Category Archives: Jazziz

For Russell Malone’s 55th Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2016 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2005

For master guitarist Russell Malone’s 55th birthday, here’s a feature profile that I wrote about him in the fall 2016 issue of Jazziz, and the proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2004.

Russell Malone, Jazziz, 2016:

Before settling into the formalities of an interview in the kitchen of his Jersey City row house, Russell Malone, Southerner that he is, decided to feed his guest. First he prepared ginger lemonade, a 20-minute procedure that included eight squeezed lemons, a lot of ginger, and agave for sweetener. Then Malone shaved daikon, cooked sushi rice infused with butter, fixed a ponzu sauce, seared some pea-shoot greens with garlic and, finally, broiled two slabs of salmon.

Malone worked methodically, washing and drying the dishes and utensils after each stage of the process. He was dressed well — cream-colored linen slacks; a forest green shirt from Thailand with gold brocading, untucked — but didn’t wear an apron. We spoke as he cooked, and continued to speak as we ate lunch, trading opinions and scurrilous gossip, discussing family and mutual acquaintances. Ninety minutes later, it almost seemed a shame to turn on the digital voice recorder.

The subject at hand was Malone’s spring release, All About Melody (High Note), on which the 53-year-old guitarist and his quartet — pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III — address an American Songbook ballad; two American Soulbook torch songs; a spiritual; and originals by jazz icons Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Lee and Sonny Rollins. Malone also presents his own ballad, “Message to Jim Hall,” directly followed by a brief voicemail from the late iconic guitarist.

Neither notions of high concept nor narrative arc inform the program, Malone says, not even his decision to follow his dedication to Hall, who famously played on several early-’60s recordings by Rollins, with Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” which Malone learned while touring with the saxophonist in 2010. “Those songs are fun to play,” he says. “When I make a record, I want the songs to flow naturally, to hold your attention, just like playing a set in a club.” He affirmed his close friendship with Hall. “Jim would call to tell you how he felt about you,” Malone says. “He was big on taking the time, effort and thought to write a letter, get the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mail it. I have a stack of his handwritten letters. I didn’t get around to writing Jim a letter, but I did get around to writing that tune for him.”

For a unifying thread, Malone suggested the title, edited from HighNote proprietor Joe Fields’ suggestion, “It’s All About the Melody,” which, he says, seemed too preachy and dogmatic.“This could have titled any of my other records, because that’s always been my attitude,” Malone says, before fleshing out the core aesthetic principle that infuses his previous 11 leader recordings since 1992 and numerous sideman or collaborative appearances with — to name a roughly chronological short list — Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick, Diana Krall, Benny Green and Christian McBride, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and Rollins.

“I’m as influenced by singers as by instrumentalists, and whenever I learn a song, particularly a standard or a ballad, I listen to a vocalist’s rendition,” he says. “I want to learn not just the harmonic structure, but the story, the lyrics — everything. Those things go through my head when I play them. I try to sing through my instrument.”

In that regard, Malone mentions his unaccompanied reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he heard growing up in Albany, Georgia. “If you noticed, I only played the melody,” he says. “Sometimes a strong melody, good changes and a good story is enough. That’s my thing these days.”

Malone adhered unstintingly to this stated criteria for song selection and play-your-feelings interpretation on both All About Melody and its 2014 HighNote predecessor, Love Looks Good On You. The latter date transpired four years after Triple Play, a trio recital that was Malone’s only studio recording during a six-year, four-CD run with MaxJazz, a fine boutique label that ceased operations after the death of its owner, Richard McDonnell.

“I was working so much, it wasn’t a priority to do a record if nobody would get behind it,” Malone explains. Several labels suggested he join their roster, but none followed up. “My attitude was: Your loss; if you ignore me, I’ll keep forging ahead. Then Joe Fields contacted me. People who’ve worked with him told me he’d support the records. Joe seemed to be the only guy interested in someone who plays like I do.”

He referenced the phrase “interview music,” coined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, Malone’s dear friend and colleague from before the guitarist moved to New York from Atlanta in the late ’80s until Miller died in 2013. “Certain musicians talk a good game, and sound deep and interesting, and it gets over,” Malone says. “But writers don’t consider people who play like me as cutting edge. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective — devoid of melody, swinging, blues and, heaven forbid, any black elements — are described as pushing the music forward. That’s complete bullshit to me.”

He recalled a brunch gig with organist Trudy Pitts in Philadelphia around 1990, playing tunes for “older people who wanted to hear some melodies.” One of Malone’s core influences, Kenny Burrell, working in town, was in the house. So were a group of college students. “Whenever I played something a little outside or rebellious to what was going on, these kids went, ‘Yeah, man — whoo-oo!’ Instead of thinking about the music, I started to think about impressing them with my crazy, dissonant shit.”

After the set, the admirers offered compliments: “Yeah, you were really pushing the envelope; you’re taking it out.” Malone thanked them, proceeded to Burrell’s table, and sat down. Malone recounts: “I had the nerve to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Burrell, you hear what I’m working on?’ He put his arm around me, and started chastising me like I was his son. He told me that what I’d played may have worked well in another situation, but it didn’t work here. You have to play what the situation calls for, which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Any time you’re playing to prove something, it’s not honest. I never forgot that. And I never did that again.”

[BREAK]

“I am flexible,” Malone says. “I take pride on being open enough to play with anybody.” He’s played “Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” with Andy Williams on The Mike Huckabee Show. He’s shared stages with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole; channeled the pioneering electric guitarist Eddie Durham in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; played the blues with Clarence Carter and raised a joyful noise with the Gospel Keynotes. He’s played high-level chamber jazz with Ron Carter and supported Dianne Reeves in a two-guitar format with Romero Lubambo. He’s rehearsed outcat projects with Bill Frisell and James “Blood” Ulmer. He visited Ornette Coleman’s loft once for a marathon of shedding.

Malone grew up in a Pentecostal church, where he discovered the guitar. He traces his openness to the experience of playing it there from age 6 to 18. “It fascinated me how these church mothers singing spirituals would move people to tears, or to get the Holy Ghost and shout in response,” he says. “That’s when I started to really listen — the singers might start singing in any key, and not always at the same time, so I learned to be flexible throughout the guitar neck.”

As he entered his teens, Malone memorized his first guitar solo from Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, had “epiphanies” from B.B. King and from “country” guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis on Glen Campbell’s TV show. In 1975, “on a school night when I should have been in bed,” he saw George Benson play “incredible things” on “Seven Comes Eleven” on a PBS homage to John Hammond “that let me know there was a whole other level to aspire to.” Malone soon purchased The George Benson Cookbook and the double-LP Benson Burner. “A gentleman in my church who played guitar noticed that I was trying to play this stuff,” he continues. “He liked Wes Montgomery, and he laid Smokin’ At the Half Note and Boss Guitar on me. Those four records set me on a course that I have not deviated from.”

That course followed autodidactic pathways. “I had enough sense to know that something triggered George Benson’s interest in playing guitar like that,” Malone says. “I read that George was influenced by Charlie Christian, then that Charlie Christian was influenced by Eddie Durham and Lester Young, and had influenced Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and so on. I didn’t have skills to write anything down, and I never transcribed a solo. I like the way I learned because I trust my ears. I’d pick things up and remember them.” He sought advice from lesser players who understood theory, as, for example, when he saw “Misty” in the Real Book, spotted an E-flat-major-VII chord, and asked a roommate to play it. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been playing all along.’ From there, I learned how to identify what I saw on paper. I still ask questions.”

After garnering experience on chitlin’ circuit revues that included Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor, Malone spent much of 1983 in Houston with Hammond B3 practitioner Al Rylander. In 1985, just before he turned 22, he moved to Atlanta, where he quickly established bona fides on transitory engagements with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson and O.C. Smith. In 1986, he joined Freddy Cole, who offered a master class in the nuances of blending with a singer before firing Malone after several months because, the guitarist recalls, “I wasn’t there yet.”

Malone first visited New York in 1985. He promptly received a lecture on the virtues of sonic individualism from bassist Lonnie Plaxico after they played “Stablemates” at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater. “I respected Lonnie, because he’d played with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon,” Malone says. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got good tone, good feeling, and you really hear those changes.’ Then he said, ‘I hear that you like Wes and George and all those guys. You might be able to get away with playing like them in Atlanta, but not here. Those guys were able to break through because they didn’t come here trying to sound like somebody else. They had their own thing, and people eventually caught on.’”

Two years later, Jimmy Smith took an Atlanta engagement, and invited the local hero to sit in for a blues, “The Sermon.” “After the head, I played all my pet licks and generated some superficial excitement,” Malone says. “Then Jimmy went into a ballad, ‘Laura,’ which I didn’t know. You can’t just hear your way through it, because it moves harmonically, with a lot of twists and turns. That’s when I found out I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. After he’d finished embarrassing me, Jimmy got on the microphone and said, ‘Whenever youngsters sit in with us, we like to make sure they learn something.’ He looked at me. ‘Now, did you learn something, young man?’”

After that set, Malone approached Smith at the bar to thank him for the opportunity. Smith, a black belt, turned and stuck his index finger in Malone’s solar plexus. “Let me tell you something,” Smith said, finger still in place. “I knew all those guys you’re trying to play like, and I also taught them. Don’t ever get on my bandstand with that bullshit again.” Then he invited Malone to his hotel room to play for him, telling the youngster about his life and experiences until 6:30 in morning. A year later, Smith hired Malone for his Southern and Midwestern tours.

