Category Archives: Piano

For John Medeski’s 51st birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

For pianist/multi-keyboardist John Medeski’s 51st birthday, here’s a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in the May 2013 issue, on the occasion of his solo recording, A Different Time.

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When pianist John Medeski performs solo, an increasingly frequent occurrence in recent years, his usual path is similar to an hour-long, YouTube-documented recital that he uncorked last January at the Lily Pad, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Attired in a wool cap, black jeans and an untucked dark-purple shirt, sleeves rolled, Medeski begins the performance with an invocational, neo-gospel refrain, building the intensity with rolling block chords. He eventually resolves with a stark repeated cluster in the piano’s lower depths, then counterpoints with a repetitive treble vamp, over which he plays a stately, impressionistic classical melody articulated by the left hand with supreme control. Around the 10th minute, he morphs into a spiky line that seems inspired by Cecil Taylor, then spins out a long improvisation around the intervals that gradually transforms into a phantasmagoric “Giant Steps,” executed with Taylorian turbulence and precision. This transitions into a contrapuntal, stride-like rendering of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Medeski plays an achingly beautiful original, “Luz Marina,” launches an intense tribal melody blown on an elongated wooden flute, tosses off dramatic Lisztian flourishes, sets up a drone that undulates as he plays treble-register lines while simultaneously placing objects on the piano’s innards. The drone remains as he develops the theme on the thus-prepared strings, before a concluding statement on melodica. Medeski winds down the thrilling performance with a grooving blues.

“That’s pretty indicative of what happens,” Medeski confirmed in early March at the Tribeca offices of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the collective trio with which, since 1991, he has famously played acoustic piano, Hammond organ, mellotron, clavinet, synthesizers and other instruments. “I have a lot of influences. For me, the tunes are launching pads for some kind of exploration, creating different energies, a certain vibration and feeling. I might approach by starting with a pure sound and letting that lead the way. My palette, whatever I’ve studied, whatever I’m feeling, maybe the audience’s reaction, informs where it goes. I want to take people on a journey.”

Last fall, Medeski, 47, kept that notion in mind as he undertook his first solo recording over several days in the converted 19th-century church that houses Waterfront Studios in a village 30 miles south of Albany. “I practiced, learned some tunes and made a list,” he recounts. “I wanted to keep myself in a space of openness and freedom, and give myself time and space to create. I imagined I would do what I do when I play a solo-piano concert.”

The first portion of the sessions — during which Medeski, a Steinway artist, spent several hours on an instrument he hand-picked for the occasion, and another few hours on the studio’s 9-foot Steinway — produced something along those lines. “I had a record,” Medeski says. “It was a lot of stuff.” Then producer Henry Hirsch, who collects vintage pianos, offered his 1924 Gaveau, a French brand built in the pre-modern style. What resulted was the contents of A Different Time [OKeh] , a delicate recital that is the polar opposite of the florid tonal personality that he projects with MMW or in the showier sections of the YouTubed concert.

“We put some mikes on it, and I started playing,” Medeski says. “The sound of the instrument and the way I had to play directed me. It forced me to focus every second on controlling the touch. Certain pieces that had never worked for me on a regular piano, like maybe it’s too corny or something, seemed like, ‘Oh, I can really try this on this piano.’” He references “Waiting at the Gate,” which he wrote for a musical at 16, and the Willie Nelson tune “I’m Falling in Love Again.”

“When I listened to everything I’d done on the Gaveau, I realized that it had the most coherent vibe for a record,” Medeski says. “I loved the sound; it recorded better than the other pianos, at least during those couple of days. I can be really picky, take however many hours of stuff and whittle away what I don’t like, and then define a handful of good stuff. But this was easy, like, ‘This is it.’ At first, it was a little — I don‘t know what the word is — scary maybe, that this would be the record I’d put out, because it’s so meditative and gentle. But you know what? It is one of the many things that I do. It’s one aspect of me.

“The real preparation was not to have too many preconceived notions, use whatever came out best and sculpt a record. I had to have confidence that it would be OK.”

BREAK

A few years ago, MMW, which had averaged some 200 gigs a year since forming in 1991, responded to circumscribed music-biz economics, demands of family and the burgeoning popularity of bassist Chris Wood’s Wood Brothers group by scaling back its collective activity, thereby giving its members more time to pursue individual interests.

For Medeski, this development provided an opportunity to do a fair amount of guest-star sidemanning, most recently addressing Hammond B3 and keyboards with Spectrum Road, a Vernon Reid-Jack Bruce brainchild on which Cindy Blackman plays drums. Medeski also played acoustic piano in John Zorn’s Nova Quartet (Kenny Wolleson on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Joey Baron on drums) on Nova Express, interpreting with panache Zorn’s “hard music with complex, contemporary heads,” inspired by the writings of William Burroughs. Also with Nova Quartet (augmented by harpist Carol Emanuel), he plays piano and organ on the consonant At the Gates of Paradise and the darker, kaleidoscopic A Vision in Blakelight, both comprising Zorn’s refractions of William Blake’s mystic visual-poetic ruminations. His piano and electronics contribute to the extreme sonic tapestry Zorn presents on another Burroughs homage, Interzone.

“Zorn is a force — incredible businessman, fantastic composer, great musician and he’s supported a lot of musicians,” Medeski says. “He made a choice not to get caught up being responsible to anyone but himself. That sort of independence was always important for me, and for Medeski, Martin & Wood. How do you do what you want, stay creative and keep the spirit alive? That’s been the goal always.”

Staying creative is one reason for Medeski’s decision to focus more on solo-piano performance, and, hence, to record A Different Time to serve “as a sort of calling card.”

Another reason, he adds, is in response to “feeling that I am somewhat pigeonholed or stereotyped by certain people” for his role in producing the groove-rich, skronky, high-octane sound that earned MMW its immense popularity in the jam-band world. Even though MMW has recently issued such CDs as the 2008 studio date Zaebos, a nuanced, pan-stylistic rendering of Zorn’s “Book of Angels” corpus, and Free Magic, culled from an all-acoustic tour in 2007, the “jam band” epithet still touches a nerve.

“We were out there before that scene happened, but somehow we fell into being associated with it although I don’t think we ever did anything too obvious,” Medeski says. “We figure things out, have it pegged, and then move on to the next thing. I’ve been feeling, ‘I guess I should do that now, too.’ Even while we were exploring what we started exploring 20 years ago in this all-consuming way, I always had a piano at home. I got known for a certain thing. But I love playing piano. I did it before anyone knew who I was or cared about anything I was doing. I missed doing it, so I’ve been doing it more the past few years.

“I also like to keep people on their toes. I don’t want anyone to think they have me figured out. I realized that during an interview in Germany. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is my own version of being rebellious,’ even though the music isn’t that — it’s just my own thing. ‘Hey, you think I’m just going to play some groovy, out shit? Actually I do this, too.’”

BREAK

A Different Time  not only is Medeski’s first solo-piano recording, but the first leader date on which he eschews the collective context.  Indeed, in distinction to many prodigies whose skills blossom young, he has built a career around performing in situations that are not all about him.

MMW bassist Chris Wood opines that limitations stimulate Medeski’s creative juices. “We always joke that Billy is always ‘no,’ I am always ‘maybe’ and John is always ‘yeah, let’s do it,’” he says. “So when I start from scratch, like, ‘What do you think?’ he can get overwhelmed by all the possibilities because he’s such a talented musician. That carries to the stage sometimes, where if there’s any doubt about where we’re going, the best thing Billy and I can do is present an extremely clear idea that John can either obliterate by counteracting it or hopping on and nurturing it and making it into something.”

MMW drummer Billy Martin cites Medeski’s response when he and Wood suggested in 1991 that the trio take Medeski’s name. “John was the first to say, ‘No, it’s not about me, it’s not about you — it’s about all of us,’” Martin recalls. “So although we’ve gotten a lot out, I think that his really deep inner voice hasn’t been heard because he wants to do what’s right for the band. He’s an incredible piano player; this classical prodigy that he was as a child is still waiting to show his face. We didn’t develop that side of him as much as his electric side. That’s partly because he was really getting into the electronics, and also trying to find a way to speak in places we played that might have a horrible piano or no piano at all. I’ve always wondered, ‘When the hell are you going to do your own thing?’”

“I didn’t want to be a leader,” Medeski says. “I wanted to collaborate on every level. I felt that would be the most valuable thing for us to do musically and business-wise. Collaborating means being able to compromise. It takes longer to create music that way, with three people, but you end up with something you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.”

Asked to trace the source of his collective orientation, Medeski mentions to teen experiences in Fort Lauderdale, his hometown, and nearby Miami. He played classical recitals. He formed a point of view while making real-time bandstand decisions with big bands, on swinging jam sessions with world-class locals like Ira Sullivan and Dolph Castellano, in Latin bands and funk bands with horn sections, and in a plugged-in group called Emergency. Jaco Pastorius, whose brother-in-law was Emergency’s drummer, sat in occasionally, liked what he heard, and invited Medeski, then 16, to join him on tour, an offer that Medeski’s mother declined. While attending Boston’s New England Conservatory, Medeski continued to work steadily, most notably with Mister Jellybelly, a blues and jazz singer who introduced him to the nuances of the Hammond B3, but also with the eclectic soloists who populated the Either/Orchestra.

“I would always say yes to a gig, whatever it was, and figure out how to do it,” Medeski says. “I’ve always desired to be a supportive musician, and not just move my fingers around, press buttons and be a clogging force. Yeah, I can play certain stuff, but I don’t have to. Anybody I’ve played with, it’s never been, ‘Let me do my thing on top of this or in this,’ but ‘How can I add something that works within and is part of the whole?’ That’s how I’ve been able to play in situations that don’t traditionally have keyboardists, like in Afro-Peruvian music with Susana Baca or pedal-steel guys like the Campbell Brothers or Robert Randolph.

“Music is the creation of sound. Practicing in your room alone is important; you need that time to look deep inside yourself. But it’s also a language. It’s communicating. Communication involves someone other than you; if you’re just talking to yourself, you go crazy. You’ve got to see what its effect is when you put that sound out there and find that thing that happens when you play together, when you really interact.”

This dictum crystallized for Medeski during his first week in New York, where he and Wood took a two-bedroom apartment for $1,300 a month over a laundromat at Avenue A and 6th Street in 1991. “I went to a late-night jam session at the Blue Note that I’d call the night of the living dead,” he says. “There was a line of horn players who spewed whatever licks they’d been practicing, like a weird cut-and-paste of records I’d heard before, on top of the rhythm section. No interaction. It was the opposite of improvising. That turned me off the jazz scene, and I instantly gravitated to the Knitting Factory and the Downtown scene, where people were combining things and improvising — or not. Whatever it was, it felt vital and alive.”

While launching enduring relationships with musicians like Zorn and Marc Ribot, Medeski soon was in the rotation with hardcore jazz up-and-comers like Brad Mehldau and Geoff Keezer at the Top Of The Gate, a well-known piano room on Bleecker and Thompson, where he worked serial weeks in trio with Wood and a series of drummers, the last of whom was Martin. The connection was instant, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Music has the ability to express everything,” Medeski says. “And I like to use it for a lot of things. It’s easy to hide behind what you know is hip. But this record is naked, pure music, pure feeling, purely in the moment. It’s free, in a way.”

As Wood surmises: “John is always searching for something that’s authentic, and sometimes it’s not so obvious what that is. As he gets older, he’s recognizing it, finding it in himself and in music. Now that he’s broken the ice, so to speak, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. With MMW, we never had any idea what we were going to do when it was time to make a new record. We just knew we weren’t going to do something we’ve already done. So I know John’s next solo record will probably be really different. Let’s hope he keeps spitting them out, because there are a lot of worlds he can get into.”

SIDEBAR

Title:

During the 1920s, Gaveau, a Paris-based manufacturer founded in 1847, produced a series of pianos with Art Deco cabinets, one of them the refurbished 1924 7-foot model with barely played original French hammers, new uncrossed strings, a wood soundboard, and original action, on which John Medeski created [i]A Different Time[i]. The design was based on the mid-19th-century principles of piano-making developed by Gaveau’s French competitors, Pleyel and Érard, both older companies that developed technology that is still incorporated in grand piano manufacture—in addition to routinizing the placement of pedals on the piano, Érard in 1821 patented the “double escapement” technology with a repetition lever that allows notes to be repeated more easily than in earlier single-action pianos, allowing double notes to be played [i]legatissimo[i] with ease. Lacking the rich harmonics of “modern” Steinway or Bösendorfer grands, they offered, as a tradeoff, more speed and lightness and clarity of sound. Camille Saint-Saëns played recitals on a Gaveau. Hector Villa-Lobos had one shipped to his home in Brazil.
“The pianos require a certain delicacy,” Medeski says. “If you hit them too hard, it won’t work; the sound is awful. So you really need to be in control.”
He referenced Frederic Chopin, whose instrument of choice was the similarly designed Pleyel, the popular model in late 19th century France. “Chopin taught that one must sing with the fingers. He thought modern pianos destroyed the touch. He’s quoted; ‘It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully. The sound is always beautiful, and the ear asks for nothing more, for it’s under the spell of the full, rich sound.’ He also said: ‘On the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation.’
“I felt what it was that he liked about these little pianos. Your fingers are doing the singing. It’s pretty amazing when you play it, when you get into the physical creation of the music with the instrument — that connection with the instrument.”

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For Uri Caine’s 60th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2004 and a Downbeat Feature Article from 2001, plus Interviews for that Article

For the 60th birthday of pianist Uri Caine, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2004, the final draft (not sure if it’s verbatim of what made it to print) of a 2001 DownBeat feature, and the interviews conducted for that feature with Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave  Douglas, Stefan Winter and DJ Olive.

 

Uri Caine Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chick Corea, “Bessie’s Blues” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Stretch, 2003) (Corea, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Dave Weckl, drums) (5 stars)

It’s “Bessie’s Blues” and it’s Chick Corea playing with Roy Haynes. Oh, no, let me listen. It sounds like he’s playing a lot coming out of Chick Corea, but it’s definitely not Roy Haynes. Maybe it’s the newer group with Avishai and Jeff Ballard — if it is Chick. I’m enjoying the performance. It’s swinging… I’m thinking of it two ways. If it is Chick, he’s playing a lot of stuff that’s new. Some of the runs are definitely different. But the thing about his playing which is great is the buoyancy, the lines, the way they keep on coming. There’s a lot of rhythmic energy; it’s swinging. He’s playing a lot of interesting substitutions on the chord changes of the blues. It’s a famous Coltrane blues from “Crescent” and a really famous McCoy Tyner solo, so in other words, it’s one of those things where… It’s exciting, the way he’s playing, and I always love the incisiveness of how Chick Corea plays and the rhythmic energy of it. The trio is strong. They’re great musicians. The bassist sounds like John Patitucci. I say that because of the way he’s playing those high ideas, and there’s a certain rhythmic attack which he has. I like the drummer. One thing I will say is that I love the way Roy Haynes plays with Chick Corea, because he puts it right up in that area where Chick’s stuff sounds so ebullient. But I’m not sure who the drummer is. He sounds good, though. I like the way Chick is trading fours, too. [AFTER] Wow! Because I never really checked Dave Weckl out so much as a straight-ahead drummer. 5 stars because it’s Chick Corea. I feel like some of the pianists got alot of stuff from hearing Chick’s music. So in a way, this is a continuation of a lot of the great music he’s done from “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” especially in the trio vein. Those records are very important.

2. Pete Malinverni, “Elegy” (from AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, Reservoir, 2002) (Malinverni, piano, composer; Dennis Irwin, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) (4 stars)

That’s a hard one to guess. The composition seemed almost derived from a classical type of progression. I thought it was nice the way the pianist, the right hand especially, was playing some really nice things. In contrast to Chick, for instance, the rhythm was a lot more on the beat. The drummer is playing pretty much on the beat. Even the pianist’s left hand, a lot of the time, is playing very much on the beat. I would guess from that that it’s probably an older style, or a younger person imitating an older style, which many people do, too. In terms of who it might be? Oy!! I could get somebody from the Hank Jones-Tommy Flanagan-John Lewis type of vibe. I didn’t really hear enough to be able to identify somebody, but stylistically I would say that it’s coming out of those types of pianists. There’s a certain restraint in it that’s very nice, and also rhythmically it’s sort of staying more within than, say, the way Chick starts his phrases at the end, or even when Chick is trading he doesn’t stay so much in the rhythmic grid. But I enjoyed it. There was an elegance to the way whoever it was, was playing. I liked the composition. That sort of composition is hard to play on, because the type of chords he was using are…it’s one thing when you have a composition based on that, but when you actually have to solo on it, it’s a harder thing. There’s a certain…what’s the word when something is foreordained…when there’s a certain progression that’s happening… I don’t know who it is. 4 stars. [AFTER] They’re great players. I’ve played with Dennis Irwin, and I love playing with him. He gives a lot to the music when he plays, and he’s also a total Mahler fanatic. I’ve spent entire evenings talking to him. We have this connection beyond having played together. I wouldn’t say he really got a chance to play his stuff on that track, but he’s a great player.

