Category Archives: 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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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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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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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.

*_*_*_*_

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.

* * *

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.

*_*_*_*_*_

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.”

*_*_*_*_

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.

*_*_*_*_

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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Filed under Hilton Ruiz, Liner Notes, Piano

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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