Category Archives: Piano

For Monty Alexander’s 71st Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2010 and a Separate Interview

In acknowledgment of pianist Monty Alexander’s 71st birthday today, here’s a feature I wrote for DownBeat in 2010. I’ve appended below an interview that I conducted with Monty for a Ray Brown tribute that appeared in DownBeat after the bass grandmaster passed away in 2002.

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Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:

The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” coined to convey the kindling effect of separation on romantic ardor, applies with equal measure to pianist Monty Alexander’s ongoing obsession with the music of Jamaica, his homeland, whence he migrated to Miami in 1961, at 17.

As a Kingston youngster, Alexander recalled, “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy and Miles, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung. I was fully aware of the rhythm-and-blues, my heroes on piano were Eddie Heywood and Erroll Garner, and, above all, Louis Armstrong was my king. I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music—no one more valuable than the other.”

Once in the States, though, Alexander compartmentalized, sublimating roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1970, he was a distinguished voice, with a c.v. citing long-haul trio gigs with various New York A-listers, as well as consequential sideman work in Los Angeles with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. By the late ‘70s, when he closed the books on his 300-days-a-year-on-the-road trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, he was an upper-echelon stylist, referred to by Oscar Peterson, himself descended from St. Kett’s and St. Croix, as “my little West Indian counterpart.”

“You come to America, you try to blend in and do what they do,” Alexander explained. “At first, I was even trying to speak like American people”—he demonstrated several voices—“so they wouldn’t keep asking, ‘Where do you come from?’ But as the years went by, I started expressing myself by claiming my heritage more. I said, ‘Wait a minute, home is as good as it gets.’”

In Orvieto, Italy, for a five-concert engagement at Umbria Jazz Winter 2010, Alexander spoke in the high-ceilinged sitting room of his hotel, which evoked a ducal mansion. With him for the week was a band comprising an acoustic trio with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas and a plugged-in Jamaican contingent—Wendell Ferraro on guitar, filling both soloistic and comping roles, Glen Browne on bass, and Karl Wright on drums.

Dubbed the Harlem-Kingston Express, this instrumental configuration—documented on the 2011 release, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma), comprising live dates at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and in Europe—is the most recent iteration of a series of Alexander-conceptualized efforts over the past few decades to coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” with the principles of hardcore swinging jazz. “I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” he said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that, and I’m not one to go scouting.” To recharge, he began spending quality time in Jamaica. “I’d go to the studio with Sly and Robbie, who know me from way back. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”

Later in the ‘80s, Alexander—whose first Jamaica-centric dates were the still-sampled mid ‘70s MPS groove albums Ras and Demento—started to present units with which he could incorporate Caribbean flavors, including an “Ivory and Steel” ensemble with steel drummer Othello Molyneaux and hand drummer Bobby Thomas “married to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” After signing with Telarc in the mid ‘90s, he embarked on a succession of recordings on which he reunited with musicians he’d known since teen years, among them several dates with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and one with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Four other recordings—Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle reveal Alexander’s take on Bob Marley’s music, while Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard address a broader Jamaican spectrum—hearken to mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso, descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century. Mento evolved into, as Alexander puts it, “a deep country Jamaican thing” with African retentions—a banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century progressed, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.

As Alexander delved ever deeper into these rediscovered interests, he found it increasingly difficult to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily convey them. “I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do,” Alexander said. “Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”

This feeling had permeated the previous evening’s concert. Alexander came to the piano, positioned stage center to the left of Shakur and Fludas. He opened with Ellingtonian chords, and launched a chugging train blues, transitioned to the changes of “Blue and Boogie,” then returned to an Ellington medley that resolved into “Caravan.” After brief remarks, a brisk stomp through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and some nachtmusik chords, the Rasta-dreaded Browne and Wright, who wears white driving gloves when playing, entered stage right, and laid down phat Reggae riddims. Playing percussively, Alexander soon segued into Ernest Gold’s “Exodus,” blew a melodica, quoted “let my people go” within his solo, returned to the piano bench, and ended with a flourish. With the trio, he played a shuffle blues, then a hard-swinging blues—midway through the latter, he stood, pointed to the Jamaicans, and orchestrated a metric modulation, quoting “Manteca” in his solo, before seguing into Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The back-and-forth proceeded for another half-hour, before Alexander concluded with a romping “Come Fly With Me” and a melody-milking rendition of “All The Way.”

“Recently I’ve been doing this with more commitment than before,” Alexander remarked of the real-time genre-switching. “I’m fulfilled, because it’s my own life experience. It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”

[BREAK]

Perhaps twenty years ago, Alexander got angry at someone, intended to hit them, thought better of it, punched the wall instead, and broke his hand. “Ever since that day, I don’t play as fast as I used to,” he said. “But instead of playing twenty notes that may or may not mean that much, I started playing six or seven that hopefully are soulful or meaningful. Sometimes I’m playing and the muscle tightens, and I look like a kid who takes one index finger and goes PLINK-PLINK-PLINK. I think, ‘Shit, that must look terrible to the audience, this so-called ‘good’ piano player playing with his index finger.’”

The chops are abundant on Uplift (JSP), a deeply swinging navigation of the American Songbook with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley that follows the 2008 trio dates, The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett and Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole [Chesky] as companion pieces to his excellent 1997 Sinatra tribute, Echoes of Jilly’s [Concord]. Rather than abstract the tunes, Alexander hews to the iconic arrangements, illuminating the music from within, deploying effervescent grooves, lovely rubatos, a killing left hand, an innate feel for stating melody, well-calibrated touch, harmonic acumen, and an ability to reference a broad timeline of piano vocabulary stretching to pre-bop. Each interpretation embodies a point of view. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into, while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”

“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” said Alexander, who experienced a transformational moment in 1956 when he saw Cole play on a package concert in Kingston with Louis Armstrong. “I grew up learning his songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. At first I confused him with Gene Autry. I was always connecting one thing with another—‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why for me, even now, it’s one world of music. I try to remove all the lines.”

By 1956, Alexander had already spent half his life entertaining people with music. “I’d emulate people my folks knew who played old-time stride,” he said. “I was playing boogie-woogie from the getgo, rockin’ the joint. I just had fun at the piano.” Later, he would extrapolate a conceptual framework from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic, “Poinciana.” “It was a merging of two worlds,” he said. “Sophistication on the piano, harmonic wonderment, and the nastiest jungle rhythm going on in the background. That’s Jamaica. It’s about dancin’, it’s about groovin’—it’s all one thing.”

Such formative experiences gave Alexander a certain ignorance-of-youth confidence when he started playing in “tough guy clubs” in Miami Beach, where hookers congregated and alcohol “flowed like crazy.” Within a year he was working at Le Bistro, a two-room joint where he shared the bill with a Sinatra impersonator named Duke Hazlitt. One night after a concert at the Fontainebleau, Sinatra came through with an entourage, including Sinatra’s consigliere, Jilly Rizzo, and Rizzo’s wife, Honey.

`“I’m playing, minding my own business, trying to behave, not to be too noisy,” Alexander recalled. “But I must have been kicking up a storm, because apparently Honey came in and told Jilly to come hear this kid play. In those days, I’d come in with all guns blazing. She told me, ‘We’ve got this club in New York, Jilly’s, and it would be nice to have you play in there, kid.”