3. Geoffrey Keezer-Mulgrew Miller, “Alpha” (from SUBLIME: HONORING THE MUSIC OF HANK JONES, Telarc, 2002) (Keezer, Miller, piano; Hank Jones, composer)

It sounded like two pianists. If it was one pianist, it would be Art Tatum. Again, it could be several people. Playing together that way is hard, and the pianists had really good time. I like the way they accompanied each other. They weren’t always walking. Sometimes they were breaking up the time, sometimes they were letting open space happen, other times they were trying to sort of walk the left hand. It had a good feel to it, a good swing to it. Stylistically, I would put it somewhere coming out of pianists like Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Barron rather than somebody playing more outside. They’re playing really within changes. But there was a lot of creativity in how they were playing. It’s hard to guess who it would be. I’m trying to think of duet records. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Keezer had a nice idea with this record. I used to hear Geoff Keezer more. He has an awesome technique. And I love Mulgrew. He has so much swing, and a lot of harmonic sophistication, and good time. I was thinking of him, especially in those runs, when he’s filling up the space. It had his signature.

4. Chano Dominguez, “Cilantro y Comino” (from HECHO A MANO, Sunnyside, 2002) (Dominguez, piano; Javier Colina, bass; Guillermo McGuill, drums; Tino di Geraldo, percussion; Joaquin Grilo, Juan Diego, Lorenzo Virseda, clapping) (5 stars)

I like this very much. It’s definitely a marriage of flamenco music — flamenco harmony and melody and definitely rhythm — and a Jazz-Latin vibe. You can tell the soloist is familiar with both of those words. I really like playing against that percussion, the clapping. My guess would be the guy from Spain who played with Wynton… I don’t remember his name. Actually, I heard him play at a festival in Spain. I like a lot of people who are bringing those types of rhythms in, where you can go back between 2 and 3 rhythmically. Those types of polyrhythms sound great. The pianist sounds like a combination of coming out of Chick Corea but trying to be more folkloristic about it in dealing with the flamenco part, which I like. So 5 stars. I don’t know the other players, but I’m assuming it’s the same group I saw him with.

5. Roland Hanna, “One For Gustav (Adagietto)” (from APRES UN REVE, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Antonin Dvorak, composer) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He or she played the beginning of… In the first part of the piece, the improvisations were really not on the harmony. They were just alternating on two chords. When people take a piece like that and sort of “jazz it up”… I think whoever was doing it was trying to do it in the style of a jazz ballad. I’m not sure that they got the drama of that music, in a way. There’s a sort of pseudo cocktail vibe to it. Although it was well done. The pianist is good, had a very good touch, and the group is playing together. In a way, I would want more from doing that, because to me, the point of taking these pieces is to bring something else to it, even if you’re going to play it fairly straight, that the improvisation should propel the piece forward. I was looking for more of that. But it was well-done. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Roland Hanna is a great pianist. I think that a lot of… [Does the function have anything to do with the aesthetic?] Well, I was going to say that. Again, there’s many ways to do it, so this isn’t in any sense a criticism. It’s just more a sense that I guess if you’re going to take a lot of his music and try to transform it through improvisation, there’s intense ways to do it. Roland Hanna was a great pianist, and I used to go hear Roland Hanna all the time play with Thad Jones, a really long time ago when I would first come up to New York from Philly to hear the band play, and I’d sit right up next to him. I consider him a great pianist who was a master of many styles, and also a real gentleman. So maybe it’s the idea of a theme record, where they’re suggesting to somebody that they take these pieces and play them. In that sense, it’s okay. But even then, I would rather hear Roland Hanna play his real thing, which I didn’t.

6. Bobby Few, “Continental Jazz Express, Reprise” (from CONTINENTAL JAZZ EXPRESS, Boxholder, 2002) (Few, piano, composer) (4-1/2 stars)

A very powerful pianist, influenced a lot, if it’s not Cecil Taylor, by Cecil Taylor, especially the types of left-hand flurries. The harmony doesn’t totally sound like Cecil Taylor, but if it’s not him, it’s somebody who’s listened a lot to him, especially the way he moves around, those types of two-handed figurations that go up and down, these ostinatos that start and stop and then move back. If not him, I’d guess somebody like Marilyn Crispell, or maybe Matthew Shipp — although it could be many people. In a sense, some of it almost sounds like a cross between certain classical composers, the figuration and sort of a Cecil vibe. But in a way, it doesn’t really sound like…there are certain things that don’t sound like Cecil, so… Like, now it doesn’t sound like Cecil. To me, it’s a challenge to play this way. The ending is very different than everything that came before it. I was very surprised by that ending, because in a way, it sort of went into a very tonal bebop type of ending. But it’s a different challenge to play this type of music than it is to play on changes, because in a certain way, you have to keep things moving and harmonically interesting without the benefit of having types of chord changes. But I enjoy this type of music very much. So I would give it 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Wow. I should be more familiar with Bobby Few’s work. That was strong. I need to check him out more.

7. Hilton Ruiz, “Black Narcissus” (from ENCHANTMENT, Arabesque, 2003) (Ruiz, piano; Joe Henderson, composer)

This is a Joe Henderson song called “Black Narcissus.” It’s a beautiful song. It’s very hard to play. Again, it could be many people. Maybe somebody like John Hicks. Just because of the style of the runs. He or she is keeping a rhythmic pulse going in the left hand to accompany. That’s another thing that’s hard to do when you’re playing a song like this without a rhythm section. You have to keep that thing moving. I’m hearing the pianist move in between playing in time and a more rubato type of feel, where the time is a little bit freer, which is nice. There’s also the attack. It’s a harder sound rather than a softer sound. But dynamically, it’s working, because they built up to a solo, and now they come back to the head and it’s more gentle, slower. I like the performance. Maybe it’s Joanne Brackeen. I know she played with Joe. But it is a certain maybe New York style of really digging in and playing. I wish I knew who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Hilton! Another pianist I’ve been hearing ever since I moved to New York, and usually not in this sort of context. Usually with his group. I love the song. Joe Henderson is a great composer, and it’s a challenge to play on tunes like that. They’re deceptively simple, but they were really vehicles for the type of floating improvisation that combines so many different styles, from the blues to outness, with very advanced harmony, very inside harmony. It’s a great tune.

8. Classical Jazz Quartet, “Invention #4” (from THE CLASSICAL JAZZ QUARTET PLAYS BACH, Fine Tune, 2002) (Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Ron Carter, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D-Minor. I’d guess the pianist is Kenny Barron. Especially his right hand is very…the timing is beautiful, the touch is very beautiful. It’s very light compared to the Bobby Few take, for instance. And it’s very well-suited for playing Bach. I would also say that unlike the other piece of Mahler, where you’re taking the piece but not necessarily adding to it, here I think that they are sort of using the harmony. Bach also lends himself to this very much, these type of circular harmonic patterns that are really satisfying to improvise on. So this feels like it’s moving forward in a better way. There’s a good contrast between how they’re soloing on it that sounds real, rather than sort of, “All right, now we’re going to take a little solo after we play this whole classical piece.” So in that sense, I think there is a better integration between the soloing and the piece. I like this middle section when they do that sort of minimalist thing, and then it breaks, and then they’re sort of vamping, and then they go back to the Bach. The arrangement of the piece is nice. And I really can’t say enough about Kenny Barron. Again, another pianist who, ever since I moved to New York, I’d make it my business to go see him play at Bradley’s. I’ve gotten to know him. He’s seen a lot and heard a lot, and he’s also from Philly. 5 stars. [AFTER] Let me say that Stefon Harris sounded great on that. That was a nice arrangement.

9. Orrin Evans, “Some Other Blues” (from BLESSED ONES, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Edgar Bateman, drums)

It’s a blues by John Coltrane. There’s a looseness in the way they’re playing which is sort of different, let’s say, than some of the other pieces you played. I like the way that the pianist is touching on different styles, however briefly. There’s a mixture of sort of a bebop vibe, but also sort of playing outside of the harmony, playing real swing type of lines, but then sometimes moving sequentially, leaving it, using the themes from the melody as a basis for improvisation — sort of repeating things over and over again versus playing more fluid lines. So I like the contrast that’s going on in the piece. I like the way the bass and the drums sometimes seem like they’re falling behind, and then catching up. A lot of times, when people play a blues, they keep it very straight, and I think that the group is going for more of an open feel. I wish I knew who it was. [Any idea who the drummer might be?] That is a really good question. The drummer… Wow, wait a minute. The drummer seemed like he or she was very influenced by… It could be an older drummer, coming from the ’60s. There’s a certain looseness and almost non-chops-oriented approach to playing the swing thing. It almost reminds me of somebody like Barry Altschul. But I really don’t know who it is. It sounds familiar, and that’s why I’m frustrated, because I feel I should know who it is. And when you tell me, I’m going to hate myself. It’s not the sound of the record; it’s a certain approach. Certain people wouldn’t like that approach. There’s a certain looseness to it, and it’s okay. I like it when people go for that feeling. For the vibe, 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I was almost going to say that it sounded like Orrin, but in terms of the style… I grew up playing with Edgar Bateman, and he was considered to be a very eccentric drummer in Philadelphia compared to the more eccentric style people like Philly Joe or Mickey Roker. He was playing a lot of complicated stuff that I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t deal with. Because the way he was trying to play, it really was coming out of that head where instead of creating these continuous grooves that you sort of float on, he’s also trying to set up obstructions, then relax, then go forward, and so there’s a certain give-and-take which I really like. It’s great you played Edgar Bateman, because a lot of people really don’t know about him. Orrin is also somebody that I’ve known from Philly even before he moved to New York. I knew him through Ralph Peterson. Orrin is really combining a lot of stuff which I like. I think he has a lot of sense of humor in his playing. Also, I like the fact that he’s not afraid to sort of go for things, just as a musician. So I give it up to him.

10. Pablo Ziegler, “Chin Chin” (from BAJO CERO, Khaeon, 2003) (Ziegler, piano; Walter Castro, bandoneon; Quique Sinesi, guitar; Astor Piazzolla, composer)

It definitely sounds like Piazzolla. It was definitely out of the tango. It wasn’t Piazzolla, but sounded like a group playing his music. Maybe it was Richard Galleano or Gil Goldstein…I’m not sure who it was. It was interesting formally. I really liked the arrangement, and then sort of everything dropped out, and there was a longer piano solo and then a very short ensemble at the end, which was different. I don’t think that would normally happen, necessarily. For me, it was hard to tell from the solo who it was, because a lot of the solo piano part didn’t necessarily sound improvised; it sounded like it was composed and part of the arrangement. The harmony in that piece, as in a lot of Piazzolla’s music, is beautiful, the way it goes around and a lot of unexpected chords come into it. So I liked it. It was hard for me to tell from that piece who the pianist was, because I didn’t recognize the style — it was more playing a part. But I liked the arrangement. 4 stars. [AFTER] When I discovered Piazzolla’s music, it was a revelation, and then when I played iun Argentina I got a chance to see some of these clubs where they’re dancing to the tango, and it was interesting to see how there were some people saying “Piazzolla is not tango,” and then other people saying, “No, he took tango to the new form.” It reminded me of the way people talk about jazz or improvised music, where some say, “no, this is really jazz,” and others, “No, this is really the shit” or “he took it, but it’s not the real thing.” It was interesting, because I’m not prejudiced by those things, and I can deal with the traditional tango and also the Piazzolla, but once you start to really get into it and appreciate what he not only had to struggle against, but to develop his thing against a lot of people who said it’s not the real thing, it’s a good lesson that you should go with your own thing and create — using the tradition. Because it really sounds like he is using that tradition. But you see it in a different context with different music, and you realize that this dynamic goes on in a lot of musics.

11. Vijay Iyer, “Circular Argument” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Derrek Phillips, drums)

Geri Allen? I like the melody. It has a Monk vibe to it. Also sort of a looseness of how… Again, the soloing is not based on bebop harmony so much. It’s this rising progression. A good ending, too. The reason I said Geri Allen is because certain phrases reminded me of some of the stuff that she might play — or maybe Michelle Rosewoman. The lines had a certain feel like that. But I liked it. It sounded like a challenging piece to have to improvise on. It was combining swing with — especially in the piano part — a freer type of playing over that. Which means it could be a lot of different people. Maybe Andrew Hill? I’m trying to think of the drummer, because there was a very distinctive… But I don’t know. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve played with Derrick Phillips. He’s great. I first heard Vijay Iyer playing with Steve Coleman, and the other stuff I’ve heard that he’s trying to do in dealing with certain rhythmic structures… I think he’s an interesting pianist.

12. Fred Van Hove-Frank Gratkowski-Tony Oxley, “Tiddledit” (from GRATHOVOX, Nuscope, 2002) (Van Hove, piano; Gratkowski, alto saxophone; Oxley, drums)

Stylistically, it’s coming out of a much freer school. When it started out, it could have been a piece by Stockhausen. Now we’re in an improvisation section. The saxophone player could be Greg Osby or Tim Berne. Neither of those? Oh, shit!! Or Anthony Braxton. [You’re on the wrong continent.] There’s a certain tone, and also the line he’s playing over and over again is complicated, wide jumps… Well, this part I would say is more in the Tim Berne area. But maybe it’s somebody like Louis Sclavis. It’s not Peter Brotzmann. [Wrong horn.] That’s true. It’s definitely coming from the free jazz vibe. The pianist reminds me of… Especially the way they were playing in the beginning, the way they’re using the pedal and the way they’re voicing, almost using the harp sound, it’s very typical of certain music of Messiaen. Now, in this more active section here, it has more of a Cecil Taylor vibe. But who knows? Again, it could be a lot of people — and I wish I knew who they were!! 4 stars. It was interesting. It was not surprising after a certain point, and in this music it really needs to be surprising. But actually, I shouldn’t necessarily say that, because I can listen to that music for a long time. There’s a certain vibe that gets going, and I guess the question becomes in any music, if something can be said in 5 or 10 minutes and then you start to get bored with it, is that your fault or the music’s fault. I don’t know what the answer to that is. It just sort of happens. Any music that stays in a certain area can be accused of that, and it’s not a good way to criticize music, because there are certain aspects of a lot of music that… You’re not going to get another thing from it. You’re not going to get a free jazz solo in the middle of a Mozart sonata. In that sense, I can accept it. It’s definitely well played, as opposed to a lot of free music that I think just sounds like a hit-and-miss attempt by a group that can’t play. These guys can play. Who are they? [AFTER] These are all musicians who are not getting the type of due that they should be getting, especially in the United States and especially, I guess, in a more mainstream jazz whatever. When I look at it that way, I want to defend musicians like that, because I know, in a certain way, they’re keeping up a certain tradition that’s important, and I enjoy it. It’s even more than a tradition. It’s just fun. As a musician I enjoy playing that way.

13. Brad Mehldau, “Paranoid Android” (from LARGO, Warner Brothers, 2002) (Mehldau, prepared piano; Derek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Matt Chamberlin, Jim Keltner, drums)

There was a very interesting contrast in the arrangement between the sort of quiet, almost classical sounding piece with the harmony and the pianist sort of playing against those long chords, and the more rhythmic, Latinesque type of piece. It’s hard to guess who it was. For a minute (I know this is a strange guess), I thought it was Brad Mehldau, because of certain lines he was playing. But it’s characteristically… I guess I’m more familiar with his Art of the Trio records. I enjoyed it. Brad Mehldau is a great pianist, very original. He does amazing things with his touch and also the time, how he plays standards in different time signatures. His whole sensibility is beautiful. 4-1/2 stars. In the middle it sounded like they were distorting, or trying to change the sound of the piano. That was okay. I guess he was going for a contrast between those different sections. That sounded okay to me. I’m not sure how clear everything was to him, especially in the percussive part. But again, in terms of creating contrast between section, it works.

