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.

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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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For Scott Colley’s 54th Birthday, my liner notes for the 1998 Criss Cross CD, “Subliminal”

Best of birthdays to bass master Scott Colley, who turns 54 today. For the occasion, here’s my liner notes for his 1998 Criss Cross CD, subliminal…, in which Scott spoke at length about his background, influences and aesthetics.

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On subliminal…, his Criss-Cross debut, Scott Colley and a world-class quartet present a seamless, suite-like program of music that has the quality of wide-ranging conversation, at once animated and reflective.  “I knew from playing in trio with Bill Stewart and Chris Potter that it doesn’t matter what material we’re playing because they’re such experienced improvisers,” notes the 34-year-old bassist.  “We’ve done things with no preconceived forms whatsoever, and I know it will work.  I can hear their sounds while I’m writing, which makes me feel free to experiment with my compositions.  When I’m composing it’s important for me to have specific musicians in mind.”

Of Potter, a tenorist of uncanny chops and rampant imagination currently with Dave Holland’s band (his litany of credits is now too long to list), Colley says: “I have very strong feelings about Chris’ playing.  I’m impressed with his directness, his ability to focus which allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, and in that way it’s challenging to play with him.  Here he explores a lot of different sounds from the horn, using the extreme range of the instrument, changing timbre constantly.”

Of Bill Stewart, a keenly textural drummer of emphatic beat whose rhythmic palette encompasses delicate watercolors to action painting, Colley continues, “As much as Bill can stretch the form and execute polyrhythms in different ways, his playing is very intricate and precise.  He’s aware of exactly where he is in the form all the time.  His focus is amazing.  It’s almost like turning on and off a light switch; when he starts playing, it’s there.”

Of pianist Bill Carrothers, with whom Colley first played a few weeks before the recording, the bassist remarks: “I’m impressed with Bill’s ability, while playing changes, to voice them completely different on every chorus; he’s very present, hears the solos, hears everything that’s going on, and adapts his voicings accordingly.  He’s obviously very influenced by 20th Century Classical Music.  The first night I played with Bill we played a Bill Stewart ballad that I hadn’t played before, and he did what I described.  I soloed, started to pick notes outside of the written chord changes, and he’d immediately incorporate those into his voicings.”

It all boils down to listening for the California native — on the most subliminal level.  That’s how he began.  “A lot of my early experiences were playing by ear,” Colley recalls.  “At 13 I began playing two nights a week at a jam session in Pasadena.  The older musicians would give me records and tell me which songs we were going to play next week.  I’d take, say, the song ‘Old Folks’ from Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, which was one of my favorite records at the time.  I’d play Miles’ solo over and over, then play along with Paul Chambers’ bass lines and try to arpeggiate the inner voices, figure out on piano exactly what was going on.  That turned out to my benefit, because I had to rely on my ear.  It wasn’t until later that I realized what I was doing theoretically.  Learning music in this way teaches you the importance of musical conversation.  If all you have is the paper, and you’re learning chord changes by sight, you’ll understand the theory, but you don’t gain the feeling, and your ear doesn’t develop.  There’s so much inflection in the way all these great musicians play, and that’s what you really want to get to.”

Colley’s been a professional musician ever since.  “I did the jam session for three years,” he recalls.  “I would play there until 1, then from 2 to 4 I often went to a place called the Espresso Bar, playing behind poets, duos or trios.  From 16 to 18 I played duo gigs around L.A. with Jimmy Rowles.  He would never tell me what he was going to play; he’d just do it.  I learned song after song that way.  He was a beautiful player and a great composer.

“At 13 I started studying with Monty Budwig, a very giving teacher, a great influence.  He was playing with Zoot Sims and many other players, and he’d take me to L.A. clubs like Donte’s and Carmelo’s.  The lessons were all-day sessions where we’d listen to records, he’d give me records to take home; we’d play classical duets and then jazz standards.  I was studying particularly Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden.  Mingus I loved very early on in terms of structure, composition, the variety of sounds and textures he used, the incredible orchestrations, the power of the music — and so much conviction.  With LaFaro, it was his fluidity, melodic sense, and incredible facility, which blows you away at 13 years old — and still does.  I spent a lot of time playing along with Paul Chambers’ solos, which were complete, easy to follow, very direct and beautiful.

“I was really kind of a purist until my older brother, who is a drummer and was always trying to turn me on to different styles of music, took me to see Weather Report during their Heavy Weather period.  It was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.  Seeing Jaco Pastorius play made me realize that there was so much other stuff out there other than the straight-ahead types of jazz that I’d been listening that I had no idea about.

“Later, at 16 or 17, I listened to a lot of Ornette’s music, and Charlie began to influence me.  He had the same qualities of simplicity and beauty that I appreciated in Paul Chambers.  More than that, I was impressed by his patience.  He never plays anything superfluous; you get the feeling every note is exactly what he means.  The ’70s was a bleak period for recording for bass.  Everybody was using direct-from-the-pickup, losing a lot of the beauty of the instrument’s natural sound, but Charlie never seemed to succumb to that.  His sound has so much integrity; it’s so much part of what he plays.  Like Jim Hall, who I’ve worked with in the last few years, he’s a true improviser, with no preconceptions of what’s going to happen next, reacting to everything going on within the group in the atmosphere of that moment.

“I didn’t take high school too seriously, but I finished, though I didn’t plan to go to college.  Then I heard that Charlie was teaching at California Institute of the Arts, so I auditioned.  They were just starting a jazz department, and they gave me a full scholarship in 1984.  It was a great experience.  I became totally involved in the school’s incredible World Music program, which included traditional African music, Javanese Gamelan from Indonesia, North and South Indian music.  There are classes on theory related to those different musics, and ensembles you play in.  They also had a wonderful faculty.”

In 1986, Colley began touring and recording with Carmen McRae; two years later he received his Bachelors of Music degree, and moved to New York City.  He became one of New York’s busiest bassists, working and recording with musicians representing a 360̊ style spectrum — Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, James Newton, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, Mike Stern, Roy Hargrove, T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Pat Martino, Chris Potter, Tim Berne, Lost Tribe, and many others.  He leads Portable Universe, a sextet, and is involved in Lan Xang, a new collective quartet.

subliminal… is Colley’s third 1998 release.  He can’t quite put his finger on what triggered this burst of composition after ten years blending as the penultimate sideman.  “I’ve been writing more, and feel it’s time to do more of my own music,” he says.  “The process of recording solidifies your concept.  It forces you to get specific about the pieces you’re creating.  I’ve done more than 60 CD’s in the last eight years, and I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great leaders, to observe how it’s done right.”

subliminal… opens with Bill Stewart’s “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” a 24-bar tune in 6/4 “with a 4/4 bar in there somewhere. I like the way the melody is offset from the rhythm, starting two beats before the bass line begins.  It’s interesting to play on.”

Colley’s compelling title track “was written on the bass.  I like to compose that way because I hear a lot melodically that I don’t hear on the piano — it’s a much more open voice for me.  It’s a challenging line, with the A-section in 9/2 and the B-section in 3/4.   We solo over the 9/2 form, and play interludes between the solos.”

Potter’s burgundy bass clarinet tone is rich and blended throughout “The End and the Beginning,” a mysteriously wistful Colley ballad that evokes complex emotion.  It’s followed by Potter’s “Turangalila,” inspired by the reedman’s meditations on a composition of Messaien.  “Chris wrote it out with no changes per se,” Colley says.  “The improvising is free.  It has a bass and tenor melody in unison.  It’s very open, and points you in a direction that lets you play very freely with the ideas.”

Carrothers’ chromaticism and Potter’s huge tenor sound bring Colley’s slow-medium ballad “Out of The Void” vividly to life, then the band plays Charlie Parker’s “Segment” with inspired idiomatic heat.  Bill Stewart’s solo at the top “really illustrates his ability; no matter how abstract his ideas might be, the form is always there — it always comes back to one.”  Potter’s rhythmically free tenor solo conjures the ghost of Bird ascending, while Colley walks with the confident assertion he imbibed from the playing of Leroy Vinnegar and Paul Chambers years ago.

Colley offers some thoughts on the nature of love with “Is What It Is,” utilizing the familiar changes and “adding a couple of notes.  I like writing over forms I already know that everybody’s done for a long period of time, creating different melodies that give you new things to play over.”

“Impossible Vacation” contains 10 bars of 4/4, 11 bars of 3/4, and 4 bars of 4/4.  “Playing freely over this piece so that it doesn’t seem like you’re marking time is a challenge,”  Colley notes.  The proceedings conclude with “Verbatim,” a spirited blues.

“I think a lot about contrast in general,” Colley concludes.  “Rhythmic contrast, harmonic contrast; thinking about what’s come before a composition when you’re setting it up.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Jimmy Rowles, for example, would write a simple chord progression, then place one note in the melody to offset it, like ‘Peacocks’ or ‘502 Blues.’  Those kind of compositions interest me.  Also I get bored very easily, so I like music that has a wide range of textures — playing on changes, playing on no-changes, playing on a melody, playing in 4 or 7 or 9, different instrumentations.

“I want to be involved in a lot of different music.  Some music might speak to me melodically, some rhythmically, some intellectually.  If I’m playing with Jim Hall one night, with Andrew Hill the next, and something more groove-oriented like Lan Xang the next, it just feeds a different part of me.  It’s all music I listen to, and absorb in different ways.  Essentially I have my style, whatever that is, and I can subtly adapt it for many different things.  I don’t think of music in terms of ‘this is inside and this is outside’ or ‘this is new music and this is old music.’  It’s more inclusive.  It comes back to listening.  When you’re listening to what’s really going on and not thinking about what you think is supposed to be going on, then you get to the root of what it’s about.”

 

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For Regina Carter’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2010

In honor of the magnificent violinist Regina Carter’s birthday, here’s a feature that I had the honor writing about her for Jazziz in 2010 around the release of Reverse Thread.

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It was the first day of spring, a mild, cloudless Sunday, a lovely day to sit on a bench on a tree-lined path in the upper quintile of Central Park for a conversation with Regina Carter. After a jam-packed winter itinerary—a late January performance of a commissioned violin concerto by Billy Childs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then a month on the road with the Monterey All-Stars, comprising Barron and his trio, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone, and here-and-there gigs with her working quintet—Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums—in advance of her new CD, Reverse Thread [E1], a meticulously constructed 12-tune program of folk and pop songs harvested from various spots in continental and diasporic Africa. With the possible exception of the 2003 date, Paganini: After A Dream, on which Carter played a recital comprising French Impressionism, tango, and bossa nova on the magnificent 1743 violin that belonged to Nicolò Paganini, Reverse Threads, which Carter produced herself, is the first document that completely represents her intentions, from the repertoire to the actual recording process.

The back story dates to a morning in September 2006, when Carter—then residing in a Central Park West apartment that was visible from the spot where we sat—received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had received a “genius grant” of $500,000, no strings attached.

“I hadn’t had my coffee, and thought it was a prank,” she said. After it became apparent that she hadn’t been punked, she added, “I couldn’t move, just stared out the window for a while.”

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: A month earlier, Carter had lost a breach of contract lawsuit for having cancelled a concert the previous year after the death of her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in the Detroit public school system. “It lasted a year, and cost me a pretty penny that I didn’t have,” she said. “My mom had beat cancer four times before, but they said cancer was a preexisting condition, and that I should have known better than to take the gig.”

After paying off debts and purchasing a mortgage on the New Jersey house that she presently shares with Garnett, her husband since 2005, Carter sought to actualize a long-standing dream of making a “world music” record. “Detroit was ethnically diverse, and I was exposed to a lot of music from different cultures at a very early age,” she said. “At some point, I noticed that  all the music I heard from all over the planet had an instrument that was either a violin or related to it.” A Suzuki-trained child prodigy on track to a classical career, Carter discovered jazz in high school, contracted out on various gigs (in tenth grade, she toured with the pop group Brainstorm, opening for, among other acts, Michael Jackson), and developed a predisposition to partake of the many musical flavors available in the Motor City’s diverse ethnic mix.

Carter’s initial intention was to “lean more towards Middle Eastern sounds,” but as she investigated, and heard “interesting music that I thought was from Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even Ireland, but always turned out to be indigenous music from different parts of Africa,” she transitioned to a different path. She spent a day at Manhattan’s World Music Institute, “just picking stuff—I bought something from almost everywhere.” Several of her musicians made suggestions, as did Randy Weston. But as Carter began to select the raw materials that resonated—the final cut includes tunes from Mali (Amadou and Mariam’s “Atistiya”), Madagascar (“Zerapiki”), Uganda’s Jews (“Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula [The Child Will Never Walk”]), and Puerto Rico (“Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina” by trombonist Papo Vazquez)—she became fascinated more with finding connective unitary threads and less concerned with differentiating the idiomatic particulars.

“I was thinking how we’re all related, how we all come from the same place,” she said. “To think of the music and culture of Africa back in the days of slavery, where the slave ships dropped people off, how those people then mixed with other cultures, and the music and the art that emerged from that became intriguing. Most of this music is not of my culture, but somehow it made me react emotionally. Beauty is beauty, wherever it comes from. Now, if something strikes me, it doesn’t mean I can translate it on my instrument, or with a group. A piece might not be what I thought it was. Those got tossed, and I narrowed it down to what I thought worked for us.”

For Carter, “us” meant a reconfigured ensemble. Before beginning her research, she recruited accordionist Holshouser in lieu of pianist Xavier Davis, and added Sissoko, a native of Mali. “I wanted the sound to be more chamber,” she says. “I wanted the group to be extremely quiet, and I wanted another instrument as quiet as violin—kora is even softer. I wanted to strip away as much amplification as I could. I don’t use a monitor, and Alvester can play extremely quiet. Whether I used electric or acoustic bass, I wanted an acoustic sound. I wanted to have improvisation and still connect to the jazz world. Otherwise, I would have hired a completely African band, and gone inside the music to try to understand everything about it. The album is my take as a Westerner and as a jazz musician.”

Over two years, Carter conceptualized the material, assigned arrangements, and whipped things into shape. “I cut stuff out,” she says. “A lot of this music doesn’t have deep harmonic content—it’s about the groove and the rhythm, creating a hypnotic effect, and you can’t have long solos over these sections.  Not to say they’re simple, but they presented another challenge. The beauty was in the simplicity. The task was to try to make it fit into our world, to impart a contemporary feeling without losing the original beauty—not go into playing pyrotechnics or try to force intricacy. Sometimes I’d get into trying to make something hip, but I was taking the hipness out of it. I had to get out of my own way, if you will, and just let the music by.”

[BREAK]

“When I was younger, I felt I had to prove something—and in a way, you do,” Carter reflected. “Now I’m very much at peace with where I am and who I am. I didn’t know whether anyone would pick this record up or not. But I needed to do it to satisfy my soul, and it was huge to be able to bring on only people who shared my vision.”

Towards that end, E1 honcho Chuck Mitchell, and violinist John Blake, serving as producer, helped Carter to eschew placing her soloistic abilities front and center, as on her six highly produced leader recordings since 1995 for Atlantic and Verve. Instead, she privileges collective dialog, her improvised declamations weaving in and out of the ensemble flow. In this regard, it’s useful to compare Reverse Threads to Carter’s eponymous Atlantic launch date record for Atlantic, on which, framed by personnels and producers, she represents a pan-stylistic sensibility—plugged-in, synthy-worldbeatish-funkish fusion tracks for the smooth jazz market, a Latin track, entr’acte duos with djembe, a concluding ballad duo that ends with a classical cadenza, all impeccably played—on which her tonal personality, as Greg Tate put it in the liner notes, is “better described as [a musician] who plays jazz rather than strictly a jazz musician.”

“They needed a concept first, which I felt was putting the cart before the horse,” Carter says of her experience with Atlantic, and, after 1998, with Verve, which repositioned her as a hardcore jazz musician. “Sometimes A&R people had difficulty understanding that I DID like all this music.  I grew up with Parliament and Funkadelics, all that stuff from Detroit.  I wasn’t trying to do a record to please everybody; I was pleasing myself. I learned to understand the business reasons, though—you’re a product now, and they’re trying to sell a product, so sometimes you’re put in a box.”

The box was literal as well as metaphorical. “In the studio, you’re all in separate rooms,” she says. “The minute you put a glass in front of me I can’t feel you. To hear someone coming through headphones and not from their instrument is the most unnatural way of playing music. Then you see that red light go on, and the panic starts, because all of a sudden you want to be perfect.”

She recalled being urged to improve her solo on a Kenny Barron tune while recording Rhythms of the Heart, her first Verve. “I thought, yeah, maybe I could,” Carter said. “I tried and tried. After a while, Kenny spoke up. He said, ‘You know what? You are where you are today, and you are who you are.’”

“We recorded Reverse Thread all in the same room, next to each other. I wanted some dirt, so to speak, and not have the mindset when I was playing, ‘I can go in and fix that later.’ I wanted it to be about the band and the performance of the piece, not about me.”

During her first years in New York, Carter eluded the box by participating in various creative contexts—with Tate in Black Rock Coalition hits, the String Trio of New York, such “downtown” bands as David Soldier’s String Quartet—that “stretched me in directions I’d never been.” Perhaps the most lasting such experience occurred in 1996, when Carter toured Blood on the Fields for three months with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. “Wynton wrote it to be played down and dirty, like a fiddle player,” she says. “None of the fluff. I hadn’t had much opportunity to play like that before, and I enjoyed it. It can be hard to get rid of the stuff you’ve learned, but it felt natural. In a situation like that, or swinging, I have to be conscious not to use vibrato—we spend so much time in European classical music studying how to get that vibrato, and  now I’m trying to lose it!”

In the liner notes to Rhythms of the Earth, Tate noted that Carter “now believed that swing is the ideal idiom for her instrument.” Indeed, she swings like the dickens throughout those proceedings, as she did at the end of 2009 with singer Allen Harris’ unit during a week-long working vacation at Umbria Winter Jazz in Orvieto, where she’d joined her husband, there for that gig, to prepare to play Childs’  Violin Concerto.

She discussed the technical particulars. Classical violinists, she said, trained to use the whole bow and a very light stroke, deploy so much vibrato on one note that they get to the next note late. Furthermore, using so much bow causes them to phrase on top of the beat rather than laying in the middle of it.

“Classical is my mother language, but I don’t really speak it any more,” she said. “Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to be careful about vibrato and phrasing, and to breathe more. In classical music, you sit straight up and you’re ready. With this kind of music, you’ve got to find the groove. You have to dance to the style—the way you move your body is how you’ll play. If I get too excited and nervous, I tend to play too much.”

Most important, Carter said, referencing her early Suzuki ear training, is treating the assimilation of various musical idioms as a process analogous to learning to speak a language. “It’s not about playing the notes exactly,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to records, and, more important, go to live concerts and study people, then tape yourself and hear if you’re doing that. Sometimes I do these Q&A sessions, and parents whose children are playing violin ask me to tell their kid that you have to learn classical music before you can play any other kind of music. ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s what you have to learn if you want to play classical music.’ Every language has its own grammar, its own technique.”

That being said, Carter follows a more generalized methodology on Reverse Thread.  “There’s different violins all over the continent, and so many ways of playing them,” she says. “I’d love to hone in one specific place, to spend some time and learn, say, Ghanaian fiddle music or the violin of Uganda. But this was more about my being a vocalist with the instrument.”

[BREAK]

“My mother’s thing was that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” Carter says. “When she died, I felt like an orphan—‘I can’t do this by myself; I’m not a grownup yet.’ You’re flailing for a while, and then you realize, ok, you’re good to go.” Indeed, for Carter, the grieving experience seemed to trigger long-standing aspirations to explore identity—both genealogical and intellectual—more meaningfully in her musical production.

“A lot of times in  the black community, horrible things were not to be spoken about,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a slave, and when my grandmother asked her about the markings on her back, she told her what they were from and then said, ‘We are not ever speaking about this again.’ My mother told me, but that’s all she got. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a part of our history that no one wants to deal with. And we need to deal with it. We need to know.”

Carter’s grandmother graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy. “I look at her name, Sarah Vandousa McCaskill. Where does Vandousa come from? As an African-American, I have many roots, and I’m interested in all of them. It would be nice to know if I was connected to some specific tribe, or a  people or an area. Growing up in the ‘60s and watching television, I experienced that Whoopi Goldberg thing of seeing the Prell commercials with the blonde hair going across the screen, and then looking at myself. I was always jealous. I’d see women from East India or Thailand, and they’d have all this jewelry, and see African women with all their garb—all of that stuff. I just thought, ‘I want something like that. Who am I? What is it to be an American?’”

Which are questions that Carter intends to explore for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue with this, but maybe hone in on an area,” he said. “I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg—why not push the door open and see what else I find?. But let’s see what happens. I always think I know what I’m going to do, but  I’m like a kid in a candy store—every day I change my mind.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Detroit, Jazziz, Regina Carter, violin

For Drum Master Ben Riley’s 84th Birthday, a WKCR Interview/Musician’s Show From 1994

Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.

*_*_*_*

Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):

TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music.  You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?

BR: I was four when they came.  I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it.  I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

BR: A guard.  In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall.  I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up.  Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.

TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?

BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school.  I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to.  So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me.  So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon.  The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time.  I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.

TP: Healthier!

BR: Yes.  But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…

TP: You were a paratrooper?

BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah.  I was in the last of the Black battalions.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?

BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area.  We weren’t on the main post with the buildings.  We were over into the Second World War barracks.  Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops.  So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence.  He said that was a very good idea.  We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade.  When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.”  So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!

TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?

BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan.  That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot.  We used to jam.  And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing.  This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something.  The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.

TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.

BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.

TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?

BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar.  On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions.  So you’d never know who was going to come in.  Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play.  Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.

TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…

BR: Not right away.  When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child.  So I got a job.  I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing.  It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent.  So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.”  So she really kind of helped me step off.  I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?

BR: Yes.  We had a fellow named Phil Wright.  He was a drummer, and also a teacher.  That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor.  We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together.  Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.

TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.

BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual.  So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in.  So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different  direction that they wanted to go into.  For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each.  I didn’t have to say, “This is…”  Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated.  But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this.  This is a little bit too difficult.  I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.”  It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke.   “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.”  I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table.  Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.

TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…

BR: Nobody’s business!

TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.

BR: Right.  This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night.  Usually that was going down to Minton’s!

[MUSIC:  Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]

TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.

BR: That’s right.  It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists.  You have three different styles here.  You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two.  He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat.  So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.

TP: But it’s very subtle.

BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose.  That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be.  It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat.  What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it.  The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand.  This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things.  I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do.  So his beat was really very technically efficient.  He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.

TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.

BR: A sound.  That’s so important.  I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound.  An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists,  Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.

TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.

BR: Yeah.  When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do.  But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo.  Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.”  And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time.  So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound.  Because now I know what I want to hear.  It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.

TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…

BR: Yeah.  Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound.  Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound.  So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.

TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing.  Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into.  Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing.  So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until.  So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch.  Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

BR: Right.  So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.

TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…

BR: Opened him up.  The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.”  [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up.  He framed the door for you.  When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do.  You find the things that you want to fit into this room.

TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.

BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners.  So you had the full scope.  You had to do like a vaudeville show plus.  I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…

TP: Talk about those experiences.

BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people.  This was all educational.  Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.”  So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.

TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.

BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks.  In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there.  Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation.  When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud.  They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room.  So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal.  That’s all she would let me bring to the gig.  So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal.  Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks.  There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name.  He played with Woody Herman, too.  Well, it will come back to me.

TP: Which room was this?

BR: This was a room called the Composer.  And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room.  I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.

TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.

BR: Yes, more or less.  Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places.  Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that.  But professionally I started in ’56.  The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston.  And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street.  So I was making that circuit…

TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.

BR: The supper club thing, yeah.  And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music.  That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.

TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.

BR: Yeah.  Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.

TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.

BR: [LAUGHS]  Oh, yes.  Well, Bu was marvelous.  He was always encouraging.  He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know.  Papa Jo Jones was the same way.  Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand.  He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming.  He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a  dime next to you and run out.”  That means, “Call me.”  [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]

TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?

BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.

TP: Explain.

BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended.  Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated.  Because Philly just was a multi-talented person.  He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing.  What I really loved about him were the surprises.  Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise.  Like Art.  Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art.  Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.

TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

BR: Interpret it, right.  Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.

TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…

BR: In other bands, right.  Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on.  Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.

TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.

BR: That’s right.

TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change.  It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it.  But all of the great drummers did that.  And all of the great bands had that kind of situation.  As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be.  Because that’s the type of person he was.  Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great.  But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important!  They made sure that those things worked.  Never mind the individualism.  They made sure that the band sounded good.  That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.

TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.

BR: Small groups.

TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing.  Were you influenced by big band drums?  Were you interested in that?

BR: Oh, yes.  Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer.  I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this.  I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

BR: Then Shadow, right.  Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band.  I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow.  But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying.  And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing.  Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know.  I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound.   As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance.  That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music.  They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing.  That’s what we were doing when I started up, man.  People would get up and actually dance.  So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.

TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…

BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance!  I’ve seen people get up and dance.  Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!

TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.  How did that come about for you?

BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant.  John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.”  So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport.  Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…”  He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it!  “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking.  And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way.  When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer.  Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band.  Come on down.  We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.”  So I said, “Okay.”   So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all.  We didn’t hit it off at all.  For some reason he was just cold.  I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.”  Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t.  So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland.  It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me.  And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer.  So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on.  At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.”  He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.  I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”,  and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering.  So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA.  So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.”  I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.”  So that’s when I really started…

TP: You got the mood.

BR: I got the mood, right.  Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me.  And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin.  It was a great band.  I really enjoyed that band.

TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis.  He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…

BR: Yeah, because he played differently.  As most guys used to say, he played backwards.

TP: What do they mean by that?

BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite.  And he had that Ben Webster sound.  Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences.  He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand.  If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior.  He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time.  When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from.  You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people.  I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them.  It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.

TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes.  He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…

BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill.  It was a helluva trio that he had.  We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio.  So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet.  Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s.  Which brings up another point in the development of the music.  In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…

BR: Chase you out!

TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.

BR: No.  We became real favorites at Minton’s.  I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.”  I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.”  So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see!  The place was filled.  So I had to call my wife up.  I said, “Don’t look for me back.  I can’t hardly get in the club!”  It was loaded.  We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band.  And the music we played, you wanted to dance.  We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance.  And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day.  Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance.  The Messengers, dance music.  It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.

TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show.  How late did you go?  Four or five sets?

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

BR: Yeah.  Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

BR: Well, one was right downstairs.  Then there was another down a couple of blocks.  So there was always somewhere to play.  Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot.  So you had somewhere to go all the time.

[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]

TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down.  And that was a complicated piece!  You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.

BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end.  It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.

TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.

BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.

TP: “John S” was from The Bridge.  Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums.  You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern.  What do you remember about that record?  I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.

BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things.  I didn’t bring that other album…

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing.  So it was like another band within the band.  Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him.  I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.

TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.

BR: That’s right.

TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!

BR: Roaring!

TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.

BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band.  This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.

TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that?  That’s hard to do.

BR: What I did, I never watched my hands.  I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing.  I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast.  But it worked.

TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…

BR: Made it easier, yeah.  There again we get to the same thing.  When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing.  I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.

TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley.  The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.

BR: For years.

TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

TP: Well, let’s be chronological.  You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.

BR: Yes.  I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood.  But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play.  All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street.  Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson.  Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead.  Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street.  When you get off, come down and sit in with us.”  So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down.  I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.”  I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.”  Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.”  So he said, “Come over and play.”  I said, “Okay.”  So we went up and we played.  So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.”  He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?”  I said, “I really don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I’ll call him.”  So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording.  When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.”  I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.”  He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was.  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ll ask him.”  He said, “Let me call.”  So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful.  But Lock didn’t like that too well!  But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.

TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there.  It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.

BR: Right.  And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.”  Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge.  What was interesting, we went to California by train.  It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters.  So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day.  That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together.  By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.

TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.

BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful.  It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes.  So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos.  We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on.  So every night we had three changes.

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!

TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…

BR: Yes, he was.  Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there.  I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music.  I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.

TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.

BR: That’s right, yeah.

TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?

BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter.  I met Cannonball in San Francisco.  He said, “What are you doing here?”  I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time.  He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.”  I said, “No kidding!”  So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.”  So I imagine that had to be Miles.  I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up.   I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious.  So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk.  Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking.  So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going.  That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby.  He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke.  So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.”  So I got in a cab and went down.  He still didn’t speak to me.  So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing.  So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?”  I said, “No, I can wait for the check.”  He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.”  He says, “Do you have your passport?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?

BR: Well, I never spoke to him before.  We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.

TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?

BR: A record.  I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach.  It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time.  And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”

TP: Did you hear Monk in person?  Did you go to the Five-Spot?

BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.

TP: So you dug the music and…

BR: Oh yeah.  When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.”  I just felt that that was going to be it for me.  Then when Frankie left, I was there.

TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!

BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.

TP: Okay.  And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you.  We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley.  We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia.  You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.

BR: Oh, it drove us crazy.  This is my first recording with him also.

TP: This is the one that he called you to?

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie.  See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band.  I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know.  We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe.  There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.”  So I’m trapped here.  I have to play a drum solo.  But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years.  So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes.  So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?”  That was the first test that I had to go through.  I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first.  I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.

TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.

BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been.  It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.

TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?

BR: That was the beauty of it.  He would only play what he thought you could handle.  Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on.  But he never would try to embarrass you.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]

TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.

BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time.  He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things.  I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.

TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?

BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing.  Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.

TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it.  So he would play it first sometimes.  It was really something to see the both of them in action.  It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.

TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?

BR: He left things out that normally people would play.  He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with.  Either you use the space or you put something in there.  I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time.  I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances.  Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.

TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…

BR: Shuffles, right.

TP: …and church type of things.  Talk a bit about his sources.

BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things.  He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in.  He played all those things.  So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people.  So this is what you get from him.  You get a whole history of different things.  He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.

TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.

BR: Not the same tempo.  That’s what made his music so interesting all the time.  Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo.  He was a great one for playing in between meters.  He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.”  He played in between all of those!

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today.  When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.

TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.

BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that.  And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players.  This is tricky music.

[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]

TP: Say a few words about recent activities.  You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.

BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes.  We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished.  Also we’re doing a series of concerts.  We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]
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For Master Composer-Drummer (and Trombonist-Pianist) Tyshawn Sorey’s 37th Birthday, two interviews from 2007, a DownBeat Players Article from that Year, and a Blindfold Test from 2014

Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.

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Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):

Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.

It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.

“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”

Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.

“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal,  and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”

Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”

“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”

Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.

“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”

These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.

“I want to keep the audience guessing,  and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”

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Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):

TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.

SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane.  Much of my jazz influence comes from them.

TP:   This was as a kid in Newark?

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Who was this teacher?

SOREY:   He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.

In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.

So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…

TP:   Which books?

SOREY:   I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.

TP:   There aren’t that many.

SOREY:   Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.

TP:   The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.

SOREY:   Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.

TP:   You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.

SOREY:   Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.

TP:   But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?

SOREY:   Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.

TP:   Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?

SOREY:   It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to  write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.

This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.

TP:   In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.

SOREY:   Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…

TP:   Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?

SOREY:   A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.

TP:   Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?

SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.

TP:   So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.

SOREY:   It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.

TP:   Why?

SOREY:   For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…

TP:   Come on. You want to sound killing!

SOREY:   [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.

TP:   Working out those issues with music.

SOREY:   Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.

TP:   So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?

SOREY:   Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that.  Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.

TP:   Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.

SOREY:   That’s right.

TP:   What’s unsatisfactory about it?

SOREY:   It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…

TP:   So that, or not-that.

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…

SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.

Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.

TP:   Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?

SOREY:   No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.

TP:   No tambourine here, or castanets there…

SOREY:   Just a strict, regular type of drumset.

TP:   How many different projects are you leading now?

SOREY:   Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.

TP:   How do they differ in content?

SOREY:   The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.

TP:   Three very different fields of activity.

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?

SOREY:   Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.
[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_*_

Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):

TP:   I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?

TYSHAWN:   Just this past Friday? No.

TP:   How long have you been playing with him?

TYSHAWN:   This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.

TP:   So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?

TYSHAWN:   He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.

TP:   Who you’d known about since high school.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your  personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.

TYSHAWN:   I had a lot of fun. It  was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.

TP:   Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?

TYSHAWN:   Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.

TP:   The older musicians. This was in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.

TP:   How so?

TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process.  It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…

TP:   Pacing was one of them.

TYSHAWN:   Pacing was very important.

TP:   By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.

TYSHAWN:   Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.

TP:   When did you first start hitting the New York scene?

TYSHAWN:   Around 2002.

TP:   Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?

TYSHAWN:   Right.  In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   I was born in Newark. Born and raised.

TP:   You’re from downtown, urban Newark.

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. Right in the center.

TP:   Did you have musicians in the family?

TYSHAWN:   No.

TP:   What things drew you to music and the drums?

TYSHAWN:   I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.

TP:   Back when? When you were 2?

TYSHAWN:   No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.

TP:   You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?

TYSHAWN:   It was all music to me.

TP:   But where…

TYSHAWN:   I heard it at home.

TP:   Your parents had jazz records.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.

TP:   He’s into it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.

TP:   So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.

TYSHAWN:   Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.

TP:   Well, you were 5 or 6.

TYSHAWN:   Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.

TP:   How did your uncle know him?

TYSHAWN:   We didn’t know him at all.

TP:   He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”

TYSHAWN:   Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.

TP:   That’s when he had the United Nations Band.

TYSHAWN:   Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.

TP:   Were you playing drums by that time?

TYSHAWN:   No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…

TP:   Were you playing piano or trombone by then?

TYSHAWN:   I was playing piano and trombone by then.

TP:   Was that in the schools in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”

TP:   As opposed to trombone!

TYSHAWN:   As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.

TP:   Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, that kind of thing.

TP:   When did you start playing drums?

TYSHAWN:   I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.

TP:   Before that were you playing rhythms?

TYSHAWN:   I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.

TP:   I’m sure you had good time.

TYSHAWN:   Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church,  or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.

TP:   Was church a place where you could play?

TYSHAWN:   Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.

TP:   You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?

TYSHAWN:   Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.

TP:   Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…

TYSHAWN:   Exactly.

TP:   You would try to emulate these guys.

TYSHAWN:   Try to emulate these guys.

TP:   Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.

TYSHAWN:   Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.

TP:   You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.

TP:   Why?

TYSHAWN:   Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.

TP:   But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.

TP:   Do you think that’s a generational thing?

TYSHAWN:   It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.

TP:   You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…

TYSHAWN:   I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.

TP:   These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…

TYSHAWN:   Yes.

TP:   What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.

TP:   That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…

TYSHAWN:   It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.

TP:   It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.

TYSHAWN:   Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…

TP:   In church?

TYSHAWN:   No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.

TP:   During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.

TYSHAWN:   It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period.  But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.

TP:   But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…

TYSHAWN:   I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.

TP:   As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…

TYSHAWN:   No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.

TP:   Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…

TYSHAWN:   Right. Very straight-ahead.

TP:   I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…

TYSHAWN:   Shy away.

TP:   …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?

TYSHAWN:   It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”

TP:   So you dug that right away?

TYSHAWN:   Uh-huh.

TP:   Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?

TYSHAWN:   No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.

TP:   Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.

TYSHAWN:   Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.

TP:   But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…

TYSHAWN:   It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.

TP:   Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?

TYSHAWN:   No. Not at all..

TP:   This was before you went to college.

TYSHAWN:   This was in high school.

TP:   What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?

TYSHAWN:   In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.

TP:   Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?

TYSHAWN:   John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.

TP:   I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.

TYSHAWN:   Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.

TP:   I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.

TYSHAWN:   Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.

TP:   When you play bebop, who do you sound like?

TYSHAWN:   Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…

TP:   You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.

TYSHAWN:   Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…

TP:   Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…

TYSHAWN:   I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.

TP:   So that’s satisfying for you, too.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…

TP:   You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…

TYSHAWN:   Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.

TP:   Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?

TYSHAWN:   It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.

TP:   You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?

TYSHAWN:   Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.

TP:   After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”

TYSHAWN:   [LOUD LAUGH]

TP:   I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head. 

TYSHAWN:   [LAUGHS] Right.

TP:   I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.

TYSHAWN:   I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see  a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.”  I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.

TP:   So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.

TYSHAWN:   Not at all.

TP:   For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?

TYSHAWN:   I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.

TP:   Particularly the textural things you’re doing.

TYSHAWN:   Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself.  For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.

Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.

TP:   What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?

TYSHAWN:   A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.

TP:   You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?

TYSHAWN:   Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.

TP:   He was still with Flanagan then.

TYSHAWN:   Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.

TP:   Serious bebop playing. 

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.

TP:   What’s your kit like? Your setup.

TYSHAWN:   I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.

TP:   Are you particular about the tuning?

TYSHAWN:   I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.

Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night,  took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.

TP:   You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?

TYSHAWN:   It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll  change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.

But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.”  I  want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.

TP:   You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.

TYSHAWN:   That’s right.

TP:   Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?

TYSHAWN:   I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…

TP:   He used to play the wall, and his chest…

TYSHAWN:   He was playing his face, too, I remember!

TP:   How long have you been taking the kit apart?

TYSHAWN:   Five-six years.

TP:   Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…

TYSHAWN:   This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.

TP:   Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?

TYSHAWN:   I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end.  It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.

TP:   Apart from music, you’re teaching?

TYSHAWN:   I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.”  I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_

Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):

Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”

Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.

Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)

The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.

The Whammies
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)

I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.

Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)

Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.

Mike Clark
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)

The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.

Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.

Doug Hammond
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)

Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.

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For Drummer-Composer Kendrick Scott’s 37th Birthday, a Pair of Interviews From 2007, and a DownBeat Article From 2007

For the 37th birthday of drummer-composer Kendrick Scott, I’m posting a pair of interviews that I conducted with him in 2007—the latter one, specifically conducted for a DownBeat “Players” article, comes first. At the bottom of the post is a “directors’ cut” of the article.

*_*_*_*_

Kendrick Scott (Aug. 15, 2007):

TP:   I want to talk about your New York experience, and I want to talk about your career as it is now and the label — I won’t have room to go through a lot of personal history, though I want  to address some of it, since I want to discuss you as a composer and how you accumulated vocabulary. But first, let’s talk about how you joined Terence. Also, have you played sideman with other major bands besides Terence? 

KENDRICK:   Actually, the first band that I left school to go with… Well, when I finished Berklee, I went out with the Crusaders. So I was booked to go with the Crusaders, but while I was in my cap and gown, Terence called me and asked me to join the band. So I had to turn him down and say, “Well, I’ve got these gigs with the Crusaders coming up.” So I played with the Crusaders that whole summer, and then when October came, I started with Terence.  That was 2003.

TP:   Was the Crusaders hookup a Houston hookup?

KENDRICK:   It was a Houston hookup. Joe Sample had moved home in I think 1998, and me and Walter Smith and Mark Kelly, a great bass player who played with Scofield, we had played for his homecoming back in Houston, and Joe sat in with us, and Joe remembered me from then. So through Walter’s father, who is also a tenor player… He was asking Walter’s father, “Who is that drummer?” So he asked about me, and then he called me up while I was at Berklee, and he flew me out to L.A. and auditioned me for like three days.

TP:   This was during your final year at Berklee?

KENDRICK:   Yes. The end of my final year at Berklee.

TP:   But he met you while you were in high school.

KENDRICK:   He met when I was in high school.  He remembered me from high school.

TP:   That’s when Terence met you, too. At a jazz camp.

KENDRICK:   Terence met me I guess in 1999, my second year at Berklee. The alliance was so strong between the Houston drummers, I always hung out with Harland, whenever I could go to see him. Especially when they were in Boston or any other city where I was, I would go hang out in New Orleans… At IAJE a lot of times. So it was great to meet Terence with Harland, and then, with the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead, that was in ‘99 at the Kennedy Center. That’s actually where he met me and Aaron Parks at the same time.

TP:   So he called you while you were on the stand, and you had to…

KENDRICK:   I was in the line.

TP:   So you missed gigs with him over the summer.

KENDRICK:   Yeah, I missed a lot of gigs. The Crusaders were booked solid until then, so I couldn’t really…

TP:   And I’m sure they paid good, too.

KENDRICK:   Yes, they did!

TP:   But apart from the pay, what was the value of the experience?

KENDRICK:   Well, the initial draw for me was to take myself out of the kind of straight-ahead barrier that I had kind of…well, I wouldn’t say consciously put myself in, but that I kind of just got in by being talented at what I do. I started getting so much work just playing straight-ahead stuff that I didn’t get any work playing more groove-oriented things, and I thought it was a huge blessing for me to be able to play that type of thing, and especially with those type of people and that type of stage. So I couldn’t deny that. To this day, that’s been a great experience for me.

TP:   There’s a groove aspect to your playing, to your flow certainly with Oracle. I was hearing that at Christopher Street, that you’ll do beats, and then you have interesting ways of playing the beats, and timbral things you would do. Is that a correct observation?

KENDRICK:   It is. I’m really in tune to space, dynamics, and groove. Those are the things that I love. When I listen to great drummers, it seems like they all have that. I concentrate on those type of things more than I do actually facility or those type of things.

TP:   Did playing with the Crusaders burnish your feeling for grooves, or the way you think about them?

KENDRICK:   It definitely did, because they have their own way of thinking about the groove, which is so specific that it really helped me in channeling my energy to the groove first, and then everything else lays on top of it. That’s what I try to do even with using space. So that’s one of the things that I always work on, trying, without playing notes or anything, to have the groove there. Most all the great drummers that I listened to did that. They didn’t have to play so many notes to play a strong groove. That’s what I love about drummers like Blade or Tony, and people like that. I really love that they can just leave it up in the air, but the groove is so strong. But the Crusaders were on the other side, “play a strong groove and then let us float over the top of it.” I really thought that was interesting.

TP:   During college, did you do any summer sideman work, or outside of Houston…road work with established bands?

KENDRICK:   Not really when I was in Houston. When I got to Boston, I had been playing with Darren Barrett, and we did a few tours here and there. While I was at Berklee, Joe Lovano was named one of the artists-in-residence, and we did some gigs with Joe, with another band I played with called Califactors. I did some other things… Actually, I played with Terence. That’s when the relationship really started with Terence… The summer of 2002 is the first time I played with Terence, and we went to Japan for 3 weeks. We played all the Blue Notes in Japan. That’s when it started. It was a rough thing. I’d just been in school, and you get taught how to play in school, but you don’t know how to play unless you’re playing the gig. It was on-the-gig training. Actually, I don’t know if Terence really liked me at first. It was definitely on-the-gig training. I just learned how to use everything that I’ve learned, but then totally abandon. At that time, I was struggling with holding on to those things, like trying to play like Max. “Oh, this section, I should play like Max.” Trying to play like Philly or trying to play like Al Foster. Really, I’ve come to such an enlightenment, actually letting what comes out to come out instead of filtering what I think I would play.

TP:   Did Terence encourage you?

KENDRICK:   Terence encourages that a lot with us, even now. He encourages mostly about honesty, which is what I try to center my music around nowadays. I don’t ever want to cloud my judgment on what I play by thinking about what the listener wants to hear, or how can I impress someone. I just try to do what I feel in my heart, and if it’s acceptable, cool, but if not, whatever.

TP:   You talked about the intense connection with the Houston drummers, spending a lot of time with Eric Harland. Is there an approach to drums that comes out of Houston, in your opinion? Or are there commonalities that you and Harland and Chris Dave…

KENDRICK:   Mark Simmons and Jamire Williams. I think the commonality is that we all came out of the church. Gospel music has such a feeling to it that I think the vocabulary that we have actually reflects… It’s funny, because it’s true of a lot of drummers nowadays, especially in the Afro-American community, that we come out of the church, and our vocabulary reflects people that we have been listening to, and these are people who maybe jazz people wouldn’t be listening… People like Marvin McQuiddy(?) or even people like Dennis Chambers. So we kind of fused that gospel mentality with jazz, and it created a fresh sound for us. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was just trying to emulate what Chris Dave and Harland were doing while I was playing. But the tricky part about it is, every generation has started to do that. Chris Dave looked up to Sebastian Whitaker, who is a great drummer. Actually, he’s a blind drummer in Houston. If you see him play, if you see the way he sets his drums up, you can see similarities between him and all of us. We all sit high and play low, into the drums. I felt it was so empowering but it was also so practical, because it means that all the instruments are down here and ready for me to play. It’s a better thing for your posture and all that type of thing. So learning that from a blind man… That passed on down from Chris to Eric to Mark Simmons to me, and to Jamire…

TP:   That’s also a New Orleans thing, no? It’s a parade drum posture. That’s how Idris plays, how Blackwell used to play. Now that I think of it.

KENDRICK:   Yes. It provides your body so much… You can put the momentum into the drums, instead of you sitting underneath them and going up to them.

TP:   So it was less about Sebastian Whitaker’s vocabulary than the way he addressed the drums.

KENDRICK:   Yes. Because his vocabulary was thoroughly rooted in Art Blakey. One of his records is One For Bu, which is a good record. We definitely took from that vocabulary, but us being church musicians, we were always hearing different guys coming out of church and we were like, “Well, what if we play these church type of ideas within our idiom.” For me, I got in a lot of trouble in high school trying to set up the band playing church fills, which didn’t work. But eventually, when I learned how to use them better, they did work.

TP:   Was it one particular church, or a network of Baptist churches in Houston?

KENDRICK:   No, it was just a network. In Houston there are a lot of mega-churches.

TP:   Were the music directors in those churches sympathetic to a jazz attitude, or was that a thing you had to keep quiet…

KENDRICK:   Not really. Especially with youth and young adults, I found it very encouraging that they would let us… They wouldn’t censor us, but they would definitely keep their eye on us and make sure we weren’t going too far. But they allowed us to express ourselves, how we felt, which was great, and which is what I see in music now. Sometimes I think we’re on the edge and we go too far, but I think that level of expression is something that is needed.

TP:   It’s a very interesting thing, not just with drummers, but overall with the African-American sector of the jazz community under 40, how many people do come out of the church experience. Do you have any observations on why that is? Is it because that’s where instruments are available, whereas in inner city high schools they’re not so readily available?

KENDRICK:   That’s definitely a part of it nowadays, with arts being gone from the schools. But for me, when I went to elementary school, I can’t even remember… I think we had music, but it wasn’t music where we had the instruments to play. We would go in and play on small little tambourines or something. But for me, I was always going to church, so the instruments were always at church. My mother was an instrumentalist also, so I would always be at choir rehearsal… She plays piano. The way my family worked is, my mother played, my brother also played piano and organ (he’s ten years older), and my father was the sound man. When we went to the rehearsal, my mom was playing and my dad was working the sound for the choir. So when rehearsal was over, my dad would be wrapping things up, my mom would be talking to the director, and I would go jump on the drums. I would bother the drummer, whose name was Roderick (or the other drummer, Eric), and say, “Man, let me play!” Of course, there were four or five other kids there who’d want to get on the drums, too. But they would let me get on, and eventually my father asked Roderick to give me lessons. That’s where it started. I was around 6 or 7.

TP: You were just feeling it. 

KENDRICK:   I was just feeling it early on. I just love my parents for readily being there and saying, “Just go for it.”

TP:   Forgive me if this is stretching it too much, but one notion in the African-American church is the idea that when you’re playing music there’s a testimony going on, a very personal statement…

KENDRICK:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Which I think has had a lot to do, whether directly or indirectly, with the nature and course of innovation across the jazz timeline. I’m wondering if you feel in any way that’s something else you got from the church background.

KENDRICK:   I never tried to push religion on people. But for me, musically, that is my homage to God. When I play my instrument, that’s like the highest form of thanks that I can give for everything in my life, period. That’s why I take music so seriously, and that’s also why I think honesty is so key when you’re playing. When you start putting ego and things like that in your playing, that cuts you off from actually getting your blessing from playing.

TP:   Do you play with churches in New York?

KENDRICK:   I should. I don’t play with churches in New York, though.

TP:   Back to Terence. You said you had to get rid of what you knew. That was the biggest challenge?

KENDRICK:   It still is.

TP:   When you were learning, people are telling me that you’d obviously mastered a lot of vocabulary… One thing you said is that you were very blessed to be good at what you do, which is a straight-ahead drummer, so you were happy to be able to play the groove with the Crusaders.  For a 27-year-old guy, what does being a straight ahead drummer mean in 2007?

KENDRICK:  To me, nowadays, being a straight-ahead drummer just means the ability to get to the essence of what the master played. I’m still in a quest daily to get to that. But I feel I was talented enough to not only feel it, but get to playing it more, or get to the feeling of Max Roach or get to the feeling of Shelley Mane, rather than… I mean, other than other people who were able to get to the feel of Bernard Purdie before I could. Studying Bernard Purdie is something I’m doing now, whereas I just got so enthralled with listening to straight-ahead music as a kid, when I was 14, which I think was kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time, because now I’m kind of going backwards listening to other music. I think that’s what definitely helped me out.

TP:   Did you get to straight-ahead music through your parents? Your teachers at school? So many kids of your generation are just into what’s around them, what’s popular with their peer group. For instance, my daughter isn’t allowed to watch MTV or VH-1, but she knows every song and all the accouterments. It’s in the air.

KENDRICK:   Through my family life… My mother went to University of North Texas, and there she studied classical piano. Her classical training allowed her to do things in gospel music that were a little bit out of the realm. She would also play weddings and different engagements where she would pull out the Real Book and play around with stuff. I always thought, “Wow, that sounds kind of cool.” At the time, she didn’t have many jazz records per se, but she had a lot of things that were open… She had Stevie Wonder playing sometimes on the radio. I’d think, wow, it’s not jazz, but the way the chords were moving, it really drew me in. Then at age 14, I guess, I was graduating from middle school. I was telling you that mega-churches are big in Texas, but the biggest thing behind mega-churches is Texas football. I wanted to join one of the biggest high school marching bands in Texas, which was Willow Ridge—the Willow Ridge Marching Band. So for me, I wanted to play snare drum, because those were the most flashy guys, their chops were killin’,  and they were twirling sticks, they were dancing. My decision came when my mother said, “Look, I want you to go to this performing arts high school; I think you’re really talented and you might be able to do something with it.” But my head was, I want to play snare drum and then go on to Prairie View University, where my father went to school, which is right around the corner from Houston, because they had an awesome drum line.

TP:   That’s an all-black school.

KENDRICK:   Right, that’s an all-black. My Mom was like, “Look, you need to go and get with a teacher,” so she got me the teacher at Texas Southern University, which is another black school which is in Houston, and she got me with the teacher. He sat me down and he just showed me “Seven Steps To Heaven.” He showed me the record. Then I was like, “Wow, who is that?!” Then he said “Tony Williams,” whatever, blah-blah-blah. I said, “Okay, that’s kind of cool.” It wasn’t a hard decision. It wasn’t a point of decision. But it was definitely a point in my life where I could see the turn I was turning towards. So what I did for my audition for the performing arts high school is I played “Seven Steps to Heaven” on the drums. I had 5 toms, and I said, [SINGS MELODY]. I played the solo. That’s when it started. I had them tuned to that…

TP:   So your mother was able to give you really intelligent critique from early on.

KENDRICK:   Oh, a lot. She’s a great musician and also a great mother, to let me do what I do.

[END OF FIRST SOUND FILE]

TP:   I’d like to talk to you about the group of musicians who…I guess we could speak about the people who are on your record. Apart from your compositional abilities and the overall arc of the record, it’s interesting how you to deploy everyone’s different sound. Just the guitar players, Lionel, Mike Moreno, and Lage, are three of the most creative and distinctive of the new guitar players. What’s different about them. What’s in common? What made you think you could use all of them?

KENDRICK:   I actually was talking about this with somebody. I think The Source actually turned out to be a snapshot of myself at one moment. But actually, the people that I used were…it shows you the timeline from high school all the way up until that point. I had been playing in high school all the time with Mike, and to be honest, Mike was always on the cutting edge, before any of us were. He would show us the records, and we would be, like, “Oh, okay,” and we would go check it out. Mike’s sound is so lush. Guitar is one of my favorite instruments, and partly why I had the three different guitarists is… I love texture, and each of them plays texture a certain way. Mike can float and sting like a butterfly. His things can be ethereal and on top.

I started playing with Lage right when I got to Berklee, and because he’s great friends with Jaleel, and I played with Jaleel a lot. I could always hear in Lage the influences of Grant Green and George Benson, and I always was drawn to those type of things with the jazz purist attitude I had at the time in school. For me, Grant Green and Wes…that was IT for me. So Lage’s sound draws me to that mindset. So I always played with Lage in school.

The funny thing was, Lionel and I played less than five times during my whole time at Berklee, though we knew each other. So when we got in Terence’s band, rhythmically, as a drummer, I’m still lost—I’m still trying to figure out where he is. For somebody to play the guitar in that way and involve all the rhythmic aspects that he uses, I was always flabbergasted.

So those were the parts of each person that I wanted to use, and if I could have killed each one of them and taken an attribute from all three, I would be a badass guitar player.

TP:   You used Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper.

KENDRICK:   Again, they represent two aspects of my growth. Robert and I grew up in the gospel community. His mother was a singer, and a blues singer, and a choir director also. She ran the gamut.

TP:   She sounds like quite a woman.

KENDRICK:   She was. Robert’s personality is very much an indication of how she was. She was a great young and inspired mother. The last piece on Robert’s recent CD, the eulogy that Joe Ratliff gave about her was so fitting, because when she lived, that was the best part. Like I said, she went from being a blues singer on Saturday night, and then a few hours later she was up at church. Robert came up in that, and he learned how to adapt. That’s really what drew me to Robert, because he knew how to adapt before I did. When I was a jazz purist, he was in the gospel thing, and he was more bringing his gospel into the jazz stuff, whereas I was kind of keeping them separate.

Aaron’s talent was so natural on the instrument, and I always thought that he had studied the instrument classically, although he actually hasn’t. For me, again, I am drawn to harmony and chordal instruments. Robert can run up and down the piano spontaneously, and he can create different cascading lines and so on, but I thought Aaron could lay down certain harmonic motions that would touch me in a certain way where he I could play… He would make me play something different every time. I always love that feeling, because I always felt that from a person like Herbie or Keith Jarrett or somebody like that. Again, that’s probably the way I would play if I were able to really play the piano, and I felt that Aaron could instantly read the chart and go beyond the page. That was like the top thing. Which everybody does, but I felt he could really sit down and read the music, and instantly hear other textures and other things that you weren’t even thinking about.

TP:   Were most of the tunes written for the record?

KENDRICK:   They weren’t written for the record. A lot of those pieces are really old. The piece “VCB:” was written in high school. I was hanging out with Robert one day, we were about to go to a party or something, and I said, “Rob, I’ve got this melody and I’ve got this form of this tune that I want to do—can you help me?” He said, “Sure.” At the time, we were seriously watching TV. He went to the keyboard, he was still watching TV, and I was singing the melody, and he was like, “Oh, oh!” Then I would touch a few notes, I’d be like, “This is kind of what I’m hearing,” and then he would play a chord and say, “That’s what you’re hearing?” I’d say, “Oh, yeah-yeah-yeah!!” He would literally watch the TV, came up with all the chords, and then I was like, “Rob, wait. Let me write it down.” He said, “Come on, man, I’m trying to watch this TV…’ That’s the way that tune got written—me singing and him being like, “What are you singing?” That was one of my first experiences at writing.

After that, I did a lot of writing in college. That was my junior year of high school. It subsided a bit my senior, with school and everything. I wasn’t hearing anything. Then when I got to Berklee, I started hearing a lot more things, just being exposed to so many different people and vibes. I’m mostly a singing composer.

TP:   Elaborate on that.

KENDRICK:   For me, the message, especially in gospel music, always takes precedence over everything else. Even when I went to church and I’d hear someone sing a cappella by themselves, and they would sing a message and they would hear the note, that would just hit you. That always gave me more goosebumps than when a drummer played the most flashy thing he could play. So I’ve always been drawn to that, and I’m always singing while I’m playing. When I’m sitting around, I’m always singing melodies and hearing melodies, and I think that’s partly the way I play and partly the way I write.

TP:   So you hear the drums melodically.

KENDRICK:   I hear the drums melodically. The funny thing is, I’m a drummer but I hear the drums subordinate to the music, to the band. There are times when I think… I definitely believe in give-and-take. That’s one of the biggest things I use in my playing, is give-and-take. If I’m going to play time for this much, then I’ll give you no time. If I’m going to play colors, maybe I won’t play any colors—I’ll just bash. The give-and-take is a great thing to use for me personally. But I’ve always had that feeling, and I think harmonically and melodically, stuff moves so well together that rhythmically you just have to give it a little push. I think that’s why my drumming is what it is—because I give it that little push. However, I’m working on becoming more of (I don’t know how to say it) a drummer’s drummer, and I’m always practicing those things…

TP:   By “drummer’s drummer,” do you mean having certain technical things and signature things?

KENDRICK:   Having more technical things and my signature things. The crazy thing of it was, I was teaching a lesson to a guy, and he was asking me about those type of things, and I told him that I practice all of that stuff. So I started playing some of it for him. I’ve been practicing claves  like El Negro or Antonio would play, and I started playing those things, and he said, “Wow, what are you doing?” I said, “I practice this stuff all the time, but you would never know it because I don’t use that stuff.” That’s partly because of the honesty thing that I talked about—if it doesn’t honestly come to me, I’m not just going to throw it in there just to play it. I’m still trying to work at that balance of bringing in new things, but being honest… Just because you practice it doesn’t mean you have to play it.

TP:   But you could write it. Do you write to give yourself things to play also?

KENDRICK:  That’s what I’m working on now, is getting myself to write to feature myself. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, is just say, “Okay, I want to write an up-tempo, I want it to feature the drums, I want it to do this and that.” It’s just one of those things that dove across my mind.

TP:   Are you working on another body of…

KENDRICK:   Right now I’m writing, and most of the tunes are coming out to be… It’s funny. I’d probably be one of the only drummers that would  write a ballads record. I don’t think this next record will be a ballads record, but the ballads are coming to me first. That’s all I’m hearing. It’s weird.

TP:   Another thing about the cast of characters on the record is that it’s such a diverse group of people, ethnically, geographically and the whole thing, which is a sort of microcosm of the jazz world today in many ways. For someone who grew up in New York City and saw how politicized and cliquish things got in the ‘80s, one got a sense of a certain ethnic-racial polarization that translated into musical style. But I notice that less with musicians over the last 15 years. A lot of people seem to be crossing those boundaries. Does that seem to be a fair statement to you?

KENDRICK:   For me especially, and for most of us from Houston because we all went to a certain high school. Our high school ranged from everything from Vietnamese to African-American to Indian to Caucasian—everything. So from age 14, and even before that… I went to a magnet school in elementary school that had so many different types of people. From an early age we were exposed to so many different types of people and cultures that we learned to embrace it at an early age—not really think about it, but just embrace it.

TP:   Does that translate to musical choices. Does Bjork or Radiohead mean as much to you as it might to…

KENDRICK:   To everybody else. I don’t know. I think it does. I think it does because… Maybe one of the reasons I would listen to Radiohead in high school is because one of my friends, whose music I wasn’t readily going to listen to, listened to it, and it opened my ears to that type of shit. I think I definitely benefitted from that, especially being around different artists from different genres. Because a lot of times, to be honest, maybe they weren’t listening to jazz. When they were doing their thing, they had different things on—maybe Joni or Rolling Stones or whatever. But I think that type of shit definitely translates to how we come together nowadays.

TP:   It seems like a very blended record. But on the other hand, Terence has that quality of being able to take in information from a lot of different places and create a unified sound out of it. It sounds like you were predisposed to do that, but that you learned a lot of the techniques…

KENDRICK:   I did. The funny thing about it is, when we were doing the record… Glasper’s just a funny guy. When we were in the studio, he was calling the record “The Terence Blanchard outtakes.” It has the feeling of some of those things that Terence does. I’ve always been in love with the cinematic approach to writing and to music, and with the singing thing as well, it’s perfect to the way I want to write music. So that was funny, because I had all those people at the studio at the same time, and Robert was cracking jokes. So before it was Kendrick Scott Oracle, it was called “Noah’s Ark,” because I took three of every instrument and tried to have it on my record. That was some funny shit, “Noah’s Ark.”

TP:   Any other sideman gigs over these last four years with major bands besides Terence?

KENDRICK:   I’ve been playing with David Sanborn of late as part of a trio of musicians. What’s funny is, when I first came out of Berklee, that whole summer the Crusaders and David Sanborn were doing double bills. He heard me then, and finally later we got to hook up and play. I was fortunate enough to play with the late, great Don Alias before he passed, which was a true honor for me. At the beginning of this year, I played with John Scofield in a trio with John Patitucci. We went to Uruguay and Argentina and other places. I played with Diane Reeves at the end of last year; we did some orchestra things with her. I played with Maria Schneider’s Big Band once. That was awesome. Her writing is awesome. I’m just drawn to writers.

Speaking of writers, with Terence we played with the Metropole Orchestra at Northsea, and Vince Mendoza was with them. Vince is a real hip cat. The way he writes is amazing. Now I’m listening to a few of Joni Mitchell’s records where he did the orchestration and conducting. Jimmy Greene…

TP:   Another Eric Harland connection.

KENDRICK:   Yes. Well, that’s the blessing of coming from that line of musicians. Harland got me in contact with Terence, and then Chris Dave got Harland in touch with Kenny Garrett. Everything kind of happens like that. Harland also got Jamire Williams with Jacky Terasson.

TP:   You’re talking about practicing montunos, playing with Don Alias. Another dynamic of jazz over the last 10-15 years is bringing all these rhythms into the mainstream of the music rather than being exotic. Not that it’s anything new, but it seems that a much larger percentage of working musicians need to know all this stuff to be able to function. So it sounds like you’re spending a lot of time listening to music of other cultures and Afro-diasporic music.

KENDRICK:   I definitely do. The thing I feel about Latin and World music that I find very interesting is that the music we’re studying is actually popular music in their cultures. So I’m trying to figure out a way to make jazz have the popular type of thing without necessarily making it too simple or dumbed down. That’s what I practice at home, is using those elements from those rhythms and actually making them sound in a way where people can accept them but also be challenged to listen to them. Latin and African rhythms are paramount.

TP:   Do you play hand drums, skin-on-skin?

KENDRICK:   I really don’t. I dabble a little bit, and I have a feeling for them, but I don’t…

TP:   I notice you use your hands on the drumkit.

KENDRICK:   Yes. I definitely have a feeling for the sounds. But actually making them, I leave that to the bad cats.

TP:   Tell me your impressions of Max Roach as someone you heard early on and were thinking about.

KENDRICK:   Early on, listening to jazz, I always listened for the bounce in the music. I noticed that certain drummers had that bounce. Roy Haynes was one of them and Max was the other. Listening to bebop, Bud Powell and Bird… I thought the bounce that he created while he was playing actually created the hump, so to speak, in the music, and that really grabbed me the first time I heard Max Roach.

Not only did it do that, but he’s always called a melodic drummer, and I think that is definitely so. The way he approached the drums, not only just the way he played them, but the tuning… The tuning of the drums and the cymbals that he used were all very important in his sound. I think that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, because those type of things separate the good drummers from the great drummers. He’s playing the hell out of the drums, but he’s also approaching them and tuning them a certain way, to really make it melodic. So he’s not only playing melodic; he’s making it melodic. That really affected me in a certain way, so that when I go home and practice patterns, that’s what I’m going for—to achieve a certain melodic flow within the drums like he had. You can get the feeling that he practiced figures, and later on, when he played, they became shapes. They became octagons and triangles when he played, but when he was actually at home practicing it, it might have been very simple—simple rudiments. I think he was just a master of creating shapes on the drums.

TP:   Are you familiar with his solo drum compositions?

KENDRICK:   Yeah. “The Drum Also Waltzes.” That stuff is amazing to me, because he was a pioneer in playing ostinatos.  It’s different now… It’s funny how these two things tie in. If you think of “The Drum Also Waltzes,” the type of ostinato he was playing—which was kind of simple, but not simple the way he played it—it’s the same type of ostinato you would hear when Antonio plays the claves and he’s soloing over the top of them. I think the lineage of drumming is still coming from Max and all the masters, which it should. I think that’s the great thing about drumming right now, is that we’re expanding, we’re going more outside, but it still keys in on things that the masters that we look at were doing.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Kendrick Scott (WKCR, June 28, 2007):

TP:   Kendrick’s record features a slew of musicians… [ETC.] Kendrick Scott is performing with Oracle, with different personnel, at Iridium at midnight as part of the Round Midnight series they do there. Let’s bring you to the audience through the mundane path of having you introduce the personnel.

KENDRICK:   Oh, no, that’s good. On piano we have Fabian Amanzar. Mike Moreno on guitar. John Ellis on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. Matt Brewer playing bass.

TP:   You’ve been playing with Terence Blanchard since 2003, four years. There’s a recording you did with him called Flow, where he seems to have tuned in to a lot of ideas that strong young musicians in their twenties are paying attention to—world rhythms and sounds, melodies from very highbrow contemporary pop music, and so on.

KENDRICK:   Right.

TP:   You on this seem to have brought in a lot of similar information and somehow filtered it into your own way of seeing things.

KENDRICK:   Right.

TP:   I’m sure you’ve garnered a lot from watching a master like Terence Blanchard in action, but this date doesn’t particularly sound like him. How did the pieces for this recording fall into place?

KENDRICK:   I’ll start with Terence, because it was interesting joining his band. I came at the time when Terence had just moved to Blue Note, and he was starting to branch out and get a lot of young musicians. I noticed more and more that Terence’s film career and the sound of things he would do in films was creeping into the writing for the band—the ethereal sounds, the drums, the beats, some of the world rhythms he was using. When we did Flow, that kind of happened on that CD. Then when I was doing my own CD, I started… I’ve always been drawn to those type of sounds. The writing on the CD actually spans from my college days, where I was in Berklee College of Music, and some of them even from high school, Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and up to about a few years ago. So I started compiling all of the songs together, and I actually went in and recorded a few times. I liked the first day and I didn’t like the second day. So a year later, I came back and fixed it all up and put it all together, just an amalgam of all the music.

TP:   Was a lot of the music written for the musicians involved? There are three guitarists—Lionel Loueke, Lage Lund and Mike Moreno; Myron Walden, Seamus Blake and Walter Smith are the saxophonists; Gretchen Parlato sings; Aaron Parks more and Robert Glasper less are the pianists and keyboardists. A lot of different sounds and tonal personalities…

KENDRICK:   Not all of it, but most of the music was written with a sound in mind. I’ll take, for instance, Lage, some of the songs that he played on—“The Source’ and also on “Psalm”—were written with his sound in mind. When we were at Berklee, we would have sessions and play as a band all the time with some groups. So everybody had a clear part to play in all of that music.

TP:   Was the record workshopped live at all?

KENDRICK:   No.

TP:   So it all came together in the studio.

KENDRICK:   As you can see with all the talent I had on there, it’s kind of hard to get everybody… I’d always heard that, but as a bandleader I see what that’s all about.

TP:   And on Saturday night you’ll be playing primarily material from this recording?

KENDRICK:   Yes, primarily material from that. Just a few different things from other live shows that I’ve done.

TP:   Let’s hear “The Source,” which you mentioned. Robert Glasper plays fender Rhodes and Aaron Parks plays acoustic piano, Kendrick Scott, drums and voice, Myron Walden on soprano sax, Walter Smith on tenor sax, and Derrick Hodge on acoustic bass… [PLUS “Between The Lines”]

You and Mike Moreno attended high school at the same time, the same high school that Robert Glasper and Jason Moran attended, as did Eric Harland, from whom you inherited the drum chair with Terence Blanchard. Also on the track were John Ellis, Aaron Parks, Doug Weiss and Kendrick Scott. [ETC.] There seems to be something about the way music is taught at this high school in Houston that produces not only technically proficient musicians, but musicians who seem equipped to approach this business with their own point of view.

KENDRICK:   I think what mainly set our high school apart was the chances and opportunities we had to go and hear music, and to play music. As high schoolers we had 3 or 4 gigs a week, which is something people usually don’t do until they get to New York. Our high school teacher, our band director, Robert Morgan, got us gigs. You had to keep your grades up, and you can do some gigs. If you made a D or an F, no gigs this week. So it was an incentive. We were making a little bit of money, too. We learned so many things about going to the gig and being on time, those small things, but the greatest thing is that we were playing music so much.

TP:   Were they gigs of all kids from the high school, or gigs with experienced musicians?

KENDRICK:   They were all combos from the school. But the other great thing at the school was that a lot of artists-in-residence came through. While I was there, Kenny Barron and Cyrus Chestnut and so many other people came through the school week by week.

TP:   So it took the music off the paper.

KENDRICK:   It took the music off the paper. Everybody was self-motivated to practice on their own. So the practicality of playing was actually the best thing for us. That’s what I really appreciate about the whole experience, that I wasn’t so caught up with practicing in my little bubble. It was more about getting to play with people and learning the experience.

TP:   Did you play a wide spectrum of music back then, too.

KENDRICK:   Yes. My parents are gospel musicians, so I started playing drums pretty much in the church. Throughout high school I was playing church and I was playing a few other gigs here and there, but mainly jazz stuff. It was a great experience to be exposed…

TP:   Was it basically a backbeat sort of thing, or a more contemporary style of drumming?

KENDRICK:   The church where I was playing was pretty traditional. We did a few other things that were out of the normal traditional realm. But I would say modern gospel music, not too far removed.

TP:   Were there any sacred-secular issues in playing jazz for you as a young guy, or did they not come up so much?

KENDRICK:   It didn’t come up. Sometimes I would invite some of my church members to come see me play at the school, and they’d be like, “I don’t know, I don’t know about jazz,” and this and that. I’d be like, “Well, you know…” I don’t separate the two, because for me, my gift doesn’t have one place or venue that it’s supposed to go. I think it can be used for good in all venues.

TP:   When did jazz begin to come into your consciousness? When you entered high school?

KENDRICK:   Yes, at age 14. Before then, my main goal in life was to play the snare drum in a marching band. Because in Texas, marching bands are huge, so I was always like, “I want to play the snare drum in the marching band!” There was a great high school band called the Willow Ridge High School band, and they had all of these snare drums… The drum line was excellent, and I wanted to be a snare drummer. At that point, my Mom (bless her for doing this) said, “Look, you’re going to go to the Performing Arts High School; go in there and practice.” So what I did was, I got with a teacher and I learned how to play “Seven Steps To Heaven” on the drums. I tuned the drums a certain way to play it. And I got in somehow! Then that was that right turn. We’re going this way, not…

TP:   How did you know about “Seven Steps To Heaven”?

KENDRICK:   I had been listening to jazz on and off. I had a CD by Lionel Hampton called Ring Them Bells. Every now and then, I would hear jazz, and to tell you the truth I wasn’t totally sparked by it right away. But when I got into PVA, which is Performing Arts High School, it was amazing. I couldn’t believe it.

TP:   At a school like that, I suppose that you’re not going against peer pressure in playing jazz. It would have been a status thing, and not an oddball thing to be doing.

KENDRICK:   Not at all. Actually, the whole school embraces anything like that. We go to the theater department, and they’re studying all kinds of things. Talking about Terence, we actually did an artist-in-residence program in Moline, Illinois, for two weeks. I noticed that you get more inspired by being around people who are doing similar things to what you’re doing. Even though all of them weren’t actually musicians, being with artists and people in theater, all the people in the arts, really inspires you to do your thing. Also, it took the veil away from being this weird thing to just being open.

TP:   As a young guy in high school (1994-1998), who were drummers you were using as role models, picking up ideas? Were they the iconic older drummers, or people from the generation that came up in the ‘80s and beyond?

KENDRICK:   The most amazing thing to me about Houston right now is the amount of drummers coming out of Houston. The local drummers were like the big drummers now. Chris Dave, who played with M’shell Ndegeocello and Kenny Garrett, and Eric Harland, who’s playing with everybody, and also Mark Simmons, who plays with Al Jarreau, and then Herman Matthews, who plays with Tom Jones. So many people. But the biggest guy of all in town was Sebastian Whitaker. He pretty much taught us all. In that environment, all I had to do was just look around and go to a random place in Houston, go to the Convention Center or something, and I’d see Chris playing or somebody else playing. Those were my main inspirations at the time. Then I started listening to DeJohnette and Shadow Wilson and Roy Haynes, all these different people, and those were my big idols.

TP:   So you were plucking ideas from all across the timeline.

KENDRICK:   All across it. That was the great thing about our music library at the school, too. We had a lot of different things available to us.

TP:   You’re pretty busy. On the road with Terence Blanchard, playing in a lot of people’s bands, obviously doing a lot of composing, and running a label. Apart from the obvious reasons, why did you decide to take on this responsibility?

KENDRICK:   The label itself came along because I noticed a need for younger musicians to take snapshots of themselves, to take those pictures of their growth. I noticed that big labels aren’t doing that well now. So pretty much, it was one of those things where I felt that we shouldn’t wait for anybody to do anything for us—we should take the initiative.

TP:   A notion you share with countless jazz musicians before you. But actually putting that together, producing dates, recruiting artists, etc., is a lot of to do. Did you see it as an investment in the future?

KENDRICK:   It’s definitely an investment in the future. For ourselves… I feel if we start making these snapshots now, and making these records now, they’ll only get better with time. We need to document our actual growth and our writing at each moment. I realized that’s what all of my heroes did. I listen to Art Blakey, and he has all these records. I’m like, “wow, if I could just make half of these records, what can I work on between each one to take a new snapshot of myself and to develop my talent?”

TP:   Could you speak briefly about your interest in composing. You seem to be thinking about the whole ensemble as you’re playing. Everything seems to be covered. Does composing go back to high school?

KENDRICK: Composition has always been so unconventional for me, because… I wouldn’t say that theoretically I’m the best composer. But most of my songs come from me singing, actually, like me sitting at the drums and singing a melody. I think that my songs are more singable than anything, and I always felt like if I wanted to go hear myself play, I would want to go away from the gig singing something and remembering something. So I always try to make the songs in some way singable. Coming from the background I come from in the church, all it takes is one line or something that will catch you in a certain way. I also think compositionally on the drums that way, to leave space, so the messages can come through, and not totally bombard the music with drums themselves, but try to develop the band as the whole vibe and develop the message. That’s part of the reason why the band is called Oracle.

TP:   So a lot of the counterpoint would be coming out of a call-and-response attitude.

KENDRICK:   Yes, always call-and-response. But I always try to make the message simple.
[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_

Kendrick Scott (DownBeat Players Article, 2007, “Directors’ Cut”:

“I noticed a need for younger musicians to document their growth and writing at each moment,” said Kendrick Scott, explaining why he decided to launch World Culture Music, his imprint label, in 2007.

By evidence of his debut release, The Source, the 27-year-old drummer, a Houston native, is more than ready for prime time. Each of the eleven tunes, ten composed or co-composed by Scott, contain strong melodies, which he sets off with ethereal sounds and an array of world, contemporary and hardcore jazz beats. Although he barely solos, Scott asserts his footprint throughout, orchestrating the individualistic tonal personalities of a diverse cast of twenty- and thirty-something New York A-listers—guitarists Lionel Loueke, Mike Moreno and Lage Lund, pianists Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper, wind players Seamus Blake, Myron Walden and Walter Smith, bassist Derrick Hodge, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato—with sure-handed grooves across the tempo spectrum, impeccable dynamics, and a penchant for informed call-and-response. It sounds like anything but a first attempt, and it takes you on a journey.

“Kendrick is great at orchestrating, but he’s even better at trying new things every night,” said Terence Blanchard, who hired Scott out of Berklee in Fall 2003 after a three-week tryout the previous summer, featured him extensively on the 2005 release Flow, and continues to retain his services. “He experiments at being creative within the framework and context of the situation. He has amazing technique, but that’s not what he wants to display as a musician. He’s also a gentleman, with a lot of class, which translates into his musical personality.”

“I hear the drums melodically, as subordinate to the band,” said Scott. “I believe in give-and-take. I’ll play time for this much, then give you no time. I’ll play colors, then maybe just bash. I’m working on becoming more of a drummer’s drummer, having more technical things with my own signature, but if something doesn’t come honestly to me, I won’t play it. For me, the message always takes precedence over everything. Most of my songs come from sitting at the drums and singing a melody, and I like to leave space so the messages can come through—you don’t need a lot of notes to play a strong groove. When you start putting ego into your playing, it cuts you off from getting your blessing.

“With Terence, I learned how to use everything I knew, and then totally abandon it. Early on with him, I’d think, ‘This section, I should play like Max Roach,” or play like Philly Joe or Al Foster. Really, I’ve come to such an enlightenment, actually letting things come out instead of filtering what I think I ought to play.”

Scott developed the notion of music as testimony during formative years—his mother and older brother played keyboards professionally on Houston’s church circuit, and, as he puts it, “I was always at choir rehearsal.” It’s a background he shares with such fellow Houstonians as Glasper and drummers Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mark Simmons and Jamire Williams, all established professionals, who came up during the ‘90s under Robert Morgan at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Scott  nailed his high school audition by playing “Seven Steps To Heaven” on a drumset containing five tuned tom-toms.

“Kendrick already had a deep understanding about the music’s history,” Harland recalled. “Early on he could emulate Philly Joe, Max Roach, Lewis Nash. Later, he checked out different things and opened up his sound.”

“We fused a gospel mentality with the jazz idiom, and it created a fresh sound for us,” said Scott of his Houston cohort.“We also looked up to Sebastian Whitaker, a blind drummer with deep roots in Art Blakey. Through him, we all sit high and play low, into the drums. Then also, our high school—and my elementary school—had many different types of people, from Vietnamese to African-American to Indian to Caucasian, so we learned to embrace diverse cultures from an early age. For example, a friend listened to Radiohead, and opened my ears to that type of thing, which I benefited from.”

On down time from Blanchard’s band, Scott does not lack for employment—his recent c.v. includes engagements with David Sanborn, John Scofield, and Maria Schneider. Off the bandstand, he oversees his label; joining The Source in the World Culture Music catalog are Between The Lines by Moreno, Scott’s PVA classmate, and The Wish, by singer Julie Hardy.  “It’s an investment in the future,” Scott said. “We shouldn’t wait for anyone to do anything for us. If we start recording these snapshots now, they’ll only get better with time.”

 

 

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For Drum Master Ignacio Berroa’s 64th Birthday, Uncut Interviews From 2014 and 2008

To mark the 66th birthday of the great Havana-born drummer Ignacio Berroa, I’m posting interviews that I conducted with him in 2014 and in 2008. The latter interview was conducted over a leisurely breakfast one morning during the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, where Berroa was performing with a group that included the great conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, who contributed to the conversation. The earlier interview was conducted in May 2008 live on WKCR, to publicize a gig at the Jazz Standard.

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Ignacio Berroa (Dominican Republic, Cabarete, Nov. 7, 2014):

TP:   Since you have a new recording and you’re performing your repertoire tonight, I’d like to know something about what you’re going for as a bandleader and composer in presenting it.

IB:   What I try to convey as a bandleader and as a composer… I am not a great composer actually. I composed one tune on my previous album, Codes, “Joao Su Merced,” and on this one I composed one called “Laura’s Waltz,” which I dedicated to my granddaughter. It’s a 3/4; a waltz.

But the message that I tried to convey in both my albums, and in the next album that I will do, is always to mix the music from my heritage with the music of my passion. That’s why the name of this album. Since I was a kid, as you can see in the liner notes, I fall in love with jazz, and I always want to be a jazz player. But coming to the United States, I figured that I have to do something that will be interesting. First of all, I didn’t want to be a Latin drummer, because not too many people to compete. The main reason why I left Cuba was because I always wanted to be a jazz drummer. But in order for me to be different from the others, what I figured was to mix my rhythms, the rhythms of my country with the straight-ahead of jazz, which, in my opinion, and as we know if you check history, have a lot of in common—because everything came from Africa. So rhythmically speaking, we’ve got a lot of things in common. The only thing is that in jazz they swing the notes, BING, BINK-A-DING, BINK-A-DING, and we might do BING-BING-PA-BING, BING-PA…— This is a triple feel from the Africans. [SINGS IT] On top of that… You can superimpose. [DEMONSTRATES ON TABLE] That’s it.

So for me, rhythmically speaking, it is easy to understand where we’re coming from. So mixing both cultures is what has made my drumming interesting. That’s the main reason why I became Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer for ten years. I always tell people… I don’t like to talk about myself because it seems like I’m bragging. The way I see it, and the way it is, in the history of American music I am the only drummer from another country (you can correct me if I’m wrong) that played with the master and the creator of bebop for ten years. Sometimes, when people try to pigeonhole me into that “Latin drummer,” I always tell them, “Well, but Dizzy Gillespie didn’t play salsa.” So I was with Dizzy Gillespie playing world music, if we want to call it that way, but I had to play a lot of straight-ahead. And if my ass was sitting in that chair for ten years, it means that… Dizzy was dizzy but not stupid. So he knew what he had in that chair. That’s what I always try to combine. That’s what differentiates me from other drummers.

TP:   Was that concept in place when you got here?

IB:   That was something that developed. When I arrived to New York, I didn’t know the meaning of “yes.” I had a great mentor. Mario Bauzá was my mentor. Mario Bauzá was the first one who told me, “Ignacio, in this country, what they pay is for originality. If you become another one, you are another one; if you become a clone of Art Blakey, you are Art Blakey’s clone. Or you are Philly Joe Jones’ clone.”

So I found my way to incorporate… As a matter of fact, I remember very clearly when I started playing with that… Dizzy used to play a tune called “School Days” which was a shuffle that he used to sing, and one day while we were playing “School Days,” I was playing the shuffle, and then suddenly, at some point, I started playing the Afro-Cuban clave. While keeping the shuffle, I put the clave. He turned around and he looked at me like I was crazy. But he kept singing because the beat was going on. He loved it. The only thing I did afterwards was changing that pattern from the cowbell to the cymbal. That was the beginning for me, when I said, “Wait a minute; I am going to start going for this.”

TP:   Dizzy must have been very supportive of all that. He must have loved that.

IB:   Dizzy was in love with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Very simple. It was Mario Bauzá who turned him on to that. It was Mario Bauzá who encouraged Dizzy Gillespie to move to New York, because Mario Bauzá met Dizzy in Philadelphia while Mario was playing with Cab Calloway. He met Dizzy at a jam session. Back then, musicians used to stay in Philadelphia to hone their skills before moving to New York. Mario met Dizzy at a jam session, and it was Mario who told Dizzy, “You are ready; go to New York; and when you go to New York, you call me.” It was Mario who put Dizzy Gillespie to Cab Calloway’s big band, because Mario was about to go do the band with his brother-in-law Machito. It was Mario who told Cab Calloway, “this is the guy that I met here,” and that was the famous phrase… Cab Calloway didn’t like Dizzy. Cab Calloway used to say that Dizzy played Chinese music. But Mario kept pushing, and when Dizzy proved that he was able to play the first trumpet book, Mario left and Dizzy stayed with Cab, but they became friends. It was Mario who put in Dizzy’s mind all the Afro-Cuban thing, and then it was Mario who told Dizzy in 1943 or 1944 [1946], when Dizzy said he wanted to do something new, Mario was the one who told him, “Why don’t you hire this conga player who just came from Cuba?”—that name was Chano Pozo.

TP:   Did Dizzy work with you on swing rhythms, or did you have it together?

IB:   No. I had it together, but then I learned about the language. Dizzy taught me… I learned a great deal with Dizzy about the language. The same way that I am never going to be able to speak English without this horrible accent, Dizzy told me about the language—about articulation, about phrasing. When he was doing a phrase, where to hit the bass drum. He said to me, “I’m playing a phrase, A-BEAT, BEAT, BEE-DO-BE-DU, BE-DA-BA-DOO-BI-DI, BEE-BAHP-BE-O—OH-OH. He said, “When I stop there to breathe, that’s where, in this language…”

Of course, another thing that I did and I am going to do until the day that I die, I continue listening to the masters. So I learn every day. Every day that’s something that I am going to do as long as my mind continues working.

TP:   Who are the American masters that you listen to? Who are the Cuban masters that you listen to?

IB:   Cuban masters? Anybody. From Los Muñequitos de Matanzas… I got that background because my father was a musician (violin). He’s still alive, but he’s 85 years old. He retired. But I grew up in a house where I used to listen to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Abelardo Barroso, La Sublime(?—10:17), (?) Gonzalez, Jose Fajardo… All those Cuban bands, that was in my house, and that was on the street. On my way from my house to the school, somebody would be playing in a jukebox in the court of my house Muñequitos. So that was in the air. My mom was crazy. In the house, the radio was always on. But dad was a musician. My grandfather was a musician.

TP:   So your path was not unlike Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Paquito D’Rivera, whose fathers were musicians.

IB:   More than that. Gonzalo’s father and my father… You want to know something very curious? You’re going to have to pay me for this. [LAUGHS] The first job that my father had as a professional, in a charanga band in Cuba, the pianist was Gonzalo’s dad. You know what? This is something that if you go to Cuba or if you want to go to Miami… From that era, there are just two guys alive. Gonzalo’s dad and my father. When those two guys die, there’s going to be nobody to ask about that era. Because those guys are the only ones alive—Gonzalo’s dad and my dad.

TP:   Who are the American drummers you listened to?

IB:   My first idol was Max Roach. My notebooks in Cuba, they used to say… I wrote in all my notebooks, “Max Roach, Max Roach, Max Roach.” He was my idol. That was the first bebop album I was exposed to, was the Max Roach band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land. So I listened to Max Roach while I was in Cuba. But don’t forget, I grew up in an environment that Cuba and the United States have no relations, Americans were our enemies, playing jazz was promoting the music of the enemy, and there were no more record stores. The second album that I had was Miles Davis, Four and More. So from Max Roach, I jumped to Tony Williams without listening to Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, Blakey… It was Max Roach, Tony Williams, then later I was able to listen to Relaxin’ by Miles Davis, and then I was able to listen to Philly Joe Jones. It was like that.

But then, after I arrived in the United States in 1980, I had the opportunity to check out everybody. Then I said, “Now I’m going to do my homework the way it’s supposed to be.” Then I discovered Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Papa Jo Jones. I did my whole homework. Also drummers that unfortunately were not very famous. One of the drummers who inspires me the most is a guy who used to play with Dexter Gordon, Eddie Gladden. He was one of the most inspiring drummers for me. I loved Jack DeJohnette. I love every drummer. If I have to pick one, my idol—Roy Haynes. He is my idol. When I grow up, I want to be like Roy.

TP:    On both records, you use a very expansive sound palette—electronic wind instruments, synthesizers.

IB:   Yes. It’s just that I want to do something different. It is a matter of taste. Some people are curious, and some people criticize that. I have learned in my 61 years that you cannot please everybody. We are in 2014, and it is an era where we have been using synthesizers for a long time. I remember being in Cuba when we were able to hear My Spanish Heart, and on all those Chick Corea albums he was using a lot of synthesizer. So I wanted for this album to have that sound, to have the EWI or the Yamaha MIDI control. So that’s going to be… To me, it gives a fresh sound, a different sound, but with the Afro-Cuban flavor behind. That’s what I want to get on this album… You miss the electric guitar. I don’t want to do another album that sounds… With all due respect to those purists, those people who think that mainstream jazz has to sound always like this, and Latin Jazz has to sound always like this. But I’m looking for something else. From my point of view as a drummer, what has to be happening is while you’re playing behind that. That’s what has to be happening. The way Miles Davis used to say, “When I put a band together, the first guy I look for is the drummer.” If the drummer is happening, the band is happening. So my conception is, I can have 5-6 guys for three organs, five guitars, two bassoons, three oboes, but I’m playing with Giovanni and we have that motor running, that’s the main thing.

TP:   Giovanni made a comment when you went off to get the record that he was waiting to get some drums, and that, as a conga player, he sees the drums as kind of his…did you say piano or orchestra?

GIOVANNI HIDALGO:   I was saying that I like to play drums, too. For me, the drumset is the piano of the percussion, and the conga player ….(?—18:26)…. That’s it. It’s exquisite like a great perfume, the drumset. That’s vast. You have to divide yourself not in four. In five. Because you’re playing four different things plus what you have in your mind—that’s five things in one.

TP:   How often are you able to perform live with this band?

IB:   Now that I have a new album out, I hope I do more. Unfortunately, I don’t work as much as I think I should be working. One of the things, in my opinion, in the 34 years that I have been in the United States, we drummers have always been seen as second-class citizens. We cannot be bandleaders. It has always been like that. I’ll give you a good example of the way people overlook drummers. When you hear people talking about the bebop era, everybody mentions Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. You almost never hear somebody mentioning Kenny Clarke. Why? Because we drummers are the guys who are sitting behind there to make everybody look good, and we drummers don’t have the capacity of being bandleaders. I hope some day that will change, because that’s not right. If you check history, the drummers that were able to make a career with the bands: Blakey with the Jazz Messengers, because he brought to those bands Lee Morgan, Freddie, Wayne, all the great musicians that we know. Elvin Jones, a little bit, with his Jazz Machine.

TP:   Tony Williams.

IB:   Tony for a while. But the only drummer that you might think of who was able to keep a band running for a long period of time was Blakey with the Jazz Messengers. It is hard for drummers. So nowadays, people, promoters at festivals…people who are in charge of festivals, they would rather hire a quartet by an upcoming piano player than the Giovanni Hidalgo Quartet. They see Giovanni as not what they call the “front line.” But nobody thinks how that front line will sound with a good drummer or a good conga player behind. So we have also the right to be a bandleader. This is my second album. The way life is, some people are going to like it, other people are not going to like it. But I see a lot of things out there in the festivals that are not as good as Giovanni’s band or my band or Dave Weckl’s band. It is always they think, “You are a drummer,” and when you are a drummer… Actually, I remember when I recorded that album for Blue Note, thanks to Bruce Lundvall. A lot of people in the company didn’t want to sign me, because from their point of view… And I agree. I’m not holding this against them, because in the end, this is a business. They told Bruce Lundvall, “Drummers don’t sell.” Thank God, Bruce Lundvall thought that the music on Codes was worth it for them to make an album. And do you know what? Codes sold very well—for jazz.

But it is a mental thing. Bill Stewart? He has to be sideman. But now, if Bill Stewart wants to go out with his band? No. I would like to work more. I don’t know if I am going to convince promoters, because that’s out of my hands. I don’t know if booking agents might want to sign me. When I released Codes, it was nominated for a Grammy. It was an album with Blue Note Records. I had my story behind playing with Dizzy, with Chick, with everybody. I called every booking agent in the United States, every reputable booking agent. Nobody took me. I don’t think Jeff Tain Watts works a lot with his band. We’re drummers and that’s the way they are seen. They are drummers.

I hope for the future generations, even after I die, that this conception will change. Because when you go to see the Roy Haynes Quartet, man, that’s a hell of a band. I think that what we have to change is the conception that because we are drummers, we cannot be bandleaders. That’s wrong.

TP:   Stepping away from the injustice of it or the need to do it…

IB:   I like that word, “injustice.”

TP:   Whatever the word… Do you do a lot of clinician work?

IB:   Yes, and I would love to do more. Because students need to know about their history. It is very important to know about the history. People need to know where the rhythms came from, our heritage. They need to know that the slaves were brought from Africa, that the slaves were not just brought to New Orleans but to the Caribbean and Brazil and to Peru, and that’s why all the connections exist, rhythmically speaking. People need to know. Even Cuban guys. Last night at the restaurant, my bass player, Armando Gola, who is a young guy, he doesn’t know about the history of Cuban music. He didn’t know where the danzon came from. He didn’t know where the cha-cha-cha came from. He didn’t know where the son came from, which is the foundation of the music that we have for years been calling salsa.

Another thing that I want to teach people is the conception of Latin Jazz. Because when you talk about “Latin,” you’re talking about a huge continent called Latin America that begins in Mexico and ends in Tiera Del Fuego, down there in Argentina. But when you hear Latin Jazz… I tell people, “Do you know that each of those countries has their own rhythms, their own identity?” Do you know that Mexico has a national rhythm? Do you know that Peru has a national rhythm? Do you know that Colombia has a national rhythm? Chile. Brazil, of course, is the only one that everybody knows. But each country has their own rhythm. Puerto Rico has its own rhythms. Haiti has its own rhythms. So I don’t hear many people playing Latin Jazz with any Venezuelan-Peruvian-Mexican influence. Everything is congas, an instrument that was created in the island of Cuba. Those patterns came from there. And the timbales…

So why Latin Jazz? Very simple. Because in the ’40s, when everybody started playing at the Palladium, when Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente, the Latinos who used to go to dance at the Palladium were just two groups—Puerto Ricans and Cubans. So the Americans used to say, “Let’s go to the Palladium to check the Latinos.” That’s how the name Latin Jazz came…

TP:   I guess Cuba had the big entertainment infrastructure, which helped develop the music as well.

IB:   From my perspective, it’s very simple. The geographical location of Cuba is what gave Cuba the advantage of having more rhythms. Why? Because it was the biggest island. It was the island that needed more slaves. And the Spaniards brought slaves from different groups. So the Arara, the Abakua, the Congo, these different cultures were forced to live together. Everybody had their rhythm. People that didn’t like each other, and they were forced to live together. So that atrocity led to the rhythmic richness that we have today. Puerto Rico was a smaller island. Puerto Rico was the last island in the Caribbean that got into the slave trade. When Puerto Rico got into the slave trade, it was the tail end. So Cuba, because it was the biggest island and they needed more labor, they brought more people. So in other words, in my opinion, the island got lucky.

Second thing. Their position geographically. When someone was coming from Europe to perform in Venezuela, to perform in Argentina, to perform in Peru, Cuba was at most a stop. They had to stop in Cuba to refuel, to get food. So Enrico Caruso was coming to perform in Argentina. Caruso would stop in Havana, and he would perform in Havana, because he had three days to stop in Havana. That gave Cuba the advantage over the other islands as far as musical development. Because it was the biggest island. They needed more of the slaves for the sugar, for everything they were doing in Cuba.

TP:   Also, a lot of the American jazz musicians came there in the ’40s and ’50s, after World War 2.

IB:   I’m talking from the origins. Then, Cuba is 90 miles away from the United States, so a lot of Americans going to Cuba. So definitely, the geographical position of the island is a key role on the development of the music in Cuba. We got lucky, because if the island of Cuba had been off the coast of Argentina, that would have been our ass!

TP:   So playing with Dizzy didn’t just teach you swing rhythms, but also to bring in all the national rhythms of Latin America. I’m assuming you had to play those specific rhythms in the United Nations Orchestra.

IB:   This is another thing that I want to clarify. A lot of people relate me with Dizzy to the United Nations Orchestra. I started playing with Dizzy Gillespie in 1981.

TP:   I understand that. I’m only following up on your point about every country having its own rhythm…

IB:   Yes, and in the United Nations Orchestra, what Dizzy wanted to do was to bring together that that’s what we need to do.

TP:   I guess my point was to ask if that influenced you as well. He schooled you on American swing, and I wondered if he influenced you in that regard.

IB:   No, I think I already was into that. I think that my encounter with Dizzy was meant to be. We were supposed to run into each other, and exchange ideas, and the United Nations Orchestra was something that was supposed to happen, and luckily, it happened, because he gathered the greatest musicians from the different countries. He had Giovanni, he got Airto, he got Danilo Perez, he got me, he got Arturo Sandoval, he got Paquito, Moody, Slide Hampton. That’s also what I’m trying to do nowadays. I’m trying to mix the music and play also with other musicians, with American musicians, and see what happens. Because when you play just with a musician that knows your music, that’s very easy. That’s what I tell people. Some people don’t like that I came to the United States, and that I play straight-ahead and that I want to play straight-ahead. Oh man, you should play Cuban music. No. Why? I wanted to compete. There is nobody… How many people am I going to compete with here in the United States? The late Steve Berrios. Who else? I arrived in New York in 1980, and I’m going to compete with Steve Berrios? So I came all the way from Cuba to compete with one guy? It makes no sense. I want to compete in the good sense of the word. Compete. Learn. I want to compete with my heroes. I want to see what they have done. That was the challenge.

TP:   It’s like, in writing, Joseph Conrad or Nabokov, who were born and raised in another culture, and wrote great novels in English.

IB:   Yes. But if you come from a country…

GIOVANNI:   What he’s saying is the truth. Because the first one to come to New York and Puerto Rico to bring another area of the songo was Ignacio Berroa. In 1980, and from that year until the end, that was because of him. That was another approach, another vision to the drummers. You never saw that before. We are in 2014, and he’s still right here.

TP:   The only drummer I can think of… What Willie Bobo did on Inventions and Dimensions was pretty remarkable, I think.

GIOVANNI:   Bobo was William Correa, a Puerto Rican guy, but he was with the Cubans… Amazing. When Tito Puente, him, Patato, they did the Puente Percussion… Boom. It was an explosion. I am telling you, to be brief, still, when you put all of those recordings… Ignacio came…

TP:   I think Art Blakey’s drum records in the ’50s raised consciousness.

GIOVANNI:   Blakey was ahead, because he was using… Remember this album with Kenny Dorham, Afrodisia? It was Patato on congas. This album from Max Roach, Supercussion—that was Patato on congas.

TP:   Blakey would have three percussionists, 2-3 trap drummers—he did a few of those for Blue Note.

GIOVANNI:   Amazing. He did one with Charlie Persip, Blakey, and Papa Jo Jones. But ….(?—37:09)….. all that time over here, and he is one of our mentors, and one of our examples forever, how to play the drums approaching with the Latin, with the Jazz, with the Afro. The rudiments for that… I’m telling you, always what he said before, Cuba, Puerto Rico… It’s amazing. He’s amazing. Even for me. I’m still learning. Like, I’ve been playing since I was 3 years old, but I’m still learning, and it’s never-ending. In the world of drums, which is the leader of percussion, with sticks and with the hands, that’s another beautiful thing… Like I said, deep. Very vast, and so…how you call that… Hovering or…the flowing…

TP:   Flowing.

GIOVANNI:   Flowing. You know what I mean? Now much better, because now… I’m going to agree with what Ignacio said, because it’s the truth. We’re in 2014, and I believe… As far as I am concerned, many of those young drummers are good ones, but I believe they are missing something. Like I do always, Ignacio and myself, we don’t forget the pioneers.

IB:   The tradition.

GIOVANNI:    The tradition. We don’t forget the analog. Ok? The digital era is so good, but if you forget the analog, if you forget the pioneers, forget about it. Stay at home and forget about it.

IB:   So we were talking about going to universities, and I was saying that. Universities meaning… That’s an interesting conversation that we were having yesterday. For example, universities… We all know that we are facing economically difficult times, but for example, certain universities, in the same way that you go to any major university in any place in the world, and the Classics department has 96% money, and the 4% goes to the jazz department, even though in the jazz department… It is rare to see a jazz department bringing a drummer for a residency, for a master class, because universities are more concerned about bringing this guy who is going to teach the students about harmony, the voicings, this-and-that… But you have to put your things in rhythm. So what I mean is that there should be a balance, and heads of jazz departments in different universities, have to be aware, “Ok, this is the budget that I have; I am going to bring this guy, this guy, but I am also going to bring Ignacio, Lewis Nash…” Because those guys have something to say that is going to benefit all the students. When I go to universities, the most important thing I request is that everybody attends my clinic. I tell the guy, “I want every jazz musician in my clinic.” Because I am going to tell them about the history. I am going to tell these guys who write music, the arrangers, when you’re going to arrange a piece of music, you have to know about the clave, you have to know… Based on the style of music you’re going to write, you need to know about the articulation, how you’re going to phrase, how you’re going to do… [SINGS THEME OF “EVIDENCE.”] If you’re going to play that as Latin rhythm, before you sit down and open Finale or whatever on the computer, you need to know about that.

TP:   Last year I did a piece for Jazz Times where I talked to 10 musicians from Cuba about their formative years. Almost all of them told me that in the conservatory, in ENA and the regional schools, Cuban folkloric music was treated the same way as jazz—both were out of the curriculum.

IB:   All those guys are younger than me, except for Paquito.

TP:   I wanted to ask you about your musical relationship with Gonzalo. You played with him…

IB:   Ten years.

TP:   Haven’t you played during the last decade?

IB:   Actually, no, I didn’t. I played with Gonzalo until we recorded the album Paseo. Paseo was the last album that I recorded with him, and then we toured that album, and then after that… I think I stopped playing with Gonzalo in 2006-2007, when I recorded my album, Codes, and then I went on my own. I think that in 2008 we did a short tour in Europe as a trio.

TP:   But I wanted to ask you about that partnership. It seems to have taken music forward.

IB:   Things happen for a reason. Gonzalo is ten years younger than me. I was a very good friend of Gonzalo’s brother, Jesus Rubalcaba, who passed away. We went to the same school together, and when I left Cuba, Gonzalo was in his teens. We played for the first time in 1996 in Puerto Rico, at the Heineken Jazz Festival, by accident. I was playing at the festival with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz All-Stars, and I was also playing with Danilo Perez Quartet. Gonzalo was performing there, but the United States denied a visa to his drummer at that time. I was living in Miami, and the guy from the festival called me and said, “Ignacio, do you have any problem playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba?”—because of the political situation. I said, “Ask him if he has any problem playing with me. I have no problem playing with Gonzalo. I live in Miami, but I don’t care. Music is music.” In fact, in 1995, I did an instructional video, and I invited Changuito to the video.

Anyway, we played as a trio, Gonzalo, Eddie Gomez and myself. Then I think the following year Gonzalo moved to Miami, and he called me, and that was the beginning of our ten years collaboration. It was something I’ve always called “love at first sight.” We started playing and we clicked. We’re coming from the same background. Even though I was ten years older than him, he brought me to his level, the way he sees music. That was a challenge for me, because when I recorded those albums with Gonzalo, I was already an old guy. It’s like when Roy Haynes recorded “Question and Answer” with Pat Metheny. So it was something very special, and I think that something beautiful came out of that. Paseo is an album that everywhere I go, when I teach at universities, everybody comes to speak to me about Paseo or Supernova. All the kids remember those albums. So it was a very special collaboration, and I hope that some day people may want to see that again. But aside from that, Gonzalo is one of my best friends.

TP:   And he is the producer of your record.

IB:   He is one of my best friends. I am very happy. I think it was something that was meant to happen, the same way that I think my encounter with Dizzy Gillespie was meant to happen. In my mind, there is no doubt that there is something external that has to do hold the things together. Ok, you’re going to meet this guy, you’re going to meet this guy, and you’re going to go… The same way that Parker and Dizzy met. I don’t want to compare us to Dizzy and Parker, but you know what I mean?

TP:   People cross paths.

IB:   Crossed paths. Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say.

I was saying at the beginning that the people in the industry, booking agents, promoters, I think they should be more open-minded and realize that I’m a drummer, but that doesn’t mean that I just have to be a sideman. People also have to be open, like… I’m Cuban. I think that’s not an issue now, but it was an issue for years. I’m Cuban, but my taste playing straight-ahead has been proven. Some people still always try to box me or pigeonhole me. “Oh, Ignacio. Latin. He’s the king of Latin.” It’s hard for them to accept, “Man, Ignacio came here and he became a great straight-ahead… Ignacio came here and absorbed our language. Ignacio did his homework.” In the same way that I would be proud if Blakey would have gone to Cuba, and end up playing in Cuban bands. I’d be happy. Because someone, a foreigner, came to our country and absorbed our music, and became so good that he’s playing with all the Cuban bands.
[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_

Ignacio Berroa (May 22, 2008) – (WKCR):

[From Codes, “Matrix”]
TP:   Ignacio Berroa is performing Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Standard with a quartet, featuring pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and saxophonist Ben Wendel.
Over these performances, will you be performing primarily music from this record?

IB:   Pretty much, and also some new music that we have been playing, planning to do the second album, but I don’t know yet when I’m going to do it, or which company I’m going to do it with. We’re going to be playing mostly the music from Codes and some new material.

TP:   Is this your first album as a leader?

IB:   My first one. I haven’t done any.

TP:   A long time in the making. You’ve been a professional musician in the U.S., and before that in Cuba, for what, 40 years probably.

IB:   Oh, man, for a long time. I started my professional career in 1970. I left Cuba in 1980, with the Mariel boat lift. In fact, this coming Monday is going to be my 28th year since I arrived in the United States.

TP:   Congratulations.

IB:   Thank you. I feel very happy about it. It took me a while to do an album, even though a lot of people always were encouraging me about doing my own project. My friend Dizzy Gillespie was always asking me about, “When are you going to do your album?” But I didn’t feel I was ready to do what I really wanted to project in an album. I always tell people who ask me, “It would have been very easy for me to do another Latin Jazz album in the early ’80s, and have Dizzy Gillespie as my guest artist.” It would not have cost me a penny; I mean, it would have been a success.

TP:   Why didn’t you do it?

IB:   Because musically speaking, I was not ready. I was not ready to do… I’m the type of person that, you know, I don’t like to do something that I’m not going to feel proud later on. So musically speaking, I think I was… Maybe it is in my mind, but in my opinion, I was not ready, because I didn’t want to do another Latin album. Unfortunately, a lot of people have the vision that when you are from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, what you have to play is just son montuno, cha-cha-cha, because you are a Latino. My passion since I was a kid was jazz. I always wanted to be a jazz drummer, and my mission is to mix Afro-Cuban rhythms with the jazz language. Believe me, Ted, back in the early ’80s… And I was struggling with a lot of things. I left Cuba in 1980. My wife at the time and my kid stayed behind. The Cuban government kept them for many years. I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language. So I had to support my family in Cuba, deal with all the new situation—it was very hard. So my mind was not in the right frame in order to say, “Ok, I am going to do an album that I will be proud of.”

TP:   You were trying to survive.

IB:   I was trying to survive, and I was trying to keep my family in Cuba, dealing with the Cuban government, trying to allow my family to leave the island—which they didn’t for four years. So it was rough.

TP:   With this recording, you’ve assembled some of the finest musicians in the world, American, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to perform with. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose group you’ve been part of for many years…

IB:   We’ve played together for ten years.

TP:   Edward Simon as well. David Sanchez and Giovanni Hidalgo. A slew of high-level Cuban musicians like Armando Gola and Felipe Lamoglia, who you played with in Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s quartet. But you assembled them differently within the framework of your compositions, and each tune has its own identity, so it’s evident that you put a lot of care into making this, and into the sounds you put forth.

IB:   Sure. It wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the great musicians who participated in the album. But yes, it took me a while. I really thought about it. It was a long process about realizing what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do the tunes, to make the arrangements, which were made by Felipe Lamoglia. It took a lot of time, Felipe and I getting together, and me explaining to Felipe what I wanted, the way I want to phrase the melodies—like what I did with “Matrix.”

TP:   So you conceptualized it and he executed it.

IB:   Exactly. Most of the arrangements were done by Felipe Lamoglia. The only thing that I did was tell him, “I want to play ‘Matrix’ this way; the melody has to go like this; we’re going to do it this way.” The same with “Pinocchio.” Things like that.

TP:   Listeners may be curious about aspects of your formative years. You said you became a professional musician at 17, 1970, in Cuba, and you always wanted to be a jazz drummer.

IB:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   During the years when you would have wanted to be a jazz drummer, there was sort of an official proscription from the Cuban Government, I think…

IB:   You said “sort of”? You weren’t there! [LAUGHS]

TP:   I wasn’t there. Being tactful doesn’t work sometimes. First of all, how did the interest gestate? Are you from a musical family?

IB:   Yes. My father used to play the violin. My father also is a jazz lover. So I was lucky that one day my father came to my house with two albums, one by Nat King Cole and the other one by Glenn Miller. I was 10 years old, and when I heard the music, I fell in love with that music. It was like love at first sight. Glenn Miller, “Moonlight Serenade,” Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall In Love.” When I heard that music, something got me. I said, “that’s what I want to do.”

The rest was very hard. There is something that I always like to talk… Some people have been asking me about writing a book, and it is about my generation from the ’70s, the musician generation… For us, it was very hard. These days a lot of people see that in Cuba they have a jazz festival, and there has been a kind of openness now for the music. I should say, in my opinion, that happened after 1980. But in the ’70s it was very, very hard. It was prohibited to play jazz. I remember, for example…just to give you one example…playing at the Radio and TV orchestra, and the conductor… We’d be playing an arrangement that had 16 bars of swing, and I remember seeing the conductor from the podium saying, “Ok, guys, those 16 bars, we’re going to play cha-cha-cha.” Because it was playing jazz; it was playing the music of the enemy. The way my generation was raised in Cuba was that Americans were our enemies, and playing their was music was trying…they were trying to penetrate our ideology…their ideology through music. So that’s hard it was for my generation. We had it very hard in the ’70s. That’s something that a lot of people don’t know.

TP:   You’re 5 years younger than Paquito D’Rivera, who’s written about this in his autobiography. Are you from Havana or somewhere else?

IB:   I’m from Havana, too.

TP:   What were your steps in learning the drums? And I’d also like to ask if folkloric music was part of your upbringing…

IB:   That was also prohibited in the ’70s, because it had to do with the Yoruba religion, and anything against the Communist ideology was prohibited.

So I am a self-taught drummer. In Cuba, in my days, everything was a classical training formation. I went to the National School of the Arts, where I studied percussion. I had a great teacher who studied here in New York in the ’40s with Henry Adler. But you’ve got to take this into consideration. There were no drums. Playing popular music was prohibited. Any kind of popular music. Jazz was the music of the enemy. Playing bata drums and Yoruba things was something that was not within the Revolution ideology, so it was also prohibited. The religion was prohibited—kind of. People would…

TP:   People went underground with it.

IB:   Underground. Very underground. If you want to do something in Cuba… People who practiced the religion openly were like in ostracism. You were not able to go to the university. You were not able to travel. You were nobody. I really admire those brave people who really practiced the Yoruba religion very openly in the late ’60s and the ’70s.

TP:   As far as your identity as a trapset drummer, were you listening to people for models? Were there people in Cuba…

IB:   No. I was lucky. Don’t forget, before Castro took power, Cuba was a very prominent country, very close to the United States, and a lot of people who were jazz fans had albums… Like I said to you, my dad came to my house with a Nat King Cole and a Glenn Miller album.

TP:   So you had albums to listen to, and models.

IB:   The young musicians, we had to go to the old musicians’ houses and listen to the albums, so we had some information. But also, the most important thing is…what I always say is this is what saved our life…was the proximity of Cuba to the United States. Just 90 miles from Cuba to Key West, so when the weather was good we were able to listen to the radio station coming from Key West, and some people also were able to see some TV shows. So that’s what kept us informed of what was going on.

I never had any drums lesson. I’m a self-taught drummer. The only people I was able to listen to was on albums… To give you an example, my first exposure to modern jazz was Max Roach with Clifford Brown. So Max was my first influence. Then I was able to listen to an Art Blakey album. From there, the jump went to Miles Davis, Four and More—Tony Williams.

TP:   Well, you did pretty good.

IB:   [LAUGHS] Yeah! I was listening to those albums every day, and play the drums by myself, and also I had no drumset—there were no drums in Cuba. So it was very tough.

TP:   As a young guy were you seeing relationships between what those drummers were doing… Max Roach was influenced to a certain degree by Haitian drums and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Africa had been to Africa. Did you discern correspondence in the patterns…

IB:   Yes, I knew that since I was there, and I knew that American musicians like Dizzy Gillespie were very much into Afro-Cuban music. So yes, I was able to hear it immediately.

TP:   Were you in contact with any of the Cuban musicians and a little older who became the first wave of post-Castro jazz musicians that Americans knew about, such as Chucho Valdes, or Emiliano Salvador (who they didn’t know so much about), or Paquito…

IB:   Oh, yeah. We used to play… Sometimes we used to do jam sessions, on-the-ground jam sessions. I remember in 1977-78, there was a club in Havana called the Rio Club. It used to be called the Johnny’s Dreams. We were allowed to play jazz just Mondays. So I was in contact with those musicians, and also with Emiliano Salvador. We played together in the same band from 1975 to 1979—for four years.

TP:   What was he like? Americans don’t know so much about him.

IB:   Emiliano Salvador, in my opinion, was a great piano player. He was my favorite piano player. Chucho is a great piano player. For my taste, Emiliano was my guy—let’s put it that way.

TP:   What was the difference for you?

IB:   The difference for me at that time is that Emiliano sounded more like McCoy and Chick Corea. He sounded more to me like a New Yorker. Back in the days, I remember it was Emiliano who introduced me to my favorite drummer, Roy Haynes. It was Emiliano in 1975 who told me, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” I don’t know how he got the recording. Probably through the guitar player, Paolo Menendez, who was American, and he was able to come over here, to this country, while living in Cuba, and he used to bring some records. Emiliano told me one day, “Ignacio, check this guy out.” So Emiliano was to me, and for a lot of people in Cuba back in the days…he was the guy. We always have this thing, “who’s the best?” It’s not a matter of who plays more. Who’s the best?

TP:   It’s your taste.

IB:   For my taste, Emiliano Salvador was the guy.

TP:   I know Enrique Pla was the drummer in Irakere. Was that an exciting band for you? It’s very influential on the way Cuban music sounded subsequently.

IB:   Irakere was a great, great band. It was a band composed of the best instrumentalists in Cuba at that time, and it was a big influence. Also, I have to say it was only band. It was the only band that the Cuban government allowed to do that. Also, in my opinion, Irakere was a band that they wanted to play jazz, and they had to put in the percussion in order to cover what they really wanted to do. Because with no percussion, there would have been no Irakere. But those guys back in the day, Paquito and Arturo and Chucho, what they really wanted to play was straight-ahead jazz. That was their passion. That’s what they wanted to play. But Irakere was a very influential band in our life. Like I said, the greatest musicians, the greatest instrumentalists in the ‘70s were in that band. It was also the only band that the Cuban government allowed during that period.

TP:   You just mentioned 1975-1979 playing with Emiliano Salvador, and during those years is when Dizzy Gillespie precipitated the Havana Jazz Festival…

IB:   1977. It was not a jazz festival. What happened was… For some reason, a boat that left New Orleans…

TP:   It was a cruise ship, I think.

IB:   Some musicians were on it… I don’t know how that cruise ship stopped in Havana for two days. How? That’s something that we have to ask the Cuban government and the American government.

TP:   Well, whatever it was, Dizzy Gillespie came in, and I presume you met him around then…

IB:   I didn’t meet… I want to straighten this out. I didn’t meet Dizzy Gillespie that day. I was lucky that I was able to get a ticket to see the concert. It was one concert in 1977. Dizzy Gillespie played. The late Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines also played. I don’t remember who else. I was able to see Dizzy with his quartet—Mickey Roker, Ben Brown on bass, Rodney Jones on guitar. I remember that when I left, when the concert was over, we were standing on the sidewalk and I told my friends, “Well, I can die already; I saw Dizzy Gillespie.” I don’t know how that was arranged.

Then in 1979, it was the big Havana Jam, where Bruce Lundvall, who was the President of Columbia… I also don’t know how that was arranged through the Cuban government. They did those three days, Havana Jam. But the first time we were exposed to Dizzy Gillespie was in 1977, when he did that concert. I was not able to speak to him. I’m still trying to learn how to speak English, so you can imagine that 28 years ago… As I said to you, when I arrived into this country, I was not able to say “yes.” So I met Dizzy Gillespie officially the day that Mario Bauza introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie, here, in New York.

TP:   In 1980, you left Cuba under not-luxurious-conditions to come to the United States…

IB:   For them, back then, I was a traitor. I left Cuba because I always wanted to leave the island. I was always looking for freedom, and I want to play jazz, and I was not allowed to do that in my country. But I also have to add to this that even… I always tell this to people. Even if Cuba had been a free country, I was coming to New York anyway, because the musicians I wanted to play with were here. So I would have come here anyway.

TP:   So you came here through the Mariel boat-lift…

IB:   It was the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans left the island. I landed in Key West, and from there I went to a camp, Indian Town Gap, and I spent 36 days there going through the process. By that time, the American government realized that Castro had sent a lot of spies. So after 36 days at the Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania, I came here to New York, where I have family. I had an aunt who was living here… She left Cuba in the ’40s. So I was lucky to have my family here; they were very supportive. So the first time I went to Miami, I went there as a musician.

TP:   So you became an American professional musician in New York.

IB:   This is my town. I was born and raised here in New York.

TP:   What sorts of things were you doing early? Latin Jazz and Salsa, or…

IB:   It is hard for me to remember. The first gig I did with my good friend, the late Mario Rivera, who was a great musician. He had a band called the Salsa Refugees, and I think that was my first gig. That band was composed of the late Hilton Ruiz, Andy González, Jerry González, Steve Turre and Mario Rivera. Then I started playing with a band called Tipica Novero(?—30:18), where I was playing timbales. That was the first time in my life I played timbales. I never played timbales in Cuba. I never played percussion in Cuba.

TP:   You never played percussion in Cuba.

IB:   Ever. In my life. No. Also, don’t forget, I was a rebel, and I wanted to be a jazz drummer, and that was the music that was prohibited. I was reluctant to play other things. Which I regret. Also, the first time I started playing congas, I realized that my hands hurt a lot. I said, “No-no-no, this is not for me.”I didn’t want to have any callouses on my hands. I like my soft hands.

TP:   So you moved from Cuba into a very different pan-Latin community, New Yorkers but also people from different parts of the Afro-Caribbean region.

IB:   Yes.

TP:   What was that like for you aesthetically? Did it have an impact on your way of thinking about music?

IB:   No, not at all. Well, I put things into perspective, and I said, “Well, this is a different ballgame now—you have to adapt.” I like baseball a lot. You have to adapt now to this new league. Believe me, I was very happy to be here. My main concern back in the days was that the Cuban government had my family as hostage in Cuba and that I didn’t know how to speak English. It was terrible. I always tell people, “Can you imagine if I take you now to Beijing and I leave you there and say, ‘now you’re going to live here.’” It was terrible.  I don’t want to remember that. It was terrible being in a city, in a place where people were around you, talking, and you didn’t know what they were saying. I also remember that my friend, Andy González, Jerry González, they were very helpful back in the days.

But musically speaking, it expanded my horizons. I said, “Wow, this is something else.” Because I was living in a small pond, in Cuba, and then suddenly I was in the ocean, where you see every kind of fish! So it really opened my mind. It made me conscious of what I really wanted to do.

TP:   Andy and Jerry González had played with Dizzy around 1970, and I guess they were really getting into their own concept of hybridizing jazz rhythms with Afro-Cuban rhythms, which I imagine must have had a great appeal to you.

IB:   Oh, yes. I was very attracted to their approach to the music. That’s something they always tried to do, and I said, “This is what I want to do playing the drums.” But also, I have to be honest. I want to play straight-ahead jazz! That is my passion, and that’s what I’m here for.

TP:   Straight-ahead jazz means something a little different now than it did 25 years ago. Straight-ahead jazz means incorporating timba rhythms, 7/4, 9/4, as well as 4/4, and you’re someone who probably laid down a little bit of the information that helped some people do that.

IB:   Yes. But still, for me… I am going to be 55 years old in July. For me, my passion is playing straight-ahead swing—DING-DING-A-DING. Swing.

TP:   Not 7/4, not…

IB:   No. That’s my life.

[MUSIC: “Joao Su Merced”]

TP:   Hearing that brings up something we were discussing off-mike, that over the last 20 years, rhythms from Cuban popular music, from timba, have become part of the jazz mainstream, 7/4, 9/4 and so on, and your remark was, “I like that, but I like to play straight-ahead,” and also that in African music and Cuban music odd meters don’t really come into play.

IB:   Yes, that’s my opinion. I have never heard any bata or any Yoruba percussion rhythms playing 7/4 or 11-by-5 or… Probably I am getting old. I really respect and admire all the musicians who like to play those odd meters. But in African music, I don’t think there is any 11-by-something or 13-by-something. In Yoruban religion, I have been in a few ceremonies, and I have never seen anybody playing something for any saint in 11-something. Everything is 12/6. That’s what it is. I think that there is so much still that we can do with those meters.

Also, my theory about this is: I don’t talk in 11/4, I don’t walk in 9/4, I don’t walk in 6/4. So everything is like a 4. Everything has to swing. I haven’t found yet where those odd meters swing. That’s just my opinion. But in Afro-Cuban music, not odd meters. You don’t hear any… Now it is called timba, which I remember in the ’70s. That is not a new word. In the ’70s, when someone used to play with a popular band, like Van-Van or Ritmo Oriental or Conjunto Rumba Havana, if you asked me, “Hey, Ignacio, what is Tony doing?” my answer to you would be, “Oh, he’s playing timba; he’s playing with a timba groove.” That was in the ’70s. But when you listen to that kind of music, when you listen to timba, you’re not going to hear odd meters. The first thing that we have to keep in mind is that it is dance music, and the only people who dance with odd meters are countries where that music is the popular music, like Bulgaria for example. But in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, the Caribbean—no odd meters.

TP:   When did you join Dizzy Gillespie?

IB:   I joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1981. August…

TP:   You played with him pretty much until…

IB:   The story is, the first time I played with Dizzy Gillespie was by accident. That was in December 1980, when his drummer at the time got stranded in Boston, and Mario Bauza heard me playing in a rehearsal at Mario Rivera’s house, and he was the one who called Dizzy and told him about me. So by accident, I played with Dizzy that night, since his drummer got stranded and he called Mario and I went there and played with Dizzy. But I joined his quartet in 1981. Then I had to leave the band, because I had no status in the country. It was very hard for marielitos to travel. I left the band in 1983. When I became an American citizen in 1986, he called me back, and I was back with his quartet… Back then, it was a quintet with Sam Rivers on tenor. That went on until he died, doing his big bands, the 70th Anniversary Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, and then came the United Nations Orchestra. Most people think that I started playing with Dizzy with the United Nations Orchestra, but it was way before.

TP:   What things did you learn from him? He was almost as eminent a teacher as a musician, in terms of conveying information to further his concepts.

IB:   I learned a lot from Dizzy. We should blame him for this terrible English that I speak. He taught me… [LAUGHS] I learned a lot from him about the jazz tradition. I also learned a lot from Dizzy about the human aspect. But I learned a lot from the jazz tradition.

TP:   Was he very hands-on in showing you information?

IB:   He was a great human. Yeah. He was always teaching people, everybody, and always wanted to learn also. Dizzy used to call my room when we were traveling. He used to call me at 1 a.m. to talk about rhythms. I’d say, “Dizzy, man, I’m sleeping; come on, let’s talk tomorrow.” He was always into that.

TP:   A night owl. Through much of the ’90s, you were part of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s bands.

IB:   Yes, I started playing with Gonzalo. After Dizzy passed away, I played for a while… Tito Puente put together a band called The Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars. I think that band went on for four years or so. Then in 1997, I started playing with Gonzalo. We played together for ten years. First we were playing as a trio. We recorded his first album for Blue Note, Inner Voyage, then came Super Nova, and then we recorded Paseo as a quartet. That’s when he hired Felipe Lamoglia, and we played as a quartet for a while. Then, when I did my album and I went on my own, I think it was time for me to do my thing, and he also wanted a change, I think…

TP:   Talk about the collaboration. The band evolved greatly during that time, and it could go from great complexity, complex polyrhythms, to elemental swing.

IB:   Yes. Gonzalo’s music is very complex. So the point for me was to make those complex things look easy. We talk about it. He knew what I was able to do. He was very hard on me. The stuff that he wrote for me, he make my life miserable, but he knew that I was able to do it. For example, that record Paseo is one of the greatest things that I have ever recorded, as well as one of the most difficult, or the most difficult thing that I have recorded. The thing is to make that look easy. But still, as much complex as it is, you can hear…

TP:   The music breathes.

IB:   Exactly. The Cuban music is there.
[MUSIC: “Woody ‘n You”]

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