The Pile, Oct. 7, 2018 — Elio Villafranca’s “Cinque” Plus Interviews From 2013 and 2014

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

Having stated that caveat, here’s the second installment of the new “Pile” — my impressions of pianist-composer Elio Villafranca’s superb Cinque, released in the spring. Following the review I’ve appended two interviews that I conducted with Villafranca in 2013 and 2014.

Elio Villafranca (Cinque):

Without multiple listenings on the granular level, it’s not possible to do justice to the various layers that Elio Villafranca interweaves into his panoramic five-movement suite, Cinque (Artists Share), a major work that wears its erudition lightly. Roughly speaking, it’s framed around  the life and impact of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879) (a free man from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped into slavery in 1839, masterminded the capture of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, was imprisoned in the U.S., and was freed in 1841 to return to West Africa as a free man in 1841) and also the events of Haitian Revolution that preceded Cinque’s birth. These events are well-depicted in the extremely thorough program booklet, as are the Kongo and Gangá cosmologies that underpin the proceedings in an illuminating essay by the Ned Sublette, author of the essential Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo — the  value added contained therein is a good reason to eschew streaming and buy Villafranca’s self-produced, crowd-funded double CD package (if you’re equipped to play a CD, of course).

 

This being said,  you don’t need a scorecard to viscerally appreciate Villafranca’s vivid compositions, which reference an expansive gamut of jazz approaches spanning Ellington to Tyner to (Wynton) Marsalis, while using raw materials drawn from an array of Afro-Caribbean musics that surrounded Villafranca (a son of San Luis, Cuba, in the Pinar Del Rio region) during formative years. Villafranca came up through Cuba’s rigorous system of musical pedagogy, and graduated from Havana’s the island’s world-class conservatory, with separate degrees in composition and percussion. He’s a world-class pianist, who has made it his business since emigrating to the United States two decades ago to assimilate and attain fluency in an expansive array of dialects —- his solo declamations call up, at various points, vocabulary from the Maestro, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Barron (check the “What If” motif that he uses on “Conga Y Comparsa”) — that he’s refracted into his own argot. Villafranca intersperses field recordings of master folkloric practitioners from his home region that contextualize the narrative and illuminate the Afro-diasporic interconnections between the hemispheres.

 

For the occasion, Villafranca recruited an ensemble of masters who have interpreted  his music for several years. The fulcrum is Lewis Nash, grandmaster of the trapset, who, given an opportunity to stretch out, displays his extraordinary ability to function both as a generator of idiomatic grooves in a coro  with four hand percussionists of Cuban descent and bassist Ricky Rodriguez, while displaying his creativity in dialogue with the exceptional  soloists. Steve Turre, a long-standing master at fusing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies, generates evocative timbres and primal melodies on conch shells, and applies his sui generis trombone conception on a range of muted and open-horn solos that range from J.J. Johnson-level hardbop to Lawrence Brown-esque romance). Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy’s stirring declamation embodies the title “The Night Of The Fire”; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, and Todd Marcus on clarinet and bass clarinetist contribute statements of equivalent panache and fire. Villafranca leaves space for two pithy, well-wrought solos by Wynton Marsalis, whose own interpretation of the Afro-diasporic message, as expressed in  programmatic suites like Blood on the Fields and Congo Square, has established an aesthetic template for ambitious cross-cultural works like Cinque. Indeed, Cinque debuted at Marsalis’ “house,” the Appel Room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, during the 2014-2015 season.

On a more meta level, Villafranca’s achievement is emblematic of the maturation of the Cuban musicians who have claimed their position in the international jazz conversation since Gonzalo Rubalcaba left the island during the late ‘80s — a short-list includes Yosvany Terry (whose historical opera Makandal needs a commercial recording), Dafnis Prieto, David Virelles, Roman Filiu, and Aruán Ortiz. 

I’ve appended below two interviews I had an opportunity to conduct with Villafranca (who has since moved from Temple University to Juilliard) in which he discusses his personal history and aesthetics. The one from 2013 was conducted for a Jazz Times piece with several Cuban musicians (including all of the aforementioned) on their educational experience in Cuba; the one from 2014 was for a Downbeat web piece.

*****

Elio Villafranca on Cuba Education (May 14, 2013):

TP: A few basic things first. How old are you?

EV: I’m 44. (December 1968)

TP: And you’re from Pinar Del Rio, which is in the west of Cuba.

EV: Correct.

TP: Are you from a musical family?

EV: No. There’s no music in my family.

TP: Did you learn to play music in school as a kid?

EV: I went through the system that Cuba has. I started in the Casa del Cultura of my home town of San Luis, Pinar del Rio. I started painting first (that was the first thing I did) when I was very young, and then, from there I picked up the guitar. I studied guitar for about two years. Then I knew that there were music schools, that they were accepting people for music. Then I presented myself to do the test… I did the test without telling my family, actually, and then they accepted me, but they told me that they didn’t have room for guitar players any more, so I picked percussion.

TP: This was the regional school?

EV: Yes.

TP: Dafnis Prieto went to Santa Clara when he was 10 or something.

EV: Exactly. The same thing. But I did it in Pinar Del Rio. Every province had those original schools, where you get the general music education, and then you go to Havana, where it’s more like the high school kind of thing where you get the specialization on your instrument, and then I went to the ISA, the university of music in Cuba, in Havana. Then I did percussion, because they didn’t have guitar… Actually, I have two degrees—in percussion and composition. I picked up piano when I went into school. I didn’t play piano before I went to school, but then, since it was mandatory for me to play the piano, I was playing it all the time. Then I fell in love with the piano, and then I took it seriously, and then I devoted myself to piano playing.

TP: Was it at the regional school?

EV: That was mostly at the ENA. In Havana, that’s when I first was introduced to jazz, and I was like, “Wow,” and that’s when I started playing.

TP: Can you tell me something about the pedagogy in the regional school?

EV: It’s very intense. The whole system is like, you have double sessions, one session during the morning…from morning til noon you do the regular classes, which is math, physics or chemistry, and then in the afternoon you do the musical classes. At the regional school it was more focused on solfege and theory and piano, and a little on your instrument, the instrument that you were applying for, and also general history of music and music history classes, general, informative type of classes for general music and education.

TP: Dafnis said it was European music, classical music?

EV: Yes, it’s constantly European. My entire education… I think also for him… I mean, for our generation, it’s mostly in classical music. Like, my education, my training in percussion and in composition was fully classical music.

TP: Dafnis said he learned bongos and different percussion instrument, went to tympany, went to mallet instruments…

EV: Yes, exactly that. From my experience, I learned mostly classical. I didn’t know, like Cuban percussion, until I got to Havana. That’s when I started playing a little bit of Cuban percussion. But that was very, very simple information that they give you on that, because actually the courses were mainly classical music. They were following more like the Russian style. They used to see all the Cuban percussion as the lower form of music, basically. Then most of us, me in particular, learned all these other things more in the streets. I used to go and see bands play, and I would play with other groups sometimes on the street, I would go to jam sessions—but not because of education necessarily. Then there was a point in the ISA that they realized that it was a good business, because there was a lot of interest from Europeans and Americans to learn it, so then they started opening classes for foreign people and for the students, and then they opened the catedra of Cuban percussion, then I got a chance to learn from a lot of great masters in Cuban percussion when they were allowed to teach at the conservatory. Remember, in Cuba, for you to be teaching… Everything is through the government. For you to be teaching at the university level, the ISA, you have to have a degree that says you have a doctoral degree or masters degree so you can teach at this level. But most of the percussionists, rumberos and everything, they didn’t have anything.

TP: They’re street musicians.

EV: Exactly. Then there was this conflict for them to accept them in the school, because they thought, like, “oh, we…” It’s like an elite kind of thing. But finally, I think they decided, “We’re going to teach those classes.” Even though here was some tension between them, because it was kind of like, “Ok…”

TP: I can imagine what the tension was like with highbrow Russian teachers and these street guys…

EV: But you know what? Believe it or not, the tension was not between the Russian teachers and the Cubans. It was between the Cubans who had learned in Russia… A lot of my teachers… I had Russian teachers who didn’t speak Spanish enough, and I remember having translators in the classrooms, and then the other teachers were Cubans who studied in the conservatories in Russia. Those are the ones who thought, like, classical music is an elite thing, “I don’t want you guys to be playing any popular music, because that’s not really a good…” They thought that it was not really good music.

TP: You anticipated my question, which is where you picked up Cuban popular or folkloric music. I guess it was in the air, on the street all the time.

EV: Yeah, in the air, on the street, but I have to tell you also that… I just came to realize this in my later years, that actually I experienced my folkloric music in San Luis (?—9:28) for the first time when I was a baby, when I was born there. San Luis is the area where the Tambor de Yuka exists at this moment, and the Tambor de Yuka is a very rare form of Cuban music from the Congolese culture (the shape of the drum looks like a yucca). But it was very popular in Cuba throughout the slavery process because the drums are not sacred. They are the kind of drums that are played in the festive activities before the sacred music was played. It’s the drums that they… The slaves didn’t have to have a religious celebration to play them. They can play it whenever they want to play it. So it was a very popular form of drumming. In my home town, since I was a kid, I would always listen to those drums. I didn’t know what they were. I was more fascinated by the fire, because for you to tune the drums you have to make a fire, because they’re tuned by fire. For me, as a kid, that was the most exciting thing. Not so much of the drums, because the drums are kind of old-looking, kind of made out of those trees, a very simple form of making a drum. But then only when I went to the school I started realizing, “Oh, I see, this is what…” I’d been listening and exposed to that particular of Afro-Cuban music since I was at a very early age.

TP: Once you were in Havana, were you starting to play outside, to be a professional musician?

EV: Yes. When I was in Havana… One of the reasons why I took the piano very seriously was not only because I liked it… I mean, with jazz. I should say with jazz. Because with piano, I always liked it. I was taking it serious. I was taking classes and all that. But in the catedra of percussion, we used to do jam sessions. That was the only faculty that would do jam sessions. We would go there, jam, and it was great, a lot of fun. There were a lot of percussionists but no pianists. So every time I got there, all the instruments were already taken, and the only thing that was not played was the piano. Then I start sitting on the piano just to create like a real jam session, and then they start asking me to come and play the piano for the jam session. Then I realized, “wow, ok, maybe I should start taking it even more seriously,” to be able to play and jam and improvise and all the things on the piano. That’s the beginning of how I started to get into jazz.

Then, by doing that, I was hired by a few groups kind of as a pianist, but no pay—because when you are in the school, you are not allowed to be paid. Then finally, a group that I was hired for, that I was there with them for 8 years throughout my school, was with Carlos Varela, who is a singer-songwriter from Cuba who I am sure you’ve heard of—from the Nueva Trova. He is almost like the disciple of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He was very famous, and I was joined his band, and I became his musical director.

TP: You had all the tools from the conservatory, but the feeling from playing on the street.

EV: Yeah. And then I did my own group, my jazz group which I played at jazz festivals all the time.

TP: How old were you when you started your jazz group?

EV: I was maybe 17. [1985]

TP: I saw Shawn Brady’s piece on you, which was built around the story that you had a teacher at school who told you that he’d come down hard on you if you had any jazz in the composition.

EV: Yes.

TP: Were you able to learn jazz at all in conservatory, or is that also a self-taught process?

EV: It’s a self-taught process. There were no classes on jazz. For example, even tunes—there were no Real Books. The only way we could learn tunes was either transcribing, or sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s home, because I knew he was traveling, or Chucho Valdes, or Pucho Lopez, or Harold Lopez-Nussa… Those are the people who I used to visit their home and say “I want to copy some standards.” I remember Gonzalo sometimes would say, “I have a book, but you can copy it here,” so I would bring paper, and handwrite the songs. I remember he used to have “Eye Of The Hurricane,” Herbie Hancock with Wynton…the transcription of Herbie’s solos. I’d sit down there and handwrite all these things while he was practicing. I was always listening to him practicing! I’d be writing from the book while he was playing.

At that time a cassette tape in the black market cost 15 pesos in Cuba, when the average salary was 150 pesos. My mother and my father would put together 35 pesos to give me to live for a month in Havana. Just relying on the food the school would give us, was not enough. Often when I return from home to the ENA some one would be selling tapes at the entrance of the school. The black market was the only place where you could buy cassette tapes, so I will use 30 pesos of my 35 (leaving me only with 5 pesos for the entire month to live off) to buy two tapes so I could record Chick’s music, or Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie, Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbart… on and on… So much music to hear. I would then ask musicians who were traveling out side of Cuba such as Chucho, or Gonzalo, Horacio Hernandez, Gonzalo’s drummer at the time, Ernan, to record some music for me. Some times I would team-up between a friend who also liked jazz, so that way we can trade recordings. I’m really proud of the choices I made between food or great music. Specially after been among the 5 pianist chosen by Chick Corea to play at his own festival this past May 16th at Dizzy’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center. That was one of the greatest feelings of a dream comes thru.

TP: What was it about jazz that appealed to you at that time?

EV: It’s freedom! Growing up in a system where freedom was not a common thing to have was difficult creatively at times…, and I’m not talking about politics only, also in music, therefore playing jazz was a very liberating experience. Having that freedom to express your self, when that lacked in politics and in society was intoxicating…

The very first group that really impacted me in jazz was Richie Cole. [alto sax] I remember when I first came to Havana, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I loved rock music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—that was my music. And then, a friend of mine, who was already at the school, said, “You definitely have to go to the jazz festival.” I really wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what it was, but I said, “Ok, I’ve got to go.” I went and Richie Cole did a concert there, and I was with my mouth open the whole night. After that night, I just decided I want to be a jazz musician. That was the first band that really impacted me. Then after that, I started digging. Then Chick Corea, Three Quartets and Crystal Silence, and all these beautiful things, and I also got into the Herbie Hancock vein. That’s when I first started noticing about Wynton, that album with Herbie, The Eye of The Hurricane. Then from that point on, I started reaching, reaching, reaching for new albums.

TP: When did you get out of school? At 21 or 18?

EV: Out of ISA, I was 24. I did two careers there. I was not allowed to graduate from the two careers in the same year—percussion and composition.

TP: By the time you graduated, you were playing in a number of bands. Were you able to start traveling at that time?

EV: Yeah. Even before I was graduated, I was traveling with my rock band, with Carlos Varela. We were going to Spain. We were going to Colombia. Actually, we coincided a concert in Colombia with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. We were traveling. That band was good on that thing. That helped me to survive. Because I wasn’t allowed to get paid in Cuba, but I’d travel with them I would get paid, kind of a stipend kind of thing, and then I would bring that money back to Cuba, and then I would be able to survive on that.

TP: So by the time you were 24, were the musical ideas that we’ve heard from you for the last 10-15 years in the States more or less in place? How did things develop? How did the type of education you received affect the way things were developing?

EV: I teach at Temple, and I see sometimes some of the faults in the educational system here in terms of musical education. I feel like sometimes the students, they don’t really get a very extensive, full education in music. Not just in jazz or how to play bebop tunes, but in music in general. Maybe because I was in such a stiff kind of training in classical music that I was exposed to a lot of great music… I had a really fantastic education in Cuba in terms of classical music and music in general—solfegge and a lot of things. So that really helped me…it’s been helping me all this time, just even… When I write music and when I play, I don’t see music as just one style. I’m not a bebop player or a Latin Jazz player or a this player. I’m just a musician, and I have so many formations inside of me, from classical to, of course, jazz… I’ve been here long enough and I’ve been studying jazz since I was in school, on my own, and sometimes taking classes and stuff. But also, the Latin music, the background that I’m coming from. This all is inside of me. So I see myself as something that…I can only be in this way if I was raised in the way I was raised in Cuba. I don’t feel like… There’s no other way around.

TP: It doesn’t seem any other place in the world can really produce this type of musician.

EV: Yes. The other thing is, what I’ve told other people also… When you see a Cuban musician, what you see is a filter, a sort of filter, a very competitive filter…I don’t know what will be the next word… But what I mean by ‘filter’ is you see the people who made it after they went to the filter. I know a lot of people all my career that never made a musician. Because in Cuba, not only do you have to be very good, but you have to be very good to be able to get at the level that we got. I mean, at the level to be able to go to the ENA or be able to go to the ISA. At that time, there was only one ENA and there was only one ISA, and they only have limited space available for students. Let’s say, for example, in some of those years, when I went from the EVA, it’s called the EVA, “Escuela Vocacacional de Arte”…from the EVA to the ENA, Escuela National de Arte,” you have to do a test, a very competitive test where they say… There’s only 9 places for percussion, and there are 60 people applying for the same position. In Cuba, all the schools from all of the provinces used to go to Havana to do that test, to go into the ENA, because the ENA was only one ENA at that time and there was only one ISA at the time. Now I think there’s more ENAs around the country, but at that time there was only one—the one in Havana. So the people who made it there were the people who were basically the best of the best.

Then, when you get past the ENA, you have to do exactly the same thing for the ISA. Only one ISA. And in my year, I remember there were only five positions for percussion and two positions in composition. I did what everybody normally does, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do both,” because I knew that I did not want to go back to Pinar Del Rio. I wanted to stay in Havana, because I was already in that group, I was playing jazz, and I wanted to stay in the capital. So I did the test for both, and I was lucky enough that they accepted me in both, which created a kind of problem, because when they accepted me in both, that meant there was one person who wasn’t coming in. That meant there was one bed less for them to give away. They say, ok, there’s 5 beds for percussionist; 2 beds for composition. But that’s it. I had one bed technically on paper for percussion, and I was also taking one bed for composition. Then they were trying to figure out, “Well, you have to give up one.” But since I got first place in both tests, none of the teachers wanted to release me. They said, ‘I don’t want to give away my first place for another year.’ So they said, “You can start one career this year, and then in two years you will do the other one.” But no one wanted to do that. So then they decided, “Well, you have to do both at the same time.” I said, “Well, I’ll do both at the same time.” Then my father said to me, “you’re going to go crazy.” “Well, I don’t think so; I think I can do it.”

That’s what I did; I did both at the same time. But even though I did both at the same time, I was not allowed to graduate…for bureaucratic reasons, I was not allowed to graduate the same year in both. Because you have to spend one year creating a composition, one year creating the piece, and then present it in the following year, and then, in percussion, you have to follow the program and then graduate. That’s why I stayed longer in the school.

TP: Do you feel that, let’s say, movements (I use the word loosely) like timba or developments in popular music in Cuba in the ‘80s and ‘90s have anything to do with the conservatory system, or is that not accurate?

EV: Well, not quite. The timba movement started in the ‘70s, when the… Los Van-Van was one of the pioneers of that movement. It’s a process that, of course, was started at that time a little bit, and now into the ‘90s and then in the ‘00s, it becomes consolidated on what it is. But it started as far as that, and it has nothing to do with education. There were different factors. After the revolution happened, they decided, “ok, we’re only going to do music that belongs to the Revolution,” and then you see La Orquesta de Pello el Afrokan and all of that, and then also Van-Van comes out of that trend, too. The original Los Van-Van was after Fidel Castro’s speech, called “Van-Van,” the “que van van,” talking about sugar cane. So they did that, but then, at the same time there was a very strong influence from Rock music, coming from America, and then that, in combination with…

The government decided also, “Well, all the groups have to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music.” For some reason, they felt like Beny More and all these other bands represented an era they didn’t like, the era before the revolution and the big casinos and these big bands that played in those casinos disappeared. So they really pushed the bands to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music. But Van-Van did something very interesting. Van Van said, “We’re influenced by Rock,” but they did the rock side of music the Cuban way. That’s why they started the drumset without cymbals. Because with cymbals, it’s typical American Rock. So the first movement of songo will be that without the cymbals, because they used the bambu as the cymbals… They wanted their drums to sound very African, but it was an American drum. Then only with Changuito… Changuito decided, “I’m going to put back the cymbals.”

But that’s the whole movement of timba. It’s a combination of the rock that we were listening to at the time, and musicians trying to create new, different combinations and find different ways to create music, different from the music that was played back in the ‘50s and before the Revolution.

TP: I’m not sure I’m clear on whether you’re primarily a self-taught pianist, or received instruction, but it was outside the academy?

EV: No, I had a lot of instruction. The only thing that I am self-taught, to a point, is in popular Cuban music, and jazz. Even though I had several mentors once I got to the US.

TP: You’re a highly trained pianist.

EV: Yes, in classical music.

TP: Can you speak a bit to the ways in which pianists of your generation think differently about music than, say, pianists of Chucho’s or Emiliano Salvador’s generation? If it’s possible to say that, because obviously everyone is an individual. But if there’s anything you can say about the way you learned music in terms of the impact of the conservatory.

EV: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s really… I know Chucho’s playing and I know Emiliano’s playing, and I feel… It becomes a matter of choice.

TP: Or Frank Emilio or Bebo or Peruchin…

EV: I’ll compare it to the hip-hop movement here. The hip-hop movement here is like a social statement. Rather than to be a musical style, first rap came out as a social statement. The same thing for us. I know when I was in Cuba, this trouble of trying to match Chucho’s playing… Chucho came from a generation that was listening to a different type of jazz. I mean, when I came in, it was Weather Report, all of this electronic…the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and also the high development of… We were seeing Cuban music completely different than we were used to… The syncopation in the music was also different. In the ‘50s, the syncopation of Cuban music, you listened to, in groups such as Beny More, and even if you listened to Peruchin, even though it’s very highly syncopated music, was almost specific. Like a pattern, but when you start to listening to groups like Bamboleo, it’s like the syncopation has changed from a pattern idea to a more global inclusion of genres and rhythmic styles. Anything goes… We tend to add a lot of that rumba and Afro-Cuban mixes into the music, and also funk. I am saying this because musically it will affect us, the way we see music, the way we compose mainly…the way we compose, and also the way we think about the instrument, the piano in this case. But more than that, those musicians, you know, from Peruchin…they were also influenced by jazz music. Back in the ‘50s, they could travel to America… The bridge was way smaller than it is now. But for us, the fact that we weren’t close at that time, that we didn’t have access to that music any more, but we have to learn from underground to consume the music because it was illegal…to consume it underground, and all of that investigation that you have to do, the hunger to learn something that you were not supposed—that changed the attitude in how we approached the music, I think, than when you have it at hand.

TP: I’ve talked to Dafnis a number of times, and one issue he had in Cuba was the ability to find situations where he could play what he wanted to play, what he was hearing, not even because of the government, but just because there weren’t that many like-minded musicians. Was it your experience that you were able to fully realize the things you were hearing when you were in Cuba? Did things change… I’m not sure about your process of coming to the States…

EV: Exactly that. There were very few places in Cuba where you could play. The first time I played with a band that played jazz was with Bobby Carcasses’ group, at a club that used to be called the Maxim. That was maybe one of the two clubs, or the only club that was in Havana at that time. That was my very first experience playing with a band. But aside from that, for me to play, I have to just… That’s when I did my own band, because I wanted to be at a festival. But that was only a few times—once a year at the Havana festival, and then if I’d go to the Maxim to play some music, and the jam sessions that we would do at school. Definitely, there were a lack of places or situations where you can play jazz.

TP: The other question was the notion of developing your own vision, your individuality through music. Was that something you were able to do in Cuba? Did it become easier to do once you left?

EV: Yes. It became easier once I left, definitely. Being in Cuba, especially being a pianist… Chucho was a big cloud.

TP: He’s the king.

EV: Yeah. He still is. But he was a very huge cloud for any pianist who wanted to become their own particular voice. Because Cuba, it’s a system… Almost the same system that happened in politics is the same system that happened in music. There was only one voice, and that was the voice. And then, everybody else almost didn’t exist. Even Gonzalo had to struggle to become his own voice. Because there was always Chucho, and Chucho was—or is still—the favorite pianist. I mean, he’s an amazing pianist. But the system is like, “Ok, nobody can really match him; this is what we want.” Then in Cuba, if the government says, “This is the person,” that’s the person.

TP: He also had a lot of clout because Irakere was of such great value to the government.

EV: Exactly. Even since Irakere. So for us, for me, or a lot of pianists to become their own voices was really difficult. The whole thing that started when you move out of Cuba, and then you start realizing, “Oh, wait; there are so many different voices; it’s not just one thing…” You don’t have to play like Chucho to be heard. You can play the way you want to play. Then when I got here, I started informing myself. I listened to a lot of different pianists, took some lessons, did some sessions, and listened to a lot more records and played more. I think the process of creating your voice is a non-stop…

TP: Well, it never ends, but maybe the roads you travel become a bit more defined as you get older.

EV: Yes.

TP: So it seems that one consequence of so many of the Cuban jazz musicians coming out of the conservatory is that it’s a virtuosic music, and it’s a music in which you have a lot of options because of the breadth of their education.

EV: Yes. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is, we’re in a system where it was very competitive, and if you have Chucho as your high mark…or Gonzalo… You had Chucho and Gonzalo; those are two high marks. To compete with that in Cuba, it was not about choice. It was more like a competition. It was more like, “Ok, you have to play more than them to be able to be considered in anything.”

TP: By playing more, do you mean more virtuosic? Does it have to do with the athletics of it?

EV: Yes, there’s a lot of athletics.

TP: That is something that Cuban musicians have been criticized for—playing a lot of notes, being very busy, flash over substances. But it seems that this is much less of a criticism for players who’ve been here for… I mean, look at the way Gonzalo has pared down, going for simplicity and the essence of things. It’s like he’s trying to unlearn that almost.

EV: Exactly. Because once you leave that environment, then you start understanding that you can really do music without having to play a lot of notes. But it’s true. That process only was started once you leave Cuba. Not only because you’re in a different country, but then, when you start being exposed to and listen to other pianists, then you start hearing different music… But then it does help that you went through such a rigorous musical training, because then you have the mechanism to do whatever you want.

TP: You have all these tools to apply to the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak.

EV: Right.

TP: Like, in Cuba you wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing.

EV: No. Definitely not. I wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing. That would be too outside of the box. I don’t think they would consider that an opera, to begin with, then I’m not sure if they would appreciate all of this free improv stuff I do in that project. In Cuba, music tends to get very specific, and so is the way it is played. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I went to Cuba, the festival was happening, and I coincided with a few of my friends, musicians, and I went to a jam session. It was unbelievable, everybody fast and furious, loud and everything. Then one of my friends said, “Do you want to play?” I was like, “No, I can’t play; look at the environment.” Then he said to me, “Are you afraid?” I was like, “No” What, afraid? Music is not about to be afraid. It’s freedom of expression. I said: The only thing I could do there to impress anybody is just get a can of gasoline and light the piano on fire. That’s the only thing that was left to do.

TP: One last question. Do you feel that the musical production of the musicians who left Cuba is having an effect on the last couple of generations of musicians in Cuba, and on the conservatories, and the way musicians are being taught now? That the music that you or Gonzalo or Aruan Ortiz or Fabien Almazen or Dafnis or Yosvany or Gonzalo…I could name 15 more people…that the music you’ve created and documented is having an effect on younger musicians in Cuba, or on the pedagogy, or the way musical education is approached?

EV: I think so. When we go back home, people do comment a lot on the music that we are producing actually, like Dafnis and Terry and myself and Aruan… In a way, we always will look at the thing that we were doing… Because we are living outside of Cuba, when you get there, everybody wonders, “So, what are you doing?” Then once they find out the music we’re doing is different from what they would normally do or different from what they’re hearing in their country, they realize that they do have an apprciation of it.

Especially young musicians… It’s interesting when you go there and you meet a young musicians who hasn’t really met you, who is not from your generation, and they can talk about, “oh, we’re following you and we’ve listened to some of the things you’ve done.” It’s a beautiful thing.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

******

Elio Villafranca (Detroit—Aug. 31, 2014):

TP: You’ve been doing multiple projects for a long time, pretty much since you arrived here, and each recording seems to document a different sphere of activity.

Villafranca: Yes. I always had very broad interests in music. As you know from our earlier interview, I was playing classical music, and that training really opened my ears to many different things. I didn’t grow up in the traditional jazz per se. I listened more to classical music. From there, I got an interest in jazz and in popular Cuban music. But then, my early exposure into music was the Congolese traditions. So I always had the interest. The reason why I came here was because of that, because in Cuba I was only doing the Carlos Varela group, and then I couldn’t really do any other thing. I was playing at the jazz festival once a year. There was only one festival. There were not many clubs to play. So that has been my mission since I’ve been here, just to do a few different projects.

My first album, Incantation, was like the album that I did almost the date that I left my country. So I was going to do my first album; it was going to be pretty much all Latin music. I owed that to myself and I owed that to Cuba. Being in Cuba, that was the first thing I wanted to do. But after that, I realized that music is way bigger than that. I didn’t want to be stuck on just the Cuban pianist that’s only doing Cuban music and stuff like that.

This album, the Jass Syncopators, is almost the beginning of my explorations of music of the Caribbean and tying it in with classical music, and putting everything together with jazz and everything.

TP: Were the pieces all written for this as a project, or did the accumulate over the years?

Villafranca: There were pieces that were specifically written for this project, like “Caribbean Tinge” and “Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” and all so on, that were written specifically for that. “Flower By the Dry River,” “Mambo Vivo,” all these pieces were targeted specifically for this project, the band I had at the time.

TP: Give me the evolution of putting together a personnel like this.

Villafranca: I knew that in order to accomplish what I wanted to do, I needed to have two types of band in one band. I needed to have a band formed by American jazz musicians, fully fluent in the language of jazz, and I needed to have the other band, which is the Latin musicians who are fluent specifically in Latin music… I wanted to marry those two concepts.

The one thing different about this project is, like, before… I don’t know if you know this, but for us Cubans, it’s really hard to detach from the clave and to detach from the cascara and all these traditions. When I came to this country, it was pretty much like that. If I would rehearse a band, I would look for a drummer, I would look for a drummer who knew about cascara, clave, all of these things, and it was always challenging, because you don’t find that unless you play with a Cuban drumnmer, but if you play with a Cuban drummer, then sometimes the jazz language [makes spangalang motion with his right hand] can be a little bit compromised. I wanted really to have those two things. So I thought that if I get a bassist who has knowledge in Latin music, and myself and some percussionists who are knowledgeable in Latin music, that’s it. I don’t need any other thing. American drummers, if they study the tradition of jazz, they feel rhythm the same way we do. The tradition of jazz is pretty close to the same way as the tradition of Cuban music. Think about New Orleans and the rhythms and everything. I don’t have to tell the drummer, “You need to know the clave on everything,” because the clave is around us all the time.

TP: Well, the New Orleans beats are another way of dealing with the African root.

Villafranca: Exactly, which is the same source. Then I realized I just want to do something where I don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just, “this is the music; just feel it. Just feel the music. They’re going to do the thing. Just listen to what they do, and play what you think feels good at the moment.”

TP: Was this band tailored for the people who play on Caribbean Tinge? There are two great jazz drummers.

Villafranca: Yes. You don’t know this, but Billy Hart was the drummer in one of the initial versions of the band, and I also had Victor Lewis in the band. Actually, the first recording that I did with this band, which I donated to a company that creates funds to save children that are subject to abuse and starvation and all of that… They came to me and asked if I’d do a record to help raise funds to help children, and I said yes. So the idea was that all the money that recording would generate would be towards that mission. Victor Lewis did that session. The same with Pernell Saturnino (?—6:23) and Gregg August. So in my band, I have Victor Lewis, I have Willie Jones, III, who plays on the record, I have Billy Hart and I have Lewis Nash. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they feel the African music really deep inside. I didn’t have to tell them anything other than basically go through the music, and that’s that.

TP: How about the horn players? Are the pieces tailored to their sounds, or are they more interpreting parts?

Villafranca: It’s more like interpreting parts. When I first talked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to do a concert, which I still will in the future… I wanted to do a concert that featured Wynton and Paquito. I wanted to have the two languages there, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to interpret the language from the Latin and Wynton from the jazz. Having those two great musicians together in a project was my first thing that I wanted to do with Lincoln Center. But then they were wise enough to say, “Just form your team, and don’t depend on anyone else,” and that’s when I started to think about finding people I know who have that language.

TP: We spoke about this when I was writing program notes for the Nuevo Jazz Latino concert. Is a new kind of music being developed by the Cuban musicians who have been coming here during the last 10-15 years, or a new variant?

Villafranca: Some people have mentioned that to me in the past. They feel there’s a new thing going on…

TP: You, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Aruan Ortiz, Roman Filiu will probably be developing some stuff…

Villafranca: Yes, I think maybe. History will be the judge of that, but it feels vibrant. I think everybody is doing their own interpretation of music. The common thing that we have is that we all came with a very strong classical background and classical training. That’s basically the whole thing we all went through when we were all in Cuba. We all listened to jazz like you wouldn’t even imagine. Really, we were eating jazz every day and listening to all these things. But we had limited access to jazz, and that informed us in a very particular way, too. And then, we were not just listening to the American jazz. We were listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Brazil was a really big influence on us.

TP: Wasn’t Carlos Masa a bridge for a lot of people.

Villafranca: Not so much for me, but he was for Dafnis, because Dafnis used to work with him. It’s true that he introduced a lot of things to some Cuban musicians, especially the people who played with him. Because he had the benefit that it can be in and out of the country. In a place where we couldn’t really go anywhere, anybody who would bring… The person who was very influential on me was Hernan Lopez-Nussa, the uncle of Harold Lopez-Nussa (his father is Ruiz Lopez-Nussa, the drummer). Hernan was one of the persons who, whenever I needed some kind of musical challenge or recordings that I didn’t have, since he was one of the people who was coming in and out of the country, I would go to his house, and I’d bring a tape, and he would record for me something new. I also used to go to Chucho’s house, and have a conversation with him about music. And Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because in Cuba there was no real book.

TP: You’re 45, so you were born in 1968. Gonzalo was still in Cuba when you were in school.

Villafranca: Yes, Gonzalo was one of the kings in Cuba. I was fortunate… I don’t know if you remember that I told you this, but I used to go to Gonzalo’s house when he was practicing.

We didn’t have real books, so basically the only way we could get hold of some jazz tunes was by transcribing. Sometimes, we knew… I knew that Gonzalo had access to some books, and then I would go to his house and say, “Gonzalo, I would love to have some tunes,” and he’d say, “Oh, yes, fine.” He’d bring out some of the books that he had access to, and he’d say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can notate whatever it is.” I would bring this huge manuscript and I’d spend hours and hours writing tunes by hand while he was practicing.

TP: That’s a very interesting way to learn some music. It becomes a very personal experience.

Villafranca: Yes. I remember having my hand very sore, because literally I would spend in his house like 3 hours. I notated some of Herbie Hancock’s tunes, stuff like, at the time, “The Eye Of The Hurricane.” I remember when that album came out, we were really all over the place. We were all over it, and we really liked that album with Wynton Marsalis, and then the V.S.O.P. after it came out. We had Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band album. I had it in my head before it even was on the market.

TP: Did you just miss the post-Gorbachev years, when the subsidies ended?

Villafranca: No. I was right in the middle. Half my teachers were Russians, and I remember one day coming to school and all of a sudden there were no teachers. I was like, “what happened?” Then we were told that perestroika happened, which basically is when Cuba and Russia got into a dispute and Cuba kicked everybody out. Russia said, “You owe us money,” and Cuba said, “We don’t owe you anything,” and then everybody was kicked out. All my teachers left like overnight.

TP: And there were shortages and scarcities.

Villafranca. Oh my God. There was the “special period,” which I went through, and another period called the “Option Zero.”

TP: Didn’t you tell me that you had a certain allowance each month, and instead of buying food, you bought tapes?

Villafranca: Yes. My mom and my father would put together 45 Cuban pesos, which is almost half of a salary, for me to survive in Havana for a month. I’d go to Havana, spend a month, and then come back for a weekend. I’d go there, and then at the school you’d see… The Black Market was really at its height, selling everything, and they were selling cassette tapes. Each cassette tape would cost 15 Cuban pesos, which is a very high price in relation to salary. I would buy two, because I wanted to record two albums. Then I would go to Hernan’s or Chucho’s or Gonzalo’s or Pucho Lopez, and I would ask them to record something for me. Or El Negro, Horacio Hernandez, right before he left (he was playing with Gonzalo at the time). That’s the sacrifice we made in those days to learn this music.

TP: You’re the same generation as Yosvany, Dafnis is younger but he was in there, and Omar Sosa is a little older.

Villafranca: Yes. When I was in school, Omar was already really out there. He was music directing for Xiomara Laugart and other bands.

TP: In retrospect, what do you think the impact of those experiences has had on the way you approach your career in the U.S.?

Villafranca: I can’t think of any way other than to feel grateful. Even though we went through those hard times, even though we didn’t have all the materials to deal with the music… Like, we had one tape player that belonged to someone in the entire school, and then we had to take turns. Maybe my turn would be 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., whatever, and whenever it was, then I would use that time. But whenever I got my hands on that tape player, I would make sure that I listened to that music to my 100%. I would listen and listen, and go back, and listen again, listen again, listen again. That’s what made me get to this point today. It gave me a very strong… I mean, I still study for four hours. I grew up in that environment, and it’s really made me a better musician.

TP: I guess there was a lot of competition in the school also.

Villafranca: Extremely competitive.

TP: It was an opportunity for advancement, for social mobility as well.

Villafranca: But that also has a catch to it as well. A lot of friends of mine who were very talented didn’t make it, just because in Cuba it’s just got to be one person. If it’s one pianist, it’s going to be one pianist. It was Gonzalo and Chucho. But it was really hard, because there was no space for a different voice.

TP: Another aspect aesthetically of coming up in Cuba is that (I think I’ve heard you say this) that the competitive environment makes people treat music almost as a sport to the detriment of the artistic aspect, and that slowing down is a complex thing. I guess that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

Villafranca: That’s a good and a bad. You always have the good and the bad. It’s good for the people who made… For every musician you see on the scene right now, there are 20 or 30 of them that didn’t make it. Not because they were no good. It’s just because there’s only what we call dambulo, which is like a very open hole where only one or two people can just fit through. It’s a very strong filter, stronger than America here, where you can get musicians of all different kinds. The beautiful thing about this is you might get some people who are not that great or whatever, but they have the opportunity to express themself. In Cuba, if you were not the level that they think you should be, then you don’t get anywhere.

TP: You were saying at the beginning of the conversation (and other musicians from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora have told me this) that breaking away from clave and cascara and so forth is more complicated than might be readily apparent. How did that process work for you? What were some of the steps you took once you came here?

Villafranca: Basically, it’s a liberation thing. It feels to me like a liberation of the soul. What I mean by liberation is that I started to look at music in the more pure form, not in a very specific way. I am realizing that when the musicians have the freedom to express, they’re going to play better than if they have to feel tied to something that I’m giving them. If I wanted to play something that has a very strong Cuban accent, like charanga or something like that, I will get a musician who is very knowledgeable in that. I’m going to be play charanga music; we’ll play Peruchin’s music. When I do that, I want just to be 1950s. I want that. Right? But when I do jazz, like the thing with the Jass Syncopators… For example, I am premiering a suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February next year which is an expansion of what the Jass Syncopators is right now. That’s why I mentioned that the Jass Syncopators is just the beginning of something. I am very much interested in looking at Congolese traditions in the different regions of the Caribbean. I am done with Yoruba, because I’ve done that, everybody’s done that. My roots are Congolese, not Yoruban. Then I am looking at that tradition of Congolese music in the different areas. If I play you something from the Congo people in my hometown, there is no clave. It’s like something more traditional than that. These people don’t even know anything. They don’t know anything about clave, all they know how to feel… When I was interviewing them…

TP: You were a percussion major.

Villafranca: Yes. It was so beautiful to see them, when they start playing the drums, they don’t have it compartmentalized the way we do when we go to music school. Of course, when we go to music school, they teach us to compartmentalize everything, to analyze everything. I am trying to go away from that. I want it to be more like feeling the music rather than technically analyzing it.

TP: You need to be careful with that idea, though. It works for someone as highly trained as you, but…

Villafranca: True. But I’m not far from what Pat Metheny said when someone asked him why he covers all this melody? Well, he grew up in that environment, and that’s what he does. Yes, you’re right, I come from a very strong background in African music, but that could go two ways. You could either focus on that and try to play just like that, or you know that you have it, so open up and experience the moment. When I see my people from the Congo in San Luis, they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about clave, they don’t talk about anything. It’s funny, because you ask them and they say, “No, this is what you do.” [plays rhythm with his hands] Then that’s it. You ask them, “Explain it to me,” they don’t know how to explain it. I want to be that way. I want to experience the music at that level, not from the analytical point of music.

TP: Tell me about the band you’re playing with today. You have a recording with Eric Alexander, The Source In Between, that celebrates the sound of swing and hardbop.

Villafranca: That record was the beginning, when I started… That’s why I chose the title, The Source In Between. I thought I could write music that could played in a Latin Jazz tradition with percussion, and also can be felt in a jazz tradition. For example, if you remember the album, the track called “Oddua Suite,” it’s like the music of John Coltrane but it’s just basically a Yoruban chant. Then I decided I’d have Eric, who is a very bebop-oriented person, but then I want to have Dafnis, who is very strong on everything, and then Jeff Carney, who is an American bass player who has nothing to do with Latin music. So I wanted those two poles. The Jass Syncopators is the expansion of the same content. That’s how I was thinking about this project.

I think it works, because when you think about music, it doesn’t have to be… As long as the musicians you’re working with feel the same way, they honestly feel what you’re trying to do, it’s great. Having Eric here with me today is so beautiful, because I haven’t played with him in a long, long time. I met him when I did a couple of tours with Pat Martino’s band. I was living in Philadelphia then.

TP: What you’re saying about Congolese traditions seems like a similar attitude Yosvany Terry is bringing to Arara.

Villafranca: He was initiated. I am not initiated. I am doing it because I grew up on that… Since I was a baby, literally.

TP: You were speaking about being done with Yoruba, and…

Villafranca: In Cuba, if you say “Yoruba,” then they say, “Havana or Matanzas?” It’s regional. You can talk about exactly the same tradition or exactly the same orisha, but you go to Havana, then they completely play it different, and the words…sometimes they’re using the chants in one way, and you go to Matanzas it’s completely different. He was initiated in an Arara casa in Matanzas, and Pedrito’s is from Havana. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Pedrito might know what was happening in Matanzas.

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The Pile, Oct. 5, 2018 – Kamasi Washington’s “Heaven and Earth”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

So, these things being said, here are some thoughts on Kamasi Washington’s excellent double-CD, 4-LP summer release, Heaven and Earth.

 

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.

Kamasi Washington didn’t get where he is by thinking small, and his 2018 release is no exception, picking up where he left off on The Epic, his 3-CD debut, and upping the ante by a couple of notches. Augmenting his sextet with a strings-and-brass orchestra and a soulful choir, Washington presents a pair of 8-tune suites, comprising 14 of his originals, a piece by trombonist Ryan Porter, and a rhythmically jacked-up, harmonically simplified reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.” It’s arena jazz, and effective arena jazz at that.

 

Washington showcases himself for much the proceedings, which is a good idea, as he’s by far the most interesting soloist in his band. His big-sound, melody-oriented, broad-gestures, tell-the-story approach to playing the tenor saxophone, evokes – to these ears – a cleaner, more well-scrubbed Pharaoh Sanders-John Gilmore admixture on the mothership and Gene Ammons crossed with Teddy Edwards crossed with Eddie Harris in the urban lounge back in the early ‘70s. That period seems to be the source of much of Washington’s sonic and harmonic vocabulary, yanked into the present by the forceful refractions of the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop by paired-off drumsetters Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin — both brilliant — on most of the tracks.  They listen intently to each other, and even though they don’t interact with the soloists in the manner of, say, their World Stage mentor Billy Higgins, which is what I usually want to hear (I’ll emphasize, that’s a matter of personal taste), Washington’s rhythmic prowess is so powerful that I don’t miss it here. Washington had ample opportunity to hone the ability to speak through his horn during a decade holding the tenor chair with the Gerald Wilson, whose ideas seem to infuse elements of the horn voicings and, more broadly, the programmatic, imaginary soundtrack attitude that seems to be Washington’s subtext for much of the notes and tones. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear hints of Terence Blanchard’s film writing as well.

 

My favorite track on disk 1, titled “Earth,” is “The Invincible Youth,” which opens with a free, Sun Ra-esque fanfare, and resolves into intense changes that Washington gobbles up with that stentorian, wailing, testifying sound. Bassist Miles Mosley, a groove-master, follows with a cogent, guitaristic solo of his own. I also like the disk-concluding “One Of One,” on which Washington utilizes the choir effectively during the opening section, then leads the sermon on a spirit-raising declamation that builds and builds and builds, before trumpeter Dontae Winslow builds it even more, propelled  by an unrelenting Afro-coro on which Robert Searight joins the Austin-Bruner drum tandem, intermixed with Kahlil Cummings and Allakoi Peete on hand drums — Steven “Thundercat” Bruner is drum-like, too, as the second bassist.

 

It’s hard to discern in what way Washington takes a different approach on the second disk, “Heaven,” though he does give the rest of the band a bit more space for self-expression. Cameron Graves (acoustic piano) and Brandon Coleman (keyboards) engage in fleet, quick-witted exchange after Washington’s turbulent solos on “Song For The Fallen,” which includes a lovely choral passage (you can hear echoes of Blanchard’s writing here). In concerts several years ago and on his Mack Avenue album, Graves tended to let his fingers “wag the dog,” as it were, and does so again on a fleet opening solo “Show Us The Way.” Washington fulfills that mandate on his solo, as he does on “Street Fighter Mas,” machine-gunning the notes to precisely choreographed, chant-like three-drumkit accompaniment. When asked to slow down at the top of the album-ending “Will You Sing,” Graves showcases his lovely touch and gift for melodic expression, counterpointed by the polyphonic drums and the ascendant choir.

 

It’s a strong, erudite, passionate recording, and sustains interest throughout. The participants stay cool-headed even at the most heated moments, and for the most part — not always — avoid the temptation to go for ‘house’ over musicality. Washington has a special vision that straddles past and present, populist but not watered-down, and has a band to write for that can convey his musical intentions. His ever expanding fan base shows how effectively knows how to project that vision. A BMF for real.

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For the 99th Birth Anniversary of George Shearing (1919-2011), A 2002 Interview Conducted for the

For the 99th birth anniversary of the iconic pianist-composer-bandleader George Shearing, here’s an interview that I conducted with him 2002 in preparation for the liner notes of a Pablo release of a 1957 Newport Jazz Festival concert on which his group shared the bill with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. I’ve appended the notes after the interview, which is unedited.

 

George Shearing (7-23-02):

TP: I’m writing the notes for an album on Pablo. It documents a concert you were on at the Newport Festival in July 1957. Cannonball Adderley came on for the first half, your quintet came on for the second half, there’s one track in which you played “Soul Station” with Cannonball, Nat and your group, and then your band concludes the concert. I was hoping I could speak with you to see if you have any memory at all of the event…

SHEARING: I don’t know whether this is the worst news you’ve heard today, but I really have no musical memory of the date. Sure, I was there, but when I was there, I was 38. Now I’m 83.

TP: I absolutely understand. I wanted to speak about where that event fit into the quotidian of your quintet, and where the selections you used fit into the general pattern of your performance at the time… Firstly, in 1957, your quintet was one of the most popular acts in all of jazz. You were playing, I would assume, quite a number of lounges and nightclubs with it, I’d assume a certain complement of concerts and touring…

SHEARING: More concerts now than then.

TP: So in 1957 not so many concerts.

SHEARING: Not so many. What we would be doing in those days was if either Birdland or somewhere had a tour, we would be doing one of those tours.

TP: So you would tour with the Birdland-Morris Levy junkets as opposed to the Norman Granz, junkets.

SHEARING: Yes, generally.

TP: In an average year, during the first 7-8 years of the quintet after your breakthroughs, from 1949 to 1957-58…

SHEARING: The first place we played was Cafe Society downtown. Then once we started doing the concerts in the early ’50s, we would be doing whole tours.

TP: In concert halls. Would your presentation be different in a concert hall vis-a-vis a nightclub?

SHEARING: It would be about the same. Because when my set ended, when I started going Afro-Cuban in the ’50s, we would end with some kind of a flagwaving situation, whether it was a concert or a nightclub, because that’s the nature of what happens in the show. A show builds to its end. You don’t end with an opening act, for instance.

TP: Did the more subtle arrangements maybe go by the board a little more in concerts, and the more declarative ones…

SHEARING: Yes, I would think so. I’m not conscious of doing it, but it would be a normal development, I would say.

TP: And during those years, what percentage would you be playing clubs and what percentage concerts? Of course, outdoor event were unusual.

SHEARING: I would play more concerts then than I play now, believe it or not. Although of course, I don’t play many concerts now. I kind of choose what I want to do now. I’m in my eighties, and I don’t have to grab everything that comes to my attention.

TP: You don’t have to work 300 days a year now.

SHEARING: No. We would have a regular stream of clubs, like Birdland, Storyville, the Blue Note in Chicago and later on the London House.

TP: And you’d be in there for long residencies, two-three weeks.

SHEARING: At London House, we would, and I guess we were at the Blue Note for two or three weeks, too. That was the first out-of-town job with the Quintet, in 1949, after we played the Cafe Society. I remember Frank Holzstein, who directed the Blue Note in Chicago, and the Ambassador from England came in one night, and Frank got such a charge of announcing him. He said, “I’m very pleased to have Mr. Barkley Gage…” [ETC.]

TP: I would imagine that at Birdland you were always on a double or triple bill. Was that a common thing for you to do?

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. And of course, the strength of the quintet, when we had the Latin stuff to finish with… We usually closed the show. Never mind our set; we would close the show. Because maybe it would need piano-bass-and-drums to open…

TP: Say, the Bud Powell Trio would open.

SHEARING: That’s right. Or even a pianist…

TP: Billy Taylor or somebody.

SHEARING: Right. And we would close, because we had musical strength, and some of the records we were doing were successful. We recorded “Lullaby of Birdland” in 1952. It took me 15-20 minutes to write. I was sitting, eating a steak in my dining room where we were living in New Jersey, and suddenly this thing came to me [SINGS FAMOUS 4-BARS] I think that if you contrive something, or they want me to write something to see what can I do, they are not usually the successful compositions.

TP: It’s the inspirations of the moment.

SHEARING: That’s right.

TP: Was “Conception” like that?

SHEARING: A little bit. But yes, I’d say so.

TP: That tune continues to fascinate musicians on a musical level.

SHEARING: Yes, the bridge is a bit tricky. Of course, in Miles Davis’ particular style, he would have his own bridge. He wouldn’t play my bridge. I don’t know why… I knew Miles as a young man in his twenties. He didn’t drink anything except Coke, he’d just come and sit down and hear me every night, and we’d talk for hours. That’s not the same Miles we knew later on, when he…

TP: After he lost his voice.

SHEARING: [LAUGHS] That’s right.

TP: But where I’m going with this question about whether it would be commonplace to share a bill with others… Maybe the Basie band or the Ellington band or Machito might be in residence at Birdland.

SHEARING: Absolutely. In which case we would not close! [LAUGHS] No, not really! It would be very much of an anticlimax, wouldn’t it.

TP: Would it be commonplace for your band to be sitting in with other featured artists, or take them as guests?

SHEARING: No.

TP: So this is really an exception, for Cannonball and Nat Adderley to be setting up a spontaneous arrangement with your band.

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. You see, John Levy managed Cannonball and he managed me. Capitol didn’t come into my life until 1955. John, of course, was my first bass player. When he gave up the quintet, he gave up playing, and became management. He managed Cannonball, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton…

TP: A lot of the most popular acts who played the inner city circuit of clubs were under his management.

SHEARING: Yes, indeed. I worked in great interest of the black people. I noticed that when we tried to check into a hotel in Salt Lake City, John Levy was with me, and he asked the clerk, “Do you have a reservation for Mr. Shearing?” He said, “Yes, we do.” He said, “Could we make that a twin?” Frankly, I thought the guy was rather impudent. He said, “Who is the other fellow?” John, of course, not wanting to say anything, although the other fellow was white, said, “The other fellow is Dick Garcia.” “Well, I don’t know whether we have a twin right now.” So John said, “Well, could you put them into two singles and change them when they wake up?” He said, “Then I’d have to charge twice, wouldn’t I.” That’s when I took over. I said, “No, you wouldn’t.” I said, “You’ve been spending this time to find out whether the other fellow is black or white. I’ll tell you now, he’s a white man.” I said, “The gentleman you’re talking to, by the way, is my manager, and I issue an order that you deal with him politely, otherwise you’ll have the pleasure of reading about it in the press.” He said, “Mr. Shearing, you and I could get along.” I said, “Not at all. We refer to you as a public servant, and you’re here to serve the public and the best things for the public in general. I happen to be a member of that organization. I repeat, if you don’t deal with us properly, you’ll read about it in the press.”

TP: Did that resolve the issue?

SHEARING: Oh, yes. Certainly there was a room for Dick Garcia… Oh, yes, it was all solved. And as I say, it should be. It should be anyway, black or white. As it happened, since he couldn’t find out, he’d better not take a chance, so he refused the white customer! So that’s where I kind of got down on him. “Mr. Shearing, you and I can get along.” I said, “Oh, no. I’m paying you my money, you’re a member of the public, you’re here to serve me. I’m not here to get along with you. I’m paying you my money. I won’t be ever seeing you again, with the outlook that you have.” When we got outside, John said, “You know, they’re going to send somebody after you.” I said, “Good. Let’s publicize it. It’s a disgrace. Let’s see it in the press.”

TP: So you were playing a number of concerts, not too many outdoor festivals, John Levy booked the event, and therefore, Cannonball is one client, you’re another client, and thus you’re on the same bill. Had this ever happened before with Cannonball and Nat, to your recollection?

SHEARING: I don’t think so. I don’t know when it first happened. But he was one of my very favorite players.

TP: Did it happen again, that he would sit in with you?

SHEARING: We both had our own groups.

TP: And very well arranged. He had his act and you had yours.

SHEARING: Exactly.

TP: Tell me about your impressions of Cannonball, and, if you had a relationship with Cannon, the nature of it. Your sense of him as a player and musician and public figure.

SHEARING: Well, he seemed to be a very well educated man. I love his playing. Really. Both of them. Nat, too.

TP: He had a beautiful, communicative, declarative style on the trumpet.

SHEARING: Oh yes. I love Cannon’s playing.

TP: As someone who was on 52nd Street and heard everyone close-up and personal many, many times, where… Cannonball is the next generation. How do you see his playing vis-a-vis the original bebop players and the others you came in contact with on 52nd Street.

SHEARING: You can’t compare him with Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker had a very distinctive style of his own. He and Dizzy were the founders of bebop. Together, they were a miracle.

TP: Did you hear them play unisons?

SHEARING: Yes, of course I did. That’s what I mean when they were absolutely miraculous. [hybrid third instrument]

TP: Did you have your ears wide-open during the ’50s when you were touring? Were you aware of everything consequential that was going on?

SHEARING: Oh, yes.

TP: So you had taken notice of Cannonball, as you’d shared a manager.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: What do you recall as your first impression of him?

SHEARING: Great big sound. Wonderful facility. A very intelligent man, obviously. Oh, I loved him.

TP: Did you have any personal relationship to speak of?

SHEARING: No.

TP: I’ll run down the tunes. Please tell me what you recall. “Pawn Ticket.”

SHEARING: That’s Ray Bryant’s, I believe.

TP: You recorded a number of his tunes over the years. They’re very catchy and melodic.

SHEARING: A lot. I liked them. They’re melodic, they’re strong, and they come from somebody who really knew how to play the piano.

TP: On “It Never Entered My Mind,” your arrangement superimposes the harmonies of Satie on top of it.

SHEARING: Right. I believe that’s a Rodgers & Hart tune, a standard tune. The Satie was part of “Nuages Gymnopedie.”

TP: Which brings up another issue. You’ve mentioned in interviews that as a child you had a piano teacher in England, a Mr. Lyndon Lodge, who after a certain amount of time informed your parents that you shouldn’t bother with Classical studies…

SHEARING: “It’s obvious that this man is going to be a jazz pianist.”

TP: Why did he think it was obvious that you were going to be a jazz pianist?

SHEARING: I guess I didn’t pay too much attention. I should have learned 16 bars in the ensuing week instead of 4. When I went back to that school, I’d played a number of symphony concerts, played two or three different Mozart concerti, and I said to the teacher, who was still there, “Do you remember the advice you gave my parents when I was 16?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Has it come to your attention that I’ve played a number of symphony concerts?” He said, “Yes, it has.” I said, “With that knowledge, were you to give them advice today, what would it be?” He said, “Yes.” “Why?” He had said, “Your musical thoughts at your fingers go first and foremost through jazz, and you do this naturally.” You convert classics …(?)…” Years later, he said, “My advice would be the same.” “Why? I’ve played a number of symphony concerts.” He said, “Yes, but I expect your main dollar comes from playing jazz.” I said, “Yes, it does.” He said, “My advice would be the same.” A very wise man.

TP: Well, you did not grow up, to say the least, in circumstances of material comfort.

SHEARING: No. Not at all. And no musicians in the family. None for at least 500 years! I’m serious. There’s a genealogist in England, Mrs. Race, and she went back and discovered for the last 500 years that nobody was a musician in my family in any way that she could ascertain.

TP: When did it become apparent that you had musical gifts? During music lessons?

SHEARING: Yes. When I could go the piano and play things. I remember my sisters on Sunday morning, they all [SINGS THEIR PRACTICE], mostly black notes. Of course, being blind, I wouldn’t know them. I’ve done a little of each — self-taught and I’ve trained to play classical music.

TP: Was absorbing classical music and becoming a proficient interpreter of it always important to you? Did it always speak to you?

SHEARING: Yes. I feel that every musician, whether Jazz, Classical or somewhere in between, should be a thorough musician.

TP: There’s a feature for Emil Richards, “There Will Never Be Another You.” Was it commonplace for you to feature your instrumentalists in live performance?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Your succession of vibraphonists was Marjorie Hyams for a few years, then Don Elliott, then Joe Roland, then Cal Tjader. Several great ones cut their teeth with you. In 1949, when Leonard Feather suggested the vibes-guitar format to you, it happened…

SHEARING: Buddy DeFranco and I had a quartet, with clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and Buddy wanted to work with a unit that was purely his own. I had to do something. So Leonard Feather suggested Marjorie and Chuck Wayne.

TP: The other version is that Buddy was negotiating with Capitol and you were with MGM…

SHEARING: I was with MGM from 1949 to 1955. I did things before then for Discovery and Savoy… Savoy was a trio. I don’t remember who it was.

TP: Was it with who you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: J.C. Heard and Oscar? No. We never recorded.

TP: What a shame.

SHEARING: It is.

TP: What was it like to play with Oscar Pettiford?

SHEARING: Well, it’s a real foundation, isn’t it.

TP: So you had to go separate ways…

SHEARING: Yes, and Leonard suggested Marjorie and Chuck. Of course, I was using what we call the locked-hands style anyway, so obviously, Marjorie on top and Chuck an octave lower, and me in both registers with all the locked chords in between. That was the quintet sound.

TP: Did that conception come to you with the same instantaneous sense of revelation as “Lullaby of Birdland”?

SHEARING: Yes. Frankly, I think the description of that sound that everybody would know is, let’s say, the Glenn Miller saxophone section. The clarinet would be playing the same as the vibes, the guitar would be playing the same as the tenor, and I would be playing the long-haired stuff in between. Therefore, we got three voices on the front line.

TP: I’d assume you were quite familiar from the interrelation of piano and guitar from the Nat Cole Trio and the popularity of that format.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: How about the vibraphone? What was the model in your mind’s ear for the role of vibes in that group apart from the orchestrative aspect?

SHEARING: Upper register. Playing in the upper register. Leonard Feather suggested that I use Marjorie Hyams and Chuck Wayne on vibes and guitar, along with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. That’s where the quintet came from, and we did a recording for Discovery, before moving to MGM.

TP: Emil Richards stayed with you for a fair amount of time, four or five years. Describe him as a musician. He was so versatile.

SHEARING: Well, he was a studio man. Not only was he a good jazz player, but he was a studio man, so he could read anything you put in front of him. It’s important that those three instruments — vibes, guitar and piano — stay close together, and for the bass always to be on the right note provided in his part, or he knows the chord structure enough to fit in. But mostly I’d write the bass part.

TP: So for this to work, it was necessary that everyone be quite cognizant for the parts they had to play. There wasn’t a great deal of room for the musicians to stretch out.

SHEARING: That’s correct.

TP: So someone playing with you had to be able to improvise and express their personality when called for, but also have the discipline to know…

SHEARING: How to read.

TP: By the way, how would you convey the arrangements? Obviously with sheet music, but some people sing the parts…

SHEARING: I’d give them a sheet.

TP: The guitarist was Toots Thielemans. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: A good three or four years. I used to feature him on harmonica, too, because he was a wonderful harmonica player.

TP: Again, give me the kind of capsule description as you did with Emil Richards.

SHEARING: See, he was guitar and Emil was vibes. So they needed to both play the same melodies an octave apart.

TP: I was thinking of the characteristics that distinguished him to you as a musician.

SHEARING: Toots was a great harmonica player, and I’d feature him on that. Then he played enough guitar to be in the quintet.

TP: So you used him more sectionally as a guitarist, and soloistically as a harmonica player.

SHEARING: Well, that would be my first aim with anybody. Then, during the show, we would feature what there was to feature. In other words, Thielemans on harmonica and Emil still with the vibes.

TP: And you would use Emil Richards’ percussion skills for detail and color.

SHEARING: Oh yes.

TP: Al McKibbon is the bassist. He was with you a long time.

SHEARING: Oh, yes. About seven or eight years, if not more.

TP: Did he replace John Levy?

SHEARING: Yes. He came to me from Dizzy Gillespie’s band when they had Chano Pozo, so he really understood the Latin thing. When Cal Tjader was with me as well, those two… Oftentimes, there would be no keyboard instrument to play. Al would be playing either conga or cowbell or something, and Thielemans would play guiro or shekere, and Emil would be playing timbales. So we had a good Latin rhythm section. But no notes…

TP: No harmonic instrument.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Except for you.

SHEARING: Yes. Well, I would even lay out.

TP: By the way, were there any Latin piano players who were influences on you?

SHEARING: I listened to Noro Morales quite a bit.

TP: Did he play in New York in the early ’50s?

SHEARING: I believe so. The first Latin band I heard was Machito, in 1949, when I was playing with Buddy DeFranco in the quartet at the Clique Club. We would have to follow Machito!

TP: Oh, my God.

SHEARING: Or Machito would follow us.

TP: A better scenario.

SHEARING: I would think so! I just did the best I could. I learned a lot from Machito, of course.

TP: Were you friends with him?

SHEARING: Yeah. We didn’t go out to dinner or anything…

TP: But did you speak with him? Dizzy Gillespie learned a lot about Latin music from being in a section with Mario Bauza. Did you learn from talking to a lot of the Latin musicians you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: I just listened. You learn a lot more by listening than by talking.

TP: Did playing Latin music and playing in clave come naturally for you?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: That takes us to “Old Devil Moon.” I assume you played that arrangement a fair amount.

SHEARING: Al McKibbon told me about that bass part, which he introduced into “Old Devil Moon.” He did it with me. McKibbon would be really on beat with that stuff. But purposefully. That’s what it was. Unlike jazz, the main beat in Latin was four-and, 1-2-3-BUH-BUH…BAHT. It was four-and-two, four-and-two. That would be the conga drums.

TP: So it’s quite specialized, and the rhythms have to be locked in.

SHEARING: Yes, particularly if you’re going to do it in an authentic way. Anybody can… [sings “Cucaracha”] It can be played by any dance hall band in the world. That’s not specialized.

TP: When did Armando Peraza come into your circle?

SHEARING: He was with me for about five or six years, and he was there along with McKibbon and Cal Tjader. McKibbon would be playing cowbell, Armando would be playing congas and bongos… The whole rhythm section was set up with almost no harmonic instrument.

TP: Did you ever incorporate Armando Peraza on swing tunes, or just on Latin tunes?

SHEARING: Latin tunes.

TP: You never used him to give flavor to a 4/4 tune.

SHEARING: No. I wonder even now whether he spoke more English than he thought he spoke then. He had a great sense of humor. I think he’s still with us, as far as I know.

TP: Percy Brice on traps, when did he come in? You couldn’t have had a better drummer than Denzil Best…

SHEARING: I can’t remember if Percy followed Denzil. He might have.

TP: Bill Clark played before.

SHEARING: Right. Well, Percy was a better drummer than Bill Clark. Bill had one thing, and that was… [sound of brushes] Percy would concoct actual parts to play. He’d hear an arrangement and know where the fills would come in. He was a great drummer.

TP: Again, he had the reading skills, the technical skills, and the swing. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: Three years.

TP: The final tune is a calypso, “Nothing But De Best.”

SHEARING: It’s Denzil’s tune. Denzil was very close to the West Indian feeling…

TP: So along with “Move” and “Allen’s Ailey,” that’s another piece from his lexicon. So we have “Pawn Ticket,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” the jam, “Old Devil Moon,” and “Nothin’ But De Best.” So if not by the specific tunes, if the structure, a bop line, a ballad, a instrumental feature, a Latin tune, a Calypso…

SHEARING: What it did was to present rhythmic and harmonic variety. That’s what it did.

[-30-]

 

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Liner Notes: George Shearing/Cannonball Adderley (At Newport):

“At Newport” is a consequential addition to the prolific and distinguished discographies of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and George Shearing, who play back to back and briefly join forces on the concert documented herein. The venue is the Newport Jazz Festival, then in its fourth summer, and the bands let their hair down, playing well-paced, tightly arranged, improvisationally open sets before a relaxed, enthusiastic audience under the stars.

Observers in 1957 might have found the matchup of Shearing — 38, white, English, an established mega-star — and Adderley — 28, black, southern, struggling to ascend the jazz tree — to be counter-intuitive. But in retrospect, they were complementary personalities. For one thing, they shared a manager, John Levy, the black bassist and road manager of Shearing’s first quintet, who left in 1951 to pursue a distinguished and pioneering career in personal management. More to the point, each was an instrumental virtuoso with a populist sensibility, conversant with a full timeline of jazz vocabulary, informed by the imperative to present even the most esoteric music in an unfailingly communicative manner.

One evening precisely two years earlier, Adderley had famously exploded on the scene when he sat in with bassist Oscar Pettiford before an enthralled audience of musicians and hipsters at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village. This happened months after Charlie Parker’s death, and such contemporaneous young lions as Jackie McLean and Phil Woods were on record as regarding Adderley’s style — he incorporated the harmonic and rhythmic innovations and propulsive thrust of Charlie Parker, with a big, fat Willie Smith lead alto tone, ferocious execution reminiscent of Earl Bostic, and an ability to conjure elegant melodic lines a la Benny Carter — as the next step in extending the vocabulary of the alto saxophone. Adderley grounded his narratives in the tropes of bebop, blues, and the black church, apportioned in equal measure; after the band tears through J.J. Johnson’s 1947 composition “Wee-Dot,” his patter provides a window to his thinking.

“That, of course, was a blues, which we like to play very much,” says the former high school band director. “You’ll find it obvious in our performance here this afternoon, because we feel that the blues reflects what jazz SHOULD be made of.”

Throughout their half-hour set the Adderley Brothers — Cannonball and his cornetist sibling Nat were co-leaders — manifest the trademark collective focus, instrumental prowess, soulful intelligence and insouciant precision that sealed their popularity with black audiences from the moment they convened in early 1956. Those qualities were due in no small part to the contributions of pianist Junior Mance, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Jimmy Cobb, a seasoned young rhythm section that could go primal or delicate at the drop of a hat. In particular, Chicagoan Mance uncorks some big-time solos — think Earl Hines and Albert Ammons mixed with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — that show us why Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Dinah Washington had made him their road pianist of choice in previous years.

The repertoire — “A Foggy Day” (an insistent medium groove, with telling key modulations), “Sermonette” (a Ray Charles-inspired bop-shuffle), “Sam’s Tune” (a train song) and “Hurricane Connie” (ingenious, warp-speed rhythm changes) — comes from “Cannonball Enroute,” “To The Ivy League With Nat,” and “Introducing Cannonball Adderley,” all recorded for Mercury-EmArcy, a label that kept the brothers in the studio, but backed their product insufficiently. Indeed, Cannonball’s bandstand optimism and ebullience flies in the face of the dire circumstances that already faced him. Owing back taxes, the brothers already were deep in debt, and would disband temporarily in the winter of 1958, when Cannonball joined forces with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

By contrast, Shearing was at a popular peak. A blind prodigy from a working class family in London, the pianist had carved out a successful career in England before emigrating to the United States in 1947. Under the sponsorship of countryman Leonard Feather, he quickly made his bones on 52nd Street, establishing props in a popular trio with Oscar Pettiford and J.C. Heard, and sharing bills with prestigious artists ranging from Charlie Parker to Machito. Influenced in formative years by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole, and fascinated with the vocabulary of Romantic and Impressionist European music, Shearing quickly transmuted the vocabulary of bebop into his own voice.

Already a fixture in 1949, Shearing became a mega-star that year when his recording of “September In The Rain” [MGM] with a vibraphone-guitar-piano-bass-drums configuration sold 900,000 copies, imprinting the “Shearing sound” — the vibraphone played the top register of the octave, the guitarist played the bottom, and the piano navigated between those registral boundaries with block chord variations — on the collective consciousness of jazz. In 1955, he signed with Capitol Records, cementing his stature with a series of nuanced, well-promoted albums that showcased his exquisite touch and harmonic ingenuity in a range of contexts. With enviable panache and sophistication, he tackled the fiery complexities of bebop and Afro-Cuban music, intimate solo piano recitals, dialogues with singers Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Peggy Lee, and plush concerti against mellow backdrops of strings and woodwinds.

Here, Shearing’s stylistic flexibility is on full display. For his spread-out Newport audience, he eschews, with one exception, the intimate, tasteful arrangements “for very small rooms” that comprised the bulk of his work in 1957. That exception is “It Never Entered My Mind,” on which he superimposes the melody of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie.” Otherwise, burning is the order of the night, and the excellent band rises to the task. On “Pawn Ticket” — a worthy entrant in the Ray Bryant lexicon of catchy tunes with slick changes — Shearing unleashes his bop chops on a block chord solo. A stirring “There Will Never Be Another You” features vibraphonist Emil Richards — the multiple percussion maestro who succeeded malleters Don Elliott, Joe Roland and Cal Tjader in Shearing’s units — over sweet fills from classy trapsetter Percy Brice. Shearing learned clave from Machito, and – with idiomatic support from bassist Al McKibbon, himself a disciple of Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie, and from legendary Cuban hand drummer Armando Peraza — customarily climaxed sets with idiomatic Latin flagwavers. McKibbon provides the vamp that propels “Old Devil Moon,” and Peraza puts intriguing mambo beats on “Nothing But De Best,” an engaging calypso authored by former Shearing drummer Denzil Best.

A stickler for playing charts just precisely so, Shearing required sideman to read immaculately and to improvise and express their personality when called upon to do so. “We are not usually in the habit of inviting guests up to play with the quintet, because normally we have things completely set,” he remarks before summoning the Adderleys on stage. “But we are about at this time to embark on a very special arrangement. As a matter of fact, we are going to arrange it right now.” McKibbon and Brice set the tempo, and the impromptu crew launches into “Soul Station,” a funky blues line with a Horace Silver connotation. The Adderleys soar, Richards uncorks a cogently jagged declamation, and Shearing lets it all hang out with several intense choruses of block chords, the way he might have done on a third set at Birdland following, say, Bud or Bird or Machito or the Ellington Orchestra. Catching his breath in the aftermath, he briefly sheds his unflappable stage persona, saying, “You don’t mind us enjoying ourselves for one night, do you? Whew!”

Neither Shearing nor Junior Mance can recall whether this was the only musical encounter of the two John Levy clients. But it was a special one, and both giants honored themselves in the process.

Ted Panken
Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR

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Filed under George Shearing, Liner Notes

For David Sanborn’s 73rd Birthday, An Unedited Blindfold Test From 2012

A day late for master alto saxophonist and iconic bandleader David Sanborn’s 73rd birthday, here’s an uncut Blindfold Test that we did over the amazing speakers in the listening room of his townhouse in 2012.

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Next Collective, “Twice” (from COVER ART, Concord, 2013) (Logan Richardson, alto saxophone, Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Gerald Clayton, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Jamire Williams, drums)

I like the way the tune unfolded. It started out…I thought it was going to go a whole different direction, and then it went into this really kind of nice, almost folk-like melody. I also liked the way the alto solo…it’s like they took their time to kind of just…in a very unhurried, unforced, very natural way, the way the saxophone solo unfolded. Nobody was showing off. It was just this really beautiful piece of music. It’s so hard to play over those odd meters that to do it in a way that sounds natural, where you just kind of flow over, you’re not being a slave to the meter, is really hard to do, and when somebody does it well, like whoever this was, it’s noticeable. I liked the way saxophone solo unfolded, very unforced; it felt natural, like singing. Whatever he was playing, it just felt like it was what it was supposed to be, integrated into the rhythm section, but still… He took it someplace else. And I love the melody. The melody was beautiful. Excellent track. I really enjoyed it. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve heard Logan Richardson’s name. As a matter of fact, I just saw his name associated with somebody. There’s a collective, right? I liked the way it went kind of effortlessly from the odd meter stuff to the more straight meter stuff. It felt very natural to me.

Miguel Zenón, “JOS Nigeria” (from Miguel Zenón AND THE RHYTHM COLLECTIVE, Miel Music, 2013 (Zenón, alto saxophone; Aldemar Valentin, electric bass; Tony Escapa, drums; Reynaldo De Jesús, percussion)

Like a little island thing. My little suede flip-flops! A really nice, hip little meter change in the bridge there. Beautiful sound. The saxophone player has a beautiful sound. I like the drummer a lot. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s an older player. I don’t mean Old-old, like my age, but a player who has some maturity and a lot of playing under his belt. The way that the solo felt so self-assured, especially playing mostly an eighth-note feel. Somebody who has a lot of confidence. And the great time. And once again, a beautiful sound. I liked the drummer a lot, too. The bass player, too. But just the interplay and the fact that it felt very natural. 5 stars. [AFTER] That makes a lot of sense. It’s his feel. I liked the way the time turned around on the bridge, just spun out. But it just flowed very naturally. Beautiful sound. Great intonation, too.

TARBABY and Oliver Lake, “Unity” (from THE END OF FEAR, Posi-Tone, 2010) (Lake, alto saxophone; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That took me a minute to get into it. It’s a kind of angularity that doesn’t pull me in right away. Once I got into it, I started to dig it. What I liked about the way everybody was playing was they move very easily between playing kind of more inside and more out. I always like it when guys can blur the line between playing in and playing out. But it did have a bit of a relentless feel to it. That made it at times just a little overbearing to me. But I certainly can’t fault the playing, and I like the saxophone player a lot. Great sound. I like the way he used honks and high registered stuff, and the way he used accents and the way he rhythmically placed things I thought was really interesting. I have no idea who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Oliver Lake? Was it? That was a Sam Rivers tune? It’s not one of my favorites. But I think they handled it really well. I really like the way Oliver plays, and particularly played on this? That was Nick on trumpet? Everybody sounded great. Like I said, the way they went from in and out… I mean, that’s kind of Oliver’s thing. He has a unique sound. I’m surprised I didn’t recognize him. What I find really interesting about Oliver’s playing is that his sound can go to so many different places. He can play with so many different kinds of sounds, it’s like a character actor almost. It’s not like he assumes other identities. They’re all facets of his personality and his playing. But there’s a real variety of approaches, the way he plays, that I find interesting.

Greg Osby, “Whirlwind Soldier” (from ST. LOUIS SHOES, Blue Note, 2003) (Osby, alto saxophone; harold O’Neal, piano; Robert Hurst, bass; Rodney Green, drums)

It’s really nice the way the melody was all in that mid-low range of the alto. It’s such a beautiful range of the horn. To kind of stay down there as long as he did was really nice. Once again, it sounds like a more mature player. There were points when it reminded me of Kenny Garrett. That would be my guess. Once again, with that kind of assurance that comes with maturity. Beautiful. Very well-recorded, too. It’s always nice when you can hear the full range of piano and all the instruments. But it was nice, how the alto player stayed in the mid-low register for a lot of it. Once again, nobody was showing off, and it sounded really beautiful. I like the tune. I like the drama of it. It felt very touching. Emotional, too. 5 stars. [after] It’s funny. I have that album. But that tune doesn’t sound familiar to me. It makes sense that it’s Greg.

Kenny Garrett, “Du-Wo-Mo” (from SEEDS FROM THE UNDERGROUND, Mack Avenue, 2012) (Garrett, alto saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Nat Reeves, bass; Ronald Bruner, drums)

That really sounds like Kenny! Yeah. The SOUND. There wasn’t a single uninteresting moment in that whole tune. Kenny just kills me, man. Nothing was wasted in that solo. He played a long solo, and it was consistently engaging from the beginning to the end. He’s got such a unique way of phrasing. I love his tone. The way he spits notes out, it reminds me of the way Cannonball did it. He’s got that Woody Shaw harmonic concept that he’s taken and made it evolve into his own language. I find him the most interesting alto player around. He’s my favorite alto player, bar none. So if I can give it more than 5 stars, I would. That’s off the charts good to me.

I want to go back to the Oliver Lake track. The 4 stars was more for the tune. I’d give the playing 5 stars. The playing was great. Just the tune didn’t engage me that much. But this Kenny thing, man, that just made my day. Kenny always puts me away, man.

Tim Berne, “Scanners” (from SNAKEOIL, ECM, 2012) (Berne, alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega, clarinet; Matt Mitchell, piano; Ches Smith, percussion.

When it started out, I really didn’t like it. Then as it unfolded, I really got into it. I ended up really loving it. I think what turned me off initially is the recording felt very distant. Like, everything was really far away. I didn’t get much of a sense of presence on the recording. It sounded like it was recorded in a big hall with just a couple of mikes. I like recordings that have a little more presence. But man, the clarinet player was KILLIN’ me. Amazing control. Unbelievable control. Got to me somebody who has a lot of experience under their belt, because that was amazing. The clarinet playing was spectacular. I have to give that 5 stars. As I said, at the beginning, I didn’t particularly like the composition. It felt like it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Some of the dynamics seemed a little flat to me. But I think a lot of that had to do with the way it was recorded. But as it developed and I got pulled in more, I kind of heard past some of the sonic limitations that I was hearing, and got to what was there, and it felt great. I’d have to go back and listen to the top again to get a sense of where it was from the top, but as it went on, I kind of acclimated to the sound and ended up really loving it. [AFTER] I love Tim and I love his playing. The recording felt a little distant to me. I don’t think it did the music as much service as it should have. Once it got into it, I really liked it, and then at the end, I liked the composition. That’s why I said I’d like to go back to the top and hear it again. It’s very intricate, just the way things are structure, and it felt very assured, everything from beginning to end, and it felt like there were a lot of dynamics that weren’t immediately apparent to me. 5 stars. Tim’s stuff is always great. I wish I would have heard more of him. But man, Oscar Noriega played unbelievable. It sounded great. It felt very natural. It didn’t feel stiff. It’s just that I found myself straining at the beginning to hear what was going on.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Sweet Dreams” (from RISE UP!, Palmetto, 2008) (Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Herlin Riley, drums)

It sounds like the organ player’s date. Sounds like the Eurrhythmics. Is that the cover of a pop tune. “Sweet dreams are made of this…” I have no idea who that is. It’s not Joey, right? Is it Lonnie Smith? Who’s playing alto? It sounded good, sounded like an older player, but I have no idea. I was going to say Lou Donaldson, but it’s not Lou. I liked what he played. The tune kind of stayed in one place, so it was kind of hard. I sympathize with trying to play over something that kind of keeps a very insistent thing. It’s kind of hard to really stretch on that. But within the parameters of what the saxophone player was given, he played very well. 4 stars. [AFTER} the nature of the song and the approach was such that it didn’t really allow him to go a lot of different places. Within the confines of what the song was, it was great, and Donald is a great player. I’d prefer hearing him on his own stuff. I love his tunes. They’re great.

Steve Coleman, “Hormone Trig” (from FUNCTIONAL ARRHTHMIAS, Pi, 2013) (Coleman, alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Anthony Tidd, bass; Sean Rickman, drums)

Is this Steve Coleman? Steve is great, man. He has so much flexibility and control over time signatures, and he makes that shit swing. That’s what’s great about Steve. He has it all. Originality. Control. And he swings; swings his ass off. He can manage to make the most potentially uninviting kinds of circumstances…he can imbue them with an emotional content and a spirit of originality that is just amazing to me. He’s one of the true originals that’s come along in the last 20-30 years. He’s in a class by himself, really. I give this 5+ stars. It’s funny. There are times when he and Kenny Garrett remind me of each other. I think it’s the fact that they both have this innate sense of swing. Maybe it’s their connection to the tradition. I’m not sure. I don’t know what it is. But Steve is brilliant, and the music is amazing. Every time I listen to him, it’s completely engaging to me. On this one, it’s based on the rhythms of the body. Who’s playing trumpet? Jonathan Finlayson? Sorcerer’s apprentice. But the difference with Steve is that he has such a great sound, and he plays with such assurance. It’s so definitive.

Clayton Brothers, “Souvenir” (from AND FRIENDS, Artist Share, 2012) (Jeff Clayton, alto saxophone; John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano; Obed Calvaire, drums)

Very Strayhornesque piece. Again, very well-recorded. A lot of presence. A lot of warmth in that track. It sounded a little bit like Wess Anderson, but it had that kind of warmth to it. Warm-sounding and a nice Johnny Hodges kind of bending of the notes. Just beautiful. Very simple, straightforward. 4 stars. Absolutely beautiful. It was extremely sensitive, and the alto player, Jeff, took his time. The reason I gave it 4 stars is I wanted to hear him play more. It would have been nice to hear him stretch out a little bit. But I understand he wanted to state the tune in a very straightforward way. But absolutely beautiful. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

John Zorn, “Hath-Arob” (from ELECTRIC MASADA AT THE MOUNTAIN OF MADNESS, Tzadik, 2005) (Zorn, alto saxophone; Marc Ribot, guitar; Jamie Saft, keyboards; Ikue Mori, electronics; Trevor Dunn, electric bass; Joey Baron, Kenny Wolleson, drums; Cyro Baptista, percussion)

That souinded like John Zorn. Had to be. Nobody plays with that kind of insanity and humor. Just the composition was so great. Just the way all the elements grew out of each other, and came out and went back in. There’s so much texture there. Was there another saxophone player? That was all him? It’s an amazing piece of music. 5 stars. I loved it. I love John. John always makes me laugh, makes me smile. [Can you recall for these purposes what it was like to have him on your show?] I enjoyed meeting him. Marcus Miller and Omar Hakim were on it. But I find his music really interesting. He put out a series of records during that time with that group Naked City. Who were the two drummers? Oh, Joey. When you hear something like that, you really hear what a sense of composition John has. There’s this shape to it that’s got…the interior feels very natural, and the way things unfold feels very natural. So much energy, and such a unique way of playing the saxophone. He reminds me a little of Marshall Allen, one of the few other people I know who plays, in a way, similar to John—and I know John was very familiar with Marshall’s playing. But he’s so unique, you have to judge him on his own terms. I enjoy his music, and I enjoy his playing. I enjoy his approach. It’s fresh. It’s an original voice to me. I just like it.

Tim Green, “Pinocchio” (from SONGS FROM THIS SEASON, True Melody, 2012) (Green, alto saxophone; Kris Funn, bass; Rodney Green, drums)

Almost sounds like a soprano. A very kind of pure sound from the saxophone player. Amazing articulation, and flexibility and facility, especially up in the upper register. He managed to get around that Wayne Shorter tune with a lot of dexterity and ease. The sound to me was a little bit not what I kind of… I don’t really respond as well to that kind of sound as one that’s a little more resonant, a fuller sound, but I appreciate it. It was very pure. The articulation was flawless. It certainly was swinging. The playing is 5 stars. Overall, I give it 4 stars.

Lou Donaldson, “Sweet And Lovely” (from LUSH LIFE, Blue Note, 1967/2007) (Donaldson, alto saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Jerry Dodgion, alto saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Al Harewood, drums; Duke Pearson, arranger)

You think that trumpet player was influenced by Freddie Hubbard? [LAUGHS} The alto player sounds like someobdy who is definitely using the language of bebop. Either they’re doing it as a tribute, or that’s who they are—like James Spaulding or someone like that. But I don’t think it’s James. I don’t know who it is. I liked it. It’s extremely well-recorded, and beautiful playing on the part of the saxophone player. A lot of quotes from Bird. 4 stars. It was nice. It didn’t push the limits that much, but within the confines of what it was, it was beautiful. Wayne Shorter was in the horn section? McCoy. Wow, that’s how old THAT was. That’s definitely New York.

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Lorraine Gordon (1922-2018) R.I.P. – A 2005 interview and a 2005 article in the New York Daily News re the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, plus a link to a 2005 Downbeat piece on the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village

I admired Lorraine Gordon tremendously, though on my various trips to the Vanguard over the years, I did my best to stay out of her way — and out of her line of fire…you never knew when you might get zapped. She was an intense and highly informed listener, dating back to the early ’30s, but never allowed nostalgia to inform her judgments when booking the VV after Max Gordon died. She always remained in the here-and-now, and kept the Vanguard on the cutting edge of the music.

In 2002 she asked me to conduct an oral history with her for the Hatch-Billops Oral History collections. We did it, and I transcribed it, but unfortunately don’t have the text of that interview, which is in the Hatch-Billops Archives at Emory University. If you’ve read her autobiography, pretty much everything we discussed is in there anyway, and she also told elements of her life story in an oral history conducted by Anthony Brown for the Smithsonian after she was dubbed an NEA Jazz Master (this is easy to find on-line if you’re interested). I did have a chance to write about her in 2005, in a Downbeat piece framed around the Vanguard’s 70th anniversary. (You can find it on my blog, if you google my name and Lorraine’s.)

I’m linking here to the full Downbeat piece, which was about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s; and am pasting below a more targeted and pithy article for the New York Daily News about the Vanguard’s 2005 anniversary, and the interview that I conducted with Lorraine Gordon for this article.

 

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Lorraine Gordon (Village Vanguard, Jan. 20, 2005):

TP: …the decor hasn’t changed. Over the banquettes on the west end of the club, paintings of the Vanguard, vintage jazz photographs–Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Thad Jones, Charlie Haden, Cecil Taylor, Joe Henderson, Sphere, etc. There’s the Butero painting over the bar, which looks like it hasn’t been clean or lit in 70 years. A big euphonium against one wall. Old posters…

LORRAINE: Here I am. Let’s go sit over here, if you don’t mind. It’s cold here.

TP: All right, Lorraine. At 70 years old, the Vanguard, it seems to me, doing a quick guess, is roughly 45 years older than any other jazz club in New York. It seems the Blue Note would be second. Why has the Vanguard lasted so long?

LORRAINE: Hmm. Which answer do you want? Column A, B or C?

TP: Why don’t you give me all of them?

LORRAINE: Because it just happens to be a special room that is the way it almost was 70 years ago. It’s not exactly the same. It’s been cleaned up, gussied up, painted. The shape is the same. The atmosphere is the same. So it’s a room that hasn’t been transformed with some glitz and glamour to keep up with today’s instant times. It tries to be what it IS—a jazz room. Right now, it doesn’t serve food. It did years ago. So that’s one reason that people like to come here. They’re familiar with it—the ones that have been here before, obviously. And even the ones who have never been here are always amazed to see what a simple room it is, but so aligned to the feeling of jazz with the photos on the wall, and the bandstand so close to the people. When they come here, the’re not sitting out in Siberia. So there’s an intimacy about the room as far as jazz music goes, because if you’re going to sit in a hall with 5,000 seats, you’ll hear things, but you’re not getting the essence of at least what I think is real jazz.

[LORRAINE’S FRIED RICE ARRIVES]

TP: Do you recall when you first went to the Vanguard?

LORRAINE: Oh, I certainly do. I remember standing back at the bar with my friends at the Newark Hot Club. I didn’t know who Max Gordon was. He was sitting over there by the bar, and we were in the corner there. We came from Newark. Right there at that left corner. The globe wasn’t there, the painting wasn’t there. No, I was 16 or 17. It was the dark ages. We were kids, came from Newark, because it was good jazz here. I came to see Leadbelly, who I particularly loved, or whoever was here—if we could get the fare to take the train from Newark to here. We didn’t have a lot of money. We came here, and we’d have a beer, a couple of beers, and pass it around between us. I heard a little man by the cash register, I thought I heard him say, “Get rid of those kids.” Whoa! I vowed revenge.

TP: So you married him.

LORRAINE: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

TP: So apart from the accoutrements, the banquettes are as they were?

LORRAINE: Everything is the way you see it. But the pictures on the wall were cockeyed. Max had no eye to straighten pictures. And there weren’t as many as these. We had done the whole walls with the photos, at least made them audible to the eye. Before they were just helter-skelter. The original murals were done by Paul Petrov, the most fabulous murals in the wall. I wonder why Max took them down. I have copies of them on long paper. But they were so sophisticated, so elegant. I remember those murals more than anything, exactly, because you were just captured by them. Paul Petrov. He’s alive and well, living in Washington, and we keep in touch. But those were the most terrific murals. They were so New York! They were so sophisticated! But then they disappeared.

TP: So when you came here from Newark, you were coming to hear Leadbelly and coming to hear hot jazz mainly, right?

LORRAINE: The only jazz I knew was hot. But before I came here, I used to go to 52nd Street when somebody would take me. So there’s the golden age of jazz, 52nd Street. If you haven’t been there, and obviously you’re too young, that’s where kids like me hung out—if our parents would let us to go to New York. We were very young. So I would go with whomever would take me to hear… Well, let’s put it this way. On one night, you could hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Max Kaminsky… I mean, just go from one club to the other. It was a very romantic period in my life.

TP: So this was your late teens and early twenties when you were going…

LORRAINE: Yes.

TP: And did you go at all to the… About when did it start for you? Around 1940-41? A little later.

LORRAINE: It started for me in Newark at the Club Alkazar(?), which was a black club in the black neighborhood where Jabbo Smith was playing. No whites ever went there, except us kids from the Newark Hot Club who were allowed in. Because we were a phenomenon. What were these white kids doing here? Then when Benny Goodman came to town, I ran over to the Adams Theater where the Benny Goodman band was playing. I never went to school when he was in town. And I started collecting jazz records. That was my life.

TP: As far as some of the 52nd Street clubs, did you ever go the Famous Door?

LORRAINE: Yes, that’s on 52nd Street. That was one of them. The Famous Door, the Onyx Club, the Three Deuces… They were just lined them up one after the other. Little places.

TP: Were they all the same to you, or did they have distinct identities?

LORRAINE: Well, the identity of the clubs was… They were like long, narrow first floors in brownstones. Mind you, a lot of these clubs during Prohibition were Speakeasies. So there was a long narrow. There were banquettes on this side, there was a bar as you come in at the right, and they served food as well. Nobody bugged you. You sat down, you ordered a drink or something to eat. There were no minimums or things like that. What did you ask me…

TP: I asked if the clubs had distinct characters, or if they were very similar to each other.

LORRAINE: No, the characters was who played there. Is Billie Holiday the same as Art Tatum? Or you’d go to Jimmy Ryan’s. That was more of a Dixieland (I hate that term, but that’s what we have to call it today) type of musician—Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Marsala, people like that. Then you go down the line… It depends who’s playing there. I ran always to hear Billie Holiday. But not always. I didn’t go that often, believe me. Every visit there was just a rapturous treat. And I couldn’t go. I was a kid in New Jersey. But it was an experience. And that will never happen again in jazz clubs in New York.

Then after that came Broadway, with Birdland, the Royal Roost… It kept changing. But it wasn’t the same for me. Even though great artists played there, it was nothing to capture the essence of 52nd Street, which was small and intimate. Like the Vanguard. You’d go to 52nd Street, you’re sitting… You could touch the musicians. They were small and beautifully happy places. That’s all I remember.

TP: Did you ever go to the Spotlite Club, which Clark Monroe owned?

LORRAINE: No, I don’t think so. I was not a specialist. I was glad my mother let me out certain nights.

TP: So you’re trying to maintain in some way the ambiance you recall on 52nd Street in those years.

LORRAINE: I used to love to go to Café Society Downtown, which had Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Albert Ammons… This was a very fancy place, fancier than the Vanguard. And that was a great treat to be able to go there. You had to really get dressed up a little.

TP: Can you remember any details about Café Society?

LORRAINE: Yes, it was a wonderful room, with also fantastic murals of the New York scene. Very sophisticated. I think the Vanguard and Café Society, before it all went uptown to the East Side, were very sophisticated clubs, as far as their decor.

TP: So the Vanguard used to be more sophisticated…

LORRAINE: Well, they both were. Because who had murals? These were murals done by very good artists who captured the essence of the New York scene. What can replace the murals that were here when Paul Petrov did this… There’s a huge baby grand piano, and a horse is playing it, and two people are leaning over the hood of the piano listening to the horse… I mean, incredible! I have copies of the murals, which are simply remarkable.

TP: Was Café Society at 1 Sheridan Square, where the Sheridan Square Bookstore used to be?

LORRAINE: Yes. It’s now a theater or whatever it is.

TP: Then you got in the club business after you married Max Gordon.

LORRAINE: No, I didn’t get in the club business at all. I got into the motherhood business, and I had two daughters with Mr. Gordon. I never worked for Max in my whole life until the day he died. I did not get involved with his business. This was his baby.

TP: You had no involvement?

LORRAINE: No, none whatsoever. I had another job. I worked other places, other things. I came to hear the music. But…never.

TP: But how did the Vanguard develop, let’s say, between when you started having kids and when Max died?

LORRAINE: Well, he never gave up the club. He used to have a club uptown, very elegant (I used to be there a lot) called the Blue Angel. Very uptown, East Side, where the beautiful people hung out, shall we say. I spent a lot of time there, because we lived on the East Side, on East 79th. Max was in that club a lot. So this was left, hunkering along somehow. And we had other clubs. We had an old-fashioned ice cream parlor across from the Plaza Hotel, and Max and his partners took over what was Café Society Uptown, and it became Le Directoire. So there was so much action, it’s a miracle I’m talking to you today! Because this is what I did all night. Besides raising the children, being in the peace movement, and being with my husband at night—because we were night people now. There was no daytime except for me to take the kids to school. We had a housekeeper then. All of those accoutrements come into play.

TP: The Vanguard in the late ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t book so much jazz, did it.

LORRAINE: Well, it always had some jazz. It didn’t start out as a jazz club. When we started out… Well, read Max’s book. It’s all in there. It started as poetry. Max was a homeless person in the Village who lived in furnished rooms and hung out at some cafeteria over there on Fifth Avenue where all the poets hung out. Max was a poetic man. He wrote poetry. He was a writer, graduated from Reed College, a very intellectual man. So he really wanted to be with these people whom he admired, but there was no place to go. That’s how he opened the Vanguard. He opened another one around the corner for a little while, and then he came here for the remainder of the 70 years. So this place was simply for poets to go up there and declaim their poetry. There were barrels to sit on. There were war posters maybe from World War One on the wall, political posters. People threw money on the floor. That’s how people got paid. Max didn’t have a fancy bar, and nothing grandiose, no rugs on the floor.

That’s how that started, until the moment one year when these four people came in and asked Max could they maybe introduce themselves, and he should listen to them, and he said, “Sure, go ahead,” and they went up there, and he thought they were brilliant, and he hired them, and the poets went out, and the revuers came in, who turned out to be Judy Holliday, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and a couple of other people in the act. So Max was off on a new tangent. He suddenly discovered, hey, there’s talent out there beside the poets! So he started listening around and getting more and more people. So that’s how that started. So now he had folk singers, he had vocalists, he had all kinds of talent. But all good talent. Nothing commercial or stupid. It was all very high-class talent, which he would book here and train here, and then bring them up to the fancy Blue Angel on East 55th Street. So Eartha Kitt got up there, and Pearl Bailey got up there, and Harry Belafonte got up there. They all started here.

TP: Then you had the hipsters and the comedians later on, in the ‘50s.

LORRAINE: Yeah, then there was Lenny Bruce. Irwin Corey forever [1942], the funniest man in the world.

TP: Kerouac.

LORRAINE: Kerouac was not a comedian, but he was here. He came always in the back. We kind of looked at him…

TP: By that time, when Lenny Bruce and the comedians were here, was the Vanguard booking primarily jazz?

LORRAINE: Look, this place became a jazz club when television took all the artists away that Max could employ. Stand-up comics, singers, whatever. Television wiped out the Blue Angel, and could have wiped this place out. So Max switched to jazz in the early ‘80s.

TP: Late ‘50s, I think.

LORRAINE: I meant ‘50s. I’m sorry. You can correct that.

TP: You get the last word.

LORRAINE: No, not with you. I try hard, though. It’s a fight to the finish.

TP: Most people who read the Daily News aren’t jazz aficionados, and they’re not going to know that there have been how many records recorded at the Vanguard since 1957? 50? More than 50?

LORRAINE: Over 100 recordings. Look on our website. They’re all on there.

TP: I guess beginning with Sonny Rollins.

LORRAINE: Some people say that. Sometimes I think the first one (I may be wrong)… [COUGHS, PAUSE]

TP: Granted you weren’t here much during those years…

LORRAINE: During what years? I was here…

TP: The ‘50s and ‘60s.

LORRAINE: Why wasn’t I here?

TP: Oh, you did come down.

LORRAINE: Of course I came down to hear the music, or whatever I wanted to hear. If I could make it, I did. I had a job of my own, by the way. I worked…

TP: What were you doing?

LORRAINE: I worked in an art gallery for many, many years. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for many years. I worked in the peace movement for many years. I’m not an idle person.

TP: What were you doing in the peace movement?

LORRAINE: I was running it. I saved the world. Look at the condition we’re in! I did a rotten job.

TP: Which organization?

LORRAINE: We were not an organization. We were a grass roots movement called Women’s Strike For Peace. Women who had children suddenly realized that nuclear testing was very dangerous, because Stronthium-90, CC-131, settled in the grass that cows eat, and our children drink the milk that’s poison. That’s one part in a movement of women who wanted nuclear testing to stop in the Soviet Union and in the United States of America. Okay? That was a big project. To me. It went on for years, and I gave all my time and devotion to that that I could. A non-paying job, but full time. To protect everyone’s children, if possible. That was it. Then when that faltered… It didn’t falter, but when I had to get a job, I went to work in a gallery for 15 years. It was a poster gallery called Poster Originals a very fancy place on Madison Avenue. It’s out of business. Fifteen years I ran the place. It was the wrong time. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for five years. About that time, Max was getting a little shaky. So I’d go to the museum and leave there at 3, and come here to open up for him if he couldn’t make it.

TP: So while you were at the Brooklyn Museum and started coming down, that was around ‘80 or so?

LORRAINE: I guess so. Max died in ‘89. That’s the date I remember.

TP: Let me bring up some iconic moments in jazz. I’ll ask what you can remember about the protagonists, and if you can’t I’ll move on to the next one.

LORRAINE: I probably can’t. I don’t know what iconic means.

TP: Iconic means landmark…

LORRAINE: I know that.

TP: I know you know. Miles Davis. Do you have any memories of…

LORRAINE: Lots of memories of Miles, because I lived through two husbands with Miles. Don’t forget, my first husband was Alfred Lion from Blue Note Records, and he recorded Miles a lot. So I was a part of his business more than a part of Max’s business. I worked for Alfred.

TP: Didn’t you tell me you introduced Alfred to Monk?

LORRAINE: Not Alfred. I introduced Max. Alfred and I were introduced to Monk by Ike Quebec. We didn’t know who he was… Well, we may have heard about him through the musicians, but not really. So I introduced Max Gordon to Monk, who he had never heard of in his life.

TP: Let me ask you about Monk after Miles Davis.

LORRAINE: What about Monk after Miles Davis?

TP: Basically, any particularly pungent memories about any of these people.

LORRAINE: Well, when Max and I went on my maiden voyage to Europe, and went to Italy, Max had some splendid shoes made to order in Italy. Gorgeous. Had his foot measured and all that. They were going to send it to us at home, which they did eventually, and he tried them on and they were a little bit too short, a little too tight. He couldn’t wear them. So Miles Davis was next in line. He was playing here, and Max gave him these beautiful, brand-new shoes. And it killed me! Because he loved them. But wow, I figured… Well, that was it. Miles was wearing Max’s shoes at that particular time. I know that’s thrillingly exciting.

TP: Did Miles have a cordial relationship with Max?

LORRAINE: That’s interesting. Alfred and Miles had a very cool relationship, because Alfred Lion was… They knew he knew jazz. They were not fooling around with him when they did recordings. And I was there; you know, we would hang out, we’d be up all night at the Royal Roost or whatever, hanging out. When he came here to play with Max, I knew him from the Alfred days, he was a cooler guy. Of course, he played with his back to the audience, which bugged Max. I said, “What do you mean? So what? He doesn’t have to look at them and smile and say ‘hi guys, how you doing?’ He’s playing for his musicians that way.” It never bothered me. I kind of liked his insolent manner. It didn’t bother me. I thought it was kind of terrific. I’m listening to the music, not to what he looks like or what he’s wearing.

One thing bothered me about Miles towards the end, when he was not going to be here any more and he was going into his fancy clothes, dresses or whatever, changing his gender! Max was at the bar with him and some other people, just hanging out talking, as we always did, and Max came up and he said, “Hi, man,” some innocuous thing. Miles said, “Hey, don’t ever say ‘man’ to us. You’re not black. Remember that?” I was there. I said, “Would you rather be called ‘boy?’” Okay? End of that story. That was very nasty and insulting to Max. I couldn’t stand that. That was I guess the end of Miles. Not because of that incident. Because he went on to where, as I say, beads and dresses and glamour, and played some terrible music.

TP: The Vanguard survived a period that none of the other clubs survived, when Rock came in.

LORRAINE: That’s right.

TP: How did the Vanguard do that?

LORRAINE: Well, plenty of bad times here. Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy. Plenty of slow times. We survived it, because Max wouldn’t do it, and I would… The little I had to say would certainly be listened to. He knew I knew music. Max was not overlooking whatever I felt I could contribute by talking about it. We had lots of ups and downs, many-many-many. And who knew if he was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how, but he did. He was a very tenacious man, and he had to do bookings, and he did get wonderful men…artists to play here who weren’t even that well known. I mean, who the heck was Gerry Mulligan? He had Ornette Coleman when nobody ever heard of him. He had Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He had so many people that it’s mindboggling to think who passed through these rooms. Who’s the one wrote “When The Caged Bird Sings?” Maya Angelou used to play guitar here. She was a folk singer. I used to hear her a lot, and I liked her. And Abbey Lincoln played here many times. Hardly anyone didn’t pass through at some point.
TP: Monk played here quite often, didn’t he?

LORRAINE: Monk was introduced in this room. I brought him here in those years. Max didn’t know… Nobody knew him.

TP: They knew him uptown, not downtown.

LORRAINE: Some musicians knew him. He had no public at all at that time. And he laid a big egg here, and Max was furious with me. “What are you doing? You’re ruining my business. This man gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’” Max says to me, “What kind of an announcement is that?” I said, “Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.” Some years later, when Max brought him back, I hear him telling people, “Hey, I want you to hear this genius.”

TP: This was way before the Five Spot.

LORRAINE: Way before any spot, except inHarlem.

TP: Sonny Rollins told me that Monk hired him when he was 17 to play a gig at Barron’s. How about Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Well, he was very beautiful. One of my favorites. I would hang out here a lot in front here just to hear him. Everyone was crazy about Bill Evans, even through his…what shall I call it…his bad long periods where he could only play with one hand, but it was so beautiful. And he had a checkered career as far as his habits went. But he always played here, and everybody just… He was just beautiful. He had a beautiful trio, where he had Paul Motian, a wonderful bass player who was killed in a motorcycle… That was a very sad time, because Bill loved him.

TP: Did you have a personal relationship with Bill Evans?

LORRAINE: Not me. Max may have had one more than me. Because you know, I didn’t hang out in the kitchen, you know, talking with the guys. I’m a different person, Max’s wife or whatever. I’m not a hanger-outer in that sense. I did all my hanging out with Alfred Lion. All those clubs up there on Broadway, and the record studios, and recordings. That was hanging out.

TP: A few more names. Dexter Gordon, who made… He’d bee playing in the States, but working at the Vanguard in ‘76 had an impact on the jazz world…

LORRAINE: Are you talking about when he went to work?

TP: I’m talking about the so-called “homecoming.”

LORRAINE: Well, his wife, so-called, was responsible for bringing Dexter back. She certainly communicated with Max about doing it, and Max was more than happy. After all, we had put on a big concert with Dexter and Johnny Griffin…
TP: But that was two years after he played the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: Whatever. They had a relationship, and Dexter was absolutely phenomenal and beautiful. And where was he going to go in New York City but the Vanguard? It was home.

TP: He played Storyville once…

LORRAINE: I don’t know where he played. The man has played all over the world. I don’t keep track of their gigs. I barely can keep track of whatever is going on here. I can keep track of it, but that’s enough.

TP: When you were married to Alfred Lion, in your hanging-out days, you spoke about the Royal Roost. Can you talk about the ambiance?

LORRAINE: The ambiance? [LAUGHS] Loud. They had bleachers. You could sit in the bleachers. You could get up and go out and come back. It was a very loose place, very loose going. Then you’d all congregate on the sidewalk afterwards, and then we’d go around the corner to a place called the Turf. We used to call it the Turd. It was a bar, where they stood in the back and they drank their heads off. I was pretty young and naive. I wasn’t exactly a swinger in the sense of… I’m Alfred’s wife. I’m part of his business. But I went along, and I guess I enjoyed it, because I did it.

TP: Did you like bebop when you first heard it?

LORRAINE: Not at all. Not at all! I was living in California for a very short time. My parents had kind of moved there. There was a man there who had a record store, Ross Russell was his name, and I used to go there because it was very close to my father’s little business. I sat on a bar-stool, and who was sitting next to me but Charlie Parker. I disdained that music. I was not interested in him, or making an acquaintance, or the music. No. I must say no. I was deeply involved with people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday… All the great artists who were there before bop came to rule the roost. I was not into it. Not at all. Today when I hear people say bop is old-fashioned, I look at them kind of surprised. To me it’s still very modern! And I like a lot of it. I mean, I can get with it if it has a beat.

TP: What’s interesting about the Vanguard is that of all the major clubs, it probably has the most progressive outlook of any of them in the booking. Consistently, week-in, week-out…

LORRAINE: Yes. Well, because I understand that music changes. I listen to records or CDs constantly at home if I’m not here. I listen to music here. I’m aware of what’s giong on in the world of jazz. I’m very keen about jazz, to keep it alive, to observe who is good coming in. You know, everybody was not Coleman Hawkins. We have new guys. We have Dave Douglas, we have so many different people who I listen to very carefully. I’m here a lot of nights. I may not stay til closing. I don’t have to. I have wonderful people who work here, who’ve worked here for years, who help me. I don’t do everything alone. Nevertheless, I’m listening very carefully… I’m not listening carefully. I’m listening, and if it moves me and I dig it… I mean, I dig Brad Mehldau and I dig Bill Charlap, two entirely different artists, and I love them each for what they do, because they’re very pure and jazz is very pure. You know it when you hear it if you really know what it’s about. You can’t fool me. Well, you can a little bit. But most jazz lovers hang in with what’s really terrific. And if it’s new, just coming up, they have to recognize it. Suddenly these new acts become big! You don’t know that this is going to happen to Brad Mehldau. We couldn’t even spell his name in the past. So today he’s a star. I love him. He hates being compared to Bill Evans. He doesn’t feel that way about it. It’s just his look. He’s got that dreamy, sexy look.

TP: Let me ask you about some of the famous Village clubs? Did you go to the Bohemia?

LORRAINE: I know these names, but I don’t think so. Maybe I did. Not enough to force me to remember.

TP: How about the Five Spot?

LORRAINE: Maybe once or twice. I was loyal to the Vanguard. And once you’re loyal to a place… I mean, who’s got the time? I didn’t run around all night. I still had children and I still took kids up to school and made dinner, and I liked to cook. I still had a home life. You know, I wasn’t rousting about all night.

TP: With Alfred, did you ever go to Minton’s?

LORRAINE: Oh, yes. I can’t tell you much. It’s not there any more, though it has a sign. It was just a perfect club in Harlem that was very mysterious as a kid to me. I mean, I thought this was really livin’ it up! I never went to the Cotton Club. It’s not my style, and I was too young for that anyway. But Minton’s was a hangout, and that record that came out with Monk and Joe Guy, I believe, a quartet, was done at Minton’s. I can play it all the time, and it brings me back to this smoky club, filled with musicians or their friends and patrons. What is there to remember? It was a square room, and it was a famous place at that time. It did not maintain itself, although it’s made some efforts, but…

TP: They were around throughout the ‘50s. Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Ike Quebec were there…

LORRAINE: Everybody was there. There’s no doubt that people were there all the time. It was a real jazz club. Of course. I wasn’t following everyone’s career, frankly. That would be hard to do. I’d read something or meet somebody, but that wasn’t my whole life. It was a segment of it, to know what’s happening. I actually didn’t have to know what was happening. It wasn’t going to further my knowledge of anything. [ICE CUBES CRASHING INTO MACHINE] The ice revue! I know.

We’re not that modern here. We really need a big facelift. But I don’t want to do it. I just signed a new lease, honey. I have a lot to do. Ten more years. I just have a lot of things to sign, and liquor licenses, and Department of Health licenses, and the Fire Department, and this and that. I just took out that big old stove, the Vulcan that was there for a million years. I got rid of it, and I gave it to a wonderful young man who’s got a restaurant, but he’s going to try to use it in his home which he just bought upstate. But it’s gone. I had a wonderful man who came here and put up a beautiful wall, which is now being covered with coats. That’s not how I saw it! I want to get rid of the coats. But the stove is gone. We don’t serve food, and it’s just a thing sitting there.

TP: A general question. You’ve been following jazz for about sixty years, maybe more.

LORRAINE: More. Me following jazz is… I hate to tell you!

TP: Tell me.

LORRAINE: I’ve been collecting records since I’m a teenager. There goes the ice! No skiing here, please. [One more.]

TP: It’s very old-school. Ice during the bass solo.

LORRAINE: Yeah. Ha. Well, I could modernize every square inch here, but I do a little at a time. It’s a big job for me, and I don’t have contractors to come in. I have my good friends who are carpenters and this and that, who do things for me.

TP: So you’re not running the Vanguard on the business school model, or hotel or restaurant management school.

LORRAINE: Not at all! If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability. But a big pain in the neck here was that post up in the front of the bandstand where the drummer always sat. It was a big post, and everybody complained and complained. “That post, it’s impossible; I don’t want to sit there, I want to sit here.” So one day, I had my friend Robbie, who works for me occasionally when he’s in town… “Let’s go look at this post. Open a hole. What’s inside?” So we did. And in there is a pole this big. So he took the whole outside of that little post down, and put the smallest one possible. Wow, hey, you can almost see the drummer now! That was a great step forward.

TP: A great innovation for the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: And how!! Because those are the meaningful things in this room.

TP: Have you ever added things for the acoustics, or have the acoustics just been what they are because of the way the room is made?

LORRAINE: No, we have fabulous equipment in the little music room back there, the most expensive kind of equipment. Well, it’s not new any more; it’s been there a while. The speakers and the equipment were upgraded long ago, and they’re fantastic. I did do something remarkable for people who are looking for the men’s room or the ladies room. I put hot water in the… [LAUGHS]

TP: That was a great innovation.

LORRAINE: Yes. [Can I have something in there? Anything you desire. Because my throat is getting dry. I talk so much.] Yes, and I have to thank the Department of Health. Because in almost seventy years, this place was never inspected for anything. I mean, I stopped smoking down here over ten years ago when J.J. Johnson played here. I cut the smoking out. And we don’t serve food. So I didn’t even know there was a Department of Health. I’ve got all the other departments on my back. I won’t go into the whole story. It’s a long one.

TP: But they made you put in hot water.

LORRAINE: Yeah, they came. Max never put hot water in. I didn’t know how to put… How do you put hot water in? “Yes, we have plenty of cold water.” So they said, “Well, how do they wash their hands?” I said, “You use soap. Soap and water. Hot or cold.” Never mind. You’ve got to have hot water. Well, I fortunately found a master plumber, a wonderful guy, who attacked… He knew all the pipes in that kitchen. If you look at the kitchen, there’s a million pipes. And he found the one to connect to the men’s room and ladies room. He even put in new sinks, and we have hot water! I think that’s an innovation here. People have come out to congratulate me!

TP: I would have if I didn’t think I’d get yelled at.

LORRAINE: I wouldn’t yell at you if you’re saying something nice.

TP: As I said before, you’ve been following jazz for a good chunk of your life, which is a little older than the Vanguard, right?

LORRAINE: Yes, it’s a lot. But I’m not going to tell you. I know you’re angling, but I’m not going to help.

TP: But having followed jazz for all those years, and on a rather personal level, what’s the same? What are the continuities. One thing that’s so unique in this music is that a young artist has to be connected to things, even if they don’t know it, that were current 70 years ago. Tenor saxophonists still use devices Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, pianists still play the vocabulary of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, bassists still do things that Jimmy Blanton did. There’s an inter-generational continuity. What qualities are similar in musicians, and in what ways are they different?

LORRAINE: Well, if someone invents a new chord change, that’s different. He picked it up from someone else, changes it around… “How High The Moon” has 15,000 different chord changes, and you don’t know what the heck you’re listening to, but it’s there. It progresses. The musicians have very lively minds; when they playing their instrument, they experiment all the time. They pick up all kinds of things. They write their own music, that’s never been played before. It has to change. It’s not a dead art. That’s the beauty of jazz. It’s alive and well.

TP: I’m also talking about the personalities and characters of the musicians.

LORRAINE: Well, I don’t know. They’ve all got a different character and their personalities vary from God knows what.

TP: But you know what I’m asking.

LORRAINE: No, I don’t.

TP: Can you generalize through your experience… Every musician is a different person, but they also have certain things in common…

LORRAINE: Same girlfriend. I will leave you on that happy note! I can’t think of all the things! Of course they all look at each other, play together, jam together, take from each other. I don’t know how to answer that. They’re all basically accomplished!

TP: The musicians who are 30-40 years old today, do they have a different attitude than the ones you encountered back in the day?

LORRAINE: I think musicians are doing a lot better today financially than they were long ago. I do believe that. They have much more opportunity. They’re playing all over the world. There are so many jazz festivals, sometimes it’s hard to hire somebody here because they’re playing in Oslo, or Nizhni-Novgorod, or on a boat, or God knows where. They’re all over the lot. So jazz has certainly grown immensely, I think. And they play in other countries, they pick up sounds from other countries, they come back and play the Swedish something or other… The men are alive and well, and always listening and learning, and always…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP: Music isn’t the only thing they talk about.

LORRAINE: Well, when I’m around. When I leave, who knows? I’m going home now.

TP: Can you tell me anything about the Half Note?

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you anything about it because I was not there in a sense, nor involved. The musicians who played here, played there. Look, I was not loyal to any club but here and the Blue Angel uptown. That’s where my loyalties lay. I had no time to run around to other clubs. They were there. Obviously, they were important clubs, and the same musicians played there that played here. Sometimes they got more publicity playing there. I mean, Monk got all the publicity playing at the Five Spot, when he had played here!
TP: That’s because he had a six-month gig there with Coltrane.

LORRAINE: Coltrane played here all the time… I don’t know about the other clubs. I can’t give you dates or times or who did what to who. I’m not everywhere, and I’m not all things to all clubs. Or musicians. Now I am only all things to myself.

TP: No credit cards also.

LORRAINE: I can’t tell you how many people are grateful for that. But we do have a website that takes credit cards. http://www.villagevanguard.com. They will take credit cards. A certain amount; it’s a small club. But we have instituted that. That’s a step ahead.

TP: In a certain way, you do things the way you did them 30-40 years ago, with the exception of the website. And you’re the only one that does.

LORRAINE: Well, look. We don’t serve food. If you serve food, you should have credit cards. What you get here is what you pay for at the door. Is it worth having a credit card for $25, and so you’re going to order another beer, it’s another $5? It doesn’t pay. We tried it once. It was a total failure. It doesn’t pay. If you serve food, then you should have credit cards, of course. I don’t serve food. I simplify life. This club caters to people who really love jazz, or people who want to learn about jazz who don’t know anything. Many people call and they say, “Well, I’ve never been there before. How does it work? What do you do?” Then if I get insolent, they holler at me. [LAUGHS] “Don’t come here.”

TP: Then you tell them not to come if they speak back.

LORRAINE: This guy who just came here, I talked to him today on the phone twice, told him how it worked. They had left a message on the machine, and it came out like “raisonette.” You could barely understand what they were saying. For six people. I took that, made up what I thought. Then he called on the phone, he said what the name was, I cleared that up, and made it four people. I gave him everything. “You have a reservation; you pay when you get to the door.” So now he’s there, just wanting to pick up his tickets. You know what I mean? As much as I explain, they are also into their own thing, too, of how things work everywhere else but here.

TP: How have the audiences changed over the years?

LORRAINE: I don’t think so. I know we have so many new people because nobody can find the men’s room or the ladies’ room. So I know there are new people. They haven’t changed. The only way they’ve changed, they’ve grown older, and their children are coming, and in some cases the grandchildren are coming. That is one thing that’s changed—growing up and growing older. So audiences haven’t changed, to my way of thinking. I mean, they’re not going to hear Sidney Bechet here, because he’s not alive and it doesn’t exist. So they’re going to come to hear, well, whoever happens to be there, if it’s Don Byron or Chucho Valdes when we’re lucky enough to have him, or Branford. Wynton is coming to play for one night for the 70th anniversary. Next month, the 20th, is the seventieth anniversary of the Vanguard. We’re closed Monday night for a party here. I’ll give you your invite. I’ll save a stamp. It’s going to be very glorious. I don’t want entertainment. I want friends and drinks and food and a party. I have no room at home to have a party.

I want the ten-year-lease off the record.

TP: But that is one question people would logically ask about the Vanguard.

LORRAINE: I cannot tell you every darn thing that exists!

TP: But to stay 70 years in one place without ever having owned it, which Max talks about in the book and which you spoke to me about.

LORRAINE: It’s wonderful.

TP: Great landlord, then.

LORRAINE: You’re darn right. I appreciate it. We do have a wonderful landlord. But leave that section out. Nobody cares. It’s none of their business. You got me talking. There are certain things I regret saying, and if I have the privilege…

TP: You told me it’s off the record.

LORRAINE: Do you have more questions? I have to go.

TP: That’s it.

LORRAINE: Oh, good.

[-30-]

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New York Daily News ©
http://www.nydailynews.com One giant step at a time
BY TED PANKEN
Sunday, February 13th, 2005

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” said Lorraine Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard on a frigid recent afternoon. The heating unit was off, so Gordon, wearing a sweater and down jacket, sat next to a struggling steam radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.
“We’re not that modern here,” she continued. “We need a big face-lift. But I don’t want to do it.”
Hundreds of jazz clubs have come and gone since the Village Vanguard first occupied the triangular basement at 178 Seventh Ave. South in 1935.
Flourishing where other clubs have withered, the Vanguard ignores modern ideas of hospitality management. It doesn’t accept credit cards and doesn’t serve food. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. The ice machine, often heard punctuating bass solos, is an artifact, as are the red banquettes and dime-size tables. Complaints? Gordon or her waitstaff will quickly put you in your place.
To celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Vanguard begins a week-long festival on Tuesday. Spanning a 30-to-80 age range, the acts – Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, the Bad Plus, Jim Hall, the Heath Brothers and the Bill Charlap Trio – all have long histories with the club.
As Gordon reminisced about the Vanguard, she looked at the back corner of the bar, where she sat 60 years ago with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club and heard Leadbelly sing the blues.
“Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We’d have a couple of beers and pass them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”
The little man was Max Gordon. After a brief marriage to Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, Lorraine married Gordon. When he died in 1989, she inherited the Vanguard.
He had been born in Lithuania in 1903 and raised in Portland, Ore. A wannabe poet, he relocated to Greenwich Village in the mid-’20s. In 1932, he opened a café on Sullivan St. The police closed it. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Gordon opened the Vanguard in a shuttered Charles St. speakeasy. A year later, he moved the club to its current premises and launched it with a poetry slam.
The room drew attention outside the Village in 1939, when Gordon booked a young comedy troupe called the Revuers, comprised of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Over the next two decades, Gordon – who also ran a posh East Side spot called the Blue Angel – launched performers like Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Woody Allen, and Nichols and May. Priced out of such acts by TV in the late ’50s, he turned the Vanguard into a jazz-only venue.
HOME OF CLASSICS
Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Coleman Hawkins all worked the Vanguard. More than 100 live-at-the-Vanguard albums exist, including classics by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis and the Paul Motian Trio.
The latest addition to the list is “Magic Meeting,” guitarist Jim Hall’s release on ArtistShare. “I like to move forward and not live in the past, but the Vanguard has so much poignancy. It’s the ambience, the memories, the photos on the wall…” said Hall, who performs on Thursday. He got married during a Vanguard gig 40 years ago, and first played there opposite Miles Davis in 1958.
“The Vanguard has the atmosphere I like to play in, and I’d go when I wasn’t playing, too,” said tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath of the Heath Brothers. “I like the sound, the intimacy, the clientele, the owners.”
Gordon compares the Vanguard’s atmosphere to the feeling of the joints that filled the ground floors of the brownstones lining 52nd St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. before the block became an urban canyon.
“It was the golden age of jazz,” she said. “On a given night, you could go from one club to another and hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Max Kaminsky. They were small, happy places. You could touch the musicians. Like the Vanguard.”
However vivid her memories, Gordon is no slave to nostalgia. She books as progressive a schedule as anyone in town, regularly presenting such cutting-edgers as Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Greg Osby and Jason Moran.
“This club caters to people who love jazz, or want to learn about it,” she said. “Nobody can find the men’s room or ladies’ room, so I know there are new people.”
The customers have “grown older, and their children and grandchildren come,” she said. “They won’t hear Sidney Bechet here or John Coltrane. They’ll come to hear… whoever happens to be here.”

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Filed under DownBeat, Lorraine Gordon, N.Y. Daily News, New York

For Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter’s 46th Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

Today’s the 46th birthday of the inspirational singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, who will drop his new album, a Nat Cole tribute, in a couple of weeks. For the occasion, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about this master for Jazziz in 2013.

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Water pouring down the sidewalks/Cleaning windows clear to see/Washing gumdrop down side gutters/Rusting chains and cleansing me/Growing gardens, drowning ants/Changing rhythms, bruising plants/Graying vistas soulfully/And it’s saving me. —“Water,” Gregory Porter

It rained torrents in Brooklyn on June’s first Friday, so much rain that at 3 p.m. water was flowing through crevices in the cornice atop the stoop of Gregory Porter’s Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone into the cramped vestibule. It was also, Porter said, seeping from the back into his ground-floor kitchen. No respite was in sight until well past Porter’s scheduled 7 o’clock flight to Pittsburgh, so it promised to be a long day. Still, the singer, sheathed in the black balaclava and Kangol cap that is his sartorial trademark, seemed stress-free as he escorted me upstairs, where it was dry.

In truth, the weather seemed an apropos backdrop for a discussion framed around Porter’s September Blue Note release, Liquid Spirit, which follows on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2010 leader debut, Water [Motema] and its Grammy-nominated successor, Be Good [Motéma]. Both generated uncommon levels of crossover buzz for a release by a “jazz” singer. One reason is Porter’s dazzling toolkit—a resonant voice, multi-octave range, conversational projection and soulful feel. Another is his luminous songwriting—27 well-crafted originals on the three CDs that convey both grand metaphysical themes and intensely personal narratives in precise, symbolic, soul-baring language that evokes such late 20th-century masters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Bill Withers and Abbey Lincoln, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s also intriguing that the source of these introspections is a strapping, full-bearded ex-linebacker who built his Q-rating in the old-school, grassroots manner — several years of weekly Tuesday night appearances in the raucous confines of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, then a year of Thursday night three-setters at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club — after moving to New York in 2005.

“Some people told me, ‘Stop doing that damn gig,’” Porter says, recalling reaction to his appearances at St. Nick’s Pub. “But I dug that regular people would come in and buy a $3 beer and hear live jazz. So this lab that is St. Nick’s Pub — that is community, that is tourist — became this soulful place for me and the band as well. We enjoyed ourselves there for that little $30 or $40.”

These days Porter commands much higher fees. In five days, he would fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, launching a summer itinerary of North American festival appearances and engagements in Europe, where he’s toured without respite during the past year. His fan base spans the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Japan, where he was packing rooms well before Water launched his recording career. Increasingly his admirers also include peers and elders, including stylistically divergent artists like Wynton Marsalis, who in March cast Porter in the Trickster role originally inhabited by Jon Hendricks in a high-profile restaging of Blood On the Fields at the Rose Theater, and David Murray, who recruited Porter to sing lyrics by Ishmael Reed and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets on Murray’s recently released Be My Monster Love.

“The hook-up with Gregory was one of the greatest things I could do with a vocalist,” Murray told me over the phone. “He can reach deep down, but also get up there, like the tenor or cello — he’s got power in all areas. He can sound like people, too. He can do all those things, which is phenomenal, and he’s a thinking man. I have total respect for him.”

“He has the spirit of the ’70s with a jazz aesthetic,” says Chip Crawford, Porter’s pianist from his earliest St. Nick’s Pub days. “I’m getting more and more amazed at his writing ability, plus his melodies are as good as anyone’s. At this point I don’t know if there is anyone who writes lyrics as well as him. And, if anybody has as good a voice as he does, let me hear it.”

“I try to be organic,” Porter says of his approach to making albums and writing lyrics. “I’m not calculating in terms of, ‘I want to write some modal music and connect it to Gregorian chant,’ which is a dope way to be as well. I open up my chest and arms and see what falls in there inspirationally, and these are the things that come out at the point of the release of energy. After everything is on the page, I look and say, ‘OK, this is what that is.’”

Having eased into the conversation, Porter adds, “I don’t mean to be throwaway about it, or like I’m not really thinking about everything.” He offers a creation story for “Wolf Song,” one of several pieces on Liquid Spirit that he generated during a fortnight in Europe shortly after his son was born and immediately before the mid-March recording session. “I had to get it done,” he recalls. “Concepts and even some lyrics formulated on the train across France. I remember looking at sheep on a hillside, and thinking: I wonder, are there any wolves? And then the thought: Boy who cried … boy who cries wolf. No. Girl who cries wolf. … Hmm. Have I had a girl cry ‘wolf’ for me about a love situation? Ah! The song started to write itself, right there on the train.”

Porter turned his attention to the title track, also conceived in France, while sitting in a coffee shop. “This piece of poetry flowed out of me quite easily,” he says, before reciting, plain-song: Un-re-route the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free. The folk are thirsty because of man’s unnatural hand. Watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the backs of that hard, dry land.

“It came from people saying, ‘Where can I get some more of this kind of music? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’ That energy, the music, love, culture and soul is somewhere, being re-routed or diverted. I wanted to be in front of people, and I didn’t have a gig. Now, I’m gigging, and I sing, and people say these things to me.”

[BREAK]

“Music is subliminal,” Porter told a sold-out room at Subculture, a new basement space on Bleecker Street where he was presenting a showcase for Liquid Spirit the Monday after his Pittsburgh weekend. He’d just flown in, and it was raining again, as was evident from the soaked lapels on his beige sport jacket, which draped a white shirt, black vest and olive bowtie that complemented his black headgear. “It’s hypnotic, in a way,” Porter continued. “No matter how tired my voice is, no matter how I’m dressed, I can sing.”

Porter had performed infrequently in New York over the past year, so, as he said in a later chat, this appearance spurred “a bit of pent-up demand.” He added that the attendees — roughly three-quarters of whom were African-Americans, an unusually high proportion for a downtown jazz event — “were real fans; I didn’t stuff the house with just my friends from down the street.”

From the very first tune, they signified allegiance with a call-and-response that continued throughout the 75-minute set. On the title track, a blues stomp with an Oscar Brown-ish feel, Porter had no need to augment the exhortation “clap your hands now” with a crash course on finding the beat. “Work Song,” which he addressed with stylized rawness, elicited shouts of “Unh-uh, child!” from several enthusiastic women. The “congregants” imposed their own master plan on the set-closer, transforming “1960-What,” a soul-stirring, socially conscious number from the Les McCann-Eddie Harris “Compared to What?” playbook, into a collective sing-along.

Between songs, Porter, who is 41, testified at some length. After “Work Song,” for example, he spoke of Bakersfield, California, the dusty agriculture-and-oil city where Porter moved at 8 from Los Angeles with his siblings and mother, a pastor in the Church of God and Christ, who, he told me, circumvented doctrinal proscriptions against female practitioners by “calling every church that she established a ‘mission’ so that she could be the head missionary and, essentially, the head preacher.”

Onstage at Subculture, he told the room: “My mother had a real desire to go to the churches with older congregations — small storefront, no-air-conditioning churches. If the music I heard there disappears, then it will be — watch this word, it’s kind of heavy — a kind of musical genocide.” Having landed on the next song’s title, “Musical Genocide,” Porter’s simultaneously wrenching and affirmative delivery of the lyric encapsulated a sensibility that he internalized while singing at those churches while his mother preached.

Give me a blues song
Tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand
Bringing his stories of love and pain.

“Black people came to Bakersfield from the South, and all the black ministers were thick, farmer-hand preachers,” Porter had told me while seated on a couch in his living room. “They were singing a lot of deep Southern gospel blues. So I was singing with these old men who had great voices. Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly. Elder Kemp and Elder Duffy had the style of James Brown, and Pastor Richardson sounded like dead-on Sam Cooke. Others sounded like John Lee Hooker, and others like Bobby Bland, except for that snorting thing he does between phrases.

“Many times I hated it because it was hot in the church, and here I am on my knees with all these old people, singing these blues. Yeah-esss, Yahyaess, Yesss, Yes, Yehhhs. Now, that chord progression, you’re singing it a hundred times over an hour, but each time it’s slightly different. ‘Yes, you will, Yes, He will; yes, we will, yes, we will.’ ‘Save my children. SAY-YA-VE my child-dreh-ehn, SAYVE MAH CHIL-dren…” On and on and on. Very much like jazz. Deviating from the melody. These voices were constantly harmonizing. We would all do it as a group. And it’s just happening. Nobody’s saying, ‘You get this part and you get this part.’ I appreciate that steeping of music now. Sometimes in a song, I’ll go to that place, and that’s the energy that fuels that moment.”

Porter’s ability to make musical decisions in real time in functional, ritualized contexts allows him to mix and match genres that don’t always coalesce in jazz expression circa 2013. “I’m not saying this because I’m a black man trying to take ownership of any music,” he says, “but when I heard jazz, certain saxophone players playing the blues or something, I was like, ‘I hear my grandfather preaching; that’s my grandmother moaning over it when she cooks.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want to get with that.’ I heard myself, and I was like, ‘There’s something for me there, too.’ Then I opened myself up to wider things.”

Not only did Porter directly experience and absorb the gospel-blues tradition, but also his mother’s social-gospel practice of “always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was.” As Porter describes it, she fed and clothed and cleaned the indigent, answered calls from denizens who had overdosed on heroin or a “Sherman” — a cigarette dipped in PCP.

“Some way, people would find a way to call her when they got in the deepest situations,” he says. “My mother would somehow drive to the rescue, pull somebody into the back seat of her brand-new Cadillac, wrap them up in a sheet and pour water on their head until they came to after 2 or 3 hours. In a way, we were in the trenches with her. That sticks with you.” He quotes“When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit: “He lifted up the underneath/and all this wealth he did bequeath. There’s a bit of my mother, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ in that song. Redemption was a big thing for her. Her water sermons were very important when I was a child, which is probably where all these water themes are coming from in my music.”

BREAK

What primarily distinguishes Liquid Spirit from its predecessors is the pithiness of the 14 tracks — the track-lengths are shorter, the solo interludes fewer. Some have asked Porter whether this decision was to facilitate airplay for his “major label” debut. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a feeling of ‘Let me hit these blues and come off of them.’ I don’t put myself in the category of my influences — of great Japanese poetry or even the blues yet. But I want to get out these little ideas, restate them, and then rely on the energy it leaves to strike to the heart quickly, which to me is what a dope short blues song does.”

Porter’s path to blues expression as an avocation and not a sideline began in 1993, when his mother, on her deathbed with cancer, urged him “to really give singing a try.” He was then a 21-year-old undergraduate at San Diego State, where he’d matriculated on a football scholarship in 1990. A shoulder injury ended that dream, and Porter was focusing on city planning and “a nice government job, so she’d think I was doing something positive as she was leaving us.”

Eventually he started attending local jam sessions, which had a bebop flavor, “trying to get with Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks,” sitting in with adept locals like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist Daniel Jackson. One night, after he “tried to scat something over ‘Giant Steps,’” the master trombonist-composer George Lewis, a recent addition to the UC-San Diego faculty, invited him to his class.

“There were no vocalists there, and George started using me liberally from the beginning,” Porter says. “The students were dismissing the voice, but he said, ‘No, no, the voice is important; it does different things, it has its own qualities.’”

One day Lewis had to miss class, and called saxophonist-keyboardist-arranger Kamau Kenyatta to sub. “Kamau immediately brought me to his crib for lunch,” Porter says, recalling the beginning of an important and ongoing friendship (Kenyatta produced Water, and co-produced Be Good and Liquid Spirit with Brian Bacchus). “He did 12 charts, in my key, of different songs he thought would be good for me to learn. Kamau is from Detroit, and the relationship was in the tradition of that scene. You have lunch, do music, talk about it, play a bunch of songs. You live the music.”

In 1998, Porter, who was working at a Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, (“personalizing body treatment oils and doing a bit of cooking in their kitchen”) went to a Hubert Laws recording session of Nat “King” Cole repertoire that Kenyatta was producing. Kenyatta asked Laws to listen to his protégé; Laws immediately invited Porter to sing a tune. His daughter, Eloise Laws, who was present, then urged Porter to attend a Los Angeles audition for the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Porter, who had already appeared in the doo-wop musical Avenue X, was hired “on the spot” and joined the production for an 18-month run on Broadway. Then he did a national tour with the musical Civil War, returned to Los Angeles and started writing a musical — both songs and script — based on his relationship with the music of Nat Cole.

“I heard my mother’s Joe Williams and Nat Cole records when I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “My father wasn’t around, and I’d look at Nat Cole’s LP covers and imagine he was my daddy. On mic checks and warm-ups for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’d sing ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Too Young,’ and the cats would comment that I should do something with it. I’d tell them how I got into him, and they’d respond that it was an interesting story, and at some point I realized that this was the story I had to tell.”

Nat King Cole and Me ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater, before 700-800 people a night. “They were responding to my songs as well as the Nat Cole songs,” Porter says. “That’s when the confidence in my songwriting began. Doing Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, I got so much exposure to great blues music, country to city, very sophisticated to just gutbucket. Just like jazz, I heard myself in it. Abbey Lincoln’s songs, her personal stories, made me realize that, sometimes, the more personal, the more universal. Then, too, the Bible and the style of speech in sermons convert well to song. Traveling around Europe, all those medieval cities, you feel like you should talk that way.”

Nat Cole and Me didn’t make it out of Denver, and its closing coincided with the end of a love affair. “I had a pocket full of money, and no place to go,” Porter says. “My brother was just setting up a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he said, ‘Come here.’ So I came and worked in his shop, making soup. My idea was to stop going out and doing these small theater gigs that sustained me and kept insurance, to let me go broke, be hungry, but try solely to do the music thing.”

[BREAK]

With all the momentum that Porter has generated in New York, for all the charisma he possesses, and, as Liquid Spirit co-producer Brian Bacchus says, with “nothing to prove in terms of jazz credentials,” it is curious that Porter still “feels like on the outside looking in,” quoting “The In Crowd,” which he covers on Liquid Spirit.

“I chose it after I knew this would be on Blue Note,” Porter says. “It’s a little commentary to myself, like, ‘Am I in that crowd now?’ I don’t know. At St. Nick’s, Frenchmen and Spaniards came who said, ‘You should be in France, you should be in Spain.’ I felt it, but I didn’t have a passport yet.” He references “Bling Bling,” a song from Be Good: “I’m so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter/I’ve got gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. Eventually, I started to get the opportunities, and once they came. … But you don’t have confidence right off the bat. In a way, you build to it.”

Porter is “increasingly comfortable in the fact that I can only be me.” He cites sage advice from Marsalis. “Wynton told me, ‘There’s some things you have that can’t be learned; I’m sure there are some things you could know that would be instrumental to you. Whether you have them or not, get them, put them in your back pocket, and access them. But at the same time, use the facility that you have.’

“I have many things that I desire to do. Coming to the public eye slightly formed, people almost thought, ‘There are 10 records I can get somewhere, right?’ And there’s not. I say, ‘If you want 10 records, you’ve got to wait. You have to wait that 8 years or however long it takes.’”

SIDEBAR:

Title: The Cat in the Hat

“My editor wanted me to ask you one question,” I told Porter at the end of our first conversation. Before I could mention that it was a query about his headgear, he interjected, “I know what the question is.” Then he laughed long and hard.

“Please tell me,” I said.

“It’s my jazz hat. I used to wear berets.”

“Do you wear it all the time? Are you wearing it just for me?”

“This is just for you. No …”

“How many do you have?”

“Many.”

“What’s the brand?”

“Well, this is a Kangol Summer Spitfire.”

“How many Kangols do you have?”

“These, I must have eight.”

“All the same?”

“No. I have a brown. I have five black. I have a red, a blue. … But the balaclavas, I have many-many-many. It’s my look, man. I’m recognized at a great distance.”

“How did the look begin?”

“Since I’ve been in Brooklyn. It’s been about six years.”

“What was the inspiration?”

“You do something one day, and you’re like, ‘This is my look.’”

“And you used to wear berets.”

“I used to wear berets. I still do every now and then, when I’m in church, you know.”

“Is the hat and the balaclava a sort of prop …”

“No.”

“…to sing? I mean, does it kind of put you in character or …”

“When I go out with my wife, I’m dressed like this, too. Now, when we come home and we’re relaxed, no. But this is my look, my public look. It is a jazz hat. The first time I went to Russia, they asked me about it, and the next time I came, the kids came to the concert dressed like me. This was over five years ago. I remember they were taking pictures with their cell phones. And the next time I came, they came to the concert looking like me.”

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Filed under George Lewis, Gregory Porter, Jazziz, Singers

For Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2015

For drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about him for Jazziz in 2015, framed around his soundtrack for the film Birdman and two  contemporaneous releases.

*_*_*_*_

Beyond Birdman, Jazziz, 2015

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part Meridian Suite.

Specifically, it gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three— both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”

Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, [igration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

BREAK

Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.”

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Filed under Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride, Drummer, Jazziz, Pat Metheny