Category Archives: Jazziz

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.

*_*_*_*_

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—]

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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.

 

*_*_*_*_

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]

 

*_*_*_*_

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.
\
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]

Leave a comment

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Hiromi, Jazziz, Piano

For Eddie Gomez’ 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2012

In honor of bass virtuoso Eddie Gomez’ 72nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in Jazziz in 2012.

 

*-*-*-

“Eddie has the most surprising flexibility. Sometimes I wake up in the morning to The Today Show and see an Israeli folk group playing their folk music, and there’s a bass player in the back playing like he was born in Israel. It’s Eddie. Or he’ll get on that very free, expressionistic bag. Eddie is marvelous in that he has a very wide scope. As much as he fits me like a glove, you would almost think that this is the only way he can play because he does it so perfectly, but it’s not true.” —Bill Evans, Helsinki, 1970.

“Certain musicians arrived on the scene who were just complete. Paul Chambers would be one of them. Tony Williams would be one. They had everything already in place, and they were innovative. Maybe I was too busy being fragmented to develop that. There’s a positive side to playing in many genres, which I like to do. But to play my own devil’s advocate, maybe it took away my ability to focus on one particular way or style. In any case, that’s who I was, and still am.” —Eddie Gomez, New York City, 2012

Thirty-five years after leaving the Bill Evans Trio to pursue new opportunities and musical adventures, Eddie Gomez, once averse to public discussion of the 11-year run that made him the most visible — and perhaps most emulated — jazz bassist of that era, is happy to dwell on the subject.

“It’s been a third of a century, there’s a body of work, and I’m more self-assured and confident in my career and art,” Gomez said in June at a café a few blocks from his Greenwich Village home. At 68, he looks a decade younger, his barrel chest and muscled forearms obscured by a loose black sport jacket and black button-down shirt. The skin on his fingers, which he spreads in fan-like waves when emphasizing a point, is smooth and barely calloused.

“I feel there are lots of other things to talk about, but being with Bill is huge in my heart,” Gomez continued. “It’s like getting away from a parent or father figure, recognizing what a certain time in your life really was, that it’s part of you and you are part of it. So I’m able to feel it and express it and verbalize it.”

The Evans-Gomez connection is once again a hot topic, thanks to two recent drops of first-commercial-release archival material. Few extant Bill Evans trio dates can match the creative energy generated on the two April 1968 sets with drummer Marty Morell that comprise Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate [Resonance]. Nor does anything in the canon more effectively represent the breathe-as-one simpatico the pianist and bassist could achieve as the five duets they play on Disc 1 of The Sesjun Radio Shows, recorded in the Netherlands in 1973.

Performed with the real-time bustle of late-’60s Bleecker Street unfolding outside the club’s glass doors, the Top of the Gate tracks are unremittingly intense, the protagonists exchanging opinions with a freewheeling, serious-as-your-life attitude akin to the South Village coffee shop and saloon culture that prevailed when Evans himself was coming of age a decade earlier. The radio broadcasts — which include a five-tune 1975 performance by Evans, Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund — retain only a hint of that unruly flavor; the musicians, intimate with each other’s moves after years of bandstand proximity in clubs and concert halls, finish each other’s thoughts with burnished, cosmopolitan phrases.

In both contexts, Gomez displays the gifts that placed him atop his instrument’s food chain by his early 20s. When accompanying, he gooses the flow with clear, limber lines that both anticipate and complement Evans’ train of thought. When soloing, a horn player or singer might envy the speed and dynamics of his phrasing, as he moves in the course of an idea from fortissimo bellows to mezzo piano whispers, seamlessly incorporating extended techniques more commonly associated with “outside” playing into Evans’ harmonic world, never with “because I can” intention, but always toward unfailingly musical imperatives.

BREAK

In recent years, Gomez has applied his skills to several projects that denote his willingness to no longer “shy away from trio things and homages to Bill.” These include an Italian tour in 2010 with a highly stylized trio comprising pianist Mark Kramer — a frequent partner in the ’00s — and late-period Evans drummer Joe LaBarbera, and a summer 2011 concert with LaBarbera and Sicilian pianist Salvatore Bonafede devoted to the legacy of the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro, who, during his 20 months with Evans and Paul Motian from 1959 to 1961, established the template of bass expression upon which Gomez would place his own unique stamp.

Gomez’s gift for melodic expression and the commanding aura of his tone, whether produced by his fingers or the bow, suffuses recent duo recordings with pianists Cesarius Alvim (Forever) and Carlos Franzetti (the 2008 Latin Grammy-winner Duets). His voice even more palpably dominates CDs of trio concerts in Mexico City and Italy with his longstanding pianist, Stefan Karlsson. That he’s fully capable of subsuming his Olympian gifts to one-for-all purposes is evident on two recent releases: Sofia’s Heart, which Gomez produced for saxophonist Marco Pignataro, and Per Sempre, a Gomez-led studio date with Pignataro, flutist Matt Marvuglio, pianist Teo Ciavarella and drummer Massimo Manzi.

But the only item in Gomez’s recent corpus that stands up to the rarefied environment of clarity and unfettered interplay that Evans facilitated is Further Explorations. A two-disc masterpiece of collective improvisation on the Concord Jazz imprint, it cherry-picks from a fortnight-long engagement at the Blue Note during which Chick Corea, Gomez and Motian (it was the late drummer’s first recording with either partner) refracted Evans-associated repertoire in their own manner. Among the many highlights are Gomez’s arco solos on the second disc. (It’s hard to think of a location recording on which a bassist has bowed improvised melodies with the spot-on intonation that Gomez brings to his variation on Motian’s “Mode VI,” which transpires in the cello register.)

Gomez and Corea have brought out each other’s best since 1961, when the pianist, then a 20-year-old Juilliard student, and the bassist, a 17-year-old senior at the High School of Music and Art, jammed together in Corea’s loft in the Manhattan neighborhood now known as Tribeca. At the time, Gomez, a bass player for all of six years, was already a member of New York’s Local 802, and had conceptualized the bass-as-an-extension-of-the-voice approach that he follows to this day.

“We moved to New York when I was about a year old, and my deepest recollection of music is my mother singing to me at home,” he recalls. “My grandfather had an evangelist church in Puerto Rico, and when we visited, I’d sing in the church in English. Singing was my musical connection, not an instrument.”

A junior high school music teacher placed Gomez on the contrabass path. Once in high school he dual-tracked in classical music and jazz, becoming ever more embroiled in the latter endeavor via such classmates as Jeremy Steig, Jimmy Owens, Billy Cobham and Richard Tee, and such fellow members of Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band as Eddie Daniels and Ronnie Cuber. By 15, he was studying privately with “a wonderful mentor-teacher” named Fred Zimmerman, “a crusader for broadening the scope and repertoire of the double bass.”

“I wanted to play music and sing, and although the bass seemed an unusual instrument to be a singer on, Zimmerman played expressive, gorgeous melodies that inspired me,” Gomez says. “I listened to a lot of saxophone and trumpet, but singers — Sinatra, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Cheo Feliciano, Bobby Capó — were crucial. To me, it’s all singing or dancing, and if there’s no pulse, as is often the case, then it’s cerebral. But I’ll make the dance and singing work through the brain somehow. I think there’s song and dance in 12-tone music, too. Genre didn’t get in my way.”

