Tag Archives: Ahmad Jamal

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Paul Bley, Around 2002

I’m not sure exactly what year Paul Bley agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test, but given the track datings, it was probably 2002. He was playing the Blue Note, staying in an apartment on W. 9th Street with a questionable sound system. We’d become acquainted not long before, when he and Gary Peacock joined me together for a few hours on WKCR, which is a show I have retrieve and transcribe some day. Anyway, it was fun to do, and hopefully the transcript will be both entertaining and illuminating.

* * * *

I have something to say as a little preamble.  Mike Zwerin, a number of years ago, invited me to review records, thinking since I was so poor at the time that I might be able to make a little pocket money.  He was living in New York in New York at the time, so you know how long ago that was.  He handed me a giant stack of LPs, maybe 20 LPs, and I said, “Wow, this is going to be fun; I’m looking forward to it.”  So I got home, put on LP-1, listened to it, and by about 10 LPs… He was sitting with me actually.  I had nothing to say.  He said, “You’ve heard all these LPs and you haven’t said anything.”  I said, “there was nothing worth talking about.”  That was the end of my disk jockey career.  I think I gave him one paragraph.  By that time he was playing the organ trios, the Prestiges… [LAUGHS] How am I going to talk if you bring records that don’t require any talk?  So I hope this is not going to be the same situation.

1.    Ornette Coleman “Mob Job” (from SOUND MUSEUM: HIDDEN MAN, Verve/Harmolodic, 1996) (Coleman, as; Geri Allen, p; Charnett Moffett, b; Denardo Coleman, d) – (5 stars)

Well, I’m not a fan of tempo medleys.  It started at one tempo and proceeded to another.  There was no reason not to have the written material be in the same tempo as the track was going to be in. [ALTO SAX ENTERS] Definitely Ornette Coleman, of course.  Well, it’s a waste of time with the pianist.  There’s a good reason he doesn’t use piano.  See, the horn player can make the transitions to wherever he wants to go at any time, but the piano player actually has to change their mindset to get rid of the key center. [Any idea who the pianist might have been?] I don’t care. [Did you think the pianist worked as successfully as possible under the circumstances?] I’m not really concerned about the pianist. [How many stars?] Stars! [LAUGHS] Anything with Coleman deserves 6 stars. [When do you think it was from?] It sounded like a home recording.

That was fun!  I had my own label.  But I couldn’t afford myself.

2.    Ahmad Jamal, “Aftermath” (from OLYMPIA 2000, Dreyfus, 2001) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, b; Idris Muhammad, d) – (5 stars)

Wonderful trio, very exciting, they played really well together.  My comments are not really about this trio.  Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of what we’re talking about.  Music is language.  It’s conversation.  If it’s language and conversation, it should not be repetitive..repetitive..repetitive..repetitive.  You got it the first time I said that word.  The next three times I said it was adding to a level of redundancy…redundancy… Now, we’re not talking about profundity.  We’re talking about language, and aspiring to be ideas.  Not profundity.  We haven’t gotten anywhere near that.  That’s not even on the table.  So if it’s language, let’s remove all repetition, because it’s insulting to the listener…insulting to the listener.  You get my drift?  Anything you play twice is once too much. I loved it.  I loved the drummer.  I loved the bass player.  I loved everything.  It was on a very high level. 5 stars. Ahmad Jamal would be my guess.  He’s come a long way.  He’s a good friend, by the way, but I don’t really know his recent work.  But we’re very close, because we have been in hotel rooms all night in Bologna, Italy, etcetera, etc.

I’ll tell you a funny story, which may or may not be included.  It was 5 in the morning in a hotel in Bologna, and Ahmad had just got off the phone.  I said, “Ahmad, you’ve been on the phone a very long time.”  He said, “Yeah, I just blew the amount of money I earned tonight on the phone.” I said, “Well, Ahmad, doesn’t that indicate it might be time to go home to Chicago and do it in person instead of on the phone?”

3.    Tommy Flanagan, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from SEA CHANGES,  Evidence, 1997) (Flanagan, p; Peter Washington, b; Lewis Nash, d) (no rating)

May I have this dance?  The last time I asked somebody to dance was the opening night of Ornette at the Five Spot, playing opposite Benny Golson and Art Farmer.  They sounded really good, and they played the first set, and it’s a wonderful band and way out there.  And then Ornette went in and did his first New York set ever.  And I thought, “Wow, everybody’s completely blown away.”  But then Art Farmer and Benny Golson went back on the stage and did the second set, and I asked the bartender to dance. Today is the second time I’ve ever asked anyone to dance.  Ornette had turned Benny Golson into the orchestra at the roof of the Taft Hotel on 7th Avenue and 51st Street overnight.  A single set. [Unlike most of the people in the room, you knew what you were in for.]

4.    Keith Jarrett, “Prelude To A Kiss” (from WHISPER NOT, ECM, 2000) (Jarrett, p; Gary Peacock, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (5 stars)

What is the real meaning of the initials NEC?  I’ve had a lot of fun with that at the school. Oh, what’s the real meaning of ECM?  Do you know that?  Easily Castrated Musicians.  We can do this all day, Ted. [You're good at it.] Thank you. I collect them.  Poor Duke. [You're tough.  Unlike most musicians, you are not imprisoned by tact.] Poor Duke. [LAUGHS] [Do you play Ellington's tunes?] I know all of Ellington’s tunes.  I knew them all when I was in short pants.  But when a musician dies, it’s time to give other guys a chance. [But you still play older things from the songbook.] Oh, if you pay me, I will play… [So if I paid you whatever your fee was, you would do an Ellington...] Absolutely.  Of course.  We aim to please, as they say in the bathroom urinals.

The problem with the recording of bass  is it’s the least accessible instrument to listen to.  God forbid somebody in the audience coughs, or there goes the solo.  You ask yourself why is the bass so possible in that standard format, that trio format.  The trio format is flawed.  If you’re going to put three musicians, it should be because they’re three musicians, and the fact that one plays the trombone and the other plays whatever is not the point.  You’re hiring individuals.  Any format is already dead.  Big band, string quartet, piano trio.  The fact that it already preexists the occasion means that everything is uphill.  Because it’s not an original format.  So you talk about lack of originality. [Doesn't the logic of that lead that you eventually run out of formats, and nothing will be original?] There are no formats.  There’s only great players. [It's only the individual.] A collection of great players.  We’re in a new century now.  It’s time to give all the old ideas a rest.  They’re no longer valid just because the century changed.  Your time is up.  It’s expired.

You know, if a 7-year-old played only white notes, they could sound this good.  It’s called modal.  The Aeolian mode, in particular.  Ah, a modulation.  It’s very nice, and she will go to bed with you.  Whoever you’re listening to this with. [Is it recent?  Older?  Older musician?  Younger musician?] First of all, all eighth notes are not created equal.  It’s a little too simplistic rhythmically.  He’s doing a very good job.  He’s a very fine pianist, and it’s a very nice track and so forth. But it’s not worth discussing.  I’m looking to be offended. [It seems the things that offend you are things like this.] No-no, I mean offended in a good way. [LAUGHS] I think it was very well done.  I’d give it 5 stars.  For what was attempted, it was a big success. [No idea who it was?]  No. It could have been anybody working on 8th Street. [It was Keith Jarrett.] Oh.  Well, I’m sorry to hear that. [It's his post-illness record.] Well, he certainly has bounced back recently, kicking ass with the trio.  Boy!  He has my 1964 date, “Turning Point” on Improvising Artists, the one with Gary and Gilmore… He’s got that down pat with Gary!  He took over that.  That’s a big step for him.  He went out of standards all the way to 1964.  And who knows, we’re looking forward to 1974.

5.    Kenny Barron, “Beneath It All” (from SWAMP SALLY, Verve, 1995) (Barron, p., keyboards; Minu Cinelu, percussion) – (5 stars)

I love this recording.  This is the first new information you’ve brought me today.  The town crier in the old days used to stand in the town square, and say, “Hear ye!  Hear ye!  I’ve come to inform you.”  And if he had nothing to say or said something that the town already knew, they would get upset, because he summoned them into the town square and told them something they already knew.  It’s wonderful!  The piano player did not need the rest of the band.  But they were great, the way they went into what I call a second CD’s worth of music.  We’re really talking about two separate issues.  The piano player did not need help.  It engaged everybody in their curiosity minimally, and there was no way to predict where he was going to go.  And the fact that we happen to have this wonderful band hit and do great things was just a wonderful plus.  But I personally could have stood a lot… I could have heard a CD worth of the piano player, and I probably wouldn’t have interrupted it with this conversation.  I loved it, and I loved the second part.  It just goes to show that you’re going to have to go to a foreign country to get some fresh input in jazz.  You need foreigners.  You need people who speak a second language to be added to the stream of music.  It’s such a wonderful situation now, where the world has sent everybody… Airline tickets are so cheap, that you can hire a band where every player comes from a different continent, a different city, and they can play together at the drop of a hat — and they all live in Brooklyn Heights.  It’s just a wonderful situation!  When anyone talks about jazz not in a great period, it’s just that they’re not widely enough informed. [So you thought that the piano player was not American?] Well, certainly the band didn’t play this good off of being a bebop band.  So I assume that he comes from the same country as the rest of the players.  So I cannot guess who this is. [Well, it was only two musicians.] Ah.  [It was Kenny Barron and Mino Cinelu.] Wow! [And Kenny was playing piano and synth.] [LAUGHS] Wrong!  Wrong like a mother!  No wonder Kenny is as loved as he is.  A monster!  Kenny’s a monster!  Six stars. [LAUGHS] Fuck you, Kenny Barron! I hate him.  I’m going to tell him that next time I see him, too.

6.    Hampton Hawes, “Soul Sign Eight” (from HAMPTON HAWES AT THE PIANO, Contemporary, 1976) (Hawes, p; Ray Brown, b; Shelley Manne, d) (5 stars)

There’s no need to go any more.  It’s beautifully done, well-played, etcetera, etc., but it’s nothing that harmonically and rhythmically wasn’t done in the ’50s.  If you’re going to redo something, redo a style where your triads are quite simple, you’re staying within a key, you’re not adding anything to the literature of the music… I mean, the purpose of making a record is not to redo your own stuff or somebody else’s stuff.  The purpose of making a record is to add to the literature of the music, which means you’re bringing in some elements that are not widely available, and you’re indicating to other musicians that following along the suggestions that you’re making with this recording of yours might be of some interest and it might be of some utility to somebody who is playing.  If the record is already in existence… My rule is that if it’s already for sale at Tower Records, buy it.  Don’t make it up. [And you have no idea from the sound or the touch or the style who this might be.] First level players.  It could be one of a number of people.  And I was very happy for them.  It’s nicely recorded.  But, my first record on Wing Records in 1953, contained this information.  I outgrew it, and I hope this pianist does the same. [AFTER] [One reason I played this is because it was a person who developed his own sound and was doing it in the '50s, and so the sound, therefore, from my impression, would be unto him.] For Hampton Hawes, it’s a big accomplishment.  This is a big accomplishment.  It’s the best Hampton Hawes I’ve ever heard — by far.  Still containing no new information, but well-played.  5 stars.  It a big accomplishment.  I love Shelley Manne in rhythm sections.  The rhythm section was nice, man.  “Way Out West,” Shelley Manne?  Wow.  What an imaginative drummer.  I worked with him.  We played the Antibes Festival in France.  But I’d rather let that track rest.

7.    Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Oren” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2001) (Rubalcaba, piano, keyboards; Carlos Henriquez, b; Ignacio Berroa, d)

You know, it’s a similar situation here to when someone wants to tell you a joke.  You start before they start the joke with an open mind and a positive frame of mind, willing to accept the premise of the story and looking for the punchline at the end, and so forth.  But as the story keeps going on like the beginning, just continuously, time is the enemy of the joke.  Because you’re waiting for the punchline.  It’s called the suspension of disbelief.  I’m sure you know the term in poetry.  It was suspended.  I enjoyed the high production values.  The pianist had a very nice touch.  The fact that it had only one chord in it was a little abrasive, and that that method was going to run out of time even faster than it would normally.  Because one chord is one chord is one chord, etcetera.  As the country-western musician said, “Three chords and the truth is the definition of country music.”  I thought that was nicely coined.  But this one only had one chord!  And it wasn’t even Country-and-Western.  I prefer to wait for the movie. [Any guesses?] I’ll have to see the film and be reinterviewed.  It certainly wasn’t worth listening to without a film accompanying it.  Well played.  No disrespect to the musicians.  And a pretty melody, by the way. An original melody.  It’s like the organ trios.  The only question is why. [Pleasing the people.] [LAUGHS] Oh, by the way, pleasing the people is the exact wrong premise for young musicians… [I've heard you say this.] Thank you.  You know all my rants. [I think you have your contradictions.  Would you care to bestow stars?] Stars.  As I said, when I see the film and listen to this film score, I’ll be happy to rate it at that time.  [Well, I need to play it a little more, because I can't print anything you've said if you won't give it stars.] [LAUGHS] You may not have brought enough records.  If you had brought a real package of records, we could have done this and been out of here in 40 minutes.  I could have said, “Forget it, keep it…” [Can't you just please me and give some stars here?  You can even give it a pro forma five stars.] No-no, five I can’t give.  You need a star system that says “I have nothing to say.” [Then you can say "for the way it was played, such-and-such stars."] But how about unrated?  They do that in porn movies.  Unrated it. [This isn't a porn movie.] Well, it gives you a license to make an escape without… [Not according to my editor.] Oh, he wants stars, huh? [He wants stars.] Have we run out of alternatives.  Is that the problem?  It’s not possible for me to deal with this level of… I’m very loathe to give somebody a very low rating.  Which is why you need to be able to interviewee a pass.

8.    Vijay Iyer, “Atlantean Tropes” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, p; Stephan Crump, b; Derrek Phelps, d) – (5 stars)

I’ll give it 5 stars. The plusses far outweigh the minuses. The plusses are of no use to the musicians.  When somebody comes up to you at the end of the set and says, “That was great,” there’s no new information.  We know that was great.  That’s why we played it.  Let’s talk about the minuses.  I always prefer to couch profundity in humor.  Someone was interviewing Albert Einstein, and they were trying to impress Einstein with their insights.  Einstein, who was a violinist, turned and said, “that’s very profound, but not very funny.”  So you need to be more than profound.

Now, this is definitely one of the top things you played today, and there’s nothing I can say negative.  I just have a small facetious aside to make.  And I admonish musicians with these facetious asides.  This one is: If you use up all your eighth notes in your youth, you won’t have any left to play in your old age.  Doesn’t matter what the instrument.  I’m not supposed to know what you’re doing.  If I know what you do, I don’t like it.  So you’re constantly supposed to elude me.  It was incredibly well-composed, well-played, the horn player was great, there was unity through the whole track, exercise of the imagination, beautiful use of chords — the list goes on.  It’s almost a masterpiece.  I might say it was a masterpiece.  Today it was definitely a masterpiece, based on what else I’ve heard! [LAUGHS] But remember, we’re in the post-Albert Ayler-Paul Motian-Sunny Murray period.  You can’t get away with meter any more, certainly as an entry level artist and a new artist.  You can’t get away with meter.  I gave my metronome away when I was at Juilliard. I broke mine.  They need to be smashed.  Because breathing is not metronome.  Breathing is circular.  Up and down phrases, rushing through… [What about the heartbeat?] The heartbeat is also not metrical.  It’s PAH-BOOM, PAH-BOOM.  And you can’t measure it exactly right.  If you’re walking around the room, it’s definitely not metrical.  And remember, you’re in a new century.  It’s such an exciting time.  This is the perfect time to wipe the blackboard clean and start with a fresh page.

9.    Brad Mehldau, “Quit” (from TRIO PROGRESSION, Warner Brothers, 2001) (Mehldau, p; Larry Grenadier, b; Jorge Rossy, d) – (5 stars)

Are you going to continue to play Keith Jarrett for me all day today?  It’s no small accomplishment to play Keith Jarrett.  The problem is, he was there first.  It’s who you avoid that’s more important than who you support.  It’s not hard to draw up a roadmap of who to avoid.  Just check the “Downbeat” Readers’ Poll.  If it’s already been recorded, it’s not a good idea to try to improve on it. It’s a magical track, by the way.  These players are all great players, and a masterful track, and very worthwhile doing it — and if I owned the label, I would support the production.  But I fear for the pianist. [Why do you fear for the pianist?] Because when you are born into a world of giants, you have to be an iconoclast.  There’s no way to treat them on their own terms, because you lean to their sensibility.  You’re at risk.  So you can’t work through them.  You have to destroy the icon. [So you're postulating the Oedipal theory of music history.] Well, I don’t know if I’d put it exactly in that slant.  But what I’m saying is that it’s who you hate that’s more important than who you love.  And if you hate somebody, then I won’t recognize who you hate. But if you love somebody, it’s going to defeat the whole purpose, see, because you always get hurt by the one you love.  That’s a nice turn of phrase. [I've heard it.] Thank you.  Unfortunately I’ve heard it before! [Was that an older or younger player?] It was a masterful player, whatever age.  Way on top of it.  Certainly I much prefer somebody who is that developed than somebody who had less to offer.  There was certainly a lot to listen to.

You know, the trouble with being a bass player is that if the piano player can play faster than you, you should go home. Why would you want to play with somebody who can’t move through the music, move notes at least as fast as a pianist, which would be the reason to not ever play with a pianist.  See, if I play with you, without any other value judgments, we want to be equals.  We want to play equally. So the way the trio in this case solves that problem is either the other players play down, play less than they can, to be polite and accommodate the less facile musician.  Just as at a dinner conversation, if you’re the young person at the table who can’t keep up with the conversation, it’s the responsibility of the other people to speak slower and leave a lot of silences, and invite the other person to air their side of the conversation.  Playing in a trio, for the piano player to be running at the mouth and… If you have Gary Peacock on the bandstand, that’s not a problem.  But if you’re going to play with a player who is really a time player, you have to really… The whole date would be about making this person equal to the other players.  That’s the whole premise of the date.  You can’t go past somebody.  You have to take them with.  The audience judges the band by its weakest player. Not by the accomplishment of the best player, but by the difficulties. [AFTER] It’s too late for him.  If there was no Keith Jarrett, there would be room for a Brad Mehldau.

10.    Sonny Clark, “Tadd’s Delight” (from SONNY CLARK TRIO, Blue Note, 1957/2001) (Clark, p; Paul Chambers, b; Philly Joe Jones. d) – (5 stars)

Hey, Tadd Dameron!  Beautiful.  A very nice sentimental tune, very well played, very enjoyable, well written.  I did know the composer, I think — Tadd Dameron.  It was perfect of its generation.  It was beautifully played.  The piano player sounded good.  Somebody like Hank Jones would be perfect playing this material. I was amazed how good he sounded, Hank Jones, and this pianist equally well.  So who is it? [Do you think it was of the time?] Oh, very much so.  The way the recording sounded, too. Six stars. [AFTER] I don’t know his work.  I know of him, of course.  I was in California for two-plus years, and worked every night for two-plus years.  We had one night off.  So Sonny must have come by the Hillcrest Club and maybe said hello or something. But I was too busy to socialize.

11.    Wayne Shorter, “Atlantis” (from FOOTPRINTS LIVE, Verve, 2002) (Shorter, ts; Danilo Perez, p; John Patitucci, b; Brian Blade, d) – (5 stars)

I love it.  It’s really beautiful.  But please, don’t bring a concert audience into my bedroom.  The fact that the concert audience liked it was reason enough to discourage me.  It’s not a commercial.  So don’t tell me somebody else liked it.  I’m the person who’s supposed to like it.  By the same token, don’t grunt and groan on the bandstand.  Let the audience do it.  In a live performance they’re supposed to do the grunting and groaning as a result of your playing, and enjoying themselves.  The problem is that when you write a tune, you’ve pretty much told the players that you’re going to be at this place on the map at this hour, playing this hour, playing this harmony, and then when the bars continue at this place in time you’re going to be at this place harmonically, and that’s called ornamentation.  Ornamentation is not improvising.  Ornamentation is a pre-set set of changes in which you play those changes as prescribed.  Now, to try and create melodies with all this information that’s fixed and given is almost impossible.

So they did a beautiful job.  But once again, I mention it’s 2002 now.  It’s too late to tell the players what notes come where.  It has some beautiful augmented harmonies in it.  The joke about augmented is that the player had an diminished sensibility and an augmented ego.  That’s the joke.  You’re not supposed to tell me that it’s all augmented chords.  I’m not supposed to guess that.  You’re supposed to keep it from me.  The same with electronic jazz.  If I can tell what the setting is on a synth player, then I don’t like it.  The idea is to design something that tricks me and fools me, and I have to go find the guy and say, “What was it?  It’s wonderful!”

So it was very well played, and beautifully done, and for what it was, it was a great accomplishment.  Now, once again, you may have brought the Latin world into it; it’s 5/4 and all that. I think there’s a Spanish name here with the piano player.  I could say…not Rubalcaba… There’s two guys; they both work for my agent. It wasn’t the one who played simplistic track… Danilo Perez.  Danilo is a good friend. [I know that a lot of the Spanish players have listened to you a lot.] Which is strange, because the album that I really wanted to make, the Spanish album that I wanted to make, having spent some time in Florida with some of my best friends in that part of the world, I have really only been able to suggest in my earlier playing the possibilities of what that leads to. [Any idea who the tenor player was?] No.  But very nice use of space.  Great use of space.  Very sensitive.  I’m impressed with your tracks.  It’s been illuminating, the things you’ve played for me today.  As a matter of fact, when you come up to me on a tour and you show me a really good photograph you’ve taken of the band, I take the photograph! I say, “You make yourself another copy.  I’m taking this!”  There’s definitely three keepers so far.  You’re going to have a lot of trouble leaving the room with it under your arm. [AFTER] Wow. Amazingly sparse playing for Wayne.  Wow. Wonderful.  Very good.  It really turned me on.  Five stars.

