Category Archives: Piano

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

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

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Liner Notes For Enchantment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This listener’s verdict is A-plus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUIZ: No, that was Franz Liszt and Mozart.

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

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

TP: So you had a facility, obviously.

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

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

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

TP: Who you later played with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Is not incompatible with the art of music.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Or not.

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

TP: Where did you go to high school?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-30-]

*_*_*_*_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Is “Enchantment” your composition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: And make it breathe. Be idiomatic..

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Are you still playing those clubs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: How about “Silhouette”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Is that the case with this group?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: You communicate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Herbie Hancock’s 77th Birthday, A “Director’s Cut” DownBeat Feature from 2003 and an interview with the Barnes & Noble Review From 2014

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the “director’s cut” of a DownBeat cover piece I had the opportunity to write about HH in 2003, and the proceedings of an interview he did with me on the occasion of the publication of Breaking The Rules for the Barnes & Noble Review ‘zine, in which he states: “Jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz.”

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Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

The opening sequence of Herbie Hancock’s new DVD, Future-2-Future, Live, follows Hancock, elegantly casual in a custom-tailored black suit, as he enters stage left at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory. Hancock bows, addresses a Korg Karma Roland MK-80 keyboard plugged into an Apple PowerBook computer, and triggers a series of ascending and descending swoops of varying duration. Against a backdrop of swirling rave images, bassist Matthew Garrison bows complementary tones, D.J. Disk interpolates whispery swatches of color, keyboardist Darrell Diaz plucks soft chords, drummer Teri Lyne Carrington elicits rubato, bell-like beats from her cymbals.

Then Hancock takes the microphone in his right hand. “Simply put, knowledge is the past,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “It is…” — he smiles, and sweeps his left hand across the keyboard — “…technology.” He pauses, cues an oscillating wash of sound, and continues, stretching out the words: “Wisdom is the future. It is philosophy. It is people’s hearts that move the age. While knowledge may provide a useful point of reference, it cannot become a force to guide the future. By contrast, wisdom captivates people’s hearts and has the power to open a new age. Wisdom is the key to understanding the age, creating the time.”

Concluding the invocation, from a text by his spiritual guide, Daiseku Ikeda, Hancock sustains the tone poem, setting up a Carrington chant, which is sampled polyphonically and to which she creates a complementary drumbeat on her electronic pads. Hancock shifts, sits at the acoustic piano, states the melody of “Kebero,” and launches a pithy, majestic solo, constantly developing the theme and sustaining a complex rhythmic dialogue with his drummer, deploying a precisely calibrated array of attacks to treat the piano simultaneously as both an orchestral harmonic instrument and a drum. Carrington’s sampled chant is a break chorus that paves the way for trumpeter Wallace Roney, who bobs and weaves through the rhythm with long combinations that sum up the harmonic material, not stopping until Hancock returns to the Korg with a declarative chord that winds up the piece.

Through the ebb and flow of the remaining 90 minutes of Future-2-Future Live, Hancock improvises through his entire timeline, bouncing off the ensemble to navigate seamlessly through electronic and acoustic environments with a holistic sensibility that he has not displayed on previous recordings. On “This Is D.J. Disk,” a call-and-response with the turntablist, Hancock uncorks a solo that evokes Inventions and Dimensions, his 1963 encounter with bassist Paul Chambers and two Afro-Latin percussionists. He creates a completely reconfigured 20-minute suite of “Dolphin Dance,” originally recorded in 1965 on Maiden Voyage, and one of several dozen Hancock compositions that stand among the sublime achievements of late 20th century jazz. He presents 21st century versions of “Hornets,” a Techno epic originally recorded in 1973 by the groove-based experimental coop Mwandishi on the aforementioned Sextant, and “Butterfly,” a soulful melody from Hancock’s late ’70s fusion period. On the encore, a balls-out “Chameleon,” he comps wickedly under an inspired Kurzweil solo by Darrell Diaz, then takes a thematic counterstatement on the Korg and an orchestral variation on acoustic piano.

Much of the repertoire comprises Hancock’s arrangements of material from his self-released studio CD, Future-2-Future [Transparent], refined over the band’s 50 or so dates during 2001-02. “We committed ourselves to Future-2-Future from an artist development point of view, going on the road and playing smaller clubs to younger audiences, almost as if Herbie was a new artist,” explains his manager, David Passick. On the CD, producer Bill Laswell situated Hancock in the Electro-Hiphop-Ambient-Techno dancefloor environment that he foreshadowed thirty years ago on such albums as Sextant — specifically the piece “Nobu,” built on scratch-like beats — and Dedication, and that he helped to launch in the ‘80s on Future Shock and Perfect Machine. Laswell collects beats from Detroit Techno producer Carl Craig, Afro-Brit drum-bass avatar Gerald Simpson, DJ Rob Swift, Grandmixer DXT, and tabla-percussionist Karsh Kale, deploys the resonant voices of Chaka Khan, Gigi, and Imani Uzuri, and calls on old master instrumentalists Wayne Shorter and Jack deJohnette – and a sampled drum track laid down by Tony Williams not long before his death – to impart gravitas and depth.

“Bill thought it would be interesting if I worked with people who are creating this kind of music who were influenced by records I did when I was their age,” Hancock says. “What would be the future-to-future end product? Bill likes to prepare fragments — some harmonic material or drums or drum-and-bass — before he meets me. Stimulating things. On our past albums, I would evaluate what he prepared, decide what to do, and then go back in the studio and shape it into my record by adding and changing things. The technology has evolved, and when I heard his material I was in the studio in front of a keyboard with a ‘Record’ light on. Bill wanted my immediate first reaction, my my gut-level, right-brain response. I’m listening to something; I don’t know where it’s going or where it starts, or anything.”

“When we talk about Electronica, we’re speaking about programming, not playing as a jazz musician would,” says Laswell, reinforcing the point. ” But Herbie thinks in terms of playing and programming simultaneously. He can imagine a sequence as a repetition, not something that’s reproduced electronically, but a spontaneously played musical part. He hears patterns, and he thinks in terms of structures — very advanced harmonic structures.”

“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians,” says Roney. “Sometimes with them, we’re playing, it’s great, we’re having a good time. But with Herbie, from the first chord, the first run, my jaw would drop. You never knew what you were going to hear next and it always took your breath away. Every time.”

“In a way, improvising is like composing,” Hancock says. “I am interested in making it more spontaneous and less intellectual, getting the thinking brain out of the way and letting the music flow through. The structure or balance will inherently reveal itself as a natural consequence. Now, the Mwandishi band played very spontaneous music, and the Future-2-Future band comes from a perspective very similar to when I did Crossings and Sextant. But in the early ’70s it was more raw, whereas now it’s reached some kind of maturity. The music was unrefined, like laying your guts out, letting it all hang out, which a young person may do. Today I’m letting it all hang out, but there’s a sense of the importance of responsibility and other things you learn as you get older.

“Except on rare occasions, I haven’t practiced scales and exercises, the way we normally think of practicing, in many years. What I want to draw from is not technique. I’m no longer interested in being a piano virtuoso in any way, shape or form. That’s not what I’m about. I’m interested in allowing the innermost person to express itself, to respond to whatever the musical environment may be, moment to moment, and to encourage others to have the courage to not be afraid to walk into that kind of darkness.”

Although Hancock has numerous plans for the remainder of 2003, none involve touring the Future-2-Future band. Hancock’s next project will piggyback on his eighth Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World [Verve], a critically acclaimed response to the Gershwin Centennial. Joining forces with arranger-conductor Robert Sadin, who conceptualized the album, he will play his own music as well as compositions by Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington and Gershwin with philharmonic orchestras in America and Europe. Nor is he neglecting his distinguished legacy in hardcore jazz, with engagements booked for his quartet (Carrington, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and bassist Scott Colley) and with Verve labelmates Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove in the New Directions Band, which last year released a 2001 location date from Toronto’s Massey Hall, devoted primarily to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Massey Hall was the venue where, in 1953, bebop icons Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach convened to document the legendary “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” and Hancock will go there in May to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton.

It will also be roughly fifty years from the time when the 13-year-old Hancock – a classical prodigy who at 11 had played Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — heard a classmate play jazz trio at a variety show at Hyde Park High School. “I didn’t know anything about improvising then,” Hancock recalls. “I played Classical music and Rhythm-and-Blues. If it wasn’t on the page, I didn’t play it. I had no idea what this guy was doing, but it was organized and rhythmically it was cool. I became curious and decided to learn how to do it, and the more I investigated, the more I liked it. He was playing things that George Shearing had recorded, like ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ which we had at home. I found phrases I liked, and tried to find the notes on the piano or by singing the part. Then I’d write them down, continue until I got the whole phrase, and try to play the phrase by looking at the notes on the page. I noticed it sounded different from when George Shearing played it, and I looked more closely at what was happening. I noticed that some notes were louder than others, that he used accents, held some parts of the phrase longer — little nuances that made the difference. So when I was 14 and in high school, I was getting experience in ear training and sight-singing.”

Progressing rapidly, Hancock began to participate in the bustling Chicago scene towards the end of high school, going to jam sessions and picking up ideas from such reharmonization-oriented local pianists as Billy Wallace, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens and Muhal Richard Abrams, young progressives like Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, and Wilbur Ware, and future bandmates like George Coleman, Julian Priester and James Spaulding, the latter two members of Sun Ra’s ’50s Arkestra. He matriculated at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he initially majored in electrical engineering. During summer vacations he took club gigs, including one for which he recalls hiring Jack DeJohnette to play bass. With increasing regularity he attended the jam sessions, including one produced by Joe Segal at the Gate of Horn on the North Side. There he heard the blind pianist Chris Anderson.

“Right after I heard him, and wiped the tears from my eyes, because what he played was so beautiful, I studied with him for a week,” Hancock recalls. “His harmonic thinking and the heart that went into his playing stunned me. When I looked at him – blind, bones brittle, using a crutch — I said, ‘Who is this mother?’ Then he got up and played, and he was playing some harmonic things that Bill Evans was not dealing with at the time. I said, ‘I want to learn what this stuff is!’ For anybody at that time, to have studied with Chris would be a great advantage.

“I also heard Sun Ra a couple of times. Once he was rehearsing in the basement of the Sutherland, I somehow found out about it and checked him out a bit. I didn’t really dig it, but it was interesting. It was a bit much for me at the time.”

In a sense, Hancock is a prototype Chicago musician of his era, sharing philosophical affinities with fellow South Side products like Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Charles Stepney and Maurice White. In his preoccupation with process, technology, collectivity and self-determination, in the risk-taking imperatives that drive him, in his iconoclastic temperament, in his desire to express himself in populist and highbrow forums, to crack the codes of multiple musical languages towards humanistic narrative ends, he embodies the ancient-to-the-future perspective postulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the decade after he departed for New York and began his storied career.

“I describe the whole Chicago experience as school,” he says. “You learned all the basics and got exposure to elements coming from a wide variety of sources, from the total avant garde, which Sun Ra could be, to things from Gene Ammons, the blues, and the way different cats played bebop. The musicians and audiences always encouraged some form of experimentation. You didn’t have to have things perfect; Chicago’s jazz fans supported whatever you were into. Chicago was the best foundation I could think of for going to New York.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Hancock is a musician who actually has guided the future and changed the time. Personal modesty aside, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, and his music has a novelistic scope. Pianists acknowledge his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance, and since his days with Miles Davis — think of “81” or “Stuff” — he’s known how to switch on a dime from the highest highbrow abstractions to the most soulful soul brother funk. He defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“I think Herbie’s a genius to the point that when he chooses to go Pop, without sacrificing everything he is, he becomes authentic Pop,” says Roney. “When Headhunters came out, he changed the way pianists and keyboard players play R&B; now they all do that little tremolo and those comping riffs he does. Herbie listened to Sly Stone, and he and Stevie were friends, but he comes into the arena without offending it, and ups the ante. The jazz purists hate it, and the pure R&B people get mad. But you turn around, and everybody’s trying to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock.”

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You’re going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they’re thrilled,” Sadin says. “This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it’s reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they’re playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it.”

As in the Mwandishi days, Hancock, who authored some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in all of jazz history before his thirtieth birthday, has turned primarily to collaboration and recomposition in constructing the sonic environments in which he operates. In most cases, like his old friends Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, he works with younger musicians whose sensibilities coalesced in a climate that involved absorbing his music and forming their own conclusions from it, refreshing Hancock through their ability to interact with him on many levels.

“Writing was always a painful process for me,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work; I have to practically beat myself into it. When I was much younger, my perspective was narrower. I had a lot of time on my hands, everything was kind of new, and I wrote a lot of things. The more material you put out and the deeper you dig in for that material, especially if you’re a guy like me who doesn’t like to do something he’s already done, it gets harder. Also, I’m getting older, which I think makes it harder to do. Collaborating is a great way to extend yourself.”

Now collecting Social Security, Hancock is thinking about a project on which he’ll respond to some of the brightest lights in progressive Hip-Hop/Urban. “The Future-2-Future record represented a more international and European look at music,” says Passick, who cites discussions with Amir from the Roots, and also the producers Rashad Smith and J.K. “I see a great correlation between the Roots and Herbie’s Electric Funk period. He had a major influence. When I talk to prominent people in Hip-Hop, the amount of Herbie’s music that is prominent in their life is astounding.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he sums up. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”

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Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

No living musician hews more closely to the notion of “Renaissance Man” than Herbie Hancock, whose artistic production over the past half century continues to stamp the twenty-first-century soundtrack.

Consider the range and depth of Hancock’s career markers. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven. When he left the Miles Davis Quintet at twenty-eight to explore his own vision, Hancock was already a key figure in the jazz piano pantheon, had defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, and had composed some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in jazz history, some of them for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Two decades he would win an Oscar in that genre for Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.

