Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct a pair of interviews with Miroslav Vitous — one on WKCR and one over the telephone — that wound up being distilled for a DownBeat “Backstage” piece. He had just released the ECM CD Universal Syncopations. I’m posting both (the WKCR interview first) in recognition of the bass maestro’s 66th birthday.
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Miroslav Vitous (WKCR, 10-16-03):
TP: That was “Tramp Blues,” an original composition by Miroslav Vitous, who has a new recording on ECM called Universal Syncopations. Miroslav Vitous is in town, and he’s appearing at Joe’s Pub on Monday for a 7:30 p.m. concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of sound files, samples of his own creation… A sort of concerto for bass and virtual symphonic orchestra. One of the legendary figures who emerged in the ’60s, and hasn’t been in the States much in recent years.
On this album, you gather four of the iconic tonal personalities who came of age during the ’60s, all of whom achieved great eminence in the music in their various niches, and all of whom, with the exception of Jack DeJohnette, who is also a leader, are used to playing their own music, addressing their own concepts in musical activity. It’s not very often that you hear Chick Corea or John McLaughlin or Jan Garbarek as sideman. Talk about conceptualizing the album from the gestation and how you put it together.
VITOUS: It’s a long conversation, so I’ll try to pick a few points here and there. In a way, this album is a continuation of Infinite Search, the first album which was released in 1969, which was also with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, most importantly in the way that all the instruments are equal. If you know the album, Infinite Search, basically you will remember that the bass was playing not exactly in traditional way. I was exchanging motives and having conversations with the horn player or with the piano player or with the guitar player, almost to the point that… Well, basically that’s the direction I’ve chosen with my bass playing anyway.
On this new album, much of it is in the same way, but it’s much further down the road, so to speak. Basically, the bass is completely free at this point. It doesn’t have to play any more roles. I am strongly against roles in the music, in the pure sense of music, because you always have a bass player and drummer going BUM-BUM-BUM, SPANG-A-LANG, SPANG-A-LANG, keeping the time, the piano player plays the harmony, and the saxophone player will solo on top of that. So basically, it’s an arrangement which doesn’t leave very much room for communication between the musicians. After playing a long time like this, I finally got fed up with it and said, “This is getting really boring, because I am just playing some things, and there are guys over here playing that, and we’re not even communicating.” So I started playing mainly by the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans. They started this basically in an overwhelming manner in the ’60s. I started playing like this a lot in the ’60s, and basically in the compositions.
TP: But to say that doesn’t imply any loss of grooves. You’re creating very strong grooves here, as does Jack DeJohnette. So when you say that you don’t believe in roles, it’s very obvious that the bass is playing both a melodic and supportive function at the same time. It seems more of a simultaneous thing rather than a rejection.
VITOUS: I can tell you something about this. It’s not the same throughout the album. There are three or four songs where this is very strong applied, like “Miro Bop” and “Sunflower,” and there are pieces that I am basically holding the thing together and setting the direction, so I have to be playing in that kind of way. But for the most part, I am continuing with the idea of pure conversation between the musicians. Nobody has to play time, nobody has to play the bass, nobody has to play the harmony. Everybody is just free to communicate on a high level or whatever level we can communicate on.
TP: This music obviously wouldn’t have been played in a performance situation beforehand because of everyone’s scheduled. Is that sort of consideration important in creating an album, or is it overrated? For example, people wish they could have workshopped this music or developed or fine-tuned it for a week before going in.
VITOUS: It would be important in some ways. But on this particular album it was a little bit different, because I was after refining this concept of playing this way, as I was describing before. If the whole band gets together in place for one week or something, then we would face a lot of danger of falling into the old trap.
TP: Why is that a danger?
VITOUS: Because that would be a danger if you want to create something new. You would not be able to do it, because the band falls in the old tracks. That’s very likely to happen. So I wanted to do something which… It would be very difficult to do this, like, on the spot. So it was done a little bit differently, so that we don’t fall back into old traps, so the new direction can be set in a way. It would be too difficult to explain-explain-explain, to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, dealing with all the egos involved of all the musicians, and given all the ways they are used to be playing under certain conditions, all of that…it would be nearly impossible to achieve the new directions.
TP: You’ve known all of these musicians for close to forty years.
VITOUS: ’67 I met Chick. ’68 I met Jack.
TP: What did you notice about their own evolution during those years?
VITOUS: Well, we are going ahead to some very serious issues with this. Because up to a certain point, I felt that we could basically remain free and remain 100% free to play what we wanted to play artistically. Until the period, in my opinion, anyway… And I felt this on my own skin as well, so I can basically vouch that what I am going to say is definitely what everybody had to face. When the disco came in and when the element of trad(?) jazz was introduced, the business questions of music got very big. Unfortunately, from that time, every musician was influenced in a big way to change their music so it could be saleable, whatever would help them make progress in their career. We were all influenced by this. I basically had it so much up to here that I left the country.
TP: You did a number of albums of that kind of after leaving Weather Report, no?
VITOUS: I did albums only for ECM with my group. Basically, I have never given into this direction, until the pressure got so large that I said, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t want to teach for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to play this kind of music which I am being requested by the recording companies so they can sell some albums; I am either going to play 100% art, what is coming from my heart, or I am not going to play at all.” So this was one of the major decisions which I made, and I had to basically leave the country, because of that. This is true.
TP: But you did get into academe. You taught at New England Conservatory?
VITOUS: Yes, I was chairman of the Jazz Department there for three years. Basically, it was a very big issue for me to go to Europe, where basically I was left to play whatever I wanted to play.
TP: So you’ve had the artistic freedom in Europe.
VITOUS: Absolutely. Well, now I have the artistic freedom, period. Because I have done some other things asides from music to find a good way to make money without selling out or doing something cheap for money. I am never for that. So my financial situation is not dependent on my playing. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen for a musician who wants to play 100% art.
However, coming back into this, I still find the business to be basically this way. So even though I have 100% artistic freedom, I still have to deal with the whole setup of the music business which is not oriented in this way.
TP: Do you think that art in the real world can ever exist outside of a marketplace? There needs to be an audience, there needs to be a way of getting people to hear it, there needs to be a context within which you’re performing. If you’re a professional musician, it seems almost ipso facto you’re accepting the idea of a marketplace.
VITOUS: You can take that to the logical extreme, where the only thing that counts is how many albums you’re going to sell and how…
TP: But beyond that. I’m not talking about selling 100,000 copies of a jazz album. But you’re in town, and probably Joe’s Pub will be filled with people who want to hear it. I’m not referring to the materialist excess aspect of the marketplace as much as operating within an established framework…
VITOUS: The publicity and all this stuff still can exist without having to be part of a one million dollar organization. It is a tough issue, but I definitely believe that the culture has been hurt greatly on the planet by money interfering with the art. And we need the culture, we need the pure thing for us to go ahead through life and have the right values. We cannot live on a plastic spoon.
TP: It’s interesting, because you were raised in post-war Czechoslovakia under a Stalinist regime, though I don’t know how much it impinged on you. And among your contemporaries were Jan Hammer, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky… Describe the climate in Prague when you were coming up.
VITOUS: Basically, I consider myself very lucky. Before I basically grew up completely, I was gone out of there. I was a professional swimmer, in terms of being an Olympic contender style of sportsman. I was going to the Concertgebouw, playing jazz concerts. Nobody could leave Czechoslovakia. I was playing on the jazz festivals in the West, playing with a trio. I was going abroad with the swimming team to swim for the country. So for me, I didn’t feel any pressure of Communism; only through my parents and people around. Then I started to see limitations: Oh, somebody doesn’t want you to go to the conservatory, so they will try to do everything they can so you can go the conservatory. There was a lot of that going. And before the Communism really got to my bones, so to speak, I was out of there. So I was very lucky. However, the great thing about being there at the time is that I received some of the most valuable education you can ever receive from the giants of music at the conservatory in Prague.
TP: What was the pedagogy?
VITOUS: Well, it was something that you’re never going to see in the United States, or probably not even in Europe. You can see it in Europe in some parts. Total devotion to the music. Total dedication and absolute love for it, like you have never seen. Respect absolute. Together with this, because the country was under the Communist influence and they could not speak freely, basically they were passing on the values of the country and their national pride through their teaching of the music, in this serious, deep way. So talking about regular education, there’s absolutely nothing compared to what I have gone through there — what they gave us. It was a double thing.
TP: At the time, did jazz seem like something very separate from classical music for you? Were they two different personalities, or all part of the same continuum?
VITOUS: For me, I didn’t notice. I played the violin at 6, piano at 9, bass at 14, and as soon as I picked up the bass I played both — classical and jazz. Another great thing about being there is that at the time there was Radio Free Europe, Willis Conover, who was playing all the albums in the ’60s. Every album released, the historical albums, and everything. My brother and I used to tape them, and listen and study it. When I came to the United States, I used to ask the other musicians: “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” So I found out that I knew much more about the jazz music and what was being released and who played what by being there, rather than here. So it was another valuable education point.
TP: So when you came here, you had the technical training and you had jazz in your head, so you were equipped… What was the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you came to the States?
VITOUS: I have to say rhythm. I’ve studied this throughout the years. It took me many years to get together a rhythm so that I would… Most bass players can tell you when they play with a drummer, they are basically dependent on the drummer. When the drummer stops playing, they are like, “Oh, I’m swimming; where am I?” That kind of thing. It took many years to get to the point that when the drummer stops playing, it doesn’t matter any more, because your own rhythm is so strong. That took a long while to develop. I think it has something to do with the freedom of thinking and the flexibility of being free or something. Because in Europe, being restricted and all that, a lot of people think in a box — still very much old ways. It’s in the air, and you have to deal with that. It is actually rhythmically easier to play on this continent than it is in Europe. I have noticed that.
TP: Rhythmically easier on this continent.
VITOUS: Rhythmically, yes.
VITOUS: I am going to tell you Monday night. I haven’t played here in a long time.
TP: Mr. Vitous is performing a concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of orchestral samples he’s created over the years. Which I do want to ask you about. Googling you last night on the Internet, I came up with a review:
“I’d heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw. So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate, the ensemble, strings and brass-woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation desk, I loaded them up in my giga-sampler rig and opened up a pre-set performance — bassoon-oboe-flute. Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play. It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played. The sounds were vibrant and airy, living and reedy — one word that comes to my mind immediately is “thick.” It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live. Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin, airy instrument I’d heard all my life. It was a huge, forceful sound, vibrant…”
Do you have a whole body of scored music for this context? Do you take different samples and improvise against them? What’s the structure for these concerts?
VITOUS: Basically I compose some motives and phrases which belong to the song which I am playing, and then I have them recorded and mixed with the library, and then I place them on a keyboard. So that particular file, I can push the key and it will start playing whatever it is — 2 bars or 4 bars or 8 bars or 16 bars — whenever I need. Which is great, because that means there is still all the room in the world for the creativity. Because I will only play when I need it, when I want it. So that means I am free to do anything I want to do. I used to play before this with finished sequences, but basically I was tied to the sequence. I couldn’t do very much. When I felt like I wanted to do something else, I couldn’t do it, because the sequence was basically unchangeable.
TP: Are the instruments virtual instruments or real musicians?
VITOUS: They are real musicians.
TP: They are playing the sequences, and then you enter them…
VITOUS: No, they are not playing the sequences. They are playing the notes. The library is put together from notes of each instrument, each section, each of whatever the whole orchestra is…what have you. It was gigantic work. It took me seven years to do this. And I did it with the sound… I needed as much of a realistic sound as possible. And knowing classical orchestras, I used my ears to get that. But the main point was, I asked the musicians not to play just the notes. I said, “Give me some music,” when we were recording. Like, to the strings, “Play like Wagner, play like Beethoven, play like Dvorak — give me some feeling into these notes.” Because before this, everybody was just playing dead notes. So when you get a whole bunch of notes on the keyboard, then you play a chord, you have a dead chord. So that was the basic difference between my library and all the libraries recorded up until today.
TP: So you have a chord sequence from Wagner, from Dvorak…
VITOUS: No-no. Just the feeling. They know how it feels to play Wagner or Dvorak.
TP: But in other words, do you have all of those difference feelings? Do you have the same note or chord sequence with each of those different feelings?
VITOUS: No. It would get so complex… I made this in 1992-93. I think at that point, there was only 8 megabytes memory for the sampler. It would be so gigantic for that time, I don’t think it would be even possible to comprehend.
TP: When did you finish collating all the sounds?
VITOUS: It was completed in 1991.
TP: This was for you to practice with?
VITOUS: No, it was to compose with. Then when I got into it so deeply, I found out, “Wait a moment, half-a-million dollars has disappeared; I’ve got to do something.” So I decided to complete it and release it for the public also. But it was made for music. It was not made for business.
TP: What was the response when it got into the world?
VITOUS: It was the same response I would have said, and that was, “Thank God we have finally something which is elastic.” Because we have the technology, we have the programs, we can freeze our compositions, but we had only [NASAL VOICE] sounds up to that point.
TP: When did you start performing with them publicly?
VITOUS: I started performing already in the ’90s with this.
TP: How has it changed with the technology? Is it a more fluid process now?
VITOUS: No, it’s basically set. The sound is there, the attack is there, the flexibility is there, the instrument plays very fast or slow or whatever. So the technology does not affect the central orchestra.
TP: Are you improvising against it?
VITOUS: I am free to play anything I want. It’s different, always different. It’s basically the same composition and the same motives, but they are in different places. I stretch them out, I go somewhere else sometimes. I am free to be as creative as possible with this.
TP: Did you approach the structures of your virtual compositions differently than creating music for Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin to play on over you and Jack DeJohnette?
VITOUS: Well, it is different. I am by myself, so I am basically free to do whatever I want. In fact, at the solo performance, I am going to play at least one from the new record with some classical files answering the bass lines. So it’s done in a different way.
TP: You were saying that the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you emigrated here in the ’60s was rhythm. But fairly soon after arriving here, you were playing in a trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes, who was and still is one of the most creative, imaginative, free drummers there is. Great training.
TP: That trio made a record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, that instantly became part of the building blocks of jazz piano vocabulary. Pianists still pay attention to it. Almost anyone under 45 I’ve talked to, cites it.
VITOUS: It’s one of the most influential trio music albums. I can tell you what happened when I came to the studio. It was the first time ever I played with Roy Haynes. With Chick I’d played before; we did some jam sessions and a few things. So we started to play, and I played like I usually play, in the way which was that aside from playing time I was playing little motives here and there. We got to the point all of a sudden that we had to stop in the middle of the take, because we got off somehow. Then I realized instantly at this point, okay, I’m just going to have to play the time and let Roy do the dancing around. As soon as I did that, as soon as I realized that this is what I had to do because if we both do it it’s not going to work, then it worked perfectly. But I had to fasten my seatbelt sort of thing… [LAUGHS] It was very…not difficult, but… Yeah, it was difficult to…
TP: To play the function, as it were.
VITOUS: The first time you play with Roy Haynes and Chick Corea in the studio, making an album which is going to become a celebrity, in a way.
TP: That band sporadically has continued to play. The most recent example on record is Rendezvous in New York, the compilation record that Chick Corea made from the end of 2001. Within that band, do you still have to play the function? Is it difficult for you to do that now if it has to be done, given all the life you’ve lived and how hard you’ve worked to sustain artistic freedom? Is that somehow incompatible with playing the bass function in a band like that? Or have you all grown?
VITOUS: It’s a question of… We have all grown, of course. There’s no question about that. And also, it became less difficult. We did quite a bit of touring ten years later with Chick and Roy, and so we got very comfortable play. Trio Live in Europe is a wonderful album. Of course, I am a bass player in a trio, so I have to play differently than I would play either with my own group or solo.
TP: Jan Garbarek and you have done a number of recordings over the years… What I’m getting to is the process of sustaining relationships and the ways that musical personalities continue to interact and grow together. Did you play much with Garbarek in the interim from Star to Universal Syncopations?
VITOUS: Atmos was between them, a duo album of me and Jan.
TP: But is it very easy to pick up the thread, as it were?
VITOUS: Jan and I have a fantastic rapport together. The intuition is such a great element with us, that I know what he is going to play and he knows what I am going to play before we play it. So basically, we become the instrument of the heavens, just play what we hear and the communication. So it is not difficult at all to pick up the thread.
TP: You said that in Europe you have a solo, a duo, a trio, a quartet. Which musicians do you play with there?
VITOUS: I am trying out different musicians in Italy now, and some American drummers, until I decide who is going to be the steady member of the group. Because after this, I believe a lot of opportunities are coming, and I want to make sure the band is the best it can possibly be.
TP: So it’s still a work in progress.
VITOUS: Yes, a work in progress. And I like it very much. Because I am beginning to realize that actually having different members in the band is very beneficial, because it changes the music and… I knew this from before already, that when you are with one band for a long time, you can very easily reach a stagnating point. It’s very good to refresh, to keep changing things.
TP: Would you describe yourself as a very interactive bass player? Are you someone who really takes in the information and responds? Are you influenced by what other people are playing?
VITOUS: Absolutely, yes. Communicating always. Without communication, there is no music. Everybody just plays some notes. That’s what I believe.
TP: About 30 seconds ago, Miroslav said, “Hear that? Double time, 6/4, half-time.” And it all comes together with logic and clarity. Almost any…not just the compositions, but the ideas that are postulated could be extrapolated on in a very dense way, particularly by musicians of this caliber. But the record is lucid. The ideas are very clear. It seems you deliberately went for simplicity and clarity within this.
VITOUS: Basically, the compositions come from classical music. When you write a motif or something beautiful, you don’t want to spoil it by covering it with something else and putting it inside of something else. Let it shine and be absolutely brilliant. It has space. We don’t have to cover it up. That was the idea for every motif, for whatever is being said or played. Because the motives are absolutely gorgeous. So let them shine to their complete, true potential, also with overtones ringing out. When you play a motif, it takes a little while before the motif actually dies out. And you don’t want to interfere with that either. You want to let it ring out before you come in with something new after that, because otherwise you are basically destroying the work you just did.
TP: What qualities do you think the five of you — Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, yourself, Jack DeJohnette — in the most general sense share in common? You’re all musicians who emerged in the ’60s in a very efflorescent period of the music.
VITOUS: I don’t know, and I haven’t really thought about it. One thing we have in common, all of us, that is definitely very strong is creativity.
TP: But there was a particular environment in which your creativity was allowed to evolve in a certain direction, which let’s say had you all encountered each other ten years before, in the ’50s, or ten years later, in the ’70s, would have gone on a different path. But you met when you met, and it went in the direction and directions that it did.
VITOUS: Well, I have to thank very much everybody involved here, because I have such a beautiful relationship with each one of those musicians, and there’s a lot of respect going back and forth, and they respected what I wanted to do. If I gave them some motives and some music, they completely respected it and they tried to execute it in the atmosphere and in the essence which I wanted to have. I was assisting everybody personally. So we were able to stay within this brilliant atmosphere with nothing getting confused, nothing getting overplayed, and nothing covering something else. I think that’s the main thing, the love for the music by each of these musicians made it possible to do this.
TP: What are you passions outside of playing the bass and composing? You were an Olympic caliber swimmer in your youth? Are sports something you still do?
VITOUS: I keep swimming. Not training heavily, but I keep working out two-three times a week just to keep my energies going. It’s very important. I do a lot of meditation. I work with gemstones, I work with meditation, I work with Tao. But one thing I have discovered, too, is that I don’t like to be part of any organization, of religion or anything like this, because I always found out that whenever I was part of that, that someone was there trying to play some kind of a power game or run your life or whatever. So after a while, I discovered, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t have to go down the street and then to the corner and then over there to get in touch with God — he’s right up there.” So I don’t need any more detours.
TP: Does that predisposition to individualism carry over to your musical activity as well?
VITOUS: I would think the clarity and brilliance has definitely helped me.
TP: I mean the individualism. Not wanting to be part of an organized group, as it were. Does that carry over to your musical…
VITOUS: Not in that way. It’s just that I like to be left alone to live my own destiny and my own life. I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do. I already know what to do. Or, it is going to come to me, what I am going to do, anyway. So everything else basically doesn’t make any sense. It is just a detour.
TP: How do you describe your solo bass performances?
VITOUS: I think probably a good way to describe it is acoustic bass solo with virtual classical orchestra.
TP: How did the concert go in Philadelphia?
TP: Good crowd?
VITOUS: Yeah. Almost full anyway.
TP: That’s not bad.
VITOUS: Yeah, that’s not bad. And we had some equipment problems because we didn’t have the right things, but we managed anyway. At Joe’s Pub it should be more up to date. Over there in Philadelphia, they are just beginning to do some concerts. But it was great. People thought it was absolutely fantastic.
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Miroslav Vitous (Oct. 2003—telephone interview):
TP: I want to talk about Universal Syncopations and how you developed it. Tell me how the project came to be. It seems like it was a long gestation period.
VITOUS: Yes. Well, I wanted to do an album, so to speak, exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want no one else involved, from the very beginning. Because I have had experiences before, on many different locations with many different people, where the influence was somewhat… I just wanted to be alone, to do my best without anyone else interfering. So I called Jack, and invited him to come to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recorded quite extensively for four days. So that’s how it began.
TP: You recorded for four days. Did you have the pieces conceptualized then?
VITOUS: Yes. I had the pieces… I don’t like to write any more charts, like an exact amount of bars. I hate that. It keeps you completely locked up and in a box. So I make maps for myself. You come up with a motif or some kind of series of changes or some rhythmical arc or a melody, and you write that down. But you don’t write down an exact number of bars, you don’t write down how long it should last — you just let the music take its course. So it’s going from statement to statement. We did that, and Jack was following what I was doing beautifully. That was the first part.
I was either going to make the album with a symphony orchestra and this duo or I was going to make Miroslav and Friends. I talked to Manfred Eicher about that, and he seemed to like the idea better about the Miroslav and Friends. I actually liked that better, too. I continued recording, I asked Manfred if he would like to involve himself at this point by paying for the sessions and the musicians, and he said that he is not sure of the outcome, so that he cannot do that. In any event, that was not a problem for me, because I had made plenty of money at the time, so I just went ahead and financed the whole recording until I was done. I wrote parts for Chick Corea, then I recorded at his studio in Florida. Next on the list was the brass sections; I wrote that out and recorded it in Switzerland. Then I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded it in my house in Monaco. Then last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded it in Oslo. Then I played it for Manfred and he loved it, so basically he made a decision right there that he is going to buy it. Then I went on and kept everything for about 14 months to put everything together exactly the way I wanted it and what it was supposed to sound like. So that’s the story how it exactly happened. It took from March 2000 until I finished the mixing and mastering in January-February of 2003.
TP: How did you approach Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin in interpreting the parts? Did you direct their improvised sections, for instance?
VITOUS: Well, basically I told them about the essence. I wrote statements and motives for them which were to be played, because the bass was introducing them already. You can hear it on “Univoyage,” for example, when it comes to a particular part where the statement is written and you can hear everyone basically playing the same statement, more or less. So basically this, and in between the statements they were improvising, and I asked them to improvise within the content of the tune, so that the atmosphere and essence of the tune stays the same. What I mean by that is you don’t play everything on one tune in the sense of mixing together, like, pork with beef. You either play pork or you play beef, but you don’t play all that. That’s why the tunes are so specifically in its essence and atmosphere, each one of them, because they stay within the atmosphere of each tune. So that was great. They all did it beautifully.
TP: The bass and drum tracks you recorded initially, did you modify them at all from the original versions?
VITOUS: No. In fact, I even tried to open up some things on the bass, and it was like I was in another world. It would never fit because it was a specific thing at a specific time. Boom, that’s it. Nothing was taken down, nothing was erased, nothing was edited. A few beats on the cymbals and stuff like that I moved around a little bit to make sure they were in a better place — sometimes — but that was it.
TP: Did you change anything in the playing of Chick or Jan Garbarek or McLaughlin, or did their statements stand as well? And how long did it take for each of them to get the feeling and do what satisfied you?
VITOUS: It’s not easy remember this. But I know that I edited some of Chick Corea. I edited a lot of the guitar tracks. There were so many guitar tracks, and I had to make very careful choices, because John usually doesn’t play in a collective situation. So I had to be very careful to make sure it was coming within the context of the group. So that took quite a long time, to find the correct charts and statements from Mr. McLaughlin. I hardly touched Garbarek at all. I think I shifted a few statements from one take to the other, just because of the spacing, but basically I didn’t have to do anything. But Jan was the last one to do the recording, so he heard everything which was on the plate. He had the best full picture of all the musicians who were recording, because he heard the complete thing basically — almost.
TP: Was that deliberate, or was it just a scheduling thing?
VITOUS: It was just a scheduling thing.
TP: I think we addressed this before, but I’ll ask again in this context. Can you describe the quality of playing in real time with musicians versus setting up something like this?
VITOUS: It would be very different. In fact, I don’t think we could have accomplished this in this way. There’s all of these great musicians in one room, and there are new tunes, and we would have fallen back into the old traps, playing the way we used to play — in the rhythm section context, also the way the piano would be playing, and all that. Plus there would be probably some clashes from time to time, because there’s a lot of us in the room and there’s a lot of egos and a lot of stuff. So I don’t think we could have created this new music on “Miro Bop” and “Sun Flower” and “Univoyage,” which are the three on which the concept is groundbreaking — to me anyway. I don’t think we could play like this in the studio, because even I could have explained that, no one had ever played like that, so we would be kind of fishing. It would not be as certain and definite as it is this way, on the album. I think that’s a big plus. The way it came, it was not possible to do it any other way. But if I did it any other way, we would never have ended up with this. We would have ended up with something else. I think we might have touched on a new concept, but it would not be as clear as it is.
TP: On Friday I played “Miro Bop” for John Patitucci on a Blindfold Test. He figured out who everybody was, but it sounded to him like an old recording, from the ’70s or early ’80s. I’m wondering if there’s anything you tried to do in the overall sound or mix.
VITOUS: No, it was just done exactly the best quality it could possibly have been recorded. I’m surprised about this, because he should have at least recognized that this could not be a ’70s or ’80s recording, because it sounds absolutely brilliant. The sound is today sound. It is not the sound of analog tape. We could never have gotten a sound like this in the ’70s or even ’80s. No way. So I am surprised about that. He should have known all the way through that it was a new recording.
TP: You’re going to be working with this music in group situations for the next period of time, while this CD is still hot off the presses. Do you have your next project in view?
VITOUS: Yes. The stuff which I am doing in the solo concerts, together with the classical parts, different phrases and different statements of the classical music made with my library… I am doing this within my solo. Again, this is something completely new. This is different from the album. It’s another kind of thing. I tried this with the band last summer, playing with those classical phrases and statements in between our playing, and it was sensational. It was absolutely unbelievable. I was playing several festivals in Europe last summer. I had Aydin Esen on the piano, Bob Malach on the saxophone, and sometimes I had an Italian drummer and sometimes a guy who’s been playing with Charles Lloyd now, a very nice drummer. So we did a couple of concerts in Europe, and it was absolutely great. The first concert was pure magic. We had one rehearsal, I played them the sequences, and I placed them in between exactly in the right places, so it was sometimes like coming from extremely creative jazz playing, with a lot of space into the classical sequence, and going out that way. It was like a really perfect marriage of the two musics, not only by concept, but also with the sound. People absolutely loved it. I was very surprised by the response. They freaked out, basically. It was like shocked. So I am going to continue with this, to bring that in more. I would like to make another album like this, because I have still quite a bit of material left from recording. We did some extensive recording with Jack. So there is another half-an-album already with Jan, Jack, me, Chick and probably John also, depending on the material which I find.
TP: So at least two good albums of material set up. You have a lot to work with. What qualities does a musician need to be able to work effectively with you?
VITOUS: Well, it has to be a musician on a very high level, or as high as possible. Of course, some beginning or mediocre musician would not be able to cut it. It is a communication. As they say, you can only play as good as the musicians you are playing with. I find this to be so true. That’s why I have to be very careful about who is going to play with me, because if they are not at least on an acceptable level of mastery, then I have a big problem because I cannot pull it off. I cannot even do it. It has to be a great musician, let’s put it that way.
TP: Does that mean they have to be fluent in all the idioms you’re fluent in? Do they have to have a full knowledge of classical music and a broad vocabulary in jazz tradition?
VITOUS: Kind of like this, with a personal extremely strong rhythm, a sense of space and of development about music so that you don’t play the changes and you’re depending upon the rhythm section as a slave. You are open to the new music, you know about that… Basically a very advanced musician. Yes, I think this is the better way to put it.
TP: Do you think there are a lot of them out there? Do you think the musician pool has changed in the forty years you’ve been a professional?
VITOUS: I think it has. But I cannot give you a really valid opinion because I was out of the circuit for eight years. So now I am basically reentering, looking around, and I’ve found actually some surprisingly good musicians here and there, but there’s also a lot of musicians who just learned bebop and just play bebop and they don’t know anything else. They could be excellent with that, but they don’t know anything else.
TP: How are musicians today different than in 1969-70, when you were embarking on your first compositional efforts and your first leader things?
VITOUS: It’s hard to say, because I was lucky enough to meet the talented ones always. So it’s difficult to give an overall opinion. I was not in a position ever to see everybody and know everybody. I was kind of just going my way.
TP: Why were you off the scene for eight years?
VITOUS: Because of the library.
TP: I see. So that took all of your time?
VITOUS: Yes, it was a tremendous project. You have no idea.
TP: Well, tell me about the amount of work involved. Was it something like 8-10 hours a day in the studio?
VITOUS: Yes. More like 12 or 13 hours sometimes, including weekends, for four years, non-stop. I lost some eyesight because of staring at these goddamn monitors. But I had to do this. Because I learned so much. Without doing this, I would never have been able to put together this album that I just put together, because of the sound and… Many different things.
TP: So it made you more attuned to the cellular structures of music.
VITOUS: Really it’s sound. I have learned where the sound is created, so to speak, inside — almost that close. And the sound of each instrument, the timbre where they sound the best, and spacing, the overtones, all that. And from then on, it basically grew inside of me to another kind of education, which I cannot even tell you because I don’t know what it is. It’s like I just hear it.
TP: All the implications are coming out and being actualized.
TP: Where were you located when you were doing this?
VITOUS: I did this basically in Germany. I started doing this in Germany, when I was living in a house in Germany, finished it up in Switzerland, and still worked some more in the Caribbean. The most time-consuming part is that there are six different formats. You’ve got Kurzweil, you’ve got Sample Cell, you’ve got Emulator, you’ve got Gigasampler, you’ve got Akai, you’ve got Roland — all these different samplers. And I had to make a library for each one of them. They are not compatible at all. So I had to basically take it from scratch and build every instrument, note-by-note again, six times over.
TP: Is it still on the market?
VITOUS: Yes, it is.
TP: And has it made you a profit?
VITOUS: Yes, it has. In fact, a very comfortable profit.
A couple of people in Europe thought it sounded like a Miles Davis band in the middle ’60s. I have something to say about that. The music of the ’60s, of the Miles Davis band, produced some absolutely most incredible musical things. Now, just because time went on, and we’ve gone through ’75, ’85, ’95, and today, that doesn’t mean the music is getting better. On the contrary, that was the height. So why not play the height? Why do you go on and go down?
TP: So do you think that period, ’68 to ’71, was the highest period?
TP: What are your speculations on why the music hasn’t evolved from there?
VITOUS: In the ’60s, it was an absolutely incredibly creative time. And it hung over a little bit to the beginning of the ’70s. After that, Disco came in and killed everything. That’s the biggest reason, I think, was the business and the disco. All the musicians had to stop what they were doing and do something to survive. So it was interrupted by business, yes, completely. And I don’t think the time was right anyway. Because if the time was right, it would have happened anyway, as you know. So by the middle ’70s, it was finito.
TP: So you think jazz was ahead of its time then. Do you think now might be the time?
VITOUS: I don’t know. I think this album is returning back to the inspiration. Let’s put it this way. And the paradoxical thing about it is that people think it’s old, but they don’t understand that old was better than what is today. If you’re going to go to the top, you might as well keep playing the top. Just because time goes on, you have to change to something that is worse? I don’t see that. So that gets me wondering what do these people know? Is it possible that they don’t know that was the best, and from that point it went down to worse? They don’t know that? Well, excuse me. It’s peculiar.
TP: But as someone who was involved in jazz education in a serious way, you know something about the information that younger musicians are getting. What do they need that they’re not getting?
VITOUS: Well, I can tell you the difference between Europe and America, a little bit. In Europe almost all of them have more knowledge of Classical music than Americans. I have tried to play with some even great American musicians. I can’t tell you who it was, because I don’t remember and I don’t want to talk about individual names. But I can tell you that they would execute some incredible things in one area of music, jazz music or improvisation or other things, and the next thing they would be a complete blank. They would have no information. So they would be full of holes. The complete picture of education is full of holes. It’s not a complete musical education. And American musicians are lacking that. This is true. They’re lacking that, because they basically go the jazz school and they learn jazz. The creative force is what jazz features, and this is what is so beautiful about this music. But the jazz itself, in the name of jazz, is basically still a roles and slave kind of thing. Putting people in the box and playing roles. That’s it. I’m sorry. Playing roles. It’s not really music. If you knew more about classical music and more about that, you would be much more open to stand on your own and start communicate and talk. The total education will eventually have to be that everybody knows classical and jazz both; you use the creative force to improve the classical music, and use the classical music to improve the forms and wideness of the spectrum by knowing that. I think this is what it has to come to. In other word, you’re going to have to be not just a jazz musician, but a complete musician. That’s a thing of the future. It’s got to be.
TP: Does that also include being fluent in the styles of the different cultures of the world — Africa, India, and so on.
VITOUS: Of course they do. But I think this would be small influences on jazz music — textural influences and stuff like that. I’m speaking on a little bit bigger picture.
VITOUS: I am not influenced. If you are after something original, you don’t want to hear everybody, because you are going to get influenced whether we like it or not.