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

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

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Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HH: That’s the way it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Master Drummer Arthur Taylor’s 88th Birth Anniversary, The Proceedings Of a WKCR Musician Show With AT and Walter Bolden in 1992

Yesterday was the 88th birth anniversary of master drummer Arthur Taylor (1929-1995). I got to know “A.T.,” as he was familiarly called, when I had an opportunity to engineer a number of Musician Shows that he conducted at WKCR  during the mid- and latter ’80s, and subsequently when he asked to transcribe a number of interviews for a prospective volume two of his essential Notes and Tones, which never did get published. These included conversations with Red Garland, Billy Higgins, and a number of other greats. During the last 5-6 years of his life, AT put together a tight, ferocious group that included such outstanding musicians  as Willie Williams, Abraham Burton, Jacky  Terrason and Tyler Mitchell.  In 1992 I had an opportunity to turn the tables on AT and interview him on a Musician Show together with drummer Walter Bolden, the transcript of which I’ve appended below.

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Arthur Taylor/Walter Bolden (11-11-92) – (Musician’s Show):

[MUSIC: Taylor’s Wailers, “Mr. A.T.”, Coltrane, “Good Bait”]
Q: Now, you’ve reconstituted Taylor’s Wailers over the last couple of years, and you’ve been associated, particularly in terms of writing, with Walter Bolden, another superb drummer. You’ve really been on the scene together ever since you emerged. Your careers span just about the same amount of time, I think.

AT: Yes. Well, we have similar feelings about drumming, and our styles of drumming are similar. We’ve been friends since Walter came to New York. He came out of Connecticut. To get from that point to this moment, his writing, to me, has the same flavor as Horace Silver or Gigi Gryce, who are two great composers in my estimation. I later found out that they had studied together, so maybe that’s the reason why rhythmically… Well, Walter’s a drummer, so what he would write would be interesting for a drummer in the first place.

Walter wrote the title song of Taylor’s Wailers’ latest CD, which you heard, “Mr. A.T.” I went to visit Walter one afternoon, and I walked in, he was playing the piano. He said, “Yeah, T, how do you like this?” — and he started playing this song. I said, “Yeah, I like that, man. That’s fantastic. I really like that.” He says, “Do you really like it?” I said, “Yeah, man. You know I wouldn’t jive you. I really like it, you know.” He says, “Yeah? Well, that’s for you. And we’ll call it ‘Mr. A.T.'” Now you tell them about it, Walter.

WB: That’s exactly the way it happened, too. I had written the piece, and I was wondering who I was going to give this piece to that I thought could really do it justice, the way I would like to hear it played — and I thought Arthur Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers would do a wonderful job with this. So I had named the tune “Mr. A.T.” because it was really especially for him. And I was very-very-very pleased with the job that they did on it.

Q: Well, Walter Bolden, tell us about your impressions of A.T. back when you first met him. When was it, anyway?

WB: Well, this goes back to December 1950 on into 1951.

AT: You even know the month.

WB: [LAUGHS] Well, I have a knack for that. Of course, naturally, I didn’t read it off the record jacket right here! But ever since then we have been very, very good friends. We used to hang out a lot together, and be on some of the same scenes, and we had the opportunity of playing with some of the same great musicians through our career.

Q: Who were you playing with at that time?

WB: Well, before I left Hartford, I was playing with Gigi Gryce, studying with him, and Horace Silver, and a bassist named Joe Calloway, and an alto player by the name of Harold Holt who was up there, and a trumpet player by the name of Richard Taylor. Horace Silver formed a trio with Joe Calloway and myself. We were working around Hartford and up in Massachusetts, and different little towns in Connecticut. We were working at a club called the Club Sundown up in Hartford, and Stan Getz was booked there as a single to work with our trio. He liked what we were doing, and he talked to Horace about hiring the trio to go back to New York with him and work — at which we were very, very elated. And this is what really got us out of Hartford, working with Stan Getz.

Q: You recorded with him for Roost, and the results are on a recent set called Stan Getz: The Roost Quartets. But you and Horace Silver go back a long way. About how far back do you go?

WB: Let’s see. We go way back, I guess to ’47.

Q: So since your late teens, basically?

WB: Right.

Q: And you were working around Hartford as a teenager?

WB: Sure, I did. I was in a band of Gigi’s that had Joe Calloway in it, and a piano player by the name of Gene Nelson. We used to go down to New Haven, and hook up with Horace Silver and Keeter Betts and different people from that part of Connecticut. At that time, Horace was playing tenor saxophone — which he leaned towards the Lester Young type of sound and feel, very, very warm — and he also played piano. But the three of us, Horace, Joe Calloway and myself, got together, and we decided that we would just get into a trio type thing. That’s how that happened. We were working all over the place at that particular time.

Q: How long have you been playing the drums, and who were the first drummers you liked and modeled yourself after?

WB: I started playing professionally around Connecticut at 16 or 17 years old.

AT: You’ve been playing since you were 16? Hey, wait a minute, now…

WB: [LAUGHING]

AT: I don’t like this disadvantage in here. This stuff is getting serious, now!

WB: Well, it was right around Connecticut, you know, which was great. A lot of musicians used to come through Hartford. In fact, the State Theater was the big band theater there, where Count Basie and Duke Ellington used to come through from New York. When I was a kid, we’d sit down in that theater all day long, and listen to these people.

Q: So you’d see all the drummers from the big bands.

WB: All the drummers, you know, from Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, I would say Jimmie Crawford…

AT: You saw Chick Webb.

WB: Sure.

AT: You’re a lucky man.

WB: [LAUGHS] You know!

AT: Yeah.

WB: Sonny Greer…

AT: I saw him, too.

WB: I know you did.

Q: When did you first see Chick Webb, A.T.?

AT: I saw him at the Apollo, the Apollo Theater, yeah. That’s when he had Ella Fitzgerald, she was a star, a child star, like.

Q: So it sounds like he really impressed you, as I’m sure everybody who had the good fortune to hear him in person.

WB: That’s right.

AT: I would say the young Tony Williams.

WB: That’s it. Very, very fast hands, and his concept, everything. Beautiful. Beautiful to watch, too.

Q: So those were the drummers who affected you when you were coming up.

WB: Early, right.

Q: Walter, when you and Horace Silver were playing together, it was after World War Two, and Charlie Parker’s records had come out. Did those really turn you around when you heard them, and Horace as well?

WB: Of course! It was really a totally different thing with Dizzy and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Now, Horace and Joe Calloway and myself used to model a lot of things we did in our trio after the Bud Powell trio, with Max Roach and Curly Russell, which recorded in 1947.

Q: You can hear that in some of Horace’s trio recordings in the early 1950’s, too, which are very much in that style.

WB: Right.

Q: But I interrupted you.

WB: So we were influenced very much by that. And Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, you know…and on up! [LAUGHS]

Q: Now, did you get to hear these guys in Hartford? Would they come through Hartford and play?

WB: Max did. And Art Blakey used to come through with Billy Eckstine years ago. I used to sit down in a hall up there called the Footguide(?) Hall, where all the big bands used to come when they had dances and whatnot. I remember Art Blakey with Billy Eckstine’s band. He used to roll up his pants leg on his beat-a-ball, [LAUGHS], on the bass drum, you know, and I thought, “Why does he do that?” Then I found out later on that if you roll your pants leg up, your pants leg won’t get caught in that ball when you’re playing. [LAUGHS]

AT: That’s a drag, isn’t it?

WB: It happens, you know?

AT: It’s a drag.

Q: Now, A.T., growing up in New York, in Harlem, you had a chance to see just about everybody who came through in person as a teenager. Is that what you did? Were you able to hear a lot of music when you were a teenager?

AT: Yeah. Well, I think I was very lucky, because my father would take me to the Apollo Theater. I don’t know whether he liked it that much. Maybe he was just trying to get out the house or whatever he was doing, but it was really groovy. So he’d take me the Apollo Theater, and I’d see Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke, Charlie Barnet, Buddy Rich, oh, all the big names. Oh, I mean, all the big stars… I mean real stars. I’m talking about real stars. You know, when these people do their stuff, they’d turn the place out every time from the hearts. So that really impressed me.

