’ve been headed over the past few years.

The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that it’s a point of translation. It’s a meeting point. It’s a place where people can exchange narratives. It’s a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you don’t ordinarily get in touch with. It’s a tool of communication across genres, across languages—all these things that the trombone was doing.

Now I feel that’s kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? I’m not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I don’t find the need to do anything other than what’s right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. It’s a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe it’s a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.

This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because they’re in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music that’s played there, that’s a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jets—and my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that.The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.

In this group almost everyone, plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then you’ve got a couple of others—Mutamassik is in there, and she’s playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics we’ve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play… Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich… Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, it’s clearly a part of their past.

Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you won’t see that trope applied to him. But it’s very easy…

Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. They’re out there. So ‘former jazz musician’ wouldn’t apply quite so…

Well, that’s the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. He’ll probably continue to do that—why not? It’s sort of interesting. I haven’t done it… Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? I’m not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, “Your music is difficult” and all that kind of thing. I say, “No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isn’t difficult.”

Most people didn’t play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.

That’s what I mean by “former,” because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and I’m not playing with them any more, and I’m not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphy—but it was in high school.

Yours wasn’t a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.

Well, that’s great.

You know that’s true.

Whether it’s true or not, what do you do next? What’s your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, “Maybe I’ll do something else now.” There are so many people in this creative world… I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and that’s ok, too.

Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?

Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and it’s saxophonic. It’s like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like that—those very florid saxophone players. That’s the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxton’s music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos they’re always playing in half-time. I didn’t want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it too, but it reminded me of Hindemith’s Trombone Concerto. I didn’t hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.

Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.

But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people… I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didn’t work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesn’t work. You can’t do it. It’s too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.

In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended “to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.” “What are they really talking about?” you said. It’s always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If it’s free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, there’s a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that there’s something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?

No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. I’m tired of storytelling.

Your interest was so strong in the early ‘90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].

Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music. Then the other thing is, there’s so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often don’t touch people in the same way, because they’re not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something. Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably haven’t read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackey—these kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison’s Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we don’t. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you don’t have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just don’t respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don’t chime in. Let’s see where it goes.

One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoe’s ideas back to him.

I’m sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry, because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, that’s a part of it. But then, I’ve played with Roscoe a lot, and you figure that out. But for another viewpoint on that, it’s more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just don’t make a sound. Just listen. That’s one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you don’t get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person can’t dominate, all those kinds of things. What he’s describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.

Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.

Well, that’s the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they don’t win if they don’t. That’s what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe it’s better if you don’t. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, there’s a change. You’re playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, you’re trying to get in, and you’re just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but you’re not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, “Aha, here’s my moment and I can jump in.” It’s a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, they’re sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play… You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. I’d guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldn’t play in a group like this, or they’d have to radically change what they did. Which I’m sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear what’s going on. There’s nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end—still do. But I’ll never do it again. It’s not going to happen. Because we don’t live that now.

Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didn’t have a chance to grow older and develop.

Well, that’s also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of… I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. That’s not to say, “Well, that’s all BS, what I did back there,” but more to say, “Well, you can’t keep doing it in the current environment.” That may mean that the trombone, like any composer…you don’t use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesn’t change that methodological reality.

In Richard Teitelbaum’s piece Golem, you were given the job generating the Golem’s…

He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.

And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.

Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.

You’ve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, “that sounds suspiciously like language,” and I said, “Is music language?” and you said, “I don’t think so.” Is music analogous to language in any way?

I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isn’t a language any more. In other words, we’re not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. It’s a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But that’s not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, that’s the joy of music. It’s a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, “ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder…maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most people’s musical languages.” I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?

We’re faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because it’s not really that extensible. The music-language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, you’re much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We don’t have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, “Well, what does Obama talk about?” You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesn’t matter. They’re all variants of the same thing. But you can’t really tell them in music in the same way.

Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, “Of course you can,” and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever they’re talking about. But I’m still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why it’s important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? It’s just too complicated to get into.

As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that you’ve referenced several times, reimagining who you are… Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?

Well, I think it’s possible. I think I’ve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you can’t stop. If you don’t keep doing it, then you’ll feel poorly, because you’ve set yourself up now, and you say, “Well, I’ve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we don’t do that any more. I’m happy with where we are now.” That could be a conscious response to new conditions.

I don’t know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.

Now, I’m talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. That’s not quite fundamental, because you’ve got SOME tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and he’s probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and it’s your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I’m not a follower, but that’s just one example.

A very American world-view.

To that extent, yes, it’s very American, and I can’t say I disagree with it; there’s some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. It’s all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to get up here in front of all these people, I’m going to be conducting, and that’s all I’m going to do, and they’re just going to see my ass. I’m not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way” Now, you’re not really being true to what you think at that moment. You’re getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. It’s not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. “I wish you’d play the trombone more” or “stop all that computer shit”—all these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now I’m 57, and I’m just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.

So we’re still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about… Well, I’ll put it another way. Actually, it’s a deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, “Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.” Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I don’t want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, that’s not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isn’t it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working? The answer to that is, “Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.” That’s not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, “Well, you could always play the trombone.” I say, “Well, no, not any more.” “Why not?” “Well, I didn’t bring it, for one thing.” In other words, you just say to yourself that you’re going to stand or fall with what you’re doing now, and you’re going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and you’re going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.

So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?

Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe they’re not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reason—fear, ego, or whatever.


DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


George Lewis & Leo Smith (WKCR, 9-12-95):

[MUSIC: G. Lewis/B. Mixon, “View From Skates in Berkeley” (1994)]

TP: Our guests are George Lewis and Leo Smith, who will be participating in the AACM 30th Anniversary Series concert, next installment, Saturday, September 16th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture at 2 West 64th Street. The concert starts at 8 p.m. The music of George Lewis and Leo Smith will be performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik, Conductor, with guest artists Quincy Troupe, poet; William Brown, voice; Warren Smith, percussion; J.D. Parran, reeds.


It’s an honor to have Leo Smith and George Lewis in the same room together. They are both very important figures in the development of improvised music. In Leo’s case, the recorded history begins in the mid-1960’s, and in George’s case in the 1970’s. You both were members of the AACM, and joined it through very different paths, I would imagine. In Leo’s case, you came from Mississippi to Chicago and found the AACM. Was that more or less the trajectory for you?

SMITH: Well, I left Mississippi and ended up in Chicago, but it took a couple of years; I went from there to the Army and places like that.

TP: Tell us about some of the specifics of that journey. You come from a Blues background.

SMITH: Well, yes. Essentially in Mississippi, the art of Blues music is practiced with voice and instrument. When I began to play the trumpet, my first exposure to music was dealing with Blues. I would say in that beginning of learning the Blues as such, it was also the beginning of the trumpet for me, meaning that I learned how to play music while playing Blues on the trumpet — if people understand what that means. It’s not that I went there as a musician. I learned how to become a musician while I was playing the Blues. So it’s kind of unique.

TP: What type of situations were you playing in after you began to reach your maturity as a musician?

SMITH: Well, just…

TP: Name some names, too.

SMITH: I don’t like names, basically.

TP: No? Okay.

SMITH: No. Basically, it’s a question of remembering names and things like that.

But I started out in the AACM in ’67, and I consider that to be the beginning of my mature moments of playing music. And all of those guys are renowned now, like George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins — all of them.

TP: And Leo Smith as well.

SMITH: Yeah. We all grew up in an environment and in a time when expectations were held very high for us, and we went out and achieved them. Meaning that we looked at the musical scene and we looked at the environment which we lived in, and we figured out some of the things that would give us a bridge across an environment that had a lot of problems in it, you see. And one of them was being able to be creative without the luxury of funds and money to do whatever your dream was, but the creativeness where you would have to design systems and stuff like that that didn’t cost you a dime, you see. So that’s a challenge and a fulfillment that everyone is proud of today.

TP: What were the circumstances that brought you to the AACM?

SMITH: I was in the Army, about to get out, and of course, I was kind of despised by the people that I played amongst. There was one fellow there that knew another fellow that was despised in the Army amongst the guys he played about — and his name happened to be Anthony Braxton. So he gave me a telephone number and said, “Well, I think you guys would get along great!” And he was right. Anthony is, I would say, one of my most favorite partners in performing duet music. Somehow we complemented each other. And we went through a lot of different kinds of things in Chicago that some people may have gone through, but we didn’t know about them, and we kind of felt like we went through them alone, but they were like very sharp and pointed things.

TP: Now, you and he linked up in a performing group. Because out of the larger body of the AACM, there were a number of smaller performance situations wherein all of the musicians would contribute ideas, and there was a real flow, I guess.

SMITH: Uh-huh.

TP: I guess Leroy Jenkins was the third member of that, and Three Compositions of New Jazz emanated from that situation.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Talk about some of the ideas that you were working with explicitly at that time in their gestative period, as it were.

SMITH: Well, we wanted to look at music that would give us a chance to express exactly who we were. And once you make that particular commitment, you have to find out how you’re going to do this. So we decided that we would write for instruments and write for ensembles. And in this particular juncture of writing for instruments and ensembles, we didn’t have to accept the history that was given to us before, and we didn’t even have to expect some kind of present history or future history. We were able to contemplate the real essence of creative music. We were able to come in with projects, for example, like… “Silence” is a piece that has silence in it, and it came after John Cage’s “Silence,” but the philosophical connection of silence in this case was to materialize music within the space, and whatever was heard in the environment, whereas in the Cage piece there was absolutely no music in the space, and the gestures were the moments of the environment, you see. So creating a piece that seemed that it would look like and feel like a piece that came out of Cage’s tradition, in fact, we didn’t have that problem, because as I say, we are not bound by what came in the past or this particular ensemble’s history — you know, like a Classical ensemble has a history that’s specifically European. We didn’t have to worry about that. If you have an ensemble that’s essentially Asian, let’s say it has instruments for India, Korea and Pakistan, you don’t have to worry about the history of that. Because you function as a creative artist, you function in a zone where you can choose and pick anything that makes a music object.

TP: At the time you got to Chicago in 1967, George Lewis was 14 years old, I guess, and a student at the University of Chicago Lab School. You’d picked up the trombone at that time. Were you aware of the AACM? Did you know about Leo Smith when you were a teenager in Hyde Park?

LEWIS: Not really. No, no. Am I supposed to admit that? [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Well, if you admit that, that’s true! See, the beauty is, you may not have known me, but in fact you knew me all your life. Because now that you meet me, you realize that you were never a stranger to me.

LEWIS: Yeah, I guess that was the feeling when I first came to the AACM, that boy, these are people doing the same thing I’m doing…

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: …or something I thought I was doing or something like that. Yeah. I mean, I did get to hear Fred Anderson at that time, and I remember being very frightened going to an Art Ensemble concert and having Joseph playing these marimbas right up in my face. I thought he was going to drop one of these mallets, and then I’d lose my sight forever. A very intense situation, all these people painted up. I said, “God, who are these people, man?” I guess I didn’t connect it with my future life, but now I can’t imagine life without, you know, Leo and Muhal and Joseph and Braxton. I can’t imagine it.

TP: Well, most of the members of the AACM were raised in Chicago, but really they came from all over the country…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …from Arkansas, Mississipi, even New York City and New Jersey out to the AACM. A connecting thread for just about everyone is Muhal Richard Abrams…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …now living in New York. Leo, what was your first encounter with Muhal like? If you can just describe a little of the circumstances, the environment, the scene.

SMITH: Oh, it was dramatic. It was dramatic!


TP: Please be more specific than that.

SMITH: Well, I had met Roscoe and Lester Bowie at Joseph’s concert on the North Side. They said, “Come to the AACM,” and Roscoe said, “Bring your horn.” So I went to the AACM that Monday night, and I brought my horn, but I left it in the car. I went in, I sat down, and they were rehearsing. I had been introduced to Muhal earlier that evening. So they were rehearsing some piece, and Muhal jumped up and he… Well, what was actually happening, whoever was playing trumpets, they wasn’t quite making it. Lester Bowie was there, too, actually. So the guy said, “Hey, man, where’s your horn. Go get your horn.” And it was an order. I just jumped up and ran out to the car and got my horn, and took it out, ran back in, sat in the seat, and he kicked it off. I didn’t even look at it; I just kind of played what I thought I saw — and it came out right. And he said, “That’s the way to play it.” So I’ve been playing with them since. That’s how I met Muhal.

TP: George, how about your first encounter?

LEWIS: I think it was kind of a random encounter. I was passing by where they were rehearsing, at Child’s City. Now, this was much later, of course. This was maybe ’71 or something. I saw all these people, some of them were wearing dashikis and all that, and I said, “Hmm.” They had horns. I said, “Well, let’s go down there and see who these people are, man.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Well, who are you guys?” They said, “Well, we’re musicians.” I remember saying a funny thing. I said, “Well, I’m a musician, too,” which was not really true. I mean, I played an instrument; that’s not the same thing. And they said, “Okay, bring your horn to the next rehearsal.” That was it.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm. That’s the generous thing. Like, whenever someone did indicate that they wanted to play, they were always open to see if you could play.

LEWIS: Right.

SMITH: And if you could play, then you were set, because they were going to do everything in their way to help.

TP: Kulture Jazz is the most recent release by Leo Smith, and it extends a concept that you… Well, your first manifestation was in 1971…?

SMITH: Released in 1971, yes.

TP: Your first solo recording. Now, of course, with digitization and the technological means available, we can hear eight different voices of Leo Smith — trumpet, flugelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notched flute, percussion and vocal, sometimes performed singularly and in multiple combinations in Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1993. The first track we’ll hear is “Song of Humanity,” which I believe is a song you’ve recorded a few times before.

SMITH: A very old song. Well, it’s actually my first composition, to be truthful, that survived a booklet of 16 that started out. I started out with 16, and ended up with that particular piece as the one that survived.

TP: This has been performed by many of your groups, including…

SMITH: Every one of them.

TP: …the first edition of New Dalta Akhri, I believe.

SMITH: This is the first solo version I’ve ever done. But it’s my oldest composition.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith, “Song of Humanity,” “Albert Ayler In A Spiritual Light” (1993)]

TP: Several issues came up while the music was on, and Leo made some very interesting comments about the relationship of melody to solo, and about Miles Davis, the way he improvised, what made him so special as well. Are those things we can get back to on the on-air segment? I’m assuming you assimilated his music pretty thoroughly, Leo, as a young musician.

SMITH: Yeah, I had to look at Miles Davis, because you know, like, how do you face a mountain when you live in the delsert…the desert, you know?

TP: Well, you almost said when you live in the Delta, and actually that’s somewhat apropos, because Miles Davis came up at the top of the Delta, really, in East St. Louis.

SMITH: Well, that’s right! That’s exactly right.

TP: In the entrepot for the Delta, the shipping… Anyway, go ahead.

LEWIS: Go for it, Ted.

SMITH: Anyway, all I was saying is that when you look at the way Miles Davis made music, and particularly when you look at melody, he was gifted in a way where he could make the melody move along as if it was actually notated, but incorporate phrases or structure within that melody that would simply be natural within the curve, and you would not know… It would be seamless, in other words. You wouldn’t know exactly where the melody was coming, or where these extra phrases was being moved in. And that’s a type of free melodicism or free melody where everything depends upon a single note. Because a single note has so many other relationships above and below it, it becomes a wide area to just fuse these kinds of elements. So melody without time that’s implicitly held together through time, but yet free and still open.

TP: It sounds like an idea also of pitch values or timbral values having infinite application…,

SMITH: It’s the very same thing.

TP: …which is certainly the principle of the Blues.

SMITH: Yes, it’s exactly the same thing. And the psychological implication is also there.

TP: What is the psychological implication?

SMITH: Well, for example, the Blues itself is something that’s culturally hooked up, you see, and it expresses a particular psychic…well, how you relate and make your decisions in life. And a jazzman that’s gifted or an improviser that’s gifted with this connection with the Blues, their process of making musical decisions is based off of that kind of psychological feeling.

TP: So again, we’re talking about the Blues more as a style of life or a way of thinking about making music rather than…

SMITH: It’s a philosophy. It’s a philosophy, you see. All those guys are actually philosophers — living philosophers.

TP: George Lewis, do you have any interpolations here?

LEWIS: About the Blues?

TP: Yes.

LEWIS: Well, I don’t know. Leo, I think he said it, man. I don’t know what I have to add to it. I could always add something.

TP: Yes, I know.


SMITH: Go on, George!

LEWIS: I just was waiting for Wadada to say the next thing he’s going to say!

SMITH: No, go ahead. Because that’s the Blues, too. You know, you just go on as you’re saying.

LEWIS: I guess one of the things… Actually, lately I have had to sort of confront the Blues in a more direct way, and I find that the more I confront it, the more I see that the Blues can be a part of all kinds of media and all kinds of experiences. I had to confront the Blues element in Voyager, the computer piece, and I had to sort of confront that in a very…and look at that in a light to say… You know, this stuff that Olly Wilson was talking about, about characteristics of African or Afro-American music being things like multiple meter, and there’s lots of contrasting timbres and all of that. I’m thinking, “Hey, this is Voyager. Boy!” So I finally had to look at this fake European orchestra on there as kind of, like, signifying on the orchestra rather than appropriating it. So we start to get into the Blues from that standpoint.

So once I found it there, I began to see, well, I have all these… I can sort of confront the Blues in many different types of doing music. For instance, in the concert on Saturday, both your piece and mine confront the Blues in different ways.

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: You know, it’s not just the easy lick, you know, you just put in a little lick and a flatted fifth or a third or whatever, and you say, “Okay, that’s it, we’ve got it now.”

SMITH: No. It connects with the inner structure and the inner function of the relationship of the piece. So it becomes really a dynamic within the piece, moreso than something that somebody is looking to hear.

LEWIS: Yes. So in that way, it could reflect the people who are the Blues. I mean, we are that, you know.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Leo comes from the Delta, and George comes from I guess the northern outpost, as it’s often been described, of Mississippi, the South Side of Chicago.


TP: Was that a major part of your experience coming up, the Blues scene on the South Side of Chicago?

LEWIS: Well, no, because my parents didn’t allow me to go those kinds of places. [LAUGHS] I mean, they had enough of a time letting me go to the AACM concert! So, no, it wasn’t a major part of it. But at home we listened quite a bit. But we listened more to religious music. I’m not saying that my parents were like religious fanatics or anything. But you could rely on hearing Clay Evans every Sunday without fail. You know that song, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do”?

SMITH: Right. I heard him, too.

LEWIS: Every Sunday that was required listening.

TP: Well, although Leo Smith and George Lewis were occupying the same physical space, although of different ages, you first met in New Haven, where Leo moved in the early 1970’s, and where George was situated as an undergraduate at Yale. So actually, George, you first encountered Leo in New Haven.

LEWIS: Yes. I encountered him there. I encountered the music in Chicago.

TP: You said there was a funny story.

LEWIS: I don’t remember the funny story. Do you remember the funny story?

SMITH: Well, it wasn’t funny. It’s just that I was standing up on the street, and George was going, and he said, “Hey, are you Leo Smith?” And I said, “Yeah. How are you doing?” We talked for a few minutes, and he said, “Well, I know the AACM,” and blah-blah-blah, and then he gave me his room number, and I think in the next couple of days I came by.

LEWIS: Yeah!

SMITH: That was it. Because basically, I couldn’t visit nobody in town. There was nobody to talk to except Marion Brown. And when George came to town, I went by George’s and hung out there, and turned him over and he turned me over. Then I’d go by and hang out with Anthony Davis. And after that, that was it.

TP: I’d say that was quite an interesting group of young musicians to be working with.

SMITH: Oh, it was. We had a good time in there.

LEWIS: Well, if you look at New Haven at that time, like if you read Willie Ruff’s book (what was it called?), A Call To Assembly… If you were around New Haven in that period, in ’72, ’71, just for a few years, an incredible number of people were around. You were living there, I think Oliver Lake was around, Marion Brown was around, (?) Johnson(?) was around, I mean just in the neighborhood. And there were all these students. Alvin Singleton was a student, Robert Dick was a student, Anthony Davis was a student, Mark Helias was a student, Gerry Hemingway was from the town — he wasn’t a student, but he was from there. And then they had people visiting.

SMITH: Dwight Andrews.

LEWIS: Oh, that’s right. Dwight, and Pheeroan was in there. Then they had people…this Duke Ellington fellowship. So Duke came, and Willie the Lion Smith came, and Max came, and Mingus came, Diz and William Warfield, Slam Stewart, Tony Williams, all these people. I just remember the list was so long. And I don’t imagine there’s… You know, those things tend to have a half-life, and I’m not sure it’s the same now as it was then. But you look at a guy like Willie Ruff, and you have to say that he helped put that together in an incredible way and used the power of the institution to do something which really affected a lot of people’s lives. I mean, certainly mine.

SMITH: Yeah, that was a powerful moment.

TP: George, you said that you were very much, however, aware of Leo. You’d encountered the music in Chicago, you said before I interrupted you…,


TP: …and you were intimate with the recording, Three Compositions of New Jazz. You were just describing how intimate you were with that very vividly!

LEWIS: I listened to it the way Beavis and Butthead listen to their videos. [LAUGHS]

TP: What was it that struck you so much about that recording at that time.

LEWIS: God, it’s really hard to say. I don’t know. Don Moye gave it to me. He said, “Well, this is for you, man. This is your kind of thing.” And he was right. It was!


LEWIS: I don’t know what it was. I mean, if you look at those pieces, you see incredible things. It’s like one of those records that keeps giving back to you. But in terms of some specific situation, the only thing I could say was, well, it was just a reality that I hadn’t been exposed to, and I guess getting it full force like that caused me to think about other kinds of things. I guess that’s all you can really say about it.

TP: I guess the implications of those three compositions are still resonating in the work of Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. [ETC.]

George Lewis has developed a computer program that improvises according to certain parameters. Any time I talk to various musicians about this, or to many of them about George, they sort of just say, “man, it’s unbelievable, it’s on a level I can’t…” I was saying sort of offhandedly to George that perhaps at the end of the concert Saturday we could perhaps get an improvised duo between Leo Smith and the computer, and George said, “Well, it’s not as simple as that; you really have to do some work with it.” Can you talk about the type of parameters that go into preparing the Voyager program for a specific musical encounter.

LEWIS: Well, you know, you don’t really prepare it for a specific musical encounter. What you really do is, you’re making a piece that can go in a lot of different directions. But of course, it’s not infinite. You’re going to encounter situations, and all musicians encounter situations where they don’t function quite as well as in other situations. Some people are more versatile than others, of course, but no… It’s just one of those things where even if they can do it, they might feel more comfortable doing something else.

So what I began to find was that… I think actually it was John Oswald who sort of made me think about this a little bit, that basically, Voyager makes a different kind of music from what John is doing — or was doing at that time. So basically, I would have to make a another kind of a piece, like a different piece, in order to have it work well and be coherent with him. So I began to find that, in fact… And this is a funny thing, because some people who are maybe… Well, I don’t know what their familiarity is with computers. But there is a school of thought that believes that you’re sort of making the computer to sort of play like you. And all I can say is that I’ve found that certain people actually sound better with my computer than I do. So I don’t really know if that theory holds any water.

But basically, if you want to boil it down, we’re talking very simple signals: high and low (pitch, that is), soft and loud, fast and slow, dense and sparse. Those are the big four. Everything else is a variation of that. So it’s looking at all of those things, and then it makes its own judgment on what it sees out there, and then tries to respond with something basically similar to what that is. So when that similarity of response comes, at least you get the feeling that the machine is paying attention to you. See, the thing is that there are areas, of course… There are many areas of music, and those are just the very simplest ones. At a certain point, you might find that it wouldn’t respond in a certain way, that for whatever reason the machine is not going to respond, and you don’t get any information in that area.

So what I’ve found was you really had to sort of look at the situation of Voyager, look at it as an environment, and then pick people who would fit into that environment. And that’s really what it is. Because finally, it’s kind of a piece, and you want the piece to go well, so you look for people to fit into that environment. And if they don’t fit in Voyager, well, I’m still programming, so maybe another piece will work.

TP: George mentioned specifically that Roscoe Mitchell is a musician who seems to work better with Voyager than George…

LEWIS: That’s what I think, anyway!

TP: And the results of a collaboration between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell singly and in tandem with Voyager, and then finally in an acoustic duet, are available on a 1993 release on Avan, under the title Voyager. There are eight duos with Voyager, and then “Homecoming,” an acoustic duo. We’ll hear “Voyager 8,” which is Roscoe Mitchell and Voyager, and then Roscoe and George in “Homecoming,” concluding this CD.

[MUSIC: Roscoe-Voyager, “Voyager #8”, Roscoe-George, “Homecoming” (1993)]

TP: It’s a unique occasion to get George Lewis and Leo Smith in the studio singly, and having them together is almost more than I can handle!


TP: No, not really. [ETC.] We’ve spoken to George and Leo about Chicago and New Haven, where they lived, and I got to talk with George about the here-and-now with the Voyager program. But I haven’t spoken much with Leo about current events, except for playing selections from Kulture Jazz, his new release on ECM, which seems to be a very summational presentation, extending ideas from different situations you’ve been involved with over the last twenty-five years really.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Talk a little bit about your conception of this release, and your use of the overdubbing and multi-tracking possibilities and potentials.

SMITH: Well, for example, “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing”. It was my intention to make a piece in the studio. I knew it would sort of represent somebody that was important to me, but when I got in the studio and started warming up, I knew it would be Louis Armstrong. So what I did, I made the first line, because it’s a trio, and then I immediately recorded the second line. Then I listened to the first and second line, and made the third line. In other words, like, I didn’t listen to see what they were, basically. I only listened and responded to them. So essentially the counterpointing is that one line is made and the other line is supplied to it, but it’s a spontaneous kind of counterpoint.

TP: Did you improvise a lot in the studio in making Kulture Jazz?

SMITH: That piece is one of those pieces that’s a studio piece. I made it in the studio. What I’m trying to say is, it’s a kind of improvisation that you have information on what has been played before because you played it, but you’re not actually using that in order to play the next line. You’re only using that next line to come in contact with it and respond in some kind of play and display, and connect and disunity, which would give the concept of counterpoint — in this case, and not in the classical sense.

TP: Several of the titles have very explicit references to improvising musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Albert Ayler, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. A few words about each of those musicians in relation to your conception of music.

SMITH: Well, for me, I feel it’s important when you make a piece of music or a music object or something that you really care about, to give it lots of special care. And one of them is poetry. And one of the extensions of poetry is through suggestions. When I make my piece, “Love Supreme,” and I dedicate it to John Coltrane, I’m dedicating it to someone that serves as a spiritual guide, so to speak. So the connection of the piece and the dedication is all one thing. It’s a kind of poetry that lets me understand my deepest self.

Like Billie Holiday, for example. I like a lot of singers. But her voice and the way that she looked at making a sound with the voice clearly distinguishes her on the outside as somebody very different. And not just different because she’s creative, but her difference is actually made in the way she shaped the volume and the weight and the release of a tone. So if I make the piece, and I say that she is the Queen or she is the Empress or something like that, I’m referring to the dynamic in which she makes her entrance or her mark in creation as a creative artist. And also as a mother. Also as someone I deeply respect. When I think about being original, and when I think about singing, and thinking about singing, I think about those people like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. I don’t know of anyone else that excites me such with voice, except Jeanne Lee.

TP: As a young musician, Leo, were you listening to all of these artists? Were these people you were assimilating?

SMITH: No. I saw my first Jazz master, I must have been… I was twenty-something in Italy. Of course, it was Miles Davis and a few guys. I never grew up around Jazz artists or creative artists or classic artists. I kind of grew up around Rhythm-and-Blues people, and always wondered what Jazz artists sounded like. And sometimes guys would tell me, “Well, you sound like you play Jazz,” and I said, “Wow, I want to know what in the hell is that.”

The first time I heard Jazz, though, I think I was graduating from high school, and we had had this band that played a few numbers that night where the trumpet player actually made a solo. After that, I walked up to the guy and said, “Look, is that Jazz?” He said, “It’s Jazz.” I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.”


SMITH: And he wasn’t a great Jazz player. He was improvising. That’s the dynamic that struck me. Not what he was playing, but the fact that he was making up his music right then, and he didn’t have to plan it. That seemed like to me a complete weight could never be upon my shoulders, because I wanted to make music that you didn’t have to carry around, but you just released straight out with your naturalness.

TP: I recollect an interview where you said you began playing trumpet in I guess school marching ensembles…


TP: …and you got your conception of the sound of the trumpet from projecting your trumpet sound into a wide-open space.

SMITH: Exactly. Exactly. I still like to play the horn outside. Because you see, when you blow a trumpet, or any wind instrument, your projection is not well… I don’t know if you know Dizzy Gillespie’s description of that, but you have to be tightening the bottom…

TP: I think I’ve heard a more descriptive…

SMITH: Yes, exactly. Well, if your diaphragm is not properly done and your weight of balance is not properly centered in your gut, and you blow that trumpet or whatever wind instrument, once it reaches the end of your bell, it rolls right off like a drop of spit…,


SMITH: …you see. So the wise guy centers in, gets set, and blows that sound, and makes it go all the way through the horn, you see. And if it goes all the way through, it’s going to come out of the horn. And once it comes out, because of the horn being filled and the thrust is not just coming from your lips or the cavity in your mouth, but coming from your diaphragm all the way through. The point of contact is not just the horn. It goes all the way out the horn, and the projection will come into the space. And the way to do that, you have to practice outside. You have to blow the horn outside.

TP: As a young player playing with Rhythm-and-Blues people, what type of situations would you be playing in? Who were the people you were playing for?

SMITH: Two guitars, a drummer, and me. And one of the guitar players sings, and none of them knew which key they were playing in, and none of them cared. In fact, it wasn’t even important. We played Blues in the tradition of Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy Waters. If somebody said, “Play some of B.B. King…” Any kind of Blues, these guys had the ability to articulate and make it come across. But no arrangement at all. My part, just like their part, had to be made up as we went along, because all that was known was the song, the verse of the song. So I had to make up riffs. I started out at 13. I had to make up riffs and make solos in this kind of music of two guitars and a drum and one of them singing, with no keys, or no specific tonality — but definitely making a register within the spectrum of sound.

TP: Describe some of the types of places you’d be playing in.

SMITH: Well, we’d call them honky-tonks, or juke joints, or bottom houses. They had a lot of names for them. But essentially they were large rooms that had a band standing in the back, that could hold three or four people, and the dance floor was really big. We would start at like 9 o’clock and go until the next morning almost. So a really big space, people dancing, and generally they were gambling in the joint — and of course, if there’s gambling, there’s probably other things that go along with that. There were fights, and there were confrontations. It was grim. I learned how to live, you know.

TP: Learned how to live young.

SMITH: Yeah. But also I learned how to live, because… You see, I was in high school then. I played three nights a week, sometimes four. I would go to school every day. If we drove 150 miles from the performance or the gig, I would still go to school. So I was learning how to do what I had to do, and live at the same time, and hold up my responsibility in my family. I didn’t have to go to the cotton field — because that’s what we had to do if you didn’t have no talent. So I got out of there when I was 13; I didn’t have to do that no more. So I learned how to live with that music.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith: “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing,” “The Kemet Omega (For Billie Holiday)” (1993)]

TP: We’ve had a lot of conversation with Leo and George about various aspects of the past. But in the here-and-now it’s a fresh concert with new music, again, this Saturday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I’ll ask each of you to briefly describe the music you’re presenting this week.

SMITH: Well, the big piece is called “Black Church: A First World Gathering In The Spirits” — something close to that. It’s a work with voice, where voice and three different types of ensembles are somewhat coming together. There’s a string quartet in high voice, there’s a trombone, trumpet and percussion trio, and there is the music in the speakers, which is four pianos. All I can say is that it’s a piece for multiple ensembles. It’s non-metrical; therefore, we could consider it to be graphic in construction, but very detailed. It’s dramatic in content and also in gesture. It’s not an opera or a pseudo opera; it’s just music with a dramatic connection hooked up with these different kinds of sounding ensembles coming in, into the space. It’s a new piece. It was done over the summer. I spent the last six weeks deeply into it. It’s a considerable amount of music, a lot of music.

TP: George Lewis?

LEWIS: Well, you know, this is sort of amazing. I look at this, and I think, “Well, the AACM, thirty years old?” It’s sort of astonishing, the record of the organization and what’s been accomplished, the people who have really maintained the spirit of it with such tremendous tenacity. I mean, people look at it as being, well, the AACM is like… People are very protective of it, in a certain way; the idea of it — the idea of it and the organization of it. So that when I start to see the variety of events that have come out of this… I mean, we’ve got the recent Experimental Band performance in Chicago, where a lot of the membership came together to perform; the upcoming AACM thirtieth anniversary event, which is going to take place in Chicago, where membership will all gather there; and various other events that have taken place.

So I mean, I am looking at this in that light, although the piece is not… Well, it’s not an anniversary type of celebration. Well, I’ll put it this way. Quincy Troupe and I, since I have been out in San Diego…we’re teaching at the same school out there, the University of California in San Diego. He is in Literature and I am in Music, and we sort of hooked up right away, and have started making these pieces, one of which maybe people heard earlier on Changing Of The Times, which is based on one of his recent poems, “The View From Skates in Berkeley.” This piece, the piece I wrote for this concert, is based on Quincy’s piece, “Collage”.

Quincy lately has been putting together some pretty complex pieces which are very varied, and the range of imagery is much greater than maybe even stuff he’s been doing before — I mean, the complexity. So in a way, the challenge for me was to try to reflect some of that complexity in the music. I mean, there are rapid changes in orchestration and mood that you’ll see in the poetry that’s got to be reflected in the music. So it ended up being quite a tussle to get these things out there.

And it is for me very much an experimental situation, I mean on a personal level, in that I sort of became interested through Quincy in the interface of poetry and music, but particularly in the interface of poetry with ensemble music of varying sizes, of bigger than a bread-box. That is to say that we quickly got tired of the poet-and-trombone thing. I mean, I got bored with that almost immediately. And so, we started to figure out how we could get some sort of orchestral conception into the poetry. Because the thing is, the poetry is coming from an orchestral conception, and so we really started to find out that we need the forces to match. I don’t see any contradiction in having, you know, Quincy Troupe and Orchestra or whatever. I mean, that seems like something I’d be interested in. So that’s really the spirit in which this piece was composed, to try to bring the musical forces up to the level of the imagery that we find in the poetry.

TP: I believe you mentioned that the Voyager program will be involved as one of the musical components?

LEWIS: It’s not, no. This is an acoustic piece. I am playing Voyager on the concert as well, as a separate piece. But this piece is acoustic.

TP: Is it performed by the Ensemble, or are you performing on trombone?

LEWIS: I sit and watch. Quincy does it, and Petr Kotik conducts it, which is a wonderful thing, because I’ve known Petr for a really long time and have always been a great admirer of his work as a composer, and lately as a conductor. I just have to say that he has really provided an atmosphere in which the pieces can be done well, and the S.E.M. Ensemble is a tremendous group, and people seem very fearless. Petr has such a wide range of musical experiences that his suggestions about how to change things around, how to make this part work better, not just orchestrational things, but also interactional things and improvisational things. I mean, usually conductors, in my experience, might not be able to enter that area with the authority that Peter has done. So I’m really pretty excited about the whole experience.

Also, I am performing in Leo’s piece, which is very hard. [LAUGHS] I finally get to perform with William Brown, who is super, a tenor. And J.D. Parran is performing in my piece. So overall, it’s just a great experience for me, and it’s one that the AACM here in New York, with Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins, who have been the primary coordinators of the event, for which I think them, too. I’m sure we both do…

SMITH: Yeah, we do.

LEWIS: …for all the work they’ve put into this whole event, and to make it come off. It’s not an easy thing getting sort of a chamber ensemble piece going. It takes a lot of work, there are a lot of pitfalls — and it’s kind of expensive! The people who coordinated the work, the Helen W. Buckner Trust, the National Endowment… It’s been a considerable undertaking. But I am sort of happy to be here. I don’t come here that much, and I have never gotten to come here and play any of this kind of music, so it’s kind of exciting for me.

TP: Before I let you go, you both mentioned the Experimental Band, from, from which emerged the AACM Big Band in Chicago, which met weekly and often more than that from 1971 and on through the Seventies. Leo, what were your early experiences like? Was the AACM Big Band the focal point of your first contact with the AACM?

SMITH: Yeah, it was a focal point. You see, one of the things that made it unique was that whoever was in the AACM was also in the Orchestra, and whoever was in the Orchestra also had the possibility, if they desired, to write for it. So essentially, when I went there, I accepted the AACM Orchestra as a residence orchestra, and I began to write music immediately. In fact, it was the greatest moment of experiment for me, because I learned a lot about instruments, and the weight of instruments, both vertically and horizontally, form, I learned how to rehearse people. A lot of different things I learned in the AACM, because that orchestra met every Saturday, and there was no restriction on who could write music.