About a year later, midway through 1963, Rizzo finally brought Alexander to his eponymous West 54th Street tough guy bar, which doubled as Sinatra’s late night office. Just 19 and residing a few blocks away in the Hotel Edison, Alexander joined Local 802, situated directly across the street from the club, and assumed his place among New York’s jazz elite. Within a few years, he was also working uptown at Minton’s Playhouse, “before a different crowd of tough guys; drug people and hot goods,” and at the Mad Men era Playboy Club.

“I remember sitting at Jilly’s piano bar, a few feet away from Miles Davis and Frank in deep conversation,” Alexander reminisced. “My crowning point was when Miles came to me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play that shit?’ Next thing, he writes his phone number on a little matchbook, and we’re hanging out at his house or going to the fights. Miles told me, ‘You got the right complexion.’” Alexander noted that his bloodline is an admixture of Lebanese, Spanish and African strains, and that the ambiguity as to his racial identity had a great deal with to do with his ability to comfortably navigate various circles in Jim Crow Miami as well as New York City. “At Minton’s they’d say, ‘What’s this Puerto Rican guy doing who can play jazz like that?’ When I first saw Ray Brown’s picture on an Oscar Peterson record cover, I saw the smile and the teeth and said, ‘Damn, Uncle Jim!’”

More than the familial resemblance, Alexander was drawn to Brown’s consistency, his tone, the truck-coming-down-the-road surge of his beat, and he tried to be around him whenever he could. “One night Ray was in town with Quincy Jones to make the album Walking In Space, and I asked him if he wanted to go out,” he recalled. “I took him to the Half Note to hang out with Coleman Hawkins and Major Holley. After he hung out with Bean, he said, ‘What’s going on uptown?’ ‘There’s a little bar called Docks, and Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones play duo there.’ ‘Ok, let’s go.’

“I got to know Ray better. I went to see him in L.A. at the Gaslight. When I got there, nobody’s listening, nobody cares, it’s the last set, and they had to play one obligatory tune. Frankie Capp walks to the drums, Mundell Lowe picks up the guitar, but the piano player is boozed-out at the bar. I asked Ray, ‘Can I play a tune?’ Within two choruses, he’s screaming, he’s groovin’ and I’m groovin’, and we’re as happy as kids in the candy jar. He said, ‘Where are you going to be this summer? I want you to play with me and Milt Jackson.’

“When you’re in company with people who are at a certain level, it upgrades your musicianship. I’d been smitten with the MJQ since I saw a record with these four dignified black men on the cover—they looked like funeral directors. I learned about the connections—John Lewis and Ray with Dizzy’s big band, Hank Jones telling Dizzy about Ray. I took that personal thing on the bandstand. I felt like I belonged to that crowd of people.”

[BREAK]

In spontaneously orchestrating the Harlem-Kingston Express band in live performance, Alexander seemed to be paralleling the bandstand procedures by which both Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington deployed their units to convey their intentions in real time. The pianist concurred.

“It’s a kind of joyful, loving dictatorship,” he said. “That’s why I use musicians who are willing and easy-going, who give me their trust and confidence and won’t question what I’m doing.”

Moreso than instant composition a la Jamal and Ellington as an m.o. for following the dictates of the moment, Alexander focuses on serious play. “I don’t read music and I play by ear,” he said. “You can chalk it up to a certain amount of laziness, because if I really wanted to read, there’s no reason I can’t. I took lessons with an older white lady from England who slapped my knuckles to play the scales. I learned to love her, because she meant well and she saw my talent—that taught me respect for the instrument and to get a sound, so the music starts to fly. But when I see paper in front of me, man, I start sweating. That part of my brain doesn’t function well. I don’t know how to play music that’s not coming from my instant, make-it-up stuff.

“I get bored with a planned format. I can’t repeat the same thing twice. I’m always reaching for now, live in the now, present tense, and I look for inspiration from wherever.”

This blank slate attitude inflects the aforementioned trio projects. “I just went in the studio,” Alexander said, referencing the 2008 Nat Cole tribute. “‘Haji Baba’ is from a movie with Nat, and I used to sing walking down the street when I was nine—I listened to the bridge on that and on ‘Again’ to make sure I had it right. But for the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality, its own soul, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling.

“I don’t understand what it is that makes me different, but I feel I have very little in common with anybody else. I seem to be my own strange character. If I’m right in my motivations and attitude, amazing things happen.”

 

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Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

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For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the www.jazz.com Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the www.jazz.com website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

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Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under ECM, Jazz.com, Joe Lovano, Joey Baron, Piano

For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation and a 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

* * *

IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU


Below is the first part of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out jazz.com’s Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldau tracks, and the essay“Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career.”


 

by Ted Panken

 Brad Mehldau, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose!

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor’s note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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Filed under Brad Mehldau, DownBeat, Jazz.com, Piano, WKCR

For Mal Waldron’s 89th birthday, A Director’s Cut of a DownBeat Piece from 2002

In recognition of the 89th birth anniversary of the late pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m posting a “directors’ cut” of an article that ran in DownBeat in 2002, with a link to the two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Waldron — one on WKCR, another on the phone — that contributed to the bulk of the piece. It was an honor to meet and interact with him.