By the early ’70s, Hancock was pioneering in ways to incorporate synthesizers into real-time musical flow with Mwandishi, his first working band, which led the curve in groove-based experimental, improvised music, and would influence numerous practitioners of electronica and other turn-of-the-century beat musics. Mid-decade, he led the curve again with Headhunters, his enormously popular band, and yet again in 1984 with the hip-hop/techno hybrid put forth on the album Future Shock, his first of fourteen Grammy winners. He earned a twelfth Grammy, in 2008, for River: The Joni Letters—only the second jazz album ever to earn an Album of the Year designation—on which he framed reinterpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the composer herself. His fourteenth Grammy, in 2011, acknowledged The Imagine Project, a one world–oriented extravaganza on which Hancock traveled to various locations around the world to record pop repertoire with an international cast of characters.

What makes Hancock tick? Some answers appear in his memoir, Possibilities, released six months after the seventy-four-year-old UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Professor of Music at UCLA, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz fulfilled his obligations to Harvard as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry with a half-dozen lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.” It’s the latest step in an iconoclastic career driven by risk-taking imperatives; a preoccupation with process, technology and collective expression; an equal comfort zone in populist and highbrow forums; and a desire to crack the codes of multiple musical languages and refract them into his own argot. Hancock’s narrative—he collaborated with ghost-writer Lisa Dickey—vividly portrays these qualities. It’s as no-holds-barred as his jazz playing—intuitive and logical, refined and raw, pragmatic and utopian, real-world and spiritual. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: You were initially an engineering major at Grinnell College, and your relationship to technology is one of several through-lines that thread through the text. Another is your creative process.

Herbie Hancock: I’ve always been a very curious person. It’s in my DNA.  It’s in the book that I’d take apart watches and clocks and other things before I showed an interest in music. That curiosity led to my interest in jazz. When I was thirteen, I thought that to play jazz, you had to be older than I was, and I never paid attention to it because it didn’t make sense to me and didn’t move me.  Then I saw a kid my age playing jazz on piano, and got the sense that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t just a bunch of notes.  Rhythmically it was cool; there was a beat to it. I was a pretty good piano player at the time, and I decided then that I wanted to learn how to do it.  So that curiosity opened the door. Later, that curiosity led me to work musically in many different genres, to put things together that maybe hadn’t been put together before.

BNR: You describe how each of your encounters with various new technologies in beta phases—tablets, synthesizers, MIDI, musical software, the vocoder, drum machines, the mini-disc—stimulated an entirely new project, a new world of sound.

HH: That’s true. My curiosity enabled me to integrate the technology with music. Once I changed my major in college to music, I still would have been a geek and a gadget guy, but I didn’t think there would be a way to combine music and technology until synthesizers came along. That opened up new doors.

BNR: In actualizing your technological vision during the ’70s and ’80s you worked closely with Bryan Bell, who taught himself programming language and, in one vignette, from 1979, predicts, “We’ll be able to sell music on the computer.” Two years earlier, well before MIDI, he engineered a working synthesizer that powered and fully controlled all your keyboards.

HH: When I bought my Apple II+ computers in 1979, there were scarce examples of interfacing computers and music, but I was convinced computers would become a strong element in the music field. I could never have predicted how true that would be with iTunes and so forth today. Bryan always jokes that when something new arrived at my studio, the first thing I’d say was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” This would be something it couldn’t do, but Bryan would try to make it happen. That led to a lot of explorations that preceded commercial products made by someone else. We were just trying to make stuff that I could use.

BNR: How has your M.O. for research and development evolved? A different process than during the ’70s and ’80s?

HH: A new development in the way I look at my creative output, which is primarily due to my practice of Buddhism, is that I think about purpose when I make a record. In other words, what is it that you want to encourage in other people, not just share musically, but perhaps stimulate or point out or champion?

BNR: A passage in the second chapter portrays a moment in high school, when your parents punished you by not allowing you to attend a party. You assuaged disappointment and anger by thinking through the situation rationally. That theme of using logic to control your emotions—of detachment—is consistent.

HH: When I was young, I did that to avoid pain or punishment or whatever. Later on, I realized that in doing that I’m cutting off part of my own humanity. I didn’t realize how damaging it could be if carried to extremes. I also didn’t understand the concept of “no pain, no gain.” We know that applies to physical exercise. But suffering and challenges are part of life. Without them, you’d be bored to tears; if you let them control you, you are losing the battle. You can’t necessarily grow from nice things happening. So I don’t look at suffering as something I need to get away from, but can actually use to move forward.

Revealing my experience with crack was a difficult decision. My daughter and my wife felt that the book was the vehicle for talking about this. I had been trying to suppress this experience, as though it had never happened. But I should have known better. I thought I could accomplish a couple of things by discussing it. Most important is that someone struggling with addiction or whatever other challenge might benefit from seeing my path in winning this battle. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that my life hasn’t been all goody-two-shoes. So I freely pulled back the stuff I was trying to throw out of my life, to reconsider the reality of those things. In Buddhism, we talk about the phrase of “turning poison into medicine.” This is the way for me to do that.

BNR: You certainly do not paint yourself as a saint, particularly during the ’60s and early ’70s. Your depictions of several acid trips speak to your powers of description.

HH: That’s the way it was.

BNR: From beginning to end, Miles Davis is a constant presence. He was a mentor to you, a kind of father figure. Sometimes sons rebel against fathers, and I’m wondering if you expressed resistance to him in ways that inflected the course of your career.

HH: I was twenty-three when I joined Miles’s band. Tony Williams was seventeen. Now, Tony did have that kind of rebellion you’re talking about with Miles. But Miles wasn’t that kind of father figure for me, and I didn’t feel a need to be rebellious against him. I admired his music, and I admired many things about his ethics in music. He had so many aspects to his character that were valuable to the musicians who played with him. When people who played with Miles’s different bands have an opportunity to converse, we all have similar stories we can tell.

BNR: How do you denote a successful performance? What’s your metric for critique?

HH: That’s hard to describe. I’ve had the experience where I’ve thought something didn’t work so well when I was playing, but on the tour bus we’d listen to a recording from the mixing console, and, in fact, the stuff was killing!

BNR: You describe that dynamic in talking about the Plugged Nickel recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.

HH: Yes, that was a surprise. I guess when I play, I experience a certain freedom from spontaneous connection. When the music is flowing, and the joy of discovery is happening, and there’s a very open space for a wide variety of approaches to transpire moment to moment, and all of us feel that joy—to me, that’s a successful performance. Not the applause that comes from the audience. Of course, it’s nice. I love it. Who doesn’t love that? I’ve had eggs thrown at me, too, in Germany. But I knew that we were hot and the music was smokin’, so it didn’t bother me. It was maybe the first time I experienced that. But it gave me the opportunity to feel courage and conviction about what I was doing.

BNR: Throughout the book, whenever you refer to jazz, which you don’t try to define, you are eloquent and passionate about your relationship to it, as, for example, in your acceptance speeches for receiving an Oscar and a Grammy. You’re one of the very few who has both attained eminence in jazz as a stylist, an improviser, and a composer, and been a highly successful practitioner in popular music. Do you see the idioms as related or separate? Do different components of your personality come into play when you address one or the other?

HH: I don’t think I could do what I did if I drew a fine line between the two. But jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz. I’m fortunate that jazz is my foundation. Yes, I started with classical music, and classical music is also foundational for me. It’s through classical music that I learned to read music, to sit and hold my hands and fingers properly at the instrument. That’s a big reason why I’ve never had any physical problems. Granted, I don’t curve my fingers exactly like I did when I first started off, but that’s the nature of the process. You find your own space. From what you’re taught, from what other people have done, you find what’s best for you. We’re all different, and you have to personalize these things.

BNR: The notion of individualism is a component of jazz culture, too, particularly in the period when you were coming up.

HH: Absolutely. The cool thing is, in the ’60s, at the time I joined Miles’s band, rock ‘n’ roll was hot. Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come had become a landmark recording, and avant-garde, even though it was still kind of underground, was influencing the post-bebop musicians who were more visible. Of course, there was John Coltrane and the group we had with Miles. It was a very fertile time for creativity on all levels. Look what the Beatles did. Sgt. Pepper. Whoever thought rock ‘n’ roll artists would do stuff like that? Joni Mitchell! A lot of stuff was going on.

BNR: You developed very sensitive antennae, to pick up and assimilate these diverse sounds. I guess you were also absorbing James Brown and Sly Stone during those years.

HH: Right. When I did Head Hunters, I was thinking about Sly Stone. That’s why I named one of the songs “Sly,” as an homage to his influence, even though the music had nothing to do with him.

In the book, I describe that Miles’s attitude made me decide it must be cool to be open. Even though I didn’t admit it then, I liked James Brown’s music. I liked the beat. When I was a kid, I didn’t just listen to classical music and jazz. I was listening to R&B, and I played R&B. Things like Head Hunters and “Rockit” connect to my background, as offshoots of R&B, in a sense. I was born in 1940, so I’m a little older than the rock ‘n’ roll generation. I didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll, but I did like R&B. It’s funny that Jimi Hendrix was associated with rock ‘n’ roll, but he was basically a blues player. Of course, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll grew out of. What he played was perhaps . . . I was going to say more authentic, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe more connected with those roots.

BNR: Well, he had a direct and lineal connection to the real blues, the blues that was going on not far from your house on the South Side, not once-removed and studying records.

HH: Exactly. But the thing is, I wouldn’t even listen to Jimi Hendrix, because to me, his name was associated with rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t start checking him out until later, when the rumor was getting around that Miles and Jimi might do something together, which would involve me and Tony Williams and Ron Carter. That aroused my curiosity, but then he died.

BNR: Although it happened too late to be discussed in Possibilities, you served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard earlier this year, and presented six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.”

HH: I got a call from a representative of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard who told me that they wanted to bestow upon me the Norton Professorship of Poetry, which I hadn’t heard of. I had no idea how heavy that was until I saw names like Igor Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot and Leonard Bernstein. Then I was told that I’d have to do lectures. To make things fit with my career, I gave three in February and three in March. I ordered Bernstein’s lectures from Barnes & Noble, but the tone was too pedantic for me to emulate. He could pull that off, but I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be me.

One of the lectures is called “Breaking the Rules.” I wanted to share an important concept—that the people we study broke the rules, and created new ones. Whoever heard of the people that followed the rules? Of course, it’s important to learn the rules. I’m constantly in the process of doing that. But don’t confine me to those rules. It’s important to think outside the box, and not be stuck inside the comfort zone.

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For Pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 79th Birthday, A 2013 DownBeat Feature

I’m a fan of the German pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, a pioneer in the development of speculative improvising in Germany and on the broader European scene, both through his involvement in Globe Unity Orchestra, his long-standing trio work with Evan Parker, his own ensembles, his comprehensive investigation of the Thelonious Monk’s corpus, and his concept of improvising in a 12-tone context. I had an opportunity to interview Schlippenbach in Heidelberg in November 2012, and to document that encounter in Downbeat in an early 2013 issue. I’m posting that piece in honor of his 79th birthday.

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In 2004, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach observed the sixtieth birthday of his old friend Evan Parker by presenting him with a folio containing the complete works of Thelonious Monk, hand-transposed in pencil from the key of C to a saxophone-friendly B-flat.

While this extravagant gesture denoted Schlippenbach’s loving esteem for a kindred spirit, it also encapsulated his decades of immersion in Monk’s music, as documented on Monk’s Casino [Intakt], a 3-CD opus from 2005, on which Schlippenbach assembled a quintet to perform Monk’s entire corpus in a single evening of three 75-minute sets. Seven years later, Intakt released Schlippenbach Plays Monk [Intakt], a solo piano meditation on which he intersperses less-traveled Monk repertoire with original works and improvisations based on 12-tone material, a subject that Schlippenbach explored on the intense, mid-aughts solo recitals Twelve Tone Tales (Volumes 1 and 2) [Intakt], and on 2011’s Blue Hawk [Jazz Werkstadt], on which he and trumpeter Manfred Schoof, a his collaborator for more than half-a-century, perform 15 duets. Serial music refracted through a jazz sensibility is also part of the fabric of Iron Wedding [Intakt], documenting a 2008 two-piano encounter with pianist Aki Takase, Schlippenbach’s life partner.

“In the same way that Alex is an undying fan of Monk, he’s also an undying fan of Schoenberg,” said Parker, who first played with Schlippenbach in 1968. In 1972, he joined Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens in a still ongoing trio—most recently heard on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], from 2007—that has remained steadfast in its commitment to tabula rasa improvising over the ensuing forty years.

“He’s assembled a huge arsenal of patterns and vertical structures,” Parker continued, noting that these raw materials are the bedrock of the spontaneous conversation undertaken by the trio—or the international ensemble known as the Globe Unity Orchestra, of which the trio is the core—in any performance. “Nothing is discussed in advance, and everything is allowed. What matters is what happens after the first gesture.”

Schlippenbach launched the Globe Unity Orchestra in 1966 at Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, a premier showcase for European contemporary music. It was a ground zero moment in what Joachim-Ernst Berendt has termed “Die Emanzipation,” denoting the process by which a trans-national cohort of young musicians from Britain and the Continent, initially inspired by such American avatars as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, broke away from their models and started to develop their own sounds.

“Globe Unity was like a hopeful political metaphor,” said George Lewis, who referenced his own long history with GUO in the program notes for the 2006 date Globe Unity—40 Years [Intakt], on which he also performed, augmenting recent collaborations with Schlippenbach in both the Trio and various chamber configurations. “He’s addressing European contemporary music, which is perceived as a very elite, high-culture art form, and he says, ‘I am going to play jazz and jazz is going to be part of the European high-culture consensus.’ That challenged a lot of fundamental ideals—nationalist ideals, even racial ideals.”

Lewis noted that Schlippenbach, concerned that the term “free improvisation” “might be used to distance him from the jazz tradition,” was firm about describing his music as “free jazz.” “At this point you have to say that he is part of the jazz tradition,” Lewis said. “He likes to make the piano ring, like Fred Anderson made the saxophone ring. There are these sharp, intense gestures, and he gets into this trance of ecstasy, which he then cuts back on, so there’s an awareness going on at the same time.”

That awareness was evident at last November, at a lecture-performance at a “Jazz and Social Relevance” conference sponsored by the University of Heidelberg’s American Studies Department, where Schlippenbach, 74, followed a brief recital with a pithy discourse—in English—that traced, as he stated, “the emergence of free jazz in Europe” and GUO’s origins. Later, he sat with DownBeat for a conversation.