14. McCoy Tyner, “Contemplation” (from LAND OF GIANTS, Telarc, 2003) (Tyner, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Eric Harland, drums) (5 stars)

This is a McCoy Tyner piece…what’s the name… It’s on “The Real McCoy.” That one I can identify. McCoy Tyner!! That’s one of the amazing things about McCoy, that he’s instantly identifiable, especially with those runs, his touch… In a way, he’s the pianist that so many other people followed in this groove, and it’s… Wow. That’s all I can say. Great musician. Sounds like Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I could listen to this a long time. I heard Bobby Hutcherson play a lot this summer with Herbie. 5 stars. Again, it’s the same vibe. You have somebody who’s done so much over a long period of time, and I think… A lot of pianists studied his stuff a lot — the lines, the way these tunes moved. I also love the original recording of this with Joe Henderson. There’s a lot of classic McCoy solos where he’s playing both as a leader and as a sideman which maybe are more intense than this thing you’re playing for me. But even McCoy’s bad days are great. There’s a total consistency. When you invent a certain style, that’s what happens. You’re creating this area you’re playing in, and he’s certainly created a distinctive sound for piano.

*******

Uri Caine DownBeat Article, 2001 — Final Draft:

In late February, a packed house at the Knitting Factory witnessed a performance by the pianist Uri Caine and an octet of Caine’s adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

The set, videotaped for “B.E.T. On Jazz,” was textually rigorous, expertly paced, cinematically orchestrated, never condescending, and hardly ever arch. It proceeded as follows. Addressing a slightly out-of-tune piano, Caine gracefully stated the opening variation. After a brief rest, turntablist DJ Olive let forth a swoopy Spike Jones sound, launching Caine into a barrelhouse refrain. Olive countered with a Dada voice inquiring, “Are we sure we know where we are?” Violinist Joyce Hammann played a straight classical theme against a Caine bop variation; trumpeter Ralph Alessi and clarinettist Chris Speed commenced a free rubato dialogue; the ensemble plunged into a N’Awlins blues concluding with a Caine quote of “Over the Rainbow.” Over the next hour, they referenced Hardbop styles from Kenny Dorham to Woody Shaw; Barbara Walker sang four spirituals, moving from Mahalia Jackson fervency to spirit-shaking shuffles to Fontella Bass-like avant-pop declamations over atonal horn lines; Olive punctuated with a series of aphorisms, jokes, cantorial grunts, and synth sounds sampled from musique concrete; Caine crafted compelling solos in the Tyner-Hancock-Corea mode. It ended with a succession of Olive-spun snores, reminding us that Bach had written his epochal masterwork of theme-and-variation as a soporific for an insomniac noble patron.

Caine streamlined this Goldberg from the elaborately reimagined version that he recorded in 1999-2000 for Winter&Winter. He arranged 26 of Bach’s 30 original variations — and wrote his own variations on the given harmony — for various ensembles drawn from a dramatis personae including early instrument specialists, a German choir, singers Walker, Mark Ledford and David Moss, several deejays, and jazz improvisers like Don Byron, Greg Osby and Ralph Peterson. He devised an intricate system of strategies to impart structural unity to the whole. Where Bach wrote a Sarabande or a gigue as a dance form, Caine riposted with a drum-and-bass or a tango. Bach wrote every third variation as a canon voiced at each interval from the opening unison to the ninth; Caine composed variants incorporating the intervals and equivalent time signatures — i.e., the canon at the fourth is 4/4, the canon at the fifth is in 5/4, and so on.

“Theme-and-variation can liberate the composer to write in other people’s styles, because the game of the piece is the variety,” Caine had noted a few weeks before at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant not far from his Upper West Side home. “If Bach composed a nod, say, to Scarlatti, I could do mine to other people. You can emphasize the contrasts of miniatures following one another in rapid succession that are unified by a central theme. Unlike a sonata, where you develop and recapitulate the opening material, here it’s like a jazz solo; you lay out the theme, and then BOOM, all these different chords and variations. If you gave a jazz musician the 32 chords of the Goldberg theme, it would be like a 32-bar song form. I’m dealing with it from that point of view.”

Back at the Knitting Factory, after a brief intermission, the octet launched into a program of songs and symphonic excerpts drawn from the corpus of Gustav Mahler, played in a relaxed, stretched-out manner that had the quality of a jam session. Caine first recorded the material on “Urlicht:Primal Light” [W&W] (it won a Best Mahler Recording of 1997 award from The International Mahler Society), and offered a live concert followup two years later, “Mahler in Toblach.”

“Even in high school in Philadelphia, I could see that Mahler switched up feelings,” Caine recalled after swallowing a forkful of arroz con pollo. “He would cut from a complex Wagnerian orchestral sound to, say, a klezmer band playing a folk melody, or break up a marching band section with blaring trumpets, or bring in the simplest heartbreaking melody. He was one of the first modern composers who juxtaposed the beautiful and the vulgar to reach a greater whole, and he referred to aspects of his own life. He gave music a psychological dimension, setting up an expectation, then bringing in a counteractive element, for which he was severely criticized in his lifetime. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone, and it reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.”

One of those players is the trumpeter Dave Douglas, in whose sextet Caine regularly appears (see Douglas’ acclaimed homages to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams). Not long before the Knitting Factory set, Caine sidemanned for a week with Douglas’ newly formed quintet at the Village Vanguard for a series of tightrope-walking sets that blended the best-and-brightest of cusp-of-the-’70s Miles Davis, Mwandishi, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, the Sonny Rollins-Don Cherry Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Perched before his Fender Rhodes, fully in synch with the formidable bass-drum team of James Genus and Clarence Penn, Caine spun out surging solos that evoked sturdy melodies from complex voicings and jagged rhythmic designs, and drew on a comprehensive awareness of contemporary electronic music to navigate nuanced open-form structures. From night to night he refined his touch, testing different angles of approach without fear of failure; by the end of the week, Douglas observed, “I felt Uri had come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music.”

“The reason it’s exciting to play with Uri is that he understands so many different musical languages,” Douglas continued. “It’s rare to find someone with the technical knowledge to perform the Goldberg Variations, who can deal with freedom and move in and out of the post-jazz continuum without missing a beat. Uri arranges the Goldberg or the Mahler or his own trio completely free and flexible, so everyone can go for it. I’ve been on Mahler gigs where we’d have this incredible train wreck, and if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out. Uri would have a beatific smile on his face, like, ‘Here we are in the real music — now deal!'”

Caine’s dialectical tinkerings with the tradition make him a hot commodity on the European continent. According to my seatmate at the Knitting Factory concert, his beautifully packaged CDs, each a fine piece of handiwork, receive place of prominence in German record stores alongside the Three Tenors. He has performed his Mahler at an international assortment of Classical and Alternative Music venues, including the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival and a slew of Mahler festivals.

Following one such appearance, a representative of the Munich Opera invited Caine to do a project with the music of Robert Schumann. Caine’s response was “Love Fugue” (1999), which sandwiches Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Opus 47 — performed by La Gaia Scienza Ensemble with ravishing idiomatic specificity — with Opus 48, “The Poet’s Love,” a song cycle of 16 love poems from the composer to his wife, deploying three poets (“it’s about the poetry of love”), guitarist David Gilmore (“the intimacy of the Bill Evans-Jim Hall vibe”), and vocalists Ledford and Moss (to evoke the “the gospel and pop overtones we hear in this beautiful piano harmony written in 1840”). That followed “Wagner e Venezia” (1998), which documents a Caine-led sextet of New York first-callers performing his arrangements of iconic Wagneriana in the cafes of St. Mark’s Square that Wagner habituated a century ago.

Nor is Caine close to slowing down. Another record of Mahler’s songs is in the can, and he’s working out the logistics of an “audio film” project constructed around the musical tropes of Brazil. In 2000 the Stockholm Ballet Company made a ballet for Swedish television of “Wagner e Venezia”; in May 2001 the Pennsylvania Ballet will premier their version of his Goldbergs. As we speak, he’s writing a piece based on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with improvisation commissioned that Concerto Köln commissioned for a June 2001 premiere. Still in gestation is a scored piano concerto for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern to which Caine will add arrangements of iconic jazz compositions, and he’s mapping out a version of “Otello” for Milan’s centenary celebrations of Verdi’s death.

“Uri is working with the history of Western music,” says Caine’s producer Stefan Winter. “Both the jazz and Classical audiences in Europe understand what he is doing — if he is turning a section of Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel, or putting something on top of a Bach bassline. I think they love this incredible variation and interpretation. Uri’s music has no categorization. He is using all his influences; he works in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. He is absolutely reflecting what happened in the last 400 years of music history. He has the talent to take these elements apart and make his own puzzle out of it.

“When I was coming up in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t have predicted that my thing would develop the way it has,” Caine says. “I wanted to move to New York and play with Freddie Hubbard.” That said, “Blue Wail” (1997) is Caine’s only hardcore jazz date for W&W. Tackling a set of eight distinctive originals with a take-no-prisoners trio (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums), he reveals an improvisational personality informed by but never imitative of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor, as well as Philly piano idols McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron and Hassan Ibn-Ali. It begins and ends with a pair of let-it-all-hang-out improvisations on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that evoke the spirit of Earl Hines’ free associative solo performances of the ’60s and ’70s.

Caine spent a good chunk of 1999 exploring the jazz prehistory from which Waller emerged while researching and preparing “The Sidewalks Of New York: Tin Pan Alley,” a kaleidoscopic “audio film” for W&W that he dedicated to his grandfather, Edward Caine, a Russian Jew who died that year at the age of 97. It postulates an idealized music hall in which a multicultural cast of in-character performers who play 27 tunes of provenance ranging from 1892 (“After The Ball”) to 1915 (“Cohen Owes Me $97”). Caine eschews parody, vividly reconstructing the sound and animating spirit of the time. More clearly than any of Caine’s projects, “Sidewalks” articulates the enduring American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon to vernacular imperatives.

“I was thinking about how a lot of the songs we play as jazz musicians became established,” Caine reflects. “I read about the history of Tin Pan Alley and the groups of musicians who worked in different genres in New York at the turn of the last century. I’m fascinated by the immigrants who came to New York City, who were transforming America as they were being transformed themselves.”

Caine credits an immigrant from the post World War II diaspora as the catalyst of his personal transformation at 13 from unfocused student to driven musician. This was the virtuoso French pianist Bernard Pfeiffer, a stylistic omnivore whose conceptual range spanned Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor. “Bernard told me that if I really wanted to improve, I’d have to get intense on every level,” Caine relates. “I’d have to practice and investigate and start reading and start thinking. I’d have to start playing with musicians my age and older, listen to them and try to move into what they do, even if I don’t accept it all. Since then I’ve felt that if you can play in all these different areas, you should go for it.”

At 17, Caine left home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a conservatory-trained practitioner of Modernism under the tutelage of twelve-tone composer George Rochberg, who gave Caine an early assignment to write a piano reduction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” the pianist notes with some asperity. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.”

Caine was learning his jazz the old-fashioned way, on the streets of inner-city Philly. He apprenticed on gigs playing electric keyboards in a variety of bars and lounges with local sax hero Bootsie Barnes, master drummen Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham, bassists Jymie Merritt and Charles Fambrough. He jammed with Rashied Ali, Pat Martino, Hank Mobley, Johnny Coles and even Grover Washington; he workshopped with post-Coltrane tenorists Odean Pope and Willie Williams; he played Avant-Funk with drummer Cornell Rochester and electric bassists Gerald Veasley and Jamaladeen Tacuma; he worked cocktail gigs in the upscale parts of town.

“Whatever circles Uri moves in, he maintains his identity and speaks up,” says Rochester, who remains a close friend. “He never changed up what he’s about. I grew up with a lot of gang activity, and Uri impressed me because he always hung with us in the hood; he played in areas that I would never even go into. I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; I just thought about him in our context, which was different than what Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were doing, where he functioned perfectly. He’s been functioning multi-dimensionally for a long time.”

“I never felt a barrier coming from those musicians,” Caine emphasizes. “They basically told me, ‘If you’re cool and properly respectful, and keep your ears open, you’re welcome.’ I always enjoyed the power of the drum, how you get a chance to surf on top of all these incredible feelings. Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were dynamic players and strong stylists, and I was lucky that they took me under their wing and were generous with their advice.”

Caine began to lay down New York roots in the early ’80s, and by 1987 he found the studio apartment that he and his wife still use as their primary base of operations. At first he scuffled, working as a rehearsal pianist, doing $15-a-night gigs at places like Augie’s, sitting in at public jam sessions and workshopping at private homes with like-minded peers such as Douglas, Mark Feldman and M-Base bassist Kevin Bruce Harris. Not infrequently, he toured with Cornell Rochester, and at a festival in Saalfelden, Austria, Caine met clarinetist Don Byron, who was in Craig Harris’ band. They bonded during a long bus ride to the next destination; in 1990 Byron invited Caine to join his successful klezmer project and continued to use the pianist in his jazz groups. That year Caine also began to get steady employment with disparate stylists like Buddy DeFranco, Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. In 1992 Caine made a demo, and Winter — prodded by Gary Thomas, then a JMT artist — released it as “Sphere Music.” Caine followed up with “Toys,” on which an ensemble featuring Douglas, Thomas, Byron, Dave Holland, Ralph Peterson and Don Alias tackled four reconstructed Hancock standards and six tone-parallel-to-Herbie originals.

“Stefan may have thought I would be his Postbop, inside-out piano player,” Caine speculates. “He didn’t have someone like that; a lot of the M-BASE guys and Cassandra Wilson were leaving him at that point. It all changed when Stefan broke with Verve in 1995. He took from that a resolution to never again become involved with a corporate entity. That’s when I started these other projects, which — without trying for commerciality — became more successful for him than the stuff he tried to do to fit into the corporate realm.

“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Caine muses. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It’s a question of accepting the basis that they’re dealing with. On the largest level it’s all one thing. But I don’t want to disrespect any of the musics by saying it’s all the same, because it’s not. Coltrane’s achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I’m for less generalizations and more specifics.

“Now, once you start taking commissions, the process involves the input of a lot of people. For example, the Bach was going to be just my group of musicians and deejays in New York. Then German radio said they could give us a choir and free studio time, and Stefan Winter jumped at it. Of course, I wanted to write something for choir, but I wasn’t originally thinking about it. I try not to compromise. But for instance, if someone commissions you to write a piece ‘doing what you do,’ and what you do depends on having a trumpet player to whom you can say, ‘Okay, when we get to this part we play on these changes,’ and their guy is like, ‘What does that mean?’, then you have to say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this out.’ I’m still adjusting to the idea that these groups have their own thing. Part of you is saying, ‘This is not going to work,’ part of you is saying, ‘This is an experiment; even if it messes up, I’ll try it.’ The worst that can happen is that it fails.”

Caine turns 45 this year, and he is content. “My vibe is that the most important thing is to try to stay in the game, like I’ve been doing since I was 17,” he says. “To the extent I’ve been able to do that and not play barmitzvahs on Long Island, I feel very happy.”

**********

Interviews with Uri Caine’s Colleagues: (Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave Douglas, Stefan Winter, DJ Olive):
TP: What are your early memories of Uri, of your first encounters, and his musical level at that time?

ROKER: Well, he always had great potential. He went to University of Pennsylvania. Him and a friend of his who played piccolo… When I first came back to Philly, I had just left Dizzy and I started taking gigs around Philly because I wanted to learn how to play jazz again. Because playing with Dizzy in the later years, we played a lot of rhythm-and-blues and Latin and Rock type things. So I started taking local gigs. And one of the first gigs I had was with Uri Caine. First we played with the tenor player Bootsie Barnes from Philly. Then Uri had a gig and he asked me to play with him, and we played at a club called All That Jazz on 18th Street. We played there one or two nights every weekend for about a couple of months.

TP: What were your impressions of Uri as a player then?

ROKER: Well, he was just a young kid then. He was trying to find himself. But now he’s found… You’re always trying to find yourself. We didn’t really play together that much for me to know exactly what was in his head. I can only tell you what I think was in his head. He always had good potential, he always had a good beat, but harmonically and rhythmically he was trying to find himself.

TP: He seems always to have been able to fit in well with dynamic drummers.

ROKER: Well, any musician. If you’ve got a good drummer, then that’s part of it, man. Then you don’t have to worry about the rhythm. You dig? All you’ve got to do is worry about the melody and harmony.

TP: Do you remember what kind of tunes you’d be playing?

ROKER: We were playing like some standard tunes and some original tunes. But mostly standard jazz type tunes that guys play. I can’t remember, because it was 20-some years ago.

TP: But I assume you’ve been keeping an eye on Uri over the years…

ROKER: I haven’t really been keeping an eye on him. We play together whenever we can play. For the last ten years he’s been living in New York. We played together about a year ago.

TP: I’m sorry to push this in this direction, but I’m interested in someone who has known and played with him for the amount of time you have who can discuss how he’s evolved.

