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.

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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

For Vijay Iyer’s 46th Birthday, a “Directors’ Cut” Downbeat Cover Story from 2012, a Long Essay in “Rave” From 2008, a Mid-Sized Downbeat Piece about Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa From 2001, and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2007

A day late for pianist-composer-educator-conceptualist Vijay Iyer’s 46th birthday, here’s an omnibus post, containing a “director’s cut” of a 2012 DownBeat cover piece, a 2008 feature in the Indian magazine Rave, a 2001 article focusing on him and then-partner Rudresh Mahanthappa, and an uncut Blindfold Test from 2007.

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Vijay Iyer DownBeat Cover Article, 2012:

Coming of age during the ‘90s and early ‘00s, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer considered it almost as essential to define his terms of engagement as to express himself in notes and tones. “I had to find a way to create a space for myself to do what I wanted,” Iyer explained in April. “A lot of that involved generating language that would surround the music itself so that people could understand it,”

Unopened boxes dotted the parlor floor of Iyer’s triplex in a Harlem brownstone. He was barely acclimated: a month earlier, directly after closing the deal, he’d hit the road behind his March trio release, Accelerando [ACT]. In a few hours he’d join bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore for night three of a week’s run at Birdland, to be followed by a fortnight of one-nighters in Europe where Iyer would stay for a few gigs with Fieldwork, the compositionally ambitious trio in which he collaborates with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

“As Muhal Richard Abrams would say, it was a response to necessity,” Iyer elaborated on his early self-advocacy. “My parents came to the U.S. in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act; I’m from the first generation of Indian-Americans. People didn’t know what to make of someone like me doing what I do, and their imaginations sometimes ran a bit wild. So it was about introducing myself to the universe, but also about finding my way: ‘What is it that I am revealing?’”

Having effectively addressed the query (consider his top-of-class honors in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group, Piano, and Rising Star-Composer categories in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll), Iyer, 40, now leans to a “deeds, not words” approach. But neither critical acclaim nor middle-age perspective inhibited Iyer from stating his bemusement, if not irritation, at a pervasive, ongoing “mad scientist of jazz” trope that he perceives in discussions of his albums and performances.

“The Immigration Act opened the door, in a very targeted way, to non-Westerners who were technically trained professionals,” Iyer said in calm, measured cadences. “It selected for a scientific-oriented community within these cultures. That’s the template by which people like me are still understood. I’ve read literally thousands of reviews over 16 albums, and a certain cerebral or mathematical thing keeps getting pegged. I can play ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ and they’ll still call it nerdy.”

Nerdy or not, it is undeniable that Iyer—who dual-majored in Math and Physics as a Yale undergraduate, and completed a Ph.D at U.C.-Berkeley (his thesis quantitatively analyzed the neurobiology of musical cognition)—is, as his late ‘90s mentor Steve Coleman understated it, “an analytical, super-intelligent guy.” That said, Iyer is less concerned with the life of the mind in isolation than, as he put it in a 2009 article for the Guardian (a link is on his website), the “dialogue between the physical and the ideal.”

In the piece, Iyer noted his propensity to mesh math and music to reveal unexpected sounds and rhythms. As an instance, he cited the trio’s surging, anthemic treatment of the ‘70s soul jazz hit “Mystic Brew” on Historicity [ACT], their then-current release, constructed by transmuting successive asymmetric Fibonacci (“golden mean”) ratios—specifically 5:3, 8:5, and 13:5—into an angular 21-beat cycle that sounds, he wrote, “simple and natural—like a buoyant, composite version of the original’s 4/4.” To deploy such elaborate rhythmic schemes, Iyer asserted, is no abstruse exercise. Rather, it connects directly to non-western musical traditions grounded in social ritual—the classical Carnatic and folk musics of south India (“intricately organized, melodically nuanced, and rhythmically dazzling, full of systematic permutations”); the African rhythms that antecede “nearly every vernacular music we have in the west.”

On the Grammy-nominated Historicity, Iyer was clearly the lead voice, uncorking a series of solo declamations that explicitly reference and refract into his own argot such key personal influences as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, and Andrew Hill. On Accelerando, his strategies hew closer to an approach that Coleman described as “more compositional and contextual” than addressing “the actual content of the playing, which Bud Powell and that generation concentrated on.”

“An emergent property of the ensemble is that groove has become paramount,” Iyer said. “A certain wildness you hear in some of my earlier ensembles might be smoothed out; instead a profound sense of pulse propels you through the whole experience. The positive response to Historicity allowed us to tour and opened some doors. In the course of performance, our priorities developed in a direction that has to do with music as action, which is literally the way rhythm works. When we listen to rhythm, a sort of sympathetic oscillator that’s an internal version of the rhythm gets turned on in the brain. That’s what dance is made of.”

The trio has refined its own dance since 2004, when Gilmore joined Iyer’s quartet with Crump and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who sidemanned with Iyer on four Bush-era leader albums (Iyer reciprocally played on three of Mahanthappa’s contemporaneous quartet dates) comprised primarily of original music that explored issues of dual cultural heritage. Accelerando shares a common thread with Historicity and the 2010 recital Solo (ACT)—all are age-of-Obama productions—in situating the trio within a palpably “American” landscape.

“It was like the room changed color,” Iyer recalled feeling after Obama’s victory. “As artists of color, we didn’t feel like we were in as embattled a position. It was like we could dream big all of a sudden—stretch and imagine and be ourselves, and not have to force things.”

Titled for a piece that Iyer composed for choreographer Karole Armitage, Accelerando contains four other Iyer originals, and covers of six American composers ranging from Rodney Temperton (“The Star of the Story”) and Flying Lotus (“Mmmhmm”) to Henry Threadgill (“Little Pocket Size Demons”), Herbie Nichols (“Wildflower”) and Duke Ellington (“The Village of the Virgins”). Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment. This quality surfaces even more palpably in Youtube concert clips: Crump carves out supple vamps, thick ostinatos, and the occasional walking bassline; Gilmore details with multidirectional pulse and rhythm timbre; at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into (Crump’s words) “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors.”

“I felt the trio had reached a state where it’s as much about how we play as what we play, and the how-ness could be transplanted to another context—still the trio but doing something else,” Iyer said. “But also, I’ve written a lot of music, and when ACT approached me, I wasn’t ready to write a bunch more for the trio.” In fact, Iyer asserted, he had two other recordings in the can. However, ACT’s top-selling group, e.s.t., had recently dissolved after the death of its leader, pianist Esbjörn Svensson, and label head Siegfried Loch wanted to establish Iyer’s trio in the marketplace before releasing other projects. Feeling he’d already “reached a certain level in the United States,” Iyer agreed, hoping to exploit ACT’s strong European presence as a source of “infrastructure for supporting tours or taking out ads or relationships with the media.”

“In retrospect, I can see that to establish a composer-pianist in a certain sphere, it makes business sense to somehow put that person in front,” Iyer said. “Then you can do things that vary from that more classic format. The trio sensibility already was up and running. I wanted to see if we could shine it on something else, including a few of my older tunes, for at least half the program.”

[BREAK]

In settling on the trio as his most visible vehicle of self-expression, Iyer effectively put on hiatus his artistic partnership with Mahanthappa, who is himself an ACT recording artist. “It became a logistical reality,” Iyer explained. “We both had things going on, and weren’t able to play together that much. But also, we experienced what we called the ‘you guys’ phenomenon; people would say, ‘When are you guys playing next?’ or get us mixed up. At some level, we need to be able to establish independent trajectories.”

In Crump’s view, the “trio instantly became a more organic beast.” He assessed: “Even though the music was always forward-reaching and everyone was searching, the quartet’s functionality was essentially conservative—a horn and piano front line, melodies-solos, with a rhythm section. There’s potential magic in a trio, and each element has to expand. So the trio enabled more avenues of expression and development, and more engagement in the ensemble’s exploration and overall experience. We’re able to shape-shift so much more.

“In the early days of the quartet, Vijay and Rudresh were working things out. They were mutually very supportive, and helped each other grow, both musically and career-wise. But in a way, it always got to the same place, a blasting, dense zone. Vijay had to get through that to get to the other side; now he’s a much broader and more mature musician.”

Coleman, who introduced them in 1996, stated, “Outside of their shared concern with heritage, I didn’t hear a big connection in their tendencies and tastes.” Mahanthappa agreed. “Our compositional approaches are very different. As a saxophonist, I’m writing for what I can do on an instrument that can play only one note at a time. A lot of Vijay’s writing is based on the rhythmic interplay he can produce between both hands, and how that fits onto the drums.”

“We’re both idiosyncratic musicians, with our fixations, which turned out to be compatible,” Iyer said. “Rudresh went to music school; I didn’t. Maybe my orientation was more composerly, on the level of ensemble and sound and larger structure; his was more playerly, about projecting real intensity. We were trying to deal simultaneously with Carnatic and Hindustani elements and with Monk—I was the Monk guy—and Coltrane—he was the Coltrane guy. Coltrane had dealt with Indian music, so that point of reference was already in the vocabulary of so-called ‘post-bop’ language. When Marcus joined my band, without shedding the rhythmic language we’d been developing, the different elements seemed to become clearer. I became more reserved with the amount of detail I was trying to infuse into the pieces. I guess it’s called maturing.

“The quartet records Rudresh and I did together—and the early Fieldwork albums—articulate the idea of pushing ourselves to the brink of what we can hear, or understand, or execute. Rudresh and I did all this work that got a lot of critical acclaim and attention. On the other hand, it received a response from the musical community that didn’t feel exactly like hostility, but more like bewilderment and willful shunning. To me, the subject was to assert this new reality that speaks through us as a new kind of American. How American are we? How American are we allowed to be? How American are we seen as? You could say it was about articulating and negotiating identities and all those kinds of ‘90s multiculturalism words. But it was really about insinuating ourselves into the country. I’m also drawing on a heritage that includes M-BASE and the AACM, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, Pop Music and Electronica. It’s like trying to imagine a new world music, kind of following Wadada Leo Smith’s directive from the ‘70s, a sort of world-making with a modernist aspect—to develop something singular and at variance with other things in the world.”

Over the course of their collaboration, Iyer—a self-taught pianist who initially felt “dwarfed” by Mahanthappa’s titanic chops and “solid melodic improvisational concept”—developed his instrumental facility. In recent years, Crump suggested, “the element of being a virtuosic pianist has taken form in Vijay, which in combination with his development as a composer is just beastly.”

“I still wouldn’t say that I have highly refined technique,” Iyer demurred. He cited a remark by the dancer Roseangela Silvestre, whom he met during his immersive late ‘90s apprenticeship with Coleman. “She said technique is a process, about knowing your limits and being able to work within them, but also seeing how you can gently push on or reach beyond those limits. It’s about being able to express yourself with what you have. For me, composition became challenging myself to write things I could barely play, and then having to rise to meet the challenge.

“From playing so many concerts during the last few years, especially a bunch of solo concerts on amazing pianos, I discovered multiple extra dimensions of subtlety on the instrument that I hadn’t been able to access before. Now I find myself addicted to dealing more with things like testing how quiet you can be and still be heard and have an impact. Often in the trio concerts, I’ll play a solo standard in the middle of a set. It’s about things that I can make the piano do, sonic experiences—sonorities and timbres I’ve been finding, the continuum between timbre and harmony, the relative weight of different notes, and relative attack and articulation. It’s been this new-found bounty of exploration, like playing in a garden.”

[BREAK]

A month after our initial conversation, Iyer participated in two tribute concerts to Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. He, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Taborn played solo and duo homages to the maestro; Amiri Baraka read several choice verses, accompanied by Iyer, who began playing with the poet soon after his 1999 move to New York. The day after the first concert, which Taylor had attended, Iyer spoke of Taylor’s impact on his aesthetics.

“You sense this all-encompassing approach to creativity, the perspective of music as everything one does,” said Iyer, a Taylor acolyte since the early ‘90s, when he was gradually transitioning from physics to music as his life’s work. In a 2008 article, he described a raucous 1995 Bay Area performance of Taylor’s creative orchestra music in which he played violin, his first instrument. During a summational solo, Taylor deployed a chord with which Iyer had been experimenting obsessively since hearing Taylor play it on the ballad “Pemmican,” from the live solo album Garden (hat Hut). “It had an uncommon stillness, as if it predates us and will outlast us,” Iyer wrote for Wire. “For all its animated surface qualities and notorious tumult, Taylor’s music somehow possesses a motionless, timeless interior; this chord was proof. I couldn’t conceive of his music as transgressive any more; at moments like these, it seemed to exist as incontrovertible fact.”

This experience, Iyer continued, focused him on the question of “what is hearing or what is sound.” He increasingly honed in on a notion that improvising is the equivalent of being “empowered to take action as yourself.” He wrote: “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds. You jump to the level of what’s making that sound rather than a level of abstract analysis that considers the sounds in and of themselves. It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Over the last two decades, Iyer has explored this issue within multiple, sometimes overlapping communities. In the Bay Area, he played and composed experimental music with Taylorphiles like Glenn Spearman and Lisle Ellis, with such AACM-influenced Asian Improv collective members as Mia Masaoka, Francis Wong and Jon Jang, not to mention AACM icon George Lewis, his thesis advisor (during the ‘00s, Iyer has gigged consequentially with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith). He and trans-genre-oriented peer groupers like Liberty Ellman, Elliott Kavee, and Aaron Stewart established an AACM-inspired infrastructure, setting up bands to present original music that took into account elements drawn from hip-hop, electronica, and sampling. He regularly attended concerts of Carnatic music targeted to the Silicon Valley’s sizable Indian-American population, and took group classes with Ghanaian drummer C.K. Ladzekpo that taught him to “execute rhythms in a way that would motivate people.” On jobs with world-class local drum elders Donald Bailey and E.W. Wainwright—and with his own working trio—he garnered functional experience in the jazz tradition. All these associations prepared him for life with Coleman, who brought Iyer on fieldwork trips to Cuba, Brazil, and India, and offered a platform upon which he could consolidate ideas.

Now, within the trio, Iyer seems to be coalescing these parallel, long-haul investigations into a unitary voice. “Vijay’s relationship to what I call ‘composite reality’ has definitely progressed,” Sorey said, using Anthony Braxtonesque nomenclature. “We’re at a time and place where the idea of cosmopolitanism is such an important tenet in our music. Vijay doesn’t want to classify himself. When I play with Fieldwork or sub with the trio, it no longer feels like there’s any parameter.”

Iyer was spreading his wings in the broader playing field as well. He’d spend the latter third of May at Canada’s Banff Centre, co-hosting the 2012 International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music with Dave Douglas, from whom he will assume the position of Director in 2013. Furthermore, in April, Iyer received an unrestricted $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and a $30,000 commission from the Greenfield Foundation for a new work to be performed in 2014. With such honoraria in the pipeline, not to mention another large commission for a collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava marking the hundredth anniversary of Rite of Spring, and a cohort of talented private students (among them Christian Sands, Christian McBride’s current pianist-of-choice), it would seem that either the jazz “mainstream” has caught up to Iyer, or that Iyer has caught up to it.

Given Iyer’s earlier frustrations at “finding a home in the jazz landscape,” he regards the proposition as complex. “It’s more that I’ve reached a position of acceptance among people who present concerts in this area of music,” he countered. “That allows me to play in front of large audiences, and step by step, I have opportunities to connect that weren’t there before.

“To me, the notion of a jazz mainstream is a peculiar take on a music that was always oppositional and kind of defiant. It’s not fiction, because it exists in a market. But the real mainstream is perhaps more tolerant of aesthetic radicalism. I’ll hear a hip-hop beat that’s made from drops of water in a cup, and some cheap Casio bass drum and tom sounds that are almost comical—aesthetically shocking. Then I’ll look on Youtube and it has 20 million hits—not just a few people underground. I also have to say that, touring with Steve Coleman or Roscoe or Wadada, I’ve seen rooms filled with 3,000 people completely connect to some very intense stuff that we can do in those contexts.”

For now, Iyer was still processing the heady turn of events. “I’ve been in constant motion, and the Doris Duke award dropped on me in the middle of it,” he said. “Two days ago, I woke up, had an appointment in Midtown, and then just walked around New York, and tried to breathe and exercise my shoulders and observe and just be in the world for a change, not running like a crazy person. I’ll continue to do a significant amount of work and gigging. But I’m hoping to transform my day-to-day, so I’m not so anxious all the time.”

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Across Two Worlds (Rave—2008):

 

In the liner notes to Tragicomic, his twelfth album, the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer cites the use of the adjectival descriptive by Cornell West, the African-American philosopher-aesthetician, to denote the sensibility at play in the blues aesthetic, a world view that bedrocks much of 20th century jazz, black popular music, and the blues as such.

“West described the blues aesthetic as stemming from a sustained encounter with the absurd conditions African-Americans faced after slavery was abolished in the United States,” Iyer says. “Suddenly they found themselves categorized as a new kind of person, who previously had been owned as property and now had a certain amount of freedom, but also still faced injustice everywhere, and still had to find a way to continue being who they were. It’s not exactly humor. Irony, I guess, is the word.”