* * *

An expatriate for roughly half his life, 77-year-old pianist Mal Waldron, New York born, finds it increasingly difficult to come home. “I don’t plan to return to the States for a while,” he noted in New York last August, two nights into a week at the Blue Note with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke on the bandstand. Having the smoke around me when I play the piano helps me to feel the mood, and feel relaxed and jazzy. That’s my ‘snoozedecker,’ like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in ‘Peanuts.'”
The image of a security blanket is a recurrent trope when Waldron discusses his musical personality, established over a career that spans half a century. “It’s support,” Waldron said, addressing the art of accompanying singers, a function he mastered on numerous gigs with Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. “I lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!” As his long-time collaborator Steve Lacy once put it, “All the thousands of people he’s played with love Mal because he makes them sound good. And he sounds good himself. He gets a wonderful sound out of the piano, and he’s got his own style, his own angle, a vast knowledge of structure, of harmony, of rhythm, time and space. He’s an ideal partner.”
Waldron knows how to articulate essences, projecting his voice with an understated, introspective style, building powerful statements through the incremental repetition of cogent rhythmic and melodic cells. “My technique was always nil and still is nil,” Waldron says. “I only play what I hear, and usually I have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear. But other musicians hear things that I can’t play because my technique isn’t up to it.”
Be that as it may, it’s a good bet those other musicians appreciate Waldron’s memorable compositions, informed by sources as diverse as Eric Satie, Johannes Brahms, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and the blues. Structurally complex, deploying unusual time signatures and relentlessly logical chord changes, they have a dark, astringent feel, with spare melodies that penetrate your bones and stay there. Close to a thousand in number, they include repertoire classics like “Soul Eyes,” “Left Alone” and “Fire Waltz,” and more recent improvisational fodder like “Snake Out,” “The Git-Go” and “Hurray For Herbie.”
Waldron conceived the former set of pieces between 1955 and 1963, when he recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Jackie McLean, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. He was also house pianist, arranger and composer for Prestige Records, where he imparted an organizing, cohesive quality to in-and-out-of-the-studio blowing dates led by the likes of Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.
“Composing went along with improvising, which is instant composition,” Waldron says. “I’d make my changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then write a tune over them. My life consisted of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and recording them the next day.”
By 1956, when McLean recruited Waldron to play on 1…2…3, the first of his several dozen Prestige sessions, the pianist had ample experience to draw upon. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he had piano lessons from an early age, developing proficiency with classical repertoire. “I was forced to take piano lessons,” Waldron recalls. “I didn’t like playing classics, because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped. But if I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that. Fear is a great motivator.”
Waldron’s “mind started moving toward jazz” when he heard Coleman Hawkins play “Body And Soul.” “My first jazz experiences were on saxophone,” he says. “I bought an alto, since I couldn’t afford a tenor. I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for ‘Body And Soul’ from Down Beat, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, Waldron, stationed at West Point, spent some of his free time playing saxophone in an off-base swing band. More often, he rode the Hudson Line south to Manhattan, where he heard Art Tatum at the Cafe Society downtown, Bud Powell on 52nd Street and Thelonious Monk at Minton’s in Harlem, finally catching the early morning train to return for duty. “52nd Street was an energizing experience,” he recalls. “Minton’s had a front bar and a back room where the rhythm section would be pumping away on one tune, and the horns would solo chorus after chorus, getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another would take over. It kept going like that all night long. I heard Monk there even before I heard his records. He was a big man, austere and imposing. He looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world. His sound wasn’t immediately attractive to me; the way he hit the piano was so strange. But later it grew on me. It’s an acquired taste.”
After his discharge, Waldron matriculated at Queens College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued studies in composition and theory with Karel Radhaus, while continuing to chase the music, most frequently at a jam session run by saxman Big Nick Nicholas at the Paradiso. “I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker,” Waldron states. “But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to piano. I found my basis was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.”
Others agreed; after graduating in 1949, Waldron became a professional, doing uptown rhythm-and-blues jobs with Ike Quebec, Lucky Millinder and Tiny Grimes, simultaneously nurturing friendships with a homegrown pianist peer group that included Randy Weston, Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, to whom Waldron dedicated “Hooray For Herbie.”
“Herbie was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment,” Waldron says. “His themes were beautiful, intricate and tricky, but subtle and basic, too. His sound fit his personality. Observing him helped me decide that if you just played the way you spoke or moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound. Cecil was really out. But he was working on it, and I could see some form, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Randy was more like me, more into formal music; he didn’t step outside and play free. We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest to see who could play the best ones.”
Mingus recruited Waldron in 1954, beginning a decade-long relationship. “Mingus was like my older brother,” Waldron says. “He gave me a lot of advice and helped me develop into a mature musician. I was into imitating Bud Powell from things like ‘Bud’s Bubble,’ making Bud’s runs and so on. Mingus said, ‘Don’t copy anyone. That’s not the way. An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.’ That stuck, and I started working on my own style. Which entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change; just a group of notes could be an impetus for soloing. I learned that the piano is a percussive instrument; you beat on it. We realized that jazz is the music of people who were not satisfied with the status quo. You’d punch the piano as though you were striking somebody in your way.”
Through the ’50s, Waldron juggled Prestige sessions with demo dates for singers and gigs uptown, downtown and in the boroughs with hardcore jazzmen McLean, Art and Addison Farmer, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers. He even did jazz-and-poetry happenings at the Five Spot with Lacy, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.
“We were on the outer edges of the status quo,” Waldron states of his association with ’50s Bohemia. “We were the outlaws, really, so we ganged together. There was sawdust on the floor of the Five Spot! But this is in retrospect. They were just people I worked with on a gig, I got money for it and went home and fed the family.”

“It was an accident” is Waldron’s simple explanation of how he became Billie Holiday’s pianoman in April 1957. He held that job until her death, penning the melody to her iconic swan song “Left Alone” on a plane en route to a job in San Francisco. “She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist conked out, couldn’t function any more,” Waldron relates. “She asked Bill Duffy, who wrote Lady Sings The Blues with her, Bill asked his wife Millie if she knew any musicians, Millie asked [bassist] Julian Euell, and Julian asked me. I said, ‘The buck stops here,’ and got on the train. I was a fan of her music, but had never played it. I got a crash course.
“Words were very important to me, and I discovered that words are important to music, too. You can improvise on the words; not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words. This gave me a bigger area to expand into.”
After Holiday died, Waldron and Euell joined Abbey Lincoln, whose then-husband, Max Roach, “came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady. He liked me and took me in his band. He was a real teacher for me, and he taught me about different tempos and accents.”
Waldron appeared on several memorable Roach records during these socially turbulent times, including the 1960 Candid classic Straight Ahead, on which Lincoln sang “Left Alone” in dialogue with a soaring Coleman Hawkins, and Percussion Bitter Suite (Impulse!), a dynamic date propelled by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Waldron convened Dolphy, saxophonist Booker Ervin, Ron Carter and Charli Persip on his own 1961 breakthrough album, The Quest (New Jazz), on which for the first time he wove the various strands of his experience—Ellingtonia (“Duqility” and “Warm Canto”), modality (“Status Seeking”), quasi-serial music (“Thirteen”) and uneven time signatures (“Warp And Woof” and “Fire Waltz”)—into a distinctly Waldronesque quilt.
During a 1963 Chicago engagement with Roach, Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown on the bandstand as the result of a heroin overdose. “I couldn’t remember where I was,” he says. “I couldn’t remember anything—about the piano or anything else. I lost my coordination, and my hands were shaking all the time. I spent six-seven months in East Elmhurst Hospital, where they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind.”
Waldron had begun dabbling during a 1955 run at the Cafe Bohemia with Mingus. “At that time every jazz musician was called a junkie automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too. So I started using drugs, and it built and built. I thought I had control of this horse! I would bring him out and put him away; I thought I had him covered. All of a sudden he snuck up on me and knocked me down.”
Waldron recuperated, buckled down and began the arduous process of relearning his instrument. In 1965, director Marcel Carne asked Waldron if he wanted to write the music for the film Three Bedrooms In Manhattan in New York or in Paris. “What a choice!” Waldron laughs. “I said, ‘Paris, of course,’ and he paid my ticket. When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin. In America if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes against you. In Europe if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes for you. So I decided to go for that.”
And in Europe he remained and flourished. “The main thing that affected me in Europe is their respect for the music,” he says. “They came out and made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it. When they were done, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist. Which was not true in America.”
In Paris Waldron worked with Ben Webster and gigged at a chic expat soul food restaurant called the Chicken Shack. In 1966 he landed a steady radio gig in Rome (“lots of ‘giorna da festa’ holidays with pay; I loved it!”), then spent consequential time in Bologna and Cologne before settling in Munich, his home base for the next two decades.
During this adjustment period, Waldron resumed his association with Lacy on an impromptu duo in Italy. Thirty-five years later—a couple of dozen recordings, and hundreds of duo, quintet and sextet concerts behind them—they are one of the magical partnerships in jazz, spinning fresh variations on stories postulated by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Powell, Nichols and Mingus. “We just improvised, and it worked,” is Waldron’s pithy description of their initial European encounter. “As time went on, we each brought out our tunes and began to work out tunes by all the people we liked. Music is a language, and if you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else. If the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better. Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.”
Waldron quickly found a cadre of first-class Europe-based improvisers – expats and natives—with a good feel for that vocabulary, including trumpeters Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich and Manfred Schoof, bassists Jimmy Woode and George Mraz, and drummers Pierre Favre and Makaya Ntshoko. “Things have advanced since I came in,” Waldron says. “Then the European musicians were at Level A, while now they’re on Level U or W, toward the end of the scale. But you can’t make generalizations. Some drummers had no concept of swing, but others could swing. There were saxophonists who had no concept of harmony, who’d thumb it all over the place, but others had a conception and played their horns well. It was a question of finding the right musicians, and they were everywhere.”
For the past decade, Waldron has lived in Brussels, Belgium, where the beer, chocolate and mussels are good, and he can smoke as many cigarettes as he likes. Having recorded close to 100 albums as a leader or co-collaborator for a variety of European and Japanese labels since 1969, his performing and recording career continues unabated.
“I hate monotony,” he declares. “To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting to new situations. I want the people opposite me to be adventurous and take risks.”
A cursory scan of his winter schedule substantiates his point. As of late February, Waldron had performed several trio recitals with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, after returning to home base from 10 days at two Japan Blue Note clubs with Avenel and drummer John Betsch. This happened a month after he recorded an album with Lacy and Avenel for Sketch, a French label, following up on a Billie Holiday oriented duo CD with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (enja), far-flung musical conversations with David Murray (Justin Time) and vocalist Judi Silvano (Soul Note), and a never-released ’70s encounter with bassist Johnny Dyani.
Proficient in German, French and Italian, and working on his Japanese, Waldron’s musical voice speaks to cultures around the globe, and he continues to “keep all the burners going” as he did in ’50s New York. “That’s the prerequisite of staying alive,” he says. “If you can communicate to people in their own language and not struggle for words, they love you more! You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else. You have to have a repertoire.” DB