TP: Or I guess the way that you would write…

SMITH: And the way.

TP: …because you could learn almost by the seat of your pants.

SMITH: One restriction. You had to write your own music.

LEWIS: Ha-ha!

SMITH: You couldn’t bring no arrangement in and no… You had to write an original piece of music. That was the only restriction. And thank God for that.

TP: George Lewis, talk about your early interactions with the AACM Big Band.

LEWIS: I hate to say it, but I find myself repeating ten years later the exact same experience that Leo Smith had. You know, Muhal let everyone write music, and he encouraged people to do it, and I started writing music.

SMITH: Right.

LEWIS: And those were my first experiences hearing large ensemble pieces. Like Leo said, you learned how to rehearse, how to make the parts, how to negotiate with the players about how it had to be played — all those sorts of things. Practical information. It just added to the diversity. And I believe that Muhal is still interested in having this sort of open situation with regard to people writing music for an experimental band that he might make today. So it’s the atmosphere of nurturance that really made a difference, I think, for both of us.

TP: Well, I think with Leo Smith and George Lewis, we have two people born ten or twelve years apart, raised in very different…

SMITH: We’re ten years apart. Ten or eleven, somewhere in there.

TP: …raised in very different circumstances, and nurtured to the point where they are now, as we’ve heard just a very meager sample of over the past two hours, through an extraordinary institution in Chicago called the AACM. And particularly, both were influenced by the vision of Muhal Richard Abrams, which has remained constant for more than three decades within this particular institution. And I think that hearing what they say and the way their music manifests is a testament to the strength of that institution. I’d like to thank both George Lewis and Leo Smith for joining me in tandem. It’s been a fascinating interaction.

SMITH: I wanted to say thanks a million for offering the space and the time and letting us speak about the things that we think about. You know, I don’t come to New York often. I live in California, and I love living in California. So whenever I do come, I’ll look you up, Ted.

TP: When I first heard George Lewis, it was around 1974, and I was attending the University of Chicago, and I was going to hear the Fred Anderson group on campus.

LEWIS: Oh, yes.

TP: I heard this trombone player… I had some familiarity with Jazz, and I knew everything by Sonny Rollins… I went in and I heard this trombone player playing the most extraordinary things I had ever heard. I just couldn’t believe it. And it was George Lewis. I got to know him a little bit then. And although he’s gone into so many different directions, my initial impression of you as flying over the trombone and doing all of this stuff has always remained with me. So I was very excited when earlier this summer, the four-trombone group Slide Ride assembled at the Knitting Factory for a night, one night only, to be followed by one night in Burlington, Vermont, and that’s it — and a record. The group is Ray Anderson (and as has been repeated ad nauseam, he and George Lewis were in high school and junior high school together, playing trombone), Craig Harris and Gary Valente. We get to hear George in the acoustic, ipmrovatorial milieu, just playing no-holds-barred trombone. Has the Slide Ride group been an enjoyable experience for you?

LEWIS: Well, Ted, before I answer that, I’d just like everyone to know what Ted had to do to listen to this Fred Anderson group. For one thing, we started playing at twelve o’clock at night and we ended at 6 a.m., and often Ted was the only person in the audience. [LOUD LAUGH]

TP: Well, this is what’s known as a tall tale, or perhaps a fictional extrapolation or something. Actually, I think this one was in the daytime, George.

LEWIS: I don’t know, man. You remember those sets I’m talking about, right? Those midnight sets.

TP: No, I couldn’t get to the North Side. This was on the University of Chicago campus. I didn’t have a car…

LEWIS: I guess I have to strike that, then. I tried to make you a legendary figure, Ted, but you’ll just have to settle for mortality!

TP: I think I prefer that. But let’s get back to some more sober ruminations on Slide Ride.

LEWIS: Well, you know, Slide Ride turned out to be an amazing situation. I guess I’ve been in trombone quartets that haven’t been quite as interesting as Slide Ride, and I think maybe the reasons why they weren’t quite as interesting usually could be put down to various kinds of competitiveness, or ego, or simply lack of community — in other words, they were ad hoc situations. Whereas you have to say… I think that interacting with Gary and Craig and Ray as a group, and realizing that we all come from a similar musical community, we were all around New York at about the same time playing trombone, we all played in the same groups, we often played together… And to see that history… And I think Craig of us is probably the most aware of that history, and has done the most to sort of realize that history in terms of the group, in a certain way. But everybody makes their contribution.

So what I started to find was that around about the concerts that you’ve mentioned, the one at the Knitting Factory and the one in Vermont, the music started to reach this level which I didn’t expect. It was kind of a wonderful thing. It started to get to the point where you transcended this thing of just having trombone players doing things. I guess when Robin Eubanks was here earlier, he started talking about the trombone and what people think about it, and I have to say it’s… I mean, I care about what happens to the trombone, but maybe a lot of people don’t. Robin does. But I guess what I started to see in that group, it really wasn’t about… It just became people playing music, and expressing themselves, and being creative, and using their creativity in the moment, as Leo was saying about Miles Davis. So that became pretty amazing for me.

On the other hand, I read the German liner notes, and there’s a whole section on how I hate to travel. [LAUGHS] Which is true. [LAUGHS] Well, like you said, I’m happy to be here, but I also like being at home and all that. So anyway, I like this… Well, I love this band. I think it’s fabulous.

[MUSIC: Slide Ride, “Sweeps”, “Unison” (1994)]



George Lewis (WKCR, 4-30-94):

TP: We’ve been listening to two selections from a recent release on the New World Counter Currents series by George Lewis…

GL: Is this the Counter-Currents series? I don’t think so. I was rejected for the Counter-Currents series. Can we put that on the air? They said it wasn’t jazzy enough to be on the Counter-Currents series. So this got on whatever the regular series is. It got on that instead!

TP: At any rate, it is on New World Records, and indeed, the title of the CD is Changing With The Times, and there are six, as the liner note says, “conversation pieces for which George Lewis has assembled a diverse collection of musicians, poets and story-tellers into an organic narrative mode to signify in style and content on his personal odyssey through the contradictions and ambiguities of being black in a non-contradictory social universe — America.”

Much of the music, George, was written many years ago, but hadn’t been previously recorded. Talk a bit about the ideas in assembling the pieces and the personalities who comprise this CD.

GL: Well, this record comes, in a way, from when I changed periods and went to California and became a music professor.

TP: When was that exactly?

GL: In ’91, the University of California at San Diego. Quincy Troupe, whose poetry you heard first, is a professor there in Literature, as is Jerry Rothenberg, who we just heard. So it seemed at a certain point like a collaboration would be a good idea. Mary Oliver was a Ph.D student at the time, the violinist. Peter Gonzalez was an undergraduate percussionist. So it was recorded at the studio there.

So there was all this talent floating around, you know, this university, and I kind of find it fascinating. Also, when I brought my father out, it occurred to me that this would be the moment to maybe do something that we had talked about doing for a long time, which was to take aspects of his narrative, the story of his life, and make something of it in terms of music.

So that’s sort of the field in which this takes place.

When you talk about the music and the text, I guess I don’t look at it as text with music, since we did try to integrate them. On the other hand, there is an aspect of arrangement about this, in that the pieces… The piece we just heard, the piece for two pianos and trombone, was written in 1980 for Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzsewski and I to play. We played it a few times, and then it kind of sat around until I decided that it needed something extra, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then Jerry Rothenberg showed me these Dadagrams, and that seemed to fit very well.

Then for the middle section we were looking for something, and then he came up with this poem called “The Chicago Poem” — this is the slow section. The thing about that is that I looked at the first few lines, when he starts talking about Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago — and that kind of sums me up in a nutshell, sums up the last fifteen years of my life. I said, “We’ll do this one.” [LAUGHS]

Then later it turns out that… The whole record has a kind of theme about it. The themes are history and remembrance, camaraderie, brotherhood, these sorts of issues. Personal friendships and the elaborations of them, how they develop and change and grow. Family. That’s what “The Chicago Poem” talks about, and that’s what Quincy’s poem is also talking about, and that’s what Changing of The Times discusses.

So that the odyssey of being Black is only one of the situations. But the odyssey of being Black, though, of course, can include all of those other things — and it does!

TP: To be specific about the pieces, the first selection heard at the top of the program was Quincy Troupe’s poem, “The View From Skates In Berkeley,” and the second, which is a three-part composition, is called “Chicago Dadagram.”

You performed a text-music with interactive imagery a few years ago at the Kitchen, though I can’t recollect whether these pieces were included or not. Have you been performing these in concert situations?

GL: Well, actually what got performed was a piece called “The Empty Chair.” That was in 1989.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the technologies that I have developed, and to expand and recontextualize them. That’s been the focus. I’ve found that I wanted to have the pieces talk about something. I just didn’t want them to be formalist abstractions, and I didn’t necessarily want to appropriate gestures from contemporary music, or Rap, or Rock-and-Roll, or anything in a stylistic way. I wanted to integrate them with things that I felt comfortable with personally.

“The Empty Chair” was an experiment in sort of multi-perspectival interactive theater, really. Bernard Mixon, an actor and singer who performs Changing of The Times, played the lead role. He was a prisoner in this piece, but no one was quite clear as to why he was a prisoner, so there was a Kafkaesque aspect. But then, finally, we know, despite his own denial and the denials he describes of others as to why it’s happened.

So since maybe many people didn’t that see that piece, all I can say is that there were two kinds of computer-generated video, and that these videos were interactive with the music in real time. One was animation, and that was done by Don Ritter with his own personal Omega system. The other one was done by Ray Edgar, and that was a transformation-based video, live cameras, mixing and adding various kinds of synthesized imagery to it. And these were responding to the music and to the speech that Bernard was doing. Douglas Ewart was playing also.

We were sitting in the back, operating the computers, but really, there isn’t much to operate. You just turn them on and let them go, because they are listening anyway. So you don’t have to really direct them. I guess when we get around to playing a little computer music, we can talk about that more. But the idea is that basically is that the computer… If you have a large enough collection of details about your representation of music, you can trust that, because it represents your ideas of music that you were hearing in another form. So I don’t have any problems with letting the things run, if they’re making a contribution. I mean, if they’re making a contribution that’s mutable, according to what’s going on at the moment. If they’re just running like a tape, I guess I’m not too excited by that. It doesn’t fit in my music. I’m improvising and I want to hear things move and change, and I want to hear the results of my action in the environment that we’re creating. The tapes and sequences just don’t do that.

So following in the footsteps of people like David Behrman in particular, I’ve wanted to have these things go on. And I’ve been fairly extreme about it, maybe very extreme about it, to the point where there isn’t anything that’s sequenced in advance or anything.

So in sum, what it comes down to is that Changing with the Times is an attempt to refine those ideas about Theater and to sort of have a radio-play. My dream was (and of course, I think it will never happen) that it will get played on NPR at two o’clock in the morning, and someone will say, “Ooh, how nice, what a nice voice,” and they sort of drift off to sleep listening to this bedtime story, this ironic bedtime story of my father, who is talking about his grandfather, and the good old days which weren’t really all that good, and it seeps into people’s consciousnesses, sort of like the old-time shows, like The Shadow, but talking about something personal.

The thing about The Shadow or any of those old-time radio things was that you could decide what the Shadow was. I mean, back in those days, The Shadow could be anything you wanted it to be. You could make up the imagery yourself. And that’s the sort of thing I wanted to happen here. But I think because of what’s being talked about, that might be more difficult. The radio plays that I hear tend to be a bit Gothic.

TP: Let’s talk about the details of the performance. George Lewis plays, of course, on trombone; Douglas Ewart, woodwinds, saxophone and percussion; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Peter Gonzales, percussion; Jeannie Cheatham, piano and organ; and Bernard Mixon, singing and speaking voice. The narrative is by George Lewis’s father.

Was this written specifically for the purposes of this performance, or was this something he’d written that you wanted to recontextualize?

GL: He wrote it because he is retired from the Post Office. He worked there for far too long. And when he retired, he had to have something to do. The class was a writing class, because having never, I think, really gone to school, or at least not very much… I mean, in the text he keeps talking about all the times he dropped out, which leads me to suspect he never really got to go in the first place. So the idea was that he wrote this thing in order to pass this class. And the person teaching the class was smart enough to first give them a copy of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, basically a slave narrative, and making that context for them, making the connection within their own situations, and of course, implying that you could be writing your own slave narrative right here and now, in the Twentieth Century. So that’s what they did. They sort of wrote their own slave narratives.

And his was sort of ironic and sort of funny, and minimized things that were really terrible. It sort of expressed to me something that we don’t get to… You know, there are things that used to go on in that way, like the Federal Writers Project. But I wanted to have that be not a piece of documentation, but an art piece more than a documentation of something that went on. Who knows how much of it is even true? — as Paul Carter Harrison points out in the liner notes. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. There is an aspect of the Trickster or the Toaster about it.

So that was the basic focus of that.

TP: Is your father a native Chicagoan?

GL: Yeah, he is. He’s a native. But the story is mostly about North Carolina, which is where he was brought up. So he was part of the Grand Migration, you see. It’s important to state that; it’s a theme in the piece. It’s documented in Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land, in the writings of St. Clair Drake, and there’s lots of other documentation on these successive waves of African-Americans coming up from the South to what they thought was really a better life. And really, what it amounted to was like another country. Like, it was internal immigration, really, in the same sense as what we have now. It was just “El Norte,” just another version of that.

So there are lots of stories like this. In fact, I think this is really one of the main stories for me in the Twenty-First Century; one of the main themes in Art will be this notion of location. It is now, and I think it’s going to grow and deepen in intensity, because so many people are displaced now. And even people who have lived in a certain place all their lives are starting to feel displaced because of their situation. The dislocation is enormous. I feel as though I’d like to explore the implication of that, so that’s one part of it.

[MUSIC: “Changing With The Times”]

GL: This piece really takes a bleak look at a lot of the music that my father held dear. In other words, it’s not an attempt to imitate or recreate these things. It’s an attempt to integrate other things in with it. You notice at a certain point we’re hearing microtonal things that really don’t fit in with the traditional framework of the Blues, although with the expanded notion of African creativity that the AACM, let’s say, was into — but certainly I didn’t see any contradiction there. But I didn’t really feel the need to do anything in terms of trying to make this…well, to make it anything other than… It’s not supposed to be a period piece, really.

But I did have to put his words in the context of the music he was listening to at the time, and the music he grew up with. And it’s done in the spirit of love, really.

Jeannie Cheatham I think is the real star of this thing, if can think of someone who really underpins everything about this record. She plays in every conceivable style. There are things she didn’t play on there. She can play Classical music, contemporary music, she’s playing the Blues and the Boogie; she wrote this Boogie-Woogie tune we’re playing at one point. She’s playing this strange organ in this sort of quasi-fight scene. So she’s really tremendous on this thing.

But it’s meant to be ironic. We didn’t have a drum set as such, or a bass player. You know, we could have had a bass player going BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, and had it be very much more like to peak(?). But that really wasn’t the point of it. In order to look at this period, to look at the issues, we needed to take a little distance from it, and come in at not the expected angle.

TP: Is this all music that’s part of your early musical experience?

GL: Oh yes, very much so. Yes. But you know, the thing is that you have to continually reevaluate these things. I find that now I look back on it as something that I learned because it was just there in the community, not something you really studied. It was just sort of there in the community. But now, having to study it a little bit in order to make the record, and having to sort of understand it and try and take it in a different context, you sort of start to see connections you didn’t see before. I’m not sure I can express what those connections are.

TP: Let me ask you another question related to your earlier years in the music? Was your father influential in your taking up music, or being a trombonist? Or what were those factors?

GL: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, this happens a lot, I’ve found out. You talk to any number of musicians, composers, artists whose parents told them to do something, to take up the arts or to take up an instrument — and it’s always for the same reasons. It’s always for popularity. They are so concerned about their kids being popular. Do they get along with the other kids? I guess one of those old sociologists like David Riesman can have a field day with this.

Anyway, his take on it was, “Yes, you’ll make some friends and you should take up an instrument.” And I said, “Well, fine, but what instrument do I take up?” He said, “Well, anything but the trumpet, because the trumpet ruins your lips,” and he had these pictures of Louis Armstrong to prove that the trumpet ruins your lips. I said, “Okay, we’ll just go to the store and we’ll see” — because they were having kind of a fair; you could go and look at these things. So I looked, and I don’t really remember, but all I remember was, “I think we should take this one.” That was the trombone. I mean, it was bigger than the others, and it looked pretty good, and I said, “Let’s have this one.”

I mean, I love those romantic tales about someone who always wanted to be a trombone player, and who had listened to it since they were a kid, and they really saw somebody play, and they knew that’s what they wanted to do…

TP: Or the school band director said, “You have to play trombone because I’m losing mine, and you have to come in play this,” and that’s why they played it…

GL: Right. It’s usually much more a question of need. None of this exciting, terribly romantic, “Oh, I just had to do it; it was my destiny — I saw my destiny before me.” It wasn’t like that.

TP: But apparently you felt an affinity for it.

GL: I suppose so. But I remember also throwing it against the wall in disgust at not being able to play the damn thing. I mean, it’s not so easy. One of my tasks at school was to try to figure out how we can get trombonists to learn how to play a little faster. Because by the time the trombonists sound pretty good, the electric guitarists have gone on to fame and fortune, and really some of them have probably even like killed themselves by this time. But it’s very much a much faster learning curve on some of the instruments than on others — and the trombone is one of the slower ones.

TP: Who were some of the influences that got you involved in Jazz and improvising on the trombone? Were you listening to other trombone players? Were you adapting the instrument to musical ideas that you were hearing elsewhere? How did that all come about?

GL: Hmm, what was that all about…? Oh, I remember. Okay, it was “The Pink Panther.” We were playing “The Pink Panther” in the concert band.

TP: Where?

GL: The Lab School at the University of Chicago. We were playing “The Pink Panther.” I thought I recognized it. They had this thing that you were supposed to play, this sort of written solo on it, and I decided I didn’t want to play that, that I could just play something, because it wasn’t…it just didn’t sound… I didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and being 11 years old, I thought I had the right to say what I thought. [LAUGHS] So instead of playing the thing that was written out, I played this other thing. And the director stopped the band and said, “Well, what was that?” I said, “Well, I thought I would improvise something there.” It was weird. No one said, “Hey, look, here’s how you do it” or whatever. They just said, “Do it again the next time.” So that was it. I got to improvise my “Pink Panther” solo.

So maybe that was it for me, and then later learning things in the school jazz bands and all that. Because they didn’t really have a school jazz band, so if you wanted to play anything that sounded like Jazz, you had to do it on “The Pink Panther.”

TP: There was an educator at the Lab School named Frank Tirro, I believe.

GL: But I wasn’t in that band then. The 11-year-olds weren’t in that. That was a high school thing! So when I got to the high school… They should have these things right at the beginning. Like, Kidd Jordan has five-year-olds playing Jazz compositions down in New Orleans, so it’s certainly possible to do this at any age.

But later, certainly Frank Tirro was a major influence in that way, and Dean Hay also — who were both teaching there at that time. Frank has the book now, an expanded version of his Jazz book. And Dean is playing trombone again. He went into computers for a while, which I found ironically interesting, but I think he’s back to playing now.

In terms of, like, adapting the materials, the music that was around the house, there was an old Lester Young record — I remember trying to understand and play with that. There were a few Johnny Griffin records and there were a few Miles Davis records. And then I started buying all these Coltrane records. I’d say that in terms of my own investigations on a personal basis… Also, there was a wonderful librarian, Mr. Poole, who had Charlie Parker records, and there were also records of the electronic music going on at the University of Illinois. So I’d say those things were probably the most influential on me in terms of trying to learn how to play anything, in this sort of non-formal way. Because after a while, I just stopped taking lessons. It just seemed like, well, anyone who would get up there and play “The Pink Panther,” you know, in the wrong way wasn’t likely to be sitting in there and taking lessons for such a long time. So I stopped doing it. So it was always more of a personal investigation. I’m kind of used to it now.

TP: You’ve developed an incredibly broad vocabulary of ways of expressing yourself on the trombone. So it began through those investigations.

GL: I’d say it began there, but basically the AACM was the key to a kind of mental and personal expansion and development. It’s the reason for… A current view of improvisation that we were talking about earlier, I guess… My view of improvisation is basically that personality development is an important part of it. And one of the ways is, of course, that you have to have information, and you have to have a framework also for presenting that information, and for understanding it, and for making sense of it. I didn’t really have that when I met Muhal, and Mitchell, and Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, and people like that — and I think they helped me get it, helped me understand things about life, and made you listen to things.

We were talking the other day; it was very funny… You see, I used to have this thing for Twinkies. At a certain point I remember bringing the Twinkies into the AACM meeting, and they said, “You can’t come in here with those Twinkies.” [LAUGHS] They were serious! I had to throw the Twinkies away. So little things like that.

See, that’s what I mean by sort of just personality development. They were concerned about just not about what you were playing, but also about what you were eating, what you were thinking, what you were reading, what you were listening to — the whole business. So that was a critical passage. Then at a certain point, that prepares you for other things, certainly for listening to other things that are out there. I mean, the European improvisers or the Downtown improvisers or the people writing, as Anthony calls it, Notated Music, or the Downtown composers…

I have to look at my work as kind of an interdisciplinary work, finally, so it’s got to be hard to stick it in one category or another. But I think certain people know where it doesn’t fit, and I guess Cross-Currents is one of those places where it doesn’t fit… But not to worry, because it’s here and we’re listening to it!

[MUSIC: Jeannie’s Boogie from “Changing With the Times”]

TP: …Bernard Mixon’s brilliant interpretation of the text of George Lewis’ father, and orchestrated or… I’m not sure what words to use in the 1990’s about arranging sounds and music around a work of text.

GL: It’s nice to actually think about what you just said. It’s hard to put a title on it like an arrangement or… Everything has changed in terms of the arrangement of music and text. For example, at the moment I’m working on a series of sort of computer-orchestral accompaniments for Quincy Troupe. I would like to sort of make a record with him, but I sort of want to put him in the midst of this interactive improvising ensemble, partly cinematic, using sampled sounds, sort of virtual poetry — in other words, putting him in a field where he can walk around, where as he walks, the text is being spoken, and maybe he’s just thinking about it. So we’re sort of working this out step by step.

But one thing seems clear. I think that I like the idea of the original things we did, where he would read and I would play the trombone. But that never seemed to be quite enough for me. So the piece we heard earlier was sort of a first stab in the direction of what I want to do. For example, the text is constantly being shadowed by Bernard, and also there is a very strict arrangements, there are different parts in the poem, so that at a certain point certain key words are mirrored in what the musicians are asked to do in terms of how to direct their improvisations. So then also changes in the orchestration mirror important sections in the text. So basically there is this kind of idea of making an integrative work out of it.

I guess that’s because I just didn’t feel that I could sort of do…you know, provide the kinds of colors. Let’s say, for example, somebody like J.D. Parran playing with Quincy or Hamiett Bluiett; I didn’t feel able to do those things. I’m actually much better at composing it and then having it run as an environment, and then if I want to play, I can sort of play. Then sometimes the best thing is just solo trombone, but usually it isn’t. And if you have all these other resources, the virtual orchestras that have been developed on instruments, sampled sounds, infra-red controllers that allow him to accompany himself, why not use those things and sort of give a…?

You see, the thing is about music today, you have to compete with all these other assaults and appeals (I’ll call them appeals maybe) to your senses. [LAUGHS] So somehow you have to sort of go with that, in that people take this kind of multi-sensual, multi-perspectival viewpoint for granted. That’s how you grew up. Those of us who are old enough remember how strange MTV looked when it first came on, you know, and in a lot of senses maybe how hokey at the beginning, and then borrowing some of the techniques from video artists and then making their own techniques — these super-fast montages and these sort of booming basses and all this stuff.

I’m not saying you have to do those things, just to take that. But you do have to provide a richer environment. So that’s what I felt was the point of these things. Also with the piece with Jerry Rothenberg, the Chicago Dadagram pieces, it’s to somehow have the text and the music integrated, but actually to compose pieces around it. So not the traditional settings of poetry that you might find, say, in contemporary music. I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to take a different approach. And maybe I am not the person who is going to write an aria and put words to it and have someone sing it. I just don’t hear that being a part of what I do. I’m not comfortable with it.

So this seemed like a better approach to me, to have someone reading or speaking, or, in the case of “Changing With the Times,” acting. He becomes my father, in a way. I give Bernard the tapes, I give him the script, we talk about it, we talk about the interpretation. It’s more collaborative than directorial on my part. He’s coming out of his own experience as much as he’s coming out of mine. So that leaves us to… I feel more of a cultural integration of the elements. He’s so subtle about it that you tend to forget. It was similar to watching Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes. At first I thought, “Well, what’s going on? He’s just reading.” But that was the point! Somehow the way he read and the subtlety, it just sort of overwhelms you after a while. And I think that this is the kind of sensitivity that Bernard brings to it.

TP: We’ll move on in the next segment of our discussion to…again, it’s hard to find the proper word, but I guess one might say George Lewis’s work, theoretical work…

GL: Ha-ha-ha! What?!?!

TP: …in computer interaction and improvising…

GL: Theory. It’s just not theoretical, man. You know, it’s just music. I mean, I don’t want to call it theoretical just because it’s a computer in it. But you know what I mean. I’m uncomfortable with it because it’s just another kind of sensual environment for things to happen. And the computer is a part of that, but that’s because the technological and cultural base is there.

TP: Assimilating the technological base, however, is of a different order. It’s not something that just happened, but you’ve been dealing with computers in terms of rethinking music, and now, with current technology, being able to sample and orchestrate and modify other musical stimuli. This has been an ongoing thing for you for maybe twenty years.

GL: Maybe a little less, but a fair amount of time, yeah.

TP: Were the implications of what you could do with computers clear to you, let’s say, fifteen years ago? Or when did it become clear to you what you might be able to do?

GL: Hmm, I think we’re talking about future possibilities. When will it become clear? [LAUGHS]

Actually, certain things have gotten a little clearer from the beginning. But if we heard some of it, it might be easier.

TP: Shall we play it, and then discuss you and the computer?

GL: Yes. You’re playing a piece with me on it, or playing a piece with Roscoe on it?

TP: I guess what you wanted us to do was play two pieces with Roscoe. We should make clear to the audience what we’re talking about. Another recent release by George Lewis, almost parallel to and in tandem with Changing Of The Times has been issued on Avan-014, George Lewis, Voyager. Why don’t you describe the premise of this particular project.

GL: Well, you could call it an interactive virtual orchestra. This is what I’ve been trying to make for years, interactive players, computer players that can function in the environment that improvising musicians deal with. When I say “improvising musicians,” I’m not talking about all improvising musicians. There’s a certain subset of people that are working in kind of a freely improvised field. And even within that field, it’s not a universal situation. Certain people respond differently.

So the piece is sort of the culmination, or these pieces are sort of the culmination of a lot of work that I’ve done in this area over the years. It was hard to get earlier examples recorded. John Zorn produced these Avan records, and I give him a lot of credit for getting this project going and for giving me the freedom to carry it out, and to David Wessel also at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies for helping me to produce it and record it, and having helped along the way in so many ways, shepherding me through the IRCOM experience in Paris and all of that.

So essentially what you hear is a duo between a person playing his instrument and a computer which is playing its instrument, which is a synthesizer, or a sample player, in this case. It has all these things it sort of knows how to do. It has a representation of what it plays, and it has a representation of what it thinks is going on out there in the world, what it thinks that the person is playing. So what it sort of does is, it uses that person’s playing to guide its own composition and its own performance. But its performance isn’t fixed in any way, and so you sort of have to communicate with it. You can set up events. You can set up situations. If you play in a particular way, the chances are that it will find a way to do that. That, of course, is something that is partly technological, but it’s also partly personal, in that you have to compose the way you want the orchestra to sound, its essential sound, and then you provide enough hooks so that the performer can then sort of voyage around or explore that environment to see what they can do together. So it’s very much like, or it is actually, a kind of improvised music, and a lot of the same things are happening that happen in improvised music.

Another thing that I find interesting about it for myself is that it’s not…its cultural base… When you say about “things becoming clear,” it became clear to me after a while what the cultural base of the music was. For example, the multiplicity of rhythms that go on, the sort of overt kind of emotionality that you can bring to bear on it, I didn’t to be characteristic of a lot of the European music that I was exposed to in the computer field at IRCAM. So that the possibilities of an Afrocentric computer music came to be kind of interesting, because of course, there are many kinds of theories, and some of those theories… And I don’t to associate computer with theory. I like to associate it with a kind of emotional transduction. Because all of music involves theory. In order to play the trombone you have to have a theory as well. Or if you don’t… It will be better if you do. That’s my feeling. If you sort of have some idea, some meta-idea of what you want…when you stick your arm out and spit, what’s going to happen, you’ll be in a good shape! [LAUGHS]
The thing is that you can think about this as… Well, maybe it’s better if we hear it, and then we can talk about it afterwards.

TP: The pieces we’ll hear are the two with Roscoe Mitchell.

GL: #2 and #8. Those are the ones. Those are the good ones. Mine are okay. His are really good.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell/G. Lewis, “#2 and #8]

TP: ‘Voyager 5,” one of eight duos between George Lewis and the computer, Roscoe Mitchell and the computer, or George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and the computer in different configurations. Also the final track is an improvised duet between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. George Lewis is our guest on this program, and we’re focusing primarily on his recent music. We’ll subsequently hear another duo with Roscoe Mitchell, which you said showed Roscoe sort of investigating the possibilities of what he could do, and then on the next one he kind of figures it out and finds his solutions to the challenge of improvising with the computer that you programmed and your improvising program.

GL: What I find fascinating about improvisation is that these are things that you can hear. It’s something that comes out from sound rather than… It’s not something that you can write on a piece of paper: “Well, I want you to explore this area.” People just do it. That’s just what they do. And improvisation is a part of that exploration. You can’t chart that out. And if you try, it’s not exploration any more.

What I found fascinating about Roscoe’s approach was the extent to which he uses these exoskeleton type methods, the degree to which he takes things that are internal, and makes them external, so that you can see a lot more of what’s underneath. He also shows, in a way, sort of the range of the computer’s own possibilities through the exploration of what it can do. He’s trying different things musically, he’s looking for the response, then he works with it to create these composite ideas. He’s really quick to pick up on things that it does, and it seems to be fairly quick at picking up on things that he does.

And in totally different ways. You see, the thing is that I don’t think it’s necessary that they… This is kind of like an interspecies small talk; that’s what David Behrman used to call one of his pieces. And it really is that. I mean, it’s two different kind of beings in the same space, communicating, in their particular fashions. They are putting out things in their particular way and receiving things in their particular ways. It isn’t necessary to equate them, or to make one into the other, or to do all the other things that people associate in these fearful ways with anthropomorphization of the computer. We don’t need to do that. All we have to do is put it in space, give it the tools.

TP: Following up on that last comment: Is the computer in any way an alter-ego for you? Because you, after all, created the parameters by which it improvises.

GL: Well, the computer does represent my theory of music. But what I tend to think is interesting is that people can realize their own ideas also in the environment, which is not really… It’s my theory of music, but it’s not my theory of my music. So there’s a real difference in that, you see. So I can play, and it’s rather different. If we play #3 on this same thing, you see, it’s a very different attitude. We can play that maybe.

TP: Well, why don’t we. #3 from Voyager.

GL: Yeah. This is a little different attitude. I think it takes a solo.

[MUSIC: “Voyager #3’]

TP: Before we begin our next segment of discussion, I’ll read program notes written by George Lewis for this CD: “What the work is about is what improvisation is about — interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.” And indeed, in programming the computer to improvise on the highest level with musicians who have devoted a life to thinking about improvised music and have tremendous experience, you really had to organize, I guess, and come to grips with what your ideas of what improvising is about and the parameters of improvisation.

GL: Yeah. Well, that last paragraph is kind of a roundabout way of saying what Albert Ayler was quoted as saying: “It’s not about notes; it’s about feeling.” Or to put it another way, the Charlie Parker thing, which is, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” which I now say, if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your computer either.” So that’s really what it comes down to.

I find that this music comes out of what I have learned from the AACM, what I have learned about the AACM, what I have learned from people like Misha Mengelberg and Derek Bailey, what I have learned from many different types of improvisers. So basically, it’s more a distillation of what I have learned about these things, rather than some grand organizational scheme. Although finally with computers, if you don’t organize things, they crash. So on that level there’s organization. But at another level, I find myself…

This computer program I wouldn’t call a model of structured integrity. Different levels at which the creation is being made have to communicate with each other, and there has to be kind of an openness of channel. Like, you heard this sort of long solo that the computer does. Well, how it does it…what the long solo is based on, basically, is if I’m not playing, after a certain point it says, “Well, no one is playing; I guess I have a solo.” Then it starts to make all these random judgments about what goes on. But when I say “random,” I mean that it’s sort of random, but in order to make a note, you have about 40 or 50 random decisions to make. So that in the end, it’s random but in this room.

Let’s say the first decision is… Well, I tried to tell someone this once. To decide what instrument to use is a pretty complex process. The first decision that’s made is how many instruments… Like, when it’s time to bring in a new group of people to play some piece of music, the first decision is how many instruments are going to play, then the next decision is how many different kinds of instruments are going to play. That’s based on how jagged the rhythm is. The number of instruments is based on how loud things are. In other words, if someone is playing very softly, I don’t want to bring in 16 or 17 instruments crashing down on their head. So that’s another decision. Then you get into that, and then it gets into, “Well, what’s going to be the timbre of these instruments?” Is the timbre going to be mixed or is it going to be a homogeneous timbre? So that’s three decisions already.

So if each one of those decisions is made on the basis of random numbers… But you see, the accumulation of detail itself tends to focus that information. In other words, I could just say for each one of these decisions, “Well, just do whatever you feel like doing, and have any range you want, any number of instruments you want” — and that tends to be very boring. But if you can direct things into groups, if you can direct things into fields, if you can define an area for a certain period of time, if you can do those things, then finally the randomness of process recedes into the background, and it recedes so far into the background that you don’t really know where the randomness is.

So when people start to tell me about randomness versus non-randomness, I say, “Well, how random do you think you are? Maybe something you did today was based on a hormone that didn’t quite make it to the level it made it to yesterday or something — and what’s that based on? We can get teleological about it or you can get biochemical about it, or you can do whatever you want to do.

The connotativeness behind randomness I always relate to the innate need of people to feel that they have control over some aspect of their lives. And I think that’s important to realize that we’re in a kind of an interdependent universe here, and I’m not sure how much control that we have over our lives. I’m sure that control is not total. That’s pretty obvious. We seem to be faced with forces moving around us all. So I’m not sure what the answer is. The Voyager is not providing an answer to the question of how humans make music. It’s a piece of music that operates within certain constraints, and expresses a certain viewpoint about how music could be made, not how it should be made — which is an infinite question, really. That’s what it’s all about.

TP: We also get to a question about some of the antecedents or narrative structures of improvising, which I know are important to you, and which you’ve elaborated maybe a little more directly or explicitly in Changing With The Times. Do you have any feelings on that that you’d care to discuss?

GL: Well, there is a kind of a narrative going on. The subject of the narrative is partly Music itself, but then the other subject, or one of the other subjects… The process that’s going on…I don’t know if I used this word, but it’s emotional transduction. Transduction is a process by which one quantity is translated into another. A simple example would be an electrical impulse is fed to a speaker. That’s one. Electrical impulses, voltages then result in the speaker kind of moving. That moves air. We hear sound.

So in the same way, if I say that notes and tones and timbres and all that are carriers for meaning, and that meaning is embedded in these notes, then if there is a process by which we can sort of multiply that while retaining a certain essence of it, then what we’re going to get as the output is going to also, I feel, retain some aspect of every part or every dimension of that sound. In other words, the emotionality, I think, will be retained.

So I don’t think the computer itself has to generate emotional things or generate narratives as such. It’s more a process still at this point of transduction. But the transduction depends on detail. In other words, you can’t play a bunch of stuff in, and then what you get out is this one kind of output. There has to be a sort of an idea of the complexity of music there. I don’t want to go into all the details. But it certainly relates to things like duration, things like pitch, things like contours, things like tendencies, things like stabilities that have to be sort of gauged and mapped and responded to. In addition to the simple thing of, “What am I doing right at this moment?” there is a question of history involved in making these things work.

Also, you should be able to play very different things, and then it should be able to respond in a very different way. Like, if we played Piece #8, I think that’s one where that’s sort of shown. It’s a very different piece from the rest, from the others we played.