12.    Cecil Taylor, “Looking, Second Part” (from LOOKING (Berlin Version), THE FEEL TRIO, FMP, 1990) (Taylor, p.; William Parker, b; Tony Oxley, d) – (5 stars)

I can’t listen to any more of this, because it’s too influenced by Cecil. [But it is Cecil.] Of course.  If you play trumpet and sound exactly like Louis Armstrong, you’d better be Louis Armstrong.  But what more is there to say?  It’s Louis Armstrong.  Cecil is to be avoided like the plague if you’re a pianist.  If you’re a drummer, it’s not a problem. [Why do you have to avoid him if you're a pianist?] Because he did it before you were out of knickers. [But not before you were out of knickers.]  I’m very fond of Cecil, which is why I’m trying to protect him from his imitators.  At one point, we thought that we’d do… We’ve played on the same bill, at the same festivals and all that, and at one point I thought that he would do the ballads and I would do the fast, frantic stuff.  But then, brilliant as he is, he went on and did the ballads himself!  Cecil is wonderful.  He’s one of these wonderful, wonderful musicians who are much more than just musicians or instrumentalists.  Their personalities color life itself.  It’s been a blessing to be in his presence.  End of story.

I remember in the ’50s he played with Steve Lacy.  He was a wonderful combination with Steve, like hot knives with butter.  A perfect antidote.  That was one of the great combinations, like Roswell Rudd with John Tchicai.  The Jazz Composers Guild had these wonderful ensembles that were perfectly framed, and Cecil, of course, belonged to that period.  Whenever you’re in the presence of giants, be very… If you’re a professional musician who is responsible for the life of that instrument that you play, when you’re in the presence of giants… You would think that would be a good thing, like you paid a lot of money, great expectations — most probably you’re going to be even more than satisfied.  So everything seems positive.  But if you are a good musician, you have a lot of problems, unless it happens to be the Count Basie Orchestra with Joe Williams or something and it’s not about anything except having a good time… If you like it too much, you’re at risk.

It’s not a recent recording.  It doesn’t sound like it was done in the last year or the year before.  1990?  That’s old Cecil.  Six stars.

13.    Matthew Shipp, “Paradox X” (from NEW ORBIT, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Shipp, prepared piano; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (5 stars)

With your permission, I’d just like to make a one-line joke.  I wasn’t prepared to hear this.  That’s the funniest thing I can come up with.  5 stars. I loved it.  It’s very nice.  It was a drummer’s tune.  It was set up for the mallet player, who did a beautiful job.  It’s amazing how it engaged you.  I liked it.  But I prefer my joke. [AFTER] I’ve met Matthew in airports.

14.    Art Tatum, “Cherokee” (from THE COMPLETE ART TATUM SOLO MASTERPIECES, Pablo, 1954/1991) (Tatum, piano) – (5 stars)

Saved the best for last! [LAUGHS] Well, I think the interview is over.  The art of playing piano.  Wonderful!  I’ve been having a problem with the tunes that are very popular — looping them.  The very fact that the tunes are 32 bars, repeated over and over and over again, somehow that lingers beyond the performance, and I might be playing “Cherokee” for three days and nights.  That’s a serious problem with looping. Because if you do anything twice, you may have set me in motion to an infinite repeat. [Are you saying that hearing something like that might trigger something in you...] No, it’s not a need.  It might actually loop… The 32 bars may continue repeating even after the gig is over or the CD is off.  The tune may go on ad infinitem for hours or even days.  So I prefer to only listen to unfamiliar things that I can’t identify, which is good.  It’s not possible to loop.  I call it looping.

When Tatum died, the rest of the world said “thank goodness he’s gone!” You couldn’t be a pianist and be on the same planet with Tatum.  And it’s amazing, because the content was almost nil.  I mean, it’s how he played it.  It’s the fact that he could play everything so well that was great.  It wasn’t what he played.  I mean, there are guitar players, like Tiny Bradshaw, who played an equivalent intellectually.  But this is a perfect case of ornamentation to the Nth degree.  Which means you can do a bad thing great… A bad thing done in a great way is better than a great thing done in a bad way!  You can play with that sentence and look for meaning.  But all the rules can be broken by somebody like Art Tatum.  Because if you’re looking for linear creativity in terms of improvisation in this period, that’s a minor accomplishment compared to the fact that he can make that instrument sound like no one has ever played it before.  When this guy was on the planet, he threatened every living pianist, Classical or Jazz.  When you’ve got a giant roaming the planet, you know, with the trees rumbling and the dinosaurs hiding in the bushes and so forth, well, that’s a very bad time for an aspiring musician.  You have to wait until this guy passes before there’s even room to THINK about what you want to do.  Jazz history is full of giants on particular instruments that have… I mean, if you were an aspiring tenor saxophone player that didn’t wear a hat, Lester Young defeated your purpose.  Each instrument has its nemesis.  That’s the word I’m looking for, is “nemesis.”  You’re supposed to be the first one to recognize that there is a nemesis, and it can affect you greatly and threaten your existence if not your livelihood.  So it’s serious business, attempting to be the 11th person to play this instrument or the fortieth person to play this genre or the hundredth person, and so forth… A serious business.  You can’t go in there without a thought in your head, looking for an “inspiration.”  It’s not going to happen.  Six stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Paul Bley, Piano, Uncategorized

On Martial Solal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature and Public Blindfold Test at Orvieto in 2009

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a public Downbeat Blindfold Test with Martial Solal at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Orvieto, and to write a feature piece framed around the experience. On the occasion of Solal’s 85th birthday, I’m posting the article, and the raw transcripts of both the Blindfold Test and our subsequent conversation.

* * *

Martial Solal (Jason Edit):

On New Year’s Eve in Orvieto, Italy, Martial Solal, having just arrived in town, sat with his wife at a center table in the second-floor banquet room of Ristorante San Francisco, where a raucous cohort of musicians, personnel and guests of the Umbria Jazz Winter festival were eating, drinking and making merry. Solal quietly sipped mineral water and nibbled on his food. “It is difficult to dine here,” Solal said with a shrug, before departing to get his rest.

It seemed that the 81-year-old pianist would need it: His itinerary called for concerts on each of the first three days of 2009: a duo with Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, a solo recital and a duo with vibraphonist Joe Locke. On the duo encounters, Solal opted for dialogue, accommodating the personalities of the younger musicians. With Locke, who played torrents of notes, he comped and soloed sparingly but tellingly, switching at one point from a rubato meditation into Harlem stride, before a transition to another rhythmic figure. It was his fifth encounter with Bollani, who is apt to launch a musical joke at any moment, and Solal played along, indulging the younger artist in a round of “musical piano benches,” riposting with mischievous jokes of his own.

“Martial is humane,” Bollani said a few days later. “He could be my grandfather, but one good thing about jazz is that you do not feel the age difference. His humor is more snobbish, serious, French—or British. I always thought of him as a sort of Buster Keaton. His face tells you nothing, but the hands are doing something funny.

“We decided to improvise freely,” Bollani continued. “He always does something you don’t expect. But it’s easy for me to follow immediately an idea that he starts, not only because he’s a master, but I love the way he plays. He is the only piano player in the world who has no Bill Evans influence, and he has a huge knowledge of all the stride piano players—Art Tatum first of all, but also Teddy Wilson or Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith. But he doesn’t play them as a quotation. He plays thinking as Art Tatum was thinking, but in a modern way.”

In Orvieto, Solal clarified that he continues to acknowledge no technical limits in navigating the piano, playing with undiminished authority on the solo concert, as he does on the new Live At The Village Vanguard (Cam Jazz), recorded during an October 2007 engagement. He does not rely on patterns, but uses tabula rasa improvisation as a first principle, elaborating on the vocabulary of his predecessors—in addition to Tatum and Wilson, they include Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, not to mention Ravel and Debussy. He addresses forms as a soliloquizing philosopher plays with ideas; within the flow, you can hear him contemplate the possibilities of a single note, what happens when he transposes a line into a different octave, the relationship of an interval to a rhythmic structure. He deploys the songs played by his American antecedents as the raw materials to tell his stories, their content burnished by encyclopedic harmonic erudition, a lexicon of extended techniques and a multi-perspective sensibility not unlike that of a Cubist painter.

“It was incredible,” said pianist Helio Alves, in Orvieto for the week with Duduka Da Fonseca’s Samba Jazz Sextet. “He sat and played, as though he didn’t think about anything, but it was as though he’d written out everything in his head, so well-put-together and arranged, so much information. [His technique is incredible.] He’s an advanced classical player; he sounded like all the jazz players plus all the 20th-century composers. You could hear Bartók, Debussy—everything.”

Solal had expressed mild concern about how he would fare in fulfilling his other Orvieto obligation, a public “Blindfold Test” prior to the solo concert. “I will recognize nothing,” he said, adding that it might be difficult for him to state his opinions in English to an Italian audience. I assured him that a translator would be present, and that the point of the exercise was less correct identification of the musicians than responses that elaborated his esthetic. “I will come up with something,” he said.

As the event transpired at a time when no other concerts conflicted, many of the musicians performing at the festival were among the full house at Sala dei Quattrocento, an upstairs performance space in Palazzo del Popolo, a 13th century structure that served eight centuries ago as Orvieto’s meeting hall.

The leadoff track was “Where Are You,” a standard that Solal has recorded, performed by Ahmad Jamal (In Search Of, Dreyfus, 2002), who, like Solal, conceptualizes the piano as a virtual orchestra. Within two minutes, Solal made a dismissive “turn it off” gesture.

“I don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important,” he said. “I had the feeling it is someone who played the piano well in the past, 20 years ago maybe, and stopped practicing since. He is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before.”

Told it was Jamal, he elaborated. “He played beautifully 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianists who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me. For instance, maybe 40 years ago, I heard Earl Hines, who was a great pianist, and he couldn’t play any more. I was crying. They should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.”

Solal likes to play both Duke Ellington’s songs and “Body And Soul,” so it seemed a good idea to offer Ellington’s trio meditation on the Johnny Green classic (Piano In The Foreground, Columbia, 1961).

“There is a TV channel called Euro News, and they have a wordless sequence called ‘No Comment,’” Solal stated after 90 seconds. “That’s what I would say about this record. It can be about 1,245 different pianists, but none I can name. I’m afraid now.”

Told it was Ellington, he said, “I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, but not this. This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I never heard Ellington like this, as a soloist. I’m surprised. I know that in America it’s normal to say, ‘This one is marvelous, that one is terrific’—everybody is beautiful. But in Europe we have the right to say, ‘I love Ellington, but this record is no good.’

Solal looked at me. “I think this gentleman hates me,” he said, “because he played for me two records by people I love, but not their better record.”

Since Solal continues to play duo with Lee Konitz, a partner in different contexts since they met in 1965, it seemed imperative to play him a collaboration of Konitz with Lennie Tristano—an energetic quintet version of Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee” from a televised date from the Half Note in 1964, with Warne Marsh sharing the front line (Continuity, Jazz Records, 1964). It was an ill-advised selection.

“The drummer plays a little loud,” Solal said. “Is that Lee Konitz? It’s probably an old record. He played excellently then, but today he plays better—differently. I don’t know who the piano player was. European, French, American, Italian…”

“Italian-American.”

“So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. Because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge the pianist. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out.”

Told it was Tristano, Solal was not pleased. “You chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I hope when you choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you chose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I’m no good!”

Next up was Hank Jones performing Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” (Bop Redux, Muse, 1978), another staple of Solal’s repertoire. “I know the melody—but I don’t know the words,” Solal joked. “When I first arrived in New York, they told me that in New York there were 8,000 piano players. This makes the exercise difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York.” He paused. “By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some non-American musicians, because they exist, too.”

The crowd applauded vigorously.

“No, I am not a political man,” Solal added. “But maybe this is one of them. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. There are so many excellent pianists in New York.”

It was time to showcase French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc romping through Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” in kaleidoscopic fashion (New Dreams, Dreyfus, 2006).

“I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name,” Solal said. “I like the energy—the sense of jazz and energy and good feeling.”

Afterward, he said, “I almost thought Jean-Michel. He is too good to be French. This is the best record I’ve heard yet. This pianist is crazy, and that’s what I like in music—but with a good sense of jazz and feeling. I am happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above.”

Solal has frequently played Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” so next up was McCoy Tyner’s solo version (Jazz Roots, Telarc, 2000). Solal could not identify him. “I was thinking of Michel Petrucciani, but I don’t know. There are some good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way he approaches the piano.”

After the track ended he said, “I like McCoy Tyner, too. But he is better with his trio than alone. Almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, and it’s a difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and sometimes it is fantastic when he is detaché, and sometimes he makes stupid … I mean, things not as good or interesting.”

Between 1957 and 1963, Solal, who held a long sinecure as house pianist at Club Saint-Germain in Paris, often played opposite Bud Powell. The next track was Powell’s third take of “Tea For Two” on a 1950 trio date with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich for Norman Granz. It is often regarded as Powell’s homage to Tatum, Solal’s other pianistic hero, who had recorded his own unparalleled inventions on the line a generation before.

“Is it Bud Powell?” he asked. “It is easy to recognize him, because he has almost one way to play. He was influenced by my favorite musician, Charlie Parker.”

Asked whether he came to know Powell well during their mutual proximity, Solal said, “Many nights he was asking me, ‘Bring me a beer, please.’ That’s about the conversation I had with him. When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris. He had a fantastic way to play chords, strongly and on the 10 fingers.”

Solal reached a crossroads in 1963, the last of his dozen years at Club Saint-Germain, which hired him one year after he moved from Algiers, Algeria, his hometown. He arrived at 22, a few months after Parker hit town for a jazz festival whose other participants included Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Sidney Bechet.

“Many people were playing like Bird then,” Solal recalled, referencing gigs with James Moody, who lived in Paris until 1953, and jam sessions with Gillespie. “Bebop is where it started with me and jazz. I listened deeply to Bud, but early I understood that to become unique, you can’t listen and copy. I had masters in my mind, but I wanted to know everyone and forget them, so I could turn my back and start to be myself.”

That Solal fully established his tonal personality during these years is evident on a pair of mid-’50s recordings for French Vogue—a crisp 1954 trio date with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Roy Haynes, and a 1956 solo recital on which he finds a way to synthesize the language of Tatum and Powell into his own argot. With his post-1957 rhythm section of drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot, he interacted with the likes of Konitz, Bechet, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson and, as Solal put it, “almost every musician, mostly American, coming on tour in Europe, who came to sit in with us.”
In this context, Solal found his identity outside of bebop, as “a child of middle jazz.” Ellington and Oscar Peterson heard him, and told Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein, who invited him to the 1963 edition. Solal crossed the Atlantic for the gig, then—booked by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager—settled into an extended gig at Manhattan’s Hickory House with bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian.

“Glaser wanted me to stay, and life became easy,” Solal said. “My first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, my union card. I had a personal problem, or I would have stayed. I would have become American. But I did the wrong thing. I left after four months. I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then London House in Chicago. But I never showed up. He was angry. It was a mistake. Next year he called me again to go to Monterey Jazz Festival, and then I came maybe 12 or 15 times, but over 40 years.”

Over the years, Solal had developed his skills as a composer, recording a number of projects for Vogue, and in 1959 he was asked to write the score for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle), a film that had as radical an impact on cinema as Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings of that same year had on jazz. Resigned to the fact that he would live in Europe, Solal continued scoring films until “the cinema didn’t call me any more. Jazz was finished. They were more interested in rock and songs and pop music.” Solal continued to gig as well, flirting with the freedom principle on a few occasions, but never moving too far away from his roots in “middle jazz.” Still, he remarked, “a child will grow disobedient.”

“From the beginning, jazz for me was American,” Solal maintained. “Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, this is not the point. I want to play jazz from the original, but with my conception; my ideas can be different, but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. I am interested in harmony above everything. Harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more.”

In cinema, Godard loved to make use of the jump-cut, a visual analogy to Solal’s penchant for making instant transitions in a piece. Or the notion of montage might apply to the way Solal, in an improvisation, references and plays with five or six different themes. But Solal did not incorporate cinema or other media into his musical aesthetic.

“Nothing could influence me,” Solal responded. “I was 32 when I did Bout De Souffle. It was a little late to have a new mind. We are influenced by everything around us. I get everything in my mind, and often I don’t know how I translate it.

“My wife is a painter, and I am interested in painting,” he continued. “But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. I like some painters of this period, but I don’t like painting that’s very abstract. Like in my music, I like a mixture of modern and traditional. I don’t like art that forgets everything that happened before. When free-jazz came, I was not against free-jazz. I understood that the movement was necessary. But the best way is to use everything that exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years, and I’ve played with different contemporary composers. But the past is necessary for the future.

The record by Bud Powell you played yesterday, when was it made?” Solal asked. “I have a record where he plays much stronger than that. I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best.”

Solal still works hard to meet that standard. “As a pianist he has no limits,” said Dado Moroni, the Italian pianist who played in Orvieto with Locke’s quartet. “He treats it like an athlete in training—to be in shape, you have to practice. That’s what he does. You can hear it in his touch, the clarity with which he executes his ideas.”

“Like every honest pianist,” Solal responded to Moroni’s observation, “not more. But if you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition.”

In describing the particulars of his regimen, Solal illuminated the world view that differentiates his tonal personality from such antecedents as Monk and Powell, who, according to testimony from Barry Harris and Walter Davis, Jr., practiced by immersing themselves in one song exhaustively over a six-to-eight-hour span.

“I never play a tune at home,” Solal said. “I should have done it maybe. If I play five choruses on ‘Stella By Starlight,’ I have enough for the day. I want to keep fresh for a concert. Everything has to be spontaneous.

“I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes, or I can’t play right,” he continued. “I practiced four or five hours a day when it was time to do it, between my 50s and 70. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. I play an exercise with the left hand and I improvise in the right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing the exercise, half of me is playing anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.”

Solal pointed to his temple. “But the music is here,” he said. “I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.”

The mention of Monk led to a discussion on technique. “Monk never lost technique,” Solal said. “He never had technique. If Monk one Monday morning woke up, went to the piano and played like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He had his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose technique, you still play what you have in your mind. You will play the same thing, but you miss two notes of every three.

“But I have been influenced by Monk. The way he thinks about the music, not note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music interested me a lot. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.”

It’s complex to operate by “pure art” imperatives, as Solal does, and also sustain a career. He gives the audience familiar songs. “There is maybe too much information in my music for the audience,” Solal said. “If you want to love it, you should listen to one or two tunes at one time, then two tunes the day after. Some years ago, I was playing freely, no standards, and the public was not with me. I love standards, and also I want to prove that if you have enough imagination, you can make them new every day. I’m never tired of ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘Round Midnight,’ because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.

“That’s how it is in my trio,” he continued, referring to his unit with the Parisian twins Francois and Louis Moutin on bass and drums, respectively. “I can go anywhere, and I know that they will try to go in the same direction. Nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything can happen with them.”

When Solal said “everything,” he meant it. “Including contemporary ideas, or conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartók, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz,” he said. “Jazz should include everything. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a way to express the note, a conception of rhythm.

“I don’t wish for anything anymore—just to continue as long as possible. When I can’t move my fingers normally, I will stop. I would be too unhappy.”

* * *

Ahmad Jamal, “Where Are You” (from IN SEARCH OF, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums

first of all, I must say that my French is excellent, my English is poor, and my Italian is awful, so I will try a little English—maybe you will understand it better. I hope so. In any case this gentleman in the red shirt will. As for this record, I really don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important. What I can say, I had the feeling it is someone who had played well the piano in the past years, twenty years ago maybe, and he stopped practicing since. I mean, he is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before. I don’t know. That’s my first answer. Now, to give a name to this, I can’t. But maybe this gentleman will help me.  I was going to tell it [Ahmad Jamal], but it’s exactly what I think. He played beautifully from 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I guess he’s getting old. But I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianist who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me, I mean. For instance, some maybe forty years ago or fifty years ago, I don’t know, when I was little like this, I heard Earl Hines. Earl Hines was a great pianist, and he was playing in Antibes Joan Les Pins, and I couldn’t believe it was… He couldn’t play any more. I was crying. So they should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.

Duke Ellington, “Body and Soul” (from PIANO IN THE FOREGROUND, Columbia, 1961/2004) (Ellington, piano; Aaron Bell, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums)

[AFTER 1½ MINUTES] All right. There is a TV channel (I don’t know if you can catch it in Italy) which is called Euro News, and they have sequences with no words—they call it “No Comment.” That’s exactly what I would say about this record. I have nothing to say. No comment.  I really don’t know who it can be. It can be about twelve hundred and forty-five different pianists, but no one which I have a name. Who was it? I’m afraid now. [It was Duke Ellington. An album called Piano in the Foreground, and he played many standards on it.] I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, as everyone here I guess, but not this… This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I don’t know. [But you know, you can love someone and don’t like him one day or one minute. On this record, I don’t recognize him.  [TP: May I ask you when you first listened to Duke Ellington?] Well, I don’t know. Probably 29th of August, 1940, at 12. No, to be honest, I discovered Duke Ellington late in my life, probably when I was already 25 or more. But I never heard him like this, as a soloist. Honestly, I’m very surprised at what I heard. I know that in America it’s normal to say, “Oh, this one is marvelous, this one is excellent, that one is terrific”—everybody is beautiful. But I think in Europe we have the right to say, “I love Ellington, but this record is no good.” [SOAVE] I have another story about Duke Ellington. When I first met him in person, it was in New York in 1963. He came to the club in which I was playing, and after the set he comes to me and says, “Man, you are awful.” [owful] So I didn’t know exactly the sense of “awful” because in English you can say “awful”-good or “awful”-bad. So for one or two minutes, I was like this. So a friend of mine said “awful” meant “good.” I think this gentleman hates me, because he played for me already two records by people I love, but not their better record.

Chick Corea, “It Could Happen To You” (#8) (from SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS Stretch, 2000) (Corea, piano)

[AFTER 4 MINUTES] I am quite sure I am going to have zero again at this. For me, it could be a mixture of different people. I heard some Art Tatum things, I heard some Oscar Peterson, I heard a few bars of Bill Evans once in a while, but the ensemble I couldn’t be quite sure. I liked the performance. When it immediately started, I thought this is a good pianist. But I don’t know who it is. [[TP: It was Chick Corea.] If you don’t know the record you can’t find it. Because we can hear different influences—the ones I mentioned for sure. I have one record of him, only one, and not that one, so I couldn’t tell. I must say also that I am not listening to many records. I have at home hundreds of records, not yet opened. [Chick Corea, as Ahmad Jamal and Duke, is a wonderful musician. How can you say anything about them? But I have some feelings that I am here to express. [Also, Chick Corea can be quite himself. But in this record, I felt many influences.