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For Geri Allen’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2010

In recognition of the birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, here’s the text of a long piece that Jazziz gave me the opportunity to write about her in 2010.

* * *

“Music can be a lot of different things. It can be about the celebration of the intellect. It can be about the celebration of the body and movement. It can be about a quest. It can give you an inner strength, create a fertile place for peace to exist. I think that what I’ve come to want from music is to have all of those things in it.”—Geri Allen

Geri Allen’s concurrent spring 2010 releases on the Motéma label, Flying Toward The Sound and Live, her first since 2006, are works of high distinction. The former, a tour de force subtitled “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock,” is a suite of eight original compositions on which the composer “refracts”—her terminology—the vocabularies of that distinguished troika into her own lyrical, kinetic argot, conveyed with authority and refinement. The latter, culled from a pair of concerts, is the bebopcentric debut recording of Timeline, an Allen-led unit, conceived a decade ago, with veteran bassist Kenny Davis, youngblood drummer Kasa Overall, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who propel a succession of improvisations that are a step up in intense rhythmic edge and speculative spirit from Allen’s more programmatic, curated recordings of the past decade.

Both offerings were imminent last April when Allen did a week at the Village Vanguard, and considering the context, she might well have treated the occasion as an opportunity for a preview. Instead, she convened a new quartet, with two old friends—tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Jeff Watts—and up-and-coming bassist Joe Sanders. Each contributed two compositions. She functioned as essentially a co-equal member of the ensemble, allowing interpretations to coalesce from night to night in a workshop-like manner, lightly guiding the flow.

“It’s my band, but I decided that I wanted it to be free,” Allen explained over lunch a few days before the summer solstice. “I want everybody to have this opportunity to own it together.”

“Whenever I work with Geri, it’s a family thing, like going to my cousin’s house,” Watts remarks. They met at the cusp of the ‘80s when Allen was working towards a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was pretty new to jazz, trying to figure things out,” he recalled. “Geri was fluent in blues and bebop, had absorbed a lot from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and was studying world music, things about South India and Africa—what pygmies were singing and so on—and applying it to her music. She was already a professional great musician.”

This became apparent to the broader jazz public when Minor Music, a German label, issued Allen’s 1984 debut, The Printmakers, a trio date with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and Home Grown, a 1985 solo recital. Numerous next-generation pianists took note.

“Her perspective was rooted in tradition, but simultaneously daring and experimental—a truly modern musician,” says Vijay Iyer, who soaked up Home Grown at 17. “Her music contained intense polyphony, like African drumming at the piano. Her groove was really strong, but variable and fluid, almost speechlike at times. She created vibrant colors, and she wasn’t afraid to work with technology. She never had a bag that she was playing, but sounded like herself all the time.”

Jason Moran experienced his eureka moment upon hearing Allen’s brief solo towards the end of the first song on V, a long out of print Ralph Peterson ensemble date.  “I heard phrases I’d had never heard played on piano before, more assured than Andrew Hill, freer than Herbie Nichols—firm but strange ideas that felt almost familiar and inviting, but you were unsure what it was,” he says. “I was convinced she’d made the newest mark on modern jazz piano, the next step into the future.”

It’s hard to think of any comparably prominent musicians among Allen’s ‘80s peer group who matched her willingness to engage with multiple musical dialects, to incorporate both  “inside” and “outside” approaches into her expression. “I don’t see this as a conflict,” Allen says of her comfort zone with crossing lines that most players won’t. “I see it as a right. All artists have the right to make a statement, and it’s my right to interject all my influences, to walk through different points of view, to give respect to all these musics I love while remaining grounded in jazz as my core expression, and embracing the rigors of that choice.”

Towards actualizing this aesthetic, Allen has piggybacked on “the rebel spirit” of the visionary pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions and arrangements she most recently performed and music-directed during a three-night centennial birthday tribute at the Kennedy Center in May. Allen launched her intimate relationship with Williams’ corpus during Pittsburgh days, took it to another level when she portrayed Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City, and documented it on the 2005 recording Zodiac Suite: Revisited, Allen’s only recording not devoted primarily to her original music.

Most consequentially, Williams’ insistence on establishing her own terms of engagement throughout a half-century in the music business made Allen “feel entitled to try to find my voice through composition.” A further draw was “her level of fearlessness—to be so well-prepared that whatever you throw at this person, they’re going to land on their feet.” At the same time, Allen adds, “Mary represented the absolute core of jazz. She understood the power of knowing and embracing whence she came, which is where true freedom must live.”

Which is why, in 2008, when Williams’ personal manager, Father Peter O’Brien, wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship grant proposal for Allen to develop a solo piano project, she opted to draw on Hancock, Tyner and Taylor for raw materials. “I’ve been teaching a lot for the last few years, and focusing on ensembles,” she said, referencing her position as Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation Studies at the University of Michigan. “For this, I decided to create a research opportunity that could morph into focusing on the challenges of what playing the piano is.

“These musicians changed the way we think about the piano’s function in ensemble and solo contexts. Their solo language broke through and created shifts. They’re heroes who celebrate human ingenuity. They let us know that to join this continuum, you must do the formidable task of learning the tradition, but also find your voice in that.”

[BREAK]

Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson calls his first Allen sighting—a 1990 Minneapolis performance with Anthony Cox and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff—“one of the most important concerts I ever saw.”

“It was something to do with Africa, something to do with free jazz—spiritual and surreal at the same time,” says Iverson, who was then 19. “She seems to have thought about and reinterpreted each style that concerned her—Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy—in a postmodern way. She’s like a chameleon.”

“Chameleon” is an apropos descriptor for Allen’s pan-stylistic sensibility, informed by several overlapping streams of influence, not least of which emanate from Hancock, Taylor and Tyner for “the amazing power of their sound production, their approaches to touch, their attacks on the instrument,” and their projection of identity through composition. But “Chameleon” is also the title of a popular Hancock tune from 1973, when the teenage Allen was paying close attention to Hancock’s plugged-in Headhunters band. “That sound was on the cutting edge of what I was experiencing growing up,” she says. “It had a feeling that I knew from Detroit’s avant-garde scene, and it opened up my playing, my ideas on freedom, maintaining an audience’s interest through a 25-minute tune. Also, the new sonic quality of the electronica was thrilling.”