And seeing all those drummers, you know… Then I saw Buddy Rich. That was impressive. Then we’d play hooky from school and go to the Paramount Theater to see Gene Krupa and people like that. But my real day was the day I saw J.C. Heard. I couldn’t be-lieve that. I’d seen Chick Webb and I’d seen Buddy and I had seen Gene Krupa, but when I saw J.C. Heard, I said, “Well, that’s it. That is it!” And I have modeled my drumming after J.C. Heard. Most people don’t know that.

Q: Well, now they do.

AT: I don’t know. Is anybody out there? Do you think somebody is listening to this show?

Q: Well, you can give us a call on the next break. You still remember the phone number, right?

AT: No, man.

[LOTS OF LAUGHTER]

Q: Was this before you heard Max Roach and Kenny Clarke?

AT: Oh, yes. This was before I was even interested in drums. I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: You were supposed to be.

AT: Yeah, I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: What did you play? What was your sport?

AT: I was a heckuva center-fielder, a heckuva second-baseman, and I was not too bad a guard in basketball.

Q: Could you hit?

AT: I could hit. It’s funny. I’ve only seen out of one eye all my life, but I could meet the ball. I can’t figure that out today. I could always meet the ball. I could drive it sometimes, but I could always meet it. And talking with the boys I grew up with now and the people in my family, I’ve found out I was better than I even thought I was. But at that time, in professional athletics, they didn’t allow Negroes in, you know, so there was no future. My parents would say, “Are you crazy?” Everybody else in the family was going to Columbia University and all that kind of stuff, and here I wanted to play baseball. They said, “You must be out of your mind! Get out of here, boy!”

Q: What got you interested in playing drums as a profession?

AT: I’ll tell you what it was with me. I went to a jam session is, where Lincoln Center is, where I am playing tomorrow night, where the Walter Reade Theater at 8 o’clock, Taylor’s Wailers will be performing… Almost on the exact spot I went to hear…went to a jam session. And playing in this jam session was Fats Navarro and Miles Davis and Big Sid Catlett and Max Roach and Bud Powell and Freddie Webster — and I can go on and on and on. What really impressed me was the joy and the pleasure the people were having, and all the beautiful ladies there were…you know, thrills with their shit. I thought about that, and I said, “This is good. You don’t have to get up in the morning either. You can sleep late…”

WB: [LAUGHS]

Q: You go to bed whatever time…

AT: You can go to bed when everybody’s getting up, you know. So I said, “Yeah, that looks like that’s for me.” So that’s really how I got into it. Seeing Big Sid and Max that day, I said, “I have to try it.”

Q: Were you self-taught, or was there somebody showing you the fundamentals?

AT: I was basically self-taught. I had a teacher, but he couldn’t stand me, you know, so that didn’t work. He was a very fine teacher. He became a big union official in Local 802. His name was Aubrey Brooks. I didn’t have enough discipline for him, so he didn’t go for me too much.

Q: Walter Bolden, what got you interested?

WB: Well, growing up in the State Theater, when all the bands used to come through. But there was music in my family. See, my mother played piano, my father played the French horn, one of my brothers played trumpet, one played piano, and the other one played guitar. I used to fumble with the various instruments in the house, but I didn’t want anything that was there. I wanted something that wasn’t there, and that was drums. And I was influenced by the drummers that I saw at the State Theater and the drummers that used to come in through the clubs up there in Hartford.

Later on, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes really got to me in my way of thinking about playing drums. See, before that it had been like, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, as A.T. mentioned, J.C. Heard, people like that…Jimmie Crawford, you know…

AT: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

WB: The new music at that time really grabbed ahold of me.

[W. Bolden with Getz/Silver/Calloway, “Split Kick,” “Strike Up The Band” (1950); H. McGhee Sextet, “Ittapnna” (1953)]

WB: “Ittapnna” is Patti Ann spelled backwards.

Q: [ETC.] Our guests are Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden.

AT: You’re a guest also, Ted.

Q: I’m a guest?

AT: Yeah, you’re my guest.

WB: [LAUGHS]

Q: Thank you. Are you doing the Musician’s Show with me?

AT: I’m gonna interview you.

Q: I can hear radio sets clicking off around New York City as we speak. Boring the audience in New York! But maybe we can put you back in the role of Musician Show host with Walter Bolden. How about that, A.T.?

WB: Well, we think along the same lines.

Q: I remember the type of questions you would ask. I’m sure people would like to hear a little set.

AT: Yeah, well, Walter, what do you feel about Love and Marriage?

WB: Oh, my goodness. [LAUGHS]

Q: We can ask Sammy Cahn, and then…

WB: [LAUGHS] That sounds like “Tones In Bronze” or something.

AT: “Tones in Bronze”!

WB: [LAUGHS]

AT: Why don’t we just continue?

Q: Okay, we’ll continue. Then I’m going to get into ordinary biographical stuff. Look, A.T., around the time Walter Bolden’s first composition came out, I think you were working with Bud Powell…

AT: What year was that?

Q: 1953. That was June 8th of ’53.

AT: Yeah, I was working with Bud then.

Q: Was that your first real professional gig?

AT: Oh, no!

Q: What were the events that led to working with Bud Powell?

AT: Okay, let’s see if I can get it in some kind of chronological order. My first real… Well, I used to play the neighborhood with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. That was real as you can get — even then, you know. As I was telling some people today, they were talented then and could play then. It wasn’t like that they were young and couldn’t play. They could play. They were great musicians at that time, too.

Q: Did you meet them in high school? Did you meet them around the neighborhood?

AT: We lived in the same neighborhood. We lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem. We were all interested in the same thing, which was, like, Charlie Parker, Bud and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that. They were the tops.

Q: And you were uniquely advantaged, because you were able to go and hear them frequently.

AT: Yeah. Well, Bud lived right down the street from me. I was telling some people today, we would go to Bud’s house, and he’d sit down and play Bach and Beethoven off the top of his head. It would frighten you, you know, like it was nothing — without any music. It was unbelievable. Well, Kenny Drew was a Classical musician anyway, first of all. Sonny Rollins had taken me to hear him and his sister do a Bop duet. I said, “Is this the guy I’m gonna play with? Shit, he’s playing Bop duets…” [LAUGHING] We all know what a great musician Kenny Drew is, I’m sure, also, at the same time.
We were in the same neighborhood, and some of the guys went to the same school, which was Benjamin Franklin, which was a very fine school in Harlem, and produced some really great musicians. Rollins came out of there, I think McLean went there, Percy France went there, I think Gilly Coggins went there — I mean, really fine musicians came out of that school. And we were in the neighborhood, and we had this little band. We were burning, playing for all the dances. People were able to dance to the music, then.

Q: That’s another thing. There were a lot of dance halls. People often said that Bebop was something that people couldn’t really dance to, but I think that’s really not the case, is it.

AT: No, no. I played many dances with Charlie Parker. Many dances. The Audubon Ballroom, Rockland Palace, the Renaissance. I played several places with Charlie Parker for dancing.

Q: Did people develop new dances for Charlie Parker?

AT: No, you just had to swing. You had to be able to swing. If you could swing, it’s all right, yeah. But then the music got a little different. You can’t dance to it. You’ve got to have a computer to figure it out, have a pencil and a piece of paper and everything. Which is all right, it’s okay, it’s good. I hope they keep doing that. Because I’m not going to play like that. [THE A.T. LAUGH]

Q: But we’ll get back to the places where you would play dances, though. Because I did interrupt you.

AT: Well, I told you the places. The Audubon Ballroom was our main spot. At that time, musicians were producing, you know. Art Blakey used to produce every Sunday afternoon at Rockland Palace, and that was the event. People would come from Jersey, Connecticut and everything. The biggest event of the year would be when he and Max Roach had the drum battle. People would come from all over, they’d come from Boston to see this. This was the show of all shows.

I was born in Harlem and I lived in Harlem, and I didn’t have to go out of Harlem to work. I had plenty of joints there to work, and I’d always get a Sunday afternoon once in a while at Art Blakey’s thing — once a month or something I’d get a gig over there with Art.

Q: When did you first meet Art Blakey?

AT: Ah, gee, I don’t know. Art was always very active in helping young people. We were young fellas, and we used to go and visit Art when he lived at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue, and it was just a thrill just to sit there and look at him — if he didn’t say anything, you know. Just to be in his company, you’d learn something about something, or music at least! Or something. You learned something. He was so beautiful. He was one of our greatest, and one of the major contributors to modern improvisation. As far as I am concerned, if anybody, it’s Art Blakey, yeah.