Lennie Tristano, “Sub-Consciouslee” (from CONTINUITY, Jazz Records , 1964) (Tristano, piano, composer)

I don’t know the name of the drummer, but he plays a little loud for me. I’m not sure about Lee Konitz. Is that him? But it’s probably an old record. [TP: It’s an location recording, in a club.] From when? [1964] That’s what I said, “old.” He plays better today, differently. He played excellent already, of course, but now he’s become better. The sound is… Anyway, I don’t know who he was playing with, the piano player—I can’t give a name. A European, French, American, Italian… [Italian-American] Well, I have nothing against Italians. No, to the contrary, there are a lot of beautiful musicians in this country. [No, he was American.] Italian-American. So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. [Did you like the pianist?] I’m not sure, really, because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out. [SOAVE] So? [Lennie Tristano] I think you chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I think. I hope when you will choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you choose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I tell you, I’m no good. [SOAVE] Who was the drummer, by the way? [Nick Stabulas] I don’t know him. [He played in the ‘50s with Phil Woods, with Konitz...] I think that probably was the time when drummers started to change the way they play. There was a time in the ‘60s when drums was not any more a rhythm section, but something more. On this record, they are something more. On this record, with this sound, I had the feeling that the drummer wanted to be more than a drummer, considering the time…the ‘60s. [SOAVE]

Hank Jones, “Round Midnight” (from BOP REDUX, Muse, 1978) (Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

[AFTER 3 MINUTES] I know the melody. But I don’t know the words. Once more… When I first went to New York, when I arrived there, they told me that in New York there was 8,000 piano players. [SOAVE] So this makes the exercise very difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York. By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some musicians non-American, because they exist, too. [SOAVE] [APPLAUSE] No, I am not a political man. But maybe this one is one of them. Really, I have no idea. He is good. Of course. I am not sure until what point he is good. “Good” means nothing. “Hello, how are you?” That means nothing. “Good” is nothing. Excellent, the best, awful good, awful bad… Nuance. So about this one, I don’t know. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. I don’t know. In New York, there are so many excellent pianists. In America. In Europe also, but more in the States. So it could be…I could make a list—Paul Bley or… I know it’s not Bill Evans, for instance. It’s not Teddy Wilson. It’s not me. [Hank Jones] Ah, Hank Jones. Yeah, why not? Don’t tell anyone, but I maybe play with him as a duet next summer. I will be the youngest of the two. Hank Jones is 90 years old today, and he is still fantastic.

Jean-Michel Pilc, “Straight, No Chaser” (from NEW DREAMS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)

I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name. Anyway, I like the energy, the mise en place. The sense of jazz and energy and good feeling. But I don’t know. I couldn’t give a name yet. I’ll give it to you in five minutes. [Jean-Michel Pilc] I almost thought Jean-Michel… He is too good to be French, in my opinion. To me, until now…this is the best record I heard until now. This pianist is quite crazy. That’s what I like in music—sort of crazy. But with a good sense of jazz and feeling… [SOAVE] In one minute I am going to telephone him.  I am very happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above. Has Jean Jean-Michel Pilc played in Orvieto yet? Then you should call him immediately. Do it now because he is not too expensive yet.

McCoy Tyner, “Night In Tunisia” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano; Dizzy Gillespie, composer)

I’m sorry I don’t know him. Once more. I had many names in my head, but to say one name is… I was thinking of Petrucciani for one minute. It’s not him. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Different names, but I’m sure it’s all wrong. [SOAVE] And the winner is? [TP: How did you like the performance?] well, there are some good sections and some mistakes in different sections. I mean, good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way they approach the piano. Sometimes he tried, sometimes too heavy… Well, it’s not excellent all the way along, but it’s good, of course. A good pianist. [McCoy Tyner] Well, I like McCoy Tyner, too. But I meant what I said. He is better with his trio than alone. Since a few years, almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, without the rhythm section, and it’s a very difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and so many of them on TV, and I feel sometimes it is fantastic when he is detacheé, and sometimes he makes stupid…I mean, things not as good or interesting. There are too many differences between the bad and the good. But he is still one of the stylists. And I repeat, I like only musicians who have a personal way.

Bud Powell, “Tea for Two (Take 3)” (from THE GENIUS OF BUD POWELL, Verve, 1950/1988) (Powell, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums)

Well, maybe I’ll have one point. Is it Bud Powell? Ah! Thank you. It is very easy to recognize him, because I would say he has almost one way to play. He always played his phrases the way he expressed… It’s very easy to find. It could be a compliment or the contrary, but in my mind, it’s really a compliment. He himself was very much influenced by my favorite musician, who was Charlie Parker. Bud Powell is excellente, of course. [SOAVE] [Bud Powell lived in Paris for many years. Did you get to know him?] Yes. Many nights he was asking me, “Bring me a beer, please.” That’s about the conversation I had with him. [SOAVE] When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape, and he was drinking too much, of course. He had his wife behind him, but he was drinking beer and beer and beer. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris, and the first record was fantastic. [Did you listen to these records when they came out?] I have one of this that’s an earlier record. He has a fantastic way to play chords, so strongly and on the ten fingers together.

Jacky Terrason, “Parisian Thoroughfare” (from SMILE, Blue Note, 2002) (Terrason, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Bud Powell, composer)

I would say Brad Mehldau. No? He has a lot of things in common with him. Who can play like that? I don’t know. He’s a young pianist, though. Immediately after the melody, he started with something very, very interesting for a few bars. [SOAVE] Rhythmically it’s very interesting. I don’t know. Do you know it? Ah, Jacky Terrason. Jacky can be very good, too. [TP: You asked for non-Americans.] I am happy for you. You know how to choose a pianist without considering their nationality. But I must say that, as well as Jacky Terrason, Jean-Michel Pilc…they live in America. I am very glad to hear Jacky playing that way. I like him much better with a trio than a solo. I told you before, the solo is very difficult. Except for a very few, I think something is missing in their left hand.

* * *

Martial Solal (Jan 3, 2009–Orvieto):

TP:   Can we speak about things you’re doing now, what your professional activity is like. Is it somewhat like this weekend? You come to places and do solos, duos? Are you working within all the different areas you’ve done over the years.

SOLAL:   Well, the answer is very simple. I did what I did for all my life, trying to play different organization of concerts. Most of my concerts in the last few years are alone—solo concerts. But I still love to play with somebody else, of course, and mostly with my trio, and sometimes with people like Joe today, or Lee Konitz, who I played with many times this last year. Once in a while I write music, as I always did. My next record will be in March with a guitar player, Bireli Lagrene. We’re going to make a duo record, followed by some concerts in the year. That’s about all.

TP:   Do you still do orchestral projects? Write music for ensembles?

SOLAL:   Oh, you mean large orchestra?

TP:   Large ensembles of whatever size.

SOLAL:   well, not at the moment. I have a lot of music written already, which I record or not. But there is no project. My dream would be to play very often with a very large orchestra. The biggest orchestra I had under my hand was the National Orchestra of Radio France, plus my big band, which was a real nice combination. But the bigger the band is, the more difficult it is to make the things together. When we have a trio already, it is difficult to make a rehearsal. Imagine for 120 musicians! So it’s not what I have in projects for the next month at least. But who knows? For my next project, this is duet, guitar and piano, which I have never done before.

TP:   On your duo with Toots Thielemans, did he play guitar or harmonica?

SOLAL:   True, and I did a guitar with guitar and piano a long time ago, with Jimmy Raney. It was a nice meeting in Paris when we did that. I don’t know. I did everything, so I don’t wish anything more. Just continue as long as possible.

TP:   So whatever comes along, you’re prepared for it and… When you’re playing solo piano… You spoke about wanting an orchestra. You have such an orchestral approach to the piano, as though the piano itself were an orchestra, and you’re extracting all the sounds and colors. Is your conception of solo piano an orchestral conception?

SOLAL:   Well, in a way, yes. I think if I never had written music for big band, I would play differently on the piano. When I play alone, I am like an orchestra. In some phrases, to my mind, are for trumpet. Some should be played by saxophones. I am thinking like this. But not in details, but the concept is this. Music should be including everything. I play like if I was writing.

TP:   Around what time of your life did you start writing projects for bands that were larger than combos? I know there are things from the mid ‘50s on Vogue records.

SOLAL:   Yeah. That’s about the beginning. Well, a little earlier, I was playing in a sort of varieties band. We played different kinds of music. And once in a while, the bandleader let me write a piece for the band, so I learned that way, by myself. I never had a teacher to write music. So I lose some years just by trying and trying, and the first Vogue record, at that time I was ready to write. But before this, I tried and tried and tried.

TP:   Did you start writing before you moved to Paris, or were you still in Algiers?

SOLAL:   No-no, in Paris. In Algiers I didn’t do anything but play piano.

TP:   May I take you back a bit and ask you about your early years.

SOLAL:   Yes. But you know, I just wrote a book in which the whole beginning of my life is… Maybe I could send it to you. It’s in French, but maybe you can find somebody to…

TP:   I just have a few questions, and of course I can mention the book.

SOLAL:   Let me have your address, so I’ll mail you the book. The first part is my enfance…

TP:   Youth or adolescence… Let me see if I’m right in what I know about your background. Your parents were French, both of them…

SOLAL:   Yes.

TP:   …who lived in Algiers. Your mother sang opera?

SOLAL:   Singer. Yes.

TP:   What did your father do?

SOLAL:   Accountant.

TP:   And you’re half-Jewish?

SOLAL:   Whole.

TP: Both parents are Jewish.

SOLAL:   Sure.

TP:   And your mother taught you to play piano?

SOLAL:   Well, I think I decided myself. We had a piano at home… This is in the book. You will see it, too. But as soon as I could reach the keyboard, I was trying like this, repeating the music I was hearing, the melodies and things. Then I said, “I should have a teacher,” so they gave me a teacher.

TP:   You were studying classical music, and then you heard jazz. You were hearing Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller…

SOLAL:   Yeah, that’s much later. For ten years, I was just playing like a child, learning piano. Then I discover music… It will be easier if I send you the book. Everything will be detailed.

TP:   I understand. My question is how you found jazz. Who was playing you those records?

SOLAL:   That’s simple. With my parents, every Sunday we were going to a brasserie, a sort of café with music, with a band, and in this place was the only good musician in the city. He gave himself an American name, by the way. He called himself Lucky Starwea(?). When I heard him playing not jazz, but songs which everybody knew, with different notes…a little different, which to me gave the sense of freedom, a new possibility to change some notes of the famous melodies. So for me, it was something and I was very interested. I went to him, and said, “What are you doing? I would like to learn with you.” So he became my teacher, and maybe two years after I became his pianist, the piano player in his band. So he teach me what he could teach. What he had in his mind was records of… He was a saxophone player, first of all. Was Ben Webster, mostly Coleman Hawkins, and some records of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and so-and-so. So with this side, I started to be interested in jazz.

TP:   Did people like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter ever make it to Algiers when they lived in Europe in the ‘30s?

SOLAL:   No. Only one came while I was still there—Don Byas.

TP:   That was after the war.

SOLAL:   No, I don’t think so…

TP:   He came with the Don Redman Band after the war, in ‘46…

SOLAL:   Maybe right after the war. Or, in Algiers, the war for us was finished in ‘42, when the Americans and English landed there. So for us, it was something like the end of the war. So I don’t know when Don Byas, in ‘42 or ‘45. But around then.

TP:   But then you played with Don Byas… Oh, it was later.

SOLAL:   In Paris.

TP:   One other question about Algiers. Were you at all in touch with the Arab population, with the African aspect of culture in Algiers, or were you separated from it?

SOLAL:   Not much. Well, everybody was more friendly. There was no animosité…

BARBARA:   No antagonism.

SOLAL:   No antagonism.

BARBARA: Living separate.

SOLAL:   Each stayed in his corner, you see.

TP:   But I’m wondering if you were exposed at all to the culture? It was a colonial setting, which sometimes could be more like the homeland than the homeland, and sometimes people who grow up in those environments assimilate the native culture. I’m wondering if that happened to you as a young person in Algeria.

SOLAL:   I can’t say that. Because we have only one radio station. On this radio station was playing only songs, and once in a while a classical concert. Of course, I could hear some local music also, but it didn’t go in my mind, because I was not interested. From the beginning, I always liked classical music and jazz, and I am very sectaire…

BARBARA:   Strict.

SOLAL:   I won’t say, like, every music is good, every music is nice. No, to me, only two musics are interesting—classical and jazz. The rest goes here, it comes out here.

TP:   Who were the first classical composers that you played?

SOLAL:   Well, the one my teachers learned to me, the very first…maybe Bach or Chopin. But the moderne…my teacher didn’t know it, like Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky. This I learned by myself after. But from my teacher I just learned general music, mostly by Chopin, Bach, Mozart of course.

TP:   were you also interested in twelve-tone, Schoenberg…

SOLAL:   I was interested in this, but much later. At this time, nobody knew what it was. There, I mean. Oh my English is… Yesterday, I was much better than today, I guess.

TP:   Did you have piano heroes? When you were learning jazz, did you assimilate styles? I know you listened to Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson. Did you try to play like them, or was it a different process?

SOLAL:   I don’t know exactly how I get to a certain personal way. But I had many influences when I was very young. The main influence was first Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. Much later, I discovered Art Tatum, and I didn’t know Bud Powell at all—I discovered him when I was in Paris. The big discovery for me was the music of Charlie Parker, which I understood was a complete change in the atmosphere of jazz music. I am sure this is really a turn in my…

BARBARA:   A big turn, a big change.

SOLAL:   Of course, I started to like and be influenced by him, Bud Powell, and some others. But this was in the early ‘50s. I couldn’t spend my life by playing like these people. I was not the one who listened, who liked to listen and copy, listen and copy. I just wanted to know everyone and forget them, the most I could. So little by little, I started to be different, and different experiences with a lot of people…

TP:   I guess Charlie Parker got to Paris the year before you got there…

SOLAL:   Yes.

TP:   He got there in ‘49.

SOLAL:   Yes. I was not there yet.

TP:   But he made an impact. When you got there, I guess many people were talking about him.

SOLAL:   We had records. And many people were playing like him. For instance, I played sometimes with James Moody in the early ‘50s, who was more or less influenced by Parker. And I had the opportunity to play jam sessions with a lot of musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie, whom I played some concerts with, and other people coming from the new bebop way. That’s where it really started with me and jazz.

TP:   So you developed your vocabulary more through playing it than through listening to Bud Powell’s records and hearing…

SOLAL:   Well, for six months I had been trying to listen to Bud! But very early I understood that to become unique, you can’t copy too many people. You must have masters. I had masters in my mind. But I did what I could do to turn my back on them and start to be myself.

TP:   I just listened before coming over to two records you did in the ‘50s. One was the four trio sides with Joe Benjamin and Roy Haynes, which I guess Sarah Vaughan must have been in town, and they… [HE NODS], The second was your great solo record in ‘56, which, if you’ll allow me to compliment you, is amazing. You sound like no one else.

SOLAL: Yes. But to be honest, I think I was not ready to make a solo record in ‘56, but I did it because there was a lot of courager… At that time, in 1956, nobody was playing a lot in solo.

TP:   That year, Hank Jones did a solo record and George Shearing did one, and I prefer yours, because you take the language of Tatum and Bud Powell on its own terms and then do something with it. You really rise to the challenge. I’m glad I didn’t give it to you on the Blindfold Test, because you probably would have criticized it.

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] [LAUGHS] I don’t know. I think I could recognize me. Even if I don’t listen to my records.

TP:   But does the way you play on those accurately reflect the way you were playing during the ‘50s?

SOLAL:   It was the beginning of something, yes. Well, from the beginning, I never wanted to be away from American jazz. For me, jazz was American jazz. Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, to me this is not the point. I want to play the jazz from the original, but with my conception, with my ideas which can be different—but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. For me, jazz is important. The time is important. To play on the chords is important, because I am interested in harmony maybe more than… Above everything, harmony to me is important. I know some excellent musicians who play beautiful lines, but for them the harmony is not so important. For me it’s before everything, harmony. Why? Because harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more. That’s very important.

TP:   At what point did you stop assimilating influences?  In other words, in the latter ‘50s were you listening to Bill Evans or to Ahmad Jamal, or to McCoy Tyner in the ‘60s, or people like this? Or were you on your way to creating your own path and not absorbing them into your style?

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] I think I stopped the influences very early, from the early ‘50s. But who knows who influenced who? I can influence someone who don’t know me. For instance, someone who listened to me will give him something. But the main influence for me, as you will read in the book, is… [HESITATES, THEN BARBARA SAYS “Teddy Wilson.”] Teddy Wilson. Sorry, Teddy Wilson. But you know what? When I first played in New York, in the Hickory House, which was a bar, in front of me was Teddy Wilson. So we became sort of friends for a while.

TP:   I’m going to go there in a minute, because it seems that 1963 and 1964 were very important years for you. Before that, though, I’d like to ask about some of the people you played with in Paris and some of the recordings you did. First Kenny Clarke. You played a lot with him.

SOLAL:   I played years with him. Every night.

TP:   That must have done wonders for your rhythmic feeling.

SOLAL:   Yeah. Kenny helped me a lot with his very strict timing. That was important at that time. From the ‘50s, through ‘63, I played twelve years in a club, every night. Can you imagine? Almost every night. So I was playing with every musician (most of them were American, of course) coming on tour in Europe, and all of them were coming to sit in with us.

TP:   Was it always Club St. Germain?

SOLAL:   Club St. Germain, yes.

TP:   What was it like there? Was the piano any good?

SOLAL:   Yes, there was a long piano. It was very rare in a club to have a good piano. We had a Steinway, I think. A good piano. I can’t tell you how many people I played with, just from meeting… My first meeting with Lee Konitz was there. Because Lee was playing on the Stan Kenton band, and he came and sat in once, and we met for the first time there.

TP:   That had to be around 1953 or 1954, when he went out with Kenton.

SOLAL:   Yeah, I guess. Then we didn’t see each other for ten years, and when we meet for the second time, we decided to do something together, and we played hundreds of concerts, in Europe and America.

TP:   Anything more to say about Kenny Clarke?

SOLAL:   What more is there to say? I could say a lot of things. I mean, things that everybody knows. He was under the influence of drugs. Sometimes he was crazy. Once, when I did a tour in Italy, with a fantastic band, I must say, with Kenny Clarke and Lucky Thompson, in the middle of the tour he couldn’t move from his hotel, for instance. It was serious, this. And he died very young, of course. But his playing was, at that time, considered as very moderne. He was maybe one of the very first to use his left hand to play syncopated on the snare. Before this, everybody was playing either brushes or on the cymbals. He was using both. He didn’t have big technique, by the way. He was playing like jazz musician of that time. I mean, a gifted musician, but not people coming out from conservatory, which is like the rule now.

TP:   Where they can execute anything you give them. How about Lucky Thompson?

SOLAL:   Lucky was a good experience for me. Because he was a long time in Paris, many years, and the first day he came, I became his piano player. So we did many, many records… Well, it was not long-playing at that time. Two tunes was a record. So we were recording very often. He was an excellent composer. For me, he was sort of a different Don Byas, but the same direction. For me, that was moderne enough. Then I’ve been interested in contemporary music and the different experiences. So I am happy to have started with middle jazz. I always say I am a child of middle jazz. But a child will become disobedient.

TP:   Oedipus! You spoke a bit about Bud Powell in the blindfold test, with the anecdote that he had you bring him the beer.

SOLAL:   That was to make a joke. He was something else also. But at that time, he couldn’t play as well as before. So the only contact he had with people, not only with me, was, “Hello, give me a beer; pay me a beer.” He was not in good shape. He still could play, but not like before.

By the way, I want to ask the question. The record you played yesterday, when was it made?

TP:   1950. “Tea For Two.” It was 1950. This was the third take.

SOLAL:   It’s curious. I have some record of him where he plays much stronger, much better than that.

TP:   My fault again.

SOLAL:   Maybe so. To judge people, I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best. I am not going to judge Ahmad Jamal with this record of yesterday. I know him from the very early ‘50s. At that time, he had a perfect technique, he had a beautiful sound, a style. Now he doesn’t do any more, but on the contrary, now he’s never been more famous than now. Now he plays much less than before, and he is much more famous.

TP:   It seems to me that now you’re much more famous than…

SOLAL:   Well, with time, of course, people say, “Ok, Martial Solal, Martial Solal…” At the end, they know me. But with Ahmad Jamal, it’s different. Because he stayed a long time in Europe, and he became really a star, which he was not before. Ten years ago, he was not known.

TP:   He was famous in the ‘50s, when he sold a million records…

SOLAL:   Yes, but to be famous in the ‘50s is not like to be famous today. Things are different. Many festivals, many concerts. In the ‘50s there was no concerts! If you don’t play in a club, you have no work.

TP:   So for 12 years, you’re house pianist at Club Saint Germain, and in ‘63 you come to America for the first time with a lot of fanfare, a lot of publicity, and you stay for six months. A lot of American musicians heard you—there are stories that Duke Ellington heard you, Oscar Peterson, and so forth. Was it your aspiration at that to come to New York, to come to America?

SOLAL:   Oh, of course. For me, it was a dream. To be in New York was the thing that I should do in my life. I was not hoping that. And I received a telegram from George Wein, thinking, “It must be a mistake—not me.” But then I did… I mean, I should have stayed there. But my life was difficult at that time. I had to come back from New York.

TP:   You said you were getting a divorce, you had a small child.

SOLAL:   Yes, things like that. I was not ready to leave Europe.

TP:   And you never did leave Europe.

SOLAL:   No.

TP:   It sounds like that’s a transitional moment for you. It seems as though up to that point you were ready to be an expatriate. Ever since, it’s as though you’ve made peace with… It’s as though after then, you reaffirmed your identity as someone of Europe, as someone of France… I’m not making myself very clear.

SOLAL:   [BARBARA TRANSLATES] The music has nothing to do with my stay in America or not. It’s only personal problem. If I had no problem, I would have stayed. I would have become American. That’s what my agent at that time, Joe Glaser, wanted. The first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, I had my syndicat…union—I had everything. He was a boilon.

TP:   He was connected.

SOLAL:   If he wanted me to stay, life became immediately easy for me. But I did the wrong thing. I left. I stayed four months, I guess, and I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then in Chicago, London House, where every pianist was supposed to play—and I never came back, I never showed up. So he was very angry. But anyway, next year he called me again to go to Monterrey Jazz Festival, and then I come maybe 12 or 15 times, but in 40 years.