She connected to Hancock’s “world-is-my-oyster” attitude “where you could do anything you want with music.” Allen mentioned Hancock’s 2008 Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done it,” she said. “That’s the product of a meticulous, well-planned journey—it doesn’t just happen. Then the courage of doing Ravel in G major [“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” from Hancock’s 1998 release, Gershwin’s World] to create a modern evolution of a piece that was etched in stone.”

Indeed, Allen mirrored Hancock’s path—both developed formidable chops through early classical piano studies, and gestated polymath interests within the pragmatic black culture ethos, particularly prevalent then in enlightened Midwest circles—of placing all musical food groups on the same plate. “It was made clear that, to be a musician, you were fortunate if you could make a living,” she says, “and to do so, you would have to be versatile and open.”

Familiar with jazz through her father’s record collection, involved in music-as-ritual both through church activity and the ferocious R&B and funk soundtrack of the day, Allen—mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would inspire several subsequent generations of Detroit jazz musicians—embraced the notion of a jazz career not long after entering Cass Tech, Detroit’s top-shelf arts high school.

“I was ready, and once my parents got over the shock, then I was good,” Allen says. She adds that her father, an educator and the son of a minister, was initially dubious about exposing his teenage daughter to the bars and lounges where jazz was played, but relented on the counsel of his close friend Earl Lloyd, a former Fort Wayne Piston who was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA.

Another Detroit mentor, dancer Jackie Hillsman, ran a studio on Grand River Avenue where, among other things, dancers and musicians spontaneously improvised together. “Having Maurice Chestnut on stage with me now is directly influenced by that experience,” says Allen, who first documented her sound-in-motion concept on a single duo track with Detroit tap dancer Lloyd Storey on her second album, Open on All Sides…In The Middle. “Coming up in Detroit, we’d play bebop, and there was a generation of folk who would get up and dance,” she recalls. “I practiced having the impact of that feeling in my improvisations, whether in the solo line or the ostinatos I use, and juxtaposing it with the harmonic challenge.” She mentioned a lengthy call-and-response with Chestnut and Kassa Overall on Charlie Parker’s contrapuntal chopbuster “Ah Leu Cha” from Live, noting that Chestnut “shares our challenge to articulate Bird’s virtuosic line and improvise within the same structures.”

Most important, Allen was learning her craft in real time, in the crucible of public performance. She recalls her very first gig, playing keyboards with bassist Ralphe Armstrong at Dummy George’s Jazz Room on McNichols Avenue. “The union man walked in and asked me for my card—I immediately felt the reality of being a professional musician.” Later that evening, local hero pianist Teddy Harris “sat down and slipped me right off the piano bench because I was playing the wrong changes. That established my level of heart,  right off the bat. You learned on the bandstand, and if you were serious you had to develop a thick skin.”

[BREAK]

Allen hit New York in 1982, settling to Brooklyn, where rents were reasonable. She soon found work with Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe; calls from Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie soon followed. She met a cohort of best-and-brightest Kings County  peer groupers—among them Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, Robin Eubanks, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lonnie Plaxico, and Mark Johnson—and they gradually formed a collective known by the acronym M-BASE, exploring ways to extrapolate mixed meters, electronic sounds, and tropes from R&B and Rock into jazz expression.

Within M-BASE, Allen found a space in which to incorporate her varied interests. “In the beginning, it was very organic,” she says. “We were all around the same age, trying to make ends meet, always out listening to music. Everybody was writing, experimenting, sight-reading hard music, challenging each other to upgrade our professionalism. We were embracing everything we liked.” The use of electronics and mixed meters, she adds, “wasn’t a new idea. We took inspiration from Tony Williams and Lifetime, from Miles and Herbie, and then refracted their music in our own way. I was dealing with mixed meters before I came to New York; the goal was to make them sound natural, so it wasn’t like the dress wearing me, but I’m wearing the dress.

“When we think of M-BASE now, it’s definitely Steve Coleman’s conception—he had very specific ideas about composition, so his tunes had an individual sound, as did everyone’s initially. Eventually, the sound became much more institutionalized, so to speak. I have a fluid way that I like to hear music and sound, which wasn’t fitting into that any more, and that’s partly why I decided to move on creatively.”

As that door closed, another opened with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and an equal-billing trio with Haden and Paul Motian that made four recordings between 1987 and 1991 on which Allen established a stylistic room of her own, spare and poetic. On Ralph Peterson’s Triangular, from 1988, documenting another trio, she brought forth a rollicking, buoyant, confident take on bebop roots.

By 1996, Allen had augmented her c.v. with three transformational associations. One was a 1993 project on which she, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette fed the fire for master bebop singer Betty Carter, who admonished Allen “to play upbeats to give momentum to the rhythm section—what I think of as the style of Red Garland.” She continues: “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about comping that way. I was hearing something darker, warmer, richer…in other words, more akin to Ellington and Monk and Herbie Nichols. Jack and Dave had played with Miles, and they understood what she was saying.”  Thus prepared, Allen recorded a ferocious date in March 1994 with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, “where I went from being an excited observer of that sound to an actual participant,” foreshadowing a subsequent decade spent assimilating Hancock’s pianistic vocabulary into her own conception, particularly on recordings by trumpeter Wallace Roney, then her husband.

There was also a heady three-year gig, including two recordings and several tours, with Haden’s one-time employer Ornette Coleman, who had last worked with a pianist more than thirty-five years before, who honored her by performing two duo selections on Eyes…In the Back Of Your Head, her final Blue Note recording, released in 1997. “Playing with Ornette shifted my conception of the piano,” Allen says. “The sound was more important than the notes, though technical prowess was important, too. It’s very much like your first try at double dutch—what not to do, how not to reduce what’s there, but contribute something to help propel the music.”

A broader lesson, which Allen seems always to have understood innately, is to be willing, when necessary, “to be told what to do” in order to meet the demands of distinguished elder artists. She recalls her early New York years: “Some concepts I was more prepared for than others, but I’d go back to the drawing board and work through the equation. If you choose to deal with your weakness in an area that’s being challenged, you grow; if not, it just gets harder the next time you have to confront it. It does not go away. This is how life is.”

[BREAK]

Even in 2010, the upper echelons of instrumental jazz remain primarily a men’s club. It’s no easier than it ever was for jazzwomen to balance the demands of their profession—the travel, the need to carve out personal space to practice and reflect—with those of parenting.  Allen’s responsibilities are nothing if not substantial—a single mother of three since her recent split from Roney, she continues to tour while also fulfilling a weekly three-day obligation in Michigan when school is in session. But nothing seems to deter Allen from moving forward creatively.

“Women in my family always worked, including my mother,” Allen says. “As I was growing up, she was a defense contract administrator for the government, high up in rank, and well respected for her work ethic and fairness. Then she came home and was a great mom. She and my father raised me to be fearless, and pray. I felt that it would be a challenge as a jazz musician, but it couldn’t be so different from any other working mom who traveled as part of their career.”