At Zimmerman’s suggestion, Gomez enrolled at Juilliard in 1962. For the next four years, in addition to his studies, he supported his young family by playing gigs of every stripe. He worked an extended engagement at a midtown steakhouse with Marion McParland, who welcomed sit-ins by such elder icons as Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall and Bobby Hackett. He played on a Latin jazz album led by conguero Montego Joe, titled Arriba!, with Corea on piano and Milford Graves on timbales. Via Graves, Gomez began taking downtown outcat gigs, including concerts with Giuseppe Logan and Paul Bley — on whose ESP recordings he performs — as well as with John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and the Jazz Composers Orchestra. His future direction became more focused in 1965, when he went on the road with vibraphonist-composer Gary McFarland, then played a stint with Gerry Mulligan’s sextet.

“I could play the bass pretty well, but I wasn’t mature as a musician or as an artist,” Gomez says. “Gary and Gerry were very nurturing. Perhaps my role was defined, but traditional contexts made me dig deeper inside to find the creative part of myself.”

In the summer of 1966, Gomez was at the start of a run at the Copacabana with Bobby Darin when Evans — who, when his trio played opposite Mulligan a month earlier at the Village Vanguard, made a point of complimenting the young bassist — invited him on tour. About a month later, toward the end of a week at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles, Evans told him, “This is working out very nicely. It would be great if you joined the trio on a permanent basis.”

During the ensuing 11 years, Gomez worked in other satisfying contexts. Notably, he subbed for Ron Carter on a few dozen gigs with the Miles Davis Quintet and performed in open-ended duos with flutist Steig that stimulated him “to find different ways to think about the instrument.” But Bill Evans remained his prime commitment.

“After a couple of years with Bill, I knew I was in the right direction as far as the song and dance,” Gomez says. “I liked being a soloist, which is what I was with Bill. So I made that choice. He talked to me almost as a son in this avuncular way. He’d tell me not to follow in his footsteps, to take his advice and not pick up his habits. When we played at the Gate or the Vanguard, he’d often drive me home to Queens, where I lived then, and we’d talk about how lucky we were to be making art and getting paid for it. I think the first trio formulated his idea of what the bass should do, and he saw me as extending or expanding it. I may have done some different things in using the bow, but I don’t know that I created anything really new.

“I recorded a lot with Bill, and I didn’t always like the recordings for myself. I like some moments on At Montreux from 1968 with Jack DeJohnette, and there are some nice things on Intuition (1974), but I felt I’d reached a pinnacle on You Must Believe in Spring[i] (1977), a flow, a poetic feeling that I’m proud of. I felt I should leave on that note.”

BREAK

Gomez immediately plunged into several overlapping streams of activity. In New York City, he became a first-call duo player, dialoguing with more pianists than he can remember at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village and with guitarists like Jim Hall, Tal Farlow and Chuck Wayne at The Guitar in midtown. Charles Mingus, a Bradley’s regular, befriended Gomez, and, when ALS rendered him too weak to play, tapped him to fill the bass chair on his final two recordings. At Bradley’s, Gomez also developed rapport with pianist Hank Jones, who recruited him to triangulate the collectively-billed Great Jazz Trio — among the drummers were Al Foster and Jimmy Cobb — on a series of Japan-centric projects throughout the ’80s.

Although the prospect of staying home was part of Gomez’s rationale for leaving Evans, he found himself traveling even more. He flew frequently to Japan for one-off guest-artist concerts and recordings, among them several well-regarded dates with pianist Masahiko Satoh. He spent several years touring with DeJohnette, both in the drummer-pianist’s open-ended New Directions quartet with guitarist John Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie, and on more impressionistic configurations — and ECM recordings — with guitarists Ralph Towner and Mick Goodrick. Corea, an employer since the mid-’70s, brought him on board for his iconic Three Quartets band with Michael Brecker and Steve Gadd, both of whom Gomez would soon partner with in the post-hardbop-meets-fusion quintet Steps Ahead, with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and pianist Don Grolnick.

While in Tokyo in 1984, and again in 1985, Gomez made two sculpted, groove-heavy recordings, produced by Gadd, in which the leader addressed the various genres and flavors at his command. “Everyone had been urging me to do a solo album, and I forced myself to start writing compositions,” Gomez recalls of these and a subsequent New York session for Epic. “I wanted to do something against the grain of my past. They were criticized for being eclectic, but I think the continuity is that it’s all coming from me. There’s a lot of variation; I quite like them for what they are. I wanted a sound on the double bass that in opera they call a ‘lyric tenor’ — a high, clear, very melodic sound that bass guitarists get. Listening back, it’s too twangy and trebly for me now, but in the context of the records, it’s very clear and makes the bass sound like a solo instrument, which it is.

“My sound has changed. My likes and dislikes have changed. I’m wanting to hear that older sound, the sound of Paul Chambers and Ray Brown. Sometimes on these straightahead tracks, the bass should sound like it’s going straight through the microphone, and not have that direct pickup sound. It should sound embedded in the rhythm section, and not stand out, a little bit like drums.”

It’s been a remarkable career, and Gomez — whose obligations increased seven years ago when he accepted the position of Artistic Director at the Conservatory of Puerto Rico, where he spends six weeks each year — has no intention of resting on his laurels. Among other things, he anticipates performing a concerto with a small string orchestra, and hopes one day to play with Sonny Rollins, a huge influence during his formative years.

“Every day you wake up, it’s a challenge to play the double bass in tune, because there’s so much bass to miss,” he says. “So you have to keep your energy, love and passion for whatever it is, the good things in life — good food, a good cup of coffee, going to a museum, great literature, an old movie. All of that connects to me. I tell students they need to know something about Caravaggio or Velázquez or Turner or Picasso or Vermeer. They need to know something about George Bernard Shaw. Know stuff about things other than music, so you can broaden your artistic sensibility.”

SIDEBAR

Bass Impressions

Asked to name and briefly discuss five personally influential bassists, Eddie Gomez thoughtfully offered the following:
“The very first bassist who came into my life was Milt Hinton. I bought a glorious recording where he did that slapping thing. When I was a kid, I took a lesson from him at his house. He was a sweetheart. So generous. He showed me a great way to finger the chromatic scale. Later on, I realized just how good Milt was — so supportive and also a great soloist, but in a different way than Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Scott LaFaro.

“Paul Chambers was the second bass player who came into my life. I bought a Red Garland Trio date, A Garland of Red (1956), with Paul and Art Taylor, and the way Paul played turned me around — his sound, how he supported the band, his swing feel, his soloing, how he played with the bow. I got into him even more deeply when I started buying Miles’ quintet records and Porgy and Bess. There wasn’t a bad note; everything was perfect.

“I discovered Ray Brown a little later via the trio with Oscar Peterson, and although I heard him with other pianists and he always sounded great, that’s how I always think of him. Aside from being a great soloist, Ray’s propulsion, his particular swing feel and sound, was beautiful.

“Scott LaFaro would be next. I didn’t get to see the Bill Evans Trio play, and the one time I saw Scott, when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t really hear him. I was rehearsing with a big band at a place called Lynn Oliver’s, on the Upper West Side, and through the window to the other studio Stan Getz, Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca and Scott were rehearsing. I saw Scott play a very unorthodox way of fingering. He innovated a way of playing in space that became one of the junctions in modern jazz.

“Charles Mingus is at the top of the list because he was such a great bassist and a huge composer. But I liked Sam Jones and Jymie Merritt very much. I liked Steve Swallow when he was playing the double bass, and you’ve got to include Red Mitchell. Johnny Hawksworth was a great English bassist who played with Johnny Dankworth. Today I can enjoy listening to Ron Carter and Buster Williams. I like Peter Washington, and Christian McBride is a fine bass player, too. I’m still waiting for some of these younger guys to develop a voice that says, ‘Oh, that’s him — there’s no doubt about that.’ All these guys I mentioned had a voice. Each one was a breeding ground.” —TP

Leave a comment

Filed under Bass, Eddie Gomez, Jazziz

For Matt Wilson’s 52nd Birthday, a 2001 Blindfold Test and a 2012 Feature in Jazziz

In recognition of drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson’s 52nd birthday, I’m posting the uncut  proceedings of the DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2001, and the text of an article that ran in Jazziz in 2012.

 

Matt Wilson Blindfold Test:

1. Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great. I really like it. I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker. But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon. Just sort of the feeling. But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz. Oh, this is swinging. It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.” That’s obvious! The bass sound is great. Is it Jacky? The answer is no! I like this, though. I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player. I like the environment. They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe. Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel. I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there. I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that. I have to say it was Leon Parker. No? [Because there wasn’t the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon. But just the great upbeat vibe. Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3. There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat. It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way. That’s the great thing about playing them. That’s why I love playing them. It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material. It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe. It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it. They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow. I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night. But I totally dig Jason’s playing. When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth. I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes. In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it. I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2. Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune! I know there’s versions of this. I’m trying to go by the sound. I know the vibe of the drummer. I can’t quite place him. It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound. Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it. Nice. Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great. Yeah! I can almost always tell how generations are. I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing. Swing is changing. But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is. Could it be Louis Hayes? It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative. But that’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end. Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth. Especially with the second-line, the march feel. It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow! The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris. I know Idris’ playing pretty well. But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller. I know he uses a smaller ride. The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4. It’s a good connection with him and Charles. “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever! Anything he plays on with Steely Dan. And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel. It was amazing. I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle. You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom. His ride cymbal was sort of less defined. I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell. But man, it was great. Bernard rocks, man!

3. Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect. But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this. I just didn’t have this ability. Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do! I respect it, though. It’s really great, and I dig it. But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be. Is it my man Mark Walker? [It’s the drummer’s composition.] I had a feeling it might be. I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff. The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts. I hear stuff more from a melody concept always. Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me. The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed! I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to. So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college. But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be. Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing. There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that. They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah. Am I totally wrong? [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic. But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein. I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again. But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music. Again, it’s more of a personal affinity. I don’t really hear that sound perception. But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow! He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe. The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out. I know he’s got so much together. It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se. Who else is playing? Oh. Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance. I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo. I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band. Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice. It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more. I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards. I want to hear Dafnis again. Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with. I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4. Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it! Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that. He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into. I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat. It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is. Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell. From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be. There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me. 3-1/2 stars. The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer. Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there! I would never have thought it was Billy. I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys. I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank. Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be. But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper. Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually. It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros. But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.” That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time. To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure. To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much. But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5. Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great. My man can shift on a dime! I’ll probably be wrong! It won’t be Jim. No, it has to be. If it’s not, I’m going to leave! I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept. To me, sound is the king in music. When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry. That’s acoustic bass. It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone. I like this piece a lot. I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it. I call this episodic composition. I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes. And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey. They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed. Or not. That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited. Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound. They made a good sound together. That’s what I was digging. I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle. I liked it. 4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting. Again, it had these mood shifts. I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing. That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque. I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out. It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different. His vibe is so amazing. All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6. Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.” And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal. To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is. Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal. I love this music! When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated. It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together. To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel. I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty. Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal. But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it. And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa? The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You’re on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough? No. It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented. 4-1/2 stars. I love collective improvising. To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this. The feeling of a band. This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically. But this was different to me. These guys were really throwing it out there to each other. You could tell their connectedness. Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal. When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys. And they did it so amazingly. That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever. One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did. He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close! The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound. It oozes out at you. It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way. Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you. The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud. I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live. But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do. They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7. Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great. Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars. Again, it’s a different perspective. I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was. But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it. That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player. If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something. And this person did that. They waited. At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment. And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways. I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful. The whole thing was very playful. That’s what I really liked about it. It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music. It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully. Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college. I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first. I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing. This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings. You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm. That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this. It has a warm feeling. And he played it kind of wild. It was pretty loose. But the beat was still swinging. The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8. Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave. Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha? I had to get one in there!! I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it. Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo. And he creates a zone. All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on. Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully. One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined. He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man. The hell with it. He’s living life. What the hell! But he swings his ass off. I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa! This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it. But it’s carefree. I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record. They’re just here to play this music. It’s so for that moment. It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth. It’s not cute. People might think that. But it’s not. It’s for real. Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad. You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him. It’s amazing. Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York. He’s a real inspiration. He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him. You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him. Things are emerging from him all the time. I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did. That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9. Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that. A twist! Is it Reggie Washington on bass? I love Reggie Washington. It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally. For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it! Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to. Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago. But I totally dig it. Man, this guy can play over a vamp! Is it Gene Lake? I know it’s Steve Coleman. The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty. Is this one of those JMT re-releases? I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe! I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars. Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!” For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time. I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff. But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away. I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup. He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff. I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that. Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10. Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart. I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge. Is this him with Carrothers? I’m doing better! Bill has a very identifiable sound. Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill. But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him. One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed. Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed. He just goes for it! Not that everybody else doesn’t. But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner. Yeah, this is great. 4-1/2 stars. It doesn’t sound like a duo. It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo. They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration. Again, the roles are less defined. They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra. It’s great. All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless. It’s just music. I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever. They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign. I love that. It’s warm. This is a really warm-feeling recording. He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree. It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them. That’s how I feel music should be. The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11. Fred Anderson-Hamid Drake, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not. The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound. I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason. I’m dumb! It’s powerful. I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove. Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment. But you’ve got me. 4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar. He sounds older to me. I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more. I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together. I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way. I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling. Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling. Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top. But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself. The sound was looser. Man, Hamid is great.

12. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great! Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great. Is it Nasheet Waits? I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him. The bass drum sound seems a little dead. That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get. Is it Lewis Nash? Whoo! I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing. His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him. Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively. I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit. 4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy. They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding. It didn’t sound frantic. Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great. I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip. Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune. When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you. You feel the whole picture. That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical. The head was about these hits. I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13. Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great! It’s moving all over the place. I love that. The drummer has a great sound. He’s dancing, man. This guy playing soprano is a great improviser. It’s really expressive. Talk about rhythmic feel, too. Wow. Everybody has a great sound. I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy. When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit. The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great. The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.” But to me, that didn’t really take away. Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong. And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great. 4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow! I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!! That was really great. We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor. I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away. I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound. I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound. And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting. Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel. Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel. That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises. Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus. Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels. They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.

*_*_*_*_*

Matt Wilson Jazziz Article, May 2012 Issue:

 

Over lunch with Matt Wilson on the first Friday of March, the pressing topic was Arts & Crafts — his quartet with trumpeter Terrell Stafford, pianist-organist-accordionist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind — who would, in a few hours, begin night four of a week-long stand at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, their first run of that duration in a New York City venue.