ROKER: Well, he has definitely grown since the first time I played with him. He can tell you about himself better than I can tell you about him. My impression is that when I first started playing with Uri, he was a young guy who showed a lot of potential. In fact, he had probably just come out of college. And now, he’s a productive piano player. You know what I’m saying? So he had to be sincere and do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of practice in order to become what he is now. But the main part of that is finding yourself. Once you learn the basics. First you’ve got to learn the basics, and then you’ve got to find which direction you want to go in. A lot of guys can play the piano, a lot of guys can play instruments, but you have to find out which direction you want to go in. There are so many avenues, so many ways to get to the same thing. Now, I think he’s found his direction.. The last time I heard him was a year ago and I think he… I’ve always had respect for him as a piano player; he’s always been a good piano player. But he was a young piano player when I first joined him.

TP: So he always had chops and instrumental ability, and you’re saying that just as part of working very hard and growing up, he’s begun to display his own sound and style.

ROKER: Right. It takes time to do that.

TP: One thing about Uri is that he functions simultaneously in different style s of music. He has the European Classical projects, then when in Philly, apart from hardcore jazz he played a lot of funk and electric gigs with keyboards, and he seemed able to do all of those in the manner in which they’re supposed to be done.

ROKER: Well, Uri is a good rhythmic player. You’ve got to know all the different aspects of rhythm. The horn players, all they do is deal with melody. But the rhythm players, you have to know all these rhythms and know them authentically. There’s a lot to rhythm.

TP: So you would call Uri a good rhythmic player.

ROKER: He’s a good musician. Which takes all three — rhythm, melody and harmony. He’s a good musician, and he’s grown musically over the last five-six years. He’s mature. I can’t pinpoint it because I don’t play with him all the time. I play with him every once in a while. And there are so many young cats I’m listening to. But I’ve always respected Uri because he’s always been a good player. I mean, you can live three lifetimes and you still won’t have it all. Nobody’s got it all! But as long as you grow and show some kind of improvement in the way of maturity, then you’re going to be respected by your peers.

 

ROCHESTER: I had a band in Philadelphia years ago with the bass player Gerald Veasley, and Gerald brought Uri to my attention. I live in North Philadelphia and grew up with a lot of gang activity and stuff… I was always impressed with Uri because he always used to play in the black neighborhood. He used to work with Philly Joe Jones and a cat by the name of Bootsie Barnes, and like I said, I basically grew up in a gang type of situation, and I was always captivated by that because there were areas I would never even go into… But I always came into contact with him from that perspective, but I didn’t know he was involved in a multitude of things like going to the University of Pennsylvania and studying up there; I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; and I didn’t know that he was basically… I thought he was from West Philly, and he was basically from Valley Kenwood, like out on the main line to a certain extent. He always hung with us in the hood and everything. But I just never knew he was into all these different kind of things. He’s a very interesting individual, multi-dimensional. And he can function definitely in a lot of different situations.

I always respected him, because he’s Jewish and like I said, we had a couple of people who were Hebrew-Israelites here in Philadelphia, and he don’t care where he go at, he really maintains his identity and he really speaks up, don’t care where he’s at, what environment and everything. I was always impressed with… He’s just a very interesting guy! Almost like Frank Sinatra; they say he’s a guy that can actually fit in in any kind of situation. Like I said, when he started doing this Mahler stuff, I wasn’t… I did tour with him with that Mahler thing in England. And I had never even heard of Mahler before! It was just interesting.

TP: Do you remember when you first met him?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s when I first him… I used to play with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so then he was on Gramavision, and by me playing with him, Jonathan Rose had approached me to do a project, because he was familiar with me from playing with Odean Pope, the saxophone player who plays with Max Roach. So we had a record with me, him and Gerald Veasley years ago. I wasn’t a writer, and I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t a songwriter and stuff. But he said he could just come up with something. Then I told him I was in a partnership, and I went and got Gerald Veasley. Then we started getting a band together, and the first person he brought through was Uri Caine. And he was really receptive to what we were trying to do. We were basically trying to do something different. We were basically thinking about trying to do something more commercial, but I think Jonathan Rose wanted to do something more different. That was his emphasis. So Uri, even during that time… I was mostly thinking about him playing with Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker and these jazz musicians, and he was into this synthesizer and everything in the early ’80s.

TP: When Uri played with Philly Joe and Mickey Roker, would he be playing acoustic piano or electric piano?

ROCHESTER: Well, this was in the early ’80s. I don’t think they were doing a lot of acoustic piano.

TP: Those rooms didn’t have piano.

ROCHESTER: They were basically just playing in bars, like in the 21st Street Bar, and all these places really in the hood, far as… I know Philly Joe Jones is international, and I’ve been traveling there since 1980, and I know all about Philly, but as far as my environment… Philadelphia is highly segregated, and you have the African-American community here, you might have the Asian community… It is highly segregated, but everything is within the community, so you don’t really have to go out of your way, so you can be isolated to a certain extent. So as far as these black clubs are concerned, I’d never seen any of these black clubs that had an acoustic piano. So I think he was basically playing electric piano. And he was playing with Bootsie Barnes. I think he was even doing an organ trio thing, too. I did a record on Moers in ’93, and I had him playing on black keys versus white keys, with Willie Williams on sax and I was playing drums. It was based on an organ trio, something like what Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette were doing in the late ’70s. It was based somewhat on that. That was my last one. You don’t know about it because I had rappers, and the name of the record was… I said, “Your Mother’s On The Pipe.” It was kind of controversial. So a lot of promoters and distributors shunned it. But we did three or four European tours on it. But basically, that’s the reason why they said it was offensive.

TP: So with you Uri dealt with the electric keyboard function and more with funk and less jazz.

ROCHESTER: Well, I was basically playing with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so I was trying to intermingle that with the Rap. Because even in the ’93 record where I think I was one of the first one who was trying to have the rappers on a more progressive… I got these rappers rapping, and their music is more progressive than that rapper up in New York was doing with the vibe player… I was something a little bit more progressive, because I was looking at it from a musical perspective. So I had like the rappers doing these lines, something like what Steve Coleman was doing, with the bebop lines and everything, unisons with the horn and stuff like that. But basically, when we did that record in ’93, that’s what he was talking about… He was more into acoustic piano and everything, and he did a couple of acoustic piano things on the date. I wasn’t really all that familiar with the piano, because when I write, I write off of the regular electric piano. So then I said, “Man, I could have did this whole record with the acoustic piano.” So right now that’s all he plays, basically, is acoustic piano.

TP: I saw him play Fender Rhodes last week with Dave Douglas. He seems so comfortable doing so many different things, and he seems to do them all in an idiomatic way. When he plays classical music, he does it the way classical music is supposed to be; when he does funk, it’s the way that’s supposed to be; and when he does bebop and post-bebop, it’s the way that’s supposed to be.

ROCHESTER: Well, like I said, he’s a guy who was functioning multidimensionally for a long time. Because like I say, when he was in our little thing, I never thought about him in terms of classical or in terms of this other stuff that he does. I just thought about him in that context, and in our context he was functioning perfectly. So I think that it was just a learning experience in all these different contexts. My context was different than what Philly Joe Jones and them was doing. This girl, Terry Gross, she has a show on NPR, was saying she used to go to these clubs down in center city. I never really went to these places. But she used to see him down there, playing in duos and stuff like that. You know what her show is about; you can imagine what environment she was in. I listen to her show a lot, too. But at the same time he was playing with us, I guess he was playing at these places, too.

TP: You know Uri pretty well. What do you think it is about him that lets him function like that? It isn’t most guys from his background who can function comfortably, without giving up their identity, in a hardcore Black situation for sure. A lot of white guys would try to be Black or act that way.

ROCHESTER: First of all, I kind of know his father, and his father is a lawyer, who was the President of the Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, and his mother is a university professor. He said that when he was growing up, they constantly had intellectual discussions and debates; his father is a great debater. And he was head of the Civil Liberties Union, so you know where he’s coming from, what his politics is about. So I think by him saying that they grew up like that, debating over the table. So I think that was naturally in him. And like I said, I was always impressed because when he came into our environment, he never changed up what he was about. He just is an interesting guy.

TP: Do you ever remember Uri being in a dicey situation or having to stand up for himself physically?

ROCHESTER: Like I said, just being in that situation… He’d fit in so good with them. He was just a part of their thing. It was never really about a racial thing on that level. People in North Philly, they’re so busy hustling and trying to make money, it’s not a (?). Especially with the whole drug situation, like you have everybody in your community come for drugs and stuff like that. So it’s not really on that level. But you very rarely found somebody that’s very vociferous, when they get into an environment. One time I was in Europe with them, and I seen these guys, they were like Germans or something, and it seemed like he was ready to get into a thing with them [LAUGHS] — and I was kind of scared to death! I think basically it’s his upbringing with his father, and that’s what gave him the character that he is. Like I said, that’s why I always respected him, because he was what he was.

TP: If you were going to describe him to someone as a keyboard player, as a musician, how would you do it?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s kind of hard to say now. Because like I said, he can play everything. I can always go get him… When I’m trying to make a record, I can go get him, because he can play what I want him to play. Because before I got my writing to the point it is now, I wasn’t real clear what I was trying to do, and he was able to really formulate and translate what I was trying to verbally say. Because I tried to dictate things to a certain extent at that point, and he was able to process the information and he was able to do something great with it. So he’s real creative on that level.

You’re asking how can a guy go int these different style like that… I’m not trying to get too out there on you. But I think as far as that astrology thing, he’s a Gemini, and Geminis are people who have multiple personalities, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he seems to be… Miles was a Gemini. Know what I’m talking about? I think maybe that’s what it is, that they can handle a multitude of things comfortably simultaneously.

TP: Maybe that’s what it is.

ROCHESTER: I don’t want anybody to start laughing at that shit. But I used to work with Jamaladeen, and he was a Gemini, and he seemed to be trying to do a multitude of things simultaneously. Even one time he was trying to do a Classical project, too, when we were in D.C.

TP: Kind of what you’re saying is that Uri can get into the thought process that goes into whatever piece of music is being played in whatever particular way.

ROCHESTER: But also I think basically that not only can he feel that naturally, but he actually studied it. Because a lot of people have a feeling that they would like to get into a Classical thing and would like to do this. But they haven’t really studied it enough to make it legitimate. He can effectively play in these different things because he’s effectively studied these things.

TP: And he’s had functional experience in all of them. He’s played Funk, he’s played Bebop, he’s played Classical music.

ROCHESTER: Yes. From my perspective, that’s why I say I’ve always appreciated what he’s about. Even though I didn’t know the full extent of what he’s about and didn’t really understand that he was as analytical and thinking person as he is, because we were so busy just trying to play… I didn’t know that he had an overall perspective on what he was trying to do, and what his relationship in hanging with us was about. So I didn’t see that picture from that far away. He’s an interesting guy.

 

 

TP: When did you first hook up with Uri? Do you remember your first encounters?

SWANA: I remember the first time I saw him. It was either ’82 or ’83. I used to sit in at this organ bar called Gert’s, and I came in expecting organ, and he was in with a bass player, playing Fender Rhodes. Gert’s was at Broad and South Street, in South Philly. It was the place where Philly Joe played and Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. I was a real organ hang. When I heard him, I was blown away. I sat in with him, and then I asked him if he taught. He said, “No, we’ll just hang out!”

TP: He was about 25 then. What did he sound like?

SWANA: It was straightahead. He was kind of out of Herbie and Chick, the way they would play Fender rhodes. But it was Uri. He always sounded like Uri. He has a certain feel that I can tell it’s him right away. When I heard him I was like, “Whoa!” I just knew that I really liked the way he played. He’s a very rhythmic player.

TP: Did you see him playing with Philly Joe or Mickey Roker?

SWANA: I saw him play with Mickey. I never saw him play with Philly Joe. I used to go around and try to sit in with him. He’d be playing in these weird trios, playing… After he stopped using the Rhodes, he was playing the DX-7, and he’d play with this guy Akim Emmanuel, and he’d just be going nuts. He’s always had this energy. I always looked up to him. I would ask him… I remember sitting next to him on the bus when we played with Joe Sudler’s Swing Machine — which is a big band that would bring in different people like Freddie Hubbard, Lockjaw, Phil Woods, Bob Mintzer — and barraging him with all these questions about music, and he would tell me what records to get and turn me on to a lot of great even bootleg stuff.

TP: Like ’70s Miles stuff?

SWANA: He turned me on to the Miles stuff and he turned me on to McCoy, Time For Tyner and The Real McCoy and Herbie’s stuff from the ’60s. He loves Joe Henderson, so he made me tapes of Joe Henderson In Japan, all this stuff. And Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

TP: Have you continued to play with Uri over the years?

SWANA: I play with him once in a while. I went to Taiwan with him over the summer, playing the Mahler and then the Bach.

TP: Did it seem of a piece with the Uri you know?

SWANA: He’s so laid back. I went over… We were playing before a big audience, and before we went on stage, he looked at me and said, “It’s just another Joe Sudler gig; it’s just another gig.” Then we go on, and he just gets wacky. I have jet lag and I’m used to playing straight jazz gigs, not really reading lot of music.. So I’m looking intensely at the music, and I look over at him and he smiles at me and starts throwing his elbows on the piano and playing even more crazy. It seems he just has a good time. He doesn’t get uptight. I mean, he might. But it’s his own gig and he’s so laid-back. I was actually really impressed how he handled himself.

TP: But in terms of the structure of the music and the concept.

SWANA: I think it fits with where he’s coming from. Because when I first used to see him, it was only on straight-ahead, and I love the way he plays — straight-ahead he just burns. But he always had this other side where he’s listening to all this crazy stuff.

TP: Do you mean Modern Classical?

SWANA: Well, Modern Classical or… I don’t even remember the guy ,but I was at his apartment in New York and he was, “Check this guy out,” and he was playing this guitar player who was playing these weird sounds. “Man, I dig this!” He was listening to so much stuff. So it was inevitable for him too come into projects like this.

TP: And he’s so well-studied. Just his educational background, his academic background; he’s a very highly trained musician. Cornell said something interesting. He said when he met Uri he had no idea that he was going to University of Pennsylvania and studying classical music, that it was almost a separate thing. He was impressed that he could function in the Black community and maintain his identity, just being him. Cornell said that Uri would go place where he, Cornell, wouldn’t want to be going.

SWANA: Totally. I remember playing at this place called the Top Shelf with Uri, Edgar Bateman, Chris McBride and this guy Julian Presley. Uri’s taking a solo, and this black guy comes in and he goes, “Uri! I love you, man!!” and he just grabs him and kisses him on the head while we’re playing the gig. He’s so comfortable. He just seems so comfortable in any context. On the whole black scene… He used to play with Bootsie Barnes, and so many people…all the time you’d see people coming up and hugging him. He seemed so natural.

TP: So you played the Mahler and you played the Goldbergs on the same tour?

SWANA: Yeah, it was one gig, then there was four days off, then we did the Bach, the second gig.

TP: I realize the Bach parts for trumpet are a certain thing; he has different configurations doing different things even with the live performance. Is that part of your background as a musician, studying classical music? Are Mahler and Bach part of your practice and study?

SWANA: Yeah, I am familiar with it. I didn’t feel necessarily totally comfortable on Uri’s gig. Because as I said, on most of my gigs I hardly read music. I came up Classical but I never really… When it came to that crossroads where you’re going to dive in and try to go to like Juilliard for your Masters or do something else, I chose jazz. I didn’t feel like I did a great job. I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I would have liked to do more gigs..

TP: Uri says that through the live performances, it morphs into something different all the time.

SWANA: Yeah, he’s real loose. Once the violin and Uri were playing one of the variations really straight, and he pointed to me and said, “Just improvise.” We were playing and he pointed to me and the DJ and he said, “Okay, DJ and John, go!” We just started playing.

TP: So he sets up situations where he knows you can function but likes to keep you a bit off-balance and uncomfortable.

SWANA: I don’t know if he meant to… I enjoy that kind of challenge. My uncomfortableness wasn’t because of Uri; it was because of my feeling like I haven’t been on gigs where I have to read a lot of music, so I have to concentrate more. I feel comfortable in those situations. Uri makes me feel comfortable, because I know the wackier I play, the happier he’ll be.

TP: So to please Uri, you have to stretch out.

SWANA: Right, stretch out.

TP: Any other anecdotes?

SWANA: I remember once driving somewhere… They used to play this Brazilian jazz on the radio, and I was driving Chris McBride home or something, and Uri was right next to us, and we opened our window and he had this Brazilian music blasting out of the car. I remember Chris McBride going, “Uri, he’s crazy!”

 

 

 

DOUGLAS: It was different every night too.

TP: That’s emblematic of the personnel you used, and it’s one thing I wanted to broach regarding Uri. Formally, if we look at recorded evidence, he’s been part of these rather specific projects of yours that take off and fly in various directions depending on how much the band plays and where they play it and where you go with the material. Cornell was talking about that, and it seems to be operative with Uri, his utter flexibility and malleability…

DOUGLAS: As I was dialing your number I was thinking of that very word — flexibility. The reason that it’s so exciting to play with him is that he understands so many different languages of the music. No matter where the music goes, he’s able to completely deal — and without missing a beat ever — with all of the changes. I think also what’s interesting in the last few years is that Uri has also become a captivating bandleader. People have problems with tribute projects and theme concepts…

TP: Do they?

DOUGLAS: I hear a lot of talk, like, “Oh, now it’s the Mahler thing, now it’s the Bach thing, now it’s the Mary Lou Williams thing.” Like, in jazz, if you’re not just being yourself, it’s dishonest or something. I think people heap that on the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. But the comment I would make about Uri is that when you hear him play the Goldberg or the Mahler music or his own trio, it’s completely free and flexible. The way he arranges it is that everyone can just kind of pick up and go for it. I’ve been on some Mahler gigs where there’s been some serious train wrecks in the music, and it’s like it didn’t matter.

TP: He sort of welcomes the train wreck.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It was almost like we’d have this incredible train wreck, if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out, but I’d look over at Uri and he’s got this beatific smile on his face, like “Here we are in the real music now. Now deal.” It’s pretty rare to find someone who would know enough about the Goldberg Variations, have the technical knowledge to be able to perform that but also to be able to deal with the freedom and to go in and out of the post-jazz continuum.

TP: You and Uri in are both experimentalists and traditionalists in a fundamental way… Well, this isn’t about whether Uri is one or the other, but about how what he does stems from his life and experience in palpable ways. Cornell said that when he heard Uri in Philadelphia, it was on synth in Gerald Veasley’s funk band.

DOUGLAS: That’s the first time I heard Uri, too. He was playing funk on a synthesizer.

TP: He said he had no idea Uri went to the University of Pennsylvania, he had no idea he knew anything about classical music, he had no idea he played cocktail piano gigs, and that Uri would hang with total comfort with this very hardcore group of people in hardcore neighborhoods without ever losing his identity, and he did it without ever trying to be “Black,” and he spoke his mind. From your perspective, what was your first encounter with him?

DOUGLAS: There was a place on McDougal Street called the Scrap Bar. I was friends with some musicians he was playing with there, and I went down and he was playing synthesizer. It was totally a fusion, heavy Rock vibe. And it was happening. The same as Cornell; I thought, “This guy really has some shit together.” Then I probably didn’t run into him again until 1990, when I joined the Music of Mickey Katz group with Don. I was coming to the Mickey Katz music like it was completely fresh; it was a vocabulary I had never played before. I had to learn the whole book from scratch on two days’ notice. I came into it and Uri just sounded like he’d been playing it for years. I later found out that for him,, he felt like he was on a wedding gig or something. Again, it was like, “Hmm, interesting.” I knew he was also playing jazz and doing other things.

TP: How have you observed Uri evolving over the years? Is he more comfortable in his own skin with these projects? Is he just having a chance to do it.

DOUGLAS: I would just say that he is doing it now. I think arranging the Mahler stuff was a real step out for him, and probably something he’d been thinking of for a lot of years, and it just became possible to do it when Winter & Winter came along.

TP: He said he had been dissatisfied with turgid renditions of Mahler, and there was a piece in Toys with a bass line that comes from a Mahler symphony, and Stefan heard it and said, “Ah, you know, Mahler,” and then Stefan asked him to do the score for this Mahler movie and Uri said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So a lot of this stuff has come about through the relationship with Stefan, which is a complex relationship.

DOUGLAS: We’ve all had our interesting relationship with Stefan. Well, I no longer have a relationship with Stefan. That’s another article. Or I’ll write a two-minute piece and call it “Summer and Summer.”

TP: Uri has always played acoustic with you.. Talk about how he functions on your projects.

DOUGLAS: I always see articles when they talk about the guy and then they interview somebody and the person ends up talking about themselves. I don’t want to go in to say, “Well, I called Uri because.” But it is true that when I started the sextet to play the music of Booker Little I couldn’t think of anyone else I would have called that would understand where I was coming from. There are very few people who would have understood what I meant when I said, “I want to do rearrangements of these pieces from 1961 and play them totally our way, differently, and here I’ve got this sheaf of original music that comes out of that spirit, and I want to play this originally but this is why we’re doing it.” There’s a big leap of faith going on in there. So the person really has to have a rock-solid understanding of the traditional aspect of the music, but also have a real experimental sensibility to know how far is too far. Uri can play as out of a piano solo as you could ever want to hear, and I have certainly asked him to do that in certain situations. But that’s not always what it’s about. When you’re talking about taking traditional elements and moving them forward, there’s something else that has to happen. And Uri is really brilliant in understanding that. I think that’s what he brings to these projects he’s working on now.

TP: I don’t know how proactive you want your sidemen to be. But how much input do you get from Uri in doing these projects?

DOUGLAS: I think it depends from piece to piece. A lot of times for me… Again, I think that Uri works this way. Rather than speaking about it, you hear what someone does, and then you make a decision based on that. You say, “Okay, they’re playing this here because they think that’s what this is, and it might be more interesting if blah-blah-blah.” So I think that in this kind of music, you rely on musicians to help you develop the thing, but it’s up to the leader to make those ultimate decisions.

TP: Talk about this new body of music you’re working with here in relation to what Uri was doing with the Fender rhodes.

DOUGLAS: I thought it was interesting to watch Uri this week, because the Fender rhodes really is a different instrument than the piano, and it’s a delicate instrument, and he had to refine his touch, and it was interesting to see from night to night that he would approach the music differently each night and approach the instrument differently. I felt that by the end he had really come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music. I obviously chose to ask him to play Fender rhodes for sonic reasons, and I wrote the music that way. So aside from having this wealth of harmonic and melodic and rhythmic knowledge that he has, I also wanted to draw on his awareness of electronic music and contemporary sounds, contemporary electronic music. I think it took him six nights to figure out how to get the Rhodes to speak that way. That’s what I like to see, is somebody who is willing to not get it the first night. I mean, it was still great. Sometimes I feel like musicians are too quick to just say, “Yeah, I got it, no problem.” But someone like Uri, who is willing to take a chance that it may not work and to actually develop it on stage, is really special. I think that’s the legacy we all take from Miles Davis, is that creative music should be developed onstage, in front of an audience.

TP: And it seems that Uri also deploys that attitude with these Classical projects.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. That’s what I was saying before about actually being on a Mahler gig. I hadn’t played the music in three or four years. It was in Israel on a big festival stage, and I was totally lost. I looked over, and there he was smiling. It was like, “Yeah, now we’re here.”

TP: So you first met him around ’87 at the Scrap Bar…

DOUGLAS: I think it was earlier than that. I think it was in ’84-’85. It was when I first moved to New York.

TP: You first gigged with him in Don Byron’s Mickey Katz thing.

DOUGLAS: I think so. Around 1990. I hired him in ’94 to play on In Our Lifetime. Then he hired me in 1995 to play on Toys. He’s been on all my sextet records, and now we’re continuing together in this new concept.

TP: Are you recording this music, Dave?

DOUGLAS: Eventually. I’m not in any rush to, because this one, unlike a lot of my projects, I want to see it develop. Most of the sextet records I just write and they’re fully formed, and we just go straight into the studio. But this one we have some gigs later in the year, and we’ll work some more before we record it.

TP: This would be an interesting live record.

DOUGLAS: I was thinking about that all week actually. But it would have to be a double-CD. Because everybody was stretching out. We’re not talking about Uri now, but I don’t know if you saw Ben Ratliff’s review in the Times. It was interesting to me that he was only able to make links to the obvious connection of the Miles quintet from ’67.

TP: I was hearing a lot of early Freddie ’70s CTI stuff.

DOUGLAS: Right, but also Lee Morgan, Live At The Lighthouse Joe Henderson, If You’re Not Part of The Solution, and a lot of other things as well.On line a woman says: “I’m curious how someone who operates so deeply within a Jewish sensibility has his CDs produced in Germany.”

 

TP: I want generally to discuss with you a few aspects of your relationship with Uri — the history of it, the dynamic of how projects are generated nd conceptualized, how what Uri does fits into your personal aesthetic, and perhaps some sociological observations on the reason why what Uri is doing has struck such a chord. People tell me that what he’s doing has made a tremendous impression. How did you first come in touch with Uri and what of his qualities made you want to record him?

WINTER: Basically, it started out that Gary Thomas introduced me to Uri. The very first album that Uri did on JMT, Sphere Music, Gary Thomas was playing on. Gary gave me a tape where he’d played together with Uri, and I very much enjoyed his playing. Then Uri and I got in contact, and I think we figured out pretty quickly that we have a common understanding and that we want to work together. So we released two albums on JMT, and then basically the story really starts when I was talking to Uri about the tenth anniversary of JMT. We were organizing a three-day festival at the Knitting Factory to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the label, and besides the normal performances of music, I wanted to have also some special performances. I have known that Uri, when he studied music, was very much interested in Gustav Mahler’s music, and I gave him a film documentary that I and my brother did together and asked him if he could use this film documentary about Gustav Mahler as a silent movie and if he could play with his group Mahler’s music. That’s what Uri did at the tenth anniversary of JMT at the KF.

TP: At that point, did you consider what Uri would do with Mahler’s music? Was it something that you foresaw or discussed?

WINTER: I mean, we had spoken about it, of course. But if you talk about something and hear it later on, most of the time it’s different. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I have had a certain expectation, and after we have done the project my expectations were absolutely fulfilled. It was even like going further and more deeply into the direction I thought it would go. So for me, it was not like a super surprise when I did the album or when I heard the music live at the tenth anniversary at the Knit.

TP: What was your expectation?

WINTER: My expectation was that Uri is doing with this music the same thing that jazz musicians have done for a long time with the history of American popular music. Basically, they’re taking known songs, songs from musicals and so on, and playing around with these songs. They’re improvising, they take these songs apart and put them together in a new way, they reharmonize these songs and they play different melodies on it, come back to the melodies, and play with excerpts and parts of this music. So in a way, they make this music to their own music. That’s one of the reasons why jazz music in the States became popular, is because a lot of people can recognize their music history. They can recognize songs which were popular in the ’20s-’30s and the big musicals. And if you recognize something (this is giving each listener a big helping hand), then you know where you are, and it’s much easier to understand the music.

TP: Now, there’s one difference, it would seem to me, between the way jazz music was developed, which came out of a vernacular, vis-a-vis what Uri is doing with Mahler, Schumann, Wagner or Bach, which is the Canon. It would seem to me that the audience for this music has a different sense of what that music is, if that makes any sense. I’m just saying this to refer to the position this music occupies in the social hierarchy. Do you see that at all? Is this changing now in Europe, the attitude towards Classical music.

WINTER: Well, if this attitude exists (and I’m not sure it’s the truth), then certain writers and certain critics have these attitudes. But the audience and I think the majority of the writers don’t have this attitude. I think this attitude is clearly coming from the 19th Century. It’s coming from a time where the music, more or less, was ruled by the middle class, especially here in Europe. In the time after Beethoven, when the middle class were making certain compositions to their heroes and they wanted to have certain artists where they could go to opera houses, to concert houses and so on, to listen to these heros. It’s coming from a time which to my eyes was a very-very short time period. It was maybe 100-150 years long. And before that, talking about Baroque or Renaissance music, we didn’t have this kind of hierarchy in the music. It was very different. Maybe we’re coming back now to the point that it’s really possible just to listen to music without having this hierarchical thinking in our brain.

TP: Uri said that in one of the tunes on Toys, the bass was taken from a Mahler symphony, and that’s how you arrived at a mutual understanding.

WINTER: Yes, that’s how it started out, it’s true.

TP: With Mahler, obviously you demonstrated the evolution of Uri’s concept through the studio and live albums. Can you discuss how the Schumann and Wagner projects were set up from your end?

WINTER: In a way, all these projects are projects which Uri and I have created together. Sometimes he has had certain ideas and sometimes I have had certain ideas, and we talked about it. If you work together with somebody, and you work together with somebody in a close way, then you share thoughts. And if somebody is telling you his thoughts, this is working in my brain, and if I tell Uri some of my thoughts, I guess this is working in his brain. So it just came together. I made an album in Venice where I recorded the orchestras that play in the coffeehouses at St. Marks Square in Venice, and I knew that Wagner’s music was played at these coffeehouses during Wagner’s time. Wagner wrote letters very often that he heard his music at St. Marks Square. I talked with Uri about it, and then we both had the idea to arrange Wagner’s music for a coffeehouse ensemble. Everything more or less that we do, it’s not that there is one great idea by either Uri or I. I think it’s a common sense that we have. I am very open to what Uri wants to do, and I am trying with my thoughts to give Uri a helping hand so that he can really develop what is inside him. This is very-very important for me, and it’s not so important for me to fulfill my own wishes and thoughts. I’m not that kind of producer.

[Uri comes from a background where he was immersed and functioned professionally in three areas of music — as a student of Classical music with academic training; as an idiomatic jazz musician, and as an idiomatic funk-jazz musician. The way he puts it, when he was in Philadelphia, Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker didn’t know he was playing with Cornell Rochester, and Cornell Rochester didn’t know he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. He kept each sphere kind of separate from the other. So he comes from this background, and there’s a very heavy jazz component to what he does.]

TP: To what extent do projects come out of Uri’s have struck a chord in the European community in terms of getting commissions or going to festivals and so forth? But he’s had tremendous success in penetrating the European festivals, and I wonder what you think the attraction is to them.

WINTER: The attraction is that Uri is in the history… It’s like part of the history of the music scene in the Western world. All composers worked with music that was written from other composers. I mean, Beethoven did something about the Diabelli Variations, and then Bach used some Vivaldi, and Mahler used some Mozart, and so on. And it’s going on and on. In our day, sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult, because the law forbids certain adoptions, because you need the permission from the composer, which was very different over one hundred years ago. I know that there are, for example, certain composers who were working with certain materials in our day… Cage, for example, wrote a piece which he named “Imitation,” and he used some ideas of Eric Satie, and the people who held the rights for Eric Satie didn’t allow Cage to do it, but Cage turned it around to such a degree that he made it into his own piece and they couldn’t anything against it. He called it, I think, “Imitation,” which I’m sure was a sarcastic title.

It’s a shame, what’s going on at the moment, and I think that the law, which normally should help the musicians and the artists to secure them, is now turning around, and it’s working against the musicians. They can’t just go on and adopt the music as they want.

But the success in Europe has to do with the fact that Uri is working with the history of Western music. And the people — on the one side the jazz audience, but on the other side, the Classical audience — understand what he is doing, because they are able to recognize the parts and they understand if he is turning certain parts of Mahler’s music into, say, some Jewish feels, or with Bach, if he is working with this bassline and putting something else on top of it. I think they just love this incredible variation and interpretation that he is doing.

TP: Uri always seems to have a narrative goes… I was sitting next to a musician at the Goldbergs last night, and he commented, “It’s a revue,” which is a good description of The Sidewalks Of New York. It evokes an imaginary, idealized music hall circa 1905. One dynamic comes on, then another, then another, and it’s unified by some overarching narrative. That’s apparent in Uri’s records going back to Toys, which was devoted to the vibration of Herbie Hancock. It makes him an effective leader, because his personality comes through so clearly.

WINTER: Uri is using all of his influences. He studied Mahler on one side, and on the other side he is very close to Latin music, then he also studied Herbie. There are so many different aspects. And he is able to use these aspects in his own music and make his own music out of it. I don’t really see all these so-called arrangements, that he is more or less adapting or arranging Mahler’s music. I look at it in a different way. I look at it that Uri is taking elements from that music and making his own music out of it. Sometimes he is focusing on Mahler or on Bach or on jazz musicians, but it’s all on the same level. There is no difference. I think the unifying point is that he is always making it through his own music.

TP: Do you have any speculations on the role that national identity plays in Uri’s generating this music, that as an American Uri can observe the music in a fresh way or without the weight of the tradition upon him…

WINTER: I have thought about this, too. But I don’t really think it has to do with Uri being American. In my eyes and what I hear today… If anybody else is around who can do what Uri is doing at the moment… I think Uri is an absolute exception right now. It’s not that he is an American or European or whatever. It’s just him. He is a total exception. Looking at the whole music tradition, I have absolutely no fear to mention Uri’s name in the same category as Beethoven’s name or Mahler’s name or Wagner’s name or Bach’s name.

TP: In what regard?

WINTER: He has the same kind of value for our music in terms of reflecting everything… One element of an important artist for me is that he is able to reflect what happened before him, what happened before his time. And Uri is absolutely reflecting what happened in the music history in the last 400 years. He is absolutely able and has the talent to use all these elements, and take these elements first apart and then put the new puzzle together — making his own puzzle out of it. I think this is a very-very important part of a musician. Bach or Beethoven, all these people, they have done something like that, and this made those people very special, that they were able to reflect the time before them and make something new out of it.

TP: If I can paraphrase: Uri is going back to the future. He’s going back to a certain attitude of musicmaking which had gone by the wayside in the last century or so.

WINTER: Definitely, yes. And there is no categorization in Uri’s music. He is working in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as he is working with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. There is no difference. I think this is very important. As I said in the beginning, we have these categorizations. Our schools and universities and so on tell us this is a high-level music and high art while this is low-class art. I think this is absolutely nonsense. If you would talk to Mozart, he used certain melodies in the “Magic Flute”… The biggest success for Mozart was always that the people in the street were whistling his songs and that they were turning his songs into popular folk songs. Brahms did the same thing. The music was always connected with the people. And I think it’s a big mistake to put something on the throne, because then it’s not reachable for us. If something is on a throne, then we are afraid of even touching it or we are afraid of doing something with it. If this is happening with art, then I believe that we kill this art.

TP: The Sidewalks Of New York might seem like anomalous to the other projects, but not if we look at it as a revue, as a commentary on the material. How was that generated?

WINTER: I started doing what I call Audio Films. It started out in Venice, where I recorded these coffeehouse orchestras and tried to record the atmosphere of this location. I’ve done it in Buenos Aires, in Havana and in other places. I was thinking about New York and how is it possible to make an audio film about New York. My girlfriend, Mariko Takahashi, told me at that time to do something with Tin Pan Alley. This is one of the most important areas of…

TP: It’s the prehistory of American Popular Music.

WINTER: Yes. And even I, I have to say, had a wrong understanding. Because I thought it’s later, after the First World War, which is not true. I realized after I started working on the project that the Civil War and end of the Civil War was basically the starting point for that music scene. There is so much in it. The idea, in a way, was to try to make an album where we can capture the music and the feeling of the time as we see it. I talked a lot with Uri about it. We talked about the sound effects we wanted to use, and the different elements, how we would like to present the music, and that this song should play in a vaudeville, and this song should play in like a Jewish marriage and so on… Like somebody else would produce a movie; to produce an album about an historic subject, and doing it as someone else would produce a movie about that time. That was the idea. If you listen to the album, I think you can close your eyes and time travel into that era, and be free to discover a different feeling.

TP: Uri did a great job at imparting an idiomatic quality to the music. It didn’t sound in any way condescending. He got into the skin of the time. Do you and Uri operate by a contract, or do you go from record to record?

WINTER: We go from record to record. That’s how I work with most of my artists.

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen not them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

TP: Can you tell me some rough estimate of the sales of Uri’s records, dividing them between Europe and America. Uri told me you mentioned to him that one of the records sold 1000 copies in a short period of time in Hamburg. Are the records selling well, within your terms?

WINTER: Some are doing very well, other ones are difficult…

TP: Which are doing the best?

WINTER: That’s something I hate to talk about. Because I am not producing music and looking at sales figures, and I am not continuing working with musicians because of sales figures.

TP: I’ll ask you this, then. Do you marketing in the sense that you break down who is buying the music? Who are the people in Europe who have Uri Caine’s records?

WINTER: I don’t do that at all. Even in Europe, one day I got the record for whom are you producing this-and-this music. It happened to me when I was writing music for an album which was called The Little Trumpet 10 or 15 years ago, and the German company asked me, “For whom did you write this?” I said, “What do you mean?”

TP: But I’m not asking that. I’m asking who is buying it.

WINTER: But that’s what I mean. Really, seriously, I don’t want to even think about it, because if I think about who is buying it or who could be the target group, then maybe I could change or the artist would change his music around to fulfill a certain group of people. And I think it has to go the other way around. Uri or Paul have something to say, and up to us to bring it to the audience. And I believe if we make good efforts to bring it to the audience and the music is good, then people also will enjoy it.

TP: But you do a certain packaging and presentation. The records stand out. I assume you mean it to reflect a visual analog of your aesthetic. The musician I was sitting with yesterday said he was in Cologne, and that Uri’s records were prominently displayed in the record store, next to the Three Tenors. I think the stores here like Uri’s records and consider it a mark of status to sell them, but they’re not marketing them with the Three Tenors. I don’t care about the commerciality; I’m more interested on what this tells us about the impression Uri’s music is making upon the public that buys these records.

WINTER: When I was 18-19-20 years old, I read the letters between Schoenberg and Kandinsky. From that time on, it was always inside me that I want to bring together as an editor and work together with artists who on the one side are musicians and on the other side are painters and photographers and so on, and the best would be if I am able to bring together certain artists. That’s how I feel I want to work as an editor, and my main work is to be an editor. Our whole packaging is a result of just presenting the music or some other arts in the same kind of value or in the same kind of form. And I figured out that it is impossible to do this in a plastic box. I mean, you are killing the art if you do that in a plastic box. So I was just searching for another way. That is the main reason why I’m doing that. It happened, for example, that a new album which we are releasing right now for an accordion player, Theodore Ansilotti(?), is playing Scarlatti’s music, the artwork was done by Baselitz, who is one of the most contemporary German artists. These kinds of things are happening. Then Baselitz invited the musicians, and he played for Baselitz, and an interactive thing was doing on between Theodore Ansilotti(?), the accordion player, and Baselitz. I love if these kinds of things are happening. And especially talking about the States, one of the most important artists is Steve Byrum who did most of the JMT covers and also a lot of cover and artworks for Winter&Winter. He is for me a very important voice. If you ask me, then I say Steve Byrum is as important as Baselitz is in Germany. It’s just that these people don’t get the recognition they should get.

TP: I think in the art world, even more than the music world, the market and commodity value of the work is what causes an artist to be visible in the arts community. What is Uri’s next release going to be?

WINTER: That is a rather difficult question. We are working to release three albums at the same time in more or less three different directions. I have no idea if we can realize what we are planning to do. But that’s what we have in mind. We have in mind to do three albums and to put them out at the same time, but these three albums are going in three different directions. One album will be a piano solo record which is already recorded. Then there will be another album which he wants to record with a trio and with deejays; it’s a combination of his trio works and deejay works. And the plan is to make a third album with Brazilian-Latin music.TP: Uri said that you and he first encountered each other at various sessions at the Tap Bar. Is that how you and he started making narratives together?

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, but I didn’t really know him. That was with a group called Liminal, which was me, Danny Bloom and Richard Pinsiera. We were playing the Tap Bar, and anybody could basically jam with us. Danny Bloom knew the Knitting Factory scene a lot better than we did; Rich and I were from kind of the electronic music scene. A lot of people played there who we didn’t really know but Danny knew. Then when Uri was working on the Mahler record, he asked Danny if he knew any crazy deejay, and Danny said, “Yes, I know Olive.” So he brought me out to a studio in Brooklyn, and Danny and I jammed on the multitracks for like a 9-hour day. When the Mahler record started selling pretty well in Europe and the tours started coming in, he asked me to go and tour with him, which was a really different role than jamming to multi-tracks. He really liked what I was doing on the road so…

TP: I want to elaborate on several things you said. On the Mahler thing, what was the criteria for the choices you were making within that jam? Obviously, once you have some time under your belt, you can codify your ideas. But jamming as a deejay, what areas of music and sound were you thinking of as matching Uri’s concept?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I really didn’t know when I went to the studio. I had no idea. Danny basically called me and said “Do you want to do some studio work? We’re going to play to some multi track, and it’s like jazz interpretations of Mahler.” I really had no idea. I put together my arsenal, my toolkit of different directions I could flip the script. The main thing for me, in general, that I look for are records that have a single instrument on them or sections with solo instruments. Because if you’re playing with a band, and you start mixing in a whole other band, it’s very hard to have it integrate with the musicians. I find one of the dangers of deejaying with bands is that it can become a kind of two-dimensional thing, where you have the band and then you have the sound coming out of the sound system. It happens a lot when deejays play beats with a band and there’s a drummer there as well, and you hear the processed beats coming out of the sound system… It’s kind of complicated. But records have timing and tuning. So if you pitch something up so that it’s the right pitch, it’s very…almost never going to be in time. So for me, when you start playing beats for stuff that has both timing and pitch involved in it, then the band starts to play to the record rather than the record being inside the group like another instrument.

TP: I’m interested in the way in which your own personal narrative intersects with Uri’s, because you’ve obviously developed a strong relationship.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. Well, in general, I was playing with a lot of bands, and I was boiling down my toolkit into the single sound records that I could find, and then starting to press my own records that I call palettes, which are various single noises and sounds and people talking who are mostly friends of mine or musicians I know who get in the studio. That kind of way that I am deejaying with bands is I guess why Danny said, “Why don’t you use this guy?” I already kind of had that formula going. When I went to the studio, they had 90 minutes on multi-track, and then they would play us a track, and we would jam to it, then maybe we’d jam to it again, and they could edit us out or cut-and-paste us anywhere they wanted later. So I would try different things and see what the response from Uri was, because I was getting to know him that day. He was digging it. He seemed like he was really liking it and I was doing the right thing, and he didn’t sort of tell me what to do or second-guess me. I tried to do what I thought would add something, would be a cinematic element. So it would be as if, as an audience, you could start to picture the sound in your head.

TP: How did this develop on the tour?

DJ OLIVE: On the tour he just kept telling me to play more. I wasn’t playing very much.

TP: How did your concept of what he was doing evolve over the tour?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to play the same things or to be like a wild-card for a little while, so I was testing that ground. Then I really found that for me (and he seemed to agree), the more wild I could be… It’s almost like I was keeping the band on its toes, in a weird way. If I was playing the same sounds, the same little spoken word chunks, then the band wouldn’t have a reaction to it in the same way. Because if you put in some spoken word, like collecting the garbage or something, people react to that only the first time in the same way, because it has the humor and the content or something. So I was trying to keep the band on its toes by always playing something different, coming in on different people’s solos with different sounds. Then there were a few sounds that I found would really worked somewhere, like the snoring at the end of the Goldberg Variations. I started to play something like that every time, and it really fit. But I don’t think that the turntables are a very good instrument when you start having to hit cues, where you’re playing a set record at a set time. Then you really should be picking out a sampler.

TP: As far as the Goldberg vis-a-vis the Mahler, are you using the same process? Are you working from the text, as it were, or are you relying on your intuition in regard what the sound is in the moment?

DJ OLIVE: It’s a combination. The text from Mahler is really different than the Goldberg.

TP: And Uri’s process is very different in dealing with the two.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah. But I think a lot about Mahler and about Goldberg; not so much about Bach, but more about this insomniac who couldn’t sleep, and that he’s sitting in his bed and these pieces are being played in his castle over and over again. So I started to think about incidental things, like dogs barking or a cat or going to the toilet, or things that would happen for an insomniac. Mahler is really different especially because we were touring Germany and there was this issue about Mahler being coopted by the Nazis, and this kind of Jewish-German meeting place of culture.

TP: You mean the Nazis coopting Mahler’s legacy.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. They were using his work, which was really ironic because he was Jewish. So that kind of thought started to come into play as far as what kind of person he would be, and trying to… For me, I had a much more melancholy sense about some of the tracks. I guess his kid died. There’s a song about that. So I would try to put my head in a very different place for each piece. But the technique is pretty similar. On the Bach I tried to be a loot more funny.

TP: So you’ve known Uri now for 4-5 years. Tell me your impressions of him as a thinker, as an improviser.

DJ OLIVE: You know, it’s really not my world. So I am constantly amazed by these players and their process. I work with computers and samplers and stitching little tiny bits of sound for hours and days and weeks, just one measure of some beat. Very synthetic. And it’s all basically intuitive, except knowing the programs. I can’t write a bar of music. But to watch someone like Ralph Alessi sight-read and sight-transpose simultaneously, like having the sheet music for say the clarinet and transposing it for trumpet while it’s the first time he’s ever seen the music, blows my mind. I see that on the road working with these guys. So I’m more amazed by what Uri is doing. When he was working on the Goldbergs, we were in Austria, and his hotel room was just papers… He was talking on the phone and writing music, and you had to walk over piles of music, and there was all these different players, and they were rehearsing every day. It was like four days rehearsal. He was constantly rewriting. I was really blown away by how intense his process was, but it didn’t seem to be bogging him down at all.

TP: He seems not to get particularly phased by much of anything.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. He’s an amazing guy as a bandleader. I’ve never been on the road with someone like that, as far as not stressing the band. He is ridiculously nice and considerate, and trying to take care of everybody without it being like a panic. Everybody seems to get on the train, everybody seems to get on their plane and get to the gig. There’s no drama. And that’s his style. That’s true with his playing, too, that he won’t necessarily try to mold people into his pieces, but to have pieces evolve with some of the players.

TP: So basically he’s extrapolating everyone’s tonal personality and have that comprise what the music is at that particular moment. I guess the music can have infinite iterations just by who plays it. Maybe that defines what his music is, that there are 8 million ways to skin the cat.

DJ OLIVE: Exactly. And I think he’ll play different tracks when different players are on the road.

TP: Tell me about some of the other bands you play with.

DJ OLIVE: I did a record with William Hooker and Glenn Spearman called Mindfulness, a totally different vibe. I learned a lot from William, and I was on the road with him for two trips. I just did a record with Kim Gordon and Ikue Mori on Sonic Youth Recordings, which was mixed by Jim O’Rourke, who did a really great job. We’re going to go on the road in March, to France and Italy. I have my own project called We(tm). That’s an electronic outfit, and we’ve put out three records. I work with Christian Marclay.

TP: He’s kind of the pioneer of this particular end of deejaying, I would think.

DJ OLIVE: Well, that would be too big a statement. In a way, but I think there’s a middle ground that people like me are finding me that are between the skills developed by Hip-hop and the skills developed by people like Christian. It’s like two different branches on a tree…

TP: I have vivid memories of things Christian was doing in the ’80s.

DJ OLIVE: Yes, and Hip-Hop was happening at the same time in a totally different way somewhere else. I grew up on Hip-Hop and then did some really weird pieces, and someone said, “Do you know Christian Marclay?” and I was like “Whoa!” They gave me the Footprints record. [38] The main thing I’ve been working on is what I call the Vinyl Score, which is compositions for the turntable, which are played by solo deejays. So it’s like a palette of sounds, and you have three copies. You can only play that palette on three turntables for 10 to 20 minutes. So what I would paint and what you would paint would be totally different.

TP: So within a finite set of sounds and these finite instructions, you give your interpretation.

DJ OLIVE: Right. And every time it’s mixed, it’s different, and what you’re hearing are the skills of the deejay and the instruments of the turntables. so I’ve been making those and doing performances in Europe and here with different deejays, playing the pieces back to back. I’m starting a label that’s focused just on doing that. I’m going to do one vinyl score that Luc Ferrari is making and another vinyl score that DJ Toshio, my partner on the label, is working on with John Appleton, who’s a concrete guy. They’re both about 75, one’s American, one’s French, and they’re both concrete composers.

I learned a lot from Ralph Alessi, Ralph Peterson, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress and all these guys. I learned a lot from these guys, just sitting in a train for a few hours. Don Byron, what a thinker, man. That guy is amazing just to sit around and talk with. Ralph Alessi and Drew Gress, and Don can get into this, too…this linguistic gymnastics that’s hilarious! Drew Gress is incredible with it. All this linguistic stuff. It’s pretty funny. Barbara Walker is an amazing person. But she’s not heady in the same way at all. She’s really down to earth but super-smart. For me it’s great to be with these musicians after being in the studio with deejays, which I love, too, but there’s a lot of shallowness and Fashion… It’s a lot about Fashion. Music has Fashion, music has Design. Which I like. I like that aspect of it, of music being like design.

TP: You represent a point of view for other people, and people get very wedded to their points of view (I’m talking about the public aspect of deejaying), so I imagine it would be an easy trap to fall into. Because deejays get a person, a certain authority, whatever that status is, and it would be very easy to get carried away with that.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, and then you get categorized and…

TP: So a lot of the things you’re doing are consciously to avoid that trap.

DJ OLIVE: Well, these people who are like gods to me. Kim Gordon calls me. Am I going to say no? The same with Uri. I knew him a little bit, just his name. But he’s this incredible musician. I’m not going to say no to the chance to work with these people and soak something up, and try to get some feedback, you know, how can I make this instrument work as an instrument, not as a playback device. Or not just as a reference device either, although I use it that way a lot with Uri, like referencing sounds or sound effects or people speaking. For instance, with William Hooker I didn’t do any of that. It was all just usually synthesizer, early experimental synthesizer records. I wasn’t making like any reference to any content or the way that records usually are used when they’re not playing beats.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, uri Caine

For Craig Taborn’s Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008

The magnificent pianist/keyboardist/soundshaper Craig Taborn turned 46 yesterday. For the occasion, I’m posting a Downbeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008.