She brought her children on the road until they reached school age, and retained a mother’s helper, who remains in her employ, when her youngest daughter, now 12, was six months old. “I have never had to worry about whether my children were well cared for,” Allen says.“That idea of family has been core in my life. My church has also become core in my life. My family is spiritually based, and service to the community is an important part of our legacy. I’ve seen that from the way my father mentored students through the years. In the same way, musicians in the community shared themselves with and made room for the next generation.”

Such bedrock kept Allen’s focus on the bigger picture at “rough moments when I felt musicians really were being mean” because of gender. “Most of the musicians were coming from a place of respect for the music, trying to get to something, and so was I,” she says. “I choose to remember the life-changing experiences, the ones that are pure humanity—life lessons about connecting with  people in highly evolved ways.  I think the real power of this music is that it can transform through authentic connections with others.

“It’s amazing to take a bird’s eye view of all the connections. I’m grateful and proud to have earned my place in New York, to be part of something so important that goes way back. I wouldn’t trade any of it—each and every breakthrough, and those other moments where you wondered why you were still trying to be here. The ups and the downs. I have faith that there is a reason for both.”

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Filed under Article, Detroit, Geri Allen, M-BASE, Piano

To Mark Larry Willis’ 71st Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2006

Pianist Larry Willis — a Harlem native and alumnus of Music & Art — turns 71 today. To denote the occasion, here’s the unedited version of the Blindfold Test he did with me in 2006.

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

1.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “The Hard One” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2002) (Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo Enriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums)

I can’t quite pinpoint who this is. But whoever it is, the way he plays lines, the note ideas, he’s obviously listened a lot to Herbie. I hear a lot of that in this. Some of it might remind you a little bit of Randy Weston. But I say that rhythmically. He’s got great facility. I’m going to give this 4 stars. I like the approach. It goes everywhere. So everybody is obviously thinking about how to deal with this rhythmically. That’s the thing I like about it. I like both the rhythmic and harmonic approach. But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Boy, what a fantastic pianist he is. He’s a very welcome addition to today’s jazz piano. Besides, he’s a really nice kid. [He’s 43.] Well, he’s a kid to me. I got him by 20 years. The composition rubs me a little bit on the negative side. I honestly feel… The Cuban part I like, but it’s very difficult for me to focus in on anything. There’s just a little bit too much going on for me.

2.   Michael Weiss, “Walter Davis Ascending” (from MILESTONES, Steeplechase, 1998) (Weiss, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Jackie McLean, composer)

I don’t know who it is, but the touch is so reminiscent of Hank Jones. Maybe not so much the ideas. Maybe Lewis Nash on drums. But it sounds awfully good. I’m having difficulty trying to hinge the tune. I love the composition. The left hand is not quite in that style, but I hear Bill Evans also. Compositionally, it sounds like something that Bill might play. Is this a contemporary of mine? [No.] Older? Younger. He’s a teenager. I’m going to step out on a limb. Is this Kirk Lightsey? This is this tune written by somebody that I know very well. It’s Jackie’s tune. 3 stars. It doesn’t quite grab me. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional, as far as I’m concerned. But the performance of it is good.

3.   Chano Dominguez, “No Me Platiques, Mas” (from CON ALMA, Venus, 2003) (Dominguez, piano; George Mraz, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

It’s a nice waltz. I don’t think it’s him, but the touch and harmonic approach remind me a lot of Ray Bryant. But I don’t think this is something Ray would play. Then here again, I don’t know who could be playing. I love the sound of the trio. It’s very well-integrated, everybody’s listening to everybody, and I like the approach, the concept of what they’re doing. It’s quasi early Bill Evans trio. The bass player is playing very loose, the drummer is not playing time so strictly, and I like the approach. Could the bassist be George Mraz? Yeah, it sounds like Bounce. We call him the Bouncing Czech. Is this Richie Beirach? A lot of Bill Evans here. Could this be somebody like Denny Zeitlin? You got me. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him, but I know who he is.

4.   Denny Zeitlin, “Bemsha Swing” (from SOLO VOYAGE, MaxJazz, 2005) (Zeitlin, piano; Thelonious Monk, piano)

“Bemsha Swing.” One of the problems that I’m having is that Jazz, as far as the growth and development of the art, has reached an impasse. I’ve heard no new voices, particularly at the piano, no new schools of thought since 1968, and I think a lot of that has had to do with the way the record industry has crept into this, and basically destroyed a lot of the bands where young players could serve apprenticeship. When I came along, there was the Jazz Messengers, there was Miles’ band, there was Trane’s band, there was Horace Silver’s quintet, a lot of working bands where you could develop. But that doesn’t exist. So what I’m hearing is a lot of retread. [In this performance?] In general. This sounds like Randy to me. But here again, I don’t know who it is. I love what he’s doing. I’m going to give it 5 stars. He plays enough of the piano to let you know that he knows what he’s doing at the instrument, but the whole thing just comes off. I like the harmonic approach. The ideas are nice. I know where it’s coming from, but I can’t tell what records he’s listening to. Let’s put it that way. I like that. He’s put some thought into what he’s doing. [Older guy? Younger guy?] Maybe my age. The concept. He plays good stride. I like how he’s interpreting Monk. Understanding that music is not necessarily something that falls out of a tree. And he doesn’t play too much. Let me put it this way. The element of taste is very prevalent here. What he’s doing, everything seems to be in the right place; he does it at the right time. When he starts to stride, it adds instead of making me feel he’s doing it just to show you that he can. All this is integrated into the music. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin? Makes a lot of sense to me.

5.  Martin Wacilewski, “Plaza Real” (from TRIO, ECM, 2005) (Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

This is a nice trio. I don’t know who it is. Harmonically I love it. Also, the piano is really well-recorded. He’s listened to Bill, that’s for sure. That last little run is a Bill Evans run! He was a very influential piano player! But there’s also a lot of Herbie’s harmonic approach. Right there! I like it. 4½ stars. [AFTER] They should keep doing what they’re doing!

6.   Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

This sounds like it might be two piano players. Sure is covering a lot of ground. There are two piano players. [Who are they?] Is it Hank and Tommy? No, that’s not Hank. Or Tommy. I haven’t a clue. [Are you sure it’s two piano players?] Yes, I’m sure. Or at least somebody overdubbed something. [It’s one piano player.] Wow. [Live.] Live?! The lines are good. They’re not great. But to play that much with just two hands is doing a lot. It’s not Oscar. I haven’t a clue. 3½ stars. It just doesn’t reach out and grab me.

7.   Jason Moran, “Out Front” (from PRESENTS THE BANDWAGON, Blue Note, 2003) (Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Jaki Byard, composer)

There’s something almost Steve Kuhn-ish about this—approach, concept, touch, ideas. But I know it’s not Steve. I like it. He’s got a lot of chops, whoever he is. [Are you familiar with this tune?] No. But for some reason, the name of Jaki Byard is sticking in my head. It sounds like some music he’d play or some music coming from him. It just rubs me that way. I love the treatment. But I can’t figure out who it is! Sounds like they’ve been playing together for a minute. Sounds like a younger player—the sound of the instrument. It doesn’t sound like an older personality. I’m almost going to step out on a limb and say it’s somebody like Marcus Roberts. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of information here to decipher. [Do you like that?] Yes and no. I’ve always been one to think that less is more, and because the piano is such a complicated instrument, the 88-to-10 odds empower me to be more simplistic in my approach. I think sometimes piano players get so involved in the 88-to-10 odds that the music takes somewhat of a back seat. That’s happening here. It’s more of a show than music. 3 stars. It isn’t bad! If it gets below 3, that means I don’t like it.

