For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]
In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music.“It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and...] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I'm not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars...] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he's a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He's 45.  And he's from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He's self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn't knock you out, but you like and respect it, you're really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you're going to agree to do the Blindfold Test...] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It's not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn't sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don't go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways...] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

For the 81st Anniversary of David “Fathead” Newman’s birth, A 1998 DownBeat Interview with him and Hank Crawford and a Liner Note

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of David “Fathead” Newman, a master practitioner of the saxophone family and the flute, whose sound helped stamp Ray Charles’ various units during the ’60s and ’70s and whose own leader career is documented on three dozen or so recordings. I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for one of those dates, Keep The Spirit Singing, and to interview Mr. Newman both on WKCR and for my first-ever DownBeat feature, a joint interview with him and his long-time saxophone partner Hank Crawford in 1998. I’ve posted the liner notes and the unedited transcript of the interview.

David Newman (Notes for Keep The Spirit Singing):

In the exciting times directly following World War II, when David Newman was a young man in Dallas, Texas, interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist.  People from different regions did things their own way.  For black tenor saxophone players from the wide open spaces, that meant cultivating the larger than life sound of the kind projected by luminaries like Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and John Hardee on the popular recordings by big bands and jump bands of the day.  As much Newman and his peer group — Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman — absorbed the startling modernist postulations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during those years, they never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice.  The sound was of the essence.

Then, musicians learned by jumping into the fray.  Initially an alto saxophonist, Newman attended high school with future luminaries like Cedar Walton and James Clay and jammed on up-to-the-minute bebop with a teenage Ornette Coleman.  He played in bands led by a pair of little-recorded legends, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was Charlie Parker’s earliest and primary influence from Kansas City days, and the tenor saxophonist Red Connor, who Coleman cites as a primary mentor.  We’ll digress with Newman’s comments on both.

“Red Connor was a very fine musician with a sound somewhere in between Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, with a little Don Byas or Chu Berry in there,” he recalls.  “Booker Ervin listened quite a bit to him, as you can hear in Booker’s playing.  I don’t know of any other players that had Red’s particular style and his sound; he was very much his own person and  didn’t particularly pattern himself on any of the forerunner tenor players.  Red knew all the Bebop tunes, he was playing Bebop always, and I got a thorough training by playing with the Red Connor band when I was in high school.

“At that time Buster Smith had moved back to Dallas, and he had one of the best big bands in the city.  One night I sneaked into a club to hear his band play, and he gave me a chance to sit in, which was a very big thing for me; soon I started to play with him.  Buster had an advanced approach, different from most musicians of his era.  He had a huge sound on the alto, and his execution was superb; he could get over the instrument really fast — he knew it backwards.  His phrasing and harmonic concept were modern, ahead of its time.  He was a self-taught musician with perfect pitch, and he could sit and write arrangements while we were riding up and down the highways — he wouldn’t have to be anywhere near a piano.  He would write out full arrangements, and on a jump blues that he wanted to extend he would set up different riffs for the saxophones, then someone in the brass section would set the riffs for the trumpets and trombones.  They called Buster ‘Prof,’ short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.

“Buster put together small combos for the road or to back up people like T-Bone Walker and others who came through Dallas.  Around 1951-52, Buster organized a group with Leroy Cooper and myself to do a tour with Ray Charles, who was singing and playing the alto.  We played mostly the southern states out to California.  I had met Ray a little earlier, when I was playing with Lloyd Glenn, a piano player with a hit record called ‘Chickaboo,’ and Ray was with Lowell Fulsom, who featured him playing piano and singing.  We were traveling on the road at black theaters and dance halls with a package that also included Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  Sometimes Ray sounded similar to Charles Brown, sometimes he sounded like King Cole, even sometimes like T-Bone Walker, but you could hear his thing starting to come out.  I think Ray’s recording of ‘I Got A Woman,’ when he started to inject a Gospel feel, is where the real Ray Charles started to emerge.”

Newman blossomed as a star sideman with Charles’ brilliant small band from 1954 to 1964, but he’s never felt aesthetically encumbered by his past.  “Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation,” Newman told “Downbeat” a few years back.  “Before I encountered Ray, my only real love was jazz and bebop.  With Ray I learned how to respect and admire and love all other forms of music.  This music is an incredible gift.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me, put my stamp on it, my feeling, and see what comes out.  I want to explore other areas, bridge the generations.  You can’t close yourself off as music moves on.”

Now 67, Newman sustains that attitude of freshness and exploration throughout Keep The Spirit Singing.  Performing on flute and tenor and alto saxophones, he sculpts his sound with refined nuance through a broad matrix of emotion and rhythm-timbre, enhanced by an ensemble of creative veteran improvisers who know the Old Master well enough not to have to waste time getting acquainted in the studio.

Pianist John Hicks spent his formative years in St. Louis and Atlanta, and knows intimately the language of blues and church forms; his distinctive voicings and ebullient beat fit Newman like a custom-made suit.  “I’ve known John a long time, and he’s been one of my favorite pianists for many years,” Newman says.  “He knows where I’m going, and we blend as a very good combination.”

On three selections Newman pairs off with trombonist Steve Turre, a fellow Charles alumnus who coaxed the master into playing four tunes on his recently issued In The Spur of The Moment [Telarc].  “I like the blend of the tenor saxophone and trombone,” Newman says.  “Ray’s standard instrumentation was two trumpets and three reeds, but in the ’50s when we played the Apollo and the Howard Theater, he would use the trombone.  I wanted Steve because he gets that wide-open, full sound.”

Newman first met Turre and bassist Steve Novosel when both were working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another devotee of extracting a full sonic palette from an array of horns.  “I first met Rahsaan in Chicago, when I was playing with Ray,” Newman digresses.  “Rahsaan was just getting his start, and had come over to Atlantic Records.  He would hang out at the Sutherland Hotel, where we stayed quite often in Chicago.”

Returning to the subject at hand, he continues: “Steve Novosel is a solid, great player.  I depend on him a lot for his ability to carry the melody.”

Like Novosel, trapsetter Winard Harper works frequently with Newman.  The relationship began when Harper hired Newman for a record date a few years back; the in-demand 38-year drummer plays with idiomatic precision and imaginative flair throughout. Joining him for several tunes is percussion wizard Steve Kroon, who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s with customary panache.

Guitarist O’Donnell Levy composed and arranged the Caribbean-flavored title track and the samba-esque “Asia Beat,” which frame the session, while Turre offers the pungent “Mellow-D For Mr. C.”  “I like the way the changes move in the tune,” Newman says of the latter, which refers to Ray Charles.  Does the Caribbean beat relate to the 12/8 feel Newman played over 45 years ago?  “Yes, it does.  It’s a very natural feeling.  A lot of people today seem to like that feel, and I am one of those people.”

Newman’s “Cousin Esau” showcases his vocalized flute sound.  “I adapted some of the things that Eddie Harris and Les McCann used to do with this particular beat,” Newman says.  “No one has a name for it, but I call it the Listen-Here beat.  Most drummers that I ask know what I mean.  It’s a four-beat rim-shot figure played on the snare drum; most people can groove to it.  I thought of the flute when writing this tune.  Through the years I’ve tried to get an identifiable flute sound, and somehow it’s starting to come together.  It’s a very earthy, open sound.  When I was a kid I used to blow across a Dr. Pepper or R.C. Cola soda bottle to get a sound; after I started playing the flute, I found it was a good way to get a good open sound.”

Newman wrote “Karen, My Love” for his wife; his bravura performance comes right out of the Gene Ammons tradition of heart-on-the-sleeve balladry using only the choicest notes.  “John Hicks helped me flesh this out,” Newman reveals.  “I knew exactly what I wanted, but John could put meaning to what I had in mind.”

Newman reprises “Willow Weep For Me,” which he recorded years ago for Atlantic, taking it here with a 3/4 feel.  It’s a showcase for his bright, declamatory alto saxophone style, and shows that his early experience with Buster Smith “has stuck with me all through the years.”

John Hicks composed “Life,” one of his many lovely waltzes, with Newman’s flute in mind.  “It has a natural feel,” Newman says.  “John wanted me to play it as I felt it fit me.”

Newman is no stranger to the Latin sound that inflects much of the proceedings.  “I guested many times with Machito’s band, and later on with other Latin groups, and that gave me the feel of the Latin beat as well as some things coming out of Cuba,” he notes.  “The jazz feel with the African-Latin influence and the European influence is part of what jazz is all about, especially these days — it’s all come together.”

Pushing the envelope remains the animating imperative for Newman, a musician who can retrospect on a career that spans a half-century — 45 years in the spotlight.

“You don’t want to get yourself into a dated position,” says the man whose sound defines soul tenor for several generations.  “I like to incorporate the modern approach I hear from the younger players in playing the changes, and I still include some of the things that I played and learned from the veteran musicians when I was young.  You take what you have and ride with it, put it all together, and keep moving with the feeling, keep going forward.”

Hank Crawford-David Newman – (3-3-98):

TP:    The first question I’ll address to you both is when you were first aware of the other?  Hank Crawford, did you first meet David Newman when you came into the Ray Charles band?

HC:    Yes, I first met him when I went in Ray’s band.  But I was aware of his playing from some records I had heard, solo things he had done with Ray Charles.  But the first time we met I’d just joined the band actually.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you, Hank, about your path into the Ray Charles band, and I guess we should start from your early years as a musician.  When did you start playing music?

HC:    I started playing at the age of 9.  I started on piano.  Piano was my first instrument.  I studied three years of private lessons; I guess that must have been at about the age of 6 when I started taking music lessons, and from there I went to the saxophone.

TP:    Why did you go to the saxophone from the piano?

HC:    My father was in the Service, and when he came back, he’d bought a saxophone with him, which was a C-melody — actually it was a C-melody saxophone.  I think he was sort of a frustrated saxophone player himself, but he never did go into it.  But he brought the horn, and I was studying piano and still in elementary school.  So I still had, I guess, 6th, 7th and 8th grade to go.  And once I entered high school in 9th Grade, naturally I wanted to be in the high school band, and piano was a bit much to march with.  So I just went to the closet and picked out the horn.  I’m self-taught saxophone.  I just got a book actually in Ninth Grade and taught myself after I learned the fingering, because I already had a slight knowledge of music from taking piano lessons.

TP:    You could read probably, and knew some chords.

HC:    Right.  And I started playing saxophone in Ninth grade.  Then after I taught myself the fingering and stuff, I just kept playing.  Later I had lessons on the saxophone, too, but that was in college.  That’s when I entered college.

TP:    What sort of music program did you have in high school?

HC:    Well, it was basically the marching band, a concert band, and a dance band which we called the Rhythm Bombers.  It was a 16-piece high school band.  Our band director in high school was a trumpet player by the name of Matthew Garrett, who is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father.  Actually, Dee Dee’s given name is Denise Garrett.  Her father was Matthew Garrett, and he was my high school band director.  We used to play a lot of Woody Herman charts and Count Basie charts, just big band stuff.

TP:    Did he have you working outside the high school, like Walter Dyett did in Chicago, got his guys in the union?

HC:    Oh yeah.  We played a lot of Monday night things, usually on campus.  And then we played some things off-campus, which was in local clubs.  But even in high school, we were playing major functions.

TP:    Had you always been listening to records and other saxophonists?

HC:    Yes.

TP:    And when did the alto become the horn of choice, or the horn that suited your ear.  From the influences that you describe on your bios, you mention Bird, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, later Cannonball, they’re all alto players.  So I assume that was the primary voice that you heard.

HC:    During that period I heard a lot of saxophone players, from Bird to Bostic, Tab Smith, and on up through to Ammons, Sonny Stitt, you know… So really, I can’t say just one more than the other inspired me the most.  Because I love to hear musicians play, all saxophone players.  I got a bit from each one.  But I always liked the sound of the alto, although I did play a little tenor or baritone.  But I could express myself more on alto.  That seemed to be my voice.

TP:    You also mentioned your church experience as being very important for you.

HC:    Oh yes.

TP:    And it seems to me that the alto saxophone is the sound that’s more commonly inspirational in the church.

HC:    Oh yes.  I think the alto is very voice-like.  I approach the horn vocally, as if I was going to sing.  I guess that comes across because of my early beginnings or early roots in the church.  That’s where I started when I was playing piano.  I used to play for the junior choirs, the senior choirs, prayer meetings.  My whole family was really involved in church a lot.  If they didn’t play, they were singing.  So all my life I was involved in spiritual music.

TP:    What was the name of the church you belonged to in Memphis?

HC:    Originally, Springdale.  Springdale Baptist Church.

TP:    That’s where you had your piano lessons, or played piano.

HC:    Yes, right there.

TP:    Well, we’ll stop with Hank in high school playing with the 16-piece band in high school with Matthew Garrett as the band director, and go through the same process with David Newman.  Your path on the saxophone.  When you started playing, what the circumstances were, etcetera.

DN:    You mean right from the very beginning.

TP:    When did you first put a horn in your mouth.

DN:    Well, it was the mid-Forties when I first picked up the alto.  Like Hank, I started out with the piano.  I had a few piano lessons at first, but I didn’t stay with the piano as long as he did.  I only had a few lessons, and then right away my friends started calling me a little sissy, so I wanted to pick up a more masculine instrument.  So I asked my Mom to get a horn, and I didn’t know exactly what kind of horn.  But then I heard Louis Jordan play the alto saxophone, and it just blew me away, and right away I chose the alto — that’s what my Mom bought me.  I was still in elementary school, and started taking private lessons from my music instructor, J.K. Miller, who was the band director at Lincoln High School.  He taught Cedar Walton and James Clay, alike from Dallas.  We called him Uncle Dud.  When I started high school I went directly into the band.  Uncle Dud was the one that gave me the name “Fathead.”  He wanted me to read the music instead of memorizing music like what I was doing, and he called me a fathead in class, and that’s been my nickname until this day.

TP:    Unapropos.

DN:    [LAUGHS] Unapropos, but nonetheless that’s the way it was, and it’s a trademark by now.  I don’t get offended by the name at all, because it goes so far back, and it’s just a nickname anyway.

TP:    What sort of music program did he have.  Hank Crawford’s describing playing contemporary Basie and Woody Herman charts, a 16-piece band.  Did you have something similar to that in high school?

DN:    We had something similar to that for the jazz band, some Basie charts, some arrangements by Buster Smith, who was a local alto saxophone player and arranger and composer from Dallas, and also some stock arrangements, which were published orchestrations.  I was playing alto for many years, and after about my second year in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to Bird.  He brought along a Charlie Parker record, a 78 on Savoy Records, and Bird was playing “Koko,” which was “Cherokee.”  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was thinking that there was no other player that could play any faster or better than Earl Bostic.  Earl Bostic was the man at that time.  And when I heard Charlie Parker it just blew my mind away.

From that point on, I fell into the Bebop bag, and I started listening to all the Bebop tunes as they came out.  And during that particular time, it was very easy to keep up with all the new tunes that came out, because there weren’t that many.  So I would listen to J.J., Diz, Bird, Fats Navarro, Dexter, all the players.

TP:    What a lot of people describe is that when these records would come out, their whole little clique of musicians would get together, memorize the solos, and then…

DN:    Exactly.

TP:    Was that your experience, too, Hank?

HC:    yes.

TP:    Do you remember your first Bird record?

HC:    Maybe not by name, but I can say this.  Like David was saying, at that particular time it was the Bebop era that we both came through, you know, and some of the same people he named I really admire.  I love Bostic for power.  He was a power player.  But we all came through all phases of music, from the Blues, Gospel and Jazz… Actually, I was speaking about the spiritual side of music, but we were also playing Bebop.  That was the era that we really come through.  We always tried to play Bird’s solos, and did play them, note for note!

TP:    So you memorized your Bird solos also.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

TP:    I’m going to ask you each about your contemporaries, because you each came up with a small group of distinguished cohorts.  In David’s case, you came up with James Clay, Cedar Walton and Ornette Coleman.  You’ve mentioned a good story about Ornette, playing in the park.

DN:    There was a park in Fort Worth (I forget the name) where we would all gather around the gazebo and play there.  I was playing with an older musician there named Red Connor, a very good saxophone player.  He never was that well-known because I don’t think he left Texas that much, but at the time he was the leading saxophonist in that area.  His sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and even maybe Don Byas.  He was a Bebop player, and he knew all the Bebop tunes.  I was playing in Red’s band, and Ornette would come and play.  I was playing the alto and Ornette was playing the tenor saxophone when I first met him.  We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos, as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players.  We’d learn these solos note for note, then after we finished playing whatever Bird had played, then it came time to do the individual thing, and this is when Ornette would go Ornette.  Then we could hear come in after he would run out of Bird’s solos, then he would go to Ornette! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Ornette as we know him today.

DN:    Ornette as we know him.  It was Ornette.  He wasn’t calling it harmolodics at the time, but that’s the direction that he would go into.  He would not conform to the chord structure.  He would just go completely different, because he had his own conception.  His concept was entirely different.  We knew he was on his way to being something different.  We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was a different thing happening with Ornette.

TP:    Hank Crawford, I can think of two pretty fair saxophonists in your age group, George Coleman and Frank Strozier.  Were you all acquainted?

HC:    Yes, we were all in high school together.  In fact, George and I were in the same class.  Frank was a few years behind us, but we were all in the same band.  Speaking of local saxophone players, at that time the guy who impressed me the most was a tenor player named Ben Branch, who sounded a lot like Gene Ammons — and I always liked Ammons’ playing.  There was a guy who played alto in Memphis who I got my name from, an older man named Hank O’Day — really Hank, not Henry.  He was playing in a big band that was led by Al Jackson, who was the father of the drummer Al Jackson from the Stax scene.   There was George, and then a few years behind us was Charles Lloyd.  There was another guy who played saxophone who sounded very much like Bird… At that time, George Coleman was the king.  He was playing all of the Bird stuff.

During that era, we were studying a lot of Bebop.  That’s why we went from house to house, to learn all these bad tunes.  But basically, our primary function when we would go out to play was the Blues.  We’d practice the Bebop all day at each other’s house, but when we had to go out and play, we’d play a lot of Blues, Memphis being the home of the Blues, they say.  I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.

I remember listening to Johnny Hodges, and I remember Tab Smith played on “Because of You” that floored me.  I like melodies.  I really like ballads, and I think I’m most expressive on ballads.  I guess that comes from being around vocal music a lot.

TP:    You mentioned that starting in the church as well.  You mentioned that in your trademark horn arrangements, the horns are the backup singers, you’re the lead singer with the alto.

HC:    Yes.  I found that to be true when I joined Ray Charles’ band.  I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was at least eight pieces, from 8 to 16 pieces, five horns at least.  Big bands was a favorite of mine, too; I loved big bands.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the great big band leaders later on in my career.

TP:    Lunceford was from Memphis from originally.

HC:    Yes, and Gerald Wilson.  And later, when I went to school at Tennessee State in Nashville, I had a chance to meet Ellington and Dizzy.  They would come and play the homecoming campus gig every year.  There would always be a big name.  I had an opportunity to meet Charlie Parker three months before he passed in Nashville.  I was a senior at Tennessee State, and Bird came through on a show with Stan Kenton, June Christy, Nat Cole.  There was a tenor player in Nashville named Thurman Green. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re laughing.

HC:    Well, he was funny.  He was funny just as a human being and then he was funny as a player.  We used to laugh at his playing.  He just played funny, man.  He knew Charlie Parker personally.  And Bird came through at that particular time with that show we were talking about, and he came down to a little place that I was playing called the El Morocco.  I was playing an off-campus gig, and Bird came down there, just hanging out.  He didn’t play anything; came with Thurman, his friend.  He sat there, and for about two hours, man, after we finished, I had a chance to sit next to him and talk.  I don’t know what we were talking about.  Just fun things.  This was like in December, and he passed in March.  That’s about three months.

TP:    It sounds to me that the thing you both share is you had thorough high school educations.  You got a thorough musical preparation in a lot of ways in high school, and then you were playing functionally on these type of gigs and getting professional experience from a fairly young age.  How old were you when you did your first professional gig, whatever amount of money it was?

HC:    Actually in high school we were getting paid.  Because at that time, at 14 and 15, we were going out playing the dances.  The senior players, they were out, too.  But at that time, Memphis was full of great musicians, man.  Phineas Newborn was there.  He was playing at that age, man, and he was just out of sight.  So we played all of the R&B gigs and all of the jazz gigs and so forth.

TP:    There wasn’t a differentiation between Jazz and other forms of music.  It was all one big pot, kind of?

HC:    Right.  Well, playing Bebop, that was our classroom.  That was the study period, you know.  But Blues just came as a natural if you were from that part of the country.

TP:    I take it that Dallas, Texas wasn’t so dissimilar in terms of the requirements for playing in public, am I right?

DN:    My experience in that area was we’d play Bebop in jam sessions, and maybe there was one club or two where we would play together for the door, which wouldn’t be very much money, like the Log Cabin in South Dallas.  But you couldn’t earn a living playing Bebop because the people, especially in the Dallas area, they weren’t that interested in Bebop.

TP:    What would happen if you might throw that into your playing?  Would they be very verbal and vociferous and clear in their displeasure?

DN:    Well, the younger people would dance to anything that we played.  They were receptive.  But the older generations, from the thirties on, they didn’t take too much to Bebop.  They would listen for the beat and that sound which they were accustomed to.  If it wasn’t Swing from the Big Band area, then it had to be something like Blues or Rhythm-and-Blues, something from a beat there, and the Blues, bluesy tunes.  So you had to play the Blues.  In order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the Blues.  T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and I would play gigs and go on gigs.  Whenever T-Bone would come through town, I would go on gigs, because Buster Smith usually put bands together to back up T-Bone.  Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I’d work with him.

TP:    Would you go out with them or just play gigs?

DN:    I would go out.  My first outing from Dallas was with a piano player named Lloyd Glenn, who had a hit record out called “Chickaboo.”  They would have packages on the shows.  It would be Lloyd Glenn’s band, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and I was playing with Lloyd Glenn. That was my first outing other than going out backing up T-Bone Walker playing in Buster’s band.  But my first outing on the road professionally was with Lloyd Glenn.

TP:    Tell me a little bit about Buster Smith, the master of riff arranging.  How did you come to meet him?

DN:    Well, Buster was well-known.  Buster had left Dallas, and he was living in Kansas City.  He’d played in the Blue Devils, which was from Oklahoma City, and then with Bennie Moten, and then Basie, and then came back to Texas for various reasons in the ’40s.  He was very good arranger and he had control of the alto saxophone.  His execution was very good.  He was very fast.  This is how Bird came to listen.  When Bird was very young and later when he was playing with Jay McShann, he’d come over to hear Buster play, because Buster was really getting over the instrument.  Buster was a main influence on Charlie Parker more than most people realize.

TP:    What were your personal experiences with Buster Smith?

DN:    I played many engagements with Buster.  He was a very gifted musician.  I think he was a self-taught musician.  He had perfect pitch.  We’d ride up and down the road, and Buster would just sit in the car with his cigar in his mouth.  He wasn’t a drinker; he just had a cigar.  As a matter of fact, they used to call Buster “Prof,” short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.  But he taught himself music, really, and he had this wonderful gift.  He could arrange and write without being around any kind of instrument at all from having perfect pitch.  I learned so much from Buster.

TP:    I don’t know if you recall this from our last encounter, but I showed you a transcript of an interview Buster Smith did for the Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies, and he said that he had a sextet with you and Leroy Cooper, and that Ray Charles used that band in the very early Fifties, and that was your first encounter with him.

DN:    That’s true.  Leroy Cooper and I were both from Dallas, and Leroy had been to the Army and was back.  When I came to Lincoln High School, Leroy had graduated and was going to a college called Sam Houston, and from there he went to the Army.  Buster had a small combo together.  He usually kept a big band, but for putting together bands for the road or when people like Ray Charles would come through, Buster would put together these little small groups, and that’s how Leroy Cooper and I came to playing together.  Leroy and I also played together behind a guitarist called Zuzu Bollin, who had a record out called “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night” that Leroy and I played on.  Yeah, we played on this record, “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night.”  Then after that, Leroy left and went out with Ernie Fields’ Big Band, and when he came back… See, Leroy was playing alto.  He was originally an alto player.  But when he went out with Ernie Fields, Ernie Fields needed a baritone player, and Leroy started playing baritone.  When he came back from Ernie Fields’ band, he was playing the baritone.  When he was playing alto, he just literally ripped the keys off the alto because he was so fast.

TP:    But do you recall the specifics of the linkup between Buster Smith and Ray Charles?

DN:    Well, Buster was probably recommended to Ray.  Because Ray needed a band to back him up when he came through, and Buster was the man around Dallas.  I don’t know what the connection was, who brought them together, but Buster was probably recommended.

TP:    What was Ray Charles’ style like at that time insofar as you mentioned.

DN:    He sang like Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown.  He hadn’t found his own identity yet; he was still searching.  He could sound like probably anyone, but his favorite people were people like Nat Cole, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker.

TP:    I’ll ask Hank Crawford now to talk about your college experiences and your beginnings as a professional musician, which were in college, but entering the fray from that.

HC:    Well, as I think about it, there was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands were covering at that time.  They all came through Memphis, and they used to play at places like the Palace Theater, amateur shows (we called them midnight rambles).  There was the Hippodrome, and there was Club Handy which was at that time in Mitchell’s Hotel.  They would all come through Memphis.  We didn’t have to really go too far to see these people.  That was one of the good things about that era.  We got a chance to see a lot of the people that we later got to know.  A lot of singers would come through town, like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too.  We got a chance to see these people.  Sometimes they’d come through maybe with not the full band and pick up locals, and we would always be the ones that would play for these certain entertainers, whether it be… Really, man, it was an era of everything going on.  You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers — shows.  We played shows.

TP:    And you’d play the whole show.

HC:    the whole show.

TP:    You’d be playing for the shake dancer, for the tap dancer, for the singer, for the comedians act.

HC:    Yeah, for all of it, before the Apollo even entered my mind, you know.  That all was happening.  It’s a long story; I could think of a million things.  But that was part of it in Memphis, among a whole lot of other things.  When I left Memphis…

TP:    When did you first go out on the road?  Do you recollect?

HC:    Really, really go out on the road?

TP:    Was that at that time, or after?

HC:    Most of that time I was basically in Memphis.  When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents, and we would play locally, and as far as we would get would be Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then we’d get up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill.  This was all while I was still in school, so we’d go out during the summer months and play for the summer, that southern route, New Orleans, St. Louis and stuff like that.  I was basically a student most of the time, but I had a chance to meet all of these people, because they would come in the locale that we were all based, really.

I had some great teachers at Tennessee State.  W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he’s a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the “hundred steps, 8 to 5…”

TP:    Oh, that’s when they started that?

HC:    Yes.  When that started, FAMU and Tennessee State, you’d just be running down the field almost.  Anciel Francisco was my reed teacher.  I didn’t start studying saxophones and clarinets and reeds until I got in college.

I played around Nashville, and I met a lot of people.  I met Roland Kirk in Nashville, and Leon Thomas, and man, you could go on and on.

But really, I guess my big real-real going out on the road was when Brother Ray came.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that happened, for about only the three hundredth time you’ve told the story.

HC:    Well, I was still in school, and like I say, I’d heard Ray — “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”   were some of the first things I heard.  I remember I heard something about David.  One of the first things I heard him play was the solo he did on “Ain’t That Love.”  It knocked me out, man.  Actually, I had a couple of buddies who had already joined Ray’s band.  There was a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville.  Anyway, Ray came through Nashville.  I think Leroy Cooper, “the Hog,” he had taken a leave of absence, and he was out for a minute, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part.  I never played baritone in my life.  Never.  You know, just around the band-rooms fooling around with the instrument.

DN:    I took the same route.  I came in the band playing baritone.

TP:    Well, I think music before it was anything else was functional for you.  This was how you were earning your livings basically from the age of 14-15-16 years old.

HC:    Yeah, from day one.  I never did anything else.

DN:    We were both reed players, so we played the reeds.

HC:    I happened to be the Student Director on campus.  I had a big band at Tennessee State; I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band — I was writing then.  I was impressed by the sound of Ray’s small band.  Actually, in Memphis, we always had eight pieces, and always had that kind of Gospel type of sound.  So I kind of knew the feeling.  But getting into Ray’s band, it just made it much more better, because I fell into the same kind of groove that I had been raised up with.

So anyway, I went down, didn’t even audition.  I don’t think we had a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice.  I went to the campus band-room, I talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed, and I took it down to the Club Baron where they were playing.  I sat in and played the gig that night, and that was the end of that.  Three months later, I got a call from R.C. — or his manager, Jeff Brown at the time — and he asked me if I wanted the job.

I never thought I’d stay as long as I did.  I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world.  Ray was getting into his thing.  He was really beginning to blossom at that time.  The period that I’m talking about, when I joined the band…

TP:    Do you mean blossom musically or blossom in terms of the breadth of his audience?

HC:    The fans.  He was really going… I got in the band at a great period, man.  I really came in the band at a great period.

TP:    Let’s hold that, and I’ll talk to David about his route to Ray Charles so you can catch up to each other on the time line.

DN:    Well, I met Ray in ’51, when he was featured with Lowell Fulsom, singing and playing.  He had recorded a few singles, and he said that he was going to get his own band.  We became friends right away, and I asked him, when he formed his own band to let me know, and that I would love to come play with him.  And sure enough, he called me when he formed his band in ’54.  We’d played together in ’52 when he was touring around, and we played with Buster, backing him.  But when he formed his band in ’54, he called me, and I stayed with the band until 1964.

TP:    How did the band evolve from ’54 until Hank joined?

DN:    Well, the band just    blossomed right away.  I started out playing baritone, and Donald Wilkerson was on the tenor.  There was a trumpet player from Houston by the name of Joseph Bridgewater, and he knew John Hunt, and Ray needed a second trumpet, so Joseph Bridgewater called John Hunt into the band, and John Hunt in turn called Milt Turner from the band, who was from Nashville.  That was the Nashville connection.  Then we came through Nashville and there were already musicians in the band who knew Hank, so that was the connection.

But I stayed with Ray from ’54 to ’64, then by ’66 I came to New York and first played some gigs with Kenny Dorham and then later played a few gigs with Lee Morgan and did a couple of recordings with him.

TP:    Now, you switched to tenor while you were in the band, and it seemed like that was a great meeting of the minds and ears when you started playing tenor with Ray Charles.

DN:    Donald Wilkerson left the band for a minute.  Now, the tenor player was getting all the solos.  During all my time playing baritone I think I got one solo, and that was a tune called “Greenback Dollar Bill.”  I took a solo on that, because that was my one and only solo.  I wanted to stretch out, so I asked Ray could I take the tenor chair.  He didn’t have any particular tenor player in mind, so he said yeah, if I could get a tenor saxophone.  So I went out and got myself a tenor saxophone, and from that time on I started playing the tenor.  I had never played tenor before.  I had played baritone and alto, but not tenor.

TP:    How was the switch for you?  Natural, I would assume.

DN:    Oh, it was natural.  I was just eager to make the switch anyway, and I was eager to play.  I knew the book pretty well anyway; it was just a matter of switching from an E-flat to a B-flat instrument.

TP:    How do you see the differences between the two?  Are they different voices for you the way you play now.

DN:    I have a different approach on each instrument.  Whatever instrument I pick up, I tend to have a different approach.  It’s a different flow; I just feel them differently.  I can’t say exactly what it is.  I just know that I have a different voice on each one.

TP:    Now, you came in as the baritone player.  Was Ray Charles playing alto and piano in the years before Hank joined?

DN:    When we’d begin, the first half-hour or so before Ray would come in to do his singing and performing on piano, we would play these five-horn jazz arrangements Ray had written, and Ray would play the alto part.

TP:    Then Hank eventually took the alto chair. Clarify that for me.

HC:    See, I went in the band in ’58, and I played baritone 1958 to 1960, for two years.  I didn’t think I was going to be playing baritone that long, but for some reason Leroy didn’t come right back — it was a period of two years.

TP:    Did you get a solo?

HC:    Yeah.  In fact, I was playing baritone on Ray Charles At Newport, but I was called Bennie, my real name.  A lot of people ask me, “Now, who is Bennie Crawford?  Whatever happened to him?”  I say, “Well, he’s still around.”  Anyway, I played for two years on baritone.  And like Newman was saying, I was shocked.  One night, however it happened, here comes Ray Charles with his alto saxophone… See, that was one of the good things about that band, too.  It was educational, because everything we did was on paper.  We did a few head things, but even they sounded like arrangements.  We were just that kind of band.  In 1960 Ray graduated from the small band.  He had big band eyes.  I think that’s when he did “Let The Good Times Roll” and that big thing, which is on The Genius, one of my favorites.

DN:    Excuse me, but Hank played baritone when Ray Charles presented me to Atlantic and we did Ray Charles Presents.  He had solos on that and he did some of the arranging.

TP:    I was about to ask Hank about your arranging activities with the Ray Charles and the dynamics of it, the type of feeling you were trying to convey and what he was asking you to do.

HC:    When I joined the band with Ray, that was an avenue for me to do a lot of things.  Like I said, I had been writing for small bands a little bit in Memphis.  To be honest about it, Ray and I kind of clicked right away.  We became section buddies and we always communicated, and I think he might have had something with me, because I even got the job as music director when Ray got the big band.  I was directing the small band.  Even in the small band, when I was playing baritone, when Ray was not on the bandstand, that’s the first time that we introduced the electric piano.  There’s only two people I know who were playing electric piano at that time, and that was Joe Zawinul with Cannonball and Ray Charles.  Ray liked the sound.  I remember he bought a blond Wurlitzer.  I got a chance to kind of use my piano chops, because Ray wasn’t on the bandstand, so we only had bass and drums.

TP:    You play piano on a couple of the albums that are on the CD.

HC:    Whatever I could do on it, you know. [LAUGHS] When through whatever channels things went through, I was asked if I wanted to take the job as music director, naturally I agreed, because I just dug the whole scene.  And I kept that post for three years.  That’s when I got a chance to do a lot of writing.  I did most of the writing in the small band.

But back to your point.  As the thing grew, Ray started playing alto and he started writing more charts for the small band, which featured him a lot on alto.  And he was quite a fine alto player.

TP:    Who were some of the influences for you and Ray Charles as arrangers?

HC:    Well, I liked Quincy, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster…

TP:    So the Basie-Dizzy Gillespie type charts of the mid-Fifties when you were in school.

HC:    Yeah, and the Ellington things.

TP:    Had you taken those apart and analyzed them and studied them in a really exhaustive way, or were you just taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and applying it as appropriate?

HC:    I would take a little bit from each arranger.  But basically, I was sort of being myself.  I think even after listening to all the saxophone players that we talked about, I found my own voice.  Even when I play now, I try to play like Hank, but you will find yourself playing a bit of this guy and a bit of that.  I’ve always been a melodic player, I’ve played in all sets, but like I said, I found my voice.  And being in Ray’s band is such a long story, but it was quite an experience.  I went to alto when the big band was organized.

TP:    You were playing together how many nights a year during that time?  250?  300?

HC:    Oh, man, we were busy.  We played the theater circuit, dance halls, clubs, whatever.  It was something else.

TP:    That gives the band the type of tightness that you can’t get in any other way, doesn’t it.

HC:    And the thing, too, about it, there were some great musicians in the band.  There was Fathead, Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, John Hunt, and there later came to be Bruno Carr and Philip Guilbeau — and all of these guys were dynamite players.  So it was a learning experience.  We all had knowledge of music, and we could play together well.  Whether we were playing outside or inside, whatever we played, the musicianship was so good that it happened automatically.  So everybody felt comfortable even in that setting, whatever we played.

Before Ray, I guess the band that really knocked me as a small unit was James Moody’s Octet.  Even before I went into RC’s band, Moody did some of the first small band records that I heard, and I loved the sound of Moody with an octet.  I’ve always loved the sound of a band.

TP:    That’s the sound you put on the recent record, Tight, five horns and rhythm.

HC:    I’ve always used horns on my records, except for a few I’ve used just a quartet.  I like the sound, and when I joined RC I studied his formula for it, how he’d take tenor, alto and baritone and two trumpets to come out sounding like a big band.  I found out there wasn’t that much really involved. It’s basically I, III, V, VII and IX.  I don’t think we ever played anything in that small band that had anything above a IX chord in it.

TP:    David, I think Hank’s looking at you to answer a question.

DN:    What’s that?

HC:    I was just talking about the simplicity of the music we played, and how it wasn’t complex, but it came off as the sound of a big band.  I was just saying I don’t think we ever played anything chord-wise in terms of the structure of a horn that was over I-III-V-VII-IX.  We didn’t get into the flatted chords and extensions.  Everything was basic.

DN:    With the five-horn arrangements and two trumpets, it really gave the sound effect of a big band, because of the brassy sound.  Ray preferred two trumpets to trombone.  His voicing for the five horns was very unique.

HC:    It’s like a vocal group.  You have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.  Those are your five major voices.  Anything over that, you’re doubling.  When you get into IX or XI, you’re only doubling the third or whatever you played before.  When you take a VII-chord, man, and it’s voiced right, five horns can sound like ten.  It’s when it’s distorted that makes it sound less.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

TP:    Hank, the first time you met David?

HC:    Actually, it was in Nashville when I joined the band for that one night.  The band bus pulled up in front of Brown’s Hotel.  At that time it was called a Wiener.  Red-and-white, long airport style.  I was standing outside, and they pulled up, and I remember David getting out with this grin on his face.  I’d heard him, as I said.  He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back.  I’m meeting David, you know.  It was just that simple.  That was the first time I actually saw him.

TP:    David, let’s talk about some of the productions on the record, inasmuch as you remember, starting with the first one, Ray Charles Presents David Newman.  First, how much input did you have into the material on these records.  Do you feel that these are a good expression of who you were in that period.

DN:    Well, yes.  My only tune    on here was a tune called “Fathead,” and that was my contribution to the arrangements.  Hank Crawford knew Paul Mitchell from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the tune “Hard Times,”  which he arranged.  Hank also arranged “Bill For Bennie,” and “Sweet Eyes” and “Weird Beard.”  Ray’s arranged “Mean To Me” and “Willow Weep For Me.”

TP:    Did this record evolve organically out of things you were doing in the band, plus your own interests?  Also, how were the records set up in terms of choosing material, personnel and so forth?

DN:    I had no idea that I was going to become an Atlantic recording artist.  Ray had just said that he was going to feature me.  I really didn’t know that he would be presenting me as such, and that I was going to become an Atlantic artist myself.  Because Ray was recording for Atlantic.  I just thought we were really doing an instrumental, and Ray was just going to feature me.  But what he did is, he set it up.  It was called Ray Charles Presents Fathead.  It was like setting me up.  And hence, from that recording on, I became an Atlantic artist, and I signed a contract then.

We did some of these tunes when we were on the road playing.  Like I say, Hank had introduced “Hard Times” to me.  I thought it was a helluva tune when he first played it, and I immediately asked him where he’d gotten it.  Then when Ray said this was going to be my introduction and he was going to present me on this recording, we started to think about tunes that we could play.  So Ray did the arranging on “Mean To Me,” he spent a lot of time on that, and then “Willow Weep For Me.”  Then Hank arranged most of the other compositions that we played, like  “Tin Tin Deo” and “Hard Times”…

TP:    What do you remember about Straight Ahead, with the slick New York rhythm section?

DN:    Oh, Straight Ahead was a wonderful date, because I particularly wanted to record with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, I knew Charlie Persip, and I asked him how he felt about playing with Wynton and Paul, and he said that he would love it because he’d never recorded with them before. It turned out to be a wonderful date for me.  It was the first time I’d recorded on the flute.

TP:    Does this reflect what you were able to do on the set with Ray Charles before he would come out?  You’d be playing Jazz for two-three-four tunes, and then the show would start?

DN:    On Fathead, not Straight Ahead.  Straight Ahead was later on, a separate thing.  Because I had been spending time living in New York when I did Straight Ahead.  In fact, I wasn’t even in Ray’s band at all when I recorded Straight Ahead.  That was done around ’65 or ’66. [THIS IS INCORRECT]  I was still playing with Ray when I did Fathead Comes On.  That was the second recording.

TP:    I know you probably want to get out of the Atlantics and talk about recent things you’ve done.  You did two very strong records with Herbie Mann, a former Atlantic recording artist, and his now-defunct Kokopelli label, both with strings, a smaller group on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, and then more lush arrangements on Under A Woodstock Moon.

DN:    Bob Friedman did the arranging on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool , which was a tribute to Duke, with all Duke Ellington tunes.  Bob had played baritone for a brief spell with the Duke Ellington band and was familiar with the Ellington compositions.  I think the original concept about doing a tribute to Duke came from Herbie Mann.

TP:    Was it all material that was meaningful to you as a young musician?

DN:    Some of it was, and then some of the tunes, like “Azure” and “Almost Cried,” even at the time I started to work on the project.  My parents had all of the records by the swing bands of the Big Band era like Ellington and Armstrong.  Johnny Hodges was one of my favorite alto players, and I’d listen to him play “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that I always loved, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  I had heard “Prelude To A Kiss,” but I’d never played it before.

The second recording, which was Under A Woodstock Moon, was my outing as a producer.  I always wanted to do strings, and I’d had strings on an album entitled Bigger and Better for Atlantic, with Bill Fischer arranging in the late Sixties.  Kokopelli couldn’t afford to do a whole string section, so we did a string ensemble thing with a string quartet, which was as much as they would allow me to do.  Bob Friedman did the arrangements.  I had just moved to Woodstock, and this was a tribute to Mother Nature.  One of my compositions was “Under A Woodstock Moon” and another called “Amandla.”

TP:    It’s a very mellow, melodic record, with a lot of variety of color and texture.

DN:    The other tunes were a tribute to Nature, like “Up Jumped Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Autumn In New York,” and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  I have another composition on there called “Amandla,” which is an African name for freedom.

TP:    Let me ask you one or two things that the editor wants me to ask you.  What do you think was the impact of the Ray Charles Band you were in on contemporary music, in terms of the way the grooves and the feeling has permeated it?

DN:    I don’t know about the impact.  I would say that there is definitely an influence on the music from the Ray Charles feel and what was happening musically with Ray.  Ray Charles certainly influenced my playing and Hank’s playing jazz-wise and in terms of music as a whole.  Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation.  Before my encounter with Ray, I really didn’t have any kind of concept about music appreciation.  I only liked to play jazz and bebop.  That was my only real love.  But after meeting Ray and playing with Ray, I learned how to appreciate all other forms of music also, like the Blues, Spirituals, Gospel, and even Country-and-Western.

TP:    To play the whole range of music with conviction and soul.

DN:    Right.  And to have the respect and to really admire and to love the music.  So it was a lesson in music appreciation that I think we got from Ray.  I don’t know about the impact, but there was definitely an impact.

TP:    That’s a beautiful answer.  You’ve really stretched out a lot on your recent recordings, taken chances, worked with progressive musicians.  Is that your true heart in the music?

DN:    Well, yes.  Because this music is a gift, it’s an incredible gift.  What happens is the music doesn’t really come from me or from us; this music comes through us.  So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music.  I don’t necessarily want to stick to a certain form insofar as the music goes.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it.  I really like to bridge the generations, so to speak, when it comes to the music that I’m playing, because this music is moving as the time moves on, but we still have these feelings about music.  So I want to explore and to play in other areas, even see how my music fits into the Rap situation — I mean, poetically.  I don’t really see anything wrong with Rap.  It’s just the content in Rap that’s a little offensive sometimes.  But the Rap music itself is really an extension of the music, coming from Louis Armstrong.

TP:    Do they use samples of your solos ever that you know about?

DN:    Not that I’ve heard.  Nothing that I’ve heard so far.  But I’ve become interested in this, just listening.  I was listening to Quincy Jones speak the other day about the music.  Jesse Jackson asked him why would he be interested in Rap, and Quincy said the same thing, that the music comes not from him, but through him.  That’s the same way I feel about this music.  It comes through me, and what you do is, you put your particular touch onto the music and what you feel.  You put your stamp on it, your feeling, let the music come through you and see what comes out.  You can’t close yourself off from the different forms of music as music moves on.

TP:    You also have access to so many sounds and colors from being a multi-instrumentalist.  How do you keep your chops up on all the instruments?

DN:    Well, I manage to keep my chops up, especially since I have moved to Woodstock now.  I get a chance to work on the different instruments.  I still have a soprano, I have an alto and a tenor and my flute.  I get quite a few calls to do studio work to record with various musicians, and I manage to stay halfway busy to keep myself going.  Of course, I know that to keep my chops up and play, I have got to pick the instruments up and play them.

TP:    People say it’s a struggle to keep one instrument up, and you’re keeping up four!  You’re doing pretty good.

DN:    Well, it’s a labor of love, that’s what it is.  I love the music.  I think I’ll always… It’s not about practicing, but I just pick up the instruments and play.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Equipment from David Newman.

DN:    I have a Selmer alto.  My mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link.  I used to play the Meyer mouthpiece, but now I have Otto Link hard rubber.

TP:    Why?

DN:    I like the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece.  I don’t play the metal mouthpiece any more, because I have dentures now, and I’m a little more flexible on the hard rubber.  I like the Otto Link because I like the sound, especially the old Otto Links.  I use that on my alto and my tenor.  I have a Selmer soprano also, and I used a Meyer mouthpiece on the soprano.  I have a Selmer Mark-VI tenor that was made in the ’60s.  It was made in about ’60 or ’61, a very good time for Selmer tenors.  Any of the Selmer saxophones made in less than 100,000 would be really good quality material that they were putting into the instruments.  They still make very good instruments, but the newer instruments these days… That’s the reason why so many musicians try to get a Mark VI.  The Mark VI was really one of the classic saxophones.

I have a Germeinhardt flute.

TP:    Anything you want to say about why you use these instruments, or have you said your fill?

DN:    Well, my first flute was…when I first became interested in the flute… We were traveling in Ray’s band, and we came through Orlando, Florida, and we had a few off-days.  I passed by this pawn shop, and in this pawn shop they had two wooden ebony Haynes flutes, very good and expensive flutes.  Some guy there who had played with the symphony had these instruments, and the pawnshop owner let me have it for little or nothing.  He had a C-flute and an alto flute, and I think I gave the guy $25 for the C-flute, which had an E-flat trill on it.  I should have bought the alto flute also.  I brought this flute back, and the guys in the band asked me, “Do you know what you got there?”  I said, “It’s a flute.”  They said, “Man, you’ve got a Haynes wooden flute, and this is a very expensive instrument.”  And I started teaching myself to play the flute, and listened to other flute players, particularly James Moody and Frank Wess, and I eventually started trying to get a sound on the flute.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I, we both maybe started on the flute around the same time.  I was a couple of years older than him, so I might have started earlier.  Eventually, the flute was stolen from me, I lost it, and then I started playing other C-flutes, of course.  But my first flute was a Haynes flute, and the flute I have now is a Gemeinhardt.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David has left, and Hank and I are here together.  A few words about the recordings on Memphis, Ray and A Touch Of Moody.  What do you remember about More Soul, the first one you did?

HC:    Actually, that was my first recording as a leader.  I wrote some of the arrangements in Nashville, maybe a couple in Memphis, and the rest I wrote while I was in Ray’s small band.  But we played these arrangements in Ray’s small band.  We used to go 45 minutes or an hour before he would come on to sing — the band had it.  When we recorded that, we were playing at the Apollo Theater, doing a show, and we finished the late show.  We were doing five or six shows a day.  We finished at about midnight, and we went directly to Atlantic Recording Studio.  We got there I guess by 12:30, and we started recording at 1, and we didn’t stop until we’d completed it, which was 7 or 8 o’clock the following morning.  Most of the musicians and the music we were playing in the small band of Ray Charles.

That’s when I got the opportunity to start writing, because after I had been in there for a while, R.C. found out I that I was doing some arranging and liked to write, so he just kind of hinted, said, “You know, if you want to do some writing…” Plus I found it a good place to be, because I was very interested and very much into writing and arranging, and being in that band, since he liked to write and I had written for bands that size… See, I was familiar with the size of that band.  I just didn’t have the venues or the musicians to play the music.  I was still young and hadn’t been that far.  So that gave me an opportunity to write, when he found out I was writing a little bit.

TP:    The writing started in high school for you.

HC:    Yeah, I’ve been writing since then.

TP:    There are two Moody tunes, “The Story” and “Boo’s Tune.”

HC:    I did the arrangement on everything except “The Story,”  which Ray Charles did.  I told Ray I was doing the date and asked him if he would do a tune for me, and he did “The Story.”

TP:    So Moody’s band was very influential in a lot of ways that aren’t well known.

HC:    I loved him as a player and I liked the sound of the band.  I think Johnny Acea was writing for that band at the time.  I always loved the octet sound.  Moody’s was one of the first bands I heard that small that really knocked me out.  Of course, before that I was listening to Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which is just like five pieces.  But Moody’s band was like an octet, and I loved the sound of the band.

TP:    I have to tell you, when I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to the reincarnation of Earl Bostic, in a certain way, just in the way you approach a melody and the sound.

HC:    Well, Earl was a power player.  In fact, I play strong myself.  I’m naturally a power player.  That was the thing that I like about Earl, plus he was playing a lot of ballads and standard tunes.  At that time, you know, I was hearing a lot of Bostic, so he was just automatically one of my first influences.

TP:    And I’m sure it affected people when you played like that, just because of the way the sound is.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Anyway, the second record, From The Heart, sounds more like what I’d expect to hear from you later, more range, lush textures and so forth.

HC:    Well, From the Heart was completely mine.  Nobody did any arrangements on that.  At this time I had really found my way of writing.  I was kind of comfortable with what I was doing on From The Heart.  It was basically the same band, because I was still with Ray.  But I was getting the opportunity to play these tunes before he would come out.  Once I got the job as music director, he pretty much just gave it up, and gave it to me.  So I used that, man, and I did a lot of writing, and the music got exposed because we were going everywhere, playing concerts.  It just gave me a chance to expand on what I wanted to do earlier anyway, being in that group.

TP:    Then there’s a strings album on this.

HC:    Ah, yes.  I asked to be recorded with strings, and I was surprised when I got a yes on it from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records.  He agreed, to my surprise, and asked me who did I want to do the arrangements, and I said Marty Paich.  I had heard Marty Paich’s small band arrangements when he was writing for Shorty Rogers and Stan Kenton, the West Coast scene, and I liked the way he voiced the strings.  I found out the secret; he used french horns with strings to get that real melancholy sound.  So Neshui agreed, and we went to California to record the record.  I selected all the tunes except one, which really turned out to be sort of a signature tune for me, which was “Whispering Grass.”  Marty Paich suggested that.

TP:    You have quite a memory.

HC:    Oh yeah, I try to remember these things.  I mean, it stayed with me, man, because it was such an experience.  I heard Marty do a string session with Gloria Lynne, “I Wish You Love” and all those things, and I thought it was beautiful work.  To be honest about it, when Ray wanted to do his first thing with strings, around the time of The Genius, by me being close to him, I suggested Marty Paich to him, and he used it.

I was with Ray Charles 24-7, because I was the music director.  He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate.  So I was always busy.

TP:    So you have as much of an insight as anyone into the inner workings of his creative mind.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Well, after a while, he noticed how I was writing.  He’s an individualist, you know; he’s the only one.  Like, there are certain saxophone players, certain musicians there’s only one.  Like, I haven’t found anybody that has my sound yet, and I don’t think David… We all have our distinctive sounds.

TP:    That was the ethos of the time.  Everybody had to have their sound when you were coming up.

HC:    That’s the secret of survival in this business, is identity.  You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play — I mean, young and old.  But nobody knows who they are.  And people buy identity.  You put on Miles Davis now, and automatically somebody goes, “That’s Miles.”  Then you put on Dizzy, and they know him.  But once they don’t know who you are, you don’t really sell.  Like, Louis Armstrong; they know Pops.  That’s what people buy.  When they go into a record shop, they say, “I want this guy.”  They’re not going there to listen to fifty other guys just to buy a record.  They know basically who they want when they go in.  So that’s what to me sells, is identity.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David just came in to mention to make sure I mention that he and Ron Carter were the two senior cast members on the 2 CDs for Kansas City.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Your comments on identity were a tangent from talking about Ray Charles.  You said you were with him 24-7, and the type of insights that gave you into the way his mind works.  Some general comments on his approach to music and the impact he had on you.

HC:    Well, see, it was so real for me to be there, because being around him and his background… There’s only like a four year difference in age between us.  So we are all from the same era, and we basically had the same experience with music, which was Gospel and the Blues and Jazz.  We’re all from that era.  So I heard the same things that he heard, and whoever was around at that time.  It just so happened that when I joined Ray, that was a period when things were happening within that unit that eventually went to the Moon.  Anyway, that’s what made it so easy for me to understand.  Because when he would dictate to me, writing his own charts… See, he wrote his own charts; he just didn’t put them on paper.  I was the one who was doing all the notating.  So when he found out that I had a background in arranging and composing and voicing chords and stuff like that, after a while, he would come in and make his initial statement about what he wanted, and he would write it, and then he would say, “You got it.”  So really I studied him.  It was another teacher, but it was not that much difference in how we felt about the feeling of music, because we all had the same type of background.

TP:    You were almost his alter-ego.

HC:    Yeah.  So I really understood where he was coming from.  I studied that, and I found out that, hey, I have some of the same kind of thoughts about this music, which made it easier for he and I to relate.

TP:    Is it harder for you to find people who have that sort of unspoken communication and empathy in the projects you do now?

HC:    Yeah, because you don’t have the association with musicians like you had at that time.  I mean, it was a community.  The Jazz community was great.  We were friends, man.  We hung out together and studied together, broke a lot of bread together.  We had venues to play.  There aren’t any venues now like there used to be, and the community is divided.  We don’t see each other as we once did.

TP:    You don’t cross paths in the same way.

HC:    Man, right here in New York City we used to walk down Broadway and go to 52nd Street or 50th Street, and stand right there on the corner — every day, 24 hours a day — and you would meet friends.  And we didn’t only play together.  We discussed music.  That whole era was a learning period from everybody.  But now, man you almost walk out like… You can’t find anybody.  Everybody’s moved out or they just don’t come out any more.  You know what I’m saying?  There’s just not the community like it used to be.  There’s no association, just, “Hey, how you doing, I’ll see you next time.”

TP:    But how does that affect your performing or recording projects, or the way you deal with bands right now.  I guess you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross a lot more t’s.

HC:    I’m not one of the type of players that’s concerned a lot about changing with what’s in.  No, I found my sound, and I think I’m going to stick to my guns.  I think that’s what destroys a lot of players.  Instead of being themselves, they try to be like others.  And in this business, there’s only one of one.  Like, there’s only one Bird, there’s only one Coltrane, and there’s only one whoever.  But what happens with a lot of musicians, I think, they’ll be inspired by somebody when they are learning, and they grew up trying to play like that person.

TP:    A lot of the young players.  Because they don’t have so many places to play.  They’re in school, and that’s the way they’re educated.

HC:    That’s it, man.  Like I said earlier, I’ve played in all settings, Jazz, Blues and everything.  I’ve had an association with all kinds of music, man, and with some great people.  I think I have established myself and my sound and what kind of player I am really, although I might play Jazz, I might play this, I might play that.  Like I said, I approach the horn as a vocalist.  I try to sing through the instrument, and play melodies, not a lot of technical things.  I think if I would lose that identity that I’ve established myself and that people know me by, and go into something just for the sake of saying, “Well, I can do this just as well as that person,” I think I’d lose my identity.  I could probably get away with trying to play some Coltrane for maybe a couple of tunes, and then your fans or your audience is going to say, “Hey, you’re trying to play like so-and-so; get back to yourself.”

TP:    That raises a question.  What you play on the surface is very simple, basic.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Is it deceptively simple?  How complex is it really to do what you do?

HC:    For some people it’s hard.  For me, playing simple is almost a natural.

TP:    Because you’re a very sophisticated, educated musician.

HC:    I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to it.  The technical things… I’ve studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard Bebop.  But that’s not just me naturally.  I just play what I feel naturally.  And I’ve been into some great sets with some great players, you know, but it ends up that I’m better being myself.

TP:    George Coleman played all the notes.

HC:    Yes, in all the keys!  We studied that, too.  I tried that.  I said, “Well, you know, I can do a little bit of this, but that’s just not where I’m from; that’s just not me.”  So I chose to do what I do best.  Because if you’re going to survive in this business, man, you’ve got to have your own identity.  Nobody’s going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That’s the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.

TP:    Your name is your sound.

HC:    Right.  And once you lose that, I think you’ve destroyed everything.  You can turn on the radio, man, and you can hear this trumpet player or this saxophone player, and man, they’re playing!  But there’s something that don’t register with you if he doesn’t have a certain sound or play a certain style of phrasing.  If you can’t recognize that in a player, then you’re just listening to somebody and all you can say about it is, “Ooh, who is that?  He sure plays good!”

TP:    Are there any good young players, saxophone or any instrument, who you think have a sound?

HC:    Well, there’s a tenor player who’s young compared to a lot of people… I think Joshua Redman has his own sound.

TP:    That’s probably why he’s so popular.

HC:    That’s part of it.  There are a few others; I can’t think of them now.  But there are so many youngsters, man, that I hear and they sound good, they’re playing!  But that’s what’s missing.  And I’ll even go so far as to say this.  As far as the man walking on the street, who knows nothing about music, but knows it when he hears it, and he knows whether the player is playing or jiving, or he knows when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.  All these people on the street, man, they know when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.

There are so many players like… I just want to use a major influence on young musicians, and I mean nothing by this because I have a lot of respect for him.  That’s Wynton Marsalis.  What I’m going to say that is when I was talking about identity…

[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

TP:    Now you know it’s him when you hear him play.

HC:    The man has all the facilities in the world.  I mean, he’s a good trumpet player, he’s a good educator, he’s a good everything — I have to give it to him.  But the average layman, I’ll bet you, man, 75 out of 100 would identify a Freddie Hubbard or a Dizzy or a Miles faster than they would identify Wynton — as far as identity.  I mean, if you don’t really know, if you’re not a musician… And not only Wynton, but anybody.  If you don’t really know him and know the techniques of playing because you are a musician or a good listener, you would not be able to identify this bad cat, whoever it is.   It’s just like Count Basie.  One note.  You know the tag he plays, BOP-BOP-BOP?  I can go the piano and do it (it’s only three fingers) you could do it, I could teach my kids, anybody.  BOP-BOP-BOP, it’s all in one place.  But nobody sounds like when Basie hits it.  Same notes.  But when Basie strikes it, there is something else that comes out of the note.  You know what I mean?  And Oscar Peterson or somebody like that can go right behind and play the same thing, and you know how great Oscar is, but Basie has a stamp.  When he hits it, you automatically know it.

TP:    Do drummers today get the tempos they were in the Fifties and Sixties?

HC:    I like drummers.  A drummer is very important to me.  Because everything I play is basically to the root.  I don’t go outside too much.  A lot of musicians find that hard to do.  The simplest things can be the hardest sometimes.

TP:    The more you know, the harder it is not to go into everything that you know.

HC:    Right, man.  The drummer is very important.  You’ve got to learn how to be able to do what’s necessary for you to do in playing in a band.  In the drummer’s case, it might be necessary for him to just keep time.  It’s not necessary for him to play a solo.  Or anybody in there, but especially drummers.  Some guys felt like that was not enough just to keep time and complement the man out front, the front line.  It was a drag to a lot of people just to keep time until you get that give-the-drummer-some, that one solo a night.  Otherwise, he’s playing time.  And a lot of guys don’t like to do that because they like to do other things, but it’s not necessary for you to do nothing but keep time here — and that’s hard.

TP:    And tune to the drum to the sound of the band…

HC:    Right, and do that every night!  Every note.  It’s got to be this way every time you play it.  Certain music.  Certain music you just don’t explore on, man.

TP:    I need your equipment.

HC:    I’m just playing the Selmer Super-Action 80.  That’s what I’m playing now.  The mouthpiece is Barrett.  It’s really like a stock mouthpiece.  I never played anything other than stocks.

TP:    What is it about the Selmer alto?

HC:    It’s like the Rolls Royce of saxophones.  You ain’t got a Selmer… It’s just like having a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  It’s the king.  It’s a good horn, and most professionals play it.  There’s a lot of other horns, Bushes, Conns, all of them, but the Selmer is it for me.  The body, it’s got good weight, feels good, and it responds.  To me, it’s just the best horn.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Hank has some thoughts on Fathead.

HC:    Well, we go back to almost the beginning of my professional career, and we’ve been more than just musicians, section buddies.  We have a little friendship.  I respect him as a man, and we kind of have that respect as men — and I respect his playing.  I broke a lot of bread with David.  The thing I like about him is whatever he plays, for me, I can understand it, I can feel it, how he expresses himself.  He’s just the kind of player that I like, and there are many others, but David is one that I had the experience of being around a lot, so I know him from A to Z!  He’s a very soulful man, and he can play in almost every setting.  I think that’s what we all learned coming up through that period.  He’s just one of my favorites… He’s on most of my recordings.  Every time I use a small band, I always use David.  He has a beautiful sound, a warm sound, and he always finds the blue notes.  He’s a stylist, and I think that’s true of most of the musicians from our era.  We’re stylists.  We all style whatever we play; we put our tag on it.  That’s just the way it is.  And I like all music, man.  I’m not trying to put down anybody.  I have respect for anybody who gets involved in the business because it’s so competitive.  But when I hear a guy that can cross all bridges, and comfortable playing in each setting, that’s what I admire — and don’t feel guilty playing it.

I don’t feel guilty playing “Steel Guitar Rag” if I’m called to play it.  You know what I mean?  I heard that when I was coming up as a kid, man, at 6 o’clock in the morning.  Down South, that’s the first thing you’d hear on your radio, is Country & Western and Gospel music.  That’s what you wake up on, C&W and Gospel!  I spent many days listening to Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and all of those people.  And we all liked it!  Even Jazz musicians, they can’t say they didn’t grow up listening to these people.  So I played it as a youngster, and I don’t feel offended by it.  I just do my best in it.  So it’s music to me.  I don’t mind being square because I play this tune.  In fact, it’s a blessing to be able to play in all the styles.  That’s when your phone keeps ringing!

TP:    Well, it’s like what David said about Ray Charles.  He said it was like music appreciation.  He learned to play with soul, from the heart in every different situation.

HC:    Look at Cannonball, man.  His biggest hits were Soul music, “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff.  And Cannon was one of the greatest saxophone players in the world to me.

[-30-]

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Filed under Article, Buster Smith, Cedar Walton, David "Fathead" Newman, DownBeat, Hank Crawford, Liner Notes, Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Uncategorized

For Olu Dara’s Birthday, An Uncut 2002 Blindfold Test

Back in 2002, when he was recording for Atlantic Records, trumpeter Olu Dara, who turned 73 today, sat with me at Atlantic’s offices for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. Here are the unedited proceedings.

Olu Dara Blindfold Test:

1.    Louis Armstrong, “You Go To My Head” (from LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEETS OSCAR PETERSON, Verve, 1956) (5 stars)

From the first couple of notes, although he has a cup mute, if it’s not Satch, it’s someone who’s been living with him all his life in the back room somewhere. [AFTER] Of course that was Louis Armstrong.  A lot of the trumpet players from that era had a certain sound, it was a staccato, but you know it’s Satch with the vibrato at the end of his phrases.  That’s how you can really tell.  And the tone.  I usually prefer Satch playing other type of songs, not these conventional standard type songs.  It’s a strange thing for me.  It’s like a hybrid of something… Knowing where he came from, New Orleans, the Southern thing, him doing this is like a Chinese singing a Puerto Rican song.  You know what I mean?  It’s hard to describe.  Now, the piano player sounds exactly like something McCoy Tyner played, almost note for note.  I don’t know who came first, this piano player or McCoy, but it’s an exact duplicate of the way McCoy played behind Coltrane on “Ballads.” [This piano player came first?]  Who is he?  Oscar Peterson?  Amazing.  In instrumental music there’s a lot of…it’s not copying, but they almost cookie-cutter each other.  It’s amazing how that happens, especially in jazz music.  Anyway, just because it’s Satch, I would give him everything.  5 stars, 6 or 7.  Because I know he can do that laying on his back.

2.    Leo Smith, “Anoa’s Prophecy” (#8) (from DREAMS AND SECRETS, Anonym, 2000) (5 stars)

It sounds like a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer trying to play funk.  But that is Miles Davis…or someone close to him.  No? [LAUGHS] That’s deep!  Keep playing it!  Is that the trumpet player who writes in film? [Not Mark Isham.] It’s not Mark Isham. [AFTER A HINT] Oh, that’s Leo Smith.  It’s funny about horn players from… I didn’t know who the other people were, but I do recognize horn players close to the Mississippi River.  There are certain things we do…we can do a lot of things, and that’s one of the things we can do.  We can go that way, we can do the Satchmo thing, we can do the Miles Davis thing, we can do the Clark Terry thing, we can do the avant-garde thing.  You’ll find that most trumpeters from this area, where we’re from, we’re documented playing all types of music.  This is close.  That’s why I thought it was Miles at first, because the sound is so real.  It’s authentic, his sound.  The concept also.  Now, the rhythm section is another story.  I’ll give this five stars because of Leo’s conceptual ability to play any type of trumpet style and really play it authentically, like it should be played.  I would say he’s one of the most creative musicians I’ve met, especially on the trumpet.  Period.

3.    Tremé Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back” (from GIMME MY MONEY BACK, Arhoolie, 1995) (Kermit Ruffins, tp.) (3 stars)

I’ve heard this live in New Orleans.  The Dirty Dozen.  It’s not the Dirty Dozen?  [There are people in this band from the Dirty Dozen, but it's not the Dirty Dozen.] That makes a difference.  That’s not Brass Fantasy, is it?  The saxophonist sounds like Maceo Parker.  The trumpet player sounds like Gregory Williams who plays with the Dirty Dozen.  I can’t identify the horns.  The horns sound like conventional trumpeters.  It’s hard to play anything other than conventional type trumpet on this type of beat.  So I’m sure I won’t be able to identify the trumpet player. [AFTER] That did sound like the Dirty Dozen, but not the real Dirty Dozen.  Some of the Dirty Dozen you could feel in there.  I couldn’t identify the horn player.  I know the tuba player, Kirk Joseph.  He’s one of the finest tuba players I’ve heard.  I couldn’t identify the trumpet player, because as I said, it’s hard on that type of beat…a trumpet player would have to be extraordinary to be able to create something on that kind of beat other than what trumpet players create on that beat.  But I’m quite sure I may know the trumpet players. [Kermit Ruffins] Oh, I’ve never heard his music.  For being able to play that music in this day and time, I give them 3 stars for just the idea of keeping it around.

4.    David Murray, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (from SPEAKING IN TONGUES, Just In Time, 1997) (Hugh Ragin, tp.; Fontella Bass, vocals) (3 stars)

I don’t know who it is, but it’s…I don’t know what you can call it.  It’s “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”.  I know it wasn’t produced in the South.  They wouldn’t do that with that beat on it, and especially playing a lot of notes on the solo, since it’s a lament.  So it seems like a strange way to do that.  I’m quite sure they’re young musicians, but were young musicians doing it.  Let me see what else you got there.  Right now the introduction was too long, so I didn’t want to hear more.  Sounds like Mavis Staples singing.  But it’s not Mavis.  I can’t identify anybody.  I can’t really feel it.  That’s David Murray right there.  [AFTER] Fontella Bass.  I was in the ballgame!  I didn’t know who the trumpet player was.  But he didn’t grow up in that environment with that kind of music.  But you could clearly hear David.  David has a very distinctive concept and tone.  I didn’t know Fontella, because I hadn’t heard her since “Rescue Me.”  That’s been a jillion years ago.  She reminded me of Mavis in a way.  Just for the idea itself, once we got past the introduction [LAUGHS] and got to Fontella and David’s solo, then it made sense.  I’ll give it 3 stars for all of that.

5.    Fred McDowell, “Going Down The River” (from THE FIRST RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1959/1997) (5 stars)

[TO HIS SON] We may have it at home, but I probably haven’t listened to it.  I know it’s out of Mississippi.  That’s one of our people.  But it could be anybody.  I don’t listen to a lot of CDs as it is.  But I know he’s from Mississippi.  But there are hundreds of us who can sing like that down there.  So I wouldn’t be able to identify this man at all.  That’s creative music right there.  That’s where a lot of jazz comes from.  If you listen closely, you can hear a saxophone solo in the guitar work.  You can hear Monk in this man’s voice, you can hear big band arrangements, everything right here.  You can hear Miles Davis, “Freddie Freeloader” — BANH-BAM, it was the same note.  A good band!  Sounds very Mississippi.  Very.  But I don’t know who he is.  Mmm!  I probably know who he is and don’t know who he is at the same time. [AFTER] That was beautiful music of the best kind.  Who he was… Fred McDowell.  I have heard him before, but I didn’t recognize him.  That’s a 5-star for the whole outfit, from the drummer, guitar players — extraordinary music.  Like I said, you can hear all types of music from right there.  You can hear Duke’s band, you can hear Monk, you can hear Louis, you can hear everybody with that one song.

6.    Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In The Dark” (from THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT, Blue Note, 1962/1994) (3 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Is that Duke Ellington?  It sounds like Clark Terry playing the trumpet.  Sounds like Duke’s band.  Mingus?  Okay..  Duke or Mingus, because they had a tendency to use arbitrary notes in their ensemble playing.  That’s what I heard.  They were one of the few bands that would use just arbitrary notes.  They’re called arbitrary notes by some, but to me it’s proof that all notes go together if they’re done with the right people playing them and the right attitude.  It’s not the kind of music I like to listen to, but I would give it 3 stars for being able to make instrumental music sound real soulful.

7.    Chocolate Armenteros, “Choco’s Guajira” (from GRUPO FOLKLORICO EXPERIMENTAL NUEVOYORQUINO: CONCEPTS IN UNITY, Evidence, 1975/1994) (5 stars)

Is that Cuban music?  Is it Sandoval on trumpet?  I love this kind of groove.  when I first heard this kind of sound, I was in Cuba many years ago. [TO HIS SON] The vocalists sound Puerto Rican.  It’s hard for me to identify a Spanish-speaking band, very difficult because I don’t speak the language.  I can’t identify the soloists at all.  They have a certain solo style that’s kind of similar, which is why it’s hard for me to identify the musicians.  But they have a Congolese-Cuban kind of feeling to it.  Sounds like they’re making music in New York City.  I can tell because of the claves and the conga drums.  Because the Cubans and the Congolese have a much heavier congo sound, but here they use timbales.  The claves are a central instrument.  But I have no idea who they are. [AFTER] Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are excellent musicians.  Not only do they play the music of their people, but they can give a feeling of Cubano and also the jazz music.  They know how to do very good mixes on music here.  I liked the trumpet player.  Was he Jerry?  Oh, Chocolate.  I don’t know if he’s from Cuba or not.  But I could recognize that pure Cuban trumpet style.  That’s why I said Cuban in the beginning. [Do you feel a connection to that style?] Yeah, there’s a connection.  Armstrong had that style, and early trumpeters had that style, and I feel that style is still in me.  I feel a connection with the Cuban trumpet style or Hugh Masakela.  Those styles are not spoken about much, but they are not as easy to play as people think they are.  You have to have a real feeling for it to play that trumpet style.  5 stars all the way.

8.    Blue Mitchell, “Hootie Blues” (from A SURE THING, Riverside, 1960/1994) (Jimmy Heath, ts., arranger) (3 stars) (Wynton Kelly, piano; Jimmy Heath, arr.)

Sounds like Wynton Kelly on the piano, which makes it a stronger blues.  The blues was kind of lightweight with the head and everything.  Wynton Kelly is one of the few pianists who plays contemporary jazz that could be identified not only by musicians, but the masses, so to speak — the listeners, the non-musicians, whatever.  He had a certain signature.  The trumpeter came in with a Miles Davis lick, but I’m quite sure it’s not Miles!  He came in with a Miles Davis lick that civilians know! [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t have done that.  Now, who could that be?  Sounds like Blue Mitchell. [AFTER] I don’t really like the tune that much.  It’s a lightweight blues head.  The recording isn’t that good because I can’t hear Wynton’s real sound, nor Blue’s.  But it shows you how great they were.  With that thin recorded sound, you still can identify Blue  Mitchell and Wynton Kelly.  I’ll give it 3 stars for them.  Without Wynton and Blue, I don’t think I could have listened to it.

9.    Sidney DeParis, “The Call Of The Blues” (#16) (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, 1944/1998) (5 stars) (Jimmy Shirley, guitar; Ed Hall, clarinet; Vic Dickenson, tb.)

Cootie Williams?  Bubber Miley?  It’s a very interesting concept he has, the trumpet player.  He didn’t play the lick form, which is very unusual.  Charlie Christian?  Is this the ’40s?  It’s really difficult for me to identify any of these people because I was only a mere child, and then I didn’t listen… The rhythmic concept is unusual, because there’s a boogie-woogie beat, there’s a straight jazz beat, and there’s a rhythm-and-blues beat mixed up in it.  An old jazz sound coming from…now they mixed that with a Dixieland sound.  So it has multiple concepts in it.  The way they do the solos is not conventional, not as conventional as famous people who will solo?  Is the trombonist Trummy Young?  Dickie Wills?  I would never guess the trombone player.  Not Al Gray?  Not Vic Dickenson?  Okay.  Sounds like somebody Clark Terry might have listened to.  Did this trumpet player ever play with Duke’s band? [Yes.] It’s not Artie Whetsol.  It’s not Cat Anderson!  Ray Nance?  Sounded like Hot Lips or Red Allen for a while.  Guy’s great, whoever he is.  Just right.  But I never heard him, ever.  But that was a beautiful record.  That’s when creative music I thought was at its best.  The horn players really played.  Everybody played what should be played, nothing more and nothing less.  5 stars.

10.    Wynton Marsalis, “Sunflowers” (#13) (from THE MARCIAC SUITE, Columbia, 1999) (3 stars)

Are all these guys under 40?  I can hear the youth.  They sound like college players.  In the tones, yeah.  Sounds like they all went to the same institution, either college or music school.  You can tell by the tone.  The tones sound  similar.  You don’t hear any individual tone.  You’d have to know them personally to know their tone.  And there’s not much space in the music.  That’s another way you can tell.  Then they have the pianissimo things, the forte things, so I can tell they’re university or music school.  Then they’ve got that Miles Davis “All Blues” thing hidden in there somewhere!  But I don’t know who they are.  There are a lot of glissandos and triplets.  They don’t sound relaxed.  They’re young, under 40.  That’s enough of that one. [AFTER] I don’t know who they are, but I would give them 3 stars just for wanting to be musicians.

11.    Craig Harris, “Harlem” (#5) (from ISTANBUL, Double Moon, 1998) (Carla Cook, vocals; Craig Harris, tb., arr.) (3 stars)

Sounds like Craig Harris on trombone.  That’s one of his licks.  I probably know the singer personally, but I don’t recognize her.  I know Carla Cook, I’ve ever worked with her, but on the CD I didn’t recognize her voice.  I don’t know what they were doing.  I live in Harlem, too, so I understand what they were saying.  It’s nice.  I’d give them 3 stars for trying to do what they were trying to do. [What were they trying to do?] I don’t know yet! [LAUGHS]

12.    Cootie Williams, “Dooji Wooji” (from THE DUKE’S MEN, VOL.2, Columbia, 1939/1993) (5 stars) (Johnny Hodges, as)

Is that Duke Ellington?  It’s part of his group.  Somebody has broken away, Johnny Hodges or somebody.  But who?  Could it be Cootie?  It sounds like Cootie’s band away from the Duke, with Duke on the piano.  It’s excellent.  This is top-grade, high-quality stuff.  I had never heard Cootie’s group, but you  could just feel it!  I hear Johnny Hodges there.  This is excellent.  That’s what I mean you can tell between the old heads and the young heads.  There’s a certain feeling.  You can dance to this.  You can get images of people, not  just men, but women, children, food and drink.  You can hear church and nightclub.  It takes you there.  Really, to me it’s all about tone.  The tone has to have that real feeling, and not just academic.  That’s beautiful.  5 stars.  You know that.  That’s it!  That’s the stuff right there.  It doesn’t even exist any more.  It’s not here any more..

13.    Neville Marcano, “Senorita Panchita” (from THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO, Rounder, 1962/1998) (5 stars)

Sounds South American.  But then it sounds Cuban also.  I’m especially attracted to this kind of music because it has so many mixtures in it.  To me, this is one of the first multicultural musics.  I hear many cultures in it.  Spanish, the island people, the African, the Cape Verdean people I hear.  Now, who this is, I have no idea.  Sounds raw.  The bass almost sounds like he’s playing a tub.  I’m sure it’s a real bass, but just the way he hits it.  And how loose the rhythm is, but still in rhythm.  It sounds like a neighborhood band.  I like that sound also!  And this type of vocalization is excellent.  It’s what the young people are doing now.  I like to vocalize like this also.  Free form vocalization is beautiful.  There’s a musician named Garth something from England.  He’s a singer-rapper.  He’s very popular now.  He’s got a vocal style that’s just exactly like him.  This kid must be 21-22 years old.  He has a moustache, like that.  He’s from England and he’s a rapper.  He’s talking about being at his girlfriend’s house and his parents don’t know he’s there, he don’t mean any harm.  He wears a little white kufi.  This is old, right?  Ah, ’60s.  This is excellent stuff.  Because the kids are using it now. [Any idea where he's from?] It sounds like Martinique…not Martinique or Surinam or somewhere like that. [KUFI:  It sounds like from the islands.] It’s an island sound.  To me it  sounds like Cuba.  Trinidad?  That’s definitely 5 stars.  The vocal alone, just the style of it alone.  The looseness of it is beautiful.

14.    Art Blakey & Jazz Messengers, “Afrique” (from THE WITCH DOCTOR, Blue Note, 1961/1999) (Lee Morgan, trumpet) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Lee Morgan!  The greatest!!  This is a man who’s an unsung hero in the history of jazz.  There’s none like him.  They talk about Dizzy, Miles, a lot of them.  But this man here, he’s the only trumpet player I know, back in the day, who had direct fans, people who SCREAMED when he came on.  Just the average man on the street liked Lee Morgan.  He’s the only trumpet player I know in the history of the music that the common man on the street liked, the man who was not a jazz fan.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes.  Now, who Lee Morgan is with I have no idea.  Is that Billy Higgins on drums?  Wait a minute.  Is the tenor player Billy Harper?  Not Frank Mitchell?  Whoo, who is this?  John Gilmore?  Oh, Wayne Shorter!  I got it now! [LAUGHS] Wayne threw me off for a minute because Wayne is so… I’m talking about in the past.  It sounded like Wayne in the past, when he played more street; he had a street sound to him.  Tenor saxophone.  No soprano.  Beautiful.  This dude right here brought a lot of young people into jazz music.  Is that Buhaina? [You didn't recognize Buhaina right away.] Well, because I was listening for something else.  When they came in, it was an unusual gathering of the musical instruments together doing something they didn’t normally do.  So I didn’t listen for Bu until they got to the solos.  Drummers don’t play that beat.  These are the guys who brought people of my generation into jazz who may not have wanted to go into jazz.  The tone of Lee Morgan — impeccable.  He was straight-out.  He didn’t try to do anything else but play straight out.  He didn’t try to fool you with anything or try to be different or even try to be intellectual.  To me, he was intellectual and street-wise at the same time.  A brilliant man.  The whole group.  Is that Timmons on piano?  The whole group.  Philadelphia bass player.  Jymie Merritt.  For jazz in that era, that was it.  Five stars.  Of course!  All the way.

[-30-]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Olu Dara, trumpet

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, guitar, Mike Stern, Miles Davis

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: "Adam's Rib"; example of TB'S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, "The Bird Song"]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950′s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, "JoDoTh"]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, "W6-4N-R6-AH0"]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, "Surge"]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Andy Gonzalez’ 63rd Birthday, an Unedited Blindfold Test from 2000 and a WKCR Interview From 2006

Best of birthdays to the master bassist Andy Gonzalez, who turns 63 today. A co-founder of the Fort Apache Band with his older brother, Jerry Gonzalez, Gonzalez’ c.v. includes protracted gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri and Manny Oquendo’s Libre. His influence is palpable on such next-generation swing-to-clave bassists as — among many others — Avishai Cohen and Hans Glawischnig. I had the opportunity to interact with and be educated by Andy at least a half-dozen times during my years on WKCR, particularly on such subjects as Cachao and Arsenio Rodriguez, upon whom he would expound with great erudition. I’ll have to transcribe those cassettes one of these days. Meanwhile, here are the proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Andy did with me around 2000, and a WKCR interview from 2006, when the Fort Apache Band had just released their excellent CD, Rumba Buhaina.

Andy Gonzalez Blindfold Test:

1.    Ray Brown, “St. Louis Blues” (feat. Ahmad Jamal, p., Lewis Nash, d), “SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS…ARE THE PIANO PLAYERS” (Telarc, 1995) (5 stars)

Well, it’s somebody like Ray Brown or somebody that LOVES Ray Brown on bass.  I hear a lot of Ray Brownish things. [AFTER] [Why did it take you so long?] I had to hear more of him.  At first I thought it was somebody younger, but then I started listening to what he was playing and I said, “Wait a second.”  This is somebody who has some depth to his musical history just by what he played and how he played it.  It had to be somebody like Ray Brown.  I’m not sure of the piano player, though. [Any guesses?] Mmm… That’s not Benny Green, is it?  It could be Oscar. [It's the same generation.] Oh yeah?  [AFTER] I didn’t hear much of the trademark Ahmad Jamal things.  That was quite nice.  It gets 5 stars out of me.  Ray Brown is one of my heroes.  Of the bass players from his generation, like Oscar Pettiford and Mingus… I thought he’s the one that… There’s Blanton in his playing, but I think he took Blanton beyond Blanton.  Mingus I thought sort of took it the other way, and he used a lot more physical kinds of things about the bass, like imitating growls and doing wilder things, where I think maybe Ray Brown is more blues-based.  There’s a lot of blues in his playing.  Not that Mingus isn’t, but… And Pettiford was… It’s like three distinct voices to come out of the same era, and to play with a lot of the same people in the Bebop era and stuff like that.  But very distinct voices, all three of them.  But those are the same generation.

2.    Sam Jones, “O.P.” (Israel Crosby, bass; Joe Zawinul, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums), DOWN HOME (Riverside, 1962/1995) (4 stars)

I’m going to take a stab and say it was Doug Watkins playing cello.  No?  He did do a cello record. [This is someone who is a contemporary of Doug Watkins who did...] Sam Jones?  That was the second person I was going to shoot for.  Because I realized he had done a cello record way back, but I can’t remember the circumstances.  I only managed to cop a couple of Sam Jones records, especially on Riverside — those were a little harder to find.  For some reason it made me think of the Doug Watkins record.  I think Yusef Lateef is playing on it.  When I heard the flute I thought maybe it might be him. [Any idea who's playing bass and drums?] That wasn’t Jimmy Cobb?  Something made me think it was Jimmy Cobb, the way he was riding the cymbal. [AFTER] You know, Israel Crosby is credited with taking one of the first solos on bass on record, “Blues For Israel,” with Gene Krupa.  I mean, an actual bass solo.  It’s a whole thing on the bass.  This is the early ’30s.  The pianist was Zawinul?  Forget it.  I would have never guessed that.  I thought the piece was nice.  It was kind of bouncy and airy.  I thought Sam Jones was very articulate on the cello and very tasty.  As a matter of fact, I never heard him take any bass solos that sounded slick, to tell you the truth! — from what I’ve heard of Sam Jones.  That was excellent cello playing, just so far as getting across the cello.  I’m wondering whether he used the cello the way it’s supposed to be tuned, in fifths, or the way Ray Brown did and some other cello cats did was retune the instrument in fourths to make it like a bass and easier to play.  Now, that might be the case, because he seemed to get around the instrument pretty good.  Playing in fifths takes a little bit more knowledge of how to get around the strings.  So that’s an interesting question to find out.  From what I heard, it sounded like it was tuned in fourths.  Four stars, for Sam Jones especially.

3.    Brian Lynch, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” SPHERES OF INFLUENCE (Sharp-9, 1997) (5 stars) (John Benitez, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Milton Cardona, congas; David Kikoski, piano; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone)

Wow!  I’ve grown accustomed to her space face.  That was a beautiful arrangement, man.  It was gorgeous.  It sounds like it was a trumpet player’s record, because he’s got the lead — and a big fat tone.  I’m trying to think of who it could be.  The drummer was on it with the Latin stuff.  He was playing the right kind of beat.  It wasn’t clave!  And the conga player was holding his own.  He’s just an adornment more than anything else.  In the seconds where there was Latin rhythm, he played well.  The bass player did okay.  Gee whiz.  Fat tone on a trumpet is what was getting to me.  I was trying to think who has a fat tone on a trumpet.  It doesn’t sound too dated.  So let me see, who has a fat tone on trumpet these days?  Terence Blanchard has a fairly fat sound.  So does Nicholas Payton.  They have kind of fat tones on the trumpet these days. [What trumpet player might think of that type of arrangement?] Now, that’s a good question, because there was a lot of depth to that arrangement.  It stretched the tune out, it stretched out the phrasing of it, and also took it in different places.  It gets five stars from me, because it was an original and unusual treatment of the song.  Because that’s not an easy song to… It’s a pretty song.  Not too many people, except for someone like maybe Sonny Rollins, have attempted to play that tune.  And then I thought it was nice having the tuba in the orchestration.  That was really pretty. [AFTER] That was Brian Lynch?  No kidding!  I didn’t even think about that.  Excellent.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize… Well, John Benitez didn’t give anything that I could recognize him on.  Milton, well, that I could hear.  It was very nice.  I enjoyed that.

4.    George Mraz, “Star-Crossed Lovers” (Renee Rosnes, piano), DUKE’S PLACE (Milestone, 1999) (5 stars)

I sort of wish that the bass player would have bowed the melody at the end again, because he played it so beautifully at the beginning.  Good bowing technique is like studying a whole other instrument.  And he had superb control of that bow.  I mean, he really sang that melody superbly, man.  Right there that’s five stars for me, because I’m quite a fan of good bowing.  I wish I could bow that well!  But like I said, that’s a whole study in itself.  It’s one thing to pluck strings and use your hands to get tone and sound, but to use the bow and get the vibrations that the bow makes, and use your hands in that sense, it’s a whole different way of playing the instrument.  Whoever that was playing the bass, I really couldn’t tell you, but I thought that he has an excellent bowing technique. [AFTER] I figured as much.  That’s bounce, man.  He’s got beautiful, beautiful bowing technique.  It bounces!  Gorgeous bowing.

5.    Ornette Coleman, “Women Of The Veil,” THREE WOMEN (Harmolodic, 1996) (Charnett Moffett, bass; Geri Allen, piano; Denardo Coleman, drums) (3½ stars)

Oh, shades of Ornette!  I don’t think it was Ornette, but it was quite a bit of Ornettethology!  Even the trumpet player sounded like Ornette!  I don’t know who it was, but it sure sounded like an Ornetteish kind of thing.  I wasn’t that thrilled with it.  It was all right.  The bass player sure didn’t sound like no Charlie Haden, that’s for sure. [AFTER] It was Ornette?  Charnett Moffett was playing the bass?  This was recent?  Who was playing the trumpet? [Ornette.] Ah, so I was right about that.  The piano is what threw me.  I’m not used to Ornette with a piano player.  3½ stars for that.  I’ve heard Ornette play with more… I like Ornette when there’s more emotion in his playing.  Remember the Town Hall concert, “Sadness,” things like that?  That really moves me.  And the original quartet moves me a lot, with Charlie Haden, Blackwell and Don Cherry.  All that moved me quite a bit.  And Ornette over the years, man… I always dug Ornette.  I like him best in smaller situations, not with all the trappings.  I don’t like Ornette with a piano player.  I like him without piano.

6.    Ron Carter, “Samba De Orfeu,” ORFEU (Blue Note, 1999) (5 stars) (Bill Frisell, guitar; Stephen Scott, piano; Payton Crossley, drums; Steve Kroon, percussion)

It was nice to hear a bass guitar “surdo” and “casaba.”  To me I would have dug it if they had added a tambourine.  That would have really put the rhythm section a little stronger Brazilian.  But they left the space open, which is okay.  The guitar player wasn’t Brazilian; that’s for sure.  And the bass player sounded like Ron Carter to me. [AFTER] Of course!  Ron Carter, one thing, he’s got a great sense of humor.  Throughout that solo, he’s a shameless quoter, a quoter of obscure melodies!  I get a kick out of it.  I mean, that’s like… Unless you know these melodies, you just… He quoted really obscure songs, like “Popeye, The Sailor Man” and “I Want To Wash that Rain Right Out of My Hair.”  You have to know a lot of music to be able to quote these things, and he quoted quite a few different little tiny pieces of melodies from all kinds of things in his solo.  It was nice.  Five stars.  Ron Carter is one of my heroes.  I grew up listening to him, and I know him a bit, and he’s quite a nice man.  One thing I’ve got to say is that I’ve learned a lot from listening to Ron Carter over the years, especially when he was with Miles.  His perception of how to play bass in a rhythm section for that band was unique, and it really influenced me a lot.  Even playing Latin Jazz it influenced me a lot, because just the kind of thing that they had going as the quintet with Miles, this kind of ESP thing that they had going, is something that most bands strive for — that kind of empathy and mind-reading between the members of a band.  That’s something that they brought to a high art.  And Ron was very instrumental in making a lot of that happen.  I’ll always love him for that, that’s for sure.  So he gets my five stars.

7.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers Parade,” PRIME DIRECTIVE (ECM, 1999) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a wild stab?  Is that Avishai?  He likes things that have odd meters.  Is it a bass player’s album?  Is it Santi?  I remember him writing things that sound like this.  Wow.  So far I made two guess, and both of them were wrong.  I’m not that big a fan of odd meter kind of things.  But it was put together pretty nicely, and if the bass player composed this… Most bass players make good composers, just because of the fact that they always provided the bottom of things, the bottom of the harmonies, and sometimes the bottom of just rhythm and melody.  So I am pretty happy when I hear bass players’ compositions and arrangements, because it’s like they have a different perspective on things and they hear things different.  Most bass players who I know who write, it’s usually very interesting.  And this was no exception.  It was interesting.  But like I said, I’m not a big fan of odd meter things.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I’ve got the clave ingrained in me to the point where it’s like… And also, I grew up in the era of real hardbop-swing kind of things, so anything that has odd meters isn’t… It’s just a preference of mine.  I’m not that particularly fond of them.  I would give it 3½ stars.  So who was it? [AFTER] That was Dave Holland?!  I would have never recognized him.  I would never have thought that it was Dave Holland.  It didn’t sound like the kind of music that he used to play before.  There’s something to be said for bass players that write.  Because like I said, they’re coming from a another perspective.

8.    Richard Bona, “Konda Djanea,” SCENES FROM MY LIFE (Columbia, 1999). (5 stars) (Michael Brecker, tenor sax)

That was very nice, man.  Richard Bona.  I met him a couple of years ago.  I think he was touring with Zawinul.  We just ran into each other on the road.  But that was lovely.  You can hear the influence of the African string instrument called the kora, which is a harp kind of instrument.  I can hear that influence in how he approaches the bass.  He’s playing it almost like a guitar, but playing it like a kora.  Just the figures that he’s playing, it sounds like if he was strumming on a kora.  It’s very pretty.  Five stars.

9.    John Patitucci, “King Kong,” IMPRINT (Concord, 1999) (4 stars) (Danilo Perez, piano; Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, drums; Giovanni Hidalgo, percussion)

Well, I recognized a couple of people in there.  I think that was El Negro playing the traps, and it could have been Giovanni playing the congas.  It could have been.  Those are my cohorts, man.  I know those guys intimately.  Is this Patitucci?  I had a feeling it was him, because I heard he had done something with the Latin thing.  He was cool.  Was this his tune?  The piano player sounded a little familiar, too, but I wasn’t positive.  I was thinking that it might be Danilo.  What made me think it was Patitucci was when it got into the groove part, he was sticking to a pretty generic kind of groove thing.  Unless you’re really sure of the clave and how to mess with it, I would imagine that’s what you would do just to… Because Negro and Giovanni can get very intricate on you, and if you’re not dead-sure where you are, they can throw you off in a minute.  It’s like the clave thing with them is that they know that so intimately.  I’ve played with them so much that I know what they’re about.  Sometimes it’s better to be safe and stick to what you know you can do within that framework.  So it was cool.  The saxophone player I don’t know.  It sounded like a Michael Brecker or someone like that, but I’m not sure.  Chris Potter?  Okay.  There was something in his tone that reminded me of Michael.  But I guess that got a four out of me.

10.    Eddie Gomez, “Footprints,” DEDICATION (Evidence, 1998). (3½ stars)

Mmm, “Footprints.”  That tune, ever since it came out, it’s been a favorite of all us musicians.  Especially when you’re in school and stuff, everybody… It’s easy to play and easy to jam on.  I was just about going to high school when that came out.  I don’t really have a clue.  3½ stars.  The bass player to me sounded like somebody like Alex Blake or someone like that.  Because Alex Blake has that kind of facility; he likes to do those kind of crazy runs and stuff.  Oh, it’s not?  I figured as much.  I just thought of him because I ran into him the other day and I hadn’t seen him for a while.  [The bass player and you have the same alma mater.] Music and Art?  He must have graduated way after me, though.  Before me?  Really.  Hmm!  I know Eddie Gomez went to Music & Art? [That's him.] Really?  That doesn’t sound like the Eddie Gomez I remember.  It’s recent, huh?  I’m a lot closer to the Eddie Gomez of Bill Evans days, and he didn’t play like this.  He played different.  Eddie was an amazing, amazing musician, and he got along so well with Bill.  They were really mind-reading each other.  It’s sort of like the same thing that happened when Scott LaFaro was in the trio.  I got hip to Scott LaFaro maybe four or five years after he passed.  He passed in ’61.  I got hip to him early on because when I was 14 I was studying with Steve Swallow.  I was in junior high school.  He was the first one to turn me on to Scotty.  Then I used to go and check out Bill Evans at the Vanguard a lot, and Eddie Gomez was playing the bass there.  So I was just amazed at the facility that Eddie Gomez had at the time.  Because he didn’t quite do what Scotty was doing.  Scotty liked to mess with counterpoint and things like that a lot more.  But Eddie was all over the instrument, which was amazing to me.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize him.  I would usually recognize Eddie Gomez, because he’s a guy I’ve been following since I was a teenager.  3½ because as many times as I’ve played “Footprints,” there’s a lot more things that you can say with it than was said there.

11.    Roy Haynes, “Trinkle Tinkle,” TE VOU! (Dreyfus, 1994) (feat. Christian McBride) (3½ stars)

It’s nice to hear pretty much the arrangement the way that Monk and the sax used to play the melody.  The only thing, after a while that three note figure at the end -DINH-DUHT-DAH gets annoying.  Other than that I liked it, but I didn’t care for too much, and to hear it through all the solos was a pain in the ass after a while.  I would have preferred leaving it out and just play it, because it doesn’t do anything.  It sounds like it was a novelty effect more than anything else.  The drummer sounded like someone like Tain.  I didn’t think it was, but it sounded like someone who can take it a little out like Tain can.  But I couldn’t tell you who the cats were. [AFTER] It was Roy Haynes’ record?  I’m surprised why he kept that figure, man.  It sounds annoying.  Is the bass player Ed Howard?  Christian?  I thought it was him while he was playing, but I just didn’t think he did anything… And it didn’t sound like Roy Haynes either to me.  Is it a new record?  Unusual.  Like I said, it was pretty much in the Monk tradition.  I would left out that BINH-BAHT-BAM.  I’ll give 3½ because it was well played.  Who was the alto player?  Donald Harrison!  He played well.  I wouldn’t have recognized Roy Haynes.  It didn’t sound like him.  I heard him the last time a couple of years ago, and he’s always been Mister Taste.  And it was tasteful…except for that.  I don’t mind if an effect really adds something to the music, but that didn’t really add anything to Monk.

12.    McCoy Tyner, “I Want To Tell You ‘Bout That,” McCOY TYNER WITH STANLEY CLARKE AND AL FOSTER (Telarc, 2000) (3½ stars)

I knew it was McCoy from the getgo, because it’s unmistakable, just his tone, his touch, and the kind of things that he plays.  Although I felt it was kind of like… It’s like when you’re trying to get like a funk kind of thing going, you know, almost making an attempt to get like some radio play.  The bass player wasn’t Avery?  I don’t know who it was. [Someone you might think on electric.] Stanley Clarke?  Yeah?  He did play a figure that did make me think it was Stanley Clarke.  But I said, “Mmm, let me see…”  Who was the drummer?  Al Foster?  I sort of came up at the same time as Stanley Clarke, and I’ve been watching and listening to him since the early days when he was with Chick.  He’s a fine bass player, man.  He’s been moving around in different worlds and playing a lot of different kinds of music, but I have deep respect for him as a bass player.  He’s a great bass player.  I don’t think this is one of McCoy’s better efforts.  Just for playing sake, I’ll give it 3½ stars.

13.  Avishai Cohen, “The Gift, DEVOTION (Stretch, 1998) (3 stars)

I don’t know if I could tell you who that is.  It wasn’t exactly a toe-tapper.  The soprano had a dark kind of sound.  That’s an unusual duo, the trombone and soprano.  It’s not something you hear often.  I’m at a loss.  3 stars. [AFTER] That was Avishai, huh?

14.    Red Garland Trio w/ Paul Chambers, “This Can’t Be Love,” IT’S A BLUE WORLD (Prestige, 1958/1999) (3 stars)

It sounded like a few people.  The first name that came to me was an odd name, Monty Alexander — which is weird.  But that’s the first name that popped into my head.  I heard flashes of Erroll Garner, I heard flashes of a lot of people in there.  I probably do know who it is.  Who was it? [AFTER] That didn’t sound like Paul Chambers?  You know what?  This must have been towards the end of his life.  That was ’58?  Paul Chambers articulates a lot better than that — for me.  I’ve heard plenty of Paul Chambers.  Maybe it was the rosin.  Because when you put a certain kind of rosin on the bow you get a certain sound, and different rosins give you a different… When you pull the bow across the string, it gives you a different… This was kind of a rough sound for Paul.  Paul usually gets a smoother attack sound on his bowing.  But I do know that it has to do with the kind of rosin that you use.  Some rosin makes the bow across the strings sound a little rough; it grabs the string a certain way so that the sound comes out rough.  There’s another rosin that the sound comes out a little smoother.  This sounded kind of rough to me.  Really.  Because Paul Chambers articulates a lot better on things I’ve heard him on before than on this particular piece.  From hearing Paul on his best records… This wasn’t his best.  It didn’t move me that much.  3 stars.

15.    Cachao, “El Son No A Muerto,” MASTER SESSIONS, VOL. 1 (Epic, 1994) (4 stars)

That was Cachao, and that was Nelson Gonzalez on the très, who learned to play the très in my house.  I brought home a très from Venezuela in 1970, and he was a frequent visitor to my house.  He was self-taught on guitar.  We started studying Arsenio Rodriguez records together, and he learned how to play the très in my house.  I’m the one who got him the gig with Cachao in the middle ’80s when he did his big concert at Hunter College.  I loaned him my bass and I was at most of the rehearsals, and I got Nelson involved in it.  Because they didn’t have a très player originally for the descarga section.  That’s my daddy, Cachao.  This particular tune was kind of subdued, there was not much happening for him.  The best way to catch Cachao sometimes is live.  I wish they would record him live.  This was part of the records that Emilio Estefan put out?  I don’t think he’s the best producer for that genre.  First of all, I didn’t like the balance of the sound.  It could have been a lot better.  I’ll give it 4 stars because I like Nelson’s playing on it.  Was that Paquito d’Rivera on clarinet and Nestor Torres on flute?  What about trumpet?  It wasn’t Chocolate.  It was?  That was a very subdued Chocolate.  It didn’t sound like him.  And his trademark notes that he likes to play aren’t there.  Something tells me there was maybe some weird chemistry going on in the studio.

* * *

Andy Gonzalez (WKCR–Feb. 23, 2006):

[MUSIC: “This Is For Albert” (Rumba Buhaina)]

AG:   We did a couple of albums where we had to find a way for Jerry to play the horn with Joe Ford, and after he’d state the line, he would take a solo and then jump on the drums. Because there was no overdubbing; this was recorded direct to two-track. That was interesting, to say the, to see him manage the jump back and forth.

TP:   It is one of the great sights in jazz to see him jump up from the conga drums after he’s been abusing his hands for 5-6 minutes, and immediately launch into an improvisation. Even more so when it’s a ballad

AG:   I don’t know how he does it. I like to play percussion instruments, too, but I will not play them because it makes my fingers stiff to play the bass. I don’t know how to he gets to manipulate his fingers that well right after playing hard congas, and pick up the phone and play.

TP:   He plays hard. You and your brother have been playing trumpet and bass and congas for close to 50 years…

AG:   A long time.  I’m 55, and I was 13 when we started to play music. A little more than 40 years.

TP: And you’ve often played in the same bands over the years. With Eddie Palmieri for several years, with Dizzy Gillespie briefly in the ‘60s, as well as the Apaches.

AG:   Jerry was also in the first band I ever recorded with, which was Monguito Santamaria, who was Mongo’s son. Rene McLean was in that band, and Jose Mangual, Jr., was in the band. Jerry was part of that band for a minute, too.

TP:   Let’s talk about the history of the Fort Apaches. Ten years ago, you were playing a lot around and New York and touring, but things changed, Jerry moved to Spain, and the opportunities to play are less than they had been.

AG:   Well, we have been playing some. Jerry would come in occasionally to do it, and there would be a tour set up, and some… The band has been working on and off. It’s maybe not as much as we could because of the distance between us. But we still get together enough. And it sounds like we’d never been apart, just because of the chemistry involved in the band.

TP:   It’s one of the innovative bands of late 20th century jazz, influential on two generations of musicians from South America, the Caribbean, Spain, who heard your ability to fuse Afro-Caribbean diasporic rhythms with jazz harmonies. It’s hard to say if anyone was the first to do anything, but recordings like Rumba Para Monk and things before that have had a tremendous influence on the way jazz sounds today. These ideas were exotic in 1988; now it’s the mainstream.

AG:   They were even more exotic in 1979.

TP:   There are a few streams to discuss. One of the history of the Fort Apache; the other is the present. Let’s stay with the present for the moment, and the new recording, Rumba Buhaina.

AG:   A lot of people don’t understand that “Buhaina” was Art Blakey’s Muslim name. In the late ‘40s, quite a few musicians in jazz were either converting to Islam or flirting with it. It’s just like jazz musicians are always the first to move to things that would probably help them get away from the American stereotype of what a musician is supposed or what a spiritual person is supposed to be like. So Art Blakey took the name “Buhaina.” I don’t know what it means, but all Art Blakey’s closest friends and associates would call him “Bu.”

TP:   I believe that the Jazz Messengers name came from that same origin. Unlike your exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk, Rumba Buhaina explores a number of composers, of tunes primarily from their classic period, say ‘58 to ‘65.

AG:   That was the music that influenced us a lot. We used to go hear Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in person, and that was one of the key groups of those years. Just to hear Art Blakey be as authoritative a drummer… He was an amazing teacher. He didn’t have to tell you anything. He showed you. You just listened to him play, and it was all there to hear. We learned a lot from listening to what he had to offer, and how a drummer is so much the accompanist, and how he sets the pattern, sets the standard for what is to happen in the music. That’s something that really stayed with most musicians who came up around that time. That’s why we always consider Art Blakey one of the true teachers of the music.

TP:   He was also a musician who distilled African musicians within a swing context on the drumkit, with cross-sticking figures and polyrhythmic patterns woven within his arrangements.

AG:   I thought Art Blakey had such a strong force, a force of nature that reminded me a lot of field recordings that I had of tribal music from different parts of Africa. You’d hear, say, a drummer who would be talking on the drum, and not only the pitch, the timbre of the instrument and the way certain instruments…you would communicate a message with that way of playing. I could feel that out of Art Blakey, too. There’s a certain force that’s coming out of that. I immediately identify with it.

TP:   During those years, were you also paying attention to the records Art Blakey was doing with drummers?

AG:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Orgy In Rhythm, a couple of volumes, and the names are escaping me of a couple of others he did, where he played with the late Ray Barretto…

AG:   I was just going to mention Ray Barretto. He also did a tribute to Art Blakey a few years ago. In fact, I think there’s one tune on the record that we also did. His concept was a little different than ours. First of all, when Ray Barretto first started getting back… He wasn’t playing much salsa any more, and he started to develop a Latin Jazz band. I know he paid quite a bit of attention to Fort Apache and what we were doing, and I think he took part of that as a role model. Which we were quite honored that he would use us as a model for what he was doing.

TP:   But as far as putting the Fort Apache touch on this repertoire, how did the ideas evolve and come to fruition?

AG:   We had the idea years ago. We thought of it as one of the many projects that we had in mind to do. There were other projects, too, that never came about for various reasons. Like, we wanted to record an album with Jose Silva, better known as Chombo, the Cuban saxophonist who was probably like the Ben Webster of Cuban music, and a masterful musician. We were just about setting that up when he had a stroke and he was no longer able to play. We were already starting to pick out the material. When you have a band like the Fort Apache band, you, have a lot of options, and there’s things that pop into your head about what this band could do, what we’re capable of doing. Because everybody in the band is a great musician, and we’re capable of a lot of things.

TP:   But Rumba Buhaina is what we’re addressing.

AG:   Yes. Well, the idea for the Art Blakey tribute… We started thinking about it, and then all of a sudden we had a few days at Sweet Rhythm to play… Before we went into the studio we played and rehearsed for a few days. That’s pretty much the way we did the Monk album, too. We played and we rehearsed different concepts on different tunes until…

TP:   Were they tunes that seemed to lend themselves to dealing with the different rhythmic signatures that you bring to your arrangements.

AG:   We tried to think of ways of approaching the music… Everybody contributed ideas. That’s the way we get it together. It’s pretty simple. From all our experiences, individually and collectively, it was pretty easy for us to put it together.

TP:   Let’s step back to 1991, the album Moliendo Café, and Larry Willis’ tune, “To Wisdom The Prize.”

AG:   I like that album a lot, for a few reasons. One of them was that Miles Davis had just passed away, and we had… We thought about it a lot because he was such a strong influence on us also.

TP:   The album is dedicated to the percussionist Guillermo Barretto. Art Blakey had just passed.  Charlie Palmieri had just passed. Dizzy Gillespie shortly thereafter. George Adams as well. All are mentioned on the inner sleeve…

[“To Wisdom The Prize” & “Along Came Betty”]

TP:   On previous shows, Andy has brought literally a suitcase filled with recordings, primarily obscure and little known, great gems. A lot of this material is now available on CD so it’s a bit easier to track down…once you get the CD. Next week will you be playing primarily this repertoire or digging into the whole book?

AG:   I’ve got a feeling we’ll dig into the whole book, but we are going to feature some of the tunes from the new album.

TP:   Earlier I mentioned that there are two streams to talk about, one the new recording, Rumba Buhaina, but for listeners… As you get older, you come to grips with the notion that younger listeners don’t share core experiences. A lot of hardcore jazz fans may be unfamiliar with how you and Jerry developed your ideas about music, and what in your personal histories led to the formation of the Fort Apache Band.

AG:   Jerry got his first opportunity to record in 1979, and that was an album under his own name called Ya Yo Me Cure, which in English means “I have been cured”—whatever that means. The title track of that album was something that Frankie Rodriguez, who was a percussionist who passed away a few years ago, but was a very talented person and very close to us… He was part of Grupo Folklorico, and he was into culture really deep. I had a record of pygmy chants from Africa, and he heard one chant that was done by kids. It was like some children’s chant. He heard it a few times, and started singing “Ya Yo Me Cure” to it, just putting those Spanish words to the chant itself, and we made a guaguanco out of it. That was a precursor of what Fort Apache became.

TP:   But by then, you’d been professional musicians for more than a decade. Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie…

AG:   I played with Ray Barretto while I was in high school, ‘69 to ‘71. In between that time, me and Jerry worked with Dizzy Gillespie. So we were getting arond. I was still in high school, and Jerry was coming out of college.

TP:   Were Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie people who helped push you along conceptually?

AG:   It was kind of a mutual thing. We were well aware of Eddie Palmieri; we were big fans. But we brought something new to the table.

TP:   What was that?

AG:   Well, a different sensibility. The sensibility that Eddie Palmieri had before, when Barry Rogers was part of the band, and Barry would bring the harmonic element… When he’s taking a solo, you can feel there’s something that’s really in the jazz world, and it’s very spontaneous and very heartfelt, and there was a lot of feeling to it. That’s one of the things that we learned a lot about, and something about jazz improvisation, that nothing was thought out before time—it was just off the cuff. Whatever came to your mind that you thought was hip enough, that’s what you would play. So we had started to do those kind of things with Eddie. We took Eddie’s band into some new places where he hadn’t ventured before. We all used to hang out at my parents’ house in the basement apartment on Gildersleeve Avenue in the Bronx, and Eddie Palmieri used to come over and Barretto used to come over… If that basement could talk… Dizzy Gillespie used to come over. We used to have jam sessions there all the time. Out of all that stuff, out of a lot of experimentation, came the music we wanted to play.

TP:   Both of you had been deeply into folkloric music for many years. How did you get involved in… Was folkloric music just always there, or did people point you towards recordings and connections?

AG:   Well, there’s different types of folkloric music. There’s folkloric music for dancing, and it was more a commercial music that was provided for dancing, but it still had quite a bit of folklore to it. That was the soundtrack of my childhood. Family parties, things like that. There was always a collection of good 78s that everybody used to dance to, like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Cortijo Y Su Combo from Puerto Rico with Ismail Rivera singing, Mon Rivera… This was primarily folklore in the Puerto Rican vein and in the Cuban vein. Sonora Matancera, which was a Cuban band. That’s the stuff we grew up with.

TP:   When did you start breaking that stuff down?

AG:   That came a little bit later, because that’s something we got used to hearing. But we didn’t start breaking it down until we became more schooled in music. Both of us went to High School of Music and Art. They give you theory. They give you how to analyze a piece of music, and what happens in these number of bars, and then this section comes, and things like that. But what happened was, when I was 13, we had already been listening to Cal Tjader records for a while… Jerry was two years older than me, and he was starting to play congas, and he was also playing trumpet, and I was playing the bass, and we put together a Latin Jazz quintet like Cal Tjader’s. We started working with it. We started playing… In that music, we were trying to emulate the Cal Tjader sound and what they were doing, which was quite spontaneous and very jazz-like. They always had good pianists, and Mongo and Willie Bobo were heroes of ours. So that was pretty much how we started and where our taste was as far as playing music.

It wasn’t until I got to play with Ray Barretto’s band that I really started studying what came before, especially Afro-Cuban music. Or Cuban music.  The term “Afro-Cuban” that’s bandied about now as THE term, because everybody wants to point towards Cuba as the birthplace of a lot of the music—but I don’t know. I think it was maybe a little more to do with the Caribbean experience. Not just Cuba. Cuba was dominant, but there was also a lot going on in Puerto Rican and a lot going on in other places, too. And New York was the magnet the drew a lot of elements to it. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the Caribbean were moving to New York and bringing their music with them.

TP:   How long did you play with Dizzy Gillespie?

AG:   Almost a year. 1970.

TP:   what sort of experience was that? Was he playing primarily Cuban-influenced repertoire…

AG:   No, he was mixing it up. We had an interesting version of his band.  At the time, when we joined the band, there was no trap drummer. There was just Jerry playing congas, and I was playing the bass, George Davis was playing guitar, and Mike Longo was playing the piano—and Dizzy. I was playing my Ampeg baby bass. Now, Dizzy insisted upon a bass player who could play Latin rhythms and some jazz comfortably. That’s how I got the gig. I was only 19, and I was thrilled. We traveled a bit. It was amazing.

Dizzy was not one to… If you would sit down with him and you wanted something explained harmonically, he’d sit down at the piano and show you. But as a bandleader, he had this great instinct about talent, and he knew when he put a group of people together that the chemistry was going to work.

TP:   Rhythmically did he have anything to show you, or did…

AG:   We had things to show him.

TP:   What sort of things did you show him?

AG:   I remember working in Harlem with him one night, and we were doing a week at the Club Barron—and we brought Nicky Marrero to sit in on timbales. We played one of his tunes (I forget which one at the moment), and after he took his solo, he went by the bar… The bandstand was near the bar. He went by the bar, and we doubled the time on his tune, and we were smoking, the rhythm section was cooking, man. Then he comes up behind me and whispers in my ear, and he goes, “Where’s one?” In other words, as much as he’d been influenced by and heard quite a bit of Latin rhythms, and he’d been surrounded by good rhythm drummers, sometimes you can know a whole lot and still, if you divert your attention for a minute and come back to it, you go, “Wait a second; my hearing just turned around or something; I’m not quite sure where it is.” So while I’m playing and we’re cooking, I just looked at him and I go, “One.” He goes, “Oh, ok.” Heh-heh. Dizzy was a sweetheart. I loved him.

TP:   So as kids, you’re soaking up the music at home. It’s part of the daily fabric of your lives. You’re listening to all the jazz records as they come out…

AG:   And we were lucky enough as kids to journey out the clubs and hear this music in person. I saw Trane play. I wanted to see the quartet play, but they had already broken up. I saw one of his last performances. I saw everybody play. I was quite a regular in all the clubs. I used to go down to the Vanguard to hear the Bill Evans Trio, and I’d go to the Vanguard on Mondays to hear the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. And Slugs was one of my favorite jazz clubs in the world. That was THE place. That had an atmosphere, and the music was exceptional. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers used to play there regularly. Lee Morgan, his band used to play there. I saw so many bands. I forgot that we got to play with Kenny Dorham for a year, before Dizzy… Actually, about the time I had started playing with Ray Barretto, I was playing with Kenny Dorham.

TP:   I think Jerry has related that when he was auditioning for New York College of Music, he encountered him…

AG:   Kenny was trying to get his degree so he could teach. New York College of Music started a jazz program, and they were givimg full scholarships to jazz musicians, and all of a sudden, a lot of musicians jumped in that school. They had a great big band. Great musicians there. So Kenny Dorham was studying there, and he was in Jerry’s trumpet class. The trumpet teacher was a classical teacher, and he failed Kenny Dorham. Failed him! I couldn’t believe that. Kenny Dorham could have taught him a few things. But we’ve been blessed, man. We were blessed that we were really accepted by a lot of people, and taught as well. Just by playing together with someone, you give a little bit of your knowledge, and you get knowledge back in return. There was quite a bit of activity going on for musicians in those days.

TP:   It also seems that the cultural politics of the ‘60s would point people in the direction of incorporating folkloric music into the fabric of their everyday activity and professional work.

AG:   Of course. I saw Olatunji. Olatunji had a group of drummers and dancers, and we got to hear that. There was a lot going on. But there wasn’t much Cuban folklore. Because of the Revolution, the radio stations wouldn’t play much of that music. But around 1969, Felipe Luciano, who was part of the Young Lords, he got a position to start a radio program on WRVR. I had met him while I was with Barretto, and I was studying Cuban folklore with Rene Lopez, who was one of the producers of Grupo Folklorico Experimental. We actually programmed the first month of shows. The first bunch of shows were midnight to six in the morning. We got calls from people saying, “what are doing playing this great music, and I’ve got to get up for work in the morning—are you guys nuts?” Then after a few months, finally, we got the ok to do our show in the afternoon. That was the beginning of… We did quite a bit of teaching by playing the music and talking about it, and opening that door that was closed to a lot of people about Cuban music. There was a lot of live performances…

TP:   Then you started doing it yourself, and Grupo Folklorico came into the picture…

AG:   Oh, yeah. Well, that was a given. When you’re exposed to all this knowledge, it becomes part of you, and you want to do it—and especially if you have the skills to do it. It’s like anything. When you’re studying music and you’re listening to records, it’s a communication, and you pick up on the message that’s being sent to you.

I heard this next tune on a videotape of a rehearsal in Matanzas, Cuba, that somebody gave me, of a folkloric group that was doing bata stuff, which is the hourglass shaped drum where there’s three different drums of different sizes, and they have chants going on with certain drum-beats. So there was one that was done in honor of the deity called Elegua. Elegua is the keeper of the crossroads, and is the one that opens and closes all your paths. So most ceremonies begin with Elegua. When you do a ceremony in that genre, you start with Elegua.

So I heard this chant, and it stayed in my head, and I started playing bass to it, and I figured out two sets of changes to the same melody. That’s what we use as our basis for improvisation. The first set of changes is a pedal tone, and it just stays in that pedal. It’s open. It’s kind of what McCoy Tyner or Trane would do. Then the second time we run the melody down, there’s another set of changes to it. So I came up with that, and then we developed it into a composition.

[“Elegua”]

AG:   The reason I played “Anabacoa” is that it’s a tune that had been done by a few Cuban bands, but the one that caught our attention, and that’s why we wanted to play it, was the recording by Arsenio Rodriguez Y Su Conjunto, and their version was slammin’! That’s where we got our inspiration, but then we took it to another place. And then we had the great Manny Oquendo playing one of his really classic timbal solos. It goes back to what we were talking about Art Blakey being the authoritative drummer. Well, Manny shows that he’s in that same league. He’s a very authoritative drummer.

TP:   The primal feel and the sophistication together.

AG:   Together, yeah.

TP:   That quality could describe Fort Apache, which has been doing it for 27 years, on and off…

AG:   Time flies.

TP:   We’ll move to 1988, and a live performance by an expanded edition of the Fort Apache Band, that was documented by Enja, in Zurich, titled Obatala. I’ve treasured this recording for some time; it’s an expanded version of the Apaches… Mad percussion.

AG:   When we started the Fort Apache Band, it had a large percussion section. But it was very difficult to work with that kind of ensemble, because booking it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of people to fly in and put up in hotels and so on. It was a financial decision and an artistic one to break it down to the bare essentials, which was a quintet and a sextet.

TP:   Who did the arrangement of “Justice.”

AG:   Jerry and I heard a riff on a Cuban record by Frank Emilio, who is a great Cuban pianist, and he had a riff on this record that was so intriguing, and we said, “Wow, this sounds like ‘Evidence’—because “Evidence” has such a quirky rhythm-melody to it. I said, “Wow, let’s see about putting these two elements together, and this is what came out.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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To Mark Larry Willis’ 71st Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2006

Pianist Larry Willis — a Harlem native and alumnus of Music & Art — turns 71 today. To denote the occasion, here’s the unedited version of the Blindfold Test he did with me in 2006.

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

1.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “The Hard One” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2002) (Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo Enriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums)

I can’t quite pinpoint who this is. But whoever it is, the way he plays lines, the note ideas, he’s obviously listened a lot to Herbie. I hear a lot of that in this. Some of it might remind you a little bit of Randy Weston. But I say that rhythmically. He’s got great facility. I’m going to give this 4 stars. I like the approach. It goes everywhere. So everybody is obviously thinking about how to deal with this rhythmically. That’s the thing I like about it. I like both the rhythmic and harmonic approach. But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Boy, what a fantastic pianist he is. He’s a very welcome addition to today’s jazz piano. Besides, he’s a really nice kid. [He’s 43.] Well, he’s a kid to me. I got him by 20 years. The composition rubs me a little bit on the negative side. I honestly feel… The Cuban part I like, but it’s very difficult for me to focus in on anything. There’s just a little bit too much going on for me.

2.   Michael Weiss, “Walter Davis Ascending” (from MILESTONES, Steeplechase, 1998) (Weiss, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Jackie McLean, composer)

I don’t know who it is, but the touch is so reminiscent of Hank Jones. Maybe not so much the ideas. Maybe Lewis Nash on drums. But it sounds awfully good. I’m having difficulty trying to hinge the tune. I love the composition. The left hand is not quite in that style, but I hear Bill Evans also. Compositionally, it sounds like something that Bill might play. Is this a contemporary of mine? [No.] Older? Younger. He’s a teenager. I’m going to step out on a limb. Is this Kirk Lightsey? This is this tune written by somebody that I know very well. It’s Jackie’s tune. 3 stars. It doesn’t quite grab me. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional, as far as I’m concerned. But the performance of it is good.

3.   Chano Dominguez, “No Me Platiques, Mas” (from CON ALMA, Venus, 2003) (Dominguez, piano; George Mraz, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

It’s a nice waltz. I don’t think it’s him, but the touch and harmonic approach remind me a lot of Ray Bryant. But I don’t think this is something Ray would play. Then here again, I don’t know who could be playing. I love the sound of the trio. It’s very well-integrated, everybody’s listening to everybody, and I like the approach, the concept of what they’re doing. It’s quasi early Bill Evans trio. The bass player is playing very loose, the drummer is not playing time so strictly, and I like the approach. Could the bassist be George Mraz? Yeah, it sounds like Bounce. We call him the Bouncing Czech. Is this Richie Beirach? A lot of Bill Evans here. Could this be somebody like Denny Zeitlin? You got me. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him, but I know who he is.

4.   Denny Zeitlin, “Bemsha Swing” (from SOLO VOYAGE, MaxJazz, 2005) (Zeitlin, piano; Thelonious Monk, piano)

“Bemsha Swing.” One of the problems that I’m having is that Jazz, as far as the growth and development of the art, has reached an impasse. I’ve heard no new voices, particularly at the piano, no new schools of thought since 1968, and I think a lot of that has had to do with the way the record industry has crept into this, and basically destroyed a lot of the bands where young players could serve apprenticeship. When I came along, there was the Jazz Messengers, there was Miles’ band, there was Trane’s band, there was Horace Silver’s quintet, a lot of working bands where you could develop. But that doesn’t exist. So what I’m hearing is a lot of retread. [In this performance?] In general. This sounds like Randy to me. But here again, I don’t know who it is. I love what he’s doing. I’m going to give it 5 stars. He plays enough of the piano to let you know that he knows what he’s doing at the instrument, but the whole thing just comes off. I like the harmonic approach. The ideas are nice. I know where it’s coming from, but I can’t tell what records he’s listening to. Let’s put it that way. I like that. He’s put some thought into what he’s doing. [Older guy? Younger guy?] Maybe my age. The concept. He plays good stride. I like how he’s interpreting Monk. Understanding that music is not necessarily something that falls out of a tree. And he doesn’t play too much. Let me put it this way. The element of taste is very prevalent here. What he’s doing, everything seems to be in the right place; he does it at the right time. When he starts to stride, it adds instead of making me feel he’s doing it just to show you that he can. All this is integrated into the music. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin? Makes a lot of sense to me.

5.  Martin Wacilewski, “Plaza Real” (from TRIO, ECM, 2005) (Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

This is a nice trio. I don’t know who it is. Harmonically I love it. Also, the piano is really well-recorded. He’s listened to Bill, that’s for sure. That last little run is a Bill Evans run! He was a very influential piano player! But there’s also a lot of Herbie’s harmonic approach. Right there! I like it. 4½ stars. [AFTER] They should keep doing what they’re doing!

6.   Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

This sounds like it might be two piano players. Sure is covering a lot of ground. There are two piano players. [Who are they?] Is it Hank and Tommy? No, that’s not Hank. Or Tommy. I haven’t a clue. [Are you sure it’s two piano players?] Yes, I’m sure. Or at least somebody overdubbed something. [It’s one piano player.] Wow. [Live.] Live?! The lines are good. They’re not great. But to play that much with just two hands is doing a lot. It’s not Oscar. I haven’t a clue. 3½ stars. It just doesn’t reach out and grab me.

7.   Jason Moran, “Out Front” (from PRESENTS THE BANDWAGON, Blue Note, 2003) (Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Jaki Byard, composer)

There’s something almost Steve Kuhn-ish about this—approach, concept, touch, ideas. But I know it’s not Steve. I like it. He’s got a lot of chops, whoever he is. [Are you familiar with this tune?] No. But for some reason, the name of Jaki Byard is sticking in my head. It sounds like some music he’d play or some music coming from him. It just rubs me that way. I love the treatment. But I can’t figure out who it is! Sounds like they’ve been playing together for a minute. Sounds like a younger player—the sound of the instrument. It doesn’t sound like an older personality. I’m almost going to step out on a limb and say it’s somebody like Marcus Roberts. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of information here to decipher. [Do you like that?] Yes and no. I’ve always been one to think that less is more, and because the piano is such a complicated instrument, the 88-to-10 odds empower me to be more simplistic in my approach. I think sometimes piano players get so involved in the 88-to-10 odds that the music takes somewhat of a back seat. That’s happening here. It’s more of a show than music. 3 stars. It isn’t bad! If it gets below 3, that means I don’t like it.

8.   Edward Simon, “Abiding Unicity” (from UNICITY, CAM, 2006) (Simon piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

The bass player is great. It’s not George. It’s not Eddie Gomez. Is it Richard Davis? I’m trying to think of how many bass players have that kind of arco technique. Is the pianist from outside of the United States? [Yes. But he’s lived in the States for a long time.] I asked because of the approach to rhythm. [What part of the world is the piano player from?] He’s either from Europe or he’s from Japan. How can I put this? Because I’m an American and jazz comes from here, and I’ve been listening to it for a long time from an American perspective, the whole concept of playing inside the pulse framework is a little deeper here than I hear coming from other places, and I think… It’s not a putdown. It’s just that if you don’t grow up in a culture, it’s very difficult to assimilate the little subtleties of whatever that is into your playing if you haven’t experienced it. [That affects how you’re hearing this.] Yes. But let’s back up. It affects me in this context. What I am trying to say is not a bad thing. That’s just how it is. For example, as close as he came to being involved with an American approach to playing jazz, I still hear that difference in somebody’s playing like Joe Zawinul, for example. There’s always a tendency to… It sounds like it’s on the surface almost. The piece is okay. It started out great, and then it went someplace else that I didn’t particularly care for. If it started like what he’s doing now, then I might feel more compelled to… It just doesn’t get inside my body. 3 stars. [AFTER] Patitucci and Blade always seem to be together. I heard them with Wayne, I heard them with Herbie…

9.  Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1980/2002) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pederson, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I like the piano player. It’s a very nice, refreshing treatment of this song. Whoever it is, they’ve certainly paid attention to the Nat Cole Trio—or the King Cole Trio. I like this. I’m almost going to say Mulgrew. Is the guitar player Russell Malone perchance? Is the guitarist an older player? [Yes.] Older than me? [No.] Well, it’s not Cedar. It doesn’t sound like Barry Harris. Now, that sounds like Hank right there. Whoever it is, they’ve really listened to Hank’s approach to playing the instrument. Hank’s got one of the cleanest, clearest, prettiest sounds coming out of the piano in the history of this music, I feel. And whoever this is, I like very, very much. Harmonically, technically, just the general approach to playing the instrument. He’s got a great sound. 5 stars. [AFTER] [LOUD LAUGH] Okay.

10,  Bebo Valdes, “Lamento Cubano” (from EL ARTE DEL SABOR, Blue Note, 2000) (Bebo Valdes, piano; Israel “Cachao” Lopez, bass; Carlos “Patato” Valdes; congas)

An older pianist. From Cuba. Bebo Valdes. The sound, concept, touch. That’s Bebo! He’s a really unique player. First of all, as a pianist, he’s assimilated the world’s concept of playing the jazz piano and formulated it into a very unique concept of playing the piano—and playing that music, playing Cuban music. I love him, first of all, because he’s got a great sound from the piano. Then, his minimalist approach pleases me immensely. In a sense, he reminds me, if I can make an analogy, of Ahmad Jamal, for example. He shows you just enough technique to let you know that he’s got it, but the rest is focused on playing some music that will allow you to assimilate it. 5 stars. I asked Miles one time… There’s a great story about him going over and hearing Clifford Brown, and then just saying to him, “Brownie, why are you playing all of those notes? Nobody hears that.” I asked Miles about it, and he said, what it is, when you’re playing music for people other than musicians, they can’t assimilate and decipher all that information and have it come out music that touches their souls. So a lot of what you play gets wasted on just you showing off and how much technique you have. Oscar doesn’t do that, and he’s got a world of technique. Art Tatum didn’t do that, and he had a world of technique. But a lot of players play too much. Too much information. The ultimate objective of all of this is not to be the greatest… I’m not trying to be the greatest piano player in the world. I want to be the best musician I can be. Because the instrument is there for you to play music on.

11.  Chick Corea, “Celia” (from REMEMBERING BUD POWELL, 1997) (Corea, piano; Bud Powell, composer)

It sounds like Barry Harris playing “Celia.” Or somebody from that generation. [It’s someone from your generation.] They really understand the concept of bebop, the bebop school of thought as far as playing the piano is concerned. Kenny Barron? He’s listened to bebop quite a bit. He’s played it quite a bit. Hmm. From my generation? 4 stars. [AFTER] Okay. All right. Aside from the music that he’s been able to come out with and has been so successful with, there’s a bit of a chameleon in Chick as far as playing the piano. I’ve heard him play duets with Herbie, and he’s got one face there. I hear this, it’s another face. I hear what he does, for example, with Return to Forever; that’s another face. I heard him with Stan Getz; that’s another face. Yes, Armando!

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