As an American of South Indian descent, born to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the 60s and earned advanced degrees, Iyer, 36, won’t compare his formative experiences to the conditions faced by the direct descendants of American slaves. But in his view, he shares with these aesthetic forebears the imperative of “having to establish and define and create an identity with no real precedents in American culture, of being different in a way that forces you into a critical perspective on what’s around you.”

Hence, in 2006, when he recorded and titled the 11-piece suite, Iyer relates, “I was thinking about what it means to be American today. I have a particular transnational scope; my perspective is very much American, but inflected and informed by Indian histories and heritage. It’s tragicomic – joy and sadness come together. This blues sensibility, rooted in African-American culture and history, has global relevance. We can all learn from and participate in it. The blues is not just a kind of music. It has to do with having a certain kind of cry, a desire to be heard, a refusal to be silenced.”

One of the most visible experimentally-oriented jazz musicians of his generation, Iyer factors his dual cultural heritage into his musical production. With a minimum of motion above the elbows, he uncorks torrents of intricately calibrated sound, sculpting declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa, illuminating symbolic connections between the notes and tones that comprise his musical vocabulary, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual, and the stories that he uses them to tell. The overall effect is one of stately, almost archetypal grandeur.

Music played a major role in the social rituals followed by Iyer’s parents, both practicing although “not extremely devout” Hindus. “We sang bhajans with other Indian families in the area, and, since there were no temples in Rochester, New York, we made pilgrimages to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Toronto to worship with others. Now temples are everywhere, and there’s even one in Rochester! During the ‘60s and ‘70s we were building a community. Now there’s a critical mass, the community exists, and we have an infrastructure, a culture, an identity – we can have a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kal Penn, a Mira Nair, a Harold and Kumar. That gives people growing up something to look up to, like, ‘Well, I could be that person.’ It’s a very different scenario from my own experience. It wasn’t just skin color that set me apart from most of the people around me, but also having a foreign name, which nobody knew anything about, and just the fact that we were a new kind of American. People didn’t understand who we were or why we were here. It’s not that I experienced this major injustice, but it did create a certain alienation that had to be broken through.”

On the other hand, Iyer notes, “a critical sensibility” also informs the way he processes his Indian heritage. “My parents left India for a reason,” he says. “We visited several times when I was growing up, and my mom and sister would stay with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. For an American visiting India, there’s this cliché of the sensory overload, with all sorts of new things you’ve never seen before. But for me it was also very much a homecoming, getting to be with family I barely knew, but were still family – and I felt a bond with them. But aside from the family, my parents never felt that connected to what was happening in India culturally. So I grew up with that ambivalence as well.

“Still, I came to find that my parents couldn’t relate to the idea of self-actualization, even though, at some level, that was one of their goals when they came to the US. But they didn’t see it as that. Their major life choices were mapped out in terms of what they would study, who they would marry, where they would live. It was a new perspective for people like them, from our community, the idea that you do what you want and choose the career you love, even if it seems difficult and will take you away from your family.”

In grappling with these issues, Iyer turned increasingly to music, gradually constructing an artistic response to the question of “Who am I?” A self-taught pianist who discovered jazz in high school, he found himself drawn to the New York pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), whose percussive approach and unique harmonic language continues to influence the jazz sound. “Every sound Monk makes sounds like it’s come through this hard-won process, this life-long search for sounds in the instrument,” Iyer says, explaining Monk’s resonance. A math and physics major at Yale, he discovered “the experimental tradition of creative music – jazz” and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C. Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics PhD candidate, and, while researching a thesis on the neurobiology of musical cognition, began the process of intersecting with the Bay Area’s various “creative communities” by which he developed his mature sound.

“It took me a while to realize that I was going to be a musician,” Iyer says. “I’m sure that’s nothing new to Indian audiences—almost every Carnatic musician I’ve met has an advanced degree in something besides music. Prasanna is a nautical engineer; he learned how to build ships. Umayalpuram Sivaraman has a law degree. It became a common thing to have something to fall back on, because you can’t rely on music as a career and it’s impractical. That’s still true!

“But when I hit the ground in California, I suddenly became a professional, playing in town, doing my thing. I continued my research in physics for two years, burning the midnight oil, playing gigs late at night and somehow waking up for an 8 am quantum mechanics lecture! Finally, it reached a crisis point, where I realized that I would never really be happy if music was not at the center of my life. That decision came when I was 23, and it was traumatic – my mother cried – but I worked through it.”

Ensconced in the Bay Area, Iyer immersed himself in the cadential rhythmic formulas of Carnatic music, which he knew superficially, but not as an artistic discipline to be analyzed. “I decided that if I was going to try to speak some kind of truth or make any authentic statement, I needed to figure out what this music is – or at least, on my own terms, what it means to me. In the Silicon Valley, there’s a big Indian community – technically trained IIT graduates from South India – and they would host a lot of concerts of touring Carnatic musicians. I saw dozens of concerts, got lots of recordings and books, studied how to permute the rhythms, how I might create music that Carnatic musicians could understand and work with.”

In 1996 Iyer also met alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, his partner on many subsequent investigations, most recently Tragicomic.  The son of a South Indian physics professor who emigrated to the States to earn a Harvard PhD, Mahanthappa, who grew up in Colorado, blends a piercing, double-reed-like tone with uncanny technical facility and a sense of line that incorporates wild intervallic leaps.

“We had a lot of aesthetic overlap, were both serious, almost the same age, and in the same predicament, which was trying to figure out how to do this with no points of reference besides ourselves,” Iyer says. “When we met, it was almost an unspoken understanding that if this was going to work, it would only happen by doing it together. What does it mean to be an Indian-American artist coming into the new millennium? What’s the first thing you do? What’s the next? What issues do you want to explore? We were both novices in dealing with ideas from Indian music, but we worked hard and complemented each other. I was interested in rhythm, the moras and korvais, as well as the percussive jazz piano tradition that Monk embodied. Rudresh had been checking out Parveen Sultana, Bishmillah Khan, and Coltrane – the melodic side of everything. It was like he was the voice and I was the drums. We call our duo Raw Materials. The principle is: How can we take these rigorous ideas for putting music together, but address them in a very open way, as improvisers and people who are straddling multiple traditions?”

Although well-aware of the “Indo-Jazz” stylings of the British-Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, Don Ellis and John McLaughlin, as well as the immense influence of Indian sounds on 60s pop, Iyer drew inspiration most directly from the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane.

“Coltrane for me is the towering figure,” he says. “In the early 60s he hung out with Ravi Shankar and tried to learn about Indian music, not because he wanted his music to sound Indian, but because he had a voracious appetite for all systems of music and thought and was interested in the decisions people made so that this music sounds the way it does, why this music exists. After he died, Alice Coltrane started her own ashram in Southern California, took on a spiritual name, and made devotional music. She actually adapted these bhajans that I sang as a child into a sort of gospel-Detroit funk setting. It wasn’t created to prove a point, with the intent of fusing Indian music and jazz. It was functional music, made to do something. That’s what interests me in general – not these fusion experiments where people try to mix X with Y, but music that emerges out of necessity. I wouldn’t put my music on the same level as Alice Coltrane’s, but all my choices came out of necessity in terms of trying to come to terms with my own relationship to India, to Indian music, to Indian culture. I never imagined myself as an expert on Indian music, but I wanted to harmonize with it, have it play a central role in who I am.”

For that reason, Iyer took deep satisfaction from a 1998 performance at a festival in Mumbai, his mother’s hometown, when he played with his Bay Area band, Jazz Yatra. “I played in clubs and did a big concert with my band, and it was an amazing experience,” he says. “I got exposed to side of Mumbai life – the jazz aficionados and bon vivants, the sort of playboy culture of the city – that I never would have seen hanging out with my relatives at the time. Maybe today I would, because they’re independent, mobile people.

“When we played at the festival, there was a real embrace from the audience. Rudresh was in the band, and they could hear what I guess you’d call the quasi-Indian content in what we were doing. For them to see this band on stage that’s half-Indian, playing real music, not just throwing them a bone, but really serious music coming from their countrymen, had an impact. There weren’t any other people like us on the program. Also, I had a row full of relatives in the audience at this big amphitheater at St. Xavier’s College, and that was also important for me, for my family to see what it is I do.”

It is evident from Tragicomic that Iyer has not tempered his rigorous formalism, but he has increasingly made it his business to place his vision of abstract notes and tones at the service of the word, as evidenced by a steady association and two fully staged collaborations with same-generation poet Mike Ladd, most recently documented on Still Life With Commentator (Savoy).

“I’m interested in the idea that all these traditions are fluid and always changing,” he says. “That’s so with jazz, which was always urban music, cosmopolitan, aware, hybrid and alive, drawing from multiple sources, Likewise, Indian music today is vast, very much connected to the rest of the world. Bollywood music sounds like something you’d hear in a club down the street. I mean, all the Indian cities seem to have a lot of very vibrant activity, probably due to the new technology-related economies. The landscape has changed rapidly in the last decade, and accompanying the growth is more improvisation at every level of culture, where new realities are incorporated and people are coming to terms with their new identities and speaking from that new perspective. So we’re all connected, basically, and all the traditions are interacting. Anyone can learn from them and create new music that’s authentic to who they are. I’m interested in standing still and feeling it all speak through me.”

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Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa (Downbeat-2001):

“The tradition in African-American music is not about making sounds for their own sake. There is always an instrumentality connected with sounds; you make sounds for pedagogical purposes, to embody history or tell stories.” – George Lewis
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On October 30th, before an intense audience at Joe’s Pub, a classy lounge tucked away in Manhattan’s Public Theater, pianist Vijay Iyer and his quartet (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Derrick Phillips, drums) imparted a touch of catharsis to an audience of frazzled natives. Celebrating Iyer’s recently issued Panoptic Modes [Red Giant}, the unit authoritatively executed a challenging succession of Iyer compositions marked by declarative melodies, highbrow jazz harmony, and surging vamps and ostinatos drawn from the intricate rhythmic cycles of South India and West Africa. For all their intensity, Iyer’s pieces — he describes his role as “putting together musical situations” — radiated a stately, almost archetypal grandeur. Mahanthappa projected a keening, invocational sound, raw but centered, redolent of microtonal nuance. Phillips transmuted complex metric equations into cogent drum chants that traversed the full timbral range of the trapset. The composer illuminated precise symbolic connections between personal imperatives and the stories, images and states of mind encoded in the rhythms he deploys, which, after all, originated in the service of social ritual.

Both Iyer and Mahanthappa are 30, and their personalities are complementary. Iyer is slight-framed, soft-spoken, cerebral, a vegetarian who drinks nothing stronger than tea; with a minimum of motion above the elbows, he unleashes choreographed torrents of calibrated sound. More Vishnuesque but no less brainy, Mahanthappa favors beer and cigarettes and meat; blowing, he stands erect and still, a leonine mane of black hair framing his arched-back head. Both are first-generation Americans from highly educated South Indian families that immigrated to the United States during the 1960s. Both grew up in communities where Indian descent made them distinct among their peer group, and felt a certain disconnect from Indian culture. For both, cracking the codes of ritual-based music and sustaining a dialogue with it was part and parcel, as Mahanthappa puts it, “of coming face to face with notion of not really being American and not really being Indian.”

A self-taught pianist whose jazz obsession began in high school, Iyer honed an early affinity for the percussive orientation of hardcore New York School piano — Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor — during undergraduate years at Yale, where he majored in math and physics and led a trio and sextet. He discovered “the experimental tradition of Creative Music-Jazz” in an undergraduate course with Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, and became an unrepentant “free jazz zealot.” Still unpersuaded that music would be his life’s work, he matriculated at U.C.-Berkeley in 1992 as a Physics Ph.D candidate. He led a weekly bop-to-freedom jam session attended by such distinguished elders as Smiley Winters and Ed Kelly; aligned himself with forward-thinking Asian-American composer-improvisers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Miya Masaoka; studied with Berkeley-based Ghanaian percussion master C.K. Ladzekpo; collaborated with progressive hip-hop artists; and played original music with several ensembles comprised of like-minded peer-groupers Liberty Ellman, Aaron Stewart and Elliot Kavee, all up-and-comers in New York.

So music was about to push physics aside when Steve Coleman arrived in the Bay Area to undertake a six-week residency in the Bay Area that launched the young pianist on his systematic exploration of the science of rhythm and meter. Iyer helped Coleman connect with local venues and promoters, began to sit in with his band, and got a call in March 1995 to play with Coleman in Paris over a productive week that produced three influential recordings. Subsequently, Iyer has done projects with Coleman in Cuba, Senegal, and India, soaking up information, yet keeping in mind that “the different musics are very alive, not fixed, ahistorical entities. The people I interacted with represent a particular aspect of these vast traditions; there may be other containers and vessels who might have different shapes. Maybe the mentality that I apply to jazz masters like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk is the same template or hermeneutics that I apply to these musicians from other traditions.”

Iyer’s training in the abstractions of theoretical science served him well in grappling with Coleman’s ideas. “I have a mind for complexity, and could see Steve’s concepts as mathematical progressions,” Iyer says. “Steve permutes and conjures with numbers, and he saw that I could grasp his structures pretty quickly, although it’s one thing to conceptualize these complex structures and another to internalize them in your body. Steve upped the ante, making such fresh, spontaneous music from such rigorous ideas. I was used to getting by with whoever was willing even to try to play my music. Then I saw what can happen if you put in the time that he does with his band.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to Steve about his directions and intentions. He always has a working theory about how different cultures connect historically and metaphysically, and he investigates or queries these hypotheses musically, trying to tie them together in an experimental way. It’s a continual process, and you don’t have to subscribe to the same ideas to engage in it. I ended up focusing more on the percussive music of South India, mainly at the conceptual level; I wanted to draw from those ideas in order to invigorate my own music.”

In 1995 Iyer met trombonist/computer installation artist George Lewis, who imparted to Iyer the notion of “framing improvisation itself as a kind of inquiry, or critique or intellectual discourse, without losing the soul or heart of the music.” Lewis and Berkeley faculty members David Wessel and Olly Wilson helped Iyer launch an interdisciplinary Ph.D project exploring music and cognition from a rhythmcentric perspective. That Fall he participated in a Cecil Taylor creative orchestra music project, and that summer he worked at a Coleman-led workshop at Stanford University where he met Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa reached that Stanford crossroads by a very different route. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, his high school sax idols were Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker; he attended Berklee School of Music from 1990-92, then moved to Chicago. He led a Monday night jam session at a Lincoln Park attended by a small cadre of players who “didn’t fit into the straight-ahead scene or the avant-garde scene — I always felt like I was fighting the system.” In response, Mahanthappa focused on original music, incorporating various South Asian rhythms and scales and melodies into a format congruent with jazz, and evoking the sonic properties of the shenai and nagaswaram, the double-reed instruments of India, on the alto saxophone.

Mahanthappa says that he turned to Indian music “as a way of processing my own identity. Not to mention that it comes very naturally to me; I’ve had that sound in my ear since I was a kid, especially the vocal style. When I heard Steve Coleman’s work with concepts of West African percussion in the early ’90s, it started making even more sense. It’s not necessarily the sonic qualities; Steve doesn’t have a Ghanaian drum line playing with him, and he doesn’t need to. Nor do I feel like I need to have tabla and mrdangam in my quartet.”

Neither Mahanthappa nor Iyer had met another Indian-American jazz musician when Coleman introduced them, and their simpatico was instant. “We bring a lot of the same issues to the table,” Mahanthappa says. “Our musical relationship is amazing; we can do a lot of things that we don’t really have to discuss. I think everyone should be grateful to find one person who they can have such a close bond with in their career.”

After four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa moved to New York, and immediately joined forces with guitarist Ben Monder and groove-masters Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin. “After six months, I felt like I was playing at a higher level,” he says. “In New York there’s a sense of mutual appreciation for music that’s done well. You could get a band to rehearse three times for a gig that paid 40 bucks at the Internet Cafe!”

“The pace is faster in New York,” says Iyer, who arrived in 1999. “You’re always running around and there’s so much to cope with. My aesthetic has shifted. I used to play a lot less. Not as dense or fast, fewer notes, maybe the chords were sparser. That approach is still part of me, and it informs everything that’s come since. But here you feel you have to release it all every time you play. Maybe it was easier in the Bay Area not to feel like you’re in this rush to say everything.”

Meanwhile, Iyer and Mahanthappa inhabit the diverse improvisational, intellectual and cultural worlds of New York, adding to their personal well of narratives and contributing to the larger pool of knowledge. Having the chance to interact with the elders who walk the same streets and ride the same subways makes history live, strengthens their connection to the jazz lineage.

“The ultimate gratification is to find our work embraced by people like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and even Muhal and Andrew Hill, who I’ve idolized for more than a decade,” says Iyer, who works in Mitchell’s Note Factory. “They’re coming to our gigs and giving us fatherly advice! They’re also human beings, living and working, and getting through life. It’s so much easier to relate to them, and you can imagine placing yourself in at least the same frame of mind.”