8.   Edward Simon, “Abiding Unicity” (from UNICITY, CAM, 2006) (Simon piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

The bass player is great. It’s not George. It’s not Eddie Gomez. Is it Richard Davis? I’m trying to think of how many bass players have that kind of arco technique. Is the pianist from outside of the United States? [Yes. But he’s lived in the States for a long time.] I asked because of the approach to rhythm. [What part of the world is the piano player from?] He’s either from Europe or he’s from Japan. How can I put this? Because I’m an American and jazz comes from here, and I’ve been listening to it for a long time from an American perspective, the whole concept of playing inside the pulse framework is a little deeper here than I hear coming from other places, and I think… It’s not a putdown. It’s just that if you don’t grow up in a culture, it’s very difficult to assimilate the little subtleties of whatever that is into your playing if you haven’t experienced it. [That affects how you’re hearing this.] Yes. But let’s back up. It affects me in this context. What I am trying to say is not a bad thing. That’s just how it is. For example, as close as he came to being involved with an American approach to playing jazz, I still hear that difference in somebody’s playing like Joe Zawinul, for example. There’s always a tendency to… It sounds like it’s on the surface almost. The piece is okay. It started out great, and then it went someplace else that I didn’t particularly care for. If it started like what he’s doing now, then I might feel more compelled to… It just doesn’t get inside my body. 3 stars. [AFTER] Patitucci and Blade always seem to be together. I heard them with Wayne, I heard them with Herbie…

9.  Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1980/2002) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pederson, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I like the piano player. It’s a very nice, refreshing treatment of this song. Whoever it is, they’ve certainly paid attention to the Nat Cole Trio—or the King Cole Trio. I like this. I’m almost going to say Mulgrew. Is the guitar player Russell Malone perchance? Is the guitarist an older player? [Yes.] Older than me? [No.] Well, it’s not Cedar. It doesn’t sound like Barry Harris. Now, that sounds like Hank right there. Whoever it is, they’ve really listened to Hank’s approach to playing the instrument. Hank’s got one of the cleanest, clearest, prettiest sounds coming out of the piano in the history of this music, I feel. And whoever this is, I like very, very much. Harmonically, technically, just the general approach to playing the instrument. He’s got a great sound. 5 stars. [AFTER] [LOUD LAUGH] Okay.

10,  Bebo Valdes, “Lamento Cubano” (from EL ARTE DEL SABOR, Blue Note, 2000) (Bebo Valdes, piano; Israel “Cachao” Lopez, bass; Carlos “Patato” Valdes; congas)

An older pianist. From Cuba. Bebo Valdes. The sound, concept, touch. That’s Bebo! He’s a really unique player. First of all, as a pianist, he’s assimilated the world’s concept of playing the jazz piano and formulated it into a very unique concept of playing the piano—and playing that music, playing Cuban music. I love him, first of all, because he’s got a great sound from the piano. Then, his minimalist approach pleases me immensely. In a sense, he reminds me, if I can make an analogy, of Ahmad Jamal, for example. He shows you just enough technique to let you know that he’s got it, but the rest is focused on playing some music that will allow you to assimilate it. 5 stars. I asked Miles one time… There’s a great story about him going over and hearing Clifford Brown, and then just saying to him, “Brownie, why are you playing all of those notes? Nobody hears that.” I asked Miles about it, and he said, what it is, when you’re playing music for people other than musicians, they can’t assimilate and decipher all that information and have it come out music that touches their souls. So a lot of what you play gets wasted on just you showing off and how much technique you have. Oscar doesn’t do that, and he’s got a world of technique. Art Tatum didn’t do that, and he had a world of technique. But a lot of players play too much. Too much information. The ultimate objective of all of this is not to be the greatest… I’m not trying to be the greatest piano player in the world. I want to be the best musician I can be. Because the instrument is there for you to play music on.

11.  Chick Corea, “Celia” (from REMEMBERING BUD POWELL, 1997) (Corea, piano; Bud Powell, composer)

It sounds like Barry Harris playing “Celia.” Or somebody from that generation. [It’s someone from your generation.] They really understand the concept of bebop, the bebop school of thought as far as playing the piano is concerned. Kenny Barron? He’s listened to bebop quite a bit. He’s played it quite a bit. Hmm. From my generation? 4 stars. [AFTER] Okay. All right. Aside from the music that he’s been able to come out with and has been so successful with, there’s a bit of a chameleon in Chick as far as playing the piano. I’ve heard him play duets with Herbie, and he’s got one face there. I hear this, it’s another face. I hear what he does, for example, with Return to Forever; that’s another face. I heard him with Stan Getz; that’s another face. Yes, Armando!

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Larry Willis, Piano

For the 78th Birthday Anniversary of Bobby Timmons (1935-1974), A Liner Note and Five Interviews Conducted For It

For the 78th birthday anniversary of the late, great pianist Bobby Timmons (Dec. 19, 1935-March 1, 1974), I’m posting a liner note that I wrote for a Fantasy Records “Best Of” culled from his Riverside recordings, and interviews from an elite group of associates and friends: Albert “Tootie” Heath, Kenny Barron, Reggie Workman, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. I had fun putting this one together.

* * * *

“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:

It seems apparent, given the dearth of first person testimony in the liner notes for his numerous recordings for Riverside and Prestige, that in matters of self-description, pianist Bobby Timmons [1935-1974] held firmly to the dictum that music speaks louder than words.

Cherrypicked from seven Riverside albums between 1960 and 1963, The Best Of Bobby Timmons, if nothing else, highlights that Timmons was one of the seminal communicators of his generation. He was 24 when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to the Timmons ditties “Moanin” and “This Here,” which had debuted instrumentally on stirring albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet that were released in 1959. Soon thereafter, Oscar Brown’s version of “Dat Dere,” originally documented by Adderley in February 1960, made it onto jukeboxes around the country. On the strength of these hits, Timmons cut his sideman affiliations in 1961, and accepted a string of national bookings with his own trio. Much to his discomfort, “soul jazz” would be the label forever be affixed to his name.

Out of South Philadelphia, a bebop hotbed in his formative years, Timmons’ music was relentlessly earthy and primal. He was anything but primitive, but a soulful perspective was in his bones.

“Bobby’s grandfather raised him around the corner from where our family grew up,” says drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the baby brother of bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy. “His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby played in his grandfather’s church. Later he came into jazz. We didn’t go to elementary school together, but later I saw him quite a bit. He took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who taught harmony to most of my young friends, and was an educator for a lot of people, like Lee Morgan and Jimmy Garrison. We played as a trio at dances at fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania, and were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe along with Lee and some other people who went on to get big names in jazz.

“We would imitate whatever we could from records – Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group – and we liked Ahmad Jamal. I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ahmad came to Philadelphia with Vernell and Richard Davis, and we were too young to go in the club, so we stood outside, and heard what we could whenever the door opened. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.”

In the trio, the aspirants completed the triangle with bassists like Garrison, Eddie Matthias, Spanky DeBrest, Jymie Merritt, and occasionally, Reggie Workman.

“Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling whatever the engagement called for,” recalls Workman.  “We all had to do everything, jazz clubs as well as dances, cabarets and parties. That’s where the music was heard and made. I remember Bobby  as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. He was always an ardent dresser, neat in his music and in his personality. He was also very witty. It all turned up in his music. No matter what he was doing, he always had his personal voice. You’d know that it was Bobby Timmons doing it.”

Timmons moved to New York in 1954, honing his craft on consequential jobs with Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker. In the summer of 1958, Benny Golson, recently recruited by Art Blakey to bring a new sound to the Jazz Messengers, brought Timmons, Morgan and Merritt into the fold.

“He was inventive,” says Golson, “He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He could play bebop and he could play funky – he could play a lot of things, and I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby, who could go here or go there, rather than walking in a single corridor.”

As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought.  I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues.  He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .

“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,”  the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”

Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”

The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”

“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”

“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.

HEATH:  We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction.  I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.

TP:    I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.

HEATH:  Right.  For a short period. A year.

TP:    Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.

HEATH:  Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.

TP:    A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?

HEATH:  Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.

TP:    Can you tell me anything about his musical background?

HEATH:  All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz.  Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.

TP:    That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?

HEATH:  A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff.  I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time.  But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…

TP:    ‘48-’49…

HEATH:  Yeah.  ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.

TP:    Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?

HEATH:  I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.

TP:    May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?

HEATH:  I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.

TP:    When did you meet him?  You were 11-12 years old?

HEATH:  Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.

TP:    Did you play in teenage combos?

HEATH:  Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.

TP:    So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.

HEATH:  Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.

TP:    You all lived  in an apartment together?

HEATH:  Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East  Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.

TP:    Maybe it was 215.

HEATH:  Maybe it was 215.  But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

TP:    So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.

HEATH:  Yeah.  We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.

TP:    When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing?  Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?

HEATH:  Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.

TP:    But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?

HEATH:  Yeah.  We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.

TP:    In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.

HEATH:  This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit.  That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.

TP:    That sort of organization.

HEATH:  Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.

TP:    Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…

HEATH:  That was it. Those were the guys for us.

TP:    How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…

HEATH:  He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too.  But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.

TP:    Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?

HEATH:  No.

TP:    Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?

HEATH:  No, we were close.

TP:    What was he like personally?

HEATH:  That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.

TP:    Was he a humorous guy?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality.  People liked him.

TP:    Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?

HEATH:  I doubt it.  Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

TP:    Was he a very warm person?

HEATH:  Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.

TP:    On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well.  Was he a chukka-boot wearer?

HEATH:  He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.

TP:    Was he painstaking with his arrangements?  Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.

TP:    He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?

HEATH:  I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.

TP:    There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording?  Were you playing as an opening act for another band?

HEATH:  No. I think we were the only group in there.

TP:    I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.

HEATH:  No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.

TP:    Were there good crowds?  Was he very popular?

HEATH:  Yeah.  He had a lot of fans.

TP:    Because of those tunes.

HEATH:  Yeah, a lot of people liked them.

TP:    Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?

HEATH:  No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.

TP:    Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?

HEATH:  No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed.  That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.

TP:    Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…

HEATH:  I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.

TP:    But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?

HEATH:  No.  I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.

TP:    Any injuries he causes were to himself.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.

TP:    But he sure paid a heavy price.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did.  He got on out of here really young.

TP:    Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64?  You didn’t see much of him after that?

HEATH:  I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby.  I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.

TP:    I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways.  Did the trio travel?

HEATH:  We did a West Coast tour.  We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.

TP:    How much would you say you were on the road?

HEATH:  Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.

TP:    So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.

HEATH:  No.  Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.

TP:    Was he easy to play with?

HEATH:  Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.

TP:    But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.

HEATH:  He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.

TP:    Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?

HEATH:  I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.

Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

BARRON:  I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.

TP:    Did you get to know him in New York?

BARRON:  Not well.

TP:    Were you checking his stuff out?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class.  One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.

TP:    But you never caught him around Philly.

BARRON:  No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.

TP:    Did you like the trio stuff?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. I did.

TP:    Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?

BARRON:  Yeah, I’ve played them.

TP:    What are they like to play?

BARRON:  They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.

TP:    Are they tricky?  Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put  twists and turns in his stuff?

BARRON:  They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that.  But they’re catchy.

TP:    People still like those tunes.

BARRON:  Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?

WORKMAN:  Let me turn the page.  The mental page.

TP:    I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger.  But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.

WORKMAN:  Of course.  You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene.  I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say.  And it always turned up in the music.

You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney.  The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young.  He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned.  That always turns up in the music.  And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing.  You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing.  No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.

TP:    This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…

WORKMAN:  That was Bobby.  And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.

TP:    Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?

WORKMAN:  No.  He was in the Messengers before I was.

TP:    I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came  in.  Were you ever part of his trio?

WORKMAN:  Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.

TP:    What was he like as a leader?  Was he very organized, did he have…

WORKMAN:  That I don’t recall.

TP:    Was the music stimulating to play?  Were there challenges?  Did it go beyond the basic bass function?

WORKMAN:  Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for.  Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene.  It was seldom, but it happened.

TP:    So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.

WORKMAN:  That I can remember.  Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt.  There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky.  Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.

TP:    At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…

WORKMAN:  We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.

TP:    It was part of the community.

WORKMAN:  That’s right.

Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.

TP:    I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?

WALTON:  Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers.  But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.

TP:    Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.

WALTON: Right. I replaced him.

TP:    Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?

WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.

TP:    What did you think of his trio at the time?

WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing.  But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.

TP:    He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?

WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.

TP:    East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.

WALTON: Right.  But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.

TP:    Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?

WALTON: Sure.  A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…

TP:    What’s a typical Philadelphia type?

WALTON: Joking all the time.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.

TP:    Did you play his tunes?

WALTON: Yeah.  I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”

TP:    Did you play his arrangements?

WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.

TP:    Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?

WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.

Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.

Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON: Right.

TP:    How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?

GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.

TP:    But you knew him from the Philly connection.

GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.

TP:    He was in New York by that time.

GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.

TP:    What was it about his sound that appealed to you?

GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example.  And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.

TP:    Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?

GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.

TP:    I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it

GOLSON: About a year.

TP:    So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.

GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.

TP:    Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…

GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!

TP:    Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?

GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!

TP:    Two wild young men.

GOLSON:  And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby.  I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then.  I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

TP:    And it became a hit.

GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.

TP:    The audience responded to it right away?

GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.

TP:    If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…

GOLSON: No.

TP:    But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…

GOLSON: Oh, no.  It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing.  Because Bobby could play funky!  Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.

TP:    Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…

GOLSON: Well, he did it.  But Ted, it was intuitive.

TP:    On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…

GOLSON: Yes.

TP:    Were you around at that time or not?

GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.

TP:    Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?

GOLSON: No.  Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.

TP:    Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?

GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.

TP:    He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.

GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.

TP:    But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.

GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.

TP:    Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?

GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.

TP:    So his tunes reflect his personality, then.

GOLSON: Absolutely.  “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.

TP:    Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.

GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.  And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene.  But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money.  But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.

There was the spirit of the whole thing.  And those guys were exactly right for that group.

Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?

CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there.  Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…

TP:    So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month.  What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group?  Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?

CARTER:  I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.

TP:    He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.

CARTER:  And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…

TP:    So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.

CARTER:  We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.

TP:    Did the sound change from week to week?  Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?

CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.

TP:    Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.

TP:    Who would say were his main influences?

CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned.  He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.

The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more.  We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way.  The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.

He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.

TP:    Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?

CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.

TP:    So he knew what to do as a leader.

CARTER: Absolutely.

TP:    And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?

CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid.  He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Interview, Kenny Barron, Liner Notes, Piano, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter