Category Archives: Liner Notes

For the 69th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist James Williams (March 8, 1951-July 20, 2004), A Pair of Interviews Conducted For The albums “Jazz Dialogues” and “Memphis Convention”

To honor the 69th birthday anniversary of pianist-composer James Williams (March 8, 1951-July 20, 2004), I’ve posted my liner notes for a magnificent 4-CD set of duos that he self-produced in 2003, titled Jazz Dialogues, as well as the interview that I conducted with him for the project. I’ve also posted a comprehensive 17,000-word interview that we did in 1993, when James asked me to write the liner notes for a pair of albums  (DIW) devoted to Memphis, Tennessee, his hometown — Memphis Piano Convention featured solo performances by “Memphis school” pianists Donald Brown, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Charles Thomas, Russell Wilson, and James himself; while on Memphis Convention James convened those pianists as well as saxophonists George Coleman and Bill Easley, trumpeter Bill Mobley, and guitarist Calvin Newborn with the stellar bass-drum pairing of Jamil Nasser and Tony Reedus.

James was a very important person to me. He was frequently my guest on WKCR (someday I have to  transcribe the interviews we did on several Musician Shows and a Sunday profile), but also brought musicians who were important to him (Charles Thomas, as an example) to the station for interviews and profiles, particularly when he was booking his favorite pianists into Bradley’s, where he was an essential member of the rotation. The Memphis Convention dates were my second-ever liner notes, coming 12 years after I was given the opportunity to write the notes for Art Blakey’s Album of the YearJames was extremely giving, kind, gracious person, and a magnificent talent. He is missed.

One of my favorite tunes by James is “Alter Ego,” which Roy Hargrove recorded early in his career. I’ve linked to a youtube clip of a performance of “Alter Ego” performed live at Bradley’s by a trio in which James and Robert Hurst sidemanned for guitarist Kevin Eubanks. If you look very closely at the cover photograph, by Jimmy Katz, you may be able to discern the shadowy profiles of two women — one is my late wife, Donna Sturm, the other is her best friend, Lezlie Harrison.

I don’t have time to do full fact-checking or spell-checking on these texts, but will certainly respond to remarks from those who read this.

 

Liner Notes for Jazz Dialogues:

In January 2001, his fiftieth birthday fast approaching, James Williams decided to give himself, in his words, “an early birthday gift.” The result is “Jazz Dialogues,” a summational program of 43 musical conversations on a capacious repertoire spanning Williams’ own originals, jazz and songbook standards, even a composition by 17th century Middle Baroque composer Henry Purcell. “Jazz Dialogues” takes place between Williams and 24 top-shelf improvisers, almost all of them friends from his three decades as a professional jazz musician.

“It was a labor of love, something I’ve long wanted to do,” Williams says. “I didn’t think I could put together a big band, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I decided to make something a little different. I wanted to express myself in a wide range of approaches. Media seem to put me into one or two categories — ‘James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,’ and so on. I thought this would be a chance to break down some preconceptions about my total musicianship.”

Williams was a church organist in his native Memphis during formative years, and the voicings and time feel of spiritual music and the blues deeply inflect the sounds he conceptualizes and executes. His playing throughout Jazz Dialogues reminds us of the elegance and idiomatic authority with which he deploys the tropes of those languages, and of bebop and harmonic impressionism to suit the requirements of the moment. The tonal personality is cosmopolitan and downhome, flexible and holistic, attuned to storytelling and dialogue, averse to didacticism and self-absorption. It denotes sophistication, an open mind, and a willingness to listen, qualities that any pianist must possess to flourish in New York, where on any given day they must address new material, make sense of it, and impart to it a fluent, natural sound.

A member of the New York piano elite since he settled in Brooklyn in 1984, Williams honed his savoir faire the hard way — on innumerable wee-hours-of-the-morning solo, duo and drummerless trio jobs at various New York piano emporia, and through extensive sideman work with, to name a few, the likes of Boston drum-master Alan Dawson, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Milt Jackson, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown and a host of others.

“There’s a certain energy, a certain swagger, a certain recklessness,” he says of the New York state of mind. “Carefree might be a better word for it. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here.”

Williams made sure that would be the case by organizing the recordings in a manner suited to imperatives of spontaneity and confident professionalism.

“We did the date in 3 days, and I had everyone come in at different times, every two or three hours,” he recalls. “Some things were planned and others were spontaneous. Steve Nelson has played with me a lot, and he showed up with my book of music; we ran down the tunes — very in-the-moment. I wrote ‘Le Wizard de Basso’ for Ron Carter, which we’d played on a tour with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I wanted to hear Joe Lovano’s take on two of my originals, and after a couple of runthroughs we did them on the spot. Ray Drummond often played ‘For My Nephews’ with me at different piano rooms; I didn’t even have to bring out the music. The only vocal I rehearsed in advance was the Purcell piece with Roger Holland and Thomas Trotter. I wanted to make sure I could play it! Freddy Cole taught me ‘That’s My Desire’ and ‘Close To You’ in the studio prior to the recordings. I told Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with ‘These Foolish Things;’ he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. Etta Jones told me she’d never recorded ‘Skylark,’ which I thought was perfect, because I didn’t want anyone to sing songs they’d already done five or six times on record.

“I basically wanted to make everyone do things a little differently than they would in their own situation. Usually, I let them lead and zoned in quickly on their mood at that moment. I didn’t go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy. If they were playing behind the beat, I had to make sure that I wasn’t following them so much that the tempo would drag or things would get sluggish. Throughout, I was less concerned about how well I played as a soloist as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player, even if, in a sense, I am half of the team. I wanted to move things along, to do two or three takes maximum, and not have anyone work that hard. I wanted it to be more like a gig or a party.”

The festivities never flag; from start to finish, “Jazz Dialogues” documents serious musicians having serious fun.

[—30—]

 

James Williams for “Memphis Convention” Liner Notes (1993):

Q: I think we should talk about the different people on the album, and why you wanted each of them, and your experiences with them over time.. So your brief biography, let’s say; your brief account of the circumstances through which you know everybody.

JW: I will say that there are numerous artists from Memphis that I really wanted to participate in this session as well, that deserve to have been there perhaps moreso than I did, but due to the fact that, obviously, for one session it wouldn’t be fair if we had everybody…if we had each and every soloist from Memphis that deserved to have been there. No one would have gotten a chance to play much more than a chorus at best. So it was a decision made on several factors, some of which were availability and things like that, and who was interested in doing it at that point in time, that we came across… But fortunately, everyone that did participate in this particular session was a high priority anyway.

Q: Let’s start with the veterans, because it’s a multi-generational project. Calvin Newborn.

JW: Calvin Newborn, of course, is from one of the distinguished families and one of the first families of Jazz, especially down in Memphis. Of course, everyone knows of his brother Phineas. But his father… He really got his experience, both of them did, playing with his father’s band, Phineas Senior. They had many great artists come through that group while they were there in Memphis playing in perhaps the late Forties or early Fifties in particular, including people like Frank Strozier and George Coleman, Booker Little, Jamil Nasser, and different ones that would come through who actually played with that family band. And it literally was a family band, because Calvin’s future wife, Wanda, at that time was also the vocalist and trombonist in the group, and others participated along the lines(?), and all of the guys doubled and that whole thing.

So I think he was essential, because he is really one of the premier Jazz guitarists to come out of Memphis. And of course, he’s excellent in his own right, in addition to being Phineas’ brother. Had they not even been related, he would have deserved to have been there.

Q: I think you may have been the person responsible for bringing him into Bradley’s a couple of years ago.

JW: Yeah, that’s correct. He played up there with a quartet that I was leading. We had just a real festive time. And people that consider him one of their mentors, people like George Benson was by, Milt Jackson came by to see him, Kenny Burrell sent regards… It was just really a real, like, homecoming, because he hadn’t played in New York in over thirty years at that point in time..

Q: Would you say that Calvin Newborn is the primary source of a certain guitar style…? What are his sources as a guitar stylist?

JW: I think it would probably be Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green in particular. I’m sure there would be others that he would name and he would have been influenced by. But particularly, those are the three I think that can serve as inspirations.

Q: Was he playing in Memphis at the time you were there?

JW: No, actually he wasn’t. As a matter of fact, his brother only had moved back when I was just kind of peripherally starting on the Jazz scene around there, and playing… I was a student in my early days at Memphis State. And Calvin wasn’t living in Memphis at the time. He was still traveling with Hank Crawford’s group and doing, I imagine, some other freelance work, but still living in Los Angeles during that period of time, and really didn’t move back to Memphis until the Eighties or maybe the late Seventies perhaps. And of course, that was after I had left and gone to Boston, and subsequently come to New York.

Q: Let’s talk about his rhythm section mate, Jamil Nasser, who in the Fifties in Memphis was known as George Joyner.

JW: That’s correct. Likewise, I didn’t know Jamil in Memphis at all, too, because he left in the early Fifties, going into the Service and later on playing with B.B. King’s band — both he and George Coleman. B.B. really transformed George from an alto player to a tenor player. And Booker Little and a few others got to work with B.B. during that period of time. And of course, B.B. was at that time living in Memphis himself.

So I met him a little bit later. I saw him play in about 1975, after I had moved to Boston, with the Ahmad Jamal Trio (he was a member of that group for about ten years). Then occasionally, he would come home. I do remember him coming back to Memphis one time prior to my leaving Memphis, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him on that particular occasion. And he would still come down maybe once a year. Because both of his parents, I may add, are still living in Memphis, and his sisters and brothers. One of his brothers is a distinguished minister down in Memphis as well.

So I got a chance to know him a little bit there, and then I met him a little more… I got to know him much better in the latter part of the period he was with Ahmad, and then he played Monty Alexander for a while. And then I guess I knew him even better at the time he started working with George Coleman’s quartet, and we would be on certain tours together, for instance, in Europe or something like that when I was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, or they would play in New York or come to Boston or something like that.

Q: How would you characterize Jamil’s playing and contribution at the session?

JW: Jamil is certainly inspired by people like Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, and he is really a throwback, which a lot of the younger bassists have kind of gone back to more, or being a bass bass player. I mean, that is really coming in there and playing good time for you, walking you to the Moon and back, making sure everything feels real good for the soloist. I wouldn’t say that he was a distinguished soloist in his own right. But he gives you everything you need, the right kind of energy, the right kind of pulse and sound for that, and really knows how to drive a band, has an extended repertoire of standards and things like that, and is really… When you hear the word “bass,” it really typifies what he or Ray Brown or Milt Hinton or some of the young bass players like Christian McBride and Peter Washington and others who are coming right along, and bringing that tradition back. Because it’s like when you build a house, when you say the base, it’s got to be something firm, and you can build everything else around that. And the same thing with building a band, an ensemble around the bass and subsequently the rhythm section.

Q: Were there any bassists in Memphis who preceded him and who he might have listened to as a young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties?

JW: I’m sure there were. Because Jimmie Lunceford is from Memphis, and that band was there… Of course, I don’t know some of those names, unfortunately, that I can’t call. But I would love to speak to him about that, and find out…

And a bassist that came up of note after his time, who is a contemporary of mine is Sylvester… [PAUSE]

A bassist of note, a young, charismatic bassist who is named Sylvester Sample, as I mentioned, one of my contemporaries, grew up there. But his specialty… He played the bass violin, but he was a magnificent Fender bass player, and he was one of the first ones… He was kind of innovative in his own way, because he was one of the first bassists to play the fretted bass, combining the Jazz bass with the fretted neck and, you know, things that people like Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin and Stanley Clarke eventually started picking up on and doing a little bit later. But he chose to become an engineer, a civil engineer, and didn’t pursue music full time as a career. And now he’s in Chicago, and he tells me he’s now thinking that he really wants to come and do some things like that. But he was really, really something, and really was instrumental, because having someone like that really helped me to grow as a pianist — and certainly I think Donald and Mulgrew can attest to that, and Russell and Charles, too, for that matter. Harold didn’t really know Sylvester that well, although he did play with him a couple of times on one of the first occasions that I met him as well.

Q: Let’s also talk about George Coleman, who also came up in Memphis in the 1950’s. He and Mabern both went from Memphis to Chicago at a certain time.

JW: Well, actually, George went a little earlier. Because once again, as I mentioned, George went out with B.B. real early. And Harold and Frank Strozier actually went to Chicago together. Booker Little had been up there… Now, let me get it right. Harold and Booker Little went there together. Frank had already gone up to the Chicago Conservatory, and Booker eventually joined him there, and of course, Harold soon followed.

So actually, I knew George Coleman’s name more from the Miles Davis period than anything else when I was growing up. But he did come down to Memphis when I was a student at Memphis State, and he was a guest soloist with our little Jazz ensemble. And that was really the first time I really got a chance to meet him. I heard him play in Memphis a year or so earlier, when he came down to one of the local clubs that was bringing artists in. That was a real good period of time, maybe somewhere like around ’72, ’73, that time, and maybe even a little earlier, too, that they were bringing in different artists, many of them Memphis musicians coming home, like George Coleman or Frank Strozier, Marvin Stamm, but they also brought in people like Clifford Jordan, Hubert Laws, Pepper Adams, Freddie Hubbard came down… All playing with a local rhythm section. As a matter of fact, Charles Thomas, who is on this session, was the pianist for all of those performances.

Q: George started out as an alto player, I think. Yes?

JW: Yes. George’s brother Lucious was an alto player, and I think it was one of his first inspirations. And as I mentioned, B.B. King bought his first tenor for him….

Q: To go on the circuit.

JW: Yeah, playing that Rhythm-and-Blues out there. You know, he had to go out there and do that and walk the bar, and probably a number of other things I don’t know anything about!

Q: How would you characterize George’s playing and his contribution to the session?

JW: Oh, energetic. A virtuoso performer. That goes without saying; that’s been known for thirty years. But at the session, he was just absolutely beautiful, a model to follow all the way. On time, willing to give up extra time if we needed to rehearse or a little something else. Wasn’t at all caught up with being of the stature that he is, that he could have taken a different attitude. He was there for us. He was just loving being around his colleagues and friends and stuff like that. And it was just really a nice time, even though he was always on time…

As a matter of fact, most of the guys were there early. It was like they couldn’t get there quick enough to see each other.

Q: And his soloing is extremely consistent, and you know it’s him, of course, right from the first couple of notes.

JW: Sure. And on the selections that George does solo on, I deliberately was wanting to hear him play in selections that… He has an extensive repertoire and plays a wide variety of things. But I wanted to hear him play even things that I had never heard him play on club dates or concerts and things like that. Of course, I knew he’d be quite at home with playing something like “Our Delight,” but I had never heard him play it. And I wanted him to do some music like Tadd Dameron, some things like that.

I wanted to challenge the guys, but yet at the same time have everyone fairly comfortable in what they were going to be doing, so they could be as relaxed as possible, yet at the same time not just do something that they have been doing almost verbatim in many of their concerts or club dates or something like that as well.

Q: And Harold Mabern is the fourth member of that particular generation on the session. As a pianist, I’m sure you have a certain relationship to his playing that perhaps you don’t to the other three.

JW: Of course, Harold made such an impression the very first time I met him. Like I said, my first really professional engagement was at a Holiday Inn. This was 1972 in Memphis, and Harold had come home to visit his father, who was ill. And I… I was working with Herman Green, who is actually one of the other veterans on the date, and I guess someone had told him that Bill Mobley and I were on that engagement. And he came down to the club and hung out, and of course, Herman invited him up. I even remember that he sat in and played “Green Dolphin Street” and “Secret Love,” and it was just so impressionable hearing him, how he was able to play my Fender Rhodes piano, which they called it at that time, and still, you know, capture a certain energy and spirit.

And he was always so giving and gracious, you know, because we were just learning — on-the-job training, literally. And he was still very open, even though he was already, you know, quite well-celebrated as far as being a recording artist. And of course, he was in that last Lee Morgan group there, and at that time it was just a matter of a few months after that tragedy had happened. And all the great people like Wes and Miles and Sweets Edison that he’s been associated with.

So that main impression has always carried over, how much he was comforting and encouraging to all of us there on that engagement. With the exception of Herman, all the rest of us were just students there, glad to have our first gigs.

Q: This may not be fair to ask you, since you’re now his producer. But how would you characterize Harold’s style and his playing and, again, his contribution to the parts of the session that he was on?

JW: Well, he contributed a lot beyond just even what he did on the session. First of all, Harold was there for every note that was played on those sessions, even at the rehearsals. He was there. You know, we were having dinner together, he was at the hotels with the guys. Any other assistance we needed… He said he told his wife, “Look, just don’t even plan to see me this week. I’ll come home for dinner or something like that, but these cats are in town and I’m going to be hanging every night.” So of course, she understood that, and said, “Okay, well, I’ll see you next week then.”

So he was just there and doing everything, and like our main cheerleader, when somebody was playing, whether it was Russell playing some of Phineas’ favorite Classical pieces, or whether it was me out there going through whatever I was doing, playing the B-3 or something, and certainly not only the pianist, but Mulgrew and the arrangements he was… He contributed a beautiful tune that Mobley orchestrated for us. And he was just there, well beyond… And then, of course, he comes out and plays the daylights out of the piano.

So you know, that kind of spirit there is really… You know, you have somebody… It’s always one or two people you can just focus when things are down or you’re a little tired, that you can rejuvenate and reinvent yourself around. Because this person always has that little extra intangible or energy there that you need to really get through the remainder of whatever is going on at that point.

Q: Let me return to the first part of the question, thought and talk a little bit about his style and a little bit about his history in Memphis.

JW: I did get away from that. Historically, like I said, he left Memphis in 1954, too. So that was a little soon for me to get to know any of those guys.

But his style has eventually evolved where I see influences of people, certainly from Phineas and people like that, but also I hear Ahmad Jamal and even people that he initially inspired in Chicago, like Herbie Hancock or people like that, or Andrew Hill. But also, you certainly hear the stylings of Bud and Hank Jones or Red Garland there. But he has a real deep Blues feeling, and he is always about playing the Blues. Because the Blues is never far away in Harold’s playing, whether he’s playing some of his beautiful contemporary pieces, or playing compositions of John Coltrane, or whether he’s playing standards or playing the real Blues. So that’s the thing, that he has really absorbed much of the history of that, and yet he has a very personal sound. When you hear little young pianists like Benny Green and Geoff Keezer out there playing, you really hear how he has had a profound effect on them — and others as well, all of us Memphis musicians.

That’s where I hear Harold coming from. And he was influenced a lot by horn players, too. You hear stylings of Clifford Brown, and certainly, like I said, Lee Morgan and people like that, that he’s worked with over the years. The singers… He used to work with the choice singers like Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan.

So he’s been around, you know, people who really did the stuff so authentically that he was able to absorb all those things, being basically a self-taught musician. And that’s one of the purities of it, of being self-taught, is that you absorb things. You don’t dissect and say, “Well, do I really need to do this or should I do this?” You know, if it sounds good and it feels good and it feels natural, your instincts will carry you that way. And I think that’s where Harold’s style is coming from. You know, people like… Buddy Montgomery is another example of some of those purer Jazz players, pianists, in terms of… You just don’t hear anything academic in their playing at all. It’s just music there. And certainly Erroll Garner is probably one of the greatest examples of that.

Q: I think what you just said about Harold you might be able to use on one of his records… [ETC.]

JW: Oh yeah…

Q: Now, Herman Green was the last of that people of that generation, and he would be the least known to the general public. So a little detail on his background…

JW: Herman Green is a woodwind player. He’s a saxophonist, he plays alto and tenor and flute. But actually, Herman has been around. He has had extensive experiences on the road. He played with Lionel Hampton for about three years. He played with Lloyd Price’s band when Slide Hampton was the musical director. He has been around and been in different settings. He knew Coltrane and Philly Joe, and lived in New York in the early Sixties, and lived all over the United States it seemed like, you know, even before he returned to Memphis.

And it was a critical time when he came back, because just at that time was just when I was just starting to play, and some of the rest of us, you know, we were really too young to even go to the clubs… We’d go down there and try to get in, and we’d sit out there for a few moments, and you know, the club owner would come and waltz us right back on out of the club. So we’d stand outside and listen to him playing at a place called The Music Box, right on Second and Beale Street — I can remember where it was.

So it was a little later… So when he settled down there, he was playing with a group sort of commercial… Herman is also the kind of guy who was sort of a jack of all trades, who could… You know, he adapted. He really was a musician that if he had to go play a commercial gig, he went on and made that gig, because that’s what had to be done to take care of his family and get this thing done. So he wasn’t playing Jazz full-time, and even, I’m sorry to say, at this stage of the game he’s not playing Jazz full-time. He’s not getting a chance to play very much Jazz at all down there.

But he would do this… He would play with another group at that time, just before… I was just ready to become a study out at Memphis State, so I was aware of who he was. And because, like I said, at some of these concerts, he would sit in… George and those guys would have him sit in with them and different things. So we knew that he was bad at that point.

So after this commercial gig broke up, he got this gig at the Holiday Inn. Because all of the other guys left, and since he was already a member, he stayed on and put a group around that. Well, of course, he hired young guys… He hired me on one of my first Jazz engagements where I didn’t know hardly any tunes. I might have known maybe “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Satin Doll” and maybe five other songs. Marvin Stamm was in town. The late Joe Dukes was on the gig; he was home visiting. And we had a bass player that was on the gig, that…you know, he couldn’t help me. They called “Stella By Starlight.” I said, “What are the chords?” He said, “Well, the first note is an E.” This is where we were coming…! So I knew I was going to be in for a long evening.

But I guess he must have heard something, because he let me hang around. I figured that Charles Thomas and those guys were already busy. So I said, “Well, everybody else must be busy, too.” So luckily, I was able to get this on-the-job training. Later, Sylvester Sample and Bill Mobley were able to join in and get some of this as well.

And that really happened, oh, maybe several months later after that first thing I mentioned in the Holiday Inn. And that was a beautiful engagement, even though it was a commercial job. The waitresses danced on the table and sang pieces like from “Those Were The Days, My Friend” and from Cabaret and from Hair… Anyway, that was a good experience.

But we also had three band sets. We just wanted to play, and I would be… I was trying to learn some of these Chick Corea tunes and all this stuff. And he was teaching us standards and all these things; you know, he would play them, and we had a little book… So we had a chance to really go out and play. We were playing six nights a week, five hours a night. And that was a good experience with Herman there, leading us and letting us get that playing time in.

And also, as I mentioned, when different musicians were either coming through town or either hanging out, that would be the only place it would be that many nights… The first time that I met Bill Easley was down there at this Holiday Inn. Phineas used to come down and sit in. Clark Terry would be in town, and Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke….

Q: This was the center of Jazz in Memphis.

JW: Yeah, this was downtown, and they had… At the time I didn’t realize it, but it turned out to be a very hip gig. And we were making fifty dollars a night; we thought we were on top of the world. I’m living at home, no expenses and playing at church, too, getting paid — so I was in seventh heaven. I didn’t have to work no job.

Q: So Herman Green was in the center of that for you.

JW: He was for us and, like I said, for Bill and several other of the younger musicians. Donald and Mulgrew got some taste of that a little later, too, as well as different ones floating in and out at different times. Although I was much more…you know, worked with much more than either Mulgrew or Donald. So he was really good.

So that’s another reason… This is sort of my way of reminding him that I did realize that his contribution to my career, especially at that stage of the game, was considerable, and I did remember that. But beyond just trying to just repay him back for that, he deserved to have been doing this, and he was qualified to be on there and everything. So it wasn’t any kind of favor that I felt obligated to acknowledge, you know.

Q: Let’s just keep running through everybody on this same tack. You just mentioned Bill Easley. Are you contemporaries, you and Bill Easley?

JW: A little bit. He’s a few years older than I. He’s about seven years older than I am. So we had him up on that pedestal as well. Because he was the only person… I never heard anyone who could play all those instruments so well, and who was a virtuoso and had such soulful feelings…. He was around there. And then at that point, we would hear him… He was playing with Isaac Hayes and doing all kinds of gigs like that. But whenever it was a Jazz gig that he had, we’d do it.

And I can remember going over to his house asking him would he come and jam with us sometime! And here’s this guy, he’s already an accomplished musician. He had been with George Benson and these people and lived in New York, and we were over there asking him… I said, “Man, come on over. Would you like to come to a jam session we’re going to have?” You know, I think about that, because sometimes when someone has asked me to do this in subsequent years, I try not to just sort of look back and say, “Oh, man, you’ve got to be kidding.” Because I remember that incident, it’s so vivid in my mind, and how nice he was, that… Like I said, I didn’t have his telephone number, but I had given him a ride home one night. So I actually went to his house and did this! So I think back on it, you know, and think, well, he could have just really canceled me out, and my feelings would have been hurt forever. But you know he was nice. He declined making the jam session, I may add. But the way he did it was very tactful.

Q: Say a few words about Bill Easley’s background.

JW: First of all, Bill Easley was really from Olean, New York, and had come there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — of course, that’s part of where the George Benson connection was. Then he settled down in Memphis. Actually, he said he got stranded in Memphis, and then, as it turned out, he got a gig like about two days after he was there. Somebody told him… He was staying at this hotel, and the guy who was working there was a part-time singer. He said, “Oh yeah? Well, look, I can you a gig.” Easley said, “Oh really?” He said, “Come down to this club at a certain time.” And lo and behold… He didn’t believe it; he just went down there anywhere. And that’s how he got… And he ended up loving Memphis. To this day, Easley is still talking about he’s going to buy him a house in Memphis.

So that’s how he settled down there. And I just started hearing a little bit about him. Because like I said, we were just peripherally on the scene, and we couldn’t get in a lot of these places, and we’d hear about these people… But he is just such a magnificent musician and can play so many different styles… That’s one reason why he’s so popular here in New York, because he can vacillate, and he floats back and forth between doing Jelly’s Last Jam and Broadway things, and doing all kinds of other Rhythm-and-Blues gigs, lounge gigs, and recording, and doing all kinds of different things with the Lincoln Center Orchestra — you can just see him everywhere.

And that impressed me in a lot of ways, that he could do that. I said, “Well, I like all that kind of music; I should be able to do that, too.” So in an indirect way, it sort of set the tone for the way I started thinking. Why do I have to just play this? Because if I like all these things, I can kind of float back and forth. But my passion was still to go and really learn how to play Jazz, because that was the most challenging, and that was where I was really feeling the direction I wanted to go most of all.

Q: How would you characterize his contribution to the session? I guess one thing is because he plays all the instruments so well, he makes it very easy to do certain type of arrangements.

JW: Well, he only played tenor, alto, clarinet and flute; he didn’t bring his piccolo to the session. Well, that says it in itself. He gave us the extra dimension to combine different instrumentations that we needed just to add a different variety of texture to the recording. You know, if it would have been just all saxophones, and maybe a trumpet here and there or something like that, or guitar or whatever, I think the sound of the record would have been a little more monotonous than it turns out to be. Now you’ve got these things, and you’ve got a clarinet solo here on what’s generally considered a bebop tune, and just a couple of little curlicues thrown in there along those lines. So he really gave us an added dimension there.

And of course, like I said, he was just thrilled just to see all these guys again and to see what everybody’s been doing and all of this, and he and Lewis Keel getting a chance to play together for the first time in a long time. So through his artistry, and equally as important, his enthusiasm too was just there.

Everybody just smiled… I wish we had recorded the conversations that were going on in the back room there between takes and so on and so forth. That would have been worth almost releasing as well; at least, a certain segment…

Q: The private issue.

JW: Right, the private collection of the Memphis Convention.

Q: Let’s talk about Lewis Keel.

JW: I met Lewis Keel when I was seventeen years old, coming into Memphis State. Lewis Keel was a student at Memphis State; a graduate student there. It was several different things. First of all, he was directing the Third Jazz Ensemble, which was just being assembled that year. Because that first year I was there, I couldn’t even place in any of the Jazz ensembles — according to my director at least. But when they put this together, he directed that. So I met him during that time. Actually, I didn’t even play piano in that ensemble.

But he was the director and was around, and he was the best soloist in the school on any of the instruments. So we always just loved to go hear him play. And he had a few gigs around town. We didn’t get a chance to catch him there, at that point, but on a couple of concerts around school, and then guys would play over in the student center, and just any time he was playing, we were just there. So we were going through that.

And Lewis was just so special that way. And he would tell us, because he knew some of the guys from Memphis; he knew George Coleman and Hank Crawford and all these people. So he was a great story-teller for us, too. He said, “Oh wow, what these guys do,” and he would tell us about records and stuff. I remember he always said, “All you cats need to do is get you some records and some exercise books, and then you’ll learn how to play Jazz. You learn the instrument and you learn how to play.” You know, learn your instrument.

He and Charles Thomas were always very clear. They were given a lot of academic information about theories, and flat ninths and this and that, and voicings and so on. They would give some basic information, and if you could dig it and really hear what they were saying, you would just follow that practice, and you would be able to get to a source of the music.

So like I said, he had a profound effect during that time there. And I eventually got a chance… He even hired me for a gig one time down there. I was glad to take my electric piano over there; I would be there with bells on.

Q: How would you characterize his style? He’s very in the blues thing…

JW: Yeah.

Q: He has a sort of Plas Johnson type of sound.

JW: Yeah. But I would say it’s probably more influenced… He’s really very influenced by Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman and players like that, Stanley Turrentine. See, when I knew Lewis in Memphis, he was playing tenor always. He’s now just kind of… He told me he’s not even playing that much tenor any more. I wanted him to play tenor. When I called him about this, I said, “Yeah, man, bring your tenor,” because I was thinking, well, Easley will play to cover the alto stuff. And he said, “Well, I’m really not playing tenor. I really would rather play alto if I’m going to play saxophone.” I said, “Okay, bring your alto then; no problem.” I was aware that his recording was on alto, but I was just assuming that he still played tenor, because all those great solos we remember out there at school were tenor solos.

I think he played flute on something, too. I’m not sure if he did. Maybe we thought about it and we didn’t record it or something.

Now, his alto sound, like I say, is very distinguished. I like his choice of notes, his ideas, the way he plays. Mobley and I were talking about that. At times, on the Rhythm changes and stuff like that, he really finds some different notes to play there, how he resolves some of his phrases. I said, “Yeah, man, that’s some bad stuff; I need to figure out exactly how he does it.” And these are things, you know, that I think are personalized, because I really haven’t heard anyone else… It’s not that it’s innovative as such, but it’s really just some personal statements that he was finding. And I always liked his feeling, because he was about that always, too.

And he was around here. He used to play with Frank Foster’s Loud Minority band, and he played with Howard McGhee in the Seventies. So he had been in New York as well. He knew Russell from back in college days, too, so they were able to catch up on a lot of things there. So once again, he was a source…

Everybody showed up at all the sessions, whether they needed… Sometimes I said, “Well, look, I only need you for an hour-and-a-half or two hours.” But the guys stayed around. Everybody was there. Nobody wanted to leave or miss anything, no matter what was going on there.

So that was another way…stylistically… You said Plas Johnson. I can hear that. But I guess I hear it more directly between Hank and maybe David Fathead Newman and Stanley Turrentine.

Q: Let’s talk about the last of the horn players. Bill Mobley is someone who is highly respected by many musicians, and he contributes a couple of arrangements on this album as well, so he has two roles here. [ETC.]

JW: Well, I sort of made Bill our musical director. I said, “Bill, we’re going to do this date; it’s really going to happen. But I know James Williams to know that I’m not going to be doing this stuff like I want to do it. So you’ve got to do it.” So he said, “Oh man, are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, sure. We know what we’re going to do.” So I told him what we had in mind, and worked out the instrumentation for each tune, and said, “Look, this is what we’re going to do, and we’ll have this… Now, this is just a general idea of what I have, but basically do what you want to do with this. I don’t want to restrict you, but at least I want to give you a concept of what I’m hearing with the ensemble in terms of soloists on each tune and what kind of instrumentation on each tune.”

And he was just magnificent on those, especially the ones where we had more than two horns playing on that. And it was creative, it was inventive, yet it was challenging. We had the guys there, you know. I told the guys, “Look, you all got to practice this music now.” I knew he wasn’t going to have a lot of time, so I said, “Bill, xerox them for us and send them to everybody,” and I got all the addresses and sent them to him so he could do that. And he just took care of all kinds of business like that before he picked up the trumpet or the fluegelhorn.

Then he came in and just quarterbacked the whole session like that along those lines. And Bill is a very shy person. I am always on him about being a little too shy. But he is an excellent, excellent musician, and he is solidly fundamentally sound.

I’ve known him since he was sixteen years old. We attended the same high school. I’m two years older than he is, but we came out of the same high school. So obviously, we go way back.

Q: Which high school?

JW: Central High School in Memphis. Probably every city has a Central High School.

Q: Was that a high school with a certain type of arts program?

JW: No, that wasn’t fashionable then, unless you just went to a music school…

Q: Was there any in Memphis. Detroit had one, Cass Tech, and…

JW: Right. But they didn’t really have that in Memphis that I knew of. But I went to Booker T. Washington for a year, which is the school where the Newborns and Charles Thomas and Booker T. Jones and a lot of folks came out of that school…Jamil…

Q: Was there a particular teacher there when they were going?

JW: Yes, W.T. McDaniels. He was the head of all the Black music programs in the high schools. So he got a chance to rub shoulders with Charles Lloyd, he had Frank Strozier — you name it. Everybody who came out of Memphis through that whole time, from the Forties right up until the Sixties came up under him. Even Russell and those guys just barely missed him. They might have gotten a year of him, but not really; you know, they didn’t get the full thing. But Charles Thomas, the Newborns, Garnett Brown, Isaac Hayes, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire — all these people who came up under that whole tutelage of them. Booker T. Jones from Booker T. and the MGs. So you really got a wide range of folks that dealt with him. And before he was there doing that, Mister Jimmie Lunceford was the cat. So you see where that was coming from — and with that whole tradition there.

So the late W.T. McDaniels… His son, Ted, Junior, now is the Chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at Ohio State. So he’s kind of keeping that tradition alive, unfortunately not in Memphis, but nevertheless, very much so involved in it.

So Bill Mobley and I, we played in the first Jazz… The first time I was trying to play Jazz with a group, Bill Mobley was just about there I think without two months of that time. This other trumpet player friend of mine was from Memphis, and he was around, and he knew a little more than Bill did. But Bill was always real quick and sharp, and picked up on things real fast. So we’ve really been playing together for that length of time. I can remember playing our first concert together and playing Jazz compositions like “So What” and trying to play stuff way over our heads, that we had no business trying to do some of those… Like “Joshua,” those kind of tunes!

So like I said, to this day I can call up Mobley and say, “Look, we’ve got to have this done” (we’ve got some other projects we’re involved in) and he takes care of it. And then he’s going to come out and he’s going to play the music so well. I think he’s very underrated. I would love to see him really doing more things, because he is so gifted and so unassuming in some ways. That’s a certain nice quality to have in this day and age of real aggressive kind of mentalities.

Q: Finally, just a few words about his style and his playing.

JW: Stylistically, I think he’s coming from people like Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, as well as Freddie, Lee Morgan, maybe to a slightly lesser degree Booker Little. But I really think those are his primary influences that I hear coming through. Woody Shaw also, I should say. Woody Shaw I would say is a major influence. So that’s where he’s coming from in music. He really checks them out. But that doesn’t mean that… He certainly knows Miles’ and he knows Dizzy’s and Fats Navarro’s and Clifford’s playing very well. I mean, we play all these tunes he’s transcribed, and so he’s done an in-depth study. But you know, he’s never really focused around those players as such in terms of the way he developed his own approach.

Q: And he arranges “Our Delight” and “There But For The Grace Of,” Harold Mabern’s composition, on the recording.

JW: That’s right…

Q: Now Tony Reedus, your nephew.

JW: Yeah…

Q: So we don’t have to talk so much about Tony…

JW: People like Tony and Mulgrew and Donald are so well-documented right now that anything I’d say would probably be repetitive.

He came in there and he was ready… Once again, I was saying, “We’ve got a lot of music to play.” But he comes to the session prepared. He does homework. If you say, “Look, we need you to really lock in on this,” and so he did that very thing. He came in and he knew what was happening. He took the extra time if things may have been questionable. He’s always going to be swinging. I think he’s still one of the most exciting young drummers on the scene. And I knew he would make a major contribution.

He and Jamil don’t play together that often, so I was glad that they were able to develop a rapport to get things going there. And of course, he plays with Mulgrew all the time, so he… With many of the musicians there. Tony a little later got a chance to get a little experience around playing with Calvin Newborn and Herman Green in separate situations around Memphis when he first started playing, around ’77 or ’78, something like that. So we had that connection, too. So he knew that. And of course, since he’s been in New York, he has certainly played with George and Harold and Easley and those guys — he’s on Easley’s albums.

So I think he was not only the logical choice; I guess you would say he was the only choice. Because anyone else… The only thing I do regret is that I couldn’t get in touch with Joe Dukes. I would have probably asked him to be on some of the session. And just off the record, I was even hoping that we… We were planning on doing a second session, and I was going to just have Joe make the entire one. But I didn’t have the vision for what happened there prematurely.

[ETC./NOW THE PIANO PLAYERS]

Q: Russell Wilson.

JW: Russell Wilson was my piano teacher at Memphis State. He was a graduate assistant there. Actually, as a matter of fact, many people there, when I talk with faculty members, they feel that he’s probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis…

[END OF SIDE A]

Russell Wilson was a gentleman I met shortly after I got to Memphis State, and he soon was one of my piano teachers while I was a student at Memphis State, although in some ways he’s sort of like a contemporary. Actually, he’s more of a contemporary of people like Bill Easley’s and that generation there. He was a source of inspiration there. Many people felt that he was probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis State, speaking to his various teachers that are still on the faculty, the chairman of the Piano Department and different ones.

Russell is also well-versed in the European Classical literature, and has done perhaps more formal study in that area than any of the others of us that are participating in the session.

Q: And he performs pieces by Ravel and Chopin.

JW: Yes, that’s right. One of the reasons why I asked him to do that is because I knew that Phineas was fond of a lot of that literature, because he had actually played a number of those things as well. Even on one of his recordings, he used part of the “Sonatine” for an introduction to “Lush Life” — on the World Of Piano album. So that was one of the reasons why that particular Sonatine was chosen to perform. And hearing Russell play it was really the first time I had heard it played in its entirety. I had never heard a recording of it. I hadn’t been able to find one other than that. So in a way, this is a sort of rare presentation, and unique. And it gives a different thing for the recording, too, because it shows the expansiveness of the Memphis musicians and the artistry of the Memphis musicians that have come through there as well.

And of course, he also chose a composition in addition to that; he chose a beautiful composition by one of my favorite pianists and composers, Randy Weston — “Little Niles.” That likewise was recorded by Phineas on one of his earlier recordings.

Russell stylistically is hard to pin down, because, like I say, he has that influence there, but very much so the people that he enjoys listening to… You’d think, with his virtuoso skills, it would be just pianists along those lines. And naturally, he loves Art Tatum and people like that. But he’s a big fan of people like Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. So when you’re dealing with that kind of touch and things like that, you can never go wrong.

I think in a lot of ways, Russell has come back… He’s such an expansive musician. He’s always interested, curious and listening about learning things. I think he’s probably been influenced by some of us younger musicians who came up under him, some of the younger pianists, obviously like Donald and Mulgrew and perhaps myself there as well, and other musicians. Because he’s always interested, and asking, “Well, what do you think are some good tunes I should be learning?” or “Who are some of the younger players out here; tell me about some of these people.” He has that enthusiasm, which I like.

And that’s another characteristic of all of the artists represented here, is that it’s never “Well, okay, because I have attained this level, this is the end of it.” I’m always curious to know what else is around the corner there, and who is doing what, and what can I do to kind of improve. And I think everybody wanted to play well for each other. For ourselves, but for each other, too, just so that everyone could see just how we’re going to make this spiritually nourishing as much as it was musically.

So Russell brought some of those intangibles. You know, he only played on the solo selections, but likewise, he came up for the entire session. He was there doing everything, from just support group to videotaping to taking photos, as well as playing the daylights out of the piano.

Q: Was he working on the Memphis scene when you were there in the clubs? Or is he primarily an educator?

JW: No, he was doing a couple of engagements. I also have to thank Russell, because Russell is the one who introduced and first told me about Charles Thomas. I had never even heard of Charles Thomas and hardly many other musicians, and he told me…

Russell was working with a singer, a guy who kind of wanted to sing like Johnny Hartman around Memphis. He was doing those things. And they had a little TV show, they would be on on Friday nights about midnight or something like that. And he was leading the house trio. So they would be doing standards and blues and that kind of thing.

So he was out on the scene, being a little older. And he said, “Oh man, I just heard this great pianist. You definitely would love to check him out. His name is Charles Thomas, man. Real fluid and everything, great feeling throughout.” I said, “Oh yeah?” So I filed it away. And then eventually, it was probably another six months before I got a chance to hear him play. So Russell even then had that same kind of thing. He’s always doing…motivating himself and receiving that kind of energy from that.

And he lives now… He teaches… He is a teacher now at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, where he plays a steady job I think at one of the hotels there, but he also is a pianist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra as well. So he keeps a wide variety of things, and continually updates his repertoire, does recitals, Classical recitals and Jazz recitals every year without fail. Whereas it’s easy… If you have tenure, most people immediately go into retirement.

Q: Is he originally from Memphis?

JW: Oh yeah, he is. And he grew up in the same neighborhood, although younger, that Charles Lloyd was in. He remembers hearing Charles Lloyd practicing saxophone on his back porch. And like I say, he was a contemporary… He was a student at Booker T. Washington when Booker T. Jones and Maurice White was there, and there were some other musicians around Memphis that were not present here on the session who still work regularly.