* * * *

Home in Brooklyn during the first days of spring, Craig Taborn was engaged in research and development. Among Taborn’s various self-imposed tasks was to memorize 10 new Tim Berne compositions in preparation for a three-week April tour in Europe with Berne’s Science Friction group, to which, during the winter, Taborn had contributed—as he had done with David Torn’s Presenz, which enfolds Berne’s band—slamming grooves and an orchestral array of sounds from keyboards, synths and home-brewed “junk” electronics.

“With Science Friction, there’s a lot of electronics and reading,” said Taborn, pointing across his living room to a concert upright Bechstein piano on which Berne’s scores shared space with piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. “Sometimes I’ll want to do a particular part on one keyboard, another part here, then another there. It would be a real problem to read music and also think about all the knobs and dials, or to look at a computer screen and problem-solve while the part is coming.”

Taborn’s penchant for sustaining creative fluency through a 360-degree span of stylistic taxonomies, in contexts “inside” and “outside,” acoustic or electronic, makes him a singular figure among improvisers of his generation. But at this moment, his keyboard wizardry was posing a peculiar problem. “I’m still deciding what to bring,” he said. He wasn’t talking about clothes.

A half-full fiberglass camera case, neatly stacked in two tiers, lay at his feet. “Flights in Europe have been strict on overweight,” he said. He added that during his winter travels he had drastically exceeded the 20-kilo limit beyond which a 10 Euros per kilo fee is imposed.

“Now, this case is actually light for its kind,” he said. “Nothing happens to it—it’s waterproof and you can throw it down the stairs. But it’s 7 kilos empty, and there’s no way to avoid the overweight. So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to deal with? What do I need and how much do I want to take?’”

A possible option would be to place the contents of the case into the square bag that sat across the room, transforming it into an unprotected, carry-on satchel. “You get on these little connecting flights and they want to hand-check your stuff,” he said, nixing the notion. “So you’re giving $1500 worth of stuff to somebody in Italy, and God knows what happens once it’s out of your sight. You get to the gig, and it’s just gone.”

Taborn would bring a laptop with a hard-drive loaded with software emulations of all the instruments he plays, and a contract rider stipulated that each venue would provide an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, and a virtual Hammond organ. “I’ve been trying to phase out my laptop thing, because it takes me out of improvising,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I find I get more mileage out of one or two nice things that do something.”

Deciding upon those “nice things” was therefore the task at hand. One essential was a coil of high-grade electrical cord in a corner of the case. “This is the thing that makes the weight,” he said ruefully. Below the cord was a Line 6 Delay pedal, for echoes, and a Berenger mixer with two stereo and two mono lines.

“A lot of people send everything to the house soundman, but I like to mix myself,” he said. “I’ll plug in the Rhodes and the organ and a couple of synths, then send all the lines to my own amp, and have them mike the amp. That gives me complete control over my sound.”

Taborn considered a keyboard and a wood-trimmed, knob-loaded Creamware Pro-12 ASB synthesizer, built to capture the essence of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a popular synth at the cusp of the ’80s.

“I’m an improviser, and I don’t know exactly what sound I want to make until I hear what’s going on,” he said. “During the ’70s into the ’80s, as synthesizers became refined, the emphasis was put on programmability and keeping presets—you designed your sounds at home with the luxury of time and silence, and then could call them up with, say, button No. 1 at a specific spot in the music. It’s like tuning your TV to your favorite channels. You always know that exact sound will be there, balanced the way you want in the environment.

“I’m interested in the process of making and designing the sound as part of the improvisation,” he continued. ‘I come more out of Sun Ra, who approached synthesizers by turning the knobs, playing in real time, and figuring it out as he went along. Those instruments were new, so people didn’t know them, and they weren’t designed to be pre-programmed, so you couldn’t call up a sound. Throughout the ’90s, hardcore musicians from hip-hop, techno and electronica were buying those older synthesizers to be able to personalize and improvise in real time. The marketplace went way up, and now it’s hard to find things that don’t have knobs and switches.”

Taborn continued to ponder the issue of weight. “I have this whole rig inside my laptop,” he said, referring to his Macbook Pro. “I could plug it into the system, and use a little controller to do all this. I could even emulate the knobs. I always take the laptop with me, and I’ve used it a lot in the last couple of years—although I like to have things dedicated, and I prefer the real thing, I don’t prefer it to carrying all that stuff around. I do hear qualitative differences in the sound. Also, if your entire setup is on the laptop and it crashes, then what do you do? If I run one thing, for instance, it will probably be OK. But if, to emulate a sound I get in real time, I layer a software version of a Prophet-5 and then a software version of a delay, the processors have trouble handling it. It takes a lot of number-crunching in the computer to program things that have the subtle play of an analog oscillator or analog filter, and their imperfections, such as going out of tune a bit when it heats up. For what I do, a lot of real-time manipulation, turning knobs frantically, the Sun Ra kind of thing, the computers will freeze up.”

Offering to demonstrate the virtual gear, Taborn transitioned to his studio, a converted second bedroom. Among other things, it contained a Mac Power desktop, Event 2020 reference-quality speakers, a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer, a MOTU-2408 interface, a Kurzweil K-2500 synthesizer, an Oxygen-2 mini-keyboard, and a model 240B Wurlitzer electric piano from the early ’70s with a broken speaker. A larger wood-body 140B from 1962 was in the closet. His personal Rhodes was parked at his parents’ home in Minneapolis.

Taborn turned on the Mac, clicked Applications, pulled up his Prophet-5 knockoff, a Native Instruments Pro-53, and waited. The response was sluggish. “Something weird is going on,” he said. “If I were live and it started doing this it would be a drag.”

He opened the B-4 Hammond organ sample and uncorked a grooving line on the QWERTY keys. “I don’t play the keyboard computer like that, but that’s how it’s mapped,” he said. He switched the setting from “Funky Kingston” to an idiomatic Joey DeFrancesco-generated B-3 sound.

The computer was balking, so Taborn went to the closet. He pulled out a bright-red keyboard-synth labeled Yamaha PSS-470, the kind musicians once used, in Taborn’s words, “to play a cheesy samba.” Its wiring and circuitry were transformed into random pathways and patterns by Taborn’s friend Ryan Olcott. “You can’t emulate this on a computer,” he said. “I have two of these. You could get them in pawn shops for $50–$100, and then go inside it. Ryan is into these real improvising machines. This one came out in the ’80s, and it has a WHAM! sound, like George Michael, in its original functionality.”

He played a skronky, distorted line. “It can do something like this almost immediately, and when you turn on the switches it gets you into some abstract areas. The mentality is avant-garde; it’s made to be random, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s why I like improvising with it—responding to the sounds and dealing with them is endless.”
As if to emphasize his affinity for radical esthetics, Taborn turned to a pile of books on a shelf, topped by the anthology Film Theory And Criticism. “Film, dance and music all deal with time, and how these events unfold in time is very influential for me,” he said. It was observed that, like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, well-represented in that text, or, for that matter, such formative musical heroes as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, Taborn thinks like a Modernist, focused on the purity and elaboration of a particular idea, rather than translating styles into ironic cultural signifiers in the Postmodern manner. You’re not likely to hear David Torn play hardbop chordal lines as Taborn did with James Carter during the ‘90s, or Berne to limn the melody of Ellington’s “Stevedore Serenade” in an idiomatic manner, as Taborn did with Carter some years ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. But Taborn seems not to recognize hierarchical distinctions between the idioms. He’s as committed to generating fresh ideas in one environment as the other.

After his April tour with Berne, Taborn would return to Europe for the first three weeks of May with Scott Colley and Brian Blade in David Binney’s quartet, interpreting Binney’s harmonically dense, long-form jazz compositions on acoustic piano. Over the previous six months on continent-hopping long hauls with Chris Potter’s Underground, he had donned his Fender Rhodes hat, juxtaposing crisp, surging odd-meter bass lines with simultaneously improvised melodic variations, supporting the proceedings with informed, tasteful comp. Briefer trips and local one-offs—with Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress and Susie Ibarra—augmented Taborn’s mix, as did a September 2007 acoustic trio engagement at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan.

A broadcast of the latter performance documents a six-tune, 55-minute suite marked by fresh ideas and unending musical conversation. It fills a gap—although Taborn, 38, has a large enough backlog of solo, trio, electronic, and ensemble material to fill several CDs, his last acoustic recording appeared in 2001 on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), while his most recent leader date is 2004’s Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear), a seven-track suite on which Taborn convened violinist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and The Bad Plus drummer Dave King to investigate themes executed with various circuitry and computerized synthesis.

“I’ve postponed my leader thing,” Taborn said with a shrug. “Because of finances, I take the tours as they come, then everything fills up.”

Taborn’s employers state unequivocally that his incessant sidemanning in no way inhibits his ability to project his sonic personality.

“It takes a lot of confidence not to go along with the crowd,” Berne said. “If Craig wanted to, he could eliminate all this other stuff and impress everyone with his piano trio. But he based all his decisions on his interest in the music he plays, not only his career or being seen as the great pianist he is.

“I wanted to do away with guitar and bass, but somehow have the power and range of both instruments,” Berne continued, explaining why he first recruited Taborn around 2000. “I didn’t want synthesizers, and I didn’t want somebody to play like a keyboard player, so to speak. I wanted somebody who just played music on the keyboard.”

“Craig is an idiosyncratic genius, which is a word I don’t use lightly,” Torn said. “He’s not a chameleon in the studio sense of the word; he has strong conceptual ideas about what he’s doing in any context. But with the exception of his acoustic playing, which is remarkable, he’s incapable of pinning himself down to an idiom or particular sound. He’s the rare musician who takes the approach, ‘what can I do with this instrument?’ rather than playing through its book of techniques. Regardless of its organic or electronic nature, every instrument is an expression of technology; Craig is able to eschew the technological aspect in order to get out the sounds that he feels are suitanble for the music he’s playing.”

Furthermore, as Berne noted, Taborn directs his speculative investigations towards the function of the moment. “Even playing something complicated, Craig simplifies it to its fundamental components,” Berne said. “He won’t do anything just to show he can; if one note does it, that’s what he’ll play. He also has the guts to lay out, to not play, when most people would feel obligated to. He’ll always take the opposing view. He’ll pose another question or look at things in a way you didn’t consider.”

Potter noted that Taborn’s experimentalism stems less from a contrarian sensibility than a desire to explore the ramifications of the multiple vocabularies that comprise his frame of reference. “Craig has spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the lessons of past masters in the jazz tradition—and other traditions, too,” he said. “When he improvises, he keeps the essence of what makes his influences work musically but takes care not to copy what they did. Perhaps he’ll introduce elements from other sources. He’s intellectually thorough enough to take his own angle.”

Particularly when deploying electronics, Taborn hews to textural imperatives not dissimilar to those that impelled Mitchell and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—an early Taborn influence—to incorporate “little instruments” into the sonic flow 40 years ago.

“I’m always aware of sound,” Taborn said. “I approach the acoustic piano somewhat as a sound device, which it is, but my relationship to it contains a lot of pianism. I learn the Rhodes, the Hammond, the Wurlitzer, the electronics, so that I can use them as devices to work with ideas, but I don’t practice them like I practice piano. Electronic music isn’t playing certain scales over certain chords, or working over a particular form. You might play with the delay, or the rate of an echo, or modify the reverb. It’s less about technique on an instrument, which a lot of jazz is, and more related to visual and conceptual art.”

But it’s also about being able to execute almost any idea he thinks of—Taborn possesses a surfeit of technique. He doesn’t use it, as he puts it, “play in one bag and then shift to another.” Rather, Taborn prefers to borrow fluently rendered vocabulary from the diverse musical languages he commands to create contextual gestures that support and augment the flow. The architecture trumps the facade.

“Prescribing notions of the parameters of bebop or hardbop or avant-garde is to posit a sort of fixed thing that was never fixed anywhere,” he said. “It’s useful as a model to construct and look at things, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the creative process. I draw specific influence from Frank Zappa, Blood Ulmer and Wayne Shorter, not the note choices or harmony, but in phrasing and sound. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t translate to piano or keyboards at all, but comes out sounding like something else.” DB

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Filed under Craig Taborn, DownBeat, Piano, Uncategorized

For Oscar Peterson’s 90th Birthday Anniversary, A Verbatim Interview from 2002 and a Liner Note

To acknowledge the 90th birth anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), I’m appending a verbatim interview that I conducted with him for a piece on his excellent autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey, and a liner note that I wrote for the release of Oscar Peterson’s Big 4, Live In Japan, an after-the-fact issue of a 1982 concert for Pablo Records. Other references to the maestro on this blog-site can be found here.

 

Oscar Peterson (on A Jazz Odyssey):

TP: Why the autobiography? When did you start thinking about it, and what steps did you take in beginning to write and conceptualize it?

PETERSON: Well, it started, believe it or not, about 15 years ago, when the late Norman Granz spoke to me and said, “You ought to think about writing a book about the way you came from Canada, from Montreal, and got into the jazz ranks, and got into Jazz at the Phil and all the work that you’ve done.” And I didn’t give it that much thought. I tried several ways. I tried it with the inevitable tape recorder, and I didn’t like that. Then finally it resolved to the point where Norman suggested that I bring in Richard Palmer and have him critique and then editorialize things I had written already. Richard had already written a book on me in London… Richard Palmer consented to act in the role of an editor of stuff that I had written, and he came over and spent time with me. Nothing much happened for a while after that, because I became very, very busy and decided to give a rest to it. Then we resumed…

TP: What was the year?

PETERSON: I can’t remember the year.

TP: Was it ten years ago? Five years ago?

PETERSON: It was in that time period. I can’t give it to you chronologically, because I don’t remember myself.

But Richard came over, then we let it go for a while, and then we decided to complete the book within the last year-and-a-half, and we sort of went over it tooth-and-nail and decided that it was as good as it was going to be.

TP: When did you actually start the writing? Right after Norman Granz made the suggestion?

PETERSON: I started approximately a month after he suggested it, which was about 15 years ago.

TP: So this book has been in the process of creation since 1986 or 1987.

PETERSON: That’s correct.

TP: Did you just start writing, or did you think about a form? For instance, did you write it in chronology, as the book, or did you write about different subjects?

PETERSON: I wrote about my feelings and my thoughts about how deeply I wanted to get involved in the professional end of the jazz world. Because I had to make that decision after having met Norman Granz. So what I did was go back and write a chronological report on how I started studying, my family and so forth and so on. Then I got into the part where I left the United States, and then talked about the various people I worked with and how they influenced me and what I learned from them.

TP: Had you written before, besides correspondence and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I’m a piano player, remember?

TP: I do. Is writing something that came naturally to you, or did you work on it with the sort of determination that marks your approach to the instrument?

PETERSON: Well, literature was one of my better subjects in school, so I enjoyed it from that end in the beginning. But I did not realize what a monumental project I had taken on until I was well into it.

TP: You say literature was one of your better subjects. Who are the writers you favor? Did you have any stylistic models?

PETERSON: Not really. I just enjoyed the courses in school, in literature, and I enjoyed writing different things.

TP: Any two or three favorite novelists?

PETERSON: I read various things over the years. My memory is failing now, so I can’t remember them all. I remember reading everything from detective stories, like Mickey Spillane and things like that, and I read a lot of scientific things. I was interested in space and things like that. So I never paid the authors that much mind; I just enjoyed what I was reading.

TP: Well, there’s a real authorial voice in the book, which is not something that always comes naturally. It looks to me like you did a great deal of writing-editing-rewriting-editing…

PETERSON: No, I didn’t. Richard really did not rewrite hardly any of my thing, because he wanted it to be totally in my words, as he put it. I appreciated that about him, because I didn’t want it to be false fiction.

TP: I meant rewriting by you. It had the rather smooth feeling that comes when you’ve really worked on something and honed it.

PETERSON: I’m going to say this to you. Over the years, when things have happened, funny instances have taken place in my life, and I’ve recounted them to people, various people, including Norman. I think this is the factor on which he predicated his insistence that I start the book. They have always said that I told a great story, whatever that means, whether I was telling jokes or things that have happened to me, and so forth. That’s where it started.

TP: You set the table very well in your various anecdotes. You have a very firm sense of scene and place and drama.

PETERSON: I’m not really aware of that. It’s just the way I saw it.

TP: What’s also interesting is your command of the voices of the other musicians. The way you capture Lester Young or Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or Ella Fitzgerald or Ben Webster and on down, even those to whom you devoted only a paragraph or two. Did you just conjure them up in the process of writing? Did they come from stories you had told before? Do some of these stories reflect the type of stories Norman Granz would have been thinking about when he suggested you write the autobiography.