“I’ve been around a lot of the older guys,” Malone says, reflecting on a cohort of associations that includes Smith, Rollins, Hall and Ron Carter. Another mentor was guitarist John Collins, who replaced Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio after quality time with, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Art Tatum. “John saw Andrés Segovia when he was a serviceman in World War Two, and remembered that he played the whole guitar, compared to young guitar players who focus on single lines like a horn player,” Malone says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re selling the instrument short. In the right hands, it can function as an orchestra. I never forgot that.”

He cited an encomium from Benny Carter, who was 94 when he heard Malone play his “All About You” on Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz. “Benny told me he liked the way I treated ballads and my own songs because I respect the melody and don’t treat them like blowing vehicles,” Malone says. Dr. Billy Taylor — who himself sat at the feet of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum during formative years — learned Malone had been spending quality time with Carter. He said: “You’ve been around the real guys, doing it the right way, the way we did it coming up. You know what’s up. Nobody can come along and bullshit you.”

Perhaps the accumulated weight of these validations helps Malone sustain philosophical equanimity in processing the inequities he discerns as he approaches his own elder statesman years. “I meant what I said about critics who have racist agendas and jump on things that are devoid of ethnic elements,” he says. “But my attitude now is that what anyone decides to play ain’t my damn business. I’m just trying to play good music, what feels right, and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for what I do. When I hung out with Ornette and Blood, I wasn’t concerned about trying to push the envelope. I was looking for a different musical experience. I’m not going to change who I am. I don’t classify my favorite musicians, like Hank Jones, as ‘modern.’ I steer away from that word. I see them as timeless. That’s how I want to be.”

SIDEBAR

“It’s all in the hands,” is all Russell Malone will say about his plush, full-bodied, instantly recognizable tone. “Everybody hears their sound in their head, no matter how old they are. I just heard a recording of me with a gospel group when I was 16. It sounds like me — the feel and everything else. You refine the nuances and subtleties over time, but it’s going to still sound like you.”

He points to a Gibson Super-400 standing by an armchair in his living room. “Kenny is the reason I play that guitar,” he says. “Just before I joined Jimmy Smith, he did a concert in Atlanta. He needed a Twin amplifier, and I had an old one, so I brought it for him to play his Super 400 through. I decided that if I ever made some money, I’d get one.

“I modeled my sound after him, Jim Hall and Mundell Lowe. They get this big, beautiful, round sound, where you can still hear the wood. Kenny picks great notes, plays great tunes. He also sings. Great composer. Master musician.”

Malone continues: “What attracted me to George Benson was the drive in his playing. He showed us that you can be a great musician and still be successful. That whole thing about being a starving artist never worked for him. It never worked for me either. I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full. A lot of people have disparaged George for ‘selling out.’ That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The way I look at it, he cashed in on his talent.”

On a previous occasion, Malone had offered a list of guitar heroes that also included Chet Atkins, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. “I love everyone on that list, but Wes really sets my soul on fire,” he says. “I’ve loved every record I’ve heard by Wes Montgomery. He never played a bad note. Always got a good sound, good taste, and swung all the time.” —TP

 

Russell Malone Blindfold Test, Downbeat, 2004:

1. Ted Dunbar & Kevin Eubanks, “Fried Pies” (from Project G-7: A Tribute To Wes Montgomery, Vol. 1, Evidence, 1993) (Dunbar, Eubanks, guitars; Rufus Reid, bass; Akira Tana, drums; Wes Montgomery, composer)

This is a Wes Montgomery tune, Fried Pies. It’s two guitar players. This guitar player, whoever he is, is playing with his thumb, and he doesn’t seem to have good control. It would lay in the pocket better if he played it with a pick, I think. I have no idea who this is. I mean, this is just okay. It’s funny when you play a tune like this, that’s already been done right once. I almost never play songs by my heroes, because unless you can bring something to the table that’s equally as good or better than, what’s the point of playing it. Now the second guitarist is playing it. He sounds good. He seems to be more in the pocket than the other player. He’s got some fire, too. I like the bass player and the drummer; they’re locking up very nicely. Is that Kevin Eubanks? Ah!!! Ha-ha! Yeah! Now, that makes sense. This record was done about ten years ago, right? Was that other guitar player William Ash? I have no idea who the other player was, but I recognized Kevin immediately. There’s a certain way he attacks the notes. He’s not playing with the pick, he’s playing with his fingers, but he has a certain attack. That’s the reason why I was able to distinguish him. He plays very nicely. 4 stars for the bass player and drummer, because they really locked in well. Hell, 5 stars for Kevin. The other guitar player played nicely enough, but I would have liked it more if he’d been in the pocket. 3 stars for him. I’ll give the piece 3 stars. [AFTER] That was Ted Dunbar? Wow! I loved Ted. I never got to meet him. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. I heard Ted play before, and he could definitely play better than this.

2. Jonathan Kreisberg, “Gone With the Wind” (from New For Now, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Kreisberg, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Mark Ferber, drums)

This is nice. Is that John Abercrombie? I have no idea who it is, but he plays very nicely. He has a nice touch. The sound of the organ threw me in the beginning, because it sounded like one of those cute Farfisas or Wurlitzer, but now it sounds rich. Boy, this guitar player is killing! Oh, that’s Jonathan Kreisberg! So that must be Gary Versace on organ. I can’t remember the drummer’s name, but I think he plays with Jonathan every week. Jonathan’s a good friend of mine. Wonderful player. I’ve gone to see him a few times and listened to him, and once you become familiar with a person, you become accustomed to what they sound like. Everybody has a sound. Jonathan is younger than I am; I think he’s in his early thirties. I hear a lot of people talk about young guys don’t have a sound, which I think is total bullshit. Everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice; it just depends on how familiar you are with that person. If you listen to a person enough, then you will be able to distinguish it. That’s how I was able to distinguish Kevin on the previous thing you played me, and this is how I was able to distinguish Jonathan. There are certain things you key in on. Here it’s Jonathan’s sound and the ideas that he plays, and his touch. I love this tune, Gone With the Wind. I like that they took an old standard, and did something different with it. It sounds like they’re playing it in 6/4. Jonathan has chops in abundance, and one thing I like about his solo is that he really took his time and said something beautiful on the tune. Guys with that kind of ability to play whatever they want on the instrument sometimes have a tendency to overstate. But he didn’t do that, and I appreciate that approach. 4 stars for Jonathan.

3. Joel Harrison, “Folsom Prison Blues” (from Free Country. ACT. 2003) (Harrison, guitar; David Binney, alto sax; Rob Thomas, violin; Sean Conly, bass; Allison Miller, drums)

Man, this sounds like some of the sanctified music that I grew up hearing in my church. Oh, this is grooving. Is it Derek Trucks? Wow! I LIKE this cat, whoever he is. See, this is one of the things that guitar can do. It can bend notes, it can wail, it can cry. Whoo, man! Now, this was fine until the horn player started to play. He’s probably a bad cat, but he’s not really adding anything to this performance. Is it Bill Frisell? Oh, this is Folsom Prison Blues? The Johnny Cash tune. I didn’t recognize it without the lyrics. The guitar player, whoever he is, he just got right to the heart of the matter. But the horn player, though he’s probably a great musician, listening to him play is kind of like eating crabs. You’ve got to go through so much to get so little. He’s not really doing it for me. But the guitar player got right to the heart of the matter. Mark Ribot! It’s not Mark Ribot? Dammit. I give up. Joel Harrison? I’ve never heard of him. I’m going to go out and get some Joel Harrison records, man. That’s one of the ways I like to hear guitar played. Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument. It can do so many things, man. That’s going into the CD collection. Joel Harrison. 5 stars. I loved him. I’ve seen Dave Binney’s name, but I don’t know him. I like the bass player and the drummer. I like the whole band. Oh, I know Allison Miller. She’s great!

4. Rodney Jones, “Summertime” (from Soul Manifesto Live!, Savant, 2003) (Jones, guitar; Will Boulware, Hammond B3; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Kenwood Dennard, drums)

Whoever this is, I hear a very strong George Benson influence. The tune is Summertime. Rodney Jones. Which record is this from? Soul Manifesto Live? Okay. This is just okay. I’d like to have heard him pay closer attention to the melody. This is a personal thing with me. What he’s playing is great. That tune has such a beautiful melody. I’d like to hear a little less embellishment of the melody. It’s a little bit too much guitar for me. Now, Rodney’s bad. I’ve heard him play a lot more musically than this. It doesn’t do it for me. I love Rodney; he’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite guitarists, but I don’t feel this. I’ve heard him play a lot better. 2½ stars.

5. Jim Hall-Geoff Keezer, “End The Beguine” (from Free Association, Artists Share, 2005) (Hall, guitar, composer; Keezer, piano)

Mike Stern? No? Okay. Oh, I like the dissonance. The guitarist sounds like he’s picking close to the bridge. It sounds like he’s playing one of those solid body guitars. That’s cool. That doesn’t offend me at all. Mick Goodrick. It’s not Mick Goodrick? Ah, that’s Jim Hall. [LAUGHS] Yeah, go ahead, Jim! That’s Geoff Keezer. I heard them play this tune at the Vanguard when they played there a couple of years ago. These are two of my favorite musicians. Geoff Keezer is one of the greatest piano players walking the planet today. He can do anything; he’s so versatile. What can you say about Jim? He’s a magician. He’s like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat! Wouldn’t that be something to go see a magician, and then the rabbit pulls him out of the hat. That’s the way I see Jim. He’s such a quirky, unorthodox kind of guy, but he’s always musical. Never anything for the sake of being different. Everything that he plays and does has a purpose. One of my favorite things about him is that there’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein, and that’s okay to do, too. But Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too. 5 stars. Give Jim Hall the Milky Way. In the beginning I said Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick, but even though I was wrong I wasn’t too far off-base, because I know Jim Hall has influenced both of those players. What threw me in the beginning was that Jim was picking towards the bridge, and when you do that, it makes the tone of the guitar thinner, more brittle, and that’s not how I’m used to hearing Jim. But what gave it away was just the touch and the ideas.

6. Nguyen Lê, “Walking On The Tiger’s Tail” (from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail, Nonesuch, 2005) (Lê , guitars; Paul McCandless, oboe; Art Lande, piano; Jamey Haddad, percussion)

I like this. Really thick harmony. Thick chords. Is that a bass clarinet? Is it Adam Holdsworth? Nels Cline? Oh, wait a minute. Dave Fiuczynski. No? Okay. Damn. Whoever he is, he’s a heck of a player. I like it. Whoo! Ben Monder. Not Ben? It sounds spacious. It’s out there, but there’s a groove. I mean, you can pat your foot. It sounds good and it feels good. Is he European? [Yes.] This is good. I think I would appreciate this better if I was listening to these guys play live. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. There was some stuff that moved in certain spots, but now it’s going on and on and on. It doesn’t really do anything for me. But I liked what led up to this. I have no idea who the guitarist is. 3 stars. There’s no denying the ability. Everybody can play. That cannot be denied. Nguyen Le? I’ve heard him. He’s good! I’ve been meaning to check out more of him. I have nothing but respect for him, but as far as this performance, I’d appreciate it more if I was sitting there listening to them. I have some homework to do. There’s so much stuff out there. I’ve seen this guy’s name, and I have heard him play and I liked what I heard. What I heard by him was acoustic, and it was beautiful.

7. Bill Frisell, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from East-West, Nonesuch, 2005) (Frisell, guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums)

I like this. He’s getting some very beautiful colors out of the instrument. Nice voicings. Is that Ben Monder? No. I like Ben. “My Man’s Gone Now,” a Gershwin tune. This is really pretty. Is that Paul Motian on drums? Is this Frisell? Aha. He does a lot of different things. He does a lot of things with swells and he uses effects. You never know what kind of bag he’s going to come out of. Oh, yeah! He’s a very wonderful musician, and he’s a very nice guy, too. I have to be honest with you. For a while, I had a problem with listening to guys like Bill Frisell and Metheny and Scofield, a lot of the white players. Not because they were bad musicians. It’s just that whenever white writers would write about these guys, I always got the feeling that they were making them out to be superior to a lot of the black players. So for a long time, I didn’t listen to these kinds of players, but after having met them, I found out that they don’t think like that at all. These are very nice men and they’re great musicians. 3 stars. This was very good. I like listening to things like this, but after a while I like to hear some time. I like to hear guys deal with time. But Frisell is great. He’s a wonderful musician. But for a while I didn’t want to hear guys like that, because of the way certain writers would write about them. But having met them, I know that they don’t think like that at all. These are very soulful guys. They’re just about the music.

8. Calvin Newborn, “Newborn Blues” (from New Born, Yellow Dog, 2005) (Newborn, guitar; Charlie Wood, organ; Renardo Ward, drums)

I like this. This is home here. This is where I live. Whoever this guy is, he likes B.B. King. That’s not B.B., is it? But he likes B.B., whoever he is. I know some critics might look upon this kind of thing as being dated and predictable and not pushing the music forward and whatever, but I NEVER get tired of this, man. The blues, man. To me, jazz needs that. I have no idea who this guy is, but give him the Milky Way, too, whoever the hell he is. I love this. I love the band. I love the way they’re locking in together. This is great. He’s not playing anything slick or fancy, but it makes sense, it works, and it sounds great. Oh, yes, yes, YES! Oh, yeah. Cornell Dupree? Calvin Newborn! Know how I knew? The touch! That’s what I’m talking about. All the stars in the universe. I’m very suspicious… You’ve played some great stuff today. But I read about a lot of players who the critics write about as players who are pushing the envelope or players who are breaking away from the tradition. I’m very suspicious about players who are described that way, because to me, all it means is that they deleted all of the ethnic elements out of the music—or the black elements out of the music. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective seem to be the ones who are described as pushing the music forward. I mean, I know the music has to move forward and everything, but come on, man. If you don’t have this, you got nothing. You might have something else, but you need those ethnic elements to have jazz, man. Some people may disagree with me, but that’s just the way I feel. Right on, Calvin Newborn. Bend those notes. Play that blues. [LAUGHS] Yeah! That’s how I feel about that one. Listening to him… I got the same feeling as I got when Joel Harrison played. I don’t care what color he is. I’m sure he’s white. But he is not afraid to acknowledge the blues, those black elements. He’s a brave white man who is not afraid to acknowledge that in his playing. My hat’s off to him.

9. Baden Powell, “Samba Triste” (from Live A Bruxelles, Sunnyside, 1999/2005 (Powell, guitar, composer)

This is just okay. Whenever I hear people play solo guitar, especially on the nylon string, I like to hear a lot less sloppiness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m nitpicking. I know it sounds like I am. But I have to tell you how I feel. This is a little sloppy for my taste. This doesn’t really go anywhere. If there is a melody, it’s damn near nonexistent. The tune is weak and I think it’s poorly played. I have no idea who this is. Whoever he is, it’s probably a legend. But this is a pretty poor performance. Is it Barney Kessel? Well, I don’t know if he did anything on the nylon string anyway. Bad guess. Bill Harris? He’s a guitarist who lived in D.C. who did some things on the nylon string guitar. No, this is not good. 1star. That’s Baden Powell? That’s surprising, because I’ve heard him play. I feel really bad that I don’t like this, because I love Baden Powell. He’s a monster player. I love the way he plays. But this is not a good performance. I’ve heard him play on other things, and the touch is a little more delicate than this.

10. Paul Bollenback, “Too High”(from Soul Grooves, Challenge, 1999) (Bollenback, guitar, arranger; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Jeff Watts, drums; Broto Roy, tabla; Stevie Wonder, composer)

This is a catchy tune. The band is swinging. Is this Too High? Yeah. That’s a Stevie Wonder tune. This is nice. They put a lot of thought into this. I have no idea who the guitar player is. Now, the guitar player has got some chops. Once again, a very strong Benson influence. George is all over the place. Is it Paul Bollenback? Okay. [LAUGHS] I know his ideas and his touch. Very nice arrangement. He put some thought into this. It’s very well played. Is that Joey on organ? Byron Landham on drums? Billy Hart? Whoever he is, he’s really locking in, man. He’s swinging, laying that pocket down. That’s Tain? Whoa! That doesn’t surprise me. He played on my all-ballad record, Heartstrings, and Tain, man… He’s got the whole history of the drums. There are a lot of young drummers coming up nowadays who are influenced by him, but I don’t think they’ve really checked out what makes Jeff Watts, Jeff Watts. He’s got Kenny Clarke, he’s got Baby Dodds, he’s got Elvin, he’s got Tony—he’s got everything. And he’s incorporated all of these influences and came up with his own thing. Yeah! 4 stars. With Tain, swinging is not an afterthought. Whatever wild and crazy things he does, it’s all rooted in swing. It’s all about that groove. It’s never an afterthought for him.

11. Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Brooklyn Sometimes”(from Deep Song, Verve, 2005) (Rosenwinkel, guitar, composer; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Kurt Rosenwinkel. That’s Kurt! He’ s a great musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s always very musical. I have quite a few of his records around here. He’s a wonderful musician. Plays the piano. Knows the instrument and the history of the music. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s his latest release on Verve, Deep Song. I have it. That’s the beauty of being in New York. You have so many different types of musicians here. So many different types of music to take advantage of. I always tell young players when they come here, don’t just get locked into one thing. You may have your taste and your preferences, but go out and hear all kinds of different things. Go out and hear these different kinds of players, because you may find something you’re able to use. That’s why I love being in the city, because I get to hear all kinds of players on any given night. 4 stars.

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For Esperanza Spalding’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2016

For the magnificent Esperanza Spalding’s birthday, here’s a long profile I had the pleasure of writing about her for Jazziz magazine in early 2016, framed around the release of Emily’s D+Evolution.

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Esperanza Spalding Feature, Jazziz

 

As part of the initial publicity blitz for Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding’s first release since 2012, scheduled to drop in April, Spalding’s management and Concord Records, her label, scheduled a press day in mid-December. It transpired at the Milk Bar, a low-key café in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, where Spalding, incognito in a red head-scarf and tan jacket, sat at a small, elevated back-corner table, fielding questions from four journalists in separate 50-minute interviews.

There was much to discuss about the album, and little time to do it. Channeling the character of “Emily,” described by Spalding as “a spirit or being that I recognize and am informed by,” the singer-bassist performs 11 original songs, all conceived for the project, and a rousing album-ending cover of “I Want It Now,” Anthony Newley’s anthemic paean to instant gratification. Her songcraft is formidable, and she hits all the notes. She sequences the lyrics — on love, self-empowerment, race, class, Judas and other matters — into an ambiguous narrative. Her supple soprano voice more than does justice to the memorable melodies; she phrases freely with rhythms that counterpoint grooves of various provenance — some crackling, some undulating — that she generates on electric bass. Guitarist Matthew Stevens complements the flow with kinetic sound painting, while drummers Kareem Riggins (who plays on eight tracks) and Justin Tyson (who plays on four) propel it with a wide palette of beats and textures.

In its instrumentation, rock ’n’ roll attitude and explicit singer-songwriter focus, Emily’s D+Evolution diverges from its two chart-topping predecessors, comprising music composed between 2006 and 2011. Spalding won a 2013 Grammy for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” with Radio Music Society, a dance-friendly program, both sophisticated and accessible, that revealed the breadth of her songwriting and arranging skills. Spalding has described]Radio Music Society as the “extroverted’ successor to the “introverted,” Brazil-tinged Chamber Music Society, the 11-tune recital that earned her a “Best New Artist” Grammy over Drake and Justin Bieber in 2011. Assisted by arranger Gil Goldstein, she conjured evocative arrangements for jazz trio, string quartet and her voice, deployed as an instrument in the ensemble on seven tracks; she also sings lyrics on four original songs.

“I’ll never be able to catch you up with the last four years of my life — it’s just too dense,’ Spalding says. “I can’t explain why or how, and I can’t explain the evolution of this music.” She began to think of “opening a door for Emily” in October 2013, while on a self-imposed hiatus from “weird political bullshit with people and managers, and being a psychologist for my band.”

Emily is Spalding’s middle name, the name her family called her as a child in Portland, Oregon, when she was curious about acting and dance,” interests she shelved while immersing herself in musical studies. Approaching her 30th birthday, Spalding “realized that Emily wanted to come out, to say some things, play some things and perform some things.”

After sketching out some ideas and titles, Spalding began to form “an energetic picture of this performer, a sense that this idea was an armature I could build on.” She realized that Emily wanted to be plugged in and loud. She made demos, and, in spring 2014, contacted her desired collaborators to workshop the music on gigs. She made adjustments, recorded some tunes in June 2014, then a few more that November. She was already determined to stage the project, and she started touring to figure out how it would work in a concert setting. Toward that end, in the summer, she began working with director Will Weigler, also a Portland native. In September, she reentered the studio to re-record everything. “Then I knew the label wouldn’t let me mess with it any more,” she says, “so I turned it in.”

“Everyone is important to the total projection of the idea,” Spalding says. “It doesn’t feel like work for hire; it’s like we’re a troupe. I knew when I invited everybody in we’d be doing more than just standing up and playing awesome songs.” She elaborated in terms evocative of Wayne Shorter, who she describes as her “hero, guru and friend”: “We need co-explorers. We need a partner in crime as you explore uncharted territory — somebody who is resourceful and ready to go down that dark tunnel and find out why it smells like swamp, and somebody who can rig up a fire with nothing. That’s the kind of person you want in your corner.”

As an example, she mentions guitarist Stevens. “He can take an idea: ‘Can this sound ominous but hopeful? And can the texture be kind of thin but have a rippling effect?’ He’ll go, ‘OK,’ and find that with a pedal or a loop or whatever. I hear instrumental music as language, too. It feels like narrative and character, and character interaction, and dynamic storytelling. That’s how it sounds to me, whether there’s lyrics or not.

“When the record comes out and we start touring this performance in April, I’ll be presenting Emily’s D+Evolution in at least the starting place I envisioned it could be. Everybody has to be ready for an adventure and forget about everything that happened before. See it for what it is and let it tell you what it is.”

“Seeing” is the operative word. The album cover portrays Spalding as Emily — in a white V-top, white hood, white slacks and white sneakers — foregrounded against what might be a post-apocalyptic landscape of rocks, barren trees and a turbulent sky. Two more photos show “Emily” and “Esperanza” as doppelgängers — Emily, hair braided, with teal glasses, in a red bra under what looks like a fur coat, bracelets on her wrists, sits on a bed alongside Esperanza, wearing a yellow dress striped horizontally with stylized Nubian figures, and no eyewear. Another photo has Emily in that yellow dress, poised between a stuffed lioness and a sculpture of a very dark-skinned woman with exaggerated features, in a gold tunic, gold belt and gold trousers. Another portrays Esperanza, facing the camera full-on, with a resplendent Angela Davis Afro and a streamlined black turtleneck.

“When I saw Emily the first time, it was clear she was picking up terrestrial frequencies,” Spalding says. “I knew her hair was down. I knew it was heavy. You could feel gravity through it, affecting her scalp. That’s part of why Emily needs twists. Glasses … it’s what she wears. It’s who she is.”

Minus visual aids, Spalding’s new music doesn’t seem like a radical departure from her previous work. “I don’t take that offensively,” she says. “But I think you’ll see it differently over time. Even if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.”

Where does Esperanza leave off and Emily begin? “If my name is not Emily in a performance, I’m Esperanza Spalding,” Spalding responds with a certain asperity. “When you watch Meryl Streep play a witch in Into the Woods, hopefully you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, Meryl Streep as the witch.’ You’re thinking the witch. Emily came to be Emily, not Esperanza. To manifest that she’s created her own world, which is its own expression of that spirit. This is obviously not a jazz record. Emily doesn’t play acoustic bass. She is not a jazz musician.”

BREAK

On the day after our conversation, Spalding began a six-night run at the Village Vanguard as acoustic bassist in the ACS Trio, a collaborative venture with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that coalesced after the three women performed on Carrington’s ambitious Mosaic Project recording in 2011.

“I don’t know what will happen this week,” Spalding says at the Milk Bar. “It’s going to be a great experiment of not depending on agility, of ‘What do you do with less?’” She explained that she’d sprained her pointer finger three weeks before, and was wary of reinjuring it. “I’ll have to honor the effortless approach to playing bass. It’s great to know you can try that, and it won’t be ‘Pull your weight’ but instead ‘We’ll find a way to make it work.’ That mentality that we’re all in this together is exciting — though it’s usually the case in any band I play in.”

Six days later, Spalding joined Allen and Carrington on the Vanguard bandstand for their 12th and final set of a week during which friends James Genus and Matt Brewer had “come to the rescue when my muscle went out.” To protect blisters on her playing hand, she wore a salmon-colored glove that complemented a light jacket with thin, pale stripes. Indeed, Spalding was on point throughout an hour-long performance that featured highly reharmonized, stretched-out renderings of Shorter’s “Fall,” “Infant Eyes,” “Virgo” and “Nefertiti” and Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” On the latter piece, Spalding sang an extended wordless improvisation, as she had done on other repertoire on an earlier night when, as Carrington put it the next day, “she almost didn’t have an instrument.”

“Esperanza has a fine musician’s melodic and harmonic understanding, and chops to improvise on a very high level vocally, which a lot of singers cannot,” Carrington says. “She’s a cutting-edge, creative jazz musician rooted from playing the bass and composing, and she has a more commercial, pop side, more electric-bass driven and groove oriented. She considers herself a poet, rightfully so, because her lyrics can stand alone as stories and poetry. But Emily isn’t so far away from the music she’s already been creating. To me it’s a natural evolution — and a way to introduce her to a new audience of sophisticated listeners who come more out of rock and pop than jazz or r&b.”

“I’ve always told Esperanza that she could make a jazz vocal album where she only sings,” says pianist Fred Hersch, a mentor to Spalding since she introduced herself to him at the Vanguard five or six years ago. They played a duo concert last May at SFJazz, during Spalding’s second season as its resident Artistic Director. “Esperanza is a world-class singer,” Hersch continues. “Her improvising is crazy good, and she hears everything. She doesn’t have a big, luxurious voice, but sings with so much flexibility and spontaneity. It’s the same with her bass playing. She plays with great energy and feeling and a quality of alertness, an ability always to respond in the moment.”

As Spalding noted earlier, she relates to notes and tones as a kind of alternate or equivalent language, as do many musicians who learn music at an early age. By her account, she could carry a tune at 5, the year she started on violin. “I played music like it was a toy,” she says. “Like somebody gives you an erector set without the instructions, and you start building stuff because you want to.”

Skipping classes one day at 15, she entered a high school music room, and stumbled upon a bass. “I liked it, and then I got better,” she says. “It’s the instrument that stuck. It’s the instrument I love. When I hear piano or trumpet or saxophone, I’m like, ‘My God, I could never do that.’ When I hear bass it’s, ‘Oh, I hear you.’ I feel I understand it, it speaks to me — it’s how I want to play in the band.”

Neither garnering five Grammys nor pursuing a high-profile career have dissuaded Spalding from wanting to play in the band or burnish her instrumental skills. In addition to ACS Trio, she played at this year’s Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park with Joe Lovano, her teacher at Berklee. She’s played, when available, with Lovano’s Us Five ensemble since it debuted at the Vanguard in 2009, and with that band made the recordings Folk Art and Bird Songs. She spent the entire summer of 2014 touring with Tom Harrell’s Echoes of a Dream project, a suite of sextet music incorporating three horns, two basses, drums and her voice.

“I don’t know who you think I am or if you expected something different,” she says when asked what motivates her to assume the sideman function so assiduously. “I’m surprised it’s even a question that I do that. To me it’s like, ‘Oh, you still feed and clothe your children; what compels you to do that?’ ‘Because I’m a fuckin’ mother, dude! That’s what moms do.’” She paused. “I can think of some really neglectful mothers. I guess that question implies an expectation I’d be something else. I’ve never lived the something else, so I don’t know what to tell you.”

Why did she join Harrell’s project? “I prefer that question,” she says. “If Tom Harrell asks you to come play bass on a tour and wrote all the music with me in mind to be in his ensemble, and I get to sing and get paid to hear him solo every night … any bass player would say, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Fortunately, he asked me to tour with him during a year I made myself available to play, because I was so ready not to have to be responsible for anything or anybody. Whatever I could have done during those months is no way comparable to or better than being with Tom.”

She adds, unprompted: “No matter how busy I am, if Wayne Shorter ever asks me to do anything, I’m going to make sure I can do it.” Carrington had noted Shorter’s influence on the chords that infuse various sections of Emily’s D+Evolution, as well as on Spalding’s previous work. Spalding agrees. “I hope that Wayne is influencing my work,” she says. “He is influencing my mind and heart. He inspires me to be courageous all the time, and do what I dare to dream.
“Music doesn’t feel easy to me. It doesn’t feel like second nature. It feels difficult. You go get it. You see it, you find the tools, and then you make it the best that you can.”

SIDEBAR:

Title:

“I just recently met Emily,” said stylist Cassie O’Sullivan, who first worked with Esperanza Spalding in 2010, when photographer Sandrine Lee recruited her to style Spalding for the cover of Chamber Music Society, on which the leader wears a white button-up shirt under a black vest. She subsequently styled Spalding for Radio Music Society, and helped her to visually portray the particulars of “Emily’s” appearance. O’Sullivan had dropped by the Milk Bar to chat with Spalding’s assistant and have a bite, and agreed to discuss the contrasting styles of “Emily” and “Esperanza.”

“Emily was unavailable to speak, so at first I worked with her telepathically,” said O’Sullivan, who has run Spalding’s style blog since that time. “We went to a thrift store, and Emily picked out a pair of ski pants. I saw the glasses on the rack.”

O’Sullivan elaborates. “Emily’s style is unification of the entire world. For example, a piece of couture that works really well with a piece of beadwork that was done by Native Americans maybe 100 years ago. It’s earthy and etheric, high-tone and low-tone, high-vibration and low-vibration. Her style is similar to Esperanza’s in that it’s always moving and changing and sustainable. Esperanza’s is pretty and sweet, form-fitting and constructed, with common sense to it — something maybe anybody could wear.”

Before discussing how Emily and Esperanza use makeup differently, O’Sullivan asserted their shared values. “We always search for the cleanest makeup, because the toxins in Bisphenol-A makeup enter the bloodline 10 times as fast through the skin as when it goes into your mouth or stomach,” she says. “Esperanza’s makeup style was very natural, and that’s how I worked with her. Maybe we would put on all-natural eyelash and do a nice blended line. Emily’s makeup is maybe more of an intuition Cleopatra. She prefers a defined line.”

O’Sullivan doesn’t perceive the differences as dramatic. “Emily and Esperanza and I really don’t argue. We just agree and we disagree. It’s multi-dimensional. It’s facets of the jewel, facets of the gem.” —TP

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For Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter’s 46th Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

Today’s the 46th birthday of the inspirational singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, who will drop his new album, a Nat Cole tribute, in a couple of weeks. For the occasion, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about this master for Jazziz in 2013.

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Water pouring down the sidewalks/Cleaning windows clear to see/Washing gumdrop down side gutters/Rusting chains and cleansing me/Growing gardens, drowning ants/Changing rhythms, bruising plants/Graying vistas soulfully/And it’s saving me. —“Water,” Gregory Porter

It rained torrents in Brooklyn on June’s first Friday, so much rain that at 3 p.m. water was flowing through crevices in the cornice atop the stoop of Gregory Porter’s Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone into the cramped vestibule. It was also, Porter said, seeping from the back into his ground-floor kitchen. No respite was in sight until well past Porter’s scheduled 7 o’clock flight to Pittsburgh, so it promised to be a long day. Still, the singer, sheathed in the black balaclava and Kangol cap that is his sartorial trademark, seemed stress-free as he escorted me upstairs, where it was dry.

In truth, the weather seemed an apropos backdrop for a discussion framed around Porter’s September Blue Note release, Liquid Spirit, which follows on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2010 leader debut, Water [Motema] and its Grammy-nominated successor, Be Good [Motéma]. Both generated uncommon levels of crossover buzz for a release by a “jazz” singer. One reason is Porter’s dazzling toolkit—a resonant voice, multi-octave range, conversational projection and soulful feel. Another is his luminous songwriting—27 well-crafted originals on the three CDs that convey both grand metaphysical themes and intensely personal narratives in precise, symbolic, soul-baring language that evokes such late 20th-century masters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Bill Withers and Abbey Lincoln, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s also intriguing that the source of these introspections is a strapping, full-bearded ex-linebacker who built his Q-rating in the old-school, grassroots manner — several years of weekly Tuesday night appearances in the raucous confines of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, then a year of Thursday night three-setters at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club — after moving to New York in 2005.

“Some people told me, ‘Stop doing that damn gig,’” Porter says, recalling reaction to his appearances at St. Nick’s Pub. “But I dug that regular people would come in and buy a $3 beer and hear live jazz. So this lab that is St. Nick’s Pub — that is community, that is tourist — became this soulful place for me and the band as well. We enjoyed ourselves there for that little $30 or $40.”

These days Porter commands much higher fees. In five days, he would fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, launching a summer itinerary of North American festival appearances and engagements in Europe, where he’s toured without respite during the past year. His fan base spans the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Japan, where he was packing rooms well before Water launched his recording career. Increasingly his admirers also include peers and elders, including stylistically divergent artists like Wynton Marsalis, who in March cast Porter in the Trickster role originally inhabited by Jon Hendricks in a high-profile restaging of Blood On the Fields at the Rose Theater, and David Murray, who recruited Porter to sing lyrics by Ishmael Reed and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets on Murray’s recently released Be My Monster Love.

“The hook-up with Gregory was one of the greatest things I could do with a vocalist,” Murray told me over the phone. “He can reach deep down, but also get up there, like the tenor or cello — he’s got power in all areas. He can sound like people, too. He can do all those things, which is phenomenal, and he’s a thinking man. I have total respect for him.”

“He has the spirit of the ’70s with a jazz aesthetic,” says Chip Crawford, Porter’s pianist from his earliest St. Nick’s Pub days. “I’m getting more and more amazed at his writing ability, plus his melodies are as good as anyone’s. At this point I don’t know if there is anyone who writes lyrics as well as him. And, if anybody has as good a voice as he does, let me hear it.”

“I try to be organic,” Porter says of his approach to making albums and writing lyrics. “I’m not calculating in terms of, ‘I want to write some modal music and connect it to Gregorian chant,’ which is a dope way to be as well. I open up my chest and arms and see what falls in there inspirationally, and these are the things that come out at the point of the release of energy. After everything is on the page, I look and say, ‘OK, this is what that is.’”

Having eased into the conversation, Porter adds, “I don’t mean to be throwaway about it, or like I’m not really thinking about everything.” He offers a creation story for “Wolf Song,” one of several pieces on Liquid Spirit that he generated during a fortnight in Europe shortly after his son was born and immediately before the mid-March recording session. “I had to get it done,” he recalls. “Concepts and even some lyrics formulated on the train across France. I remember looking at sheep on a hillside, and thinking: I wonder, are there any wolves? And then the thought: Boy who cried … boy who cries wolf. No. Girl who cries wolf. … Hmm. Have I had a girl cry ‘wolf’ for me about a love situation? Ah! The song started to write itself, right there on the train.”

Porter turned his attention to the title track, also conceived in France, while sitting in a coffee shop. “This piece of poetry flowed out of me quite easily,” he says, before reciting, plain-song: Un-re-route the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free. The folk are thirsty because of man’s unnatural hand. Watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the backs of that hard, dry land.

“It came from people saying, ‘Where can I get some more of this kind of music? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’ That energy, the music, love, culture and soul is somewhere, being re-routed or diverted. I wanted to be in front of people, and I didn’t have a gig. Now, I’m gigging, and I sing, and people say these things to me.”

[BREAK]

“Music is subliminal,” Porter told a sold-out room at Subculture, a new basement space on Bleecker Street where he was presenting a showcase for Liquid Spirit the Monday after his Pittsburgh weekend. He’d just flown in, and it was raining again, as was evident from the soaked lapels on his beige sport jacket, which draped a white shirt, black vest and olive bowtie that complemented his black headgear. “It’s hypnotic, in a way,” Porter continued. “No matter how tired my voice is, no matter how I’m dressed, I can sing.”

Porter had performed infrequently in New York over the past year, so, as he said in a later chat, this appearance spurred “a bit of pent-up demand.” He added that the attendees — roughly three-quarters of whom were African-Americans, an unusually high proportion for a downtown jazz event — “were real fans; I didn’t stuff the house with just my friends from down the street.”

From the very first tune, they signified allegiance with a call-and-response that continued throughout the 75-minute set. On the title track, a blues stomp with an Oscar Brown-ish feel, Porter had no need to augment the exhortation “clap your hands now” with a crash course on finding the beat. “Work Song,” which he addressed with stylized rawness, elicited shouts of “Unh-uh, child!” from several enthusiastic women. The “congregants” imposed their own master plan on the set-closer, transforming “1960-What,” a soul-stirring, socially conscious number from the Les McCann-Eddie Harris “Compared to What?” playbook, into a collective sing-along.

Between songs, Porter, who is 41, testified at some length. After “Work Song,” for example, he spoke of Bakersfield, California, the dusty agriculture-and-oil city where Porter moved at 8 from Los Angeles with his siblings and mother, a pastor in the Church of God and Christ, who, he told me, circumvented doctrinal proscriptions against female practitioners by “calling every church that she established a ‘mission’ so that she could be the head missionary and, essentially, the head preacher.”

Onstage at Subculture, he told the room: “My mother had a real desire to go to the churches with older congregations — small storefront, no-air-conditioning churches. If the music I heard there disappears, then it will be — watch this word, it’s kind of heavy — a kind of musical genocide.” Having landed on the next song’s title, “Musical Genocide,” Porter’s simultaneously wrenching and affirmative delivery of the lyric encapsulated a sensibility that he internalized while singing at those churches while his mother preached.

Give me a blues song
Tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand
Bringing his stories of love and pain.

“Black people came to Bakersfield from the South, and all the black ministers were thick, farmer-hand preachers,” Porter had told me while seated on a couch in his living room. “They were singing a lot of deep Southern gospel blues. So I was singing with these old men who had great voices. Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly. Elder Kemp and Elder Duffy had the style of James Brown, and Pastor Richardson sounded like dead-on Sam Cooke. Others sounded like John Lee Hooker, and others like Bobby Bland, except for that snorting thing he does between phrases.

“Many times I hated it because it was hot in the church, and here I am on my knees with all these old people, singing these blues. Yeah-esss, Yahyaess, Yesss, Yes, Yehhhs. Now, that chord progression, you’re singing it a hundred times over an hour, but each time it’s slightly different. ‘Yes, you will, Yes, He will; yes, we will, yes, we will.’ ‘Save my children. SAY-YA-VE my child-dreh-ehn, SAYVE MAH CHIL-dren…” On and on and on. Very much like jazz. Deviating from the melody. These voices were constantly harmonizing. We would all do it as a group. And it’s just happening. Nobody’s saying, ‘You get this part and you get this part.’ I appreciate that steeping of music now. Sometimes in a song, I’ll go to that place, and that’s the energy that fuels that moment.”

Porter’s ability to make musical decisions in real time in functional, ritualized contexts allows him to mix and match genres that don’t always coalesce in jazz expression circa 2013. “I’m not saying this because I’m a black man trying to take ownership of any music,” he says, “but when I heard jazz, certain saxophone players playing the blues or something, I was like, ‘I hear my grandfather preaching; that’s my grandmother moaning over it when she cooks.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want to get with that.’ I heard myself, and I was like, ‘There’s something for me there, too.’ Then I opened myself up to wider things.”

Not only did Porter directly experience and absorb the gospel-blues tradition, but also his mother’s social-gospel practice of “always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was.” As Porter describes it, she fed and clothed and cleaned the indigent, answered calls from denizens who had overdosed on heroin or a “Sherman” — a cigarette dipped in PCP.

“Some way, people would find a way to call her when they got in the deepest situations,” he says. “My mother would somehow drive to the rescue, pull somebody into the back seat of her brand-new Cadillac, wrap them up in a sheet and pour water on their head until they came to after 2 or 3 hours. In a way, we were in the trenches with her. That sticks with you.” He quotes“When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit: “He lifted up the underneath/and all this wealth he did bequeath. There’s a bit of my mother, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ in that song. Redemption was a big thing for her. Her water sermons were very important when I was a child, which is probably where all these water themes are coming from in my music.”

BREAK

What primarily distinguishes Liquid Spirit from its predecessors is the pithiness of the 14 tracks — the track-lengths are shorter, the solo interludes fewer. Some have asked Porter whether this decision was to facilitate airplay for his “major label” debut. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a feeling of ‘Let me hit these blues and come off of them.’ I don’t put myself in the category of my influences — of great Japanese poetry or even the blues yet. But I want to get out these little ideas, restate them, and then rely on the energy it leaves to strike to the heart quickly, which to me is what a dope short blues song does.”

Porter’s path to blues expression as an avocation and not a sideline began in 1993, when his mother, on her deathbed with cancer, urged him “to really give singing a try.” He was then a 21-year-old undergraduate at San Diego State, where he’d matriculated on a football scholarship in 1990. A shoulder injury ended that dream, and Porter was focusing on city planning and “a nice government job, so she’d think I was doing something positive as she was leaving us.”

Eventually he started attending local jam sessions, which had a bebop flavor, “trying to get with Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks,” sitting in with adept locals like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist Daniel Jackson. One night, after he “tried to scat something over ‘Giant Steps,’” the master trombonist-composer George Lewis, a recent addition to the UC-San Diego faculty, invited him to his class.

“There were no vocalists there, and George started using me liberally from the beginning,” Porter says. “The students were dismissing the voice, but he said, ‘No, no, the voice is important; it does different things, it has its own qualities.’”

One day Lewis had to miss class, and called saxophonist-keyboardist-arranger Kamau Kenyatta to sub. “Kamau immediately brought me to his crib for lunch,” Porter says, recalling the beginning of an important and ongoing friendship (Kenyatta produced Water, and co-produced Be Good and Liquid Spirit with Brian Bacchus). “He did 12 charts, in my key, of different songs he thought would be good for me to learn. Kamau is from Detroit, and the relationship was in the tradition of that scene. You have lunch, do music, talk about it, play a bunch of songs. You live the music.”

In 1998, Porter, who was working at a Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, (“personalizing body treatment oils and doing a bit of cooking in their kitchen”) went to a Hubert Laws recording session of Nat “King” Cole repertoire that Kenyatta was producing. Kenyatta asked Laws to listen to his protégé; Laws immediately invited Porter to sing a tune. His daughter, Eloise Laws, who was present, then urged Porter to attend a Los Angeles audition for the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Porter, who had already appeared in the doo-wop musical Avenue X, was hired “on the spot” and joined the production for an 18-month run on Broadway. Then he did a national tour with the musical Civil War, returned to Los Angeles and started writing a musical — both songs and script — based on his relationship with the music of Nat Cole.

“I heard my mother’s Joe Williams and Nat Cole records when I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “My father wasn’t around, and I’d look at Nat Cole’s LP covers and imagine he was my daddy. On mic checks and warm-ups for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’d sing ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Too Young,’ and the cats would comment that I should do something with it. I’d tell them how I got into him, and they’d respond that it was an interesting story, and at some point I realized that this was the story I had to tell.”

Nat King Cole and Me ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater, before 700-800 people a night. “They were responding to my songs as well as the Nat Cole songs,” Porter says. “That’s when the confidence in my songwriting began. Doing Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, I got so much exposure to great blues music, country to city, very sophisticated to just gutbucket. Just like jazz, I heard myself in it. Abbey Lincoln’s songs, her personal stories, made me realize that, sometimes, the more personal, the more universal. Then, too, the Bible and the style of speech in sermons convert well to song. Traveling around Europe, all those medieval cities, you feel like you should talk that way.”

Nat Cole and Me didn’t make it out of Denver, and its closing coincided with the end of a love affair. “I had a pocket full of money, and no place to go,” Porter says. “My brother was just setting up a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he said, ‘Come here.’ So I came and worked in his shop, making soup. My idea was to stop going out and doing these small theater gigs that sustained me and kept insurance, to let me go broke, be hungry, but try solely to do the music thing.”

[BREAK]

With all the momentum that Porter has generated in New York, for all the charisma he possesses, and, as Liquid Spirit co-producer Brian Bacchus says, with “nothing to prove in terms of jazz credentials,” it is curious that Porter still “feels like on the outside looking in,” quoting “The In Crowd,” which he covers on Liquid Spirit.

“I chose it after I knew this would be on Blue Note,” Porter says. “It’s a little commentary to myself, like, ‘Am I in that crowd now?’ I don’t know. At St. Nick’s, Frenchmen and Spaniards came who said, ‘You should be in France, you should be in Spain.’ I felt it, but I didn’t have a passport yet.” He references “Bling Bling,” a song from Be Good: “I’m so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter/I’ve got gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. Eventually, I started to get the opportunities, and once they came. … But you don’t have confidence right off the bat. In a way, you build to it.”

Porter is “increasingly comfortable in the fact that I can only be me.” He cites sage advice from Marsalis. “Wynton told me, ‘There’s some things you have that can’t be learned; I’m sure there are some things you could know that would be instrumental to you. Whether you have them or not, get them, put them in your back pocket, and access them. But at the same time, use the facility that you have.’

“I have many things that I desire to do. Coming to the public eye slightly formed, people almost thought, ‘There are 10 records I can get somewhere, right?’ And there’s not. I say, ‘If you want 10 records, you’ve got to wait. You have to wait that 8 years or however long it takes.’”

SIDEBAR:

Title: The Cat in the Hat

“My editor wanted me to ask you one question,” I told Porter at the end of our first conversation. Before I could mention that it was a query about his headgear, he interjected, “I know what the question is.” Then he laughed long and hard.

“Please tell me,” I said.

“It’s my jazz hat. I used to wear berets.”

“Do you wear it all the time? Are you wearing it just for me?”

“This is just for you. No …”

“How many do you have?”

“Many.”

“What’s the brand?”

“Well, this is a Kangol Summer Spitfire.”

“How many Kangols do you have?”

“These, I must have eight.”

“All the same?”

“No. I have a brown. I have five black. I have a red, a blue. … But the balaclavas, I have many-many-many. It’s my look, man. I’m recognized at a great distance.”

“How did the look begin?”

“Since I’ve been in Brooklyn. It’s been about six years.”

“What was the inspiration?”

“You do something one day, and you’re like, ‘This is my look.’”

“And you used to wear berets.”

“I used to wear berets. I still do every now and then, when I’m in church, you know.”

“Is the hat and the balaclava a sort of prop …”

“No.”

“…to sing? I mean, does it kind of put you in character or …”

“When I go out with my wife, I’m dressed like this, too. Now, when we come home and we’re relaxed, no. But this is my look, my public look. It is a jazz hat. The first time I went to Russia, they asked me about it, and the next time I came, the kids came to the concert dressed like me. This was over five years ago. I remember they were taking pictures with their cell phones. And the next time I came, they came to the concert looking like me.”

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Filed under George Lewis, Gregory Porter, Jazziz, Singers

For Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2015

For drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about him for Jazziz in 2015, framed around his soundtrack for the film Birdman and two  contemporaneous releases.

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Beyond Birdman, Jazziz, 2015

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part Meridian Suite.

Specifically, it gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three— both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”

Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, [igration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

BREAK

Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.”

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Filed under Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride, Drummer, Jazziz, Pat Metheny

For Regina Carter’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2010

In honor of the magnificent violinist Regina Carter’s birthday, here’s a feature that I had the honor writing about her for Jazziz in 2010 around the release of Reverse Thread.

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It was the first day of spring, a mild, cloudless Sunday, a lovely day to sit on a bench on a tree-lined path in the upper quintile of Central Park for a conversation with Regina Carter. After a jam-packed winter itinerary—a late January performance of a commissioned violin concerto by Billy Childs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then a month on the road with the Monterey All-Stars, comprising Barron and his trio, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone, and here-and-there gigs with her working quintet—Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums—in advance of her new CD, Reverse Thread [E1], a meticulously constructed 12-tune program of folk and pop songs harvested from various spots in continental and diasporic Africa. With the possible exception of the 2003 date, Paganini: After A Dream, on which Carter played a recital comprising French Impressionism, tango, and bossa nova on the magnificent 1743 violin that belonged to Nicolò Paganini, Reverse Threads, which Carter produced herself, is the first document that completely represents her intentions, from the repertoire to the actual recording process.

The back story dates to a morning in September 2006, when Carter—then residing in a Central Park West apartment that was visible from the spot where we sat—received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had received a “genius grant” of $500,000, no strings attached.

“I hadn’t had my coffee, and thought it was a prank,” she said. After it became apparent that she hadn’t been punked, she added, “I couldn’t move, just stared out the window for a while.”

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: A month earlier, Carter had lost a breach of contract lawsuit for having cancelled a concert the previous year after the death of her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in the Detroit public school system. “It lasted a year, and cost me a pretty penny that I didn’t have,” she said. “My mom had beat cancer four times before, but they said cancer was a preexisting condition, and that I should have known better than to take the gig.”

After paying off debts and purchasing a mortgage on the New Jersey house that she presently shares with Garnett, her husband since 2005, Carter sought to actualize a long-standing dream of making a “world music” record. “Detroit was ethnically diverse, and I was exposed to a lot of music from different cultures at a very early age,” she said. “At some point, I noticed that  all the music I heard from all over the planet had an instrument that was either a violin or related to it.” A Suzuki-trained child prodigy on track to a classical career, Carter discovered jazz in high school, contracted out on various gigs (in tenth grade, she toured with the pop group Brainstorm, opening for, among other acts, Michael Jackson), and developed a predisposition to partake of the many musical flavors available in the Motor City’s diverse ethnic mix.

Carter’s initial intention was to “lean more towards Middle Eastern sounds,” but as she investigated, and heard “interesting music that I thought was from Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even Ireland, but always turned out to be indigenous music from different parts of Africa,” she transitioned to a different path. She spent a day at Manhattan’s World Music Institute, “just picking stuff—I bought something from almost everywhere.” Several of her musicians made suggestions, as did Randy Weston. But as Carter began to select the raw materials that resonated—the final cut includes tunes from Mali (Amadou and Mariam’s “Atistiya”), Madagascar (“Zerapiki”), Uganda’s Jews (“Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula [The Child Will Never Walk”]), and Puerto Rico (“Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina” by trombonist Papo Vazquez)—she became fascinated more with finding connective unitary threads and less concerned with differentiating the idiomatic particulars.

“I was thinking how we’re all related, how we all come from the same place,” she said. “To think of the music and culture of Africa back in the days of slavery, where the slave ships dropped people off, how those people then mixed with other cultures, and the music and the art that emerged from that became intriguing. Most of this music is not of my culture, but somehow it made me react emotionally. Beauty is beauty, wherever it comes from. Now, if something strikes me, it doesn’t mean I can translate it on my instrument, or with a group. A piece might not be what I thought it was. Those got tossed, and I narrowed it down to what I thought worked for us.”

For Carter, “us” meant a reconfigured ensemble. Before beginning her research, she recruited accordionist Holshouser in lieu of pianist Xavier Davis, and added Sissoko, a native of Mali. “I wanted the sound to be more chamber,” she says. “I wanted the group to be extremely quiet, and I wanted another instrument as quiet as violin—kora is even softer. I wanted to strip away as much amplification as I could. I don’t use a monitor, and Alvester can play extremely quiet. Whether I used electric or acoustic bass, I wanted an acoustic sound. I wanted to have improvisation and still connect to the jazz world. Otherwise, I would have hired a completely African band, and gone inside the music to try to understand everything about it. The album is my take as a Westerner and as a jazz musician.”

Over two years, Carter conceptualized the material, assigned arrangements, and whipped things into shape. “I cut stuff out,” she says. “A lot of this music doesn’t have deep harmonic content—it’s about the groove and the rhythm, creating a hypnotic effect, and you can’t have long solos over these sections.  Not to say they’re simple, but they presented another challenge. The beauty was in the simplicity. The task was to try to make it fit into our world, to impart a contemporary feeling without losing the original beauty—not go into playing pyrotechnics or try to force intricacy. Sometimes I’d get into trying to make something hip, but I was taking the hipness out of it. I had to get out of my own way, if you will, and just let the music by.”

[BREAK]

“When I was younger, I felt I had to prove something—and in a way, you do,” Carter reflected. “Now I’m very much at peace with where I am and who I am. I didn’t know whether anyone would pick this record up or not. But I needed to do it to satisfy my soul, and it was huge to be able to bring on only people who shared my vision.”

Towards that end, E1 honcho Chuck Mitchell, and violinist John Blake, serving as producer, helped Carter to eschew placing her soloistic abilities front and center, as on her six highly produced leader recordings since 1995 for Atlantic and Verve. Instead, she privileges collective dialog, her improvised declamations weaving in and out of the ensemble flow. In this regard, it’s useful to compare Reverse Threads to Carter’s eponymous Atlantic launch date record for Atlantic, on which, framed by personnels and producers, she represents a pan-stylistic sensibility—plugged-in, synthy-worldbeatish-funkish fusion tracks for the smooth jazz market, a Latin track, entr’acte duos with djembe, a concluding ballad duo that ends with a classical cadenza, all impeccably played—on which her tonal personality, as Greg Tate put it in the liner notes, is “better described as [a musician] who plays jazz rather than strictly a jazz musician.”

“They needed a concept first, which I felt was putting the cart before the horse,” Carter says of her experience with Atlantic, and, after 1998, with Verve, which repositioned her as a hardcore jazz musician. “Sometimes A&R people had difficulty understanding that I DID like all this music.  I grew up with Parliament and Funkadelics, all that stuff from Detroit.  I wasn’t trying to do a record to please everybody; I was pleasing myself. I learned to understand the business reasons, though—you’re a product now, and they’re trying to sell a product, so sometimes you’re put in a box.”

The box was literal as well as metaphorical. “In the studio, you’re all in separate rooms,” she says. “The minute you put a glass in front of me I can’t feel you. To hear someone coming through headphones and not from their instrument is the most unnatural way of playing music. Then you see that red light go on, and the panic starts, because all of a sudden you want to be perfect.”

She recalled being urged to improve her solo on a Kenny Barron tune while recording Rhythms of the Heart, her first Verve. “I thought, yeah, maybe I could,” Carter said. “I tried and tried. After a while, Kenny spoke up. He said, ‘You know what? You are where you are today, and you are who you are.’”

“We recorded Reverse Thread all in the same room, next to each other. I wanted some dirt, so to speak, and not have the mindset when I was playing, ‘I can go in and fix that later.’ I wanted it to be about the band and the performance of the piece, not about me.”

During her first years in New York, Carter eluded the box by participating in various creative contexts—with Tate in Black Rock Coalition hits, the String Trio of New York, such “downtown” bands as David Soldier’s String Quartet—that “stretched me in directions I’d never been.” Perhaps the most lasting such experience occurred in 1996, when Carter toured Blood on the Fields for three months with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. “Wynton wrote it to be played down and dirty, like a fiddle player,” she says. “None of the fluff. I hadn’t had much opportunity to play like that before, and I enjoyed it. It can be hard to get rid of the stuff you’ve learned, but it felt natural. In a situation like that, or swinging, I have to be conscious not to use vibrato—we spend so much time in European classical music studying how to get that vibrato, and  now I’m trying to lose it!”

In the liner notes to Rhythms of the Earth, Tate noted that Carter “now believed that swing is the ideal idiom for her instrument.” Indeed, she swings like the dickens throughout those proceedings, as she did at the end of 2009 with singer Allen Harris’ unit during a week-long working vacation at Umbria Winter Jazz in Orvieto, where she’d joined her husband, there for that gig, to prepare to play Childs’  Violin Concerto.

She discussed the technical particulars. Classical violinists, she said, trained to use the whole bow and a very light stroke, deploy so much vibrato on one note that they get to the next note late. Furthermore, using so much bow causes them to phrase on top of the beat rather than laying in the middle of it.

“Classical is my mother language, but I don’t really speak it any more,” she said. “Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to be careful about vibrato and phrasing, and to breathe more. In classical music, you sit straight up and you’re ready. With this kind of music, you’ve got to find the groove. You have to dance to the style—the way you move your body is how you’ll play. If I get too excited and nervous, I tend to play too much.”

Most important, Carter said, referencing her early Suzuki ear training, is treating the assimilation of various musical idioms as a process analogous to learning to speak a language. “It’s not about playing the notes exactly,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to records, and, more important, go to live concerts and study people, then tape yourself and hear if you’re doing that. Sometimes I do these Q&A sessions, and parents whose children are playing violin ask me to tell their kid that you have to learn classical music before you can play any other kind of music. ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s what you have to learn if you want to play classical music.’ Every language has its own grammar, its own technique.”

That being said, Carter follows a more generalized methodology on Reverse Thread.  “There’s different violins all over the continent, and so many ways of playing them,” she says. “I’d love to hone in one specific place, to spend some time and learn, say, Ghanaian fiddle music or the violin of Uganda. But this was more about my being a vocalist with the instrument.”

[BREAK]

“My mother’s thing was that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” Carter says. “When she died, I felt like an orphan—‘I can’t do this by myself; I’m not a grownup yet.’ You’re flailing for a while, and then you realize, ok, you’re good to go.” Indeed, for Carter, the grieving experience seemed to trigger long-standing aspirations to explore identity—both genealogical and intellectual—more meaningfully in her musical production.

“A lot of times in  the black community, horrible things were not to be spoken about,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a slave, and when my grandmother asked her about the markings on her back, she told her what they were from and then said, ‘We are not ever speaking about this again.’ My mother told me, but that’s all she got. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a part of our history that no one wants to deal with. And we need to deal with it. We need to know.”

Carter’s grandmother graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy. “I look at her name, Sarah Vandousa McCaskill. Where does Vandousa come from? As an African-American, I have many roots, and I’m interested in all of them. It would be nice to know if I was connected to some specific tribe, or a  people or an area. Growing up in the ‘60s and watching television, I experienced that Whoopi Goldberg thing of seeing the Prell commercials with the blonde hair going across the screen, and then looking at myself. I was always jealous. I’d see women from East India or Thailand, and they’d have all this jewelry, and see African women with all their garb—all of that stuff. I just thought, ‘I want something like that. Who am I? What is it to be an American?’”

Which are questions that Carter intends to explore for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue with this, but maybe hone in on an area,” he said. “I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg—why not push the door open and see what else I find?. But let’s see what happens. I always think I know what I’m going to do, but  I’m like a kid in a candy store—every day I change my mind.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Detroit, Jazziz, Regina Carter, violin

For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.

*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”

BREAK

In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”

SIDEBAR

In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.

 

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Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

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Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”

*_*_*_*_

Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.

YOSVANY: Yeah.

TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
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YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

For Hiromi Uehara’s 38th Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2006

It’s pianist-composer Hiromi Uehara’s 38th birthday today, and for the occasion I’m posting a 1250-word piece I wrote about her for Jazziz in 2006.

*****

Ahmad Jamal doesn’t endorse just anyone, and the chain of events by which he did so for Hiromi Uehara is the stuff of jazz legend. It began four years ago, when Uehara, then a jazz composition and arranging major at Berklee, submitted a string quartet to her orchestration professor, Richard Evans.

“He liked my arrangement, and suggested I arrange one of my originals,” recalls Uehara. “So I brought him my demo. He asked, ‘By the way, who is playing piano?’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ He said, ‘Wow, I need to have my best friend hear it.’”

That turned out to be Jamal, for whom Evans arranged numerous recording projects as far back as 1962. “Richard called Ahmad and said, ‘I found this girl,’” Uehara continues. “Ahmad was SO not into the story. He said, ‘Forget it, I have no time.’ Richard said, ‘Just listen to the first minute,’ and played it over the phone. Ahmad said, ‘Send that to me.’ A week or so later he called and invited me to dinner. He said he loved my music and wanted to help build my career. It was like a miracle.”

On Spiral, her third Telarc release, the 27-year-old pianist-composer, known professionally by her forename, shows what Jamal—who produced her 2003 debut, Another Mind, a 100,000-seller in Japan—was hearing. For one thing, she possesses a classical virtuoso’s two-handed digital dexterity, articulation and touch. At breakneck and rubato tempos she pays close attention to dynamics, eliciting at one moment a soft, pellucid sound that a petite Japanese woman might be expected to project, at another the sturm und drang of McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson at their most dramatic. An admirer of Franz Liszt, she only records original music—episodic compositions that reference heady counterpoint and modernist dissonance, jazz-refracted Impressionist harmonies, post-Varese electronic skronk, bebop, and the blues. She interprets them with a stream of fresh ideas, swinging ebulliently, constructing lines that reference a wide timeline of vocabulary, moving from landmark to landmark with Jamal-like flair. Like Jamal, she regards the trio as a three-piece orchestra in which instruments assume different roles—she’ll crank out basslines behind bassist Tony Grey’s high stringed melodies, or set up rhythmic counterlines to drummer Martin Valihora’s well-tempered toms and cymbals. She directs the flow on-stage, exuding charisma, addressing the keyboard with kinetic swagger and a range of facial expressions that bring to mind Elton John or Keith Jarrett.

“The reason I started playing in that style is because I’m very small, and I found I could get the dynamic sound I wanted when I used all my back muscles,” says Hiromi over iced coffee at a MacDougal Street café. A Brooklyn resident after four years in Boston, she’s wearing a pullover, jeans, a black beret, and no makeup. She embellishes her words with stabbing hand gesticulations as though comping on a piano; her long, tapered fingers seem somehow disproportionate to her frame.

“When I was little, saw this Oscar Peterson video and noticed his gigantic hands,” she explains with a laugh. “In the bath, I was always stretching my fingers.”

A native of Shizuoka, Japan, in the center of Japan’s green tea district, Hiromi took piano lessons at 5, and began studying composition at the local branch of the Yamaha School of Music at 6. By 8, encouraged by a teacher who nurtured her innate predisposition to improvise, she was mimicking Erroll Garner and Peterson LPs, sometimes creating impromptu “duets with Oscar.” “Jazz was the first music that I felt like dancing to,” she says. “But I had no vocabulary whatsoever. I had to learn the phrasing, and of course, at some point, to start finding my own voice.” She listened chronologically, “from Jelly Roll Morton up through Gonzalo Rubalcaba, so that I could understand why this person comes after that person.” She cites Rubalcaba and the late Michel Petrucciani as particular favorites from the generation preceding hers, and Marian McPartland and Toshiko Akiyoshi as inspirational female elders.

“Toshiko opened the door for Japanese people to come to America to play jazz,” she says. “I think it should have been very hard for an Asian girl to do, like an American going to Japan to play sumo.”

Hiromi’s own path to America began at 12, when she performed on a series of UNICEF-sponsored concerts, including a memorable performance in Taiwan. “I didn’t speak a word of English or Chinese,” she recalls. “I couldn’t read the program. But I went to the stage and played before these people I shared nothing with, and suddenly we shared something together. Since that day, I wanted to be a professional musician.”

Trying to fit in with her jazz-challenged high school peer group, Hiromi played the music of their idols—among them Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Green Day, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa. “It was almost shocking to hear Zappa,” she says. “I UNDERSTOOD what he was thinking about.”

At 18, she opted to study law for two years in Tokyo, where she moonlighted playing standards at small clubs and penning advertising jingles. “Music comes from experiences, not from music, and I wanted to be around non-musicians,” she says. “They don’t know Herbie Hancock or Oscar Peterson. They only judge the music by whether they like it. They can’t know what kind of scales or complex harmony I’m using. They just say, ‘Yeah, it’s good’ or ‘I’m not really hearing it.’ I knew that I would come to the States some day and be in music college, so I didn’t need to do it in Japan.”

Ensconced at Berklee, she soaked up the diverse musical tastes of the student body, and began to piece together her pan-stylistic approach, paying particular attention to film scores. “I tend to see visuals, a story and a plot when I compose,” she says, noting that she conceptualized each tune on Brain, her second album, as a short soundtrack. “I try to write every single day, even the small motifs. If the music came to me when I was watching a beautiful moon, I write ‘beautiful moon on April 22.’ Maybe next year I’ll see another beautiful moon, write it down, and see if they can go together.

“I love playing standards. It’s like trying to cook the best tiramisu or cheesecake in the world. But it’s more fun to cook to my own taste. Playing my original composition is like trying to find my own recipe, to cook something that never existed.”

When Hiromi cooks, by the way, the cuisine is Japanese, primarily donburis. But she sees no need to extrapolate the cultural tropes of her homeland into musical expression.

“I never wanted to put Japanese culture into my music artificially—or remove my Japaneseness either,” she says. “When I first meet people or I want to thank them, I tend to bow instead of shaking hands or hugging. That’s not because I am trying to be Japanese. It’s in my blood. So I’m sure my Japaneseness is in the music naturally.

“I am not trying to be a woman artificially either. I won’t try to play very feminine or look sexy. I just want to be myself, and my femininity will naturally show in the music.”

And what does femininity sound like?

“There are so many different types of women,” she responds. “Women can be very feminine, very soft, very tough. I don’t want to deny or stress being a woman either. But I can’t deny that many people who haven’t heard me think that I won’t play the piano in a focused, serious way. I don’t want to try to prove anything, but I’m happy when they give me some respect.”

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