And I might add, he played… Well, he was a clarinet major when he went to college… He and someone else on this session went to college together; I can’t even think right offhand. But people like Sonelius Smith, who is around here in New York, was around at the school, and others… So he was a real… Oh, I know who else was there. John Stubblefield. So all of these people, they were around there in college together in Arkansas, and then eventually Russell transferred back to Memphis and finished up at Memphis State.

Q: The next person you mentioned was Charles Thomas.

JW: Well, I told you how I met Charles Thomas, was first becoming aware of him through Russell. As I said, I couldn’t go hear him in the clubs. But he did make an appearance on this particular show, this Johnny Scott show, the singer down there. And I said, “Wow, this guy can play some piano!” I didn’t know what he was playing, but I knew he could play. And that’s where I first heard him, very unassuming, seemingly. But a certain presence that always was very captivating to me in a sort of mysterious way.

Eventually we were able to go hear him in clubs, and we were down there all the time. It was a good period. He was working with another vocalist, kind of her style was like Nancy Wilson, and they were doing all kinds of great things. He was the one that really inspired me to think about learning a lot of songs, because they never had music on the bandstand. Never. I never saw them read one note. And they were always doing all kinds of tunes. I could go down there three, four nights a week, and would very rarely hear some of the same songs repeated. She would maybe sing some of the same songs, but their instrumental set would always be… It would range from “The Sweetest Sounds” and “Speak Low” to you’d hear something like “Seven Steps To Heaven” or maybe “Dolphin Dance” or maybe something like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, “So What,” those kind of things.

So it was a really inspirational kind of thing to go hear Charles play on that level every night with that trio, even though I wasn’t, you know, as inspired with maybe the trio as I was with him. But the trio played well, though, and they played well with him, too — so in that sense it worked.

And so it was about a two-year period where they had a lot of steady work, maybe a little longer like that. And that was real critical for us, because we got a chance to not only get out there trying to practice this stuff at Memphis State or in my parents’ den or somewhere; we also got a chance to reinforce and hear the great local players play it right down there.

And eventually, I found out that Charles went to school with my older sister, Tony Reedus’ mother. She said, “Oh yeah, I remember Charles Thomas around Booker T. Washington.” So I invited him over to the house, so he could become reacquainted with my sister again and everything. But really I had my ulterior motives, just to get him over there to play and see if he would teach me anything. Well, Charles isn’t the teaching type, but he will sit down and play. And I learned a lot. I just sat down and watched him play. I said, “Oh man, that’s bad. Well, play this. Would you play that?” So I really learned a lot from Charles just doing that, and then, like I said, going to hear him play in person, and he would be talking about different records to listen to — and that’s where his influence was.

In a way, I feel somewhat well that I was able to do that on a much smaller scale for Donald and Mulgrew when they were first kind of coming around a little bit more — and basically we’re just talking about like maybe three years apart here. But by this time I had accumulated a little bit of a record collection, and we would do this, and maybe tape something, or I let them borrow records… I can’t even believe it. I wouldn’t dare let anyone borrow them. Probably a few years later, when I got to Boston, folks stopped returning them!

So it was really a nice connection from Charles and having a chance to hear him play. He now works… It’s a shame that he doesn’t perform in Memphis, but on occasion, you know, several times a year. But he works steady in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he is able to work and make a very comfortable living doing that. I still would love to see him in New York. If he came to New York for two years, I would love to see what level of artistry he would attain.

Q: Where is he cominng out of as a pianist?

JW: Charles is coming from Bud Powell. Certainly he was influenced by Phineas, because he was a few years younger than Phineas, and he got a chance… He told me, “Man, I was in junior high school, and Phineas was a senior,” and he said he could not believe… He heard Phineas playing stuff in high school that he has heard very few people play to this day. He said he would just be down there, and he would be down in the band room practicing all the time, just playing, and playing the most incredible stuff — playing the Classical literature, the whole stuff. Tommy Flanagan told me a story about that. He said one time Phineas came over to the house, and he just went through his Chopin books like it was nothing.

So Charles was influenced by him. He was very influenced by Bud Powell’s playing. He turned Harold and Frank Strozier and those guys on to Bud’s playing and Dizzy’s works and so on and so forth. I would say also he is a big, big fan of Red Garland’s playing, and to a lesser degree, Wynton Kelly. But all of those pianists from that period. I would say primarily more of the Bebop players. And certainly he can play some Stride and stuff like that, so he is certainly aware of Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole and like them, and Erroll Garner and Horace…

Q: Did he turn you on to information also?

JW: Well, like I said, Charles wasn’t really the type of guy who did a lot of verbalizing. Even conversation-wise he isn’t a real big talker that much. But he would tell me about these records. He said, “Yeah, you should check out this,” and you know, listen to Bud Powell. At the time, I was kind of wanting to hear Herbie and Chick and McCoy; I was talking about, you know, give me this hip stuff.

And he likes that… You know, the interesting thing, too, is he is kind of influenced by like earlier things of Herbie’s and McCoy’s, and Chick’s as well — Keith Jarrett, for instance. Although I don’t think it’s apparent in his playing, those are players that he talks about quite a bit, too, that he really admires. He likes Kenny Barron, of some of the contemporaries, and certainly Harold. But those kind of people that I hear him speak of quite a bit…. And he’s checked out George Shearing, and he can play some of those Tatum runs and stuff like that.

I used to say, “Oh man, how do you play those things?” He said, “This is a pentatonic scale” — I remember one of the first times I heard that name he was saying that. But it was just like he was kind of playing it, and if you can catch it, more power to you!

Q: Just a couple of words about his two pieces on the solo piano record and why them.

JW: In terms of the solo pieces, I had no idea what anyone was going to play.

Q: So this wasn’t your prerogative as the producer.

JW: No, I didn’t suggest anything with the solo. I felt like the other part needed a little bit more structure. But with these guys, I didn’t worry. It was just like having a private concert there in the studio, and everybody came out and just played… So I had no idea what they were going to play.

In some cases, it was like we didn’t know what we were going to play. I kind of had thought about it that day. “Well, I think I’ll play this,” because I thought the selection I chose would probably be something that no one else would play and would have, once again, a different flavor to it. We have everything from the European Classics to a traditional Baptist hymn on there, which sort of typifies Memphis music.

So that’s where I was coming from with that. So I had no idea when Charles went in there in the studio what he was going to play. So he played an untitled original piece as well as “What Am I Here For” by Duke Ellington.

Q: That was great, what you just said about the unity of the pieces, in terms of Memphis music. Now, Donald Brown is the next-oldest, I guess, and he had a full range of experience in Memphis. I think that’s one thing we could talk about, him being house pianist at Stax-Volt and the type of things he went through coming up.

JW: Yeah, sure. Probably more so than any of the others of us, Donald has had the versatility and flexibility to jump into all of those genres as comfortably as possible. I think he was actually a staff musician over at High Records, which is where Willie Mitchell and Al Green and Ann Peeples, and I don’t even know if you know some of these Rhythm-and-Blues artists were doing recordings. He might have done some things at Stax, but I don’t… I don’t particularly remember Stax as being… Even when I was just starting to get out there a little bit, it was just at the very tail end. And I got a chance to play a little bit with Isaac and Al, too, but it might have been one of those things…

Q: My mistake.

JW: So he was doing that. And he always kind of was interested in doing that music and all, but he was kind of learning… When he got out to Memphis State, he was picking up on Jazz like a fish takes to water. I have to kid him, because I remember… I think I taught him how to play “Green Dolphin Street.” I shouldn’t say I taught him how to play it, but I sort of showed him the chords on it, and then gave him the records. And he had it and was gone! It just seemed like it was just a matter of weeks, and he already had picked up on the feeling and all of the nuances of what one could do in that short period of time.

Versatile. Can play so many instruments. Donald plays about five different instruments, in which he can at any time…. Of course, we know he’s probably the premier composer in Jazz right now. But any time on any of those instruments, if he needs something to be conveyed, it’s nothing unusual for him to ask someone… He might ask Mister Ron Carter, say, “Ron, do you mind if I play this figure on the bass just so you can kind of see what I had in mind?” Then of course, he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s what you do,” and then, of course, you put it back in the master’s hand and they go right on with it, and you’re able to get that. So you really can get someone who gets to the essence of the music that way.

And it’s influencing his playing, too, because you can hear the independence. When you hear him play “Poinciana” on there, boy, that is just a work of art in itself. The independence, the dexterity that it takes to do it… It sounds easy because it’s so relaxed and it feels so nice and mellow, and then you realize, hey, he’s just playing all this by himself. Because I would have to sit down here and really do some serious thinking and working on that one, I think! But that’s very typical of Donald as a musician.

And I have known him… During that period of time at Memphis State, too, he was always… We became fast friends, even though we played the same instrument. We would hang out, and we would go hear different people. I would try to get him to sub on certain things. And he was always real shy. A lot of times he wouldn’t even accept the jobs, because he wouldn’t feel like he was ready to do it. Probably these days, people don’t care whether they’re ready or not. They say, “If you get the opportunity go on in there.” And there’s some merit to that, too.

So I can’t say enough accolades about Donald Brown. And he brought actually a real spiritual commitment to this session, too. I wanted him to play… I asked Donald…. We sort of commissioned him to write… That’s the origin of

“Squindo’s Passion,” is that…. I said, “Donald, I really want it to have something that all the horns can participate in, and I need you to write something.” I told him the session was going to be these days… About two days before we’re supposed to do this, I get a call from Donald. He said, “James, didn’t you say something about writing something? What kind of thing you had in mind?” I said, “Donald, don’t pull this stuff. You better show up with something. I don’t care if you have to sing the parts to everybody.” And of course, he comes through. And he said, “Well, I had this idea. Let’s see what this sounds like.” And he put it together, and that’s where he is…

He’s very organized. So he’s probably… He and Thad Jones have the same birthday. I always kid him. I say, “You’re definitely an extension of Thad, because you write all these great orchestrations in your mind, and it’s just a matter of sitting down there and getting it to the paper.” But they’re already written. And he brought that in…

The same thing in his playing, the whole spectrum of doing that. And the other selection he did on there was just a completely different mood. I can’t remember what it was that he played… “The Second Time Around,” which is a favorite standard of his. I notice that he plays that every once in a while in a club. One time he was playing with Milt Jackson, and Milt asked him, “What do you want to play?” He said, “Let’s do ‘The Second Time Around.'” So when he did that, it kind of reminded me of something from a few years earlier, that he always liked playing that tune, and tunes that have that kind of quality to it.

Q: We talked about Harold before, so I’ll integrate that into this. Now let’s say a few words about Mulgrew and again his “Memphisism”.

JW: So many people are born elsewhere… Mulgrew was actually born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and certainly considers doing his musical teeth-cutting and growth there i Memphis. Even when we first heard him play, you just saw this raw talent there. There was something there. Bill Easley I think picked up on it before any of us. And I was aware of it, but Bill Easley said “Wow….” We sat down… He sat in at a club down there and played “Blue Monk,” and Bill Easley just immediately said, “Wow, listen to that.” You’re talking about somebody eighteen years old or something like that playing, and you just see where… It’s just enough of that there just coming through that if you have any kind of insight or foresight, you knew this was something great that was going to develop, this was going to blossom into something real special.

And that’s what the case is. I mean, on and off the bandstand. His personality… It’s not at all surprising that Mulgrew is as great as he is, because what you hear is what you get off the stage, too. I know him so well, and we talk two and three times a week on the telephone if we don’t see each other, or grab some dinner, or do something. He is the type of person that you just gravitate towards.

And then you find that he’s got all this musical wealth of feelings and experiences. He’s a tremendous Gospel player. Tremendous! I mean, he could go out there and make a living just playing Gospel music, and we know what he can do out here with this Jazz! And he is developing into a real fine composer, I think, too. It’s not at all surprising… As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably the first-call pianist in New York right now at this stage of the game — arguably. People will try to get him on their sessions. And I guess you, being at the station, know how many sessions show up in the studio there with him on them.

Q: I guess he said that he’s trying to deliberately stop that…

JW: Oh, he’s stopping that right now because he’s going to focus on the trio. But I’m just saying that over the last six or seven years, or maybe eight or nine years, that that has been very much so. I equate him to what Herbie and McCoy and Andrew Hill were doing with Blue Note and some of the other labels back in the Sixties, appearing on numerous dates as sidemen. And he can bring something to everyone’s session, whether it’s original music, whether you’re playing standards, whether you’re playing Blues — he’s a tremendous Blues player, I think.

He’s got great hands. He is a pianist. When you see him, you know, he’s not a piano player. When you watch him play, when you hear him play, the sound he is able to draw out of the piano… It’s not like he’s banging. He’s got that touch that’s really happening, that touch is really starting to convey.

There’s one thing that Calvin Newborn said that I think is exactly true. I think that he perhaps, maybe more than any of the others of us, is really the guy that really carries forth Phineas’ spirit. Not by playing just the two-hand things, not just doing stylistic things that Phineas perfected and innovated, but through the whole persona of how he approaches the instrument, of really being an extension of himself there. I think that he is really… And I don’t think any of my dear, dear colleagues would disagree with me saying that. I think that he at this point in time carries that spirit forth more so than perhaps any pianist in Jazz right now.

Q: Now, I want you to talk about you as well somewhat. But first let me ask you to extend that statement and say a few words about Phineas Newborn, who seems to be the figure whose breadth stretches over everything that’s on this particular album.

[ETC.]

…that Phineas’ breadth is sort of the spirit that’s hovering over the approach to the album.

JW: Oh, he is. His spirit is very much present throughout the entire session, but particularly here with the piano. Because the piano is the orchestra. And the way he approached it, his playing was so orchestral, so deeply rooted in the basics of just good Jazz playing, so deeply rooted in piano playing that it’s a shadow that even if we wanted to get away from it, we couldn’t — because he cast a long shadow in that area.

When we did this, I think all of us had Junior in mind, because he really set the tone for what we realized as possibilities of being able to do on the piano, and still do it with good taste and elegance, and do it with the kind of spirit and swing that’s the full essence of Jazz. He dared to be daring. And he really gave us, I think… And certainly there have been others who have. But more so there, he set the tone as being the inspiration.

In a sense, he could be just like what Earvin Johnson was to the Lakers, what Larry Bird would be to the Boston Celtics, what any number of great artists in theatre or ballet or in any other art form…

Q: It would be like John Coltrane was to saxophonists; Phineas maybe had that impact in Memphis and other…

JW: Yes, very much so. The same kind of thing that John Coltrane, or perhaps in earlier times, Charlie Parker, and a little bit earlier we can say Billie Holiday or Lester Young, that kind of profound…

His was maybe more regional. I think he’s a very underrated artist. He arguably could be the most underrated artist in the history of Jazz. But as far as that region of the South, and especially the mid-South area, people who heard… The stories are legendary, and yet the beautiful thing about it, the legends are true. They are not exaggerated. Him going out and being able to smoke a cigarette with his right hand and play the song with his left hand and not miss a beat; being able to play trumpet and baritone horn, and play vibes and tenor saxophone — as well as, you know, being one of the greatest pianists.

You know, Barry Harris first heard him playing tenor saxophone. He said, “Yeah, this is a good young tenor player coming up here from down there; the father’s band was up there playing.” And he asked Barry… Barry was playing with Yusef Lateef and those guys up there. And Barry told me this story himself. He asked him, “Would you mind if I could play a tune or two on the piano the next set?” And Barry said, “Oh, you want to play piano?” He was probably saying, “Oh, you really must be something if you’re going to run up there behind Barry Harris.” And he sat down and played the piano, and Barry said, “Wait a minute now.”

So that whole story, to see that… And to be able to come up with such unique arrangements. You don’t have to talk just to the Memphis pianists. Those in the know really are aware. You can talk to Ray Bryant or talk to Billy Taylor… And I spoke to the late Red Garland about it, too, and Red Garland told me (and these words are almost verbatim): “Look, when Phineas came to New York, he scared all of us to death, including Oscar Peterson.” That doesn’t necessarily have to be on this. But he said that he really did that… And Sam Jones and different ones have spoken of him in such high regard, including Oscar and Hank Jones and Jay McShann and different people like this.

So this is a thing that goes well beyond… In terms of the general population knowing him, it would be more regional. In terms of the entire Jazz world, it would be more of the people who really are well-versed in the music and have made it a point to really know Jazz piano and Jazz piano history, and the contributions it has made.

And he set the tone of excellence. You know, that’s the reason why we try to play like we do, whether we’re playing a three-fingered Blues or whether we’re trying to play something that’s much more challenging, like Thelonious’ music or whoever, Bird’s music, Thad Jones or whatever. The thing is that he set the tone for us, that it’s got to be of a certain standard and excellence there. And like I say, you have to be daring. You don’t have to be conservative in your playing.

That’s what I was saying about Mulgrew, that what he has done is taken what Junior did and taken it to the next step, in many degree. And I think to a similar degree, Donald and Harold and maybe myself, too, that we are strongly influenced by that, but yet are not completely locked into it, in terms of we haven’t been made a prisoner of just mimicking Junior. He wouldn’t want us to do that. He would want us to take that and to build on it, and find our own personal voice through that. And that’s what we have done. And that’s the reason why, you know, we have a range of pieces and players here that can cover his full spectrum, from Russell Wilson’s stylings on various pieces, to Harold coming in there and playing “For Carl,” something that Phineas recorded, and Mulgrew playing “Dancing on The Ceiling” — that could very well be him dancing on the keys, because of the way his…he writes poetry at the piano for sure.

Q: What’s Mulgrew’s other piece?

JW: In the ensemble with the trio, it’s called “The Sequel.”

Q: I know this will be a little tough, but a few words about you in relation to the things that we’ve been talking about. Maybe you don’t want to talk about yourself in the notes, and that’s all right, too.

JW: Probably not. I mean, what can I say about myself? All I can say is that I just enjoyed… This is one of the most inspirational things I’ve done – certainly musically – in life, because of just seeing the expressions of everyone, the feeling that everybody brought. Like I said, it was such a jovial spirit, and everything that was present in this room, it was like a Church service, but a ceremonious…a real celebration. You know, guys seeing each other… People showing up over at the session, other musicians coming in town, people calling and inquiring: “Is this really happening? Is it really going to go down?” Herman Green… Virgil Jones came by the session. He hadn’t seen him since they were with Lionel Hampton in the Sixties. When the word got out, different folks wanted to see this.

Meeting down at Bradley’s. Donald was playing there every night. Going down there and having meals every night, and everybody… Just the camaraderie. We were just hanging twenty-four hours a day, it seemed like, or roughly sixteen, seventeen hours a day with each other. And it was just the most intense, beautiful five-day period of time that you could see. People were really catching up with each other. Many of the guys who were in from out of town were staying in the same hotel, so they could get together and have breakfast, or walk to the session together. We were recording at Power Station, and they were at the Edison, so they would have a six- or seven-block walk over where they could kind of get caught up in seeing New York at the same time — that same kind of rapport.

So, see, that really made the music, I think, come in even more special. Because when you don’t have time to rehearse or perform before you do that… That extra intangible carries over and adds an extra dimension, you know, that doesn’t show up in any statistics or anything, or maybe not known by anyone else — but I realize that.

Also, like I said, some of the guys… There’s two musicians from Memphis in the Basie Orchestra, and they came by the session.

So that was the main thing that I think feel good about it, thinking that we actually accomplished something of this magnitude. And to my knowledge, no other city has done this — and Memphis musicians have done it twice. We’re talking about thirty-some years in between.

Q: Young Men From Memphis, right.

JW: Yeah.

Q: Well, you titled it Memphis Convention I, so that leaves room for the sequel. Do you want to say a few words about the tunes you selected for the ensemble pieces? Are they all your selections or commissions and so forth?

JW: Yeah, they were. Let’s go down.

“Squindo’s Passion” was… I commissioned Donald brown to compose something specifically for that. Donald, once again, is a person that musically I just trust everything to. I just said, “Okay, Donald, write us something.” No criteria. The only thing we might talk about is, he said, “Do you need something fast or do you need something loud?” — and that would be some very general kinds of things in terms of feeling. And I said, “Well, we can go either way.” And just leave it to him, and he’s going to take care of the natural business there. So that’s how that came about, and that was something that got all of the guys involved ensemble-wise to play.

“Ray-El” was a friend of mine by Thad Jones. Bill Mobley actually suggested it, “Well, maybe we ought to something like “Ray-El”. It’s a Blues, and you know, Memphis is the home of the Blues, but yet at the same time it has a different kind of feeling, it’s sort of a soulful kind of thing, too. So it could come out of different expressions. And I had been thinking about that, because I had been playing that in Elvin Jones’ band, and we brought it in there. So it was a natural choice to go along with that.

“There But For The Grace Of…” is one of Harold Mabern’s pieces. I consider that almost like an anthem. And once the lyrics are applied to it, it could be almost as special as something like “Lift Every Voice” or “Some Day We’ll All Be Free,” Donny Hathaway’s piece — of that kind of quality. It does that. I wanted that… And that was another one that I thought would be just great because it has such a built-in arrangement. Basically, it was still Harold’s arrangement and Bill Mobley’s orchestrations for that.

“The Sequel”: I asked Mulgrew to do something with either solo or with the trio, preferably in a trio setting, that could kind of be just special for Phineas. Of course, he showed up with a piece that he subsequently called “The Sequel.” So in a sense, this is a sort of continuum with what people like Jimmy Lunceford and Jimmy Jones and Phineas and people like that before really did.

And the beautiful thing is, he didn’t try to write a virtuoso piece that… Because see, Phineas had many different moods and different directions he could come out of. Most people, when they think of him, many times think of him as just being a virtuoso artist who could play incredible tempos and things like that, and be real fluid. But Phineas also was a great player… He could play “the real blues,” as Stanley Cowell once said, and he could come down there and play some three-finger piano that just sounds like somebody who don’t play but in one key or two keys or something like that. And of course, he could play a lot of different things; he was inspired through Bud and other composers.

So Mulgrew really came up with something that really on the surface may not sound like that, but was very much in tune with the spirit of what Junior was about.

“Tickletoe”: There was no real reason to play that other than the fact that I like the tune, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to hear Charles Thomas play. I said, “Oh, he would be the perfect guy of any of us. He would play that better than any of us would play it.” Then I said, “Well, hey, it is Lester’s piece, and Prez is special, so let’s get a tenor player on this.” And that’s when we got Mister Bill Easley to do that and Bill Mobley — and they contributed major performances on that as well.

“Night Mist Blues”: Well, you know, Ahmad…

Q: You play the Hammond.

JW: Yeah. I wanted to do something a little different. Because in Memphis, I played…you know, at church, I played organ all the time. So that was as much a part of what I was doing as whatever I was doing at the Holiday Inn. And I’ve been thinking about it, and hearing… Since some of the younger guys are coming out here playing that and kind of inspired by Jimmy Smith, I said, “Look, I can still play organ. I may be a little rusty in places, but I want to play it.” And I said, “What could we use that on?” Then I said, “Well, let’s do that.” Then just at the last minute, I enlisted Donald’s services to come out and set the tone for us on the piano and give us a little body and soul there underneath, to give the organ a little more space, and make my role less defined.

“Our Delight”: I’ll tell you, I have to admit, that was just something I wanted to hear what George Coleman would do on tenor and what Mobley would play on trumpet, what Bill Easley could put on clarinet… Bill Easley plays two instruments on there, alto and clarinet.

Q: Alto on the ensemble.

JW: On the ensemble, yes. Then also Mulgrew… I wanted to hear those guys come out and put a thing on that tune there. I knew it would be challenging, but I knew they would also be able to rise to the occasion for it.

“Cottontail” was a tune I thought… You know, we could never go wrong with playing Duke’s music. But I was thinking that would be good for Herman and some of the guys, because this is some music… Playing “Rhythm” changes is no problem. It would be something that I felt would add another little side to it. Most of the time in Memphis, when I heard people playing “Rhythm” changes, they were playing “Oleo.” So I said, “Let’s just do something a little different, a different head there, and let them just go and get in there.” And that was a good showcase for Calvin, Herman, Lewis and Charles in particular.

“No Moon At All” is an old standard that a lot of vocalists used to sing back in the Forties and Fifties. But it’s really Phineas’ arrangement. He recorded it on the Fabulous Phineas album. All I did was adapt it to the horns there. He did it with just the quartet, with his brother and Denzil Best and Jamil. And Jamil was saying, “Man, I don’t think I’ve even played this since we used to play it with the group.” So I wanted to have something that was close to him there in that way, and it was fun — and we just came in and hit one take and did it. But like I said, I thought I would add the horns just to have a slightly different sound to it other than being just a total mimic of his arrangement verbatim there. So having them in added a little spice to it. And once again, as I say, it’s a showcase for him.

“Locomotion”: That was just an after-thought at the end. I thought we should have at least one other tune, because we were running out of time, and I had hoped to read down some other music or come through something. I said, “We don’t have time to really put any more arrangements together. Let’s do something where the guys can play and just really have a blowing sessions, and just sort of have the horns going back and forth” — just to see who really was up for the occasion as much…

So that was really a fun choice. We just kind of worked out a little ending, and it’s basically Coltrane’s arrangement, what he did with the three horns in unison, and a couple of harmony notes here and there towards the end. And it’s really just a showcase also… I asked Mulgrew… I said, “Well, Mulgrew, this is the horns; you just play some trills there and you’ve got the bridge.” So really there’s no piano solo on there. But I asked Mulgrew because I knew that he’s such a great accompanist that he would be right in there and would maybe just give them that added sparkle that I think the horns needed. And I thought it would be fun, too; that Herman and Lewis would get a kick out of playing with Mulgrew again. And actually, I found out that Lewis and Mulgrew had never played together. So that really added another…

Q: One more question. Say a few words about the connection of Memphis that knits the diverse group of musicians on this session — if you can in any sort of general way.

JW: Maybe you should say the last part of the question again.

Q: What is it about your mutual or shared experience in Memphis, whether you born there or work there, that links you as musicians, that gives you this common ground that you can function like this?

JW: It’s hard to say. In Miles’ autobiography, he said it must be something in the water. But I don’t quite say it oversimplified just to that… I think it was always that Memphis was… You heard good music… Even before I was a musician, I was hearing good music, and I assume this is true for most of the other musicians, if not all of them. Long before I was even thinking about even playing piano or playing music in general, whether it was at church or whether I was listening to the radio. And I caught the tail end of the times when they didn’t have the program directors telling you what to play. So you could hear James Cleveland and Aretha, or you could hear Nancy Wilson or Nat King Cole or Dinah Washington, and then you could hear the Ramsey Lewis Trio or maybe Rufus Thomas or somebody like that all within the matter of an hour or two on the same program. So I have always associated that with thinking that music is not only feel-good music, but artistically there’s a lot happening too. And probably it was more pronounced when Harold and Frank Strozier and Charles Lloyd were playing around Memphis there…

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

Q: I guess what Kazunori wants us to elaborate on is what distinguishes Memphis Jazz. And that’s probably actually a better way of describing my questions. How are all these musicians Memphis musicians, how does it come out in their playing. But I think he also wanted in a more specific way, what distinguished Memphis Jazz from, say, New York Jazz or Chicago Jazz or Los Angeles Jazz and so forth…

JW: Well, I can’t speak about the specifics about all of those other locales. But I think, just my opinion, and probably if you asked another one of the musicians you might get a startlingly different viewpoint…

But in my case, just from my observations, I have noticed many of the musicians that have come out of Memphis, first of all, have been really very conscious about certain standards by which they approach the music, being serious about the music, whichever style they are — they are very committed to that. They also usually have fairly good command of their instruments, too. They take a lot of time and care to really know their instruments. Not to be a virtuoso, but to really know what you’re capable of doing, to draw out of your instrument.

And I think also a lot of emphasis is on being able to play the Blues, being able to keep that inflection there and carry that around when you do that. Presentation and all that. Being able to carry in the most professional way in terms of presenting the music when the situation calls for it. Obviously, sometimes we don’t have control over that and we can’t make those kinds of artistic decisions.

And particularly, just to summarize once again, I think that a certain dedication and also a certain command and love and high standards of being able to play the instrument and know your instrument as well, and like I said, certainly the influence of being able to play the Blues and a love for being able to play the Blues. Maybe with some of the others, like Mulgrew and myself, and even Donald to maybe a somewhat similar degree, that Gospel influence is definitely ever-present too. So you have a whole variety there musically.

Now, in terms of the city, where it’s located… I think a lot of musicians gravitated there historically, because on the Mississippi River, during that time they had groups playing on ships and steamboats going up and down there. So if anyone had an aspiration, say, to go from New Orleans to Chicago or to Kansas City, the chances are they came through Memphis.

Charlie Parker’s mother was from Memphis, and actually he was born in Kansas City two weeks after she moved there. So he easily could have been born in Memphis himself! That’s just for some trivia that ..(?).. Aretha Franklin is from Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Detroit — but she lived there long enough to really remember living in Memphis the first nine or ten years of her life.

So you have all these other influences there that people always… The beauty of the city. For many years, even when I was growing up, Memphis would win the City Beautiful Award. So it was a very comfortable place to live in terms of space and in terms of climate. The greenhouse effect has done a little change on that!

And also just the whole historical part of it. Because the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy is from right there. And you have, like I said, later on a connection with Jimmie Lunceford and hiring many of his students from Manassas High School, from Tennessee State, which is actually in Nashville, a university there…

So these standards were set in a lot of ways. And like I said, the city was always expansive. And even though it was a Southern city, it was probably a little more tolerant than many other Southern cities in terms of the Black families being able to grow. I talked to Milt Hinton. Milt Hinton said he spent time in Memphis, and even his father…. When his father died, he was living in Memphis. So when people came from Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama and so on and so forth…

So from that perspective, people were able to develop, because even though they knew they still had many of those restrictions, and by no means was it utopia, it was comparatively much better than other cities. You know, the first thing… There was a law at the time when Milt Hinton and my father was growing up that Black men couldn’t leave a state like Mississippi. If you were old enough to work, or like a young adult or something like that, you couldn’t just go up there and just relocate — because they knew people were trying to do that. You either had to have some kind of reason or something like that… So many times, parents would get their young males out when they were young boys, twelve years old or something like that! It’s a whole different thing there.

So I think that, once again, could have set the tone for why people there… And then, of course, people were entertaining themselves, whether it’s through rent parties and other situations, and that whole communal thing made for an effort that… By the time that George Coleman and that generation and then later on my generation and all of us came along, these things were fitting into place — and Beale Street was the place it was jumping off.

I don’t know anything about Beale Street in that sense, because by the time I was kind of coming on the scene, Beale Street had become almost like deserted. You know, it was just a couple of pawn shops open down there. They’ve since renovated it, but anyone I’ve talked to…you know, it doesn’t have the same spirit and the same feeling. It’s beautiful and it looks good for the tourists and all of that, but it’s not really quite the same, you know, heyday as it had… And Beale Street was equivalent to what people know as Bourbon Street in New Orleans…

Q: The Red Light District, and all the entertainment was centered there ancillary to that.

JW: Sure. And some of the more important churches were congregated in that area. The church where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his last speech was just right around the corner; it’s not on Beale Street, but it’s a block away — Clayborne Temple.

Q: Let’s try to focus a little bit on the variety of music that was around when Calvin Newborn, George Coleman and Jamil Nasser were coming up, when you and Lewis Keel and Bill Mobley were coming up.

JW: When the generation of Jamil and George and Harold was there, all the musicians played Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues; but maybe the reverse order — they played Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz. It wasn’t any distinction. This was just something that came about in the Sixties, when the music was starting to be separated and stuff. But you know, you went on a gig and you played a little bit of each one of those things, and all that whole thing was carried over. And dance music… The musicians could dance and musicians were all-around entertainers. They could sing, and I don’t mean just sort of go through the motions, but everybody did something…

Like I mentioned with the Newborn family band, all the guys doubled — Phineas was playing four or five instruments, Calvin was doing three or four, Wanda was singing and playing trombone. So you had a whole variety of things that you could change the whole look. They had an organist and they had a pianist, too. So if somebody picks up a different instrument, you’ve almost got a whole different band up there on the stage. That was there…

By the time we came along, some of those elements were there. But it became…the community was a little separated. There were people who were known as Rhythm-and-Blues musicians or Blues musicians, and those who were Jazzers and those who were Rockers and all that kind of stuff. So I caught a little tail end where I got a chance to get some Rhythm-and-Blues experience, and like I say, I was playing religious music, and I also got a chance to subsequently some Jazz too.

But it was kind of funny… By the time… Not only in Memphis, but around the country as well, when you’re thought of as a Jazz player, people just assumed you didn’t do anything else but play Jazz. I still have people walking up to me and say, “Oh, man, I’m surprised. I didn’t know you did that. I thought you were just a guy who was into Bud Powell” or something like that. Now, unfortunately, I see that even happening just within the Jazz thing, that people are thought of as just playing Contemporary or Straight-Ahead and so on and so forth.

So those kind of separations started happening a little bit around Memphis, but it was much less pronounced and more soft-pedaled at that time. So you could still float a little bit… Donald Brown was probably the last of the musicians who really got a chance to float into all of those areas as comfortably and could move into those circles from one right to the other, and not miss a beat, so to speak.

I still love Memphis, you know. If Memphis was in New York, I’d live there any day. If I could only bring Memphis to New York, it would be definitely the best of both worlds, or when worlds collide, or something like that…

[-30-]

 

James Williams for “Duos” (4-16-03):

TP: So what is the nitty-gritty? How long ago did you decide you wanted to do this project?

JAMES WILLIAMS: Not much before I did it. It was done about 15 months ago [Winter 2002]. It was something I thought about doing, sort of an early birthday gift idea, in terms of putting that kind of financial effort and time and labor into this. It was a labor of love, doing something I wanted to do. And it involved many different friends, many of whom happen to be outstanding artists in one way or another. I didn’t think I could put a big band together, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I said, well, something a little more permanent that can be recaptured. The most logical thing was to do a CD, and that’s how I came to the conclusion to do this and present as wide a range… Most people seem to like to conveniently put me into one or two little categories, “James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,” and so on. But there are other areas I’m interested in and touch on, and feel very comfortable expressing myself in, so I thought this would be a chance to break down some of those preconceptions of what my musicianship is.

TP: You think people have typecast you after all these years.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Especially after all these years, in some ways. Because they see the associations with Art Blakey or Milt Jackson or Ray Brown or Benny Carter or Art Farmer or Milt Hinton (which I’m extremely proud of), but they don’t quite see the ones with Elvin or Lovano or Joe Henderson or Woody Shaw or Thad Jones, or even Joe McPhee or Frank Lowe.

I just called everybody up and said, “Look, this is what I want to do; can you do this at this time?” Luckily, I feel so good about my friends and colleagues that I know they’re going to say yes. I found this out from doing the Finas Sound Tributes concerts. Kenny Barron used to tell me, “Look, don’t even ask me any more; just tell me when the date is — I’ll be there.” That’s very comforting, and it’s also a lot of responsibility. I don’t want to abuse my friendships or my friends. So I knew that they would do it if we could just find a common time.

We literally did it in two or three days, where I had everyone comes in at different times. It was like I had an appointment book. John Clayton was the first one I did. I told my sound crew, “John Clayton’s scheduled to come in at 12 o’clock, Christian’s going to come in at 2 o’clock,” so on and so forth. Ray Brown was doing that triple bass thing at the Blue Note. Ironically, I didn’t get him, because that was the first open day in the soundcheck, so he said, “I can’t do it; I’ve got a golf match.” He wasn’t about to give up a golf game to come in there and just play a couple of tunes with me at that point. “I’ve given you three albums already; we’ll do it next time we come to town.” So we laughed about that. Etta Jones was coming in, Ron Carter was coming in… I had everybody every two or three hours…

TP: If you can resurrect the schedule… So you basically called everyone, and they came in one after the other over three days.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Yes. The nice thing is that some of the guys came early to hear other guys. Joe Lovano came in early to hear Billy Pierce, and Steve Wilson was in to hear Steve Nelson, Patitucci came in to hear Ray Drummond. [very relaxed]

TP: Did you know what repertoire you wanted to play with person, or did you mutually decide it when you were there?

JAMES WILLIAMS: I had some ideas, like certain originals. Steve Nelson said, “Let’s do that tune of yours I used to play every once in a while that I like so much; we never played but a couple of times on gigs.” I said, “Yeah? Which one is that?” It was “Be Real Special.” I said, “Gosh, I haven’t played it in a long time, but if you want to do it, let’s do it.” We just did it in the studio. Steve played with me a lot, so he showed up with my book of music. He has a Geoff Keezer book, a Donald Brown book, a Mulgrew Miller book. So he just came to the studio with my book of music, and he brought it there. I said, “Okay, let me run through it and make sure I’m clear on it, especially playing solo piano.” I just hadn’t thought of it. In that case, it was very in-the-moment.

Certain tunes I had in mind to play, but I wasn’t sure who I wanted to play them with. Jon Faddis had a request to do “A Child Is Born,” and I hadn’t been thinking about it, but I knew he had a great association with Thad, as had I to some degree.

My originals certainly were planned. I wrote a tune for Ron Carter called “Le Wizard de Basso,” and we’d played it on a tour in 2001 with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I brought the music, but I knew he’d do something to make it interesting and give it a different slant than what we did with the quartet.

TP: About what percentage would you say was spontaneously decided at the studio and how much was pre-planned?

JAMES WILLIAMS: All the originals I had planned to play at some point with somebody, and usually it was someone who… I wanted Joe Lovano to play two of my originals. I wanted to hear his take on them. I’d heard Steve Wilson and Billy play on them, and wanted to hear what Joe would bring to the table. No rehearsals. We ran the tunes down, tried out some things, made sure the parts were clear, the beginnings and the endings, and did them on the spot.

Steve Nelson liked “Old Times Sake,” but he’d never played it with us before. He always asked me, “Look, why don’t you ask me to play with ICU?” I told him Dave Holland and George Shearing wouldn’t let him go away; I couldn’t hire him for anything.

TP: Did more pre-planning go into the vocals?

JAMES WILLIAMS: A couple of vocals were planned, like the Purcell piece. That’s the only thing I rehearsed in advanced, because I wanted to make sure I could play it! I suggested to Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with “These Foolish Things,” he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. The Leon Ware tune that Roger sang, “I Know It’s You,” which is associated with Donny Hathaway, is one I’d asked Roger about, and we had a little rundown because it’s pretty tricky. I’m not sure if I played it as well as I even think we could have played it. On “For All We Know” I put a little vamp on.

But I asked Etta what she wanted to sing. She said, “You know, I never recorded ‘Skylark’; let’s do that.” I thought that was perfect, because I didn’t want them to come in and sing songs they’d done on records 5-6 times already. I basically wanted to put everyone in a slightly different element and make them do things a little differently than how they’d do it in their own situation.

Ray Drummond used to play “For My Nephews” with me often at Zinno’s and the Knickerbocker and places like that. I didn’t even have to bring out the music. He and Christian always came to my gig and had done their homework; they knew my music before they got there.

TP: Who’s Thomas Trotter?

JAMES WILLIAMS: He’s an opera singer, who is a friend of mine. I wanted to do something a little different, after I chose that Purcell piece. I asked Roger to come up with a little arrangement, a little duet.

Kim Nally is a vocalist from San Francisco. A friend of mine knew her and suggested her, that she was going to be in town that week. I didn’t really know her, although I’d heard her sing, and said, “Let’s go for it.” Same thing with Steve Heck, who’s a former piano student of mine from Berkeley. I ran into a few years ago playing a Howard Johnson’s gig, and I thought, “he sure sounds good.” I said, “He looks like a student of mine,” but he hadn’t been singing at that time, but his piano playing sounded good. I wanted to have someone on there that nobody knew as well as people like Lovano or a singer like Freddy Cole…

Now, the songs with Freddy I didn’t know. Freddy taught me the songs, and then we just recorded them. Right now, I’d be hard-pressed to play them; I’d have to go back and learn them and listen to them again. If he were to call “Close To You” on a gig right now, it would get a little confused. He sat down and played them through a couple of times, and I said, I think I’ve got it.”

TP: This is about four hours of music all-told, and the music is so wide-ranging. You’ve been a professional since 1977, so it’s 26 years as a professional doing all sorts of jobs. What challenges are involved in playing with all these personalities?

JAMES WILLIAMS: A lot of times I wanted to led them lead and zone in quickly on what mood they were in at that particular day and moment, not go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and we were clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy to the music. Sometimes they’d play behind the beat or play at… I had to make sure that I wasn’t having a tendency to follow them so much that the tempo would drag, or everything would get in a sluggish mode. That was always the other side of the challenge, to be a good accompanist all the way throughout. I was not all that concerned about how well I played as a soloist on this session as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player. Even though I was the only team member, or I am the team in that sense.

TP: But you’re the boss, too!

JAMES WILLIAMS: That’s interesting, too. Because in a sense, they wanted to please me. They came in and said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “I want you to be yourself.” Ron said, “What do you want today?” I said, “I’m not too demanding; just play some of that Ron Carter stuff on my date and sound good for me.” He started laughing. I said, “You probably can handle it; I don’t know. I’m sure you can.” We worked at it. Ron is all business, he doesn’t deal with a lot of small talk unless he’s around people he really likes and knows pretty well.

Now, Etta was totally passive. “Oh, James, what do you want me to sing?” “Etta, let’s just do what you feel.” She said, “Well, I never recorded ‘Skylark.'” I said, “Let’s do it, then; I can play it.” I told her, “Thank goodness you do it in the original key.” I could have transposed it. I probably would have taken a moment and written it out. Because I didn’t want anybody to be doing a lot of takes. I thought two or three takes maximum. I said, “We’ve got to move this right along. I want this to be more like a gig and like a party.” I didn’t want anybody to work that hard and get all caught up like it’s a real studio date.

TP: Did you therefore allow the personalities of your partners to determine your approach to the piano? Some things are kind of beboppish, some things are kind of churchy, some things are bluesy, some things are more harmonic and impressionistic. Does the material rule that? Does the dialogue rule that?

JAMES WILLIAMS: Both, actually. I wanted to play some bebop. I said, “Look, that’s what I do.” I play bebop. I love that music. That’s what really excited me about the music, especially when I first was starting to play more. So that had to be represented. Obviously, the church and gospel and bluesier side of things is also what I seem to have become known as. Now, I don’t think of myself that way. When I hear that, I think of Ray Bryant and Bobby
Timmons and Junior Mance and cats like that, but not so much myself. I’m always sort of amazed. I say, “Is that what people think of me.” I don’t really see myself in that light. I don’t want to dissociate myself from that as much as to add on…

TP: Put it in its proper perspective.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Okay, that’s one dimension. Let’s move on and explore some other sides. That’s the other thing I wanted to keep out front, and hopefully… I don’t necessarily expect this necessarily to change that opinion. It’s a different project. I just want each CD to display another side of where I am at that point in time.

TP: Is this a New York centric CD? You’re a New Yorker since January 1984, when you moved from Boston.

JAMES WILLIAMS: I think it definitely is. There’s a certain energy, a certain spontaneity, even a certain recklessness. Carefree might be a better word for it.

TP: Maybe a confidence.

JAMES WILLIAMS: That, too. A certain swagger to it. I think all of those things are certainly what we look for. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here. The industry is now volatile and unpredictable. That’s the reason this is happening the way it is. To me, anybody that’s supposed to be in the business would jump on this immediately. It has everything they say they need — marketability, name value, things along those lines. But right now, everyone is doing just the opposite of what jazz is about. For the most part, they’re being very careful and ultra-conservative in some cases, going for the sure thing only, and not deal with anything that wants to take any chances. There’s a whitewashing of the music in a lot of ways. The people making the decisions are saying people only want to hear this and not be challenged. So that’s reflected in this, too.

[-30-]

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Filed under Interview, James Williams, Liner Notes

For the 99th Birth Anniversary of George Shearing (1919-2011), A 2002 Interview Conducted for the

For the 99th birth anniversary of the iconic pianist-composer-bandleader George Shearing, here’s an interview that I conducted with him 2002 in preparation for the liner notes of a Pablo release of a 1957 Newport Jazz Festival concert on which his group shared the bill with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. I’ve appended the notes after the interview, which is unedited.

 

George Shearing (7-23-02):

TP: I’m writing the notes for an album on Pablo. It documents a concert you were on at the Newport Festival in July 1957. Cannonball Adderley came on for the first half, your quintet came on for the second half, there’s one track in which you played “Soul Station” with Cannonball, Nat and your group, and then your band concludes the concert. I was hoping I could speak with you to see if you have any memory at all of the event…

SHEARING: I don’t know whether this is the worst news you’ve heard today, but I really have no musical memory of the date. Sure, I was there, but when I was there, I was 38. Now I’m 83.

TP: I absolutely understand. I wanted to speak about where that event fit into the quotidian of your quintet, and where the selections you used fit into the general pattern of your performance at the time… Firstly, in 1957, your quintet was one of the most popular acts in all of jazz. You were playing, I would assume, quite a number of lounges and nightclubs with it, I’d assume a certain complement of concerts and touring…

SHEARING: More concerts now than then.

TP: So in 1957 not so many concerts.

SHEARING: Not so many. What we would be doing in those days was if either Birdland or somewhere had a tour, we would be doing one of those tours.

TP: So you would tour with the Birdland-Morris Levy junkets as opposed to the Norman Granz, junkets.

SHEARING: Yes, generally.

TP: In an average year, during the first 7-8 years of the quintet after your breakthroughs, from 1949 to 1957-58…

SHEARING: The first place we played was Cafe Society downtown. Then once we started doing the concerts in the early ’50s, we would be doing whole tours.

TP: In concert halls. Would your presentation be different in a concert hall vis-a-vis a nightclub?

SHEARING: It would be about the same. Because when my set ended, when I started going Afro-Cuban in the ’50s, we would end with some kind of a flagwaving situation, whether it was a concert or a nightclub, because that’s the nature of what happens in the show. A show builds to its end. You don’t end with an opening act, for instance.

TP: Did the more subtle arrangements maybe go by the board a little more in concerts, and the more declarative ones…

SHEARING: Yes, I would think so. I’m not conscious of doing it, but it would be a normal development, I would say.

TP: And during those years, what percentage would you be playing clubs and what percentage concerts? Of course, outdoor event were unusual.

SHEARING: I would play more concerts then than I play now, believe it or not. Although of course, I don’t play many concerts now. I kind of choose what I want to do now. I’m in my eighties, and I don’t have to grab everything that comes to my attention.

TP: You don’t have to work 300 days a year now.

SHEARING: No. We would have a regular stream of clubs, like Birdland, Storyville, the Blue Note in Chicago and later on the London House.

TP: And you’d be in there for long residencies, two-three weeks.

SHEARING: At London House, we would, and I guess we were at the Blue Note for two or three weeks, too. That was the first out-of-town job with the Quintet, in 1949, after we played the Cafe Society. I remember Frank Holzstein, who directed the Blue Note in Chicago, and the Ambassador from England came in one night, and Frank got such a charge of announcing him. He said, “I’m very pleased to have Mr. Barkley Gage…” [ETC.]

TP: I would imagine that at Birdland you were always on a double or triple bill. Was that a common thing for you to do?

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. And of course, the strength of the quintet, when we had the Latin stuff to finish with… We usually closed the show. Never mind our set; we would close the show. Because maybe it would need piano-bass-and-drums to open…

TP: Say, the Bud Powell Trio would open.

SHEARING: That’s right. Or even a pianist…

TP: Billy Taylor or somebody.

SHEARING: Right. And we would close, because we had musical strength, and some of the records we were doing were successful. We recorded “Lullaby of Birdland” in 1952. It took me 15-20 minutes to write. I was sitting, eating a steak in my dining room where we were living in New Jersey, and suddenly this thing came to me [SINGS FAMOUS 4-BARS] I think that if you contrive something, or they want me to write something to see what can I do, they are not usually the successful compositions.

TP: It’s the inspirations of the moment.

SHEARING: That’s right.

TP: Was “Conception” like that?

SHEARING: A little bit. But yes, I’d say so.

TP: That tune continues to fascinate musicians on a musical level.

SHEARING: Yes, the bridge is a bit tricky. Of course, in Miles Davis’ particular style, he would have his own bridge. He wouldn’t play my bridge. I don’t know why… I knew Miles as a young man in his twenties. He didn’t drink anything except Coke, he’d just come and sit down and hear me every night, and we’d talk for hours. That’s not the same Miles we knew later on, when he…

TP: After he lost his voice.

SHEARING: [LAUGHS] That’s right.

TP: But where I’m going with this question about whether it would be commonplace to share a bill with others… Maybe the Basie band or the Ellington band or Machito might be in residence at Birdland.

SHEARING: Absolutely. In which case we would not close! [LAUGHS] No, not really! It would be very much of an anticlimax, wouldn’t it.

TP: Would it be commonplace for your band to be sitting in with other featured artists, or take them as guests?

SHEARING: No.

TP: So this is really an exception, for Cannonball and Nat Adderley to be setting up a spontaneous arrangement with your band.

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. You see, John Levy managed Cannonball and he managed me. Capitol didn’t come into my life until 1955. John, of course, was my first bass player. When he gave up the quintet, he gave up playing, and became management. He managed Cannonball, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton…

TP: A lot of the most popular acts who played the inner city circuit of clubs were under his management.

SHEARING: Yes, indeed. I worked in great interest of the black people. I noticed that when we tried to check into a hotel in Salt Lake City, John Levy was with me, and he asked the clerk, “Do you have a reservation for Mr. Shearing?” He said, “Yes, we do.” He said, “Could we make that a twin?” Frankly, I thought the guy was rather impudent. He said, “Who is the other fellow?” John, of course, not wanting to say anything, although the other fellow was white, said, “The other fellow is Dick Garcia.” “Well, I don’t know whether we have a twin right now.” So John said, “Well, could you put them into two singles and change them when they wake up?” He said, “Then I’d have to charge twice, wouldn’t I.” That’s when I took over. I said, “No, you wouldn’t.” I said, “You’ve been spending this time to find out whether the other fellow is black or white. I’ll tell you now, he’s a white man.” I said, “The gentleman you’re talking to, by the way, is my manager, and I issue an order that you deal with him politely, otherwise you’ll have the pleasure of reading about it in the press.” He said, “Mr. Shearing, you and I could get along.” I said, “Not at all. We refer to you as a public servant, and you’re here to serve the public and the best things for the public in general. I happen to be a member of that organization. I repeat, if you don’t deal with us properly, you’ll read about it in the press.”

TP: Did that resolve the issue?

SHEARING: Oh, yes. Certainly there was a room for Dick Garcia… Oh, yes, it was all solved. And as I say, it should be. It should be anyway, black or white. As it happened, since he couldn’t find out, he’d better not take a chance, so he refused the white customer! So that’s where I kind of got down on him. “Mr. Shearing, you and I can get along.” I said, “Oh, no. I’m paying you my money, you’re a member of the public, you’re here to serve me. I’m not here to get along with you. I’m paying you my money. I won’t be ever seeing you again, with the outlook that you have.” When we got outside, John said, “You know, they’re going to send somebody after you.” I said, “Good. Let’s publicize it. It’s a disgrace. Let’s see it in the press.”

TP: So you were playing a number of concerts, not too many outdoor festivals, John Levy booked the event, and therefore, Cannonball is one client, you’re another client, and thus you’re on the same bill. Had this ever happened before with Cannonball and Nat, to your recollection?

SHEARING: I don’t think so. I don’t know when it first happened. But he was one of my very favorite players.

TP: Did it happen again, that he would sit in with you?

SHEARING: We both had our own groups.

TP: And very well arranged. He had his act and you had yours.

SHEARING: Exactly.

TP: Tell me about your impressions of Cannonball, and, if you had a relationship with Cannon, the nature of it. Your sense of him as a player and musician and public figure.

SHEARING: Well, he seemed to be a very well educated man. I love his playing. Really. Both of them. Nat, too.

TP: He had a beautiful, communicative, declarative style on the trumpet.

SHEARING: Oh yes. I love Cannon’s playing.

TP: As someone who was on 52nd Street and heard everyone close-up and personal many, many times, where… Cannonball is the next generation. How do you see his playing vis-a-vis the original bebop players and the others you came in contact with on 52nd Street.

SHEARING: You can’t compare him with Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker had a very distinctive style of his own. He and Dizzy were the founders of bebop. Together, they were a miracle.

TP: Did you hear them play unisons?

SHEARING: Yes, of course I did. That’s what I mean when they were absolutely miraculous. [hybrid third instrument]

TP: Did you have your ears wide-open during the ’50s when you were touring? Were you aware of everything consequential that was going on?

SHEARING: Oh, yes.

TP: So you had taken notice of Cannonball, as you’d shared a manager.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: What do you recall as your first impression of him?

SHEARING: Great big sound. Wonderful facility. A very intelligent man, obviously. Oh, I loved him.

TP: Did you have any personal relationship to speak of?

SHEARING: No.

TP: I’ll run down the tunes. Please tell me what you recall. “Pawn Ticket.”

SHEARING: That’s Ray Bryant’s, I believe.

TP: You recorded a number of his tunes over the years. They’re very catchy and melodic.

SHEARING: A lot. I liked them. They’re melodic, they’re strong, and they come from somebody who really knew how to play the piano.

TP: On “It Never Entered My Mind,” your arrangement superimposes the harmonies of Satie on top of it.

SHEARING: Right. I believe that’s a Rodgers & Hart tune, a standard tune. The Satie was part of “Nuages Gymnopedie.”

TP: Which brings up another issue. You’ve mentioned in interviews that as a child you had a piano teacher in England, a Mr. Lyndon Lodge, who after a certain amount of time informed your parents that you shouldn’t bother with Classical studies…

SHEARING: “It’s obvious that this man is going to be a jazz pianist.”

TP: Why did he think it was obvious that you were going to be a jazz pianist?

SHEARING: I guess I didn’t pay too much attention. I should have learned 16 bars in the ensuing week instead of 4. When I went back to that school, I’d played a number of symphony concerts, played two or three different Mozart concerti, and I said to the teacher, who was still there, “Do you remember the advice you gave my parents when I was 16?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Has it come to your attention that I’ve played a number of symphony concerts?” He said, “Yes, it has.” I said, “With that knowledge, were you to give them advice today, what would it be?” He said, “Yes.” “Why?” He had said, “Your musical thoughts at your fingers go first and foremost through jazz, and you do this naturally.” You convert classics …(?)…” Years later, he said, “My advice would be the same.” “Why? I’ve played a number of symphony concerts.” He said, “Yes, but I expect your main dollar comes from playing jazz.” I said, “Yes, it does.” He said, “My advice would be the same.” A very wise man.

TP: Well, you did not grow up, to say the least, in circumstances of material comfort.

SHEARING: No. Not at all. And no musicians in the family. None for at least 500 years! I’m serious. There’s a genealogist in England, Mrs. Race, and she went back and discovered for the last 500 years that nobody was a musician in my family in any way that she could ascertain.

TP: When did it become apparent that you had musical gifts? During music lessons?

SHEARING: Yes. When I could go the piano and play things. I remember my sisters on Sunday morning, they all [SINGS THEIR PRACTICE], mostly black notes. Of course, being blind, I wouldn’t know them. I’ve done a little of each — self-taught and I’ve trained to play classical music.

TP: Was absorbing classical music and becoming a proficient interpreter of it always important to you? Did it always speak to you?

SHEARING: Yes. I feel that every musician, whether Jazz, Classical or somewhere in between, should be a thorough musician.

TP: There’s a feature for Emil Richards, “There Will Never Be Another You.” Was it commonplace for you to feature your instrumentalists in live performance?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Your succession of vibraphonists was Marjorie Hyams for a few years, then Don Elliott, then Joe Roland, then Cal Tjader. Several great ones cut their teeth with you. In 1949, when Leonard Feather suggested the vibes-guitar format to you, it happened…

SHEARING: Buddy DeFranco and I had a quartet, with clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and Buddy wanted to work with a unit that was purely his own. I had to do something. So Leonard Feather suggested Marjorie and Chuck Wayne.

TP: The other version is that Buddy was negotiating with Capitol and you were with MGM…

SHEARING: I was with MGM from 1949 to 1955. I did things before then for Discovery and Savoy… Savoy was a trio. I don’t remember who it was.

TP: Was it with who you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: J.C. Heard and Oscar? No. We never recorded.

TP: What a shame.

SHEARING: It is.

TP: What was it like to play with Oscar Pettiford?

SHEARING: Well, it’s a real foundation, isn’t it.

TP: So you had to go separate ways…

SHEARING: Yes, and Leonard suggested Marjorie and Chuck. Of course, I was using what we call the locked-hands style anyway, so obviously, Marjorie on top and Chuck an octave lower, and me in both registers with all the locked chords in between. That was the quintet sound.

TP: Did that conception come to you with the same instantaneous sense of revelation as “Lullaby of Birdland”?

SHEARING: Yes. Frankly, I think the description of that sound that everybody would know is, let’s say, the Glenn Miller saxophone section. The clarinet would be playing the same as the vibes, the guitar would be playing the same as the tenor, and I would be playing the long-haired stuff in between. Therefore, we got three voices on the front line.

TP: I’d assume you were quite familiar from the interrelation of piano and guitar from the Nat Cole Trio and the popularity of that format.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: How about the vibraphone? What was the model in your mind’s ear for the role of vibes in that group apart from the orchestrative aspect?

SHEARING: Upper register. Playing in the upper register. Leonard Feather suggested that I use Marjorie Hyams and Chuck Wayne on vibes and guitar, along with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. That’s where the quintet came from, and we did a recording for Discovery, before moving to MGM.

TP: Emil Richards stayed with you for a fair amount of time, four or five years. Describe him as a musician. He was so versatile.

SHEARING: Well, he was a studio man. Not only was he a good jazz player, but he was a studio man, so he could read anything you put in front of him. It’s important that those three instruments — vibes, guitar and piano — stay close together, and for the bass always to be on the right note provided in his part, or he knows the chord structure enough to fit in. But mostly I’d write the bass part.

TP: So for this to work, it was necessary that everyone be quite cognizant for the parts they had to play. There wasn’t a great deal of room for the musicians to stretch out.

SHEARING: That’s correct.

TP: So someone playing with you had to be able to improvise and express their personality when called for, but also have the discipline to know…

SHEARING: How to read.

TP: By the way, how would you convey the arrangements? Obviously with sheet music, but some people sing the parts…

SHEARING: I’d give them a sheet.

TP: The guitarist was Toots Thielemans. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: A good three or four years. I used to feature him on harmonica, too, because he was a wonderful harmonica player.

TP: Again, give me the kind of capsule description as you did with Emil Richards.

SHEARING: See, he was guitar and Emil was vibes. So they needed to both play the same melodies an octave apart.

TP: I was thinking of the characteristics that distinguished him to you as a musician.

SHEARING: Toots was a great harmonica player, and I’d feature him on that. Then he played enough guitar to be in the quintet.

TP: So you used him more sectionally as a guitarist, and soloistically as a harmonica player.

SHEARING: Well, that would be my first aim with anybody. Then, during the show, we would feature what there was to feature. In other words, Thielemans on harmonica and Emil still with the vibes.

TP: And you would use Emil Richards’ percussion skills for detail and color.

SHEARING: Oh yes.

TP: Al McKibbon is the bassist. He was with you a long time.

SHEARING: Oh, yes. About seven or eight years, if not more.

TP: Did he replace John Levy?

SHEARING: Yes. He came to me from Dizzy Gillespie’s band when they had Chano Pozo, so he really understood the Latin thing. When Cal Tjader was with me as well, those two… Oftentimes, there would be no keyboard instrument to play. Al would be playing either conga or cowbell or something, and Thielemans would play guiro or shekere, and Emil would be playing timbales. So we had a good Latin rhythm section. But no notes…

TP: No harmonic instrument.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Except for you.

SHEARING: Yes. Well, I would even lay out.

TP: By the way, were there any Latin piano players who were influences on you?

SHEARING: I listened to Noro Morales quite a bit.

TP: Did he play in New York in the early ’50s?

SHEARING: I believe so. The first Latin band I heard was Machito, in 1949, when I was playing with Buddy DeFranco in the quartet at the Clique Club. We would have to follow Machito!

TP: Oh, my God.

SHEARING: Or Machito would follow us.

TP: A better scenario.

SHEARING: I would think so! I just did the best I could. I learned a lot from Machito, of course.

TP: Were you friends with him?

SHEARING: Yeah. We didn’t go out to dinner or anything…

TP: But did you speak with him? Dizzy Gillespie learned a lot about Latin music from being in a section with Mario Bauza. Did you learn from talking to a lot of the Latin musicians you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: I just listened. You learn a lot more by listening than by talking.

TP: Did playing Latin music and playing in clave come naturally for you?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: That takes us to “Old Devil Moon.” I assume you played that arrangement a fair amount.

SHEARING: Al McKibbon told me about that bass part, which he introduced into “Old Devil Moon.” He did it with me. McKibbon would be really on beat with that stuff. But purposefully. That’s what it was. Unlike jazz, the main beat in Latin was four-and, 1-2-3-BUH-BUH…BAHT. It was four-and-two, four-and-two. That would be the conga drums.

TP: So it’s quite specialized, and the rhythms have to be locked in.

SHEARING: Yes, particularly if you’re going to do it in an authentic way. Anybody can… [sings “Cucaracha”] It can be played by any dance hall band in the world. That’s not specialized.

TP: When did Armando Peraza come into your circle?

SHEARING: He was with me for about five or six years, and he was there along with McKibbon and Cal Tjader. McKibbon would be playing cowbell, Armando would be playing congas and bongos… The whole rhythm section was set up with almost no harmonic instrument.

TP: Did you ever incorporate Armando Peraza on swing tunes, or just on Latin tunes?

SHEARING: Latin tunes.

TP: You never used him to give flavor to a 4/4 tune.

SHEARING: No. I wonder even now whether he spoke more English than he thought he spoke then. He had a great sense of humor. I think he’s still with us, as far as I know.

TP: Percy Brice on traps, when did he come in? You couldn’t have had a better drummer than Denzil Best…

SHEARING: I can’t remember if Percy followed Denzil. He might have.

TP: Bill Clark played before.

SHEARING: Right. Well, Percy was a better drummer than Bill Clark. Bill had one thing, and that was… [sound of brushes] Percy would concoct actual parts to play. He’d hear an arrangement and know where the fills would come in. He was a great drummer.

TP: Again, he had the reading skills, the technical skills, and the swing. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: Three years.

TP: The final tune is a calypso, “Nothing But De Best.”

SHEARING: It’s Denzil’s tune. Denzil was very close to the West Indian feeling…

TP: So along with “Move” and “Allen’s Ailey,” that’s another piece from his lexicon. So we have “Pawn Ticket,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” the jam, “Old Devil Moon,” and “Nothin’ But De Best.” So if not by the specific tunes, if the structure, a bop line, a ballad, a instrumental feature, a Latin tune, a Calypso…

SHEARING: What it did was to present rhythmic and harmonic variety. That’s what it did.

[-30-]

 

******

 

Liner Notes: George Shearing/Cannonball Adderley (At Newport):

“At Newport” is a consequential addition to the prolific and distinguished discographies of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and George Shearing, who play back to back and briefly join forces on the concert documented herein. The venue is the Newport Jazz Festival, then in its fourth summer, and the bands let their hair down, playing well-paced, tightly arranged, improvisationally open sets before a relaxed, enthusiastic audience under the stars.

Observers in 1957 might have found the matchup of Shearing — 38, white, English, an established mega-star — and Adderley — 28, black, southern, struggling to ascend the jazz tree — to be counter-intuitive. But in retrospect, they were complementary personalities. For one thing, they shared a manager, John Levy, the black bassist and road manager of Shearing’s first quintet, who left in 1951 to pursue a distinguished and pioneering career in personal management. More to the point, each was an instrumental virtuoso with a populist sensibility, conversant with a full timeline of jazz vocabulary, informed by the imperative to present even the most esoteric music in an unfailingly communicative manner.

One evening precisely two years earlier, Adderley had famously exploded on the scene when he sat in with bassist Oscar Pettiford before an enthralled audience of musicians and hipsters at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village. This happened months after Charlie Parker’s death, and such contemporaneous young lions as Jackie McLean and Phil Woods were on record as regarding Adderley’s style — he incorporated the harmonic and rhythmic innovations and propulsive thrust of Charlie Parker, with a big, fat Willie Smith lead alto tone, ferocious execution reminiscent of Earl Bostic, and an ability to conjure elegant melodic lines a la Benny Carter — as the next step in extending the vocabulary of the alto saxophone. Adderley grounded his narratives in the tropes of bebop, blues, and the black church, apportioned in equal measure; after the band tears through J.J. Johnson’s 1947 composition “Wee-Dot,” his patter provides a window to his thinking.

“That, of course, was a blues, which we like to play very much,” says the former high school band director. “You’ll find it obvious in our performance here this afternoon, because we feel that the blues reflects what jazz SHOULD be made of.”

Throughout their half-hour set the Adderley Brothers — Cannonball and his cornetist sibling Nat were co-leaders — manifest the trademark collective focus, instrumental prowess, soulful intelligence and insouciant precision that sealed their popularity with black audiences from the moment they convened in early 1956. Those qualities were due in no small part to the contributions of pianist Junior Mance, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Jimmy Cobb, a seasoned young rhythm section that could go primal or delicate at the drop of a hat. In particular, Chicagoan Mance uncorks some big-time solos — think Earl Hines and Albert Ammons mixed with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — that show us why Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Dinah Washington had made him their road pianist of choice in previous years.

The repertoire — “A Foggy Day” (an insistent medium groove, with telling key modulations), “Sermonette” (a Ray Charles-inspired bop-shuffle), “Sam’s Tune” (a train song) and “Hurricane Connie” (ingenious, warp-speed rhythm changes) — comes from “Cannonball Enroute,” “To The Ivy League With Nat,” and “Introducing Cannonball Adderley,” all recorded for Mercury-EmArcy, a label that kept the brothers in the studio, but backed their product insufficiently. Indeed, Cannonball’s bandstand optimism and ebullience flies in the face of the dire circumstances that already faced him. Owing back taxes, the brothers already were deep in debt, and would disband temporarily in the winter of 1958, when Cannonball joined forces with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

By contrast, Shearing was at a popular peak. A blind prodigy from a working class family in London, the pianist had carved out a successful career in England before emigrating to the United States in 1947. Under the sponsorship of countryman Leonard Feather, he quickly made his bones on 52nd Street, establishing props in a popular trio with Oscar Pettiford and J.C. Heard, and sharing bills with prestigious artists ranging from Charlie Parker to Machito. Influenced in formative years by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole, and fascinated with the vocabulary of Romantic and Impressionist European music, Shearing quickly transmuted the vocabulary of bebop into his own voice.

Already a fixture in 1949, Shearing became a mega-star that year when his recording of “September In The Rain” [MGM] with a vibraphone-guitar-piano-bass-drums configuration sold 900,000 copies, imprinting the “Shearing sound” — the vibraphone played the top register of the octave, the guitarist played the bottom, and the piano navigated between those registral boundaries with block chord variations — on the collective consciousness of jazz. In 1955, he signed with Capitol Records, cementing his stature with a series of nuanced, well-promoted albums that showcased his exquisite touch and harmonic ingenuity in a range of contexts. With enviable panache and sophistication, he tackled the fiery complexities of bebop and Afro-Cuban music, intimate solo piano recitals, dialogues with singers Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Peggy Lee, and plush concerti against mellow backdrops of strings and woodwinds.

Here, Shearing’s stylistic flexibility is on full display. For his spread-out Newport audience, he eschews, with one exception, the intimate, tasteful arrangements “for very small rooms” that comprised the bulk of his work in 1957. That exception is “It Never Entered My Mind,” on which he superimposes the melody of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie.” Otherwise, burning is the order of the night, and the excellent band rises to the task. On “Pawn Ticket” — a worthy entrant in the Ray Bryant lexicon of catchy tunes with slick changes — Shearing unleashes his bop chops on a block chord solo. A stirring “There Will Never Be Another You” features vibraphonist Emil Richards — the multiple percussion maestro who succeeded malleters Don Elliott, Joe Roland and Cal Tjader in Shearing’s units — over sweet fills from classy trapsetter Percy Brice. Shearing learned clave from Machito, and – with idiomatic support from bassist Al McKibbon, himself a disciple of Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie, and from legendary Cuban hand drummer Armando Peraza — customarily climaxed sets with idiomatic Latin flagwavers. McKibbon provides the vamp that propels “Old Devil Moon,” and Peraza puts intriguing mambo beats on “Nothing But De Best,” an engaging calypso authored by former Shearing drummer Denzil Best.

A stickler for playing charts just precisely so, Shearing required sideman to read immaculately and to improvise and express their personality when called upon to do so. “We are not usually in the habit of inviting guests up to play with the quintet, because normally we have things completely set,” he remarks before summoning the Adderleys on stage. “But we are about at this time to embark on a very special arrangement. As a matter of fact, we are going to arrange it right now.” McKibbon and Brice set the tempo, and the impromptu crew launches into “Soul Station,” a funky blues line with a Horace Silver connotation. The Adderleys soar, Richards uncorks a cogently jagged declamation, and Shearing lets it all hang out with several intense choruses of block chords, the way he might have done on a third set at Birdland following, say, Bud or Bird or Machito or the Ellington Orchestra. Catching his breath in the aftermath, he briefly sheds his unflappable stage persona, saying, “You don’t mind us enjoying ourselves for one night, do you? Whew!”

Neither Shearing nor Junior Mance can recall whether this was the only musical encounter of the two John Levy clients. But it was a special one, and both giants honored themselves in the process.

Ted Panken
Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR

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Filed under George Shearing, Liner Notes

For Pianist-Arranger David Hazeltine’s 59th Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2005 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and 2 Separate Liner Notes

For the master pianist David Hazeltine’s 59th birthday, here’s a big post, containing a 2005 Downbeat article, a more slightly edited Downbeat Blindfold Test, and liner notes for his CDs Inspiration Suite (Sharp-9) and Blues Quarters (Criss Cross).

 

David Hazeltine (Downbeat Article, 2005):

Barely recorded as recently as 1995, David Hazeltine may be the most exhaustively documented pianist of the ensuing decade.

Hazeltine’s spring release, Modern Standards [Sharp-9], an elegant recital with bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth, is his eighth trio date since 1996. That year he recorded The Classic Trio—it lives up to the name—with Peter Washington and Louis Hayes, following 1995’s Four Flights Up, a crackling quartet encounter with trombonist Slide Hampton, and the first of eight Hazeltine-led ensemble sessions for Sharp-9 and Criss-Cross. Hazeltine contributes his distinctive horn voicings and impeccable comping to yet another eight albums with Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Jim Rotondi, Washington and Farnsworth in the collective sextet One For All, and several dozen sideman dates by One For All personnel and such dignitaries as Slide Hampton, James Moody, Jon Faddis, Louis Hayes, Brian Lynch, Marlena Shaw, and Georgie Fame.

Devoted to the leader’s rearrangements of ‘60s and ‘70s pop, R&B and soundtrack music, Modern Standards is chock-a-block with sophisticated reharmonizations, accessible hooks, beautiful colors, and the long, twisty, immaculately executed lines that are Hazeltine’s signature. A Poinciana vamp frames the Isley Brothers quiet storm hit “For The Love Of You,” and he conjures treacle into diamonds on a detailed trio orchestration of “How Deep Is Your Love,” a Disco Era ditty by the Beegees.

“You can do a lot to a song,” says Hazeltine, who turns 47 this fall. His recorded involvement with the “modern standard” begins with Four Flights Up [“Betcha By Golly, Wow”], followed by the 1997 Criss Cross album, How It Is [“Reasons”]. “Coming up in Milwaukee, I played with a few bands that did all the latest by the Isley Brothers, the Stylistics, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Commodores. I can’t duplicate their exact mood, because they did it so perfectly, so I want to conceptualize them in my context. If you stick to the original harmony, they won’t sound like anything. I have to find ways to make distinct sections out of passages that weren’t even sections. Addressing these different musical demands and situations is a way to find a new avenue into the tradition.”

An old hand at catering to the whims of singers, and a repository of lyrics, Hazeltine, if so inspired, will ravish a ballad or torch song, as on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” [Close To You, Criss Cross]. But in the manner of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Eddie Harris, all heavy influences on Hazeltinean line construction, he’s as apt to address such material—”Angel Eyes,” “I Should Care,” “My Old Flame,” “These Foolish Things,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life,” “Somewhere”—at bright to blazing tempos. “On these songs, I’m less concerned with the mood of the lyric than the harmonic content,” he says. “Speeding up the harmonic rhythm becomes a point of departure in improvising off a standard tune or set of progressions. In that way, the limitations of an arrangement are a good thing.”

On all his albums, Hazeltine references an exhaustive pianistic lexicon—Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Buddy Montgomery, and Cedar Walton for starters—and channels them into an immediately identifiable voice. True to the musical culture of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Hazeltine spent 32 of his first 34 years (his peer group included trumpeters Brian Lynch and E.J. Allen, bassists Gerald Cannon and Jeff Chambers, and drummer Carl Allen), he creates an ambiance of groovy soulfulness, and he never stops swinging.

As you might intuit from the company he keeps, Hazeltine honors firm roots in bebop and the blues. “Bebop is the fundamentals of music, the foundation, something to learn early on,” he says. “It incorporates the same principles of melody that Bach and Mozart used. It’s the building blocks of anything you want to do that’s hip and abstract and modern sounding or forward moving, the grounding that allows you to move on without being silly or corny.”

Primarily self-taught, a professional musician since 13, Hazeltine has drawn his own conclusions from the tradition since formative years. He spent 1979 to 1981 blowing in public behind the likes of Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson, and Chet Baker as house pianist at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery. In 1981, at Baker’s instigation, he made his first move to New York City, and gigged with Jon Hendricks for eight months. Unnerved by New York’s cut-throat atmosphere, he returned to Milwaukee in 1982. Instead of making a name for himself as a contemporaneous “young lion,” he earned a Masters, and chaired the Jazz Department at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music from 1985 to 1992. Then, he relates, “I got tired of sitting on the sidelines and wanted to devote all my energy to playing. I returned to New York to get back in the game, to play with people I respected.”

As Hazeltine puts it, “World music became a category right around the time I came back. A new repertoire, too.” During these years, Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ed Simon, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, Brad Mehldau and Dave Kikoski were mainstreaming the notion of coalescing genres, cultures and musical eras in idiosyncratic ways. Hazeltine’s stated aesthetic of “swinging and lots of pretty harmonies” seemed insufficiently cutting edge to make an immediate impression.

“I had to work other kinds of gigs for a long time,” he states, recalling dues paid at an age when most New York aspirants either have made it or given up the fight. “One was 7 to 2, six nights a week, with an AWFUL big band at the Rainbow Room. A nightmare. Things began to turn once I started playing with Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth. By ‘95 I was playing with Marlena Shaw and Slide Hampton, and got my first record date. My whole life changed.”

This summer, Hazeltine will record a Bud Powell project for Venus. Previous commissions for the Japanese label include an homage to Horace Silver (Senor Blues) and two irony-free tributes to Bill Evans (Waltz For Debby and Alice In Wonderland).

“I want to do not just the commonly known Bud Powell tunes, but some that are a little more out there, like “Glass Enclosure,” says Hazeltine. “I won’t play only like Bud Powell. I’m just going to play his music. That’s how I tried to approach Horace. Of course, the more into myself I got, the more the producer objected. I played “Nica’s Dream” at a slow tempo, and put some harmony in there. It was killing. But at the end of the date, he said, ‘Now we’d like to go back. One more time. “Nica’s Dream” FAST!.’ That’s what they put on the record.

“On the Bill Evans projects, I tried to be as much like Bill as I could. When I was 15 or 16, I wore out Bill Evans records trying to figure out what he was playing, because the way he arranged chords—especially the solo stuff—was so beautiful. I wrote out harmonic exercises on his material. I was very disciplined that way at a very early age.”

Given the consistency and high quality of Hazeltine’s sizable oeuvre, it’s puzzling that he hasn’t escaped the “musicians’ musician” trap. But he remains optimistic.

“Some people do a little of this and a little of that, and some do one or two things really well,” he says, implicitly including himself in the latter category. “Even just playing straight-ahead jazz, you can be into so many different levels and go for so many things that it’s a lifetime pursuit.”

*-*-*-

David Hazeltine Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Robert Glasper, “Think of One” (DOUBLE BOOKED, Blue Note, 2009) (Glasper, piano; Vicente Archer, bass; Chris Dave, drums)

I don’t know who it is, but there are bits and pieces of different places in whoever it is. Was that an original piece? No? There’s a lot of Monk influence in the writing. What was the piece? Oh, that’s a Monk tune I don’t know. There were elements that reminded me of Kenny Barron a bit in some of the right-hand techniques, but what tells me it’s not Kenny Barron is that this sounds like a harmonically driven pianist. There are different kinds of pianists—harmonically driven, melodically driven. This guy sounds like… First of all, outstanding technique with both hands, and he’s not afraid to show that, and the free stuff in the beginning, the little introduction, was nice—the piano flourishes, I like to call them. During his solo, he seemed to be more concerned with bringing out the harmony, and he did a great job of it, too. Also, harmonically driven pianists tend to play more with their left hands. When they’re not playing unison-like melodies, they’re always playing chords, so you’re always hearing that left-hand chord thing. This isn’t the type of pianist where you hear steady streams of eighth notes, for example, but just playing around the harmonic structure—very well, though. Then he would take time to play two-handed melodic stuff, very fast, very fluent. 4 stars. I’ve never heard him, but I know of him.

2. Geoff Keezer, “Araña Amarilla” (AUREA, Artist Share, 2009) (Keezer, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Essiet Okon Essiet, electric bass; Hugo Alcázar, cajon, djembe, quijada, palmas, percussion; Jon Wikan, cajon, palmas)

Whoever it is, it brings to mind Herbie Hancock—that’s for sure. The nature of the piece and the odd instrumentation—different for jazz. The hand-clapping and the whole thing, it seems like something Herbie would do, just to be out there…I mean, to have the variety that Herbie has, and the scope. There were such overly simple chords being played at times, that I thought only Herbie would do that, just to do it. But then, there were other little harmonic movements that reminded me of Herbie. The bassline reminded me of something from Thrust or one of those electric records that he made. 3½ stars. That was Geoff Keezer?! Is Wayne playing on it? Well, he’s a fantastic pianist. I recently heard him when I was doing a concert in Canada and he was subbing for Danilo Perez with Wayne Shorter. He fit right in, sounded great—he was beautiful. That’s why I asked about Wayne; it had the vibe of that night. This wasn’t typical Keezer. Things were scaled back. That’s why it reminded me of Herbie at first, because it’s all this music, then bringing it way down. Simple. Harmonies without a lot of extensions, without a lot of stuff to them, like Herbie would do. It’s Keezer tamped way down, like he’s trying to do something on a different level. Keezer does a lot of different kinds of things, he has a lot of different aspects, but I would never have thought of him as being that guy. But I’ve just been listening to some stuff that Keezer arranged for Denise Donatelli, a singer. Unbelievable singing and unbelievable writing on Keezer’s part. So thumbs-up for Keezer. I’m impressed with the way that he’s really trying to do something different, that doesn’t let it all hang out, an explosion of sound. It’s very tastefully done.

3. Mulgrew Miller, “Farewell To Dogma” (from Tony Williams, YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia 1996) (Miller, piano, composer; Williams, drums; Ira Coleman, bass)

Well, that was the most interesting thing you’ve played so far. First of all, from the very beginning…I immediately liked the touch, the warmth of the sound, and the fact that he approached it with both hands, the sound he got out of the piano using both hands to create these harmonies. As it moved into it, I thought it sounded like Keith Jarrett, which would explain the beautiful touch. But then he did some Herbie-sounding things; I heard some Herbie Hancock. Then some things happened too many times for it to be Herbie. Then he did a couple of things that sounded very much like things Chick Corea would do. I started thinking maybe it was Kevin Hays, because Kevin has all those guys in his playing—mainly Herbie, though. I liked the tune. What I like about it is that it has many different moods. It’s open enough that whatever mood you want to superimpose on the mood of the tune works at the time. I like how it goes different places, has different highs and lows. Even the ending was a surprise. It kept my interest from the beginning to the end. I liked the trio interplay, too. The drummer was doing some very tasty stuff. But that’s the kind of open, straight-eighth note…that’s how most drummers that I would play with would respond. 4½ stars. [AFTER] It makes perfect sense that it’s Mulgrew, just because you can hear the influences. Also, he plays the piano very well. He’s a very good pianist, with a great touch, and incorporates all registers of the piano in the overall sound.

4. Martial Solal, “Here’s That Rainy Day” (from LONGITUDE, CamJazz, 2008) (Solal, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Louis Moutin, drums)

My goodness. It IS that rainy day! That’s an interesting approach. Very much melodically driven, but not being melodic. I don’t mean that in a bad way either. I divide people into melodically-driven versus harmonically-driven pianists, but then there are all different aspects of melodic and all different aspects of harmonic. This pianist is melodically driven, but out of the box of where most of us play melodically. So it seems like he or she made a point of playing as far out of the box as possible, while still playing that tune somehow. From the beginning, it sounded like it was reharmonized, but it was so chaotic that it was hard to tell what exactly was happening. But it’s definitely a fresh approach to the song, a standard that’s been played so many times. I’m not sure that how out some of the improvisation sounded was because he was trying to do that, or the chords…that if it was harmonized, he reharmonized it in such a way that it would lead into that. Although it didn’t really sound like that. To me, it sounded like he was trying to play out of the box. Which is a great thing. It sounded fresh. But there were moments where he brought it back in. It had a nice balance that way. It sounded like he had chops to do what he wanted to do. I think technique and chops is really about: Can you do what you’re trying to do? I think he did what he was trying to do. Can everybody play like Art Tatum? No. Can everybody play like Oscar Peterson? No. But technique on an instrument is a difficult thing to discuss, certainly in laymen’s terms. A lot of practicing musicians don’t understand the idea of technique in jazz music. Technique in classical music is a completely different ballgame, because there’s standard repertoire that dictates the technique. In jazz, technique is more dictated by can you get across what you’re trying to get across? Can you play what you’re trying to play? This guy could. It was a fresh approach. Interesting sound. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to it so much. It’s not my cup of tea. But it was interesting. 3 stars. [AFTER] The guy who just played that was 80? Wow. For someone that age, it’s a very unique approach—for playing a tune like that especially. It would be one thing if Cecil Taylor got up and played the piano; that’s one side of the coin. But for this guy to play “Here’s That Rainy Day,” sound like that and be 80, that’s very unusual.

5. Ed Simon, “Poesia” (from POESIA, CamJazz, 2009) (Simon, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Really liked that. My guess was Chick Corea. Whoever it is certainly styled that after Chick. Compositionally, the movement, the progression of the chords sounded like something Chick would do, and the way he played his lines sounded inspired by Chick, but also the rhythms of the lines, the little spaces that he played in between, and the comping that he did with his left hand while he was playing the lines, reminded me so much of Chick Corea’s style. It was reminiscent of ‘70s Chick, like Return to Forever before they went completely electric. There were so many things that were Chicked-out about the guy. Now, I love Chick Corea, and this pianist really reminded me of that style of playing. Was that his original tune? There were a lot of intricate things where he was playing little melodies with the bass in unison with his left hand. Just nice little things that were going on, and kept my interest throughout. The band was great playing together. More than the Mulgrew tune, which was straight-eighth, and the drum part was more accompaniment. Here, everyone was interacting, very together—definitely a coop effort. 4½ stars.

6. Denny Zeitlin, “It Could Happen To You” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

That was “It Could Happen To You.” I have no idea who that is. I have no idea where the pianist is coming from. But I very much enjoyed the playing of the head—it’s almost disguised at first. I like all the different kinds of changes that they took the tune through. It was slow and very much open at first… I very much liked, in the playing of the tune at the beginning especially, the way he used his two-handed technique to get a big sound out of the piano, and he really sold the arrangement. Right around the time when I realized it was “It Could Happen To You” is when they started playing it in an obvious way. I also like where it went from there. It sounded like he changed keys several times during the middle of the tune, but I’d need to hear it again…

I really enjoy the two-handed playing. I mean that in a different way than I meant it before. What I mean is using both hands to do certain things, especially harmonically, and to play melodies… I enjoy a pianist who gets as much sound as possible out of the instrument. Rich. And it takes two hands to be rich, really. A lot of pianists play even single note melodies with their right hand while they play chords in their left. Great pianists play melodies with both hands, or play melodies with a finger and accompany that melody with both hands. I like the way this piece evolved, although I was expecting more out of the solo, for all the piano playing that went on and for all the dreaminess that I sat through, I wanted a little more out of the solo. But that’s not to say that I don’t think that this pianist could do it. It’s just to say that I wanted to hear more. 3½ stars.

7. David Kikoski, “Chance” (from MOSTLY STANDARDS, Criss Cross, 2008) (Kikoski, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Kenny Kirkland, composer)

I feel like I should know what this tune is. It sounds familiar, like…it’s not an original… It’s a tune that’s sort of in the third-tier standard jazz tune? That sort of thing. First tier would be the standards everyone knows—Charlie Parker tunes, Horace Silver tunes, and so on. Then subsequent tunes, like Wayne Shorter and Herbie… It sounds like it could be a Wayne tune. I liked the song, but it’s not this pianist’s song, but obviously… I really, really liked this pianist and what he did with the harmony. What I liked most about his harmony was the wide range of harmonic information that he actually put in and also that he didn’t put in. Sometimes with his left hand he would only play two notes, and sometimes he played little clusters that on first listening were hard to identify what the voicing was. I really like the way he obscured the harmony. Was it David Kikoski? I have a lot of respect for his harmonic sophistication and the way he touches the piano. It’s the thing of older guys touching the piano a certain way, their approach to the instrument. When he plays, and through this piece, you hear it from beginning to end. It’s not a beautiful arrangement of a head and then some stuff that doesn’t fit with it or make sense. But it’s through-played, from the time he starts playing at the beginning, and then he morphs into the actual song and the other guys come in, then he plays a solo—but it’s on a continuum. There’s an arc to it. Really well-put-together music and thoughtful music. I really enjoy his playing. 4½ stars. I think I recognized the tune because I had a Masters student at Purchase who was doing his thesis on Kenny Kirkland, so he studied a number of his tunes, and I was involved in him getting the tunes together.

8. Benny Green, “F.S.R.” (from WALK ON: THE FINAL TRIO RECORDINGS OF RAY BROWN, Telarc, 1996) (Green, piano; Ray Brown, bass, composer; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

Was it Benny Green? Unbelievable piano playing. That’s all I can say. Fantastic technique. I knew it was Ray Brown before I knew who the pianist was. 3 stars.

9. Barry Harris, “Oblivion” (from THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS, Venus, 2000) (Harris, piano; George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums; Bud Powell, composer)

Obviously, Barry Harris, and George Mraz and Leroy Williams. I can’t say enough about Barry. Whatever anyone would have said 40 years ago would be the same thing today. It’s not like he’s reached new heights of genius. The genius has always been there. It’s a genius of melody-making in the style of bebop, the style of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. As I study music, and continue to study music, there’s something about Barry Harris’ playing I found…you need to keep coming back to it. It’s so right and it’s so correct, like Bird was right and correct, but at the same time it’s so melodically unpredictable, in a way. Maybe to some, it sounds predictable because it’s in the bag that he’s in, or the particular idiom he’s in, the time period that he’s remained in, which is bebop. But the imagination that he has within that time period and that language is unlike anyone else who tried to play that music. It’s unbelievable how melodically articulate and melodically interesting… I can’t think of enough words to say what I think about Barry Harris’ melodicism and his musicality. He has that weird thing about being perfect and yet being unpredictable and imaginative and all those things, just like Bird. Now, on this piece, obviously he’s not at full throttle as he was, say, 20 years ago. But it’s still unmistakably him. It’s still that same melodic integrity. 5 stars. Because it’s Barry.

*_*_*_

Liner Notes for The Inspiration Suite, David Hazeltine (Sharp-9, 2007):

The notion of influence is a tricky topic in the arts, not least for jazz musicians, for whom peer group status depends on cultivating a niche—a syntax, a sonic identity; in short, a tonal personality—that is instantly recognizable as theirs. In the struggle to construct a stylistic room of their own, many follow the psychic route described by the critic Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Of Poetry, a much-read discourse on how “killing the father” has catalyzed poetic invention.

Like Bloom’s poets, jazz musicians learn their craft from predecessors; and inevitably establish a point of view about their sources. Some “misread” the precursor, imagine them as incomplete, attain originality of expression through “an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation…, a willful revisionism.” For others, like David Hazeltine, mastery and refinement of the canon is the pathway to artistic depth.

Hazeltine regards Buddy Montgomery and Cedar Walton as his most consequential musical fathers, and pays explicit homage to them on The Inspiration Suite. Under their influence, he relates, he developed strategies to digest vocabulary drawn from the core food groups of jazz piano modernism (Tyner, Corea, Hancock, Monk, Barry Harris, for starters), and to synthesize his own idiosyncratic ideas about improvisation, composition and arranging.

As a teen prodigy in ‘70s Milwaukee, Hazeltine got up close and personal with Montgomery, who established his reputation in the ‘50s with the Montgomery Brothers—Monk, an electric bass pioneer, and Wes, the guitar legend—and eventually settled in the beer capital.

“I saw Buddy play in many contexts as a young kid—solo piano and trio, and also with a larger group with percussion instruments,” Hazeltine recalls. “I heard him manipulate harmony and other elements of music both in his own compositions and fixing up standards. He’s great at creating little hooks, familiar sections of the tune—a tag, or an introductory harmonic area that he gets into and brings back at the end of the head or the end of each solo chorus, or a rhythmic idea that he adds onto, say, a Cole Porter tune. It pulls things together. He doesn’t read music, and his playing and writing have all sorts of little jagged edges; they’re ultra-hip, but so off-the-cuff that you can’t guess what’s going to happen next.”

He discovered Walton via record during his mid-teens, after concluding studies with Will Green, a blind pianist who gave the aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals. “Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar,” Hazeltine recalls. “He would improvise fugues on the organ in the style of Bach, with perfect, cleanly articulated eighth notes, in the baroque manner that characterizes the way Cedar plays the piano. Cedar appeals to the side of my personality that needs things to be precise and exact. Everything is crystal-clear, well thought through, delivered with the highest degree of musical intention—in terms of phrasing, articulation, reharmonizing. You can expect certain things from him on the highest level, and he is going to give them to you.”

It is manifest that Hazeltine, now 48, commands similar respect from his own peer group, including his front-line partners on The Inspiration Suite. “Dave has a modern sound that holds onto all the elements of the tradition that I love,” says Eric Alexander, Hazeltine’s collaborator on 11 dates by the collective sextet One For All, and a frequent Hazeltine sideman and employer. “When I think of David’s writing and arranging, I think of clarity,” adds vibraphonist Joe Locke, Hazeltine’s co-leader on Good Hearted People [Sharp-9, 1998]. “As far out as Dave can go harmonically, his harmony always honors what the tune is about—it’s honoring the melody.”

Explaining his decision to reference another explicit precursor, the tenor sax-vibes quintet co-led by Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson at the end of the ‘60s, Hazeltine cites these very same melodic imperatives. “Although Buddy and Cedar differ in the ways I mentioned, they both write incredibly poignant melodies,” he says. “Instead of harmonizing the melodies with three horns, as with One For All, I brought them into focus with one melodic line backed up with the vibraphone. Joe’s four-mallet technique enables him also to strengthen the harmonic underpinnings and match my piano voicings—so I get my One For All feeling after all!”

The title comes from a four-piece suite on which Hazeltine distills the compositional devices of his musical forebears into unmistakably Hazeltinean argot. The connections are less thematic than vibrational—“They are connected in my mind!” Hazeltine jokes.

Echoes of Walton inflect “Motivation,” an assymetrical 34-bar burner (6-10-6-12) with attractive changes. Propelled by Farnsworth’s unerring ride cymbal, Locke, Alexander and the composer navigate the form with punch and panache.

In composing “Reverence,” a medium-slow ballad with a relaxed Latin feel, Hazeltine kept Montgomery’s predispositions in focus. “I tried to hear how Buddy might hear,” he says. “It’s the kind of haunting melody Buddy would write, and the chord progressions are atypical, with a vamp at the very beginning that the soloists incorporate into their improvising, and that we play every time it comes around. I somehow think of that as characteristic of Buddy—though if you asked me to name tunes of his where that happens, I couldn’t.”

Elements from both mentors inform “Insight,” a slick 30-bar line that opens with a magisterial Alexander solo. “It contains insights I got from studying Buddy and Cedar,” Hazeltine says. “The way the theme is developed, how it comes back at the end, only twice as fast. How the last part is 2 bars short because it’s looped into the first part, so there’s no turnaround; it makes for interesting and insightful soloing—you’re finishing, but you’re at the top again.”

The suite concludes with “Gratitude,” a brisk waltz with a continuously developing form that resolves with reharmonized “Giant Steps” progressions. Note Hazeltine’s informed comping behind inspired solos bv Locke and Alexander, and the graceful way he launches his own ingenious solo flight.

The Inspiration Suite contains many other delights—a classic trio reading of “My Ideal” (for comparison, hear Montgomery’s version on the 1999 Sharp-9 session Here Again); a new Hazeltine arrangement of “I Should Care,” presented here as a medium swinger in A-Flat; a “new standardish” Hazeltine original called “Don’t Walk Away” (“the harmony diverges, but the melody is completely diatonic within the scale of D-flat,” Hazeltine elaborates); a surging Latin treatment, pushed by Daniel Sadownick’s elemental congas, of Montgomery’s “Personage of Wes”; an elegant, witty navigation of the harmonic jigsaw puzzle that comprises Walton’s “Shoulders” (“it has rapidly moving, chromatic harmonies at the beginning, then gets into periods where there’s one chord for 4 measures, then turns more normal and has II-V-I’s, but at the very end come strange, fast-moving harmonies in all major chords, which then change to minor chords every other chorus—that’s why people think it’s difficult”).

“I can say that this is more personal than anything I’ve written before,” Hazeltine concludes. “I did it in total deference and reverence to these two guys, and it came straight from my heart—I heard stuff and wanted to write. The intellect never led the heart around. The heart led the intellect.”

*_*_*_

David Hazeltine (Liner Notes, Blues Quarters):

“I have to say that quartet playing is my favorite format,” David Hazeltine confides while discussing Blues Quarters, his third leader session for Criss Cross (see How It Is [Criss-1142] and A World For Her [Criss-1170]) in that configuration.

The 41-year-old pianist elaborates: “I like an arranged presentation, and in a quartet you can integrate arrangements, just like in a trio setting. Quartet is less restrictive than with three horns, where I have to synch up the harmony exactly to what I wrote for the horns. Since the saxophone is playing the melodies, I have a chance to experiment behind it. I like to play a supportive role as well as being out front in the solo role. I think it sets me up mentally to play looser solos, to play freer than in a trio format, where I am the only solo voice.”

Hazeltine proved unequivocally his mastery of the trio on The Classic Trio [Sharp-9-1997] and Waltz For Debby [Venus-1998], which rank among the finest examples of the genre recorded in the ’90s. And according to the members of One For All, the all-star collective sextet [see Upward and Onward (Criss-1172) and Optimism (Sharp-9)], he’s largely responsible for blending the individual voices of a unit comprised of unregenerate wailers into an ensemble sound with a defined identity.

“I really feel like I could recognize a Dave Hazeltine composition or arrangement at this point,” Eric Alexander, One For All’s emerging tenor titan who shares the front line on Blues Quarters, commented a few years back. “I’m not sure exactly what it is. It’s definitely a modern sound. But it holds on to all the elements of the tradition that I love and, that I think everyone else in the group loves, and that we try to maintain. His arrangements are sort of the quintessential sound of One For All. Dave likes to pick classic standards, or even new Pop standards, and reharmonize and rearrange them so that they fit into our hard-blowing context. But what’s funny is that Dave has tempered our sound. His arrangements, which can be really fiery and exciting, all have a tender side. It’s hard to explain. He uses beautiful colors, and makes wonderful use of the three horns.”

Alexander and hard-swinging drummer Joe Farnsworth join their One For All colleague on Blues Quarters, a session which achieves a judicious balance between untrammeled imagination and the intuitive sense of ensemble structure that adept improvisers attain through years of bandstand interaction. “The more frequently you play with people, the more predictability there is,” Hazeltine notes. “Now Eric is not predictable in the sense of, ‘oh, I’ve heard him play that before.’ It’s more like I know instinctively and immediately that he’s going to play something high or something a little out there. Eric is always fresh, he’s always playing very different ideas, but there is a structure — you can anticipate what he’s doing and work with him.

“What’s predictable with Joe is that it’s going to feel right, that the feeling always will be there, that whatever I do, he’ll support it. There’s give-and-take, but mainly his impeccable sense of time and swinging feeds me. You can have impeccable time in all different parts of the beat; Farnsworth plays the part of the beat that I like particularly. I think it’s the same part that the great drummers in the history of jazz, like Philly Joe Jones and Louis Hayes, have always played. I’d describe it as time with an edge on it.”

Bassist Dwayne Burno played numerous weekend gigs with Hazeltine, Farnsworth, and various combinations of One-For-All hornmen between 1994 and 1997 at Augie’s, the Upper West Side Manhattan workshop-saloon. Hazeltine notes: “Dwayne is a very good writer and arranger himself, and he has a great understanding of harmony. He’s musically very articulate. When I present him with a tune, he understands what makes it work, and he’ll do things that take it to a different place and yet keep it intact as originally conceived.”

Throughout Blues Quarters Hazeltine plays with lucid fire, consolidating an exhaustive range of references — think Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner — into an immediately identifiable style. He churns out long fluent lines with a home-brewed, organic quality, extracting full motivic potential with the clarity and sophistication of a conservatory musician. “What I like about David,” says the tenor saxophonist Michael Karn, who experienced the Hazeltine effect on his recent Criss-Cross date In Focus, “is that he hears other people’s tunes compositionally. F-minor-7 in one tune is not the same as in another. Should this chord have a big sound? Should it have a smaller sound? Should it be a tight sound or a more open sound? He’s superb at finding the right sound for the right spot in his comping.”

That said, a few words about the tunes:

“Naccara” is dedicated to the pianist’s mother, who died a few years ago. The structure is 12 bars, 6 bars, 10 bars. and then 4 bars; “the set of 10 bars references the melodic theme in the first 12 bars, but it’s in no way a repeated section. It takes the motive from the beginning, runs it through a series of key changes, and kind of summarizes the tune that way.”

Alexander and Hazeltine were playing Miles Davis’ “Milestones” (the 1947 Savoy version) as a standard on recent tours. The tenorist roars through the changes, while Hazeltine’s long solo shows how deeply he’s assimilated the language of Bud Powell refracted through the mirror of Barry Harris, whose Live At The Jazz Workshop Hazeltine calls “a bible of jazz piano trio.” “I keep coming back to that concept,” he comments. “My idea is to try to stretch from that basis.”

Hazeltine wrote “A Touch of Green” for Will Green, who gave the young aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals of jazz in pre-teen days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I know this tune sounds a lot like Cedar Walton,” the pianist jokes, “but Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar. In fact, I started listening to Cedar just after I stopped studying with him, when I was 15 or 16. Will Green would improvise fugues in the style of Bach on the organ. You know how Cedar plays the piano in an almost baroque manner, with eighth notes that are so perfect and exact and cleanly articulated and precise? That’s how Will Green played, too. Being used to his approach is what allowed me such easy access to Cedar.”

Hazeltine conceptualized his treatment of “Spring Is Here” while preparing Waltz For Debby, a 1998 album dedicated to the music of Bill Evans. “This version is with mostly his chords,” Hazeltine remarks. The ballad is beautiful by itself, but Bill Evans’ changes really bring out the melancholy of that song.”

Hazeltine describes the title track as a 16-bar minor blues, an idiom in which the teenage Hazeltine garnered ample experience at sessions around Milwaukee with local luminaries like Hattush Alexander and Manty Ellis. “We didn’t play traditional blues per se,” he qualifies. “There were a of blues form tunes and a lot of blues in the tunes.”

Hazeltine became familiar with “Cry Me A River” through his association with the singer Marlena Shaw, who’s employed him as musical director and arranger since 1994. He treats the Arthur Hamilton flagwaver — it’s been covered by artists from Julie London to Ray Charles to Ella Fitzgerald to Joe Cocker — as a bossa-nova, adding some chords and a vamp that Eric Alexander plays over on the end with incredible invention and virtuosity.

“Playing with singers deeply influenced my ability to accompany people,” Hazeltine claims. “I did it since I was very young, beginning with a woman named Penny Goodwin, with whom I played a lot of high profile gigs in Milwaukee. She was a very talented, gifted singer, but she didn’t know a lot about music, so the things you played behind her influenced the way she was going to sing on any given night. I had to play so that her melody notes were always at the uppermost part of my chords. Otherwise, she’d sing out of tune, or sing something completely different and then blame me. So early on I knew that when playing behind singers, I had to be very accurate and be aware of what the melody is while playing chords. I think that started me on the path of comping melodically, which is the quality of my comping that I think people like.”

The quartet addresses “Cheryl,” a Charlie Parker blues, at a medium bounce a tad slower than the original; Hazeltine opens with a five-minute declamation that’s bebop incarnate, filled with teetery syncopations and intriguing postulations that never stray far from the melody. Then the session concludes with Alexander’s “Doing What,” a racehorse-tempo subversion of the chord changes to Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life,” a prime ballad for the likes of Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

It caps an album marked by authoritative statements by players who can be said to have transcended their influences to the point of being able to dialogue with the tradition on their own terms. That’s what Hazeltine’s done on high profile gigs in recent years with people like James Moody, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Jon Faddis.

“New York is so demanding, you get so involved in writing and arranging and recording and doing your own thing and trying to find your voice, that it’s easy to forget about your roots,” Hazeltine reflects. “By roots I mean what I grew up with, who I liked listening to, who influenced and inspired me. Playing with these guys has this magical quality of taking me back there, only now I’m doing the playing. I remember listening to James Moody when I was 13 and being very struck by how he played, trying to figure out some of the things he was doing. I have his sound in my head, and when I get to play gigs with him it takes me back into this very simple, ‘I really like that music; I really like the way this sounds,’ as opposed to being all wrapped up into my own forward motion. It’s a unique thing we have as jazz musicians, that in playing with these guys, we are interacting with history. You’re actually getting a chance to create music with people who have created and are continuing to create such great music over the years.”

A couple of generations hence, apprentice improvisers who admired albums like Blues Quarters may have their chance to play with David Hazeltine and Eric Alexander; no doubt, they’ll talk about the experience in similar terms.

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Filed under David Hazeltine, DownBeat, Liner Notes, Piano

For Trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s Birthday, my Liner Note for the 1999 CD “Excursions”

Best of birthdays to trumpet master Jim Rotondi, who has been teaching the last several years in Austria at the University of Graz.  Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing liner notes for three of Jim’s CDs for Criss Cross, the first of which — for Excursions (1999) — I’m posting below. It was a first-class date on which the personnel of One For All (Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Dave Hazeltine, Peter Washington) plus Kenny Washington on drums, play a series of terrific charts.

 

Jim Rotondi (Excursions):

For Excursions, his third Criss-Cross recording, Jim Rotondi surrounded himself with his top-shelf colleagues from the sextet collective One For All.  “I feel comfortable when I play with these guys, freer to select options that I might not normally choose,” the 37-year-old trumpeter avers.  “I think music works best when you throw something a little different in the mix just to see what happens.  Sometimes you get results you’d never have imagined.”

The familiar surroundings (the only “ringer” is impeccable trapsetter Kenny Washington, replacing regular OFA drummer Joe Farnsworth) spur Rotondi to etch in sharp focus the qualities that have won him numerous admirers in recent years as a featured soloist with Lionel Hampton, Charles Earland and — more recently — Kyle Eastwood.  Projecting one of the most beautiful sounds in jazz, he plays with staunch confidence, nuanced maturity and intuitive melodicism — and reaffirms his charter membership in the no-holds-barred society of improvisers.

Rotondi comments: “One thing that differentiates a Lionel Hampton experience from a One For All experience is that it’s much more blues-based, more elemental.  One For All uses more complex forms, and if we play a blues it probably won’t be straight but a variation on the blues.  Gates grew up in the straight blues, and it’s important to him to keep it in there.  The spirit is to go for it, to try to deliver 100 percent every time.  I think that’s the spirit of One For All, and we translate it to this record as well.  We’ve come to have a reputation as a group that flexes its musical muscles, one with a lot of technical prowess.  Really, we just believe in going for it, in trying to play everything at the peak of its potential.”

Rotondi is effusive about One For All front-line partners Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone), both familiar to Criss-Cross devotees.  “We think the same way,” he says.  “The three of us are like one voice; we phrase the same way naturally, without talking or thinking about it.

The Rotondi-Alexander partnership began a year after the trumpeter settled in New York.  “I met Eric when he was attending William Patterson College in the ’80s, and it’s inspiring to see him come so far.  When I first met him, he didn’t have a wide variety of tools and language, and now he has probably the biggest arsenal of any of the young players out there.  He did it with discipline and dedication.  To me, every song that he writes captures his spirit more than the previous one.”  Alexander’s contribution here is “Jim’s Waltz,” taken at the camelwalk pace that Kenny Washington likes to call the “grown-up’s tempo,” featuring Rotondi’s burnished tone.  “It’s typical of Eric’s personality — uplifting, happy,” Rotondi comments.  “The melody is all major key, very diatonic, but still interesting.  It goes to a couple of unexpected places, but makes perfect sense — which I think is his essence as a writer and player.”

Let’s digress with a synopsized account of Rotondi’s pre-New York years (Rotondi scholars who want more should refer to the notes for Introducing Jim Rotondi [Criss-1128] and Jim’s Bop [Criss-1156]).  Rotondi’s mother is a piano teacher, and the Butte, Montana, native played piano from the age of 8; he took up the trumpet upon entering high school.  “My background when I began to play trumpet was more in classical music,” he relates.  “My live music exposure pretty much consisted of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, but when I was 14 I picked up a collection of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach EmArcy recordings and Woody Shaw’s Rosewood.  After I got those records — and many others — I started experimenting with different things that I hadn’t been aware of before when I was practicing the piano.  I think it’s extremely important for trumpet players to have a piano.  As Dizzy said he told Miles, on the trumpet you’ve got one note, but on the piano you’ve got 88.  If you understand all 88, it’s a lot easier to find the right place to put one.”

Rotondi wound up at North Texas State University, eventually landing in the school’s elite One O’Clock Lab Band.  “When I arrived they automatically placed me on the bottom, because so many musicians are there,” he recalls.  “I didn’t have it completely together; in fact I was quite a distance from it!  I learned a lot in terms of basic skills; pulled up my technique and ability to sight-read music, and learned about the professional ethic.  After school I went to Miami and worked on a cruise ship for a year, with the aim of saving money to move to New York, which I did in June 1987.”

Rotondi, Alexander and Joe Farnsworth stuck together, worked small but steady gigs and sideman jobs.  Farnsworth landed a gig at Augie’s, the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured much of New York’s young talent in the ’90s’; in 1994, they brought in butter-toned Davis — currently a two-year member of Chick Corea’s Origin Ensemble — whose warm, enveloping sound and ability to generate instant momentum in his solos makes him a perfect fit.  Of Davis’ title track, Rotondi says: “This tune is a classic example of the music Steve writes.  Simple melodies, putting interesting chords underneath them; he finds these perfect little chord-melody combinations.  He’s one of the strongest writers of the younger guys.  This tune is a nice Bossa Nova in an AAB form; it goes through a lot of different tonal centers, which makes it interesting and fun to play on.”

Formidable pianist David Hazeltine rounded out One For All in 1995; his up-tempo arrangement of “Angel Eyes” is, Rotondi exults, “classic Hazeltine.  He’ll take a standard and slightly alter the harmony or chord changes, which makes the tune more interesting to solo on.  Eric and Dave like to have everything very well worked out; they think things through, and don’t like to leave a lot to chance.”

The oft-paired (on Criss-Cross at least) Peter and Kenny Washington bring their customary excellence to the proceedings.  “Whatever you think a bass player should be, Peter is,” Rotondi comments.  “And I’ve always loved Kenny’s playing; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything musical, and brings it to every record he’s on.  He’s always an asset.  He completely took care of business, and did it with aplomb.”

Rotondi’s “Shortcake,” a peppery medium-bright minor line with a Latin feel that begins with a pair of storm-cloud chords, “was written for my girlfriend,” the composer remarks.  The bravura trumpeter bites off the notes with brash panache, evoking the sound of Freddie Hubbard, a major influence.  Ditto on Rotondi’s arrangement “Little B’s Poem,” a memorable Bobby Hutcherson melody on which both Hubbard and Woody Shaw have had an earlier say.  This cool, restrained, stop-start version is spurred by Hazeltine’s intuitive comping and Kenny Washington’s ingenious rhythmic formulations.

Don’t think Rotondi is anyone’s style clone; he’s assimilated the entire post Clifford Brown trumpet tree and reached his own conclusions.  He states: “Clifford and Woody were my initial influences.  Though other guys during Clifford’s time — and before — played as much if not more than he, Clifford covered so much and nailed everything perfectly, even though his playing is completely spontaneous-sounding and creative.  I think it’s a testament to his talent and ability that, young as he was, he never flubbed.

“Woody Shaw to me is the last true trumpet innovator; on his early recordings there’s a strong Hubbard and Booker Little influence, but he found his own language.  The way I hear it, playing with McCoy Tyner opened him up to the solutions he ultimately found.  He inspired me to strive to find my own way to play, to find my own voice — because he really found his.  He blended his version of bebop trumpet with avant-garde elements he was exposed to through playing with Dolphy and Coltrane — it was all in his playing.

“The first thing that struck me about Freddie was his sound, a combination of round, darkish warmth with the bit of edge that I think the trumpet needs to have.  Then it was the long melodic lines he constructed that went all through the changes.  Freddie likes to tell the story of running back and forth between Sonny and Trane, and revealing to one what the other was working on; I’m sure practicing with them opened him up unbelievably.

“I’ve done a lot of transcribing of Booker Little; by the age of 22, when he died, he’d completely found his own voice.  Tonally, his playing reminds me of a Classical approach applied to jazz, very precise, the same fat tone from the lowest end of the trumpet all the way up to the top.

“Kenny Dorham to me is the true melodist of all of them;  every trumpet player should study K.D. to learn the importance of making a melody.  They are logical and beautiful, and make so much sense.  He was the first guy I know of to really put Bebop harmony, i.e., tritone substitutions and other devices, clearly in his playing.

“Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were early influences.  I still think of Blue Mitchell as the best ballad trumpet player of all time, principally because he never overplayed.  He just played the melody, and let his tone do all the work.”

Rotondi’s gorgeous reading of “What Is There To Say?” — co-arranged with Eric Alexander — would make Mitchell smile.  “I got the tune from Nat King Cole’s ‘After Midnight’ session,” he explains.  “It’s simple, with potential to interpolate some interesting chords.  I try to find lyrics whenever I can to any standard I’m going to play.  It will keep you from playing anything extraneous if the lyrics are in your ear.”

Excursions concludes with Rotondi’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Little Karen,” followed by a fingerpopping “Fried Pies,” a Wes Montgomery blues on which all members stretch out.  “On my last few records, I’ve tried to include something from a great jazz composer and see if I can do something different with it,” Rotondi remarks.  “On One To Ten [1961, Argo] Benny took this tune pretty straight-ahead; I gave the A-section a Horace Silver-like mambo treatment.  And Gerry Teekens always likes to have a blues on the record, and I do, too.”

It’s an ideal conclusion for an impeccable album.  For Rotondi and his colleagues, way past their apprenticeships, individual influences are now a point of departure; their voices are prominent landmarks in the narrative of mainstream jazz.

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Filed under Jim Rotondi, Liner Notes, trumpet

For the 89th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), My Liner Note for the Reissue of the Xanadu Album “Home Is Where The Soul Is”

Today’s the 89th birth anniversary of pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), one of the great acolytes of Bud Powell. I had an opportunity to delve into his musical production while writing the liner notes for a reissue of a trio date that he made for Xanadu in 1978, with Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler.

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Kenny Drew, Home Is Where The Soul Is (Liner Notes):

“One might take a single pianist like Kenny Drew and find in his playing many of the period’s dominant tendencies: “funk” [extensive use of blues voicings on tunes that are not strictly blues], Debussyesque lyrical embellishments, finger-busting up-tempo solos, and multiple references to earlier styles both gently contemplative (Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole) and hot and bluesy (stride piano via Monk).” – David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965.

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Although the late David Rosenthal’s observations on Kenny Drew (1928-1993) pertain to the pianist’s musical production during the 1950s, they also apply to Drew’s performance on the slamming trio date contained herein. Xanadu proprietor Don Schlitten, who wrote in the original liner notes that the Harlem native’s best recorded performances (two enduring dates helming a trio and a combo, and sideman appearances with, among others, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Paul Chambers) transpired in Los Angeles during a 1953-56 West Coast residence, hoped to elicit a similar vibe by “bringing Kenny home to the ‘cats’” to cut a pair of albums. One participant was bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who had settled in Los Angeles not long before his four recorded interactions with Drew in 1955 and 1956. The other is drum-master Frank Butler, out of Kansas City, whose intuitively spot-on responses within the flow on Home Is Where The Soul Is and For Sure—the latter is a formidable quintet with Xanadu regulars Charles McPherson and Sam Noto on the front line—belies the fact that he was interacting with Drew for the first time. Like Drew, these Los Angeles bebop warriors were 1928 babies.

It’s interesting that the proceedings conclude with Drew’s a cappella tour de force on “Yesterdays,” which he played on 16 separate occasions during his 43 years as a recording artist. This version (not included on the original LP release of Home Is Where The Soul Is) is different in feel and configuration than the brisk interpretation 24-year-old Drew uncorked on his first leader date, done on April 16, 1953 for Blue Note in the percolating company of bassist Curley Russell and drummer Art Blakey. “Kenny’s work is cast in the modernist mold, but it seems to owe allegiance to no one model,” Leonard Feather wrote on the back cover of the original 10″ LP. “On the contrary, a careful hearing of these sides will reveal that he has already developed his own personality at the keyboard.”

Feather was softpedaling Drew’s informed, idiosyncratic, virtuosic allegiance to Bud Powell, four years Drew’s senior and a fellow Harlemite, which is evident in the younger pianist’s efflorescent treatments of “Be My Love,” “Lover Come Back To Me” and  “It Might As Well Be Spring.” But he is nonetheless correct that Drew had already constructed his own nascent voice, one informed by close study of tributaries established by Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, George Shearing and perhaps, by 1953, Horace Silver. He’d been at it for while: Feather writes that Drew, whose mother was a classical pianist, took his first lessons at 5, was a skilled boogie-woogie pianist during adolescence, and assiduously soaked up Tatum, Wilson and Fats Waller during his teens. After high school, he apprenticed at a dance school run by the pathbreaking Trinidad-born dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus, who incorporated African and Caribbean elements into her touring show.

During the latter ’40s, as Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes to Drew’s 1961 Blue Note record, Undercurrent, Drew augmented his university of the streets education, alternating on piano with Walter Bishop, Jr. in a band with uptown up-and-comers Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor. Feather remarks that Drew entered the fray for real after a maiden studio voyage with Howard McGhee in January 1950 for Blue Note. Over the next two years, Drew would share bandstands and record with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Rollins, Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Stitt and Paul Quinichette. He began to garner national attention in 1952, when bebop clarinet pioneer Buddy DeFranco brought him on the road; indeed, Drew’s aforementioned trio debut date occurred the same week as two DeFranco sessions for Norman Granz’s Clef label. Perhaps Drew’s blend of orchestral chops, impeccable touch, stylistic range, and improvisational imagination, not to mention the level of authoritative intention at which he operated, reminded Granz of Oscar Peterson. Whatever the case, Granz signed Drew to his Norgran imprint, for which he generated two solos and four trio numbers with bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Specs Wright.

On tour with DeFranco in San Francisco in late 1953, Drew was arrested on heroin-related charges. His appearance on a July 1954 Zoot Sims session in Hollywood indicates that he served little if any time, but his relationship with Granz—for whom Drew recorded a marvelous trio recital with Wright and drummer Larance Marable in L.A. that September—fizzled out, and his career gained no traction. He resettled in New York in 1956, but remained on a similar treadmill, despite sidemanning on two hands’ worth of iconic hardbop classics for Riverside and Blue Note (the short list includes John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Johnny Griffin’s Way Out!, Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag and Bluesnik, Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Showboat, and Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Calling), as well as leading two highest-caliber trio dates for Riverside with Paul Chambers or Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and an epic duo encounter with Ware. In 1958 (the year his son, Kenny Drew, Jr.—himself a meta-virtuoso pianist—was born), Drew worked with Buddy Rich. In 1959, he moved to Miami for a year or so, before returning to New York City.

The first time Drew saw Paris was late 1961, on a European tour of Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection. After visiting Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, he decided to emigrate. He met and married a Danish woman, and moved to Copenhagen in 1964. By 1978, he was Europe’s first-call pianist, with 8 contemporaneous LPs for Denmark’s Steeplechase label that showcased him in solo, duo, trio and combo contexts, generated on 14 separate recording sessions between 1973 and 1977. During those years, he recorded all but two of the numbers (“Three and Four Blues” and “West of Eden”) that comprise Home Is Where The Soul Is.

The set opens with “Work Song,” which Drew initially recorded in 1965 for Fontana with a trio led by Danish drummer Alex Riel that also included bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, with whom Drew played extensively for the remainder of his life. At the time, this group was frequently functioning as a rhythm section for touring horns-for-hire at Copenhagen’s esteemed Jazzhus Montmartre, a hallowed venue that offered Drew a mutually beneficial sinecure as house pianist until it closed in 1976. Drew did “Work Song” a second time on a 1969 Ben Webster date for EMI-Odeon, also with Pedersen and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, and again two months before the Home Is Where The Soul Is session, in Warsaw, with a Polish trio.

He debuted Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” with a working quartet (saxophonist Joe Maini, Vinegar and Marable), documented on Jazz West in December 1955, and revisited it in May 1974 with Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath on the sessions that generated the Steeplechase albums Dark Beauty and Dark and Beautiful. That same May 1974 encounter also generated a tour de force presentation of “It Could Happen To You,” a Powell favorite that Drew had previously waxed with DeFranco (the day before his Blue Note debut) and in 1958 with Chet Baker. There, as here, Drew opens with improvised rubato “concertizing” before morphing into deep two-handed swing.

The Drew-Vinnegar-Butler trio addresses Drew’s original, “Only You,” at a brisk clip that imparts a much different ambiance than its balladic representation on Lite Flite, Drew’s February 1977 New York quintet recital with Thad Jones, Bob Berg, George Mraz and Jimmy Cobb. He concluded Home Is Where The Soul Is with the gentle, elegiac “Ending,” which first appeared on Ruby My Dear (Steeplechase), recorded in August 1977 with bassist David Friesen and drummer Clifford Jarvis. The version contained herein stands in calming contrast to the joie de vivre embodied on the preceding track, Drew’s modal “Three or Four Blues,” on which the composer’s solo ranges from Basie-esque pointillism to two-handed Tatumesque turbulence.

Drew’s insouciant, humorous, imaginative treatment of this number and, indeed, of everything else on Home Is Where The Soul Is, completely justifies Schlitten’s determination to illuminate his artistry in this spontaneous, familial context. Here, as on the preponderance of the Xanadu catalog, Schlitten’s instincts were spot-on.

Ted Panken

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For Donny McCaslin’s birthday, a 2009 interview and Liner Notes For The Arabesque CD “Seen From Above” and the Criss Cross CD “Give ‘n’ Go”

Tenor saxophonist-composer Donny McCaslin turned 50 recently, which seems like a good reason to post an interesting interview he did with me in 2009 for a Downbeat piece in which I interviewed four tenor players (Ron Blake, Seamus Blake and Frank Catalano were the others) on developing one’s own sound, as well as liner notes I’ve had the honor to write for an album he recorded for Arabesque in 2000 and another album for Criss Cross in 2005.

 

Donny McCaslin (Feb. 4, 2009) – (DB Tenor Sound Piece):

TP: I guess the things I want to talk about generally are: First, the process by which you started thinking about the idea of saxophone as a way of expressing a voice as opposed to just playing it. What sort of vocabulary you assimilated and how you applied that vocabulary. Was the process of creating a sound a conscious thing, or a byproduct of the process of learning. Can you take those sort of general ideas and run with it?

DONNY:   Sure. There’s a lot of things I can say. As far as expressing myself on the instrument, that’s something I got into at a fairly early stage. I started playing when I was 12, and I started improvising shortly thereafter. Especially as I started to learn some language, I found improvising to be a great outlet for my emotions. So I think I was engaging with that at a fairly early age.

TP:   Of course, you had your father as an example.

DONNY:   Exactly. My father would often come to… My parents were divorced, and he’d come over to my mother’s place. We lived in the country, and there were these barns behind the house where I lived, and my father would carry his Wurlitzer piano up into one of these barns, he’d set it up, and then we’d play tunes that I had learned or was in the process of learning that he played with his band. The very first song that I learned was “Tequilas,” which is basically a one-chord jam thing—my dad would basically just comp for me. Then we’d go through, we’d play “A Train,” we played “Satin Doll,” we’d play maybe “Doxy,” we’d play a blues. What was great is that he would comp for me tirelessly. Being young, sometimes I’d get upset pretty quickly, because I wanted to play better, and I didn’t like what I was playing, and I’d stop. Other times we’d play at length, for what seemed like hours. I think it was through that kind of experience, and then starting to… I had a combo with Kenny Wolleson in junior high school, and then that continued in high school. As you know, it was a really good high school band, and I had chances to solo. It was there, at 14-15 years, that I started playing with a fair amount of emotional expression, where you could say it was a primary outlet for me emotionally.

TP:   Were you under any stylistic influences at that time? Were you learning the canon?

DONNY:   Yeah. My first hero was definitely to John Coltrane, which was mixed in high school with heavy exposure to Duke Ellington. My band director had Duke Ellington charts via Bill Berry, with whom he’d been in the service. So he had all these Ellington charts, and we were rehearsing those five days a week, and listening to the records sometimes. Those were my main influences. At 14-15 years old, I was listening to “Giant Steps,” and was playing through Trane’s solo. In probably my later high school years, I got into Michael Brecker and was heavily influenced by him. So in terms of language in that era, I would say… Well, Charlie Parker was an influence as well in the beginning, so probably Charlie Parker, Ellington, Trane, and Michael Brecker were my main influences.

TP: When did they start to become part of your emotional expression?

DONNY:   Mostly with Coltrane it was… One thing I was so drawn to in his playing was this deep sense of expression in his solos, and the emotional intensity. I was really drawn to that, even though I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, I couldn’t handle Meditations or Ascension or Kulu Se Mama or Interstellar Space. That was too far out for me. But I was really in tune with the records before that, listening to them over and over. It was that emotional intensity that touched, and then I was trying to get to the same thing as I was playing, just as a kid with that limited vocabulary.

TP:   What sorts of things would your father or the other older musicians tell you about individuality or about the voice? What cues were you getting from people?

DONNY:   I have to think about that for a second. My father I don’t think really talked much about that, to be honest with you. The guys in his band didn’t talk much about individuality per se. But I think that it’s something that… Gosh…

TP:   How about critiquing your playing? Were you getting critiques?

DONNY:   Yeah. I can think of a couple of things. I can remember once when I was a senior I was in an Advancement of the Arts sort of talent competition thing. It was a big thing. It was throughout the United States, and I flew to Florida for the finals. Bill Charlap was one of the finalists, John Bailey, the trumpet player, myself—and Rufus Reid was like the jazz judge. I remember Rufus saying something to me about not playing so many notes, not playing so much. I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist was to slow down and to not over-play. Herb Pomeroy, when I was at Berklee, said something similar to me after a concert. I was in his various student ensembles probably my whole time at Berklee, and after one of the concerts he came up and said something about how he was happy to hear me play more melodically and not just playing a bunch of notes kind of thing.

Various people I recall recounting telling the Lester Young story of him being on the bus…I think it’s Lester Young… They’re on the road, and a tenor player is shedding on the bus, and he’s playing all this shit, and Lester—or maybe it’s Ben Webster—said to him, ‘Yeah, but can you sing me a song?’ or something like that. Various people…

TP:   It’s Lester.

DONNY:   Yeah, Lester is who I thought.

TP:   Did that sort of thing have an impact on you? Because I gather that a lot of people were very impressed with your facility and power on the instrument as a young guy, which can be very seductive.

DONNY:   Yeah. I think it helped, and I think I listened to that. Over the course of the years, I feel I’ve tried to reflect on it. At the time, it’s hard to remember, honestly. Did I all of a sudden buy a bunch of Lester Young records? No, I didn’t.  But I definitely have listened to him over the course of my career, and have listened to various singers, and really thought about exploring different ways of playing and not just relying on technical prowess or whatever.

TP: Were you someone who transcribed solos, or you’d listen and put them into a framework…

DONNY:   It was both. I didn’t really transcribe solos until I got to Berklee, in college, my freshman year. Then I got into that. Yeah, I transcribed various solos, then I started learning solos, and that was definitely part of how I developed my language. But also listening a fair amount, and just being on the bandstand a lot. It’s a combination of all those things in terms of how I developed my language. In terms of focusing on individuality, that came into play when I started playing with Gary Burton’s band. Even before that, when I got to Berklee, there were a lot of really good saxophone players who had a lot of facility on the instrument and who were checking out the same guys I was checking out. So all of a sudden I was hit with this reality of individualism. I remember hearing this great tenor player, Tommy Smith, play. We had very similar influences, Trane, Michael Brecker and whatnot, but he had a very individual sound at a young age, and I remember being really impressed by that. That made a big impression on me, like, “Wow, he’s not only playing all the stuff I’m playing, but he’s got a personality, and it’s really tangible.” I thought, “Ok, that’s something I should work on, I should try to develop that.” It’s a hard thing to develop when you’re in the middle of trying to assimilate all this language and all these different players. But what I tried to do—again, at Berklee—was pay attention to things that struck me on an aesthetic level, that seemed to be different from what I was hearing people do. I tried to be open to what struck me, and I’d try to take the ball and run with it kind of thing.

Gary Burton, when I started playing with his band, would talk about how thematic development could get you away from playing licks and things that you practiced, and get you into really improvising. I don’t know if he called it “real improvising,” but… Then when I was in his band, he would give… We’d be on the road, and he’d give the occasional clinic with the group, and I would be there and I’d listen to him do this rap about thematic development and improvisation… Again, it’s not like I just all of a sudden changed course in the middle of the stream, but I was just checking it out. Then, during the same time I had to practice some things in wide intervals, and I was always drawn to that sound, and I started thinking, “That’s not something that I hear people do all the time, and that’s something I really like—maybe I should try to explore that.” So I explored it, and continued to explore it over the years. But I embraced that, and then this thing about thematic development I think begins… Again, I was exposed to it through Gary, but it was a few years later when I really started working on it and really started embracing it.

TP:   A lot of people in your generation are faced with this profusion of vocabulary.

DONNY:   Right.

TP:   so much information. One other thing (tell me if I’m wrong) that you might have used to explore new byways was exploring the pan-American conception and playing with Danilo Perez. I’m sure that brought you to all sorts of fresh places.

DONNY:   Well, it did. My initial exposure to that, again, was playing with my father’s band. He had a group that had percussion and played Cal Tjader-esque Latin Jazz. I think just growing up with that, and playing with a salsa band, I really had an affinity for that music. This was after Berklee, when I first moved to New York, but I went on the road with Danilo, and had been playing Argentinean folk music with Fernando Tarres… That really changed things for me in a dramatic way—especially my relationship with Danilo. He gave me some serious pointers along the way that, if I stopped and really shifted course completely.

TP: Can you be a bit more specific?

DONNY:   The first time it happened was in the early ‘90s, when we were on tour in Argentina with Fernando Tarres. Danilo said to me kind of what you’re saying:  “Man, you’ve got all this vocabulary together, but you need to think more about how you present it, and you need to explore phrasing more.” I was like, “Wow, yeah, you’re right.” Then he gave me some examples, like, “Take a bar of 8 eighth notes and divide them into a group of 3 and then a group of 5, and play your melodic idea, but you can give an accent at the beginning of the bar and then on the 4th eight note. So you’re making this 3 and 5.” That was his initial example. I thought, “God, I’d never thought about working on stuff like that.” So I took that idea and really ran with it, and just worked on my phrasing.

TP:   So it applied to music outside of just Danilo’s music.

DONNY:   Oh, of course. Because in this context, actually, we were both sidemen. Then I did a tour with Danilo’s group not long after that, and then there was heavy exposure to clave, and to Afro-Cuban folk music, Panamanian folk music, etc., etc. Again, that was something that really changed my life, and I embraced it, studying that, playing with a lot of different groups—with Santi DiBriano a lot, with Hector Martignon. I just was studying rhythm, or studying those folkloric rhythm patterns and the patterns that go with them rhythmically. For a fair amount of time, I was thinking of the saxophone more as a percussion instrument…in a way. I would take these rhythms and apply them to how I would practice playing over tunes, and just try to strengthen my rhythmic vocabulary.

I know one of the overviews of this article is about individuality, creating a voice. I found that working on that stuff gave me a lot more flexibility rhythmically, and with that, a lot more freedom to explore leaving wide spaces, and looking at all these different ways I could approach the rhythm that freed me up to have a much greater range of expression as an improviser than I had before. That enabled me, I think, to get to a place where I didn’t have to rely on my technical proficiency, that I could think like a drummer, I could think like a singer, and I could have the confidence to do that, and to leave that space, and not feel like I had to fill it up.

TP:   You’re the third straight person who spoke of thinking like a singer. That’s interesting.

DONNY:   Yeah, that’s a really good thing to check out, obviously, if you’re a melody player, is to study the way singers phrase things, the way they’ll sing a melody. I think it has a real immediate effect on the way you’re playing something. Literally, I’m on the bandstand, I’m playing a melody, and I’m imagining that I’m Frank Sinatra, or I’m imagining that I’m Sarah Vaughan.

TP: Literally.

DONNY:   Yeah. Of course, it doesn’t happen every night. But it’s those times when I feel like I’m playing the melody and I’m just on auto-pilot, or nothing is really happening, and, “Wait a minute, let me change the framework about how I’m thinking about this or how I’m dealing with it.”

TP:   Can you speak about tone production? This is in the context of a commonly stated critique of young players of the jazz conservatory generation, that older players often say it’s hard to tell them apart. I don’t know if this is true or not. But Ron Blake was talking about a sort of orthodox way to play the saxophone, a certain mouthpiece, and so on… But the old ethos that you can tell somebody by their sound with one phrase, as with people in the old days.

DONNY:   I would say that I feel like I can tell… If it’s Mark Turner, when I’m listening, right away I can tell it’s him. Or Chris Potter, or Seamus, or David Binney, or Miguel Zenon, I feel like a lot of people these days have distinctive voices, at least to my ears. I don’t have that feeling of everybody sounds the same. Although I can understand where that’s coming from. I’m speaking about people who are probably pretty individualistic players. Certainly, because jazz education has come so far, and as you mentioned, there’s so much information out there, it’s no wonder that a lot of young players will sound similar because they’re getting similar information. But that’s the challenge for them, is how can they take that information, those influences, and come up with their own sound. That’s up to each individual. In terms of equipment and mouthpiece and so on, I certainly never felt like I had to play this or had to play that—outside of playing a Selmer saxophone, which most people play. But you don’t even have to do that. Dave Liebman sounds amazing on what he plays… Different people play different things. But it is obviously very important to find your own sound and your own way of doing things, but that’s just the journey that everybody is on.

TP:   is that a more challenging thing to do these days because of the profusion of information?

DONNY:   Yeah, I think it is. I think it is. I think it is more challenging to come up with something that’s new or interesting…I’m not even saying new, but a way of putting all the information out there together into a coherent, original language. Now, that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge. Because it’s not just playing over bebop tunes—which is not easy, I’m not insinuating that. But yeah, there’s a lot more to process now. Because of the way the music industry has changed and the way jazz education has changed, it makes it harder, but it’s easier and harder at the same time—if that makes sense. There’s more available, but yet how to put that together into a real individual language is difficult.

TP: Also, a lot of the most individualistic players of this period did a lot of bandstand playing when they were young.

DONNY:   Yeah, I think that’s true. I can give you an example of that in my own life. When I was rehearsing with Gary Burton… he put together this Berklee all-star group of students to do this jazz cruise. I was pretty nervous, and when I was rehearsing, I’d never really got into my comfort… I felt like I was struggling or whatever. But as soon as we got on that cruise, and we played a gig, as soon as we got on the bandstand, I played a lot better, and I felt much more comfortable.  Gary commented on that to me sometime later during the week that it was a big difference. I realized at that point, it was all the experience I had with my father, and with the group I had with Kenny Wolleson—that really helped me out. Because I was able to get into a more creative zone on the bandstand. I wasn’t nervous, because I was more comfortable there than I was rehearsing the music, ironically enough. That’s not the case any more. But being on the bandstand all the time, having to play solo after solo really helped me out.

For me, as I already said on the individual sound thing, it’s being open to it and following your instinct. What touches you musically? It’s maybe something unexpected, but not being afraid to follow that.

TP:   Do you deliberately put yourself in new situations? For example, this new trio recording. Is that the purpose towards which you’re framing yourself in that context, or is that a byproduct of looking for different environments?

DONNY:   It’s the latter. Just looking for a different… the two records I’d done before that were these more produced, more conceptual things, and I was like, “No, let me get back to blowing.” I was consciously like, “I need to do something different,” and this is different, and it’s a format that I love, that’s challenging, that has all this history, and so on.

TP:   Were you thinking during your developmental years about an individual voice?

DONNY:   Definitely.

TP:   Was it totally for you, or otherwise…

DONNY:   it was something I was aware of and concerned about, in a way. Like, “Ok, how can I find my own way?” It was a process that happened over time, but it was definitely on my mind, how can I find my own way of playing music in a way that seems true to me?’ I think I was at a certain point where I had all this technical proficiency, and I had worked on all these Trane solos… In other words, I could play all this shit. But it didn’t mean anything to me. It was at that time of, “well, if this doesn’t mean anything to me, then what DOES mean something to me?” How can I shed away all this BS and get to the heart of what I want to try to say as an improviser? For me, that was really embracing thematic and melodic development, which Gary Burton talked about and Sonny was really my guiding light for that. So it was like really letting go of… I can remember going to sessions in the early ‘90s, playing, and not even getting into playing a lot of notes at all, because I wasn’t hearing it, and I had made this commitment to try to only play what I was really hearing, and be TRULY in the moment as an improviser. That meant, for me, letting go of a lot of the stuff that I could “play,” but I wasn’t truly hearing it. So I tried to let go of that completely and to be totally in the moment as an improviser.

TP: Getting back to these older players who talked about telling a story and the dialogic quality of improvising, or that Charlie Parker would describe the woman walking into the room, and so on. Do any of these notions play into your improvising. He said that he applied some of the tactics he’d studied in theater improv to his musical improvisation? Do such things factor in, or is music a very different entity than verbal language?

DONNY: I definitely think about it in terms of telling a story. I’ll think about the beginning of a solo is like the beginning of a short story—you introduce a subject or a character. Then the character develops the story. That’s in a perfect world what the solo is like.

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Donny McCaslin (Seen From Above) – (2000):

Back in 1988, when Donny McCaslin was a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, vibraphone master Gary Burton hired him for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet.  The prestigious gig marked phase two of McCaslin’s education.  A New Yorker since 1991, he hasn’t stopped working, navigating the diverse sonic ambiance of a congeries of top-shelf bands in the jazz mecca, which range from state-of-the-art fusion (Steps Ahead) to Latin (Santi DiBriano’s Panamaniacs, Danilo Perez, Fernando Tarres, Hector Martignon) to speculative improvisation (the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and Lan Xang) to the Mingus Big Band and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.

All those experiences helped mold the fully-formed musical personality we hear inflecting the open-ended terrain of Seen From Above, Donny McCaslin’s second leader album.  Here’s what the 33-year-old virtuoso brings to the table.  Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect them to, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing like-minded partners Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Jim Black, all 30-something 21st century jazzfolk of like sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the musical proceedings.

McCaslin’s story begins in Santa Cruz, California,  a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, where his father Don McCaslin continues to sustain a steady gig as pianist and vibraphonist.  “My Dad has a Cal Tjader thing happening on vibes, and on piano he’s really into Red Garland,” McCaslin states.  “I’d go with him every Sunday morning to the mall where he had a gig from 12 until 5, and help him set up the piano and the vibes.  Before I was able to walk around on my own, he had me sit on a chair in the middle of the band, where I’d watch the whole thing go down for hours.”  A poor study in junior high school photography class, McCaslin decided to enter Beginning Orchestra and — inspired by the saxophonist in his father’s band, “a really colorful guy, very charismatic, a hippie, tie-dye shirts…I remember looking into the bell of his horn and seeing this pool of saliva with a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it; to me as a 12-year-old, he was really cool” — chose the tenor saxophone as his instrument.

McCaslin progressed rapidly, taking advantage of the area’s first-class music programs and first-hand interaction with his father.  “When I was beginning to play, my father would take his Wurlitzer to the barn behind my Mom’s house, set it up, and we’d play for hours on end,” he recalls.  McCaslin also was able to hear top musicians at Kuumbwa, a nonprofit concert venue in Santa Cruz.  “I saw Elvin Jones there with Pat LaBarbera, and Sonny Fortune a couple of weeks later,” says McCaslin, who played a hometown engagement at the attractive room a few weeks before our conversation.  “Every Monday night the big groups came into town, so from age 12 on I was able to hear guys from New York live, which was important and inspirational.”

He continues: “I was the only freshman in my high school band; my director, Don Keller, had a bunch of original Ellington charts, so at 14 we were playing things like ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue,’ ‘Warm Valley,’ ‘Blood Count,’ ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’  I could barely read music, and I was totally in over my head, but I learned a lot.  My earliest influences were Bird and Trane, and then probably Michael Brecker, a little Sonny Rollins, a little Sonny Stitt.  The way Coltrane played seemed so heavy and profound, so urgent; I always have loved the sense of emotional catharsis that can come through improvising, and I felt it embodied in his playing.  Brecker was such a virtuoso, and records like “Steps Ahead” and “80/81″ sounded so modern, like the new happening thing.”

McCaslin matriculated at Berklee in 1984, where he reveled in interaction with a peer group of big-fish young musicians who’d converged in Boston from points around the planet, and took advantage of first-hand contact with teachers like Herb Pomeroy and George Garzone.  “It was very liberating studying with George,” he relates.  “He gave me patterns to practice that broke all the rules you learn in school, a lot of notes outside the chord scale, and wild intervals.  During my years with Gary Burton, I learned a lot about thematic development, thematic improvising, being disciplined in the sense of saying what I had to say clearly and succinctly in, say, two choruses, and then getting out.”

Once in New York, McCaslin began the arduous, rewarding process of shedding chameleonic flexibility to inhabit the skin of his own sound.  “It was only after I’d been in New York for a couple of years that I started to know conceptually how I wanted to play and write,” he confides.  On a recommendation from Burton, he worked with bass legend Eddie Gomez, gigged with various Berklee cohorts, and began to find work playing Latin music of all description.

“I always had an affinity for Latin music in Santa Cruz,” McCaslin notes.  “First, my father was into Cal Tjader and Latin Jazz, and I played in an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos when I was in high school.  While I was in Gary’s band he made a live record with Astor Piazzola at Montreux, which I absorbed.  When I got to New York I sat in with Santi DiBriano at the Village Gate, who started calling me to play with his band the Panamaniacs.  I’d been in the dorm at Berklee with Danilo Perez, who’d played with Santi earlier, and Danilo recommended me to Fernando Tarres, with whom I worked and recorded a lot.  Though I had only a layman’s ear knowledge of clave, I did a couple of tours with Danilo in the ’90s, and he encouraged me to study Afro-Cuban music in a comprehensive way.  I started taking lessons with Bobby Sanabria, and it’s expanded my rhythmic vocabulary immensely.

“Playing with Santi was very important.  The band had tunes that were straight ahead, tunes that were clave-based, tunes that we’d play free on.  I was put into an environment where I had to deal with all these different styles while retaining a unified band approach.  And being the only horn player, I had a lot of space to play and a lot of responsibility.”

McCaslin took on similar responsibilities during his four years with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the ’90s edition of Steps Ahead, where he filled the tenor chair Michael Brecker once had held; he’s heard to strong effect on the 1995 recording Vibe [NYC] with musicians like Rachel Z, Michael Cain, Victor Bailey, James Genus and Clarence Penn.  “It was a very good gig,” McCaslin smiles.  “Mike is kind of a hippie at heart, and I relate to him as a person because I grew up in that culture.  Whereas Gary was very exacting as a bandleader, Mike was really loose, gave me a lot of freedom.  Occasionally he would say something, but for the most part he let me do my thing.”

With that background in mind, the stance of open-endedness with discipline that permeates the eight McCaslin originals on Seen From Above makes perfect sense.  “I’ve always had a sense of eclecticism,” McCaslin states.  “When I was at Berklee I played in a Rock band for a while, and I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York.  I enjoy playing music.  I’m not a purist about Bebop or whatever, though I love just playing tunes in an open situation with the right guys — it’s like going home.  At the same time, I feel I have something to say as an original music artist, and this is the time to do it.”

The mix wouldn’t work without a band of fluid, flexible improvisers who share McCaslin’s ample comfort zone for articulating a wide umbrella of styles without ever sounding out of their element.  McCaslin knows Ben Monder — who recorded the trio session Dust for Arabesque in 1996 — from frequent gigs with Maria Schneider’s orchestra; the guitarist deploys his vast harmonic vocabulary and nuanced orchestrative capabilities throughout.  Precisely off-center trapsetter Jim Black — known for his work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, and Pachora — was a Berklee classmate, though, McCaslin confesses, “I’ve hardly played with him since.  The way he plays, utilizing a range of different sounds with a great sense of colors and dynamics, is what I was hearing for some of these tunes.”

Ditto with Scott Colley, whom McCaslin met during the fellow Californian’s late ’80s tenure with Carmen McRae; he’s presently bassist of choice with Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, and is McCaslin’s bandmate in Lan Xang, an open form collective quartet whose other members are alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson.  “I heard Scott playing the bass line that begins ‘Manresa’ as I wrote it,” McCaslin relates.  “I knew he could play it the right way — make it ROCK!   Originally it was called ‘Hippie Rock Tune,’ because that’s exactly what it is to me!  Manresa is a beach in northern California, and it conveys the feeling of home.”

The music of Olivier Messaien inspired McCaslin to write the title track — a lovely melody replete with wide interval jumps — and the up-tempo swinger “Frontiers,” on which McCaslin takes a spectacular solo, achieving an inside-outside feel reminiscent of ’90s tenor hero Joe Lovano.  “Messaien’s harmonic language is so interesting, his rhythmic language is so advanced — his music sounds majestic and emotional,” McCaslin explains.

McCaslin penned “Second Line Sally” — both the George Gruntz Concert Band and Lan Xang have recorded it — during Boston days as a swing number; here it gets a fun-house Zigaboo Modaliste treatment, as Black gives it up for the groove.

“These Were Palaces” is a ballad written at the end of a relationship.   “When playing the tune, I’m thinking of the way Jonatha Brook sings,” McCaslin says.  “Her writing actually has had a big influence on me.  ‘Mick Gee’ has a drum-and-bass feel.  Jim suggested we play it faster than I normally do to give it that edgy feeling to contrast with the other relaxed, grooving tempo.  I wanted it to have a shocking effect, with contrasting extremes.”

For “Strange Pilgrim,” “I wanted a swinging bass line with a quirky melody on top,” McCaslin says.  “I wanted to take a simple tune and do as much as I could to make it into a story that develops.”   It’s followed by “Going To The Territory,” a gospel-blues tinged tune with a Rock inflection that reminds you of early ’70s Keith Jarrett.

“Seen From Above” ends with a relaxed idiomatic McCaslin-Colley duo on the memorable refrain of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” reaffirming deep roots on an album where McCaslin reveals those sources more through phrasing and improvisational acuity than in the formal architecture of the tunes.  “Santa Cruz was very open in music and in art when I grew up,” McCaslin concludes.  “There were salsa bands, straight-ahead jazz trios, free jazz, and I was exposed to all of it.  It was all just music.  I think that notion is something I share with all the guys in this band.  This record is my music, and it reflects all the influences I’ve absorbed through the years.

“The thing that appeals to me about jazz is the freedom of improvisation. I want to do my best to play at the highest level that I can aesthetically.  Playing with musicians of this caliber, who can lift the music into that really exciting and wonderful place, is what I’ve worked towards and practiced for all these years.”

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Liner Notes, Donny McCaslin, Give and Go–2005

Highly regarded by fellow musicians and connoisseurs of hardcore jazz since he settled in New York in 1991, saxophonist Donny McCaslin became a subject of mainstream jazz conversation when he earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Solo for his soulful, dramatic, architecturally cogent statement on Buleria, Soleá y Rumba, an extended opus by composer Maria Schneider that appears on Schneider’s Grammy winning CD Concert In The Garden.

On Buleria, McCaslin revealed the qualities that have attracted such demanding bandleaders as Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Mike Mainieri, and Gary Burton, who in 1988 recruited McCaslin, then a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet. In the notes for Seen From Above, McCaslin’s 2000 date on Arabesque, I summarized them: “Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing his partners, all 21st century jazzmen of similar sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the proceedings.”

Let’s add that McCaslin’s penchant for exploration rests upon an authoritative command of the vocabularies of hardcore jazz and the Spanish Tinge, which coexist holistically in his tonal personality. A native of Santa Cruz, California, a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, he first encountered both idioms through his father, Don, a gigging pianist and vibraphonist influenced by Red Garland and Cal Tjader. A student of sax gurus Bill Pierce, Joe Viola and George Garzone during his years at Berklee, McCaslin once earned praise from Leonard Feather for “virtually stealing the show” from Phil Woods, Red Holloway, Flip Phillips and David “Fathead” Newman during a saxophone jam on a cruise ship. On the Latin side, he played in high school years with an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos, and as a ‘90s New Yorker, worked intermittently with Perez, a Berklee dorm-mate, with Argentine guitarist Fernando Tarres, and with the Panamaniacs, a Santi DiBriano-led unit that explored clave, straight-ahead and open feels while retaining a unified sound..

On Give ‘n’ Go, his Criss-Cross leader debut, McCaslin draws on lessons learned with Danilo Perez during 2001-02, when he toured steadily on Perez’ Motherland Project, and on his more recent travels with Maria Schneider, a frequent employer in 2004-05.

“Danilo is a great educator as well as a great musician, and it’s inspiring to be around him,” McCaslin relates. “I’d bring blank music paper with me at soundcheck, and as we’d play he’d tell me he was looking at a certain voicing, or discuss some rhythmic progression, and I’d write it down. It was like being back in school—he was sharing so much information.

“One thing that I appreciate about Maria’s writing is how every single part is meaningful. Whether you’re playing the fourth reed chair or the third trombone chair, all the lines have significance and are melodies in and of themselves. That’s influenced me. Also her lyricism and the sheer beauty of her music. She’s not afraid to do what she’s hearing. You can call it ‘orchestral jazz’ or whatever you want, but it is what it is, and she’s just putting it out there.”  Helped by several preparatory gigs at Manhattan’s 55 Bar and Brooklyn’s L&M Loft, McCaslin puts out seven original compositions with support from an A-list cohort. As on all of McCaslin’s dates, Scott Colley, a fellow Californian, anchors the flow on bass. They met while McCaslin was with Burton and Colley was with Carmen McRae, and first recorded together on the 1995 Dave Binney album Luxury of Guessing. After that session, McCaslin, Binney, Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield—the latter subsequently replaced by Santa Cruz native Kenny Wolleson—formed the collective quartet Lan Xang, a touring unit until the end of the ‘90s.

Criss-Cross devotees will be familiar with the work of John Swana, the Philadelphia-based trumpet virtuoso, who appears on four selections. “Alex Sipiagin was always telling me how great he thinks John is,” says McCaslin, referring to the Russian trumpet virtuoso (also a Criss-Cross artist), a frequent bandmate. “I played with his organ trio in Philly, and it was a lot of fun. I felt there was some sort of connection, like stylistically he could play straight-ahead but also open at the same time.”

Here as on Seen From Above, McCaslin uses guitar as the chordal instrument, deploying Steve Cardenas, a Kansas City native who currently plays with the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and a Joey Baron-led quartet called Killer Joey.

“I met Steve more than 15 years ago when he was living in San Francisco, and Kenny Wolleson set up some California gigs for me to do when I came home from college,” McCaslin recalls. “He really gets inside a tune, and brings forth the harmony in a thoughtful way. He’s also a great comper; I feel he hears what I’m doing and makes it sound better, gives me a springboard to play off of.”

A past contributor to Criss-Cross sessions by Alex Sipiagin, Conrad Herwig, Ryan Kisor and J.D. Allen, drummer Gene Jackson is a master at alchemizing hybrid rhythms from ethnic metric signatures. McCaslin began to feel Jackson’s beat on gigs with Sipiagin and on several tours of Japan with singer Monday Ichiru.

“Gene’s playing is very strong, and he likes to go for it and stretch,” McCaslin remarks. “But no matter how busy or wild things get, I still feel a certain sense of grounding that I can latch onto. We egg each other on.

The McCaslin-Jackson simpatico is evident on “Outlaw,” an ebullient long form piece inspired by an Egberto Gismonti tune. McCaslin rehearsed it with Danilo Perez, who included other McCaslin tunes in the Motherland Project repertoire. “One thing we added was the counterpoint bassline in the last section of the melody, which I end up doubling,” McCaslin says. “But the challenge was coming up with the right feel. I’ve played it sometimes as a samba and sometimes with a more straight-eighth rock feel, but it never felt right. Gene and I worked on it, and he came up with what he calls an American samba.” McCaslin and Swana uncork melodic solos with a dollop of saudade.

Based on a synthetic scale from Messaien’s etude book, Modes For Limited Transposition, “Scrappy” is a quirky line with sardonic Monkish phrasing, intriguing intervals, and disjunctive hits. Goosed by the kinetic Jackson, McCaslin and Cardenas incorporate these shapes and dynamics on stimulating solos.

Composed in 2000, “Drift” claims Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” as an antecedent. The A-section has a moody three-feel, while in the B-section Jackson’s rubato soundpainting details the melody and chords. Swana’s exquisite dark tone fits the melody like a custom-tailored suit, and McCaslin sustains the mood, his tenor voice drenched with soulful emotion.

“I was listening to Radiohead at the time I wrote the tune,” says McCaslin of Give and Go, also from 2000. The title refers to the basketball tactic of passing, cutting directly to the basket, and receiving a return pass for an easy shot, a process represented by the Cardenas-McCaslin interchange on the jagged intervals of the theme. “The melody came about when I was improvising on a synthetic scale, and I heard a harmony that to me sounded like a Radiohead-inspired piece. I was looking to hear some music that excites me and stimulates my sense of creativity. I landed on a Radiohead record. The tunes are interesting, the harmony is weird and different, it’s not the typical pop progression, plus all these other things happen in the arrangement through the production.”  The Liberators’ Song is McCaslin’s response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’  The General In His Labyrinth, a novel in which General Simon Bolivar is the chief protagonist. “It’s a melody and a mood,” says McCaslin of the brooding, Shorteresque refrain, his voice-like tone cosigned by Jackson’s gentle tom-toms and cymbal splashes.

McCaslin addresses clave structures with precision and finesse on “Two/Three,” composed during his stint with Danilo Perez. “I originally conceived of it as a son, but Gene wanted to play it as a rumba,” McCaslin says. “Danilo’s tunes contain a lot of counterpoint between the bass and the melody. Here I conceived of the bass line first, and to me the bass player’s melody is almost the more compelling one.” Colley demonstrates why on his introductory statement over Jackson’s sticked clave modulations. On their ensuing solos, Cardenas, McCaslin (on soprano) and Jackson handle the involved form with elegant panache. Written during McCaslin’s Lan Xang days, Doom Fuss features an angular two-bar bassline pattern and much open-ended McCaslin-Swana call-and-response.

Following his custom of concluding records with a hardcore jazz classic, McCaslin closes with Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel,”  which he learned in Boston days with Ken Schaphorst’s big band. After McCaslin’s reharmonized, rhythmically displaced intro, inspired blowing commences over Jackson’s Frankie Dunlop-inspired swing-with-a-limp.
“I’ve played it at sessions for years,” says McCaslin, who knows how to use a tricky line to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Also, Steve co-authored a book of Monk tunes with Don Sickler, so  I knew he could nail it and get inside the harmony.”

Jazz-obsessed from his formative years, McCaslin tells his stories with the lucid joie de vivre of a natural improviser. But he has never allowed revered traditions to be a ball and chain.

“I love playing tunes and stretching,” he says. “It’s part of my foundation; it feels like home. But I don’t usually play standards when I do gigs as a leader, because I want to get my original music out there. I’ve always had sense of eclecticism. At Berklee I played in a Rock band. I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York. I just enjoy playing music.”

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For Scott Colley’s 54th Birthday, my liner notes for the 1998 Criss Cross CD, “Subliminal”

Best of birthdays to bass master Scott Colley, who turns 54 today. For the occasion, here’s my liner notes for his 1998 Criss Cross CD, subliminal…, in which Scott spoke at length about his background, influences and aesthetics.

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On subliminal…, his Criss-Cross debut, Scott Colley and a world-class quartet present a seamless, suite-like program of music that has the quality of wide-ranging conversation, at once animated and reflective.  “I knew from playing in trio with Bill Stewart and Chris Potter that it doesn’t matter what material we’re playing because they’re such experienced improvisers,” notes the 34-year-old bassist.  “We’ve done things with no preconceived forms whatsoever, and I know it will work.  I can hear their sounds while I’m writing, which makes me feel free to experiment with my compositions.  When I’m composing it’s important for me to have specific musicians in mind.”

Of Potter, a tenorist of uncanny chops and rampant imagination currently with Dave Holland’s band (his litany of credits is now too long to list), Colley says: “I have very strong feelings about Chris’ playing.  I’m impressed with his directness, his ability to focus which allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, and in that way it’s challenging to play with him.  Here he explores a lot of different sounds from the horn, using the extreme range of the instrument, changing timbre constantly.”

Of Bill Stewart, a keenly textural drummer of emphatic beat whose rhythmic palette encompasses delicate watercolors to action painting, Colley continues, “As much as Bill can stretch the form and execute polyrhythms in different ways, his playing is very intricate and precise.  He’s aware of exactly where he is in the form all the time.  His focus is amazing.  It’s almost like turning on and off a light switch; when he starts playing, it’s there.”

Of pianist Bill Carrothers, with whom Colley first played a few weeks before the recording, the bassist remarks: “I’m impressed with Bill’s ability, while playing changes, to voice them completely different on every chorus; he’s very present, hears the solos, hears everything that’s going on, and adapts his voicings accordingly.  He’s obviously very influenced by 20th Century Classical Music.  The first night I played with Bill we played a Bill Stewart ballad that I hadn’t played before, and he did what I described.  I soloed, started to pick notes outside of the written chord changes, and he’d immediately incorporate those into his voicings.”

It all boils down to listening for the California native — on the most subliminal level.  That’s how he began.  “A lot of my early experiences were playing by ear,” Colley recalls.  “At 13 I began playing two nights a week at a jam session in Pasadena.  The older musicians would give me records and tell me which songs we were going to play next week.  I’d take, say, the song ‘Old Folks’ from Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, which was one of my favorite records at the time.  I’d play Miles’ solo over and over, then play along with Paul Chambers’ bass lines and try to arpeggiate the inner voices, figure out on piano exactly what was going on.  That turned out to my benefit, because I had to rely on my ear.  It wasn’t until later that I realized what I was doing theoretically.  Learning music in this way teaches you the importance of musical conversation.  If all you have is the paper, and you’re learning chord changes by sight, you’ll understand the theory, but you don’t gain the feeling, and your ear doesn’t develop.  There’s so much inflection in the way all these great musicians play, and that’s what you really want to get to.”

Colley’s been a professional musician ever since.  “I did the jam session for three years,” he recalls.  “I would play there until 1, then from 2 to 4 I often went to a place called the Espresso Bar, playing behind poets, duos or trios.  From 16 to 18 I played duo gigs around L.A. with Jimmy Rowles.  He would never tell me what he was going to play; he’d just do it.  I learned song after song that way.  He was a beautiful player and a great composer.

“At 13 I started studying with Monty Budwig, a very giving teacher, a great influence.  He was playing with Zoot Sims and many other players, and he’d take me to L.A. clubs like Donte’s and Carmelo’s.  The lessons were all-day sessions where we’d listen to records, he’d give me records to take home; we’d play classical duets and then jazz standards.  I was studying particularly Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden.  Mingus I loved very early on in terms of structure, composition, the variety of sounds and textures he used, the incredible orchestrations, the power of the music — and so much conviction.  With LaFaro, it was his fluidity, melodic sense, and incredible facility, which blows you away at 13 years old — and still does.  I spent a lot of time playing along with Paul Chambers’ solos, which were complete, easy to follow, very direct and beautiful.

“I was really kind of a purist until my older brother, who is a drummer and was always trying to turn me on to different styles of music, took me to see Weather Report during their Heavy Weather period.  It was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.  Seeing Jaco Pastorius play made me realize that there was so much other stuff out there other than the straight-ahead types of jazz that I’d been listening that I had no idea about.

“Later, at 16 or 17, I listened to a lot of Ornette’s music, and Charlie began to influence me.  He had the same qualities of simplicity and beauty that I appreciated in Paul Chambers.  More than that, I was impressed by his patience.  He never plays anything superfluous; you get the feeling every note is exactly what he means.  The ’70s was a bleak period for recording for bass.  Everybody was using direct-from-the-pickup, losing a lot of the beauty of the instrument’s natural sound, but Charlie never seemed to succumb to that.  His sound has so much integrity; it’s so much part of what he plays.  Like Jim Hall, who I’ve worked with in the last few years, he’s a true improviser, with no preconceptions of what’s going to happen next, reacting to everything going on within the group in the atmosphere of that moment.

“I didn’t take high school too seriously, but I finished, though I didn’t plan to go to college.  Then I heard that Charlie was teaching at California Institute of the Arts, so I auditioned.  They were just starting a jazz department, and they gave me a full scholarship in 1984.  It was a great experience.  I became totally involved in the school’s incredible World Music program, which included traditional African music, Javanese Gamelan from Indonesia, North and South Indian music.  There are classes on theory related to those different musics, and ensembles you play in.  They also had a wonderful faculty.”

In 1986, Colley began touring and recording with Carmen McRae; two years later he received his Bachelors of Music degree, and moved to New York City.  He became one of New York’s busiest bassists, working and recording with musicians representing a 360̊ style spectrum — Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, James Newton, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, Mike Stern, Roy Hargrove, T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Pat Martino, Chris Potter, Tim Berne, Lost Tribe, and many others.  He leads Portable Universe, a sextet, and is involved in Lan Xang, a new collective quartet.

subliminal… is Colley’s third 1998 release.  He can’t quite put his finger on what triggered this burst of composition after ten years blending as the penultimate sideman.  “I’ve been writing more, and feel it’s time to do more of my own music,” he says.  “The process of recording solidifies your concept.  It forces you to get specific about the pieces you’re creating.  I’ve done more than 60 CD’s in the last eight years, and I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great leaders, to observe how it’s done right.”

subliminal… opens with Bill Stewart’s “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” a 24-bar tune in 6/4 “with a 4/4 bar in there somewhere. I like the way the melody is offset from the rhythm, starting two beats before the bass line begins.  It’s interesting to play on.”

Colley’s compelling title track “was written on the bass.  I like to compose that way because I hear a lot melodically that I don’t hear on the piano — it’s a much more open voice for me.  It’s a challenging line, with the A-section in 9/2 and the B-section in 3/4.   We solo over the 9/2 form, and play interludes between the solos.”

Potter’s burgundy bass clarinet tone is rich and blended throughout “The End and the Beginning,” a mysteriously wistful Colley ballad that evokes complex emotion.  It’s followed by Potter’s “Turangalila,” inspired by the reedman’s meditations on a composition of Messaien.  “Chris wrote it out with no changes per se,” Colley says.  “The improvising is free.  It has a bass and tenor melody in unison.  It’s very open, and points you in a direction that lets you play very freely with the ideas.”

Carrothers’ chromaticism and Potter’s huge tenor sound bring Colley’s slow-medium ballad “Out of The Void” vividly to life, then the band plays Charlie Parker’s “Segment” with inspired idiomatic heat.  Bill Stewart’s solo at the top “really illustrates his ability; no matter how abstract his ideas might be, the form is always there — it always comes back to one.”  Potter’s rhythmically free tenor solo conjures the ghost of Bird ascending, while Colley walks with the confident assertion he imbibed from the playing of Leroy Vinnegar and Paul Chambers years ago.

Colley offers some thoughts on the nature of love with “Is What It Is,” utilizing the familiar changes and “adding a couple of notes.  I like writing over forms I already know that everybody’s done for a long period of time, creating different melodies that give you new things to play over.”

“Impossible Vacation” contains 10 bars of 4/4, 11 bars of 3/4, and 4 bars of 4/4.  “Playing freely over this piece so that it doesn’t seem like you’re marking time is a challenge,”  Colley notes.  The proceedings conclude with “Verbatim,” a spirited blues.

“I think a lot about contrast in general,” Colley concludes.  “Rhythmic contrast, harmonic contrast; thinking about what’s come before a composition when you’re setting it up.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Jimmy Rowles, for example, would write a simple chord progression, then place one note in the melody to offset it, like ‘Peacocks’ or ‘502 Blues.’  Those kind of compositions interest me.  Also I get bored very easily, so I like music that has a wide range of textures — playing on changes, playing on no-changes, playing on a melody, playing in 4 or 7 or 9, different instrumentations.

“I want to be involved in a lot of different music.  Some music might speak to me melodically, some rhythmically, some intellectually.  If I’m playing with Jim Hall one night, with Andrew Hill the next, and something more groove-oriented like Lan Xang the next, it just feeds a different part of me.  It’s all music I listen to, and absorb in different ways.  Essentially I have my style, whatever that is, and I can subtly adapt it for many different things.  I don’t think of music in terms of ‘this is inside and this is outside’ or ‘this is new music and this is old music.’  It’s more inclusive.  It comes back to listening.  When you’re listening to what’s really going on and not thinking about what you think is supposed to be going on, then you get to the root of what it’s about.”

 

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For the 65th Birthday Anniversary Of Hilton Ruiz, My Liner Notes for the 2003 CD “Enchantment” and Interviews from 2000 and 2001

For the 65th birthday anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Hilton Ruiz (May 29, 1952-June 6, 2006), here are the liner notes that I wrote for his final CD, Enchantment, a 2002 release, plus the interview that we conducted for those liner notes and a WKCR interview from 2000.

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Liner Notes For Enchantment:

It’s long-established that Hilton Ruiz, now 49 years old, is a virtuoso of the piano. Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in midtown Manhattan, cater-corner from the old Madison Square Garden and two blocks from Musicians Union headquarters, Ruiz studied Puerto Rican folkloric music and European Classical repertoire in early childhood. By 18, the wunderkind was a professional jazzman, gigging with Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Frank Foster, and Jackie McLean, and making an impact on the Latin circuit with soñero Ismael Rivera and Mongo Santamaria. Through extensive tutorials with ancient-to-the-future pioneer Mary Lou Williams, a lengthy apprenticeship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and postgraduate work with George Coleman and Tito Puente, Ruiz learned how to imprint his personality on a surfeit of styles that encompass the jazz timeline; he’s equally comfortable laying down idiomatic two-handed stride and the blues at its most primal, morphing the piano into a drum on a nasty montuno, carving wicked elongated Bud Powell bebop lines with bell-like clarity, and soaring to the outer partials of abstraction.

Ruiz internalized from his mentors the old-school credo that technique is nothing more or less than a means to communicate and entertain; as he puts it, “Making people feel good, putting on a great show and still playing valid, beautiful music is what it’s all about.” On Enchantment — a seamless set comprising 12 cannily sequenced songs, each referencing some aspect of his professional experience — he does precisely that.

The connecting thread, Ruiz notes, is how the compositions “lend themselves to the ear; even though some might be complex or angular, basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record.” His bottom line: “Play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can recognize them and hear the song. The improvisation is the other part of it. But those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.”

The pianist’s fierce two-chorus improvisation on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the set-opener, gets the juices flowing, not least because of the mighty groove set by bass veteran Lisle Atkinson and young Venezuelan trapset whiz Marlon Simon. Then Ruiz plunges into the title track, recorded by long-time colleague Dave Valentin a few years back. The pretty refrain blends Brazilian and Caribbean elements; Ruiz improvises elegant bop-inflected lines with a Barry Harris connotation atop a smooth carpet of rhythm-timbre set forth by Simon and Panamanian percussionist Renato Thoms on cowbell. Note Ruiz’ keen comping over Atkinson’s brief solo before he launches into his final theme-and-variations, climaxing with an immaculately executed parallel octaves sequence.

The versatile tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman comes on board for “I’ll Call You Later,” a swinging blues with a bebop melody. After a horn-like Atkinson solo in the upper register, Freeman uncorks an intense solo with a resonant sound that channels the spirits of Chicago ancestors Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan; lest you forget his modernist affinities, he concludes his declamation with a series of crescendoing arpeggios. Not to be outdone, Ruiz follows with another logical, crisply executed bop statement that contains not one excess note.

Ruiz first played with Freeman as a sideman on the 1977 album, Beyond the Rain [Contemporary], while the tenorist was a member of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine; in the mid-’80s, they worked in the initial iteration of The Leaders, with Don Cherry, Arthur Blythe, Cecil McBee and Don Moye. “Chico’s playing transcends the ordinary,” Ruiz says. “As a listener, he captivates me, takes me to a spiritual level. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking.”

Freeman sticks around for “Sweet Cherry Pie,” an irresistible line with a cha-cha/boogaloo groove that trombonist Juan Pablo Torres recorded in the mid-’90s. It’s the kind of feel Ruiz danced to — and played — on countless occasions in his teens.

The ’60s were a golden age for Latin music, and Ruiz recalls them fondly. “It was great,” he says. “I got a chance to see Barry Rogers, Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn, and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn would have 14 bands going all night. You’d take the IRT to Clark Street, go up in the hotel, buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got TNT, the Lebron Brothers, the Meditation, Eddie Palmieri, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, and Johnny Pacheco; there was constant dancing and grooving and partying. I’d get back on the subway early in the morning.

“Everything was mixed up. I listened to WABC radio in my youth, which involved the Four Seasons, the Beatles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys. I’d go to the Cheetah and hear the R&B bands, and I listened to hard rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic. I listened to Classical Music. I listened to everything.

“When I was about 14 I’d hear Ed Williams’ radio program, ‘Maiden Voyage,’ on WLIB, and later on I listened to Ed Beach on WRVR. I heard John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But when I heard the Bebop, I was captivated how it sounded and how it swung. I could really feel it. I’d go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan; I heard Elvin, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner and many other people live.

“I listened to a lot of great saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies, and through them — John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Rahsaan — I was introduced to the great pianists. Hearing Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Rahn Burton, and Bill Evans, I could relate to how the piano works with the horns; they showed me conceptually what and what not to do. When I started working, I had some working knowledge of how to accompany, and for the last thirty years I’ve been an accompanist in addition to having my own gigs as a leader.”

Ruiz goes on to discuss his piano influences: “Oscar Peterson’s trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen had an impact on me like a horn — I could really focus on the piano. I heard Eddie Palmieri a lot at dances, but Herbie Hancock made the strongest impression for his beautiful harmonies and ideas. Then I heard McCoy on the record African Village, with that technique and soloing and fire. That told me there was someone else besides Herbie. I listened to Harold Mabern live, and studied a bit with him. Also Barry Harris, Chris Anderson and Roland Hanna. Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, was a good friend, and so was Hugh Lawson. I liked Bill Evans, especially for the way he comped behind bass players. He directed the music but at the same time left it wide-open, constantly setting up a carpet where you could blend, and that really impressed me.”

“I was around Mary Lou Williams from when I was 18 until she passed. She showed me a lot about what not to do. When I did something wrong, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done.’ Then I’d watch her play, and saw the true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that came out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling.”

Keep these recollections in mind when listening to the four Ruiz solos that comprise the next section of Enchantment. The first pair are rare piano readings of “Gemini” and “Black Narcissus,” by saxophone giants Jimmy Heath and Joe Henderson, respectively.

“I’ve worked on and off with Jimmy Heath through the years, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Ruiz says. “He’s very knowledgeable; I could always go to him with questions and he’d straighten me out. I like the melody and the feeling of ‘Gemini.’ It also happens to be my sign. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way Jimmy wrote it.

“Though it’s in my resume that I worked with Joe Henderson, I only worked with him once, years and years ago, around 1970, as a sub. I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. This tune was part of his repertoire then, and he played it for me on the piano. I learned exactly how too play it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right.”

Ruiz shows how thoroughly he’s assimilated the language of Thelonious Monk on a quintet version of “Shades of Thelonious,” an ingenious reharmonization of “You’ve Changed” that he recorded in trio format in 1991 [Doin’ It Right (RCA-Novus)]. “The melody gives my interpretation of Monk’s flavor,” says Ruiz, who grew up a 15-minute walk from Monk’s San Juan Hill apartment. “The flatted fifths and other devices identify with Monk and Ellington. They could make sense out of those intervals, creating beauty from them.

The second pair of solos are an elegant, blues-drenched reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” (“it’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia”) and “Silhouette,” an impressionistic on-the-spot improvisation with a Gershwinesque flavor.

Bassist Lisle Atkinson plays the melody on the first part of “Goodbye” with a plush arco sound before Ruiz enters on the bridge.

Ruiz cites Frank Sinatra’s iconic reading of the Gordon Jenkins torch song on Only The Lonely as his inspiration. “Guys tend to play tunes in their own style, with embellishments,” Ruiz notes. “Whenever I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because of his great articulation. He did it right! Here I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation. In a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody; if the melody allows, even the drums can do it. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they get other sounds. I’ve always been conscious of leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality. That comes from my background in Latin music, and also from playing extensively with people like Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and other great drummers. When the drummer is conscious of the melody and chord changes, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, then you can elicit beautiful overtones, which enhances the whole performance.”

That’s what drummers Simon and Thoms do on “Home Cookin,” a funky boogaloo that Ruiz recorded in 1987 [Somethin’ Grand (Novus)] and played during a cameo in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors. And he ends with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” (from Kirk’s flute album I Talk With The Spirits), showcasing a Chico Freeman solo that drips with soulful Chicago feeling, embodying Ruiz’ assertion that “the idea of the blues is to play something that sounds good to take the blues away — a taste of real life.”

“All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience,” Ruiz says. “He played the music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. The great composers of Classical music. Music from all over the world — Africa, the Orient, the Middle East. We had to play all these musical flavors every night. I had to research. Rahsaan would come to my apartment, we’d go to the record store, and he’d buy 15-20 records; each time he’d give me one or two, pointing out songs to listen to. Then I’d play those songs on the gig. I learned boogie-woogie and stride piano in the manner required to get it to swing in its own style — do it for real, make it sound right. That comes from within. If you love something and have the talent, then you get to it.”

Ruiz concludes: “I didn’t want to make this album complicated. I wanted it to be straightforward and honest. The listener can make their own decision.”

This listener’s verdict is A-plus.

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Hilton Ruiz (WKCR, 10-19-00):

TP: Was Dizzy Gillespie’s music very significant for you as a youngster in formulating your conception and sound?

RUIZ: Most definitely. I really heard Charlie Parker first, and Miles Davis. The tune I remember is “Back Home Blues.” I had a chance to be around Dizzy a little bit. He was a really funny, beautiful person. Magnanimous. He’s one of those certain artists who reaches the highest level of entertainment 24 hours a day. Make you laugh; taking care of business. I had the honor and opportunity to be on a video and CD called Rhythm Stick. We played together a couple of times, with Jon Faddis and Dizzy and me on the piano, just the three of us. For the few times I got a chance to be around him, I’m really happy to say that I knew the man, because people like this only come once in a lifetime. But thankfully, we have the music to listen to and to study.

TP: About how old were you, what year was it, when you started getting out there in the public world and playing? Mid-’60s, in your teens?

RUIZ: Yeah. I played with Ismael Rivera, a great Puerto Rican sonero, and I played with Ralph Robles for a while in a band called Ray Jay and the East Siders.

TP: What part of New York did you grow up in?

RUIZ: I grew up on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, right by the old Madison Square Garden. But I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side and a lot of time uptown in Harlem. All over the place. I’ve been all over the city. I know this city very well.

TP: What were your first music lessons? Was it a family thing? How did it begin for you?

RUIZ: It was a family thing. My family really loved music, and they listened to records. My uncle took me to Professor Santiago Mesorana, who was also from Puerto Rico when I was 5 years old. He started me off on the solfeo, which is also called solfeggio, a method of sight-singing. Then after a couple of months went by, he let me get to the keyboard, and I studied folkloric Puerto Rican music. That lasted maybe about two years. After that, I went to Carnegie Hall, and I studied with George Armstrong, a very great pianist. That’s where I played my first recital, at Little Carnegie.

TP: Was that dealing with Puerto Rican folkloric music or Western Classical?

RUIZ: No, that was Franz Liszt and Mozart.

TP: So you weren’t just playing Puerto Rican folkloric music as a kid.

RUIZ: Well, I started with that. Then we did the Bach Inventions and the Handel and the Czerny and the Bartok.

TP: So you had a facility, obviously.

RUIZ: Well, at that time I had a facility, but it hadn’t come out yet. Because I had to learn the setup of the instrument and how to get over the keys. That was tedious. It was a very tedious time in my growing-up, because it was very difficult. You had to have in this place, play this soft, play this long, play this short, put the pedal down here, and then if you didn’t do it right, start again. The next week you’d start again. So you had to trudge through it just to get the next level. So I didn’t know anything about harmony or anything like that. I was just like reading and interpreting the Classical music. I did that for about four or five years.

TP: How old were you when the notion of improvising, when jazz started entering your picture?

RUIZ: When I was about 13-14 years old, I used to listen to a radio program, Ed Williams, “Maiden Voyage” [WLIB], and later on I listened to Ed Beach. I heard John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk…

TP: Who you later played with.

RUIZ: Yeah. Almost five years with Rahsaan. It was super-beautiful. One thing led to another, and here I am.

TP: Who were the jazz pianists who attracted you and who you tried to emulate? Was it that sort of process for you?

RUIZ: Yeah, it was. The first, strongest impression was Herbie Hancock. Of course, I had been dancing and going to see Eddie Palmieri a lot. I had been going to see Lee Morgan live quite a bit, and Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and of course, Rahsaan. So I got records like The Inflated Tear, and listened to Rahn Burton, who was an influence. But Herbie Hancock made a real deep impression on me because of the beauty of the ideas that were coming out. It seemed to be really just beautiful harmonies. Then I heard McCoy Tyner, and I said, “Wow!” I had never heard anything like that. I said, “there’s somebody else besides Herbie Hancock.” I heard McCoy Tyner on a record called African Village, and I heard that technique and that soloing and that fire. I was listening to Harold Mabern live, and I got a chance to study a little bit with Harold. Barry Harris. Chris Anderson. Roland Hanna. And my good friends were Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, and Hugh Lawson… I was with a lot of guys.

I heard Bill Evans and I liked that a lot, but the point where I heard Bill Evans was really with his trio. As I went back and started doing research, I heard some early things on Riverside with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, and it was like Bill Evans, the bebop pianist. I met him at the Vanguard, and he was a very-very nice cat. But what I liked about Bill Evans was the way that he could comp behind bass players. He was very sensitive to the more fragile elements of the music. He would lay out a constant carpet where you could just blend and do your thing without really being directed in any way. He would be directing, but at the same time he would leave it wide-open, and that really impressed me.

I was around Mary Lou Williams for quite a number of years, from when I was 18 years old until she passed, and she showed me a lot of things about what not to do. When you were doing it wrong, she’d just say, “No, that’s not good, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done. Then I watched her play, and got a chance to see the real-real true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that were coming out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling. That was a great opportunity. I’ve had a lot of great people around me. The list goes on and on.

TP: I’d think for a curious, talented musician growing up in New York at that time, the opportunities for learning would have been endless.

RUIZ: Well, it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of fun while I was doing it, and I still do have a lot of fun — because I think that’s the whole idea, to have fun and let other people enjoy what you’re enjoying. But there were a lot of humbling moments, times when you had to get up there and didn’t know a song or maybe you weren’t ready to do a certain thing, and you were out there in front of everybody. I was lucky because I was given the encouragement to go out there and keep playing. If I was playing something that wasn’t cool, they would tell me to stroll, just cool out for a minute and listen, come in when it was appropriate. But it was always an atmosphere of encouragement. So I was very fortunate in that sense.

This band I have at Sweet Basil, we’re kickin’ it real hard in there. People are coming in, the place has been packed already a couple of nights. They’re dancing in the chairs and stuff and eating and drinking, and everybody’s smiling and having a good time.

[MUSIC: HR, “Shades of Thelonious,” “Round Midnight”]

TP: You mentioned a lot of pianists among your influence, but you didn’t mention Monk, who was close to Mary Lou Williams for many years.

RUIZ: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting Thelonious Monk, but I did see him at a concert for one of George Wein’s festivals. He had been off for a little while, and he had come back on the scene, and I made I sure I got a chance to hear him — and it was fantastic. So the impression he made on me is in these songs, especially “Shades of Thelonious”… I tried to capture the feeling of how I feel about the flavors that Monk uses when he composes and when he plays. It’s a distinct flavor, and it doesn’t really make sense to try to analyze it too much, because it’s the sound that he produces… It’s so slick and yet it’s so correct at the same time. It’s a pleasure to play the compositions. That’s probably why I didn’t mention him. I can’t mention everybody at the same time, because there’s so many people. You have people like Carlos McKinney and Johnny O’Neal and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau. There are so many guys who have made an impression on me pianistically. Monty Alexander. Horace Parlan. But primarily it’s been Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri. Chick Corea, who is a genius. And anybody who can play. Anybody who can really play and make me want to go home and try it out. Because what I do is I hear something, and I go home and try it out and see if I can put it int my little tool chest, so when I go out to do my job, I can have more variations of different things I can do to try to get the job done..

TP: A contemporary of Monk’s was Tito Puente, who passed earlier this year and whom we heard playing mallets on “Round Midnight.” Hilton said at a certain point during his solo, “you’re never going to hear that again; not that way!

RUIZ: Because that’s the real way to play the vibes. Tito was a vibist in the sense that he played the vibes and got the full sound out of the instrument, not the approach that I would approach the vibes as a piano player. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, with guys playing like the piano on the vibes. But to get your own sound, a recognizable, beautiful sound, and to make it sound like bubbles… That calls for percussion, people who have studied the instrument and know to move around and get that particular sound.

Tito was so great as a person, so great as a musician. One of the greatest things about Tito Puente was that with all the things he had done — he had been there with Monk, he had been there with Charlie Parker, he had been there with John Coltrane, he had seen all of that live playing, back-to-back sets, all the guys respected him — he always was trying to keep everything real and keep the real flavor of what we call jazz music, and without losing the roots of his native Puerto Rico, and from New York and Spanish Harlem. The volumes and volumes and volumes of tunes, great dancing tunes, great arrangements, great vocalists, and that he would come out and get a band like these guys here, the Tito Puente Latin Jazz All-Stars. James Moody was in there for a while, Paquito d’Rivera, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin, Charlie Sepulveda, Giovanni Hidalgo. He surrounded himself with only the very best musicians, and he knew what he wanted to do at all times. He was always prepared. He always had a bag of music with him. He was ready for any situation. But he allowed us to grow and flourish in our own way. He made a way for all of us to carry on, because all he wanted was for us to respect the music and keep playing the music. Anybody who ever saw him, or you just put on one of those records, and you can feel the flavor of the thing. It’s kicking. It’s hard. It’s coming hard. It’s really great. It’s a magnificent thing he’s left us.

Tito Puente and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I must say, are the two individuals who really made me kind of look and say, “Entertainment, show business…”

TP: Is not incompatible with the art of music.

RUIZ: Right. Making people feel really good, and putting on a great show and still playing some valid, beautiful music — that’s what it’s all about.

TP: In the ’60s, you were playing with Ismail Rivera, in Latin Soul bands… There was a huge Latin movement in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, Latin bands playing all over. A lot of musicians paid their rent on gigs and dances with Latin bands.

RUIZ: Sure. It was great. I got a chance to see Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel would have 14 bands going all night.

TP: The one in Brooklyn? Just take the 2, go up in the hotel…

RUIZ: You got it. You go in there, you can buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got the TNT, you got the Lebron(?) Brothers, you got the Meditations, you got Eddie Palmieri, you got Pete Aconda, Johnny Pacheco, there’s like constant dancing and constant grooving, constant partying. We’d all get back on the subway early in the morning, and go to school or whatever.

TP: Or not.

RUIZ: Well, I did. I went to school. I didn’t want to get up a lot or mornings. But I made it there. I didn’t even want to be there a lot of times.

TP: Where did you go to high school?

RUIZ: I went to Power Memorial. [Kareem was a senior when he got there] It’s not there any more. That was a tough school.

TP: So you to go Power Memorial, and you’re playing music the whole time and keeping up an academic course-load. It sounds like you grew up pretty young.

RUIZ: Well, academically… I’ve been around the world ten times. I’ve been almost everywhere by now, traveling constantly. I can thank the Creator for that. So I’ve been able to see things that in my education I saw in books, and actually touch things and be standing in the places of true history of this planet. So that’s basically my education, because when I got out of high school…

TP: You went right to work, didn’t you.

RUIZ: Yeah, I just went right to work. I started working with Clark Terry. That’s the first time I went on the road, was with the Clark Terry Quartet, with Major Holley on bass… No, it was Louis Smith that first time on bass, then Major Holley came in, and then Victor Sproles. Then with the big band, the quartet, the quintet and everything. Then in ’72, Jackie McLean took me to France, to a festival at Chateau Vallon, and that was really out of sight. Then Rahsaan took me out for a few times. I went out with George Coleman and with Tito. It’s been a great thing. I recommend everybody to really travel at least a little bit. Take a cruise, take a plane somewhere. Really get the flavor of other… But for people who haven’t extensively traveled that much, it’s really worth it to get out. Because you hear the music, you taste the food, you meet the people, you smell the air, you see the cars and vehicles, you see the architecture. You never know what you might run upon.

TP: As a kid and through your life, did jazz and Latin music seem like part of a big continuum to you? How was it alike? How was it different?

RUIZ: It was all mixed up. Because I listened to WABC radio in my early youth. That involved Four Seasons and the Beatles and Little Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, like everything. That was the music that I listened too. I would listen to things like “A Summer Place,” which I still think is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever been written. Then I used to go to the Cheetah and I used to listen to the bands there — the first Cheetah, which was basically Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll. I listened to some Hard Rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Traffic — a lot of that music. Classical Music. I listened to everything.

But when I started listening to Bebop music, ,I was captivated by the sound of it, and the way it made me feel. Because I’m coming from a Latin-Puerto Rican-New York, all the way in there background. When I heard the Bebop, I said, “Wow, this stuff really is swinging.” I could really feel it. Like I said before, I used to go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan. I heard a lot of the guys live, and a lot of the ladies, too.

The most important thing you can do is to go out and listen to everything. Listen to everything! And especially for young children… I as a parent make sure that my daughter has listened to everything. She likes rap music, she likes all kinds of stuff. But she heard the music. I allowed her to make that choice, and I exposed her to that. I didn’t try to hold her back from anything like that. I think that a lot of kids would like Bebop music and they would like a lot of the things that we enjoy as adults. But because it’s not given to them in the volume of other music that’s out there, constantly being pumped out, pumped out, the peer pressure and everything like that… I’m not saying that the Rap is not happening, because those guys really know what they’re doing, and they are masters of that style. But there’s a whole lot of other things that can incorporated into that, and a lot of times kids don’t really get a chance to hear bebop music and the jazz music. But that’s so very important that this music be exposed to everyone, so that everyone can make their own choice and their own decisions, say “I like this and I don’t like that.” I like Flamenco or I like Opera, I like Bebop and I like creative music. But if it feels good, I can’t knock it.

[MUSIC: HR-G. Coleman, “Strange”; HR-David Sanchez, “Sonny’s Mood”]

TP: I’ll repeat your comment about George Coleman, “he spells all the big words,” referring to his ability to make art out of polysyllabic harmonic language.

RUIZ: He cleaned that solo out. He got in all the corners of it. George Coleman, pound for pound… There are a lot of great saxophonists out there, but in terms of consistency, I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone who was more consistent than George Coleman. In that style. Because you have Jimmy Heath, who’s very consistent, James Moody, a lot of guys. But George has a certain polish, a certain flair that you can almost taste the music. I was listening to that solo, and I could almost see Amsterdam, the time we spent in Amsterdam, and in Paris and in London, and just the visual things of all our travels. We had so much fun. Billy Higgins was the drummer, and Herbie Lewis and Ray Drummond on two different tours. On one tour we did nine weeks in Europe, and we had fun all the way down the line. We never knew what we were going to play. Playing everything through all the keys, at different tempos. Billy Higgins is right there, knows just what to do and his volume was just perfect for a piano player, because he’s so intense but he keeps the dynamic level… I’m glad to see that George is doing good and he’s in good health. I’m looking in the future for people like that to get much more recognition for their artistic endeavors.

TP: Have you played much or at all with Craig Handy and Ryan Kisor before?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve never played with Ryan before. The first time was at rehearsal on opening night. But he came in and read the music and everything. He’s a very cool cat. We’re getting to know each other and he’s taking care of business. I’m very happy to have him there. I’ve never had the chance or enough work… I’ve been working almost constantly, thank God. I’ve been able to put my daughter through college and buy a home. But the bands are always different. I try to keep as many people together as I can. But since I can’t keep everybody on salary, it’s hard to maintain that one unit. The longest-lasting edition was probably the Andy Gonzalez-Steve Berrios-Giovanni Hidalgo rhythm section. We made a lot of records together. But these guys are great. Craig Handy is a great saxophonist, a great person. They come to play and they come to make the people feel good, and we don’t really have any attitude problems. Everyone gets a chance to write, everyone gets a chance to be featured. We’re out there making people feel good! That’s what we’re happy to do.

Renato is from Panama so he has that Latin flavor. He’s a very strong conguero. Then Marlon Simon. Every night I get up there, it’s good for me, because I’m used to playing at that level anyway. I’m used to pushing through the envelope into the next envelope, so to speak. I’ve never allowed anything to stop me — as long as, God willing, I can stay healthy — to just keep going for trying to make it better, and try to listen and be supportive, but just keep going for that music and try to make it better. It gets strenuous. At the level we play, it’s a very physical gig. We play ballads and we play a lot of pretty things. But I know people come out and they want to hear fire, and they want to hear something really to make them rock and feel really good. I have to look at the room, I have to see what kind of audience they are. If it seems like it’s a Count Basie type of audience, we have to play something for them. If you see an Ellingtonian… How can you tell if an audience is Ellingtonian or Basieites?

TP: You have an intuition after 35 years playing for people.

RUIZ: They’ve just got a look about them!

TP: What’s the difference between a Basieite audience and an Ellingtonian audience?

RUIZ: I would say that the Ellingtonian audience would be a sophisticated audience of people who really are digging the full classical picture, with the swing, with everything, with the spirituals… To me, that’s like the big picture. And then the Basie group of people are people who probably are into that and know about that, but it’s just straight swing, how hard can they swing you, how hard can they make you move, how good can you feel listening to an orchestra. I’ve heard the Basie band live. It’s just too much. Basie was more into constantly creating that swing for people to dance and to enjoy. Duke was doing that, but also recording different kinds… I haven’t heard as much music as you have. Probably very few people have heard as much music as you have. But we’re speaking hypothetical…

TP: Your sets are fluid from night to night. You might play anything on any given night, is what you’re saying.

RUIZ: Well, I have to look at the room. I have to see the age level. I might play the Flintstones.

TP: And you have to have a band that can handle that, and with these guys you do.

RUIZ: They have to handle all those kinds of things. Because the music that we call jazz is a whole lot of things. But basically, it’s to give somebody a good feeling that you know you’re contributing positive vibrations to your fellow neighbors. It’s an honest thing, where they really like it, or they may not like you, or maybe they’ll like you later… They don’t have to like you. But you’re making them feel good. So therefore, you’re accomplishing something, and you really can say that you’re doing something on this planet; you’re making people feel good.

TP: You were talking about your guiding imperative always being to push the envelope, push through into the next level, and that’s been a palpable part of what you do. You played in the ’70s and ’80s with Arthur Blythe, and Sam Rivers was part of your ensembles in the ’80s…

RUIZ: Marion Brown. I did a tour with Marion. Did a record in Paris called Back To Paris. Marion played “Body and Soul,” played all over “Body and Soul,” and he wrote some originals there. I made two albums with Marion Brown. I played a little bit with Archie Shepp. So many great musicians.

[HR-Sam, “Bluz”; HR (solo), “Soul Eyes”]

[-30-]

*_*_*_*_

Hilton Ruiz for Enchantment (7-30-01):
TP: Talk about selecting the arc of the CD, selecting the repertoire.

RUIZ: I just want it to be record that people can enjoy, and I want it to be accessible to listeners from all different walks of life. Not necessarily a specialized group of jazz listeners… If people want to use the record for just fun listening, that’s what I’m going for. The selections all have very pretty melodies. All I’m trying to do is get to the listeners so they can feel good and have it be accessible to a full range of musicians, from classical on.

TP: That said, you deal with a lot of different styles and approaches. I don’t think it’s so easy to pare down and make material that is as involved as some of these pieces sound as simple as it does.

RUIZ: Well, I think it’s the compositions themselves. They lend themselves to the ear. They’re pretty compositions, even though some of them might be a little complex or angular. But basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record. I didn’t want to make it complicated. I wanted to make it straightforward and honest as to what it is. I guess as the person listens to it, then they make their own decision.

TP: “Seven Steps To Heaven” must go back to Miles Davis. Your association?

RUIZ: I heard it when I was a teenager. The melody just stuck in my mind immediately. It’s very catchy. I tried to make the improvisation concise. I didn’t want to play a whole lot of choruses. I played two choruses and they took it out. It’s kind of an introduction to the album that gets you going and gets the juices flowing.

TP: How much do you pre-plan the arc of the arrangements? Do you carefully work out the whole structure beforehand? Is it more extemporaneous once you get in the studio? Talk about doing a record vis-a-vis a live performance.

RUIZ: It calls for more rehearsing and trying to put everything in a package that is concise and yet has the freedom to be expressive at the same time. Basically, when we get in the studio, I don’t have an idea of what kind of arrangement I want. But a lot of these songs, when they were written, were basically arranged at that time. So the only thing in terms of arranging would be the choice of instruments that you’re going to use in the performance, or to include an interlude here or a vamp there or a tag here. But going back to “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the arrangement is all laid out. It’s already there.

TP: There you play a Bud Powell, bebop style. You play in different styles in different tunes. Does that happen in the heat of the moment, or are you also thinking of your improvisational approach beforehand?

RUIZ: Not really. I practice every day and I try to work out different ways to enhance my improvisations. But it happens when it happens. That’s the nature of jazz. You really don’t know what’s going to happen in your solo. There are patterns and things that a lot of us use to the point across. But you really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until you make that tape, then that’s what have to live with, or decide whether you want to try another one. But since it’s a group with quartet and a lot of percussion, it’s not overly arranged. I like to let the percussion be part of the harmonic structure because the drums have their own harmony, which adds overtones to the rest of the diatonic harmony that the keyboard and the regular 12-tone tuned instruments. So there’s a certain degree of space that has to be left there, so that the drums and conga and bongos will have an audible space in this particular quartet. Now, if I’m doing a big band arrangement, it’s a whole different story. That calls for putting the right horns in the right place and things like that. But basically we just have the one horn as a guest, who was Chico Freeman. I had the music written for him and he rehearsed it. Some of it he saw on the spot.

I like to leave a spontaneous element in recording. If you go in there and record something you’ve practiced a million times, and you know exactly how it’s going to go, that’s fine. But to me, that comes down under the heading of maybe… I wouldn’t put it in the category of being a jazz performance, because one of the main elements of jazz is the improvisation.

Basically, to break it all down, if you can play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can understand the melody and hear the song, then the improvisation is the other part of it. But the song is also very important that a person can recognize the melody of the song. And those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.

TP: Is “Enchantment” your composition?

RUIZ: It’s an original, about five years old. It was recorded on an album called Primitive Passions by Dave Valentin, and it was featured on that album. I’ve never recorded it on any of my albums. It’s a very pretty song. That’s why we chose it to be the title. It’s kind of a Latin-Bossa Nova type thing, a cross between Brazilian and Caribbean flavors. It has the flavor of East Coast Latin Jazz and it also… This one wasn’t necessarily like a Cha-Cha or a Mambo, which is pretty strictly Caribbean. It has no parameters. It has an element of Brazilian music, of South America and Caribbean music.

“I’ll Call You Later” is a straight-up blues. It’s pretty straightforward. We play the melody, which is a bebop-flavored melody. Chico takes a great solo. It’s one of those tracks you listen to for enjoyment, just bounce. Chico got a very good sound here.

TP: All the tunes were just right for him. You’re on records of his going back to the ’70s?

RUIZ: I was on one of his first albums, called Beyond the Rain. Chico used to come listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The last couple of years I was playing with Rahsaan, Chico got the gig with Elvin Jones, who had one of the groups I’d go listen to a lot since I was teenager. I always enjoyed listening to the Elvin Jones groups. Chico was in this particular group with Pat LaBarbera, and he had a certain spiritual quality about his playing that transcended the ordinary… As a listener, I was captivated, and he took me to a listening level that was spiritual. That’s how I felt. In a positive sense.

There was a band called the Leaders around ’84, in which I was the original pianist. Don Cherry was the original trumpeter on the first tour.

TP: You’ve played in so many situations. It’s hard to think of a musical environment you haven’t covered — from New York piano function things, which go from Latin Jazz, Boogaloo, Bebop, Blues, Avant-Garde. And you touch on everything in this record. It all seems very comfortable to you. Anything to say about the panorama of styles and approaches that you seem able to access very naturally.

RUIZ: I listened to a lot of records. I love the music very much, and the music was a really big part of my life in terms of enjoyment, and listening and buying records. I really got a good groove just putting on records and listening to different artists — Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. They played so good that to me it was an enjoyable thing. It was like a daily thing. I’d get up in the morning and I’d want to go buy a new record or try something out, play the piano along with the records. Then I started getting gigs with great musicians; a lot of them were on the records I had at home. All of a sudden, I found myself in the bands of these people who I used to listen to on record. Since I had the love for it, and I did a lot of research, I learned how to play the right voicings and how to be an accompanist. I was so proud and so happy to be there… It wasn’t about money or anything like that. It was about just being able to be up there and play that music, and to get the recognition that I was at a level where I was able to play with these great musicians. So day by day, the days added up and months and years; thirty years later I look back, and I’m on over a hundred albums. [May 29, 1952]

TP: You started gigging in ’70 or so? Or before that, in high school?

RUIZ: I started gigging in the late ’60s. The first gigs were with Joe Newman from the Basie band, Frank Foster, Clark Terry. The first time I went on the road was with Clark Terry. I was 18 years old. Then Jackie McLean was my first European tour. I was 20 then. Then I went with Rahsaan Roland Kirk for almost five years.

TP: Rahsaan had a huge impact on the way you think about music.

RUIZ: Definitely. Because all the different things that I enjoyed were part of his program, part of the show, part of the experience. He played music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. He was into the Classical music. He was into the Great composers. Music from all over the world — from the Orient, from Africa, from the Middle East. Every night we had to play all these different types of musical flavors. So I had to do more research. I used to go to the record store. He used to come to my apartment in New York, and we would go to the record store, and he would buy 15-20 records, and he would buy me one or two records every time. He’d say, “Hey, you need this one, and take this one, and listen to this song and listen to this song.” Next thing you know, I would either be playing those songs on the gig or I was able to play in the style that was required to get it to swing in its own style. In other words I had to learn how to play some boogie-woogie and stride piano and things like that.

TP: And make it breathe. Be idiomatic..

RUIZ: Yeah, and do it for real. Make it sound right. But that comes from within. If you love something a lot and you have the talent, then you get to it.

TP: “Sweet Cherry Pie” is a beautiful groove tune.

RUIZ: I wrote it about seven years ago. It became a hit on an album by the trombonist J.P. Torres. That tune kind of speaks for itself. You can dance to it, you can listen to it, you can drive your car to it, ride a bicycle, jog, whatever. It’s steady motion; it keeps moving and grooving.

TP: It seems like it would be hard for someone under 35 to write that. You don’t hear a lot of younger people dancing to it any more…

RUIZ: You should go to the Salsa clubs. You’ll find that beat danced to all the time. It’s basically a Cha-Cha.

TP: Are you still playing those clubs?

RUIZ: Yes, occasionally. I do a special here, a special there. I’m guest soloist with a band or a singer. Actually at this point, I’m getting much more to my own research again. I’m going back to sheet music and repertoire, and looking at music I’ve seen before for a second time to see if I’ve missed anything, just to take another reevaluation of what music is after playing it for thirty years. Now that I’ve gotten all this experience, reevaluating from how I looked at it when I didn’t know what a chord was, when I didn’t know what improvisation was, didn’t know what a vamp was, didn’t know what changes were. Music is so vast and so great that you need to always keep going forward but always research the past, too. You can find things that are very useful and devices that maybe aren’t used any more that are really hip! That’s the way I progress, by going back to the…

TP: How long have you been going back to it?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve studied the Schillinger System, I studied the George Russell system, and I’m classically trained. So I’ve always had that thing in terms of musical theory. But being trained as a classical pianist, I was basically taking pieces that took me three or four months to learn, and I learned them bar-by-bar, note-by-note, hands separated and put the hands together on the keyboard. That’s how I learned. But now that I’ve been into advanced harmony… I’ve always been doing it, but now I do it differently, because I have more vocabulary. I want to go back and take a look at things again, knowing… As an example: Given a piece of sheet music thirty years ago, I’d have looked at it and played it by the notes. But I wouldn’t necessarily know that there was a set of chord changes under it that could be used for improvisation. I didn’t know the possibilities that much. I would play the song and that was it. If I had an arrangement I had to play with a band, I would play what was called for on the arrangement, and that was it. Now I go back and take that same piece of music, and I can say, “Oh, look what he used here; he used a G7-flat IX, and look at this, and, oh, this is something we used…” So I can recognize things better now because of the experience and because of everything… You learn more about the terminology and the theoretical part. I’m involved in teaching. So when I do a clinic or a seminar or something like that, you have to find different ways to reach the student. The more you research things and the more you learn different ways to communicate, the better off you are.

“Gemini” is by Jimmy Heath. I played with him a couple of times. I went on a nice European tour with a band called New York All-Stars that Jimmy led, with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Owens, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Cobb. We played at Nice, the Hague and Northsea Jazz Festival. And on and off throughout the years, I’ve played different gigs — club dates and things like that. I never was part of the Heath Brothers Band, because Stanley Cowell is the resident pianist there. Jimmy Heath is one of the guys I looked up to and who I could go to with questions and would straighten me out. Jimmy Heath is very knowledgeable, in addition to being a great player. I like the melody and the feeling. It also happens to be my sign. I guess if something appeals to me, I might play it differently. When you’re improvising and thinking about different things, that’s where the story comes out — how you’re feeling. He did the tune with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet and done big band arrangements of it. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way that he wrote it.

TP: “Black Narcissus” solo is an interesting choice.

RUIZ: Years and years ago, around 1970, I had a big with Joe Henderson. I only worked with Joe once, but it’s in a lot of places as part of my resume that I worked with him. Which I did, but it was just one gig. There was a period where I was a substitute pianist for a lot of great piano players like Stanley Cowell and Harold Mabern, so many great pianists who sometimes had two or three gigs at the same time and needed somebody to come in there. I was recommended to Joe Henderson, and I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. We sat at the piano, and he played this tune for me and was showing me exactly how it goes and how it should be played. This was one of the tunes he was going to play on the gig; it was part of his repertoire at that time. He was playing it a lot at the time. I learned it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right. There are certain little parts that have to be played as he wrote them in order for it to be, if you will, authentic.

TP: You recorded “Shades of Thelonious” a few years ago on one of your RCA records.

RUIZ: Doin’ it Right, I think. I did a trio version. I just added the horn and basically played it straight up just like it was. That’s another one of those tunes that just goes straight down. But the melody itself gives my interpretation of a part of the Thelonious Monk flavor, using those flatted fifths and devices like that, that kind of identify with Monk and Ellington, guys who could use those intervals and yet make sense, make something very pretty out of it.

I heard Monk once at Avery Fisher Hall during the festival, when he played a piano solo. Hearing people like him or Miles Davis just once is like watching a great World Series game. If you were THERE, it’s something you can say to your kids!

TP: Growing up in New York, and particularly growing up where you did in Manhattan, put you in a position that not too many young musicians would have in being able to directly experience the music played by the greatest masters of the music. Or that music being in the air. Even Jazzmobile and things like that. You would have soaked up this sensibility. I don’t know too many people who project more of a New York attitude than you.

RUIZ: I grew up in Midtown Manhattan, right by the old Madison Square Garden. I was one block from Broadway, and the Musicians Union was two blocks down the street. I saw the guys going back and forth to the union, all the entertainers, and the vibe and the people and all this stuff that in general was going on right outside, looking out the window. There was always something going on.

I was lucky, because we grew up in the age of television. People say that television isn’t good for people, but it’s only the way you use it. For me, television was a great thing, because I got to see Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and people like this on TV. That was part of what influenced me, too. I was 7-8-9-10 years old, and I would see these great performers through the medium of television. Now that we have the Internet, it’s showing its value again; that cathode ray tube monitor is one of the greatest communication devices that can be used. If it’s used correctly, it’s marvelous, because you can see and hear.

TP: On the radio you asked me if I could guess the changes of “Shades of Thelonious,” and I couldn’t get it.

RUIZ: “Shades of Thelonious” is basically “You’ve Changed.” Not exactly, but you can play “You’ve Changed” to it, because the bridge goes to the same place that “You’ve Changed” goes to — to the fourth of the chord.

TP: I can say it references “You’ve Changed.”

RUIZ: It’s close enough that it won’t be arguable. Anybody who knows anything about “You’ve Changed” knows that if you play the melody of “You’ve Changed” on top of the chords as that tune is going by, you’ll pretty much have the melody. Although there are places where I use some alternate chords that might clash with the melody. But that happens all the time. That’s the nature of improvisation. You might put a slick chord in there, and it might not be directly associated with the melody note, but as you pass into the next chord it moves into the original tonality, so it’s okay.

TP: Then you do “My Little Brown Book” by Billy Strayhorn. Did you listen to a lot of Ellington when you were younger?

RUIZ: Yes. That’s one of the first things I heard. I heard “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” with that long solo by Paul Gonsalves, then I heard Charlie, Parker, and that was it for saxophones. I said, “Wow, I really like that.”

TP: Did saxophones influence the way you think as a pianist?

RUIZ: Yes. Because I was listening to saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies. I was into saxophone players. I have a collection of great saxophone players, and through those saxophone players I was introduced to the great pianists. One of the first records I had that was just piano, that really had the impact on me like a horn was those Oscar Peterson Trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Then I could really focus on the piano. But through listening to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, I got to hear Al Haig and Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Bill Evans. These great pianists all appeared on these albums. That’s how I had a chance to relate to how the piano works with the horns. So when I started working, I had somewhat of a working knowledge of how to be an accompanist. I’ve always been able to be an accompanist for the last thirty years, in addition to having my own gigs as a leader. Because I’ve led bands for that long, too. but listening to these piano players really showed me conceptually what to do and what not to do. What not to do is just as important as what you do.

TP: That being said, you take “My Little Brown Book” as a solo.

RUIZ: In the sequencing we tried different combinations. We put all the tunes in different order and listened to it, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed it again and listened again. The way I put it together is tonally logical. In other words, I put the two solo pieces together that kind of blended harmonically one into the other, so as you listen to the end of a track, you’re left with a certain feeling, then what comes next to it has to do with what you heard before.

TP: Each tune goes into the other goes into the other. It’s a smooth experience.

RUIZ: Exactly. So by putting two solo pieces together, and then another two… I didn’t want to put three or four together. Because there’s people who like the solos, but now they’re ready to hear some drums! I wanted everything to be just long enough that it would be satisfying, and then give you a little bit more satisfaction, and then go to the next take.

TP: Is “My Little Brown Book” a song that’s been part of your repertoire for a while?

RUIZ: Yes, I’ve played it for a while. I’ve played it with different bands. It’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia. But it’s such a beautiful melody… I play tunes because I like them. I also play them because I’m required to on certain projects. Sometimes I’m exposed to tunes that I like more than others. So I tend to play the things that I enjoy the most, because that enjoyment comes out and is reflected into the audience. People can notice I’m enjoying it, and it seems to make them enjoy it more. I’ve always loved those beautiful melodies. I’ve listened to all kinds of advanced music and I’ve listened to today’s music. I watch the latest things that are coming out, and I watch what’s happening on the music channels. I keep abreast of everything. But a beautiful melody is everlasting.

TP: How about “Silhouette”?

RUIZ: “Silhouette” was done on the spot. That’s totally improvised. That’s something that came in my head and I composed it right there, on the spot, that take and that was it. It’s imagining a silhouette. You see children playing on a hill, jumping rope or whatever, and you see the sun behind it, and you get the beautiful silhouette of what’s going on against that orange sky.

TP: It’s an impressionistic improvisation. “Goodbye” you made a feature for Lisle Atkinson’s arco work.

RUIZ: Lisle is such a great virtuoso, I wanted to have a tune that would feature his artistry. So I listened to the tune and thought about letting the bass play the melody in the first part, and then I’d come in on the bridge. I listened to a version by Frank Sinatra on an album called Only The Lonely. I don’t remember the first time I heard the tune, but one of the times I was playing at a place called Defemio’s, and my friend Hugh Lawson came. It was after the gig, and the musicians were just hanging out, sitting up in the club, and Hugh went up to the piano and started playing the song. I fell in love with it right away. Then I heard it done by other artists. But the Frank Sinatra version was important because I was able to listen to the lyric. Guys tend to play tunes in their own style that they embellish and so on. Whenever I do something where I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because he had a great articulation with lyrics. He did it right! He’s so enjoyable to listen to, plus I love Frank Sinatra’s voice. Then I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation.

A lot of times when you hear the trio, you’re hearing the piano primarily, but in a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody sometimes, and even the drums can play the melodies if they lend themselves to the drums. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they can get other kinds of. sounds. I’ve always been conscious of the drums and leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality.

TP: Does that come from your background in Latin music?

RUIZ: Well, yeah. But also by playing a lot with people like Billy Higgins, and also Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and all these great drummers. When they’re conscious of the tonalities, it can make it sound that much better. When you have a drummer who is conscious of the melody and conscious of chord changes, and plays accordingly, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, as well as percussion, just like I use the piano as a melodic instrument with percussion, then you can get these beautiful overtones to happen. It can really enhance the whole performance with the right drummer who’s playing the right stuff.

TP: On this date with Marlon Simon on traps, how much leeway did you give him? Did you sketch out the tempos and beats you wanted him to play?

RUIZ: Yes. Any hits that had to be made or any figures that had to be played by everybody together, breaks and so on, I would write out for him. Otherwise, play time. Play your stuff. Play what you play. If we all have to come in somewhere, then I would write it out and make it easier for him. Because you can do them by ear, too. Simple arrangements, basically if the guy is on top of his game, he can pick it up right away.

TP: Have you been playing with Marlon for a while?

RUIZ: Four or five years now. Marlon has a couple of CDs out under his own name. He’s very knowledgeable about Latin rhythms, but he’s been around people like Mickey Roker, and he’s done the research. He has a natural swing. Of course, he’s not going to sound the same as a person who has grown up in the United States, because that has something to do with the way you play. But since I am basically dealing with the two idioms, the African and Latin American rhythms, they all come from the same place anyway; they’re all African rhythms to begin with, but went in different directions. He takes care of the business and he’s reliable. He’s growing. The more he plays, the better he gets. I think it’s important, in a sense, to try to have the same personnel — if it’s working — for as long as you can, because that’s where things really start grooving, when people get to know each other musically, and what we can do and things like that. It’s hard when you’ve got to change the drummer or bass player every six months or so. If you get somebody who’s really good it’s going to be okay, but that collaboration of the same people working together on the same thing for a while I think really is what catapults the music forward. If you can have a working band, the same people for a while… When you get to work, you know the repertoire, you know the repertoire, you know what you’re going to play, you know how everybody else plays basically, and you know the breaks and everything else, so now you can focus on creating something and trying to come up with something fresh.

TP: Is that the case with this group?

RUIZ: Yes. Well, Chico is always like that. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking. He’s a leader. Lisle Atkinson is one of those really swinging bass players. He’s played with just about everybody, with all the great singers and saxophone players, and he’s also played with symphonies, and he has a bass choir. He’s a virtuoso. What it is that you want, he can go after it.

TP: How about Renato Thoms? He’s from Panama.

RUIZ: He’s from Panama, and he has played with Eddie Palmieri. He’s on a few records now with notable artists. He came up one night to play as a replacement for Richie Flores, who got busy. He gave me his card and said, “I’ve got your records and I know some of your music.” He sounded real good when he sat in with us. So opportunity arose, and I gave him a call and he came in and he’s been there ever since. I don’t change anything, as long as everything is happening and it’s okay. If a guy doesn’t give me exactly what I want right away, I won’t make a change that fast, because I’ll see if an adjustment can be made. I went through the same thing. I went into places where everybody was more advanced than I was or had more experience, so I’m tolerant of those things. But if a guy really comes to play and it sounds good and the people enjoy it, that’s mainly what I’m concerned with. Little idiosyncracies and things like that will happen. But it all works out if we have time to play together long enough.

“Home Cooking” is one of my hits, if you want to call it that. It was on my first RCA-Novus record, Something Grand. That tune wound up in a movie when I did a cameo with the band in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanor. It’s a popular tune. Every time I play it, the audience really digs it. So it became a mainstay in the program.

“The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, from his flute album, I Talk With The Spirits. I wanted to end it with a blues. But it’s a happy blues. The idea of the blues is to play something happy that sounds good to take the blues away. Chico got some nice Chicago blues in there. So we just close out with the blues, but a happy blues, a taste of real life.

TP: Let’s talk about the here-and-now. Talk about your last six month and how you project the next six months.

RUIZ: The highlights of the last six months: I was a judge for the All-American Jazz Piano competition. I got to hear a lot of young players. that was very nice, very exciting. I went to Miami and the JVC Festival in Miami, out there on the beach in South Beach, Miami. Then I went to Brazil, and played a concert at the Festival Internationale in Londrina. I spent about five days there, and played two concerts. After I came back I played Saratoga, JVC, and I’m going to be up at Newport in August and at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

TP: At this stage of your career… You’ve been visible and well-known on the jazz landscape for 25 years. Are you equally well-received around the world? Do Latin audiences like you for certain things and other audiences for other things? Do you separate the two components of your personality or are they always converging and coming together?

RUIZ: They’re always converging and coming together. I’ve been blessed that the sound that comes out when I play the piano is really what people like. They like to watch me play, they like to listen to what I’m playing. I get the same response anywhere I go. I can be truthful about this. The audiences really enjoy it. They ask for encores…

TP: You communicate.

RUIZ: It doesn’t make any difference in the age group or the ethnic group.

TP: Well, you were growing up in two cultures, in Puerto Rican culture and the intense mixture of New York. How did growing up in New York affect your approach to music?

RUIZ: The beginning was in Carnegie Hall, studying with George Armstrong. But before that I had studied Puerto Rican folkloric piano music with Santiago Messorana. Then when I studied with Mr. Armstrong, that was Bartok and Bach and Haydn and Mozart. So my background, I’m playing in church for different ceremonies and I’m playing in the assembly room for the school. they did Oklahoma when I was 9 years old, and I played the piano for that. Then there singers who somehow heard that I could play piano, and I wound up making a couple of doowop records. Very simple but they wanted me to do it. I guess it was about the sound. It sounded good. People basically said, “this guy sounds good; I want this guy.” Some people who do certain things musically may not have the expertise in certain instrumental areas, so they rely only on the sound of the instrumentalist. “Oh, that guy is playing what I need. I don’t know what it is, but that’s what I want.” So I was always lucky that people liked what I play and they would call me up and give me work. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I’ve been able to work constantly. I’ve had two or three months off, but it never more than that. I was always right back to work again.

TP: You seem to have figured out how to be pragmatic and inspired at the same time.

RUIZ: I try to be realistic about it. The more things that I have to do, the more I realize that I have to do more work at home to be prepared, even now with the new technology. I’ve got my computer and my keyboard and my music-writing software, and reading manuals and things like that. It’s not affecting my performance, because I play the piano every day. I’ll take a tune every day and play it through all the keys. So I make sure that I’m prepared. I may know a song, but the singer might sing it in a different key. I don’t want to be on the spot and be scuffling. Playing it through all the keys might take half-an-hour or so to do it, but it’s a goal that I’ve set for myself. I used to practice tunes just in one key, but it’s been a while now that if I play a tune, I want to play it in all the keys. I’m doing my writing now on the computer. I just changed over from pencil and paper to now I can put my scores in the computer, and I can change things and print them out.

So technologically, I’ve moved up into the 21st century. But I still have feeling and flavor. I’ve just gotten into this in the last ten years, where musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Joe Sample and George Duke and Joe Zawinul were doing these things very long ago. But for at least twenty years I didn’t play anything but acoustic piano. If I played an electric keyboard, it’s because there was no piano in the club. But now, I’m keeping myself up with the new technology in case I have to do something, like a movie score or if I have to do something on Broadway or have to do something that requires me to use this equipment. But I think it’s good that I spent all those years on the acoustic piano. And I won’t make the mistake of going to keyboards and leaving the acoustic piano, because then when you go back to play a gig on the acoustic piano, you find that you might not have the same edge you had when you were playing it every day. I’ve seen that happen to musicians. They were really burning, then they went to the electric keyboards, and when they went back it wasn’t quite as fiery . I think that has to do with just playing on wood without a speaker, when you have to produce the note. That physical thing, that energy is coming from the human body, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s no electricity and no nothing. But I’ve got my keyboard setup and I’m computer-literate now, so I’ve moved up into the 21st century.

Tito Puente was one of the greatest experiences I had musically. I played on about five albums, and I was able to arrange. He showed me a lot of stuff, how to open up my scope as far as arranging is concerned, and he also brought me back to my roots in playing the Latin music. We were very close and became very good friends . He really liked what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to expand. I owe him a lot, and I’m happy that I had a chance to be around such a great person. Hopefully, I’m going to keep growing and playing better and doing my thing.

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R.I.P. Larry Coryell, April 2, 1943-February 19, 2017

A month ago, the jazz world lost the important guitarist Larry Coryell. I didn’t know him well, but had the honor of hosting him twice during my years at WKCR and of being asked to write the liner notes for the 2003 High Note recording, Cedars of Avalon, which appears below.

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“At 59, having “lived and loved and lost and paid all the dues,” guitarist Larry Coryell presents Cedars of Avalon, on which he improvises through a program primarily comprising modernist blues and songbook torch tunes filtered through a bebop prism. It’s the latest chapter in Coryell’s two-decade exploration of early roots, which he began to revisit on the heels of an efflorescent early career that saw him famously navigate—indeed, pioneer in—genres as diverse as Jazz-Rock, Fusion, and creative classical guitar. Here Coryell tells rich stories in a singular voice within the bedrock forms of jazz.

“When we were doing the stuff that is now called Fusion, the musicians I collaborated with didn’t agree on much,” Coryell says. “But we were trying to inject something from our own generation. There was a lot of pressure on me from people I played with in the middle ’60s to play different stuff. Some suggested not to play too much bebop, and the other extreme was ‘play more like Albert Ayler.’ Everything I did with Eleventh House and all the Jazz-Rock was a conscious effort not to copy the heroes and find my own voice. I needed to take that detour. I needed to make that conscious effort to be original in order to come back and better understand what I was trying to do in straight ahead jazz.”

Coryell plays on the edge throughout the program. He deploys his enviable technique as a platform for continuous chance-taking, addressing the guitar with the innocent nonchalance of a child learning the ins and outs of a new toy. Playing straight from the heart with vigor, invention and relentless swing, he grounds his elegant, passionate stories through mastery of idiomatic nuance and musical narrative. Cedars of Avalon is a snapshot of the moment, devoid of the notion of no-mistake perfection.

“I used to spend hours getting everything right,” Coryell remarks. “Then I came to understand that this is not the best way for me to record. Trying to be a perfectionist removes all the heart and spirit from music. Other guys can do it successfully. But I now accept the fact that even if I don’t play exactly what I want to, I’ve got to go with it if the overall feeling is there, because that’s the truth.”

This being said, the playing on Cedars of Avalon is remarkably consistent. That’s due in no small part to the superb rhythm section, headed by pianist Cedar Walton, the album’s dedicatee.

“I’ve been waiting for years to record with Cedar,” Coryell says. “I’ve loved his playing since college, when I heard Art Blakey’s record Golden Boy. In the middle ’80s we did some dates on the West Coast, including a jazz cruise on a boat from San Francisco to Vancouver with Billy Higgins and Freddie Hubbard. When we were getting ready to play, Cedar talked about how important it is to really love the music when you’re on the bandstand, to forget about all personal differences. That impressed me very much, and as I got to know Cedar musically, I became even crazier about his playing. We seem to be compatible in the music we like, the phrases and styles we favor.”

Rounding out the New York A-list rhythm section are bassist Buster Williams and trapsman Billy Drummond. Williams lays down impeccable walking lines on the comp and conjures a series of ebullient, guitaristic solos; Drummond, whose big ears and stylistic flexibility are a plus on any session, pushes the beat with his irresistible ride cymbal, entexturing the drum kit to suit every shift in the musical climate.

“I almost felt like an outsider,” Coryell jokes. “When I’d lay out after playing the melody, and heard them play, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a nice gig I’m attending.'”

The title track is a graceful line built on a continuously reharmonized six-note phrase that blends simplicity and sophistication in a Waltonesque manner. Coryell says: “I wrote it for Cedar and his concept. It reminds me of something he might have played with Wes Montgomery if they had ever played together.”

After Coryell’s ingenious intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” which springboards a crisp, lucid Walton statement, the guitarist, in his own manner, channels his inner Wes, a recurrent reference throughout the date whenever Coryell gets his vonce going.

“That’s true,” Coryell agrees. “It worked very naturally with Cedar and the rhythm section. These guys play the real thing.”

Coryell played piano and drums and sang during his formative years in Eisenhower Era Richland, Washington (“There ain’t nothin’ in Richland; sagebrush and rattlesnakes—once I heard real jazz music, it was like ‘get me out of here.'”), but his hands were too small to maneuver around the guitar until he was 16, around 1959.

“Then I heard Wes Montgomery, and everything changed,” he relates. “I was amazed that he had such modern ideas, not to mention all the obvious pluses of his playing — his great single-note lines, the octaves and the chords. I started transcribing all of his solos.”

Coryell offers “a direct, huge thank you” to the master on “D-Natural Blues,” which Montgomery recorded on The Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside, 1960) in quartet with Tommy Flanagan.

Elsewhere, Coryell offers heartfelt homages to early influences Johnny Smith (“What’s New”) and Barney Kessel (“Limehouse Blues”).

“I wanted to record ‘What’s New’ all my life, but didn’t think I understood the lyric,” he says. “Now I felt qualified to make my own statement. I know other guitar players my age will pick up that I used some direct quotes from Johnny Smith’s recording — the fast major-VII arpeggios are almost note-for-note. Johnny Smith had that beautiful lyrical sustained sound and feel, and a beautiful heart that blew me away.

Coryell overdubs a rousing bass counterpoint to his fleet acoustic guitar line on “Limehouse Blues,” one of his two unaccompanied declamations. “Around the time I recorded it, I had gotten an email that Barney Kessel was disabled and needed money,” he says. “I remembered years ago listening to him play it and how blown away I was. But he did it by himself. I had to use two guitars.

“Barney’s playing was clear and forthright, especially his chord work and his ballads, and I could take his ideas off records more easily than Tal Farlow’s. I loved Tal and Johnny Smith and Barney, and I tried to transcribe all their solos.”

Later on, in New York City, Coryell found the real thing up close and personal. “I went to New York to hear bebop, and nobody was playing it,” he says. “Charles Lloyd was playing at the Vanguard with Albert Stinson, Gabor Szabo and Pete LaRoca, and I couldn’t find the one all night! But at the seventh club I went to, I finally heard something I recognized. It was in Harlem, and I saw Grant Green and Larry Young. It was a life-changing experience. Grant Green was throwin’ it down, man. His time was amazing. The notes were popping out of the guitar. I never got over it.”

Incidentally, John Coltrane applied his transcendent instrumental voice to “Limehouse Blues” on a memorable 1959 recording with Cannonball Adderley; Coryell has Trane very much in mind on Walton’s “Fantasy in D/Ugetsu” and Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie.”

“Theme For Ernie” is part of Walton’s trio repertoire, and the rhythm section addresses the iconic lament with a slow-medium groove not unlike what Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor laid down underneath Coltrane’s keening statement on Soultrane [1958].

“That’s my favorite ballad,” Coryell says. “We decided we needed to do only one take. I changed the melody a little, but kept this version because the feeling was right.”

“I learned ‘Fantasy in D’ when I was on that cruise,” Coryell continues. “Then my determination became, ‘Some day I’ve got to record that with Cedar.’ It has the Coltrane feeling; that pattern at the end of each chorus, where you go from D-major to a D-minor suspended over an A. Before Coltrane, there was nothing like that in jazz; no modal thing in a song with chords. I loved it. I was afraid to think I could even play like Coltrane, but by listening to him I think I learned something. He was not just technique and different ideas. He was deep feeling; the substance of his music has touched my heart. They make me think about what a spiritual man he was.”

Coryell has similar regard for Walton’s “The Newest Blues,” a composition of more recent vintage that required exactly one take to wrap. “I’d never heard it before in my life,” Coryell says. “The challenge on a blues is always to see if you can say something you haven’t said before. I love the line, and I love the way Cedar reharmonizes blues, always with a call-and-response component. There’s a section where his piano part and the bass are unified and do a sequence of organized movement. The contrast to that when we go into the regular blues is great.”

Coryell learned “It Could Happen To You” from his mother, who died in 1999. “She used to sing that song to me a lot, and I loved her words,” he recalls. “My mother played piano as well, and everything she ever played was in E-flat—it was her favorite key. I wanted to do something in E-flat for my mother.”

With a flourish, Coryell concludes Cedars of Avalon with a solo tour de force entitled “Shapes.” “That was a direct result of an unofficial lesson from Donald Byrd,” Coryell says. “He was in Pittsburgh to receive an award when I was doing a gig with Geri Allen and Wallace Roney, and I sat in the hotel and listened to him discourse on the relationship of mathematics to music. I tried to remember everything he said, and composed the piece on that basis.

“There’s no one else in art like Donald Byrd, a jazz musician with an unbelievable intellect who had all the Apollo Theater trappings in his life and had to deal with segregation, etc. He’s like a man of the people who is also a leader in the mind. I feel fortunate to be born in this lifetime, to be exposed to people like him and all the others I love.”

Throughout Cedars of Avalon, Coryell recalls the fresh sensibility he brought to New York in 1965, a 22-year phenom fresh from Seattle, where he “played rock-and-roll in the evening, jazz at night. Rock-and-Roll was like children’s music; it came very easily. But jazz was Mount Everest, to be admired and hopefully to scale.” Now we can place the guitarist with the heroes who—to borrow the title of the late Clifford Jordan’s classic tune—have scaled the highest mountains of improvisational expression.

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

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

 

Joe Lovano (Jazziz):

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s far out,” Frisell said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-30-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Was your father open to that as well?

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

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

TP: What was his sound like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Were you playing tenor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JL: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: That’s your outlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Well, it seems to give you a chance to explore the full dynamic range of the tenor saxophone.

JL: Yes, it does. I only play tenor with the trio, and it’s really great to go on the road and to just play one horn and to focus on one sound. With some other groups that I play in, with my own groups, I’m trying to write for more expanded sounds, using clarinets and flutes and percussion and different things. Maybe because I play only tenor with Paul, I’ve found it’s really fun and different to explore all these other sounds when I’m writing my own music. I think it’s given me a lot of ideas.

TP: Let’s discuss Paul Motian’s very distinctive sense of time and dynamics on the drums.

JL: Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.

TP: Speaking of the Keith Jarrett Quartet, you’ve credited Dewey Redman as having had a major impact upon your concept of playing.

JL: Yeah. Well, from that time hearing him live, for sure, but also from some recordings that I had of him playing with Elvin Jones in Ornette’s band. He might have been one of the first tenor players I heard play with Elvin that didn’t sound like Coltrane or play in that kind of rhythmic way. He played longer, more open-sounding things with Elvin. Through the years, I’ve had a chance to play with Dewey a lot. With Charlie Haden’s band was really the first time. In 1987 I joined the Liberation Music Orchestra with Dewey. He’s one of those players that you don’t know what he’s going to play next. There’s a lot of magic in his playing.

TP: Universal Language features Jack De Johnette.

JL: He’s another drummer who has these amazing concepts, and hears everything you play, encompasses and circles around every phrase you play, and spells it right out with you. All the tunes on Universal Language were written for that session and for that personnel, to be played with Jack in mind, and with Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow and the rhythm section.

TP: Again, we’re getting back to individuals and personalities…,

JL: Yes.

TP: …which is the essence of improvising.

JL: For sure, man. Also, I think the records that inspired me to try to write and to give me the confidence to try to put things together were a lot of things that Wayne Shorter has done through the years, let’s say, where each record he made, it seemed like he wrote for the personnel that was on that date, and wrote tunes to be played with those cats, with Blakey’s band, or with Elvin Jones in the rhythm section, or things he wrote for Weather Report. Whatever it was, there was a lot of direction in each recording. It never repeated anything. So for each session I am trying to write for the personnel there, and conceptually it’s really happening. It feels beautiful.

Universal Language, with a front line of voice, trumpet and saxophone, was the most expansive ensemble that I’ve been able to work with so far as a leader, and I tried to write some orchestrations that were going to be free for everyone to contribute their own personality, but yet have some kind of structure and form so we had something to grab onto.

TP: I’d like to talk to you more about the dynamics of your style, the most personal thing for a tenor player, which is your sound — so if I start getting on thin ground, just tell me. But you were talking about your father’s sound as being sort of hard-driving, Illinois Jacquet, hard edges on it. Your sound is very rounded. You play a lot in the altissimo register of the tenor, the upper register, with a full sound — although you play the full range of the horn. Talk a little about the evolution of your sound in your mind’s ear.

JL: My sound has gone through a lot of different changes, let’s say, different periods. I know early on I played with a lot harder sound and a lot more, in a way, one-dimensional type sound. On the early recording that I did with Lonnie Smith, I think my sound was only one kind of beam or something, a beam of light, let’s say — it just was one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles with Mel Lewis, and Woody Herman’s band, Carla Bley’s band, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, where the music is always changing and there’s different feelings, rhythms and attitudes happening, my sound really went through a lot of changes. Rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That started this whole process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, like, triple pianissimo with the same fullness that I can play a triple forte with. That range of dynamics, I think, was the key to starting to get my sound together.

TP: In 1994, you performed in some free improvisations with British saxophone master Evan Parker in an event sponsored by WKCR. Has that particular aspect of dealing with the language been a significant part of your experience?

JL: Oh, yeah. For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other horn players in duet settings. Billy Drewes and I used to play together years ago in Boston together like that, where we would just improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. Billy played with us with the Paul Motian Quintet, on our very first quintet recorded on ECM, called Psalm, the first recording I did with Paul. Billy is just one of the players that I’ve explored those possibilities with. Judi Silvano and I do that with soprano voice and saxophones all the time while we’re improvising, and trying to really create melodies from what each other plays, rather than just trying to play what you play.

TP: You and Frisell would seem to do that, too.

JL: Sure. I improvise with that conception with everybody I play with. I try to do that when I’m playing with a rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, so that I don’t find myself repeating myself. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so I can really explore possibilities in the music. That’s what improvising really is about for me, is creating something new.

TP: So it’s not about style, it’s not about genre, it’s about dialoguing in a situation.

JL: Exactly. Early on for me it was about style and it was about learning my horn, and this and that. But after a while, it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, and using your technique and the language of your instrument or whatever to create something different all the time.

So to just improvise in a duet setting with Evan that night was a lot of fun, man. I had known him for a while, and had heard him play a number of different times, some solo performances that were incredible on soprano saxophone and tenor.

I recorded a free improvisation with my Dad on Hometown Sessions [JSL], which I produced with him in 1986, where we were joined by Eddie Bacchus and Jacktown on most of the tracks. He was reading a part, and I was improvising all around his written part. So that was a little different concept about playing with two saxophones. Really, it was like a free-form structure. I was kind of, in a way, directing his notes, like the rhythm that he would play, and he was just kind of following me and letting me improvise between all his notes. I had never really done that before, and that was a trip! My Dad was a real open player, and he was into sounds and melodies and stuff. So it was a trip. Playing duets with my father all through the years really helped me develop a concept and get myself together to do things like that duet with Evan.

TP: Experiencing the inner dynamics of how that music was put together. Let’s hear a set of music focusing on performances of Joe Lovano’s compositions. The first track, “Luna Park,” certainly refers to Cleveland.

JL: The title refers to an amusement park that was across the street from where my grandparents had a house in Cleveland which was called Luna Park. I think it was a very famous park in the Twenties and Thirties, and then it burned down, so I never actually saw this place. When I grew up, there was a big projects complex there. But I had always heard a lot of stories about Luna Park.

This piece is kind of a carnival-type piece, and it features an ensemble that’s a working group, kind of a workshop ensemble that has been playing and doing a lot of stuff since the early Eighties. I recorded this for Blue Note in 1992, but this ensemble and this sound is a working group that I’ve been developing through the years. It features Judy Silvano on soprano voice and Tim Hagans on trumpet, Kenny Werner on piano, this track has Jack DeJohnette on drums, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Charlie Haden on electric and acoustic bass.

TP: There’s a lot of doubling going on in this.

JL: Yeah, there are some different approaches. Like, I wrote for Swallow to play within the rhythm section as an accompanist with chordal passages as well as actual bass parts. On this particular tune, he’s playing like a counter-melody in the front line with us that could almost be like a trombone type part.

[MUSIC: “Luna Park” (1992); Lovano/Redman, “Miss Etta” (1993); Lovano, “Emperor Jones” (1989); Lovano/Cox/ Blackwell, “Straight Ahead” (1990); Lovano/Holland/ Blackwell, “Evolution” (1990); Lovano/Schuller, “Topsy-Turvy” (1994)]

TP: We have cued up two earlier tracks. One is the aforementioned session with Lonnie Smith, and a track featuring Joe and his dad on a self-produced date, Hometown Sessions.

JL: Well, it’s a label that I started, basically, JSL Records. This was the first thing that we produced. It was right after I had recorded for Soul Note. I did this record called Tones, Shapes and Colors, my first solo record as a leader. I went to Cleveland and had a party with my family, and got a studio, and went in the studio and laid some tracks down with my Dad, and Eddie Bacchus on organ and Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who I mentioned before.

[MUSIC: Lonnie Smith, “Apex” (1975); Joe and Tony Lovano, “Now Is The Time” (1986)]

[MUSIC: Mel Lewis Orch., “Interloper” (1986); G. Schuller/ Lovano, “Rush Hour On 23rd Street” (1994)]

TP: You had a chance to be paired with him in the 1988 recording, Monk In Motian.

JL: Well, this recording was the first one that we did for JMT Records. Up until that point, the band had only played original music of Paul’s, and then we had a chance to do this record, and the record company wanted to do more of a theme record. Paul played with Monk a little bit with Scott LaFaro; they did some quartet gigs with Charlie Rouse. And Paul was really into Monk, he’s been into Monk all his life, so he had all these tunes he wanted to do, and we started rehearsing. At first we didn’t know if we were going to just play trio, but when we started to rehearse trio with no bass the music was so beautiful. It was really different. It didn’t sound like we were trying to play the way Monk played these same tunes. So we decided to do it as a trio record. Then Paul brought Dewey in for a few tunes to join us, to play with two saxophones.

[MUSIC: Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Epistrophy” (1988); “How Deep Is The Ocean”; “Turn Out The Stars” (1990); “One Time Out” (1991)]

TP: The next track we’ll hear comes from a forthcoming release on Blue Note, from a session last summer at the Village Vanguard that paired you with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who you’ve paired with on front lines very successfully for quite a while now, Billy Hart on drums, and Anthony Cox on bass.

JL: It’s a working quartet that we’ve been touring with and doing a lot of different things throughout the last few years. We recorded last March live at the Vanguard, and I am recording this week as well, live at the club, with Mulgrew and Christian and Lewis. They’re going to put out a double-CD package set, Live At The Vanguard, ’94 and ’95. So I’m excited about that.

This quartet played mainly original pieces that week. This week we’re doing a wide range of different compositions by other composers as well.

TP: What was interesting to me about this group when I heard it last year was it seemed a very creative extension of the Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry, or even the Ornette-Dewey Redman Quartet formulation. I guess some of this approach stems from your working with Blackwell for those couple of years in 1990 and ’91.

JL: Yes, playing with Blackwell and all the different groups with Motian have definitely influenced my writing. This quartet brings out a lot of those other sides. To play with just bass and drums and two other horns out front is a whole other energy and a different kind of atmosphere that happens in that. Tom is one of the greatest improvisers in Jazz, I think, and he has a lot of dynamic and amazing sides and personalities in his playing as well. In this particular quartet, I think for the first time he really opens up and plays very free and different.

This tune we’re going to hear is called “Uprising,” and it’s an original of mine that I wrote to play with this group. I play on C-Melody saxophone on this particular cut.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Cox/Hart, “Uprising”]

TP: I don’t think anyone has ever quite mastered the technique of circular breathing or overtones the way he has.

JL: He’s phenomenal. He’s something else.

[MUSIC: Joe Lovano/Evan Parker, “Duo” (1994); Joe and Tony Lovano (1987)]

JL: That was a pretty wild piece there. It was exciting to play with Evan. We were into each other’s energy. We were really following each other beautifully. That was pretty far-out.

TP: Well, I think we’ve learned in the last four hours that with Joe Lovano anything is possible, and generally it’s going to work out in an extremely musical form that will then have implications for other activity. We’ve had some sense of the sort of parallel situations that continue to grow, evolve and merge. Thank you for your time, Joe Lovano.

JL: Thank you, Ted. I have to say, WKCR is such an incredible radio station, and all the shows you guys do are really inspiring. I listen to all the shows, and the birthday broadcasts, and the different profiles, and it’s really an honor to have you spend this much time on some of my recorded music.

TP: It’s quite a legacy of music, and I think we have a good three or four decades of creative music-making to come. So we’ll just take this as a signpost of where one of the most creative of the younger group of musicians is at this stage of his career.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: Schuller/Lovano, “Angel Eyes” (1994); Lovano & Universal Language, “Josie and Rosie” (1992); Lovano/ Blackwell, “Fort Worth” (1991); Lovano/J. Redman, “The Land Of Ephesus” (1993); Yamashita/Lovano, “Kurdish Winds” (1993); Scofield/Lovano, “Comp Out” (1992)]

—-

Joe Lovano (Musician Show, WKCR, 7-26-89):
[MUSIC: Henri Texier/Lovano (Izlaz), “Golden Horn” (1988); Motian/ Lovano/Frisell, “Evidence” (1988)]

JL: I was born in ’52, so I really began playing and being around the music in the Sixties, around all the different records and things that were coming out during those years. I was really fortunate. My Dad played saxophone and was a beautiful musician, and his record collection was pretty wide when I was a kid, so I was able to hear and really distinguish between sounds and different tones on different instruments. I was able to start to recognize different players from their personality and their tone.

Q: He was a working musician in the Cleveland area.

JL: Yeah, sure. All his life. My Dad grew up with people like Bill Hardman, the trumpet player, Benny Bailey, Tadd Dameron. Tadd actually was a few years older than my Dad, but his brother Cesar Dameron was an alto player who was my Dad’s age, and they used to play a lot. Those years were really great for my Dad because he was really involved in the scene. There’s a lot of cats in New York who are from Cleveland that know my Dad, and I meet people from all around the world that have heard him play — or something. He traveled around a little bit, but he was mainly in the Cleveland scene.

Q: Well, in Cleveland and throughout the Midwest there used to be a thriving Jazz scene — Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis.

JL: There was a circuit. I had a chance to tour with Lonnie Smith, the organist, and Jack McDuff, and a few different groups that played through that chitlin’ circuit, where you played really from New York to St. Louis, through Indianapolis and Cincinnati and all those towns. There were a lot of clubs. I caught a little part of it in 1974 or 1975 when I was like 20 years old. But throughout the ’50s and ’60s there was a real scene through that area.

Q: Joe’s first selection is one by the master, John Coltrane.

JL: This is from a record actually that came out on a reissue package with Roy Haynes on drums, McCoy Tyner, piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. It’s called To The Beat Of A Different Drum.

Somehow, my whole life as a player has developed in a strange kind of way around a lot of really great drummers. In the last three or four years, I’ve been really fortunate to be working with Mel Lewis. I’ve been playing with Mel Lewis’ band since 1980, and we play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Mel recorded with me on my first solo record as a leader for the Soul Note label, called Tones, Shapes and Colors, and I have a really close working relationship with Mel. As well as Paul Motian, who I’ve been playing with also since 1981. We’ve done a number of records, of which we’ll get to a few later, and also talk about the first times I had heard Paul play with Keith Jarrett and other people, and immediately wanted to be around that rhythm. Also Elvin Jones, who I toured with in 1987 for a two-month tour in Europe, which really was his last major tour as a leader with his own band. I mean, he’s toured with Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner and a few different groups. But playing with Elvin was just an incredible lesson, man.

Q: You play some drums yourself.

JL: Well, I’ve been playing since I was a kid. Part of my whole thing with my Dad is my Dad was my teacher. We studied, we had lessons, but his lessons were he would give me a lot of things to work on, and when I felt like I was ready to present them to him… And he’d be hearing me practicing anyway. He would sometimes come down to the basement in the middle of what I was doing, and correct me or whatever. But it was a real close kind of thing. When I was six or seven years old, the drummer he was working with bought a new set of small drums, and gave his old set to my Dad to give to me. I mean, it was a huge, big bass drum, and all these drums. I have pictures of me playing these drums.

So since I was a kid I really got into the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, just really gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player. So I know there’s been something about drummers, since I was a kid.

Now I’m starting to record and do some things on drums myself. Recently, just this last week actually, I went into the studio and did a solo-duo project where I laid some tracks down playing bass clarinet, drums and tenor, and then Judi Silverman came in and put some voice parts on some of the things, too, and we really created some rhythm sections. It’s the first time I ever did it. I brought a tape; maybe we could listen to one thing later.

But getting back to this first record, Roy Haynes has always been one of my very favorite musicians. I’ve never had a chance to play with him, but I heard him play a lot. And I really love this record. It was a real fresh… You know, after listening to so much Coltrane Quartet, this was like a little different twist with Roy Haynes on drums.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Haynes, “Dear Old Stockholm” (1963); Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew”, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1962)]

JL: Just a little about what Sonny Stitt meant to me. Stitt was my first real love on record. I used to listen to my Dad practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad, you know. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and try to get next to what was happening. His sound on tenor and alto… He had a personality that he could play either horn and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns. And that influenced me from a real young age.

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

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

Q: Who would be the rhythm sections in Cleveland, by the way?

JL: There were different guys. The organ player who plays on this CD I put out with my Dad, Eddie Bacchus, would play with most everybody that came through town. But there were a couple of other organ players. There was a cat named Lindsay Tough, and this other guy, William Dowland, who everyone used to call Paul Bunyon — he was a real big cat. He used to be a trombone player, actually, when he was younger.

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Different cats, though. Val Kent, a young drummer. Val could have… He was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer there whose name was Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties, he would play with everybody who would come through town. Jacktown, who plays on the CD, Hometown Sessions, that I produced myself, was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. But when he was there, my father told me stories, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies.

So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Q: Hearing John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt together is a very interesting juxtaposition, and one could say they are two very important people in the formation of your own personal style of playing, your approach to line and your approach to sound.

JL: Yeah, Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my really first loves on the instrument, as well as the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with more of the Coltrane with Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, and at that same period, Sonny Stitt was really my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records. Once I started to really get familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, I mean, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas some of Coltrane’s later records, it was more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Like we were commenting during this tune, “Dear Old Stockholm,” the way Roy Haynes was playing with Trane, they were playing like the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. When I started to really be familiar with that, it really opened up my concept, and gave me a lot more direction in my own music.

Q: We have something cued up by Lee Morgan.

JL: The trumpet was another really important instrument for me in my young developing. I mean, trumpet had an attack and it had a certain thing that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me. The tune we’re playing is from a record that came out much later, in the Eighties, one of the Blue Note Japanese reissues, named The Rajah. It has Hank Mobley on saxophone, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins.

Hank Mobley, too, was… I really loved Hank’s playing from all the records, different things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first ones that I really started to realize how he wrote so much, man…

Q: All those slick, subtle tunes.

JL: Oh, man, all his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player, like, you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, when you realize that to try to create your own music is part of it, too…! That hit me. And Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, him and Wayne Shorter both, that really influenced me a lot.

[MUSIC: Lee Morgan/H. Mobley/Cedar/PC/Higgins (The Rajah) “Is That So?” (1967); Hank Mobley/D. Byrd/Cedar/R. Carter/ Higgins (Far Away Lands) “No Argument”; Rollins/Philly Joe, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (1958)]

JL: When I really discovered Sonny Rollins and started exploring Sonny’s records and his music, it opened up a lot of doors for me melodically and rhythmically. Sonny’s such a master of… He can take any melody and stretch it out, and play so many variations of it to develop his solos. He didn’t just try to play the right notes, let’s say. He tries to explore all the possibilities with the melody and the rhythm that’s happening. For me, he’s a real genius improviser. Philly Joe Jones as well…

Q: You said when you were a kid you copied his solos.

JL: Yeah, Philly Joe was my man as far as the melodies he played. Like, he played the same things that Sonny Rollins or Miles were playing. There’s one record, I think it was Miles’ first record as a leader, with Sonny Rollins and Bird on tenor, with Philly Joe — it’s one of his first records. Man, it’s really smoking. I mean, Philly Joe to me was one of the…

Q: “The Serpent’s Tooth,” “Compulsion”…

JL: Right. “Compulsion” is the piece I’m speaking of. But his driving style melodically as well as his swing just really grabbed me completely when I was a kid. The breaks and things he played on that particular tune always have been with me. That’s why I wanted to play that cut. That record also has Doug Watkins on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano. That date has “Tune Up,” “Namely You”…

I’d like to to get to more tunes on that, but I want to play a couple of other things with Sonny on it first. We’re going to play something from Alfie, which has arrangements by Oliver Nelson. We’re going to play “Alfie’s Theme” from this. This is a real important record for me, too. Because it was Sonny completely out in front of kind of a small big band, and the band just plays parts. It’s a great band. Phil Woods is playing, Danny Bank. Frankie Dunlap is on drums who played a lot with Monk, and in later years played with the Lionel Hampton band quite often. But all his playing with Monk was really a great period for Monk’s music as well, with Frankie Dunlap. Kenny Burrell is on guitar on this, Jimmy Cleveland, J.J. Johnson — it’s a great record. We’re going to hear “Alfie’s Theme” from this.

We’re also going to hear Sonny Rollins playing a solo, unaccompanied version of “It Could Happen to You” from The Sound Of Sonny, which also… Sonny’s playing as a solo instrumentalist and accompanying himself as he’s playing, his freedom and concept also, like, really attracted me, and it taught me a lot about how to practice and how to get next to my own sound.

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins, “Alfie’s Theme” (1966); Sonny (solo), “It Could Happen To You” (1957); Booker Little/Flanagan/ LaFaro/Haynes, “Minor Suite” (1960)]

JL: This album by Booker Little is one of my favorite Booker Little records, and this particular cut, which he begins with an unaccompanied intro, I find really fantastic. Booker Little is one of those players that I never, of course, had a chance to hear or see live. Freddie Hubbard talked a lot about him. He said Booker scared him more than anybody just because he played so beautifully technically. I think they were on Africa Brass together; they were the two trumpet players on Africa Brass with John Coltrane. It was interesting talking with Freddie about Booker.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Werner/Johnson/Motian, “Birds of Springtimes Gone By,” “Dewey Says” (1988), Lovano/Motian/ Frisell, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (1989)]

“Someone To Watch Over Me” is from Motian On Broadway, Volume 1. This record for me was a real breakthrough in recording, just because five out of nine tunes are ballads on this record, and it was real challenging. Playing with Charlie and Paul together with Bill was really a treat.

Q: You’ve been associated with Paul Motian for just about the whole decade.

JL: Yes, when you think about it, time has gone by so fast. We’ve been playing since 1981 together. Paul was rehearsing a group which included Bill on guitar and Mark Johnson on bass. Mark and I knew each other from playing with Woody Herman’s band, and were really close friends. They had been playing with a few saxophone players. Mark spoke with Paul about me, and hooked it up for me to make a rehearsal one day. I went up and played with the quartet, and we’ve been playing ever since.

It’s been really beautiful, because we did some quartet playing and then some quintets, which included Billy Drewes on saxophone and Ed Schuller on bass, as well as Jim Pepper on tenor with Ed on bass. We recorded some really nice albums. One record on ECM called Psalm, which has Billy on it, and then three records on Soul Note with the quintet, The Story Of Maryam, Misterioso and Jack of Clubs — actually I brought The Story of Maryam to play a tune later, with Jim Pepper on saxophone, who is one of my favorite players, a really soulful cat. Then the trio kind of emerged from the quintet, Bill and I and Paul, which we’ve been recording and playing a lot around New York.

“Someone To Watch Over Me” started out as a trio piece, which we played the verse and then the whole song, and then Charlie enters as the guitar solo begins. On this record mainly it’s quartet with Charlie, but there’s a few tunes that are just trio tunes as well.

Before that we played two tunes from my record that just came out on Soul Note label, which also features Paul on drums. Having Paul play in my band, playing my music, has really been exciting for me. It just kind of tied a lot of things together for me and my music, and for our playing together. I feel our communication was really great.

The next thing we’ll hear is some music by Thelonious Monk from a record called It’s Monk’s Time.

Q: Now, the Paul Motian Trio just recorded an album exclusively of Monk’s music.

JL: Right. We’ve been playing a lot of Monk tunes. It’s really nice, because in the trio, of course, there’s no bass, so we’re playing guitar, saxophone and drums, and we’re trying to really feel this music in a different kind of way.

Q: It’s very interesting, though, because you always stay with the chords and the melody.

JL: Oh yeah, we’re into the tunes. Those songs are real beautiful vehicles, and we want to expand on everything that’s there as well as put our own wisdom into the piece. But that was a really fun record date to do. I’ve been playing a lot with Dewey Redman, and actually this tune “Dewey Said” was dedicated to Dewey. It came from some lines or some feelings that I have felt listening to Dewey play. Some of the melodies in the piece kind of developed from listening to Dewey. He’s one of my favorite people. And he actually has a son that plays tenor who I’ve been hearing a lot about, and I’m sure everyone is going to be hearing at some point soon.

Anyway, from Monk’s Time we’ll hear “Lulu’s Back In Town.” In this particular quartet is Butch Warren on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and one of my favorite saxophone players, and someone who passed on recently, but I had a chance to really hang with a few times at the Vanguard and was a beautiful cat, Charlie Rouse.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Lulu’s Back In Town” (1963); Coltrane, “Naima” (1965), Ornette/Dewey/Garrison/Jones “Open To the Public” (1968)]

That was a really inspired take. Elvin Jones is the truth. I mean, after touring with him and being around him every day on a two-month tour, I mean, he’s so intense and ready to play… He has so much fun! Before each gig he’d be like rubbin’ his hand together, “Let’s hear it!” And you could hear it on that take. On every record Elvin pays on. I mean, he comes there to play. He doesn’t fool around at all.

Next we’re going to play something from an album that I’m on with the Paul Motian Trio with Dewey Redman Monk In Motian. I’d just like to say what a pleasure it is to play with Dewey. And I’ve been lucky enough to play in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra as well with Dewey. It’s always exciting listening to him compose.

Following that, we’ll hear two tunes from a record of mine that’s coming out early next year, with a line-up of a few people who are playing with me tonight and tomorrow night at Club Visiones at Third and MacDougal. This record, Worlds, features my Wind Ensemble, which has Tim Hagans on trumpet, Judi Silverman, voice, Gary Valente, trombone, Paul Motian, drums, Henri Texier, bass, and Bill Frisell on guitar.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman/FrisellMotian, “Epistrophy,” Lovano Wind Ens., “Spirit Of The Night,” “Lutetia”]

——–

Joe Lovano’s John Coltrane “Dozens” for http://www.jazz.com (June 12, 2008):
1. Good Bait, (Soultrane) Prestige, w/ Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Arthur Taylor, 100/100.

This was one of the first significant Coltrane recordings, this recording Soultrane, for me, that I lived with as a real young player, and a young listener. That particular tune, Good Bait, was written by Tadd Dameron. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Tadd. My Dad played with Tadd Dameron. So I learned a lot about music and the whole history of jazz growing up, studying Tadd Dameron’s music, and hearing Coltrane’s incredible, lengthy exploration on “Good Bait” was really inspiring to me, and taught me a lot about how I would have to deal with this music, and learn to play the saxophone. It’s a timeless recording that when I listen to it today, sounds as fresh as when I was a kid.

After studying Coltrane through the years, and being a saxophonist myself, realizing all of the things that you have to deal with to execute your ideas, every stage of the way is a different development period. That period for Coltrane in the mid ‘50s, I think he was probably with Miles at the time, 1956… [That recording was ‘58. And he’d kicked heroin at the time. He did this right after he left Monk.] I see. So that experience and journey to that moment was pretty intense, as far as the study of the music, the saxophone, the people he was playing with. He had come up playing with Tadd Dameron, playing with him in his music, playing with Miles’ band, Dizzy’s band, Johnny Hodges’ band. He was just starting to form a conception about who he was and how he wanted to present himself in the music. There’s another tune on this recording, “I Want To Talk About You,” that he played throughout his lifetime and presented in concert around the world many times. One thing I learned from Coltrane is that he lived with the music that he played, and he was always developing on it throughout his career. [Anything you’d care to say about his style then? Maybe how you see his development with Monk leading him to play those incredibly lucid solos that he did on that record?] One thing, playing with Thelonious Monk got him to be even more articulate than he was doing on his own. His execution, his articulation, his rhythm, his phrasing and ideas were all one. And his tone also, at this period, was really crystallizing. He was fusing together all of the elements of playing music and playing the saxophone. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and he was really able to communicate his ideas in lengthy open solos, and “Good Bait” is a prime example of him really stretching out and playing through that pilece of music with his own approach.
2. BAGS & TRANE, “Three Little Words” Atlantic, John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. (1959) 100/100

It’s incredible to hear Coltrane play on standard songs, and to play with a rhythm section like that, where Hank is very free in the harmonic sequence and is feeding him harmonies and voicings, and Coltrane is taking him places that’s giving him ideas and opening up what he’s playing harmonically as well. To hear Hank Jones and Coltrane together is incredible on this recording, and also, Milt Jackson is one of the most incredible lyrical improvisers in the music, and to hear them balance each other and come off of each other, and play on a tune like “Three Little Words,” and not play too many choruses, a few choruses each, just like really play through the tune and sustain the mood of that tune, was a real beautiful journey on their part, and for me, as a young musician, digging Coltrane playing standards taught me a lot about the repertoire to become a musician in this beautiful world of music we’re in. [So it was less that you were checking out Coltrane’s lines, but more that you were getting a feeling for the pathway of doing this? Or were you checking out the vocabulary?] Well, I was checking out the vocabulary of how they were all playing together. But the one thing that I learned about music listening to Coltrane, no matter what he was playing, was the depth of the repertoire that he knew, and how much ballads and the blues were in everything he played, and how it all related in his solos. He was a soloist of the highest order, no matter what he played, and his focus on the material drove him and fed him ideas. It wasn’t just what he was practicing on his horn, even though that was a big part of the way he played. The music that he played and the people that he played with really gave him direction, and you can hear it when you hear him playing on standards.
3. LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, “Chasin’ The Trane” (master take), Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums

All the different versions of “Chasing the Trane” through the years from the live recordings hit that same incredible level of creativity on the blues. This was one of the first pieces that I heard, and didn’t even realize it was a blues, for a long time. It was a whole side of one of the Impulse records, somewhere around 1961. Eric Dolphy comes in on the last note or something, at the very end. Now, of course, later they released all these other Live at the Village Vanguard takes, there’s other takes of “Chasin’ The Trane” where Dolphy plays and McCoy plays. But this particular version, the original that came out on that recording, was one side of a record, just Coltrane’s choruses. He played from start to finish. The first time I heard that, I listened to it all day. I just kept putting the needle back at the beginning of the recording. Then after a while, I realized it was a blues. I was a teenager, and it was something else, man. The energy, the focus, and the swinging, beautiful exploration of Coltrane’s choruses on that—it was really some magic, man. Then moving to New York, playing at the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and then carrying on into today, presenting my own groups, and recording live there, and feeling the spirits in that room, it goes back to that first time, checking THAT piece out.

[It’s fascinating that he recorded that maybe two years after “Three Little Words” from Bags and Trane, and the sound is so radically different.]

Mmm-hmm. Well, Trane was moving on in his playing and his approach, and becoming a leader, having his own band, focusing totally on what he wanted to play, and that in turn created a lot of ideas of how he was playing. He was always dealing with how he played, as well as what he was playing. He was definitely a dedicated, serious student of the saxophone and of music, but his approach widened through the years on how he was playing and how he was putting things together. We all study the elements in the music, and we all deal with things today that we dealt with on Day One. If you don’t do that, then I don’t think you can really play with the depth of your soul. If it only becomes a technical thing to get around your horn and to execute what you’ve practiced, you’re not really executing your feelings at all. Coltrane went through periods earlier on where he was documented, and was a very technical player. But you hear the evolution of how his feelings came out in his music in every step of the way, and that was a beautiful study also for me through the years. When you study somebody’s whole career on record, someone who recorded as much as he did… He recorded a lot! Hundreds and hundreds of songs through the years. That all came out in his playing at every moment, man, the soulfulness of it all, of his journey.
4. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, COLTRANE’S SOUND

That whole recording is amazing, but “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the form of it, the feelings, the way the rhythm shifted, and his ideas throughout the sequence of the harmonies with the different inflections that Elvin Jones was playing, and the way McCoy comped on that, little pedal points in the bass… It felt like a quartet. It wasn’t just Coltrane soloing over that tune or with a rhythm section. It really was a totally integrated quartet. This is an early record that I recognized that quality of improvising together as a unit. Some of the other things prior to that… Even on “Good Bait,” Coltrane’s playing with the rhythm section. But the interplay and the way they developed ideas and played off each other on “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was instrumental in my discovery of the approach of playing within the group you’re in, whether you’re playing a solo or not. Also, Elvin’s playing on that. As a young player, I played a lot of drums, and was practicing saxophone and drums at the same time, and playing along with records and trying to hear what was happening. Playing along with that recording on drums taught me everything, man, about form and about following the line and the soloist, and trying to hit a groove, playing ALONG WITH Elvin and McCoy and Coltrane on that recording. That taught me a lot about everything.
5. “Body and Soul” from COLTRANE’S SOUND (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones), Atlantic, 1960. 100/100

Studying the tune “Body and Soul” from that same recording. Studying Coleman Hawkins’ version. My Dad played Coleman Hawkins’ solo from that first big hit that he had, and my Dad knew it back and forth. I’d hear him play those lines all the time when I would practice. Hearing Coltrane’s interpretation, and his own perspective and view through his different harmonic sequences of “Giant Steps,” development through modulations and harmonies, and how he incorporated that… In that certain period for Coltrane, he was doing that on a lot of standard songs. The whole “Giant Steps” approach developed through his developing different ways of modulation through harmony. The way he put that together on “Body and Soul” was beautiful. It really taught me a lot about substitution chords, and how to incorporate those things as you’re playing through any given tune, and how it related to the blues as well. It’s one of the most soulful, beautiful versions of that tune. [Dexter Gordon incorporated those changes into his own version of “Body and Soul”] Dexter Gordon did that later on, sure. Dexter gave Coltrane a mouthpiece early on. It might have been the mouthpiece that he was playing on a certain early period with Miles. Well, Coltrane was one of Dexter’s disciples, I think, along with Bird and others. You could hear Dexter in Coltrane’s playing at a certain point, and later you hear Coltrane in Dexter’s playing a lot. That kind of mix teaches you a lot about what an amazing music this is. It’s multigenerational, multicultural. We all influence each other in different ways at different times in our careers and personalities.
6. “Vigil”, KULU SE MAMA (Impulse, 1965) (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums) 100/100

My Dad had this recording, as he did most of these. So I didn’t have to buy it. He loved KULU SE MAMA. He listened to this all the time. Of course, I grew up in the ‘60s, so I didn’t grow up when these recordings were coming out. They were all released. I was very lucky that my Dad had a hip record collection, and had these records from the different periods of Coltrane. He met Coltrane in the early ‘50s and played a jam session with him in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing alto; he was in town with a blues band. [Didn’t Coltrane stay in Cleveland for a little bit with a guy named Gay Crosse?] Gay Crosse was the blues band that he played with. I think he was a Cleveland cat. During that time, you might stay somewhere for a month or two and play every night. Anyway, they were one year apart; my Dad was born in 1925, and Coltrane in 1926. So they came up in the same generation, the same music. My dad played at this session with Coltrane, and he never forgot that, man. He loved Coltrane’s playing, and met him that time. Through the years, he had all his records. So I grew up with Bags and Trane and Soultrane and Kulu Se Mama and Meditations. But Kulu Se Mama was one that my Dad loved to listen to. This piece, “Vigil,” is just a duet with Elvin. It was so well recorded, it was incredible. When you listened to that down in our basement, on my Dad’s stereo, at forte, it was like they were in the room with you. The sound of the drums and the way they played together was so beautiful and organic. My Dad had a nice stereo with speakers all over the basement, so wherever you were down in our basement it was great sound! That piece really captured me, man, just in a duo. It might have been one of the first times I really heard a saxophone-and-tenor duet on a recording. [Speak a bit as to how Coltrane’s music was different in 1965 than 1961.] Definitely in 1965, when this recording was made, his sound… He was playing more majestic, in a certain way. He seemed to fill the room with his tone in a different way. In the early ‘60s, he was playing through his horn and flying around his horn, and he still filled the room… When I say “filled the room,” I’m talking about when you’re listening; I was never in a room with Coltrane playing live. But in the earlier Coltrane, his sound attacked you, it came at you. As he developed more to the end of his life, his tone was much majestic, and had a much more spiritual and open feeling to it—to me. Even though he was still playing some ferocious, incredible things around his instrument, just his sound was more beautiful than it even had been. It was always beautiful. I always thought he had a beautiful sound. But it was even more beautiful. It comes through on this duet as well.

7. “Venus” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Impulse, 1967] Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. 100/100

That’s another duet piece with Rashied Ali on drums, who plays brushes on this piece. It’s a ballad like, lyrical, rubato piece, and the way they improvise together is so captivating and beautiful. You hit the Repeat button when it finishes. You want to keep listening to it over and over again. It did that to me. Interstellar Space was a recording I brought home and played for my Dad, which then he really dug, because it was a complete LP of only duets. There are four pieces on it, four planets. Moving to New York in the mid ‘70s, one of the first places I went was Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley. I’d been playing a little with Albert Dailey, and he told me he was playing a gig with ‘Shied down there, and told me I should come. I went down and ended up sitting in with him that night. It was one of the thrills of my life up until that point, calling home and telling my dad I sat in and played with Rashied Ali! That recording, Interstellar Space, was an important record to me.

[This is towards the end of Coltrane’s life; he’d gone to another place than even on “Vigil.”] “Vigil” had a certain energy and a swing to it, and a certain drive that Elvin and Coltrane hooked up on. “Venus” was maybe a year-and-a-half later. Coltrane was dealing with a new approach to rhythm and flow and playing counterpoint within the rhythm. It was still swinging and still moving in a certain forward motion, but it wasn’t a quarter-note swing type beat. It was a very open beat that gives you a lot of room for expression. In a way, Rashied Ali was playing more like a soloist along with the soloist. But they were finding all kinds of common, beautiful unisons within the counterpoint that they were creating with each other. It’s a way of playing that from that moment on I’ve been trying to develop in my playing. Those directions put me in a path to play with Paul Motian through the years. At that same period in the ‘60s, Paul was also exploring playing a very free approach in his accompaniment on drums, flowing with the soloist and not just playing the beat that everyone expects you to play. Feeling the beat and then improvising with it. Throughout my career I’ve had a chance to play with some of the master drummers in jazz, including Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali and Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and the cats today, Brian Blade, Al Foster… It’s amazing. When I look back, I projected a lot of those things to happen from this early period, discovering all this diverse music and feelings that were executed by Coltrane and the crowd. That crowd. It all stemmed from Max Roach and Bird and Diz and Monk. But that certain crowd of players, and the way they learned from each other and developed a way of playing just captured me, and I feel really fortunate to be on the scene today and trying to execute my ideas within that world and with that crowd.

8. “Chim-Chim, Cheree” (COLTRANE PLAYS CHIM CHIM CHEREE, Impulse, 1965…) 100/100

It was an amazing version of “Chim, Chim Cheree” on soprano saxophone, the groove of it, the whole interplay, the flow of the quartet. Coltrane, coming off of playing “My Favorite Thing” and having such a success on that, and then playing an interpretation of “Chim, Chim Cheree” so wide-open and exploratory, and just, like, SERIOUS. He wasn’t just playing it to play it. You could feel that he was into exploring what could happen off of that theme, and the way they put it together is just a beautiful, joyous journey and piece of music. Also, this certain period… This was maybe ‘63 or ‘64… [I thought it was 1965.] Could be around ‘64 or ‘65. The way he was playing soprano at that time was… The later records after that, he didn’t play soprano. This was one of the later recordings on soprano, in a way—for a studio date anyway. Man, his sound and his whole approach and focus on that horn on that recording is instrumental in giving me confidence to try to play other instruments and explore the possibilities of different tonal energy that comes off of the horn you play. At that same time, for me, I’d heard James Moody live and Sonny Stitt live and Rahsaan Roland Kirk live… Of course, when I say that same period, when I heard that record and heard those cats live, I was a teenager, 16-17 years old. I was in a room with those guys. Sonny Stitt played alto, and then put it down and played tenor. Moody picked up the flute. Rahsaan played all these horns, not only at the same time, but to play as his voice for the moment. The focus of sound and energy from the instrument came through. I really felt that on “Chim, Chim Cheree” from the record with Coltrane, his focus and his sound and the energy that that instrument gave him, and how he executed ideas off that inspiration.

9. “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” (MEDITATIONS, Impulse, 1965) 100/100.

That melody, that theme, it’s like a very simple little exercise, in a way. If you broke it down and just played it like a scale, it was a simple, little, beautiful meditation on those intervals and those themes. How he played it through all keys. That was another record that my dad really loved, and he listened to it a lot. I heard it a lot without sitting and listening to it myself. I just heard it played in our house from the basement when my dad would be listening to music. At the time, I was dealing with trying to learn how to play the saxophone, so I was more into Bird and Diz and earlier Coltrane and Sonny with Max, but I was hearing my Dad listen to that record, and this piece in particular, “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and all of a sudden I found myself practicing a different way without even thinking about—just little simple things on the horn that I was working on, but playing them in different keys, and playing them more peaceful, in a way. Practicing them in a more peaceful way, instead of just running through them technically on the horn. Later, when I reflect on it, I realize that it was kind of subliminal something from that particular recording, the way my dad listened to that record a lot. I mean, he would go down to the basement and put that record on a lot. Maybe because it was totally new music to him. He wasn’t that kind of player, really. He was a real bebopper at heart, a hard-swinging player. But he had a beautiful ballads approach. I don’t know. Something about that record my Dad just loved, and listened to a lot. So I learned a certain way of practicing that came from that recording. Also, just the collectiveness of the way Pharaoh Sanders… Also, Rashied was on that record. It was a double-drummers record with Elvin and Rashied, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy, and Pharaoh. There were some things that were in that approach that have stayed with me, and certain things that I’m trying to develop to this day.

10. “Dear old Stockholm” (Coltrane, McCoy, Garrison, Roy Haynes, NEWPORT ‘63) 100/100

I love this live version of “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes on drums, and I listen to it a lot. There’s a certain freshness and different feeling that happens when Coltrane plays with Roy Haynes. His ideas take different shapes rhythmically and melodically. Something’s different there. That also just inspired me to realize that when you play with different people, that creates the music, really. The music within the music comes from the people that you’re playing with at the time. I recognized that at a certain point, and through the years developing with the people that I’ve played with, especially drummers, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Mel Lewis…realizing you could play the same tune, but when you have a different feeling in the rhythm section, you should play with a different feeling as a soloist. The recordings with Coltrane and Roy Haynes were really instrumental for me recognizing that, and this particular version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” the ending, the way they play over the form, the way they explore… They could have played that all day and night. From start to finish, it’s a joyous, beautiful journey.

11. “Expression” (Impulse, 1967, Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Garrison, Rashied Ali) 100/100

This is from Coltrane’s last session meant to be released. That tune… In a way, the harmonic sequence, the melody…it’s like a beautiful prayer. That’s something we just recorded with the Saxophone Summit on our latest release, Seraphic Light. Just to play that theme, when you’re playing that theme over and over again, just alone, on the saxophone, and implying some of the harmonies and the roots, it’s like the most beautiful prayer, and it’s a continuous melodic flow that is really something. It’s one of the tunes that Coltrane I don’t think ever really explored that much in concert. It was near the end of his life, and he might have just brought it in for the recording session for the whole group, and they recorded it. Now, of course, him and Alice might have been playing it as a duet, which I would have loved to hear that. When Alice came into the band after McCoy and played with a real harp-like approach, where she was playing the full piano in her accompaniment, it seemed to give Coltrane… In a way, he relaxed and played off of more of the spectrum in the harmonies. He was playing a harp-like approach also at that point, the way he expanded… They always talk about sheets of sound. When you slow that down, it becomes very harp-like, very open. Of course, on the duets, Interstellar Space, which was done in the same month or week, he was playing through things very quick, and flurries of notes throughout the harmony, whereas on “Expression” he kind of stretched them out a little bit. I think we would have heard another side to Coltrane if he’d developed during the years after this. Because his execution on his instrument was so beautiful. He could do whatever he felt and heard. When Alice came into the band, especially on these moments with the quartet… Stellar Regions is another quartet recording from right around that time where they explored many tunes, shorter version of them, that were kind of strung together. Expression was one of the songs I think that inspired a whole way of playing, for me, and a way of playing through harmonies in a free-flowing way, without a quarter-note or metronome-type beat. An open beat, but still moving through a sequence of chords. I learned a lot about trying to approach improvising with that aspect of meter. It’s something I’m just scratching the surface on now.

12. “Impressions” THE 1961 HELSINKI CONCERT (Gambit) FEATURING ERIC DOLPHY (Nov. 22, 1961) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I was just on tour with McCoy Tyner in April, and I found this in a record shop in Basel, Switzerland. I never saw it before. There’s a version of “Impressions” that starts the concert that’s at kind of a slower tempo, almost like the tempo they played “So What” at with Miles. It’s amazing. Coltrane’s choruses are so beautiful, just the way they play the theme together and the way Eric answers and plays in the spaces of the melody. Coltrane plays around 9 choruses, then Eric comes in and plays 9 or 10 choruses himself that are some of the most beautiful Eric Dolphy with Coltrane on record. It’s incredible, because I think this was just released now. I never heard it on any other box set from European live recordings with Coltrane. Then Coltrane comes back in, after Dolphy, and plays another 2 or 3 choruses before they take the theme out. So it’s a short version of this tune with no solo by McCoy. It’s just fantastic. It’s some of the most inspired Eric Dolphy after Coltrane plays, and while Coltrane is playing, you can feel that he’s inspired just by having Dolphy on the scene. He hands it over to him in a way where he’s saying, “Okay, man, what have you got to say?” Then when Dolphy ends his chorus, Coltrane has to come in and play again because it’s at this really beautiful place in the whole structure of the piece.

[TALK A BIT ABOUT COLTRANE DIALOGUING WITH OTHER SAXOPHONE PLAYERS]

Coltrane recorded with a lot of different saxophone players. There was a great record with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley. There was some stuff with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley as a quartet. There’s some stuff with Paul Quinichette and Pepper Adams, Gene Ammons—Coltrane plays alto. Coltrane came up in an era where you played in bands with other saxophone players a lot. Some of it was documented, but I’m sure through the years he was in tons of bands, and many jam sessions and situations where you shape the music together spontaneously right at the moment with other saxophone players. A lot. Of course, with Miles and Cannonball and quintets with Cannonball. Throughout his career, I think he enjoyed, which I do, feeding off of other people, especially if they have a strong personality and ideas and have their own statement. It was great to hear him with Dolphy and have Eric’s voice, not only on alto, but bass clarinet and flute. We’re lucky that they recorded and did some things, a lot more than we ever heard really that were made for release. The recording Olé was beautiful with Freddie Hubbard and Coltrane together. But something like this, which just came out, from that tour, was so fresh! It was recorded in 1961. McCoy Tyner was 22 years old, maybe 23 on that recording. It’s so great to hear the inspiration of how they played together, and how they played off of each other.

13. “Ah-Leu-Cha” (from ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Miles Davis, trumpet; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones).

The way Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums play on that tune, the little counterpoint on that melody… I think that tune is based on “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Scrapple From the Apple”—I’m pretty sure it was derived from that sequence. But the way it was structured with the little drum-breaks and all these little things, and the way Coltrane played with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers… Of course, we’ve heard many recordings through the years with them together as that combination. That was another feeling in the beat, and the joyous journey in how they were up in each other’s music, and were moving through the harmonies with a certain feeling. They weren’t just playing over chords and playing 32 bars. They were exploring a way of playing together. It was Miles’ group, but this community of players. Someone has to be the leader, to organize things, but it’s really the community of players that make the music. I’m feeling that today in my ensembles, creating situations for the community that I live in. My nonet has a certain repertoire, a certain community of players. We’ve been playing together for years. Now, I’m the leader. I’ve organized and have developed my career to a point to be able to put it together. But it’s the community of players that is making music, too. Each one of my ensembles has been inspired by that particular realization about what is happening on the scene. Miles and Coltrane and Monk and Bird, all their records are about that. It’s a community they were living in, man, and they were living this music together, and you could feel how much they loved to play together. That comes through on this recording, Round About Midnight, with Miles Davis, and that tune, “Ah-Leu-Cha”—but on every tune. For me, that was one of the first records that totally captured me and gave me a lot of ideas, and I wore it out two or three times.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

——–

Joe Lovano (Quartets: Live At The Village Vanguard) – Blue Note:
The two quartet performances that comprise Live At the Village Vanguard represent the latest installment of Joe Lovano’s ongoing dialogue with the Freedom Principle and the Tradition. 42 years old, at the peak of his powers, where vigor complements wisdom, Lovano is as comfortable playing improvised duos with English Free-Jazz-Master Evan Parker as in-the-pocket bebop with an organ trio. His solos display the spontaneity of an ear player, but behind them is the urbane sophistication of a conservatory-trained musician with twenty years experience interpreting difficult charts in big bands ranging from Woody Herman to Carla Bley. Fully conversant with the harmonic vocabulary of Coltrane, Shorter and beyond, he is able to navigate complex structures with an uncannily relaxed rhythmic facility and big furry sound at the most intense outer partials.

Lovano inherited his open, pragmatic attitude from his father, Cleveland-based tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano. Papa Lovano worked a day job as a barber and played every variety of gig at night. Coming up in the 1940’s, Big T looked up to Clevelanders Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster, played around the city with the likes of Bill De Arango, Jim Hall, Benny Bailey, Joe Alexander and the legendary blind organist Eddie Bacchus. Later, as a main man on the Cleveland scene, he knew and played with outcats Albert Ayler, Frank Wright and Bobby Few in their formative years. The likes of Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Roland Kirk considered him a peer, and he took his son to Cleveland spots like the Smiling Dog or the Sirrah Club to hear their live sound. When young Lovano was practicing to Sonny Stitt records in the family basement, his father had John Coltrane’s “Kulu Se Mama” or “A Love Supreme” on the turntable upstairs.

When Big T was too busy to make a booking, he’d often send his son. “I paid my way to Berklee School of Music from all the money I made playing gigs in high school,” Joe recalls. “I learned all the standard tunes, how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. My Dad always stressed, ‘Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.’ He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.”

Tony Lovano’s sound spanned a wide dynamic range, from the alligatory roughness of Illinois Jacquet to the expansive melismas of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and he bequeathed that range to his son. “My sound has gone through a lot of different changes,” says Joe, “or different periods. Early on I played more one-dimensionally, with a harder sound. On my first recording with Lonnie Smith in 1975, my sound was only one beam of light, let’s say, just one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles where the music is always changing with different feelings, rhythms and attitudes, rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That range of dynamics started the process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, say, triple pianissimo with the same fullness as a triple forte.”

A drummer friend of Big T’s gave 7-year-old Joe a set from the 1940’s, including a 24″ bass drum, and Lovano has played those drums for serious relaxation ever since. On saxophone, his phrases consist of long strings of notes disjunctively accented in dialogue with the drums, cliffhanger lines that seem fated to hurtle over the edge, but inevitably land squarely on the one. “Playing drums,” Lovano comments, “opened up my awareness of what’s going on around me when I’m soloing, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano also introduced his son to the revelations of free improvising; they recorded a free duet together on Joe’s self-produced two-tenor date with Big T in 1986. “For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other players, like Billy Drewes and Judi Silvano, in duet settings, just to improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. I’m into performance, I’m into playing with the personalities I play with, and I improvise with everybody from that conception. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so that I don’t find myself being repetitive.”

“For me improvising really is about creating something new,” Joe emphasizes. “Early on it was about style and learning my horn, but after a while it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, using your technique and the language of your instrument to create something different all the time.”

The March 1994 set features the powerful unit of Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart, who had worked together off and on for two years. The most explicit antecedents are Sonny Rollins’ various trio recordings and the Ornette Coleman Quartet, but Lovano also cites John Coltrane’s music and Miles Davis’ various bands as inspirations. “Whether Miles’ group was a quartet or quintet or however big it was, it would come down to a trio sound a lot, the bass, drums and horn. I think that’s the essence in Jazz, and there are certain feelings that happen in that intimate setting.” The music was recorded on the week’s fourth night.

“In a quartet like this, with two horns,” Lovano continues, “you have the opportunity to change the orchestration as you play, to play backgrounds, to cut in on each other, to trade, to create a real ensemble sound as four people. I was able to write some new music and orchestrations that gave everyone freedom, a fresh approach to play together. The collective dialogue was unique, with a lot of explosive energy, and everybody’s attitude and personalities shaped the pieces. I think that’s why the chemistry worked. Each musician is in tune with the history of this music and tries to draw from it in a very personal way.”

Tom Harrell and Lovano have worked in each other’s bands since around 1987, when Lovano recorded Village Rhythm for Soul Note. Known for his exquisite improvising in “harmonic type music with piano or larger groups,” Harrell plays with extraordinary force in the freer setting, spontaneously co-composing arrangements with his horn-mate on every song, conjuring poised melodic sequences on every solo. Listen to the way he mimics the multiphonic burst that concludes Lovano’s solo on “Fort Worth” to segue seamlessly into his statement, or his ravishing solo on “Sail Away.”

Though Lovano first knew bassist Anthony Cox from casual sessions in the late Seventies, they established a real connection with John Scofield’s Quartet in 1989; in 1990-91 Cox worked in Lovano’s trio with Ed Blackwell. “Anthony is versatile and can play very freely within structures and forms and harmonic sequences with imagination and intuition,” Lovano states. “He’s a strong melodic rhythmic player who brings a lot of ideas into the tune, but always drawing from the tune itself. That’s the kind of bass player you need in a trio sounding group such as this.” Hear his leadoff solo on Cleveland composer Emil Boyd’s “Blues Not To Lose,” how he meshes with Billy Hart in articulating theme and variation on the tune’s striking melody.

On Joe’s first gig in New York with organist Lonnie Smith in 1975, Billy Hart played drums; they’ve since collaborated in many venues. “I first heard Billy with Herbie Hancock’s sextet in the early Seventies, and the first time I heard him, man, I wanted to play with him!” Lovano remembers. “In every situation Billy is open and inspired. He tries to get into everyone’s personality, plus he brings in his own incredible energy. In this quartet I wrote some tunes to feature him and let him explode and explore, give him freedom to shift tempos and to play however he wants, to listen and react. I think Billy Hart today is playing fresher than ever.” Hart’s dynamic range and command of timbre complement every beat of the set; hear how he complements Lovano’s trademark pillowed, honey sound on the 12/8 treatment of “Birds From Springtimes Gone By,” his impeccable brushwork on “I Can’t Get Started,” the quiet fire of “Sail Away,” and the controlled fury of every stroke on the Colemanesque “Uprising.”

Volume 2, from January 1995, features the dream team rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the pianist, bassist and drummer that any bandleader would want on their gig, in a follow-up to Tenor Legacy, Lovano’s two-tenor collaboration with Joshua Redman for Blue Note.

“I wanted to make a counter-statement to the first quartet,” Lovano says, “and not just be throwing some tunes together. For the Vanguard, I wanted to play some classic things in my own way and in the group’s way, how we play together now. We challenged each other throughout the week on each tune. It didn’t matter what the tempo was or what key it was in or what the tune was. We could have played ‘Happy Birthday’.” Instead, Lovano chose compositions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, a standard by Gordon Jenkins, and an original. As on the March 1994 set, the sequencing represents the actual set order.

Many pianists you talk to cite Mulgrew Miller as their model on the instrument; “one of the most elegant, swinging, tasteful pianists today,” comments Lovano, who met Mulgrew around 1974 when both were students in Boston. “He plays with an inner beauty in his sound and whole flow, and he’s one of the most swinging accompanists around. When he comps, he’s so much a part of what everybody else is playing that you’re not really aware of what he’s playing somehow. He’s so in touch with everything.” His ferocious, idiomatic solo on “Little Willie Leaps” marks a profound accomplishment; the duos with Lovano in the opening and closing verse sections of “This Is All I Ask” are lyric wonders.

At 23 years old, Christian McBride already has established his place in Jazz history for the quality of his tone, his deep center-of-the-note beat, virtuosic bow-work and imaginative soloing. He’s already appeared on about eighty recordings. “Christian is an incredible young musician who is deeply involved in the whole recorded history of music. He knows a lot of tunes, and he memorizes things immediately. You can play anything with him. After the first time through he plays it, SNAP, he knows it, he’s got it, he immediately grabs hold of what’s happening and hits a serious groove from beat one.” Listen to his solos on “Reflections” and “26-2” and his rhythmic interplay with Lewis Nash throughout, and you’ll see what the buzz on him is all about.

“The word ‘elegant’ applies to Lewis Nash’s playing, too,” Joe continues. “He is one of the most tasteful drummers, swings so hard, plays with complete precision with a heavy beat that never gets bombastic — he’s not just banging around. He articulates everything like a horn player, and it’s fun to play with him and interact with his articulation, the way he plays phrases at you and counter-phrases. He’s very clear. You can hear everything he plays like you’re snapping your fingers. It’s beautiful to play with a drummer like that, because you can play tight together.” Note the incredible swing Nash generates on “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Reflections” at the top of the set, or the ingenious 12-bar drum breaks between the melodies and solos of “Sounds of Joy.”

The contrasting styles of the two state-of-the-art drummers evoked different approaches from Lovano. “Lewis plays very differently than Billy,” he comments. “Billy plays really loose and flowing and strong and explosive, and takes big right turns and sharp angles. There’s a lot more angles in Billy’s playing. With Billy you’re listening deeply, and the interaction takes a different shape. You have to be very free as an improviser to create a solo that can shift and change with his accents and tempo. The piano quartet is about swing, and it’s about the rhythm section, the soloists, the tradition of Bebop. It’s really about flow and straight-ahead. They say, ‘Straight ahead and strive for tone.’ That’s the essence of that group. We hit a heavy groove and just sailed with it.”

“I played completely differently with the two groups, in two different attitudes, and I think you can hear that when you listen to each recording. My solos in the quartet with Mulgrew are a lot longer and a lot more involved with playing a solo. In the group with Tom and Billy and Anthony there’s more interplay, a lot more dialogue between all of us. I’ve played in both those schools my whole life, and I love them both.”

The Village Vanguard’s legend was built on performances like the two snapshots presented on this double-CD. Lovano’s intense consciousness of the room’s remarkable Jazzcoustics, “its intimate sound and clarity, like playing in a studio somehow,” began as a teenager, when repeated listenings to the Vanguard recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans helped deepen his sense of how Jazz should sound. His live connection with the Vanguard began in 1976, the year he moved to New York. He drank in Dexter Gordon’s tone during Homecoming week (“I came home and practiced for hours and hours after hearing Dexter in that room”), sat in with Elvin Jones and Bill Evans. Lovano worked there almost every Monday night during the 1980’s with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, worked week-gigs with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and the Paul Motian Trio. And since 1991, when Lovano embarked on the leader path as a full-time endeavor, his various groups have been a staple of the Vanguard’s roster.

So recording Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard was a natural. Rigorous and hot, Live At The Village Vanguard is contemporary Jazz at its finest.

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Joe Lovano (On This Day: At The Vanguard) – Liner Notes:

“I’ve always lived in, let’s say, the different camps in the music,” Joe Lovano told me a few years back. “I’ve tried to develop my technique so I can execute ideas freely and within the personnel of the band and not come at the saxophone or the music with the same attitude all the time.”

That credo accurately describes the ambiance of On This Day (At The Vanguard), recorded on the final night of a week’s residence by Lovano’s nonet at New York’s Village Vanguard. As Lovano is at pains to note, it documents a working band in a continual state of evolution.

“I don’t want a bunch of horn players repeating arrangements that are rehearsed and set in stone,” Lovano says. “I want a band that creates music, with a structure that is secure and solid, but with freedom for everyone’s contribution to take shape and crystallize as we play. All the cats have played in great bands; they’re mature improvisers and serious ensemble players who shape their approach in the moment. This is how we put together our music for every concert. Each performance stands on its own. This is how we’re playing tonight!“

The core of Lovano’s first nonet album, the Grammy-winning 52nd Street Themes, was that branch of bebop gestated by the singular melodies, voicings and harmonic progressions of Tadd Dameron [1917-1965] as filtered through the sensibility of arranger Willie Smith, once a Dameron associate. Three years later, Lovano and his gifted cohort – propelled by the extraordinarily inventive and empathetic drumwork of Lewis Nash – pick up where they left off and stretch the form. The ensemble renders with heart and precision Smith’s luscious arrangements of Dameron’s “Focus” and the classic noir ballad “Laura,” while all members speak their piece on a rollicking “Good Bait” marked by an ebullient shout chorus. “At The Vanguard” is a Lovano-penned stomp (guess the source) with a Monkish connotation, while the leader offers an impassioned, reflective reading of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” and ends the set with a mellow quartet fantasia on Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” made famous by Coltrane on his iconic 1962 encounter with Duke Ellington.

“I grew up with Coltrane’s recordings of these tunes,” Lovano says. “It’s a challenge to try to make them my own and not copy the way he played them.” That Lovano meets the challenge with such a palpably individual voice is attributable to early hands-on encounters with bebop signposts like Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and “Hot House,” a process that launched him along the same path that his heroes followed during formative years while carving out their own inimitable tonal personalities.

“Playing the inner parts and original harmonic structures of Tadd’s music influenced Coltrane’s early tunes,” Lovano states. “Although Coltrane was always moving forward rhythmically and sonically and in everything else, he always dealt with everything he ever studied. Even on the duets with Rashied Ali, he’s still dealing with ‘Giant Steps,’ still dealing with all these things that vibrated in his body. That simple melody on ‘A Love Supreme’ has the same intervals as on ‘Locomotion’ from Blue Train. With people like Coltrane or Miles, their surroundings changed, but what they played came from their entire lives.”

Lovano fully expresses his penchant for eliciting creative dialogue with the jazz lifeblood on the title track, a free kaleidoscopic journey built on a hymn-like 9-note melody [“on-this-day-just-like-a-ny-oth-er”] over an ametric pulse, and a second 8-note theme that echoes the syllables Bil-ly Hig-gins, the late drummer to whom Lovano dedicated the piece, and whose alert, relaxed essence Lewis Nash channels throughout. In their explorative solos, George Garzone, Steve Slagle, Barry Ries, John Hicks and Lovano develop and elaborate upon the shapes and moods, sustaining an emotional core and creating magic.

They embody the notion that the title of this special album refers not only to a snapshot of a work in progress, but to a philosophy of life.

“This music is honest and true,” Lovano says. “You can’t tell lies when you play it, because it’s already been documented. It isn’t just technical, but exists at a beautiful spiritual level also. ‘On This Day’ is about how cats from the inner circle – Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Paul Motian, Art Blakey – played with such consistency every time you heard them. Long before I became who I am as a player, they inspired me to develop that attitude to the art of improvising, and also to play with them. They gave me confidence to be myself, to put together an ensemble like this, with so much trust.”

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Liner Notes (Us Five: Folk Art):

It is entirely characteristic of Joe Lovano that he would use his 21st recording for Blue Note, released amidst the fanfare of the label’s seventieth anniversary year, to introduce a new ensemble, Us Five, deploying a fresh approach towards exploring his music.

To be specific, Us Five: Folk Art comprises ten compositions. Lovano plays tenor saxophone, straight alto saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, aulochrome, and percussion, joined by James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and Otis Brown and Francesco Mela on, to use Lovano’s nomenclature, drums and cymbals. He explores a wide spectrum of “colors, sounds, and feelings,” organizing the flow into passages for quintet, quartets, trios, duos, and solos within the unit, fully exploiting the various rhythm section possibilities that the two-drummer format affords. The better to coax the music onto unexpected routes, Lovano offers his collaborators wide latitude to interpret the raw materials “with freedom to take shape and crystallize as we play.” He himself navigates the fluid terrain with utter authority, consistently projecting the vocalized tone, uncanny time feel, and interactivity that mark his entire Blue Note corpus.

“I’ve always tried to be very free with inside approaches, and to be really in there on freer music, what they call ‘outside,’” says Lovano, noting that the unit, which first convened in the fall of 2007, honed their collective perspective during a week at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard directly before the recording session.

“The music comes out of our individual roots, and the combinations emerge. Francesco Mela is from Cuba; Otis Brown is a real New York drummer; Esperanza has a beautiful lyrical approach; and I love the way James conceives jazz music with blues, gospel, and freer forms. It’s an ongoing study on how to play together with mutual respect and an egoless approach.”

Except for Weidman, whose c.v. includes long stints with Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, Lovano’s new partners are “people who aren’t my generation, haven’t totally developed their approach, are experiencing things for the first time. Everyone has fresh eyes and ears, and this gives me compositional ideas that I had never played with anyone else before. Everybody is on their toes.”

They have to be to keep pace with Lovano. The composer describes the opening track, “Powerhouse,” as “an original harmonic structure that combines things I study and work on all the time—trying to combine the turnarounds and resolutions of Bird and Coltrane in my own way, and working with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic ideas, changing the meaning of notes as you play them by shifting color and key as you move along.”

Consider how “Folk Art” develops—Lovano states the theme on straight alto saxophone over a polytonal vamp, evolves the flow in configurations that shift from quintet to drum-duo and back to quintet, switches to tenor saxophone as the harmonic material takes a more straightforward direction, and moves to more open-ended polytonal exploration on the final theme. “That approach for me is what jazz is,” Lovano says. “It’s a real folk music, and you can play a multitude of influences from your experiences in the world of music in your improvisation and composition.”

The ebullient ambiance of invention never stops. The spiritual aura of late Coltrane permeates the ballads ‘Wild Beauty’ and ‘Song for Judi,’ the latter—dedicated to Lovano’s wife (“and inspiration”), singer Judi Silvano—containing three different key signatures that prod Lovano to extend and elaborate while also living within the lovely melody. Lovano plays tarogato (he describes the Hungarian folk instrument as “half-clarinet and half soprano saxophone, with many colors and a human voice sound”) on “Drum Song,” and aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone with one keyboard down the center) on “Dibango,” a funky line dedicated to Cameroonian saxophonist-vibraphonist Manu Dibano. He plays alto clarinet on the stately, folkish “Page Four,” and launches the open-form “Ettenro” (“Ornette” spelled backward), on alto saxophone before switching to tenor for a summational statement after Weidman, a force throughout, says his piece.

As do his twenty previous Blue Note albums, Us Five: Folk Art illuminates Lovano’s unique position as an artist who authoritatively deploys the tradition as a tool to point directly to the future.

“Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff wanted cats to find themselves and to realize that they had beautiful original music,” Lovano says of Blue Note’s founding fathers, expressing a sentiment equally applicable to Bruce Lundvall’s quarter-century at the helm. “Carrying on in that tradition of being a player-composer is the legacy of Blue Note for those of us who record for them today.”

[—30—]

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