[MUSIC: R. Mitchell/Computer “Voyager Duo #8”]

TP: Roscoe Mitchell is a musical personality with whom George Lewis has been associated for just about two decades now.

GL: Oh, yeah.

TP: Were you aware of him as a young musician coming up in Chicago, in your teens, in the lab school? Were you aware of the AACM at that time?

GL: No. Muhal came to the school once.

You know, there’s something that… These things are kind of… This question of personalities is kind of important as well. You know, Roscoe… I mean, I’ve listened to a lot of computer music, because I’m sort of in the field and have been for a long time, and I feel I have made my tiny mark on the field. The thing is that I don’t get to hear many pieces of computer music where people can, you know, get wild [LAUGHS] like Roscoe is doing on this piece. It’s usually much more mannered. And I am finding that… The reason I guess Roscoe’s contribution is so important on this record is because it does show that we don’t have to throw our emotions away when we enter into these areas. We don’t have to become the stereotype of the computer as cold, unfeeling, whatever. We don’t have to do that. And we can sort of get much more dynamic about it.

I have this problem also, in a way, with my work with the improvisers at the university where I’m teaching now. There is something… It seems there’s a penalty for personal expression, which would seem to be something like, “What? A penalty?” — but there is. I mean, in the real world there really is a penalty for personal expression. It’s in these tiny enclaves we put ourselves in where we can pretend. But really, this complex system of music also embodies systems of values. So that someone who could really…

Often I get the feeling that my biggest job in working with the improvising students is to get them to overcome…I’m not sure what it is — their upbringing at home maybe, or the constraints placed upon them by cultures they grew up in, or perhaps the academic environment, which seems that maybe their perception is that it might not accept them so readily were they to sort of expose themselves in the way that Roscoe or I might do, and that it would be better if they just were very safe.

And then there is that question of location. Now, Roscoe is located firmly in a tradition and a culture, and can trace himself back as an improviser to Buddy Bolden, okay, and then from there even back as far as he wants to go. Okay? So that’s not really true of at least some of my graduate student improvisers, who come from a different tradition, the one that has attempted to stamp out improvisation without success. So their tradition in that area becomes a little difficult. So it does affect their personality, and then that affects the playing. As one person, one professor if you will, I don’t have the power by myself to make that environment one that’s comfortable enough so that people can really feel they can break some of these shackles off.

But that’s just one of the issues that this sort of piece brings up. That’s why I really regard it as a very high expression of what I want to do with the computer music.

TP: I’d like to continue to address the question of location in terms of the development of your own aesthetic, as someone who came up in Chicago, attended Yale University where there was a very interesting scene of talented and venturesome young musicians who you were able to work with, and coming back to Chicago in the early Seventies when things were still full flower in the AACM.

GL: Well, the Yale business. You can get lucky, you know? You can be at a certain place at a certain time. When I look at something like the AACM, I realize that this is a group of people that one can count on — at least I’ve been able to count on. I see people who have based their music and have sort of based themselves on friends and colleagues who have turned out to denounce them in later years. I see a lot of examples of people denouncing each other going, right now, in this teapot tempest of Jazz.

One of the lessons I remember from Yale was, I remember denouncing someone in the paper. The person was a dead Phenomenologist. I thought it would be safe to denounce this person. The professor’s comment was that you shouldn’t go so far in criticizing your colleagues. And I had never thought of this person as a colleague. So it’s very important, that definitional stance.

So that was an important lesson that came out of Yale, but it also was an important lesson that came out of the AACM, where there are all these colleagues. And I got the feeling that these people would never desert me, and that they would support me, and I would support them, and that would be an ongoing thing, and that sticking together as a group, we could stick to our guns and do whatever we needed to do, and we wouldn’t have to be necessarily subject to, you know, the fashions that the commercial people put up or whatever they’re going to do.

I think that’s maybe the most important lesson among the many important lessons that came from the AACM. Just the other day in New Orleans, playing with Muhal and Fred Anderson and Ajaramu and Malachi Favors, and seeing these people who had been so influential on me and had shown me so many things, and there we were still playing together twenty years later, and there hadn’t been any of this dissension. I mean, there have been conversations, certainly, and there have been differences of opinion. And then having talked to someone for whom the people that he thought were his friends ended up denouncing him in public, I started to think, well… God, I just couldn’t imagine that happening. I just couldn’t imagine that I would denounce Muhal or something. It would seem absurd. It just wouldn’t happen. [LAUGHS]

I think there is an important awareness there which maybe I’m not finding so much of, or there is something that maybe people aren’t seeing right now.

In terms of Yale, that’s just luck. I mean, it seemed that at a certain place, that institution, an academic, Ivy League conservative institution, during my short time there, during this four or five year period, there were an awful lot of interesting people running around — musically. I’m not sure that’s so much the case. It’s not a continuous thing. Things go up and they go down. But at this time, you could meet Charles Mingus; he would come… Willie Ruff did it all. He started this… He and a geology professor, John Rogers, started this thing called the Duke Ellington Scholarship or Fellowship. So they brought Dizzy, they brought Tony Williams, they brought Mingus, they brought Willie The Lion Smith, they brought people from all these genres, and you got to play with them and talk with them and stuff. Then there were people going to the school. I think Robert Dick was a year ahead of me, Anthony Davis was in my year, Gerry Hemingway’s family is from around New Haven, Mark Helias was going there I think, Jane Bloom was going to school there, Leo Smith was living there, Bennie Maupin and Oliver Lake were living there — so there was that whole influence, too.

So just real lucky, man! That’s all I can say! I mean, there was all that going on at the same time. I was just extraordinarily lucky. You couldn’t create that. Just like you couldn’t, like, write that situation where at the end of the last piece the computer started suddenly playing this ascending blues line. I mean, that wasn’t something I set down and said, “Now you will play the Blues and it will have these characteristics.” It’s just the working out of the processes, based on need and availability and environment.

TP: I first encountered George Lewis I guess around 1974 in Chicago, I think it was that year, and you were playing with the Fred Anderson Sextet on the campus there, and I heard a virtuosic trombone… I didn’t know that much about the music. But I heard somebody playing explosive lines on the trombone like I’d never heard before, playing faster than just about anyone I’d ever heard — and I’ve been impressed ever since. It’s always a wonderful occasion for me to hear you in duo or trio, or just playing the trombone. So in this next set we’ll hear George in a number of duets, I’m not sure how many, beginning with the final one on Voyager on Avan, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. I take it that this conceptually was the plan of the record, was the eight duos and then the two of you for one of what I guess must be many interactions over the years.

GL: Well, we knew that whatever happened in the duo piece, it would be called “Homecoming.” We played several takes, and Roscoe seemed to have a very firm grasp of what he wanted to do, and it was sort of up to me to respond to that. So in a way, I become the computer, which is sort of…! So if you’re talking about alter-egos, there is something there, because I tend to try to blend with what people want, try to sort of seek out what they need and deal with it, and try to enhance it, and to make sound good — as I am told Thelonious Monk used to say that your job was to make the other musicians sound good.

Also noteworthy, in a way, is that we did have to present, I felt, a person-person interaction in order to close the circle, to balance things off, not so much for the purpose of comparison, but for purposes of elucidation, for bringing certain things to the fore that couldn’t be brought out if we just had computers playing. It could be brought out in general, but we couldn’t do them on this record. People could compare the computer things with other duo pieces they might have heard, or maybe other orchestra pieces they might have heard.

The real goal of this work, and I think I’m pretty close to doing this now, is to have a really…the virtual… I realized all the way what was going on was a kind of virtual orchestra. The Virtuality situation is becoming very possible and very powerful. I have a new piece now for virtual percussion where there are no instruments on the stage at all, and people just are waving their arms and doing mime, and they are making music that way.

TP: The computer senses the motion and then processes that information?
GL: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. So that’s sort of like people can talk to each other with their hands, and music can be a byproduct. I have a series of pieces like that. Often we don’t get to see these pieces in New York, I notice. But I get to do them in a lot of other places, so that’s okay. I just need an outlet. I’m not particular about where it is.

But the goal of this Voyager project is to have large virtual orchestra. Right now we’re hearing kind of a chamber orchestra with pretensions to being a large orchestra. But what I’m really interested in doing is a couple of hundred voices, because this will really sort of bring problems of large-scale form in an improvised, virtual context to the fore. So this is a problem which I don’t think… Well, I don’t know who’s dealing with it. I can’t think of anyone. It’s interesting to me. Maybe it’s not interesting to anyone else. But I find it fascinating to think that… And I could never… I keep saying this (and this probably too radical an assertion, but I’m going to say it anyway) that really (and I remember offending someone terribly) that people who are really offended about the aspect of virtual instruments, which is: While visual people and people who are doing all kinds of interactive things are interested in interactivity, musicians are still clinging to this idea of the Real, which is like way back in the last century, or the Sixteenth Century or something — very Platonic.

I am very interested in the Platonic even. But I am very interested in having a virtual orchestra that is mutable and that responds to the playing of individuals, and that talks within itself, a lot more than I am interested in writing a piece for some Philharmonic band or something. That would seem like a much less intellectually challenging situation at this point than working on self-organizing large-scale structures. It would just be much more fascinating.

The other aspect is that I don’t think that the current level of social development of the Western orchestra can handle self-organization. It’s just not made for it. It’s really made for top-down control. If I wanted to think about a model of orchestral music-making that’s not based on that, it seems that the Gamelan orchestra, the Javanese gamelan would be the most interesting example, and that would be one that I sort of take as more of a model of how to proceed. Not in terms of making Gamelan-type sounds, but in terms of how information gets passed within the orchestra and between the players. It’s a heterarchical rather than hierarchical situation. So that’s how improvising works. And certainly, an improvising orchestra would have to be a heterarchically based group.

So that’s the ultimate goal of this work. And at some point we’ll start to hear these rather large, like, 200-instrument pieces — and it won’t be possible to play them in Roulette. You can’t cram 200 instruments in two little speakers somewhere. You need an orchestral-type space, or the Great Outdoors, or somewhere large enough. Because there are questions of scale involved. Already, scale is an issue with Voyager, because Voyager is really too large to be played in small spaces now, whereas pieces that I wrote years ago with one or two or three voices were more like chamber pieces. This is getting a little too big. It’s small in the amount of equipment, but it’s big in scale.

So you’re always faced with this issue. And there are so many issues that underlie this that don’t relate directly to, you know, the Man against the Machine business — you know, the cliche business. Once you get past that, you can really think about some interesting problems.

[MUSIC: Lewis/Mitchell, “Voyager”;

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, DownBeat, George Lewis,, Muhal Richard Abrams, Trombone, Wadada Leo Smith, WKCR

For Joe Lovano’s 63rd Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2000, a Pair of WKCR Interviews from 1989 and 1995, and His “Baker’s Dozen” John Coltrane Selections From 2009, and Three Liner Notes

Best of birthdays to Joe Lovano, who turns 63 today. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to write about Joe and to speak with him, and am sharing a few of these in this post. First is a long feature for Jazziz in 2000. There follow a pair of WKCR interviews, one the proceedings of a Musicians Show in 1989, the second of a 5-hour Jazz Profiles show in 1995 — much interesting information in both. Then comes the an interview conducted for the “Baker’s Dozen” feature on the much missed website, — Joe discusses 13 essential John Coltrane tracks. Then come three liner notes. Joe gave me my first liner note opportunity in 1995 when Blue Note released his seminal date, Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard. Subsequently, I wrote the notes for On This Day: Live at the Vanguard and the debut recording of his still ongoing group, Us Five, titled Folk Art.


Joe Lovano (Jazziz):

He isn’t brash, he doesn’t profile, but Joe Lovano isn’t the type to blend into the background either. When he strolls into the dressing room and exchanges greetings with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, the mood instantly lifts. Lovano’s last performance with the drummer and guitarist, his partners for 20 years in Motian’s trio, was last together eight months earlier in Rome. Now, they’re about to take the stage at Caramoor, an elegantly landscaped arts center set on a former estate in the middle of Westchester horse country, to conclude a remarkable afternoon of music that’s featured the Sam Rivers Trio and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron in duet.

Lovano has a ruddy tan, his salt-specked goatee-moustache is trim; he’s casually dapper in blue circular shades, a bebopper’s straw beret with alternating zig-zag stripes of white and sea blue, and a silk violet short-sleeved shirt with black markings resembling musical notes draping a burly torso. As greetings are exchanged, he assembles his silver tenor and begins to warm up, effortlessly filling the room from the first breath.

A few hours before, in this same room, Chris Potter, fresh from a turbulent tenor solo with Hilton Ruiz’ band, came upstairs to say hello. I reminded him of a comment of his — that Lovano’s influence on his generation of saxophonists is so pervasive that he, Potter, is making a concerted effort not to sound like him. “That’s absolutely true,” he replied.

“What you said to Chris is funny,” Motian remarked once Potter dashed back to the stage.

“I was just in Manchester, England, and as I walked into the club, I heard a saxophone over the sound system. I said, ‘Oh, that’s Joe Lovano.’ The sound engineer who was playing the CD said, ‘No, it’s not.’ I said, ‘You can’t tell me that’s not Lovano. Lovano has been playing with me for twenty years. I know when it’s Joe. All he has to do is play two notes. I know it’s Joe.’ It wasn’t Joe.” He laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s an English guy. I don’t remember his name.”

“That’s far out,” Frisell said.

“It is,” Motian shot back. “I stole the CD. After I got home, I played it; it doesn’t sound like Joe. But at that moment, I thought it was Joe. And I hear lots of other saxophone players now who sound like Joe, which I didn’t when I first met him. He sounds better now than he did then, but not that much better. He sounded good then.”

Lovano sounds good on improvisational flights to the music’s outer partials with Motian and Frisell, I thought, and he sounds just as good on, say, the inspired and thoroughly idiomatic solo he took on “How High The Moon” for a record with the Ray Brown Trio a few years back. After I said something to that effect, Motian jumped in.

“Do you know why he can do that? It’s very simple. He’s a good musician. He has a lot of experience. He played with Woody Herman and other big bands, with the organ trios, all these different groups, he can read anything, plays all the reed instruments.

“Early when the trio was first forming, we had a gig in Cleveland, and we stayed overnight at Lovano’s home, with his parents. His mom cooked up this great food. I’m sitting on the couch with Joe’s father, who says to me, ‘You know, Paul, I’m an official at the local musicians union here in Cleveland; you have to give me $8.’ So I gave it to him! And he gave me his card, which later I gave to Joe after his father passed. Up on the wall of the living room is a picture of Joe in the crib, a couple of months old, but also in the crib with him there’s a fucking saxophone! So check that influence out. That’s the thing about Joe. It just comes naturally to him.”

“He’s natural, but he works his ass off, too,” Frisell added.

In his alchemical ability to play any style — play it convincingly and retain his unmistakable identity — Lovano is the model of what today’s savviest young improvisers strive to attain. Part of the mystique involves his big, furry sound. It’s a sound that tenorist Eric Alexander, an ’80s student of Lovano’s at William Patterson College, describes as “ultra-breathy, broader and darker just about than any tone I’ve ever heard on the saxophone.” He continues, “A lot of younger saxophonists have been excited and enthralled by that sound and tried to approximate it. It’s very personal, almost eccentric. If it were 1965, and you heard that sound, it would be shocking — you wouldn’t have heard a tenor sound like that. He doesn’t sound like any of the legendary cats tone-wise. Also, the way Joe organizes his notes and phrases and shapes his lines disguises what he does. There’s clarity, but the way he outlines the harmony is almost intentionally nebulous. It sounds like I’m being critical, and I’m not; I hear that rubbing off on a lot of younger saxophonists.”

Ever since he came off the road with Woody Herman twenty years ago, Lovano developed that sound on a wild mix of jobs, not least with Motian’s Trio. He played a vast range of charts with the Mel Lewis Orchestra [1980-1992], Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Carla Bley Orchestra. He worked frequently with Elvin Jones, in a remarkable quintet with Tom Harrell, in a two-tenor quintet with African drums led by bassist Ray Drummond, and, earned widespread visibility in John Scofield’s immensely popular quartet. He co-led a voice-and-woodwinds ensemble with his wife Judi Silvano, played in a European freebop combo with bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano, and in a quartet led by Japanese avant pianist Yosuke Yamashita. One night in 1994 he spent an evening scratch improvising a series of memorable duets and trios with Evan Parker and Borah Bergman.

Blue Note signed Lovano in 1990; he’s responded with eleven albums, each different from the one before, all of which have extended his musical vocabulary. Most of these recordings incorporate musicians — Jones, Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Lewis Nash, Billy Hart, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland — who, as he puts it, “play beyond technique with a sensibility of freeness.” Lovano also has collaborated with open-minded arrangers like Gunther Schuller and Manny Albam. Axiomatic as it may seem today that improvisers should experience the full range of contexts — from the most functional blues to the most intense abstraction — this was hardly the norm in the mid-’80s, when Lovano began to make his mark.

“I never said, ‘I dig this, I don’t dig that,'” Lovano emphasizes. “I’ve always lived in the different, let’s say, camps in the music. I’ve tried to be free, tried to develop my technique through the years so I could execute ideas freely and to develop ideas within the personnel in the band. I don’t come at the saxophone with one attitude all the time, which has helped develop my approach in playing a lot of different kinds of music.”

You can hear how independent-minded thirty-something tenor players like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Donny McCaslin and Joshua Redman have investigated Lovano’s capacious timbre and open approach to harmony on their way to finding a sound. “I don’t know any tenor player of my generation who doesn’t love Joe Lovano and hasn’t been profoundly influenced by him,” says Redman, who in June performed in San Francisco with Lovano, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis. Redman was a recently matriculated Harvard underclassman when he first heard Lovano at a small Boston club on the urging of a tenor saxophonist friend. “I was completely blown away,” Redman relates. “You could hear the entire tradition of the tenor saxophone, but he had synthesized it all in a completely natural, organic and personal way, and he sounded completely modern and incredibly soulful and spirited.”

Redman has since shared numerous bandstands with Lovano, whose admiration for Dewey Redman, Josh’s father, is no secret. “Of the group of tenor players who came up in the ’70s,” Redman continues, “Joe completely embraced the modernism that came out of Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman, but with a sound which goes beyond that and in some ways reaches further back. There’s a humanism in his sound that maybe was lacking in other guys from the post-Coltrane era. I mean sound in the larger conception — the notes he plays, his rhythmic and harmonic conception, his melody. It’s his personality.”

Lovano’s peers and elders appreciate his willingness to aim for paths untrodden in an era when the weight of the tradition intimidated so many to fall back on the tried-and-true. “What I personally dig about Joe,” says the bassist Christian McBride, who most recently played with Lovano in the initial iteration of Grand Slam, a quartet that the tenorist co-leads with guitarist Jim Hall, “is that he’s not afraid at all. He always plays with what I’d call ‘careful abandon.’ I always have been a little dumbfounded as to why one morning we woke up and Joe Lovano became this really major person on the jazz scene, because I always thought he was one of the best tenor saxophonists of all time.”

Before Grand Slam formed, Jim Hall — a native Clevelander who played with Lovano’s Uncle Carl in high school and hung out in the one-chair barbershop Lovano’s father owned in Cleveland to supplement his income as a musician — brought Lovano onto several mid-90s Telarc dates; these involved complex chord changes and intricate charts. “Joe just gobbled them up,” Hall says. “He dives into things and assumes he’s going to come out on his feet; you can put almost anything in front of him. I first heard him with the Mel Lewis band at the Vanguard, and I was impressed with him the same way I am now. He was completely loose and confident. He just sounded so confident, so completely comfortable when he’d stand up to play his solo, no matter how complicated the chart was. There was no feeling of hesitation; he just would do it.”

“Joe goes toe-to-toe with people,” says Greg Osby. The saxophonist collaborated with Lovano for last year’s Friendly Fire (Blue Note), a well-wrought hypermodern jam session which commingles Lovano’s working trio of bassist Cameron Brown and the iconic New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, with Osby and pianist Jason Moran. “He’s spontaneous and inventive, and he doesn’t play licks. He incorporates alternate fingerings or choking on the mouthpiece or tonguing techniques to create shadings and colors — he gobbles up the notes. He knows how to embrace the sound. That comes from listening to people play the blues, and listening to singers, how they bend notes.”

It seems each of Lovano’s colleagues finds something different to appreciate in his approach. Cameron Brown has grounded the space between Lovano and Muhammad at least a couple of hundred times in the last two years. “Joe reminds me of Don Cherry,” says the bassist, who worked extensively with Archie Shepp, George Adams and Dewey Redman earlier in his career. “Both of them are always aware that music can be magic, that something special can happen at any moment, which puts the music at a different level.”

In fact, Lovano appears to know how to create a space where personalities can blend and set off sparks in any performance situation. As Motian implied, his father began to teach his oldest son how to crack the codes of such ritual shortly after he began to walk, in a manner not so dissimilar to the way griot families in oral societies pass along information. Lovano likes to emphasize that his projects emanate from personal history, a subject he discusses with obvious enthusiasm.

Lovano’s grandparents were born in Sicily, and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early part of the 1900s. Three of his uncles were working musicians. Uncle Nick, now 85, who was a dance band tenor player (he played in the saxophone section in the Sammy Watkins Big Band, which Dean Martin sang with when he was discovered) and a used car salesman, told him that his grandfather was in the Masons, who encouraged their children to play instruments so they could play for their parties and meetings. Lovano assumes that his father, Tony, got into music from hearing his older brother play. Uncle Joe played “more wedding band style tenor saxophone — all standard songs.” Tony Lovano was next, and he and his younger brother Carl, who played trumpet, came of age during the Bop era — Lovano has a recording of them playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Dizzy Atmosphere.”

“We lived with my grandparents until I was 5 or 6 years old,” Lovano recalls. “It was a festive atmosphere, with music all the time. I heard reel-to-reel tapes of parties where my grandmother’s brother, Jim, played mandolin and sang arias and Italian folk songs. My Dad would practice in a big bathroom on the second floor; I’d listen to him all the time, and the sound of the saxophone captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. I had my first alto saxophone when I was 5 or 6. A year or two later the drummer my Dad was playing with bought a new drumset and gave me his drums, which I set up in my room. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.”

Lovano’s ideas about playing the saxophone were marked early on by his intense involvement with the drums. “I felt a little pressure playing saxophone,” he says. “My Dad played with me on all my lessons, and I was trying to have him dig me. Then I would sit at the drums and have fun. As I developed more on the saxophone, I heard the solos that Max Roach played with Charlie Parker, and realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies as Bird. As I learned the melodies, I’d practice them on the drums as well. I’d learn all the solos that Philly Joe Jones played on a record. It opened up my awareness to be involved not only in what I’m articulating on my horn, but to try to be part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano, who went by the nickname “Big T,” was the most advanced player in his family; as Lovano recalls, “he was a real hipster; by the late ’40s he was seriously involved in the scene.” He didn’t travel much — Lovano recalls a tour with a trio led by Nat Cole’s brother Ike — but he worked all over Cleveland, playing gutbucket, walk-the-bar saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and jump bands, leading organ trios (by the ’60s, his East Cleveland barber shop, now with two chairs, had a Hammond B3), doing jam sessions, playing in supper clubs for listeners. “He was aware of all music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties,” Lovano says. “That was his generation. Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster were from Cleveland, so were [trumpeters] Benny Bailey and Bill Hardman and [guitarist] Bill DeArango, who he was real close to, and later Albert Ayler and Bobby Few. He was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons school of playing, but he loved Lester Young, and had a beautiful ballad approach, too. He played by ear, and he created melody all the time. That was his thing.”

Through his father, Lovano internalized the notion that mastery of function is the fount of invention. “My Dad always had integrated bands with the best musicians in town,” Lovano states, “and the organ players and drummers and bassists and guitarists he played with became my teachers. My main goal was to sit in, so I had to learn the tunes they were playing, sometimes on the spot; I had to figure out how to play in certain keys and maneuver through tag endings. I had to memorize everything.”

Once Lovano could drive, he got his union card, and began to take on weekend wedding and dance gigs that his father got calls for but couldn’t get to, leading bands with musicians Tony Lovano’s age. “That gave me confidence about playing with older guys,” Lovano says. “My Dad taught me to survive out here as a musician, to be able to take a gig and get called back a second time! He always stressed the technical things. He encouraged me to learn clarinet and flute, which helped me later to function in Woody Herman’s band and in the Mel Lewis Orchestra. He prepared me to sit in saxophone sections by bringing me around to hear the bands he played in; soon I was playing in rehearsal bands, trying to read and integrate my sound within the band sound. That prepared me to feed off of people, to blend my tone with other tones so the sound doesn’t stick out — to find other ways to listen.

“Music was my trade. But jazz music was always art to me, too. As a teenager I played on dances in Motown type bands, and I was one of the only cats who could solo. I thought the AM, Top-40 type music at the time was sad! They didn’t play like Sonny Stitt and they didn’t sound anything like Miles. There was no art in the way they played. When I was a kid, I felt I was studying sophisticated, incredible music, listening to Lester Young and trying to execute Charlie Parker’s melodies.”

Lovano earned enough money to pay his tuition at Berklee, where he enrolled in 1971, and immediately impressed his peer group. “I loved the way he sounded then, when he was 18 years old,” John Scofield relates. “Everyone was trying to play jazz and bebop tunes, more modern things, like Coltrane and Miles from the ’60s, even some Bitches Brew type of action and Herbie Hancock kind of fusion, and free music. Coltrane was the pervasive sound on tenor saxophone, but Joe was digging into some other stuff. Joe had the same quality then that he has now, only less developed — great time and a lush sound that echoes the tenor players I liked from older records, a commitment to improvising and swinging hard, and a high standard of musicality, a strength of purpose and focus.”

Berklee became Lovano’s finishing school. He immediately caught the attention of hard-to-please instructors John LaPorta and Gary Burton; in Burton’s advanced ensemble class, he analyzed for the first time the music of Wayne Shorter, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, and Chick Corea — “tunes I’d heard before but never really played, with different forms and more deceptive resolutions in the harmony, more polychords, different rhythmic feelings within the music,” Lovano says. “That class opened me up to the future.”

Tony Lovano had a heart attack that December; Joe flew home to finish his father’s five-night-a-week organ trio gig, and remained to help support the family. He returned to Berklee nine months later, completed one more semester, then let school slide to join the fray, eventually receiving an Honorary Doctorate in 1998. He spent the next few years shuttling between Boston and Cleveland. In Boston, he would crash “for weeks and months at a time” with friends Billy Drewes and Steve Slagle at a loft atop an office building where well-attended sessions began after work and ended in the wee hours. He did gigs around town with bands like the just-formed Fringe with George Garzone, “playing open, freer, creative music, making enough bread to survive and practice and play.”

In Cleveland he collaborated with local wildmen like DeArango, Ernie Krivda, Abraham Laboriel and Jamey Haddad, and led rhythm sections at a room called the Smiling Dog opposite people like Stan Getz and Pharaoh Sanders. Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith took him on the road for some chitlin’ circuit hits; his solo on Smith’s “Afrodisia” [Groove Merchant, 1974] became a rotation staple in mid-’90s English Acid Jazz. Both McDuff and Smith frequently came through New York, and the young tenorman spent off-hours making the rounds, sitting in and being seen at rooms like Ali’s Alley, the Tin Palace, Studio Rivbea and Boomer’s. He moved to New York in the spring of 1976, got gigs with Chet Baker uptown and with the venturesome pianist Albert Dailey downtown, and received a call that August to fly to St. Louis and join Woody Herman’s Fortieth Anniversary band.

“Woody loved Joe, because he came up from a real jazz environment as opposed to colleges, where most of the cats in the band came from,” says Bob Belden, who replaced Lovano on tenor in the band in 1979. “He was the first cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician; to me, he was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz. Woody hadn’t had a natural player like that in some time.” Lovano spent the next two-and-a-half years touring the world as Herman’s primary tenor soloist, playing charts by the likes of Ralph Burns, Sammy Nestico, Jimmy Jones and Frank Foster, backing singers like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett on occasion.

When Lovano reflects on that time, he remembers the lessons he soaked up. “Sitting in those saxophone sections, accompanying those great voices influenced the way I play lead parts,” he says, “feeling like I’m the vocalist out front, but as the saxophonist. I had a chance to play with and stand next to Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, and Don Lamond. It gave me confidence to find my own voice in this music, to feed off the music I’m playing and the feeling of the players I’m with at the moment, to create something within what’s going on around me, always with my own ideas — not copying the way other cats played, but trying to play in the idiom and in the feeling of the beat and harmonic structure of whatever tune we’re in.”

After a pause, he adds: “A few weeks ago Wayne Shorter told me something that opened some doors, and it’s reverberating in me. He said, ‘Man, don’t let the gatekeepers hold you back.’ There are a lot of different ways to look at that.”

Actually, there are a lot of different ways to experience Joe Lovano’s music. He’s participated in a staggering range of high-profile work during his 47th year. A rundown of the past year’s activity includes: gigs with Herbie Hancock’s Quartet; a collective quintet with McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Higgins; another, quartet with John Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster; several three-tenor summits with Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman; work with Grand Slam and the Friendly Fire Quintet; touring with a group culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to perform Duke Ellington’s small band music; recording as a guest with Abbey Lincoln and Flip Phillips, two tunes on a festschrift for Roland Kirk, and a pivotal solo in Bob Belden’s forthcoming symphonic suite “Black Dahlia.” Also, in various venues around New York, he worked with a series of trios — Brown and Muhammad; pianist Ken Werner and harmonica legend Toots Thielemans; woodwindist Billy Drewes and trapsetter Joey Baron; trumpeter Dave Douglas (his former student at NYU) and bassist Mark Dresser.

Lovano assembled those trios to frame his full arsenal of woodwinds and percussion for four 6-hour sessions over two intense days in the studio last April, then cherrypicked from them to create forthcoming Trios: Edition Two, a document that blends as-one industrial strength declamations by the working trio, harmonic tone poems with Werner and Thielemans, nuanced free improvs with Drewes and Baron, and finely honed sound exploring with Douglas and Dresser — it places him squarely in the camp of free-thinking improvisers.

The album follows 52nd Street Themes, for which Lovano rounded up an ensemble of first-call New York improvisers with whom he shared long-standing personal histories, and deployed them in configurations ranging from duo to nonet. 52nd Street Themes is an idiomatic paean to Clevelander’s Tadd Dameron, who of all composers associated with bebop most personifies romanticism, and an homage to the “blowing” ethos of Charlie Parker. Willie Smith, a Dameron protege who led Cleveland rehearsal bands that Tony Lovano played in and brought his son to hear, arranged much of the music. Everyone in the band has a tone with personality; in tune with the music’s history, they play with the edgy spirit we associate with the years of innovation that followed World War Two.

Lovano especially, who throws down one passionate tenor declamation after another with that wispy, driving voice and unfailing melodic intent. He offers a beautifully constructed à cappella intro to the title track, Thelonious Monk’s jagged “I Got Rhythm” variation. He soars operatically over a Dameronesque arrangement of “Embraceable You” and engages long-time tenor chums Ralph Lalama and George Garzone in spirited conversation on “Charlie Chan,” a variant on the 1947 version of “Milestones” on which Bird played tenor sax. Lovano makes you hear the spaces between the notes on a vibrato-drenched rubato reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” in duo with pianist John Hicks; he addresses Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie” at a quicker clip than John Coltrane’s famous 1958 version, yet hews unfailingly to the yearning lyric-blue essence of the tune; he flies like the wind with Dennis Irwin and Lewis Nash on a racehorse reading of Dameron’s “The Scene Is Clean.”

“All the cats in the period between the ’40s and the ’50s had solid footing growing up in their hometowns and basically being the strongest force in their area,” Lovano says. “They were a magnet to players on every other instrument to play with and learn from, but they were also learning from everybody who came through town. Those influences were strong, because during that period everybody was traveling. They did a lot of jam sessions, and their sounds were big and strong, because they had to stand up there and be heard. It was really a nightclub world, and it was an acoustic world.” That’s the world Lovano was born to, and the ethos that sustains him as he navigates the present and looks to the future.

Lovano shares that he’s writing an extended piece called “Mediterranean Waters,” an effort to channel “the feelings and energy from the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe from ancient times.” He notes, “I’m trying to write things that have a Folk feeling, music before swing, without a walking bass. Music that has an openness in it. Oriental music, Balinese music, African music, folk music from Sicily. In a certain way, Jazz is folk music, too. It’s music of the people, of the time. Ornette Coleman’s music is very folky to me. Don Cherry’s music. Old and New Dreams. They played with a certain kind of feeling, not just in one style or another. It’s when players don’t have to play a role on their instrument.”

Back at Caramoor, on a serene summer afternoon in Westchester, the Paul Motian Trio is in synch from the moment they hit the stage. They feel each other out with “Monk’s Dream,” stir the juices on a wild Motian original. Motian pulls out his brushes for an aching rubato version of “Good Morning Heartache.” With Steve Lacy looking on from the wings, Lovano guides his tenor into that distinctive altisimmo range, shaping lines of pure melody that could have come from a soprano horn over Frisell’s sparse, polychromatic chords. Most bands would lift the tempo, but not this one; Motian kicks off a slow, floating blues on which Lovano and Frisell weave a collective ending that makes you wonder how they got there. Then Frisell initiates an abstract intro that morphs into “Body and Soul.” Lovano pulls the iconic tenor tune into time, rocking to an unerring inner clock, ascending again into that preternaturally sweet soaring voice. The audience explodes from rapt silence.

The ritual fulfilled, the generations spanned, Lovano tips his horn, and leaves the stage with his smiling partners, ready for the next encounter…which will be that evening, when he locks bebop horns with James Moody and Phil Woods on “Au Privave,” “My Little Suede Shoes” and “Confirmation” during several hours of inspired jamming.

A few weeks later, before a whooping packed house in the Old Office, in the sub-basement of the Knitting Factory, Lovano joins master drummers Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart for an 80-minute set of impromptu free improvisation. Shaping his lines in an unfailingly interactive way, carving drum-like phrases, he creates melodies on the spot from the top to the bottom of the horn, avoiding licks almost completely. It’s a stunning performance. Maybe it will be the starting point for Trios: Edition Three.


Joe Lovano (WKCR Profile, 1-22-95):

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman, “Web Of Fire” (1993); Motian/Lovano/ Frisell, “But Not For Me” (1988); Lovano/Petrucciani/ Holland/Blackwell, “Portrait Of Jenny” (1990); Lovano/M. Miller, “Laura” (1993); Motian/Lovano/Haden/Frisell, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (1989); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Crepuscule With Nellie” (1994); Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Reflections” (1988); Lovano/K. Werner, “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” (1988); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” (1994)]

TP: Listening to your music during the first hour, I’m struck both by the range of strategies you use in approaching similar material and the range of situations in which you function effectively and idiomatically. It seems almost axiomatic that improvisers should have this ability, and yet it doesn’t seem that widely practiced.

JL: There’s a lot of mysteries in music, especially in Jazz. For me, I grew up in a real creative musical scene in Cleveland, and played with a lot of different players of my Dad’s generation. My Dad, Tony Lovano, played tenor, and was always playing with great players on organ and rhythm section players, and I learned how to play by playing with all the cats that he was playing with. It really prepared me for what I’m doing now.

As far as material that I play and approach, I let the different people and personalities I play with completely feed my ideas. I just try to react to who I’m around. When I play a standard or a Thelonious Monk composition with, let’s say, Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, there’s a certain atmosphere and a feeling to draw from, but if I play that same tune with, let’s say, Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the tempo is different and the whole energy on the stage is different. It’s really a challenge to play the same material in new ways with different people. The tempos that you play really create that mood, and also the different keys that you might play a tune in from time to time would create a whole different atmosphere for playing.

TP: Let’s talk a little bit about the scene in Cleveland when you were coming up, and your father’s milieu. I guess music must have been imbued in you from the cradle. There’s a photograph in one of your recent albums of your mother tickling your chin, and next to you is an alto saxophone that’s bigger than you are.

JL: I always grew up with the sound of the saxophone around me, and my father played all the time around the house. I used to listen to him practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. From a kid, I just wanted to create that sound myself. The sound of the horn was the first thing that I wanted to play. Of course, later I started to actually learn about the notes on the horn. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.

TP: Did you also have a chance to see them or meet them when they came through Cleveland?

JL: I did, yeah. When I was a teenager, 14-15 years old, a couple of clubs were happening in Cleveland, the East Town Motel and another club called Sirrah(?) House that my Dad used to play a lot. Alternate weeks, James Moody would come through, or Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott with Harold Vick. I had a chance to go to those clubs all the time, because they knew me, and I could go in and just sit in the corner or whatever.