“I started it to contrast with some of the Quartet’s wildness,” the drummer said, referring to his other primary outlet, the Matt Wilson Quartet — presently comprising saxophonist-woodwindist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Chris Lightcap — that he launched in 1997. “But as time has passed, Arts & Crafts has gotten more to the left and the Quartet has become a swinging band. So now it’s down to the personalities.” He noted that Versace’s chordal presence imparted a thicker sound than the Quartet’s “more transparent” ambiance, and also facilitates working with “classic repertoire that I’ve always wanted to do.” But the only substantive difference, Wilson emphasized, was the instrumentation.

“In both bands, everyone is an amazing musician and a great person,” Wilson said. “The community-family aspect is what I value most. It makes my life easier to know that everybody is totally hip to be with. A lot of people can play but that extra thing is essential. We drove 5-1/2 hours from the University of New Hampshire on Tuesday straight to Dizzy’s —started like that rather than coming in from our homes. It was a great way to keep the flow going.”

Wilson is a father of four who will celebrate his 25th anniversary in July. He owns a house, has two cars, and he’s an elder in his Long Island town’s Presbyterian church. He’s also an uncompromisingly creative musician who doesn’t purvey the tried-and-true. “You have to be incredibly crafty to make it all work,” he said. “I’m a hustler, but I try to do it creatively and to have as much fun as possible. The way I see it, being a musician should be just like being a plumber or a school teacher or whatever you do. You can have a family, live in a house, do things with your kids. A few years ago, my wife and I chose to try to be more involved where we live, to participate in our community rather than feel like we just live here. It’s nice to get out of the music world.”

Nonetheless, as was apparent from his crammed itinerary, Wilson, silver-haired and baby-faced at 47, would be immersed in the music world for the remainder of March. Already in gig shape after several February engagements behind their new CD, An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto], Arts & Crafts would reconvene a fortnight hence for an intense docket of gigs and clinics — one-nighters in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Columbia, Missouri, followed by a six-day residency in St. Louis highlighted by a weekend at the Jazz Bistro. During the interim, Wilson would play two nights with singer Amy Cervini at the 55 Bar, then one-offs at Smalls with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, with pianist Falkner Evans, and with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Upon returning home from St. Louis, Wilson would fly to New Mexico to meet pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, his partners in Trio M for shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to support their second CD, Guest House [Enja]. (They’d meet again two weeks later for single nights at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 and Manhattan’s Kitano). Then he’d head to Western Illinois University to perform with pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Linda Oh, both of whom would join him the next day at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Illinois, Wilson’s home town, to play a concert with Preminger.

“I like keeping busy,” Wilson said. “Some people have said maybe I shouldn’t do all these other things, and focus more on the group. But why would I do that? Sometimes with Mark and Myra, we play places where the audience is different than for the jazz crowd I travel with. It’s been fun to meet these different circles, like bringing together another community.”

Clearly Wilson’s ability to coalesce musicians from a broad spectrum of improvisational worlds and authoritatively inhabit each one of them, mirrors his consistently communitarian focus.

“Matt makes you part of his experience, and he makes you laugh by being brought into his mind,” says bassist Buster Williams, a frequent bandmate over the last decade in pianist Denny Zeitlin’s trio, Williams’ own group, and on a recent Lederer-led Albert Ayler project, documented on Sunwatcher [Songlines]. “He has a great gift of finding humor in everything. He plays things you don’t expect, but can anticipate. I can hear the lineage in him, and because it’s so alive in his playing, it expresses itself as Matt Wilson. He’s his own drummer.”

Stafford cites Wilson’s “big, fat beat” and his penchant for “finding beautiful melodies all over the drums.” Lederer — who collaborated with Wilson on the drummer’s 2010 release, Christmas-Tree-O [Palmetto], a recital of surprisingly effective Ayler-to-prebop treatments of 14 Yule season standbys — notes Wilson’s feel for texture, his knack for “gluing his sound to what’s happening around him,” his “magical way of turning four musicians, no matter who they are, into a band.”

“Everything Matt plays is honest, clear and pure,” Stafford says. “He plays drums like Chet Baker would play the trumpet, taking less and making more. Nothing is overdone. It’s all about the feel and the connection. He’s a genuine, caring person who makes sure always to reach out and see that everyone is OK. I was insecure about playing freer music. I had no idea what to do. Through Matt — and listening to records, and trusting and experimenting — I found my way to do it, and a comfort zone to do it in. That’s the sign of a great leader — to make someone who hasn’t experienced something not feel like a complete idiot or less musical.”

Lederer emphasizes Wilson’s flexibility to move with conversational flow, musical or verbal, without steering it to a place outside anyone’s comfort zone. “He’s unique in his genuine ability to encompass the history of swing in all its forms, even in more open contexts, when the pulse is free,” he says. “He has a million different, subtle ways to swing — pushing the beat forward, bringing it back, or putting it right in the middle, sometimes all within one phrase. His sound palette on a ride cymbal just within playing quarter notes is exceptional, ranging from a ping to a splash, and a broad range in between.”

Wilson expressed his view indirectly when, midway through lunch, he cited that day’s New York Times obit for Red Holloway in which the tenor saxophonist was quoted: “I was down to play whatever kind of music I could do to make a living, and my goal was just to make whatever that music is swing.”

“I thought that was a cool way to think about it,” Wilson said. “He was just trying to make everything he does feel really great. To me, swing is not just a beat. Swing is an attitude of how music can be. Swing to me is that flexibility — or that community feeling — on a bandstand.”

[BREAK]

On An Attitude for Gratitude, Wilson navigates the “inside”-“outside” m.o. that’s marked his output as a leader since his 1996 debut, As Wave Follows Wave, with Dewey Redman and Cecil McBee — his two major employers at the time — and keyboardist Larry Goldings. There’s a multi-sectional, through-composed set-opener, “Poster Boy,” with complex harmony in which each solo section requires a different metric signature. A straight-up reading of “Happy Days Are Here Again” proceeds as a ruminative ballad with Stafford and Versace milking maximum beauty from the melody. From the drum kit, Wilson expertly orchestrates the Sunday-morning-meets-Saturday-night narrative of Nat Adderley’s “The Little Boy With the Sad Eyes.” He propels the Latin-ish “You Bet” with his own refraction of Billy Higgins’ “Soy Califa” beat from the Dexter Gordon album [i]Go[i]; on “Bubbles,” after a melodic opening solo, he channels the ebullient four-on-the-snare that was Higgins’ signature when employed by Ornette Coleman. He reharmonizes “Out Of Nowhere” (“No Outerwear”), and plays it straight, tipping a la Mel Lewis for Stafford’s clarion solo; puts an impressionistic, straight-eighths feel on Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town.” After Stafford’s soulful, unaccompanied reading of “There’s No You,” Wilson ignites the jets on “Stolen Time,” evoking the high-octane multidirectional whirl of ’60s “New Thing” drumming while propelling Stafford’s turbulent declamation. Then he tamps the flames, switching to brushes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” interpreted by Versace as a quiet hymn.

Events during the 10 months before the recording are palpable in the notes and tones. “I was thinking how quickly things literally can change,” Wilson says of the emotions in play when he began putting the recital together in the fall of 2010. His parents had recently died. So had his close friend, Dennis Irwin, who played bass with Arts & Crafts when the group launched in 2001. Another close friend, Andrew D’Angelo, who plays saxophone with the Quartet, had undergone — and survived — a serious illness. Most overwhelmingly, that October, his wife, Felicia, was diagnosed with leukemia.

During the early stages of her arduous recovery, Wilson occupied himself in the hospital by writing and organizing repertoire. “I had to think about something else,” he says. “I got us some bookings, too — partly out of need. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to have to really be hustling here.’ You go through different stages dealing with this kind of illness. Felicia had her bone marrow transplant a few months before we recorded, and we were in a sort of holding pattern, so things were rather calm. I don’t want to sound like a cult, but the recording is a celebration that she’s OK, of gratitude that we have an opportunity to play this music or do whatever we have in mind. Felicia’s doctor came to the club last night, and we dedicated the set for her. In the medical community, like everywhere else, you see people who do their jobs and also have that extra-special thing in their souls, the way they handle themselves.”

Wilson was also grateful for the deep support offered by his “music family.” “Everyone was great,” he says. “The longer you do this, you develop bonds that you don’t get from school or the academic world. Musicians in the older days got that sense of family and community at a much earlier age — they were out on the road with big bands, and a lot of them were in the Army. When I’d hear bands as a kid, I’d see them hanging out and think they sure looked to be having fun, whether they were or not. I imitated what they seemed to be like.”

Growing up in the rural milieu of southwestern Illinois, Wilson — with his parents early on, with his buddies after 16 — drove long distances to workshops and to concerts by such icons as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, the members of the Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich and Quad Cities native Louis Bellson. “They were all characters,” he says. “I don’t mean weirdos; I mean distinct — you’d know who they are.”

He wasn’t shy about approaching his heroes. “Once I asked Buddy Rich for an autograph. He goes, ‘I’ll sign them on the bus.’ I didn’t hear it. I said, ‘Auto…’ ‘I’ll sign them on the bus!’ But I went out there. I was like, ‘OK, I want to meet this guy.’

“Never let opportunities go by. Dewey Redman heard me play in 1992, handed me his phone number, and said ‘Keep in touch.’ If didn’t take that seriously, I’d never have played with him, and maybe a lot of opportunities I’ve had would never have come around. I said, ‘He was interested — call him.’ I called every month for a year-and-a-half — ‘Hey, Dewey, this is Matt Wilson. If you need somebody, let me know’ — before he picked up the phone.”

Wilson applied similarly pragmatic, open-minded principles to learning his trade. He started drums in second grade, heard Rich and Max Roach by fourth, and began to play for pay at 14. (“I never had to have a job,” he says.) His teacher, a bassist, improvised the lessons with him, enabling Wilson to master the beats “not strictly from a page in the book saying your right hand does this,” but from “hearing the sound. I learned I could do those beats my way, with my shapes.” He assimilated jazz vocabulary from the sound samples of Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Tootie Heath contained in Billy Mintz’ book Different Drummers, and from the 4-LP ABC-Impulse compilation, The Drums, which documented drum thinking from Baby Dodds and Connie Kay to Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray. ECM records and cassettes were easy to find then, and Wilson became fascinated with Jack DeJohnette, particularly DeJohnette’s album New Directions: Live in Europe, on which Lester Bowie played.

“That got me into different things,” he recalls. “I always was fascinated with music that seemed to have a cinematic quality, that conjures up images, which that did beautifully. I was always looking to be resourceful, to be loyal to the music, but try things differently within it rather than dramatically change anything. Swinging was hip, but so was playing music by Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble and Old and New Dreams. I didn’t know you had to sign up and get a card that said you were part of this or that.”

[BREAK]

“I have no evidence, but I have this inkling that something new is coming around the corner,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what it is.”

He raised two possibilities — perhaps one band comprised of 20-somethings, perhaps another with musicians who share Wilson’s southern Illinois roots. Or maybe the next step will emanate from one of the combinations of musicians he put together as music director for the 2011 edition of the Lost Shrines Festival, which includ[ed] an homage to ’40s prebop and a celebration of Afro-Cubanism that co-joined Arts and Crafts and the iconic nonagenarian conguero Candido Camero.

Wilson hopes at some point to do an “improv potluck,” a kind of meta performance piece with Lederer. They’ll drive a van around the Midwest, stopping each night in a different town, preferably populated by fewer than 20,000 souls. After a brief ballyhoo, they’ll jam with local musicians, followed by a cook-up in the van.

“Sometimes I want to know these towns a little bit more than just coming in and out,” he said. “And it would be fun to have people become part of the process. People could crochet. Painters could bring their stuff. Welders could bring their welding. Then we’d eat and talk. Food is a great way to bring people together and celebrate community.”
SIDEBAR:

“One thing I try to do as a teacher is give people what a friend of mine calls ‘small victories,’” Wilson said from his Santa Fe hotel room at the end of March.

“I give them one suggestion they can try, and they’ll immediately sound better to themselves. Maybe that clarity will open the rest of their sound, or the ability to play with other people, or to receive other people’s sound. If you inspire them by improving their sound immediately, they’ll continue to work on things.”
Wilson had followed this method in St. Louis the previous week with Arts & Crafts, which visited seven schools, (suburban and inner city), conducted afternoon sessions for a free afternoon program called Jazz U, and augmented their four-set weekend commitment at the Jazz Bistro with concerts in the playroom of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and at Sax Quest, a saxophone store-museum.

“I played some funky drums, a five-piece set that reminded me of the way Max Roach would tune and set up his drums in his later years,” he said. “It inspired me to play some stuff I’d never play. It’s nice to improvise in each setting.

“Kids were playing well, but they’re not characters yet. That’s what we wanted to promote — respect the tune, but put your own vibe on it. By the end of the week, kids who were looking at us like we were from Mars were going, ‘Wow, we really dug this.’ If they’re the next generation of players, great. But I think they’ll be fans, and will take this encouragement of being characters — being themselves — into everyday life. I hope we helped them on all fronts.”

Another side of Wilson’s pedagogy comes through on Webop: A Family Jazz Party [Jazz At Lincoln Center], commissioned by the Jazz For Young People department of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wilson directs 16 musicians from different communities — from his two bands, from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, four main vocalists, and Candido — through a program that, as he puts it, “expresses a lot of what I really like to do overall.” Shuffles, different blues iterations, standards, bebop and the Afro-Caribbean tinge commingle with made-up instruments, freebop and free jazz. In the Sesame Street vein, each song has a lyric with a kid-friendly message: an ABC song is set to “Syeeda’s Song Flute”; on “Free Jazz Adventure,” Ornette Coleman’s “Free” morphs into “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” into Don Cherry’s “Infant Happiness” into “Bingo”; “My Style” is a lyric set to Monk’s “Nutty.” On “Your Own Blues, Doug Wamble explains how to sing the blues and asks Wilson’s son Ethan to demonstrate.

“I dig that this kind of gave everyone permission to be the way we really should be in playing,” Wilson said. “It was an old-school feeling in that we were all in the same room. Maybe that’s what it was like when people were doing these great ensemble dates in New York in the ’50s and ’60s — that kind of musicianship and feeling, coming in, doing it, having fun and then go on to something else.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazziz, Matt Wilson

For Harry Connick’s 49th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article From 2002

For the 49th birthday of Harry Connick, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, on the  occasion of his CD Songs I Heard and the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, for which he wrote the score. I was given quite a bit of access to him, and he was quite open and self-aware — a very interesting subject.

 

Harry Connick (Jazziz Article):

“Well, I made me a fortune, that fortune made ten; I’ve been headlined and profiled again and again,” Harry Connick murmurs to a languorous triplet groove over a plush magnolia carpet of slow-moaning strings and woodwinds. The Marvin Charnin verse is self-descriptive; like cartoon tycoon Daddy Warbucks, who delivers the lyric in Annie, Connick has the Midas touch. A bona-fide Pop Culture celebrity with a high recognition quotient, he packs arenas singing songs he wrote and dancing steps he devised in front of a well-oiled 17-piece big band that plays arrangements he composed. He has two Grammies to go with four multi-platinum, three platinum and three gold albums. He is an increasingly visible presence in film and television, and models clothing by Tom Ford (Yves St. Laurent and Gucci) and Prada in the pages of Esquire and GQ. Last summer he made his first foray into big-time theater, composing the score and lyricist of the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not.

Connick strikes a chord on the piano, changes the key, and croons: “But something was missing. I never quite knew that something was someone. But who?” Daddy Warbucks’ existential ache for family, fatherhood and reciprocal love is emphatically not an autobiographical reference. Connick, 34, and Jill Goodacre, the model-videographer who is his wife of eight years, have two young daughters, and he remains close to his father, Harry Connick, Sr., the incumbent District Attorney of New Orleans since 1974.

Connick’s gnawing question might more appropriately be phrased, “But what?” Perhaps the answer is respect — from hardcore jazz observers who dismiss him as a lightweight — and comprehension — from fans who dote on his chiseled image and charisma and are clueless about his craft. The content of Songs I Heard [Columbia], the two-time Grammy winner’s recent release from July 2001, won’t help matters; including “Something Was Missing,” it contains 16 “children’s songs” from Annie, Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, The Wizard Of Oz, and Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, few of which hold much cache among art-oriented jazz musicians.

None of this deters Connick, who displays his passport — as the lyric goes — to “the world of pure imagination, traveling in a world of my creation” as a conceptualist, singer, entertainer and pianist. Without condescension, he arranges each bar with painstaking detail, cherrypicking ideas from the imposing cliffs of tradition to sculpt his own contemporary hybrid. Having absorbed the instrumental personalities of his musicians over a decade of proximity, Connick the arranger deploys them as extensions of his mind’s ear. His timbral palette draws from Duke Ellington, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Claus Ogerman and Quincy Jones; his pulse, which distinguishes Connick from his influences, partakes of a savory menu of New Orleans streetbeats. Connick the singer references the storytellers — Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra for elasticity of phrasing; Carmen McRae for clarity; Nat Cole for tone — and is now fully his own man. Connick the entertainer knows the craft of serious fun, how to convey to his audience the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity. Connick the pianist remains primarily in the background, notably excepting “Oompa-Loompa,” on which he creates a dramatic triologue between his voice, right hand and left hand in a manner singular to him.

“Living there,” he continues, “you’ll be free if you truly wish to be. And the world tastes good ’cause the Candy Man thinks it should.”

[BREAK]

Cool and focused in a white polo shirt, blue jeans and white Nikes, Connick faces his orchestra in an enormous studio at Manhattan’s Hit Factory. They are recording the brass and woodwind section for Connick’s chart of “America The Beautiful,” to be heard three weeks hence at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Connick wants them to put a Louis Armstrong feeling on the reharmonized, racehorse line. “Would it be possible to do the down-notes on the second beat and do a lip thing instead of a valve thing?” he asks quietly and firmly.

After the take, Connick grabs a bottle of water and strides into the control room. Buff and physical, he punctuates jivetalk to his musicians with sharp forearms to their chests and biceps, then flops into a chair next to drummer Arthur Latin to listen to the playback. As it rolls, he and Latin follow the score to a walking bass section that will accompany a tap interlude from Savion Glover. Latin suggests a rhythmic figure, and Connick assents. He leans toward Latin, grips his shoulder, stares into his eyes, and chants precisely how he wants the drummer to execute the beats on the kick cymbal. The band files back into the studio. They nail the take. “Beautiful playing,” Connick says. “Let’s do it a little slower. Keep it in that pocket. Big pocket.”

[BREAK]

Connick has marched to the beat of his own drummer since he was a small child in New Orleans. The son of a politically ambitious Catholic New Orleanian father and an artistically-inclined Manhattan-raised Jewish mother, each a lawyer and a jazz lover, he heard jazz music, as he puts it, “from the womb.” Gifted with perfect pitch, he took quickly to his classical lessons, assimilating the European and African-American canon in equal measure. With his father’s blessing, he learned the latter at the side of maestro James Booker, whose scope encompassed Jelly Roll Morton, Huey “Piano” Smith and Frederic Chopin, and whose lessons Connick applied at various trad clubs on Bourbon Street, where, under the gaze of his parents, he would be invited to sit in for a tune or two. By 14 or 15, Connick was doing whole gigs, observing such highly skilled local entertainers as Johnny Horn and Thomas Jefferson, and finding his own public persona in the company of such world-class Crescent City drum-masters as Smokey Johnson, Zigaboo Modaliste, Freddie Kohlman, John Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and James Black.

“Booker to this day is the greatest musician I was ever around,” says Connick the following morning in a suite at Sony Music Studios. “He was an inventor, and at this late date, to be able to invent something on an instrument as old as the piano is pretty impressive. He played things that were incredibly hard, and he was able to use the piano to communicate with people, much like Chopin used to do. I’ve always felt I have the ability to do that. I feel very at-home in that situation because I did it in my most formative years.”

Connick is about to mix the cast album for Thou Shalt Not, a musical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin — an Emile Zola novel of love, betrayal, murder and ensuing spiritual decay — that received almost uniformly negative reviews during its two-month run. Lifted from 1860s Paris to 1940s New Orleans, the production boasted a pithy book, visionary choreography from director Susan Stroman, state-of-the-art sets spanning vivid naturalism to hallucinatory abstraction, and idiomatic costumes representing a broad swath of postwar Crescent City social strata. It lacked, however, lead actors of sufficient skill to represent credibly the passions and customs of their characters, or phrase Connick’s two dozen nuanced songs, or even sing them in key. Many critics cited Connick’s inexperience with or unwillingness to follow Broadway conventions as the main reason for this debacle. But it occurs to me that it’s the world that needs to catch up with Connick.

Maybe Connick agrees, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s diplomatic when I offer these impressions. “It’s very difficult to find people who can really sing and act and move on stage,” he remarks. “Would I have cast differently for the main characters? I don’t know. It’s give-and-take. This theater thing is a living, breathing organism. What if you find an amazing singer who really understands this stuff, but can’t act? Or a great actor or actress who just can’t sing?

“I wanted to act in it for a minute, but Stroman talked me out of it. I enjoyed performing on stage in high school, but I didn’t much enjoy the constraints. By then I was playing gigs in jazz clubs, which is a completely different way of thinking; as an actor in a show, you’re locked down, and with some small exceptions you pretty much can’t change anything. Playing a solo and doing a scene are similar experiences, though. It can be like going very fast on a boat through the water, moving forward, forward, forward, everything falling away behind you. If you can get to that very specific, special place, oh my God, there’s nothing like it. Acting requires a certain way of thinking about life and about the world, I think, in addition to having certain skills or inclinations to perform. A person who just walks off the street could be a great actor. But you need skill to be a jazz musician. However talented the person is, they have to understand the workings of it first.”

If Booker passed on to Connick a sort of Platonic ideal of how music should sound, pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons — who introduced him to the complex tributaries of modern jazz — laid down the Aristotelian mechanics. “Wynton and Branford were five or six years ahead of me, and those guys weren’t messing around. They could tell in two seconds if you knew what you were doing. They’d come in and completely shut you down! I’d sit in with Wynton’s band, and during my solo Jeff Watts and Charnett Moffett would play the whole thing on upbeats. If you didn’t strongly believe that what you were doing was right, you’d go with them, and then they’d screw you up and get you lost in the form.

“Those guys were HARSH, man! They would verbally cut me down. I’d show up backstage, and they’d say, ‘Man, who you checkin’ out?’ I said, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been checking a lot of Errol Garner out.’ They were all into different stuff. ‘You sad, you can’t play.’ They would beat you up emotionally. At the time it was tear-inducing. But I knew they were being unfair, and I knew I was going to ride through that storm. When you’re in bed looking at the ceiling at night, you know whether you can play or not.

“Wynton’s approval still means a lot to me. I really wanted him to see Thou Shalt Not, and he called me after the show and quoted specific things I did with melodies or orchestration or whatever. That meant the world to me. I can talk to him purely on a philosophical level about the art, which thrills me. I know that he and Branford are listening to me and understand what I’m trying to do. I won’t say Wynton’s a big brother, but he is in a sense. He and Branford and Ellis are my” — Connick searches for a word — “family. I grew up with them.”

[BREAK]

Connick notes, “One thing I can do even better than anything I can do musically is hustle.” At 18, Connick moved to New York, took a room at the 92nd Street Y, and hit the streets, using every ounce of charisma he possessed to conjure gigs and persuade Columbia honcho George Butler to deliver on an oral commitment to give him a contract. Moving to Greenwich Village, he landed a weekly gig at the Knickerbocker, a well-established neighborhood piano bar, where he began to blend his predispositions — vernacular New Orleans romantic blues piano, the McCoy Tyner-Herbie Hancock-Kenny Kirkland branches of modern piano gleaned from the Marsalis apprenticeship, and a nascent appreciation of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington — into a recognizable, idiosyncratic style.

“Back in New Orleans, when Wynton was playing with Herbie Hancock, all I listened to was Herbie,” Connick says, with a short laugh. “Then I remember one day, around the time Monk died, Wynton came home and told me not to listen to Herbie any more. He said, ‘Listen to Monk.’ I didn’t understand it at all, but if Wynton was listening to it, I had to listen to it; I basically did what Wynton did. I started trying to transcribe and play Monk, and realized it was more complex than I thought. When I got into Duke, I started to understand my place on the planet as a piano player.

“At the Knickerbocker, since Wynton wasn’t around, I could play what I wanted. I started pulling out my traditional jazz tunes and my Booker stuff, which was very left-hand-heavy, and I felt, ‘Hey, this is home.’ I loved to play tunes by McCoy and Herbie, too, but I thought my left hand was dormant in the mid-range of the piano, and that didn’t cut it on a solo gig in New York City. I started studying the great left-handed piano players — Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and then Art Tatum and Earl Hines, who played a different kind of stride. It was extremely intimidating, because these people just did not miss notes. It was perfect playing. I never wanted to be less than that technically. So I practiced a lot. My technique got where I wasn’t even thinking; I was playing so fast that it was silly. I started to slow down after I started listening to Monk and Duke. Dexterity became less important. If I’m losing a crowd, I’ll play some stride to get them back, but it’s a trick. Now I’m interested in playing notes that sound right to me at the time. It seems that musicians in their mid-thirties start to become who they are. It’s liberating.”

[BREAK]

On the road three to four months a year with his big band, with large chunks of time devoted to film and television projects, Connick these days has scant time to practice his scales. He writes incessantly, a complete arrangement every day, relying on the sounds in his head and Finale music software. He keeps about 100 tunes in his working book, of which about half are original compositions.

“I’d be helluva lot better pianist if I practiced,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a natural ability, and I’ve been able not to play for a while and then jump back into it.”

“Harry isn’t a great jazz pianist any more, but he could have been one of the best ever,” Branford Marsalis says. “To get back where he was, he would have to start from scratch, like he did with singing. He would have to play jazz more than sing, which makes no sense at this point of his career. Maybe when he’s 50, and has all the money he needs and doesn’t feel like doing that shit any more, he could start playing jazz in some little club somewhere, and then in another five years he’ll just kill people. The talent is not in question.”

Well, not to everyone. The Third Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD described Connick as “a rather pointlessly eclectic pianist; his solos an amiable but formless amalgam of Monk, Garner and Hines influences,” noting that “any good piano trio record will outdo” Lofty Roach’s Souffle from 1990. But Connick’s talent shines throughout 30, recorded a week before his September 11th birthday in 1998 and released last fall. It’s the third in a quintennial series documenting Connick’s evolving take on the solo piano function, refining a lived lineage that links him to such fin de siecle bordello entertainers as Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton. He commingles perpetual motion stride and modern harmony on “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” weaves dense angular chords through a Bookeresque prism on “Somewhere My Love.” He cushions a declarative vocal on “The Gypsy” with Ellingtonian pads of color, precedes an Armstrongesque chorus on “I Were a Bell” with an expansive six-minute duo with Ben Wolfe, his off-and-on bassist since 1988.

“When I heard Harry at the Knickerbocker, he was singing and playing a lot of stride piano,” Wolfe recalls. “I’d go to his apartment on Mulberry Street, and we’d work out these intricate, challenging arrangements. We played with a lot of exuberance, real hard, with a lot of swagger. The week after he hired me, we played the Bottom Line. Then we went on the road, to Blues Alley in D.C., a week in Seattle, a week in L.A. Then we recorded When Harry Met Sally. It was very fast-moving, very exciting. We played duo for about 18 months, and had a lot of fun.”

Springboarding off the success of When Harry Met Sally, Connick toured the country with Wolfe, propulsive New Orleans drummer Shannon Powell, and conductor-arranger Mark Shaiman, picking up a different orchestra in each city. The public responded, and Connick, armed with only a couple of charts from When Harry Met Sally, decided he might as well write a few of his own for a forthcoming world tour. “Man, they were pathetic!” he says. “I hustled the audience, made them think we had a jam-packed show of big band music.” Applying his customary persistence, he wrote all the charts for Blue Light, Red Light [1991]. “I’ve written them all ever since,” he says. “You learn.”

“Music seems effortless for Harry,” Wolfe says. “There are a lot of musicians who have perfect pitch and great ears, but he has great ears that are functional. If you hum him a melody, he will naturally hear the good bass notes. So when he started arranging, his brain would tell him the right things — good-sounding chords, good harmonic movement, good voice leading, nice melodies. He hears that way naturally, and that’s how he always played. He’s a complete perfectionist, real clear on what he wants.”

“Harry is not afraid to sound like shit for a while,” says Marsalis. “His early records weren’t very good, singing-wise. But Harry is a consummate musician, and he understood what he was doing. The only way to get good is to sing. I guarantee you, when he was growing up, big band was not in the picture. Singing was, but as a cute extension of his playing, not as a career. One aspect of growing up in New Orleans that helped him is that he’s a great showman. He’s charismatic — funny, can do a soft-shoe, can do his version of Louis Armstrong. So he’s very popular. And no matter how much critics wrote bad things about him, people continued to go to his concerts — which made him essentially critic-proof.

“He’s a student. He’s xeroxed it all, and now he doesn’t have to do it any more. His ability to write lyrics the way he does comes from years of studying the shit that he used to be criticized for! ‘Oh, he sounds like Frank Sinatra.’ ‘Oh, he sounds like he’s doing a Broadway movie.’ ‘He sounds like 1940’s retro.’ Blah-blah-blah. Yeah, and now what? Now he’s found a way to make that sound completely contemporary, yet be firmly immersed in the tradition. He was willing to say, ‘Damn, I can do this,’ and change his direction mid-stream.’ He bought old Broadway records and watched every old movie. Bring up the most obscure piece of one song from Guys and Dolls, and he’ll finish it for you. He’s a completely relational database.

“He did a record called To See You, where he wrote all these thoroughly modern, badass love songs. Nothing that sounds cliched, nothing that sounds like it’s from the ’40s. I told our manager, ‘This record ain’t gonna sell; it’s too good.’ I brought the record to my father, who never really approved of Harry singing in the first place, and he put it on. All of a sudden he understood. The light went off in his head and he says, ‘Oh, that’s what the motherfucker’s been doing.’ Then he called up my manager and said, ‘Man, Harry’s playing some shit now!'”

[BREAK]

“The whole Duke-Monk thing has been getting kind of old for a while,” Connick says. “I studied it, did the homework, and have my own perspective on where they’re coming from. I think it’s going to go somewhere different. I don’t know where, though.”

Connick hopes to find some answers by reviving his quartet, which will perform publicly the next evening for the first time in several years. “Last night we rehearsed for the first time in I can’t remember when, and it was awesome!” he says. “The notes were just flying out. The last time I did it, I was deep within influences, but this time I didn’t feel indebted to anyone. I woke up this morning, and I called my wife and I said, ‘I had a quartet rehearsal last night.’ She said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘The first thing that came to my mind is we were all smiling.’ It felt great, man! It didn’t feel like we were some young lions trying to go out and kick some ass, but just playing some tasty, soulful music.

I wasn’t going to heed my editor’s instruction to think like the establishment media, but Connick’s comment is too good an opening to pass up. So I inquire in what ways marriage and fatherhood has inflected who he is as an artist.

“One thing having kids did was make me think that this whole art thing is pretty silly,” he responds. “It’s less important than I may have thought. Which made me a better artist, because it wasn’t life or death. I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Has marriage grounded him? Connick bristles a bit, interpreting the verb in the sense of “not flying.” “No, Jill doesn’t ground me. She’s just grounded. I don’t want to be grounded. And I don’t think she can ground me. What’s the fun of that? But she doesn’t try to do that. She’s infinitely stronger and more secure than I am, and highly intelligent. I’m fascinated by who she is. I’m still trying to figure her out. Maybe that’s why she still digs me. It’s a really perfect match. I mean, eight years is nothing, really. But I don’t see us going anywhere.”

Connick radiates such unshakeable confidence in his talent that it’s hard to imagine him feeling any insecurity of any kind. He demurs. “I’m as insecure as the next guy, and I think you can hear that vulnerability in my voice. Most people don’t present their insecure side in an interview.” That being said, he articulates his sense of place in the grand narrative with such transparent objectivity that anyone would think him downright arrogant if his deeds did not so palpably back up his words and if his manners were not so perfect. I ask him about the source of his instincts.

“I think it’s genetic,” he states. “My Dad is great like that and my mother was, They instinctively know what to do and say, and be truthful about it. I think watching my father give speeches… Or if I had to fire somebody and didn’t know how to do it, I’d say, ‘Dad, how do you fire somebody?’ My parents just understood how to do it. Not to say I do, but I feel like I do.”

Then he makes an astonishing self-comparison. “Young guys like Kobe Bryant are going to have their chance at being Michael Jordan,” he says. “I’ll have my chance. It’s not quite time yet. If anything, I’ve learned to respect the elders — especially the ones who can play. Like Ellis. Yeah, it’s Ellis’ turn right now. I’ll get my turn.”

“It will be your turn for what?”

“It will be my turn to walk into a room of knowledgeable people who are outside the inner circle, and they’ll say, ‘That’s the guy who wrote 20 shows and orchestrated all of them himself, wrote and conducted every note.’ It’s a time thing. In 20 years I will have done 20 shows, 20 more records and 20 more movies. I know that’s going to happen. Then it will be my turn to feel good about what I’ve done. But I don’t want to feel good about it yet, because it ain’t that time.

“When Michael Jordan steps out on the court, he pretty much knows he’s going to score some points. There’s no way to measure art statistically. But I pretty much know that I’m going to score some points. I say that as modestly as I can. Now, I don’t know if I’m going to have the opportunity to do 20 shows. That means you have to have some kind of success. That’s something I’m not secure about at all, is whether I’m going to be selling out houses or have a record deal five years from now.”

[BREAK]

Given the scope of Connick’s ambition, it seems improbable that he would ever scale down any component of his career to fulfill his pianistic destiny. “Let’s be very honest,” he states. “The most hardcore jazz purists still love to make a living. You can be artistic and inward and introspective and brooding — but it sure is a lot better when people are watching you. That’s just the bottom line. My first impression of music was smiling and giving people a show. It took years for me to finally believe that that’s really who I am. I played in contemporary jazz clubs in my teens, when I was studying music with Ellis that was not appropriate to play on Bourbon Street, and when a tenor player would solo for 20 minutes, somewhere in my head was this restless voice saying, ‘God, I hope these people don’t leave.’

“I know what the people are coming for, and I know instinctively how much to give them. And I’m playing jazz to win them! It’s big band with singing. They’re snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to notes I wrote, and some’a them charts are hard to play. Sometimes what looks like some lame Sinatra impression is a definitive instruction to the trombone section!”

Connick’s concluding comment is a tantalizing carrot for the hardcore purist in me. “I was driving around yesterday, talking to my Dad, and told him I was rehearsing with this quartet. That took him totally by surprise. He said, ‘You’re kidding. That is great.’ I wanted to talk about something else. He said, ‘You know, that’s what you do, son. All this other stuff is awesome and great, but you’re a jazz musician.’

“And you know what? He’s right. That’s what I am. I’ve done this for so long, and I’ve absorbed an unbelievable amount of history. I didn’t start in some high school band in Peoria. I started on Bourbon Street as a kid, playing with people like Danny Barker and other guys who played with people at Congo Square. I played with Eubie Blake when that dude was 95 and I was 9 years old. Buddy Rich gave me a drum lesson in my living room! I was talking with my producer about a three piano player thing with Mac Rebbenack and me and Allen Toussaint. I didn’t feel like a youngster. I felt like I’ve been around for a little while.

“I love everything I’m doing. I say what I want. I play what I want. I do what I like. And I give the people what they want. That makes me feel very confident and secure on the stage and when I go to bed at night. And I think people respond more than anything to an artist who is very confident. But at the CORE of it is jazz.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Harry Connick, Jazziz, New Orleans

For John Surman’s 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2009

For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)

-*-*-*-

On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement

Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”

Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.

The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.

“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”

In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”

That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”

“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”

BREAK

Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”

“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”

Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.

Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”

“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”

“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.

“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”

The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.

“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.

By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..

“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.

“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”

Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”

Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.

“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’

“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”

However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.

“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”

In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”

“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”

“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”

To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”

Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.

His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”

“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”

Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”

Leave a comment

Filed under ECM, Jazziz, John Surman