PETERSON: Well, it’s really based on the effect that these people had on me when I met them, and the way they reacted when certain things happened. You’re referring to Lester Young. We roomed together for a while, for instance, and I got to know a lot of his habits. The same with Flip Phillips, and Bill Harris.

TP: People I knew 20 years ago, I can’t necessarily remember the nuances of their syntax and the way they spoke unless I had it on a tape.

PETERSON: The reason for that is because I had a great admiration for the way people put things in context. I always insisted that Lester Young had a language of his own; the way he would talk to people. I admired this, because it was something very, very special to Lester, and it’s just the way it affected me.

TP: Do you feel that’s the case for all the musicians you profiled in the book?

PETERSON: I think so, yes. Because don’t forget, I was the new face among them, the new kid on the block, and everything that happened around me sort of saturated me, and I took it all in. It had a profound effect on me.

TP: So there’s a sense in which the spoken voice of the musician reflects their musical voice.

PETERSON: I think so.

TP: Secondly, you wrote about training yourself to listen in that manner, and that being analogous to the process of playing as well.

PETERSON: Well, I had to do that because I was accompanying a lot of these people on the jam sessions in the rhythm sections. I always preach that to my students whenever I hold a seminar. I tell them to be sure to listen to the soloists, and don’t think you’re a soloist against another soloist.

TP: Artists aren’t always articulate about the creative process, and the process of accumulating vocabulary and technique and information. You’re an exception. Your passages on the way you trained yourself, what you were looking for, just your entire approach, are unique in the literature of jazz. Is this something that reflects your personality over the years, or was describing it something you had to think about and work on?

PETERSON: I tried to write the same way we talk musically. I tried to write it as ad-lib as possible. Because I felt that if I stopped and conjured up, or tried to beautify or whatever you want to call it…various phrases and things… I just felt that if I spoke honestly about what had happened and what people said… I tried to be very careful to not add anything to what people had said to me or done to me. In other words, I didn’t want any of my personality to come through in what people were saying and doing to and with me.

TP: Are you satisfied that you did that?

PETERSON: I feel honestly that I did, yes.

TP: Were you writing in longhand? Were you typing?

PETERSON: I started out with the famous microphone and tape, which I didn’t like, in a certain way, because I found that I started to edit a lot of things when I played them back. I didn’t like that. I wanted it to be as improvisational as possible.

TP: A lot of people in your position use the tape recorder because they feel that speaking the story to the tape recorder more will come out and the inhibitions won’t take hold. It sounds like it was the opposite for you.

PETERSON: It was the opposite. Then I transferred it at the beginning of the computer age. I had a little Radio Shack computer, and I started writing on that. But I’m not the world’s greatest typist. I gave that style up years ago.

TP: You wrote longhand after that.

PETERSON: I wrote longhand. Then finally, I was very fortunate not having Richard, because he looked over a lot of those things and questioned a lot of the things, but fortunately, my wife Kelly is a wonderful typist, and sat there dedicatedly, hour after hour, while I rambled on.

TP: So you would talk and she would type as you were talking. You dictated to her.

PETERSON: Yes.

TP: So much of this book is dictated to your wife.

PETERSON: An awful lot of it.

TP: Who I guess would be the person you could talk most comfortably to.

PETERSON: Right, because she never questioned anything and she never stopped the flow at any point. As I recall it, she never had to say, “Wait a minute, I missed this.” She’s that good a typist, which is lucky for me.

TP: When you first met Richard Elliott, how much of the material that is in the autobiography was written, do you think?

PETERSON: I think perhaps almost half of it.

TP: Was it chronological or different spots of the book?

PETERSON: I would think it was a little jagged. He put it in the context, insofar as indexing it in the proper way.

TP: But the first things you wrote were about your formative years.

PETERSON: Yes, and then I jumped around. Because when that became a little mundane to listen to myself talk, I stopped to think about different things. As I mentioned different people, that meant I would jump to a different era, a different part of my life. So Richard put that all into the right context.

TP: Have you read other jazz autobiographies and biographies?

PETERSON: Definitely not. One good thing is… I’m glad I didn’t, because they didn’t influence me. Some of the people I admired and loved so much, such as Bill Basie and Duke, I didn’t want to be influenced by. I wanted it to come out pure, the way it should have been.

TP: It’s closer in some ways to Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography.

PETERSON: Yes, I’d like to read it. I’m trying to get hold of it.

TP: So the chronology is: Norman Granz makes the suggestion, you start writing…

PETERSON: Then I tired, and I put it away for a while.

TP: And at that point, you had maybe half of it.

PETERSON: Less than that. I picked it up two or three times, and then finally Richard Palmer entered the picture.

TP: He enters the picture, goes over the material, makes suggestions for directions you might go in, for how to organize things you’ve already done…

PETERSON: And things and people that he thought I perhaps had forgotten to write about or that he thought people might be interested in hearing my views on.

TP: Who were some of those people? What were some of those things?

PETERSON: I can’t remember.

TP: Then you resume writing and put the book together.

PETERSON: Yes.

TP: I love the poems you wrote. Did you write them in the process of writing the book, or were they things you’d done otherwise?

PETERSON: I did them separately. I had a cottage up in the Halliburton Islands here in Ontario, and I was sitting around with my computer, and I was thinking about people, and for some reason, I said to my wife, Kelly, “I think I should write something about them.” She said, “that’s a good idea.” Then I was kibitzing around, I started thinking about the rhythmic things about these people and the way they thought and played, and I decided that I would take a shot at writing a few verses about these various people. I don’t know how many I wrote…God knows how many I wrote in over a year. But I came back from the cottage, and I showed them to various people, and they were quite enthralled with what I had written. They said, “You should publish those.” The best thing that happened that I remember is a poem I wrote for Ella, which was read at her tribute in New York by Lena Horne — and what a reading she gave it. It was something. And I was really moved by that. But I don’t consider myself a poet by any means. I never pursued that.

TP: Even formally they’re beautiful forms, and they’re quite cogent. It’s not just stylistic; they really say something about their subjects. Have you read the book since publication?

PETERSON: No, I haven’t.

TP: Were you actively involved in proofing the book and in the final galleys and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I left that to Richard.

TP: What I’m leading to is, we’re saying that the notion that the spoken voice of the musician runs in a tone parallel to their instrumental voice. Do you feel that your authorial voice in this book is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

TP: How much did you delete from the book?

PETERSON: I don’t think there was a lot deleted. Richard didn’t take that kind of liberty. He would ask me if I thought that I had written enough about someone, or did I clarify the subject well enough. Or did I cover a certain period well enough. That’s the kind of thing he was doing.

TP: So he functioned on several levels. As a fan of your music, obviously. As someone who was more than a fan, but an extremely informed observer and perhaps scholar of your life in music. And as a skilled professional writer and editor who could polish the book into a form that would meet your standards of professionalism.

PETERSON: Well, I trusted Richard, because first of all, I had read various things he had written before — reviews and so forth. And as I said, he wrote a book on me, and I found it to be very direct and honest. So I didn’t hesitate to ask him when Norman suggested him.

TP: Are you as critical of yourself musically as you sometimes portray yourself to be in the book, on various minor points of detail and so on? In the book, your confidence in your ability, and assuredness and acceptance of your ability shines through all the way, and so does your capacity for self-criticism. It’s an interesting dynamic, and honestly reflected in the book.

PETERSON: Well, I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. When you work with people, I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I am doing that’s causing them to do certain things. I think that’s what this arises from.

I hope you enjoyed the book. I’m going to get around to reading it as soon as I get the time!

TP: Do you listen to your own records back?

PETERSON: No, I don’t. I listen to them in the studio, but I don’t sit at home and play my own records. I don’t have that kind of ego. [LAUGHS]

TP: You were there and did it, so there it is.

PETERSON: That’s excuse enough, I guess.

TP: Do you listen back to the sideman things you did?

PETERSON: Oh, I listen to those. Because I listen to the other people, like Dizzy and Ella and Roy Eldridge and Stan Getz and so forth.

TP: You didn’t recount your sessions with Louis Armstrong.

PETERSON: They were wonderful. He was a complete comedian during all those sessions. He kept us in stitches. Including Ella. Sometimes we had to do second and third takes because was doing his comedic act. After they sang, and I had to play something, sometimes he’d yell “Yeah!” or whatever, and it didn’t bother him that they were doing a take. The one thing I tried to do was to follow every nuance that he put into his singing. It wasn’t easy to accompany him because he took all kinds of risks vocally, which other singers would not.

TP: You write humorously and lovingly of Coleman Hawkins, who legendarily stayed au courant with everything that was happening, including Thelonious Monk. You don’t mention Monk in the book. What was your attitude towards his playing?

PETERSON: I didn’t have an attitude towards his playing. I didn’t admire his playing. I admired his compositions. Look at it realistically. If you talk about pianists, and you say Thelonious Monk, would you say Art Tatum in the same voice, or Hank Jones or Teddy Wilson? There’s a certain understanding or rapport that you gain with the piano…I think. This is my own selfish opinion. Horowitz had it, obviously. So did Teddy Wilson. So did Bill Evans and Hank Jones. But I don’t feel pianistically that Thelonious Monk had it. That’s one reason why he’s not in the book. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!

TP: Are you as self-critical as you portray your character to be?

PETERSON: I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I do that causes them to do certain things.

TP: Do you feel that your authorial voice is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

  • * * * *

Oscar Peterson Big 4 (Live In Japan) – Liner Notes:
“A jazz phrase to me can’t be a jazz phrase without a certain type of blues feeling to it. If someone tries to play the blues, that’s the quickest way of knowing where they’re at jazz-wise, in my book. I have seen so-called prolific players humbled by the simplest of players who could play the blues… I’m not ashamed of the blues. The blues is a definitive part of jazz history and of my playing, and I want it to stay that way. I don’t want it to ever change, because if it does, then it throws me in with the classical end, and that’s not what I’m doing.” – Oscar Peterson, “Contemporary Keyboard” (December 1980)
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Oscar Peterson offered these thoughts a year before the Tokyo concert that is “The Oscar Peterson Big 4 In Japan,” and the listener would do well to recall them while listening to the deftly paced program documented herein. It’s a particularly welcome addition to the meta-virtuoso’s vast discography; addressing repertoire that represents an aesthetic autobiography on a fine Bosendorfer before a tuned-in audience, Peterson — then 56 — is at the top of his game.

You could say the same for Peterson’s cohorts. Guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, each a world-class poll-winner of long standing in 1982, had worked with Peterson in a variety of contexts since 1973 (see “The Good Life” [OJCCD-627-2 and “The Trio” [OJCCD-992-2], among others). Collective improvisers par excellence, they operate at a stunning level of interaction with the maestro, who faces no barriers to the execution of any idea he thinks of. Pentium-speed thinkers, they match Peterson’s breathtaking velocities, pristine articulation, and intensely swinging beat; they anticipate the long, clear phrases (think Art Tatum’s chops crossed with Charlie Parker’s vocabulary), augment the fat, beautiful voicings, answer the intricate harmonic twists and turns with inventions of their own devising. Drummer Martin Drew — who with Pedersen remains a vital member of Peterson’s current units — keeps immaculate time and remains keenly focused on dynamics.

Peterson, Pass and Pedersen comprise an immensely resilient, fluid equilateral triangle; their interplay reminds us that to whatever degree Peterson’s unlimited technique conjures Tatum, who was his idol in formative years, his overriding imperatives are orchestral, and have been since his years as a teen prodigy in Montreal, when he devoured recordings by Nat Cole’s popular piano-guitar-bass trio. “I was trying to build what I thought was the world’s biggest trio,” he told Contemporary Keyboard. “Within that context I was playing whatever kind of piano I played.”

Peterson recently addressed the Cole effect in a missive on his website about the “The Nat Cole Trio” (Capitol), in the process unveiling the thought process that undergirds his efflorescent locutions.

“I consider this album, by itself, to be a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist,” he wrote. “Consider Nat’s rendition of his ‘Easy Listening Blues.’ The performance is simple and direct, yet in it Nat puts together all of the components that, to my way of thinking, are necessary to be able to play the blues. First and foremost, his distinctive yet soulful delivery of the melodic line sets the tone for the whole performance. His distinctly articulated touch and time, as he sets out and releases his phrases, serves to tell a story that he wants his audience to hear. I think it’s important to take notes of the restraint of the performance. No one instrument intrudes on the other, but rather serves to enhance Nat’s lines. The time quotient throughout is, to my way of thinking, exact, low-key, believable and moving. There is a great lesson to be learned here, and that is that shared effort is the most important component in trio playing.”

That said, he IS Oscar Peterson, and Tatumesque virtuosity is the watchword on the pair of solo turns that begin the proceedings. Peterson states the iconic melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” at a graceful rubato tempo, then embarks on a succession of variations that deploy tension-and-release, building from legato melodies to arpeggiated crescendos in the archetypal Tatum manner. Then he medleys Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” with Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby,” moving in and out of stride, walking the tenths in the graceful manner of Teddy Wilson, articulating the surging phrases with stunning clarity.

The leader steps aside for Joe Pass, “the impresario of the guitar,” for an elegant a cappella turn on “Easy Living.” There follows a ferocious Pass-Pedersen duo on Denzil Best’s “Move”; Pass has the opening salvo over Pedersen’s fleet bass lines, NHOP takes a frighteningly facile solo over Pass comp, and they launch a series of exchanges on which each reads each other’s mind.

Peterson returns, and brings the audience to church with a stately reading of his composition “Hymn To Freedom,” then transitions to his early ’80s opus “The Fallen Warrior,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner in 1982. The quartet states a slow-medium bounce, stoking smoldering flames. After a guitar solo, Peterson ratchets up the intensity, climaxes, then winds down the sermon.

Peterson constructs an abstract intro to “Sweet Lorraine,” paying homage to Cole and Wilson. Once Pass and Pedersen enter, the dialogue is co-equal, Pass and Peterson switching off interchangeably as the lead voice.

The first set ends with a quartet performance of Walter Donaldson’s “You Look Good To Me,” a Peterson staple. Drew tips on the brushes over an NHOP two-beat, NHOP solos, Pass solos succinctly over NHOP’s brisk walk as Drew switches to sticks, then the pianist builds a characteristic force-of-nature statement, referencing the structure of Coleman Hawkins’ classic solo on “The Man I Love” from 1943.

Peterson opens the second set with a rollicking “Now’s The Time,” the Charlie Parker blues, setting up an irresistible good-time house party feeling. All members say their piece. After a stirring Pedersen solo reading of “Future Child,” the rhythm section states a supersonic tempo on “Mississuga Rattler,” a fire-breathing bop-blues that features an extended Peterson-Pass call and response.

The bassist and Peterson get a kalimba-like feeling on the gentle savannahs-of-Africa vamp that comprises the extended introduction to “Nigerian Marketplace,” an original with a 12/8 Ahmad Jamal feeling that Peterson had recorded seven months previous for Pablo.

The “Emily”-“Tenderly” medley opens with a cappella turns by piano and guitar on the Johnny Mandel ballad staple; Peterson hews gently to the melody, Pass improvises coruscating inventions, then they create melodic variations to match the innocence of the song’s subject, concluding with a seamless segue into “Tenderly,” whose sweet theme the quartet takes out at a medium-slow bounce.

Peterson recorded “Night Child” — an original with a rock-the-cradle gospel feeling — in 1979 on electric piano; Pass postulates delicately parsed high notes to Peterson’s light, lush treble in the Bosendorfer for a more layered, textured iteration of the effect. Then Peterson launches another rolling solo of inexorable momentum, quoting “Moose The Mooche” along the way, before solo turns by Pass, another “how-did-he-do-that?” statement by Pedersen, and a last word from the boss.

The concert ends with Peterson’s “Cakewalk,” whose syncopations catapult the popular turn-of-the-century dance into the bebop era. All have their say, the audience roars, and another of Peterson’s thousands of concerts is history.

Two decades later, we can revel in Peterson at the peak of his powers, as did a talented teenage aspirant from Mississippi named Mulgrew Miller when he heard Peterson perform around 1970 on “The Joey Bishop Show.” “I just flipped,” Miller related in 1994. “Here was Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication. That motivated me. I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never MOTIVATED to do that. But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.”

The Oscar Peterson Big Four in Japan” will stand among the piano titan’s strongest recordings; it contains the kind of playing that inspired Miller and countless other young keyboard talents to devote their energies to jazz.

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Filed under Jazziz, Liner Notes, Oscar Peterson, 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.

* * *

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.”

 

* * *

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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Filed under DownBeat, Monty Alexander, Piano

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.

* * *

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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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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