* * *

DB: What’s your personal history with Monk’s music?

AVS: I have been busy with Monk, strange enough, almost from my beginning with jazz. For one year at the end of the ‘50s, there was a jazz school connected with the Cologne Musikhochschule, where I had a very nice piano teacher—the only jazz piano teacher I ever had—named Francis Coppieters, a Belgian from the radio band. He introduced me to the Monk piece called “Work,” which I rehearsed and played. I found it quite interesting and very different from the other jazz with all the well-known cliches. So I tried to find a way to learn Monk’s other pieces, and over the years they came together.

All 70 of his tunes are gems, each with its own strong character; this is what I appreciate most about him. But I don’t think there is much of a link between Monk’s music and my style of playing. When I improvise, I am trying to find a way to keep with the theme, not just do brilliant choruses on the changes like most of the piano players do, but to get the IDEA of the piece.

DB: Through what threads in your consciousness did you relate to Monk’s music?

AVS: There was a guy in my boarding school who could play the boogie-woogie, which impressed me, and I tried to imitate him. I learned the blues with this. Through the years, every night from 12 to 1 a.m., I listened to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover, which was very important—it gave me good information about new things. All my money went to buy records, which I transcribed and copied, trying to play bebop and traditional jazz. I heard Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and it changed my life. Oscar made an impression on me—one of the greatest piano players in the history of jazz, with fantastic technique and swinging and can play blues and everything… Horace Silver was a great influence as well. I copied all his records. I wouldn’t say he has any cliche. He has his own very strong style, which is true of all the great jazz musicians. Nowadays in school, they learn from books how the blues scale works, and then they can do anything with it. This makes things flat, I would say.

Then at the beginning of the ‘60s, when all these changes happened, we heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, just to mention those two. We were fascinated with this new language, this new sound. We quickly adapted that influence and developed it, writing little tunes that we used as a boost to do something somehow more free. At the same time, I was a student of composition in Cologne, where I was in contact with contemporary composers like Bernd Alois Zimmermann, worked with them, and got some experience in what’s called “serious contemporary music.” Zimmermann had places for improvisers and jazz players in his later compositions, which I performed with the Manfred Schoof Quintet. In 1967 and 1968, Penderecki and Luigi Nono tried to get in contact after they heard Globe Unity Orchestra.

DB: I gather around 1965 you played a gig at the Blue Note in Paris with Gunter Hampel opposite Kenny Clarke, after which you’d attend a jam session that Don Cherry was doing at Le Chat Qui Peche.

AVS: Yeah, it was fantastic. We always could hear their last set, because we were quite interested about the way Don Cherry led the band with his horn—he’d raise it, suddenly there was a new motive, a new theme that the band immediately followed. This was quite impressive for me. I can relate to this the way we play today, especially with Rudi Mahall, a fantastic bass clarinet player, who I play with both in duo and with a rhythm section. We have these Monk tunes and Eric Dolphy stuff, and he’ll change, then I’ll follow, as though we’re not only playing one piece, but can surprise ourselves as different things come up.

DB: You recorded Dolphy’s songs solo on Twelve Tone Tales. He seems to be as important to you as Monk.

AVS: Yes. His tunes went more in the new, freer direction than Monk’s music. I heard him with Mingus in the ‘60s, and I heard him perform with Coltrane in Stuttgart, and also on radio recordings. I listened to his records—especially Out To Lunch was one that gave me an enormous idea where jazz can go. Monk was a pianist, so it’s piano music. Dolphy was not a piano player, but a melody-maker, and I was curious how to play his pieces—some of which are literally extended bebop—on the piano. Of course, you have to see what you can do with the other hand, so it’s not just the melody.

DB: Does your thematic orientation when interpreting Monk and Dolphy remain in the completely improvised context of your trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens?

AVS: When I play with Parker and Lovens, this is completely different. No themes at all. It’s what we call improvising without any prior agreement. We never speak about what the program is, so we don’t have pieces. We have all our certain material. Motifs. Evan has his scales. I have my very full chords which are built up for the right hand and for the left hand in a convenient way for the piano. I have, of course, also other things to do in my improvisational material. Paul has developed his own way of drumming through all these years, and since we’ve worked together continuously, we have developed our own style, which is I think quite unique. It’s not so much adapted from any American jazz. Nothing against the bass, it has its function, but I do like groups without bass, so I can do more things with my left hand and feel freer. Of course, I heard Cecil Taylor’s trio with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons at the Montmartre. I also liked the old Benny Goodman Trio with Gene Krupa.

DB: How is consensus reached on the first gesture of a performance? The first sound that generates everything else?

AVS: Usually I start with some motif, but it can come from Evan or from Lovens. Of course, we know each other, and when they start, I can immediately jump in, or pick up something, and go on. But the way we do that is not predictable. It comes out of the moment.

DB: Do you listen back to the performances? Do you analyze them after the fact? Or do you just let them go?

AVS: I more let them go. If the thing is done, it’s done, and I go to the next thing.

DB: So you don’t listen to yourself to find, say, patterns that might exist.

AVS: Not so much. More by chance. Sometimes, by chance, I listen to things we recorded 40 years ago, which is quite interesting to listen to…

DB: What do you think of Schlippenbach forty years ago?

AVS: Forty years ago, he was more kind of an angry young man, I think. The music was quite fresh, quite new at that time. We were very optimistic, just go in and play as much as possible. We were very convinced of what we were doing.

DB: Can you speak about the interplay between your considerable technique and your compositional and improvisational interests?

AVS: I have developed improvisational material on 12-tone chords. Already when I started I’d been interested in this for many years, and it came out stronger and stronger. So I found things convenient for the piano that I practiced a lot to improvise with that material. I was working sometimes with Steve Lacy, who showed me chords where you can press two notes with the thumb or with other fingers, which means you can put six-tone chords in one hand and six-tone chords in the other, which together is 12. I practiced on a couple of chords and scales and material to improvise with, and did it in a specific jazz way. For me, the difference between jazz and classical music is mainly that jazz has a rough, forward driving force. That’s always what I was most interested in, and I tried to transfer this element to my improvisation. Through this mode of practice, I developed maybe a specific technique.

DB: I think the most obvious reference point is that Cecil Taylor was a jumping-off point for you. I’m wondering if he was or if he wasn’t.

AVS: He was, of course. I saw him first in the ‘60s and also as a solo pianist in Amsterdam, and I was really overwhelmed. It was something very new. It was just air from the other planet at this time. I followed him to Rotterdam to the next concert, and I was very impressed about his ability to play the piano with a new sound and a new approach even to the music. It was exactly at that time when we also found out about our own possibilities. But he is still for me maybe the most important piano player in what we call the new jazz.

DB: In the mid ‘80s, after Jimmy Lyons died, Taylor started to work a great deal with European improvisers. Can you describe the maturation of European new jazz during those years of consolidation? You yourself have stated that in Globe Unity Orchestra the concept became more refined, more intuitive.

AVS: Yes. This is something that happens in music, I think. In the beginning, when the thing was completely new, many musicians, even beginners, tried to jump the train, as they say, even if they are not so great on their instrument. There were no fixed rules, that you have to know this tune, or play on the harmony. They could feel like, “I can do anything.” Of course, this is a basic error, because you have to make music, and you have to find a way to make people understand the music is not just fooling around or anything and saying, “this is free” and “this is not free.” So there was some chaos in the beginning, but after a while the wheat separated from the chaff—it became evident who is really serious about playing. The language became clearer. Nowadays we know with whom we want to play, and what we want to do. Today I would say there has never been so much free jazz as now. In Berlin, there’s a third generation of younger musicians who are working on their stuff with great passion, exactly as we did. I can feel this new movement, because I am playing around all the time. The seed grows up.

My trio with Evan and Paul is a kind of nucleus of Globe Unity Orchestra. Since we are always improvising, the band has gone more and more in a direction that we call ‘complete improvisation.’ Sometimes there is a little idea to start with something on overtones, or something with single notes—but not more. There is no need to talk about it. You can hear it, and then it comes from itself.

DB: Was music in your family background?

AVS: There is nothing to say about that. My father played a nice accordion, and my mother played a little piano. But I grew up after the war, when there was nothing to be done about music…

DB: You had to survive.

AVS: Survive, yes. So I started with piano when I was about 10 years old, relatively late. Then I saw this guy with the boogie-woogie, and I listened to jazz, and I got amazed about jazz…

DB: Were you from an aristocratic family?

AVS: Yes. This is a very long story. I am not a specialist about the family history, but I know it goes back to the 9th century or something—very old roots. Everything is lost anyway, because the high nobility of Prussia was put down after the war to nothing, or even worse sometimes. I try to hide my real name as a musician. I say “von.” But I am “Graf.”

DB: Graf is Count.

AVS: Yes, I’m a Count. But I don’t use it. I leave it to Count Basie.

DB: What music do you like to listen to now?

AVS: I like to listen to the old bebop, to the real bebop, the original bebop. Some things in contemporary music. Some things of new players, but not so much. I am very busy with my own things.

DB: What’s the quality that grabs you?

AVS: I find in this something of a darker side of jazz. That music was very strict in the form, with real tension, very convincing and very strong.

DB: Do you feel there’s a darkness in your music?

AVS: I can be light and a little bit funny with that. But if I use the chords, there’s a certain darkness in it, yes.

DB: You like to play in a lot of different ways—within forms and also total improvisation. Are they separate files of activity, or interrelated?

AVS: I think my way of playing—a certain touch, certain material—comes through even if I play traditional forms. But it’s always ME that plays. I don’t say, “Now I play like Horace Silver” or “I play like Monk.” I play maybe a piece of him, but I do it in my way.

DB: Is it your opinion that you’ve developed your own language?

AVS: Yes, of course. We all start following some idea, try to imitate even great musicians from another generation. You learn from it. Now I’ve developed my own language in terms of my own improvisational stuff and material, and someone who knows my music and hears me could say, “This is Schlippenbach.”

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does femininity sound like?

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

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For the Pianist Junior Mance’s 88th Birthday, a Long WKCR Interview From 1991

Pianist Junior Mance, a professional for some 70 years, who played with everyone, turns 88 today. I had the opportunity to host the maestro for a WKCR Musician Show in September 1991 — here’s the full transcript of our conversation. A lot of Chicago history contained herein.

 

Junior Mance Musician Show (WKCR, 9-18-91):

Q: Junior is from Evanston, Illinois and came up in the Chicago environment. I’d like to know a little bit about your beginnings on the piano.

JM: The very beginnings? Well, when I was five years old… We had this little upright in the house, and my father played for his own enjoyment, not professionally or anything like that, but when he would come home from work he’d sit down… That was during the days of stride piano. He even took lessons. And when he wasn’t around, I just started fooling around with it, until I got caught one day.

Q: What did they do to you?

JM: Nothing. He was flabbergasted! In fact, what floored him, I asked him if I could take piano lessons. That was later, though. I started formal training when I was eight.

Q: What did that consist of? You had a teacher and…

JM: I had a teacher, yes.

Q: So I take it that you picked up pretty quickly on the piano. You had a proficiency…

JM: I guess I did. I wanted to play the piano, you know. I used to hear him do things, then when I was home in the daytime I’d sneak over to the piano when my Mom was in another part of the house doing something.

Q: Were you listening to records then? Or was it primarily just through your records and practicing?

JM: There were records, yeah; you know, the 78’s. My father was an Art Tatum fan, as all piano players are, and he was a bigger Earl Hines fan. In fact, Earl Hines’ band back then used to work around Chicago quite a bit, they worked the Grand Terrace in Chicago — and they used to broadcast. This was before they made a lot of records, you know, or records were played over the air. But all the bands would broadcast live from wherever they played.

Q: And the Grand Terrace was a major center. All the bands who were in there would broadcast to the West Coast particularly.

JM: Yeah. And all through the Midwest. Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines especially. Those were the two mainstays.

Q: So from a very early age you were hearing the best in piano, particularly the style of Chicago, the cross between the Blues piano thing, what Tatum and Earl Hines were doing, and the Big Band sound as well.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Did you go to hear the bands in person, or were you too young?

JM: I was too young. Occasionally… A few years later they started coming to the Regal Theatre, which was like the counterpart of the Apollo Theatre here. They had shows every week, and usually a big band. I remember the first big band I heard in person was Duke Ellington at the Regal Theatre, and the next one was Count Basie, and my father took me backstage to meet Count Basie when I was about 10 years old.

Q: Then the bands went around by railroad, and Chicago was and still is the railroad center of the nation, the crossroads, so many of the bands would come through Chicago and stay for extended periods of time.

JM: Right.

Q: When did you first start becoming active on the Chicago scene and do your first work for money? I won’t say professionally…

JM: Oh, when I was about 13 or 14.

Q: Tell us about those gigs. What was the nature of them?

JM: [LAUGHS] Actually, the first gigs, I remember there was this saxophone player who lived upstairs over us in Evanston. A good saxophone player. He never went out on his own; he always had a day gig. But he played very well. He played like Illinois Jacquet’s style, so he worked all the time; you know, the cat would come home from work… And he had a lot of gigs in what later became known as roadhouses, the places out on the highway that had a band, usually three pieces — saxophone, drums and piano. I don’t know why the basses were so absent then. They were around…

Q: Money, I guess.

JM: Yeah, I guess so. So I remember, oh, I guess I must have been somewhere between 10 and 13 — this guy’s piano player must have been sick and couldn’t make the gig. So he called everybody he could, and everybody was working, or else he couldn’t make the gig, you know — so he asked my father could he take me on the gig. And he was one of my father’s close friends, and my father trusted him, you know. So I went on the gig with him, and he taught me how to comp that night. A different style than what they do now, you know; it’s what they call (?)boonsen(?) — CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A-CHUN… That night he stuck to tunes, mostly Blues tunes or tunes with “I Got Rhythm” changes. And I was fascinated. So after that, whenever he was home, you know, I would bug him, like “Teach me some more of that!”

Q: And he would? He was forthcoming?

JM: Oh yeah, yeah. So then when I was about 13 or 14, I worked a lot of gigs with him, especially in the summertime, when I wasn’t in school.

Q: What was his name?

JM: His name was T.S. Mims.

Q: And was he playing mostly in Evanston, or…

JM: Well, the Chicago area. But strangely enough, not right on the Chicago scene, like where Jug was working or any of those places. This was mostly, like, out on the highway or out on the outskirts of town. And he was really a good player. He’s still alive. He’s in his eighties, around my father’s age now.

Q: Of course, Gene Ammons was the first musician with whom you first emerged on the national scene and did your first recordings. What were some of the events that led you from working with T.S. Mims on the various roadhouse gigs on the outskirts of Chicago to working and subsequently recording with Gene Ammons?

JM: Well, as time went on, you know, all the time I was in high school, I worked gigs myself. I would work with… Well, we would get gigs, guys my own age; we’d get, like, the school dances (which we got paid for; that’s why I consider that professional) and things like that. But I was working more in Chicago with a lot of Chicago musicians. I remember one guy when I was in my teens was George Freeman, who is still around, a guitar player, Von Freeman’s brother. I worked a lot of gigs with him.

Q: Were these mostly on the South Side?

JM: Right. Yeah, I did a long commute when I was young.

Q: That’s a long ride, straight down, north to south!

JM: Yeah, it was an hour each way. At that time. It’s shorter now, though, I think. Transportation is more modern now. I also met Leroy Jackson at that time.

Q: I can remember seeing him with George Freeman five or six years ago in Chicago as well, so that’s a partnership that’s lasted a long time, I guess.

JM: Yeah. And we had… Oh, man, there were so many good musicians around there that people never heard of. They just either faded away or got into bad habits that took them away, you know. I remember names like Elick Johnson, who was a tenor player. Oh, man, if he was around today, he would be, you know, right up there with the giants.

Q: He’s spoken of by many.

JM: Nicky Hill was another one.

Q: Again, what was the nature of these gigs? For instance, were they up on what was happening in modern music?

JM: Yes.

Q: Was everybody up on Charlie Parker in 1944 and 1945?

JM: Yes.

Q: Talk about how that music sort of came into the consciousness of the young Chicagoans.

JM: That was funny. I remember this was right after I graduated from high school. I was 16 at the time, and I was working a gig in Waukegan, Illinois, which is even north of Evanston — Jack Benny’s home town. So I was working there with a band that was pretty much an R&B band, but a good R&B band — it was really good. No names that you would know, but a pretty good one. And that was the type of gig we played, what they called floor shows in those days. We had like a tap dancer, a Blues singer, a shake dancer, etcetera. So one night during the week, business was kind of slow, and these two young guys came in and asked could they sit in. So the leader let them sit in. And it was a music I hadn’t heard before. But it, like, blew me away. I said “Wow!” I really dug it. And the two young guys…one guy, I don’t know if you ever heard the name Henry Prior…

Q: Who was nicknamed Hen-Pie, I believe.

JM: Hen-Pie, right. He was an alto player who sounded just like Bird, like Charlie Parker. And the other guy was a trumpet player named Robert Gay, they used to call Little Diz — which his name speaks for itself; he sounded exactly like Dizzy. These guys were around our age, too. They just wanted to go around and go out and play, and they didn’t care who they played with.

In the meantime, the band leader was telling me, “Man, don’t listen to that noise. That’s not music. That’s noise.” And I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, okay.” Next day, man…! [LAUGHS] We exchanged phone numbers. So that’s when I got into listening to records. I went and bought every Charlie Parker or Bud Powell record I could find! Which then, it was pretty well new in Chicago, too, but as they came out, word spread like wildfire among the musicians, like, of my generation: “Oh, there’s a new Bird record out.”

Q: One thing, though, is that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were briefly with Earl Hines…

JM: Right.

Q: …and then were raided by Billy Eckstine.

JM: Mmm-=hmm.

Q: And Earl Hines, of course, was based in Chicago, although I don’t know how often that band actually played. My impression is that was more of a touring band.

JM: Oh, no, they played. That band played in a club called the El Grotto, I think. That was their first (?).

Q: On 64th Street and Cottage Grove.

JM: Yeah.

Q: But I take it you never got to hear that particular edition of Earl Hines’ band. That’s a very famous band, but it never recorded.

JM: No, I did get to hear them then. Then I was sneaking into clubs. In Chicago at that time they didn’t check ID’s like they did later.

Q: A sort of wide-open type of town.

JM: Right, heh-heh, like the TV show The Untouchables; most of it took place in Chicago!

Q: That aura remained indeed. But did you have sort of distinct impression that listening to them left on you at that time?

JM: Oh, man, do I! Yeah, they just blew me away. It was just a phenomenal band. It was the direction I wanted to go in music. If Earl Hines wasn’t the piano player, I would have begged for the gig in that band!

Q: [ETC.] What was your first contact with Gene Ammons, who again, you did your first recordings with?

JM: I left this R&B band in Waukegan that I was playing with shortly after that, and I started working with a big band in Chicago — this is while I was in college, too. The band was called Jimmy Dale. It was led by a guy named Harold Fox, who was a tailor who specialized in musicians’ uniforms and band uniforms. And Harold had the most fantastic band book of anybody. Because his way of doing business was he would trade the bandleaders a whole set of suits for their band in exchange to copy some of the charts. So we had a book which was about as thick as three or four New York phone directories! And we had everybody’s music. We had, oh, the Billy Eckstine band, the big band music, we had some of Dizzy’s stuff, we had a lot of Stan Kenton, some Duke, some Basie…

Q: How many pieces was this band?

JM: Oh, let me see. We had five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and three rhythm.

Q: Any names you’d care to bring up who performed…

JM: Well, Jug was in that band. Not always. This was after he made “Red Top.” But Jug was very fond of big bands, too, and this was a fantastic big band. And Gail Brockman, the legendary Gail Brockman, who was a trumpet player who was in Billy Eckstine’s band. This was a guy, oh, Dizzy and Miles and everybody looked up to him. Gail and Freddie Webster were like two people who never got their complete due, I think.

Q: Of course this had to have been after Jug had left, after Eckstine had disbanded…

JM: This was after Eckstine broke up. This was like 1946 and ’47. Lee Konitz was in the band. Gene Wright. Who else was in the band? Some of the names people won’t know. But everybody else in the band was just as good as they were, too. They just didn’t…as I said, didn’t get out. Hobart Dotson was another in the band.

Q: Of course, a legendary teacher in Chicago was the bandmaster at DuSable High School, Captain Walter Dyett, who might have produced half of those musicians…

JM: Oh, man, did he! Yeah. Well, Gene was one of Dyett’s disciples. Benny Green, the trombone player. Johnny Griffin, Nat Cole…

Q: All the Freemans.

JM: All the Freemans, right.

Q: Dorothy Donegan…

JM: Dorothy Donegan, mmm-hmm. Elick Johnson, the guy I mentioned, and a lot of others who played just as good but never, you know, made it out there.

Q: Anyway, this is how you really first encountered and got to know Gene Ammons, was with the Jimmy Dale band?

JM: Right. The first night that I was with the band, and Jug played the gig right after… In fact, Jug offered me the gig with him. And both of us, like, were in and out of the band. When Jug wasn’t working, we’d work with this big band, with Jimmy Dale.

Q: So things were very busy. Lots of things were going on in Chicago, and of every sort, really.

JM: It was, yeah. Those were the days, you know, when the New York musicians used to look forward to coming to Chicago. Because I remember with Jug, we had like a home gig in a place right next door to the Regal Theatre called the Congo Lounge. And the bands used to come in and… See, in those days the hours for working were like 10 to 4, and 10 to 5 on Friday and Saturday. And the Regal was like the Apollo; at about 11 o’clock at night the guys were off from work, and they’d all file down from the Congo, man. That’s where I met so many of the main musicians.

Q: Let’s talk about that after we hear a set of music featuring some of these Gene Ammons sides from the late 1940’s on which Junior Mance appears.

MUSIC: “Blowing The Family Jewels,” “When I Dream Of You,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Cherokee.”

…that last was Sonny Stitt, from a series of tracks by Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in the ’78 period, when the tracks were short and everything had to be very compressed. Do you feel that having come up through that has affected the way you play today?

JM: No, I was glad to get out of that. Because they kept constantly reminding you in the studio to keep it under three minutes, not go over three minutes. And they didn’t want three minutes. They wanted not over 2 minutes and 50 seconds at the most. Two and a half minutes was perfect for them!

Q: Well, many a masterpiece was created in that time, but I can certainly see your….

JM: Well, it was good in a way, because it really taught you, like, how to really say a lot in a short space of time.

Q: Not waste a note.

JM: And not waste a note. Exactly.

[ETC.]
[END OF SIDE 1]

As far as employers go, Prez was probably one of the best. Sometimes we’d work a week, and not work for maybe the next three or four weeks. But Prez would take care of us, both Leroy and I, because both of us were about 19 at the time, and we were the only two in the band… Oh, and Jerry Elliott, the trombone player who was from Pittsburgh. We were the only three who weren’t from New York. The other guys had pads in New York or families there. And we all stayed in the same hotel where Prez stayed. And Prez took care of us. Prez saw to it that we ate every day and that we had spending money — and wouldn’t let us pay him back! He died with me owing him a lot of money. He just never would let us pay him back.

Q: What was it like being on the stand with Lester Young? Was it a similar format every night? Would he change it up all the time?

JM: As far as changing up, I guess he changed it up all the time. Because it wasn’t really like… He wasn’t a show-businessy type person. We’d get up there and it was almost like a session, like a group of guys get together and let’s play something, you know. And after a while, you forget who the leader is. And he’d play… He never played a lot of solos…I mean a lot of choruses. He’d play three or four choruses, and then maybe everybody played three or four, then take it out. Most of the bands then, people of the stature of Prez, weren’t based on charts or arrangements, unless you had a big band. Because of Prez’s reputation itself, people came there to hear Prez. They didn’t care what was around it, you know. So everybody got a chance to play.

And Prez had a philosophy about letting everybody play. When we went on the road, he would really let everybody stretch out. Because he said…I think one night he said… I don’t know, somebody didn’t want to solo on a certain tune or thought it was too long, and Prez said, “Look, I want everybody to play, because everybody might not like me, but they might like one of you.” After that, everybody played.

Q: A few words about Gene Ammons. When we were off-mike, you quoted a comment Frank Foster made about him.

JM: Well, Frank was talking Gene’s big sound and the way he swings. So Frank said, “One thing about Gene Ammons, he hit one note, and immediately the beat and swing would begin and the note would just fill up the whole room.” Which is true. Jug had a tone as big as ten saxophone players!

Q: What was it like going out with Jug in a small group at that time? You talked about him trying to establish his…

JM: Well, I joined the band after he made “Red Top,” which was his big hit; after Billy Eckstine’s band broke up and he recorded for Mercury, and “Red Top” was his big hit. And the band worked a lot. That was before I was with them. When I joined the band, “Red Top” was still popular, it was still his mainstay, but it was beginning to tail off a little bit. And he had a lot of other good Chicago hits. Because we worked a lot in Chicago. In fact, the union brought us up on charges, because one night we had five gigs…

Q: Oh, no!

JM: Yeah, heh-heh. And Jug’s car… One of them was in Gary, Indiana, the third gig, and the car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth gig! So the club-owner took Jug to the union.

Q: How did it get resolved?

JM: They fined Jug $500. What saved us, we had a drummer at the time from Kansas City named Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band. So we’re all sitting there, the whole band is down there, you know, and we figure we’re all going to get fined. So they ask each one of us, “Well, you guys know better. Why did you follow him in doing five gigs?” Now, that was a stupid question. If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it…

Q: Those are questions you’re not supposed to be able to answer.

JM: Yeah. So Ellis Bartee, who was very quick with it and he could come up with a quick answer, he just told them, he says, “Well, Mr. Gray…” Mr. Gray was the President, Harry Gray. He said, “Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here from Kansas City, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.” But they all laughed, the rest of the boys laughed when he said, “All I saw was Gene Ammons. I figured, well, that’s the man to be with, and that’s who I wanted to be with — so I got the gig.” So that got us off the hook. That sort of made them laugh a little bit. But Gene got fined the $500. Plus I don’t know what happened between him and the promoter. The promoter lost money or had to refund a lot of money. They were all dances, five dances in one night!

Q: Were there a lot of dances in Chicago at that time?

JM: At that time, yeah. There was the Pershing Ballroom, the Parkway Ballroom, the Savoy was still going then, and even a lot of places on the West Side. One of the gigs we were supposed to do was on the West Side, the last gig was on the West Side. We never heard from that guy. He just kept quiet. I guess he found out what happened.

Q: One other person you worked with I’d like to ask you about is the young Sonny Stitt. Were you working with his small group, or was that “Cherokee” we heard just put together for the record?

JM: We were both with Jug at the time, and the record date came up, and he got Art Blakey to make the date.

Q: Of course, he was one of the great virtuosos on all of his instruments at that time, particularly alto and tenor.

JM: Right. Well, alto was his main instrument.

Q: What memories do you have of working with him?

JM: Well, Sonny used to come and sit in with us at the Congo, too. He spent a lot of time in Chicago. He lived there for a while. And he used to come and sit in with us almost every night. A lot of cats used to come into the Congo almost every night and just sit in with us.

Q: Out of the Regal Theatre, as you were saying.

JM: Yeah, but I mean even other than the Regal. A lot of the local cats who could really play. Ike Day was another one who used to come in.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Ike Day. He’s one of the legendary drummers…

JM: Right.

Q: …who it’s commonly said Art Blakey would check him out, and Max Roach…

JM: Oh, everybody. Jo Jones gave him a set of drums. Ike was a genius, really, one of those young geniuses. I remember seeing Ike sit in with the Basie band when he was 16. He couldn’t read music. He played the book like he had been in the band all the time.

Q: He just had it.

JM: Just a natural. He had such a natural sense of anticipation, and hands that were just unbelievable, and could swing. And he was a teenager. He died very young. He was about 24 when he died.

Q: He had tuberculosis, I believe.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: He only made one recording, I believe, with Gene Ammons, and you can barely hear him on the recording…

JM: I wasn’t with him then. I didn’t know about that one. I think I heard something about it…

Q: Can you give us some idea of what his sound was like, an analogy to another drummer, or describe it in some way?

JM: I guess, now that I think back, he sounded a lot like Big Sid Catlett, who was always one of my favorites, too.

Q: And from Chicago as well.

JM: That I didn’t know.

Q: He studied with Jimmy Bertrand, one of the great show drummers in Chicago in the 1920’s.

JM: Yeah. Well, Big Sid was the drummer… That explains it, because most of the drummers in Chicago could do more than one style. They could do anything… Like, Big Sid played with Louis Armstrong, and then turned around and made a record with Dizzy and Bird, and it sounded like he belonged there on both.

Q: And plus, do the big band material as well…

JM: Exactly.

Q: I guess he played with Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace…

JM: That’s right, yeah.

Q: …amongst others. One person talking about Ike Day said that he had an incredible dynamic range, that he was very sensitive to sound and hearing the whole kit and using the whole kit.

JM: Yeah, he played with the whole band. He wasn’t just… You know, like some young teenage drummers, they want to stand out. No, Ike was a musician. Ike was a player.

Q: You referred to Art Tatum as probably your main influence on the piano.

JM: Everybody’s main influence! [LAUGHS]

Q: You’re going to hear a set of Art Tatum music. And you mentioned to me that “Elegy” was the…

JM: That’s one of my favorites, yeah.

Q: A few words?

JM: Well, the music speaks for itself on that. I just heard it, and it just blew me away. Because I had heard the Classical versions of it as well, and then when I heard Art Tatum’s version, I didn’t want to listen to the other versions any more.

[MUSIC: “Elegy” (Keystone Brdcst., 1938), “Fine and Dandy,”

“All The Things You Are”; Ahmad Jamal, “Raincheck,” “Poinciana”]

Q: You said that you used to work with Israel Crosby at a very famous club on 55th Street in Chicago called the Beehive. You were house pianist there for a while?

JM: House pianist, right.

Q: How long did that happen?

JM: Well, I was there for a little over a year. In fact, the day I got out of the Army I got home, and… I don’t know if this guy saw me on the street, but he heard that I was home, a drummer, a guy named Buddy Smith who is no longer with us. But Buddy had the gig there, and he had Israel on bass and myself.

Q: The Beehive at that time was one of the main places where people would come in from out of town and use the rhythm section.

JM: Right, exactly. That’s where I got to play with Bird for a month. They booked everybody for four weeks, which was great, too.

Q: Who were some of the people you played with there?

JM: Coleman Hawkins was the first one in there, and he was there twice during the time I was there. Charlie Parker I mentioned. Lester Young. That’s when I first met Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; also he was there.

Q: As a solo?

JM: Yeah. That was long before the days with Griffin.

Q: I was wondering if that was around the time he was working with Basie.

JM: I think in between times. He had been with Basie, and then he was on his own, and then after that he went back with Basie again.

Q: What do you remember about working with Coleman Hawkins?

JM: Oh, it was wonderful. Basically, working with him it was pretty much the same approach to the music as working with Bird. Like, they both had this thing… They knew every standard in the world, you know, and they would call a standard, and if I knew it, I’d say, “Yeah, I know that. What key?” And both of them… Bird’s phrase was “Make it easy on yourself.” And Coleman said something to that same effect. He said “Wherever you want it.” It didn’t make any difference to them what key you played it in?

Q: Would Coleman Hawkins generally play the same repertoire every night or would he change it up?

JM: No, he’d change it up. He went through all the standards. Of course, he had to do his hits, you know, like “Body and Soul” — he couldn’t get away from that. “Body and Soul” and “Stuffy.”

Q: Would he play a set solo on “Body and Soul” or would he make it different every night?

JM: He played pretty much the solo he did on the record, yeah. Because people… The solo was as famous as the tune, because people could hum that solo along with him.

Q: Another musician who played at the Beehive was Wilbur Ware.

JM: Wilbur Ware, yes. After I left there, Wilbur worked there a lot. I forget…let’s see, what did Israel do after that? I think Israel joined Jamal after I left, and Wilbur probably came in then. Not immediately, though. I think Victor Sproles was there a little bit before Wilbur.

Q: Well, Israel Crosby, of course, is one of the great rhythm masters in the history of the bass.

JM: That’s right. He was years ahead of his time, too.

Q: Talk a little bit about him and what he did that made him so special.

JM: His lines, his bass lines, the notes that he would choose — the clever things he did to fill up spaces. It’s what a lot of the bass players are doing nowadays, which is like the thing to do now. But he did it… He was ahead of his time. He was somewhat like… Well, Prez was ahead of his time. That’s the way Israel was.

Q: And you’d probably heard him on records with Teddy Wilson.

JM: I’d heard him on records with Teddy Wilson. And Israel was getting on in years then. Israel had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band and Benny Goodman’s early band, so he wasn’t…

Q: A spring chicken.

JM: Yeah. But he was just so many years ahead of his time. And playing with him was such… You never knew what he was going to do, but he would do something that wouldn’t get in your way; in fact, it would enhance you. He was the kind of bass player, when you play with him he keeps a smile on your face. Because every time he does something, the piano player’s face would smile, you know!

Q: You’d just listen to him throughout the set and you’d be very happy.

JM: Wilbur Ware was like that, too. Wilbur Ware and I worked at a place on the South Side with Buddy Smith again, and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. We must have worked there for a couple of years.

Q: What place was that?

JM: Cadillac Bob’s, I think it was called?

Q: On 71st Street, was it?

JM: Not that one. No, that’s the new one. This one was between… Right down the street from the Pershing. This is between 63rd and 64th on Cottage.

Q: Busy street.

JM: Oh, that was the thing. Man, that whole area was saturated with a lot of Jazz. The Ground Propeller, the Cotton Club, and all those clubs along 63rd.

Q: All of them had music.

JM: Yeah.

Q: I heard one drummer tell the day he got out of the Army he started walking down 63rd Street, and it took him I think three days he said before he got…

JM: Yeah! [LAUGHS] Because there was so much good music, and it was all Jazz, say starting from about South Park all the way over to the lake practically.

Q: And that’s about a mile-and-a-half or two miles.

JM: At least, or two miles, yeah.

Q: A few words about playing with Charlie Parker. You did say that he’d play a lot of material and make it easy on you. I believe he played at the Beehive about a week or two weeks before he died.

JM: If he did, I wasn’t there then.

Q: What was happening the week that you worked with him? Was he in good form, in good health?

 

JM: Excellent form. I tell you, he kept me awake! Boy, there was just so much music, listening to it…

[ETC., THEN MUSIC BY JUNIOR: “Emily,” “Jubilation,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Yancey Special”]

Q: Next we’ll hear some sides recorded by Dinah Washington during your time with her. She was from Chicago originally? Did she go to DuSable? I’m not sure.

JM: I think she went to Wendell Phillips, the rival of DuSable. I think. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure she did. I don’t think it was DuSable.

Q: At any rate, she had local fame in Chicago…

JM: Oh yeah.

Q: And she was a great church singer as well, in Chicago’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

JM: Right.

Q: I guess Dinah first worked with Lionel Hampton.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Lionel Hampton seemed to have picked up a lot of musicians out of Chicago.

JM: A lot of them to pick up!

Q: How did the gig with Dinah Washington happen for you?

JM: She just called me one day. Actually I was called to do a record date with her. That was the album that had “A Foggy Day” and “I Let a Song Go Out Of My Heart.” So after the date she asked me if… In fact, I was working at the Beehive at the time. And she offered me the gig. That’s when I left the Beehive.

Q: She must have been working quite a bit at that time.

JM: She was working a lot, she was paying good, and then you know, she lived in New York at the time, and it gave me a chance to…

Q: Get back there.

JM: Yeah. I wanted to be in New York a lot.

Q: That’s understandable. So it seems like you were going back and forth between New York and Chicago about half and half then, from the time you…

JM: Oh yeah. With the exception of the period between 1951 and 1953, when I was in the Army, I’d say between ’47 or ’48, when I was with Jug… I dropped out of Roosevelt after a year-and-a-half, because the gigs got heavy then — and I knew what I wanted to do, you know. Then I moved to New York permanently in ’56, when Cannonball formed his first group. Cannonball and I were in the Service together also.

Q: Where were you stationed?

JM: Fort Knox. Fort Knox, Kentucky. Cannonball and Nat. Curtis Fuller was there for a while, too.

Q: It must have been quite an Army band.

JM: Oh, it was, yeah. Yeah, we had a ball.

Q: Did you play a lot during those couple of years?

JM: Yeah, I did. I wasn’t supposed to be in the band, being a piano player. But Cannonball pulled some strings and got me into the band as a typist. [LAUGHS] I knew how to type, and they needed one to do the administrative work for the band, so on a technicality I got in.

Q: Was there a piano on the base?

JM: Oh yeah! Well, there were three bands there, the 36th Army band, the 3rd Armored Division band, and the 158th Army Band. But see, to get in an Army band, the piano player has to be someone who can also play a marching instrument. And I couldn’t play a marching instrument, although they tried to teach me! One day they gave me a bass drum, and said, “Okay, Mance, try to play this.” It wasn’t a long march I had to do. This basic training company was coming in at the end of their training; they were coming out of the woods, out of bivouac. So to give them a little spirit, you know, we’d meet maybe a distance equal to about five or six blocks before they got to the barracks, about a half-mile, say, and we were supposed to play for them. So where we had to meet them was at the bottom of a hill, and I had the bass drum on a windy day! So we’re going up the hill, and if you can imagine this, this would be how the beat of the drum went: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM..BOOM..BOOM…BOOM… So between the wind and not knowing what I was doing on this bass drum, the tempo got slower and slower. So one of the snare drummers, another cymbal player, ran over and said, “Mance, you’re gonna have the guys crawling, man. They’re tired already and we’re going up this hill. Give me the bass drum; you take these cymbals.” I said, “What am I supposed to do with these?” “Just hit ’em.” He didn’t tell me how because he didn’t have time. So I didn’t know, man. I just reared back and got a good lick and went, “WHAM!” Anyway, you saw guys scattering everywhere getting out of our way. They didn’t know what that noise! [LAUGHING] So then the band director told me, “Mance, just carry them under your arm!” So that was the only time…

Q: Back to typing.

JM: Yeah. The band always played for the Kentucky Derby every year, too, in Louisville — twice I went to that. But I had to have an out to get there, so I had to be in the marching band. So they let me carry the cymbals under my arm both times! And once we got inside Churchill Downs, I was on my own then.

Q: I hope you won some money.

JM: You know what? I made one bet on something like the second race or something like that, and won enough to, like, really hang out the rest of the day at the Derby. It wasn’t a lot, something like $40 or something, but in the Army back then… This was 1951 or so, and…

Q: That was good money then. A week’s salary.

JM: Right! So I had a ball. I didn’t bet no more after that. I just tasted, and looked around and watched the races and hung out. You know, there’s a lot to do at Churchill Downs rather than just sitting there and watching the races. It was a nice outing.

Q: Well, let’s hear some of these Dinah Washington sides. We’re going to start with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from In The Land Of Hi-Fi, Dinah Washington with Hal Mooney and His Orchestra, featuring Cannonball Adderly and Junior Mance, arrangements by Hal Mooney. Then we’ll hear something from the famous session Dinah’s Jam, which you were telling a story about — Dinah brought in a bunch of hard-core fans.

JM: Right. She had it catered. She invited about fifty of her closest friends, who were like real Jazz fans, not just people who liked the music. And there was a Who’s Who musicians there. So she had it catered, and what happened was we would play and… And it was in the studio. It was a live date, but in the studio. During the playback after each tune, while we were listening, people would help themselves to drinks and food, it was buffet style, and the drinks put them in a good mood… And it was really one of best record dates ever made, as far as enjoyment. There were no pressures, nothing was rehearsed. Most of the stuff on there is like first take. And the audience was just enthusiastic. Fifty people sounded like five thousand. It was just a small studio, but they were really into it.

[MUSIC: Dinah Washington: “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “You Go To My Head.” Teddy Wilson/Sarah: “When We’re Alone,” Teddy Wilson, “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Fine and Dandy.”

Q: Teddy Wilson, as you mentioned at the top of the show, is one of your very earliest influences on the piano.

JM: Right.

Q: Do you recollect the early sides you heard of his? Were you familiar with the sides we played?

JM: Not really. At the time, you know, I was about eight years old. Teddy was young then, too. Teddy was a teenager. Teddy was one of those people that got out there young, when he was in his teens. But I remember my first piano teacher, his idol was Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Teddy had just published a book of his piano solos, and that was one of the early things that my teacher gave me to learn. And then my father started buying Teddy Wilson records, so my father liked him, too.

Q: Of course, Teddy Wilson’s two primary influences, I guess, were Art Tatum and Earl Hines.

JM: Oh yes.

Q: We’ll move now to some Earl Hines material. Earl Hines, of course, was at the Grand Terrace while you were coming up in Chicago. I guess he was in Chicago after the War as well, when he had the El Grotto.

JM: He had the El Grotto.

Q: He did run that club, right?

JM: That’s something I don’t know. He may have, because he was there all the time.

Q: Did you get to know Earl Hines?

JM: Yeah, but later. Later I met Earl and I knew him.

Q: Any words about the Fatha?

JM: Oh, a wonderful man. And a great player!

Q: It seems that later on his life his pianism developed and developed and was featured much more.

JM: Well, after the big band. But even during the big band he was a great player. He could play then.

Q: But later, of course, he recorded all those wonderful albums…

JM: Yeah, where he’s doing solo or trio.

Q: We’ll hear the Earl Hines band featuring Billy Eckstine.

JM: I want to hear those. They are nostalgic for me.

[MUSIC: “Jelly, Jelly,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Boogie-Woogie On The St. Louis Blues.”]

Q: Junior, you said that’s one of the tunes you learned note for note when you were a kid.