“When I run into one of those guys on the street, I’m glad I moved here,” Mahanthappa agrees. “I’m part of the real jazz community. That would have never happened if we had stayed where we were. I can’t think of a lifestyle that allows me to control so many variables, not only the music itself but my entire life! Both of us had tons of options out of high school, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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Vijay Iyer (Blindfold Test) – Raw:

1. Joachim Kuhn, “Rabih’s Delight” (from KALIMBA, ACT, 2007) (Kuhn, piano, composer; Majid Bekkas, percussion; Ramon Lopez, drums)

I’m kind of stumped as to who that first one was. It had a nice sense of space in it, and I liked the composition, although I felt that when they went into the improvised section, it was a little formally vague. It sounded a bit unfocused at times in the middle. I liked the drummer. I liked the overall use of space in the way that the whole thing was put together. The percussionist I wasn’t so sure about. I was trying to think of who this might be. At first I thought maybe Omar Sosa, but actually it doesn’t sound like his playing. The way whoever it was dealt with rhythm, when he would play the more rapid figures and stuff, it didn’t sound like his feel to me. Although maybe it was. I haven’t heard him in a few years now. It wasn’t? Okay. I’ll give the overall feel of it 3½ stars, the composition 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it might be an elder. There’s a certain sense of warmth and composure and I’d say dignity that one finds in the elders.

2. Stephen Scott, “My Funny Valentine” (from Ron Carter, DEAR MILES, Blue Note, 2007) (Carter, bass; Scott, piano; Peyton Crossley, drums; Roger Squitero, percussion)

It’s “My Funny Valentine” played at a crawl. I don’t know about those chimes either. I don’t know who this is either. I get the idea. It’s a very capable and delicate execution. There’s nothing stylistically bold happening, but it’s accomplished. All these auxiliary percussion and the drums are kind of cracking me up, I have to say! The ending saved it. I’m glad I listened to the end. For me, in terms of my overall reaction, I liked the delicacy and the lushness at the end, even with this rhythmic figure that they closed with. But I don’t know who it was. Some names came and went in my head as I was listening. I thought for a moment Hank Jones, but I don’t think it’s Hank, because it seemed, in a way, a little bit more derivative than I would expect of Hank. So I don’t know. [Do you think it was the pianist’s record?] That’s an interesting question. It changes things when I think about it that way. The pianist was kind of playing safe, so that leads me to guess perhaps not. Since you said that, I’m going to guess that it was the drummer’s record. Ron Carter? Ah. Stephen Scott. There was another moment in the beginning, before the band came in, when I thought it might have been Ahmad Jamal. Ron kind of took a back seat considering it’s his record, which is interesting. For originality…it’s not original. This is a new record? Well, it is Ron Carter, who’s done everything. He’s played on some of the most landmark versions of this tune that there are. For me, doing an in the pocket version of “My Funny Valentine” in a record in 2007…that’s just not the choice I would make. But in terms of stars, for execution… The people played it safe, but they did it very smoothly and with elegance, so 3½.

3. Robert Glasper, “Of Dreams To Come” (from IN MY ELEMENT, Blue Note, 2007) (Glasper, piano; Vicente, Archer, bass; Damion Reid, drums)

Robert Glasper? Ah, I’m right. He’s doing these… I haven’t heard his latest record, but it has all the qualities that I associate with him, like a harmonic maze going on, but there’s also an insistent rhythm. He has a really nice touch. He’s really controlled with his touch; I admire that about him. Some of the pianistic things… He does certain kinds of turns and filagrees and ornaments that I associate with him, some of which are sort of gospelish. I like it. And I like his band. [AFTER] I enjoyed that. I’m still trying to get a handle on Glasper in general. I admire him, and I think he’s very accomplished, and I like his tunes. But something about the way he plays them, there isn’t as much space in his own soloing, and his soloing tends to focus on the kind of higher register, so it’s sort of like this lyrical soprano range almost, for most of it. Sometimes I crave a little more space in his playing, and a little bit more exploring the whole range of the piano, particularly in the times I’ve heard him with his trio. But I think he’s a fantastic musician, and I really like seeing band live. Stars? You and your stars! I’ll give the tune… Everyone has to know, so that no one gets offended, that I am being very sparing, and almost nobody in the world will get 5 stars. I’ll give the composition 3½, and I’ll give the playing 4.

4. Danilo Perez, “Epilogo” (from LIVE AT THE JAZZ SHOWCASE, Artist Share, 2004) (Perez, piano, composer; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

The old studio fade on a live record! That was pretty happening! I have to say, that was kind of smoking. Again, I had a bunch of names in my head. At first, I thought it might have been Gonzalo, but there was a little bit more abandon in it than I usually hear from him, so I’m not sure. Then there were some things I’ve heard Pilc do before, when the piano solo reached a certain climax, and he did all these kind of demented diminished chords kind of ascending into the insanity. But I don’t know. I can’t honestly say it’s either of those guys. In fact, something about the montuno, the way it was played, sounded like it couldn’t have been Gonzalo. I’ll give the whole thing 4 stars. Danilo? That makes more sense. I guess Danilo should have been my next choice. I’m so used to hearing him with Wayne, I’ve forgotten how he’ll get down in his own music. Nice playing, Danilo. Thank you. Fantastic playing by everybody.

5. Brad Mehldau, “She’s Leaving Home” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums; Lennon-McCartney, composer)

Is this Brad? I thought so. I’m not a huge Brad listener, but I know enough about him that I figured it had to be him. Mainly, actually, what it was about it… Well, one, obviously, he covers lots of pop tunes, and everybody knows that. But that wasn’t it. It was more that I’ve read him say that Monk is his main influence, and actually I heard that in here, even though he’s doing a Beatles tune, and it’s rendered in this way that’s a little… It’s a little bit poppy, but it isn’t entirely that. But I think mainly the way he got this ringing sound out of the instrument and marshaled the power of the instrument in this way that Monk would, that very few other people did. Anyone who has really thought deeply about Monk will tend to think in those terms. And he seems to be pushing himself, which I admire. The way he’d treat the melody, it was like he was reaching for it. That quality makes it compelling. It’s done in a way that’s very likeable, and it’s nice. It’s a great trio. Was that Larry on bass? It’s fantastic bass playing. They’re really supporting what Brad is doing really well, and they help drive his ideas home. Was this a live record? I guess I think that the arrangement could have been more concise, given that it’s a studio record in particular. It sort of takes you there, and back again, and then there again. Like, it could have… The reason I let it play for so long is that I wanted to know… The thing about when you handle these pop songs… What was the name of this song? “She’s Leaving Home,” that’s right. When you cover these tunes that are so loaded with significance for people… Certainly, there’s a sector of listeners who are just going to get off on the fact that it’s this Beatles song that they love or something. But to me, I think it’s important to have an angle on it, and have a reason for doing it besides that it’s just a beautiful song. But that’s just me. That’s probably my problem more than Brad’s. Brad doesn’t have any problems actually! Anyway, I’ll give the idea of covering this song 3 stars, but I’d give the execution 4 songs.

6. Dave Brubeck, “Georgia On My Mind” (from INDIAN SUMMER, Telarc, 2007) (Brubeck, piano)

I guessed Hank Jones at first, but I had misgivings about doing so, because he doesn’t usually wear his blues thing on his sleeve like that. But some of the chords in there definitely reminded me of Hank. So I’m trying to think who this could be, then. Gosh. I don’t know. This is a new record? Brand new? It’s really about the inner voices in his chords, which not many people have. They’re like the subtle gradations in these voicings that come from decades, obviously, of real careful decision-making. When you have the benefit of that many years of experience… Whoever this person is, it’s either someone who’s older or who’s really kind of grotesquely imitating an elder person. I hope it’s not the latter. Just certain things. Like, he’d add this little leading chromatic thing on a middle voice that would create a progression where there would be none otherwise. So it’s just these sort of inner pathways between parts of the song that people like Hank will find… I have to stop talking about Hank, since it’s not that person. So who does that leave? I don’t think it was Barry Harris. I guess it could be… I get the sense that whoever… I was going to say maybe it’s Kenny Barron, but I don’t think it was, because Kenny would put more variety in it than what I heard. This is really a very direct, lyrical, and heartfelt version of “Georgia on My Mind,” by somebody who feels that song. I don’t know who that is. You want me to grade it before I know who it is? Well, see, the thing is that it’s not just about music in a vacuum. To me, it matters where the shit is coming from. But I’ll give it 4½ stars.

7. Hiromi Uehara, “Time Travel” (from TIME CONTROL, Telarc, 2007) (Uehara, piano, composer; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Tony Grey, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

That was Hiromi with Fuze on guitar, and I’m glad to see he’s getting some space to stretch on something, because I haven’t heard much from him lately. That was a little bit hilarious—perhaps partly intentionally so. Well, it’s the return of fusion. It’s the return of things that happened 30 years ago, in all the good and bad parts of it. I guess one of the good parts about it is the exuberance that’s evident relentlessly throughout! The bad parts have to do with taste, I guess. I don’t want to say bad, but one of the parts that I don’t go for about this piece and about other things like this is that it’s so overly arranged that it’s almost impossible for it to really seem spontaneous. People get their little moments to shine on vamps or on, as we call it, “fusion swing” sort of grooves (that’s meant in not the most positive way). But everybody has blazing musicianship and stuff like that, and so it’s like foregrounding chops and musicianship and really tight intricacy of arrangement, but there’s so little room for discovery in the course of music like this, because it’s sort of like it’s been all tightly packed together in a… It’s all been wrapped up in a bow, basically. It doesn’t really take the listener through a real-time process. It’s like listening to something that’s so pre-ordained that it’s almost as if the listener isn’t really taken along. That’s I guess one of the drawbacks about music of this nature. But Hiromi is doing great in her career, and I’m really happy that that’s even possible in this day and age. I read that she sold 100,000 copies in Japan or something crazy like that! Very few people are achieving that level of success in this music. That’s cool. Also, in a lot of her music, there’s this kind of cuteness factor, like this “Look at this cool thing that we can do” kind of thing. Perhaps she’ll move past that and get into some other things later in her career. She has plenty of time, because she’s still very young, and the world is her oyster. 2½ stars.

8. Kalman Olah, “Hungarian Sketch #1” (from ALWAYS, Merless, 2007 (Olah, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I don’t know who that was. I don’t think I’m going to guess right, even if I try. I liked the tune. I liked the composition actually. There’s a chord they kept returning to that reminded me of Andrew Hill chords; that will always win points with me! I guess I was a little bit… It didn’t exactly grab me as a performance. It was nicely done, but I have to say that it’s hard for piano trio music to hold up in the midst of a blindfold test, because they all start to… At their worst, they start to sound the same. Just like when it doesn’t jump out at you, and you’re reminded of the other things that didn’t jump out at you. Not that good music needs to jump out at you all the time. And this was good music. It just wasn’t all that unique to me. The pianist was good, and kept his technique in reserve in a nice way, so there was a moment when he flashed some virtuosity. That was sort of a surprise. So I respect that kind of choice. It was nice. But I don’t know who it was. [Can you discern any ethnicity encoded in this, or in fact, ethnic codes in any of the music we’ve been playing?] I guess the first one was sort of wearing that more on its sleeve. The Kuhn thing. Because of the inclusion of some kind of Moroccan percussion instrument, but also the modal kind of… There was a tinge of exotica going on in that piece, which I am often on the fence about the use of. See, the thing is, in the case of that Kuhn piece, Randy Weston can do something like that, and it doesn’t raise that question mark for me, because it feels like it’s integrated into his whole relationship to the piano. Because he has such a deep thing about sound that when… Because he dwells so much on kind of the basement range of the piano, in those lower octaves, and he explores the overtones that emerge out of that, so that affects his entire harmonic language in this way. But to me, the Kuhn thing was a little bit more like it was a certain kind of journey into exotica. But this piece didn’t really strike me so much as that. Like, it had some Lydian chords in it or something, but that doesn’t… 3 stars. I was kind of neutral about it. To me, the piano playing was accomplished but a little generic for 2007.

9. Lafayette Gilchrist, “In Depth” (from LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST 3, Hyena, 2007) (Gilchrist, piano, composer; Anthony “Blue” Jenkins, bass; Nate Reynolds, drums)

This person is kind of out! This insistence on dwelling on these kind of… Well, the harmonic approach was so consistently strange, but in a very interesting way. I like that aspect of it. I have one guess, and the other is just… The first guess is Michelle Rosewoman. Oh, okay. Then it seems to me like somebody who has ties to… Well, it’s interesting. It’s a strange little that’s like a blues, but it’s dealt with in a very… Altered would be just the tip of the iceberg, really, for what this person is doing, because it’s not altered in a conventional way. It’s this very unique approach to harmony. I was reminded at times of Horace Tapscott and at times of Sun Ra. But obviously, it’s not either of those people. Also, I was thinking that this person seems to have connections to the… I guess the choice of rhythm section, even just for that kind of generic funk beginning to this tune, and using electric bass and the backbeat—everything about that was a bit jarring compared to the way the pianist was playing. The pianist was a little bit looser with rhythm and with time and so on. Though not that it went astray. Just the feel of it was looser. That’s all. I like the tune, so I’ll give the tune 3½ stars. As for execution, I admire that this person stuck to his or her guns harmonically, and really just stayed there, to the point that this is the character of the piece in a very consistent way. But it was a little… Just the whole thing felt a little goofy. So 3 stars.

10. Luis Perdomo, “Tribal Dance” (from AWARENESS, RKM, 2006) (Perdomo, piano, composer; Hans Glawischnig, Henry Grimes, bass; Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, drums)

Well, I’m real glad you played that. I guessed that it was Luis’ album. I haven’t heard it, but I knew of its existence, and particularly the fact that there are two bass players on it, and one of them was Grimes. There aren’t many records that are going to sound like that! I remember running into him at Iridium the night of the day of that recording session. Cecil was playing at Iridium. He told me about it, and I was like, “What?” I was excited to hear what that wound up sounding like. To me, Luis is one of the baddest cats on this scene. He has so much command, and he’s dealing like a motherfucker. He’s really great. But people tend to put him squarely in the mainstream, or even on the Latin side of the mainstream, by virtue of his origins. But to me, he has a really broad scope, and I admire the fact that he made such a bold move on his record as to make it this, as to have… I don’t know if the entire record is this format. But just to have this second album feature something like this on it is… It’s not like he wrote a lot of stuff to happen in that particular tune. But also, he set up a situation that was kind of brilliant, I thought. He’s uniting these different sectors of the New York scene in this one move. It starts with this sonic screech, and then you hear him play this kind of modal figure, but it’s all in this groove that’s really tight, and it all kind of falls together, and you get these like very appealing elements from all these different sources that all fall together very nicely. Was that Nasheet I heard in there? I thought so. I really admire that he did this, and I enjoyed it, too. I think that the drum duet… Who was the other one? Eric McPherson? It seemed they were really taking chances in the studio, like, “Okay, we’re going to play this and then see what happens.” So it sounded like there was a little bit… Just towards the end of the drum duet, there was a little bit of like, “What do we do now?’ There was just one moment when it was like that. But other than that, I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad that it happened. So 4½ stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, Vijay Iyer

For Pianist-Arranger David Hazeltine’s 59th Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2005 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and 2 Separate Liner Notes

For the master pianist David Hazeltine’s 59th birthday, here’s a big post, containing a 2005 Downbeat article, a more slightly edited Downbeat Blindfold Test, and liner notes for his CDs Inspiration Suite (Sharp-9) and Blues Quarters (Criss Cross).

 

David Hazeltine (Downbeat Article, 2005):

Barely recorded as recently as 1995, David Hazeltine may be the most exhaustively documented pianist of the ensuing decade.

Hazeltine’s spring release, Modern Standards [Sharp-9], an elegant recital with bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth, is his eighth trio date since 1996. That year he recorded The Classic Trio—it lives up to the name—with Peter Washington and Louis Hayes, following 1995’s Four Flights Up, a crackling quartet encounter with trombonist Slide Hampton, and the first of eight Hazeltine-led ensemble sessions for Sharp-9 and Criss-Cross. Hazeltine contributes his distinctive horn voicings and impeccable comping to yet another eight albums with Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Jim Rotondi, Washington and Farnsworth in the collective sextet One For All, and several dozen sideman dates by One For All personnel and such dignitaries as Slide Hampton, James Moody, Jon Faddis, Louis Hayes, Brian Lynch, Marlena Shaw, and Georgie Fame.

Devoted to the leader’s rearrangements of ‘60s and ‘70s pop, R&B and soundtrack music, Modern Standards is chock-a-block with sophisticated reharmonizations, accessible hooks, beautiful colors, and the long, twisty, immaculately executed lines that are Hazeltine’s signature. A Poinciana vamp frames the Isley Brothers quiet storm hit “For The Love Of You,” and he conjures treacle into diamonds on a detailed trio orchestration of “How Deep Is Your Love,” a Disco Era ditty by the Beegees.

“You can do a lot to a song,” says Hazeltine, who turns 47 this fall. His recorded involvement with the “modern standard” begins with Four Flights Up [“Betcha By Golly, Wow”], followed by the 1997 Criss Cross album, How It Is [“Reasons”]. “Coming up in Milwaukee, I played with a few bands that did all the latest by the Isley Brothers, the Stylistics, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Commodores. I can’t duplicate their exact mood, because they did it so perfectly, so I want to conceptualize them in my context. If you stick to the original harmony, they won’t sound like anything. I have to find ways to make distinct sections out of passages that weren’t even sections. Addressing these different musical demands and situations is a way to find a new avenue into the tradition.”

An old hand at catering to the whims of singers, and a repository of lyrics, Hazeltine, if so inspired, will ravish a ballad or torch song, as on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” [Close To You, Criss Cross]. But in the manner of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Eddie Harris, all heavy influences on Hazeltinean line construction, he’s as apt to address such material—”Angel Eyes,” “I Should Care,” “My Old Flame,” “These Foolish Things,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life,” “Somewhere”—at bright to blazing tempos. “On these songs, I’m less concerned with the mood of the lyric than the harmonic content,” he says. “Speeding up the harmonic rhythm becomes a point of departure in improvising off a standard tune or set of progressions. In that way, the limitations of an arrangement are a good thing.”

On all his albums, Hazeltine references an exhaustive pianistic lexicon—Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Buddy Montgomery, and Cedar Walton for starters—and channels them into an immediately identifiable voice. True to the musical culture of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Hazeltine spent 32 of his first 34 years (his peer group included trumpeters Brian Lynch and E.J. Allen, bassists Gerald Cannon and Jeff Chambers, and drummer Carl Allen), he creates an ambiance of groovy soulfulness, and he never stops swinging.

As you might intuit from the company he keeps, Hazeltine honors firm roots in bebop and the blues. “Bebop is the fundamentals of music, the foundation, something to learn early on,” he says. “It incorporates the same principles of melody that Bach and Mozart used. It’s the building blocks of anything you want to do that’s hip and abstract and modern sounding or forward moving, the grounding that allows you to move on without being silly or corny.”

Primarily self-taught, a professional musician since 13, Hazeltine has drawn his own conclusions from the tradition since formative years. He spent 1979 to 1981 blowing in public behind the likes of Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson, and Chet Baker as house pianist at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery. In 1981, at Baker’s instigation, he made his first move to New York City, and gigged with Jon Hendricks for eight months. Unnerved by New York’s cut-throat atmosphere, he returned to Milwaukee in 1982. Instead of making a name for himself as a contemporaneous “young lion,” he earned a Masters, and chaired the Jazz Department at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music from 1985 to 1992. Then, he relates, “I got tired of sitting on the sidelines and wanted to devote all my energy to playing. I returned to New York to get back in the game, to play with people I respected.”

As Hazeltine puts it, “World music became a category right around the time I came back. A new repertoire, too.” During these years, Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ed Simon, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, Brad Mehldau and Dave Kikoski were mainstreaming the notion of coalescing genres, cultures and musical eras in idiosyncratic ways. Hazeltine’s stated aesthetic of “swinging and lots of pretty harmonies” seemed insufficiently cutting edge to make an immediate impression.

“I had to work other kinds of gigs for a long time,” he states, recalling dues paid at an age when most New York aspirants either have made it or given up the fight. “One was 7 to 2, six nights a week, with an AWFUL big band at the Rainbow Room. A nightmare. Things began to turn once I started playing with Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth. By ‘95 I was playing with Marlena Shaw and Slide Hampton, and got my first record date. My whole life changed.”

This summer, Hazeltine will record a Bud Powell project for Venus. Previous commissions for the Japanese label include an homage to Horace Silver (Senor Blues) and two irony-free tributes to Bill Evans (Waltz For Debby and Alice In Wonderland).

“I want to do not just the commonly known Bud Powell tunes, but some that are a little more out there, like “Glass Enclosure,” says Hazeltine. “I won’t play only like Bud Powell. I’m just going to play his music. That’s how I tried to approach Horace. Of course, the more into myself I got, the more the producer objected. I played “Nica’s Dream” at a slow tempo, and put some harmony in there. It was killing. But at the end of the date, he said, ‘Now we’d like to go back. One more time. “Nica’s Dream” FAST!.’ That’s what they put on the record.

“On the Bill Evans projects, I tried to be as much like Bill as I could. When I was 15 or 16, I wore out Bill Evans records trying to figure out what he was playing, because the way he arranged chords—especially the solo stuff—was so beautiful. I wrote out harmonic exercises on his material. I was very disciplined that way at a very early age.”

Given the consistency and high quality of Hazeltine’s sizable oeuvre, it’s puzzling that he hasn’t escaped the “musicians’ musician” trap. But he remains optimistic.

“Some people do a little of this and a little of that, and some do one or two things really well,” he says, implicitly including himself in the latter category. “Even just playing straight-ahead jazz, you can be into so many different levels and go for so many things that it’s a lifetime pursuit.”

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David Hazeltine Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Robert Glasper, “Think of One” (DOUBLE BOOKED, Blue Note, 2009) (Glasper, piano; Vicente Archer, bass; Chris Dave, drums)

I don’t know who it is, but there are bits and pieces of different places in whoever it is. Was that an original piece? No? There’s a lot of Monk influence in the writing. What was the piece? Oh, that’s a Monk tune I don’t know. There were elements that reminded me of Kenny Barron a bit in some of the right-hand techniques, but what tells me it’s not Kenny Barron is that this sounds like a harmonically driven pianist. There are different kinds of pianists—harmonically driven, melodically driven. This guy sounds like… First of all, outstanding technique with both hands, and he’s not afraid to show that, and the free stuff in the beginning, the little introduction, was nice—the piano flourishes, I like to call them. During his solo, he seemed to be more concerned with bringing out the harmony, and he did a great job of it, too. Also, harmonically driven pianists tend to play more with their left hands. When they’re not playing unison-like melodies, they’re always playing chords, so you’re always hearing that left-hand chord thing. This isn’t the type of pianist where you hear steady streams of eighth notes, for example, but just playing around the harmonic structure—very well, though. Then he would take time to play two-handed melodic stuff, very fast, very fluent. 4 stars. I’ve never heard him, but I know of him.

2. Geoff Keezer, “Araña Amarilla” (AUREA, Artist Share, 2009) (Keezer, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Essiet Okon Essiet, electric bass; Hugo Alcázar, cajon, djembe, quijada, palmas, percussion; Jon Wikan, cajon, palmas)

Whoever it is, it brings to mind Herbie Hancock—that’s for sure. The nature of the piece and the odd instrumentation—different for jazz. The hand-clapping and the whole thing, it seems like something Herbie would do, just to be out there…I mean, to have the variety that Herbie has, and the scope. There were such overly simple chords being played at times, that I thought only Herbie would do that, just to do it. But then, there were other little harmonic movements that reminded me of Herbie. The bassline reminded me of something from Thrust or one of those electric records that he made. 3½ stars. That was Geoff Keezer?! Is Wayne playing on it? Well, he’s a fantastic pianist. I recently heard him when I was doing a concert in Canada and he was subbing for Danilo Perez with Wayne Shorter. He fit right in, sounded great—he was beautiful. That’s why I asked about Wayne; it had the vibe of that night. This wasn’t typical Keezer. Things were scaled back. That’s why it reminded me of Herbie at first, because it’s all this music, then bringing it way down. Simple. Harmonies without a lot of extensions, without a lot of stuff to them, like Herbie would do. It’s Keezer tamped way down, like he’s trying to do something on a different level. Keezer does a lot of different kinds of things, he has a lot of different aspects, but I would never have thought of him as being that guy. But I’ve just been listening to some stuff that Keezer arranged for Denise Donatelli, a singer. Unbelievable singing and unbelievable writing on Keezer’s part. So thumbs-up for Keezer. I’m impressed with the way that he’s really trying to do something different, that doesn’t let it all hang out, an explosion of sound. It’s very tastefully done.

3. Mulgrew Miller, “Farewell To Dogma” (from Tony Williams, YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia 1996) (Miller, piano, composer; Williams, drums; Ira Coleman, bass)

Well, that was the most interesting thing you’ve played so far. First of all, from the very beginning…I immediately liked the touch, the warmth of the sound, and the fact that he approached it with both hands, the sound he got out of the piano using both hands to create these harmonies. As it moved into it, I thought it sounded like Keith Jarrett, which would explain the beautiful touch. But then he did some Herbie-sounding things; I heard some Herbie Hancock. Then some things happened too many times for it to be Herbie. Then he did a couple of things that sounded very much like things Chick Corea would do. I started thinking maybe it was Kevin Hays, because Kevin has all those guys in his playing—mainly Herbie, though. I liked the tune. What I like about it is that it has many different moods. It’s open enough that whatever mood you want to superimpose on the mood of the tune works at the time. I like how it goes different places, has different highs and lows. Even the ending was a surprise. It kept my interest from the beginning to the end. I liked the trio interplay, too. The drummer was doing some very tasty stuff. But that’s the kind of open, straight-eighth note…that’s how most drummers that I would play with would respond. 4½ stars. [AFTER] It makes perfect sense that it’s Mulgrew, just because you can hear the influences. Also, he plays the piano very well. He’s a very good pianist, with a great touch, and incorporates all registers of the piano in the overall sound.

4. Martial Solal, “Here’s That Rainy Day” (from LONGITUDE, CamJazz, 2008) (Solal, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Louis Moutin, drums)

My goodness. It IS that rainy day! That’s an interesting approach. Very much melodically driven, but not being melodic. I don’t mean that in a bad way either. I divide people into melodically-driven versus harmonically-driven pianists, but then there are all different aspects of melodic and all different aspects of harmonic. This pianist is melodically driven, but out of the box of where most of us play melodically. So it seems like he or she made a point of playing as far out of the box as possible, while still playing that tune somehow. From the beginning, it sounded like it was reharmonized, but it was so chaotic that it was hard to tell what exactly was happening. But it’s definitely a fresh approach to the song, a standard that’s been played so many times. I’m not sure that how out some of the improvisation sounded was because he was trying to do that, or the chords…that if it was harmonized, he reharmonized it in such a way that it would lead into that. Although it didn’t really sound like that. To me, it sounded like he was trying to play out of the box. Which is a great thing. It sounded fresh. But there were moments where he brought it back in. It had a nice balance that way. It sounded like he had chops to do what he wanted to do. I think technique and chops is really about: Can you do what you’re trying to do? I think he did what he was trying to do. Can everybody play like Art Tatum? No. Can everybody play like Oscar Peterson? No. But technique on an instrument is a difficult thing to discuss, certainly in laymen’s terms. A lot of practicing musicians don’t understand the idea of technique in jazz music. Technique in classical music is a completely different ballgame, because there’s standard repertoire that dictates the technique. In jazz, technique is more dictated by can you get across what you’re trying to get across? Can you play what you’re trying to play? This guy could. It was a fresh approach. Interesting sound. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to it so much. It’s not my cup of tea. But it was interesting. 3 stars. [AFTER] The guy who just played that was 80? Wow. For someone that age, it’s a very unique approach—for playing a tune like that especially. It would be one thing if Cecil Taylor got up and played the piano; that’s one side of the coin. But for this guy to play “Here’s That Rainy Day,” sound like that and be 80, that’s very unusual.

5. Ed Simon, “Poesia” (from POESIA, CamJazz, 2009) (Simon, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Really liked that. My guess was Chick Corea. Whoever it is certainly styled that after Chick. Compositionally, the movement, the progression of the chords sounded like something Chick would do, and the way he played his lines sounded inspired by Chick, but also the rhythms of the lines, the little spaces that he played in between, and the comping that he did with his left hand while he was playing the lines, reminded me so much of Chick Corea’s style. It was reminiscent of ‘70s Chick, like Return to Forever before they went completely electric. There were so many things that were Chicked-out about the guy. Now, I love Chick Corea, and this pianist really reminded me of that style of playing. Was that his original tune? There were a lot of intricate things where he was playing little melodies with the bass in unison with his left hand. Just nice little things that were going on, and kept my interest throughout. The band was great playing together. More than the Mulgrew tune, which was straight-eighth, and the drum part was more accompaniment. Here, everyone was interacting, very together—definitely a coop effort. 4½ stars.

6. Denny Zeitlin, “It Could Happen To You” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

That was “It Could Happen To You.” I have no idea who that is. I have no idea where the pianist is coming from. But I very much enjoyed the playing of the head—it’s almost disguised at first. I like all the different kinds of changes that they took the tune through. It was slow and very much open at first… I very much liked, in the playing of the tune at the beginning especially, the way he used his two-handed technique to get a big sound out of the piano, and he really sold the arrangement. Right around the time when I realized it was “It Could Happen To You” is when they started playing it in an obvious way. I also like where it went from there. It sounded like he changed keys several times during the middle of the tune, but I’d need to hear it again…

I really enjoy the two-handed playing. I mean that in a different way than I meant it before. What I mean is using both hands to do certain things, especially harmonically, and to play melodies… I enjoy a pianist who gets as much sound as possible out of the instrument. Rich. And it takes two hands to be rich, really. A lot of pianists play even single note melodies with their right hand while they play chords in their left. Great pianists play melodies with both hands, or play melodies with a finger and accompany that melody with both hands. I like the way this piece evolved, although I was expecting more out of the solo, for all the piano playing that went on and for all the dreaminess that I sat through, I wanted a little more out of the solo. But that’s not to say that I don’t think that this pianist could do it. It’s just to say that I wanted to hear more. 3½ stars.

7. David Kikoski, “Chance” (from MOSTLY STANDARDS, Criss Cross, 2008) (Kikoski, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Kenny Kirkland, composer)

I feel like I should know what this tune is. It sounds familiar, like…it’s not an original… It’s a tune that’s sort of in the third-tier standard jazz tune? That sort of thing. First tier would be the standards everyone knows—Charlie Parker tunes, Horace Silver tunes, and so on. Then subsequent tunes, like Wayne Shorter and Herbie… It sounds like it could be a Wayne tune. I liked the song, but it’s not this pianist’s song, but obviously… I really, really liked this pianist and what he did with the harmony. What I liked most about his harmony was the wide range of harmonic information that he actually put in and also that he didn’t put in. Sometimes with his left hand he would only play two notes, and sometimes he played little clusters that on first listening were hard to identify what the voicing was. I really like the way he obscured the harmony. Was it David Kikoski? I have a lot of respect for his harmonic sophistication and the way he touches the piano. It’s the thing of older guys touching the piano a certain way, their approach to the instrument. When he plays, and through this piece, you hear it from beginning to end. It’s not a beautiful arrangement of a head and then some stuff that doesn’t fit with it or make sense. But it’s through-played, from the time he starts playing at the beginning, and then he morphs into the actual song and the other guys come in, then he plays a solo—but it’s on a continuum. There’s an arc to it. Really well-put-together music and thoughtful music. I really enjoy his playing. 4½ stars. I think I recognized the tune because I had a Masters student at Purchase who was doing his thesis on Kenny Kirkland, so he studied a number of his tunes, and I was involved in him getting the tunes together.

8. Benny Green, “F.S.R.” (from WALK ON: THE FINAL TRIO RECORDINGS OF RAY BROWN, Telarc, 1996) (Green, piano; Ray Brown, bass, composer; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

Was it Benny Green? Unbelievable piano playing. That’s all I can say. Fantastic technique. I knew it was Ray Brown before I knew who the pianist was. 3 stars.

9. Barry Harris, “Oblivion” (from THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS, Venus, 2000) (Harris, piano; George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums; Bud Powell, composer)

Obviously, Barry Harris, and George Mraz and Leroy Williams. I can’t say enough about Barry. Whatever anyone would have said 40 years ago would be the same thing today. It’s not like he’s reached new heights of genius. The genius has always been there. It’s a genius of melody-making in the style of bebop, the style of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. As I study music, and continue to study music, there’s something about Barry Harris’ playing I found…you need to keep coming back to it. It’s so right and it’s so correct, like Bird was right and correct, but at the same time it’s so melodically unpredictable, in a way. Maybe to some, it sounds predictable because it’s in the bag that he’s in, or the particular idiom he’s in, the time period that he’s remained in, which is bebop. But the imagination that he has within that time period and that language is unlike anyone else who tried to play that music. It’s unbelievable how melodically articulate and melodically interesting… I can’t think of enough words to say what I think about Barry Harris’ melodicism and his musicality. He has that weird thing about being perfect and yet being unpredictable and imaginative and all those things, just like Bird. Now, on this piece, obviously he’s not at full throttle as he was, say, 20 years ago. But it’s still unmistakably him. It’s still that same melodic integrity. 5 stars. Because it’s Barry.

*_*_*_

Liner Notes for The Inspiration Suite, David Hazeltine (Sharp-9, 2007):

The notion of influence is a tricky topic in the arts, not least for jazz musicians, for whom peer group status depends on cultivating a niche—a syntax, a sonic identity; in short, a tonal personality—that is instantly recognizable as theirs. In the struggle to construct a stylistic room of their own, many follow the psychic route described by the critic Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Of Poetry, a much-read discourse on how “killing the father” has catalyzed poetic invention.

Like Bloom’s poets, jazz musicians learn their craft from predecessors; and inevitably establish a point of view about their sources. Some “misread” the precursor, imagine them as incomplete, attain originality of expression through “an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation…, a willful revisionism.” For others, like David Hazeltine, mastery and refinement of the canon is the pathway to artistic depth.

Hazeltine regards Buddy Montgomery and Cedar Walton as his most consequential musical fathers, and pays explicit homage to them on The Inspiration Suite. Under their influence, he relates, he developed strategies to digest vocabulary drawn from the core food groups of jazz piano modernism (Tyner, Corea, Hancock, Monk, Barry Harris, for starters), and to synthesize his own idiosyncratic ideas about improvisation, composition and arranging.

As a teen prodigy in ‘70s Milwaukee, Hazeltine got up close and personal with Montgomery, who established his reputation in the ‘50s with the Montgomery Brothers—Monk, an electric bass pioneer, and Wes, the guitar legend—and eventually settled in the beer capital.

“I saw Buddy play in many contexts as a young kid—solo piano and trio, and also with a larger group with percussion instruments,” Hazeltine recalls. “I heard him manipulate harmony and other elements of music both in his own compositions and fixing up standards. He’s great at creating little hooks, familiar sections of the tune—a tag, or an introductory harmonic area that he gets into and brings back at the end of the head or the end of each solo chorus, or a rhythmic idea that he adds onto, say, a Cole Porter tune. It pulls things together. He doesn’t read music, and his playing and writing have all sorts of little jagged edges; they’re ultra-hip, but so off-the-cuff that you can’t guess what’s going to happen next.”

He discovered Walton via record during his mid-teens, after concluding studies with Will Green, a blind pianist who gave the aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals. “Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar,” Hazeltine recalls. “He would improvise fugues on the organ in the style of Bach, with perfect, cleanly articulated eighth notes, in the baroque manner that characterizes the way Cedar plays the piano. Cedar appeals to the side of my personality that needs things to be precise and exact. Everything is crystal-clear, well thought through, delivered with the highest degree of musical intention—in terms of phrasing, articulation, reharmonizing. You can expect certain things from him on the highest level, and he is going to give them to you.”

It is manifest that Hazeltine, now 48, commands similar respect from his own peer group, including his front-line partners on The Inspiration Suite. “Dave has a modern sound that holds onto all the elements of the tradition that I love,” says Eric Alexander, Hazeltine’s collaborator on 11 dates by the collective sextet One For All, and a frequent Hazeltine sideman and employer. “When I think of David’s writing and arranging, I think of clarity,” adds vibraphonist Joe Locke, Hazeltine’s co-leader on Good Hearted People [Sharp-9, 1998]. “As far out as Dave can go harmonically, his harmony always honors what the tune is about—it’s honoring the melody.”

Explaining his decision to reference another explicit precursor, the tenor sax-vibes quintet co-led by Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson at the end of the ‘60s, Hazeltine cites these very same melodic imperatives. “Although Buddy and Cedar differ in the ways I mentioned, they both write incredibly poignant melodies,” he says. “Instead of harmonizing the melodies with three horns, as with One For All, I brought them into focus with one melodic line backed up with the vibraphone. Joe’s four-mallet technique enables him also to strengthen the harmonic underpinnings and match my piano voicings—so I get my One For All feeling after all!”

The title comes from a four-piece suite on which Hazeltine distills the compositional devices of his musical forebears into unmistakably Hazeltinean argot. The connections are less thematic than vibrational—“They are connected in my mind!” Hazeltine jokes.

Echoes of Walton inflect “Motivation,” an assymetrical 34-bar burner (6-10-6-12) with attractive changes. Propelled by Farnsworth’s unerring ride cymbal, Locke, Alexander and the composer navigate the form with punch and panache.

In composing “Reverence,” a medium-slow ballad with a relaxed Latin feel, Hazeltine kept Montgomery’s predispositions in focus. “I tried to hear how Buddy might hear,” he says. “It’s the kind of haunting melody Buddy would write, and the chord progressions are atypical, with a vamp at the very beginning that the soloists incorporate into their improvising, and that we play every time it comes around. I somehow think of that as characteristic of Buddy—though if you asked me to name tunes of his where that happens, I couldn’t.”

Elements from both mentors inform “Insight,” a slick 30-bar line that opens with a magisterial Alexander solo. “It contains insights I got from studying Buddy and Cedar,” Hazeltine says. “The way the theme is developed, how it comes back at the end, only twice as fast. How the last part is 2 bars short because it’s looped into the first part, so there’s no turnaround; it makes for interesting and insightful soloing—you’re finishing, but you’re at the top again.”

The suite concludes with “Gratitude,” a brisk waltz with a continuously developing form that resolves with reharmonized “Giant Steps” progressions. Note Hazeltine’s informed comping behind inspired solos bv Locke and Alexander, and the graceful way he launches his own ingenious solo flight.

The Inspiration Suite contains many other delights—a classic trio reading of “My Ideal” (for comparison, hear Montgomery’s version on the 1999 Sharp-9 session Here Again); a new Hazeltine arrangement of “I Should Care,” presented here as a medium swinger in A-Flat; a “new standardish” Hazeltine original called “Don’t Walk Away” (“the harmony diverges, but the melody is completely diatonic within the scale of D-flat,” Hazeltine elaborates); a surging Latin treatment, pushed by Daniel Sadownick’s elemental congas, of Montgomery’s “Personage of Wes”; an elegant, witty navigation of the harmonic jigsaw puzzle that comprises Walton’s “Shoulders” (“it has rapidly moving, chromatic harmonies at the beginning, then gets into periods where there’s one chord for 4 measures, then turns more normal and has II-V-I’s, but at the very end come strange, fast-moving harmonies in all major chords, which then change to minor chords every other chorus—that’s why people think it’s difficult”).

“I can say that this is more personal than anything I’ve written before,” Hazeltine concludes. “I did it in total deference and reverence to these two guys, and it came straight from my heart—I heard stuff and wanted to write. The intellect never led the heart around. The heart led the intellect.”

*_*_*_

David Hazeltine (Liner Notes, Blues Quarters):

“I have to say that quartet playing is my favorite format,” David Hazeltine confides while discussing Blues Quarters, his third leader session for Criss Cross (see How It Is [Criss-1142] and A World For Her [Criss-1170]) in that configuration.

The 41-year-old pianist elaborates: “I like an arranged presentation, and in a quartet you can integrate arrangements, just like in a trio setting. Quartet is less restrictive than with three horns, where I have to synch up the harmony exactly to what I wrote for the horns. Since the saxophone is playing the melodies, I have a chance to experiment behind it. I like to play a supportive role as well as being out front in the solo role. I think it sets me up mentally to play looser solos, to play freer than in a trio format, where I am the only solo voice.”

Hazeltine proved unequivocally his mastery of the trio on The Classic Trio [Sharp-9-1997] and Waltz For Debby [Venus-1998], which rank among the finest examples of the genre recorded in the ’90s. And according to the members of One For All, the all-star collective sextet [see Upward and Onward (Criss-1172) and Optimism (Sharp-9)], he’s largely responsible for blending the individual voices of a unit comprised of unregenerate wailers into an ensemble sound with a defined identity.

“I really feel like I could recognize a Dave Hazeltine composition or arrangement at this point,” Eric Alexander, One For All’s emerging tenor titan who shares the front line on Blues Quarters, commented a few years back. “I’m not sure exactly what it is. It’s definitely a modern sound. But it holds on to all the elements of the tradition that I love and, that I think everyone else in the group loves, and that we try to maintain. His arrangements are sort of the quintessential sound of One For All. Dave likes to pick classic standards, or even new Pop standards, and reharmonize and rearrange them so that they fit into our hard-blowing context. But what’s funny is that Dave has tempered our sound. His arrangements, which can be really fiery and exciting, all have a tender side. It’s hard to explain. He uses beautiful colors, and makes wonderful use of the three horns.”

Alexander and hard-swinging drummer Joe Farnsworth join their One For All colleague on Blues Quarters, a session which achieves a judicious balance between untrammeled imagination and the intuitive sense of ensemble structure that adept improvisers attain through years of bandstand interaction. “The more frequently you play with people, the more predictability there is,” Hazeltine notes. “Now Eric is not predictable in the sense of, ‘oh, I’ve heard him play that before.’ It’s more like I know instinctively and immediately that he’s going to play something high or something a little out there. Eric is always fresh, he’s always playing very different ideas, but there is a structure — you can anticipate what he’s doing and work with him.

“What’s predictable with Joe is that it’s going to feel right, that the feeling always will be there, that whatever I do, he’ll support it. There’s give-and-take, but mainly his impeccable sense of time and swinging feeds me. You can have impeccable time in all different parts of the beat; Farnsworth plays the part of the beat that I like particularly. I think it’s the same part that the great drummers in the history of jazz, like Philly Joe Jones and Louis Hayes, have always played. I’d describe it as time with an edge on it.”

Bassist Dwayne Burno played numerous weekend gigs with Hazeltine, Farnsworth, and various combinations of One-For-All hornmen between 1994 and 1997 at Augie’s, the Upper West Side Manhattan workshop-saloon. Hazeltine notes: “Dwayne is a very good writer and arranger himself, and he has a great understanding of harmony. He’s musically very articulate. When I present him with a tune, he understands what makes it work, and he’ll do things that take it to a different place and yet keep it intact as originally conceived.”

Throughout Blues Quarters Hazeltine plays with lucid fire, consolidating an exhaustive range of references — think Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner — into an immediately identifiable style. He churns out long fluent lines with a home-brewed, organic quality, extracting full motivic potential with the clarity and sophistication of a conservatory musician. “What I like about David,” says the tenor saxophonist Michael Karn, who experienced the Hazeltine effect on his recent Criss-Cross date In Focus, “is that he hears other people’s tunes compositionally. F-minor-7 in one tune is not the same as in another. Should this chord have a big sound? Should it have a smaller sound? Should it be a tight sound or a more open sound? He’s superb at finding the right sound for the right spot in his comping.”

That said, a few words about the tunes:

“Naccara” is dedicated to the pianist’s mother, who died a few years ago. The structure is 12 bars, 6 bars, 10 bars. and then 4 bars; “the set of 10 bars references the melodic theme in the first 12 bars, but it’s in no way a repeated section. It takes the motive from the beginning, runs it through a series of key changes, and kind of summarizes the tune that way.”

Alexander and Hazeltine were playing Miles Davis’ “Milestones” (the 1947 Savoy version) as a standard on recent tours. The tenorist roars through the changes, while Hazeltine’s long solo shows how deeply he’s assimilated the language of Bud Powell refracted through the mirror of Barry Harris, whose Live At The Jazz Workshop Hazeltine calls “a bible of jazz piano trio.” “I keep coming back to that concept,” he comments. “My idea is to try to stretch from that basis.”

Hazeltine wrote “A Touch of Green” for Will Green, who gave the young aspirant invaluable functional instruction on the idiomatic fundamentals of jazz in pre-teen days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I know this tune sounds a lot like Cedar Walton,” the pianist jokes, “but Mr. Green’s approach was a lot like Cedar. In fact, I started listening to Cedar just after I stopped studying with him, when I was 15 or 16. Will Green would improvise fugues in the style of Bach on the organ. You know how Cedar plays the piano in an almost baroque manner, with eighth notes that are so perfect and exact and cleanly articulated and precise? That’s how Will Green played, too. Being used to his approach is what allowed me such easy access to Cedar.”

Hazeltine conceptualized his treatment of “Spring Is Here” while preparing Waltz For Debby, a 1998 album dedicated to the music of Bill Evans. “This version is with mostly his chords,” Hazeltine remarks. The ballad is beautiful by itself, but Bill Evans’ changes really bring out the melancholy of that song.”

Hazeltine describes the title track as a 16-bar minor blues, an idiom in which the teenage Hazeltine garnered ample experience at sessions around Milwaukee with local luminaries like Hattush Alexander and Manty Ellis. “We didn’t play traditional blues per se,” he qualifies. “There were a of blues form tunes and a lot of blues in the tunes.”

Hazeltine became familiar with “Cry Me A River” through his association with the singer Marlena Shaw, who’s employed him as musical director and arranger since 1994. He treats the Arthur Hamilton flagwaver — it’s been covered by artists from Julie London to Ray Charles to Ella Fitzgerald to Joe Cocker — as a bossa-nova, adding some chords and a vamp that Eric Alexander plays over on the end with incredible invention and virtuosity.

“Playing with singers deeply influenced my ability to accompany people,” Hazeltine claims. “I did it since I was very young, beginning with a woman named Penny Goodwin, with whom I played a lot of high profile gigs in Milwaukee. She was a very talented, gifted singer, but she didn’t know a lot about music, so the things you played behind her influenced the way she was going to sing on any given night. I had to play so that her melody notes were always at the uppermost part of my chords. Otherwise, she’d sing out of tune, or sing something completely different and then blame me. So early on I knew that when playing behind singers, I had to be very accurate and be aware of what the melody is while playing chords. I think that started me on the path of comping melodically, which is the quality of my comping that I think people like.”

The quartet addresses “Cheryl,” a Charlie Parker blues, at a medium bounce a tad slower than the original; Hazeltine opens with a five-minute declamation that’s bebop incarnate, filled with teetery syncopations and intriguing postulations that never stray far from the melody. Then the session concludes with Alexander’s “Doing What,” a racehorse-tempo subversion of the chord changes to Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life,” a prime ballad for the likes of Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

It caps an album marked by authoritative statements by players who can be said to have transcended their influences to the point of being able to dialogue with the tradition on their own terms. That’s what Hazeltine’s done on high profile gigs in recent years with people like James Moody, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Jon Faddis.

“New York is so demanding, you get so involved in writing and arranging and recording and doing your own thing and trying to find your voice, that it’s easy to forget about your roots,” Hazeltine reflects. “By roots I mean what I grew up with, who I liked listening to, who influenced and inspired me. Playing with these guys has this magical quality of taking me back there, only now I’m doing the playing. I remember listening to James Moody when I was 13 and being very struck by how he played, trying to figure out some of the things he was doing. I have his sound in my head, and when I get to play gigs with him it takes me back into this very simple, ‘I really like that music; I really like the way this sounds,’ as opposed to being all wrapped up into my own forward motion. It’s a unique thing we have as jazz musicians, that in playing with these guys, we are interacting with history. You’re actually getting a chance to create music with people who have created and are continuing to create such great music over the years.”

A couple of generations hence, apprentice improvisers who admired albums like Blues Quarters may have their chance to play with David Hazeltine and Eric Alexander; no doubt, they’ll talk about the experience in similar terms.

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For the 99th Birthday of the Great Bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés, a Short Essay Written in 2012

It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of the master bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés (1918-2008). For the occasion, here’s a program note I wrote for a  2012 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert devoted to his music, directed by Carlos Henriquez. This link will take you to a documentary about his life broadcast on PBS’ American Masters series a few years ago.

 

The Music of Cachao

By Ted Panken ©2012

His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Serge Koussevitzky,  the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus.  His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”

As a child, Cachao played bass for a theater orchestra that accompanied silent movies. At 13, he began a 30-year run with the Havana Philharmonic. He moonlighted in dance bands, including one called Arcaño y Sus Maravillas that included his older brother, the pianist-cellist Orestes López, with whom, in 1938, he composed “Mambo,” introducing a swinging groove (nuevo ritmo) for the final section of danzón, an elegant, ritualized form—and Cuba’s national dance from the latter 19th century through the 1950s—that involves composing four separate episodes, each in a different tempo. Bandleader Damaso “Perez” Prado popularized the rhythmic weave, and it exploded onto the international stage, including the dance floors of New York City, where it evolved into the lingua franca beat of Latin Jazz.

Cachao’s mambo also propelled a series of recorded jam sessions (billed as descargas, after the Spanish verb meaning, among other things, to discharge electricity and speak one’s mind) with the best-and-brightest—and jazz-aware—Cuban dance musicians employed by the nightclubs and casinos of Batista’s Havana. They directly influenced the evolution of salsa as articulated by Tito Puente (Cachao composed “Oye Como Va”), Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, all of whom hired Cachao after he migrated permanently to the United States in 1964.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, will address both the danzón and descarga on this evening’s celebration of Cachao’s legacy. Now 32, Henriquez is a thoroughly 21st century musician, able to navigate the multiplicity of idioms that fall under the jazz umbrella, among them the clave and swing dialects, “without an accent.”

That this is no small task was made clear by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter himself. Speaking on WKCR in 2001, he analogized the jazz feel to “four beats straight up and down, like a picket fence,” while describing clave as that “picket fence leaning over to one side so all the beats move at 45 degree angles from the straight line.” Carter continued: “Jazz isn’t so filled with counter-rhythms, but Latin music has four or five rhythms going all at once in one tune, enough rhythms to last you for a week, held together by the clave beat. All the choices can overwhelm you. I’m amazed that they always pick the right ones.”

Cachao himself was no stranger to jazz. “When I first started listening to jazz, bassists weren’t soloists yet,” he told me during a 2005 encounter. He recalled an informal encounter with bass pioneer Milt Hinton, in Havana with Cab Calloway, perhaps in the late 1940s, at which they “played the songs of Duke Ellington together, one doing the melody and the other doing the bass.” Still, he “spoke jazz” in an accent infused with the infinite permutations of clave.

For Henriquez, the son of a trombone player and a dancer—both of whom were connoisseurs of swing and salsa—the “accent-less” approach is his birthright as a product of the South Bronx “melting pot.” It didn’t hurt to receive hands-on mentoring from the likes of clave wizard Andy Gonzalez and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra predecessors Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, as well as such distinguished prior employers as Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

“I use Cachao’s concepts all the time,” Henriquez states, noting that the maestro, who learned the bongos even before the bass, extrapolated the rhythms of each component of the Afro-Cuban bata drums, but most notably those associated with the low-range tumbador, and incorporated them into his bass playing. “He learned the instrument with finesse and style, with accuracy and technique. But he also incorporated his life into the music. There’s a side that’s very street-oriented, ferocious, strong, dark, and powerful, which I love, but there was a sweet, beautiful side, too.

“The concept of tumbao [a syncopated, repetitive rhythmic pattern], of playing a fundamental part that becomes a leading part, is widely misunderstood. In African music, the bass is actually the moving line—focusing on the root rhythm and creating that as a solo. That attracts the whole band to you. Cachao was a magnetic force; he was the core of everything.”

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For Trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s Birthday, my Liner Note for the 1999 CD “Excursions”

Best of birthdays to trumpet master Jim Rotondi, who has been teaching the last several years in Austria at the University of Graz.  Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing liner notes for three of Jim’s CDs for Criss Cross, the first of which — for Excursions (1999) — I’m posting below. It was a first-class date on which the personnel of One For All (Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Dave Hazeltine, Peter Washington) plus Kenny Washington on drums, play a series of terrific charts.

 

Jim Rotondi (Excursions):

For Excursions, his third Criss-Cross recording, Jim Rotondi surrounded himself with his top-shelf colleagues from the sextet collective One For All.  “I feel comfortable when I play with these guys, freer to select options that I might not normally choose,” the 37-year-old trumpeter avers.  “I think music works best when you throw something a little different in the mix just to see what happens.  Sometimes you get results you’d never have imagined.”

The familiar surroundings (the only “ringer” is impeccable trapsetter Kenny Washington, replacing regular OFA drummer Joe Farnsworth) spur Rotondi to etch in sharp focus the qualities that have won him numerous admirers in recent years as a featured soloist with Lionel Hampton, Charles Earland and — more recently — Kyle Eastwood.  Projecting one of the most beautiful sounds in jazz, he plays with staunch confidence, nuanced maturity and intuitive melodicism — and reaffirms his charter membership in the no-holds-barred society of improvisers.

Rotondi comments: “One thing that differentiates a Lionel Hampton experience from a One For All experience is that it’s much more blues-based, more elemental.  One For All uses more complex forms, and if we play a blues it probably won’t be straight but a variation on the blues.  Gates grew up in the straight blues, and it’s important to him to keep it in there.  The spirit is to go for it, to try to deliver 100 percent every time.  I think that’s the spirit of One For All, and we translate it to this record as well.  We’ve come to have a reputation as a group that flexes its musical muscles, one with a lot of technical prowess.  Really, we just believe in going for it, in trying to play everything at the peak of its potential.”

Rotondi is effusive about One For All front-line partners Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone), both familiar to Criss-Cross devotees.  “We think the same way,” he says.  “The three of us are like one voice; we phrase the same way naturally, without talking or thinking about it.

The Rotondi-Alexander partnership began a year after the trumpeter settled in New York.  “I met Eric when he was attending William Patterson College in the ’80s, and it’s inspiring to see him come so far.  When I first met him, he didn’t have a wide variety of tools and language, and now he has probably the biggest arsenal of any of the young players out there.  He did it with discipline and dedication.  To me, every song that he writes captures his spirit more than the previous one.”  Alexander’s contribution here is “Jim’s Waltz,” taken at the camelwalk pace that Kenny Washington likes to call the “grown-up’s tempo,” featuring Rotondi’s burnished tone.  “It’s typical of Eric’s personality — uplifting, happy,” Rotondi comments.  “The melody is all major key, very diatonic, but still interesting.  It goes to a couple of unexpected places, but makes perfect sense — which I think is his essence as a writer and player.”

Let’s digress with a synopsized account of Rotondi’s pre-New York years (Rotondi scholars who want more should refer to the notes for Introducing Jim Rotondi [Criss-1128] and Jim’s Bop [Criss-1156]).  Rotondi’s mother is a piano teacher, and the Butte, Montana, native played piano from the age of 8; he took up the trumpet upon entering high school.  “My background when I began to play trumpet was more in classical music,” he relates.  “My live music exposure pretty much consisted of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, but when I was 14 I picked up a collection of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach EmArcy recordings and Woody Shaw’s Rosewood.  After I got those records — and many others — I started experimenting with different things that I hadn’t been aware of before when I was practicing the piano.  I think it’s extremely important for trumpet players to have a piano.  As Dizzy said he told Miles, on the trumpet you’ve got one note, but on the piano you’ve got 88.  If you understand all 88, it’s a lot easier to find the right place to put one.”

Rotondi wound up at North Texas State University, eventually landing in the school’s elite One O’Clock Lab Band.  “When I arrived they automatically placed me on the bottom, because so many musicians are there,” he recalls.  “I didn’t have it completely together; in fact I was quite a distance from it!  I learned a lot in terms of basic skills; pulled up my technique and ability to sight-read music, and learned about the professional ethic.  After school I went to Miami and worked on a cruise ship for a year, with the aim of saving money to move to New York, which I did in June 1987.”

Rotondi, Alexander and Joe Farnsworth stuck together, worked small but steady gigs and sideman jobs.  Farnsworth landed a gig at Augie’s, the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured much of New York’s young talent in the ’90s’; in 1994, they brought in butter-toned Davis — currently a two-year member of Chick Corea’s Origin Ensemble — whose warm, enveloping sound and ability to generate instant momentum in his solos makes him a perfect fit.  Of Davis’ title track, Rotondi says: “This tune is a classic example of the music Steve writes.  Simple melodies, putting interesting chords underneath them; he finds these perfect little chord-melody combinations.  He’s one of the strongest writers of the younger guys.  This tune is a nice Bossa Nova in an AAB form; it goes through a lot of different tonal centers, which makes it interesting and fun to play on.”

Formidable pianist David Hazeltine rounded out One For All in 1995; his up-tempo arrangement of “Angel Eyes” is, Rotondi exults, “classic Hazeltine.  He’ll take a standard and slightly alter the harmony or chord changes, which makes the tune more interesting to solo on.  Eric and Dave like to have everything very well worked out; they think things through, and don’t like to leave a lot to chance.”

The oft-paired (on Criss-Cross at least) Peter and Kenny Washington bring their customary excellence to the proceedings.  “Whatever you think a bass player should be, Peter is,” Rotondi comments.  “And I’ve always loved Kenny’s playing; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything musical, and brings it to every record he’s on.  He’s always an asset.  He completely took care of business, and did it with aplomb.”

Rotondi’s “Shortcake,” a peppery medium-bright minor line with a Latin feel that begins with a pair of storm-cloud chords, “was written for my girlfriend,” the composer remarks.  The bravura trumpeter bites off the notes with brash panache, evoking the sound of Freddie Hubbard, a major influence.  Ditto on Rotondi’s arrangement “Little B’s Poem,” a memorable Bobby Hutcherson melody on which both Hubbard and Woody Shaw have had an earlier say.  This cool, restrained, stop-start version is spurred by Hazeltine’s intuitive comping and Kenny Washington’s ingenious rhythmic formulations.

Don’t think Rotondi is anyone’s style clone; he’s assimilated the entire post Clifford Brown trumpet tree and reached his own conclusions.  He states: “Clifford and Woody were my initial influences.  Though other guys during Clifford’s time — and before — played as much if not more than he, Clifford covered so much and nailed everything perfectly, even though his playing is completely spontaneous-sounding and creative.  I think it’s a testament to his talent and ability that, young as he was, he never flubbed.

“Woody Shaw to me is the last true trumpet innovator; on his early recordings there’s a strong Hubbard and Booker Little influence, but he found his own language.  The way I hear it, playing with McCoy Tyner opened him up to the solutions he ultimately found.  He inspired me to strive to find my own way to play, to find my own voice — because he really found his.  He blended his version of bebop trumpet with avant-garde elements he was exposed to through playing with Dolphy and Coltrane — it was all in his playing.

“The first thing that struck me about Freddie was his sound, a combination of round, darkish warmth with the bit of edge that I think the trumpet needs to have.  Then it was the long melodic lines he constructed that went all through the changes.  Freddie likes to tell the story of running back and forth between Sonny and Trane, and revealing to one what the other was working on; I’m sure practicing with them opened him up unbelievably.

“I’ve done a lot of transcribing of Booker Little; by the age of 22, when he died, he’d completely found his own voice.  Tonally, his playing reminds me of a Classical approach applied to jazz, very precise, the same fat tone from the lowest end of the trumpet all the way up to the top.

“Kenny Dorham to me is the true melodist of all of them;  every trumpet player should study K.D. to learn the importance of making a melody.  They are logical and beautiful, and make so much sense.  He was the first guy I know of to really put Bebop harmony, i.e., tritone substitutions and other devices, clearly in his playing.

“Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were early influences.  I still think of Blue Mitchell as the best ballad trumpet player of all time, principally because he never overplayed.  He just played the melody, and let his tone do all the work.”

Rotondi’s gorgeous reading of “What Is There To Say?” — co-arranged with Eric Alexander — would make Mitchell smile.  “I got the tune from Nat King Cole’s ‘After Midnight’ session,” he explains.  “It’s simple, with potential to interpolate some interesting chords.  I try to find lyrics whenever I can to any standard I’m going to play.  It will keep you from playing anything extraneous if the lyrics are in your ear.”

Excursions concludes with Rotondi’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Little Karen,” followed by a fingerpopping “Fried Pies,” a Wes Montgomery blues on which all members stretch out.  “On my last few records, I’ve tried to include something from a great jazz composer and see if I can do something different with it,” Rotondi remarks.  “On One To Ten [1961, Argo] Benny took this tune pretty straight-ahead; I gave the A-section a Horace Silver-like mambo treatment.  And Gerry Teekens always likes to have a blues on the record, and I do, too.”

It’s an ideal conclusion for an impeccable album.  For Rotondi and his colleagues, way past their apprenticeships, individual influences are now a point of departure; their voices are prominent landmarks in the narrative of mainstream jazz.

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For the 89th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), My Liner Note for the Reissue of the Xanadu Album “Home Is Where The Soul Is”

Today’s the 89th birth anniversary of pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), one of the great acolytes of Bud Powell. I had an opportunity to delve into his musical production while writing the liner notes for a reissue of a trio date that he made for Xanadu in 1978, with Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler.

*_*_*_*_

Kenny Drew, Home Is Where The Soul Is (Liner Notes):

“One might take a single pianist like Kenny Drew and find in his playing many of the period’s dominant tendencies: “funk” [extensive use of blues voicings on tunes that are not strictly blues], Debussyesque lyrical embellishments, finger-busting up-tempo solos, and multiple references to earlier styles both gently contemplative (Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole) and hot and bluesy (stride piano via Monk).” – David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965.

* * *

Although the late David Rosenthal’s observations on Kenny Drew (1928-1993) pertain to the pianist’s musical production during the 1950s, they also apply to Drew’s performance on the slamming trio date contained herein. Xanadu proprietor Don Schlitten, who wrote in the original liner notes that the Harlem native’s best recorded performances (two enduring dates helming a trio and a combo, and sideman appearances with, among others, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Paul Chambers) transpired in Los Angeles during a 1953-56 West Coast residence, hoped to elicit a similar vibe by “bringing Kenny home to the ‘cats’” to cut a pair of albums. One participant was bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who had settled in Los Angeles not long before his four recorded interactions with Drew in 1955 and 1956. The other is drum-master Frank Butler, out of Kansas City, whose intuitively spot-on responses within the flow on Home Is Where The Soul Is and For Sure—the latter is a formidable quintet with Xanadu regulars Charles McPherson and Sam Noto on the front line—belies the fact that he was interacting with Drew for the first time. Like Drew, these Los Angeles bebop warriors were 1928 babies.

It’s interesting that the proceedings conclude with Drew’s a cappella tour de force on “Yesterdays,” which he played on 16 separate occasions during his 43 years as a recording artist. This version (not included on the original LP release of Home Is Where The Soul Is) is different in feel and configuration than the brisk interpretation 24-year-old Drew uncorked on his first leader date, done on April 16, 1953 for Blue Note in the percolating company of bassist Curley Russell and drummer Art Blakey. “Kenny’s work is cast in the modernist mold, but it seems to owe allegiance to no one model,” Leonard Feather wrote on the back cover of the original 10″ LP. “On the contrary, a careful hearing of these sides will reveal that he has already developed his own personality at the keyboard.”

Feather was softpedaling Drew’s informed, idiosyncratic, virtuosic allegiance to Bud Powell, four years Drew’s senior and a fellow Harlemite, which is evident in the younger pianist’s efflorescent treatments of “Be My Love,” “Lover Come Back To Me” and  “It Might As Well Be Spring.” But he is nonetheless correct that Drew had already constructed his own nascent voice, one informed by close study of tributaries established by Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, George Shearing and perhaps, by 1953, Horace Silver. He’d been at it for while: Feather writes that Drew, whose mother was a classical pianist, took his first lessons at 5, was a skilled boogie-woogie pianist during adolescence, and assiduously soaked up Tatum, Wilson and Fats Waller during his teens. After high school, he apprenticed at a dance school run by the pathbreaking Trinidad-born dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus, who incorporated African and Caribbean elements into her touring show.

During the latter ’40s, as Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes to Drew’s 1961 Blue Note record, Undercurrent, Drew augmented his university of the streets education, alternating on piano with Walter Bishop, Jr. in a band with uptown up-and-comers Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor. Feather remarks that Drew entered the fray for real after a maiden studio voyage with Howard McGhee in January 1950 for Blue Note. Over the next two years, Drew would share bandstands and record with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Rollins, Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Stitt and Paul Quinichette. He began to garner national attention in 1952, when bebop clarinet pioneer Buddy DeFranco brought him on the road; indeed, Drew’s aforementioned trio debut date occurred the same week as two DeFranco sessions for Norman Granz’s Clef label. Perhaps Drew’s blend of orchestral chops, impeccable touch, stylistic range, and improvisational imagination, not to mention the level of authoritative intention at which he operated, reminded Granz of Oscar Peterson. Whatever the case, Granz signed Drew to his Norgran imprint, for which he generated two solos and four trio numbers with bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Specs Wright.

On tour with DeFranco in San Francisco in late 1953, Drew was arrested on heroin-related charges. His appearance on a July 1954 Zoot Sims session in Hollywood indicates that he served little if any time, but his relationship with Granz—for whom Drew recorded a marvelous trio recital with Wright and drummer Larance Marable in L.A. that September—fizzled out, and his career gained no traction. He resettled in New York in 1956, but remained on a similar treadmill, despite sidemanning on two hands’ worth of iconic hardbop classics for Riverside and Blue Note (the short list includes John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Johnny Griffin’s Way Out!, Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag and Bluesnik, Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Showboat, and Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Calling), as well as leading two highest-caliber trio dates for Riverside with Paul Chambers or Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and an epic duo encounter with Ware. In 1958 (the year his son, Kenny Drew, Jr.—himself a meta-virtuoso pianist—was born), Drew worked with Buddy Rich. In 1959, he moved to Miami for a year or so, before returning to New York City.

The first time Drew saw Paris was late 1961, on a European tour of Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection. After visiting Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, he decided to emigrate. He met and married a Danish woman, and moved to Copenhagen in 1964. By 1978, he was Europe’s first-call pianist, with 8 contemporaneous LPs for Denmark’s Steeplechase label that showcased him in solo, duo, trio and combo contexts, generated on 14 separate recording sessions between 1973 and 1977. During those years, he recorded all but two of the numbers (“Three and Four Blues” and “West of Eden”) that comprise Home Is Where The Soul Is.

The set opens with “Work Song,” which Drew initially recorded in 1965 for Fontana with a trio led by Danish drummer Alex Riel that also included bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, with whom Drew played extensively for the remainder of his life. At the time, this group was frequently functioning as a rhythm section for touring horns-for-hire at Copenhagen’s esteemed Jazzhus Montmartre, a hallowed venue that offered Drew a mutually beneficial sinecure as house pianist until it closed in 1976. Drew did “Work Song” a second time on a 1969 Ben Webster date for EMI-Odeon, also with Pedersen and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, and again two months before the Home Is Where The Soul Is session, in Warsaw, with a Polish trio.

He debuted Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” with a working quartet (saxophonist Joe Maini, Vinegar and Marable), documented on Jazz West in December 1955, and revisited it in May 1974 with Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath on the sessions that generated the Steeplechase albums Dark Beauty and Dark and Beautiful. That same May 1974 encounter also generated a tour de force presentation of “It Could Happen To You,” a Powell favorite that Drew had previously waxed with DeFranco (the day before his Blue Note debut) and in 1958 with Chet Baker. There, as here, Drew opens with improvised rubato “concertizing” before morphing into deep two-handed swing.

The Drew-Vinnegar-Butler trio addresses Drew’s original, “Only You,” at a brisk clip that imparts a much different ambiance than its balladic representation on Lite Flite, Drew’s February 1977 New York quintet recital with Thad Jones, Bob Berg, George Mraz and Jimmy Cobb. He concluded Home Is Where The Soul Is with the gentle, elegiac “Ending,” which first appeared on Ruby My Dear (Steeplechase), recorded in August 1977 with bassist David Friesen and drummer Clifford Jarvis. The version contained herein stands in calming contrast to the joie de vivre embodied on the preceding track, Drew’s modal “Three or Four Blues,” on which the composer’s solo ranges from Basie-esque pointillism to two-handed Tatumesque turbulence.

Drew’s insouciant, humorous, imaginative treatment of this number and, indeed, of everything else on Home Is Where The Soul Is, completely justifies Schlitten’s determination to illuminate his artistry in this spontaneous, familial context. Here, as on the preponderance of the Xanadu catalog, Schlitten’s instincts were spot-on.

Ted Panken

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For Donny McCaslin’s birthday, a 2009 interview and Liner Notes For The Arabesque CD “Seen From Above” and the Criss Cross CD “Give ‘n’ Go”

Tenor saxophonist-composer Donny McCaslin turned 50 recently, which seems like a good reason to post an interesting interview he did with me in 2009 for a Downbeat piece in which I interviewed four tenor players (Ron Blake, Seamus Blake and Frank Catalano were the others) on developing one’s own sound, as well as liner notes I’ve had the honor to write for an album he recorded for Arabesque in 2000 and another album for Criss Cross in 2005.

 

Donny McCaslin (Feb. 4, 2009) – (DB Tenor Sound Piece):

TP: I guess the things I want to talk about generally are: First, the process by which you started thinking about the idea of saxophone as a way of expressing a voice as opposed to just playing it. What sort of vocabulary you assimilated and how you applied that vocabulary. Was the process of creating a sound a conscious thing, or a byproduct of the process of learning. Can you take those sort of general ideas and run with it?

DONNY:   Sure. There’s a lot of things I can say. As far as expressing myself on the instrument, that’s something I got into at a fairly early stage. I started playing when I was 12, and I started improvising shortly thereafter. Especially as I started to learn some language, I found improvising to be a great outlet for my emotions. So I think I was engaging with that at a fairly early age.

TP:   Of course, you had your father as an example.

DONNY:   Exactly. My father would often come to… My parents were divorced, and he’d come over to my mother’s place. We lived in the country, and there were these barns behind the house where I lived, and my father would carry his Wurlitzer piano up into one of these barns, he’d set it up, and then we’d play tunes that I had learned or was in the process of learning that he played with his band. The very first song that I learned was “Tequilas,” which is basically a one-chord jam thing—my dad would basically just comp for me. Then we’d go through, we’d play “A Train,” we played “Satin Doll,” we’d play maybe “Doxy,” we’d play a blues. What was great is that he would comp for me tirelessly. Being young, sometimes I’d get upset pretty quickly, because I wanted to play better, and I didn’t like what I was playing, and I’d stop. Other times we’d play at length, for what seemed like hours. I think it was through that kind of experience, and then starting to… I had a combo with Kenny Wolleson in junior high school, and then that continued in high school. As you know, it was a really good high school band, and I had chances to solo. It was there, at 14-15 years, that I started playing with a fair amount of emotional expression, where you could say it was a primary outlet for me emotionally.

TP:   Were you under any stylistic influences at that time? Were you learning the canon?

DONNY:   Yeah. My first hero was definitely to John Coltrane, which was mixed in high school with heavy exposure to Duke Ellington. My band director had Duke Ellington charts via Bill Berry, with whom he’d been in the service. So he had all these Ellington charts, and we were rehearsing those five days a week, and listening to the records sometimes. Those were my main influences. At 14-15 years old, I was listening to “Giant Steps,” and was playing through Trane’s solo. In probably my later high school years, I got into Michael Brecker and was heavily influenced by him. So in terms of language in that era, I would say… Well, Charlie Parker was an influence as well in the beginning, so probably Charlie Parker, Ellington, Trane, and Michael Brecker were my main influences.

TP: When did they start to become part of your emotional expression?

DONNY:   Mostly with Coltrane it was… One thing I was so drawn to in his playing was this deep sense of expression in his solos, and the emotional intensity. I was really drawn to that, even though I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, I couldn’t handle Meditations or Ascension or Kulu Se Mama or Interstellar Space. That was too far out for me. But I was really in tune with the records before that, listening to them over and over. It was that emotional intensity that touched, and then I was trying to get to the same thing as I was playing, just as a kid with that limited vocabulary.

TP:   What sorts of things would your father or the other older musicians tell you about individuality or about the voice? What cues were you getting from people?

DONNY:   I have to think about that for a second. My father I don’t think really talked much about that, to be honest with you. The guys in his band didn’t talk much about individuality per se. But I think that it’s something that… Gosh…

TP:   How about critiquing your playing? Were you getting critiques?

DONNY:   Yeah. I can think of a couple of things. I can remember once when I was a senior I was in an Advancement of the Arts sort of talent competition thing. It was a big thing. It was throughout the United States, and I flew to Florida for the finals. Bill Charlap was one of the finalists, John Bailey, the trumpet player, myself—and Rufus Reid was like the jazz judge. I remember Rufus saying something to me about not playing so many notes, not playing so much. I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist was to slow down and to not over-play. Herb Pomeroy, when I was at Berklee, said something similar to me after a concert. I was in his various student ensembles probably my whole time at Berklee, and after one of the concerts he came up and said something about how he was happy to hear me play more melodically and not just playing a bunch of notes kind of thing.

Various people I recall recounting telling the Lester Young story of him being on the bus…I think it’s Lester Young… They’re on the road, and a tenor player is shedding on the bus, and he’s playing all this shit, and Lester—or maybe it’s Ben Webster—said to him, ‘Yeah, but can you sing me a song?’ or something like that. Various people…

TP:   It’s Lester.

DONNY:   Yeah, Lester is who I thought.

TP:   Did that sort of thing have an impact on you? Because I gather that a lot of people were very impressed with your facility and power on the instrument as a young guy, which can be very seductive.

DONNY:   Yeah. I think it helped, and I think I listened to that. Over the course of the years, I feel I’ve tried to reflect on it. At the time, it’s hard to remember, honestly. Did I all of a sudden buy a bunch of Lester Young records? No, I didn’t.  But I definitely have listened to him over the course of my career, and have listened to various singers, and really thought about exploring different ways of playing and not just relying on technical prowess or whatever.

TP: Were you someone who transcribed solos, or you’d listen and put them into a framework…

DONNY:   It was both. I didn’t really transcribe solos until I got to Berklee, in college, my freshman year. Then I got into that. Yeah, I transcribed various solos, then I started learning solos, and that was definitely part of how I developed my language. But also listening a fair amount, and just being on the bandstand a lot. It’s a combination of all those things in terms of how I developed my language. In terms of focusing on individuality, that came into play when I started playing with Gary Burton’s band. Even before that, when I got to Berklee, there were a lot of really good saxophone players who had a lot of facility on the instrument and who were checking out the same guys I was checking out. So all of a sudden I was hit with this reality of individualism. I remember hearing this great tenor player, Tommy Smith, play. We had very similar influences, Trane, Michael Brecker and whatnot, but he had a very individual sound at a young age, and I remember being really impressed by that. That made a big impression on me, like, “Wow, he’s not only playing all the stuff I’m playing, but he’s got a personality, and it’s really tangible.” I thought, “Ok, that’s something I should work on, I should try to develop that.” It’s a hard thing to develop when you’re in the middle of trying to assimilate all this language and all these different players. But what I tried to do—again, at Berklee—was pay attention to things that struck me on an aesthetic level, that seemed to be different from what I was hearing people do. I tried to be open to what struck me, and I’d try to take the ball and run with it kind of thing.

Gary Burton, when I started playing with his band, would talk about how thematic development could get you away from playing licks and things that you practiced, and get you into really improvising. I don’t know if he called it “real improvising,” but… Then when I was in his band, he would give… We’d be on the road, and he’d give the occasional clinic with the group, and I would be there and I’d listen to him do this rap about thematic development and improvisation… Again, it’s not like I just all of a sudden changed course in the middle of the stream, but I was just checking it out. Then, during the same time I had to practice some things in wide intervals, and I was always drawn to that sound, and I started thinking, “That’s not something that I hear people do all the time, and that’s something I really like—maybe I should try to explore that.” So I explored it, and continued to explore it over the years. But I embraced that, and then this thing about thematic development I think begins… Again, I was exposed to it through Gary, but it was a few years later when I really started working on it and really started embracing it.

TP:   A lot of people in your generation are faced with this profusion of vocabulary.

DONNY:   Right.

TP:   so much information. One other thing (tell me if I’m wrong) that you might have used to explore new byways was exploring the pan-American conception and playing with Danilo Perez. I’m sure that brought you to all sorts of fresh places.

DONNY:   Well, it did. My initial exposure to that, again, was playing with my father’s band. He had a group that had percussion and played Cal Tjader-esque Latin Jazz. I think just growing up with that, and playing with a salsa band, I really had an affinity for that music. This was after Berklee, when I first moved to New York, but I went on the road with Danilo, and had been playing Argentinean folk music with Fernando Tarres… That really changed things for me in a dramatic way—especially my relationship with Danilo. He gave me some serious pointers along the way that, if I stopped and really shifted course completely.

TP: Can you be a bit more specific?

DONNY:   The first time it happened was in the early ‘90s, when we were on tour in Argentina with Fernando Tarres. Danilo said to me kind of what you’re saying:  “Man, you’ve got all this vocabulary together, but you need to think more about how you present it, and you need to explore phrasing more.” I was like, “Wow, yeah, you’re right.” Then he gave me some examples, like, “Take a bar of 8 eighth notes and divide them into a group of 3 and then a group of 5, and play your melodic idea, but you can give an accent at the beginning of the bar and then on the 4th eight note. So you’re making this 3 and 5.” That was his initial example. I thought, “God, I’d never thought about working on stuff like that.” So I took that idea and really ran with it, and just worked on my phrasing.

TP:   So it applied to music outside of just Danilo’s music.

DONNY:   Oh, of course. Because in this context, actually, we were both sidemen. Then I did a tour with Danilo’s group not long after that, and then there was heavy exposure to clave, and to Afro-Cuban folk music, Panamanian folk music, etc., etc. Again, that was something that really changed my life, and I embraced it, studying that, playing with a lot of different groups—with Santi DiBriano a lot, with Hector Martignon. I just was studying rhythm, or studying those folkloric rhythm patterns and the patterns that go with them rhythmically. For a fair amount of time, I was thinking of the saxophone more as a percussion instrument…in a way. I would take these rhythms and apply them to how I would practice playing over tunes, and just try to strengthen my rhythmic vocabulary.

I know one of the overviews of this article is about individuality, creating a voice. I found that working on that stuff gave me a lot more flexibility rhythmically, and with that, a lot more freedom to explore leaving wide spaces, and looking at all these different ways I could approach the rhythm that freed me up to have a much greater range of expression as an improviser than I had before. That enabled me, I think, to get to a place where I didn’t have to rely on my technical proficiency, that I could think like a drummer, I could think like a singer, and I could have the confidence to do that, and to leave that space, and not feel like I had to fill it up.

TP:   You’re the third straight person who spoke of thinking like a singer. That’s interesting.

DONNY:   Yeah, that’s a really good thing to check out, obviously, if you’re a melody player, is to study the way singers phrase things, the way they’ll sing a melody. I think it has a real immediate effect on the way you’re playing something. Literally, I’m on the bandstand, I’m playing a melody, and I’m imagining that I’m Frank Sinatra, or I’m imagining that I’m Sarah Vaughan.

TP: Literally.

DONNY:   Yeah. Of course, it doesn’t happen every night. But it’s those times when I feel like I’m playing the melody and I’m just on auto-pilot, or nothing is really happening, and, “Wait a minute, let me change the framework about how I’m thinking about this or how I’m dealing with it.”

TP:   Can you speak about tone production? This is in the context of a commonly stated critique of young players of the jazz conservatory generation, that older players often say it’s hard to tell them apart. I don’t know if this is true or not. But Ron Blake was talking about a sort of orthodox way to play the saxophone, a certain mouthpiece, and so on… But the old ethos that you can tell somebody by their sound with one phrase, as with people in the old days.

DONNY:   I would say that I feel like I can tell… If it’s Mark Turner, when I’m listening, right away I can tell it’s him. Or Chris Potter, or Seamus, or David Binney, or Miguel Zenon, I feel like a lot of people these days have distinctive voices, at least to my ears. I don’t have that feeling of everybody sounds the same. Although I can understand where that’s coming from. I’m speaking about people who are probably pretty individualistic players. Certainly, because jazz education has come so far, and as you mentioned, there’s so much information out there, it’s no wonder that a lot of young players will sound similar because they’re getting similar information. But that’s the challenge for them, is how can they take that information, those influences, and come up with their own sound. That’s up to each individual. In terms of equipment and mouthpiece and so on, I certainly never felt like I had to play this or had to play that—outside of playing a Selmer saxophone, which most people play. But you don’t even have to do that. Dave Liebman sounds amazing on what he plays… Different people play different things. But it is obviously very important to find your own sound and your own way of doing things, but that’s just the journey that everybody is on.

TP:   is that a more challenging thing to do these days because of the profusion of information?

DONNY:   Yeah, I think it is. I think it is. I think it is more challenging to come up with something that’s new or interesting…I’m not even saying new, but a way of putting all the information out there together into a coherent, original language. Now, that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge. Because it’s not just playing over bebop tunes—which is not easy, I’m not insinuating that. But yeah, there’s a lot more to process now. Because of the way the music industry has changed and the way jazz education has changed, it makes it harder, but it’s easier and harder at the same time—if that makes sense. There’s more available, but yet how to put that together into a real individual language is difficult.

TP: Also, a lot of the most individualistic players of this period did a lot of bandstand playing when they were young.

DONNY:   Yeah, I think that’s true. I can give you an example of that in my own life. When I was rehearsing with Gary Burton… he put together this Berklee all-star group of students to do this jazz cruise. I was pretty nervous, and when I was rehearsing, I’d never really got into my comfort… I felt like I was struggling or whatever. But as soon as we got on that cruise, and we played a gig, as soon as we got on the bandstand, I played a lot better, and I felt much more comfortable.  Gary commented on that to me sometime later during the week that it was a big difference. I realized at that point, it was all the experience I had with my father, and with the group I had with Kenny Wolleson—that really helped me out. Because I was able to get into a more creative zone on the bandstand. I wasn’t nervous, because I was more comfortable there than I was rehearsing the music, ironically enough. That’s not the case any more. But being on the bandstand all the time, having to play solo after solo really helped me out.

For me, as I already said on the individual sound thing, it’s being open to it and following your instinct. What touches you musically? It’s maybe something unexpected, but not being afraid to follow that.

TP:   Do you deliberately put yourself in new situations? For example, this new trio recording. Is that the purpose towards which you’re framing yourself in that context, or is that a byproduct of looking for different environments?

DONNY:   It’s the latter. Just looking for a different… the two records I’d done before that were these more produced, more conceptual things, and I was like, “No, let me get back to blowing.” I was consciously like, “I need to do something different,” and this is different, and it’s a format that I love, that’s challenging, that has all this history, and so on.

TP:   Were you thinking during your developmental years about an individual voice?

DONNY:   Definitely.

TP:   Was it totally for you, or otherwise…

DONNY:   it was something I was aware of and concerned about, in a way. Like, “Ok, how can I find my own way?” It was a process that happened over time, but it was definitely on my mind, how can I find my own way of playing music in a way that seems true to me?’ I think I was at a certain point where I had all this technical proficiency, and I had worked on all these Trane solos… In other words, I could play all this shit. But it didn’t mean anything to me. It was at that time of, “well, if this doesn’t mean anything to me, then what DOES mean something to me?” How can I shed away all this BS and get to the heart of what I want to try to say as an improviser? For me, that was really embracing thematic and melodic development, which Gary Burton talked about and Sonny was really my guiding light for that. So it was like really letting go of… I can remember going to sessions in the early ‘90s, playing, and not even getting into playing a lot of notes at all, because I wasn’t hearing it, and I had made this commitment to try to only play what I was really hearing, and be TRULY in the moment as an improviser. That meant, for me, letting go of a lot of the stuff that I could “play,” but I wasn’t truly hearing it. So I tried to let go of that completely and to be totally in the moment as an improviser.

TP: Getting back to these older players who talked about telling a story and the dialogic quality of improvising, or that Charlie Parker would describe the woman walking into the room, and so on. Do any of these notions play into your improvising. He said that he applied some of the tactics he’d studied in theater improv to his musical improvisation? Do such things factor in, or is music a very different entity than verbal language?

DONNY: I definitely think about it in terms of telling a story. I’ll think about the beginning of a solo is like the beginning of a short story—you introduce a subject or a character. Then the character develops the story. That’s in a perfect world what the solo is like.

*_*_*_*_*_

Donny McCaslin (Seen From Above) – (2000):

Back in 1988, when Donny McCaslin was a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, vibraphone master Gary Burton hired him for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet.  The prestigious gig marked phase two of McCaslin’s education.  A New Yorker since 1991, he hasn’t stopped working, navigating the diverse sonic ambiance of a congeries of top-shelf bands in the jazz mecca, which range from state-of-the-art fusion (Steps Ahead) to Latin (Santi DiBriano’s Panamaniacs, Danilo Perez, Fernando Tarres, Hector Martignon) to speculative improvisation (the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and Lan Xang) to the Mingus Big Band and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.

All those experiences helped mold the fully-formed musical personality we hear inflecting the open-ended terrain of Seen From Above, Donny McCaslin’s second leader album.  Here’s what the 33-year-old virtuoso brings to the table.  Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect them to, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing like-minded partners Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Jim Black, all 30-something 21st century jazzfolk of like sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the musical proceedings.

McCaslin’s story begins in Santa Cruz, California,  a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, where his father Don McCaslin continues to sustain a steady gig as pianist and vibraphonist.  “My Dad has a Cal Tjader thing happening on vibes, and on piano he’s really into Red Garland,” McCaslin states.  “I’d go with him every Sunday morning to the mall where he had a gig from 12 until 5, and help him set up the piano and the vibes.  Before I was able to walk around on my own, he had me sit on a chair in the middle of the band, where I’d watch the whole thing go down for hours.”  A poor study in junior high school photography class, McCaslin decided to enter Beginning Orchestra and — inspired by the saxophonist in his father’s band, “a really colorful guy, very charismatic, a hippie, tie-dye shirts…I remember looking into the bell of his horn and seeing this pool of saliva with a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it; to me as a 12-year-old, he was really cool” — chose the tenor saxophone as his instrument.

McCaslin progressed rapidly, taking advantage of the area’s first-class music programs and first-hand interaction with his father.  “When I was beginning to play, my father would take his Wurlitzer to the barn behind my Mom’s house, set it up, and we’d play for hours on end,” he recalls.  McCaslin also was able to hear top musicians at Kuumbwa, a nonprofit concert venue in Santa Cruz.  “I saw Elvin Jones there with Pat LaBarbera, and Sonny Fortune a couple of weeks later,” says McCaslin, who played a hometown engagement at the attractive room a few weeks before our conversation.  “Every Monday night the big groups came into town, so from age 12 on I was able to hear guys from New York live, which was important and inspirational.”

He continues: “I was the only freshman in my high school band; my director, Don Keller, had a bunch of original Ellington charts, so at 14 we were playing things like ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue,’ ‘Warm Valley,’ ‘Blood Count,’ ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’  I could barely read music, and I was totally in over my head, but I learned a lot.  My earliest influences were Bird and Trane, and then probably Michael Brecker, a little Sonny Rollins, a little Sonny Stitt.  The way Coltrane played seemed so heavy and profound, so urgent; I always have loved the sense of emotional catharsis that can come through improvising, and I felt it embodied in his playing.  Brecker was such a virtuoso, and records like “Steps Ahead” and “80/81″ sounded so modern, like the new happening thing.”

McCaslin matriculated at Berklee in 1984, where he reveled in interaction with a peer group of big-fish young musicians who’d converged in Boston from points around the planet, and took advantage of first-hand contact with teachers like Herb Pomeroy and George Garzone.  “It was very liberating studying with George,” he relates.  “He gave me patterns to practice that broke all the rules you learn in school, a lot of notes outside the chord scale, and wild intervals.  During my years with Gary Burton, I learned a lot about thematic development, thematic improvising, being disciplined in the sense of saying what I had to say clearly and succinctly in, say, two choruses, and then getting out.”

Once in New York, McCaslin began the arduous, rewarding process of shedding chameleonic flexibility to inhabit the skin of his own sound.  “It was only after I’d been in New York for a couple of years that I started to know conceptually how I wanted to play and write,” he confides.  On a recommendation from Burton, he worked with bass legend Eddie Gomez, gigged with various Berklee cohorts, and began to find work playing Latin music of all description.

“I always had an affinity for Latin music in Santa Cruz,” McCaslin notes.  “First, my father was into Cal Tjader and Latin Jazz, and I played in an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos when I was in high school.  While I was in Gary’s band he made a live record with Astor Piazzola at Montreux, which I absorbed.  When I got to New York I sat in with Santi DiBriano at the Village Gate, who started calling me to play with his band the Panamaniacs.  I’d been in the dorm at Berklee with Danilo Perez, who’d played with Santi earlier, and Danilo recommended me to Fernando Tarres, with whom I worked and recorded a lot.  Though I had only a layman’s ear knowledge of clave, I did a couple of tours with Danilo in the ’90s, and he encouraged me to study Afro-Cuban music in a comprehensive way.  I started taking lessons with Bobby Sanabria, and it’s expanded my rhythmic vocabulary immensely.

“Playing with Santi was very important.  The band had tunes that were straight ahead, tunes that were clave-based, tunes that we’d play free on.  I was put into an environment where I had to deal with all these different styles while retaining a unified band approach.  And being the only horn player, I had a lot of space to play and a lot of responsibility.”

McCaslin took on similar responsibilities during his four years with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the ’90s edition of Steps Ahead, where he filled the tenor chair Michael Brecker once had held; he’s heard to strong effect on the 1995 recording Vibe [NYC] with musicians like Rachel Z, Michael Cain, Victor Bailey, James Genus and Clarence Penn.  “It was a very good gig,” McCaslin smiles.  “Mike is kind of a hippie at heart, and I relate to him as a person because I grew up in that culture.  Whereas Gary was very exacting as a bandleader, Mike was really loose, gave me a lot of freedom.  Occasionally he would say something, but for the most part he let me do my thing.”

With that background in mind, the stance of open-endedness with discipline that permeates the eight McCaslin originals on Seen From Above makes perfect sense.  “I’ve always had a sense of eclecticism,” McCaslin states.  “When I was at Berklee I played in a Rock band for a while, and I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York.  I enjoy playing music.  I’m not a purist about Bebop or whatever, though I love just playing tunes in an open situation with the right guys — it’s like going home.  At the same time, I feel I have something to say as an original music artist, and this is the time to do it.”

The mix wouldn’t work without a band of fluid, flexible improvisers who share McCaslin’s ample comfort zone for articulating a wide umbrella of styles without ever sounding out of their element.  McCaslin knows Ben Monder — who recorded the trio session Dust for Arabesque in 1996 — from frequent gigs with Maria Schneider’s orchestra; the guitarist deploys his vast harmonic vocabulary and nuanced orchestrative capabilities throughout.  Precisely off-center trapsetter Jim Black — known for his work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, and Pachora — was a Berklee classmate, though, McCaslin confesses, “I’ve hardly played with him since.  The way he plays, utilizing a range of different sounds with a great sense of colors and dynamics, is what I was hearing for some of these tunes.”

Ditto with Scott Colley, whom McCaslin met during the fellow Californian’s late ’80s tenure with Carmen McRae; he’s presently bassist of choice with Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, and is McCaslin’s bandmate in Lan Xang, an open form collective quartet whose other members are alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson.  “I heard Scott playing the bass line that begins ‘Manresa’ as I wrote it,” McCaslin relates.  “I knew he could play it the right way — make it ROCK!   Originally it was called ‘Hippie Rock Tune,’ because that’s exactly what it is to me!  Manresa is a beach in northern California, and it conveys the feeling of home.”

The music of Olivier Messaien inspired McCaslin to write the title track — a lovely melody replete with wide interval jumps — and the up-tempo swinger “Frontiers,” on which McCaslin takes a spectacular solo, achieving an inside-outside feel reminiscent of ’90s tenor hero Joe Lovano.  “Messaien’s harmonic language is so interesting, his rhythmic language is so advanced — his music sounds majestic and emotional,” McCaslin explains.

McCaslin penned “Second Line Sally” — both the George Gruntz Concert Band and Lan Xang have recorded it — during Boston days as a swing number; here it gets a fun-house Zigaboo Modaliste treatment, as Black gives it up for the groove.

“These Were Palaces” is a ballad written at the end of a relationship.   “When playing the tune, I’m thinking of the way Jonatha Brook sings,” McCaslin says.  “Her writing actually has had a big influence on me.  ‘Mick Gee’ has a drum-and-bass feel.  Jim suggested we play it faster than I normally do to give it that edgy feeling to contrast with the other relaxed, grooving tempo.  I wanted it to have a shocking effect, with contrasting extremes.”

For “Strange Pilgrim,” “I wanted a swinging bass line with a quirky melody on top,” McCaslin says.  “I wanted to take a simple tune and do as much as I could to make it into a story that develops.”   It’s followed by “Going To The Territory,” a gospel-blues tinged tune with a Rock inflection that reminds you of early ’70s Keith Jarrett.

“Seen From Above” ends with a relaxed idiomatic McCaslin-Colley duo on the memorable refrain of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” reaffirming deep roots on an album where McCaslin reveals those sources more through phrasing and improvisational acuity than in the formal architecture of the tunes.  “Santa Cruz was very open in music and in art when I grew up,” McCaslin concludes.  “There were salsa bands, straight-ahead jazz trios, free jazz, and I was exposed to all of it.  It was all just music.  I think that notion is something I share with all the guys in this band.  This record is my music, and it reflects all the influences I’ve absorbed through the years.

“The thing that appeals to me about jazz is the freedom of improvisation. I want to do my best to play at the highest level that I can aesthetically.  Playing with musicians of this caliber, who can lift the music into that really exciting and wonderful place, is what I’ve worked towards and practiced for all these years.”

*_*_*_*_

Liner Notes, Donny McCaslin, Give and Go–2005

Highly regarded by fellow musicians and connoisseurs of hardcore jazz since he settled in New York in 1991, saxophonist Donny McCaslin became a subject of mainstream jazz conversation when he earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Solo for his soulful, dramatic, architecturally cogent statement on Buleria, Soleá y Rumba, an extended opus by composer Maria Schneider that appears on Schneider’s Grammy winning CD Concert In The Garden.

On Buleria, McCaslin revealed the qualities that have attracted such demanding bandleaders as Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Mike Mainieri, and Gary Burton, who in 1988 recruited McCaslin, then a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet. In the notes for Seen From Above, McCaslin’s 2000 date on Arabesque, I summarized them: “Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing his partners, all 21st century jazzmen of similar sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the proceedings.”

Let’s add that McCaslin’s penchant for exploration rests upon an authoritative command of the vocabularies of hardcore jazz and the Spanish Tinge, which coexist holistically in his tonal personality. A native of Santa Cruz, California, a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, he first encountered both idioms through his father, Don, a gigging pianist and vibraphonist influenced by Red Garland and Cal Tjader. A student of sax gurus Bill Pierce, Joe Viola and George Garzone during his years at Berklee, McCaslin once earned praise from Leonard Feather for “virtually stealing the show” from Phil Woods, Red Holloway, Flip Phillips and David “Fathead” Newman during a saxophone jam on a cruise ship. On the Latin side, he played in high school years with an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos, and as a ‘90s New Yorker, worked intermittently with Perez, a Berklee dorm-mate, with Argentine guitarist Fernando Tarres, and with the Panamaniacs, a Santi DiBriano-led unit that explored clave, straight-ahead and open feels while retaining a unified sound..

On Give ‘n’ Go, his Criss-Cross leader debut, McCaslin draws on lessons learned with Danilo Perez during 2001-02, when he toured steadily on Perez’ Motherland Project, and on his more recent travels with Maria Schneider, a frequent employer in 2004-05.

“Danilo is a great educator as well as a great musician, and it’s inspiring to be around him,” McCaslin relates. “I’d bring blank music paper with me at soundcheck, and as we’d play he’d tell me he was looking at a certain voicing, or discuss some rhythmic progression, and I’d write it down. It was like being back in school—he was sharing so much information.

“One thing that I appreciate about Maria’s writing is how every single part is meaningful. Whether you’re playing the fourth reed chair or the third trombone chair, all the lines have significance and are melodies in and of themselves. That’s influenced me. Also her lyricism and the sheer beauty of her music. She’s not afraid to do what she’s hearing. You can call it ‘orchestral jazz’ or whatever you want, but it is what it is, and she’s just putting it out there.”  Helped by several preparatory gigs at Manhattan’s 55 Bar and Brooklyn’s L&M Loft, McCaslin puts out seven original compositions with support from an A-list cohort. As on all of McCaslin’s dates, Scott Colley, a fellow Californian, anchors the flow on bass. They met while McCaslin was with Burton and Colley was with Carmen McRae, and first recorded together on the 1995 Dave Binney album Luxury of Guessing. After that session, McCaslin, Binney, Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield—the latter subsequently replaced by Santa Cruz native Kenny Wolleson—formed the collective quartet Lan Xang, a touring unit until the end of the ‘90s.

Criss-Cross devotees will be familiar with the work of John Swana, the Philadelphia-based trumpet virtuoso, who appears on four selections. “Alex Sipiagin was always telling me how great he thinks John is,” says McCaslin, referring to the Russian trumpet virtuoso (also a Criss-Cross artist), a frequent bandmate. “I played with his organ trio in Philly, and it was a lot of fun. I felt there was some sort of connection, like stylistically he could play straight-ahead but also open at the same time.”

Here as on Seen From Above, McCaslin uses guitar as the chordal instrument, deploying Steve Cardenas, a Kansas City native who currently plays with the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and a Joey Baron-led quartet called Killer Joey.

“I met Steve more than 15 years ago when he was living in San Francisco, and Kenny Wolleson set up some California gigs for me to do when I came home from college,” McCaslin recalls. “He really gets inside a tune, and brings forth the harmony in a thoughtful way. He’s also a great comper; I feel he hears what I’m doing and makes it sound better, gives me a springboard to play off of.”

A past contributor to Criss-Cross sessions by Alex Sipiagin, Conrad Herwig, Ryan Kisor and J.D. Allen, drummer Gene Jackson is a master at alchemizing hybrid rhythms from ethnic metric signatures. McCaslin began to feel Jackson’s beat on gigs with Sipiagin and on several tours of Japan with singer Monday Ichiru.

“Gene’s playing is very strong, and he likes to go for it and stretch,” McCaslin remarks. “But no matter how busy or wild things get, I still feel a certain sense of grounding that I can latch onto. We egg each other on.

The McCaslin-Jackson simpatico is evident on “Outlaw,” an ebullient long form piece inspired by an Egberto Gismonti tune. McCaslin rehearsed it with Danilo Perez, who included other McCaslin tunes in the Motherland Project repertoire. “One thing we added was the counterpoint bassline in the last section of the melody, which I end up doubling,” McCaslin says. “But the challenge was coming up with the right feel. I’ve played it sometimes as a samba and sometimes with a more straight-eighth rock feel, but it never felt right. Gene and I worked on it, and he came up with what he calls an American samba.” McCaslin and Swana uncork melodic solos with a dollop of saudade.

Based on a synthetic scale from Messaien’s etude book, Modes For Limited Transposition, “Scrappy” is a quirky line with sardonic Monkish phrasing, intriguing intervals, and disjunctive hits. Goosed by the kinetic Jackson, McCaslin and Cardenas incorporate these shapes and dynamics on stimulating solos.

Composed in 2000, “Drift” claims Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” as an antecedent. The A-section has a moody three-feel, while in the B-section Jackson’s rubato soundpainting details the melody and chords. Swana’s exquisite dark tone fits the melody like a custom-tailored suit, and McCaslin sustains the mood, his tenor voice drenched with soulful emotion.

“I was listening to Radiohead at the time I wrote the tune,” says McCaslin of Give and Go, also from 2000. The title refers to the basketball tactic of passing, cutting directly to the basket, and receiving a return pass for an easy shot, a process represented by the Cardenas-McCaslin interchange on the jagged intervals of the theme. “The melody came about when I was improvising on a synthetic scale, and I heard a harmony that to me sounded like a Radiohead-inspired piece. I was looking to hear some music that excites me and stimulates my sense of creativity. I landed on a Radiohead record. The tunes are interesting, the harmony is weird and different, it’s not the typical pop progression, plus all these other things happen in the arrangement through the production.”  The Liberators’ Song is McCaslin’s response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’  The General In His Labyrinth, a novel in which General Simon Bolivar is the chief protagonist. “It’s a melody and a mood,” says McCaslin of the brooding, Shorteresque refrain, his voice-like tone cosigned by Jackson’s gentle tom-toms and cymbal splashes.

McCaslin addresses clave structures with precision and finesse on “Two/Three,” composed during his stint with Danilo Perez. “I originally conceived of it as a son, but Gene wanted to play it as a rumba,” McCaslin says. “Danilo’s tunes contain a lot of counterpoint between the bass and the melody. Here I conceived of the bass line first, and to me the bass player’s melody is almost the more compelling one.” Colley demonstrates why on his introductory statement over Jackson’s sticked clave modulations. On their ensuing solos, Cardenas, McCaslin (on soprano) and Jackson handle the involved form with elegant panache. Written during McCaslin’s Lan Xang days, Doom Fuss features an angular two-bar bassline pattern and much open-ended McCaslin-Swana call-and-response.

Following his custom of concluding records with a hardcore jazz classic, McCaslin closes with Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel,”  which he learned in Boston days with Ken Schaphorst’s big band. After McCaslin’s reharmonized, rhythmically displaced intro, inspired blowing commences over Jackson’s Frankie Dunlop-inspired swing-with-a-limp.
“I’ve played it at sessions for years,” says McCaslin, who knows how to use a tricky line to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Also, Steve co-authored a book of Monk tunes with Don Sickler, so  I knew he could nail it and get inside the harmony.”

Jazz-obsessed from his formative years, McCaslin tells his stories with the lucid joie de vivre of a natural improviser. But he has never allowed revered traditions to be a ball and chain.

“I love playing tunes and stretching,” he says. “It’s part of my foundation; it feels like home. But I don’t usually play standards when I do gigs as a leader, because I want to get my original music out there. I’ve always had sense of eclecticism. At Berklee I played in a Rock band. I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York. I just enjoy playing music.”

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