TP:   I was thinking of that because of your remark to me that I hadn’t played you any European players, and that the Europeans had something to say, too. That spurred to think about what I knew about your life, and it seemed that this decision to stay in Europe may have been a transitional moment. Were you thinking this way in 1964?

SOLAL:   I understand, but I want to be sure of everything. [BARBARA TRANSLATES] Yeah, I understand. I realized that it was a mistake, but I couldn’t change it.

TP:   But I’m returning to your comment yesterday that the European perspective has something to say also, because I was playing you only American players.

SOLAL:   It’s normal. Everybody does it. Don’t worry. But you didn’t do it. You played two French players. I think it’s a good idea. Now the situation is different. But for forty years, European jazz couldn’t have the same value as American jazz in the mind of the European audience. So it had been a difficult time for us to be considered as a musician, and not as a European musician. If you wanted some consideration… But even now, in the mind of many people, a good American musician is automatically better than a good French or European musician—except a very few. Maybe I am one of these. But in general, there is American… For instance, in France we have hundreds of festivals. You can watch a program—for one French there are ten Americans. I love American musicians. Don’t misunderstand me. I love America and American musicians. When I am in New York, I am like another… I am over-excited.

TP:   It’s very stimulating in New York.

SOLAL:   Yeah, stimulating. I know that the audience is a good audience, which we don’t have many here like that. That’s for sure. But only the audience here prefers…everywhere it’s the same… They prefer people coming from somewhere else. Anyway, it’s not only for jazz. It’s for cinema, for everything. Here I am in a good situation because I am not the local musician. I am coming from outside. So my situation here is good. You see what I mean. Coming from outside, it’s always better.

TP:   Do you play much in Paris?

SOLAL:   Not very often.

TP:   Because they would treat you as a local musician?

SOLAL:   No-no, I have an audience in Paris. I will play there in February and March. But my main occupation is outside, of course.

TP:   The ‘60s in Paris were turbulent.

SOLAL:   Do you mean in jazz?

TP:   I mean culturally.

SOLAL:   Still. Paris is a place for culture, of course.

TP:   But there were transitions. Breathless-A Bout de Souffle. Avant-garde cinema. Many developments. I’m wondering to what extent you were involved in some of these things, Avant-garde music. You were writing film scores, and many filmmakers were very forward-looking in their aesthetic. I’m wondering how those streams influenced the way you think about things.

SOLAL:   Movies, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard, A Bout de Souffle was my first big experience. At that time, I did realize that this movie was quite different from everything which had been done before. It was quite new in cinema.

TP:   Nouvelle Vague, it was called.

SOLAL:   It was part of Nouvelle Vague. I was lucky to make this score. After this one, I wrote about 40 different… But this one is the only one that people know, of course. After this, the cinema didn’t call me any more. There was a new interest. Not for jazz. Jazz was finished. They were interested more in rock and songs and pop music. So I started to write for symphonique. I wrote maybe 20 concertos—concertos for piano, of course, many of them, or for trumpet, for clarinet, for violin. I wrote a lot of music. But this music has been played a certain number of times, but not always.

TP:   You once made a remark that you thought the future of jazz was in composition. It was a very interesting comment.

SOLAL:   Yes, that’s what I thought when I said it. The story was not as I believed. People continued to improvise more than write. But I still think that when I said that writing is important. I am thinking of a very, very future. I mean, maybe two or three centuries from now. If nobody writes long pieces, important scores, jazz has the risk to die. I hope not. But I’ve always thought that it’s necessary for jazz to have long pieces.  So from my personal experience, in 1957 I start with a very long piece for my quartet, a 30-minute piece. Nobody did it before. But that was something very special. Then I write some long pieces, but never as long as that one.

TP: Did other art forms influence your aesthetic in music? Of course, maybe not consciously, and this may be exaggerating. But let’s say the idea of a connection of jumpcut in cinema, and the way you make instant transitions in interpreting a piece. Or the notion of montage, touching on and playing with five-six different themes in the course of a piece. Or visual art. Did aesethetics from those media have any impact on the way you think about playing?

SOLAL:   [TRANSLATES] I am going to try to say it in English. For myself, nothing could influence me. It was too late. Even Bout de Souffle, when I did it I was 32. It was a little late to have a new mind. And please, my mind was already full! No space for anything. But of course, we are influenced by everything. We cannot refuse. I am very interested by painting. My wife and her father are  painters. So I like very much painting. But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. This has no meaning. But in a certain way, the atmosphere of the century you live in influences you. Whether you refuse or not, you are influenced. But to be influenced doesn’t mean to copy. I don’t copy. I am somebody who gets everything in his mind, and I don’t know how I translate it often. I can’t tell you.

TP:   I know that you read a great deal. There are stories of you practicing and reading a novel while you practice–the mechanics.

SOLAL:   I did for some years. Not any more.

TP:   What sort of things did you read?

SOLAL:   Everything.

TP:   Philosophy ever?

SOLAL:   No-no-no.

TP:   Nothing you had to think about.

SOLAL:   I was doing this only while I was working on exercises. I couldn’t play a Chopin Wedding… No. My mind has to be free to read. My fingers were not thinking.

TP:   I’m following up on the question about other aesthetic influences. I’m wondering if you were influenced by Sartre, Existentialism; or Surrealism; or these broader philosophical movements, particularly as a young man, when people fall under the sway?

SOLAL:   I would say no.

TP:   You are living existentialist philosophy as a jazz musician.

SOLAL:   I read a lot of things. Normally I read. But I am not very interested in Jean-Paul Sartre or… Honestly, I think I am against it. I am not crazy about this. But in art, it’s different. I like some painters of this period. But not the system to be very abstract.

TP:   You’re not interested in abstract art.

SOLAL:   Not really. Like in my music, I like a mixture of very modern and very traditional. I don’t like any art that forgets everything that happened before. Like when free jazz came, I was not against free jazz. I was against the idea of put everything away. Not Charlie Parker, not Louis Armstrong, this is zero. This I didn’t like. But I understood the movement. I understood it was necessary. But for me, the best way is to use everything which exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years. I have played with different contemporary composers. But I don’t like people who refuse the past. I think the past is necessary for the future. That’s my idea.

TP:   Let me ask you about a few composers. Duke Ellington. When did you first listen to him? What was the effect of his music upon you?

SOLAL:   Very late. Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, two of my favorite musicians, I discovered them maybe in the middle ‘50s. Very late. Everything I knew was before was middle jazz. And  Erroll Garner, because he has a different approach to the piano. Really different. Yesterday, if you’d played a Garner, I would have said, “This is Erroll Garner.”

TP:   I apologize for that.

SOLAL:   [LAUGHS] But when you played the first one, for Ahmad Jamal, the first chord he played, I said, “This must be Ahmad Jamal.” But he lost so much of his technique. Then after that, I said, “Is it Ahmad Jamal or someone who plays like him?” So I didn’t say the name. I knew it was him. Because only he can do the beginning of the record, this beautiful, strong chord, very definitely… But I felt too many wrong notes. He couldn’t move his fingers. Like Monk, if you want. The way he touches the piano, nobody does it like this. But after, he is not a pianist any more.

TP:   But you like Monk the composer a great deal.

SOLAL:   I have been very influenced by Monk [Mohnk], more than people believe. I’m not so much influenced by “Round About Midnight.” This is a tune I played for all my life, because it’s a beautiful melody, and also a melody on which you can be very free. But the way he thinks about the music, not his music note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music, this interested me a lot.

TP:   As a composer, though. Not as a pianist.

SOLAL:   No, of course. Every one of his compositions had something different than Cole Porter’s or even Charlie Parker’s music. It was different. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.

TP:   Talking about Monk brings up a question about the nature of technique and the purposes towards which technique is directed.

SOLAL:   There is a difference in what I said yesterday. Monk never lost technique. He never had technique. That’s the difference. I was talking about Ahmad, who had technique, and who lost it because he didn’t practice.

TP:   Do you think that Monk is an effective interpreter of his own music?

SOLAL:   Il ne pas comprende.

TP:   Do you think that Monk plays his own music with the proper technique.

SOLAL:   With his proper technique, of course.

TP:   So it’s proper for his music.

SOLAL:   Well, I always said that if he had the Tatum technique, if Monk one Monday morning wakes up, goes to the piano, and plays like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He has his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose the technique, what you play is still what you have in your mind. You will still play the same thing, but you missed two notes on the three, two notes every three notes.

TP:   You remarked yesterday that you practice every day—except for yesterday, of course.

SOLAL:   And I feel it already. I don’t feel very comfortable. Yesterday, I felt not like I wish.

TP:   How much do you practice now?

SOLAL:   Not much. Since the last ten years, I just practice enough to keep what I have. Before this I was practicing quite a lot. Not like classical pianists, say, eight years [ heures] a day. Never this. But my work was not studying musique. It was only sport, the sport part of the music, the exercise, when you play four hours of octave or scale or arpeggio, that’s a lot… That would represent a lot more than eight years [hours] just learning Bach or Mozart. I mean, about technique. You understand that? Am I clear now?

BARBARA:   You’re clear, but you said “years” instead of “hours.” You meant hours.

SOLAL:   Oh.

BARBARA:   It’s ok.

SOLAL:   Yeah, yeah. Eight hours… I mean, four hours of technique represents more than eight hours of just learning pieces by rote.

TP:   Do you also practice playing?

SOLAL:   Pardon?

TP:   Some of the black American musicians, Monk, Bud Powell, would talk about practicing playing. Walter Davis, Jr., told a story about Bud Powell, where he was a young kid and he would go to Bud Powell’s house, and Bud Powell was playing “Embraceable You.” He and his pals went out, did whatever they were doing, and when they came back 6 or 8 hours later, Bud Powell was still playing “Embraceable You.” Do you do that sort of thing with any of the tunes you play?

SOLAL:   No. I never play a tune at home. I should have done it maybe. [LAUGHS] Very rarely. If I play five choruses on “Stella By Starlight,” I have enough for the day.

TP:   that’s enough for you.

SOLAL:   No, I want to keep fresh for a concert. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. The music is here. [POINTS TO HEAD] I don’t have to play it.

TP:   So when you sit down at the piano, after you make the first sound, everything follows from that?

BARBARA:  [WHISPERS] Yes.

SOLAL:   Ah, yes. Every day I start the same way. I play an exercise with left hand and I improvise in right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing exercise, half of me is playing anything. Not music, but anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.

TP:   I was noticing on one of the tunes with Joe Locke just now, I can’t remember which, you were playing a very rubato, then all of a sudden you went into a perfect Harlem stride, then another rhythmic figure, all instantaneously. Is that just spontaneous…

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

TP:   You’re not thinking in the first minute of your performing something you’ll be doing in the fifth minute.

SOLAL:   No. Everything has to be spontaneous. Sometimes it could be a very bad idea also. But when you start something, you have to do it.

TP:   Do you listen to your recordings?

SOLAL:   Not much. I am never very happy when I listen to them. En Francais… I think my music should not be listened to in big quantity at one time. I think if you want to love my music, you take one of my records, you listen one or two tunes, and you forget it. The day after, two tunes. There is maybe too much information in it. I don’t know. But for someone… Of course, musicians know it. But for the audience, I mean, sometimes there is too much information.

TP:   I’d like to know about your relationship to audiences. It’s complex to be a pure artist, which you are, and also make a career, to earn a living doing it. It seems you’ve worked out a good strategy by addressing the type of tunes that you play and using the strategy you’ve stated of giving the audience a signpost, something to grab onto, by playing “Tea for Two” or “Body and Soul” or “Round Midnight” and treating them as you do.

SOLAL:   I hope I understood it quite right. When I play solo, I know the music that I play is not very easy. So I try to interest people by playing songs they know. For a while. Some years ago, I was playing very freely, no standards, and I understand that the public was not with me. It was too much… I always loved standards. I love standards, and also I want to prove that the good standards can be repeated for a century. If you have enough imagination, you can make it new every day. I’m never tired of “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight,” because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.

TP:   You can play any idea you want.

SOLAL:   Anything. Sometimes I know I’m wrong, but if a stupid thing comes to my head, ok, I’ll do it. I don’t refuse when it’s a possible idea.

TP:   Did you ever use the popular song of France?

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

TP:   Chansons or Piaf?

SOLAL:   Well, some time I wrote music from Piaf for a friend of mine, a trumpet player, with a string orchestra. So I wrote new arrangement from these stupid tunes. But I am not very interested by most of them. A very few of them are interesting enough to improvise on. Some of Charles Trenay, for instance, I play often, which is called “….(?)…. de Nos Amours”. Or “La Mer,” which is famous in America, from Charles Trenay. He’s older. Michel Legrand wrote beautiful songs, but not songs on which I feel comfortable to improvise. I don’t know why. Beautiful songs.

TP:   Some of Legrand’s songs are very sentimental.

SOLAL:   Yes. I don’t know why. It’s the same for American songs. Some interest very much musicians, and some other beautiful songs, I’ve never played it.

TP:   But a song like “Body and Soul,” is it a purely musical exercise, or are you also thinking of the lyric of “Body and Soul”?

SOLAL:   No. I don’t know the lyrics. I should. I know that Americans consider the lyric also. But this melody is so beautiful and the changes are so interesting that… No, I don’t know the lyrics.

TP:   How much do you play with the trio with Francois and Louis Moutin? How many years?

SOLAL:   It’s many years. With Francois, I think it’s maybe 12 years, at least, and with his brother maybe five years.

TP:   What qualities are you looking for the people who play with you in a trio?

SOLAL:   I’m looking for people who are very fast, who understand immediately what I do. So I feel very free when I play with those kinds of musicians, because I can go anywhere, and I know that they will be with me. They will never be against me. They will try to go in the same direction. That’s very important. Not much like Ahmad Jamal, for instance, where everything seems to be decided before. Seems—I’m not sure. But when I play in trio, nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. But it can go in any direction. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything. For instance, I let the bass player make four bars of a solo, and then I come in when the solo is finished. Everything can happen with them.

TP:   Who else do you use in your trios?

SOLAL:   Now, since this last year… I have shifted sometimes, but very rarely. You probably don’t know them.

TP:   Have you ever in the last 20 years or so had combos, quartets, quintets, sextets?

SOLAL:   No. I still have my big band. You probably don’t know about that?

TP:   I have Dodecaband Plays Ellington.

SOLAL:   Oh, you have that one. You don’t have the next one with the smaller group with our daughter who sings in it.

TP:   No.

SOLAL:   Maybe I could send you this with the book. We play not very often, but they are really the best musicians in town. I wrote all the music. It’s not standard music. It’s original music.

TP:   In your view, over the last thirty years, what has the evolution of the jazz scene in Paris been like?

SOLAL: Well, there are many, many musicians. I think the level comes up at least technically, because the rule now is to go to conservatory first, to have a good technique, and then to be interested in jazz. So we have a lot of good musicians. But very few of them have a different concept, a new conception of music. But I could mention many…

TP:   What do you mean by a “new conception”?

SOLAL:   I mean new material at least. New songs, new… And some have different ideas of organizing the trio or medium-sized group. Like in America also, you have a lot of new musicians trying to not copy the past. This is normal. They literally are going everywhere.
TP:   there are a lot of African musicians in Paris.

SOLAL:   Well, but I’m not… I told you I’m only…

TP:   Classical and jazz.

SOLAL:   But I listen to everything. Because there is a channel called Mezzo, it’s the name of a channel, where they play every kind of music. I don’t like everything, but I listen… I know everything which exists, but I am not interested.

TP:   Well, you made that point yesterday, when you said you like music to be a little bit crazy. I think you were referring to Pilc.

SOLAL:   When I say somebody is crazy, it’s a good sign.

TP:   I’d like to ask you about another comment you made, which is that you want to bring to jazz the highest values of classical music.

SOLAL:   [TRANSLATED] My ambition is that jazz stays for centuries, so it has to be a serious music, not only music of junkies, but… That’s not exactly what I mean. We can be very serious about jazz music, because I think jazz can be very important. Including some ideas or some conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartok, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz. Jazz can eat everything and transform it into jazz. It’s a sort of stomach in which you put everything, and what’s going out is still nice music, and it still can be jazz. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a certain way to express, to play the note, a certain conception of the rhythm. There are some specific notions of jazz which it’s necessary not to lose completely. If you want to add too many things in your mayonnaise, I don’t know. Too much oil on the mayonnaise, it gets to be a different thing.

TP:   Let me ask you a couple of personal questions. How did you meet, and how long have you been together?

SOLAL:   Forty years. We meet in a jazz club where I was not working but sitting in. When I had nothing to do, I was at this club, sitting in. The piano player was an American by the name of Art Simmons. He was playing there, and all the musicians were coming there after-hours, and by chance, my wife came with a friend of hers. That’s where we met.

TP:   That’s 1968, the year everyone was in the streets. A fateful year in Paris.

SOLAL:   We were so much in love that we didn’t care too much about it! Also, I had some concerts outside. I remember once we were in Brussels… The first concert I took my wife to with me was in Yugoslavia, and it was impossible to have to find a plane to go. So we go by car to Frankfurt, Germany, and from where we found a plane to go to the Zagreb airport.

TP:   So you got used to life on the road.

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

TP:   What neighborhood in Paris do you live in? Quelle arrondissement?

SOLAL:   Oh, since we are together, we’ve moved six times, I think, each time more west—because the west part of Paris is more beautiful, more trees, more green. So the first one was No.17; then No. 12 just at the border of Paris, Boulogne it’s called; then a little more to what’s become Ville D’Avres*(?)… It’s where… Who habiter a Ville D’Avres… Then from Ville D’Avres, we went to Bougivalles(?), and the last twenty years now it’s Chatou.

TP:   What kind of piano do you have?

SOLAL:   Well, since thirty years I have a…not Yamaha, but the other one…a Kawai(?). A small grand. I bought it new and I made it a special touch, very stiff. I have another piano which I had before, I kept it, but with very light keyboard, and each time I had to play a concert, if the piano was louder than mine, I was in a very bad situation. Since I have this piano, no piano resists to me any more. Because mine is more loud than anyone else!

BARBARA:   Not loud. Hard.

SOLAL:   Hard. I mean, hard. Forte. In French we say lourd maybe.

BARBARA:   Oui. Heavy.

SOLAL:   Stiff.

TP:   Resistance.

BARBARA:   Yes.

SOLAL:   When you press, you have to push more than with a light piano.

TP:   To prepare yourself.

SOLAL:     Yes. So I made it the way I wanted, so I need… By the way, I need maybe less time to work than with a lighter piano… Lighter?  Leger. Heavy? Light… You just look at it, it works by itself.

TP:   You said yesterday that many pianists as they get older, stop practicing. How do you stay motivated to do the things you do to keep you at the level you’re at?

SOLAL:   Heh-heh, I am not very motivated. The only motivation is that I am too hung up when I can’t play right. For me, a bad concert, it’s one week like this… I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes. I don’t need more than 45 minutes.

TP:   But you used to practice for four or eight hours…
SOLAL:   No, no.

BARBARA: No. Four maybe.

SOLAL:   I did it when it was time to do it, between my fifties and seventy. But since, the minimum to keep what I have… I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.

TP:   Someone to whom I was speaking about you said the thought you approached piano almost like an athletic in training almost.

SOLAL:   Well, like every honest pianist. Not more. I don’t imagine a classical pianist not doing this. In jazz, some don’t do it. I mentioned some. But I think it’s not honest. If you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition. It’s no more than that.

TP:   Is there anything you haven’t done that you still would like to do?

SOLAL:   I’ve never been one hundred years. I’d like…

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

SOLAL:   To do things…

TP:   As long as you can play, I’d think.

BARBARA:   I want to keep you!

SOLAL: I think I did… I think maybe nobody…not many people on this planet did as many things… I’m not talking about the quality. I’m now talking about the quantity. I did 12 years of club, for instance. Do you know many people playing 12 years in a club? And writing score music. Method books. I wrote methods. Books to help people learn.

TP:   You wrote practice books.

SOLAL: Writing maybe 20 concerts, fully scored music, and playing concerts, and duets with a hundred people. It’s a lot.

TP:   I wasn’t suggesting that you have anything to prove. I only wondered whether in your mind was something…

SOLAL:   The only thing I want is to keep what I am able to do. I always say that I understand that if I can’t move my fingers normally, I would stop, because I would be too unhappy. People maybe will not notice it, but I’ll know it. The classical pianists say when you don’t practice for one day, nobody knows it; after two days, you know it; after one week, your wife knows it; and after one month, everybody knows it.

TP:   How did you keep your health during the years you played in the clubs? I’ve heard about the Paris bars, and you were around…

SOLAL:   Ask my wife. She cooks for me. That’s very important.

TP:   But she wasn’t there in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. It seems you stayed away from all the bad influences from the people you were around.

SOLAL:   That’s only a lucky… I have no merit…

BARBARA:   Merite…

SOLAL:   I have no glory of it. It’s not my fault. I mean, I was not interested in drugs. All my friends was drugs…almost all of them died at 50. So I have been very lucky not to be interested.

TP:   It didn’t interest you at all.

SOLAL:   No. I could say I smoked three times in my life—I mean, smoked hashish. But that was just to please my friends, not for me.

TP:   You have enough going on in your mind without…

SOLAL:   I have no… The pas de merit….

BARBARA:   It’s not his fault…

TP:   I know what you mean…

BARBARA:   It’s not a negative sense. It’s a positive sense.

SOLAL:   It’s just luck. Good luck I was not interested.

TP:   It seems you’ve really known who you are since you were very young, as though you envisioned something for yourself early on.

SOLAL:   Maybe. I don’t know. I think everything is a question of luck in my situation. The luck, first, to like music; the luck first not to be interested in drugs; the luck to find my wife. I don’t know. I have nothing positive coming from me. Everything I have is luck.

BARBARA:   Your character. You are so stick to…

SOLAL:   Oh, yeah. When I have an idea in my head, I keep it for years.

TP:   You’re stubborn.

SOLAL:   I am very… Yes. That’s a quality, but once more, it’s not… It’s luck.

TP:   Well, not everybody has talent. You had talent and nurtured it.

SOLAL:   If you’re  strong and tall, it’s not talent. It’s luck.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Martial Solal, Piano

Brad Mehldau’s Blindfold Test From 2000 (Uncut) — He Turned 41 Yesterday

Eleven years ago, I had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Brad Mehldau, then 30, and in residence at the Village Vanguard for a week-long engagement. It was conducted in Mehldau’s hotel room on the Upper West Side; if memory serves, he listened to the selections through headphones on a Sony Diskman…or maybe it was an Aiwa. In any event, here’s the pre-edit version.

Brad Mehldau (Blindfold Test) – (9-21-00):

1.    Art Tatum-Red Callendar-Jo Jones, “Just One Of Those Thing,”  THE COMPLETE ART TATUM GROUP RECORDINGS (#1) (1956/199_) (5 stars)

Tatum.  “Just One Of Those Things.”  I guess I know it’s Tatum from his melodic concept on here, because he’s not playing solo, which then you can really hear it in all his voice leading.  Just aesthetically, I prefer his solo playing.  With the rhythm section… I don’t know who this is.  Is this Slam Stewart? [No.] I’m hearing the drum solo now that he’s playing four-to-the-floor.  I have a feeling I should know this drummer from his style on the brushes.  I can’t put a name with it.  But he sounds great.  The bass player, too. [you've haven't heard this before.] No. [Is Tatum someone you've listened to a lot?] More his solo stuff, like the Pablo reissue of his solo albums, where it’s just one standard after another and these incredible things.  But this is really something I want to check out. [AFTER] Jo Jones!  Unbelievable.  Definitely 5 stars.  His whole melodic approach to lines, the way he’s playing over changes is so much not-informed by bebop.  It’s so fresh to hear that.  But very unto itself, really dealing with the changes.  He’s also using the whole instrument.  Even though he’s not playing solo, he’s really getting down there.  Amazing.

2.    Chick Corea, “Monk’s Dream,”SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS (Concord, 2000). [solo piano] (4 stars)

I really don’t know that person’s style.  I wouldn’t even know who to guess.  It’s “Monk’s Dream.”  I would give it 4 stars, because it’s really creative and interesting harmonically.  This kind of feel for me is a little jagged.  As a performance, it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste.  But really creative, interesting harmonic things he’s doing, using the upper register there and different melodies going on at the same time in some places. [AFTER] Really?  It’s a live performance, huh?  Nice recorded sound, too.  You can hear a lot of the room in there, which I also like.

3.    Christian McBride, “Lullaby For A Ladybug,”  SCI-FI (Verve 2000). [Herbie Hancock, piano; Diane Reeves, vocal.] (4 stars)

It’s a beautiful composition.  I don’t know the vocalist.  I don’t feel like I know anyone.  The piano player is somebody who’s been influenced by Herbie Hancock, but I’m not sure whether it’s Herbie himself.  It’s a tough call. [Why is it hard to tell?] That’s a good question.  There are some spots where the piano player is playing a lot, maybe more than sometimes Herbie does — but sometimes Herbie plays a lot, too.  That would probably be my only criticism, is that on the actual piano solo itself it’s a little out of context to what’s going on around the whole thing, and sometimes he’s jumping on the vocalist a little with some of the things that he’s reacting to.  But just my taste; that’s a taste thing.  But the track is beautiful.  The composition itself, and the recorded sound is great. [So do you think it's Herbie or not?] I’d probably guess Herbie.  [LAUGHS] I got a couple of them right here.  Diane Reeves?  I don’t know who the composer was. [AFTER] No kidding?  I didn’t even recognize Christian, because he’s so unobtrusive.  Wow, I’m going to have to get this record.  Who is the drummer?  He’s great.  4 stars.

4.    Hank Jones-Dave Holland-Billy Higgins, “Yesterdays,” THE ORACLE (Emarcy, 1989). (4 stars)

That’s got to be Billy Higgins on drums.  It’s kind of tough to tell the piano player.  I’m not sure about the bassist.  Maybe Ron Carter?  The piano player, there’s a feel there that’s kind of like the feel I associate with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, but I’m not sure whether it’s one of them.  I really don’t know.  It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangement, but it felt great.  I liked how it started out in D-minor, I think, and then modulated down, and I liked that little bass thing.  4 stars.  Every record Billy Higgins is on is just going to feel great.  I’ve played with him a few times with Charles Lloyd.  The experience of playing with him is like nothing else; it’s like being taken for a ride.  I should have just guessed Hank!

5.    Geoff Keezer, “Maple Sugar Rays,”  ZERO ONE (GMN, 2000). [solo] (3-1/2 stars)

Maybe Mulgrew on some solo record I don’t know? [You're warm.] I don’t want to make a generalization, but for me the style was a little too much of the same thing for the whole thing.  It’s kind of predictable after a while.  Really inside the harmony, and a certain kind of melodic vocabulary that sort of sounds like a vocabulary already.  So after a while I’m not too interested listening to this.  Also, dynamically it’s always pretty loud, which after a  while gets on my nerves.  There were some spots in the arrangement that were nice, where he was doing some harmonic stuff that made it interesting, but for the rest of it I felt like he was kind of running stuff.  It got to be a little of the same after a while.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] That’s interesting, because I have this but I’ve only listened to it once.  Was this an original?  Some of the pieces on here were really different, where he’s treating the piano.  That makes sense, because it’s a certain style… It’s more of an aesthetic thing than an actual qualitative thing, because that’s a whole school of piano playing that I haven’t gravitated towards too much, like Harold Mabern and some of those guys.  It’s not my taste.

6.    Bill Charlap, “All Through The Night,”  ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Criss-Cross, 1997). [Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums] (4-1/2 stars)

I really enjoyed it.  It was tough, because the solo introduction was sort of in a different style than what it turned into with the trio.  I was thinking about the trio as it went along… Maybe Ahmad Jamal.  I don’t know who it is, then, but I really loved the performance.  I thought this arrangement where they kept going back to that theme reminded me of something Ahmad might do.  But the melodic concept was… You could hear some of a bebop kind of  thing in there.  Also, we were just listening to Tatum.  There are some triple-time things he was doing, but very original, though, in his or her own right, with the lines, doing some different, creative, fresh melodic things that really were fun to listen to.  I really liked it.  A great, swinging trio thing.  It was really locked-up.  Not 5 stars, because I could have done without the intro, a lot of flashy stuff.  4-1/2 stars.  Cole Porter really has a specific sound as a composer.  Sometimes it reminded me of “From This Moment On,” sort of the way his harmonic movement is.  But Bill put in some great changes on his own, too, that really were nice, the way they worked with the melody under it.

7.    Earl Hines, “Prelude To A Kiss,”  PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON (New World, 1974/1997) [solo piano] (5 stars)

Wow!  I don’t know the performance, but I think it’s Monk.  It’s not Monk?  It’s “Prelude To A Kiss.”  Whoever it is, I’ll have to give it five stars.  It’s so deep harmonically, what he’s doing inside the chords, the way it builds up as an arrangement throughout.  He starts from something and just develops out of it organically, and it gets more and more dense.  The other thing that’s great is once the time starts it’s really right there.  You can always hear the quarter-note no matter what’s going on.  I don’t know Monk’s solo playing too much; that’s why I might have guessed him. [Monk would tend to be sparer.] A little more spare, yes.  Because I did hear, again, some of those Tatumesque runs in there.  That seems to be a theme of a lot of what we’re listening to. [Do you think it was a more contemporary player or an older player?] I’m going to guess older because of the nature of the recording quality and the piano horribly out of tune!  But I just don’t know.  I’m disappointed in myself. [AFTER] [In your learning process, were you into older piano players?] Not as much.  It’s more just because I haven’t gotten around to them yet.  But the ones that I really know are some Tatum and some Duke.

8.    Ahmad Jamal, “I Love You,”  BIG BYRD (Verve, 1996). [James Cammack, ass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion] (4-1/2 stars)

I’m going to guess Ahmad again.  That’s a great arrangement.  Now it’s staying on this vamp and… I don’t know his later records too much, but I’ve had the chance to hear him live a lot, and there’s still that great way of taking “I Love You” and making these vamps throughout it which make it a different kind of compositional thing.  And he plays so compositionally, too.  He plays with that arrangement.  The tune is almost incidental a lot of the time, which is what’s so great about it.  I definitely checked out “Live At The Pershing” and “Awakening,” the one that he did “Dolphin Dance,” explored the oeuvre of Herbie and Bill Evans.  The drummer has a really fat groove.  4-1/2 stars.

9.    John Hicks, “Passing Through,” AN ERROLL GARNER SONGBOOK (High Note, 1997). [solo piano] (3-1/2 stars).

I have no guesses on this one.  I’m coming up short here.  [AFTER] Again, that’s sort of not my aesthetic.  My thought was that this is someone who probably plays more in groups regularly, and solo piano is sort of a departure for him.  What I noticed is that… Maybe it’s because I’m a piano player.  I feel that his rhythmic thing is almost reacting to an invisible band that’s not there.  So as a solo performance, I wanted a little more of what the bass and drums would typically supply somehow, no matter how abstractly that might be.  It felt like there was this hole.  The composition was kind of normal for my taste.  It didn’t particularly get me too much.  3-1/2 stars.  Nice recorded sound.

10.    Kenny Kirkland, “Ana Maria,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) [Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, congas; Steve Berrios, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer]

I love the composition, but I can’t pick out which one it is.  The shape of the melody sounds familiar.  Is it a Wayne tune?  I love the way the piano player states the melody, nice and rhapsodically through the bar-line, with a nice texture building up.  During the blowing the piano player has a nice, crisp technique in the right hand which I always enjoy hearing.  The kind of crispness I associate with Wynton Kelly, a really articulate thing which is nice in the double-time stuff.  I thought it could have been maybe a chorus shorter, because after a while you hear certain melodic shapes repeating themselves over and over again.  As a group performance, I felt like there was a piano player, then there was this percussion thing that was reacting with the piano a little rhythmically in the double-time stuff, and the bass and drums were sort of in the background.  It could have been the mix.  I have no clue who it would be.  4 stars. [AFTER] Kenny Kirkland is another one I haven’t gotten to.  I kind of missed him.  I was so involved in my own listening pattern in the early ’90s and late ’80s.  I was really into guys like Sonny Clark and Mal Waldron — a lot of compers.  I loved Mal Waldron, and the stuff he did with Steve Lacy; the minimalism he uses appealed to me.

11.    Denny Zeitlin, “Cousin Mary,”  AS LONG AS THERE’S MUSIC (32 Jazz, 1997/2000). [Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums] (5 stars)

That got me off the most out of anything you’ve played thus far.  It felt great.  I don’t know the piano player, but I might know the bass and drums.  Maybe it’s not them, but it sounds a little like Ben Riley and Buster Williams, that kind of feel.  Oh, it is Buster.  The drummer has that great tipping feel; it feels so good.  I love the piano player.  I never hear any vocabulary.   First of all, the arrangement of “Cousin Mary” is really great.  You would think, “What can you do with that tune?”—but he finds another harmonic thing that really is also referring to the original, with the strange, different chords for the blues.  You get the feeling that he’s blowing on that, but at a certain point he’s just getting away from what roots should be, and he’s sort of making up different forms of the blues — one thing, one thing, one thing, and then… Again, these 12-bar things.  Which I love. [Does he remind you of anybody?] You can hear a lot of the history of piano playing in there.  I’m probably going to be really embarrassed that I should have known him.  5 stars. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin!  Wow.  I’ve never heard him.  Charlie Haden always tells me to check this guy out.  Really inspiring.  A great trio performance.  For me the piano is a little high in the mix, but it still doesn’t detract.  It’s still really great.

12.    Martial Solal, “Round Midnight,”  BALLADE DU DIX MARS (Black Saint, 1998) [Paul Motian, drums; Marc Johnson, bass] (4 stars)

The tune is “Round Midnight,” but you’ve got me stumped on the player.  Because I just heard Paul Motian play duo with Frisell in Monterrey, some of the brushwork in this kind of approach where there’s not a leader was reminding me of Motian.  I could do a deductive thing and say maybe it’s Paul Bley.  No?  Now, when I just Paul with Bill, one thing I liked is that within a rhythmic context they were following each other a lot, phrasing together.  With this, one criticism would be that the piano player was going and the other guys were following his phrasing.  So after a while it got to be a little too much of that, and not so much interaction.  It gets kind of noodly, I guess — for me.  Within all that, there were flashes of harmonic things sticking out there in between.  So it might be the kind of thing I could listen to more and start to enjoy more.  It’s definitely a brilliant performance.  I like how the bass player, too, was finding certain notes in there to ground it.  4 stars

13.    Ornette Coleman-Joachim Kuhn, “Passion Cultures,” COLORS (Verve-Harmolodic, 1997) (5 stars)

It’s beautiful.  I think it’s Ornette and Joachim Kuhn.  Beautiful!  I have another record of them that was made in the studio which is much different than this.  Somebody gave it to me in France.  It’s so great to hear a real kind of tonal thing, for the most part, taking place, these modal sections with Ornette’s beautiful melodic thing over it, and then the way Joachim Kuhn found his way out of the harmony slowly, with Ornette.  It’s a wonderful process.  A nice composition that really stands up, the whole thing.  There’s this sort of urgency or sort of mortality feeling to that melody, something haunting that Ornette has the ability to evoke so well.  They’re really together on that.  5 stars.  Definitely a great performance.  Nothing wrong with that.  I checked out mainly the early Atlantic stuff with the quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie, like Change of The Century, This is Our Music. [Does his late '60s stuff or the '70s harmolodics appeal to you?] That stuff I haven’t checked out as much.  Actually, just in the last couple of months while I was on the road, Larry Grenadier was playing me a few things I’d never heard by Prime Time.  So that’s all another “yet” to me.  A lot of times with that quartet, I hear changes.  I’ve talked to Charlie Haden, and he’s like, “Hey, man, we were just making up changes.”  But there’s still definitely a harmonic component going on.

15.    Ruben Gonzalez, “Almendra,”  INTRODUCING RUBEN GONZALEZ (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1996) (4-1/2 stars)

It’s a great rhythm section.  It sounds Cuban from the beat.  I’m not too familiar with the players, so I really wouldn’t know who to guess.  But I love the bass player and the Latin rhythm section; they’re so locked in.  The arrangement is cool, because they’re just blowing over this… You hear the beginning, the head, and it’s a V-chord.  So it’s suspended on this pedal thing for the whole blowing, because he’s just staying there.  And the piano player is rhythmically free of that and he’s sort of just playing over everything, extemporizing over that, which at first is interesting, but I guess after a while it sort of drags on a little. The content was interesting.  I found myself being reminded of Duke sometimes, actually, in the spaciousness of the way he plays melodies sometimes 2 or 3 octaves apart and leaves this wide-open space in the middle and gets in the lower end or upper register, and using those parts of the piano — and some of the voicings, too.  I thought it was really interesting, the chromatic things he was doing.  4-1/2 stars.

_________
It’s really interesting.  It’s difficult after the fifth one.  You find yourself swamped with information and it gets hard to be objective.  But you never are objective, really.  You’re listening, and then it would be nice to listen to it again.  Then your opinion might change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, DownBeat

Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal, WKCR, 1990

Yesterday’s Ahmad Jamal birthday posting included a conversation with New Orleans drum master Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer of choice during the ’80s. Today I’m sharing an interview that I conducted in 1990 on WKCR with Riley’s famous New Orleans antecedent, Vernell Fournier. I can’t precisely recall the circumstances, but as best as I can reconstruct it, I was presenting a six-hour Sunday Jazz Profiles on Jamal. Given Vernell’s massive contribution to the sound of the Ahmad Jamal Trio—among his many accomplishments, he refracted the Two-Way-Pocky-Way vernacular rhythmic signature of the Crescent City into the “Poinciana Beat”—it seemed a good idea to invite him up, which  I had a chance to do when I ran into him one night at Bradley’s.

One of my big regrets is the disappearance of my cassette copy of a Musicians Show that I did with Vernell around this time on which he spoke about his life and times in great detail—never had a chance to transcribe it. In any event, I’m glad I was able to document this encounter—this marks the first airing of the transcript.

The proceedings began with “Extensions,” a 14-minute track from 1965 that makes full use of Fournier’s extraordinary skills.

* * * *

How much input did you have into the way an involved piece like “Extensions” developed, or more generally, into the way the arrangements were set up through the course of the trio’s life?

Well, as things would progress, you’d have more input.  But in the beginning it was generally Ahmad’s format.  Ahmad laid down the format, then you tried to fit something into that you that you thought would be worth it.

When did you first play with Ahmad?

The beginning was I think in ’56, ’57, somewhere up in there.

How did it happen?

Walter Perkins was his drummer at the time.   Walter was involved with the MJT Plus Two, who were a very popular group during that time.  I think that’s the story… But anyway, I got the call, and at that time I was available to join Ahmad.  Because there was a lot of work in Chicago then, you know, a lot of good groups.  My first gig with him was at the London House, I think.

In 1956.

Yeah.  He was playing off nights there.

Had you been listening to Jamal in the years before that?

Well, of course, his first record, “The Volta,” yeah.  It was very popular around Chicago.  But no, I hadn’t listened to him… Because in the beginning, Ahmad had a string… It was a coop group, with guitar, Ray Crawford, violin,

Eddie Calhoun, I believe.

No, this bassist, he and his wife were Islamic followers.  In fact, I remember him so well because of his wife, because she made beautiful flowers just by hand; she used to sell hand-made flowers.  Anyway, he was the first bass player.  I can’t think of his name.  But it was just strings.  And they were generally working main stage at a place like the Kitty Kat and a few other clubs, but they worked downtown quite a bit, too, in the off-nights.  They stayed busy, in other words.  But that was his first group.

Was that primarily a supper club type of scene?

Half-and-half.  No one in the Jazz world stayed on the supper club scene, because it wasn’t as demanding as the club scene.  You know, when you’re young you’ve got a lot of energy you want to exert.  But of course, the supper club scene was cool also, because you could reach a high level and still be appreciated.   You didn’t have to subjugate yourself to a lower level type of music.  Just softer music and more confining.

What did Jamal ask of you as a drummer?   Rhythm has always been so important to his trio conception, it would seem that the drummer doing the right thing is absolutely essential.

Well, yes.  Well, you see, he hadn’t had but one drummer.  And Ahmad is a master at knowing to draw the ultimate from a musician.  He can fit his entire thing, I guess something like Duke was, to bring out the ultimate, to make you sound really a hundred times better than you would normally sound.  He has that gift.

As a musician, he didn’t ask anything… Actually, when we were playing at London House… I think I remember this; I’m not sure, but it’s in my mind, so it must have happened.  I had just finished setting up my drums, and I hadn’t sat down yet, and he struck out on the tune.  I think it was “Poinciana”; I’m not sure.  And I’m scuffling to get to the drums.  I’m there, but I mean, I’m not quite…you know… Well, from then on, very seldom would he have any input.  But if there was something in particular he wanted, he would repeat it with the piano many, many times until you understood what he was saying, or he might tell you — but very seldom would he speak to you about your playing.  I don’t think he ever told any drummer that was with him to do this or do that, or do anything.

And he used one of the great bassists, Israel Crosby, for many, many years.  Tell us about Israel Crosby and his function in the group.

Well, I say Israel was the rock of the group.  Because Ahmad either adjusted his changes to Israel if Israel came up with some finer changes, or Israel always would adjust himself to Ahmad, because Ahmad always had fine changes.  As far as I was concerned, he was a rock as far as the time was concerned, and he was so pleasant to hear — his choice of notes, his big fat sound.  I think he was the real catalyst, one of the major… I know he affected my life immensely.

He had also played earlier with Teddy Wilson in trio format, and was very experienced.

Yes.

Who, by the way, would you say are some of the influences on Jamal in terms of his concept of the trio sound? — if you feel you can say that.

VF:    Well, yeah, I think I can, because most trios came from the sound of Nat King Cole.  The unity and the way he used dynamics brought about a new phase of playing.  Ahmad just had more difficult dynamics, and so many of them.  That was the thing.  I mean, there were five or six ways he could play one tune.  He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want that accent with it when he did it.  You had to consciously be aware that he was playing the piano.

[MUSIC: "Night Mist Blues," "This Terrible Planet"]

Ahmad Jamal is a rhythmic innovator in the music.

Yes.  He never did sort of, for the trend of the time, the straight-ahead Jazz thing.  He always intermixed, I guess for lack of a better word, exotic times, or exotic feelings into Jazz.  Rumbas, tangos, believe me, you were able to do all these kind of things and still make it sound like Jazz.  Generally what he did, while I was with him, he’d get the melody, say, for “This Terrible Planet” that was written for him by Bob Williams, he’d get the tune, it was sent to him and he liked it… I remember one day he called a rehearsal.  I think we were getting ready to have a record date, or he was thinking of a record date, I don’t know.   Anyway, we called a rehearsal, and he laid down the line and he laid down the bass line — on “Terrible Planet,” the bassist was Jamil Nasser.  And he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted.  And naturally… Nobody writes for drums.  It’s funny, but nobody writes… They always try to get some kind of an input from you.  And from the rhythmic pattern that was set with the total melody, then the drum pattern was developed.  Not to talk about the drum pattern on this thing, but for the drummers out there, it’s interesting… If you can understand, it was a 6/8 time, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1 — so it starts the sequence over and over again.  And once you get used to that, then the rest of it is easy.  And the tambourine was used on the side.  I didn’t know what to do with that tune, and I played the tambourine, and I guess Ahmad smiled, and so I kept it there.  That’s what you look for really — what pleases the guy that you’re working for.

He has to smile.

Yes.  Smile or something.  Smile is good enough.  The tom-tom thing came in with the left hand; that was for something else.  But anyway, Ahmad would set a pattern.  And  actually, the whole rhythmic pattern derived from the melodic pattern that he set with the bass line and himself, and once he set that then you just joined in with the… Until you did something that pleased whoever you’re working with.  If they set up a pattern, then you try to do something… You keep looking for something until you think that that’s what they want.

Jamal also would set up a lot of his lines against the drum pattern and create that type of dialogue.

Oh, yes.  He’s a phenomenal rhythm… I can’t find the word I want to use.  But as I told you earlier, I happened to do a thing with him in Perugia about 1987 or ’88, and it was really one of the high points of my life again to know that I could still play with him — or still try to play with him.  Anyway, now he’s into all kinds of rhythmic pattern things, 7/4, 5/4.  Very seldom does he play straight any more.  It’s always 6/8 or… And it’s very exciting.  He’s gone into another bag altogether.

Another aspect of his playing is just his phenomenal technique.  Harold Mabern refers to his “masterly chromatic runs.”