JM: Yeah, that, and the other one was “After Hours.” Oh, there was one more, too. In fact, the first Jazz tune I ever learned was “Yancey Special” as a kid.

Q: Well, and you’re still playing it.

JM: [LAUGHS] Them habits are hard to break!

Q: Were you playing a lot of stride piano when you were a kid? Was that how you first really got your chops?

JM: Not really. I used to marvel at the stride piano players. But I have small hands, and I couldn’t… I’d miss notes when I do that.

Q: Can’t hit those intervals…

JM: Yeah. That’s why I was glad when Bebop came in. Even now, though, even now occasionally when I do solo piano, I’ll try, even though I can do it a little bit. See, most of the stride piano players could play tenths. Like, Art Tatum could walk tenths like a bass player walks single notes, you know. And I could never even… Even now I can’t reach a tenth on the piano.

Q: There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Earl Hines, that he had had surgery to cut the webbing…

JM: Oh yeah. That wasn’t true. Boy, that tale went all over the world, too. But that wasn’t true. Because doctors said if you do that, you can paralyze the hands.

Q: We’ll move now quickly to one of the very famous groups that Junior worked with between 1959 and 1961, the Johnny Griffin-Eddie Lockjaw” Davis tenor tandem. Actually, that was ’60…

JM: Yeah, it was more ’60 to ’61, because I was with Dizzy until ’60.

Q: Well, it seems like a long time because there are so many recordings by this band. It just recorded prolifically!

JM: [LAUGHS]

Q: How did that hook up for you?

JM: Well, Jaws and I knew each other from the Beehive when you worked there, and…

Q: Of course you knew Griff from Chicago.

JM: Well, Griff I’ve known all my life. He was from Chicago. They got their group together while I was still with Dizzy. Then I left Dizzy to form my own trio, to go out on my own, so to speak, not necessarily a trio… I had made that first album, the one with Ray Brown. So I wanted to test the waters for myself. And like all new groups, you know, times get hard. Then I did some gigs with Johnny and Jaws, and made a deal with Jaws. Jaws said, “You can work with us, and if you get a gig with the trio, go make that.” And it turned out during the time the band was together, I made more gigs with them than I did with my trio. And we were in the studios all the time.

Q: You recorded a lot of Monk’s material…

JM: We did a whole album on Monk called Lookin’ At Monk.

Q: Was Monk another musician whose music you were very much involved with? Or was that the first time you’d really started grappling with Monk?

JM: No, it wasn’t the first time. I’ve always been a Monk admirer. I think because we have the same birthday. I’ve always been very fond of Monk’s music. Probably more so now.

Q: Another point in common is that you both really developed a lot of your style by listening to stride and blues piano …[ETC.]

JM: Could be.

[MUSIC: “Tickle Toe,” “In Walked Bud”]

Q: “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s variation on “Blue Skies,” I think.

JM: Yeah, the outside is “Blue Skies”. The channel is a little bit different. [ETC.]
I enjoyed this. It’s a real nostalgia thing for me, too, to hear some of the other things, like the Earl Hines things.
[ETC.]

[-30-]

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For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.

 

Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.

 

*-*-*-*-

Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.

BARTH: Yes.

TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]

*-*-*-

 

Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bruce Barth, DownBeat, Piano, WKCR

It Isn’t Stefano Bollani’s Birthday, but it is the Final Day of Umbria Jazz Summer 2016, so here’s an Uncut Blindfold Test Done Live in Perugia in 2008 with Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava, in Addition to a Long Downbeat Feature on Bollani Done in Barcelona in 2012 and a Long Interview for Jazz.Com Taken at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Jan. 2009

For the final day of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, here’s the uncut proceedings of a live Blindfold Test I conducted there with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani, who were playing duo. It consisted entirely of trumpet-piano duo recordings. Following it are two long pieces on Bollani, which I may repost separately at some future date — one is a DownBeat feature on Bollani reported in Barcelona in 2012; following it is a long interview, conducted in Orvieto in 2009, that ran on the no-longer-accessible website jazz.com.

 

Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Blindfold Test, Perugia, July 2008 (Raw):
1. Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie, “Caravan” (OSCAR PETERSON & DIZZY GILLESPIE, Pablo, 1975) (Gillespie, trumpet; Peterson, piano; Juan Tizol, composer)

[AFTER ONE CHORUS]

Rava: We’ve got it. [IN ITALIAN] [SHTICK] Dizzy Gillespie.
Bollani: And Oscar Peterson. I would say that Oscar Peterson was my favorite piano player when I started listening to jazz music. I had this recording. He was playing “My Blue Heaven.” And I was sure, because I couldn’t read the liner notes in English (I was only 10 years old), that it was two piano players playing together. So when my father told me that it was just one, it wasn’t Oscar and Peterson, but it was Oscar Peterson, I started studying seriously, because I understood that you really had to practice a lot if you want to play jazz music. I love all the records he did with trumpet players. But my favorite one is the one with Clark Terry, the one where he is singing.
TP: Dizzy for Enrico Rava.
Rava: [IN ITALIAN] [THEN IN ENGLISH] Dizzy…what can I say about Dizzy? Dizzy is one of the main musicians in jazz. Of course, he is unbelievable. He brought the trumpet ahead twenty years when he started. Although in the very beginning, when he was a kid, he sounded EXACTLY like Roy Eldridge. Dizzy played in a big band when he was a kid, and he was very …(?)… Anyway, I saw him in my home town, Turino, in the ‘50s with the beautiful band he had with Leo Wright, Les Spann, Lex Humphries… To talk about Dizzy doesn’t make any sense, because he is so great he deserves more than words. Words cannot describe him. I can say that the art of Dizzy is enormous. The technique of Dizzy is so extraordinary and unique. He invented a way of playing. He has little tricks with the fingering. Something that I learned from Dusko Goykovich, another good friend. Although I always say that, of course, Clifford Brown, Miles, Chet, the people that I love, I know what they are doing. If I stay a hundred years practicing, every day, I might do the same thing. But Dizzy, I really don’t understand how he got those things. He’s something that’s too much. Dizzy is too much.
[APPLAUSE]

2. Paul Bley-Chet Baker, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from DIANE, Steeplechase, 1985) (Baker, trumpet; Bley, piano)

Rava: I feel sure that the trumpet player is Chet Baker. It could be Paul Bley, because I know they did the record together, but I’m not sure if this is him. We’ll wait til the solo. [SOLO BEGINS]
Bollani: It sounds like the pianist is Paul Bley, but it’s not that record with Paul Bley. I don’t know who is this piano player. For me, it could be (?-12:54). For Chet Baker, one million stars. But I am not in love with this piano player.
Rava: For me, 2 million stars for Chet.
TP: Paul Bley is the piano player. You probably were thrown off by the sound of the piano through this system.
Bollani: [translator: The trumpet players, it’s easier, because they have a personal sound, but the piano, they’re just touching something mechanical.
Rava: I did a duo with Paul Bley, and I know how he plays. I know him very well. So this is why I said, “Maybe it’s not…” Although I was almost sure that it was Paul Bley, because I know the record, but I don’t remember exactly.
Bollani: This is the Steeplechase record, Diane. It’s strange because I have the record…
Rava: They did it for Enja.
Bollani: No, Steeplechase. But I have this record, and I didn’t recognize the sound. To me, it sounded better in my home.
Rava: I love Chet. Chet for me, after Miles, is the one I love more than anybody else. I am very close to his way of thinking and playing melodies. I love his sound. Besides that, the first modern jazz… I am a jazz fan since I was 6 years old, and I love Bix and everybody else. But the first modern jazz I really heard was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, and I think that was some of the best trumpet playing I’d heard. So I fell in love with Chet then, and I became a very good friend of Chet. When I bought a trumpet, I was about 18. One year after, he came to live in my home town, at the house of one of my best friends, so I would be all day with Chet, bringing the trumpet, asking him things he couldn’t answer because he was totally …(?—16:59), so he couldn’t give any advice. But I was almost… I couldn’t speak with him, because it was like to be near the sun. He was so strong for me. I was very young then. Then I got to play with him many times, and we were friends. I think he was one of the most beautiful musicians.
Bollani: It’s easier for me to talk about Chet Baker, because he’s one of my idols, even as a singer. It’s not easy for me to talk about Paul Bley, because I am not a big fan of Paul Bley. I don’t know him so well. Actually, I also have to say that in talking about Chet Baker in duo with a piano player, I would rather prefer the record with Enrico Pieranunzi. I think he was much more close to Chet’s feeling, so the final result of the recording is better.

3. Martial Solal-Dave Douglas, “34 Bar Blues” (from RUE DE SEINE, CamJazz, 2006) (Solal, piano, composer; Douglas, trumpet)

Rava: I think that that’s Don Ellis.
TP: No.
Rava: Okay. It sounds like Don Ellis. I have no idea.
TP: It’s recent. Contemporary.
Rava: Maybe Herb Robertson.
TP: No.
Rava: If it’s not Don Ellis, it’s someone I don’t know at all.
Bollani: Me either. I have no idea of the piano player. At the beginning, the vocabulary sounded like Martial Solal, the French piano player. But I’m not sure it’s him because of the kind of phrasing. And I wouldn’t know who’s the trumpet player, actually. But I really like this piano player, but I don’t know who he is.
TP: You’re right. It is Martial Solal.
BOLLANI: [RAISES HANDS OVER HEAD]
TP: The trumpet player is Dave Douglas, and it’s on the Italian label CamJazz.
Bollani: He said Dave Douglas. He told me, “Maybe it’s Dave Douglas with Uri Caine,” and I said, “this is not Uri Caine.”
Rava: But then, to me, he sounded really Don Ellis at the beginning. I love Dave Douglas. I know him pretty well. But he didn’t sound like Dave Douglas to me; he sounded like Don Ellis. I would give it 4 stars. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it’s wonderful.
Bollani: Actually, I really like it. This is my second Blindfold Test ever. I did it once in France. I only liked two ones. One of them was also Martial Solal. So I really like him. Now it’s the same. I told you, I like this piano player, but I’m not sure of who he is. To me, Martial Solal is the greatest piano player alive, technically and mentally speaking. Maybe you can compare other piano players, as listeners. But as a piano player not as a listener, I am amazed at what he can do. He’s always thinking what you’re not expecting he is going to do.
Rava: You mean as a piano player?
Bollani: Yes.

4. Wynton Marsalis-Eric Lewis, “King Porter Stomp” (from MR. JELLY LORD, Columbia, 1999) (Marsalis, trumpet; Lewis, piano)

Rava: Very nice. 5 stars.
TP: Would you like to know who it was?
Bollani: We were talking about the trumpet player, and we said that probably it’s the same period of Roy Eldridge, but not before…
Rava: I think it could be. I am doing a very stupid thing, but it could be maybe Rex Stewart. I’ll tell you why. I know that Rex Stewart was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke, and this trumpet player did things that reminded me of Bix, but it was not at all that kind of trumpet player. But it sounded to me maybe like Rex.
TP: So you think it’s an old recording?cheche
Rava: Uh… No. I think it’s very new. [LAUGHTER]
Bollani: We were talking about the piano player. I don’t think he’s one of the greatest piano players of jazz history, people like Earl Hines or Teddy Wilson or whomever. He sounds like a modern piano player trying to pretend he’s in the ‘30s. I guess he’s American, but he’s got something which is not exactly in that style, and he sounds more modern. So I guess he’s trying to do these kind of things, but probably he doesn’t do these kind of things all the time. He’s not an expert of that kind of jazz. This is a very precise style, so you can immediately understand if it’s a pianist who was born today or is from that period. He played stride piano, but he didn’t really come off completely; a few things told me that it wasn’t an old pianist.
Rava: I have no idea.
TP: It was Wynton Marsalis and Eric Lewis, who played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years.
Carlo: It was too much technique.
Rava: It really sounded like a guy from the late ‘30s.
Bollani: Actually, I thought the trumpet player was an old one, with a young piano player trying to play in that style. So I couldn’t guess who it was.
TP: So Wynton did what he intended to do.
Bollani: Yeah, exactly.
Rava: I had for a moment, if he’s not… But he sounded so much like an old trumpet player. Anyway, five stars.
Bollani: I am not giving 5 stars, because I loved Wynton, but not so much the piano player. 3 stars. His way of comping was not… 5 for Wynton.

5. Lester Bowie-John Hicks, “Hello, Dolly” (from AMERICAN GUMBO, 32 Jazz, 1974/1999) (Bowie, trumpet; Hicks, piano)

Rava: To me, that’s Lester Bowie.
Bollani: Lester Bowie. The problem with this piano player, it sounds like the opposite of the other one. It sounds like he’s not one of the musicians involved in the free movement, but he’s older, so he sounds older than Lester Bowie. Maybe he wants to sound modern. But he sounds like a very good piano player from the ‘60s.
TP: Actually, he was the same age as Lester Bowie, and also from St. Louis. John Hicks.
Rava: I’ll give 5 stars to Lester. 3 stars for this piece, because to me it’s too much… I always loved Lester, and this very ironical… But this I think was really too much. He still is great. He was a good friend. So 5 stars. Maybe even 10.
Bollani: I liked very much the piano player.
TP: One thing that was interesting about John Hicks musically is that he was very comfortable playing outside or inside. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He played anything, and played it great.
Bollani: Another one that I really love is Jaki Byard—he could do that, too, very well, He could play stride piano, then he was playing modern things, and it was perfect.

6. Dick Hyman-Randy Sandke, “Slow River” (from NOW AND AGAIN, Arbors, 2005) (Hyman, piano; Sandke, trumpet)

Rava: To me, it sounds like Ruby Braff.
TP: Good guess, but not.
Rava: Merde.
TP: The trumpet player is alive.
Bollani: I really like it. But I’m not sure about the piano player, because he sounded once again like Oscar, but it’s so much cooler than Oscar Peterson that I wouldn’t say it’s him. I would say once again that he’s not a very famous one probably. I don’t know him so well.
TP: He’s the same age as Oscar Peterson, and both he and Oscar Peterson were influenced by Art Tatum.
Rava: Could it be that white trumpet player that used to…Warren Vache?
TP: Not Warren Vache, but that’s also close.
Rava: Anyway, it really sounded like Ruby Braff to me. Anyway, I give 4 stars.
Bollani: Same age as Oscar Peterson? He’s cooler than Oscar. He’s playing less notes. But he’s alive.
TP: The trumpet is Randy Sandke.
Rava: I don’t know him. I’ve heard his name, but only several times. His playing was very good. But he really sounded like Ruby Braff to me.

7. Kenny Wheeler-John Taylor, “Summer Night” (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn; Taylor, piano)

Bollani: We both recognize the trumpet player, and we think it’s Kenny Wheeler. I think the piano player could be John Taylor.
Rava: We know the trumpet, or flugelhorn…it was a flugelhorn. I’ll give it 2 stars. Do I have to give stars? I’ll give 3 stars. I must say I did not get that much from it.
Bollani: Sometimes it sounded like Kenny Wheeler’s composition.
TP: It’s a standard called “Summer Night,” by Harry Warren.
Bollani: It had something in the chorus at the end of the tune which made me think about Kenny Wheeler’s composing, things like “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” These kind of compositions, the long ones that go the ‘70s.

8. Nicholas Payton-Anthony Wonsey, “Weather Bird” (from GUMBO NOUVEAU, Verve, 1996)

Rava: What I can tell you is, first, whoever it is, there is a time problem, with the piano speeding up. The trumpet player, whoever it is, sounded good, but he played licks of everybody else. I heard some Dizzy licks, some Bobby Hackett licks… I mean, it was like an encyclopedia for trumpet. So I didn’t really like it. I’ll give it 2½ stars, maybe 3 for the technique and the ability. They are very good players, but I didn’t see any magic or any voice or something like that.

Bollani: Once again, I will start saying that probably they are not two very-very-very famous jazz musicians, because I really don’t recognize the… The same as the trumpet player . I don’t recognize the style of the piano player, because it sounds like a good piano player but not really a special one, a personal one. But still, I think that what Enrico said was true about the timing problem, but I think the piano player is the problem, not the trumpet player. He’s doing things, and he’s not very creative.

The problem with the records, the duo recordings with trumpet and piano is that the most famous jazz musicians, except maybe Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, didn’t do this kind of formula. Except for the Oscar Peterson albums… You can count them. But if you talk about the greatest players in the world… Miles, for example, never did one. So a lot of the greatest jazz musicians never made…

TP: It was Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Anthony Wonsey on piano playing “Weather Bird.”

Rava: Sorry, I recognized “Weather Bird,” of course.

Bollani: They are alive. So they are going to read the Downbeats and kill me.

Rava: I like Nicholas Payton most of the time. But I did not recognize him on this tune, probably because he wanted to make a kind of tribute to Louis Armstrong. But he didn’t sound like Nicholas Payton to me at all.

Bollani: I have to say, I’ve never heard even the name of the piano player. Never.

9. Earl Hines-Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Mean To Me” (from JUST YOU, JUST ME, Black and Blue, 1978) (Hines, piano; Edison, trumpet)

Bollani: We know the period, of course, but we’re not so sure about the musicians. I would say that this piano player, maybe it’s not him, but now he’s sounding like Willie The Lion Smith, but I don’t know if he recorded something…
Rava: To me the trumpet player sounded a lot like Harry Edison.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: I love Harry Edison. This is, for sure, not one of his best performances. If you compare this to the solo he played with Lester Young on “Sunday” which is a total masterpiece, this… But I don’t mind.
TP: He was 22 years older when he did this.
Rava: Not everyone is like you. Getting older, I feel better.
Bollani: Anyway, what can I say about Earl Hines? His nickname was “Fatha,” so this means that he is considered the father of the modern piano players. So I won’t say anything. He’s one of the piano players I always loved not only for the piano playing, but because of his attitude. Often people say that I’m too much entertaining or I’m too much funny or smiling or whatever. But people like Dizzy, Fats Waller, Earl Hines…
Rava: Armstrong.
Bollani: Armstrong. These were people who were playing great and also entertaining people. I have a record with Earl Hines singing and imitating the trombone, which is fantastic. I think he was a great performer. Smiling all the time.
Rava: Hines’ style. For Harry Edison and Earl Hines, I’m not particularly fond of this record, but I’ll give it 1000 stars. All the stars in the universe.

 

 

Stefano Bollani Article (Barcelona, 2012) –  (#1):

Stefano Bollani does not do soundchecks. “I always try not to have a sound in my head before playing,” the 39-year-old pianist explained in his room at Barcelona’s El Gran Havana Hotel, a few hours before hit time for a solo recital at Luz de Gas, the final event of Umbria Jazz Festival’s week at last November’s edition of the Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz. “I don’t want to know how the sound is on stage or in the place. So I don’t go to the theater before the concert. I just go on stage and play.”

He elaborated the point. “Being alone at the soundcheck is so sad,” he joked. “That’s one reason, but also I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know that the piano has a problem or a good characteristic, because then you think, ‘Wow, this piano is playing well, but only when you play it softer, so let’s make a list of how I can play softly all night.’

“Usually I am telling a joke or talking about some other subject—not thinking about the music—until the moment I begin. Then I forget everything. That’s free time. My phone is off. Nobody is asking me questions or proposing things. Nobody is interviewing me. I am doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child. I have two kids. I am never home, so I feel guilty because they don’t have a normal father. But when I’m playing, I know it’s my job, so I’m cool. I’m in the right place at the right moment. People are buying a ticket for me, I’m playing for them. I chose to come here. You chose to listen to me. It’s perfect.”

It was time to go. Dressed in an untucked black shirt, jeans and sneakers, his matted, gray-flecked hair tied back, a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, Bollani picked up his backpack and walked briskly to the elevator, passing several open rooms in which several Umbrian representatives sat in their undershirts, glued to CNN, hoping to catch the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Later, at Luz de Gas, after Bollani had finished two tunes, an audience member called out that the deed was done. “This is going to be a very special night,” Bollani said, “because as you know, we have very sad news. We’ll just have to go on without him.”

Bollani instantly stated the melody of “If I Should Lose You.” He launched his improvisation at jet tempo, a la Conlon Nancarrow, crisply articulating every note. He transitioned to a rubato section, abstracting the harmony to its limits before working back into the theme. Suddenly, he chugged out a relentless walking bass line in the Jaki Byard-Dave McKenna manner, supporting high-velocity Bud Powellish “horn-like” lines that included an “I Found A New Baby” quote. He offered a pluck-the-strings sidebar, crossing the hands (variations by the left; bass figures by the right), executing Cecil Taylorisms with extravagant gestures. Some repeated treble notes coalesced into a portentious, impressionistic melody that gradually morphed into “For Once In My Life,” upon which he built a rollicking, swinging statement that transpired over another pendulum-steady bassline.

The “Adios Berlusconi” theme continued when, after a pause, Bollani abstracted “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” limning the melody with the right hand juxtaposed with with more laugh-provoking atonal harmonics on the strings. This morphed into “Angel Eyes,” on which, after a rumbly, low-end climax, he decrescendoed to a gentle theme statement, returning to the strings for the last chorus. Bollani played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” medium up, repeating “she was more like a beauty queen” in different voices, counterstating with Powell-Tatum references. Pretending to forget the lyric, he fixated on “the kid is not my son” section, which he addressed as an aria. He interpolated the lyrics of “Old Devil Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” then laid out a series of reharmonized permutations that concluded with “Blackbird.”

After two more songs—“After You’ve Gone,” done as an old-school saloon stomp, and “Kingston Town,” treated as a gentle waltz—Bollani took requests, which included “Cavaquinho,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Tico Tico,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Für Elise.” He cogitated over his list, and developed an ingenious, structurally connected collage, at various points singing in a French accent and emulating a flamenco singer. Then, after an ovation, he filleted Berlusconi one more time with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelling his variations—to which he scatted a falsetto counter-melody—with yet another surging bassline.

“Every jazz musician will say to any interviewer that you’ve got to tell your own story,” Bollani had said earlier in the day. “But I love when the story is full of things. Our lives are full of nice moments and sad moments—there’s a funny situation, then one of us is dying on the floor so it’s suddenly tragic, then you call the police but they aren’t coming, so it’s funny again. Life is changing all the time. Some jazz music today is like the Sea of Tranquility, trying to develop the same feeling for sixty minutes. My life is not like that; I cannot tell this kind of story.”

Bollani’s communicative flair, his penchant for addressing serious improvisation as quasi-populist performance art, is the primary source of his high Q-score in Europe, the reason why, since 2007, he’s hosted the much-listened-to Il Dottore Djembe on Italy’s NPR equivalent, Rai-3, and, more recently, a TV spinoff. This quality comes through on his solo concerts and more recent piano duos with Martial Solal, Antonello Salis, and Chick Corea, where he generates an erudite flow that is at once hilarious and poignant, buffo and nuanced, elemental and complex. Some might see Bollani’s predisposition to skip from one reality to the next as bespeaking superficial clownishness, but it’s more accurate to say that it denotes an exhaustive breadth of reference.

“Stefano doesn’t make a distinction of ‘there’s one world here, and another there,’” said drummer Jeff Ballard, who has performed on several Bollani projects since 2009. “He has an incredible command of styles—everything is available at once, and out it comes. His thought process moves at incredible velocity, whether he’s performing or just hanging out. When I was touring with him, he’d sing one Italian song after another in the dressing rooms, saying, ‘Check out the harmony of this; see how this goes.’ He’s a natural performer and a virtuoso.”

“Comedians are usually very well-prepared,” Bollani had said earlier of his modus operandi. “But I am not preparing the funny part. It’s something I feel at the moment. If I have somebody with me, I am using musicians on the stage. Otherwise, I am using the audience. A lot of listeners, not necessarily jazz fans, tell me they get a feeling that I am having joy and want to share it. Jazz can be a kind of magic circle that some people feel they cannot enter. That’s not good for jazz music, or any kind of art.”

As jokes were the topic, Bollani mentioned that, on Dottor Djembe, he and co-host Mirko Guerrini pre-record fake music to present to their guests, mostly Italian musicians, with whom they perform live and discuss contemporary jazz, some of it by one or another of the numerous “fake musicians” of their invention—composers, pop singers, instrumentalists—whose biographies appear in a book-CD (Lo zibaldone del Dottor Djembe).

“If you don’t know what you’re listening to, you might think we’re talking seriously—until somebody starts laughing,” Bollani said. “There’s a scat singer called Tex Plosion, and on our recording he scats until he explodes—it’s a point of departure to talk about how dangerous jazz can be and not to play too many notes. We have a contemporary French-German composer named Jean-France Camenberg who did a seven-hour opera in Berlin called Sisyphus and Tantalus. For the whole time, Sisyphus sings ‘I am pushing the stone’ and Tantalus sings ‘I need the water.’ The moment Tantalus reaches the water is exactly the moment when Sisyphus is able to throw the stone, which hits Tantalus on the head and kills him, ending the opera.

“I have Duck Ellington, a guy who found a female duck that he uses to sing all the Duke Ellington repertoire. It’s very stupid, so stupid that the guest isn’t expecting it. Most of our guests said, ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ ‘Why? Didn’t you like it? Don’t you like jazz music?’ ‘I do, but…’ Very funny.”

[BREAK]

Bollani related that he and Chick Corea “did lots of jokes” at the free-flowing duo concert at Umbria Jazz Winter, 2009, that produced Orvieto [ECM]—he described it as “feeling like one piano player with four hands.” However, they do not appear on the recording. “I’m not mad about humor on records,” Bollani said. “A good piece of music works when you listen to it forever, but not a joke.”

Indeed, humor is not a prominent component of Bollani’s eclectic discography, which includes several solo piano solo recitals, a dozen encounters (including two duos) with trumpeter Enrico Rava, six standards dates for the Japanese market, and presentations of his original music by three different trios, a quintet, and a 40-piece orchestra. The jokes are also tamped down on Carioca [Universal], Bollani’s learned exploration of a broad array of Brazilian flavors; on the 50,000 unit-seller Rhapsody in Blue [Decca Classics], on which Bollani and conductor Ricardo Chailly present a vivid interpretation of the Gershwin classic; and on Big Band! [EmArcy], a 2011 project on which the NDR Big Band—with Bollani on piano—performs Norwegian arranger Geir Lysne’s reworkings of five Bollani compositions from the early ‘00s.

“Geir chose the pieces, and I came in after the band had learned them,” Bollani said. “I didn’t recognize them. I love that everything sounded new, that he used them to build different atmospheres. I use my compositions to build something different each night, which is how music keeps herself alive.” He quoted Surrealist philosopher Andre Breton’s bon mot, “Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.”

He continued: “You take different things, shake them, and see what comes out—the postmodern idea. That’s what I like in jazz. Take a melody by the Beach Boys and place a chord from a Prokofiev sonata; start with a standard, “My Funny Valentine” or ragtime, and go some other place. It’s playing with language, like working with characters in a novel.

“On some of my own compositions, the principle is funny—we miss a bar or jump to another key, and that’s clear. A lot of people did this, from Raymond Scott to Frank Zappa. But lots of them are not funny until I play them; the pianist Bollani is funnier than the composer Bollani. Actually, I am a tremendously serious composer. The pieces are never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars—always 43. There’s a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one that wants to be original. He is saying, ‘Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put in a bar more.’ I’m so serious that I would write only ballads, if I could. I have to force myself to write something light.”

Born in Milan and raised in Florence, Bollani internalized his everything-is-grist-for-the-mill approach early on, playing the piano along with the Fats Domino-Nat King Cole-Jerry Lee Lewis portion of his father’s extensive collection of ‘50s pop, from which he also assimilated the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. He learned Italian musica legere (light music) as well, through recordings by Renato Carosone and Celentano. At 11, the aspiring young singer enrolled in Florence’s prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory (he would graduate with honors in 1993) and also encountered local pianists Luca Flores and Mauro Grossi, who gave him hands-on instruction in the codes of jazz and blues. At 12, he fell hard for Art Blakey’s Night At Birdland album and joined what he describes as “the Taliban of Hard Bop.” As his teens progressed, Bollani expanded his horizons, absorbing “the real masters”—Martial Solal, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines.

“Ragtime and stride piano is the sound of joy to me,” he said. “Even the ballads, except for things like ‘Lotus Blossom’ by Strayhorn.” He sang the melody. “In fact, as soon as they get melancholic, they sound European, in a way. But I love the joyful part of jazz, which is probably coming from Africa.”

Apart from the ebullient feel of the earlier styles, Bollani cited the technical derring-do required to play them. “These guys had amazing character,” he said. “When Teddy Wilson played with Gene Krupa or Nat Cole with Buddy Rich, they had no bass, and they often had no amplification—they had strong hands, big hands. When Bud Powell started playing mainly as a horn player with the right hand and no chords on the left hand, that became the book. But I discovered a lot of people in jazz history, before and after Bud Powell, who think of the piano as an orchestra, which it is. I can play 50 notes at the same time if I want. So why should I force myself to solo only with the right hand? It’s ok, it’s an idea, but that’s ONE thing you can do. But as a piano player, you can’t only practice on that. A lot of people study Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, without considering that they are not points of departure in piano history, but points of arrival. If that’s how you start, you miss their process in getting to that point, and you’ll be an imitation of them.”

Bollani’s strongly typed tonal identity is fully apparent on Orvieto, a trans-stylistic tour de force on which he and Corea improvise interactively through American and Brazilian Songbook and jazz standards, a blues, and several scratch inventions. “I immediately knew that I could go anywhere with Chick,” Bollani recalled. “Usually one person solos and the other comps, and vice-versa, but here no one is driving—no roles are played for more than a few bars, then we start over. I told myself to be careful about quoting him, but it didn’t feel like the Chick Corea I knew in my youth. It’s just music.”

Trumpeter Enrico Rava, who hired Bollani in 1996, was a key figure in helping him gain the confidence to develop his mature conception. “When I was a teenager playing in clubs and theaters with my trio, people were silent, listening,” Bollani recalled. “This meant that I was developing a music that was closer to Art than entertainment. In 1995, when I’d been mostly playing keyboards with [Italian pop singers] Irene Grandi and Jovanotti, Rava joined our trio as a guest. Later he told me that if I turned down a long tour with Jovanotti, he could find gigs for us that summer. It was maybe seven concerts, but that was enough.

“After the first set on my first concert with him, he asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I’m playing.’ ‘No, you’re playing a little of what you can do—maybe you are shy.’ ‘Well, it’s you, it’s Aldo Romano, so I leave the space.’ ‘No. I called you because you have to fill the space.’ Enrico always tried to get from me what I wanted to do.”

Whatever Bollani chooses to do in the future, being funny will remain in the mix. “If I like you, I can joke with you; I can play with you,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll probably be more serious, because I cannot be free to laugh. I’m not iconoclastic, though probably people feel I am. I’m not laughing against something. Usually, I like the persons I’m making fun of. Serious fun is important. If you take yourself too seriously, you should die. Why play the piano after Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich? Just jump from the window. Why make children? Why make love? You know you’re going to suffer about that in a few hours, a few days. One member of a couple is going to die first. You can’t do anything if you think negatively. I cannot imagine a life without self-irony. Otherwise I couldn’t stand myself.

“But I am very serious about music. I can’t do anything else. I’ve never worked. I’m not a practical man. I am really saved by the music.”

*-*-*-

Stefano Bollani (Orvieto, Jan. 4, 2009):

Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this winter’s Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvieto, a small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millennium, pianist Stefano Bollani, digesting what he described as his first real meal in days, sipped pear juice in the salon of his hotel. He was looking forward to a well-earned nap: Called five days earlier to replace bossa nova legend João Gilberto, the festival’s headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, the 18th century opera house that is one of Orvieto’s many architectural wonders, Bollani had been hustling to fulfill the task, and had executed his duties with aplomb.

After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet, while on Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohen, herself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvieto’s central square. After his nap, he would sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by bassist Roberto Gatto.

An obscure figure to American audiences, who know him primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and in March will release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release Piano Solo, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy, where, in addition to his eclectic musical production, he is a television and radio personality as well as a published author of both children’s books and experimental novels.

Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated with honors, Bollani was also a teenage bebop acolyte. His solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of kaleidscopic repertoire—Italian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originals—in which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable digital dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.

During the course of his Thursday duos, he displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, Bollani sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partner’s solo episode) and with Solal, who maintained a Buster Keaton deadpan as he went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play “musical piano benches,” and riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TP: What you’re doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, you’re called to replace João Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets, half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, you’re seamlessly occupying the flow and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it’s not.

BOLLANI: Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second night—we played what we play. Of course, we didn’t know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didn’t want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No “Desafinados” in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque. So it wasn’t just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.

I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of music—of course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.

TP: How many groups are you working with now?

BOLLANI: I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.

TP: What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group that you primarily compose for?

BOLLANI: Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.

TP: Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?

BOLLANI: I would say that EVERYTHING has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, “This is coming from Italian music” or “this is coming from Brazilian music,” etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, “Ah, it’s joy.” C-minor—“Ooh, something happened.” Symphonic orchestra—“Ooh, it’s classical music.” The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.

Q: You do that when you do those encores.

BOLLANI: Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didn’t see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. “This is Chopin,” then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes… I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isn’t that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, it’s like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.

TP: This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you can’t…

BOLLANI: Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesn’t expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I don’t do. They do this on purpose—they are waiting for me to do this. But if I don’t know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I don’t know, and I said, “Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one.” [ENGINE SOUNDS] That’s what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, “This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.”

TP: You’re 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.

BOLLANI: A lot of old songs. Usually it’s better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neal Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.

TP: You’ve been working since you were 15. Did you learn all these songs as a working musician?

BOLLANI: Not, not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentano—old stuff. I’m sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what I’m looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I don’t find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever…

TP: You’re talking about Bjork, Radiohead, those people…

BOLLANI: I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world—the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what I’m talking about, “Musica legere,” “light music.” It shouldn’t be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record or Mahler or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesn’t mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.

TP: You also play with language when you compose and write..

BOLLANI: I do. In almost any of my compositions, it’s never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. It’s always 43. You miss something or there’s something more. That’s why my musicians hate me.

TP: Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?

BOLLANI: I’m not sure, but I think it’s deliberate. I pretend it happens.

TP: Why is it deliberate?

BOLLANI: [CRADLES BELLY WITH HANDS] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one which wants to be original. He is saying, “Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put a bar more.” I feel it’s natural, but I’m not sure it is.

TP: It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?

BOLLANI: Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old til 16—I only listened to Hard Bop, Horace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock or Free Jazz. I was playing THE shit, like the Taliban of Hard Bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones—I’d been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernova—I got into rock music. The most intellectual ones maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles…

TP: The songwriters.

BOLLANI: The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speaking — Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didn’t really like it. I was studying the technique. I didn’t really like Beethoven at that moment.

TP: But the way you use the pedal and your touch, it’s obvious…

BOLLANI: Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini or Ricardo Muti, for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like BAPPP. So very serious. And he didn’t know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, “Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; he’s going to throw me out.” But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, “Okay, I discovered you’re playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.” Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he HATED it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he just said, “Okay, let’s go on.” I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now he’s happy about me, about my playing; even if he doesn’t like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.

TP: Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.

BOLLANI: A little-little bit. I don’t like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composers—but I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you don’t know the music, it’s interesting because the character is so interesting. That’s what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who I’m quite interested in as well—the technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, it’s enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.

TP: So it’s a challenge, an additive thing.

BOLLANI: Yes, I would say so. It’s not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think it’s good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.

TP: How about the jazz avant garde in the ‘70s?

BOLLANI: Almost the same.

TP: You were speaking of the Taliban of hardbop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to Neoclassicism and Art Blakey Young Lions editions of the Jazz Messengers and so on.

BOLLANI: Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people don’t understand what you’re doing—there is the Avant Garde Party and there’s the Hardbop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans don’t understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hardbop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. I’m trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. I’m waiting for that.

TP: That’s the opposite of my impression from outside. For example, I’ve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. I don’t want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own music—they just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords, you learn the RIGHT thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.

But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each other—which is why it’s hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably it’s this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I don’t know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.

TP: I haven’t heard you deal so much with Italian materials.

BOLLANI: Not so much.

TP: It seems to be pop.

BOLLANI: Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kind of things, but it’s a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar… Some songwriters from the ‘20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and he’s older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello. So it’s his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. It’s really different.

TP: So it’s hard to speak of Italian jazz because it’s so…

BOLLANI: I think it’s big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But it’s actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the world—it’s like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.

What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think they’re islands.

Antonello Salis is a genius, and he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. He’s coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesn’t have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, we’ve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. That’s what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.

Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad… For example, Denmark. That’s the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, “Okay, now you can play whatever you want…” “Whatever I want? Okay, let’s play a blues.” “Ah, okay, let’s play a blues.” Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You don’t have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.

The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, they’re wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But it’s dangerous if you think THAT’s the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still TRYING to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whatever—they never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. “Okay, they told me what music is.” It’s not like that.

TP: Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?

BOLLANI: Actually, I do think it’s changing over time, but it’s hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I don’t know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to do—trying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz music, hardbop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whatever, was a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I don’t know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.

TP: You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.

BOLLANI: Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldn’t sit down and think, “I should go in this direction.” I don’t want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, “Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line…”

TP: You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock…

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasn’t interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian—we rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. That’s quite interesting to do as practice. It’s not interesting at all when you do it on stage.

To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. It’s just I’m playing… Then I listen back, and I say, “Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.” But then after a minute, I see where I’m doing something different, so ok. Whew. It’s ok. Good. Because I don’t really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I don’t recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that it’s an external thing coming into my music, that I’m adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I don’t even recognize because it’s part of my language.

TP: You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?

BOLLANI: I was talking about compositions, I don’t like compositions.

TP: Why not?

BOLLANI: Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I don’t like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. Elena e Il Suo Violino,” for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, “I have enough.” But I don’t have enough of playing “There Will Never Be Another You” or “Cheek To Cheek.”

TP: Not so dissimilar to Solal.

BOLLANI: I would say so. He is a composer, but you are never listening to his compositions.

TP: Because he returns to the same songs all the time.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: What about those songs allows you to do that? Is it about the music, or the signification?

BOLLANI: Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kind of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.

TP: That’s interesting, too, because you’re speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet you’re simultaneously loving both things.

BOLLANI: But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because it’s anachronistic. That’s why it’s interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.

TP: I’m fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. You’re in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and it’s beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. You’re from Florence, the home of Dante…

BOLLANI: Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.

TP: The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?

BOLLANI: I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think it’s a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.

TP: The church was an instrument of political power.

BOLLANI: Exactly. But it’s not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. That’s good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and we our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politics—if you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. It’s not the ego thing. It’s the idea of the world. It’s the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable…

TP: You’re pointing to your brain.

BOLLANI: Exactly. It’s much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.

TP: So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is…

BOLLANI: Absolutely. It’s coming from that.

TP: You seem to have a very young audience.

BOLLANI: I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hardbop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, or in Europe Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, “Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.”

TP: As though you’re not quite serious.

BOLLANI: Yeah, exactly. I am not enough serious.

TP: It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re…

BOLLANI: More serious.

TP: It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: It seems more like performance art than comedy.

BOLLANI: Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello, everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.

TP: You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.

BOLLANI: No-no-no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but THAT was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out… When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.

TP: How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?

BOLLANI: Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.

TP: The French ones are very serious.

BOLLANI: Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.

TP: Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava, because if you have a musical mentor it would seem to be he, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.

BOLLANI: Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.

So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or João Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.

TP: He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?

BOLLANI: I never thought about it.

TP: You were working the whole time, I guess.

BOLLANI: Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, “oh, I would like to be Chick Corea” or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.

TP: When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, “You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it, you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.” Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanatti, which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.

BOLLANI: I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.

TP: But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz.

BOLLANI: I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995 when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, “Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,” which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, “I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.” Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.

TP: And you found enough other work to…

BOLLANI: Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning SO much money from the Pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.

TP: But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.

BOLLANI: Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever…

TP: I saw a Youtube where you do that.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.

But talking about the Pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, “wow, why doesn’t he like that?” But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.

TP: You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading, your writing filter into your performance attitude?

BOLLANI: I’m reading a lot of novels.

TP: All Italian?

BOLLANI: No-no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones, Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa, where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it because after three pages, for example, there s a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, “wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.” When you read Calvino or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside… A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. “If on a winter night, a reader…” I don’t know the title in English.

Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [SINGS OPENING 12 BARS]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [SINGS SECOND REFRAIN] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.

TP: There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice metaphor for your performances

BOLLANI: That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. “Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,” and then, “Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.”

TP: Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?

BOLLANI: Yes, I think so.

TP: How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?

BOLLANI: I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.

TP: Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?

BOLLANI: Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, “I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.” Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst…That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing… Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.

TP: I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.

BOLLANI: Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and the idea of Breton, or of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that “beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.” Which meant you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take “Yesterday” by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.

TP: When you talk about the Taliban of Hard Bop, it’s a clever phrase, but it also refers to a music that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. Blues developed from an American context in the ‘20s-‘30s-‘40s-‘50s, so does dance music, then it evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.

BOLLANI: Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, “Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!” Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying “I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.” In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, “This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.”

TP: You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano…

BOLLANI: Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that… Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in Antonia which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert, because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing “The Wrong Note Rag” for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [SINGS IT], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone… What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the “Wrong Note Rag,” and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.

TP: Does your intimacy with so many languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on “Do You Know What It Means” on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.

BOLLANI: Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.

TP: The word “idiomatic” would cover it.

BOLLANI: Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, Promenade is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.

TP: So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet and João Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to João for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with João. I can go to a desert island with João’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. “Girl From Ipanema,” six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.

TP: Solal talks about having to practice every day.

BOLLANI: I do not. I never practice. I am a disaster. I would love to practice. I have no time to do that. I am practicing at soundcheck, which is always not enough.

TP: Is practice important to you?

BOLLANI: I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.

You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to IMAGINE myself doing something else.

[END OF CONVERSATION

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