Q: What I want to get to is how it came to be accepted that you could and get the jobs. Was it just through working around the neighborhood, people hearing about you…

AT: No. I’ll tell you how I got accepted. Lockjaw Davis was the bandleader at Minton’s, and if you couldn’t play, you had to get off the bandstand. When we went down there to play, Lockjaw gave us an invitation to come and play any time we felt like playing. That’s the highest point that I have ever reached in music! When Lockjaw Davis told me I could go and play any time, I didn’t even speak to myself! I may not even speak to you any more! Ha-ha. Because nobody knows about that. They have some guys over here, and somebody says they’re great, but when Lockjaw said “you can come and play,” that means you can go and hone your craft on the bandstand with guys who are better than you! And you can’t ask for more than that. For me.

Q: So when did the gig with Bud Powell come about? How did that happen?

AT: That came about in 1951. I had been playing with Coleman Hawkins. I played with Coleman Hawkins for a year with Kenny Drew, Tommy Potter and Harry “Sweets” Edison, which was a very fine group. The musicians that I play with now, I try to teach them some of the things that Hawk taught me.

Q: Such as?

AT: How to be able to maintain your stuff without being a dummy, without acting stupid, acting with humility, to have good manners, but don’t take anything from anybody at the same time. Because we’re exposed when we play this music. Anybody can walk up to us and say anything. They walked up and shot Lee Morgan down! It’s hard to get to people when they’re big stars, but musicians in improvised music, it’s…you know, you’re exposed.

Where was I… We were talking about…?

Q: Coleman Hawkins.

AT: Okay. My first job was with Howard McGhee. He took a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins (I got the job through Kenny or Sonny), and Percy Heath and myself to Utica. That was my first trip on the road.

Then, I started working with Hot Lips Page. Hot Lips Page, he was a rough man. He was a rough man. They need a guy like him around here now. Because he’ll punch you in the mouth if it don’t sound right. He’ll knock you out. And maybe you can beat him, but I don’t know, because he was a big, strong guy, rough — a rough, mean man. So I’d like to see… We need somebody like that around here now, and a lot of people wouldn’t be acting as tough as they think they are — physically.

Then after that, my main job was with Oscar Pettiford. I made my first record with Oscar Pettiford. We made 36 takes of “Love for Sale,” got in a car and drove in a snowstorm to Chicago. Super hip stuff, you dig it? [LAUGHS] 36 takes. If I’m on the bandstand now, if somebody calls “Love For Sale,” I get a cringe up my back. And I was the one messing up.

Q: It was you?

AT: It was me messing up. And every time I made it, I was getting worse, I was getting more nervous and getting worse and worse and worse. He was ready to kill me. Oscar was a perfectionist. He was a master. Oscar was a master.

WB: Hell, yeah.

AT: Oscar was a master. If you talk about bass, oh, man, wait a minute. [LAUGHS] Oscar Pettiford!

WB: Cello, too.

AT: Yeah, that’s right. Oscar was the first one to use an electrical attachment on a string instrument, as far as I know, in this field of improvised music. And the way the basses sound now, with the electrical attachment, that’s the way he sounded when he put the electrical attachment on the cello in Paris.

Anyway, after Oscar Pettiford, I got the job with Bud Powell, which is what I wanted. If I never did anything else in my life, that’s the only thing I wanted to do, was play with Bud.

Q: You worked with Bud Powell for five or six years.

AT: Yeah, for three years straight, and then off and on many times. Yeah.

Q: What was his manner as a leader?

AT: He never said anything. The only thing he’d ever say to me was, “‘Peanuts,’ Arthur.” That was my big solo. I had the introduction to “Salt Peanuts.” That’s all he said.

Q: That’s all he said to you in five years?

AT: Yeah, that’s about all. I would always say, “What do you want me to do?” And he would say, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll dig it.” I said, “I’ll dig it! Are you crazy?” [LAUGHING] I’ll dig it? Man! I don’t know what it was. I don’t see any reason for him to have that much confidence in my ability. But for whatever reason, he said I would dig it. So we made dozens of albums. They’re still classic, and people like them, too.

Q: I think we should play something with you and Bud Powell later, but right now we have cued up something from a wonderful Kenny Dorham session from 1961 titled Showboat.

AT: Yeah, I love Kenny Dorham. He’s one of our great… Well, he writes like Bud Powell. His writing is similar. Yeah.

Q: Did you first meet him at this time, too?

AT: Well, Kenny lived up on the Hill. Other people, too… Kenny lived on the Hill. Denzil Best lived on the Hill. And they were like gods, you know. Kenny Dorham! Because Kenny Dorham used to play with Fats Navarro. That’s enough right there, if you never heard him! [LAUGHS] That’s enough right there, if you played with Fats Navarro.

That’s a funny thing. You know Allen Eager, the tenor player? Some young guys were getting smart with him one day, or something about something. He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I played with Fats Navarro. I don’t know what you did.” [LAUGHS] That’s pretty rough.

Q: We’re with Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden on the Musicians’s Show, and Taylor’s Wailers is performing Thursday night at the Walter Reade Theater. By the way, we haven’t mentioned who’s in the group yet.

AT: Well, we have Jacky Terrason. He’s from Paris. I heard him in France about two years ago, and he’s really developing. I think he can develop into one of the finest pianists around. So I’m looking for very fine things from him within this decade. I would figure by the end of this decade he should be at the top of his form. Because it takes fifteen years to get your stuff together to start with; you know, to get your own sound, where you develop your own sound where you don’t sound like nobody else, and everybody can recognize that it’s you. That takes fifteen years.

Q: Do you think that’s always been the case? A lot of the people who were your idols, say, in the Forties, were just in their late twenties at that time.

AT: Well, I didn’t figure that out myself. In talking with Freddie Hubbard… As a matter of fact, it’s probably in my book, Notes and Tones, where we were talking about that. Freddie was saying (and I agree with him, which is why I repeat this) it takes fifteen years to get your own sound. It’s not like you’re going to say, “I’m going to get my own sound, and sound like me!” or something like that. This comes through practice and experience and discussion and listening, and you arrive at your place — and it’s you! It’s nobody else. It can’t be anybody else but you. And some people never arrive. Some people never get it. Ha! That’s one of our songs we’re going to play tomorrow night, too, “Some People Never Get It.”

Q: Who wrote that one?

AT: That’s my piece, and then…

WB: [LOUD LAUGH]

AT: [LAUGHING] Then we’ll follow that with a piece by Walter Bolden, where we’ll say, “Some people never get it, because they’re all stressed out.” [LAUGHS] It’s all right if they never get it. That’s true! Some people never get it. It’s just like that. Everybody doesn’t get it, you know. But the Sun shines on everyone.

Q: But at any rate, after Jacky Terrason, you have two very talented young saxophone players.

AT: Yes. First of all, at the bass we have Tyler Mitchell. We have Tyler Mitchell on the bass. He’s a fine bassist. He’s been with me the longest of all the musicians in the group. We used to go to Europe and do tours with Steve Grossman, tenor player Steve Grossman. We did tours with him, and I would have Tyler on these gigs, so that we got familiar with each other. He has developed tremendously over the last two years. He’s just got to do a little more, and he’ll be all right.

Then we have Willie Williams on tenor saxophone. Willie was known for playing with Dollar Brand and different groups like that. What impresses me with Willie is his sound. He’s got a sound, you know. I’ve always played with saxophone players who can play loud. That interests me most if they can play loud. Gene Ammons can play loud. Jackie McLean can play loud, and Hawk can play loud, and Bird could play loud… You could hear Bird in Chicago if he was playing on 42nd Street, boy! He’d be loud, man. Anyway, you have to be heard before anything can happen. And at that time, they didn’t have all these sophisticated electronic things for your sound. So you had to blow. You had to put some air in those horns. You don’t just be foolin’ around. So Willie has a large sound, and he has a piercing sound that cuts through, too, which is what impressed me about him first of all.

Then we have Abraham Burton on alto saxophone. He’s a protege of Jackie Mac, my old friend, Jackie McLean’s. And he has a powerful… He’s a powerful guy. I mean really. They’re both powerful, you know. I mean, I’m amazed sometimes. I said, “Man, these guys are powerful!” And when the two of them play together, you know, when we play the ensembles, I said, “God…”

WB: [LAUGHS]

AT: Am I right or wrong?

WB: That’s right!

AT: Let Walter Bolden tell you about that, now. Because he’s written five songs at least that we use in our repertoire regularly. Since we’re talking about the saxophone, let’s talk about the power of these two young men, please.

WB: Yes. Willie and Abraham, when they play together, they get a sound that’s big. It sounds like a brass section. You don’t miss the trumpet. It has depth, and it’s wide-open. But being wide-open, it’s still warm. They have a knack of playing very, very mature even right now, although they have a little bit more to offer, I’m quite sure. But they are two of the strongest musicians out here that I have heard in a long time, really. Wide-open sound.

AT: That’s pretty rough, huh? Wow.

WB: Wide-open sound, right.

Q: The drummer is Arthur Taylor.

AT: Yeah, the drummer, man. I just go along.

Q: What do you think of him, Walter Bolden?

AT: Oh, it’s gonna get funny now….

WB: Well, you know….

AT: It’s gonna get funny.

WB: When you have two guys on the same instrument…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

WB: A.T. and I, we used to practice together on the pads, you know. A.T. has a way of playing musical drums. You see, a lot of people play drums, but just patterns and so forth and so on. He has his dynamics, you know. He knows how to pull the sound out of the drum instead of beating the sound into the drum.

AT: Beat it out!

WB: He pulls the sound out. He pulls it out. And it’s amazing, some of the things he does, his coordination — it’s tremendous.

AT: I told him to say that, you know.

Q: He memorized all that? You wrote that? That’s beautiful. That’s great.
[EVERYONE LAUGHS]
[MUSIC: KD/J. Heath/Kenny Drew/AT, “Make Believe” (1961); Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset” (1960)]

Q: I know that Gene Ammons, A.T., was one of your very favorite of all musicians.

AT: Yeah, Gene was great. First of all, my mother was a big Sonny Rollins fan for this piece, “This Love Of Mine,” that he did at one time — I think Blakey and Kenny Drew and I think Percy Heath was the personnel on that. She loved that record. But when she heard “Canadian Sunset,” Gene Ammons got her. She loved Gene Ammons. So I had to play this record. I’d have something on, and I’d have to put “Canadian Sunset” on. She liked that piece.

Gene was one of those saxophone players, you could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan. He had that big sound, you know. God, he had this big sound. And he would tell me, “When we get to the end of the chorus, I want you to drive me and kick me and spur me on and everything.” It was a great learning experience, because he was so much more experienced and so much older. I learned so many different things from Gene Ammons. Plus, he was such a sweetheart, one of the sweet guys of the music business.

Q: Well, you did a lot of recordings with him.

AT: Quite a few.

Q: You recorded on those jam sessions in the mid-Fifties.

AT: That’s right. Coltrane played alto on some of them. Jackie McLean used to be on them, and Art Farmer, Donald Byrd. We had a lot of great musicians. Doug Watkins used to do a lot of those things with us.

Q: When did you first hear him? On one of your first trips to Chicago?

AT: Yeah, I heard him in Chicago. They used to have the all-night jam sessions. And I had known of Gene Ammons, but to hear him in person and electrify the people… When he’d play a ballad, you just went, [SIGHS]; you’d just melt, you know, with the sweetness and the power at the same time. It was so beautiful.

Q: He was a star musician in Chicago since his early twenties, and he’d been performing since his teens.

AT: That’s true. And the Billy Eckstine year also. What about Jug? What about that sound? Let’s talk about sound. What about that sound he gets on that instrument, the texture of his tone?

WB: Well, T, I’ll tell you. With Gene, for me, like his sound was so broad and so warm, when you would hear him in person, you could feel it in your stomach. That’s the vibration. It was just that broad. You could feel it in your body with him. And his ideas. And the way he used to hold back on his phrases and things like that. It would just take you over. Pull you right into him. For instance, there’s a song I really like by him, and it’s called “Didn’t We,” where he…

AT: An original piece or something?

WB: No, it goes, [SINGS REFRAIN], “Didn’t we girl?” You remember that?

AT: “Didn’t we girl?”

WB: [LAUGHS]

AT: Wait a minute, I heard that!

WB: No, that’s the way the lyric goes!

AT: Oh, yeah, okay-okay-okay…

WB: If the man sings it. “Didn’t we, girl,” you dig? But he did a tremendous job on that. And he did so other wonderful performances. To hear him in person was like a magic…

AT: He had a persona (is that the word?) on stage.

WB: That’s right.

AT: He was such a big man, and he had this big sound.

WB: He had a presence that was… Oh, man, it was something else. Really-really-really something.

Q: Well, it seems like most of the saxophone players you played with were players with the big sound. John Coltrane had a huge sound, Sonny Rollins…

AT: Yes, that’s true.

Q: So what else do you want to talk about, A.T.? Bring up some topics!

AT: Well, Gene Ammons is… He’s quite a topic right there, you know, because he’s not spoken about that much these days. We would be on those record dates, you know, with Jackie and Coltrane and all those people, and Gene…I mean, whatever he said, nobody questioned anything. Because he was a master musician, first of all, plus he was a great, great creative person and a great improviser, had tremendous imagination. Looking back, I can picture it in my mind right now, these sessions we would do with Jug. Everybody was so thrilled just to be in his presence. And to be on the record date with him, that was a big thing in itself.

Q: We have cued up “Appointment In Ghana,” a sextet track by Jackie McLean, A.T.’s long-time partner, who you recorded with extensively in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

AT: That’s a piece that I like. I think we’re going to put in our book. That’s one of the new pieces we’re going to put in our repertoire. [SINGS REFRAIN] Tina Brooks, he was a heckuva saxophone player, too.

WB: Oh, yes.

Q: He was on this, and Blue Mitchell on trumpet.

AT: Blue Mitchell, oh, wow!

Q: And we have Kenny Drew and Paul Chambers…

AT: Oh, my goodness! Oh!

Q: You recorded with Paul Chambers on about eight thousand sessions.

AT: Oh, don’t get me…

Q: He’s going to say a few words about Paul Chambers.

AT: Oh, Chamb, Chamb, Chamb… Well, you know, Chamb’s favorite expression, I use it a lot of times with people, Paul Chambers would… I would say to Paul, “Oh, Paul, that was so beautiful, what you played, man. I love you so much. And he would say, “It’s only Chambers’ music, T,” and “We’re going to speed on to victory.” Whatever that meant, you know! He was a sweetheart. He was a sweetie.

Q: [ETC.] Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden want your phone calls. They want to see the phone lines flooded.

AT: At 8 o’clock. If somebody’s out there. Anybody out there listening? I don’t see… Nobody’s calling. It’s just the three of us talking here, seems like to me. Nobody calls or anything. What’s going on?

Q: I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know the phone number.

AT: How many listeners do you have out there usually? Two or three or four?

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Five.

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Six.

Q: Possibly, if we’re lucky, on a given night.
[MUSIC: J.McLean/B. Mitchell/AT, “Appointment In Ghana” (1960); R. Garland/PC/AT, “Hey, Now” (1959); PC/H. Jones/AT, “Yesterdays” (1958)]

AT: That was “Yesterdays” by Paul Chambers, with Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell and Arthur Taylor on the drums. And I will be performing with Taylor’s Wailers…tomorrow evening…at 8 o’clock…at Walter Reade Theatre…in Lincoln Center — and we’re gonna wail. And we’re waiting for you to call us. Now, we’re getting a coupl’a calls, but they’re all from guys. There are no ladies out there listening to this music? I mean, this stuff is getting strange now. I can’t handle it. You know, it’s getting out of hand. It didn’t used to be like that, you know, but it’s getting strange now. So I want to see… First, I wish you people would call and let us know you’re out there. Well, we’re sitting here with Walter…

Q: Well, the number, A.T. Give them the number.

AT: Well, you tell them the number. [ETC.]

Q: Why the theme Autobiography In Rhythm for this concert, A.T.?

AT: You want me to be honest?

Q: I wouldn’t want you to lie.

AT: Oh, okay. It’s a tricky situation, because Lincoln Center wanted me to do a program of Bud Powell’s music, and I love Bud Powell as much as anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. One of my greatest thrills is playing music with Bud Powell, and all of us, people like Walter Bolden and myself, we have a great regard and a great respect and love for Bud Powell, and his music, and his artistry — and him as a person also. But things like that have been done already. I had done that already at the United Nations, and I had done it at the JVC Festival. It’s been done. And I’m really most interested in promoting and developing the band that I work with, Taylor’s Wailers. We incorporate the music of Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Walter Bolden, Monk, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean. We play the music of all the master composers of Modern Improvisation. And just to put it in a box that you’re going to play this one type of music was a little too much. That’s how that came about. And even though I rejected it, they went ahead with it anyway. The opening piece of the program tomorrow night is that “Some People Never Get It,” you know, and then the second piece by Walter Bolden, “They’re All Stressed Out,” you dig, and then we can get into Abbey Lincoln’s “You Made Me Funny” — you know, “you’ve made me funny, you’ve made me sneaky…” I don’t want to be that way. I mean, I talk about it, but I don’t want to be funny. Do you know what I mean? Does that cover that question?

Q: I guess it does. A.T., I’d like to ask you if, in that last batch of phone calls, any topics came up that you’d like to discuss with Walter Bolden.

AT: Yes, well, one gentleman called and said, “Yes, you’re talking about a lot of musicians and this and that, but you haven’t said anything about Elmo Hope or…” He mentioned another pianist, I can’t remember…

Q: I think he mentioned Richie Powell.

AT: Richie Powell, that’s right, Bud’s younger brother. He used to play with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. The gentleman was correct. Those are wonderful musicians. Now, I never played with Richie, but I played with Elmo, and Elmo was, PSHEW, unbelievable. Unbelievable. Elmo Hope was something else. He was really something else. He epitomized the artistic manner of accompanying, of imagination and quick thought. I mean, from the brain right to the hand, immediately, at the right time and the place, the right note, the right chord, the right time, where everybody says, “Ah!” Where you don’t say, “Grrr,” you say “Ah!” — a sigh of relief, you know.

Q: He was a contemporary and a close friend of Bud Powell.

AT: That is correct. That is correct. I would see him at Bud’s apartment sometimes, quite a bit. Yeah, Elmo was quite a musician.

Q: A very distinctive style of writing…

AT: Yes.

Q: …and many enduring compositions.

AT: Definitely. But for me, his main thing was the way he would comp. Unbelievable. He was one of the masters, along with Bud and Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and others also I can’t… The list goes on. But it’s not that long either now!

Q: It’s long enough, though. Of course, you played in hundreds of rhythm sections, with many bassists. I would guess (I have to hear it from you) that Paul Chambers epitomized maybe the ideal bass player.

AT: Well, I did most of my work with Paul. A lot with Doug Watkins, too. Paul was masterful. Like, when you go on the bandstand and start to play, you know what I mean, you go in a trance. I mean, you’re out of it. I mean, you’re only involved in what the other musicians are doing. Well, that’s the relief of playing music, because when you can play music, and if you really get involved in it, and you love it and you enjoy it, and you enjoy and respect the people you’re playing with, there’s nothing like that in the world. There’s nothing like that.

Paul epitomized that. He’s like a guy that goes in a trance. He’s right there, you can look in his eyes, but his brain is only in the music and only what the other musicians are doing and what he is doing. That requires a great deal of concentration. You have to be sympathetic. You have to be understanding. You have to be friendly, mean, nasty, cold-blooded and everything at the same time, you know — without being hateful, though. Paul was just a sweetheart. He was a sweetheart.

Q: Was the Red Garland Trio working a lot in terms of gigs, or was it primarily done for recording dates?

AT: This was primarily recordings. We would do gigs sometimes, but that was occasional, because Red and Paul were playing with Miles Davis at this period, just like John Coltrane was playing with Miles Davis at this period. But there were a certain group of guys, I guess you could call it a clique. It was like a clique. And it was hard to get in that clique. Pianists like Red and Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, a couple of people like that, and the bassists were Doug and Paul, and the drummers were Philly and myself, and then there were other people, too, like Louis Hayes was in there…

Q: Sam Jones recorded with Red later.

AT: Sam Jones. That was later, though. That was later. Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. Joe Gordon, the trumpet player, a great trumpet player who died — Joe Gordon. Those are some of the main guys. And we would work with Gene Ammons, like I said before, and Art Farmer. So there was like a circle of musicians at that particular time. It was very difficult to get into that, because you really had to be playing, first of all, and second of all, the people had to like you, or it didn’t make any difference — you were out! Heh-heh.

Q: Of course, Red Garland and Paul Chambers were playing together all the time.

AT: Yes.

Q: But they sound like it was, you know, a working trio with a book, as though they were on the road or playing gigs like the Ahmad Jamal Trio or other trios of the time.

AT: Yeah. Well, Red was a very sensitive man, you know. I met Red when I was playing with Coleman Hawkins, and he had taken me to his apartment in Philadelphia. He said, “I want you to hear this,” and I sat down and listened to him play. He said, “Yeah, when I get to play with Miles, I’m going to use these chords; these chords are going to set him off.” It’s like you train yourself to play with another musician. And it was really like that, because you know, Miles would say, “Oh my God, do you hear that stuff Red’s playing? That’s too much, isn’t it?” He said, “I don’t have to play. I just stand there, you know.” And Miles was serious. “I don’t really even have to play. Because he’s doing so much beautiful stuff there, I can just do almost anything and it works.”

[MUSIC: W. Bolden, “Gift Of Life” (1978); Monk Big Band, “Friday The 13th” (1959); Bud Powell Trio, “My Heart Stood Still” (1953)]

Q: That was a Rodgers and Hart composition, “My Heart Stood Still” performed by the Bud Powell trio, with George Duvivier on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. That was a working trio at the time.

AT: That was a working trio, yes.

Q: Speaking of great bassists you worked with, George Duvivier was one of the consummate masters of the instrument.

AT: Marvelous. I couldn’t figure out how he followed Bud. It was something else. It was incredible. It was really incredible. I would be amazed every night.

Q: Would Bud play something different every night? He didn’t have set…

AT: Every night. Bud was a real improviser, you know. He was never the same. Never the same. That’s what real improvisation. Every night it was different. He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song, heh-heh — every time. People knew this, too. So that was nice also.

Q: So people would come every night because they knew it would be a different set.

AT: Every night, that’s right.

Q: Prior to that we heard you with Thelonious Monk…

AT: Thelonious! Yeah.

Q: The Thelonious Monk Big Band at Town Hall.

AT: That was quite an evening, yes, with Thelonious. The great Monk.

Q: Some drummers have said it was very hard to play with Monk. Philly Joe Jones talked about the difficulty of following him.

AT: Well, it was difficult. But we all had a great respect and a great regard for Monk because of his knowledge of music, and he was original at the same time, too. Nobody sounds like Monk. There’s nobody! Nobody sounds like that. Even when somebody plays some of his riffs, it doesn’t sound…it’s not Monk. But he was original. And as far as playing with him, I found it very difficult. That was my most difficult job.

Q: Why was that?

AT: Because Monk’s tempos were in between. It was just a fraction in between, which was the hardest tempo to play. It’s harder to play slow than it is fast, because when you play fast, you make errors going by so fast, you don’t know the difference. But if you’re playing slow… This is just my opinion, now; it’s not no gospel truth or nothing like that. But it’s harder to play slow. I could play something fast, at a great rate of speed, and I could mess up…

Q: Supersonic, as you like to say.

AT: Supersonic speed, that’s right, and mess up five hundred times, and nobody would know the difference, I wouldn’t know the difference even, it’s going by so fast. But when you play something slow, and you make an error, it stands out like a sore thumb with a big bandage on it, you know.

Q: [ETC.] We’ll end with a version of “Bullet Train,” from A.T.’s recent release, Mr. A.T.

AT: On Enja Records, which is available at all the record stores in the city. Go buy the records, because when you hear it, you may like it — and go buy it. Because we need the money.

Q: Now, I’ve heard somebody else say that before. “Tell your square friends,” right.

AT: We’re using some of Art Blakey’s stuff. We’ll use his stuff, too, you know, because he’s a master, and you have to use things from the masters also.

Q: [ETC.] Before we conclude the show with “Mr. A.T.,” we’re going to hear you on a recording with someone who was one of your closest friends, I would guess, you recorded with him frequently and played with him in Europe for many years, Johnny Griffin, from a 1962 recording.

AT: Oh yeah, the Little Giant. That’s my man, Johnny Griffin. Rough musician. He had one of those big sounds. You could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan.

Q: I can hear you in the Bronx when you’re playing in Staten Island, too!

AT: [LAUGHING] Even when he’s playing fast.

Q: This is kind of an obscure recording.

AT: Yeah, I haven’t heard it. I forgot about that. We did that when he was leaving for Europe the next day. He hasn’t come back yet. He was leaving for Europe the next day, yeah.

Q: We’ll hear an original blues by Griff called “Slow Burn.” After that we’ll hear the short version of “Mr. A.T.” from your recent release on Enja…

AT: Actually, I’d like to hear the long version.

Q: Well, we don’t have time to play the long version. We played that at the start of the show.

AT: How long is the long version?

Q: It’s eleven minutes.

AT: But that’s what we’ve got. Exactly eleven minutes.

Q: No, but I have to play this, and then the short version.

AT: Is it necessary for you to play this?

Q: Yes, it is!

AT: [LAUGHS]

Q: We played the long one at the top of the show.

AT: Okay, compromise. You always have me in a compromising position. It’s okay. I just hope everyone enjoyed the show, sitting here with my buddy, the great drummer Walter Bolden and my good friend, Ted Panken. It’s really been a pleasure being back here at WKCR for a short visit this evening. And I’m thinking about you, Mo!

WB: And I’m very, very thankful to be invited here, especially with A.T. It was really-really-really a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Griffin, “Slow Burn” (1962), AT, “Mr. A.T.”]

[-30-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: Was music in your family background?

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

DB: You had to survive.

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

DB: Were you from an aristocratic family?

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

DB: Graf is Count.

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

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

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

DB: What’s the quality that grabs you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does femininity sound like?

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

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For the 99th Birthday Anniversary of Marian McPartland (March 20, 1918–August 20, 2013), a Liner Note for the CD of Her Piano Jazz Encounter With Elvis Costello

It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of pianist Marian McPartland, who made an enormous contribution to jazz culture not only with her nuanced approach to jazz piano and composition, but with the iconic NPR show, Piano Jazz, in which she interviewed and played alongside hundreds of her most distinguished piano peers, as well as no small number of singers. My only real encounter with her was a half-hour conversation when I was asked to write liner notes to a CD release of a Piano Jazz session with Elvis Costello. She was extraordinarily gracious, and wrote me a nice note after the CD came out. I highly recommend Paul DeBarros’ excellent biography of McPartland, Shall We Play That One Together?

*******

“I would make a terrible singer, because I probably would always forget the lyrics,” says Marian McPartland with characteristic self-effacement.

In point of fact, McPartland has few peers at the fine art of making other singers sound their best, a proposition bolstered by this encounter with singer-composer Elvis Costello from a September 2003 installment of Piano Jazz. She’s been at it for a while: she began her professional life on a four-piano vaudeville gig in 1936, and entertained the troops during World War II. On a USO tour, she met and married cornetist Jimmy McPartland, accompanied him to the U.S. in 1946, toured with his trad band, and subsequently found employment as a trio leader in classy 52nd Street venues like the Embers and the Hickory House. During those years she met everyone who was anyone in the business, and around 1970, she established a record label (Halcyon), on which she documented herself prolifically. One album was a subtle recital of the songs of Alec Wilder (Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, Jazz Alliance, TJA-10016); in 1978, Wilder, about to leave a syndicated NPR show he had hosted based on his book American Popular Song, recommended McPartland to replace him, and Piano Jazz was born.

“A lot of singers, like Jackie Paris, would come to the Hickory House and sit in,” McPartland recalls. “We’d say, ‘What key?’ and they’d do whatever they wanted.”

During Piano Jazz’s quarter-century, McPartland has brought a similar attitude to impromptu dialogues with several dozen world-class singers, famous and obscure. Her sessions with Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney and Steely Dan are Concord releases; awaiting release are episodes with stand-up singers Tony Bennett, Alicia Keys, Linda Ronstadt, Karrin Allyson and Jane Monheit, and singer-instrumentalists Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

“I like hearing somebody else take the song and do whatever they want,” says McPartland, encapsulating her philosophy at 87. “I try to play chords that will make him or her feel good and not get in their way, and listen a lot, and not play lots of runs.”

McPartland’s impeccable manners proscribe her from mentioning that she can call up on a moment’s notice seemingly every song composed during her seven professional decades. She’s much too polite to discuss her knack for spontaneously molding an interpretation that matches the tonal personality of her partner. True to her generation’s aesthetic, she always tells a story, wedding a vivid harmonic imagination to unfailingly melodic imperatives. When interviewing her guests, she discreetly shapes the flow like a veteran sideman, deploying conversational equivalents of laying-out, comping, and pithy solo turns.

“My first reaction was one of surprise, as I am neither a jazz musician or a pianist,” says Costello—Krall’s spouse—of receiving McPartland’s invitation. “However, I am an admirer of Marian McPartland, and her humor, ease of manner, and depth of understanding of the repertoire made this an absolute pleasure.”

“We had a wonderful time, because everything he sang was something that I knew well,” McPartland corroborates. “I had never met Elvis, and I found him a very charming guy. We sat and talked about tunes and keys, and just did one after another. It was all very easy.”

“I have never been tempted to record a ‘Standards’ album, but I have recorded at least an album’s worth of such material over the years,” says Costello, who first reached a mass audience playing Punk-inflected Rock-and-Roll two years before Piano Jazz kicked off. “Revisiting songs I had known my whole life, such as ‘My Funny Valentine,’ which I recorded 25 years previously, was exactly what this opportunity was all about.”

Over the years, Costello sustained his fan base while, in his words, “moving away from orthodox rock-and-roll styles.” He expanded his craft, and developed a parallel identity as an art musician informed by polyglot influences. “The feeling for songs changes in time just as the voice changes,” he says, and here, wrapping himself in a velvet-to-husky baritone, resonant with vibrato, he addresses the program—comprised primarily of dark “blue ballads,” including two Costello originals—with in-the-moment presence. Each song connects in some way to his personal history.

Costello’s sense of jazz dates to his earliest years. “My father [Ross MacManus, b.1927] was a bebop trumpeter, and he and my mother ran jazz clubs on Merseyside [near Liverpool] in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s,” Costello relates. Costello’s mother also ran a record store, and the MacManus household moved to a soundtrack of top-shelf pop singers like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, as well as progressive instrumentalists like Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. “These sounds were familiar to me, and I heard a wide range of ballads other than the ones I grew up buying as a teenage rock-and-roll fan,” Costello continues. “When my young adult curiosity took me back to many of those artists and their recordings, I found that they were equally vivid.”

In 1955, the year after Costello’s birth, Ross MacManus took a job as vocalist-trumpeter with the Joe Loss Orchestra, a well-established commercial band that first broadcast on BBC in 1933, and didn’t disband until the ‘70s.

“Joe Loss was somebody I listened to a lot,” says McPartland, who recalls seeing Loss perform when she was 19. “They played what I would call dance music of the time. It was a very good band, and though I don’t recall listening with great concentration, it must have stayed in my head.”

This is Costello’s first recording of Harry Warren’s “At Last,” a Glenn Miller vehicle from Orchestra Wives (1942). His father sang it on a 1958 EP by Joe Loss, six years after Ray Anthony’s cover made the top ten and two years before Etta James’ thrilling, iconic version.

“I played my Dad’s recording of the tune on Desert Island Discs [a BBC show],” Costello tells McPartland. “Both my parents have been very supportive all through my career and understood the different things that I’ve done, but obviously their heart lies in the music we’re speaking about today.”

Aside from “My Funny Valentine” (it was the B-side of a 1978 EP), Costello reprises “Gloomy Sunday,” a melancholic Billie Holiday vehicle from ‘30s that he recorded on Trust, from 1981. “They Didn’t Believe Me,” inspired by Mel Tormé’s 1947 version, appears on a U.S. promo edition of The Juliet Letters, Costello’s venturesome early ‘90s collaboration with the Brodsky String Quartet. You can hear him sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “The Very Thought Of You” on a DVD documenting a 1981 encounter with Chet Baker at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London.

Baker subsequently recorded Costello’s “Almost Blue,” Costello’s “most broadly interpreted song.” Costello wrote it with the trumpeter in mind when he was “in the thrall of” Baker’s version of “The Thrill Is Gone.” During this time, he tells McPartland, he had “started writing on the piano, and made a conscious decision to try and learn from the music I had literally grown up with as a child, rather than as a teenager.”

Of more recent vintage is “I’m In The Mood Again,” the finale, as it also is on North, a suite of 11 self-composed piano ballads which Costello was preparing at the time of this recording. The repertoire on that album contains, in Costello’s words, “harmonies, instrumental timbres and rhythms derived from jazz, but they are just songs and music that I imagined.”

After Costello’s final breath on “The Very Thought of You,” McPartland remarks, “You did that like a jazz singer,” referring to his fresh phrasing and identifiable-in-one-note sound. Perhaps they’ll meet again.

“I might have suggested we perform Mingus’ ‘Weird Nightmare’ or one of my lyrics for Mingus’ ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colors’ or Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Blood Count,’” Costello says. “But then we would have no repertoire for a return appearance on the show.”

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Filed under Elvis Costello, Marian McPartland

R.I.P. Larry Coryell, April 2, 1943-February 19, 2017

A month ago, the jazz world lost the important guitarist Larry Coryell. I didn’t know him well, but had the honor of hosting him twice during my years at WKCR and of being asked to write the liner notes for the 2003 High Note recording, Cedars of Avalon, which appears below.

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“At 59, having “lived and loved and lost and paid all the dues,” guitarist Larry Coryell presents Cedars of Avalon, on which he improvises through a program primarily comprising modernist blues and songbook torch tunes filtered through a bebop prism. It’s the latest chapter in Coryell’s two-decade exploration of early roots, which he began to revisit on the heels of an efflorescent early career that saw him famously navigate—indeed, pioneer in—genres as diverse as Jazz-Rock, Fusion, and creative classical guitar. Here Coryell tells rich stories in a singular voice within the bedrock forms of jazz.

“When we were doing the stuff that is now called Fusion, the musicians I collaborated with didn’t agree on much,” Coryell says. “But we were trying to inject something from our own generation. There was a lot of pressure on me from people I played with in the middle ’60s to play different stuff. Some suggested not to play too much bebop, and the other extreme was ‘play more like Albert Ayler.’ Everything I did with Eleventh House and all the Jazz-Rock was a conscious effort not to copy the heroes and find my own voice. I needed to take that detour. I needed to make that conscious effort to be original in order to come back and better understand what I was trying to do in straight ahead jazz.”

Coryell plays on the edge throughout the program. He deploys his enviable technique as a platform for continuous chance-taking, addressing the guitar with the innocent nonchalance of a child learning the ins and outs of a new toy. Playing straight from the heart with vigor, invention and relentless swing, he grounds his elegant, passionate stories through mastery of idiomatic nuance and musical narrative. Cedars of Avalon is a snapshot of the moment, devoid of the notion of no-mistake perfection.

“I used to spend hours getting everything right,” Coryell remarks. “Then I came to understand that this is not the best way for me to record. Trying to be a perfectionist removes all the heart and spirit from music. Other guys can do it successfully. But I now accept the fact that even if I don’t play exactly what I want to, I’ve got to go with it if the overall feeling is there, because that’s the truth.”

This being said, the playing on Cedars of Avalon is remarkably consistent. That’s due in no small part to the superb rhythm section, headed by pianist Cedar Walton, the album’s dedicatee.

“I’ve been waiting for years to record with Cedar,” Coryell says. “I’ve loved his playing since college, when I heard Art Blakey’s record Golden Boy. In the middle ’80s we did some dates on the West Coast, including a jazz cruise on a boat from San Francisco to Vancouver with Billy Higgins and Freddie Hubbard. When we were getting ready to play, Cedar talked about how important it is to really love the music when you’re on the bandstand, to forget about all personal differences. That impressed me very much, and as I got to know Cedar musically, I became even crazier about his playing. We seem to be compatible in the music we like, the phrases and styles we favor.”

Rounding out the New York A-list rhythm section are bassist Buster Williams and trapsman Billy Drummond. Williams lays down impeccable walking lines on the comp and conjures a series of ebullient, guitaristic solos; Drummond, whose big ears and stylistic flexibility are a plus on any session, pushes the beat with his irresistible ride cymbal, entexturing the drum kit to suit every shift in the musical climate.

“I almost felt like an outsider,” Coryell jokes. “When I’d lay out after playing the melody, and heard them play, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a nice gig I’m attending.'”

The title track is a graceful line built on a continuously reharmonized six-note phrase that blends simplicity and sophistication in a Waltonesque manner. Coryell says: “I wrote it for Cedar and his concept. It reminds me of something he might have played with Wes Montgomery if they had ever played together.”

After Coryell’s ingenious intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” which springboards a crisp, lucid Walton statement, the guitarist, in his own manner, channels his inner Wes, a recurrent reference throughout the date whenever Coryell gets his vonce going.

“That’s true,” Coryell agrees. “It worked very naturally with Cedar and the rhythm section. These guys play the real thing.”

Coryell played piano and drums and sang during his formative years in Eisenhower Era Richland, Washington (“There ain’t nothin’ in Richland; sagebrush and rattlesnakes—once I heard real jazz music, it was like ‘get me out of here.'”), but his hands were too small to maneuver around the guitar until he was 16, around 1959.

“Then I heard Wes Montgomery, and everything changed,” he relates. “I was amazed that he had such modern ideas, not to mention all the obvious pluses of his playing — his great single-note lines, the octaves and the chords. I started transcribing all of his solos.”

Coryell offers “a direct, huge thank you” to the master on “D-Natural Blues,” which Montgomery recorded on The Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside, 1960) in quartet with Tommy Flanagan.

Elsewhere, Coryell offers heartfelt homages to early influences Johnny Smith (“What’s New”) and Barney Kessel (“Limehouse Blues”).

“I wanted to record ‘What’s New’ all my life, but didn’t think I understood the lyric,” he says. “Now I felt qualified to make my own statement. I know other guitar players my age will pick up that I used some direct quotes from Johnny Smith’s recording — the fast major-VII arpeggios are almost note-for-note. Johnny Smith had that beautiful lyrical sustained sound and feel, and a beautiful heart that blew me away.

Coryell overdubs a rousing bass counterpoint to his fleet acoustic guitar line on “Limehouse Blues,” one of his two unaccompanied declamations. “Around the time I recorded it, I had gotten an email that Barney Kessel was disabled and needed money,” he says. “I remembered years ago listening to him play it and how blown away I was. But he did it by himself. I had to use two guitars.

“Barney’s playing was clear and forthright, especially his chord work and his ballads, and I could take his ideas off records more easily than Tal Farlow’s. I loved Tal and Johnny Smith and Barney, and I tried to transcribe all their solos.”

Later on, in New York City, Coryell found the real thing up close and personal. “I went to New York to hear bebop, and nobody was playing it,” he says. “Charles Lloyd was playing at the Vanguard with Albert Stinson, Gabor Szabo and Pete LaRoca, and I couldn’t find the one all night! But at the seventh club I went to, I finally heard something I recognized. It was in Harlem, and I saw Grant Green and Larry Young. It was a life-changing experience. Grant Green was throwin’ it down, man. His time was amazing. The notes were popping out of the guitar. I never got over it.”

Incidentally, John Coltrane applied his transcendent instrumental voice to “Limehouse Blues” on a memorable 1959 recording with Cannonball Adderley; Coryell has Trane very much in mind on Walton’s “Fantasy in D/Ugetsu” and Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie.”

“Theme For Ernie” is part of Walton’s trio repertoire, and the rhythm section addresses the iconic lament with a slow-medium groove not unlike what Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor laid down underneath Coltrane’s keening statement on Soultrane [1958].

“That’s my favorite ballad,” Coryell says. “We decided we needed to do only one take. I changed the melody a little, but kept this version because the feeling was right.”

“I learned ‘Fantasy in D’ when I was on that cruise,” Coryell continues. “Then my determination became, ‘Some day I’ve got to record that with Cedar.’ It has the Coltrane feeling; that pattern at the end of each chorus, where you go from D-major to a D-minor suspended over an A. Before Coltrane, there was nothing like that in jazz; no modal thing in a song with chords. I loved it. I was afraid to think I could even play like Coltrane, but by listening to him I think I learned something. He was not just technique and different ideas. He was deep feeling; the substance of his music has touched my heart. They make me think about what a spiritual man he was.”

Coryell has similar regard for Walton’s “The Newest Blues,” a composition of more recent vintage that required exactly one take to wrap. “I’d never heard it before in my life,” Coryell says. “The challenge on a blues is always to see if you can say something you haven’t said before. I love the line, and I love the way Cedar reharmonizes blues, always with a call-and-response component. There’s a section where his piano part and the bass are unified and do a sequence of organized movement. The contrast to that when we go into the regular blues is great.”

Coryell learned “It Could Happen To You” from his mother, who died in 1999. “She used to sing that song to me a lot, and I loved her words,” he recalls. “My mother played piano as well, and everything she ever played was in E-flat—it was her favorite key. I wanted to do something in E-flat for my mother.”

With a flourish, Coryell concludes Cedars of Avalon with a solo tour de force entitled “Shapes.” “That was a direct result of an unofficial lesson from Donald Byrd,” Coryell says. “He was in Pittsburgh to receive an award when I was doing a gig with Geri Allen and Wallace Roney, and I sat in the hotel and listened to him discourse on the relationship of mathematics to music. I tried to remember everything he said, and composed the piece on that basis.

“There’s no one else in art like Donald Byrd, a jazz musician with an unbelievable intellect who had all the Apollo Theater trappings in his life and had to deal with segregation, etc. He’s like a man of the people who is also a leader in the mind. I feel fortunate to be born in this lifetime, to be exposed to people like him and all the others I love.”

Throughout Cedars of Avalon, Coryell recalls the fresh sensibility he brought to New York in 1965, a 22-year phenom fresh from Seattle, where he “played rock-and-roll in the evening, jazz at night. Rock-and-Roll was like children’s music; it came very easily. But jazz was Mount Everest, to be admired and hopefully to scale.” Now we can place the guitarist with the heroes who—to borrow the title of the late Clifford Jordan’s classic tune—have scaled the highest mountains of improvisational expression.

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Filed under guitar, Larry Coryell, Liner Notes

R.I.P. James Cotton, July 1, 1935 – March 16, 2017

Coming out of hibernation to post an interview with James “Superharp” Cotton, master of the blues harmonica and a great singer, who died on March 16th at 81. I had a chance to interview Cotton in 2012 for the program notes for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. I don’t know nearly as much about blues history as I do about jazz, but I thought the conversation was interesting. Among other things, his remarks about wanting his harmonica to sound like a tenor saxophone. Here’s an edit.

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TP: How long have you had this current band?

JC: The current band that I have has been working with me about 20 years. Noel Neal I think is one of the best blues bass players in the business.

TP: Earlier, you used saxophone and piano, I think. When did you switch from that lineup to something more pared down with the guitars, bass and drum?

JC: I had the horn section for about four years, and there was problems carrying it on the road with everybody, and I broke the band down. So I have bass, guitar, and drums for the last eight years or so, I should say.

TP: Do you play the same repertoire all the time with this band, or do you switch things up?

JC: I switch things up.

TP: Because you’re famous for knowing tons and tons of songs.

JC: Well, we don’t do them all. But we do switch ‘em up sometimes. Sometimes we’ll do something different because of the way I feel that night. We’ll do something from everywhere.

TP: Do you still bring new songs into your band book?

JC: Yeah, I do that every year. We’ve got a CD coming out. I have new songs in there. One song has been recorded before, but the rest of it is brand-new. Although I didn’t write all of them.

TP: About how many songs have you written over the years?

JC: I don’t know. So many, I don’t know. Quite a few.

TP: I know that for a little under 20 years, for reasons of health, you’ve hardly done any singing, but you play harmonica all the time. People know solos you’ve done, those solos are famous, and hundreds of harmonica players might have memorized those solos. Do you try to play them differently every time?

JC: If it’s new. If it’s something I did before, I try to stay close to the pattern as I can.

TP: One thing I want to get to, because this is a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to ask you a bit about your attitude when you were a young musician to swing music, and rhythm-and-blues, and jazz of the time. Were you paying attention to, let’s say, Louis Jordan in the ‘50s, or other people who were bridging swing music and blues?

JC: Yeah. Back then I was listening to anything I could hear. If I heard it, I played it, or I tried to play it. Louis Jordan? I probably knew every tune Louis Jordan ever did. But I listened to about everybody I could. When you’re trying to learn something, you have a tendency to listen to use.

TP: Were you influenced in your approach to harmonica by other instruments?

JC: I try to make my harmonica sound like a tenor saxophone.

TP: Who were some of the tenor saxophone players you liked back in the day?

JC: Coltrane. I listened to James Moody. Uh…I can’t think of his name right now… I listened to quite a few horn players, because I wanted to have a different sound with my harmonica.

TP: How about singers? Everyone who knows you, knows you were apprenticed to Rice Miller and Howlin’ Wolf. But who were some of the other singers you checked out? During the days that you were singing, you had a lot of different approaches, and your voice was very flexible, went through a lot of flavors.

JC: B.B. King. John Lee Hooker. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Gatemouth Brown. Willie Mabon. I listened to everything that I could listen to with the music. I didn’t push none of it aside. I even listened to Elvis Presley when he was…you know, back in the day.

TP: I think I read an interview where you said you heard Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley.

JC: I did. I’d never seen him before that. Elvis used to come down to the Blue Monday party we had on Beale Street in Memphis, and he was the only white face there. He sat in and he wanted to listen.

TP: I guess you first started leading a band in 1950-51, when Rice Miller left his band to you. But full-time you’ve been leading a band about 45 years, just about? 1966?

JC: Right.

TP: Did you pick up cues from any of your mentors as far as being a bandleader.

JC: Yeah. Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Muddy Waters. I didn’t do all the things they did. I tried to leave all the bad things aside. Some was good, some was bad. I tried to pick up the good things, like treating the guys right, getting them paid right…and I found out one thing—if you don’t like somebody, you can’t play with them right.

TP: How much freedom do they have within the context of your band? You mentioned that during your first four years with Muddy Waters, he wanted you to play Little Walter’s solos note-for-note. (I know all your fans know this stuff.) Then you told him that you had to play your own sound. Is that something you also want from your musicians, that they play themselves, that they play their own sound?

JC: Well, they play what they feel is right for the band, not what somebody else played with the band. Because the other way they sounded is no longer with the band. We are here together.

TP: What do you think is your greatest or couple of greatest accomplishments as a bandleader?

JC: A guy like me, comes out of Mississippi, with the “Cotton Crop Blues,” man, and wins a Grammy—that makes me feel good.

TP: Do you have any favorite records from your output? Or are they all your favorites?

JC: They’re all favorites. See, I work on something when I like it. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. Then it won’t come out. I’m still looking forward to playing. I’m 77 years old, and I’m still doing it. It still feels good. I don’t want to quit. I love what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep right on doing it. And I find something to do every day.

TP: I forgot to ask you one question pertaining to the number of songs that are in your repertoire. During the time when you were singing, how long did it take you to put your own stamp on a song? Could you get there right away? Did it take a long time to get it? How did you go back learning all those lyrics, and making them part of your soul?

JC: I guess I was blessed with that, too. Back in the day (it’s a little bit slower now), if I heard something one time, I knew it. You could play it one time, and I’d know it word-for-word. I was pretty good about putting lyrics together.

TP: How much are you touring these days? I was looking on your website, and it seems like you’re working quite a bit.

JC: Yes. We’re going all over the world. We’re going everywhere. I’m enjoying it.

TP: Do people all over the world respond to the blues in the same way?

JC: They respond everywhere I’m doing it. The people here, they’re going to hear the blues because they know what you’re talking about. But if you’re in Europe, they feel what you’re doing. They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they’ll applaud, holler for me to come back.

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Filed under Blues, James Cotton