Well, I’m sure… He never talked much about himself in all those years.  But I’m sure that he had… He did mention his teacher in Pittsburgh, who all the cats from Pittsburgh during that time knew of or came under him.  I think Erroll Garner… Well, all the cats.  Ahmad had a lot of Classical piano.  I have always said, especially now, that he wanted to ever go into another bag, like the concert bag…

[END OF TAPE SIDE]

I’ll tell you, I think Ahmad is really just developing.  Because he always had this.  But you know, you get to a certain age… By that I mean, Ted, you get to a certain age where you figure, “What more can happen?  Let me go on and try a two-bar thing.”  You know what I mean?  And I think he’s at that stage now.  So there’s no telling what direction he’ll… Well, like Miles, the same thing.  Miles takes another thing, but when you listen to it you still know it’s Miles.  One of those things.

We’ll next hear some tracks from Live At The Black Hawk in San Francisco.  What were some of the circumstances surrounding that date?

VF:    Well, the Black Hawk in San Francisco was the last recording date, but immediately after that the trio was disbanded supposedly temporarily.  Well, we didn’t really know whether it was temporary or permanent, but it was disbanded.  Also that was one of Israel’s last recordings. I think he made a couple after that, but that was his last  recording with Ahmad.

Another thing, Ahmad was getting away from the softer sound, and getting more into the stick sound.  I was playing sticks more than brushes, and at one time I didn’t pick up a stick, except for “Poinciana.”  But then he started getting more into that.  He started expressing himself in a more volume-ous [sic] way; I guess that’s the word.  With more… I don’t want to say “loud,” but he became more…

More intensity.

Well, more progressive, more progressive on the piano, and showing what he really could do.  Because you know, for many years they called him a “cocktail piano player,” which was really a drag.  Like the group was a cocktail group, you know.  But I guess he proved to many dissenters (I guess that’s the right word) that his talent wasn’t limited.  And it was a very happy feeling, surprisingly.  You know, right before death…not death, but the demise of the group, this happy feeling was immediately before that.

[ETC.] We’ll begin with “April In Paris.”

VF:    That was a direct take from Basie.

[MUSIC:  "April In Paris," "Two Different Worlds," "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine," "The Best Thing For You"]

We’ll move next to more live material recorded in 1961 at Ahmad Jamal’s own club, the Alhambra, in Chicago.  Where was the club located and what was it like?

It was located on Michigan Avenue, either between 13th and 14th or 14th and 15th.  But it was right above what they call the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Loop.

The South Loop, right below the Roosevelt Avenue…

Right.  Or above, either one of them.  If you’re talking about the South Side, you’re talking about above.  Originally it was a three- or four-story office building, and Ahmad purchased the building.  He had his offices on one floor, and he had two rented out, and the bottom he took and made a restaurant out of — the Alhambra Restaurant.  It was a magnificent place.  The decor and the food and the comfort was well-accepted by the public.  And it was a non-alcoholic place, so that made it able to stay open 24 hours a day.  During the prom season, you would be surprised at the amount of youngsters that would come there at 12, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and still hanging, but come in and hear the music and have their dinner or whatever.  It was a wonderful place.

Was the band pretty much playing there constantly, week after week?

Well, the general idea behind the whole situation was that we would spend maybe six months of the year, so we could be with our families, and six months for travel — go out for two weeks, come home for two weeks, that type of thing.  And I think he had plans of booking people like Miles and these kind of people into the place, eventually.  We were there for a couple of months to try to get it off the ground, which we did.

Then it was one of those stories after that.  You hear a million stories.  I’ve heard a couple of versions.  But the club could have been successful, would have been successful, but the only way it could succeed was with Ahmad.  Ahmad had to take  up the slack in the lean days to build it, to make it flourish.  You know how Jazz is.  You have to establish it where someone knows at any of the day, the night, seven nights a week, they can go somewhere and have good music, good food — and that takes a while to do.  But I think he had succeeded in doing that.

People say that at around this time in Chicago, the club scene was in a kind of a downswing.

I don’t know, Ted.  Because there was always X amount of work on the South Side.  The phenomenal thing about Ahmad, this didn’t take five or six years to do.  He did this in less than two years, from working the places on the South Side, which paid well, but from hundreds of dollars, you’re talking about thousands of dollars now — and it’s a matter of a year-and-a-half.  And there was still an abundance of work on the South Side.  The South Side didn’t really start to deteriorate until I guess the rest of the United States started deteriorating, after the death of Martin Luther King.  Then the clubs and everything…

But there was always an abundance of work all over town, not just the South Side.  You had the North Side, the near North Side, you had the Gold Coast, you had the far North Side, you had Oak Lawn.  There was many, many places.  Calumet City!, ha-ha, which is close to Chicago.  But the club was very successful.  Very successful.  But it couldn’t make it without Ahmad.

[MUSIC: From Live at the Blackhawk: "All Of You," "Love For Sale," "Time On my Hands," "Sweet and Lovely"]

We’ll next move to the date that brought Ahmad Jamal to  wider public recognition, his dates at the Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove.

Yes.  In the Pershing Hotel, right on the corner.

There were several venues in the hotel, weren’t there?

Yes.  There was the Pershing Lounge upstairs.  And downstairs, I forget the name of the place, but that’s where Sun Ra got his thing together, the first big band together, was downstairs at the Pershing.

Was it El Grotto?

It was called El Grotto…

That’s when Earl Hines had the place.

That was before my time, see.  That was all over with when I got to Chicago.  But there was also a dance hall above that, believe it or not, Charlie Parker used to play for dancers, and Charlie Ventura and Lester Young — they used to play upstairs there.  Would you believe that?  It was great!  The joint would be packed.  Anyway, there was a lot of activity at the Pershing in the late Forties and early Fifties that I saw.

Apart from just the sheer talent of Jamal, can think of  why this particular recording have broken the band out as spectacularly as it did?

I don’t know.  I don’t think we ever figured that one out.  I guess it was just time.  It was just time.  For that recording, I think we did three nights in the Pershing, two or three nights recording us at that time.  It could have been the live thing, with the people clapping.  That could have done it.  But it was accepted all over immediately.  Immediately.

Jamal has always had great acclaim with the public and quite a bit with musicians, but the critical community has always seemed to have a little trouble.  So I guess the public spoke in this case.

Well, like I said, when the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!  That’s wrong, I know, to say.  That’s quite a statement to make over public…

I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment among the musical community…

VF:    Well, generally the critics… Well, it was just like Charlie Parker.  You know, when Charlie Parker first hit the scene, everybody, almost everybody except the youth was against it, was anti-Charlie Parker.  But the youth were definitely there.  And that was Ahmad’s crowd also.  But then he reached not only the youth; he played something for the elderly also, the people that were used to the other kind of music — but with a new feeling.  The same music, but the new feeling.  That’s what Bird did.

As you mentioned before, a lot of what Jamal did comes out of the tradition of the Nat Cole Trio, and there’s Art Tatum sound, and the Erroll Garner sound as well.

Well, to me Erroll is… I hate to say it, Ahmad, but Erroll is my favorite pianist.  And the reason for that is Erroll is the only guy I know who can play by himself and swing an entire audience — by himself.  He’s a one-man band. Ahmad loved Erroll.  A lot of times, he played it.  He could play like Erroll.  Which is very, very difficult.  It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of good timing.  Erroll had excellent timing.

But what made the trio successful, I don’t think either one of the three of us knew.  All of a sudden, there it was.  Because we left home, went out on the road… In fact, our first trip from home with the trio, after the record had hit, was Des Moines, Iowa.  And it was a complete disaster.  Well, that’s a long story.  But it was a complete disaster, because it was held under certain auspices that weren’t sanctioned at that time.  But we didn’t come back disgruntled.  We knew we felt good when we played.  And the next engagement we had, we left and went to Washington, and then boom, that did it — Washington, D.C.

So you’d go to each town and the record would break in  each town as…

Well, no.  The record broke immediately.  I mean, as we were traveling from town to town, the record was breaking way before we got there.  In other words, before we got to California, which maybe was three or four months after we left to travel on the road, the record had become phenomenally big then.  One of those kind of things.  It was an immediate response.  I’m sure of it.

We’ll begin a set of several compositions recorded at the Pershing with a special request from Vernell, “Poor Butterfly.”

When I was looking at the album, it reminded me of Israel Crosby’s wife.  She loved that tune.  So she must have been in the audience that night.  And that’s how spontaneous Ahmad is.  He had certain things that he could  make an arrangement immediately.  We knew exactly what he was going to do.  But Hazel was her name.  In fact, she’s the godmother of one of my older children.  So naturally, when I see the title of this tune, I think of both.  And it came from a famous opera.

[MUSIC:  "Poor Butterfly," "Autumn Leaves," "Cherokee," "But Not For Me"]

As you said before, Ahmad Jamal didn’t make Bebop his whole thing…

No. But of course, he had the technique to do anything that he wanted to do.  And naturally, during that time, all of the younger musicians could really play Bebop.  You know what I mean?  That was the thing to do.  If you wanted to really play music, you had to play Bebop, because that’s the one that called for all your expertise.  So a lot of times if you listen to him, I think you could realize that he was very capable of playing Bebop.  I know it wouldn’t have been any kind of problem for the straight-ahead thing.

Now, Chicago was a real jam session city in the 1950′s.

Yes, it was.

Did Jamal go around and play at sessions?

No, he didn’t.  He was basically a very quiet family man.  But a working family man.  He worked all the time.  I think we talked earlier about his conception.  He was trying to get his conception of what he thought he should do with the piano into the forefront.  But no, he didn’t really hang out.  There was a special restaurant we used to go to, and drummers used to get together, and bass players… Anyway, it was a home for the musicians after we got off from work.  We’d hang til four or five in the morning.  But very seldom did Ahmad hang.

Which place was that?

That was called the Home Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage.  We sort of took over the restaurant from like 2 to 5 or 6.

Was Jamal very popular among the young pianists in Chicago?

Oh, yes.  And amongst the musicians.  In Chicago at that time, they had such a variety of music going on.  The music wasn’t limited whatsoever.  There was Bebop and all the rest of the things happening in Chicago.  So there was a lot of education to be had, a lot of knowledge to be gained.  Because you figured Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, people like Sonny Stitt, these were staple men in Chicago, they were always around in Chicago.  And drummers and bassists… Well, a lot of your best bass players during that time came out of Chicago.  The musicianship was very high quality.  I think I told you before, the last time we talked, that if a band was leaving New York City going to Chicago minus a man, they didn’t worry too much, because they knew they could pick up someone in Chicago that could fill that spot until whoever they really wanted would come forth and be part of the organization.  But Chicago was a very thriving musical town.

But no, Ahmad didn’t hang that much.  But everyone knew him.  Everyone would go see him, you know.

Another aspect is his great orchestrational abilities within the trio format.  I think Ellington must have been an influence on him there.  And he recorded Ellington compositions and Ellingtonia throughout his career…

Well, I think Ahmad always paid homage to the great musicians.   I don’t care who they were.  Naturally, he paid homage to a lot of composers.  But also what we call cliche licks that different musicians used to make, he’d also pay homage to them on those.  Tatum and Garner… Like I said, he could do the thing just like Garner if he wanted to.

Anyway, whatever the situation demanded, he had the power to come forth and take care of the business.

[MUSIC: "Raincheck," "Squatty Roo"]

This last segment will focus on the drummerless trio that Jamal first recorded, three or four recordings, one for the Okeh label and one for Argo-Cadet.  Do you recollect hearing this particular trio in person?

Yes.  Is Eddie Calhoun on bass on that one?

Actually, it’s Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.   The LP is Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

I remember hearing Ahmad many, many times.  Whenever he’d play the South Side, there was a particular place that loved him and the people loved him there.  It was called the Kitty Kat, at 63rd Street.  It was a very small place, but it stayed packed for Ahmad.

Was it a good piano?

A very good piano, yes.  Of course, there weren’t as many grands around as there are now, but most places had well-tuned pianos.  I’ll put it like that.  Sometimes a grand piano would have taken up too much room, some of the joints were so small.

No Bosendorfers in these places.

Oh, no.  I didn’t hear of Bosendorfer until… I  think George Shearing played one when I played with him.   But sitting next to a grand could be very detrimental to a drummer during that time, because if a guy really plays that grand, when he digs into those bass notes, it really can affect your ears — in a pleasant way, but it can affect them.

Another thing about this time, a number of these tunes, some six or seven that we won’t be able to get to, were recorded by Miles Davis around this time with the great quintet.  He collaborated with Gil Evans on “New Rhumba.” “All Of You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” “Ahmad’s Blues” and  “Billy Boy” were features for Red Garland.  “Autumn Leaves” and “Squeeze Me,”  too [ETC.] Ray Crawford had a very percussive technique on guitar.

Yes.  He started… Now, I don’t know if he originated it, but he was one of the first, I think, to record the bongo beat on the guitar.  It gave it an extra body, it gave it an extra sound, instead of just strumming all the time.

But to get back to Red,  you know, Ahmad recorded “Billy Boy” and those things much longer before Red Garland recorded those things.  But that’s when the group really started expanding, when he got into the trio thing.  I think Joe Kennedy and whoever else was there left and went back to Pittsburgh, and then he stayed with the trio at all times.  It wasn’t augmented whatsoever.  What was the question…

It wasn’t a question, but more of a comment.   What you’re responding to has to do with Ray Crawford’s guitar and had you seen the drummerless trio.

Yes.  And in fact, at this particular club, the Kitty-Kat that I was talking about before, they’d work on a Monday night when most of the groups were off on Mondays.  And Monday was a big day in Chicago.

They had the breakfast…

The breakfast show was Monday morning, and then you went to the jam sessions afterwards, then there was an evening jam session, then you’d go to the clubs that night.  So it was a 24-hour situation, or a 36-hour situation.

Chicago was  wide-open.

That’s right.  So we’d all head over to see Ahmad, pay him a visit, listen.  But then there were other things that you wanted to hear, too, so it wasn’t a constant thing.  But we always knew he was there.  We’d get full of his sounds, and we’d leave and come back and get replenished with them later on, like guys do today.

[MUSIC: "New Rhumba," "Billy Boy"]

Leave a comment

Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Drummer, Interview, WKCR

It’s Ahmad Jamal’s 81st Birthday

A few weeks ago, the unfortunate news went semi-viral that the U.S. government had blocked Ahmad Jamal, who turns 81 today, from receiving a $10,000 fee for a forthcoming  performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, citing the bank transfer as “a donation to terrorism.” Apparently, he was being confused with Jamel al-Bedawi, a Yemeni wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. It’s unclear whether the State Department or Department of Homeland Security has resolved the confusion

Jamal is, of course, a universal influence on the sound of hardcore mainstem jazz by dint of Miles Davis’ application of his strategies to his own rhythm section during the middle ’50s (Miles  recorded much of the repertoire of Jamal’s early ’50s Three Strings trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and assigned pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans to head to his steady gig with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of what he wanted them to do), and the subsequent assimilation of his syntax by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, and Bill Charlap, all of whom cite him as a seminal early influence. He’s of course evolved with age, broadening his concept, extending the forms, playing with an imaginative oomph and unfettered imagination.

As Jim Macnie put it in a cover story that ran in DownBeat last March, “All the signature Jamal elements are in place: the exquisite touch, the profound grace, the mercurial improv choices. Though they’ve been there for decades—certainly since he made his first big career splash with At The Pershing: But Not For Me, the 1958 powerhouse that rode the charts for more than two years—these days everything about his playing is a bit sharper, a touch more vivid, a smidge more fanciful.”

I had a chance to write my own Jamal profile for DownBeat  in 2003, when Dreyfuss released the wonderful trio date  In Search Of…Momentum. The piece incorporated a contemporaneous interview, but also drew heavily on Jamal’s remarks during a five-hour WKCR program in 1995 on which he presented his music and spoke about his life. I’ve posted the transcript of that encounter below, as well as interviews about Jamal with Harold Mabern, Herlin Riley, and Richard Davis

* * *

Ahmad Jamal Profile (WKCR, 2-5-95):

[MUSIC: "Poinciana" (1958); "Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me," "Chelsea Bridge" (1994); "Acorn" (1992); "Foolish Ways" (1989); "Divertimento" (1989); "Blue Gardenia" (1992); "Never Let Me Go" (1994); "Rossiter Road" (1985); "Haitian Marketplace" (1964); "Night Mist Blues" (1961); "Music, Music, Music" (1961); "Too Late Now" (1961); "You Don't Know What Love Is"; "Patterns," "Dolphin Dance" (1970)]

I’d like to speak with you about your early years in music and your years coming up in Pittsburgh as a young pianist.  I gather you began playing piano very early, and had a facility for it that was quite immediately evident.

AJ:    Well, Pittsburgh is a very interesting town, Ted.  You have a lot of players that are still there that are just as astonishing as the ones that have left.  We had Billy Strayhorn there, and I sold papers to his family when I was a kid, which was an experience in itself.  Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, who is long forgotten — we all went to the same high school.  Mary Lou Williams, same high school.

Which high school was that?

AJ:    Westinghouse.

Was there a great band teacher at Westinghouse High School?

AJ:    There was.  His name was Mr. Carl McVicker.  I think he lived to be 96 or 97.  I think he’s passed on now.  But to use the over-used word that Sue Clark comments on quite often, the legendary McVicker.  Yes, he was quite popular around there.

What was his manner like?

AJ:    Well, it was his approach.  He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946.

I interrupted you when you were listing the musicians out of Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s so many.  You have Loren Maazel, you have Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt, and Erroll Garner, as I mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams, Dodo Marmarosa, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Phyllis Hyman, Dakota Staton, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey — and it goes on and on.

I’ve read that you first were put at a keyboard at the age of 3 or 4, and your ability became quickly apparent.

Yeah, I took a long time to decide.  I started playing at 3.  Earl started playing at 3, too.  It happens.  It’s very rare, but it happens.  I began with Mary Caldwell Dawson, one of the great teachers, when I was 7; I started studying with her at 7.

Were your parents musical?  Did they play?   Was there always music in the household?

Later on, much to my astonishment, I found out that my mother had approached the piano before we started coming — that was astonishing, because she never mentioned that to me.  But the whole family has the ability to play the instrument, and some of us do.  I have a first cousin who was down at the Blue Note the other night.  She plays very well.  She doesn’t play any more, but she plays very well.  So there’s music throughout the entire family.  And if they don’t play, they have a very thorough knowledge and insight into what music should be all about.

What sort of music would you be listening to in the family?  Were you listening to a wide range of music as a young guy?

Well, I was a collector as a youngster. Ted.  I used to send away for… You had to send away for records then.   So I have a lot of collectors’ items.  I have big band records that Erroll Garner was on that very few people know about.  Guild was the label.  He did some things with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld.  We had to send away for things like “Salt Peanuts” when Dizzy and Bird first came out on those.  I was quite a collector, and so was my brother.  We collected everything, the big bands, particularly the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford and Basie, all the bands who used to come to the Savoy.  We had the Savoy Ballroom.  That’s when I first saw Diz, when Hen Gates was his pianist.  I don’t know if you remember the name Hen Gates.  Joe Harris, who’s another Pittsburgher, was playing drums — he’s a marvelous drummer.  So all those bands we went to see at the Savoy as well as the Stanley Theater, where I first saw Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer.  Which was a picture in itself, because Sonny was behind many, many percussion instruments.  “Ring Dem Bells” was one of the things Duke wrote for Sonny, I believe.

Many people have commented that the sight of the big bands as a spectacle was almost as inspiring as the sounds that emanated from them.

Well, that’s where I first heard Bud Powell, too.  Bud was playing with Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater.

Speaking about Bud Powell, which pianists caught your ear early on?

Well, some were fairly formidable, to say the least.  I mean, there are some great players in the so-called Boogie-Woogie idiom, too.  James P. Johnson and Albert Ammons, forget about it; they were just incredible.  But the ones that I think I began to follow most widely were Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and of course, Erroll Garner was my biggest influence.

How did you go about assimilating these influences?

Well, you’re going to emulate.  You have to emulate different people until you develop your own path or your own pattern.  So you’re going to emulate all those great players, and see what they’re doing, analyze what they were doing.  Then you go to your sessions… We had these historical sessions in Pittsburgh, which unfortunately are  absent now for a lot of the younger players.  So you take these things off a record, and you apply them in the jam sessions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, you’ll find your own approach to these things — which is not easily come by.

Who were some of the players your age that participated in these sessions in Pittsburgh?

A great trumpeter who is Stanley Turrentine’s brother, Tommy Turrentine.  Tommy taught me my first flatted fifth chord.  He’s a great musician, Tommy.  In fact, I got Tommy a job with George Hudson’s band shortly thereafter, after I joined the band.  Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions.  There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists.  Joe Harris.  Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too.  Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh.  Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player.  Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist.  Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III.  Cecil was one of the great figures around 471, where the sessions took place.

Were these private sessions, or would people come from around the community and offer their input?

Well, it was a private club of musicians.  You had to be a member to get in.  But we also let the general public in if they said and spoke the right words!

Was this club affiliated with the union?

Yes, it was our 471 local.

Apart from that, were you out doing little or not so little gigs in the community for money as a teenager?

Yes, I was working in just about every setting possible.  I was working sometimes with Eddie Jefferson, who was a tap dancer then.  He wasn’t singing at the time.  I used to play for Eddie Jefferson on rare occasions.  In fact, Eddie used to come down to the club and participate in jam sessions, too.  And I was with all the big bands.  I did a lot of big band work in Pittsburgh.

Local big bands?

Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray, Jerry Elliott.

What type of chart would they be playing?  Were local arrangers doing it, or were they working with stocks, or the popular charts of the day?

50-50, Ted.  We had some great writers within Pittsburgh, so we had some stock charts, but we also had our own writer that would write as well.

I guess Billy Strayhorn had left a little before that time?

[LAUGHING] Yes.  We didn’t have Billy’s things!  Duke had those.  We had the stock arrangements of Billy’s by that time, I would suppose.

Then I had some very unusual settings where we would go.  Carl Otter, who was a great musician around Pittsburgh, his father was a great pianist, and Carl was one of the  saxophonists… We used to play jobs in Uniontown, just piano and tenor, no drums, no bass.  Can you imagine that, just piano and tenor.