I had a chance to meet Moody and Stitt and all those cats when I was a teenager, but hear them in the room, you know. When I first heard Dizzy in the room, heard his tone, after knowing his sound from the records, man, it really turned me on! So I realized at an early age about the different personalities in Jazz, not just the technique of playing a horn, but just the personality that can come through your instrument, and that’s what I always strived for as a young player.

TP: Cleveland has its own niche in the continuum of Jazz.

JL: Oh, yeah. From the Bebop period, Tadd Dameron, Benny Bailey, Bill Hardman, Freddie Webster were cats my Dad knew and kind of grew up under. Benny Bailey and my Dad were contemporaries, and so were Jim Hall and Bill DeArango, and also the tenor player Joe Alexander, who was one of the legendary figures that I’d never heard or met. He passed away, I think, in 1970 or something. But he was a good friend of my Dad’s, and they used to play together all the time. Bobby Few was from Cleveland, Albert Ayler was from Cleveland.

TP: Was your father open to that as well?

JL: Oh, yeah. Bobby Few played some of his first gigs with my Dad in Cleveland. I had never known that, but I saw Bobby recently in Paris, where he’s been living since the Sixties, playing with Steve Lacy and different people, and he told me that one of his first gigs was with my Dad. That was probably during the early Sixties, I’d say.

My Dad was real aware of all of music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties. That was his generation. He had heard Charlie Parker and Miles play together when they came through Cleveland, Max Roach, heard Lester Young play in Cleveland. He was really on the scene. He told those stories all the time.

TP: What was his sound like?

JL: Well, he was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet school of playing, “Flying Home” and all those kinds of tunes. But he had a beautiful ballad approach, too, and he loved Lester Young as well. So I think his earlier playing reflected that more. As time went on, he got a harder kind of sound. He had a lot of different sides of his playing. But he definitely was coming out of the Gene Ammons approach.

I met Gene Ammons once. In 1970 or 1971, Jug came and played at this club, Sirrah(?) House, and my Dad took me to see him. We went in the kitchen, in the dressing room, and Jug and my Dad embraced like they were old friends. I guess my Dad had played at a jam session with him once or something, years before. It was incredible, man; I couldn’t believe it. I got Jug’s autograph. Hearing him play that night really turned me around. Amina Claudine Myers actually was playing organ with him at the time. Jug had a Varitone saxophone, which is an electric kind of hook-up on your horn, which my Dad had just gotten. He played a lot of organ gigs, a lot of organ trios, and with the Varitone you didn’t need a P.A. system, you didn’t need anything. You had this amplifier that really matched the sound of the Leslie speaker. I’ll never forget that night.

TP: Well, it sounds like your openness towards styles and musical situations is an extension of what you picked up from your father.

JL: Oh yeah, for sure. My Dad was a barber, too. He had a business and raised a family, and never really traveled that much. He toured a little bit. His trio played behind Ike Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, for a while, and they toured the Midwest, went out to Denver, Colorado and did some gigs. He was on the road a little bit, although that was actually later, in the mid-Seventies. But mainly, he played around Cleveland.

He was a serious fan of the music, too, which really was great for me. I’m a serious fan of the music and the different players, too. I love to go out and hear people play all the time, and I’m trying to always check out everybody.

TP: Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you were going to be a musician?

JL: I don’t think so. No. As a teenager, I was really very involved in trying to get myself together and play. You know, I went to Berklee School of Music after I graduated high school in ’71, and I paid my way to school from all the money I’d made playing gigs in high school. My Dad was always working, five or six nights a week. So he got called for a lot of jobs that he couldn’t do, and he would basically send me. I was playing supper club type settings, weddings, and all kinds of different gigs. But all of the things I did at that time were with rhythm sections and one horn, and basically, I played all the melodies and songs. Very few gigs had, like, a stand-up singer that I had to accompany.

TP: Were you playing tenor?

JL: Yeah, usually tenor. I also started to play flute during those years. Flute became my first real double at that time. The beautiful thing was that I was studying standard tunes, and when I would go to a gig and play with musicians in his generation who were in the rhythm section, I would call the tunes and count the tempo off, and so forth. So I learned how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. I was studying Bebop and those kinds of tunes, but usually we would just play standards when I played those gigs.

TP: So at that time your range of influences pretty much encompassed Bebop, or was it more expansive than that?

JL: I’d say at that time it was completely the Bebop school, for sure. My Dad was listening to records like Kulu Se Mama of Coltrane, he had A Love Supreme and those records, and I was completely into early Miles, and Miles with Coltrane, and Sonny Stitt, and those kind of records. But he never said anything to me like, “Man, listen to this; this is what’s happening now.” He let me discover everything myself. He was really generous with that approach.

Stitt was my first real love on record. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and get next to what was happening. Stitt had a personality that he could play either tenor or alto and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns — and that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Sonny Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But I think he was kind of frustrated in that world. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was great. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I also had a chance to sit in with him a few times in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came in with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my first loves on the instrument, and I loved the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with Coltrane-with-Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, when Sonny Stitt was my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records, and once I started to get more familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas on some of Coltrane’s later records, it was a more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes with Trane were playing, like, the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. Hearing that approach to music opened up my concept, and gave my own music a lot more direction.

I also loved Hank Mobley’s playing from his records, the things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first saxophonists whose tunes I really started to appreciate. All his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, and then you realize that trying to create your own music is part of it, too! That hit me. Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, both he and Wayne Shorter, who really influenced me a lot.

The trumpet was another important instrument for me in my young developing, because of its attack and a certain something that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me.

TP: Was anyone else besides your father teaching you any kind of theory when you were in Cleveland? Or did that begin at Berklee?

JL: My Dad really was my main teacher. All the theory and everything that I had studied up until I went to Berklee was with my Dad. I would say that was like the most formal.

Now, there was an organ player, Eddie Bacchus, who is still around Cleveland, a great, beautiful player. I learned a lot from Eddie, just talking to him and hanging out and checking out the harmonies that he played. Eddie is one of those legendary cats, man, who played with everyone who would come through during that certain period when there were a lot of gigs, man, and you could work six nights a week, and play two and three weeks in each town. He worked a lot with Lou Donaldson, James Moody, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan, and a lot of cats during that one period, and he used to work a lot with Joe Alexander around Cleveland. Eddie is something else, man. He is still very active around Cleveland.

There was a cat named Lindsay Tough. There was another organ player, too, named William Dowland whose nickname was Paul Bunyan. He was this huge guy, like seven foot tall, and he played with my Dad a lot. He was great, man! He told me what records to check out. He was originally a trombone player, and he told me about the Miles records with J.J. and those things…

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Val Kent, a young drummer who was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer around named Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties would play with everybody who would come through town.

And there was Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who passed away this last year. He was a beautiful drummer, man, and one of the first real Bebop drummers that I ever played with, you know, when I was 16 or 17 years old. Jacktown was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. My father told me stories about him, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies. So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Hanging with my Dad’s friends was really like a school. They got me into going out, checking out different records. And I had some friends in my generation at the same time that were always hanging out with me, and coming to gigs and listening to my Dad playing. We would go buy records, man, and check out everybody.

TP: In a lot of ways, your experience hearkens back to an earlier generation, when musicians learned on the gig, when people started working earlier and so forth. And it’s one of the things that other musicians remark upon with you, as combining the spontaneity of an ear player with a command of music theory and an ability to do the heavy reading, such as on the Rush Hour CD.

JL: Well, I learned by ear first, for sure. I never considered myself a great reader, until I started to actually go and play with some saxophone sections in some big bands, and actually sit down and learn about how to play with interpretation, and not just read the notes. That also came from my Dad. He played in some big bands and rehearsal bands that he used to bring me to and I would check out.

There was an alto player in Cleveland named Willie Smith, who was an incredible writer and player — not the famous Willie Smith that everybody knows. Willie lived in Detroit for a while. He wrote a lot of arrangements for some early Motown dates, and did a lot of things. He also grew up with Benny Bailey and everybody, a real Bop player. Willie and I actually went on the road with Jack McDuff together in 1975.

We both played a weekend with Jack at this club called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. Jack was traveling with two tenor players, David Young on tenor and Bill Cody, and he was picking up an alto and a baritone player in each town, and they would play. So they came to Cleveland, and on Friday and Saturday night they needed a baritone player and an alto player. Ron Kozak, who lives in New York now, a multi-reed player, was playing baritone, and couldn’t play the weekend, he had another gig — and asked me if I wanted to do it. I had a baritone that my Dad got me, and I was fooling around on it, but I had never played a gig on baritone before, so I was a little reluctant. Then I listened to them play a set and it was swinging like crazy. Joe Dukes was on drums and Eric Johnson was on guitar, a beautiful guitar player; David Young sounded incredible on tenor, he sounded so beautiful! So after their set I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll play; I’ll do it.” So I went home, and I practiced the baritone for two days, and found some reeds, and played the weekend, and we had a really nice time. About a week or two later, McDuff called me to join his band. So I went out to join him in Indianapolis, and I stayed with him for, I don’t know, about six months or something.

This happened right at the same time I was working with Lonnie Smith a lot, and I had recorded a record with Lonnie for the Groove Merchant label in 1974. That was the first time I came to New York and went in the studio. George Benson played on it, and Ben Riley was on drums, and Jamey Haddad was also on drums on some tunes, a real close friend from Cleveland who is in New York now, who is working with Dave Liebman and some different bands — a beautiful percussionist. It was funny, because I was on the road with Jack when Lonnie’s record came out, and it was playing on all the stations — it was kind of a far-out thing. The first times I came to New York to play were in 1974 and 1975 with Lonnie and Jack.

TP: Apparently one track from that session, “Apex,” is a staple of British Acid Jazz.

JL: I was hanging out with Courtney Pine one night in Europe, we’d played a festival together, and he told me that he knew my whole solo on this tune. I couldn’t believe it. He said they’re playing it in all the Acid Jazz clubs, and dancing to it, and everybody sings all the solos.

TP: Let’s do a chronology taking you from Berklee to your several years with Woody Herman in the Seventies.

JL: Well, the very first time I really did any kind of touring was 1973, when I played a six-week stint on the road with Tom Jones, the Pop singer. They were towards the end of a huge tour, like a six-month tour. Now, the saxophone section were all friends of mine from Boston, including George Garzone, a great tenor saxophone player who is starting to do a lot of things today, and recording, and he’s been teaching at Mannes School of Music, he’s been teaching at New England Conservatory in Boston for years. He’s really a fabulous player, and he and I go way back together, to the early Seventies. Something went down, and one of the tenor players split the last six weeks of this huge tour. So I got a call to join the band. So I flew out to Las Vegas, and started at Caesar’s Palace for two weeks, with this big band and string section and chorus, playing behind Tom Jones. I kind of had a little solo chair, so I had to do little solos and stuff. That was the first time I really worked in a large ensemble like that.

I moved to New York in 1976, and got the gig with Woody’s band a couple of months after I came to town…

TP: First, let’s talk about New York in 1976, and what a young musician coming in with some experience could hope to do and find.

JL: I had been coming to New York a little bit with Lonnie Smith, playing some trio gigs around with Billy Hart on drums. And in 1975 I came to New York with Jack McDuff, and we played the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, and toured with the Organ Summit with Jimmy Smith’s trio. Also on it were Shirley Scott and Harold Vick and Eddie Gladden, Shirley’s trio at that time, which was really great, man. For me, that was like the highlight of that whole tour that we did. We were on some gigs together in Philadelphia and here in New York. Larry Young had a band at that time, a bigger group that was more of a Fusion type group. Touring and playing with those guys was kind of wild. We did maybe five or six concerts together, with McDuff’s band with the saxophone section. That saxophone section was one of the first ones I played in that was really a Jazz band, where we were improvising and playing a lot of things.

So when I came to New York in May of ’76, I had been here a few times. I had already gone to some jam sessions and met Albert Dailey, and started to meet a lot of the players that I still play with today. Adam Nussbaum, for example; we met back then. Dennis Irwin was playing with Albert Dailey. When I came to town, I got a couple of gigs, and I was playing with Albert and with Carter Jefferson, another great saxophone player, and Harold White was the drummer. When I first came, I was just going around and sitting in with people. Rashied Ali had his club happening, Ali’s Alley down in Soho, and I went down there and sat in with Rashied. I was just going around and trying not only to be heard, but to play with some people that I loved.

TP: Studio Rivbea and the Tin Palace were in full swing.

JL: Studio Rivbea was happening. I went there many times, and heard Braxton play, and Sam Rivers and Dave Holland. It was before I had met Dave or anybody. The Tin Palace was a great scene, and I used to go there and play jam sessions all the time with Monty Waters, a great alto saxophone player. I first played with Woody Shaw there. There was a lot happening in New York then, in the late Seventies.

TP: What was your response when you first heard people like Braxton, or the Midwest musicians who were dealing with extended forms and different strategies?

JL: Well, I had heard them on record before I came to New York, some early ECM recordings. The first time I think I heard Anthony play was on Dave Holland’s record, Conference Of The Birds, which was one of my favorite records at the time, when it came out. I really loved hearing and trying to learn more open-formed type pieces. That was really an extension of the music that I was used to hearing from Coltrane or Archie Shepp, the first kind of freer playing music, the music that really developed from the Ornette Coleman band with Don Cherry and Blackwell and Charlie, and Miles’ band with Wayne and Herbie and Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Coltrane’s quartet. For me, all those bands, and the players that were in all those groups. was the music that really inspired me to develop a more open concept about improvising.

TP: Let’s elaborate on that a little more. I think one thing that’s not immediately apparent to the audience is that musicians are subject to a wide range of influences that don’t necessarily come out within a given situation, and so it’s very easy to pigeonhole people.

JL: Yes.

TP: So you’re playing these tenor-organ gigs, but you’re also listening to a lot of other things…

JL: …at the same time. Exactly. It was really inspiring to know that these players, like Dave Holland and Paul Motian and Charlie Haden… Man, these cats were on the scene, and I always aspired to play with them. I was trying to get myself together musically, so I could play with them — never dreaming that I would. You know what I mean? And as time went on, I really put myself in different positions to meet them and sit in and play and be heard, and things just developed to a point where I was starting to explore music with them. One thing that’s so beautiful about Jazz is that as a young player, if you’re really open and you listen and you dig all these different things, you can put yourself in a lot of different settings that will really enhance your concepts. So you don’t have to stay in one place. That was my dream, was always to play in a lot of different situations.

Also, my Dad always stressed, “Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.” He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was kind of studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.

TP: I guess the big bands are one of the great teachers of discipline to a young musician, and particularly in terms of playing for a function or a situation.

JL: For sure. I moved to New York in May of ’76; in August I got the gig with Woody, and went on the road, and stayed with him, like, until the beginning of ’79. So for about two-and-a-half years I was on the road. My first tours to Europe were with Woody. It was my first celebrated gig, like, at that level as a soloist. And I had a chance to play for a week with Sarah Vaughan once. We played behind Billy Eckstine once for a week. I played with Tony Bennett a number of times. I had a chance to play within some ensembles and to play orchestrations behind some incredible voices in music. We played with Joe Williams, too. I learned a lot, man, just playing in those settings, not even as a soloist. Just sitting there and playing these arrangements behind Sarah Vaughan was incredible, man.

TP: So the impact of a big band is extra-musical.

JL: Oh, definitely, for sure. And those experiences for me with Woody were incredible. That year was Woody’s fortieth anniversary year as well as a leader. So there was this huge concert at Carnegie Hall that was recorded on RCA that had all the big stars that had played with Woody through the years. So I had a chance to play and stand next to Zoot Sims and Stan Getz and Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, as well, as Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond and Jimmy Rowles. I played “Early Autumn” with Stan Getz at the microphone, playing my part with him playing lead. It really taught me a lot about sound, and it gave me a lot of confidence to find my own voice in this music.

TP: After that ended, you played for years with the Mel Lewis Orchestra. You joined shortly after Thad Jones’ departure.

JL: When I left Woody at the beginning of ’79, it was right around then that Thad had left New York and moved to Denmark. So I joined Mel’s band right after Thad had split, and it had become the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Bob Brookmeyer was back in New York and writing a lot of new music for the band, and started to work on some new concepts and different things, and he and Mel kind of added to the whole beautiful history of the book of the Thad-and-Mel band. That was right when I joined the band, in 1980.

TP: Throughout your tenure the band became a sort of laboratory and workshop for some of the most talented writers in New York, building up the huge book that it has to this day.

JL: That it has today, that’s right. I only recently left the band, I’d say in 1992 or something. After Mel passed away, I stayed in the band maybe another year-and-a-half or something. Then I’ve been just getting pretty busy as a leader, and I wanted to open my chair up for other people to experience that incredible music. When I came in, it was definitely challenging to sit in that band and play this incredible music of Thad’s that I had known from records. Thad wrote everything for the personnel in that band; he just didn’t write charts and bring them in. He wrote for specific people and for a specific record date. Brookmeyer did, too. In a way, my concept about writing and recording has developed from that experience playing with them.

Just playing with Mel alone was incredible. He was so consistent, man, and loved to play, and would feed every solo. He would play behind, like, ten solos in a row, and where some cats would be, “oh, no, not somebody else!” Mel would take on all comers, and like, he would start everybody’s new solo with a complete fresh sound — on a different cymbal, on a different energy. Mel was an amazing improviser and a beautiful musician as an accompanying drummer. Not only in a big band setting, even though he’s really most known for his big band work. But Mel played with a big band like it was a quartet. The horns were the piano, bass and drums, and the soloist. Or it was a trio to him, in a way. If it was an ensemble playing, it was like the band was the piano, and bass and drums. So he created this incredible intimacy within a big band in a way that not many drummers do.

TP: In the liner notes for your 1988 release Village Rhythm, Mel Lewis made the comment that your being a drummer, and a rather proficient one, was a great help to you as a tenor player because you’re able to play strings of notes and land exactly where you’re supposed to. Have you been playing drums along with tenor all this time as well?

JL: Well, I started playing drums when I was a kid, too. One of the drummers who was playing with my Dad (I don’t know how old I was, I was maybe 7 or 8 years old), he got a new drum set, and gave my Dad his drums to give to me. He showed up one day with this huge set of drums, like a 24-inch bass drum — a set from the Forties, you know. So as a kid, I had drums around me all the time. I have pictures of me playing those drums. And as I was starting to really learn melodies on the saxophone, I would just practice them on the drums as well. At the time there was no pressure to play the drums — when I was a kid. I felt a little more under pressure on saxophone; I was studying with my Dad, I was trying to learn everything and play and have him dig me. But then I would just sit at the drums and have fun. It was a real release, you know.

So that’s how I first started. As I developed more on the saxophone, and I started really studying records and hearing Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, Max especially, the solos that Max would play with Charlie Parker, I realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies that Bird was playing. So I started to try to practice what I was learning on the saxophone on the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player.

That was kind of the beginning. Then through the years, I’ve always played them. I’ve played gigs on drums. But I would play mainly on jam sessions. I still play every day, and it’s like a part of my day that I just sit down and relax and just have fun and explore things.

TP: That’s your outlet.

JL: Yeah, it’s a real passion. Before “Topsy Turvy” on Rush Hour I had never really recorded like this, in a studio, where I overdubbed the drums. It’s something that I practice at home sometimes. If I’m writing a new tune, I’ll tape myself playing solo tenor, and then I’ll work out rhythm section parts by playing drums with the tune on tape. On “Topsy Turvy” Judi and I played the whole tune as tenor and voice first. We did the head, then she did a solo improvisation unaccompanied, and then I came and did a soprano solo unaccompanied, and then we played the head out. So the whole structure was there, and then I went back and and just laid one track down on the drums, straight across the whole thing, and I laid down the soprano part and the melodies, and then I accompanied her in her solo on the bass clarinet after I had already laid down the drums. So I just kind of played inside it. I had never done that before, but it was a lot of fun.

TP: Let’s explore the the overlap between your tenor style and your drumming proclivities a little more.

JL: Well, I feel kind of free on the drums. I mean, on the saxophone I feel like I can really play what I hear completely, you know. On the drums, I don’t really think. I just kind of play by feel completely. But I’ve had a chance to play with some great drummers, and I’ve learned from everybody I play with. One thing for sure from playing drums, that when I’m soloing on tenor, I have a real awareness of what’s going on around me. And I think practicing drums and playing in rhythm sessions and jam sessions or whatever has opened up my awareness as a soloist on saxophone, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing. I think that way of playing developed from studying drums and playing in rhythm sections as I’ve been growing up and learning, too.

TP: Were the two originals on your two recordings with Ed Blackwell written particularly with him in mind?

JL: Oh yeah. I wrote those tunes for him, and to play with him. I had never played “Strength and Courage” with anyone, or the piece “Evolution” on From The Soul. I wrote them knowing I was going to play with Blackwell, and with the expansive concepts that he plays with. I tried to really write some things that we could just hit on. In “Strength and Courage,” for example, he plays all these overlapping rhythms, and he plays some cowbell; explores all the possibilities of his vocabulary on that one tune. I didn’t really direct him in that, but the way I wrote phrases kind of directed the rhythm to go in those directions. He had the most beautiful concepts, and he had this radar that was unbelievable. He would just hit downbeats with you like out of the blue, like just…

Paul Motian is like that. Playing with Paul, the phrasing and different layers of time that happen are uncanny. I sometimes go back and listen to some of the things I’ve done with Paul that just amaze me, how we’re completely together, but we’re improvising very freely.

TP: Well, the Paul Motian Trio with you and Bill Frisell is one of the longest running groups in all of improvised music. 1995 marks fourteen years.

JL: Yes. We both started playing with Paul in 1981, and recorded a lot of different recordings, you know, playing Broadway music and Thelonious Monk’s music, Bill Evans’ music, as well as Paul’s music, which he writes and has some beautiful ideas. It’s been fabulous, man. We’ve been touring pretty extensively every year since 1981, and we’re actually just about to go to Europe next week, for a few weeks, for about an 18-concert tour all over Europe. It’s so beautiful, man, an expansive improvised setting to play with Paul.

TP: How free is it within the course of each performance?

JL: First of all, we have an amazing amount of repertoire that we do. Paul is very free about what he likes to play. He usually picks about ten to fifteen different pieces that we stay with throughout a tour. Then it’s very free to explore different arrangements and different ways of playing them every night.

TP: Frisell is a guitarist who has really extended the sonic and dynamic possibilities of the instrument. I think that can fairly be said.

JL: Oh yeah, Bill is amazing, man. And he’s really about orchestration, too. He just doesn’t play the guitar. He is so into every tone and every note I play. He voices all my notes in what he plays, which gives me a whole range of sounds to draw from as well. The way we all interact with Paul’s rhythm, and the way Paul’s rhythm changes from what we play — I mean, it’s a complete creative setting. In trios, somehow it’s really clear; the clarity is really there. The thing I love about the trio so much, too, is the intimacy that we play with. Sometimes we play, like, at really pianissimo volumes, and we really get next to what each other’s playing. It’s incredible. Bill really brings that out, too. He doesn’t just play like a guitar player. He plays like a pianist or something sometimes, with that kind of dynamic range.

TP: Well, it seems to give you a chance to explore the full dynamic range of the tenor saxophone.

JL: Yes, it does. I only play tenor with the trio, and it’s really great to go on the road and to just play one horn and to focus on one sound. With some other groups that I play in, with my own groups, I’m trying to write for more expanded sounds, using clarinets and flutes and percussion and different things. Maybe because I play only tenor with Paul, I’ve found it’s really fun and different to explore all these other sounds when I’m writing my own music. I think it’s given me a lot of ideas.

TP: Let’s discuss Paul Motian’s very distinctive sense of time and dynamics on the drums.

JL: 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: Speaking of the Keith Jarrett Quartet, you’ve credited Dewey Redman as having had a major impact upon your concept of playing.

JL: Yeah. Well, from that time hearing him live, for sure, but also from some recordings that I had of him playing with Elvin Jones in Ornette’s band. He might have been one of the first tenor players I heard play with Elvin that didn’t sound like Coltrane or play in that kind of rhythmic way. He played longer, more open-sounding things with Elvin. Through the years, I’ve had a chance to play with Dewey a lot. With Charlie Haden’s band was really the first time. In 1987 I joined the Liberation Music Orchestra with Dewey. He’s one of those players that you don’t know what he’s going to play next. There’s a lot of magic in his playing.

TP: Universal Language features Jack De Johnette.

JL: He’s another drummer who has these amazing concepts, and hears everything you play, encompasses and circles around every phrase you play, and spells it right out with you. All the tunes on Universal Language were written for that session and for that personnel, to be played with Jack in mind, and with Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow and the rhythm section.

TP: Again, we’re getting back to individuals and personalities…,

JL: Yes.

TP: …which is the essence of improvising.

JL: For sure, man. Also, I think the records that inspired me to try to write and to give me the confidence to try to put things together were a lot of things that Wayne Shorter has done through the years, let’s say, where each record he made, it seemed like he wrote for the personnel that was on that date, and wrote tunes to be played with those cats, with Blakey’s band, or with Elvin Jones in the rhythm section, or things he wrote for Weather Report. Whatever it was, there was a lot of direction in each recording. It never repeated anything. So for each session I am trying to write for the personnel there, and conceptually it’s really happening. It feels beautiful.

Universal Language, with a front line of voice, trumpet and saxophone, was the most expansive ensemble that I’ve been able to work with so far as a leader, and I tried to write some orchestrations that were going to be free for everyone to contribute their own personality, but yet have some kind of structure and form so we had something to grab onto.

TP: I’d like to talk to you more about the dynamics of your style, the most personal thing for a tenor player, which is your sound — so if I start getting on thin ground, just tell me. But you were talking about your father’s sound as being sort of hard-driving, Illinois Jacquet, hard edges on it. Your sound is very rounded. You play a lot in the altissimo register of the tenor, the upper register, with a full sound — although you play the full range of the horn. Talk a little about the evolution of your sound in your mind’s ear.

JL: My sound has gone through a lot of different changes, let’s say, different periods. I know early on I played with a lot harder sound and a lot more, in a way, one-dimensional type sound. On the early recording that I did with Lonnie Smith, I think my sound was only one kind of beam or something, a beam of light, let’s say — it just was one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles with Mel Lewis, and Woody Herman’s band, Carla Bley’s band, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, where the music is always changing and there’s different feelings, rhythms and attitudes happening, my sound really went through a lot of changes. Rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That started this whole process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, like, triple pianissimo with the same fullness that I can play a triple forte with. That range of dynamics, I think, was the key to starting to get my sound together.

TP: In 1994, you performed in some free improvisations with British saxophone master Evan Parker in an event sponsored by WKCR. Has that particular aspect of dealing with the language been a significant part of your experience?

JL: Oh, yeah. For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other horn players in duet settings. Billy Drewes and I used to play together years ago in Boston together like that, where we would just improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. Billy played with us with the Paul Motian Quintet, on our very first quintet recorded on ECM, called Psalm, the first recording I did with Paul. Billy is just one of the players that I’ve explored those possibilities with. Judi Silvano and I do that with soprano voice and saxophones all the time while we’re improvising, and trying to really create melodies from what each other plays, rather than just trying to play what you play.

TP: You and Frisell would seem to do that, too.

JL: Sure. I improvise with that conception with everybody I play with. I try to do that when I’m playing with a rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, so that I don’t find myself repeating myself. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so I can really explore possibilities in the music. That’s what improvising really is about for me, is creating something new.

TP: So it’s not about style, it’s not about genre, it’s about dialoguing in a situation.

JL: Exactly. Early on for me it was about style and it was about learning my horn, and this and that. But after a while, it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, and using your technique and the language of your instrument or whatever to create something different all the time.

So to just improvise in a duet setting with Evan that night was a lot of fun, man. I had known him for a while, and had heard him play a number of different times, some solo performances that were incredible on soprano saxophone and tenor.

I recorded a free improvisation with my Dad on Hometown Sessions [JSL], which I produced with him in 1986, where we were joined by Eddie Bacchus and Jacktown on most of the tracks. He was reading a part, and I was improvising all around his written part. So that was a little different concept about playing with two saxophones. Really, it was like a free-form structure. I was kind of, in a way, directing his notes, like the rhythm that he would play, and he was just kind of following me and letting me improvise between all his notes. I had never really done that before, and that was a trip! My Dad was a real open player, and he was into sounds and melodies and stuff. So it was a trip. Playing duets with my father all through the years really helped me develop a concept and get myself together to do things like that duet with Evan.

TP: Experiencing the inner dynamics of how that music was put together. Let’s hear a set of music focusing on performances of Joe Lovano’s compositions. The first track, “Luna Park,” certainly refers to Cleveland.

JL: The title refers to an amusement park that was across the street from where my grandparents had a house in Cleveland which was called Luna Park. I think it was a very famous park in the Twenties and Thirties, and then it burned down, so I never actually saw this place. When I grew up, there was a big projects complex there. But I had always heard a lot of stories about Luna Park.

This piece is kind of a carnival-type piece, and it features an ensemble that’s a working group, kind of a workshop ensemble that has been playing and doing a lot of stuff since the early Eighties. I recorded this for Blue Note in 1992, but this ensemble and this sound is a working group that I’ve been developing through the years. It features Judy Silvano on soprano voice and Tim Hagans on trumpet, Kenny Werner on piano, this track has Jack DeJohnette on drums, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Charlie Haden on electric and acoustic bass.

TP: There’s a lot of doubling going on in this.

JL: Yeah, there are some different approaches. Like, I wrote for Swallow to play within the rhythm section as an accompanist with chordal passages as well as actual bass parts. On this particular tune, he’s playing like a counter-melody in the front line with us that could almost be like a trombone type part.

[MUSIC: “Luna Park” (1992); Lovano/Redman, “Miss Etta” (1993); Lovano, “Emperor Jones” (1989); Lovano/Cox/ Blackwell, “Straight Ahead” (1990); Lovano/Holland/ Blackwell, “Evolution” (1990); Lovano/Schuller, “Topsy-Turvy” (1994)]

TP: We have cued up two earlier tracks. One is the aforementioned session with Lonnie Smith, and a track featuring Joe and his dad on a self-produced date, Hometown Sessions.

JL: Well, it’s a label that I started, basically, JSL Records. This was the first thing that we produced. It was right after I had recorded for Soul Note. I did this record called Tones, Shapes and Colors, my first solo record as a leader. I went to Cleveland and had a party with my family, and got a studio, and went in the studio and laid some tracks down with my Dad, and Eddie Bacchus on organ and Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who I mentioned before.

[MUSIC: Lonnie Smith, “Apex” (1975); Joe and Tony Lovano, “Now Is The Time” (1986)]

[MUSIC: Mel Lewis Orch., “Interloper” (1986); G. Schuller/ Lovano, “Rush Hour On 23rd Street” (1994)]

TP: You had a chance to be paired with him in the 1988 recording, Monk In Motian.

JL: Well, this recording was the first one that we did for JMT Records. Up until that point, the band had only played original music of Paul’s, and then we had a chance to do this record, and the record company wanted to do more of a theme record. Paul played with Monk a little bit with Scott LaFaro; they did some quartet gigs with Charlie Rouse. And Paul was really into Monk, he’s been into Monk all his life, so he had all these tunes he wanted to do, and we started rehearsing. At first we didn’t know if we were going to just play trio, but when we started to rehearse trio with no bass the music was so beautiful. It was really different. It didn’t sound like we were trying to play the way Monk played these same tunes. So we decided to do it as a trio record. Then Paul brought Dewey in for a few tunes to join us, to play with two saxophones.

[MUSIC: Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Epistrophy” (1988); “How Deep Is The Ocean”; “Turn Out The Stars” (1990); “One Time Out” (1991)]

TP: The next track we’ll hear comes from a forthcoming release on Blue Note, from a session last summer at the Village Vanguard that paired you with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who you’ve paired with on front lines very successfully for quite a while now, Billy Hart on drums, and Anthony Cox on bass.

JL: It’s a working quartet that we’ve been touring with and doing a lot of different things throughout the last few years. We recorded last March live at the Vanguard, and I am recording this week as well, live at the club, with Mulgrew and Christian and Lewis. They’re going to put out a double-CD package set, Live At The Vanguard, ’94 and ’95. So I’m excited about that.

This quartet played mainly original pieces that week. This week we’re doing a wide range of different compositions by other composers as well.

TP: What was interesting to me about this group when I heard it last year was it seemed a very creative extension of the Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry, or even the Ornette-Dewey Redman Quartet formulation. I guess some of this approach stems from your working with Blackwell for those couple of years in 1990 and ’91.

JL: Yes, playing with Blackwell and all the different groups with Motian have definitely influenced my writing. This quartet brings out a lot of those other sides. To play with just bass and drums and two other horns out front is a whole other energy and a different kind of atmosphere that happens in that. Tom is one of the greatest improvisers in Jazz, I think, and he has a lot of dynamic and amazing sides and personalities in his playing as well. In this particular quartet, I think for the first time he really opens up and plays very free and different.

This tune we’re going to hear is called “Uprising,” and it’s an original of mine that I wrote to play with this group. I play on C-Melody saxophone on this particular cut.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Cox/Hart, “Uprising”]

TP: I don’t think anyone has ever quite mastered the technique of circular breathing or overtones the way he has.

JL: He’s phenomenal. He’s something else.

[MUSIC: Joe Lovano/Evan Parker, “Duo” (1994); Joe and Tony Lovano (1987)]

JL: That was a pretty wild piece there. It was exciting to play with Evan. We were into each other’s energy. We were really following each other beautifully. That was pretty far-out.

TP: Well, I think we’ve learned in the last four hours that with Joe Lovano anything is possible, and generally it’s going to work out in an extremely musical form that will then have implications for other activity. We’ve had some sense of the sort of parallel situations that continue to grow, evolve and merge. Thank you for your time, Joe Lovano.

JL: Thank you, Ted. I have to say, WKCR is such an incredible radio station, and all the shows you guys do are really inspiring. I listen to all the shows, and the birthday broadcasts, and the different profiles, and it’s really an honor to have you spend this much time on some of my recorded music.

TP: It’s quite a legacy of music, and I think we have a good three or four decades of creative music-making to come. So we’ll just take this as a signpost of where one of the most creative of the younger group of musicians is at this stage of his career.


[MUSIC: Schuller/Lovano, “Angel Eyes” (1994); Lovano & Universal Language, “Josie and Rosie” (1992); Lovano/ Blackwell, “Fort Worth” (1991); Lovano/J. Redman, “The Land Of Ephesus” (1993); Yamashita/Lovano, “Kurdish Winds” (1993); Scofield/Lovano, “Comp Out” (1992)]


Joe Lovano (Musician Show, WKCR, 7-26-89):
[MUSIC: Henri Texier/Lovano (Izlaz), “Golden Horn” (1988); Motian/ Lovano/Frisell, “Evidence” (1988)]

JL: I was born in ’52, so I really began playing and being around the music in the Sixties, around all the different records and things that were coming out during those years. I was really fortunate. My Dad played saxophone and was a beautiful musician, and his record collection was pretty wide when I was a kid, so I was able to hear and really distinguish between sounds and different tones on different instruments. I was able to start to recognize different players from their personality and their tone.

Q: He was a working musician in the Cleveland area.

JL: Yeah, sure. All his life. My Dad grew up with people like Bill Hardman, the trumpet player, Benny Bailey, Tadd Dameron. Tadd actually was a few years older than my Dad, but his brother Cesar Dameron was an alto player who was my Dad’s age, and they used to play a lot. Those years were really great for my Dad because he was really involved in the scene. There’s a lot of cats in New York who are from Cleveland that know my Dad, and I meet people from all around the world that have heard him play — or something. He traveled around a little bit, but he was mainly in the Cleveland scene.

Q: Well, in Cleveland and throughout the Midwest there used to be a thriving Jazz scene — Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis.

JL: There was a circuit. I had a chance to tour with Lonnie Smith, the organist, and Jack McDuff, and a few different groups that played through that chitlin’ circuit, where you played really from New York to St. Louis, through Indianapolis and Cincinnati and all those towns. There were a lot of clubs. I caught a little part of it in 1974 or 1975 when I was like 20 years old. But throughout the ’50s and ’60s there was a real scene through that area.

Q: Joe’s first selection is one by the master, John Coltrane.

JL: This is from a record actually that came out on a reissue package with Roy Haynes on drums, McCoy Tyner, piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. It’s called To The Beat Of A Different Drum.

Somehow, my whole life as a player has developed in a strange kind of way around a lot of really great drummers. In the last three or four years, I’ve been really fortunate to be working with Mel Lewis. I’ve been playing with Mel Lewis’ band since 1980, and we play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Mel recorded with me on my first solo record as a leader for the Soul Note label, called Tones, Shapes and Colors, and I have a really close working relationship with Mel. As well as Paul Motian, who I’ve been playing with also since 1981. We’ve done a number of records, of which we’ll get to a few later, and also talk about the first times I had heard Paul play with Keith Jarrett and other people, and immediately wanted to be around that rhythm. Also Elvin Jones, who I toured with in 1987 for a two-month tour in Europe, which really was his last major tour as a leader with his own band. I mean, he’s toured with Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner and a few different groups. But playing with Elvin was just an incredible lesson, man.

Q: You play some drums yourself.

JL: Well, I’ve been playing since I was a kid. Part of my whole thing with my Dad is my Dad was my teacher. We studied, we had lessons, but his lessons were he would give me a lot of things to work on, and when I felt like I was ready to present them to him… And he’d be hearing me practicing anyway. He would sometimes come down to the basement in the middle of what I was doing, and correct me or whatever. But it was a real close kind of thing. When I was six or seven years old, the drummer he was working with bought a new set of small drums, and gave his old set to my Dad to give to me. I mean, it was a huge, big bass drum, and all these drums. I have pictures of me playing these drums.

So since I was a kid I really got into the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, just really gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player. So I know there’s been something about drummers, since I was a kid.

Now I’m starting to record and do some things on drums myself. Recently, just this last week actually, I went into the studio and did a solo-duo project where I laid some tracks down playing bass clarinet, drums and tenor, and then Judi Silverman came in and put some voice parts on some of the things, too, and we really created some rhythm sections. It’s the first time I ever did it. I brought a tape; maybe we could listen to one thing later.

But getting back to this first record, Roy Haynes has always been one of my very favorite musicians. I’ve never had a chance to play with him, but I heard him play a lot. And I really love this record. It was a real fresh… You know, after listening to so much Coltrane Quartet, this was like a little different twist with Roy Haynes on drums.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Haynes, “Dear Old Stockholm” (1963); Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew”, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1962)]

JL: Just a little about what Sonny Stitt meant to me. Stitt was my first real love on record. I used to listen to my Dad practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad, you know. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and try to get next to what was happening. His sound on tenor and alto… He had a personality that he could play either horn and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns. And that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But he was kind of frustrated in that world, I think. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was a great cat. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I had a chance to sit in with him a few times, you know, in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them,, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill, you know, just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Q: Who would be the rhythm sections in Cleveland, by the way?

JL: There were different guys. The organ player who plays on this CD I put out with my Dad, Eddie Bacchus, would play with most everybody that came through town. But there were a couple of other organ players. There was a cat named Lindsay Tough, and this other guy, William Dowland, who everyone used to call Paul Bunyon — he was a real big cat. He used to be a trombone player, actually, when he was younger.

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Different cats, though. Val Kent, a young drummer. Val could have… He was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer there whose name was Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties, he would play with everybody who would come through town. Jacktown, who plays on the CD, Hometown Sessions, that I produced myself, was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. But when he was there, my father told me stories, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies.

So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Q: Hearing John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt together is a very interesting juxtaposition, and one could say they are two very important people in the formation of your own personal style of playing, your approach to line and your approach to sound.

JL: Yeah, Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my really first loves on the instrument, as well as the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with more of the Coltrane with Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, and at that same period, Sonny Stitt was really my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records. Once I started to really get familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, I mean, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas some of Coltrane’s later records, it was more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Like we were commenting during this tune, “Dear Old Stockholm,” the way Roy Haynes was playing with Trane, they were playing like the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. When I started to really be familiar with that, it really opened up my concept, and gave me a lot more direction in my own music.

Q: We have something cued up by Lee Morgan.

JL: The trumpet was another really important instrument for me in my young developing. I mean, trumpet had an attack and it had a certain thing that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me. The tune we’re playing is from a record that came out much later, in the Eighties, one of the Blue Note Japanese reissues, named The Rajah. It has Hank Mobley on saxophone, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins.

Hank Mobley, too, was… I really loved Hank’s playing from all the records, different things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first ones that I really started to realize how he wrote so much, man…

Q: All those slick, subtle tunes.

JL: Oh, man, all his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player, like, you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, when you realize that to try to create your own music is part of it, too…! That hit me. And Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, him and Wayne Shorter both, that really influenced me a lot.

[MUSIC: Lee Morgan/H. Mobley/Cedar/PC/Higgins (The Rajah) “Is That So?” (1967); Hank Mobley/D. Byrd/Cedar/R. Carter/ Higgins (Far Away Lands) “No Argument”; Rollins/Philly Joe, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (1958)]

JL: When I really discovered Sonny Rollins and started exploring Sonny’s records and his music, it opened up a lot of doors for me melodically and rhythmically. Sonny’s such a master of… He can take any melody and stretch it out, and play so many variations of it to develop his solos. He didn’t just try to play the right notes, let’s say. He tries to explore all the possibilities with the melody and the rhythm that’s happening. For me, he’s a real genius improviser. Philly Joe Jones as well…

Q: You said when you were a kid you copied his solos.

JL: Yeah, Philly Joe was my man as far as the melodies he played. Like, he played the same things that Sonny Rollins or Miles were playing. There’s one record, I think it was Miles’ first record as a leader, with Sonny Rollins and Bird on tenor, with Philly Joe — it’s one of his first records. Man, it’s really smoking. I mean, Philly Joe to me was one of the…

Q: “The Serpent’s Tooth,” “Compulsion”…

JL: Right. “Compulsion” is the piece I’m speaking of. But his driving style melodically as well as his swing just really grabbed me completely when I was a kid. The breaks and things he played on that particular tune always have been with me. That’s why I wanted to play that cut. That record also has Doug Watkins on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano. That date has “Tune Up,” “Namely You”…

I’d like to to get to more tunes on that, but I want to play a couple of other things with Sonny on it first. We’re going to play something from Alfie, which has arrangements by Oliver Nelson. We’re going to play “Alfie’s Theme” from this. This is a real important record for me, too. Because it was Sonny completely out in front of kind of a small big band, and the band just plays parts. It’s a great band. Phil Woods is playing, Danny Bank. Frankie Dunlap is on drums who played a lot with Monk, and in later years played with the Lionel Hampton band quite often. But all his playing with Monk was really a great period for Monk’s music as well, with Frankie Dunlap. Kenny Burrell is on guitar on this, Jimmy Cleveland, J.J. Johnson — it’s a great record. We’re going to hear “Alfie’s Theme” from this.

We’re also going to hear Sonny Rollins playing a solo, unaccompanied version of “It Could Happen to You” from The Sound Of Sonny, which also… Sonny’s playing as a solo instrumentalist and accompanying himself as he’s playing, his freedom and concept also, like, really attracted me, and it taught me a lot about how to practice and how to get next to my own sound.

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins, “Alfie’s Theme” (1966); Sonny (solo), “It Could Happen To You” (1957); Booker Little/Flanagan/ LaFaro/Haynes, “Minor Suite” (1960)]

JL: This album by Booker Little is one of my favorite Booker Little records, and this particular cut, which he begins with an unaccompanied intro, I find really fantastic. Booker Little is one of those players that I never, of course, had a chance to hear or see live. Freddie Hubbard talked a lot about him. He said Booker scared him more than anybody just because he played so beautifully technically. I think they were on Africa Brass together; they were the two trumpet players on Africa Brass with John Coltrane. It was interesting talking with Freddie about Booker.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Werner/Johnson/Motian, “Birds of Springtimes Gone By,” “Dewey Says” (1988), Lovano/Motian/ Frisell, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (1989)]

“Someone To Watch Over Me” is from Motian On Broadway, Volume 1. This record for me was a real breakthrough in recording, just because five out of nine tunes are ballads on this record, and it was real challenging. Playing with Charlie and Paul together with Bill was really a treat.

Q: You’ve been associated with Paul Motian for just about the whole decade.

JL: Yes, when you think about it, time has gone by so fast. We’ve been playing since 1981 together. Paul was rehearsing a group which included Bill on guitar and Mark Johnson on bass. Mark and I knew each other from playing with Woody Herman’s band, and were really close friends. They had been playing with a few saxophone players. Mark spoke with Paul about me, and hooked it up for me to make a rehearsal one day. I went up and played with the quartet, and we’ve been playing ever since.

It’s been really beautiful, because we did some quartet playing and then some quintets, which included Billy Drewes on saxophone and Ed Schuller on bass, as well as Jim Pepper on tenor with Ed on bass. We recorded some really nice albums. One record on ECM called Psalm, which has Billy on it, and then three records on Soul Note with the quintet, The Story Of Maryam, Misterioso and Jack of Clubs — actually I brought The Story of Maryam to play a tune later, with Jim Pepper on saxophone, who is one of my favorite players, a really soulful cat. Then the trio kind of emerged from the quintet, Bill and I and Paul, which we’ve been recording and playing a lot around New York.

“Someone To Watch Over Me” started out as a trio piece, which we played the verse and then the whole song, and then Charlie enters as the guitar solo begins. On this record mainly it’s quartet with Charlie, but there’s a few tunes that are just trio tunes as well.

Before that we played two tunes from my record that just came out on Soul Note label, which also features Paul on drums. Having Paul play in my band, playing my music, has really been exciting for me. It just kind of tied a lot of things together for me and my music, and for our playing together. I feel our communication was really great.

The next thing we’ll hear is some music by Thelonious Monk from a record called It’s Monk’s Time.

Q: Now, the Paul Motian Trio just recorded an album exclusively of Monk’s music.

JL: Right. We’ve been playing a lot of Monk tunes. It’s really nice, because in the trio, of course, there’s no bass, so we’re playing guitar, saxophone and drums, and we’re trying to really feel this music in a different kind of way.

Q: It’s very interesting, though, because you always stay with the chords and the melody.

JL: Oh yeah, we’re into the tunes. Those songs are real beautiful vehicles, and we want to expand on everything that’s there as well as put our own wisdom into the piece. But that was a really fun record date to do. I’ve been playing a lot with Dewey Redman, and actually this tune “Dewey Said” was dedicated to Dewey. It came from some lines or some feelings that I have felt listening to Dewey play. Some of the melodies in the piece kind of developed from listening to Dewey. He’s one of my favorite people. And he actually has a son that plays tenor who I’ve been hearing a lot about, and I’m sure everyone is going to be hearing at some point soon.

Anyway, from Monk’s Time we’ll hear “Lulu’s Back In Town.” In this particular quartet is Butch Warren on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and one of my favorite saxophone players, and someone who passed on recently, but I had a chance to really hang with a few times at the Vanguard and was a beautiful cat, Charlie Rouse.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Lulu’s Back In Town” (1963); Coltrane, “Naima” (1965), Ornette/Dewey/Garrison/Jones “Open To the Public” (1968)]

That was a really inspired take. Elvin Jones is the truth. I mean, after touring with him and being around him every day on a two-month tour, I mean, he’s so intense and ready to play… He has so much fun! Before each gig he’d be like rubbin’ his hand together, “Let’s hear it!” And you could hear it on that take. On every record Elvin pays on. I mean, he comes there to play. He doesn’t fool around at all.

Next we’re going to play something from an album that I’m on with the Paul Motian Trio with Dewey Redman Monk In Motian. I’d just like to say what a pleasure it is to play with Dewey. And I’ve been lucky enough to play in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra as well with Dewey. It’s always exciting listening to him compose.

Following that, we’ll hear two tunes from a record of mine that’s coming out early next year, with a line-up of a few people who are playing with me tonight and tomorrow night at Club Visiones at Third and MacDougal. This record, Worlds, features my Wind Ensemble, which has Tim Hagans on trumpet, Judi Silverman, voice, Gary Valente, trombone, Paul Motian, drums, Henri Texier, bass, and Bill Frisell on guitar.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman/FrisellMotian, “Epistrophy,” Lovano Wind Ens., “Spirit Of The Night,” “Lutetia”]


Joe Lovano’s John Coltrane “Dozens” for (June 12, 2008):
1. Good Bait, (Soultrane) Prestige, w/ Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Arthur Taylor, 100/100.

This was one of the first significant Coltrane recordings, this recording Soultrane, for me, that I lived with as a real young player, and a young listener. That particular tune, Good Bait, was written by Tadd Dameron. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Tadd. My Dad played with Tadd Dameron. So I learned a lot about music and the whole history of jazz growing up, studying Tadd Dameron’s music, and hearing Coltrane’s incredible, lengthy exploration on “Good Bait” was really inspiring to me, and taught me a lot about how I would have to deal with this music, and learn to play the saxophone. It’s a timeless recording that when I listen to it today, sounds as fresh as when I was a kid.

After studying Coltrane through the years, and being a saxophonist myself, realizing all of the things that you have to deal with to execute your ideas, every stage of the way is a different development period. That period for Coltrane in the mid ‘50s, I think he was probably with Miles at the time, 1956… [That recording was ‘58. And he’d kicked heroin at the time. He did this right after he left Monk.] I see. So that experience and journey to that moment was pretty intense, as far as the study of the music, the saxophone, the people he was playing with. He had come up playing with Tadd Dameron, playing with him in his music, playing with Miles’ band, Dizzy’s band, Johnny Hodges’ band. He was just starting to form a conception about who he was and how he wanted to present himself in the music. There’s another tune on this recording, “I Want To Talk About You,” that he played throughout his lifetime and presented in concert around the world many times. One thing I learned from Coltrane is that he lived with the music that he played, and he was always developing on it throughout his career. [Anything you’d care to say about his style then? Maybe how you see his development with Monk leading him to play those incredibly lucid solos that he did on that record?] One thing, playing with Thelonious Monk got him to be even more articulate than he was doing on his own. His execution, his articulation, his rhythm, his phrasing and ideas were all one. And his tone also, at this period, was really crystallizing. He was fusing together all of the elements of playing music and playing the saxophone. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and he was really able to communicate his ideas in lengthy open solos, and “Good Bait” is a prime example of him really stretching out and playing through that pilece of music with his own approach.
2. BAGS & TRANE, “Three Little Words” Atlantic, John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. (1959) 100/100

It’s incredible to hear Coltrane play on standard songs, and to play with a rhythm section like that, where Hank is very free in the harmonic sequence and is feeding him harmonies and voicings, and Coltrane is taking him places that’s giving him ideas and opening up what he’s playing harmonically as well. To hear Hank Jones and Coltrane together is incredible on this recording, and also, Milt Jackson is one of the most incredible lyrical improvisers in the music, and to hear them balance each other and come off of each other, and play on a tune like “Three Little Words,” and not play too many choruses, a few choruses each, just like really play through the tune and sustain the mood of that tune, was a real beautiful journey on their part, and for me, as a young musician, digging Coltrane playing standards taught me a lot about the repertoire to become a musician in this beautiful world of music we’re in. [So it was less that you were checking out Coltrane’s lines, but more that you were getting a feeling for the pathway of doing this? Or were you checking out the vocabulary?] Well, I was checking out the vocabulary of how they were all playing together. But the one thing that I learned about music listening to Coltrane, no matter what he was playing, was the depth of the repertoire that he knew, and how much ballads and the blues were in everything he played, and how it all related in his solos. He was a soloist of the highest order, no matter what he played, and his focus on the material drove him and fed him ideas. It wasn’t just what he was practicing on his horn, even though that was a big part of the way he played. The music that he played and the people that he played with really gave him direction, and you can hear it when you hear him playing on standards.
3. LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, “Chasin’ The Trane” (master take), Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums

All the different versions of “Chasing the Trane” through the years from the live recordings hit that same incredible level of creativity on the blues. This was one of the first pieces that I heard, and didn’t even realize it was a blues, for a long time. It was a whole side of one of the Impulse records, somewhere around 1961. Eric Dolphy comes in on the last note or something, at the very end. Now, of course, later they released all these other Live at the Village Vanguard takes, there’s other takes of “Chasin’ The Trane” where Dolphy plays and McCoy plays. But this particular version, the original that came out on that recording, was one side of a record, just Coltrane’s choruses. He played from start to finish. The first time I heard that, I listened to it all day. I just kept putting the needle back at the beginning of the recording. Then after a while, I realized it was a blues. I was a teenager, and it was something else, man. The energy, the focus, and the swinging, beautiful exploration of Coltrane’s choruses on that—it was really some magic, man. Then moving to New York, playing at the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and then carrying on into today, presenting my own groups, and recording live there, and feeling the spirits in that room, it goes back to that first time, checking THAT piece out.

[It’s fascinating that he recorded that maybe two years after “Three Little Words” from Bags and Trane, and the sound is so radically different.]

Mmm-hmm. Well, Trane was moving on in his playing and his approach, and becoming a leader, having his own band, focusing totally on what he wanted to play, and that in turn created a lot of ideas of how he was playing. He was always dealing with how he played, as well as what he was playing. He was definitely a dedicated, serious student of the saxophone and of music, but his approach widened through the years on how he was playing and how he was putting things together. We all study the elements in the music, and we all deal with things today that we dealt with on Day One. If you don’t do that, then I don’t think you can really play with the depth of your soul. If it only becomes a technical thing to get around your horn and to execute what you’ve practiced, you’re not really executing your feelings at all. Coltrane went through periods earlier on where he was documented, and was a very technical player. But you hear the evolution of how his feelings came out in his music in every step of the way, and that was a beautiful study also for me through the years. When you study somebody’s whole career on record, someone who recorded as much as he did… He recorded a lot! Hundreds and hundreds of songs through the years. That all came out in his playing at every moment, man, the soulfulness of it all, of his journey.
4. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, COLTRANE’S SOUND

That whole recording is amazing, but “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the form of it, the feelings, the way the rhythm shifted, and his ideas throughout the sequence of the harmonies with the different inflections that Elvin Jones was playing, and the way McCoy comped on that, little pedal points in the bass… It felt like a quartet. It wasn’t just Coltrane soloing over that tune or with a rhythm section. It really was a totally integrated quartet. This is an early record that I recognized that quality of improvising together as a unit. Some of the other things prior to that… Even on “Good Bait,” Coltrane’s playing with the rhythm section. But the interplay and the way they developed ideas and played off each other on “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was instrumental in my discovery of the approach of playing within the group you’re in, whether you’re playing a solo or not. Also, Elvin’s playing on that. As a young player, I played a lot of drums, and was practicing saxophone and drums at the same time, and playing along with records and trying to hear what was happening. Playing along with that recording on drums taught me everything, man, about form and about following the line and the soloist, and trying to hit a groove, playing ALONG WITH Elvin and McCoy and Coltrane on that recording. That taught me a lot about everything.
5. “Body and Soul” from COLTRANE’S SOUND (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones), Atlantic, 1960. 100/100

Studying the tune “Body and Soul” from that same recording. Studying Coleman Hawkins’ version. My Dad played Coleman Hawkins’ solo from that first big hit that he had, and my Dad knew it back and forth. I’d hear him play those lines all the time when I would practice. Hearing Coltrane’s interpretation, and his own perspective and view through his different harmonic sequences of “Giant Steps,” development through modulations and harmonies, and how he incorporated that… In that certain period for Coltrane, he was doing that on a lot of standard songs. The whole “Giant Steps” approach developed through his developing different ways of modulation through harmony. The way he put that together on “Body and Soul” was beautiful. It really taught me a lot about substitution chords, and how to incorporate those things as you’re playing through any given tune, and how it related to the blues as well. It’s one of the most soulful, beautiful versions of that tune. [Dexter Gordon incorporated those changes into his own version of “Body and Soul”] Dexter Gordon did that later on, sure. Dexter gave Coltrane a mouthpiece early on. It might have been the mouthpiece that he was playing on a certain early period with Miles. Well, Coltrane was one of Dexter’s disciples, I think, along with Bird and others. You could hear Dexter in Coltrane’s playing at a certain point, and later you hear Coltrane in Dexter’s playing a lot. That kind of mix teaches you a lot about what an amazing music this is. It’s multigenerational, multicultural. We all influence each other in different ways at different times in our careers and personalities.
6. “Vigil”, KULU SE MAMA (Impulse, 1965) (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums) 100/100

My Dad had this recording, as he did most of these. So I didn’t have to buy it. He loved KULU SE MAMA. He listened to this all the time. Of course, I grew up in the ‘60s, so I didn’t grow up when these recordings were coming out. They were all released. I was very lucky that my Dad had a hip record collection, and had these records from the different periods of Coltrane. He met Coltrane in the early ‘50s and played a jam session with him in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing alto; he was in town with a blues band. [Didn’t Coltrane stay in Cleveland for a little bit with a guy named Gay Crosse?] Gay Crosse was the blues band that he played with. I think he was a Cleveland cat. During that time, you might stay somewhere for a month or two and play every night. Anyway, they were one year apart; my Dad was born in 1925, and Coltrane in 1926. So they came up in the same generation, the same music. My dad played at this session with Coltrane, and he never forgot that, man. He loved Coltrane’s playing, and met him that time. Through the years, he had all his records. So I grew up with Bags and Trane and Soultrane and Kulu Se Mama and Meditations. But Kulu Se Mama was one that my Dad loved to listen to. This piece, “Vigil,” is just a duet with Elvin. It was so well recorded, it was incredible. When you listened to that down in our basement, on my Dad’s stereo, at forte, it was like they were in the room with you. The sound of the drums and the way they played together was so beautiful and organic. My Dad had a nice stereo with speakers all over the basement, so wherever you were down in our basement it was great sound! That piece really captured me, man, just in a duo. It might have been one of the first times I really heard a saxophone-and-tenor duet on a recording. [Speak a bit as to how Coltrane’s music was different in 1965 than 1961.] Definitely in 1965, when this recording was made, his sound… He was playing more majestic, in a certain way. He seemed to fill the room with his tone in a different way. In the early ‘60s, he was playing through his horn and flying around his horn, and he still filled the room… When I say “filled the room,” I’m talking about when you’re listening; I was never in a room with Coltrane playing live. But in the earlier Coltrane, his sound attacked you, it came at you. As he developed more to the end of his life, his tone was much majestic, and had a much more spiritual and open feeling to it—to me. Even though he was still playing some ferocious, incredible things around his instrument, just his sound was more beautiful than it even had been. It was always beautiful. I always thought he had a beautiful sound. But it was even more beautiful. It comes through on this duet as well.

7. “Venus” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Impulse, 1967] Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. 100/100

That’s another duet piece with Rashied Ali on drums, who plays brushes on this piece. It’s a ballad like, lyrical, rubato piece, and the way they improvise together is so captivating and beautiful. You hit the Repeat button when it finishes. You want to keep listening to it over and over again. It did that to me. Interstellar Space was a recording I brought home and played for my Dad, which then he really dug, because it was a complete LP of only duets. There are four pieces on it, four planets. Moving to New York in the mid ‘70s, one of the first places I went was Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley. I’d been playing a little with Albert Dailey, and he told me he was playing a gig with ‘Shied down there, and told me I should come. I went down and ended up sitting in with him that night. It was one of the thrills of my life up until that point, calling home and telling my dad I sat in and played with Rashied Ali! That recording, Interstellar Space, was an important record to me.

[This is towards the end of Coltrane’s life; he’d gone to another place than even on “Vigil.”] “Vigil” had a certain energy and a swing to it, and a certain drive that Elvin and Coltrane hooked up on. “Venus” was maybe a year-and-a-half later. Coltrane was dealing with a new approach to rhythm and flow and playing counterpoint within the rhythm. It was still swinging and still moving in a certain forward motion, but it wasn’t a quarter-note swing type beat. It was a very open beat that gives you a lot of room for expression. In a way, Rashied Ali was playing more like a soloist along with the soloist. But they were finding all kinds of common, beautiful unisons within the counterpoint that they were creating with each other. It’s a way of playing that from that moment on I’ve been trying to develop in my playing. Those directions put me in a path to play with Paul Motian through the years. At that same period in the ‘60s, Paul was also exploring playing a very free approach in his accompaniment on drums, flowing with the soloist and not just playing the beat that everyone expects you to play. Feeling the beat and then improvising with it. Throughout my career I’ve had a chance to play with some of the master drummers in jazz, including Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali and Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and the cats today, Brian Blade, Al Foster… It’s amazing. When I look back, I projected a lot of those things to happen from this early period, discovering all this diverse music and feelings that were executed by Coltrane and the crowd. That crowd. It all stemmed from Max Roach and Bird and Diz and Monk. But that certain crowd of players, and the way they learned from each other and developed a way of playing just captured me, and I feel really fortunate to be on the scene today and trying to execute my ideas within that world and with that crowd.

8. “Chim-Chim, Cheree” (COLTRANE PLAYS CHIM CHIM CHEREE, Impulse, 1965…) 100/100

It was an amazing version of “Chim, Chim Cheree” on soprano saxophone, the groove of it, the whole interplay, the flow of the quartet. Coltrane, coming off of playing “My Favorite Thing” and having such a success on that, and then playing an interpretation of “Chim, Chim Cheree” so wide-open and exploratory, and just, like, SERIOUS. He wasn’t just playing it to play it. You could feel that he was into exploring what could happen off of that theme, and the way they put it together is just a beautiful, joyous journey and piece of music. Also, this certain period… This was maybe ‘63 or ‘64… [I thought it was 1965.] Could be around ‘64 or ‘65. The way he was playing soprano at that time was… The later records after that, he didn’t play soprano. This was one of the later recordings on soprano, in a way—for a studio date anyway. Man, his sound and his whole approach and focus on that horn on that recording is instrumental in giving me confidence to try to play other instruments and explore the possibilities of different tonal energy that comes off of the horn you play. At that same time, for me, I’d heard James Moody live and Sonny Stitt live and Rahsaan Roland Kirk live… Of course, when I say that same period, when I heard that record and heard those cats live, I was a teenager, 16-17 years old. I was in a room with those guys. Sonny Stitt played alto, and then put it down and played tenor. Moody picked up the flute. Rahsaan played all these horns, not only at the same time, but to play as his voice for the moment. The focus of sound and energy from the instrument came through. I really felt that on “Chim, Chim Cheree” from the record with Coltrane, his focus and his sound and the energy that that instrument gave him, and how he executed ideas off that inspiration.

9. “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” (MEDITATIONS, Impulse, 1965) 100/100.

That melody, that theme, it’s like a very simple little exercise, in a way. If you broke it down and just played it like a scale, it was a simple, little, beautiful meditation on those intervals and those themes. How he played it through all keys. That was another record that my dad really loved, and he listened to it a lot. I heard it a lot without sitting and listening to it myself. I just heard it played in our house from the basement when my dad would be listening to music. At the time, I was dealing with trying to learn how to play the saxophone, so I was more into Bird and Diz and earlier Coltrane and Sonny with Max, but I was hearing my Dad listen to that record, and this piece in particular, “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and all of a sudden I found myself practicing a different way without even thinking about—just little simple things on the horn that I was working on, but playing them in different keys, and playing them more peaceful, in a way. Practicing them in a more peaceful way, instead of just running through them technically on the horn. Later, when I reflect on it, I realize that it was kind of subliminal something from that particular recording, the way my dad listened to that record a lot. I mean, he would go down to the basement and put that record on a lot. Maybe because it was totally new music to him. He wasn’t that kind of player, really. He was a real bebopper at heart, a hard-swinging player. But he had a beautiful ballads approach. I don’t know. Something about that record my Dad just loved, and listened to a lot. So I learned a certain way of practicing that came from that recording. Also, just the collectiveness of the way Pharaoh Sanders… Also, Rashied was on that record. It was a double-drummers record with Elvin and Rashied, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy, and Pharaoh. There were some things that were in that approach that have stayed with me, and certain things that I’m trying to develop to this day.

10. “Dear old Stockholm” (Coltrane, McCoy, Garrison, Roy Haynes, NEWPORT ‘63) 100/100

I love this live version of “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes on drums, and I listen to it a lot. There’s a certain freshness and different feeling that happens when Coltrane plays with Roy Haynes. His ideas take different shapes rhythmically and melodically. Something’s different there. That also just inspired me to realize that when you play with different people, that creates the music, really. The music within the music comes from the people that you’re playing with at the time. I recognized that at a certain point, and through the years developing with the people that I’ve played with, especially drummers, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Mel Lewis…realizing you could play the same tune, but when you have a different feeling in the rhythm section, you should play with a different feeling as a soloist. The recordings with Coltrane and Roy Haynes were really instrumental for me recognizing that, and this particular version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” the ending, the way they play over the form, the way they explore… They could have played that all day and night. From start to finish, it’s a joyous, beautiful journey.

11. “Expression” (Impulse, 1967, Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Garrison, Rashied Ali) 100/100

This is from Coltrane’s last session meant to be released. That tune… In a way, the harmonic sequence, the melody…it’s like a beautiful prayer. That’s something we just recorded with the Saxophone Summit on our latest release, Seraphic Light. Just to play that theme, when you’re playing that theme over and over again, just alone, on the saxophone, and implying some of the harmonies and the roots, it’s like the most beautiful prayer, and it’s a continuous melodic flow that is really something. It’s one of the tunes that Coltrane I don’t think ever really explored that much in concert. It was near the end of his life, and he might have just brought it in for the recording session for the whole group, and they recorded it. Now, of course, him and Alice might have been playing it as a duet, which I would have loved to hear that. When Alice came into the band after McCoy and played with a real harp-like approach, where she was playing the full piano in her accompaniment, it seemed to give Coltrane… In a way, he relaxed and played off of more of the spectrum in the harmonies. He was playing a harp-like approach also at that point, the way he expanded… They always talk about sheets of sound. When you slow that down, it becomes very harp-like, very open. Of course, on the duets, Interstellar Space, which was done in the same month or week, he was playing through things very quick, and flurries of notes throughout the harmony, whereas on “Expression” he kind of stretched them out a little bit. I think we would have heard another side to Coltrane if he’d developed during the years after this. Because his execution on his instrument was so beautiful. He could do whatever he felt and heard. When Alice came into the band, especially on these moments with the quartet… Stellar Regions is another quartet recording from right around that time where they explored many tunes, shorter version of them, that were kind of strung together. Expression was one of the songs I think that inspired a whole way of playing, for me, and a way of playing through harmonies in a free-flowing way, without a quarter-note or metronome-type beat. An open beat, but still moving through a sequence of chords. I learned a lot about trying to approach improvising with that aspect of meter. It’s something I’m just scratching the surface on now.

12. “Impressions” THE 1961 HELSINKI CONCERT (Gambit) FEATURING ERIC DOLPHY (Nov. 22, 1961) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I was just on tour with McCoy Tyner in April, and I found this in a record shop in Basel, Switzerland. I never saw it before. There’s a version of “Impressions” that starts the concert that’s at kind of a slower tempo, almost like the tempo they played “So What” at with Miles. It’s amazing. Coltrane’s choruses are so beautiful, just the way they play the theme together and the way Eric answers and plays in the spaces of the melody. Coltrane plays around 9 choruses, then Eric comes in and plays 9 or 10 choruses himself that are some of the most beautiful Eric Dolphy with Coltrane on record. It’s incredible, because I think this was just released now. I never heard it on any other box set from European live recordings with Coltrane. Then Coltrane comes back in, after Dolphy, and plays another 2 or 3 choruses before they take the theme out. So it’s a short version of this tune with no solo by McCoy. It’s just fantastic. It’s some of the most inspired Eric Dolphy after Coltrane plays, and while Coltrane is playing, you can feel that he’s inspired just by having Dolphy on the scene. He hands it over to him in a way where he’s saying, “Okay, man, what have you got to say?” Then when Dolphy ends his chorus, Coltrane has to come in and play again because it’s at this really beautiful place in the whole structure of the piece.


Coltrane recorded with a lot of different saxophone players. There was a great record with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley. There was some stuff with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley as a quartet. There’s some stuff with Paul Quinichette and Pepper Adams, Gene Ammons—Coltrane plays alto. Coltrane came up in an era where you played in bands with other saxophone players a lot. Some of it was documented, but I’m sure through the years he was in tons of bands, and many jam sessions and situations where you shape the music together spontaneously right at the moment with other saxophone players. A lot. Of course, with Miles and Cannonball and quintets with Cannonball. Throughout his career, I think he enjoyed, which I do, feeding off of other people, especially if they have a strong personality and ideas and have their own statement. It was great to hear him with Dolphy and have Eric’s voice, not only on alto, but bass clarinet and flute. We’re lucky that they recorded and did some things, a lot more than we ever heard really that were made for release. The recording Olé was beautiful with Freddie Hubbard and Coltrane together. But something like this, which just came out, from that tour, was so fresh! It was recorded in 1961. McCoy Tyner was 22 years old, maybe 23 on that recording. It’s so great to hear the inspiration of how they played together, and how they played off of each other.

13. “Ah-Leu-Cha” (from ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Miles Davis, trumpet; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones).

The way Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums play on that tune, the little counterpoint on that melody… I think that tune is based on “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Scrapple From the Apple”—I’m pretty sure it was derived from that sequence. But the way it was structured with the little drum-breaks and all these little things, and the way Coltrane played with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers… Of course, we’ve heard many recordings through the years with them together as that combination. That was another feeling in the beat, and the joyous journey in how they were up in each other’s music, and were moving through the harmonies with a certain feeling. They weren’t just playing over chords and playing 32 bars. They were exploring a way of playing together. It was Miles’ group, but this community of players. Someone has to be the leader, to organize things, but it’s really the community of players that make the music. I’m feeling that today in my ensembles, creating situations for the community that I live in. My nonet has a certain repertoire, a certain community of players. We’ve been playing together for years. Now, I’m the leader. I’ve organized and have developed my career to a point to be able to put it together. But it’s the community of players that is making music, too. Each one of my ensembles has been inspired by that particular realization about what is happening on the scene. Miles and Coltrane and Monk and Bird, all their records are about that. It’s a community they were living in, man, and they were living this music together, and you could feel how much they loved to play together. That comes through on this recording, Round About Midnight, with Miles Davis, and that tune, “Ah-Leu-Cha”—but on every tune. For me, that was one of the first records that totally captured me and gave me a lot of ideas, and I wore it out two or three times.



Joe Lovano (Quartets: Live At The Village Vanguard) – Blue Note:
The two quartet performances that comprise Live At the Village Vanguard represent the latest installment of Joe Lovano’s ongoing dialogue with the Freedom Principle and the Tradition. 42 years old, at the peak of his powers, where vigor complements wisdom, Lovano is as comfortable playing improvised duos with English Free-Jazz-Master Evan Parker as in-the-pocket bebop with an organ trio. His solos display the spontaneity of an ear player, but behind them is the urbane sophistication of a conservatory-trained musician with twenty years experience interpreting difficult charts in big bands ranging from Woody Herman to Carla Bley. Fully conversant with the harmonic vocabulary of Coltrane, Shorter and beyond, he is able to navigate complex structures with an uncannily relaxed rhythmic facility and big furry sound at the most intense outer partials.

Lovano inherited his open, pragmatic attitude from his father, Cleveland-based tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano. Papa Lovano worked a day job as a barber and played every variety of gig at night. Coming up in the 1940’s, Big T looked up to Clevelanders Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster, played around the city with the likes of Bill De Arango, Jim Hall, Benny Bailey, Joe Alexander and the legendary blind organist Eddie Bacchus. Later, as a main man on the Cleveland scene, he knew and played with outcats Albert Ayler, Frank Wright and Bobby Few in their formative years. The likes of Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Roland Kirk considered him a peer, and he took his son to Cleveland spots like the Smiling Dog or the Sirrah Club to hear their live sound. When young Lovano was practicing to Sonny Stitt records in the family basement, his father had John Coltrane’s “Kulu Se Mama” or “A Love Supreme” on the turntable upstairs.

When Big T was too busy to make a booking, he’d often send his son. “I paid my way to Berklee School of Music from all the money I made playing gigs in high school,” Joe recalls. “I learned all the standard tunes, how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. My Dad always stressed, ‘Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.’ He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.”

Tony Lovano’s sound spanned a wide dynamic range, from the alligatory roughness of Illinois Jacquet to the expansive melismas of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and he bequeathed that range to his son. “My sound has gone through a lot of different changes,” says Joe, “or different periods. Early on I played more one-dimensionally, with a harder sound. On my first recording with Lonnie Smith in 1975, my sound was only one beam of light, let’s say, just one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles where the music is always changing with different feelings, rhythms and attitudes, rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That range of dynamics started the process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, say, triple pianissimo with the same fullness as a triple forte.”

A drummer friend of Big T’s gave 7-year-old Joe a set from the 1940’s, including a 24″ bass drum, and Lovano has played those drums for serious relaxation ever since. On saxophone, his phrases consist of long strings of notes disjunctively accented in dialogue with the drums, cliffhanger lines that seem fated to hurtle over the edge, but inevitably land squarely on the one. “Playing drums,” Lovano comments, “opened up my awareness of what’s going on around me when I’m soloing, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano also introduced his son to the revelations of free improvising; they recorded a free duet together on Joe’s self-produced two-tenor date with Big T in 1986. “For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other players, like Billy Drewes and Judi Silvano, in duet settings, just to improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. I’m into performance, I’m into playing with the personalities I play with, and I improvise with everybody from that conception. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so that I don’t find myself being repetitive.”

“For me improvising really is about creating something new,” Joe emphasizes. “Early on it was about style and learning my horn, but after a while it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, using your technique and the language of your instrument to create something different all the time.”

The March 1994 set features the powerful unit of Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart, who had worked together off and on for two years. The most explicit antecedents are Sonny Rollins’ various trio recordings and the Ornette Coleman Quartet, but Lovano also cites John Coltrane’s music and Miles Davis’ various bands as inspirations. “Whether Miles’ group was a quartet or quintet or however big it was, it would come down to a trio sound a lot, the bass, drums and horn. I think that’s the essence in Jazz, and there are certain feelings that happen in that intimate setting.” The music was recorded on the week’s fourth night.

“In a quartet like this, with two horns,” Lovano continues, “you have the opportunity to change the orchestration as you play, to play backgrounds, to cut in on each other, to trade, to create a real ensemble sound as four people. I was able to write some new music and orchestrations that gave everyone freedom, a fresh approach to play together. The collective dialogue was unique, with a lot of explosive energy, and everybody’s attitude and personalities shaped the pieces. I think that’s why the chemistry worked. Each musician is in tune with the history of this music and tries to draw from it in a very personal way.”

Tom Harrell and Lovano have worked in each other’s bands since around 1987, when Lovano recorded Village Rhythm for Soul Note. Known for his exquisite improvising in “harmonic type music with piano or larger groups,” Harrell plays with extraordinary force in the freer setting, spontaneously co-composing arrangements with his horn-mate on every song, conjuring poised melodic sequences on every solo. Listen to the way he mimics the multiphonic burst that concludes Lovano’s solo on “Fort Worth” to segue seamlessly into his statement, or his ravishing solo on “Sail Away.”

Though Lovano first knew bassist Anthony Cox from casual sessions in the late Seventies, they established a real connection with John Scofield’s Quartet in 1989; in 1990-91 Cox worked in Lovano’s trio with Ed Blackwell. “Anthony is versatile and can play very freely within structures and forms and harmonic sequences with imagination and intuition,” Lovano states. “He’s a strong melodic rhythmic player who brings a lot of ideas into the tune, but always drawing from the tune itself. That’s the kind of bass player you need in a trio sounding group such as this.” Hear his leadoff solo on Cleveland composer Emil Boyd’s “Blues Not To Lose,” how he meshes with Billy Hart in articulating theme and variation on the tune’s striking melody.

On Joe’s first gig in New York with organist Lonnie Smith in 1975, Billy Hart played drums; they’ve since collaborated in many venues. “I first heard Billy with Herbie Hancock’s sextet in the early Seventies, and the first time I heard him, man, I wanted to play with him!” Lovano remembers. “In every situation Billy is open and inspired. He tries to get into everyone’s personality, plus he brings in his own incredible energy. In this quartet I wrote some tunes to feature him and let him explode and explore, give him freedom to shift tempos and to play however he wants, to listen and react. I think Billy Hart today is playing fresher than ever.” Hart’s dynamic range and command of timbre complement every beat of the set; hear how he complements Lovano’s trademark pillowed, honey sound on the 12/8 treatment of “Birds From Springtimes Gone By,” his impeccable brushwork on “I Can’t Get Started,” the quiet fire of “Sail Away,” and the controlled fury of every stroke on the Colemanesque “Uprising.”

Volume 2, from January 1995, features the dream team rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the pianist, bassist and drummer that any bandleader would want on their gig, in a follow-up to Tenor Legacy, Lovano’s two-tenor collaboration with Joshua Redman for Blue Note.

“I wanted to make a counter-statement to the first quartet,” Lovano says, “and not just be throwing some tunes together. For the Vanguard, I wanted to play some classic things in my own way and in the group’s way, how we play together now. We challenged each other throughout the week on each tune. It didn’t matter what the tempo was or what key it was in or what the tune was. We could have played ‘Happy Birthday’.” Instead, Lovano chose compositions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, a standard by Gordon Jenkins, and an original. As on the March 1994 set, the sequencing represents the actual set order.

Many pianists you talk to cite Mulgrew Miller as their model on the instrument; “one of the most elegant, swinging, tasteful pianists today,” comments Lovano, who met Mulgrew around 1974 when both were students in Boston. “He plays with an inner beauty in his sound and whole flow, and he’s one of the most swinging accompanists around. When he comps, he’s so much a part of what everybody else is playing that you’re not really aware of what he’s playing somehow. He’s so in touch with everything.” His ferocious, idiomatic solo on “Little Willie Leaps” marks a profound accomplishment; the duos with Lovano in the opening and closing verse sections of “This Is All I Ask” are lyric wonders.

At 23 years old, Christian McBride already has established his place in Jazz history for the quality of his tone, his deep center-of-the-note beat, virtuosic bow-work and imaginative soloing. He’s already appeared on about eighty recordings. “Christian is an incredible young musician who is deeply involved in the whole recorded history of music. He knows a lot of tunes, and he memorizes things immediately. You can play anything with him. After the first time through he plays it, SNAP, he knows it, he’s got it, he immediately grabs hold of what’s happening and hits a serious groove from beat one.” Listen to his solos on “Reflections” and “26-2” and his rhythmic interplay with Lewis Nash throughout, and you’ll see what the buzz on him is all about.

“The word ‘elegant’ applies to Lewis Nash’s playing, too,” Joe continues. “He is one of the most tasteful drummers, swings so hard, plays with complete precision with a heavy beat that never gets bombastic — he’s not just banging around. He articulates everything like a horn player, and it’s fun to play with him and interact with his articulation, the way he plays phrases at you and counter-phrases. He’s very clear. You can hear everything he plays like you’re snapping your fingers. It’s beautiful to play with a drummer like that, because you can play tight together.” Note the incredible swing Nash generates on “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Reflections” at the top of the set, or the ingenious 12-bar drum breaks between the melodies and solos of “Sounds of Joy.”

The contrasting styles of the two state-of-the-art drummers evoked different approaches from Lovano. “Lewis plays very differently than Billy,” he comments. “Billy plays really loose and flowing and strong and explosive, and takes big right turns and sharp angles. There’s a lot more angles in Billy’s playing. With Billy you’re listening deeply, and the interaction takes a different shape. You have to be very free as an improviser to create a solo that can shift and change with his accents and tempo. The piano quartet is about swing, and it’s about the rhythm section, the soloists, the tradition of Bebop. It’s really about flow and straight-ahead. They say, ‘Straight ahead and strive for tone.’ That’s the essence of that group. We hit a heavy groove and just sailed with it.”

“I played completely differently with the two groups, in two different attitudes, and I think you can hear that when you listen to each recording. My solos in the quartet with Mulgrew are a lot longer and a lot more involved with playing a solo. In the group with Tom and Billy and Anthony there’s more interplay, a lot more dialogue between all of us. I’ve played in both those schools my whole life, and I love them both.”

The Village Vanguard’s legend was built on performances like the two snapshots presented on this double-CD. Lovano’s intense consciousness of the room’s remarkable Jazzcoustics, “its intimate sound and clarity, like playing in a studio somehow,” began as a teenager, when repeated listenings to the Vanguard recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans helped deepen his sense of how Jazz should sound. His live connection with the Vanguard began in 1976, the year he moved to New York. He drank in Dexter Gordon’s tone during Homecoming week (“I came home and practiced for hours and hours after hearing Dexter in that room”), sat in with Elvin Jones and Bill Evans. Lovano worked there almost every Monday night during the 1980’s with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, worked week-gigs with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and the Paul Motian Trio. And since 1991, when Lovano embarked on the leader path as a full-time endeavor, his various groups have been a staple of the Vanguard’s roster.

So recording Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard was a natural. Rigorous and hot, Live At The Village Vanguard is contemporary Jazz at its finest.


Joe Lovano (On This Day: At The Vanguard) – Liner Notes:

“I’ve always lived in, let’s say, the different camps in the music,” Joe Lovano told me a few years back. “I’ve tried to develop my technique so I can execute ideas freely and within the personnel of the band and not come at the saxophone or the music with the same attitude all the time.”

That credo accurately describes the ambiance of On This Day (At The Vanguard), recorded on the final night of a week’s residence by Lovano’s nonet at New York’s Village Vanguard. As Lovano is at pains to note, it documents a working band in a continual state of evolution.

“I don’t want a bunch of horn players repeating arrangements that are rehearsed and set in stone,” Lovano says. “I want a band that creates music, with a structure that is secure and solid, but with freedom for everyone’s contribution to take shape and crystallize as we play. All the cats have played in great bands; they’re mature improvisers and serious ensemble players who shape their approach in the moment. This is how we put together our music for every concert. Each performance stands on its own. This is how we’re playing tonight!“

The core of Lovano’s first nonet album, the Grammy-winning 52nd Street Themes, was that branch of bebop gestated by the singular melodies, voicings and harmonic progressions of Tadd Dameron [1917-1965] as filtered through the sensibility of arranger Willie Smith, once a Dameron associate. Three years later, Lovano and his gifted cohort – propelled by the extraordinarily inventive and empathetic drumwork of Lewis Nash – pick up where they left off and stretch the form. The ensemble renders with heart and precision Smith’s luscious arrangements of Dameron’s “Focus” and the classic noir ballad “Laura,” while all members speak their piece on a rollicking “Good Bait” marked by an ebullient shout chorus. “At The Vanguard” is a Lovano-penned stomp (guess the source) with a Monkish connotation, while the leader offers an impassioned, reflective reading of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” and ends the set with a mellow quartet fantasia on Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” made famous by Coltrane on his iconic 1962 encounter with Duke Ellington.

“I grew up with Coltrane’s recordings of these tunes,” Lovano says. “It’s a challenge to try to make them my own and not copy the way he played them.” That Lovano meets the challenge with such a palpably individual voice is attributable to early hands-on encounters with bebop signposts like Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and “Hot House,” a process that launched him along the same path that his heroes followed during formative years while carving out their own inimitable tonal personalities.

“Playing the inner parts and original harmonic structures of Tadd’s music influenced Coltrane’s early tunes,” Lovano states. “Although Coltrane was always moving forward rhythmically and sonically and in everything else, he always dealt with everything he ever studied. Even on the duets with Rashied Ali, he’s still dealing with ‘Giant Steps,’ still dealing with all these things that vibrated in his body. That simple melody on ‘A Love Supreme’ has the same intervals as on ‘Locomotion’ from Blue Train. With people like Coltrane or Miles, their surroundings changed, but what they played came from their entire lives.”

Lovano fully expresses his penchant for eliciting creative dialogue with the jazz lifeblood on the title track, a free kaleidoscopic journey built on a hymn-like 9-note melody [“on-this-day-just-like-a-ny-oth-er”] over an ametric pulse, and a second 8-note theme that echoes the syllables Bil-ly Hig-gins, the late drummer to whom Lovano dedicated the piece, and whose alert, relaxed essence Lewis Nash channels throughout. In their explorative solos, George Garzone, Steve Slagle, Barry Ries, John Hicks and Lovano develop and elaborate upon the shapes and moods, sustaining an emotional core and creating magic.

They embody the notion that the title of this special album refers not only to a snapshot of a work in progress, but to a philosophy of life.

“This music is honest and true,” Lovano says. “You can’t tell lies when you play it, because it’s already been documented. It isn’t just technical, but exists at a beautiful spiritual level also. ‘On This Day’ is about how cats from the inner circle – Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Paul Motian, Art Blakey – played with such consistency every time you heard them. Long before I became who I am as a player, they inspired me to develop that attitude to the art of improvising, and also to play with them. They gave me confidence to be myself, to put together an ensemble like this, with so much trust.”


Liner Notes (Us Five: Folk Art):

It is entirely characteristic of Joe Lovano that he would use his 21st recording for Blue Note, released amidst the fanfare of the label’s seventieth anniversary year, to introduce a new ensemble, Us Five, deploying a fresh approach towards exploring his music.

To be specific, Us Five: Folk Art comprises ten compositions. Lovano plays tenor saxophone, straight alto saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, aulochrome, and percussion, joined by James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and Otis Brown and Francesco Mela on, to use Lovano’s nomenclature, drums and cymbals. He explores a wide spectrum of “colors, sounds, and feelings,” organizing the flow into passages for quintet, quartets, trios, duos, and solos within the unit, fully exploiting the various rhythm section possibilities that the two-drummer format affords. The better to coax the music onto unexpected routes, Lovano offers his collaborators wide latitude to interpret the raw materials “with freedom to take shape and crystallize as we play.” He himself navigates the fluid terrain with utter authority, consistently projecting the vocalized tone, uncanny time feel, and interactivity that mark his entire Blue Note corpus.

“I’ve always tried to be very free with inside approaches, and to be really in there on freer music, what they call ‘outside,’” says Lovano, noting that the unit, which first convened in the fall of 2007, honed their collective perspective during a week at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard directly before the recording session.

“The music comes out of our individual roots, and the combinations emerge. Francesco Mela is from Cuba; Otis Brown is a real New York drummer; Esperanza has a beautiful lyrical approach; and I love the way James conceives jazz music with blues, gospel, and freer forms. It’s an ongoing study on how to play together with mutual respect and an egoless approach.”

Except for Weidman, whose c.v. includes long stints with Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, Lovano’s new partners are “people who aren’t my generation, haven’t totally developed their approach, are experiencing things for the first time. Everyone has fresh eyes and ears, and this gives me compositional ideas that I had never played with anyone else before. Everybody is on their toes.”

They have to be to keep pace with Lovano. The composer describes the opening track, “Powerhouse,” as “an original harmonic structure that combines things I study and work on all the time—trying to combine the turnarounds and resolutions of Bird and Coltrane in my own way, and working with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic ideas, changing the meaning of notes as you play them by shifting color and key as you move along.”

Consider how “Folk Art” develops—Lovano states the theme on straight alto saxophone over a polytonal vamp, evolves the flow in configurations that shift from quintet to drum-duo and back to quintet, switches to tenor saxophone as the harmonic material takes a more straightforward direction, and moves to more open-ended polytonal exploration on the final theme. “That approach for me is what jazz is,” Lovano says. “It’s a real folk music, and you can play a multitude of influences from your experiences in the world of music in your improvisation and composition.”

The ebullient ambiance of invention never stops. The spiritual aura of late Coltrane permeates the ballads ‘Wild Beauty’ and ‘Song for Judi,’ the latter—dedicated to Lovano’s wife (“and inspiration”), singer Judi Silvano—containing three different key signatures that prod Lovano to extend and elaborate while also living within the lovely melody. Lovano plays tarogato (he describes the Hungarian folk instrument as “half-clarinet and half soprano saxophone, with many colors and a human voice sound”) on “Drum Song,” and aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone with one keyboard down the center) on “Dibango,” a funky line dedicated to Cameroonian saxophonist-vibraphonist Manu Dibano. He plays alto clarinet on the stately, folkish “Page Four,” and launches the open-form “Ettenro” (“Ornette” spelled backward), on alto saxophone before switching to tenor for a summational statement after Weidman, a force throughout, says his piece.

As do his twenty previous Blue Note albums, Us Five: Folk Art illuminates Lovano’s unique position as an artist who authoritatively deploys the tradition as a tool to point directly to the future.

“Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff wanted cats to find themselves and to realize that they had beautiful original music,” Lovano says of Blue Note’s founding fathers, expressing a sentiment equally applicable to Bruce Lundvall’s quarter-century at the helm. “Carrying on in that tradition of being a player-composer is the legacy of Blue Note for those of us who record for them today.”


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Filed under Bill Frisell,, Jazziz, Joe Lovano, Liner Notes, Paul Motian, Village Vanguard, WKCR

For John Patitucci’s 56th Birthday, a 2009 Conversation for; an Uncut Blindfold Test For Downbeat in 2002; and a “Director’s Cut” Article For DownBeat in 2000

For John Patitucci’s…


John Patitucci (Aug. 12, 2009):
TP: Let’s start with the Remembrance trio project. I read the bio. It started when you were doing a rehearsal at Joe Lovano’s home for Communion back in 2000, and Brad Mehldau wasn’t there for part of a rehearsal, and you liked the feel of the trio.

JP: We were up at Joe’s pad, and it was glorious. He has a high-ceilinged thing in his house upstate. We walked in there, and we just figured, “Oh, let’s do this without the piano and just rehearse.” We started playing and we looked at each other, like, “what…?” It was amazing. You can’t contrive that. I don’t care who it is. It could be all-star people, things that look good on paper, and you get together and the chemistry isn’t quite there, or there’s different conceptions that don’t line up. This was just instantaneous. Ever since then, whenever we saw each other, I’d say, “Man, remember that?” They’d said, “Yeah, I remember that; we’ve got to do…” We’d always talk about, “We’ve got to do a trio thing, we’ve got to do a trio thing.” So finally, I’d been also… I always wanted to do that anyway. Any bass player in jazz, if you ask them, probably would say it’s something that they would be interested in doing, because it just sounds so good to have that air and space in the music. But finally for me…I had been listening, obviously, to Sonny’s records for a while. I’d always loved the one with Elvin Jones and Wilbur Ware, Live at the Village Vanguard, but also the stuff with Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford is just amazing on <i>Freedom Suite</I>. I thought that I’ve waited, I’m going to be 50 this year—maybe this is it. Because I can’t wait forever. I guess my first philosophy was wait til I get a little older, and maybe I’ll have some time to get a little stronger before I attempt to put something… This is a heavy thing for me. With trio, there’s a legacy and a history, and you don’t want to come out of the gate sounding like you’re just doing a retro homage to these great records—even though they’re worthy of all that. But I didn’t feel that I wanted to do something that would be copying, but something that would be in tribute but also trying to add some other colors and personal things, if I could, to add some other things in the mix.

TP: You stated a whole interview’s worth of themes there. You mentioned waiting until you’re strong enough…

JP: Which you can never be.

TP: But for someone of your reputation and experience to say that is interesting. Also, you’re speaking about the overall sound of the record, which is very specifically a hardcore jazz date, with that feel, whereas many of your recordings with Concord have dealt with Afro-Caribbean feels, classical music, numerous configurations. You even mentioned in an earlier bio that some people like one sound within the record, whereas you like variety. You’ll probably contest this assertion.

JP: Yes, it’s interesting you’d say that. I read in some reviews that people didn’t get some of the other sounds on the record. They said it’s a straight-ahead blowing date. One guy said, “This is a humble record, it’s modest,” but the you get to “Scenes From an Opera,” where all of a sudden there’s a string quartet and an alto clarinet, and that’s not like a straight-ahead blowing date at all. That’s another color introduced. You could also argue that not only on “Scenes From An Opera,” but also “Mali” has the West African influence, “Messaien’s Gumbo” there’s New Orleans…

TP: I didn’t say a straight-ahead blowing date. I’m thinking of one sound with three musicians, with whom you blend together all these flavors in a very 21st century way, an organic way that reflects your experience.

JP: But it’s interesting that I had a review that said “this is a simple, straight-ahead record.” I thought, “Did you listen to the same record that I…” I guess because on some of the things we were paying tribute to those things that Sonny did in a very organic way—the way Joe is able to improvise and play with such authority and Brian’s feeling. I understand that. But to me, that’s not the only thing this is.

TP: Let’s talk about putting together the repertoire, the arc of the date. Are most of them recent tunes, written with this date in mind?

JP: I write all year round, every year. I just write. I write classical commissions. I write tunes. I write pieces for piano. I just write as much as I can, within my crazy schedule. I try to remain a work in progress as a composer, trying to compose and expand. However, I did know who I was writing for, for this. So over time, as I gathered things, I knew that it was going to be Brian and Joe. I mean, I knew that years ago, when I decided this is a project that we’re going to do together at some point. Then other things crept in. I kept thinking, and would think, “Oh, this would be good for that.” So as I collected more things, the things that sounded like they would go with this project got lumped into this area over here, which became the record.

Some things were late additions. Like, the piece for Michael Brecker was the result of me, over a year ago… Last baseball season, I sat down in my living room to change the strings on my 6-string bass, because I had to do a gig—and it’s pretty tedious. So I had the game on while I was changing the strings, and as I was tuning up a couple of strings, this drone thing started happening, and I thought, “Wait a minute…” Then, the Yankees were losing, and I turned it off. “Wait a minute; what’s this?” I found this little thing, with these voicings around this open G-string in the middle. Something started happening, and I said, “Wait a minute, I’d better write this down.” I thought maybe this is a little interlude on the record somewhere. Then after I started writing it, I decided, “no, I want to record this. Something is here; I don’t even know what it’s going to become.”

But the interesting that happens, which is part of the recording process that I love, is that I try to approach the recording process, even though I compose things also improvisationally… When we went to do the string octet… My wife and I were going to do the string octet, which was four celli and four basses, and she and I overdubbed them all. We figured, “Ok, we’ll get a baby-sitter, we’ll go to the studio, and we’ll knock out the string octet.” Then I thought, “I’ll try that thing I’m thinking, and see what happens.” But we had the time constraint—the baby-sitter is only a few hours. So we did the string octet, and we were pleased with that, we took our time, made sure everything was right. Then I said, “well, I’ll just give myself a little time on this thing and see if it develops; if it doesn’t develop, I won’t use it.” I brought my piccolo 6-string bass as well (this is for “Remembrance”). I figured, “well, I’ll try it.” So I put the thing down, then I thought, “Let me double it with the regular 6-string bass,” and it sounded like a 12-string guitar. I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting.” Then I put a couple of passes of a sort of recitative melodic statement over it, and that’s when it hit me. It became this really emotional piece, and it felt like Mike. It felt like me trying to process… I don’t want to get too heavy about it. But it definitely spoke to me about something emotional, and I thought, “That’s for Mike.”

TP: When did the “Remembrance” theme become the overriding idea? Because the recording is a suite of homages to various people who have gone.

JP: That happened organically. As the tunes came together, the tunes suggested, “Well, this is really for…” Some of them I had already titled before I knew I was going to do a whole record on this theme. It just happened naturally that a bunch of these tunes… I thought, “Well, that’s what this record is; it’s become this.” Things kept happening. We kept losing more people, and I thought, “wow, I’ve got to make a statement.” But it’s not only that. Like I say in the liner notes, it’s to honor the people that we still have, who are still making strong music, because oftentimes people wait until the person dies, and appreciate them then, which is sad. Now we have people like Sonny who is still creating incredible things, Wayne Shorter obviously, all the people I mentioned there. So it’s also remembering to honor them now, and also remembering to be present. This is something in my spiritual walk, in my growth as a person spiritually that I’m trying to get better at, which I think is a challenge to all of us—to be present in the moment, not worry about the future, not get stuck being always nostalgic about the past and being locked there, and actually be here right in this instant. That’s the way these guys play, too, and that’s the way playing in Wayne’s band is—it’s very present. People are really aware of the time that we have together, and we really try to live it to the fullest and cherish it. I didn’t want it to be a totally mournful thing where people are supposed to get the record and mourn. No, that’s not what this is. You can hear it in the music. It’s a celebration of that inspiration.

TP: Do you see this in any way as a companion date to the previous record, Line by Line, which was primarily a trio with guitar and augmented by Chris Potter? Are there relationships between the two?

JP: I didn’t really think of them that way, no.

TP: You had seen Line by Line as a companion to the previous recordings.

JP: Right. Because it also had expanded orchestration and writing for strings. Line and Line and Songs, Stories and Spirituals were a couplet to me. This was something other… Although it makes sense to me that it came out after Line by Line, because it was time to change up the orchestration. I had done two records where I had written extensively for a little bit expanded formats. I thought I’d pare down and see if, as a composer, I could still make orchestrational colors happen with a more limited number of people. That was a challenge for me. A composer should be able to get orchestrational variety with a couple of instruments or many. Of course, these guys have so many colors that you could put one of them on the stage by themself, and you have a world of color. So I wasn’t really worried about getting enough colors with Joe and Brian.

TP: Before we talk about your simpatico with Brian Blade, with whom you’ve had an ongoing relationship for a decade, talk a bit about your connection to Joe Lovano.

JP: I fell in love with Joe Lovano’s playing when I heard him on John Scofield’s recordings. Sco and I have a history together. I’ve always loved John’s playing. I was a fan. I used to transcribe his stuff when I was in college; John influenced my playing. My brother is a guitarist, so a lot of guitar players influenced my playing on the 6-string bass, because of the way they approached harmony and lines. Wes Montgomery was one that hit me. Pat Martino. Benson, Sco was one of my heroes. I used to see Abercrombie quite a bit, too, in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

Anyway, Sco’s records with Lovano with Bill Stewart. I love Sco. And we’ve played together quite a bit now; every once in a while, we get together and do something else. Now was a big deal for me, because I used to love that quartet with Joe in it, whether the bassist was Dennis Irwin, or before him Marc Johnson played a little bit, and Charlie Haden played on some of the records… Man, Joe’s playing…man, this guy is amazing. We would run into him on the road and hear him. “Man, this guy, he’s special.” So I had wanted to do something with him for years, and in fact, I probably would have hired him for Now, but I didn’t want it to look like I had just hijacked John Scofield’s band—it was Bill Stewart, John, and if I’d used Joe, it would have been way too much.

TP: Another convergence about this and Line and Line is your use of the electric 6-string. On a lot of the recordings prior to Line by Line you were playing primarily acoustic, and then doing an electric feature at the end of the recital.

JP: Yes, there would be two or three tracks maybe.

TP: But on this record and the previous one, the 6-string electric is more integrally orchestrated into the flow.

JP: When I moved back to New York, I was trying to dispel… Part of the reason why I came back was obviously to play with all these players. As a composer, there’s no better pool of incredible artists than New York for the music I want to write and want to play. But the other part is that I felt I was getting pigeonholed a little bit. Some people would say, “He’s that fusion guy.” What are you talking about? I’ve been playing bebop since I was a teenager, and playing with older musicians, too, who were amazing already in my late teens. So I felt that was a strange thing, and when I moved back to New York I was really excited. What happened was that the stereotype got shattered to the point that people literally would say to me, “Oh, you play electric bass? I didn’t know you did that?”

TP: You told me a story about a woman contractor called you for a gig…

JP: Yeah, a contractor. I said, “What do you want me to bring?” “What do you mean?” I said, “Do you want acoustic bass, electric bass, fretless? What do you want?” She said, “You play electric bass?” I said, “Okay! I guess the stereotype is erased.” I didn’t want to totally cancel out on another part of what I do.

But I also wanted to put a viewpoint out there that’s not often expressed, it seems, that in this music there is a place for the electric bass in a musical way and in an organic way. It doesn’t have to be that when you pick this up, all of a sudden it’s this loud, thrashing, bright kind of edgy sound. It can be a warm, organic kind of thing that really works in the music. Obviously, Steve Swallow has been doing this for many years, asserting this viewpoint. But not many people have that viewpoint with that instrument.

TP:   Observing your musical production this year, how relationships and continuities play out over time. For example, the trio with Jack DeJohnette and Danilo Perez—you recorded and you performed with them. You played with Wayne this summer. You played trio with Roy. You played trio with Ed Simon, which is an important relationship, though less high profile.

JP: I love Ed. He was in my band for quite a while.

TP: Then also this band. So your current musical production gives us ample opportunity to discuss your past. And the trio with Lovano and Brian Blade embodies so many flavors of 21st century jazz. Of the people you’ve played with this year. Wayne Shorter… Well, Wayne Shorter you first played with when you were living in Los Angeles, and played with him periodically…

JP: Since 1986.

TP: Talk about how that experience has evolved.

JP: Early on, when I was playing with him, it was mostly an electric bass gig. We were doing the music from Atlantis, and we’d play some with the acoustic bass, but mostly it was electric, and then we went on the road where oftentimes it was only electric. We were playing very orchestrated music, where the basslines were all massive, incredible. That was fun. But the interesting thing was coming out of… I had started to do stuff, I had done some records of my own and been playing with Chick a lot, and then in 1991 I did a number of weeks with Wayne, including one here in New York at the Blue Note. We’re standing on that small stage together, and I had that 6-string bass, and he’s right next to me. The solos he was playing… A lot of the tunes in those days were really heavily written, but then the solo sections would be open, one chord or something. But the things he would create off that were just staggering. Then he’d turn to me and say, “want some?” It was good for me, because night after night, I had to try to do something after he would chisel one of these granite, monumental solos of doom. Then I didn’t know what to do. I started to feel like my stuff was really trite. I realized I needed to get to a deeper place, because when he plays, he can with one sound destroy you, just emotionally. Just one sound placed in a certain way. One note. I was finding that I needed more of that in my playing. I felt I really wanted to get to the place where I could tell a larger story. It was good for me. Because he was very encouraging. He used to give me a lot of room to blow. He liked the bass to stretch. He would turn to me and say, “Yeah, Paganini—go ahead, go ahead.” He was into it. But it made me realize that not only did I have to learn, how to get deeper… Also, he did it with density, too. That was the thing. He could do it with one note or a million, just like Trane. He could destroy you with one, or his version of sheets of sound, or whatever. You’d be really moved by it. It wasn’t licks. There were no licks. So that was a wakeup call.

Then again, when we started the band in the late ‘90s, I started playing with him again, before Danilo and Brian were in the picture. We did some gigs. He was thinking about doing some expanded form things, and we did…

TP: You did something with the Detroit Symphony, I believe.

JP: We did that. Even before that, we did something for a giant Buddhist festival in Japan. That was a large group, with Terri Lyne and Jim Beard, Shunzo Ohno, David Gilmore—playing a mixture of things. But in the ‘90s, he started calling again, because he knew I’d left Chick to do my own thing. He always used to call me, all through those years… My wife and I had experienced a still-birth the year he lost his wife. So we had talked, and towards the end of the ‘90s, we got together and started… he said, “do you want to do something?” I said, “Look, I’m loose. I’m doing some stuff with my own group. Any time you call, I’m there. Absolutely.” so he knew he had that kind of love and commitment from me. The other stuff evolved over time.

TP: You mentioned to me that you first met Brian Blade on Danilo Perez’ recording date, Suite of the Americas, and you and he have evolved into one of the classic bass-drum pairings over the decade. What qualities contribute to your simpatico, make you such an interesting fit?

JP: Well, we have a lot of shared love of a lot of music, and also experience in terms of spiritual things. The way he was raised, and my love for that type of culture in music from the church, in the African-American tradition, and also my faith and his faith… There’s a lot of things we share. Sometimes you hit it off with somebody, and there’s an immediate click, an immediate connection. You can’t contrive it. It’s hard to put into words. Brian’s a part of my family. What’s interesting is that I could feel that… Before I moved back to New York, I was driving in L.A., and a record came on the radio which I think was him with Josh, and I heard him play. I didn’t know who it was. I freaked out. I said, “Who is that drummer? That’s it.” It just hit me. Like, “That’s the guy I need to work with.” I didn’t know who he was or anything, then I found out… Then I started hearing his name a lot.

TP: He started recording with Joshua in ‘95.

JP: I moved back in ‘96 and it was right before I moved back, so it must have been ‘95 that I heard him on a record, and I almost pulled off the freeway. I remember going to a recording session, and Harvey Mason was on it, and he also was saying, “Have you heard this guy Brian Blade?” I said, “Man, I heard him.” He said, “That’s it.” I said, “That is it.”

TP: What is “that”?

JP: Well, what is that? That is somebody whose spirit on the drums is connected to all the masters. You could easily say he’s connected to Elvin, Max, Roy, DeJohnette, all the guys who have changed the course of jazz drumming and have contributed a voice and a beauty and a power… His musicianship is so unbelievably high, and that’s the one thing that I think separates him from most of the guys. He’s perfectly happy playing next to nothing or as much as you want. He’s got those tools. He can make small sounds. He can make big sounds. He can have a lot of density. He can have absolutely simplicity. He can play any kind of groove you can think of. There’s just not that many guys who you can say even three of those guys about.

TP: I guess one of those guys might be Jack DeJohnette, who was integral in your transition from the West Coast to East, and with whom you did the [tk] project this year.

JP: Our relationship started with Gonzalo on the record, Live in Japan. He was very cool, and from that time on, he was the one who schemed to put me together with Danilo Perez. It was his idea. He introduced us at a record date by Eugene Pay, with Mike Brecker. Danilo came to the studio with David Sanchez, and I met them. Jack said, “Yeah, man, you’d better play together.” He was on it. He heard it.

The trio with Jack, Danilo and I did a really fun week at the Blue Note. When the three of us get together, it’s a whole different relationship. Jack is obviously a force of nature and a very interesting musician for a lot of things. There’s a guy who can play the piano and do all this stuff, but also his connection to Elvin, as well as Haynes… But I hear a lot of connection to Elvin. The swirling nature and the big beat. When I play with him, it reminds me… I didn’t get to play with Elvin; I missed out on that. I often think, well, maybe this is in the direction of what it would feel like to play with Elvin.

TP: In that trio, the grooves were from everywhere, but distilled in a very personal way. You have gone through periods of getting really immersed in Afro-diasporic grooves, particularly a decade ago when you were playing with Giovanni Hidalgo and El Negro and were really deep into presenting those sounds within your own compositions. On the Remembrance project, the grooves are from Africa, from New Orleans, from various aspects of jazz. Can you discuss how your own rhythmic compass has developed over this decade?

JP: One key factor… Before that, back as far as the record Another World, which was a GRP record in the early ‘90s, where I did a lot of collaboration with Armand Sabal-Lecco, who’s from Cameroon…a lot of stuff on that record was very African. I had gotten into Salif Keita when I was with Chick. When we went to Portugal for the first time, we met an African guy from Angola who hipped us to a lot of stuff. Then when Mike Brecker got with Paul Simon and was hanging with all the Cameroonian guys, he introduced me to Armand Sabal-Lecco. Mike was the one who also suggested to me, “Check some of this stuff out; you’d love this”—I got way into it. Before that, I had played with some musicians from South America. I had played with Acuna and Justo Almaria in L.A., and some other people, and a ton of Brazilian guys.

When I got back east, I started delving into more of the Caribbean stuff, the Cuban and Puerto Rican aspects, and also Danilo was a huge factor in my coming to a greater understanding of this music. He would give me rhythmic exercises. He would teach me how to get inside the three. The three is at the center, the 6/8 is at the center of all the music. It’s inside so much stuff. So he would give me little exercises where you could go in and out of the 6/8, within the three, and the pulse would stay the same but you’d be accessing all these different worlds of rhythm. This is what these guys get so great at, and take to such a deep place, where they can… Giovanni and Negro can metrically modulate and do all kinds of things that are so organic and so swinging, deeply… They have a profound understanding of the triple meter, the 6/8, how that can impact the 2 and the 4/4 and big-three. You get into all these multiples of the rhythm. We’ve been talking about that and doing musical exercises for years. He’s helped me deepen my clock with that stuff. It’s profound, how good he is at teaching it, too. He’s phenomenal at that. He understands it very well. He always jokes. He says I taught him how to read chord symbols and some harmonic things like that, but he taught me a world of rhythmic stuff. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a drummer first. I had hand drums, I had bongos and maracas, and I was singing. I loved the drums. I mean, I had the bass, too. But I remember, even after I started playing the bass, I tried to get my dad to let me have a drumset, and he said no. [LAUGHS] So the drums are something that I’ve always revered, too. Danilo, too. Sometimes he jokes around, he sits down at the drumset, and we’ll play together on the soundcheck. He has a great feeling.

TP: Then this summer you also went on the road with Roy Haynes for the first time in a while.

JP: In a while, yes. Danilo and I had been with him, and done quite a few tours and a record in the late ‘90s. Roy was in phenomenal spirits. Obviously, it was a little different, because Danilo burst his Achilles tendon, and he’s been out of commission for a couple of months waiting for it to heal up. Dave Kikoski played, and played well, and Papa Haynes was charging! In high spirits. We did 9 concerts in two weeks.

TP: I get the sense that playing in this trio in the ‘90s was very important for you, in a lot of ways. It came on the heels of your move from L.A. to New York, when you were determined to establish yourself on the acoustic bass, both in the public eye and probably in your own…

JP: I was trying to make a statement, to say: “Look, this is a big part of who I am. It’s not a peripheral kind of thing. It’s not a dalliance. It’s deeply who I am.”

TP: If anyone had any doubts, all they’d need to was listen to that trio. Could you evaluate the experience? Not only did you interact with Danilo, but you got inside the mind of Roy Haynes for a couple of years.

JP: I’d played with a lot of people, but when I played with Haynes it was kind of like swing finishing school. You felt, “Ok, if Haynes likes it, I guess I’m going to be ok.” Because obviously, he’s somebody who’s played with everyone from Louis Armstrong and Bird, Bud Powell, Monk, Coltrane, all these people, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, We Three—you can go on and on and on. For somebody like that to go, “Yeah, it’s feeling good,” then you feel encouraged. “Ok, maybe I have an understanding of this music after all. Obviously, if you play with somebody like that, who’s been connected to all the things that mattered to you coming up, all your heroes, the whole encyclopedia of jazz in one human being, which is what I call Roy Haynes. He is the living, walking, breathing encyclopedia of jazz. So if you can play with him and he likes it, then you can breathe a little easier and enjoy the fact that something you’ve been passionate about all your life makes sense to somebody you really look up to.

TP: One interesting thing about the trio at the time is that the group was so open-ended and triological, rather than a piano trio…

JP: Right, it was more an equal voice trio. He gave us a lot of trust and a lot of space.

TP: it sounds that this attitude filtered into your mutual interaction with Wayne Shorter.

JP: The relationship between Danilo and I is another thing that’s very special. We’re like brothers. We spend a lot of time together in a lot of different circumstances. So for us to be together and working in different circumstances is a source of great joy and excitement. We’ve had a chance to develop a rapport. That was a big deal for me, because after playing with Chick all those years and working some with Herbie, playing with a younger pianist, even younger than myself, somebody who is really a chance-taker and risk-taker like the guys I was used to… It’s hard to find a more adventurous pianist than either Chick or Herbie. Those guys don’t care. They’ll be reckless, which is great, and I learned a lot from that. Danilo is cut from the same cloth. He’s reckless.

TP: You told a story in the Jazz Improv interview about Herbie reharmonizing Roy Hargrove’s ballad…

JP: That was at a rehearsal for the Directions in Music project. We were going into Kuumba for warmup gigs for that tour. It was right after 9/11, too. It was heavy. We got on a plane like a week after. My wife was freaking! “What are you doing?” So we flew out there and rehearsed, and we saw Herbie singlehandedly turn a nice tune into a masterpiece, right before our eyes. He just started sitting there and patiently reworking everything. Mike and I were watching him… He started playing, and he got into it. He’d go, “No, this won’t do,” and then he’s changing…Finally, he looks up at Roy and goes, “Man, I’m sorry. I’m changing your tune; is that ok?” Roy goes, “Man, change all of it! Go ahead!” It was turning into this incredible ballad. He reharmonized it from top to bottom.

TP: I’ve channeled the discussion to people you’re playing with, but the reason we’re having this conversation is because of your own records and the group you’re leading this week, as well as your instrumentalism. So I’d like to talk about bass stuff. Since you’ve been reemphasizing the 6-string more in recent years, can you speak more to how your relationship to that instrument has evolved since you came here determined to have people know you as an acoustic bassist, and then subsequently wanting it to be clear that you do both—that you’re a multi-instrumentalist. When I spoke with you for the bio, you stated that your sound has become brighter, whereas most of your contemporaries strive for a brighter tone.

JP: If you want to speak about preference, just subjectively, I think what happened was this. When Jaco Pastorius hit the scene, he played a jazz bass, which has more of a mid-rangey sound, and people got way into that. Everybody went out and bought a jazz bass, everybody took frets out of their instrument, everybody wanted to be like him. It was interesting, because I loved and respected that so much that at one point I went, “You know what? I’m not doing that. Because nobody’s going to play like that guy.” That was a voice. That was totally unique to me. So I didn’t go that way. I stayed with fretted instruments. Then in ‘85 I wound up finally getting a 6-string bass, because I’d seen what Anthony Jackson was doing, and I decided I’d go far way from the fretless jazz bass thing, which more of a mid-range bass sound, that I wanted a broader sound on both ends. So with the 6-string bass, you had a low B-string, so you could get the 6-string bottom, and then you could go all the way up with the high C-string and get like a tenor saxophone thing going. So that was my idea about doing something else. I knew that I wouldn’t sound like Anthony. Anthony is another very individual voice, very beautiful and very special. So I deliberately took a left turn at that point. Most guys… There was an overwhelming number of guys, especially here in New York… In New York, the whole fusion scene that ensued, it was like you had to play a 4-string jazz bass, otherwise you weren’t accepted. People didn’t even like 5-string and 6-string basses. They’d look at you like “Yucch.” That’s what I heard from younger guys who took up the 6 after I did. They said, “Well, maybe you can get away with it, but they tell us, ‘no, bring the 4-string; you can’t play that in here.’” So interesting. If you wanted to be part of the whole 55 Bar scene in the ‘80s, you had to have a 4-string jazz bass. But I would come into town with Chick or whatever, I’d bring my 6-string, go sit in with Stern and just play my stuff. I wasn’t really bound by that. I was just going, “Well, this is my voice now…” For a while, like a fool, I actually got rid of my old vintage fenders. I just got rid of them!

TP: You’re a stubborn guy. A man of principles.

JP: [LAUGHS] But it was originally out of profound respect. Because I would hear these guys trying to play like Jaco, and I was like, “Boy, that sounds like a really bad imitation.” When you hear the real thing, it’s like “whoa.” Why would you want to sound like a third-rate Jaco Pastorius, when he’s Jaco, and you’re not, and it’s going to remain that way, and nobody is going to play like that again. He was that. That was him. It was very special. It was also at a time, that precise moment when he did what he did… Also speaking about Jaco, what people are sleeping on a lot of times is he was an incredible composer. “Three Views Of A Secret.” Excuse me. That’s a classic. So I have a high regard for him. He’s the one who made the fretless electric bass a voice in the music world. What he did was so lyrical and beautiful. I would say, though, when he walked, the feeling is another zone, a more Caribbean, more fusiony kind of walking. A lot of young guys took him for their model for how to swing and walk, instead of going to check out Ron Carter or Ray Brown.

TP: But over the last few years, after several years of not emphasizing the 6-string electric and now bringing it back into the flow more, how… Are there just subtle things?

JP: Pretty subtle, because I never stopped playing it all these years. I just decided that I wanted to also use it in an organic way and continue growing on that instrument as well, so that I didn’t stop growing on that instrument, and only grow on… Because I’ve spent an enormous amount of time getting back into studying classical music on the acoustic bass—and I still do. I put in so much on that over the last 15-20 years that I wanted to make sure that I just didn’t let that stop. So I’ve been thinking about how I want to sound and do things.

TP: You mentioned your affinity for the drums and your father’s refusal to buy you a drumkit back in the day. Maybe this provides an opening to talk about your formative years. You’re raised in Brooklyn, the East Flatbush area. Large, warm Italian family. Shared a house with your uncle’s family—you’re on one floor, they’re on the other. All the kids are musicians, but the parents weren’t musicians. You got your first electric bass when you were 10. You heard jazz the first time when your grandfather was on some sort of job, and he saw a guy moving out of a brownstone, saw a box of records, asked if he could take them for his grandkids, brought them home, and one of the records was Art Blakey’s Mosaic with (Wayne Shorter again) “Children of the Night.”

JP: Yeah. I was 8 or 9 when I heard that record. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter—Jymie Merritt on bass. I didn’t know what it was, but it moved me.

TP: So jazz enters your consciousness.

JP: Right in there. It was a typical Italian Brooklyn experience. Both sets of grandparents were no farther than 15 minutes away in Brooklyn, so we’d hang out a lot. My grandfather, who used to work on roads in Manhattan, came home from a job site one day with a box or two of records one day. He said, “Look, there was his guy who was leaving his brownstone, he was getting out of New York, he was moving, throwing out things.” My grandfather said, “You’re throwing away music?” “Ah, I’m leaving New York.” My grandfather said, “Well, I have some grandsons; you mind if I take these records?”

He didn’t know, but he changed our lives. In addition to <i>Mosaic</i>, there were some of those Wes Montgomery records with Ron and Herbie and Grady Tate. That went in deep. I mean, it just cut through my inability to understand. So when was 12, I decided that I was going to play the bass, and that was it.

When I started playing in Brooklyn…the whole discovery of the instrument… First I was trying to play guitar like my brother. It didn’t feel good. I was trying to learn how to read music and all this stuff, and I just couldn’t play with the pick. I’m left-handed, although I play right-handed. Then my brother put the electric in my hands, and that started to feel really good, and I started to play by ear and learn things off records. By then, it was the ‘60s, so you had the Motown stuff, then you had Hendrix, you had Cream, you had blues, B.B. King and all that—a lot of stuff happening. On the radio you could hear a lot of great stuff—Motown and the Beatles and all these other things. So all that was happening, and then in the house, there were Mario Lanza records, opera records being played—very Italian stuff. A wide mixture. For some reason, we even had a Glenn Campbell record. It was a good record, too, actually, because it had those Jimmy Webb tunes; Jimmy Webb was an incredible songwriter. So all this stuff was happening, and it was just part of the thing. I wasn’t really aware of anything. I was so young and naive. I just knew that I really loved this.

The reason why I didn’t get into anything really organized is because when I was a kid in Brooklyn they had me go to a Catholic school which had no music program. So there was nothing. It was like Miss Petraglia with a beat-up upright piano, who would bring us into a room, and we’d sing songs out of a music book. That was it. We moved to Long Island for about a year-and-a-half before we went to California, and that’s the first time I was in a school with a music program, and that’s where I was getting snare drum lessons for a year, when I said to my Dad, “I want to play the drums, too.” That was nixed. So the snare drum and all that was only about a year of me trying to learn rudiments. But they had a program, so even though I couldn’t really read music… One of my friends was a clarinet player, and he tried to get me learn…I played on one tune with the concert band or something. Then I went to 7th grade at a middle school in Farmingville, Long Island, and they had a program, too. They had an after-school thing. One of the English teachers had a rock band. So I played in that for a minute. Then when we went to California, there was big band in 8th grade, which I played in. I could hardly read music. I’d listen to the tune down once, and then I’d learn it and play along.

That’s when I encounter Chris Pohler, who became my mentor and remains… For this record, he’s the one who sent me a treatise that Messaien wrote called “The Seven Modes of Limited Transposition.” He said, “Check this out; you might find something to mess with.” I found one of those modes, which is Mode 3, which the whole melody of “Messaien’s Gumbo” is based on. So the ongoing relationship… Chris is also the one who challenged me before I did Line by Line and some of those other records… He said, “You’ve been composing all this music, but now I want you to think about challenging yourself to be like the composers, like Bach, who could generate their harmony purely from counterpoint.” So unlike jazz musicians, who plunk down chords and then write a melody, he said, “See if you can incorporate more of that contrapuntalism into your jazz writing.” So Chris has had a lot of great ideas over the years, and he’s a terrific guy. He encouraged me a lot. Got me into taking classical lessons when I was in college and all that.

TP: You were a double bass major at San Francisco State and Long Beach State.

JP: Yes, I was a classical bass major. I was playing in all the jazz groups, too, but my teachers expected me fully to do my recitals and then go do auditions for symphony orchestras.

TP: Your high school years were an interesting time to be in Northern California, in the San Francisco area.

JP: Great.

TP: The Keystone Korner was happening…

JP: I was there many times.

TP: It was a very eclectic scene. You’ve told me that you were into the Art Ensemble and the Sam Rivers Trio, you were into Gary Peacock’s Tales of Another, you had a sort of out jazz band…

JP: I saw McCoy at the Keystone. At Keystone I also saw Art Blakey, and at the Great American Music Hall I saw Thad Jones and Mel Lewis and I also saw the Bill Evans Trio there. When I got down to L.A. is when I got to see the Sam Rivers Trio and those guys at the Lighthouse. I saw Old and New Dreams at Royce Hall, which was incredible.

TP: Where I’m going is that this notion of being attracted to all the different flavors that comprise the mosaic that is the scene at any given time was already in you…

JP: A long time ago.

TP: Even though that may not necessarily have visible to people who were following your career.

JP: Yes. Obviously, I was playing with a lot of people in L.A., a lot of the older guys. But if I wasn’t making records with them, nobody knew who I was.

TP: Three people, among others, who seem to have been consequential to you. Freddie Hubbard, to whom you pay tribute on Remembrance, and who you played with a fair amount. Victor Feldman you played with…

JP: Even more.

TP: And also Joe Farrell. I’m not clear, but was Joe Farrell your bridge to Chick Corea?

JP: In a way, yes. But actually, he was my bridge to Airto and Flora’s band, which was a very important thing for me. Airto taught me a lot about Brazilian music, how to play it, all that stuff. But I used to bug Joe all the time. I’d say, “Man, tell me when Chick is going to have auditions; I really want to play with Chick,” and blah-blah-blah. So I don’t know whether he ever said anything to Chick, because actually I wound up getting the gig with Chick through playing with Victor Feldman at Chick’s house for a Valentine’s Day party that they used to have, and invite a bunch of musicians, have food, and some cats would play. That’s how Chick heard me, playing acoustic bass with Victor Feldman’s trio in his living room.

I have to say that I learned some important things from Joe. When I first started to play with Joe, the band was Tommy Brechtlein and Kei Akagi, and we were all into Trane’s band and all that, and we wanted to just burn all the time. We were totally, like, “Love Supreme” and all the great… That’s what we wanted to do. And Joe, he could burn like crazy! But he used to mess with us, too. He wanted us to be able to do other things, too, so he would mess with us. He’d go up behind the piano player, Kei Akagi, who’d be playing like McCoy, and he’d go, “Kei. Bebop, Kei. Bebop.” He always had that little thing; he was trying to talk like Jaki Byard. Chick told me that later. Apparently, he got that from Jaki Byard, which I didn’t know about til later. But he would tell us little things. Because we wanted to burn! Then he would go, “Ok. ‘Laura.’” [SINGS] “Two-beat, two beat.” We’d have to play like that. We were like, “Aw, Joe, come on, man!” But it was great, because he taught us a lot about how to deal with all the aspects of what we were supposed to be about, not just we’re excited and we want to burn all night.

TP: You were a session player…

JP: Also.

TP: …and a club player… I don’t mean the term pejoratively, but you were a journeyman bass player around L.A. and…

JP: I was very young, man.

TP: How young were you when you started playing professionally on that level? In the Bay Area, or did it happen in L.A.?

JP: In the Bay Area I was starting to play with some good people. But when I got to L.A. is when I started playing with all the older jazz musicians. I moved to L.A. in 1982, and I’d already been playing a little in the clubs before that. By the time I got the gig with Chick, I was only 24-25 years old, but I’d bee playing with a ton of people from 20 through 24.

TP: I’d assume that playing with Chick developed your technique on the electric bass.

JP: Also. And the acoustic bass. You had to. I had played with a lot of other people when I got the gig with Chick, and I felt like my improvising… That was one of the things that I felt was part of my voice, playing over changes and being able to play over chords and be a soloist as well. It was an incredible learning thing when I finally went to play with Chick, and his comping was so intense. I felt like his comping was better than my solo. And he was so fierce. I thought improvising was one of the good things that I could do, but the first time he was comping I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get a lot stronger, man.” His comping was blowing me off the stage! It was way better than what I was playing. I had to get stronger physically, too, to keep up that intensity, because that cat could blow all night.

TP: So Chick Corea gave you that feeling in the ‘80s and Wayne Shorter gave you that feeling in the ‘90s.

JP: Well, yes. I have to say. Even before that, Freddie [Hubbard] in terms being an endless fountain of ideas. I remember playing gigs with Freddie in my twenties, where he would play rhythm changes. Usually you’d think, “when are they going to stop?”—because we’re playing really fast tempos. With him, it was, “I hope he plays another one; what was that?” I would never get tired, because it was just mind-boggling what he could do.

TP: So this whole notion of… I have a quote which I’ll read back: “when I was young, like a lot of naive young musicians, you go, ‘Ok, I want to be the greatest bass player ever.’” Knowing you a bit, I’m sure you did.

JP: Yeah, I did.

TP: “Then you get a little older, and you realize (a) there’s no such thing, (b) there are so many different ways to play and so many guys who bring so much to the table on the music that it’s exciting to check it all out. So somewhere in my teens, I probably realized there wasn’t any such thing, but I still wanted to aim high. I realized there were certain things I wanted to do on the instrument. I want to have freedom and be lyrical. I want to have a really strong foundation, be able to anchor any group that I’m in, but also, when it’s my turn to stretch out I want to contribute.” You also mentioned a wish list of people you wanted to play with.

JP:  Yes. That’s very true.

TP: Now, almost all those things have happened.

JP: Almost. I didn’t get to play with Elvin.

TP: How about Tony Williams?

JP: With Tony a little bit. Tony kept trying to get me on these all-star things. It almost panned out, and then he passed.

TP: Here I want to discuss your identity as a leader. You’ve made these recordings, but I’d assume that the preponderance of your professional activity is still on these sideman situations and less as a leader.

JP: Groups. Group formations. Also lots of sideman still.

TP: One question: When leading a group, do you switch back and forth between identities?

JP: Same person. The nice thing about this particular trio is that I have no stress level being the bandleader. I’m as free as when I’m a sideman with this group. Early on in the process… I started leading bands in 1987. Chick was the one who prodded me to do that. He said, “You’ve got all this music…” First of all, he got me the record deal. I was writing a lot, but he said, “You’re writing all this music; you’ve got to make a record and you’ve got to have a band.” I said, “Do you think so, really?” and he said, “Yeah, absolutely.” He got me the record deal, I did the record, and he said, “You’ve got to put together a band and do more stuff.” Actually, even before that. He had me put together the band even before we made the record. So I was already doing some stuff, but it took me years to get comfortable as a bandleader, because then you’re wearing different hats and you’re concerned about the whole of the music, the business of it, and all that. So for me, the goal is always to be as loose as when I’m when I’m just a sideman and don’t have to worry about all the responsibilities of presenting the music. In recent years, I’m much more comfortable leading bands, because the guys I’m playing with, we’re so close… Like in this situation with the trio, I’m just enjoying myself. I don’t have to worry about anything. Those guys are going to inspire me, they’re going to take the music new places. There’s nothing for me to be concerned about except try to be in the moment with them—and I have to announce a few tunes or whatever, which is nothing. So that is the way I look at it.

I learned a lot about being a bandleader from Chick and Wayne, and their concept, which is you find guys that you enjoy their identity already and then you just turn them loose.

TP: Chick Corea’s approach seems to be project-oriented. He seems to operate with multiple files of activity. He does one thing, that’s a project, it ends, maybe he picks it up in three years, but then he goes on to another project. In each case, he’s putting himself into a different space. Wayne Shorter seems to be operating via a slightly different process.

JP: Although with Chick, we had a band for ten years. For a while, I think Chick was tired of all those projects. When we had the Elektrik Band and the Acoustic Band, he really liked the fact that we had a band that was the same people that could develop over a long track. Even though, yes, he loves doing all kinds of different stuff. He used to tell me, “the reason why I like having a band is because we can develop something over a long…” He said, “I can do projects all my life, all day.” That’s easy for him. If you give him five minutes, he can write a tune, so a project is nothing. He can write a whole library for a project in a couple of days. Just give him the time in front of the piano, and he’s…WHOOSH. So he liked the idea of having a long development phase.

TP: You mentioned that he imprinted in your mind the notion of writing all the time.

JP: Yes, because he was always writing. Also, not being so critical so that you got in the way of the process. He could write a lot. I was really influenced by him in that regard, that whole idea of writing, composing… Like, if you put me in front of the piano, I can enjoy just sitting there and I’ll write something. I might not love it, but I can write something in a complete form. He taught me to turn off the critic inside and just let the stuff flow out. Then you evaluate it. Don’t stop yourself in the middle. Let it all out, write it down as fast as you can, get the ideas out, then you can play with them and see what’s happening.

TP: Did it take a while for you to internalize the notion of turning off the inner critic, or was it not a complex matter?

JP: I’m pretty loose about when I write. I can write quickly and everything. I used to joke with Mike Brecker, because we were the opposite. He’d say, “Man, how do you write so fast? You write all these tunes.” I said, “Yeah, but Mike, I write all these tunes, but one of your tunes is better than ten of mine.” He was very meticulous, and would be like one bar… More the Stravinsky approach.

TP: He suffered over every note.

JP: Yeah. Did I ever tell you the story of Stravinsky at the Hollywood party? True story. Stravinsky at a Hollywood part, some young TV composer comes up to him, “Oh, Mr. Stravinsky…” Stravinsky was being nice. “So, what did you do today, young man?” “Well, I wrote 20 minutes of music.” Stravinsky goes, “Wow, that’s a lot of music. 20 minutes. Hmm.” The young man said, “What did you do today?” Stravinsky said, “Well, I was writing. I wrote 2 bars.” The cat was incredulous. “You’re Stravinsky. You wrote 2 bars?” Stravinsky looked at the guy and said, “Yeah, you should hear those two bars.” So I don’t take the fact that being quick is necessarily always a positive. It can be, because if you let the stuff flow out, sometimes it can get out of the way. Sometimes good things can happen when you just let the flow go, and that’s what I got from Chick. Stuff was just washing out.

TP: When I interviewed Chick Corea, he said that he didn’t get involved in classical music until later…

JP: But he had some classical piano training. Yes, he did. Miss Masullo, in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

TP: Well, thank you for that. But he told that he didn’t study it in depth until later.

JP: Probably. Even though he was taking piano lessons and learning classical music, his dad was a jazz trumpet player, so he was…

TP: and he was gigging, too.

JP: Yeah, Chick was blowing!

TP: But both Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter incorporate those interests very seamlessly into their musical production, no matter how hidden or how overt it might be. I think you said that was a help to you…

JP: It was an encouragement. Wayne was always also encouraging me to write and just expand, be really adventurous in what I would write for. He always liked when I would tell him I was trying to write some expanded music, or I had a commission. “Yeah, that’s it!” He was always encouraging me not to let anybody put me in a box about what I should write and shouldn’t write.

TP: You remarked to me once that you’re straddling different genres, that it’s sort of what used to be called “third stream,” but in a more organic way.

JP: Trying. Those terms are limiting….

TP: Well, you did use the term. But if you can do a third person on yourself….

JP: It’s a hard thing to combine those two, because you have musicians that improvise and then you have musicians that don’t. So how do you incorporate the two things so that the people who don’t improvise can still freely give and be part of a process, and utilize them well, so that they get to do what they do strongly, and then without overwriting, so there’s no space for the guys to create some new stuff and improvise on it. That’s the stuff that we’ve been doing with Wayne, with the orchestra, that I think has worked really well. He writes these beautiful, incredible, massive orchestrations, but there is room for us to interact and stretch out and open up sections. That’s great. So that’s the goal, to incorporate… Some of the commissions that I’ve written, there’s no improvisation at all. It’s a piece of modern music that incorporates some of the harmonic language of jazz without laying on these people who have never improvised in their life, “Ok, now you’ve got to blow.” You write it into the music, and they can deliver, because they’re used to dealing with the printed work. There’s a lot of different methods you can do. If it’s something where I’ve involved playing… Like, Mark Anthony Turnage wrote me a beautiful bass concerto where there’s improvisation and there’s written stuff, but the orchestra just plays what’s written. Yet, he writes so brilliantly, I don’t think they feel like they’re not doing anything.

TP: Also, since moving East, you’ve formed friendships and close affiliations with world-class classical players.

JP: Yes, in my church. Larry Dutton from the Emerson String Quartet.

TP: Playing classical music and improvising require different mindsets. At this point of your evolution, how intertwined are the two processes?

JP: historically, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t used to be that way. There was no division when Bach and those guys were operating. They could improvise fugues, and they were total improvisers. What happened was, as you started to expand numbers, the number of people, it was impossible to do that any more. You had to write things down, because not everybody could improvise. But even in the context of Baroque sonatas, guys would ornament and play on the repeat of the A section—they would add ornaments and do stuff. Some guys still do that. You have harpsichord players that improvise really well. The figured bass, which was the chord changes of that day. So there’s a lot of similarities. But once you got out of the Baroque Era and started getting to the Romantic, then the composer became king, and then it changed. So now you have a situation where many classical musicians don’t know how to improvise at all. There are varying degrees.

I am pretty open to all points on the continuum. It just depends on how you write. You have to know going in what you want to accomplish, and then go for that. If you know what you want to accomplish, then you’ll make the concessions that you need to make in the departments that you need to make them. I wrote a piece, called Lakes, for Ann Schein, who is a phenomenal classical pianist. She’s been around a long time. She was one of Rubinstein’s proteges. She’s so incredible. When she plays a piece, it sounds like she’s improvising. When she plays Chopin, it sounds like she’s making it up. She’s heavy. So for her, I just wrote the piece, knowing that even though she’s playing something that’s completely written-out, she’s going to make it sound like she’s blowing. She recorded it on a record called American Composers, which came out earlier this year. This was a big moment for me. On the same record, you have Elliott Carter, who is 100 this year, and Aaron Copland’s music, and then there’s my piece. Which is hilarious! I was joking with my wife. I said, “Yeah, there’s Carter, Copland, and what’s that? Is that lunch?” Patitucci. Is that with mozzarella on the side or what?

TP: so many different languages operating simultaneously. Not so many musicians out there are as musically multilingual as you are.

JP: I guess you have to really want to be that way. A lot of people just don’t care for that. It’s subjective. They like a certain thing, and that’s what they like. It’s interesting. When I’m with certain people, they like to play a certain way—I like it, too! I like stuff that’s loose. I also like hard-swinging music. I grew up listening to Oscar Peterson, too, so I’m just as comfortable playing… I did a record years ago with Monty Alexander, a tribute to Jilly’s, and it was just down-the-pike swinging. I absolutely love that. But I also like playing in a really open context, and I also like playing with Wayne and with Herbie. All the different in-betweens. It just depends on the kind of music you love to listen to. If you like a lot of different things, then you kind of have to go, “Ok, now I’ve got to learn how to do that,” if you want to play that music. For me, I never get tired of learning new ways to approach the music, because it keeps me excited about it.

TP: over the next couple of months, I noticed from your website, you have a number of gigs for this music, but most of them aren’t with Joe and Brian.

JP: Scheduling is very different.

TP: You’ll be using John Ellis and Marcus Gilmore, which is an interesting trio.

JP: They’re great. George Garzone is making a lot of gigs, too.

TP: But will Marcus Gilmore playing drums mostly?

JP: Yes. There’s one gig also with Teri Lyne Carrington and John Ellis up in Boston in September.

TP: It will sound very different, because this music was composed with Joe Lovano and Brian Blade in mind in certain ways…

JP: Check it out, though. The first time we ran the music before the record, I actually had a couple of gigs with John and Marcus. So they played the music early on. Some of the pieces they saw before Joe and Brian. They were very involved from the beginning, too.

TP: Where I’m going is that for you, as a composer, the ideas of the music have a firm identity outside the personnel that plays it. A lot of jazz music is so personnel-specific, but this is not necessarily the case with you.

JP: Hopefully. Obviously, though, certain kinds of musicians are needed, particularly if you look at the drums in this music. You’ve got to have somebody who can swing, but also somebody who can play some other kinds of grooves—the African stuff, that New Orleans feel. It’s not so easy to find guys who can cover a lot of ground, apart from the singular connection that Brian and I have. That’s something that’s in its own place for me. So after that, it’s another thing. But Marcus Gilmore is a very, very gifted young man.

TP: It puts you in a different position. Rather than playing with peers, so to speak… John Ellis and Marcus Gilmore are superior musicians, but younger musicians.

JP:  Well, I’m old enough to be Marcus’ father. John, not quite.

TP: And you turn 50 this year. There comes a transitional point for musicians… Well, music is a social art, more than the visual arts or writing, and you make a transition from someone who is identified more by working with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes, and having done some albums, to the preponderance of your activity being a leader, as happened at a certain point with Dave Holland and other people. Is this something you think of consciously? How proactive do you want to be about establishing yourself…

JP: As a bandleader and so on?

TP: I’ll put it this way. Establishing yourself where your own musical vision is the predominant thing. From soup to nuts, as it were.

JP: Well, it has to be tempered with my time with my family, basically. I made a choice a little while back that, yes, I could go and tour as a leader most of the year that I wasn’t doing the other stuff, but then I’d never see my family. So I have to balance it, and that’s what I try to do. That’s also why I took the gig teaching at City College, so that I could choose a little bit more how much I wanted to be gone. There are still, obviously, some things musically that are super-important and I feel I have to do. But I also want to have a presence with my own family. A lot of guys sacrifice that to be a bandleader and make a statement and all that, and that’s great. But I’m not willing to sacrifice me being a good husband and father. That’s sometimes tricky, because it can be frustrating for somebody who’s been recording as long as I have… This is my thirteenth record. I’ve had bands since 1987. Yet, some people who write about the music say, “well, he’s not really a bandleader” or stuff like, “He’s not really a composer; his stuff is not that developed.” I’ve had that attitude thrown at me from time to time, and I think, “wow, is that because I’m not out there all the time with my band, going, ‘this is what I am,’ shouting it from the rooftops, touring like crazy?” Also, when you get to be almost 50, you’re think that you don’t want to go on the road all the time. I like going on the road. It’s great. But I’m not going to do it like I did when I was 25. So those are choices, and those choices have consequences. You’re not as in the public eye, so you’re not going to be poll-winning and all that kind of stuff. That doesn’t happen unless you’re out with your band all the time, saying, “Look, this is my vision.” I still have a vision. It’s a very strong viewpoint, and I don’t feel like I’m not taking it seriously. It’s just that I’m not willing to be on the road 8 months a year to do it. So I have to temper it and do it over a longer period of time, a slower arc, I guess.

TP: there’s something about the road that seems to inhibit R&D. Perhaps it hones a point of view. But when you’re off the road, there’s space… As Corea puts it, the eternal child aspect can perhaps be expressed more readily if you’re not on the road all the time.

JP: Yeah, when you’re on the road all the time, and you’re moving and moving and moving, and doing and doing and doing, there’s not as much… Well, now it’s a little easier to compose, with the computer. But you need time to just be home. And also, it’s nice to be home in a place like New York, because there’s a lot going on. You don’t feel like you came home and there’s nothing happening.


TP: How much of your time is teaching, how much is practicing and composing, how much is performing, and how much is parenting?

JP: I don’t even know how to break that down.

TP: You don’t sleep.

JP: Yeah, sometimes you don’t. That’s the drag about when I’m in the semester time. It can be really rough. I have to get up at 6, help the kids get their stuff for school, and then you go and teach on the days that you teach, and the days that you don’t teach you’re trying to practice or write or whatever. Or I go early to get my parking place by the school, then I go in and maybe I’ll practice a little bit before school starts, and then deal with the students. Sometimes when you come home, you’re just burnt. Some days are longer than others. What I do this semester will be coaching two graduate ensembles and two undergraduate ensembles, and 6 or 7 bass students. That means that sometimes one day is heavily loaded. I might have to get there by 7:20 to get my parking place. This semester, school will start at 10 o’clock, so I’ll practice and do some stuff before that, and from 10 to 1 is ensembles, and then private lessons until 5. The other day might be a little shorter. Those are intense days. You have to really be on. Then sometimes, when you come home at night, if you’re working on a particular thing and you’re writing with a deadline, or if you’re working on a piece and you have to practice, you stay up til 2 in the morning. Man, when 6 o’clock rolls around, it’s not fun. Sometimes I just can’t do it. Sometimes I have to do it. I just power down a few espressos, and go down in the basement and work, and pay the price the next day.

TP:  When you’re 55, let’s say, five years from now, do you envision your life breaking down in the same way? Do you expect maybe less sideman work, or…

JP: I don’t know. I know I’ll keep expanding writing and keep expanding as a player, and I’ll continue to write my own music and keep having bands. But I’ll continue to play with Wayne as long as he wants to keep doing it—and other people, too. I’ll continue pursuing the writing things also on the side, and hopefully get a chance to play some concertos with orchestras again, like I’ve had recently. And keep shedding. Writing, shedding… That’s just on the musical side. But there’s also the personal aspects of being involved with my wife and my children and our church. There’s a bunch of stuff going on there, too.

TP: So your roots are firmly in the New York area. You’re from here, you lived West, but it sounds like the West Coast was never quite your vibe…

JP: No. I liked the Bay Area quite a bit. But when I moved south, which is where I spent most of time in California, that wasn’t me. When I came home to the New York area, I felt like, ‘Man, I’m home again; this is great.” They say you can’t go home, but you can.


John Patitucci Blindfold Test (2002):
1. Joe Farrell, “Bass Folk Song” (from MOON GERMS, CTI, 1972/2001) (Farrell, flute; Stanley Clarke, bass; Herbie Hancock, electric piano; Jack DeJohnette, drums).

[INSTANTLY] That’s Stanley Clarke. And that’s got to be from the ’70s. This could be the band with Chick and Joe Farrell. That’s what it sounds like — Chick, Joe Farrell, and I’m trying to suss out who the drummer is. Airto was the drummer in that band. Could be. It’s easy to identify Stanley. His sound, and particularly his touch. I grew up hearing a lot of his music. After Ron Carter, Ray Brown and those guys, when I was in my teens, when he came on the scene, someone turned me on to a Chick Corea record, and it blew me away. He’s a very individual voice. This is a nice record. I’m not sure which one it is, unless it’s the first one with the dove flying over the ocean. It’s not an ECM record because of the way it sounds. The recording is different. I like it. It’s great open energy. These guys were playing together a lot. It sounds very free-blowing; they’re just reacting to each other. They’re just vamping out! It’s great. [Do you have stars for it?] I was thinking about that. I don’t really like the idea of stars… [But can you?] I’m going to give everything five. The other thing, too, is I’m kind of anti-criticism. [But we’re talking about your aesthetics.] I can’t do that. It’s like grading… But I can make a lot of comments, which I think are more valuable than trying to, you know, grade papers. Just for the feeling… I’m trying to remember the record. There’s one record Stanley did before the solo album that people know, and this could be that one, which was called The Children of Forever, with Pat Martino and all those guys, but it… I thought the keyboard player was Chick, but now that he’s playing a solo, it sounds like Herbie. If it’s Herbie, that kind of changes thing. But it still sounded like Joe Farrell to me. The drums? I also know that he did some stuff with Tony Williams. The hi-hat is going on all fours; that’s Tonyish. But in this period…it could be Tony. Yes, that’s Herbie, totally. That’s great. I don’t know this record, though. I’m trying to pin down the drums. It has Tonyish elements in it. But in that period, too, a lot of guys were influenced by Tony, like Lenny White and… But if it’s Herbie, it could be Tony, because I know Stanley played with Herbie and Tony, too. In this period of time, in the ’70s, I thought on acoustic bass Stanley was particularly sharp in those days. He sounded really on the top of his game. He was really strong conceptually, and playing with a lot of conviction. And real interesting. Great rhythmically. Everything. They get all the stars! Whatever you want to give them, they get all of them! It’s refreshing. I haven’t heard this vintage of this guys in a while. [AFTER] Oh, it’s Joe’s record. I know the record. I know the tune especially. But I still don’t know who’s playing drums. It was Jack? But I still don’t really… It’s Jack from that period, which is what fooled me. Not as dense as later Jack. But I love all periods of Jack. It sounds fantastic.

2. Ray Drummond, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2000) (Drummond, bass; Renee Rosnes, piano; Billy Drummond, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

Nice. Those slides… This is a little trickier for me. I don’t know why. It sounds like a Wayne tune, but I can’t remember the name. If not, it’s one that’s really influenced by this 3/4 tune that Wayne wrote. It sounds very influenced by Herbie and that kind of trio playing, but it doesn’t sound like Herbie to me. There’s something different about it. And when the bass player was doing some slides earlier, it sounded like he was influenced by Ron, but it doesn’t sound like Ron to me. [BASS SOLO] It’s not Ron at all. Boy, this is tricky. It’s a woody sound. I like the sound. Nice lines. Mmm, wow. This piano player is familiar to me, but I’m stumped. I almost feel like I’ve played this tune… Whothe heck is this? That’s a Herbieistic lick and everything, but I don’t think it’s Herbie. Beautiful. Real sensitive. Great trio playing. I really like it. I should know who the bass player is. It sounds like the influence of Herbie and Ron and Tony kind of playing in the trio, but I don’t think it was them. [AFTER] It was Wayne’s tune. The Drummonds! I almost guessed Renee at one point. They get all the stars, too. I love that. I should have known it was her. The bass threw me, because I usually can recognize Ray. I love Ray’s playing. Yeah, it was happening.

3. Miroslav Vitous, “Miro’s Bop” (from UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS, ECM, 2003) (Vitous, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Jan Garbarek, tenor saxophone; Jack De Johnette, drums)

That sounds like Chick. That last lick was a Chickie lick right there. And it sounds like Michael Brecker, or somebody influenced by him. Oh, it’s not Mike. Somebody influenced by him, definitely. I thought the bassist might have been Eddie Gomez first, from a little vibrato thing, but then I can’t tell you yet. He hasn’t soloed. It’s a nice sound. The drums sounded very Jack-ish to me right there. But the tenor player is tricky, because it sounds like Michael, but I’m not sure. [I’m sure the tenor player wasn’t influenced by Michael Brecker.] Oh, okay. But that’s Eddie. It sounds like Eddie, with that little… Well, maybe not. Whoo, nice! Oh, wait a minute. That kind of facility; it could be Miroslav Vitous, too. I like it a lot. Okay, contemporary… The saxophone almost sounded Garbarek for a second there. It could be Garbarek. The bass sound… It’s great bass playing. This is not easy. [AFTER] The bass could have been Miro. [It was.] Yes. That would be Miro, Jack, Chick and Garbarek? [Yes.] Because sometimes, in the attack, in the percussiveness, Eddie can get into that kind of thing, too. But the tone was different. It had another thing on it, that Miroslav thing on it. I loved the piece. It was definitely influenced by that Miles kind of thing in the ’60s, with the bursts, and the way the bass was kind of coming in and out. Was that Mountain… No, it’s not Mountain In The Clouds. I don’t know which one it is. [When did it sound like it was done?] It sounded like an ECM recording. It sounded like the ’70s to me. [It’s a brand-new record.] You gotta be kidding! Great. Cool. It definitely has that older feeling, though.

4. Joe Zawinul, “East 12th Street Band” (from FACES AND PLACES, ESC, 2002) (Zawinul, keyboards & vocoder; Richard Bona, bass; Bobby Malach, saxophone; Paco Sery, drums & percssion; Alex Acuna, percussion; Amit Chatterjee, guitar)

I love this. It’s got the African vibe. It could be Zawinul, his thing, just from the sound. Sounds like Zawinul’s band to me. I’m not sure which vintage. Victor Bailey plays like that, but Richard Bona has that kind of vibe, too, with the short notes. They wree both playing all through this time. Victor was in and out of the band, and Richard was in the band for a while. That phrase was Victorish, down at the bottom. But Richard plays like that, too. Very nice. It’s Paco Sery on drums, the African guy. Great vibe. It’s hard to tell which bass player it is. I’ve known Victor for a long time. I think I met him when I was 19. Whether it’s Richard or Victor, it’s great playing. If he takes a solo, I can tell for sure, but I don’t think he will. I’ve heard Richard play some, but that sounds more like Victor to me. I can’t be sure. I’m going to get in trouble with Victor if I guess wrong! “What do you mean? You couldn’t recognize me after all these years?” Post-Jaco. Fantastic. [AFTER] It’s Richard? Fantastic. But there’s a similarity in the approach for sure. [Do you think that approach has to do with their own approach, or with Zawinul’s music?] That’s tricky, because Zawinul was influenced a lot by Jaco’s stuff but also the African stuff, but also the Africans were influenced by Jaco. It’s great playing. When I heard the first groove, I thought of Richard because it was very African, but the more it loosened up and got more jazz, it kind of sounded more like Victor. But Victor has a lot of stuff in him from everywhere, too. So it’s very difficult to pin down. Again, lots of stars.

5. Masada String Trio, “Meholalot” (from THE CIRCLE MAKER: ISSACHAR, Tzadik, 1997) (Mark Feldman, violin; Eric Friedlander, cello; Greg Cohen, bass; John Zorn, composer)

This is great. And it’s fun. There’s a lot of groups popping up like this, acoustic string groups playing more rhythmic music in the last 10-15 years or more. But I’m not familiar with all the… I know the guys around New York, like Mark Feldman is an improvising fiddle player, but I don’t know their styles. I know a little bit of Mark’s playing, but he wasn’t playing solo so much when we’ve played. He plays in Abercrombie’s group, too, but I don’t know it’s him. It’s a guess. I’m just throwing out names of fiddle players who improvise. I like the abandon of it. And the cellist I’ve played with who I know improvises is Eric Friedlander. But I haven’t heard him blow that much. I’ve just played with him, and I know he’s good. He can play. I heard his solo album, which I liked a lot, with Stomu Takeishi, the bass player. I like the idea of the orchestration, too, using the pizzicato rhythmic stuff. The bass player sounds great, but I don’t know who it is. He’s sort of the rock holding it together, and it he sounds really great doing it, too. Nice and woody. Earthy. It’s fun. I like the fact that they’re not playing it safe. It’s tricky with a bow. I do a lot of playing with the bow, so I know. Once you pick up the bow, to put something across rhythmically takes some doing. It’s not easy to do. And they’re just going for it. They’re not safely trying to do it right. They’re just going for it. And I love that. It’s got kind of an Eastern thing happening on it, too, which I dig. I love when they break down to the pizzicato stuff. But I have no idea. [AFTER] So it was Zorn’s stuff. That’s great. I’ve heard some of Zorn’s music before, on WKCR actually. I know Greg Cohen, and he’s a great bass player who has a broad musical scope. All the marbles for them. I think it’s great. I like that they were charging. It’s no prisoners and here we go!

6. Ray Brown, “Stella By Starlight” (from WALK ON, Telarc, 2002) (Ray Brown, bass; Geoffrey Keezer, piano; Karriem Riggins, drums)

[ON INTRO] Beautiful sound, right away. “Stella.” Somebody with a little flexibility on the instrument; right away I can tell you that, by the way he just tossed off a couple of things, musical, without even trying. Somebody who is definitely also… The triplet licks were very Ray Brown-esque. But the sound isn’t…it doesn’t sound like Ray Brown. Just somebody who is, like we all are, influenced by Ray Brown. The sound of the bass is a little different. I’m not going to make a quality judgment on the sound, because I like it. It’s just a different recorded tone. Ray’s been recorded so much, he has a lot of different sounds, but it doesn’t quite sound like Ray to me. The triplets is one aspect of what they’re doing. This is tricky. I feel silly. I can’t tell you who the piano player is. [BASS SOLO] Now we’re going to figure out who this is. He has that flexibility like John Clayton. But I can’t say definitively who that bass player is. The piano player played some interesting harmonic stuff, too. [AFTER] I’m stumped. It was Ray Brown! The sound didn’t sound, to me… I guess I was in the right ballpark. Ray and John Clayton, that’s pretty close. But the sound threw me. He was playing all the licks, but the recorded sound of the bass threw me. Once he played those triplet licks and I said, “Oh, it sounds like Ray…”

7. Steve Swallow, “Ladies Waders” (from THREE GUYS, Enja, 1999) (Swallow, electric bass; Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Paul Motian, drums)

This is based on “Out of Nowhere.” [BASS SOLO] This is great. From the sound of the bass, it sounds like Swallow. It’s an electric, but it sounds acoustic. And I can hear the pick, because he uses a pick. But it sounds like Swallow; he’s melodic, beautiful, killing… Is the alto player Slagle? I can’t tell you? It almost sounded Ornetteish. Swallow is one of the few electric bass players who sounds like a jazz musician, a real, bona fide jazz musician. All the stars for Mr. Swallow, always. Wait, who is the alto player? Sounds more like Konitz now. That’s crazy! I’m trying to zone in on the drummer now. It could be Motian. Fantastic. Paul Motian, amazing. I love it. It’s just trio, but it sounds huge! I love that. And a very interesting tone. Because Swallow’s tone has evolved over the years on electric. And this is even thicker than before. It’s hard to get a thick tone in that way. He’s got a very special touch and sound because he’s playing with a pick. All the marbles.

8. Ornette Coleman, “Mob Job” (from SOUND MUSEUM: THREE WOMEN, Verve/Harmolodic, 1996) (Coleman, alto saxophone, Charnett Moffett, bass; Geri Allen, piano; Denardo Coleman, drums)

It’s interesting, the rhythmic thing on this one, because they’re trying to imply time without playing it. They don’t have the bass mixed up quite loud enough. It sounds kind of like Eddie, but it’s back there. Bow with some effects on it, too. It’s kind of cool. Oh, wait a minute. Sometimes Charnett does this stuff with the bow with the effects, too. I can’t hear it that well. If it was by proxy, I know Charnett is playing with Ornette now. It could be the reason they’re trying to imply the time without playing it. Denardoish. It could be Ornette. It’s Netman and Ornette and Denardo. But the piano player I can’t hear. All the stars just for the sound of Ornette even. Ornette sounds great. Attitude for days. It’s interesting to hear Ornette play blues like that, sometimes when he gets into that head. Fort Worth! It’s really strong. Whoo! Now the bass sound is coming into focus. He’s coming to the fore. It’s nice and woody, too. But I couldn’t hear that before. I can’t give you a guess on the pianist. Sounds like what happened is the snare drum is mixed very forwrd, and it’s kind of tricky to hear. [AFTER] Geri Allen? She’s fantastic. I like her writing, too.

9. George Mraz, “Up In A Fir Tree (Na Kosate Jedli)” (from MORAVA, Milestone, 2000) (Mraz, bass; Emil Viklicky, piano; Billy Hart, drums; Zuzana Lapcikova, voice, cymbalon)

I know what this record is. It’s unfair, because I was listening to it last month. It’s George Mraz with the Moravian guys. It’s beautiful. It’s a great idea to do this. I love this, that he did something for the homeland. This is really nice. George sounds terrific on this, and he’s really well recorded as well. It’s woody and a nice sound. George was one of the guys that I grew up listening to as well. I listened to Ron and Ray and Sam Jones and Paul Chambers and Percy Heath and all those guys, but then I also listened to Stanley, Eddie, George, Dave Holland, Charlie and Miroslav. He’s sort of in that generation, as the next thing that happened. As a bassist, too, dealing with the instrument, he’s fantastic. His pitch is so beautiful, and he plays beautiful with the bow. On this record, there’s some stuff with the bow that’s happening. Yeah, he sounds terrific. I especially love him in that group with John Abercrombie, the quartet with Richie Beirach and Peter Donald. He was killing in that group. All the stars for George.

10. Trio De Paz, “Baden” (from CAFE, Malandro, 2002) (Nilson Matta, bass, composer; Romero Lubambo, guitar; Duduka DaFonseca, drums)

Beautiful. Is this Trio de Paz? Yeah, Nilson, Romero, and Duduka. They get the serious vibe on it right away. It’s like a switch. Boom! Nilson sounds great on this. As soon as the first bar, Nilson Matta… The swing of that style of playing is immediately evident. Bass players from Brazil understand that the whole essence of samba comes from the surdo drum. That’s where our part comes from, the big drum with the mallet. So that has to be in there. That’s the root of what they’re doing. They might be doing stuff around it, but they know how to make the backbeat of Brazilian music happen. Even though Nilson is doing a lot of hip decoration and all kinds of other stuff, the groove and rootedness is always there. And Duduka sounds amazing. These guys have been playing together a long time. It’s great. There’s an art to doing that on the drums as well; making those beats sound like that. All the stars to the boys from Brazil.

11. Michael Formanek, “Emerger” (from NATURE OF THE BEAST, Enja, 1996) (Formanek, bass; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Steve Swell, trombone; Jim Black, drums)

I like the composition right away. Great drummer. [BASS SOLO] Wow. That’s all written out. That kind of flexibility reminds me of Dave Holland. Not necessarily his sound. And also the freedom. Dave certainly was part of a lot of seminal recordings of some open music that was… A great bass player, too, whoever this guy is. I don’t automatically flash on a name. The trumpet player sounds familiar, but I can’t… It’s kind of Kenny Wheelerish there, but the sound is different. Wow! It almost sounds like it could be European cats. Bugt it’s hard to say that, because there are cats who play with that sensibility here now, and it’s cross-pollinized — almost the Classical way of getting around the horn like that. Nice trombone sound, too. The bass player and drummer sound great together. I’m not sure who it is, though. It could also easily be a night at the Knitting Factory. It sounds Downtownish to me. It could be a lot of guys. There’s some really strong cats like Mark Helias and Drew Gress… But I know it isn’t Drew, because the context isn’t… Another guy is Mark Dresser. I’m guessing, though. [This is a guy who I think you were about two years behind when you were coming up in the Bay Area.] Jay Anderson? Jay was right ahead of me. [AFTER] Mike sounds fantastic. He was playing with Freddie and everything. Was the drummer Joey Baron? Jim Black? He’s great. I know his playing. Formanek sounds incredible on this.

12. Ron Carter, “Blues In The Closet” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2001) (Carter, bass; Roland Hanna, piano; Lenny White, drums; Oscar Pettiford, composer)

“Blues In The Closet,” huh? [AFTER FIRST CHORUS] That’s Ron. The lines. The architecture. Even though his sound has gone through various incarnations over the years, but also he’s one of my main… This is modern Ron right here. It’s more of a blended sound now. In the ’60s it was all microphone. Then I got the feeling in the ’70s he got into the pickup and there was a certain sound. This is both kind of put together. Sounds great. He has a great sense of humor, too, when he plays. Nice brush stuff, like Lewis Nash-ish, but it’s not him. Ron made some trio records with Billy Cobham, but that’s not Billy. Harvey Mason? All the stars for Ron.


John Patitucci (DownBeat) – 2000:

During John Patitucci’s decade with Chick Corea, when he began to make his mark as a consummate six-string electric and acoustic bass virtuoso, his deep connection to and affinity for jazz’s main stem was somewhat muted. So listeners who think of him solely as a premier Fusion man, fluent and elegant in the electric idiom, may be caught off-guard by the emotional range of the searing compositions and savvy improvisations that mark Patitucci’s three recent acoustic dates for Concord and the mercurial interplay and rooted foundation he imparts to a rampantly imaginative new trio session with Roy Haynes and Danilo Perez (Verve).

A fixture in Los Angeles since 1980, Patitucci left Corea in 1995 to pursue personal projects and plot future directions. In quick succession, he married, and decided to move to New York to begin a family and satisfy creative hungers by plunging headlong into hardcore jazz. “If anybody was really listening, I don’t think I ever sounded ‘West Coast,'” Patitucci remarks from the well-equipped basement studio in his comfortable new home just north of New York City, a half-hour drive from the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the working-class neighborhood where he spent his first 12 years. While we wait for a pot of orichette and lentils (pasta fagiole — from a family recipe) to reach the proper consistency, Patitucci, who at 40 has the compact muscular frame and focused alertness of a prototype baseball catcher, expresses his disdain for being pigeonholed.

“People labeled me with the term ‘Fusion’ and I resented it,” he says. “I came up in jazz a lot…well, everything from R&B to Classical to free music inspired by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. My major in college was Double Bass Performance, playing Classical music and also in the jazz groups, and from my early days in Los Angeles I played with Victor Feldman, Joe Farrell, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and a lot of other older guys. Though I started on electric bass when I was 10, I didn’t get back into electric until after college, when I realized that I had to get both instruments together to get work. For a while with Chick and on my earlier recordings I played a lot on the six-string bass because it was a new instrument that I wanted to explore. I’ve always been after the line. Either it’s a line that’s interesting, that has shapes and dynamics, flows, is musical and lyrical, or it’s just scales — no matter what speed you play it. I aim high, and there are certain things I want to do on the instrument. I want to have freedom and be lyrical. I want to have a strong foundation and be able to anchor any group that I’m in, and when it’s my turn to stretch out, I want to contribute.”

Patitucci honed those qualities during his productive tenure with Corea. “Whatever label people put on Chick’s music, it was always creative and amazing, and I learned a lot playing with him,” he emphasizes. “He got me a record deal and encouraged me to write. During my last three years I only played in his acoustic groups — the trio and quartet. It was more a practical matter than not wanting to play the electric music. He was very busy, and I didn’t want to do double duty on the touring. I felt I hadn’t shown a huge part of my personality on my records, though I’d been giving hints, and I wanted to experiment and explore and demonstrate some of this other music that I have inside.

“I started to realize that a lot of the people I wanted to play with more extensively were in New York. There are a lot of great players in Los Angeles, but the town is geared towards Pop music and the movies, and there isn’t much support for people who try to reach and stretch. In New York it’s not rose-colored glasses, but there’s an amazing concentration of creative musicians, an actual scene, more than anywhere else in the world. Stylistically and artistically, I always felt like I belonged here; most of the bassists who are my heroes, the diverse musical minds on the instrument — Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, George Mraz, Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Mingus, Steve Swallow, Jaco Pastorius — who influenced the way I hear and play lived here. I was more than a little concerned about coming back to the town where my heroes work, and I certainly was respectful of the scene. But I got encouragement from people like Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette, who told me I’d be fine. Finally I decided there was no point in waiting any longer, never doing it, then wondering, ‘Boy, maybe I should have tried to go home.’ So I did.”

After moving to New York, Patitucci recorded “One More Angel,” “Now” and “Imprint.” On the latter, which could not have been conceptualized nor executed anywhere else but New York City, Patitucci presents the full scope of his comprehensive aesthetic. He assembles and deploys in a variety of configurations a cast of first-tier improvisers with whom he interacts on a regular basis — young tenorists Chris Potter and Mark Turner, pianists Danilo Perez and John Beasley, trapset masters De Johnette and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, and state-of-the-art hand drummer Giovanni Hidalgo. He offers them a set of original compositions that span a capacious terrain of ambiance and groove, from spirit catching drum chant to aria-like ballads, incorporating a flexible template of rhythmic signatures.

“John is able to write simple tunes — simple in a good way,” notes Potter, a veteran of Patitucci’s ensembles since 1993. “Interesting things happen, it zigs when you think it’s going to zag. But it seems he’s learning to pare down to essentials, so that the themes are very memorable, singable melodies, and the way he constructs the changes makes it very open for the soloists. It seems his band concept is to have a clear framework for a tune, and then hire people to do what they do over it. John’s gigs are fun for me because I’m encouraged to explore whatever I’m into; I’m not straitjacketed into one kind of style. He’s a fountain of energy. He wants it to be loose and take off — all the right things. You feel that force behind you when you’re soloing, that he’s on your side — on the music’s side. He’s thinking about the music in a larger way, how to orchestrate it so it’s going somewhere, so it makes sense.”

“The way John is writing is a marriage of Latin and Jazz; you don’t know where one stops and the other ends,” adds Perez, Patitucci’s partner in the Roy Haynes Trio since 1997. “He can paint. He uses all the different styles of music, and can deal in any situation. You can go electric, acoustic, swing, jazz, Latin — it clicks in every situation we’ve worked in. John’s ability to play Latin music is amazing; he isn’t uncomfortable playing on the one-beat, which is the way Latin musicians play. He always takes the musical approach. He has a lot of facility, really great technique, but he doesn’t put it in your face all the time. He knows when to use it and when not to. He isn’t an egotistical player at all. He’s always finding ways to instigate situations, always doing something, always thinking, ‘What can I do to make this better through my function?’ And talk about playing in tune — my God.”

Patitucci stokes the fires throughout the recent bebop-to-the-future Roy Haynes Trio release, switching on a dime from foundational to soloistic functions with relentless intensity and almost devotional consonance. “I’ve played with a ton of different drummers over the years,” he notes, “and I’ve tried to sustain an attitude of keeping the doors wide-open, enjoying everybody’s ideas of playing the drums and molding in and learning from it. I like to try to get inside the rhythm section and lock in with the soloist, without preconceived ideas. I mean, you play the way you play anyway, and hopefully you do find your voice. But it’s so much richer if you’re open to be the catalyst. As the bass player you’re sitting right in the middle of the music. It’s exciting!”

The pasta fagiole is delicious. As dinner winds down, the conversation turns to Patitucci’s Italian heritage. “Culturally I feel very identified with it,” he remarks. “My father was a big opera fan, and played opera records in the house. I think the Italian fascination with the lyrical delivery of a melody definitely influenced my playing. My upbringing gave me an aesthetic of being thankful for certain things, and also the sense of art as something that’s important in the day-to-day aspects of life.”

After dinner, Patitucci peers out the dining room window into the twilight at his snow-blanketed backyard, honing in on the dimly outlined snowman he’d constructed earlier that day with toddler daughter Sachi Grace, an indefatigable 2-year-old who keeps metronomic time on the basement trapset. “Jazz got into my soul when I was so young,” he reflects. “It touched off something in me. I love the improvisational aspect of it, that there’s room for individual expression and the excitement of actually co-creating stuff on the fly. That’s magical. There’s nothing like it, and I wasn’t willing to let go. I had plenty of opportunities in L.A. to go pop, but it didn’t hold me emotionally.

“This is the most exciting time of my life. I love it back east. I’m home again. You can’t make snowmen in California.”


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Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, DownBeat,, John Patitucci

For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

* * *

Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.


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For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation, a 2011 DownBeat Cover Story, and a Link to 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending first  the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on, and then a DownBeat cover story I was given the opportunity  to put together in 2010-11. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

* * *


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

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

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

I came straight here.

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

Yes. [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Did you graduate from the New School?

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

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

For sure.

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

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

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

How long did it take?

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

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

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

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

Records or scores?

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

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

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

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

At the time, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Brad Mehldau DownBeat Article (2010-Directors Cut):


The announcement last spring that Brad Mehldau would be the first jazz musician to occupy the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2010-11 season—an honorific he shares with such luminaries as Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and Thomas Adès—drew surprisingly scant notice from mainstream cultural gatekeepers as a watershed event.

With the exception of Wynton Marsalis, it’s difficult to think of a musician possessing greater bona fides in the classical and jazz arenas. From his earliest albums, Mehldau established his ability to weave the harmonic language and feeling of Brahms and Mahler into the improvisational warp and woof—swinging or rubato—of trio and solo performance. He gave his songs Germanophilic titles (“Young Werther,” “Mignon’s Song,” “Angst,” “Sehnsucht”), and described his intentions and thought process in liner notes and essays that refracted a long timeline of German philosophy and literature, producing as extensive an aesthetic manifesto as ever produced by any jazz musician not named Anthony Braxton. His deep grounding in the various tributaries of post Bud Powell piano expression came through in the career-launching Introducing Brad Mehldau, which also documented his knack—he was then 25—for getting to the heart of a ballad. By Mehldau’s second recording, The Art of the Trio, Volume 1, he displayed a nascent comfort zone with 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, constructing contrapuntal phrases with a flowing, over-the-barline quality. Numerous pianists of his Gen-X peer group paid close attention. They kept listening as Mehldau, after moving to Los Angeles in 1996, increasingly brought contemporary pop songs into his mix, resolving, as he once wrote, to “bypass the temptation to use the collective language of the past.”

Long a devotee of art song, Mehldau upped the ante five years ago with Love Songs [Nonesuch], a pair of fully notated song cycles set to poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Bogan for interpretation by the prominent mezzo soprano Renee Fleming. Fellow diva Anne Sophie von Otter, already a fan of his trio recordings, was impressed, and requested Carnegie Hall to commission her own project with Mehldau. The result is Love Sublime [Naive], comprising one disk on which von Otter sings five stark, ravaged Sara Teasdale lyrics from the ‘10s and ‘20s, and a poem apiece by E.E. Cummings and Philip Larkin, and a second on which she traverses a varied menu drawn from a trans-genre cohort of songwriter-composers, among them Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Leo Ferré and Bob Telson. Throughout the proceedings, Mehldau, the virtuoso soloist, embraces the role of accompanist, playing throughout with restraint and dynamic nuance. For the poems, he adheres strictly to the scores, which are at once fresh and idiomatically evocative of the lieder tradition; on the “middlebrow” fare, he imparts an old-school saloon piano feel, interpolating graceful comp with solos that contain no wasted notes.

“Brad plays beautifully, in the truest, most seriously meant sense,” von Otter emailed. “During one of our early meetings, I described my my range to him, my strengths and weaknesses, what I would encourage and discourage in the vocal lines. We also discussed our tastes in poetry. The songs sound American to me—Copland comes to mind, though not overly so. But they also have a strong Mehldau style, meaning that Brad has managed—and this is not so easy—to create his very own sound, something fresh and new.”

` There’s no mistaking the Mehldau touch on Highway Rider [Nonesuch], his first recorded exploration of the orchestral implications of his pianism. Recorded last March, It’s a motivically connected, 15-movement suite on which a two-drummer edition of Mehldau’s working trio and saxophone soloist Joshua Redman interact with a chamber orchestra comprised of 23 strings, three french horns, bassoon and oboe, each given a separate part on two selections, and functioning sectionally elsewhere. Both on the orchestral selections and the quintet, quartet, trio, and duo pieces that comprise much of Highway Rider’s second part, Mehldau weaves into his own argot a host of dialects—Euro and American streams of classical music, various iterations of post-songbook pop and classic rock, swinging and odd-metered jazz, flamenco and bolero, the blues. The piece, which has an imaginary screenplay quality, is chock-a-block with achingly gorgeous songs—seasoned with well-proportioned dollops of atonality, and threaded together with recurring harmonic and melodic themes—that seem to be begging for a lyric.

Mehldau toured Highway Rider in early November, recruiting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for a three-concert American leg that concluded with a November 9th appearance at Zankel Hall, in advance of a fortnight-long, seven-concert European sojourn. During the afternoon runthrough, Mehldau negotiated the mix section by section with conductor Scott Yoo and Zankel’s efficient soundman. Occasionally, he responded to the flow with extemporaneous contrapuntal responses; at other points, he walked to different spots in the auditorium to hear for himself. After all these issues were settled, after Yoo and SPCO had resolved to their satisfaction various nuances of phrasing and vibrato, the quintet soundchecked with a brisk version of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Left leg crossed over right, leaning into the keyboard, Mehldau tossed off an intense, ready-for-prime-time solo of several choruses, abstracting the refrain, alternating block chords with hurtling single-note passages.

Hit time was 8:30, and Mehldau had a five o’clock meeting with pianist-composer Timothy Andres at Steinway’s 57th Street premises for a pre-dinner parsing of the selections from Andres’ two-piano suite, Shy and Mighty, that the two were slated to perform at a March 11th Zankel Hall concert that would conclude Mehldau’s composer-in-residence obligations. (The third concert, on February 19th, presented Mehldau and Von Otter in support of Love Songs; for the second, on January 26th, Mehldau played solo, per his 2011 Nonesuch release, Live at Marciac.)

Before leaving, Mehldau took ten minutes to sit with me. He turned 40 last year, and his dark hair contains the barest intimations of gray. He’s taller and more buff than is evident from a distance or in photos, with ropy arm muscles—accentuated by a tattoo on his left bicep—that are a pianist’s equivalent of an embouchure. Unfailingly polite, he reiterated a message conveyed by management the day before: He had no time to meet face-to-face before his departure for London two days hence, and he’d remain in Europe through December with his wife Fleurine, the Dutch singer, and their three children. Our conversation would have to be by phone.

On the appointed day, Mehldau spoke at length about a variety of subjects. But taping goblins interfered. The proceedings evaporated into thin air. With a deadline drawing nigh, Mehldau agreed to a second go-round via email.

In a 2006 conversation on WKCR, Mehldau related that when he was “around 22, maybe four years in New York,” he “started rediscovering classical music, which I’d played as a kid, with great pleasure. I did what I did with jazz for a long time—I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. Scores. A lot of records. A lot of concerts. It rubbed off a little. I’d been playing in a style where the left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing, and I’d lost some left-hand facility to the point where I thought I had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12. It was a sort of ego or vanity thing that got me into playing classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.”

In 2010, I asked about the gestation of Highway Rider.

I like to read scores like someone else reads a regular book—in the train, in bed if I’m trying to fall asleep, wherever. It’s a great way to get inside a composer’s head; I feel like I’m getting to know the person who wrote it, even if he’s been dead for 200 years. It’s like he’s telling you everything about himself, right there in the room with you. So writing for orchestra came on its own time. The inspiration was cumulative. All the events in my life led to that moment.

Mehldau cited a passage from Rilke, first in the original German, then in translation: “Everything is gestation and then birth. To let every impression and every germ of feeling complete itself, wholly in itself, in the dark, the unsayable, the unconscious, unreachable by one’s own conscious understanding; and then to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour of deliverance, when a new clarity comes: This alone is the artist’s life: in comprehension as well as in creation.”

Highway Rider is the largest scale thing I’ve done. I don’t mean just the amount of musicians; I mean the aspiration to have formal continuity throughout an extended, multi-faceted piece. The process in which I wrote it might be something like writing a novel, in the sense that when you start to write, you are not starting at the beginning, and as you go along, you don’t know where it’s leading. You have to pay attention, and not over-extend yourself by adding too much material—you achieve continuity by vigorously sticking with one central idea. What happens, then, is super cool: At a certain point in writing—maybe about one third of the way—the theme starts to take over. It starts to dictate what you’re writing, and, in spooky ways, large-scale connections between the various parts of the whole start connecting to each other, without your effort, by their own accord. I wrote the first piece for Highway Rider—it wound up being the title track—in a dressing room when I was touring with Pat Metheny. I let it sit awhile, thinking maybe it could be a trio tune. Then, a month later, in the tour bus with Pat, I got some ideas for the string piece, ‘Now You Must Walk Alone.’ I saw a thematic connection, and thought that was interesting and maybe I could exploit it. Then I began to consciously stay with that motif. But the order of the pieces, and more importantly, what I think of as the narrative ‘arc’ wasn’t there yet—it took another year.

As the titles imply, said narrative arc pertains explicitly to travel—the notion of a journey, a life cycle. Since the 2000 trio recording, Places, the road, a fundamental reality for any working performer, has been an ongoing trope in Mehldau’s work.

Music travels through time; often we are traveling through space. So travel works well for me as a metaphor for music. I think that’s pretty universal—when you begin a piece, you feel like you’re in one place, and when it ends, you have gone somewhere. Or perhaps, like in a few things I’ve done already, Highway Rider included, you’ve traveled back to where you started, and maybe you’ve had some kind of gnosis: You’re where you were, but you’ve gained something. Music always expresses itself through the dialectic of a fixed identity and difference: As a piece develops, some part of its identity is constant, but there is also constant change. Likewise, in a journey, there is always the traveler—his or her surroundings change, but he or she remains the same conduit for all of those varied surroundings.

As a teenager, Mehldau discovered the Songbook tunes that would later enter his repertoire through recordings by female singers like Julie London and Peggy Lee; he’s described instrumental lyricism as striving for a voice-like quality. He addressed the way these concerns play out in his musical production in 2006, responding to a question on his Germanophilic predispositions.

“I was trying to bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, from Brahms in 1865 to Wynton Kelly in 1958. I was very concerned then with creating an identity that would somehow mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways). One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.”

[2010]: As a pianist you have the limitations of your instrument, and the big one is that the note dies away after it’s played. Still, you have all these models from the human voice, horns, and bowed stringed instruments, where the sound continues. You try to find your own way of sounding like a horn. A lot of the expression comes in the actual intention—if as a piano player you are getting inspired by a horn and try to play with a horn-quality, you won’t sound like a horn, but something different will happen in your playing.

Do ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ sides coexist within you? Do you enter different mind-spaces in addressing one idiom vis-a-vis the other, or is the process more holistic?

It doesn’t feel holistic, but it is. Basically, my gift is this: I have the ability to synthesize the classical music I’m listening to, studying, and playing, and let it find a way into my conception. I’m an okay classical player, but I never would have made it as a virtuoso concert artist. You have to have steel balls for that; it’s just not in my character. For example, a few years back I worked on Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata—a real warhorse ass-kicker—for a few months. I gave up in self-disgust after trying to play it for some friends and completely flailing. But then it seeped into my solo thing—different parts of it at different times. So I never stop learning classical music or exposing myself to new things. Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock—each of them let classical music rub off on their jazz playing.

In the program notes for Highway Rider, Mehldau states that the structure and instrumentation mirrors/responds to Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, a civilizational threnody composed in 1945, at the end of World War Two.

Metamorphosen is the perfect piece of music for me if there ever was one. It has everything: That thematic economy I mentioned, on a high level, and the perfect marriage between “horizontal” and “vertical” expression—very harmonic and very melodic all at once. The contrapuntal rigor is unparalleled, yet at times the piece can come at you like a big, fat, beautiful series of chords. Strauss’ harmonic language at this period in time—and early Schoenberg in pieces like Pelleas und Mellisande, and Mahler in his later symphonies, particularly the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth—is a language that I want to inhabit. It’s right on the edge of the abyss; yet it’s still tonal. There’s a tragic, hyper-real feeling to that.

Scott Yoo: After our last concert in Paris, I told Brad that the more I dealt with the piece, the more I liked it, and that I enjoyed conducting it most on the last day of the tour. That’s something that happens with Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms—the really great pieces are the ones you enjoy more as you do them more. I’m as much of a layman on jazz music as you can get, but with each different show, I could see what stayed the same with the group and what changed. For example, Brad had a lot of what we call cadenzas. One of them is the epilogue, and he played it very straight the first time I heard it. I thought, ‘ok, fine; that makes sense.’ From night to night, the cadenza became more elaborate. Actually, it was very classical. There were times where I thought it was a shame that what he was putting forth wasn’t being documented, because he was making up such profound music on the spot. Then I realized, ‘Aha, so this is what jazz is all about.’ The ephemeral quality of something existing in a brief second of time, and then evaporating, never to appear again, that’s the whole beauty of it. It was a little disconcerting to hear different notes every night. But once you understand that, and let go, then it’s not so hard.

Joshua Redman: I’d played ‘Don’t Be Sad,’ ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ and ‘Old West’ on duo gigs wtih Brad in 2008 and 2009, and he sent us demos a few months before the recording. But although I had some sense of the general vibe of the songs, I had no conception of the orchestral aspects going in. Often when I’m soloing, it’s in the context of orchestral passages with bold, sometimes dissonant harmonies. So it was a wonderful challenge, hearing it for the first time in the studio, to interact and figure out how to make my soloistic voice blend [with] and complement what the orchestra was doing. On the tour, the challenge, night after night, as I gained more insight into how everything fit together, was somehow to approach the music like I was playing it for the first time, to preserve that freshness and spontaneity.

There’s a lot in the piece that’s new and groundbreaking, but it sounds like a natural extension and development of all the musical ideas Brad’s worked with in the past. To me, almost every band he’s had, almost every record he’s done, there has been a sense of arrival, of completion, as though fully formed in its time. He’s a true virtuoso, but it’s not intimidating—in in every instance he employs his chops in the service of musicality and an emotional statement, not for display. You feel so much warmth and empathy and soul and love, as well as the intelligence, rigor and complexity music should have. Hands-down, he’s the best comper I’ve ever heard; he plays exactly what you would play for yourself if you were smart enough to think about it and empathic enough to feel it. The raw, God-given musical talent; the skill he’s acquired through years of playing, listening, and working on music; and that empathy—I’m not sure I’ve encountered that combination of elements in any other musician.

In 2006, Mehldau related that although he was well-conversant in jazz vocabulary when he arrived at Manhattan’s New School in 1988, he “had not much practical knowledge of how to apply it in a group setting.” He added that comping was “part of my definition of being a jazz piano player,” that it’s “a social, intuitive thing,” better learned by osmosis than in the classroom. He observed elder peer-groupers like Larry Goldings and Kevin Hays, and veterans like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and learning on the job on gigs with veterans like Jimmy Cobb, and contemporaries Mark Turner, Ugonna Okegwo, and Leon Parker. Junior Mance, Mehldau’s first teacher at the New School, helped, too. “I told Junior, ‘I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?’ He said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ We sat down, and Junior would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Doing these things helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time.”

[2010]: Comping is just plain fun. Think about it: Someone is blowing his or her brains out in front of you, telling a story. What to do? Do you interject? Do you support? Okay, you support, but…do you support strongly like a church choir, or softly like a harp? Or a little of both? It’s like playing basketball—you’re where you need to be right when your guy needs you to be there. That takes maturity. Comping is also a quick way to find out how a pianist thinks about harmony. You may showcase some worked-out stuff in a solo, but comping will show your actual knowledge of things like voice leading, register considerations, etc.

This being said, the preponderance of Mehldau’s schedule until the end of April are solo concerts in support of Live in Marciac.

I felt like I had something to say solo with Elegiac Cycle, but my solo concept wasn’t as loose in the concert setting. The looseness—the relaxed thing I have playing trio—kicked in the next few years and I gradually got drawn to doing it more and more in concert. I put out the first live record, In Tokyo, because it represented for me a transition in my solo conception—the end point of something that had developed, and the beginning of something that was hatching. In the same way, Live in Marciac is the summation of certain things I’ve done, with some glimmers of a new conception, which is now in full throttle, I would say.

In the January solo concert I’ll intersperse music from the classical repertoire with my own music and talk a little, showing examples of how various composers have influenced how I write, improvise, and arrange other people’s tunes. I never take this approach; it’s intentionally didactic, and that’s not my thing. But I’m doing it in my role as the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve given it some real thought. The position is certainly a great honor. A lot of ink is spilled about how the jazz and classical music worlds inform each other, and it’s been a tired trope for years—it kind of knocks the danger out of each one. The only way for both genres to inform what you’re doing in a meaningful way, whatever kind of musician you are, is to engage deeply in both disciplines.

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