Earl Hines in his autobiography mentions Wylie Avenue as the strip where he really picked up his information in the 1910′s and early Twenties.  What was the Pittsburgh Jazz scene like when you were in there as far as the older musicians, and what part of town was it located in?  Give us a sense of the ambiance in Pittsburgh.

Wylie has been replaced with the new sports center, the coliseum, the sports dome, whatever they call it.  It’s been replaced, and Wylie Avenue is no more, unfortunately.  They should never have torn down Local 471.  They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least.  But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.

Wylie Avenue was the place where we all gathered, the places that were around there were the Washington Club, where I first met Art Tatum.  I was 14 when Art came and played for us.

What was that experience like?

Well, it’s very difficult to describe an experience like that, [LAUGHS] a 14-year-old kid sitting and playing along with Art Tatum.  Of course, he played last!

Did he have any comments for you at that time?

I don’t know.  I was too in-awe to even get into that.  His quotes were mentioned later on in some of my press releases.  Someone found some quotes of his as a result of that, and put them in some subsequent press releases.

Then we had the Bamboolah Club, and we had Crawford’s Grill, which I’d imagine you’ve heard of.  Crawford’s Grill was the definitive place for players.  I, interesting enough, never worked Crawford’s Grill.  Then, of course, the capital, the dome of the capital, the Musicians Club.  To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned.

So you came up in some very tough company in Pittsburgh, very high standards.  How old were you when you began working regularly and taking home some money.

Too young.  I was 11 years old.  That’s too young.  I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets.  That’s too young.  I don’t recommend that.

Can you give us some descriptive sense of what you sounded like at the age of 11 or 12, in 1941 or 1942?

I sounded well enough… See, in my case, I had an aunt from North Carolina.  That was when publishing was publishing, and she used to send me sheets and sheets and sheets of music that was written before I was born.  So I sounded well enough during those years as a result of having all this great body of work that I drew from this sheet music, that I was working with guys 60 or 65 years old, and they were astounded because I knew all of these sounds.  That’s how I got so much work, or enough work to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.

Were you improvising at that time?  Were you functioning as an improvising Jazz pianist?

Well, when I first started playing, I just played everything I heard, so I was improvising just like anyone else does who sits down, whether it’s Bach or Beethoven.  They’re all improvisers, too.  Improvisation is not confined to American Classical Jazz.  Anybody who sits down and starts doing innovative things is an improviser.  So I was doing it all my life.  I started doing that at 7, started writing charts at 10, and was quite at home with, as I said before, guys 60 or 65 who had been doing it for a long time — because I had this great body of work that I was drawing from.

You mentioned that you left Pittsburgh with the George Hudson Band.

George made me leave my happy home.  That’s where it started. George is also from Pittsburgh, but he transplanted to St. Louis, stayed in St. Louis, and is still there, if he’s still living.  Out of that band came Clark Terry, a great number of musicians.  Myself.  Ernie Wilkins, a great writer who used to write charts on the bus.  I can see Ernie right now writing charts on the bus.  He was a phenomenal writer.  He came out of that band, too.  Bill Atkins, one of the great, unheralded first saxophonists, possibly the top first man in the world.  Marshall Royal was another one, with Basie for many, many years, but Marshall was known — Bill wasn’t.  So George produced a lot of great musicians.

So you went out with him and wound up in Chicago, is how it went?

George sent for me.  He came through and heard me, I guess, at one of those historic jam sessions at the 471, and I got a call to come to Atlantic City.  I was 17 then.  I had my eighteenth birthday in Atlantic City.  So I stayed in Atlantic City all summer, and there I met Johnny Hartman — because Johnny had just started.  We worked for Billy Daniels, who was one of the so-called superstars at that time.  Butterbeans and Susie.  Ziggy Johnson had the chorus line; that’s another historic figure.  We had Jimmy Smith, the xylophone player who used to tap-dance on the xylophone — incredible.  He passed away in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel from tuberculosis.  Oh, it’s a line of people that were there.

We stayed for an entire season in Atlantic City, at the Club Harlem, which is now no more.  We would start at 8 o’clock at night, get out when the sun was coming up.  Louis Armstrong came through one time, and that’s where I met the famous Sid Catlett.  It was one of the thrills of my life, playing with Sid Catlett.  We had great times there.  Great times.

It seems like by the time you’re 18 or 19 and getting to Chicago, you’d had as much experience as some people get in sixty years!

Well, there are a few of us that have, I call it, embraced three eras of music.  A few of us have done that.  George Coleman, Thad Jones, Jamil Nasser, the late Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, and Miles Davis, as well as Gil Evans — because Gil was writing back then for Claude Thornhill.  Musicians who have embraced three eras are very fortunate, and their whole approach is different, because we were youngsters when the big bands were in vogue, we were still young when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came along, and we’re still around in the so-called Electronic Age.  So when you’re drawing from this great body of work, your approach is quite different.

[MUSIC:  "Raincheck" (1960); "Prelude To A Kiss" (1976); "Squatty Roo" (1958); "Don't You Know I Care?" (1994)]

We were taking you from Pittsburgh to Chicago in our last conversational segment, and you were spending a season in Atlantic City with the George Hudson band.  From then to Chicago, what happened?

I left the band to go back to exploit with Joe Kennedy the possibilities of getting the Four Strings in gear and getting some work for the group that we had at the time.  The group was Joe Kennedy, Ray Kennedy, myself and Edgar Willis at that time (Peepers) was playing bass, one of Mary Lou Williams’ favorite bassists.  He passed away some time ago, two years ago.  He was the bassist with Ray Charles for a while, after he went to California.  So I left the band to go back to Pittsburgh, then we went back to Chicago with that group in 1948, called the Four Strings.

Did you have a gig?  Was it set up through a booking office or something?

We couldn’t get any work.  We had one job that came out of an office in Chicago, and that job was not in Chicago — it was in Dayton, Ohio or somewhere.  So that group broke up because we couldn’t get work.  Joe went back to teaching in Pittsburgh.  Out of that group came the Three Strings, because what was left was the guitarist, bass and piano.

Did that begin your concept of the orchestrational piano trio?

Well, you know, before the formation of the trio, I worked with Israel Crosby for a while.  He had a trio.  I worked with him at Jack’s Back Door at 59th and State.  I was doing maintenance work at Carson Pirie and Scott downtown for $32 a week, and I would work at Jack’s Back Door with Israel and Johnny Thompson.  I’m the only living member of that group.  That was another interesting combination, saxophone, piano and bass — no drums.

Von Freeman cites Johnny Thompson as having been an influence in the 1930′s.

Johnny was one of the great players.  In Chicago, you know, that was the age of saxophone.  Tom Archia went there, that’s where everyone went… That’s where Vernell was working.  You couldn’t get Vernell, because Vernell was sought after all over the place.  It took me a long time to get Vernell in the group.  So I was working odd jobs.  I couldn’t work every night anyway, because I hadn’t joined the union.  I hadn’t put my transfer in, or some crazy rule.  I worked with Von Freeman a bit.  I worked with another saxophonist called Claude McLin, that people don’t know about.  He was a great player, too.  Gene Ammons was around; he was the big boss.  And Tom Archia where Vernell was working.

So finally, I went into this steady job over the weekend with Israel — Israel Crosby, Johnny Thompson and myself.

Then I played solo at the Palm Tavern.  Once in a while, Ike Day would come in and play for me.  People don’t know Ike Day, except for a few like the late Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones, and people who are in that really essence of the core elite.  Well, Ike Day was one of the great drummers who never left Chicago for very long.  He used to help me in my single engagement at Jack’s Palm, the Palm Tavern.  Unfortunately, he passed away in untimely fashion.

So I worked single, and I worked trio with Israel, then I formed my own group in 1951.  That was quite some time after the Four Strings had disbanded, though.  In the interim, I had gone out with a group called the Caldwells, and Ray Bryant and I were the graduates of that particular college, working for those three singers, the Caldwells.  Ray and I were the pianists of record with the Caldwells.  Then I went back to Chicago and formed my trio in ’51 after working around for three years.

By this time the union had straightened out…

Not really.  A friend of mine, who was one of the great saxophone players, Eddie Johnson, heard me play, and he went to Harold Gray and said, “Look, I want him on my job,” and he’s got to get in the union.  That’s how I got in the union.  Harry Gray was the head of the union at that time.  A very tough man.  Very tough.

I gather when you met Von Freeman, was working weekends at the Pershing Hotel, which you became identified with in the 1950′s.  Describe the ambiance around the Pershing Ballroom a little bit, and also what was going on around the South Side’s booming Jazz community.

Well, Von was at the Circle Lounge.  He wasn’t at the Pershing when I met him.  I worked with Von at the Circle Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove.  The Pershing was at 64th and Cottage Grove.  It was one of the more sophisticated places on the South Side, along with Harry’s Show Lounge, which was the last time I saw Nat King Cole.  Nat came in and saw me there when I had a trio working in the front room.  We had graduated from the back room up to the front room at Harry’s.

Then we had the Hi-Hat Club, where Lester used to come, and Vernell and Israel were the musicians of record; they accompanied everyone that came through there.  That was quite a place, too, the Hi-Hat; I think it was on 63rd Street.

I went into the Pershing early-on, in 1951.  I asked for a job in there and didn’t get it; they didn’t hire me.  So I went somewhere else, and I came back in the Pershing later on, in 1958.  But the whole atmosphere there, Eddie Harris and I would be walking down the street, and there were great things happening there.  As I said before, Tom Archia, Willie Jones, and Willie Dixon.

Leonard Chess had just started his label.  He started it with five artists.  He started it with a little guy named Chuck Berry, some old masters by James Moody, some old masters by me, and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.  He had about five artists.  So the whole thing was one of great historical interest.  In fact, the place where he started is now a historical landmark in Chicago.  He owned the Macombo, where Tom Archia held court every night with Vernell and Willie Jones.  Leonard Chess owned that place.  So the atmosphere was really something when it came to saxophone at that time.  And of course, there were a great deal of venues to work, too, which are missing now.

Chris Anderson, of course, was playing with Von Freeman then, and he’s cited by many people who heard him at that time as having a very advanced concept for that time, and he seems to have had an impact on a number of

Chris has always been one of our favorites, along with Billy Wallace, who is a pianist that all the insiders know.  Billy is now playing a single up in Seattle.  But Chris had, and has always had a great harmonic concept, absolutely amazing, astounding.  And I have to get out and steal a few chords from you, Chris, as I mentioned before.  I haven’t seen Chris in a long time.

Of course, there was a bunch of greats around.  Chris. Bill Lee (the bassist, Spike Lee’s father).  Billy Wallace, who used to hold court quite often in Chicago.

The tracks we have cued up were recorded in 1951 and early 1952 for the Okeh label, with the trio of you, Ray Crawford, and Eddie Calhoun.  About three or four years after you cut these, Miles Davis then recorded most of these sides in his own way.  He always was very outspoken about his debt to your concept.  He had family in Chicago.  Did you know him at that time.  Do you recollect first meeting Miles Davis?

I knew Vernon quite well, Vernon Davis.  I met Vernon before I met Miles.  Vernon probably is still in Chicago.

But everybody came to the Pershing.  Billie Holiday came there with her chihuahua dog, Art Tatum used to come through there, Lena Horne — everyone came to the Pershing.  Sammy Davis was there the night before he lost his eye.  And I guess that’s where Miles first heard me.  What happened, there’s a man named Cadillac Bob who built the place downstairs, beneath the lounge, and he used to bring artists such as Miles there.  That’s where I first saw a teenager named Paul Chambers, and I was astounded that he was on the bandstand at his age.  And Miles I think was introduced as a result of him working downstairs and coming  up to the Pershing.

Eddie Harris, in a show we did last year, said he used to play on your off-nights at the Pershing, and he’d double on piano, and Charles Stepney, who played vibes, would take over on piano and he would play saxophone.  He also said that for a while Billie Holiday took a financial interest in a club that was based in one of the rooms at the Pershing that was called Budland.

Yeah, Budland.  That’s correct.  That’s downstairs, that’s right.  That’s the one that Cadillac Bob built.  Later McKie Fitzhugh had a place down the street where John Coltrane used to work, and McCoy used to work on the spinet pianos there!  I remember that, too!  Terrible pianos.

Describe the layout of the Pershing a little bit.  I believe there were three venues located in that hotel, the dance hall, the upstairs lounge and the basement.  Is that right?

Well, they had the Pershing Ballroom, the ballroom where they had the dances.  Those I never attended because I was busy working downstairs, but they did have fairly big names come in there.  But I never went upstairs.  C.B. Atkins was around.  He was one of the husbands of Sarah Vaughn.  C.B. used to come in and out of there, upstairs I guess in the ballroom, and he would tell me what was going on upstairs.  But I never attended.

The Pershing was one big, massive, circular bar.  The bar was the entire room.  It was a big room.  The stage was adequate.  It was high.  It was the place, at that time when we went in there, where everyone came.  That was the place where everyone came.  Downstairs was Budland, as you just reminded me, was the other venue.  So there were three.  There was Budland downstairs, and the Pershing Lounge, and upstairs the ballroom.

I guess a few years before you came to Chicago, Earl Hines, whose geographic path you followed, owned a spot down there called El Grotto, and Joe Louis I believe had an interest in that place as well.

Yes, I knew the El Grotto.  Again, I didn’t go to the El Grotto much.  But I do remember the El Grotto.

Was Earl Hines someone who had an impact on you coming up?  Were you very aware of him as a young pianist in Pittsburgh, his legacy and his presence in Pittsburgh?

Oh, sure.  Earl was a great, great player, and a great band, and great records.  So you had to listen to Earl Hines.  I was a collector of Earl Hines’ records.

The big band that had played at the Grand Terrace.

Sure.

We’ll give Ahmad Jamal another break and hear these seminal sides from the early 1950′s on Okeh.  I don’t know how many exactly we’ll hear, but we’ll begin with “Ahmad’s Blues,” one of Ahmad’s many famous compositions, recorded May 5, 1952 — Ray Crawford, on guitar, Eddie Calhoun on bass.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Crawford/Calhoun, "Ahmad's Blues", "Surrey With the Fringe On Top", "Billy Boy" (1951-1952); Jamal/Crawford/Crosby, "Autumn Leaves"; "New Rhumba" (1955)]

I’d like to speak with you about bass players, because the bass plays such an essential role in your conception of the trio, and you’ve worked with such superb bass players.  Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis had one of his early gigs with you in Chicago, Israel Crosby, Jamil Nasser, and onward and forward.  Would you discuss your ideas on what a bassist needs to do performing in your group?

Well, the bass essentially, Ted, has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil was when he was working with me.  So that’s what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist.  And I’ve also sought those bassists who had sensitive ears, who had the ability to hear.  Because I myself am drawing from a great body of work (having explained before that my aunt sent me sheets and sheets of music), so you have to have a man who has the ability to have this perception of what  you’re doing when it comes to pulling these compositions of years and years ago, as well as the present things that we do.

How much input do you have into the lines that the bass player comes up with, apart of course from being the pianist and the main soloist?

AJ:    Most of the bass lines I myself have done.  The rare exception was the bass line that Israel played on “Autumn Leaves.”  That was his bass line, which has been widely used.  So most of the bass lines I have developed myself, because I have a thing for that.  I love bass lines.  So most of the things, 99 percent of the things, I write.

You’ve mentioned that you worked with Israel Crosby before you even recorded, and then subsequently he joined your band…the year I have in my mind is 1954.  I’d like you to say a few words about Israel Crosby for the audience, what made him so distinctive as a bass player, and your own personal relationship.

AJ:    Well, as I said before, I worked with Israel before he worked with me.  I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson, and worked at Jack’s Back Door for maybe a year.   It was a very interesting job.  We played everything, all kinds of tunes.  It was great.

It was a while before I could get Israel, because Israel was working a lot with Benny Goodman and Buster Bennett around Chicago, and it was difficult for me to get Vernell as well as Israel.  So finally I got Israel into the group, and we stayed together for around eight years, Vernell, Israel and myself. First of all, the incredible thing about Israel is that he used a K-bass.  He didn’t have a Tyrolean bass (I think that’s what James Cammack is using now; he just bought one) or a German bass or some of these fabulous instruments that you see various bassists with.  He just had a K-bass.  It was phenomenal how Israel could get this kind of action, this kind of sound, this kind of penetration out of a K-bass.  But he did.

And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation.  His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless.  And a tremendous ear.  Again, here’s a man that knew many, many, many compositions.  He knew all the tunes.  You couldn’t play a tune he didn’t know.  He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word.

And I guess a very ingenious musician as well, because performing with you, the other musicians have to fill in a lot of space and come up with counterpoint and dialogue.  In a show we did a few years ago, Junior Mance was commenting that Israel Crosby always came up with ingenious ideas that blended with the most perfect taste.

Well, the classic line that Israel created (and Todd Coolman, who is another great bassist, and I often talk about it with him, has written these things down that Israel did) is his line on “But Not For Me.”  That’s a classic Israel Crosby line, as well as the things he was doing on “Poinciana.”

You mentioned how difficult it was to get Vernell Fournier into the group because he was so busy.  I’d like again for you to say a few words about his very special qualities as your drummer for eight years, and then for a little bit after in the mid-Sixties.

Here again, I’ve had three great drummers from New Orleans.  The New Orleans atmosphere down there produces this type of talent.  I had Vernell Fournier, and Herlin Riley, who left my group and went with Wynton Marsalis, and now Idris Muhammad.  They all have that great New Orleans background, that great magic that only can come from New Orleans.  They all have that approach to music.  And when you visit New Orleans and you are down there, and you explore these beginnings and whence it comes, you realize what they have that many other drummers don’t have.

That’s a tantalizing comment.  Can we explore that a little bit?  What is it about the New Orleans beat that’s so special to you?

AJ:    Well, historically I don’t know it as well as Idris does or Vernell does.  But when you talk about New Orleans, you talk about the funerals that are conducted and the way they are conducted, where the drummers participate to a large extent, to say the least, and the French Quarter — and it goes on and on and on.

Vernell is one of the great brush players of all time.  Tremendous approach to drums tonally, and one of the great innovators.  What he’s done on “Poinciana,” if he could have copywritten that, he could build a bank.  Many of the things you hear that drummers do, whether it’s Maurice White or whether it’s in some Rock groups, some of that stuff came from Mister Vernell Fournier.  But it’s very difficult to keep from being plagiarized when you’re playing in the context that he played in.  The thing that he did on “Poinciana,” for example, one of the most widely imitated rhythms in the world.

In fact, it’s called the ‘Poinciana Beat,’ isn’t it, by drummers?

Of course!

Which brings up another aspect of your playing, which is the extensive use, and often within the same piece, of different time signatures and different rhythmic approaches to music.

That’s the Pittsburgh influence.  We have a little influence in Pittsburgh, too.  We have some things that happened there as well.  As I said before, I’m drawing from three eras of music.  I have had more influences than pianists.  Ben Webster was a big influence upon me.  The big bands were a big influence upon me.  So I think orchestrally.  I’ve always thought orchestrally.  That’s the way I approach my group, whether it’s a duo, a trio, a quintet or whatever it is — it’s my orchestra.  And with an orchestra, you have to have, or at least I like to have a variety of things going, rhythmically and melodically and harmonically.  It’s part of my training.

Let me bring you back to the Ben Webster influence.  He’s the only non-pianist you’ve mentioned so far…

Well, Roy Eldridge influenced me, too, on trumpet.  I play some of Roy’s things!  Lucky Thompson influenced me.  Don Byas was one of my biggest influences.  It goes on and on and on.  These things you incorporate, and they stay in the inner recesses of your mind, and they become a part of your conscious playing.

Well, the trio became immensely popular at the time of the release of the album Live At The Pershing, although of course, you had established yourself prominently in Chicago by that time.  Let’s talk about the events leading up to the immense popularity of your trio and of your concept, and the tremendous exposure the band now had.  Of course, you were well-known to the musicians’ community, but now the broader public and international public came to know your work.

Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible for an instrumentalist to have a breakthrough.  It was no meteoric rise in our case.  I had been recording for seven years, and the group I had was far too subtle to continue working in the various venues, because guitar and bass sometimes are lost in the bigger venues — so I went to drums as a result.  It wasn’t an overnight thing.  I mean, I had worked long and hard to try and get a group together, and I went in as artist-in-residence in Chicago.  After working here in New York, I decided to go and stay at home.  Home then was Chicago.  So the thing that happened in Chicago was very, very rare.  There’s only a few of us that have that kind of breakthrough who are instrumentalists.  The singers get the hit records.  We instrumentalists don’t.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Dave Brubeck, and then you begin to think who else.  But there haven’t been too many hit records instrumentally.  Ours stayed on the charts for eight weeks, which is very, very unusual.

[MUSIC: Jamal/Crosby/Fournier, "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine" (1961); (w/J. Nasser) "This Terrible Planet" (1965); "April In Paris" (1961); "Love For Sale" (1958), "All Of You" (1958); "Cherokee" (1958)]

Tell me about your nightclub, the Alhambra.  You said you had 43 employees.  It was a very ambitious venture.

43 too many.  Yeah, it was quite a venture, and one I got away from.  Interesting club.  I had Jackie Cain and Roy Kral there as well.

You had a non-alcohol policy, I gather.

Yes.  I had one of the great oud players (and one of the great bassists, too) while I was working for George Wein up in Hyannisport, at the other Birdland up there.  I had Abdul-Malik.  The late Abdul-Malik played an engagement there for me as well.

We’ve covered a short space of time in your musical career.  What have I not mentioned that you would like to express for the radio audience?

Well, there are so many things to mention, Ted.  But wWe didn’t mention the concert with Duke at Carnegie Hall, the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Parker with Strings.  I think I’m the only one around from that concert that we did with Duke.  Of course, I worked with Duke on a number of occasions, and shared the bill with him at Basin Street West also.

Your new [1995] release is dedicated primarily to Ellington and Strayhorn.  It’s called I Remember Duke, Hoagy and Strayhorn, and there are versions of “I’ve Got It Bad” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t You Know I Care”, “do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and also “Prelude To A Kiss.”  You mentioned earlier seeing the Ellington band at the Stanley Theater and seeing Sonny Greer for the first time. Do you remember your favorite recordings by the  Ellington band of that era?

“Cottontail” was one of my favorites.  That’s a classic recording of Ben Webster’s.

Did you get to see the band that had Jimmy Blanton in it in person?

No, I never saw that band.

When did you first start going out, by the way?

My sister took me to the theaters when I was around 7.

What are your early memories of seeing big bands?

Quite impressed, you know.  That’s when I first heard Cootie Williams.  As I said, he had Bud Powell in the band then.  And seeing Count Basie come into the Savoy, and seeing Diz.  Very, very good for a young musician, to say the least.

But we have to also talk about some of the great bassists I’ve had.  That’s one thing I didn’t expand upon.  I’ve had some tremendous bassists.  At the beginning with Tommy Sewell out of Pittsburgh, and then Eddie Calhoun, who passed away.  After that, Israel.  Jamil Nasser was with me for many, many years.  He’s one of the bassists, coming here with one of the great players of all time, Phineas Newborn.  Jamil came to New York with Phineas, so Jamil had a tremendous association with a great pianist.  So he was with me for a number of years.

Not to speak about… I’ve had some great drummers.  I had Wyatt Ruether.  Papa Jo Jones also worked with me.

I had Richard Davis after he left Cozy Eccleston.  That was the second job he had when he joined me.  I had both the Pates, Johnny Pate and his son Donald Pate.  It goes on and on.  A great bassist, Mike Taylor, out of Pittsburgh.  But I’ve had some tremendous players.  But we’ll have to talk about that when I have time.

One more question: On the relation between technique and improvising.

AJ:    Technique is extremely important.  I’m amazed at some of the young players out here now.  They have tremendous techniques.  They are power technicians, and they’re doing tremendous things.  But technique without the ability to tell the story is meaningless.  You have to tell a story.  Art Tatum had tremendous technique, incomparable technique. There are very few parallels to Art Tatum, or to a Phineas Newborn.  But they also told a story.

Technique is something that is invaluable for any musician, and I respect it tremendously.  But I also respect the ability to tell a story.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Coolman/Gordon Lane, "Dreamy" (1980); w/ Strings, "Bellows" (1989); "Tranquility" (1968); "Manhattan Reflections" (1968); "I Remember Hoagy" (1994); "Skylark" (1994); "Round Midnight" (1985)]

[-30-]

On various WKCR Musician Shows over the years, the following pianists presented these tracks by Ahmad Jamal:

Mulgrew Miller : “Dolphin Dance,” “Poinciana” (1971)

K. Barron: “Music, Music, Music,” “There is No Greater Love” ["Live At the Pershing was very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was 'Music, Music, Music.'  And again, it was 'Who is that?'  It was just so hip. I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There's just so much space and so many ideas and he's so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is...I mean, it's unbelievable technique.  His touch... So he has it all happening for him."

Cedar Walton: "Haitian Marketplace"

James Williams: "Patterns", ("Night Mist Blues")

Cyrus Chestnut: "You Don't Know What Love Is"

John Hicks: "Rossiter Road," "Too Late Now," "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine"

Junior Mance: "Raincheck," "Poinciana

In a 2008 piece for the now dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com, pianist Eric Reed selected a dozen Jamal favorites.

Here are  interview excerpts in which several of Jamal's contemporaries, bandmates, and fellow pianists remark upon his qualities.

Richard Davis:

RD:   But the first time I got a job which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh -- that was Ahmad Jamal.   This must have been 1952.

Q:    So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer?  Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD:    Yeah.  He had Eddie Calhoun...

Q:    He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD:    Yeah.  Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar -- I can't remember his name now either!  Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course.  Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraccas while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he'd get this effect.  And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum.  It was a fantastic thing.  And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable.  And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed.  It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

Q:    Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time?  And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD:    He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

Q:    There were several levels to that club, weren't there?  There were like two or three different venues within that hotel...

RD:    Well, the ballroom.  See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through.  Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young.  And several people would come.  Charlie Parker... They'd all work in the ballroom.  And the lounge was the place...I think that's when first heard Eddie South, the violinist.  I can't remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad.  And it was a classy kind of a  joint.  You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments -- you know, it was very pleasant.

Q:    Good piano.

RD:    Good piano, yeah. It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad.  The one thing I'll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, "Who is your favorite piano player?"  And I said, "Oscar Peterson."  You know, who else?   And he said, "You want to know who my favorite bass player is?"  I said, "Tell me."  I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody.  He said, "You are."  I said, "Me?"  He said, "Yeah, because you're here with me."  I said, "God, what a lesson!"  I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him.  That was a real booster.

Herlin Riley:

TP:    You went out on the road with him in '82?

HERLIN RILEY:  From '82 to '87.

TP:    Go over how he heard about you.

HERLIN RILEY:  Ahmad Jamal happened to be in New Orleans at a place called The Blue Room, which is the Fairmont Hotel.  There was a trumpet player in the house band there named Omar Sharif -- Emory Thompson was his Christian name -- who Ahmad knew.  Ahmad needed a drummer, because the guy who'd been playing drums with him left him in New Orleans, and he'd hired some guys in New Orleans who didn't work out.  Ahmad was going to Phoenix, and he asked Omar if he knew somebody who could do his gig, and Omar recommended me, and called me to tell me.  Then I got a call from Ahmad about 7:30 in the morning. "May I speak to Herlin Riley?" "This is he." "This is Ahmad Jamal.  I understand you're an excellent drummer, and I need someone to work with me in Phoenix. Can you do it?"  Of course, I accepted, and I got some other guys to do my gigs around town.  We went to Phoenix, we did a soundcheck, and we hit.  We hit the same night.  I was familiar with his music, but I hadn't met him.  So we played, and after the set he offered me the gig.  I happily accepted.

TP:    When we spoke for the liner note, you said the soundcheck was the rehearsal, and it was very easy to work with him.  He sat down at the piano, started playing, and continued to play.  He pointed to the bass player, who came in; he pointed to the conga player, who came in; he played the cycle of the song around and around 3-4-5 times, then pointed to you and brought you in.  He didn't tell you what to play; you just heard them, and found your pocket.  Let's talk about the dynamics of playing drums with him.

HERLIN RILEY:  The things I said are still true.  Playing with him was an enriching experience.  Ahmad's music is organic, and the fact that he can arrange it on the spot... Because everything is cued.  The music has a structure it has a form, but he gives you hand signal to direct you inside of the form with the music.  It tells you if you're playing the top of the head section, the A-section or whatever, then he'll give you another cue for the bridge, then he'll give you another cue for the interlude.  So if he wants you to repeat any of those three cycles, he can just give you the same cue to repeat it over and over. Then when he gives you the next cue to go to the next part of the tune, you go there.  So the music is constantly being shaped and arranged on the spot, which makes it very organic and very rich.

Also, Ahmad Jamal can be very percussive in his playing, so we often had a lot of rhythmic and percussive interaction.  We would play off of each other.  He always does that. I've found myself very much at home playing with him.  If I was to play with him now, it would be the same.

TP:    He obviously has an affinity for New Orleans drummers.

HERLIN RILEY:  I think one thing about New Orleans drummers is the fact that most of us grew up within the street band and parade band traditions, and the bass drum is very prevalent inside of that.  It's just like the music of the early '20s.  It comes from the bottom-up.  New Orleans drummers play the drums from the bottom up, from the bass drum up, as opposed to a lot of other guys who perhaps play from the cymbals down.  I think Ahmad is one that likes the groove.  And when you hear most music that has a solid groove on it, it comes from the bottom up.  He really likes playing grooves [vamps].  I think he just has an affinity for the nuances that New Orleans drummers bring him; that is, incorporating the bass drum inside of the grooves.

TP:    So you think he just hears that sound as part of the orchestra in his head.

HERLIN RILEY:  That’s what I think. He didn’t talk to me about it, but I just know from working with him that he likes the groove!  When he stands up, he’ll watch you play, and kind of clap his hands and get inside the groove.  It’s kind of unexplainable, but it’s something I’ve found I’ve been able to identify from working with him over the years.

TP:    You said that in working with him, you dealt with rhythms you’d never faced or dealt with before.  Can you be specific about the rhythmic signatures he likes to work with and the ways he works with them that are unique?

HERLIN RILEY:  For instance, he would play sometimes a tune in 6/8, and we’d get into the 6/8 feeling, and inside that 6/8 feel he would impose a regular 4/4 meter over the top of that, so you’re playing two different meters at the same time.  I had never experienced anybody who had that kind of rhythmic control, to really be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the two.  Because it’s two different ways of thinking.  But I could hear him doing that. It would be two different rhythms going on at the same time, and I had never experienced that.  Also, I remembering playing a tune with him that Jack DeJohnette wrote called “Ebony,” and inside of the cycle of the tune there was a 3/8 bar.  So you go 1 2 3 4, 1-2-3 1-2-3-4… It wasn’t music that was counted out to me like that.  It was something that he played, and later on I came to understand what it was.  But he just played it, and then I had to just kind of figure it out and play inside of it.  Later, as I started working with him and he started introducing those kind of 3/8s and 7/8s and 5/8 kind of rhythms inside of the music, then I could see it from an academic standpoint.  But when I first started working with Ahmad, it’s stuff that was just played, and you had to react and find your place inside of that.  As opposed to actually knowing what it was, you had to instinctively know what it was and go with your instincts.

TP:    And your instincts were sufficiently honed by playing in the range New Orleans contexts to be prepared.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes, being in New Orleans, I was prepared.  I had a lot of experience I could call on.  New Orleans is a small community, but there were a lot of things going on musically in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, a lot of styles of music.  I got a chance to play in Latin bands, bands that were playing a lot of free jazz, and even got a chance to play in vaudeville, burlesque… I played for strippers, then later I played in “One Mo Time.”

TP:    From what you say, it seems Ahmad Jamal has had a big influence on the rhythmic content of contemporary jazz.  Whether it’s direct or indirect, a lot of things he’s done have filtered into the contemporary mainstream.

HERLIN RILEY:  I would think so.  But a lot of that stuff is unspoken, because Ahmad Jamal is not one of the most in-your-face jazz figures who is out here.  He hasn’t had the same kind of recognition as people like Miles Davis or Dizzy or even Monk at this point. Most jazz musicians know who he is, but the general public, when you mention his name, they’re like, “Who?”

TP:    Do you think he’s a little taken for granted by the jazz public?

HERLIN RILEY:  I think the Jazz Establishment has shied away from him, especially early on in his career, especially the fact that he changed his name, became a Muslim at a time when it was very unfashionable.  My personal feeling is that he’s had to endure some backlash from that.

TP:    True, but he was quite successful in the ’50s… And he doesn’t want to take any stuff from anybody business-wise.  But he was never the type of bandleader who would instruct you how to play your parts.  It would be a general feel, and whoever you are becomes the interpretation of it.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes.  I think that’s one of Ahmad’s great assets.  He understands and he can hear musicians, and hear that musician’s voice for what it is.  Either it’s something that he can work with or it’s something he can’t work with.  If it’s something that he can work with, then he’ll let you really be yourself and let you speak your musical voice as it may be.  Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions in the music.  He used to tell me, “Don’t fill in every time the phrase comes around; you don’t have to play a fill.”  He’s always directing the volume and dynamics inside of the music. But really, he’s just shaping whatever is already there; whatever talent you already have, he knows how to shape it, but just let it grow and be better.  But he doesn’t disturb it in trying to have you change your direction or change who you are musically speaking.

Harold Mabern:

TP:    You seem so well positioned to put Ahmad Jamal in perspective.  You’ve heard play since when?

HAROLD MABERN:  1954 in Chicago.  Frank Strozier and I graduated from high school together in 1954, and moved to Chicago.  Booker Little graduated in ’55, and he followed us there.  George Coleman came in ’55 or ’56.  I hung out a lot with Booker and Frank, because they went to the conservatory, and we used to practice together at the YMCA.  Booker Little was the one who turned us on to Ahmad Jamal.  He’d gone out one night to hang out, and we asked him, “Where did you go last night?”  He said he went to see Ahmad Jamal.  We didn’t know who Ahmad was, but Booker knew, and he said that he’d heard one of the greatest pianists in his lifetime.  Booker played a little piano, too; not solo, but he knew a lot about it, having been around Phineas Newborn.  After that, the Pershing became our hangout night after night.  But we also heard Ahmad at the Kit-Kat Club with Ray Crawford and Israel.

TP:    You probably heard him with Ray Crawford and Israel Crosby first.  Because I think Ray Crawford left in ’55, and the Pershing began in late ’55.  Was what he was playing when you first heard him similar to what’s on the earlier recordings?

HAROLD MABERN:  The way he sounds on records is the same as it sounded in person. There was no difference.  It was all great.

TP:    But usually, before an audience, people will stretch out, or it’s more experimental, or chance comes into the equation…

HAROLD MABERN:  I see what you mean.  Well, he stretched out then, but naturally not as much as he does now.  Because he is constantly evolving.  It’s that way with all of us; you get to the point where you take more chances, you don’t play it safe.  But he did stretch out, but it was more of a format situation.  Now he’s really stretching out.  But at the time I’d heard him, I’d never heard that kind of approach before.

TP:    Describe what was unique about his approach.

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, I have to put Bill Lee into it, because he also told me about Ahmad.  The fascinating thing to me — after being around Phineas, with the technical aspect; which was great, and is still great, with the touch and the sound — was the sound that Ahmad was getting then.  After being around Bill Lee, I became attracted to his chords; I’d never heard chords played that way.  That’s when Bill Lee told me about Chris Anderson, Billy Wallace and Ahmad Jamal.  So then when I heard ahmad, it was the sound and the chordal approach.  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “Wow, how can that piano sound that way?”  That’s the only I can exlpain it, is his overall sound.  We’ve had a lot of great pianists, with great sounds and touches.  But there’s something about his approach…the sound he got that was unbelievable.

TP:    Did you see it as an extension of the great piano trios of the ’40s and early ’50s, like Nat Cole and George Shearing…

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, Nat Cole especially was one of his main influences, with the guitar and bass.  But one of his main influences, as I’m sure he spoke about, was Errol Garner.  They grew up together.  If you match up any record by Erroll Garner and any record by Ahmad, from an orchestral standpoint, you say, “Wow, there it is right there.”  But it was a lot like Nat Cole in the touch, the sensitivity of what he played, the chord voicings…

TP:    And probably a more progressive conception of harmony.

HAROLD MABERN:  Exactly.

TP:    So he was incorporating bebop, Bud Powell’s language onto the trio as a logical extension.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right, with Art Tatum touch… I call it Franz Liszt touch.  I tell my students that it’s the touch that produces the sound.  A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but it’s the touch and the sound they get out of it — like a Chopin touch or a Liszt touch.  That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are.

TP:    Well, he played Liszt when he was 11.

HAROLD MABERN:  That’s exactly right.  So all that produces the sound.  I would say the format of Nat Cole and Erroll Garner formulated his overall concept.  Then he just got beyond that and took it further, to the point where his stuff is so awesome… But it’s undescribable.  You have to hear it, and then all you say is “Wow, gee-whiz…”

TP:    Well, he has that amazing control.

HAROLD MABERN:  Total control.

TP:    In the ’50s, would he do things like work with different time signatures in one piece?

HAROLD MABERN:  I didn’t see him do that myself until he got to New York City. Which was another thing I thought was hip.  I said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of something like that?”  But that made me think of something he said once, that everybody needs to be directed or have a director, even if you play by yourself — because you have to direct or conduct yourself.  But that time thing, that thing with the hand signs, I’m pretty sure I saw him do that when he came to New York City.  And naturally, his buddy, Monty Alexander, has taken that… See, he has a special relationship with all of his piano friend, and I consider him to be a friend as well as my mentor.

TP:    He seems to have very warm relationships.  As he puts it, he’s been grown-up since he was a kid, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.

HAROLD MABERN:  To show that that’s true, I have a picture on my wall where Ahmad was playing one of these Elk type clubs, a junior lodge in Pittsburgh, and he was like a little kid sitting with all the older kids.  So I can see that he’s been a responsible human being for a long time.  People always said he used a lot of space; he’d rather call it discipline.  To have that kind of discipline and patience… He has really done his homework

But again, the overall thing about him, besides his touch and control… I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident.  His time is impeccable.  He will play a run and stop on a dime.  And the way he is able to play in those different time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4… He is a master at that.  It’s really unbelievable.  He is not playing cliches.  He is playing music.  Mulgrew Miller said, “man, I have a hard time playing in 5/4.”  But Ahmad can play with no problem in any of those weird time signatures.  He’s what you call a super-duper genius in every sense of the word.

TP:    So you actually were able to see the trio live from the beginning.

HAROLD MABERN:  As I said, I saw him with Ray Crawford and Israel at the Kit Kat Club, which was a real small club on 63rd Street.  It was real small, and man, the people were packed in there like sardines.  Then when they moved to the Pershing, naturally, that being a larger club, we were able to stretch out.  We also started working there on Monday mornings with the MJT+3, and Israel Crosby would come to sit in with us on Mondays.  That became our home away from home.  Ahmad would work the night, we would the breakfast party on Monday mornings.

TP:    That would be ’57-’58-’59, but you’d been seeing him since ’55. I guess his first drummer was Walter Perkins, and then Vernell.  Was the trio extremely popular in Chicago?

HAROLD MABERN:  All the piano players in Chicago, including Ahmad and Herbie, had their own individual sounds.  But there were three groups in Chicago that had hit records — the Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the MJT+3.  We all had our different audiences…

TP:    Herbie Hancock said that one thing that marked the Chicago pianists was that they were interested in reharmonization, parallel to and before Bill evans, and that Chris Anderson was responsible for a lot of it, and that Ahmad had his fingerprint on all of it.  Did Chris have an impact on Ahmad?

HAROLD MABERN:  I’m sure they did on each other.  To tell the truth, I really can’t say for sure.  They both have great love and respect for each other.  Chris went to Wendell Phillips High School, because Nat Cole went there.  Chris wanted to go there to be around Nat Cole. But I’m sure Ahmad had an effect on him, too.  I always tell the story that Billy Wallace said, “I got this piano player, and I got this piano player; I almost got Ahmad.”  When I tell that to Ahmad, he laughs.  To this day, he said, “I almost got Ahmad.”  In other words, he lets it be known that Ahmad is still the king.

TP:    And you feel he started to stretch out once he left Chicago and moved to New York.

HAROLD MABERN:  When he left Chicago and moved to New York, that’s when he started to really stretch out.  He had all these little basslines [SINGS REFRAIN].  You hear them and say, “Well, that reminds me of something McCoy Tyner…” Well, he influenced McCoy Tyner.  We know how he influenced Miles and the whole group, to the point where Miles told all the piano players to say, “Play like Ahmad.” Which was fine with me.  In fact, Miles used to make them… It was mandatory that when Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly left their gig, they all had to come to the Pershing.  Ahmad was almost like an assignment.  That’s where we met Miles and Cannonball.  So when Ahmad got to New York, that’s when he really started opening up, and his stuff grew in all sorts of ways. Compositions so modern… I was talking to James Cammack, who played with us Monday night at Smoke, and we were talking about the different compositions and how many tunes Ahmad has in his book, and we were talking about “Bellows” and what a hip tune that is!  That tune sounds like it was written a few minutes ago.  I’d say he probably wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he was with 20th Century.  That’s when he recorded Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.”  We both love pop music.  Most pianists don’t fool with that. But Ahmad and I have never had a problem with putting music in a category.  If it’s good… I always say that we bump heads, because he’ll record a tune that’s kind of off the beaten track, and it’s a tune I’ve been thinking of recording.

TP:    Let’s touch on some of the dynamics of what happened when he started to stretch out.  You talked about the extended basslines.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right.  The extended basslines, and then he did… Well, he could go from the basic II-V-I sound in his right hand to the modal sound, the things you hear McCoy doing.  He just explores the whole piano.  And in doing all that, he never loses his originality.  Again, it’s because of what he plays, the way he plays it, and his touch.  He can play a modal type line, but you always know it’s Ahmad, and it’s mainly because of the touch.

TP:    Why do you think he has such an affinity for New Orleans drummers?

HAROLD MABERN:  If I had to sum it up:  The beat.  When you think about that beat Vernell put on “Poinciana,” David Lee and Ed Blackwell played it… It tends to come from the marching band things. [street beats]

TP:    But he’s from Pittsburgh, where Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Joe Harris are from, which is a different way of approaching time.

HAROLD MABERN:  True.  But I think it’s that the New Orleans beat comes from the street and it swings.  And once he heard what Vernell played on “Poinciana,” that opened the trio up to do other things that advanced his musical goals.  It’s hard to explain it beyond that.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and say, “Wow, what is that?”

TP:    He did very radical things on albums like Extensions and Naked City Theme, with “Haitian Marketplace.”  Let’s talk about his last 10-15 years, which seems a particularly fruitful period, primarily acoustic, a lot of recording, a lot of new compositions, framing his sound in many contexts — playing Ellington-Strayhorn repertoire, doing septets, live recordings, bringing in George Coleman and Donald Byrd and Stanley Turrentine, bringing in percussionists like Manolo Badrena, extracting a maximum of color.  But how do you observe is progression since the latter ’80s?

HAROLD MABERN:  Not to be redundant or repetitive, but the way I see it is that he’s constantly evolving.  He has never disappointed me.  Never is a big word, but he has never disappointed me.  Every time I go to hear him, I am always learning something.  When I leave, I’m totally inspired.  Todd Barkan told me that Cedar said that Ahmad Jamal gets his complete attention.  When I go to hear Ahmad, I don’t want to go…even if it’s another musician… If you’re going to talk, go to another table.  Because Ahmad is the kind of musician who, when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ahmad Jamal,” before he even sits down, he’s hit three-chords that’s a masterpiece.  Before he even sits on the stool, he’s played a three-chord masterpiece, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s… I don’t know anybody like him.  It’s very hard to explain.

He’s really too deep for some people.  A lot of musicians can’t handle it. As George Coleman said, a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.  They can’t handle it by themselves.  But I’ve always been one to understand and appreciate genius.

TP:    So he’s a total original.

HAROLD MABERN:  Totally original.  I can think of three other pianists who are original like that.  One is Erroll Garner, one is Phineas Newborn, one is Thelonious Monk.  Then there’s Ahmad Jamal.  I’ve listened to them all, but what Ahmad has done and continues to do… The main thing is just his sound!  I mean, it’s the sound, his knowledge of chords, his compositions, his touch, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top.  Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps going back to the bridge and each time it’s totally different.  He’s just a very special and blessed human being.

Tommy Flanagan:

Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

Mulgrew Miller:

Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Interview, Piano, WKCR

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

Leave a comment

Filed under Chicago, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR