Tag Archives: Blindfold Test

For Bill Charlap’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2016, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2001 and A Jazz.Com Conversation from 2009

For piano maestro Bill Charlap’s birthday, I’m reconfiguring an several-times revised post — it opens with a piece I wrote about Bill for Jazziz in 2016, then an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001, then a conversation for the late, lamented jazz.com website in 2008.

*-*-*-

Bill Charlap Feature in Jazziz, 2016:

“You can’t invent chemistry,” Bill Charlap says. “Generally it happens instantly, like when you meet a friend you get along with very easily, or when you fall in love.” The observation occurred as Charlap communed with a hunk of New York strip steak at a chophouse in the New Jersey suburb where he lives with his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes, but he was referring to the sparks that flew that transpired when he first made music with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at a December 22, 1997 recording session for Criss Cross. “That was it,” Charlap recalls. “We had maybe one rehearsal, and we sounded like a band right away.”

The ensuing album, All Through the Night, marked Charlap’s first recording of exclusively his arrangements culled from the Great American Songbook. It inspired the eminent jazz journalist Whitney Balliett to write a laudatory article in The New Yorker in 1999. Balliett described Charlap, born in 1966, as “a lyrical repository” and “the best, but least well-known pianist” of his generation. He even compared Charlap’s declamation on Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” from the 1995 CD Souvenir to an elite pantheon of recorded solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Paul Gonsalves and Joe Lovano that, in Balliett’s words, “catch you by surprise and send tremors up your spine.”

Partly thanks to Balliett’s encomium and an ensuing Blue Note contract, the Bill Charlap Trio quickly progressed, in Peter Washington’s words, “from a couple of weeks a year at Zinno’s” — a convivial Italian restaurant-cum-piano room on W. 13th Street in Greenwich Village — “to the Village Vanguard.” Washington stood at Birdland’s bar after a sparkling set on the second night of a week’s run supporting the trio’s recently released CD Notes From New York (Impulse!), its seventh recording, and first since 2007. Recorded immediately after a fortnight at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in May 2015, it’s a nine-tune program on which the partners sustain the mutual intuition established during their maiden voyage almost 19 years and a few thousand gigs ago. Their elegant, freewheeling triangular conversation on songs written between 1941 (“Not a Care In the World,” by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche, from an Eddie Cantor Broadway vehicle called Banjo Eyes) and 1975 (“Little Rascal On a Rock,” by Thad Jones) embodies the attitude that the pieces are not repertory, but collectively articulated repertoire. The overriding sensibility, as Charlap once said, is “cooking like the pot is boiling but with the lid on the pot, not obscuring the songs, but each of us playing ourself.”

This remark aptly described the flavor of this night at Birdland, where the trio displayed customary levels of creativity, craft and cogency. One highlight was Charlap’s solo on Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put On a Happy Face” (1963), which spanned a vocabulary timeline from Willie “The Lion” Smith to Bud Powell without shoving the historical references in your face. Another was an achingly gorgeous reading of Ira Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful” (1919), to which he applied his dynamic command and penchant for phrasing notes and tones to convey the essence of a lyric. Lucky Thompson’s blues “Prey-Loot” (1964) provoked another stride-to-modernism invention demonstrating that the trio needs no text as an armature around which to sculpt musical narrative.

That they performed not a single tune from Notes From New York denotes the scope of Charlap’s vast book. He’s gestated much of it on recordings that explore the oeuvres of George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Bernstein; on others with the New York Trio — a nonperforming unit with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart that makes CDs exclusively for the Japanese market — of material by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter; and on Charlap’s Grammy-winning 2015 collaboration with Tony Bennett, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. He’s generated other arrangements for a half-dozen theme-oriented shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2006, and while curating and music-directing some 70 concerts for the annual “Jazz in July” series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA since 2004, when the polymath pianist Dick Hyman, a distant cousin, passed him the baton.

“We could have made three or four records,” Kenny Washington says of the two days it took to record Notes From New York. “This was the most relaxed one we’ve done. It was just like playing a gig.”

“I remember thinking that this was the very best I’d ever heard Bill,” Peter Washington adds. “On some earlier records we did a million takes, but this was unscripted, a unique experience.”

Kenny Washington first played drums with Charlap in the semifinals of the 1993 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, in which Jacky Terrasson, Peter Martin and Edward Simon finished first, second and third. “In my opinion, Bill should have won,” Washington says. “Everybody else was showboating; this cat was playing music!” The feeling was reinforced a few years later, when Charlap called him for a no-rehearsal brunch engagement at the Blue Note.

Charlap recalls Washington remarking at their first studio meeting that he sounded like a “modern-day Teddy Wilson,” then adds, “I wasn’t trying to play somebody’s language or not to play somebody’s language.”

“The first thing that hit me was Bill’s touch and lyricism,” Washington clarifies. “He plays with his heart on his sleeve. This cat will lay you out on a ballad. At almost the end of the tune, there might be a pause; people are so quiet, you can hear a rat piss on cotton. We have the audience in the palms of our hands.”

Before participating in All Through the Night, Peter Washington, then midway through a 10-year run with Tommy Flanagan, had frequently partnered with the identically surnamed drummer (no relation), but never with Charlap. “I grooved to him right away,” Washingon says. “He’s very purposeful and has terrific time; it’s easy to play with him. He plays those standards without making it sound like a Sunday-school lesson. Playing standards and playing as straightahead as we play will never be out of favor, but it’s not fashionable. But Bill has been that way all along. He doesn’t care.”

“I love to play songs more than anything else,” Charlap says. “That’s not a great revelation to anybody who knows what I do. I love the songwriters. I love their mastery of the form. I love what those forms are for an improviser. I love their canvas. I like the stories that they tell. I love the lyricists—the whole scene.”

BREAK

Charlap was the only person in the chophouse dining room in a suit and tie — one of several understated, well-tailored blue Ermenegildo Zegnas that he uses for a performance uniform. He’d worn it for an afternoon meeting with fundraisers at William Paterson University, which, last September, appointed Charlap director of jazz studies, replacing the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. During the just-concluded school year, Charlap taught six separate ensembles, focusing on works by Harold Arlen and Horace Silver in the first semester, and Irving Berlin and Billy Strayhorn in the second.

“I enjoy learning the idiosyncracies and special talents of young musicians,” Charlap says. “I want to help them develop a full box of tools, and understand things contextually. If they’re learning ‘Body and Soul,’ for example, be aware of the iconic recordings of that song by Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Know how the song is built, who Johnny Green is, what the lyrics do, what the original stock arrangement might have done. Have a comprehensive idea of the song so when you approach it, you won’t be stylistically limited. You want your students to fall in love with it, to experience something that makes them say, ‘That made me feel something I’ve never felt before.’ As you fall more deeply in love with something, don’t you want to know every angle of it? Aren’t you wasting your feelings to not know it as intimately as possible?

“As a jazz fan, as you learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, than Gershwin, than Arlen, than Kern, than Porter. What was it about these master composers that made a stamp? As I learned the composers and read about their lives, all the pieces fell into formation.”

I observed that to juggle so many variables in real time mirrors Charlap’s own aesthetics. “The best thing you can do is be yourself,” he responded. “I follow Dick Hyman’s advice, which was ‘take the gig.’ That’s how you learn how to do it. If rhythm changes are difficult to play in the key of B-major, you should probably be practicing that. Run towards the cannons.

“A teacher becomes an advanced student. You learn more about what’s important to you, what you can offer that’s unique to your perception. When I listen to Coltrane, it’s to try to figure out how he can help me, but when I listen to my students it’s my job to help them. You’re not just listening for notes and time and sound and technique. You’re also listening for those intangible things that touch us — where someone’s heart is coming from.”

That Charlap’s heart so palpably connects to hardcore jazz and the Songbook links directly to his Manhattan upbringing. Born in 1966, he launched his musical education at 300 East 51st Street, where he lived with an older brother and two older sisters; his mother, Sandy Stewart, a popular singer in the ’50s, with whom he has recorded two CDs; and his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, a songwriter best-known for writing most of the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan, who died at 45, in 1974, when Charlap was 7.

“I imitated my dad, who composed at the piano and was very passionate and intense when he played,” Charlap says. “He was such a pro that he was doing it all the time. He wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was making stuff up, composing somehow out of the blue.” Early on, Charlap listened to Peter Pan, but also enjoyed “hearing the intervals and picking out the notes” of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor. Strouse and Jule Styne, whose songs he played at the Birdland set, were family friends, as were Yip Harburg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. After his mother remarried, the family heard his stepfather’s LPs by, among others, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Brookmeyer and Count Basie. “I remember getting Heavy Weather, some Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and a Miles Davis twofer all around the same time,” Charlap recalls. “It was all speaking to me. It was one giant, cross-related thing.”

He began to coalesce his interests while attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, where the student body represented the full ethnic scope of the New York City melting pot. “It put me in a conservatory atmosphere,” Charlap says. “You had brilliant jazz musicians, classical musicians, gospel musicians, everybody bound together by talent, some already at a professional level. It was New York — the incredible energy, intensity and culture.”

At 15, Charlap sometimes played hooky at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the General Motors Building at One Times Square, where he used Fats Waller’s piano, housed therein, as a practice instrument. There he met songwriter Walter Bishop, Sr., whose namesake son had played piano with Charlie Parker. “He’d been friends with Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and he encouraged me,” Charlap says. “I wanted to be a whole band, so I’d walk the basslines. I remember him saying, ‘Yes, Billy, when you jump down the sixth it’s very effective.’” A pianist who worked in the office recommended him for a gig with the improv-oriented First Amendment Comedy Troupe. “It was like being a silent movie pianist,” Charlap says. “I underscored whatever they were doing, and as people came in I could play anything I wanted — Chopin or Scott Joplin or ‘What Is This Thing Called Love.’ I wouldn’t say I had it under my fingers, but I was learning. I could do the gig.”

Thus “pushed towards jazz” as a serious commitment, Charlap reinforced his skills until graduation in private studies with the distinguished Jack Reilly. Then he matriculated at SUNY-Purchase as a classical-piano student “to develop the technique that didn’t come easy,” but concluded his formal education after two years. “I was spending too much time with Beethoven,” he says. “I needed to work more on my craft, on American music and the world music that jazz is.”

In July 1987, Hyman presented Charlap, just 20, at a solo-piano tribute concert to Teddy Wilson at the 92nd Street Y that featured heavyweights Hyman, Marian McPartland and Roger Kellaway. “I played ‘Danny Boy,’ a very impressionistic harmonic treatment from Dick’s book, and ‘Somethin’ Special’ by Sonny Clark,” Charlap recalls. “I don’t know if I’d want to hear a tape, but I did the gig.” Leading up to All Through the Night over the next decade, he did plum sideman jobs with crusty perfectionists Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, accompanist jobs with many singers, and jobs as a leader and sideman in duos and trios at various New York boîtes.

So, when he encountered Peter and Kenny Washington in 1997, Charlap knew how to recognize their chemistry when it emerged; over the years, to paraphrase the Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyric, he’s known how to keep the music playing. “I remember locking eyes with Kenny as he played brushes, this exact moment where it didn’t feel like we’re just making a date,” Charlap says. “It happened with Renee, it happens when I play with my mom, and it happens with Kenny and Peter. We have a sound. Part of that sound is how much we each love all the angles of the music, have spent a lot of time getting to know it very well, and understand where we stand.

“It’s like when you go through what it is to stay in love. There’s so much unspoken trust. You uncover things about yourself individually, and experience them together. Then hopefully we get better. Hopefully, my logic of the line has improved. Hopefully, my rhythmic ideas have become more interesting, varied and personal. And hopefully, we’ve developed more command and confidence in every choice we make, more ability to listen even more deeply to each other and to ourselves. We’re not trying to be everything, just what we are.”

SIDEBAR:

Title: Dancing With Tony

Bill Charlap first listened to Tony Bennett when he was 10 years old. For some two decades, Bennett has been a fan, frequently attending Charlap’s New York appearances, sometimes sitting in, sometimes calling him for a gig. So Charlap takes special satisfaction in their shared 2016 Grammy for Look For the Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Sony). Here’s his account of the session.

“Tony said, ‘We should make a record. I thought maybe it should be Jerome Kern.’ I said, ‘Perfect.’ Kern is the first great American theater writer, the Bach figure of songwriting. He’s got one foot in Europe and one foot in America. He writes songs like ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ that couldn’t be more colloquial, more American, and songs that are more light-opera-ish, like ‘The Song Is You.’
“More than that, one of my favorite records was my mom and Dick Hyman doing Jerome Kern songs. [Sings the Songs of Jerome Kern — With Dick Hyman at the Piano] It’s unclassifiable. It’s not cabaret. It’s somehow this great jazz songbook, but it’s also theatrical. All the songs are in my heart from my mom singing them and Dick Hyman, who was probably my greatest pianistic influence, playing them.

“Tony asked if we should do it as a duo or with the trio, or with Renee. He loved the album Renee and I made together — the uncluttered transparency of it, how it becomes like a new piano player. I thought we should do all three. Each song lends itself to a different orchestration, so you can explore their unique qualities, while it’s all of a piece.

“Tony made a list of songs. We got together with Renee at Steinway Hall for an afternoon, and played through a bunch of them. I wrote a few trio treatments, and he had strong ideas that were definitive. He heard ‘I Won’t Dance’ in 3/4. It was perfect.

“He gave his heart to it. Tony’s the red carpet for the composer. He’s got all that natural show business understanding. It’s not show business corny, it’s show business deep, like telling the story in almost a Shakespearean way. Tony is a jazz musician, in the sense that he responds to what he’s hearing. If I’m playing a harmony, he responds to it. If the rhythm section hits something, even subtle, he responds to it right away. Tony never sings it the same way, so it wasn’t like doing a million takes and pick from here and pick from there. He likes to be extemporaneous, and he wants to feel loose. We inspire each other. He sings something, and it makes me play something. We’re listening to each other. It’s a dance. It’s a conversation.”

**************

Bill Charlap (Blindfold Test) – (2001):

1. Earl Hines, “My Buddy” (from HINES ’74, Black and Blue, 1974) (5 stars) – (James Leary, bass; Panama Francis, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] It sounds like Father. Probably quite a bit later. It’s lovely. It’s perfect. Four billion stars. He’s a genius of modern piano. Certainly, if not the first, one of the first rhythm section players. So much is implied in what he plays, and there’s so much space. He’s thinking about a lot more than just playing the piano per se. The song is “My Buddy,” of course. He just played a solo introduction, and now we’re with the rhythm section. It’s absolutely beautiful. Perfect music. I don’t have anything to say about it. I can’t identify the bass player and drummer. [How do you recognize Earl Hines?] The freedom. It’s wild. It’s fun. It’s so about playing time and… It’s just that it’s so feeling. It’s non-pianistic things on the piano, yet it’s still quite pianistic. It’s very gutsy. I mean, besides the technical things, of course; the voicings, the type of linear things he’s doing, the ways he’s using the tremolos and arpeggios, all that sort of stuff that we would call style. But it’s sort of beyond that. It’s just grooving like mad. I wonder if he told the drummer to play it as sort of a Bossa Nova — it’s sort of a funky Bossa Nova. The drummer reminds me of someone like Eddie Locke or Connie Kay, but I don’t think it’s either of them. It sounds like someone in that area. That is the spirit of jazz, through and through. It’s beyond style. He could play with anybody in any style, and it would work.

2. Herbie Nichols, “Too Close For Comfort” (from LOVE, GLOOM, CASH, LOVE, Bethlehem, 1957/2001) – (5 stars) – (George Duvivier, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums)

Of course I know the song; it’s “Too Close For Comfort.” I’m not sure who the pianist is. There’s echoes of Duke and echoes of Jimmy Rowles, but it’s neither. And I can’t place the pianist. Obviously, there’s a lot of Hines in this player. I keep hearing things that I know. It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s obviously based in a stride-oriented style, because the things are voiced and the way he’s thinking about basslines, it’s very clear that he — or she — is very cognizant of the movements. Once again, I don’t know who the bassist and drummer are. There’s a beautiful feeling to it. It’s got that little bit of recklessness I like a lot. A lot of blood and guts. You got me. It’s all feeling. It’s all music. 5 stars. [AFTER] Ah, that’s the next thing I was going to say. There were a few things I heard in there, and I’m used to hearing Herbie play his own music, of course. I noticed modernist tendencies along with more stride-oriented and earlier piano style things going on. That was absolutely the next thing I was going to say. I have this record; I haven’t heard it in a long time. There’s perhaps playing of his that might be clearer than that, and a little less of just getting down and having fun playing and more of really making a musical statement, a particular statement. There’s playing of his I think I appreciate more. But just for the sheer feeling alone, that’s jazz.

3. Dave McKenna, “I’ve Got The World On a String” (from GIANT STRIDES, Concord, 1979) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] “I’ve Got The World On A String.” That’s McKenna. I leaned forward, because at first I thought it was two pianists, which is interesting, ,because there’s so much definition between his left hand and right hand. Listen to that. What’s accompanying? And he’s really singing the melody. The funny thing about Dave is that you don’t think of him this way, or I don’t hear it talked about, but it’s almost like he has the type of pianistic command of someone like Chick Corea. You’ll hear him whip off some things getting right to the bottom of the keyboard. It’s perfect. I wish I had something enlightening to tell you, except that Dave McKenna is a genius. The man is a walking melody. That’s as great as solo piano playing has ever been. He is a complete original, and he’s exquisite. 5 stars. Another remarkable thing about Dave is that it’s almost as if he was fully formed when he hit the scene. Not to say that his playing didn’t grow. It got deeper and freer. But the first album he made, it was all there. [AFTER] Dave is his own extension of the whole tradition, too. There’s a lot of Stride thinking there. He’s hearing the whole bass line. He’s hearing the whole band. And the piano is a whole band, even if you’re dealing with… I’m trying to pick the right words. In stride piano, and even before that in ragtime, you had the bass line, which was like a tuba player; you had the chord, which might be like a banjo player, and you had the top part, which might be a horn player of some sort. The same thing happens all the way through the development of piano playing, even in someone like Tommy Flanagan or Bill Evans. Because you’re still sort of covering the entire orchestra on the piano. Those are my favorite kind of pianists, who think that way.

4. Bill Evans, “Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Needs Me)” (from THE LAST WALTZ, Milestone, 1980/2000) – (5 stars) (Marc Johnson, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Sure sounds like Bill Evans. Yeah, it’s Bill. I mean, there were things he was doing rhythmically which right away were him. I don’t know the song. [You’ve recorded something by the composer.] Now, wait a minute. No-no, I know the song. He’s just not playing the melody. “Who Can I Turn To?” It was his own melody on it. It’s Bill with Eddied Gomez, of course. No!? Is it Marc Johnson? Well, you can certainly see Eddied’s influence on Mark in the way he entered. He was all over the bass and playing a lot of contrapuntal things. Something tells me this is not Bill Evans-authorized. There’s an awful lot of stuff of his that came out after his death, as happens with a lot of jazz artists, which I have mixed feelings about. Of course, I love to hear it, because I want to hear their work if I can. On the other hand, gee, I wouldn’t want stuff of mine coming out that I didn’t feel was my best work. Now, I don’t think he can do anything that wasn’t worth more than anything could buy. An artist like this can’t do anything that doesn’t have a very high level of worth. But do I think it’s maybe his very best playing on record? No. It’s not. And I don’t think he did either. It doesn’t matter. It still towers over any lesser artists. Listen, it’s his language. He developed this original language. That’s what it’s about. McKenna’s got his original language. Earl Hines has his.

One of the very first things I thought, particularly from the intro, is that Bill is the real meaning of what a fusion musician is, to me. What I’m talking about is how… There’s a couple of things that are misunderstood about Bill. First and foremost is that he was a bebop piano player first, that he was a linear pianist, and it’s not just about impressionism and beautiful chords. But the other thing is that Bill is, in essence, putting together everything from romanticism and impressionism on the piano, and sort of everything from jazz piano up to the point of Bud Powell and Jimmy Jones and George Shearing and some others who Bill was growing on, without question. And Detroit, I think. I hear some Hank and some Tommy; Tommy is a contemporary. But if you want to figure out how Bill Evans learned how to do those things with his left hand where he’s sort of playing a rubato introduction to something like “Who Can I Turn To?” (not so much on this record, but perhaps if you listen to “Town Hall”), all you need to do is go to the Brahms Intermezzos. Go to the Intermezzo in A-major, and that’s where Bill’s left hand was coming from. But you take the harmony of French impressionism, Ravel and Debussy, and you put that all together with everything that happened in jazz, and you have the true synthesis of the Romantic piano literature, the European Classical piano tradition and composition tradition, and Jazz, put together in perfect balance in Bill. That’s to me what Bill represents. And of course, Bill is a composer, so you can’t separate that.

He recorded this piece throughout his life, actually, with Tony Bennett and also on… No, I’m sorry. I’m hearing Tony in my head because Tony had a hit record on it. No, I don’t think he did do this with Tony. Or maybe he did, and it was just released as an outtake on Rhino. But Bill did that at Town Hall as well, and I have a bootleg video from a London television performance with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker of Bill doing “Who Can I Turn To?” So that was a staple of his repertoire for many years.

5. George Shearing, “Memories of You” (from THE SHEARING PIANO, Capitol, 1956/2001) – (5 stars)

I don’t know who that is, but it’s beautiful already. Oh, it’s gorgeous! Mmm, it’s just gorgeous. That’s the original chord. That’s Hank, I think. No? Whoever it is has taken some very nice lessons from Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, and is doing some interesting harmonic things that are unlike some of the things you’ll hear from those two. Of course, it’s “Memories Of You.” Eubie. Wait a minute! It’s not Teddy. No, it’s got to be somebody after. There are harmonic things that are not from Teddy’s language. But some of the linear things, without question, are highly influenced. You’ve got me on this one. I’m not sure who it is. But it’s lovely playing. There are things that are so reminiscent of Tatum going on sometimes, but I’m not getting the feeling of a TIDAL WAVE of information that I usually get from Tatum that’s staggering, it’s almost as if you must come up for air after one performance. But whoever it is certainly loves him. Beautiful touch, beautiful playing. That’s great solo piano playing. 5 stars. [AFTER] No kidding! [Probably the reason you didn’t know it is because it’s an unissued track.] I have that record. That’s perfect piano playing. Perhaps if you had played me something of George which was from a later time period, it would have been easier to pick.

6. Geri Allen, “Move” (from Ralph Peterson, TRIANGULAR, Blue Note, 1988)

I don’t know who this is. I imagine it’s somebody younger. I really enjoy the spirit of this. However, there are things that I find about it that it loses my attention relatively quickly, within the third chorus or so. There’s a lot of pianism going on, a lot of drumming at the piano, a lot of things… It’s getting more and more busy now. but I’d like to hear a deeper rhythmic and melodic language and perhaps a little more discipline. [LAUGHS] I would never say anything is not good. This person is expressing themself in music and making a statement, and I appreciate it, and depending on the mood I’m in, I may be either quite moved by it or not interested in it. But instead of giving this a low number of stars, I’d rather just say it’s not my cup of tea. [AFTER] This for me is not dealing with the actual piece enough. I think it’s using the piece as a vehicle for a particular type of expression, but for me it’s out of balance. I have this record, by the way, and I have enjoyed it. But that’s just the mood I’m in today.

7. David Hazeltine, “Days of Wine and Roses” (from THE CLASSIC TRIO, Vol. 2, Sharp Nine, 2000) – (Peter Washington, bass; Louis Hayes, drums) – (5 stars)

Beautiful touch, beautiful piano playing — already. Somebody is playing “Days of Wine and Roses”. Interesting. Oh, yes. Well, this wasn’t recorded in the 1950’s! The harmonic language dips into a lot of different things right away. But you know, you’ll get surprised with somebody like Hank. He’ll just play everything. But that’s not who this is. I believe this is a younger pianist, maybe somebody closer to my age.. Though I’m not sure when I hear something like what he just played. It’s great piano playing. Not to make this just about me, but when I listen to piano playing like this, I so appreciate it, I so know that I can’t hear something harmonized in that way, because it becomes chords on the melody as opposed to something that makes the melody first and foremost to me. Like, when he gets to “days of wine and RO-ses,” that’s a key moment in the lyric, in the melody, that what he did harmonically, for me, obscured the peak of the line. I just couldn’t hear it. My inner ear won’t go there. This is a guess. Brad Mehldau. Okay. Really a guess, because I don’t really know his playing well. I just heard a very lovely touch. I do, however, find this harmonization quite intriguing. It’s a nice way of balancing the strong harmonic points of this song with perhaps some other colors. So I could see that, too. I’m a Libra. I end up always seeing both sides. There’s nothing I can do about it. I keep hearing things I recognize, but I can’t place. I will say personally that this performance wouldn’t be a huge hit on my list, because for me it lacks a bit of focus, and though it has a lot of warmth and expressiveness from the players, it’s taking a little too long to get to the point for me, and the point is not absolutely clear. [Any notion who the bassist and drummer are?] No. I keep hearing things I recognize. Well, what I hear is touches of McCoy Tyner, though I know it’s not McCoy Tyner. But whoever it is has embraced a bit of McCoy’s language. There are ways that he plays mordants(?) and some of the linear language. [BASS SOLO] Oh, that may very well be Peter. [LAUGHS] I heard some Peter’s language. [ON FINAL REHARM OF THEME] Now, wait a minute. That’s not David Hazeltine. That isn’t what I’m used to hearing from David. David is one of my very favorite pianists out there, really on the top class of people in our age group — he’s a bit older. But I’m used to hearing David play something with perhaps a little bit less of a freewheeling way of using space. I suppose that’s one of the things he did for the Japanese? [Sharp-9] I see. And the drummer is probably Farnsworth or Louis Hayes. I think I have that record. But again, what you heard right away was a wonderful harmonic sense, a beautiful touch, very fine piano playing. And perhaps a much cooler and more spacious way of playing than I’m used to hearing from David. But I love his playing all the way around. I’ll give him five stars for being such a great musician.

8. Walter Davis, Jr., “Skylark” (from SCORPIO RISING, Steeplechase, 1989) (5 stars) – (Santi DiBriano, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums)

Somebody is playing “Skylark” and somebody has a C-extension. It’s funny. Something about the simplicity of the voicing reminds me of how Roberta Flack plays the piano. I like it. A lot. See, I’m very attracted to thing that are complete, and have a very clear focus and a statement to make. This is very pure, very simple harmonically, very beautiful. Now, there was a case, at the end of the second 8, where the melody wasn’t played correctly, and it didn’t bother me at all. I’m not a bookworm about that stuff. It has to do with intent of how you go about those things. I’m certainly not watching the score when I listen to somebody play. But there are ways of paraphrasing and there are ways of not. I love the melody reading of this! I don’t know who it is. But it’s very nice and very honest. Can’t pick the bass player or drummer either. See, there’s all kinds of HONEST sloppiness in this! When I say “sloppy,” I mean in terms of traditional piano playing. But it’s not sloppy when you make something expressive happen with the instrument. That’s just music-making. It’s not about notes. I’d never think about harmonizing anything like that, something I heard this person do when he gets to the end of… “I don’t know if you can find these THINGS…” — right there. 5 stars for feeling. [AFTER] I can only say that I don’t know Walter’s playing well. It was really gorgeous. And I really wouldn’t have guessed him, because there was such a purity to it harmonically.

9. Clarence Profit, “Body and Soul” (from CLARENCE PROFIT, Memoir, 1939/1993) – (5 stars)

Well, that’s the boss. [LAUGHS] Hold on. It’s incredible how much you hear of Tatum here, while it’s not Tatum. I’ve even heard Bud almost have a feel like this sometimes when he plays solo, hearing “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” or something like that. It’s not Bud. At least I don’t think so. The harmony is just gorgeous. It’s a bit too quirky to be Teddy! To me. I’d only be guessing. I’m not sure who it is. Somebody like Gerry Wiggins or… But it’s an earlier recording. Someone who’s got those things, who’s got some of Art’s feel. [AFTER] This makes sense. I’ve never heard Clarence Profit play. I’ve read about him in Billy Taylor’s book, and they talked about how Clarence Profit and Tatum used to throw choruses back and forth. So it may very well be that Tatum was drawing on Profit. It’s hard to know. But they said that he was one of the of the unbelievable harmonizers. And I must go out and buy this record IMMEDIATELY.

10. Jimmy Rowles-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (from AS GOOD AS IT GETS, Concord, 1977) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] This is Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown playing “Sophisticated Lady.” First of all, you’re talking about two sounds that are so distinctive that I wouldn’t even have to know the record. These are two men who absolutely express their souls with complete purity on their instruments. There is no division. There’s no wasted notes. There’s nothing without meaning. There’s nothing that isn’t played with meaning, if you know what I mean. It’s not just the notes, but the way everything is played, the sound, every single detail. Time, touch, and the choice. Nothing wasted. And the freedom. And the discipline. This has it all. This is a billion stars for both. Giants of American music, period. Giants of any music. [AFTER] Just one other thing to say about Rowles. That’s jazz piano in that you can’t write down the way he’s expressing himself. It’s not like playing a Mozart concerto. It’s about getting vocal and drum sort of things out of the piano. It’s both pianistic playing but very unpianistic playing in that it really is the piano as rhythm and a vocal instrument. You really can’t write that stuff down. That’s all about feeling.

11. Danilo Perez, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from THE ROY HAYNES TRIO, Verve, 1999) (4 stars) – (Roy Haynes, drums; John Patitucci, bass)

Somebody is playing “It’s Easy to Remember” with a different type of arrangement. This is such a beautiful song, such a pure song and such an emotional song that I think this arrangement is obscuring the intent of this song. One doesn’t need to do anything to flay this. There’s too much going on for the composition to get through. Once again, it’s the composition as a vehicle for an instrumentalist, and that doesn’t appeal to me all that much. But very fine players, obviously. I’m afraid that I don’t know who this is. [The drummer is the leader of the trio.] Just because the leader of the trio isn’t the one who sings the melody doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sung! [Does this remind you of any vocalist?] This might remind me of the way that maybe Betty Carter would do a song, but she could anything with anything, and it would be great! Understand that I wasn’t saying that you couldn’t sing it this way. That’s a different thing than saying perhaps that to really do this song the way that I think this song shows itself might not be like this. But Betty Carter could basically do anything, and still get it across, and maybe say something different with it. It’s like doing “Just One Of Those Things” as a ballad and making it mean something. [Any idea who the drummer is?] No, I don’t. For me, this is a bit unfocused. Nice for a live performance perhaps. But I want a sense of drama all the way through, and to me this doesn’t really keep that for me, even though they are all very fine players, obviously. 4 stars for all the players, just for playing very well. One star for the arranger. [AFTER] The fact that I thought that that was someone who was my contemporary, and it’s Roy Haynes, is just a testament to the fact that Roy Haynes may well be the world’s great modern drummer, and here he is in his seventies. Like Jim Hall is maybe the greatest modern guitarist. These people are absolutely cross-generational. There are no gaps in any areas, and that’s an absolutely remarkable thing. I have seen Roy Haynes do things that I have no idea how he does or where it comes from. It is as pure as I ever hear in any kind of music. That this particular trio performance didn’t come off maybe in a way that was completely satisfying to me is totally beside the point. Roy Haynes is a genius and deserves all the stars you can muster for everything he does. I don’t feel as a human being I have a right to judge any other human being. And I don’t like any rating systems. I got plenty of F’s and D’s in school. But the point is that you might be completely touched during a set by one thing and then left completely cold by the next thing that’s played.

12. Dick Hyman, “In The Still Of The Night” (from MUSIC OF 1937, Concord, 1990) – (5 stars)

That’s Dick Hyman playing “In The Still Of The Night.” That’s not hard. The funny thing about Dick is that I’ve heard people say, “Well, he plays a little like this and a little like this and a little like this.” Unh-uh! He plays exactly like him. That doesn’t sound like anybody else to me, and he has his own way of putting it together. One of the great solo pianists in history. Brilliant musician. Five stars. That’s from “Music Of 1937,” on Concord, the live thing he did at Maybeck. I know it well.

I’ve heard Danilo and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau and all of the people who are in my age group do things that nobody does better than them. That’s where it’s at. There are places where we live that are our truest places. When we do those things, there are no imitators. We’re doing what we do and saying what we say in the way that only we can say it. No snowflake is the same.

*-*-*-

Bill Charlap (May 23, 2009) – Algonquin Hotel, NYC:

Although he lives a half-hour’s drive from Manhattan, pianist Bill Charlap, when the demands of his schedule threaten his rest, often opts to bunk at the Algonquin Hotel, a block east of the Times Square theater district. Which is why Charlap asked jazz.com to meet him in the Algonquin’s lobby on Memorial Day Saturday, towards the end of week one of a fortnight engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, his trio partners since 1997.

“I’ve really been running the last two days,” Charlap said, referencing a duo recording he’d made on the previous afternoon with alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, a close friend since both were classmates at New York’s High School of Performing Arts at the cusp of the ‘80s. “I drove out after the gig on Thursday, stayed in the Delaware Water Gap, recorded with Jon, drove back to Manhattan, played three sets—I was really hurting.”

It was the trio’s first extended engagement since the end of 2008, when Charlap similarly performed at night while recording during the day with the Blue Note 7, an all-star group—Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—assembled for the purpose of playing iconic repertoire from the Blue Note Records catalog in observance of the label’s 75th anniversary. After four months on the road as the band’s pianist and de facto music director, Charlap was ready to return to his first love, the Great American Songbook, which was at its apogee during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when such classy writers and legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and S.L. Perelman frequented the Algonquin Roundtable.

A quick glance at Charlap’s recorded c.v. makes it clear how intimate a relationship he enjoys with this material. On the 2004-05 Blue Note albums Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul and Somewhere, and Begin The Beguine [Venus], made for the Japanese market, Charlap, now 42, celebrated repertoire, respectively, by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter. Stardust [Blue Note] is a vivid 2000 exploration of the world of Hoagy Carmichael, while Love You Madly [Venus], from 2003, is a kaleidoscopic tour of Ellingtonia. On eight other trio albums since 1995, Charlap has rendered incisive, nuanced interpretations of tunes iconic and obscure by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Alec Wilder, Jule Styne, and other luminaries of the period, including his late father, Moose Charlap, who composed the score for Peter Pan. Each performance expresses an informed point of view, articulated, as no less an authority than George Shearing remarked in the liner notes for All Through The Night [Criss-Cross], documenting Charlap’s first meeting with the Washington’s, “touch, swing, sound, precision, and just about everything you need in a well-rounded, well-schooled jazz pianist.”

“Usually, I will play a song at a tempo or in an arrangement where you could hear the lyric, because to me, words and notes are very much 50-50,” Charlap told me a few years back. “The lyric doesn’t always inform my approach; sometimes I choose, as an arranger and improviser, to paraphrase the composition. But if the lyrics are good, they drip off of the notes. For example, ‘Where Or When’ has many repeated notes, but each note has a word, and those words inform the playing.”

– – – – – –
This is the trio’s first extended run in some time, its longest period of inactivity since it formed. Has the layoff had an impact?

Well, I can only say—and maybe it’s just part of getting older and part of our experience together as a group—that I feel the value of playing together with Kenny and Peter more and more each time. I never take it for granted, and it feels very high on my priority list.

So being away from them…absence makes the heart grow fonder?

It’s not even necessarily about having been away, or working with the Blue Note 7, or anything like that. It’s that, as years go on, the things that are really important to you get more important, and things that are less important to you also become less important. I’m not saying that the Blue Note 7 was less important. That was very important, too. But the trio has a real family feeling, which I think continues to grow. I feel that, and I’m sure that Kenny and Peter do, too. If it’s not a challenge and it doesn’t feel like that, there wouldn’t be a reason to continue.

Are you bringing in new repertoire?

I recently brought in about seven new pieces, and that always helps. But also approaching things differently. Sometimes I’ll reassess a couple of things, or change tempos. I feel that it’s expanding in its scope—the organic qualities continue, and willingness to take things in maybe subtly different directions. The cues are very fast, organic and intuitive. That was always there, though. Chemistry is chemistry. We had chemistry right away, from the very first time we played. But the chemistry grows. Maybe sometimes when you rest on certain music for a little while, it does have a chance to gestate a bit. I’m sure that has something to do with it, too.

What’s the percentage of arrangement versus the percentage of improvisation, or the ways that they mix, within your concept of the trio?

To be honest with you, I never really sat down and thought about it. But as time’s gone on, I’ve realized that there is a side of me that is an arranger and loves to come up with concepts for the trio or myself—or ways of playing a piece. Sometimes an arrangement means a harmonic arrangement or a harmonic approach, maybe just a vibe. Sometimes it’s much more involved. Sometimes it does become a full arrangement inclusive of piano, bass, and drums, and counterpoint, and all that sort of stuff. So the answer is…I don’t know the exact answer. I think it’s a balance of a number of things. Sometimes I’ll call some tunes or play something that there is no real arrangement of, although because of the way that we play and how well we know each other, these things can also organically become an arrangement or the point of view from which we’ll approach it.

What I find happening in the trio—which is very gratifying and fun for me and for us—is that even the arranged parts become more pliable, and more subtle, and more able to be renegotiated in terms of phrasing, chord disposition, bass notes, the drum arrangement. None of those things are set in stone. They change all the time, very quickly. It’s almost like when you hear a concert pianist, like Rubinstein, play a Chopin waltz he’s played 300 times—the idea is not to waste any moment of it. It’s what I’m talking about in regard to one’s priorities as you grow as a musician—it becomes more important not to waste. Each time you play is precious, in the sense that… It’s that old song, “For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.” Nobody knows.

It’s really worth a lot each time you’re able to be in a situation like the Blue Note 7, which was very special. It would be wonderful if we should do something again, and I would not at all be surprised if we do. But you never know when you might look back and say, “wow, we never had a time like that again.” so it’s good to really value it all the time. I think that’s part of what I’m talking about in even approaching the arrangements.

Back to the answer to your question. There are so many different ways of arranging pieces that I couldn’t say there’s a percentage. Certainly, though, I like having a point of view for each piece. Even if it’s improvised, I think the arranger’s aesthetic is there from all of the things that we have done with arrangement within the group. A quick nod or a quick musical cue could mean double-time now, or break the double-time, or all kinds of things. Kenny orchestrates at the trap set. He’s so fast at listening to everything, the right and the left hand, all the cues, that he’ll hear something, and tailor it. right away. Sometimes it’s intuitive—often, as we know each other musically so well now, we’ll hear each other giving the cue, and take educated guesses that sometimes come out right. Even when they don’t, the pieces of the puzzle, at its best, fit like a good Swiss watch.

Let’s talk about Blue Note 7 for a bit. It was put together as kind of front group to market Blue Note’s seventieth anniversary, and probably a chance to make some good music. Tell me how it was presented to you, how you conceptualized it once the basic parameters were presented, how the personnel coalesced, how you interacted with the personnel. One thing, parenthetically: When I interviewed Bruce Lundvall after Christmas, he said he was impressed with the way you had focused an ensemble of musicians with different points of view, mostly leaders, strong-willed artists, towards your point of view, as he interpreted it.

I appreciate Bruce saying that. But I didn’t make anyone come to my point of view. You had six musicians and myself, who are accomplished and classy and respect each other, and they were very professional and gracious in being able to have someone to be an organizing force. But I was not forceful in any way. I do think that it’s useful in a band to have somebody who does that. It’s not always the easiest thing to have a group where you have seven heads of state. I’m not even saying that I’m the head of state…

Well, you’ve made a similar comment about the trio as well.

Yes. Well, I think it’s good to say, “What do you feel like playing tonight?” Or, if somebody says, “Let’s do this,” maybe that’s not what you want to do that night, but figure out a way to make that work. You really should allow people to do what they want. That’s where they’re going to play their best. It’s not a solo gig, so it’s good to have some direction, but you don’t need to be a boss. Ever. I think there is a way of allowing everybody some space. That doesn’t mean there might not be a time when you say, “Well, I really don’t want to do that right now; let’s do that the next set.” That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a leader.

But back to the Blue Note 7. The way that it worked was Jack Randall, who is my primary booking agent at Ted Kurland Associates, gave me a call. He said, “We’re thinking of putting together a septet with a number of players, playing classic Blue Note material.” I said to him, “What do you mean by ‘classic Blue Note material?’”—just trying to get him to clarify it. It was clear that we were on the same page, the page that pretty much anybody might choose, which is mid-‘50s to late-‘60s, essentially the great period of modern jazz when you’re talking about the classic albums of the great composers-players—Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Art Blakey. All the great ones.

Of course, right away it was an attractive idea to me, because it’s music I love to play anyway. It’s music I cut my teeth on, that we continue to be inspired by, that is the best rhythm section playing, the greatest jazz compositions, some of the greatest recorded music, some of the greatest small group music—it is still the paradigm of small-group playing in terms of all the music that’s there. And all of us in this group grew up with that music. We all grew up with Maiden Voyage and Blue Trane and In and Out and Speak Like a Child and Ju-Ju and the The Real McCoy, The Amazing Bud Powell—all the records.

So that was attractive right away. I said, “Well, that’s repertoire that I can certainly wrap myself around. Who do you imagine is going to write all these arrangements, though? This is a septet. We can’t just call these tunes. Plus, how do you pick it?” Then the obvious question: “With over a thousand albums, and all of them great, many of them classics, how do you choose?”

Jack said, “Well, we were hoping that you would do that.”

I said, “Well, that’s very nice, but this is a group of very accomplished, important players, and I wouldn’t think of being the sole person responsible for that. But I could help organize it, and my idea is that we should probably spread out the arranging and probably spread out the choices of the pieces. What kind of pieces do you have in mind?” They thought it could really be anything that works, along with some commercial ideas, such as “Sidewinder” and “Song for My Father.” Later, Nicholas Payton wrote an arrangement for “Song For My Father,” but it was very far afield from the original “Song For My Father.”

That was very good, because finally, the idea is to pay tribute to those pieces without… It’s repertoire band, but not a repertory band. My idea of a repertory band is a band that almost plays the same original arrangements, maybe even some of the same solos (some bands are like that)—Smithsonian Institution type of things. That wasn’t the idea. You have seven players who are playing jazz in 2009 and should play the way that they play, and should approach the pieces the way that they would want to approach them.

However, of course, we want also to have the essence of those pieces. That’s very easy to do. After all, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are master composers. Their pieces are so strong, the aesthetic is there. Everything is there. All you have to do is start with the correct raw materials, and then,if you approach it your way, with taste, generally the pieces will speak. It has to do with taste and it has to do with experience. Any of these players could have done anything with any of the pieces. I think because of the respect for the material, they didn’t want to recompose them so much as illuminate what’s so beautiful about them in the first place, and not to get rid of the elements of swing and bebop and the blues and great rhythm section playing. That’s just a natural. Nobody was told, “do this and do that, and don’t do this.”

So, the first thing was the idea that, ok, everybody can contribute. And the ideas of players made sense. I worked as a guide in some cases, and in other cases it was right on the money, just in terms of the musical and personal chemistry of the players. We lucked out. Seven equal members. That’s all that it should have been.

Finally, we made the album very quickly, with one or two rehearsals. We did it last winter, recording during the day while I was playing at Dizzy’s at night. I can’t do this kind of thing any more; it’s really getting too tiring. But I made it happen—and everybody wanted to make it happen. The players’ mutual respect and love for this music made everyone stay late in the recording studio, to burnish these things and polish them to be the best they could be. The album is very good, in my opinion. It came out beautifully and naturally. But it was done before we went on the road. Of course, things grew organically, and if we had recorded the album in April, it would have been quite different. Anyhow, we actually did hire a recording engineer to record all six nights at Birdland, so I’m sure we will eventually have something. Those were our final performances, and we stretched out on things, so it will be interesting to hear those recordings in contrast.

Anyway, after thinking about what artists we had to represent, as I say, somebody had to be a guiding force so you wouldn’t have all up-tempos, or all ballads, or all swinging things—all just one aesthetic. You want to have a well-balanced meal. So I picked one or two things for each player who wanted to arrange something and asked: “What do you think about this? It would be nice if we had a piece representing this musician, and I thought this would be a good piece to have.” Usually, the player said, “Yeah, that appeals to me; that works for me; I’ll do that.” Or sometimes someone said, “well, that’s good, but I like this a little better.” Always I would say, “Yes, ok, that’s fine; sounds good to me.” Again, have players do what they want to do.

Certainly as an apprentice, you sidemanned with some quartets as an apprentice, worked a long time, have done a lot of duos, as well as leading the trio…

And lots of singers early on.

But of your recordings for Blue Note, only on Plays George Gershwin is there an ensemble. Can you speak to the way you approach the flow of a piece when you’re not the lead voice?

It’s balance. Just like anything else, you make a concert, you want to make sure everybody’s got some space to shine and that everybody gets a chance to play enough. There’s a big band aesthetic, because you can’t solo on every piece. We had mature musicians who understood that and chose their moment to shine, and would always defer to each other. You might even have in the band a player who said, “Hey, why don’t I give my solo to him? He hasn’t played too much.” That’s the type of maturity I’m talking about.

But as for me, I’ve certainly played plenty with horn players and in large ensembles, big bands. Maybe not recorded myself that way under my own name. I’ve been in that situation well enough times to know what to do. Like everybody else, I played every gig that was worthwhile that I could.

And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.

Sometimes not. But they’re all worthwhile when you’re cutting your teeth. Play with a lousy singer who plays in the weirdest keys and can’t quite keep things together—because it will teach you.

You’re also artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street YMHA, and your fifth season is coming up.

Yes. This means putting together six concerts each year, each one with a different point of view, thinking about either a different artist’s work, or a different type of presentation (each one a presentation), and then, of course, putting together the music that the musicians will play, amassing the cast for each of the concerts. I play on every one of the concerts, and I am the Master of Ceremonies, and basically put the whole thing together, inasmuch as I can, and then allow the musicians to put the rest of it together. That’s what it’s about.

Dick Hyman did that for twenty years before me. He’s my distant cousin on my father’s side, and he’s always been a great mentor to me. When I was in my early teens, he took me around when he was doing record dates, or playing solo concerts, or film scoring, just about anything he was doing, and I would sit as a fly on the wall and watch him operate. He’s such a great artist and professional, I learned a great deal from that. Types of things you couldn’t learn at a traditional piano lesson. When he asked me if I would like to be artistic director of that series, he said to me, “Well, if you want to do this, do it your way. Don’t feel like you have to do what has been.” I took that exactly in the spirit that it was meant, and it was very generous of him. Of course, I would do that anyhow. But to know that’s how he felt about it was very freeing.

Would you talk a bit about the role that this event has within the structure of New York City jazz life?

I can really only speak about it during my tenure so far, and I’m in my fifth year.

But you were a close observer of it before.

Yes. It’s a New York jazz festival, and what’s great about it is you have a very high percentage of some of the greatest jazz musicians. Just this year alone, we have Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath and Mulgrew Miller, Barbara Carroll—so many great people who are world-class on any level. Over the last five years, we’ve had everyone from Billy Taylor to Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis… In a sense, these are all New York players, so it’s really a New York festival. In fact, one of the concerts this summer is a New York concert. “A Helluva Town,” is the title. That is cast across the generations and across some musical styles as well, playing everything from Joplin to Coltrane, and New York songs, too.

There’s also a concert devoted to Sondheim and Jule Styne. There’s a piano jam in tribute to Oscar Peterson, a saxophone jam, a tribute to Gerry Mulligan, and a Vince Guaraldi tribute. Were these all ideas that you had on the back burner?

It’s just music that I love.

Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?

I always loved Vince’s music. This is one of the places where jazz has gotten into people’s souls without them necessarily knowing it. It holds a special place in American popular culture, in that there is some real jazz playing that everybody knows. Everybody knows the sound of it. Vince had something. His music communicated. It was very hearable for maybe a non-jazz listener. But the feeling was really warm, with that little Latin tinge as well. It’s really soulful. There was a lot of optimism in his sound. Anyway, it’s perfect that it was the soundtrack for Peanuts. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the producer, Lee Mendelson. He heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, which was a hit record, and said, “I’ve got to find out who that guy is; that’s the music I want.” Well, both “Cast your Fate to the Wind,” and then “Linus and Lucy,” the classic that everyone knows, have a similar feel, both in the way that they’re played and the concept of it. But there’s a lot more Guaraldi music. “Christmas Time Is Here,” which we’ll do, even though it’s summer in July at a Jewish institution. But that’s ok. It’s New York, like I said. I was born into a Jewish family, though we were never religious, but we always had a Christmas tree. What can I tell you? That’s what I mean by New York.

It would seem that only one of the concerts, Saxophone Summit, doesn’t draw directly on some component of your experience. Sondheim and Styne is another layer of songbook repertoire, musical theater repertoire. “With Respect To Oscar”—I don’t know how much you were an Oscar-phile in your youth, but…

Oh, in a major way. Oscar was one of the first and foremost pianists, both the trio aesthetic and his overwhelming, comprehensive command of the piano.

Was he someone you were looking to as a young guy?

Absolutely. I still do.

The Mulligan Songbook is a major component of your musical consciousness as a professional, and several of his tunes are in your regular trio book.

That’s true. I love Gerry’s music. Something he used to say is, “Well, I shot for 42nd Street, and I over-shot and ended up on 52nd Street.” What he meant by that is, of course, that his jazz compositions are just this side of popular song. They’re very tuneful. You leave the theater singing them, in a sense. So there’s a great influence there. Yet they’re certainly jazz compositions.

Apart from the visibility that you accrued by being with Mulligan when you were 22-23-24 years old, you also have spoken of the way that his expectations of the piano’s function in his group shaped your approach to piano playing and shaped certain aspects of your style.

I felt lucky to be with him. Gerry Mulligan was a really original arranging voice in jazz. Dave Brubeck said about him, “You hear the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time.” He had an open mind, yet a love for bebop, but a love for Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford, and equally a love for Prokofiev. There was a lot of dimension to his music. And lyricism. So Mulligan the arranger was important, and of course, since he played the baritone saxophone, though often in the register of a cello, almost like Lester Young… That was, I think, his paradigm of playing, unlike Pepper Adams, who was, of course, a super-virtuoso, and also one of the all-time greats. Very different aesthetic. Because Gerry played the baritone saxophone, you had to think a little differently at the piano because of range and register. Also, Gerry was an arranger who didn’t want the piano player to just comp along. He wanted a more orchestral approach. It got me thinking. That’s all. I also would pull his coat about some of his classic things, particularly Birth of the Cool and the nonet things that he did later. I’d ask, “What are those voicings? What were you thinking? What were you doing? Will you write that out for me? Would you show me that at the piano?” And he did. He was generous about that. Just naturally, that probably opened up a lot of thinking for me. I realized it later. I’d start writing something, or playing something, or arranging, and say, “Hmm, Gerry’s a piece of that.” I was lucky that before he passed away, I got a chance to tell him that he would be a part of every note that I play for the rest of my life, and I was grateful for that.

As far as Sondheim and Jule Styne, I’m trying to recall whether you have or haven’t incorporated Sondheim repertoire in your trio.

There’s one Sondheim tune in my book. It’s called “Uptown, Downtown.” It was cut from Follies.  It’s a wonderful tune, one of the few Sondheim songs that you can really swing. I’ve played Sondheim’s music before, but not with the trio. Actually, I did a Sondheim concert around ten years ago at the 92nd Street Y for Dick Hyman when he was the Artistic Director, probably coming into about ten years ago, where we played two pianos. I also played with Kenny and Peter on that concert. So I got to learn some more of that music there. I love Steven Sondheim’s theater music; he’s the logical extension of all of the giants.

It’s often been remarked that, perhaps because you’re so immersed in the lore and content of musical theater, you do something that many people find challenging, which is improvise upon that repertoire in a very open way, but also wrap your improvisations very much around the nuances of the lyrics. Can you speak to how you accumulated this knowledge? It couldn’t all have just been bloodline.

Born around it. Born around the aesthetic. Born around the love for it. My father, Moose Charlap, was a theater writer. Naturally…

And I’m sure your mother knew a ton of songs.

Oh, yeah. So there is that. But I just loved it. It made sense to me. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, different than Gershwin, different than Arlen, different than Kern, different than Porter. What was it about them, about their songs, that made a stamp? It’s not just a standard. To call it a tune is too small a word for these guys. They were master composers of the blueprints that they made. One thinks of what it is about Monk’s songs that makes Monk sound like Monk. Well, how can you recognize Rodgers? It was interesting to me. As I learned the composers, I started to see what their personal slants were, and all of the pieces started to fall into formation. This process continues; it’s not something I’ve mastered, by any means. In any event, as a jazz fan, as you get to learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. Well, you start to see where Jerome Kern sits in relation to Gershwin, in relation to Rodgers. It’s just another huge piece of American music, and a HUGE piece of the repertoire for jazz musicians. So to me, it didn’t make any sense not to have that be a very large part of my aesthetic.

Again, Mulligan loved the songwriters. He thought that way. It was nice to be around somebody from that generation, who was certainly a master jazz musician, who had that kind of awe of and respect of another way of thinking. This was my father’s world, so I knew what it was to write a score, and launch a show, and have an arranger, and have a producer, and out-of-town tryouts—and all of that world. But I’m a jazz musician. I am lucky to have had a window into that world. So that’s all.

But I think it accumulated both naturally, just amassing maybe a knowledge of the lyric and the song and all of those things. But when I say “naturally,” it means listening to many albums and scores; and reading through many books on composers; talking to people; being around people like Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Jule Styne, and a lot of people who were around in my life when I was a kid.

At what stage of your life did you start to become obsessed with jazz? Someone like Michael Feinstein, for instances, knows everything about musical theater, but he isn’t a jazz musician.

Well, I don’t know everything about musical or everything about anything else. What I mean to say is that Feinstein certainly has a much more vast knowledge of that type of thing than I would.

That being said, you did your jazz interest run in parallel?

The whole thing is one giant, cross-related thing!

So you saw it always as cross-related.

Everything. Not to mention Bach and Schoenberg. They were in there, too! I was interested in what makes American music. What makes this repertoire? Why are we playing Rhythm changes? Why do we play the blues? Why do we play these songs? Why do we keep going back to these songs? Then, in relation to that, what makes Monk’s compositions great? Not just in relation to that, but also its own thing. All of that. So it was a natural thing for me, I guess.

Also, in learning the songs (and frankly, this is not something unique in any way), I figured, “Well, this is part of what you do.” One of the first gigs I did was at the Knickerbocker when I was in my teens—I was given Monday nights to play solo piano. A guy came in and asked, “Do you play some Irving Berlin tunes?” I said, “Maybe I do” or something like that. Or I knew maybe one or two. I thought, “I should be able to rattle off fifty of them; he’s too important.” So a light went on in my head. I said, “Well, you should probably be able to say yes.” But it’s never scholastic with me. Really I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Wayne Shorter and I’m a fan of Irving Berlin.

But the one point I wanted to make is, in learning the songs, to me, it’s learning the lyrics, too, because they’re part and parcel of the same thing. The lyric will inform you how to phrase a melody. Or, what it is that you’re doing in not phrasing the melody. I just want to have a full box of tools before I make the choice.

I’m trying to thread some of these themes along the New York idea.

300 East 51st Street.

300 East 51st Street. Jewish family. Part of a line of…

Not that Jewish. Jewish in culture, but not Jewish in religion.

Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.

Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.

But 300 East 51st Street. Town School. High School of Performing Arts.

Yup. New York.

But not that many New York based professional jazz musicians are actually from New York. Apart from a place to grow up, New York is also a melting pot. Can you speak to the challenges of being an aspirant musician from New York and the opportunities that it affords?

It’s both. When I was a kid, I could go to the Village Gate and hear Junior Mance, or go to Lush Life and hear Kenny Barron, or go to Bradley’s and hear Red Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was all…

What do you mean by “a kid”?

In my teens I was able to do that. So when you’re exposed to musicians of that level, as close as you could be in a place like Bradley’s… You could sit right there. Geez! Tommy Flanagan’s playing right in front of you. What better lesson is that? I like what Ed Koch said about New York. I’m misquoting, but he said something like, “If you’re one in a million, there’s ten of you in New York.” What I mean by that, of course, is that the level of competition is incredibly high. Even going to the High School for the Performing Arts, there were kids in my class in freshman year who could play all the Chopin Etudes, letter-perfect technique. I was never geared towards being a classical pianist. Not that I didn’t study classical music, but it was way later. I was already playing theater songs on my own, improvising, and whatever else I was playing—it didn’t really have a name. But the bar was set really, really high. And you know the energy of New York. Things go at the speed of light. The cultural milieu is huge! Jackie Mason said something funny when he said, “Oh, I could never leave New York, because it has the ballet.” “So do you ever go to the ballet?” He says, “No, I never go to the ballet. But it’s there!”

So jazz always appealed to you.

My parents were listening to it, and it was always part of the sound around my house anyway. Not to mention that my father passed away when I was 7 years old, and my mother was remarried a number of years later to a trumpeter called George Triffon. He was my stepfather. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was a great trumpet player, not an improviser, but played third and second trumpet in Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, he was on the Merv Griffin Show—a professional in his generation who was always listening to Bill Evans and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan and Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer…

So the template was there.

Yeah, it was all there. That’s what they were listening to.

Well, when [bassist] Michael Moore is telling Whitney Balliett that not too many kids your age have absorbed Jimmy Rowles, or when Balliett in this 1999 New Yorker piece  describes you as having “ absorbed every pianist worth listening to in the past fifty years” within the flow of your improvisational thinking…

It was nice of him to say, but it’s not true.

But the references are there, because you heard them.

There isn’t anyone that he mentioned that I don’t love. There are many more he didn’t mention that I also love. And I don’t remember what the short list was.

I can read it to you.

It’s ok.

No, I’ll read it. “Starting with Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rowles, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson, then moving through Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans, and finishing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron.”

Well, there’s a lot more. Did he say Sonny Clark? Did he say Earl Hines? Did he say Red Garland? Did he say Wynton Kelly? Did he say Ahmad Jamal? There’s a lot more that I love, who are giants.

This morning I was listening to the dates you did for Criss Cross before the trio with Peter and Kenny, and it was a different sound. More abstract, different time feel…

Different cats.

Different cats. But there was a difference in the way you were approaching material, it seemed to me.

I was growing, and you continue to grow. It also had to do with the chemistry between whoever those rhythm sections were, and then maybe what I was thinking about musically at that time. All of that stuff comes together. It gives your music dimension. I never thought of cutting away something. Maybe it’s a matter of you get more focused.

One thing struck me. I was listening to “Confirmation” from the 1995 Criss-Cross record, Souvenir, and it was very abstract, almost 12-tone…

At the beginning.

I don’t think you would do something like that with this trio, for instance.

Well, I might have some element of that existing in there. I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Things have happened like that. It’s a matter of taste, that’s all, or whatever…

Everybody grows, everybody crystallizes their ideas, everybody develops an aesthetic that suits them for the different places they find themselves. I’m just wondering if you can reflect on how your aesthetic has evolved over this last 12-15 years, or what role the trio has played in your aesthetic evolution.

It’s very hard to say that. It’s almost something I can’t answer without contradicting myself, without contradicting how I really feel about it. Because finally, I really love a lot of music, and appreciate a lot of people’s aesthetics. I don’t need them to be the same as mine to really appreciate them.

I’m talking about your aesthetic.

I wouldn’t even want to say I’m trying to do this or I’m trying to do that. Because I can’t think that way. Both Kenny and Peter have such a beautiful originality in the way that they play their instruments and approach their music, yet they are so deeply informed also by the history of the music and the focal players on their instruments. Their aesthetic is very mature, very experienced. The depth of their time playing is very high. Maybe there’s a purity to the aesthetic that appeals to me. I just like beauty. What can I say?

You’ve made that statement: “Truth and beauty.”

Well, I didn’t invent it. It’s what Bill Evans told Tony Bennett before he died. I think that it’s right there in the music. If anyone wants to know what it is that means the most to me, all they have to do is listen. It’s right there.

You have another trio, the New York Trio, with Jay Leonhart on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, that you don’t perform with, but record with, which has made almost as many records, all for the Japanese market, as this trio.

I wouldn’t exactly say, though, it’s another trio that I have. It’s quite different, because this is a trio that has only existed in the recording studio on those albums. We did one gig once. So this is a band I’ve recorded with, but I still wouldn’t…

But it’s the same three people over a period of years, and the musical production is documented, and the notes and tones come from you.

True. It has to do with a bunch of things. First of all, I know going in that we’re going to record an album. We’re not going to be working on this material over time. Also, if an album is brought to me, it may be the producer’s concept: “We’d like to do a Richard Rodgers album.” Well, I think about these players playing this music, and maybe wouldn’t approach it the same way as I would with Kenny and Peter, and purposefully leave things in a way that allows the players to approach the pieces with ease. Because after all, we’re not rehearsing. We’re recording right away, going right to it, and letting it go. Often, it’s just a harmonic arrangement of a tune, or something like that.

Do you approach ballads differently now than you did 10 years or 12 years ago?

They mean more to me. They always meant something to me, though. I hear my mom singing them over the years. It’s the song. The song is meaningful to me. A ballad is not always a song. We played “Search for Peace” of McCoy Tyner, which is gorgeous, with the Blue Note 7. I love playing that.

Now, the Blue Note 7 repertoire, for the most part, is not repertoire you would play with the 

Oh, it might be. We were playing “Criss Cross” for a little while. Not to mention, Blue Note 7 really was a Blue Note 8, because Renee Rosnes, my wife, was the arranger of four of the pieces that were staples of our book. So she contributed in a very big way to the sound of the band.

She has the piano chair in another put-together-for-a-purpose group, the SF Collective, which has a very different approach.

Oh, you made me think of something I wanted to say. Although the Blue Note 7 did come from a commercial idea, what appealed to me was the idea that we could have a group that would exist in a non-commercial way. Not that it’s not an honor to tout Blue Note, and not that we would not want to tout Blue Note. Forget about if I was signed or not. But the idea was that it be also not be just a gig. A band is a band. A band has to want to be a band. That’s what you want. As musicians, we are in the incredibly lucky position that we’re able to work and get paid for doing what we love doing. It’s been said many times before, but my idea is that I am lucky to do things that I really care about on a very non-commercial level. The records I’ve made for Blue Note with my trio are the exact same records I would have self-produced. I feel that way pretty much of any project I’ve done that hasn’t been done with somebody else’s idea of what it should be, and that’s very fortunate. So the reward is right there in the music.

With the exception of Live at the Village Vanguard, which documents a performance, most of your recordings for Blue Note have thematic. I’m wondering if you can speak to the benefits and pitfalls of doing repertoire-directed sessions where the repertoire is arbitrarily selected.

They’re all different; each one begs a different answer. There’s no downside to it. I wouldn’t call it a downside; it’s a challenge…

I said pitfall.

There’s also no pitfall. It’s like doing Bernstein’s music. The only pitfall (and I wouldn’t call it a pitfall; I’d call it a challenge) would be how to approach this music and give it integrity within our context, and also keep the integrity from the context it comes from. That’s a challenge. But it’s a welcome challenge. The reason for doing a composer or a point of view? Very simply, it’s like a concert pianist doing a program of all Beethoven. It certainly helps to round out your performance and tie it all together, not just because they have their name signed on it, but because it has a personality. Hoagy Carmichael’s music has a personality. Gershwin’s music has a personality. Bernstein has a personality. So finding a program that works as a program…again, it’s like the Blue Note 7. You don’t want eight ballads. You don’t want eight up-tempos. You don’t want all the same music. So you have to find a way to make that work. Then you also want to make sure that you feature the bass and the drums all the way around.

It’s music that has a personality, but then it also has to suit your collective personality.

That’s true.

It’s not like a cabaret performance of the repertoire.

Well, you try to do that as naturally as possible. Of course, these are things I give great thought to. But in an organic way. Not any other way.

Is there a contemporary songbook? Is there a songbook of the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s that you consider to be ripe for similar interpretation?

It’s different. Most of these songs, the great songs, come out of American Musical Theater, and there really wasn’t that much from American Musical Theater in the same way… Our culture changed. It completely changed. People weren’t excited about, oh, the next Gershwin show or the next Rodgers and Hammerstein show. They were talking about other things. They were talking about the Jefferson Airplane perhaps.

Or they were talking about the choreography on Chicago or Cats. The theater may have become more about spectacle for the most part…

Not in the case of Sondheim. But also, it’s the English infiltration of the theater when you’re talking about Lloyd-Webber and all of that. But the aesthetic changed, too. Cy Coleman and my father and a couple of writers continued on, and were at the tail end of the great theater writers.

Is there a songbook? Well, there are still some beautiful songs, certainly of Sondheim, although, because he expands the musical theater, he expands it a little bit away from us as song players. Like Bernstein, too, who was expanding things, and more through-composed… With Bernstein, that was the challenge, I think, that you didn’t want to throw away all his underpinnings, all his orchestration, because they were as much a part of the composition. After all, he was a real composer from soup to nuts. That doesn’t mean that Kern was not a real composer. I don’t think Bernstein could have written a Kern song any better than Kern could have written West Side Story.

But the question is: Is there a contemporary songbook? There are beautiful things written by people like Stevie Wonder. There are beautiful things written by people like Michel Legrand—although you may consider him part of an older tradition of writing, and that’s probably true. Johnny Mandel. It’s different. Much of the popular music today wouldn’t appeal to me. Not that it isn’t good. Not that it’s not expressing something viable and real, and that its creators are not brilliant musicians. But certain things simply are not there for a jazz improviser, particularly in that they are triadic in nature, that they deal with three-note chords, not four-note chords—and that’s a big, big deal for us. You almost have to recompose them to make them right for us. Their blueprint is not a blueprint like “All The Things You Are.” The blueprint needs to be rewritten. “All The Things You Are” does not need to be rewritten. They also often rely upon the performer. I don’t think there’s a better performance of a Beatles song than by the Beatles themselves, whereas I do think that there are often more quintessential performances of some songs from, say, Oklahoma, though they’re quintessential in American Musical Theater in their original forms… Coleman Hawkins playing “Climb Every Mountain” means a lot more to us as jazz players than it does within The Sound of Music, albeit that it’s perfect within The Sound of Music.

So the answer is: I think they are few and far between. I believe that there is repertoire for us, but it’s very differently-built. That’s not necessarily bad.

So you would be coming from a different place than some people situated just across the border of the generational divide from you. Someone like Brad Mehldau, born in 1971, addresses Radiohead and Bjork…

And he does great things with them.

I’m not asking you to judge what he does, but that sort of repertoire…

It’s not for me.

You yourself are 42, and your teenage years, the years in which you developed most rapidly, coincided with the “young lions” coming to New York, in ‘81-‘82-‘83…

Stevie Wonder’s pretty good! I’m sorry. I was still answering the other question. I’d like to play “If It’s Magic.” That’s gorgeous.

In any event, did that development have an effect on you, or were you so tied into the older generation…

I mean, I never was tied into the older generation.

You knew it intimately, though.

I guess so.

You have a certain time feel with this group, that’s very much a bebop time feel.

Sure.

I’m sure that’s partly because of Kenny’s presence…

No, it’s not just because of Kenny. That’s the center of my musical world for sure.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the intuitive feel for most pianists born after the Baby Boom. For me, that’s also a New York thing, in a way.

Could be. But I think a lot of my generation grew up with that. Renee, Dave Hazeltine, Mike LeDonne… There’s all different places within it, everywhere from Wynton Kelly through Herbie Hancock. But it’s still about swinging. It’s still about playing within a rhythm section. Maybe I happen to feel post-bop things and bop things—and beyond—all together. There’s a lot of that together. If you think about Oscar Peterson, he’s playing harmonically all kinds of things, but there’s a swing feel to his playing that’s not really like Bud Powell. It’s more Nat Cole. Then you just get into personalities. He had such a strong personality that it’s Oscar Peterson music. It’s just not categorizable any more.

But as far as the “young lions,” when I was coming up I didn’t feel negative about it at all. I always felt, “Well, that’s good; it’s good that people are immersing themselves in something that’s really valuable and some tradition.” Of course, the media was jumping on it as a way of promoting a way of thinking, and maybe there was a sociological current going on with that then. But I always saw it in perspective, even when it was happening, which was: Well, that’s for now, and that’s a good thing. That won’t last forever. Nothing else lasts forever. That’s a good thing, because finally, the bottom line is that it just forced players to learn how to play well. There was a criteria of playing well.

Now, I don’t really care too much for any idea that says, “Well, this is the only way to do it” or “this is not worthwhile because this is really the stuff.” I don’t feel that way. I don’t think most great musicians do. It just doesn’t interest me to think that way. But also, if you really, really love something, and if you’re an artist, there is sometimes some myopia. You have to have it. You have to be able to focus very finitely on something. So it’s a delicate balance. It’s personal. I just thought, “Well, that’s another way to do it; that way is good, too.” That’s how I really felt. I never felt that it negated what somebody else who didn’t do that, did, and I didn’t feel that they negated what… Quality is quality. That’s all.

You played with Jim Hall. You played for a long time with Phil Woods. You played duo with Michael Moore. You played duo with Gene Bertoncini. Real serious New York purists, and very demanding taskmasters. Can you make some general comment about your apprenticeship and the value of those sorts of gigs to what you do now?

Those guys are masters. You get around any master, they’re going to show you the path in ways that are technical, in ways that are very clear, and then in ways that are about being around their experience that you continue to learn from. It never ends. Things that you can’t put into words. There’s a feeling there.

Someone who was very important to me was Eddie Locke, the drummer, whom I’ve known since I was in grade school. He was always talking about the feeling of the music, the great musicians he played with, like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. He’s from Detroit, close friends with Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, whom he had a trio with. Eddie has lived the center of the music, and is about the human feeling in the music. He’s been like family to me over the years. There’s been a lot to glean from being around a person like that. I also was lucky that I had great teachers. Jack Riley, a wonderful pianist, a composer, classical pianist and jazz pianist, and a great musical intellectual as well, very able to impart technical things about the music—a natural of a teacher. Eleanor Hancock, a great concert pianist who was a pedagogue of the pianist, Dorothy Taubman, part of a technical school of playing the piano that was valuable for me in terms of production of sound, getting me to think.

They all showed the way. From each person you learn some very special thing, or many special things. I’m lucky. I always saw that the benchmark was really high, and you know, just try to play better every night.

The another thing, which might seem obvious, is learning to play your instrument with command. All those players are virtuosos of playing their instrument. I think that it’s not too small of a point to make that a comprehensive approach to expressivity on your instrument is essential. One of the things that makes Kenny Washington’s and Peter Washington’s playing so great, is that they are virtuosos on their respective instruments—and Phil Woods, and Gene Bertoncini, and all those people. The bar is very high in terms of their command and sound production. None of that is wasted. I think that’s a key thing for young musicians to understand, is not to be satisfied with just the ability to do some things. There are so many colors out there. That’s what differentiates a Coleman Hawkins from a very fine, educated tenor player—all those colors, and then, of course, the personality. Which will come through. But you have to take care of making a full box of tools, and not cut corners.

That particular cohort of older musicians you played with are not the type to let things go.

They did not cut corners.

And you can’t either, can you.

You can’t. Not if you want to honor how great this music is—and also not if you want to keep the gig. And why would you want to? Finally, to me, it’s all just about being a fan. A couple of nights ago, I heard Barry Harris play “It Could Happen To You.” It was a solo version. And he told such a story on it with so much nuance, it was inimitable. Of course, it was looking down from a lifetime of music and experience. But it was certainly educational, and certainly held up how far away that is.

Is there still such a thing as New York jazz that’s relevant to you?

Well, I don’t know. I only know what I know. Not to quote a lyric…it’s in “Time After Time.” Not Cyndi Lauper’s. But there probably is such a thing. Maybe it has to do with bebop and swinging. But I’m 42, so I’m not on the street with the 20-year-olds any more. I think things are changing a great deal. I don’t think it’s about bebop maybe as much. These days, it’s about odd time, changing time signatures, and not always about swinging. To me that’s a shame. Because if you’re missing that quarter-note and that feeling, you’re missing something very important to the sound of our music. Not to sound like an old fogey, but I think that’s absolutely central. The blues is central. Being part of a family tree musically is central. There’s no outsider art in jazz. It’s too high of an art form. It would be like being a great writer, and not knowing Faulkner and Melville and Thomas Mann. You have to be part of a continuum to say something original. I don’t think you can really bring something “original” without being a part of the canon, and I don’t think you can seek out just being original. I mean, you can’t think of someone more original than Monk, but Monk wouldn’t be Monk without Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. It wouldn’t exist that way. Coltrane wouldn’t have sounded like Coltrane without Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.

I will say this. My mother and my father were very influential. I saw my Dad’s intensity. Even though he died when he was 7, I watched him at the piano, I heard him play his music. He had great time and he had a great expressiveness in singing and playing his own tunes.

Anything else to say about your mother, Sandy Stewart? You’ve recorded together.

She’s a beautiful singer. She really reads a lyric, and she’s a great musician. We’re going to perform next year again at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, as we have on a yearly basis.

After Jazz in July, are there any special projects, or is it primarily the trio?

There is. I’m going to record a two-piano album with my wife. Renee is a giant of a musician, and a perfect duo partner. She has perfect ears, brilliant time, and taste.

Ted Panken interviewed Bill Charlap at the Algonquin Hotel on May 23, 2009

* * * *

Bill Charlap Feature in Jazziz, 2016:

“You can’t invent chemistry,” Bill Charlap says. “Generally it happens instantly, like when you meet a friend you get along with very easily, or when you fall in love.” The observation occurred as Charlap communed with a hunk of New York strip steak at a chophouse in the New Jersey suburb where he lives with his wife, pianist Renee Rosnes, but he was referring to the sparks that flew that transpired when he first made music with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at a December 22, 1997 recording session for Criss Cross. “That was it,” Charlap recalls. “We had maybe one rehearsal, and we sounded like a band right away.”

The ensuing album, All Through the Night, marked Charlap’s first recording of exclusively his arrangements culled from the Great American Songbook. It inspired the eminent jazz journalist Whitney Balliett to write a laudatory article in The New Yorker in 1999. Balliett described Charlap, born in 1966, as “a lyrical repository” and “the best, but least well-known pianist” of his generation. He even compared Charlap’s declamation on Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” from the 1995 CD Souvenir to an elite pantheon of recorded solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Paul Gonsalves and Joe Lovano that, in Balliett’s words, “catch you by surprise and send tremors up your spine.”

Partly thanks to Balliett’s encomium and an ensuing Blue Note contract, the Bill Charlap Trio quickly progressed, in Peter Washington’s words, “from a couple of weeks a year at Zinno’s” — a convivial Italian restaurant-cum-piano room on W. 13th Street in Greenwich Village — “to the Village Vanguard.” Washington stood at Birdland’s bar after a sparkling set on the second night of a week’s run supporting the trio’s recently released CD Notes From New York (Impulse!), its seventh recording, and first since 2007. Recorded immediately after a fortnight at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in May 2015, it’s a nine-tune program on which the partners sustain the mutual intuition established during their maiden voyage almost 19 years and a few thousand gigs ago. Their elegant, freewheeling triangular conversation on songs written between 1941 (“Not a Care In the World,” by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche, from an Eddie Cantor Broadway vehicle called Banjo Eyes) and 1975 (“Little Rascal On a Rock,” by Thad Jones) embodies the attitude that the pieces are not repertory, but collectively articulated repertoire. The overriding sensibility, as Charlap once said, is “cooking like the pot is boiling but with the lid on the pot, not obscuring the songs, but each of us playing ourself.”

This remark aptly described the flavor of this night at Birdland, where the trio displayed customary levels of creativity, craft and cogency. One highlight was Charlap’s solo on Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put On a Happy Face” (1963), which spanned a vocabulary timeline from Willie “The Lion” Smith to Bud Powell without shoving the historical references in your face. Another was an achingly gorgeous reading of Ira Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “I Was So Young and You Were So Beautiful” (1919), to which he applied his dynamic command and penchant for phrasing notes and tones to convey the essence of a lyric. Lucky Thompson’s blues “Prey-Loot” (1964) provoked another stride-to-modernism invention demonstrating that the trio needs no text as an armature around which to sculpt musical narrative.

That they performed not a single tune from Notes From New York denotes the scope of Charlap’s vast book. He’s gestated much of it on recordings that explore the oeuvres of George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Bernstein; on others with the New York Trio — a nonperforming unit with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart that makes CDs exclusively for the Japanese market — of material by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter; and on Charlap’s Grammy-winning 2015 collaboration with Tony Bennett, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. He’s generated other arrangements for a half-dozen theme-oriented shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2006, and while curating and music-directing some 70 concerts for the annual “Jazz in July” series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA since 2004, when the polymath pianist Dick Hyman, a distant cousin, passed him the baton.

“We could have made three or four records,” Kenny Washington says of the two days it took to record Notes From New York. “This was the most relaxed one we’ve done. It was just like playing a gig.”

“I remember thinking that this was the very best I’d ever heard Bill,” Peter Washington adds. “On some earlier records we did a million takes, but this was unscripted, a unique experience.”

Kenny Washington first played drums with Charlap in the semifinals of the 1993 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, in which Jacky Terrasson, Peter Martin and Edward Simon finished first, second and third. “In my opinion, Bill should have won,” Washington says. “Everybody else was showboating; this cat was playing music!” The feeling was reinforced a few years later, when Charlap called him for a no-rehearsal brunch engagement at the Blue Note.

Charlap recalls Washington remarking at their first studio meeting that he sounded like a “modern-day Teddy Wilson,” then adds, “I wasn’t trying to play somebody’s language or not to play somebody’s language.”

“The first thing that hit me was Bill’s touch and lyricism,” Washington clarifies. “He plays with his heart on his sleeve. This cat will lay you out on a ballad. At almost the end of the tune, there might be a pause; people are so quiet, you can hear a rat piss on cotton. We have the audience in the palms of our hands.”

Before participating in All Through the Night, Peter Washington, then midway through a 10-year run with Tommy Flanagan, had frequently partnered with the identically surnamed drummer (no relation), but never with Charlap. “I grooved to him right away,” Washingon says. “He’s very purposeful and has terrific time; it’s easy to play with him. He plays those standards without making it sound like a Sunday-school lesson. Playing standards and playing as straightahead as we play will never be out of favor, but it’s not fashionable. But Bill has been that way all along. He doesn’t care.”

“I love to play songs more than anything else,” Charlap says. “That’s not a great revelation to anybody who knows what I do. I love the songwriters. I love their mastery of the form. I love what those forms are for an improviser. I love their canvas. I like the stories that they tell. I love the lyricists—the whole scene.”

BREAK

Charlap was the only person in the chophouse dining room in a suit and tie — one of several understated, well-tailored blue Ermenegildo Zegnas that he uses for a performance uniform. He’d worn it for an afternoon meeting with fundraisers at William Paterson University, which, last September, appointed Charlap director of jazz studies, replacing the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. During the just-concluded school year, Charlap taught six separate ensembles, focusing on works by Harold Arlen and Horace Silver in the first semester, and Irving Berlin and Billy Strayhorn in the second.

“I enjoy learning the idiosyncracies and special talents of young musicians,” Charlap says. “I want to help them develop a full box of tools, and understand things contextually. If they’re learning ‘Body and Soul,’ for example, be aware of the iconic recordings of that song by Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Know how the song is built, who Johnny Green is, what the lyrics do, what the original stock arrangement might have done. Have a comprehensive idea of the song so when you approach it, you won’t be stylistically limited. You want your students to fall in love with it, to experience something that makes them say, ‘That made me feel something I’ve never felt before.’ As you fall more deeply in love with something, don’t you want to know every angle of it? Aren’t you wasting your feelings to not know it as intimately as possible?

“As a jazz fan, as you learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, than Gershwin, than Arlen, than Kern, than Porter. What was it about these master composers that made a stamp? As I learned the composers and read about their lives, all the pieces fell into formation.”

I observed that to juggle so many variables in real time mirrors Charlap’s own aesthetics. “The best thing you can do is be yourself,” he responded. “I follow Dick Hyman’s advice, which was ‘take the gig.’ That’s how you learn how to do it. If rhythm changes are difficult to play in the key of B-major, you should probably be practicing that. Run towards the cannons.

“A teacher becomes an advanced student. You learn more about what’s important to you, what you can offer that’s unique to your perception. When I listen to Coltrane, it’s to try to figure out how he can help me, but when I listen to my students it’s my job to help them. You’re not just listening for notes and time and sound and technique. You’re also listening for those intangible things that touch us — where someone’s heart is coming from.”

That Charlap’s heart so palpably connects to hardcore jazz and the Songbook links directly to his Manhattan upbringing. Born in 1966, he launched his musical education at 300 East 51st Street, where he lived with an older brother and two older sisters; his mother, Sandy Stewart, a popular singer in the ’50s, with whom he has recorded two CDs; and his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, a songwriter best-known for writing most of the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan, who died at 45, in 1974, when Charlap was 7.

“I imitated my dad, who composed at the piano and was very passionate and intense when he played,” Charlap says. “He was such a pro that he was doing it all the time. He wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was making stuff up, composing somehow out of the blue.” Early on, Charlap listened to Peter Pan, but also enjoyed “hearing the intervals and picking out the notes” of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor. Strouse and Jule Styne, whose songs he played at the Birdland set, were family friends, as were Yip Harburg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. After his mother remarried, the family heard his stepfather’s LPs by, among others, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Brookmeyer and Count Basie. “I remember getting Heavy Weather, some Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and a Miles Davis twofer all around the same time,” Charlap recalls. “It was all speaking to me. It was one giant, cross-related thing.”

He began to coalesce his interests while attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, where the student body represented the full ethnic scope of the New York City melting pot. “It put me in a conservatory atmosphere,” Charlap says. “You had brilliant jazz musicians, classical musicians, gospel musicians, everybody bound together by talent, some already at a professional level. It was New York — the incredible energy, intensity and culture.”

At 15, Charlap sometimes played hooky at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the General Motors Building at One Times Square, where he used Fats Waller’s piano, housed therein, as a practice instrument. There he met songwriter Walter Bishop, Sr., whose namesake son had played piano with Charlie Parker. “He’d been friends with Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and he encouraged me,” Charlap says. “I wanted to be a whole band, so I’d walk the basslines. I remember him saying, ‘Yes, Billy, when you jump down the sixth it’s very effective.’” A pianist who worked in the office recommended him for a gig with the improv-oriented First Amendment Comedy Troupe. “It was like being a silent movie pianist,” Charlap says. “I underscored whatever they were doing, and as people came in I could play anything I wanted — Chopin or Scott Joplin or ‘What Is This Thing Called Love.’ I wouldn’t say I had it under my fingers, but I was learning. I could do the gig.”

Thus “pushed towards jazz” as a serious commitment, Charlap reinforced his skills until graduation in private studies with the distinguished Jack Reilly. Then he matriculated at SUNY-Purchase as a classical-piano student “to develop the technique that didn’t come easy,” but concluded his formal education after two years. “I was spending too much time with Beethoven,” he says. “I needed to work more on my craft, on American music and the world music that jazz is.”

In July 1987, Hyman presented Charlap, just 20, at a solo-piano tribute concert to Teddy Wilson at the 92nd Street Y that featured heavyweights Hyman, Marian McPartland and Roger Kellaway. “I played ‘Danny Boy,’ a very impressionistic harmonic treatment from Dick’s book, and ‘Somethin’ Special’ by Sonny Clark,” Charlap recalls. “I don’t know if I’d want to hear a tape, but I did the gig.” Leading up to All Through the Night over the next decade, he did plum sideman jobs with crusty perfectionists Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, accompanist jobs with many singers, and jobs as a leader and sideman in duos and trios at various New York boîtes.

So, when he encountered Peter and Kenny Washington in 1997, Charlap knew how to recognize their chemistry when it emerged; over the years, to paraphrase the Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyric, he’s known how to keep the music playing. “I remember locking eyes with Kenny as he played brushes, this exact moment where it didn’t feel like we’re just making a date,” Charlap says. “It happened with Renee, it happens when I play with my mom, and it happens with Kenny and Peter. We have a sound. Part of that sound is how much we each love all the angles of the music, have spent a lot of time getting to know it very well, and understand where we stand.

“It’s like when you go through what it is to stay in love. There’s so much unspoken trust. You uncover things about yourself individually, and experience them together. Then hopefully we get better. Hopefully, my logic of the line has improved. Hopefully, my rhythmic ideas have become more interesting, varied and personal. And hopefully, we’ve developed more command and confidence in every choice we make, more ability to listen even more deeply to each other and to ourselves. We’re not trying to be everything, just what we are.”

SIDEBAR:

Title: Dancing With Tony

Bill Charlap first listened to Tony Bennett when he was 10 years old. For some two decades, Bennett has been a fan, frequently attending Charlap’s New York appearances, sometimes sitting in, sometimes calling him for a gig. So Charlap takes special satisfaction in their shared 2016 Grammy for Look For the Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Sony). Here’s his account of the session.

“Tony said, ‘We should make a record. I thought maybe it should be Jerome Kern.’ I said, ‘Perfect.’ Kern is the first great American theater writer, the Bach figure of songwriting. He’s got one foot in Europe and one foot in America. He writes songs like ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ that couldn’t be more colloquial, more American, and songs that are more light-opera-ish, like ‘The Song Is You.’
“More than that, one of my favorite records was my mom and Dick Hyman doing Jerome Kern songs. [Sings the Songs of Jerome Kern — With Dick Hyman at the Piano] It’s unclassifiable. It’s not cabaret. It’s somehow this great jazz songbook, but it’s also theatrical. All the songs are in my heart from my mom singing them and Dick Hyman, who was probably my greatest pianistic influence, playing them.

“Tony asked if we should do it as a duo or with the trio, or with Renee. He loved the album Renee and I made together — the uncluttered transparency of it, how it becomes like a new piano player. I thought we should do all three. Each song lends itself to a different orchestration, so you can explore their unique qualities, while it’s all of a piece.

“Tony made a list of songs. We got together with Renee at Steinway Hall for an afternoon, and played through a bunch of them. I wrote a few trio treatments, and he had strong ideas that were definitive. He heard ‘I Won’t Dance’ in 3/4. It was perfect.

“He gave his heart to it. Tony’s the red carpet for the composer. He’s got all that natural show business understanding. It’s not show business corny, it’s show business deep, like telling the story in almost a Shakespearean way. Tony is a jazz musician, in the sense that he responds to what he’s hearing. If I’m playing a harmony, he responds to it. If the rhythm section hits something, even subtle, he responds to it right away. Tony never sings it the same way, so it wasn’t like doing a million takes and pick from here and pick from there. He likes to be extemporaneous, and he wants to feel loose. We inspire each other. He sings something, and it makes me play something. We’re listening to each other. It’s a dance. It’s a conversation.”

1 Comment

Filed under Bill Charlap, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazz.com

For Lee Konitz’ 89th Birthday, a 2015 Downbeat Feature, a 2001 Downbeat Feature, and an Uncut 2004 Blindfold Test

Lee Konitz turns 89 today. I’ve been fortunate to intersect with him both during my years at WKCR (we did a 3-Sunday, 18-hour retrospective of his recordings in 1993) and as a print journalist. Representing my latter activity are three DownBeat features, the first written on the occasion of his induction into DB’s Hall of Fame last year, the second published in 2002.  At the bottom is an uncut Blindfold Test that we did together in 2004. (I’ve previously posted the 2001 DB feature and the Blindfold Test.)

*-*-*-*-

Lee Konitz DB Hall of Fame Article (2015):

On the afternoon of May 4th, when Lee Konitz was informed of his induction into DownBeat’s Hall Of Fame, he was not in his apartments in Manhattan or Cologne, nor in his house in rural Poland. Instead, the 87-year-old alto and soprano saxophonist was in a London hotel room, preparing to hit a few hours hence at Ronnie Scott’s with trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Jordi Rossy, where they would play Douglas’ arrangements of tunes by Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano, interpreting, among others, “Subconscious Lee” (a contrafact of “What is This Thing Called Love”) and “Kary’s Trance” (“Play Fiddle Play”) according to tabula rasa improvising principles similar to those Konitz and Tristano followed when they performed frequently between 1949 and 1952, at periodic intervals between 1955 and 1959, and a final time in 1964.

On the next day, Konitz and Bro, who had played three gigs in three days with Douglas, would depart for an eight-day, six-concert tour with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan in Iceland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Greenland, during which they would apply similar aesthetics to navigating Bro’s beyond-category 21st century songs, as they did on the Loveland albums Balladeering (2008), Time (2011) and December Songs (2013).

“I brought my heavy coat with me, just in case,” Konitz joked. He recalled first visiting Scandinavia in November 1951, as documented on spirited location broadcasts with local musicians that include “Sax Of A Kind” (“Fine and Dandy”), “Sound-Lee” (“Too Marvelous For Words”) and “All The Things You Are.” Seven months before, he had played those and the 11 other tracks that comprise last year’s release Lennie Tristano: Chicago, April 1951 (Uptown) alongside tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh in Tristano’s sextet at the Blue Note Jazz Club in the Loop. Proprietor Frank Holzfeind, who taped the proceedings, only booked top-shelf national acts, a category to which Chicago natives Tristano and Konitz had ascended after several critically acclaimed recordings during the two previous years—Tristano’s for Prestige and Capitol and Konitz’s for New Jazz. Before a friendly, not-too-loud audience, the sextet executes vertiginous unisons, stretching out soloistically and contrapuntally on the aforementioned, along with Konitz’s “Palo Alto” (“Strike Up The Band”) and “Tautology” (“Idaho”), Marsh’s “Background Music” (“All of Me”) and Tristano’s “No Figs” (“Indiana”). They also tackled the standards “I’ll Remember April” and “Pennies From Heaven,” which would spawn now-canonic variants like Tristano’s “April” and “Lennie’s Pennies,” and Konitz’s “Hi-Beck,” which he had recorded a month before with a sextet including Miles Davis, who had brought Konitz’s sui generis alto voice to the “Birth of the Cool” sessions for Capitol in 1949 and 1950.

That Konitz continues to seek and find new pathways through this core repertoire is evident from Douglas’ reports of the British engagements and a new CD titled Jeff Denson Trio+Lee Konitz (Ridgeway), on which, accompanied by partners the age of his grandchildren, Konitz uncorks stunning alto saxophone solos on “Background Music” and Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” (“Out Of Nowhere”).

A few days after returning from England, Douglas recalled his surprise at Konitz’s “radical approach to form” during rehearsals for the group’s March debut at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. “The language itself adheres to the rules of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano—and Lee Konitz,” Douglas said. “But everything starts as an improvisation, and the themes emerge from an unpredictable group improvisation. Everybody comes and goes. The song gets played in pieces. The full group is constantly involved in the elaboration of the form and the unfolding of the piece.

“Lee gave very specific directions. He said: ‘When one person plays a line and the other person enters, they should start on the note that the other person ended on, and use a bit of the phraseology that the person was in—this is the way I used to play with Warne Marsh.’ An intense ear-training thing. I think there’s a parallel between Lee’s ideas about how form and musical structure operate and the way Wayne Shorter works with his quartet.”

Unlike Shorter, Konitz does not use metaphoric koans to describe the process that he follows as assiduously today as he did in 1949. The son of Jewish immigrants who ran a laundry and cleaning establishment in Rogers Park during the Depression, he explains his own no-safety-net improvisational intentions with pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts terminology.

“When I play, I’m not thinking of expressing sadness, or some picture-idea, or some way to make an emotional effect,” he told collaborator Andy Hamilton in his authoritative autobiography, Lee Konitz: Conversations On The Improviser’s Art. “I’m thinking of playing a melodic succession of notes, with as accurate a time-feeling as possible. I don’t feel very poetic. I hear of people seeing colors, or images, or some spiritual motivation. I’m just playing the music clear, warm and positive—that’s really my motivation.”

Konitz’s 2015 explanation to Downbeat was even more to the point. “I start from the first note, and trust something will happen if I give it a chance,” he said. “It has to do with taking the time to let whatever note I’m playing resolve in some way, so I’m not just playing finger technique, one note after another non-stop, take a quick breath when you get out of breath. This is literally note by note.”

A key component of Tristano’s pedagogy was for students to sing the solos of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, to internalize them so deeply that they could then create their own composed variations and improvise upon them. That this remains fundamental to Konitz’s aesthetics is illustrated in a 2½-minute vignette in the documentary All The Things You Are, where Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer, en route to a duo concert in France in November 2010, scat Lester Young’s heroic declamations on “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy.” In recent months, Konitz said, he has begun to bring this heretofore private activity into performance.

“I enjoy making the singing feeling dictate the playing feeling, not the finger technique, which I tried to develop for many years, like most people,” Konitz said. “I’m a shy person to some extent, and I never had confidence to just yodel, as I refer to my scat singing. One day with Dan, I played a phrase and needed to clear my throat, so I finished the phrase, bi-doin-deedin-doden, or whatever, and then a few bars later Dan did something like that, so I said, ‘Oh, good—I’m in now; I can do this.’ I don’t get up to the microphone. I don’t gesticulate. I just sit in a chair, and whenever I feel like it, at the beginning of a solo or in the middle or whenever, I warble a few syllables. I’ve been warbling ever since, and feel great about the whole process.”

As a teenager in Chicago, Konitz—then an acolyte of Swing Era avatar altoists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter—played lead alto and sang the blues at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox, the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines. Seventy years later, he scatted with Douglas in England and with Bro in Scandinavia. Just three months earlier, he scatted several complete solos on the sessions that generated the new recording with Denson, following three meetings on Enja with the collective trio Minsarah—Standards Live–At The Village Vanguard (2014), Lee Konitz New Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard (2009) and Deep Lee (2007). Denson recalled that when he and his Minsarah partners, pianist Florian Weber and drummer Ziv Ravitz, first visited Konitz in Cologne, he immediately suggested they sing together.

“After several minutes, Lee said, ‘Sounds like a band,’” said Denson, 38. “For years traveling on the bus, we’d sing and trade and improvise, but never on stage until last October, when we were touring California. We went to extended phrases, then to collective improvising. We decided to record it, so I booked a show at Yoshi’s in February, and went into the studio.

“His vocal solos are beautiful. Lee told me that over the years he’s worked to edit his playing to pure melody. If you listen to the young Lee, it’s virtuoso, total genius solos. Now it’s still genius but a very different mode—all about finding these beautiful melodies. That sense of melody continues to capture me. So does Lee’s risk-taking, his desire not to plan some ‘hip’ line that he knows will work, but to take something from his surroundings so that the music is pure and truly improvised in the moment.”

On June 9, 2011, during soundcheck for a concert with Tepfer’s trio and Kurt Rosenwinkel in Melbourne, Australia, Konitz suffered a subdural hematoma and was hospitalized for several weeks. “He made an unbelievably miraculous recovery, and when we started playing again something had changed,” says Tepfer, 32, whose recorded encounters with Konitz include Duos With Lee (Sunnyside) and First Meeting: Live in London, Volume 1 (Whirlwind), a four-way meeting in 2010 with bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams. “When I first played with him, Lee was open to pretty out-there experimentation. I realized he was no longer interested in anything that resembled noise. He was very interested in harmony and playing together harmoniously. That’s a real shift in his priorities, and it took me a while to get used to it. But we’ve done a lot of touring in the last six months, and the playing together feels powerful. We’re playing standards and some of Lee’s lines, which are based on standard chord changes; Lee is entirely comfortable with any harmonic substitution or orchestration idea as long as it’s clear and musical and heartfelt. There is tremendous freedom in that restricting of parameters.”

On the phone from Aarhus, Denmark, after the second concert of his tour, Bro, 37, described the effect of Konitz’s instrumental voice. “I’ve listened to all his different eras, and it seems the things he’s describing with his sound are becoming stronger and stronger,” he said. “When he plays a line, a phrase, it sounds clearer than ever. It has a lot of weight. I don’t know any young players that have it. Lee moves me so much. He plays one note, and I’m like, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ The sounds become more than music, in a way.”

Douglas recalled a moment in England when Konitz played “Lover Man,” which he famously recorded with Stan Kenton in 1954. “It was a completely new conception, of course with a kinship to that great recording,” Douglas said. “But what struck me most is how much his melodic invention is wrapped up in his warm, malleable tone that at times seems unhinged from notions of intonation or any sort of school sense of what music is supposed to be. It has a liquid quality, like the notes are dripping off the staff. Everyone was stunned that he pulled this out in the middle of the set.”

What these young musical partners describe—and, indeed, Konitz’s masterful 1954 invention on “Lover Man”—is the antithesis of “cool jazz,” a term that attached itself to Konitz for the absence of what he terms “schmaltz” and “emoting on the sleeve” in his improvisations with Tristano, the Birth of the Cool sessions, Gerry Mulligan’s combos, and during his two years with Kenton, when he emerged as the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that fully addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

“To me, Lee combines Lennie’s rigorous, almost intellectual manufacturing of the line, with a huge heart and a desire to communicate,” Tepfer said. “I clearly remember that what first struck me when I met him is that there was never any misunderstanding. If Lee doesn’t understand you, he’ll always ask you to repeat it. He often says, if you say something on the money, ‘You ain’t just beatin’ your gums up and down.’ What he stands for in music is very much that. I think there’s nothing worse to Lee than people saying things just to say things, or playing things just to play some notes. There always has to be meaning, and intent to communicate that meaning to other people. What I described about his current passion for playing harmonious music, playing together with no semblance of noise or discordance, I think comes from an even more intense desire to communicate as he’s getting older.

“There has to be a question of what improvisation is and why we would do it, and whether it’s a meaningful thing or not. I think of all the people in the world, Lee stands as a beacon of truth in improvisation. There aren’t many like him, where you listen and come away with, ‘Ok, that’s why we do this.’”

Konitz allowed that playing with Tepfer, or with Brad Mehldau (most recently his partner with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian on the 2011 ECM date Live at Birdland) or with Frisell (their June 2011 encounter at Manhattan’s Blue Note with Gary Peacock and Joey Baron comprises Enfants Terrible [Half Note]), “or whomever I’m playing with who’s really listening and pushing a little bit in some positive way,” makes him “less inhibited to open up.”

He was asked about overcoming that shyness when he came to New York in 1948, at 21, and plunged into direct engagement with the movers and shakers of late 20th century jazz vocabulary. “Lennie’s encouragement had a lot to do with the playing ability that I became more confident in,” Konitz said. “I was always so self-critical, it was sometimes pretty difficult. But I was sometimes able to play. Marijuana had something to do with it, I confess. But at a certain point, I stopped it completely. I appreciated that, because whatever I played, it was more meaningful to me, and I felt totally responsible for it.”

Sixty-seven years after arriving in New York, Konitz, belatedly, is a member of DownBeat’s Hall of Fame. “It’s the ‘ain’t over until it’s over’ syndrome, and I deeply appreciate it,” he said. “I appreciate being around to say thank you. It’s romantic and poetic, and I’m accepting it on that level, and for being honored for trying to play through the years.”

Then Konitz focused on his itinerary immediately after he turns 88 on October 13. “I’ve got a lineup of tours coming up, all over the U.S. the last part of October; all over Europe, day by day, in November,” he said. “I’m pleased that I can do it.”

DownBeat Feature, 2001:

Behold Lee Konitz, 74, the patriarch of “cool jazz,” perched atop a barstool center-stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Trim, bespectacled, with a mossy white beard, Konitz is resplendent in a custom-tailored blue pinstripe with wide lapels and burgundy shirt open at the neck. Ears cocked, eyes darting, he’s ready to embark on a round of spontaneous composition with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Marc Johnson, each capable, as Bley puts it, “of playing the gig solo if the others didn’t arrive on time.”

Konitz bends, envelops the alto saxophone mouthpiece in a brief, graceful motion, and blows a stream of notes, gradually forming a melody, articulating the flow with his signature wood-grained sound, smooth and round at the edges, with a touch more vibrato than he used to deploy. Finally he unveils the refrain of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.”  Bley, the mischievous Katzenjammer Kid, sets up sudden detours; Konitz, unfazed, cool as his rep, falls silent for one rest, another, intuits the note, and plunges into a new set of variations. The trio sustains the speculative mood for an hour, improvising continuously through the melodies of “I’ll Remember April” and “Stella By Starlight” with the attitude of adventurers working through virgin terrain.

“I start every day playing into a song that I know,” Konitz had said six months before, a few days after “being paid exorbitantly” for three nights of improvised duliloquy with drummer Paul Motian at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We sat in the living room of the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment that now serves as his New York pied a terre, the novels of Proust and Dostoevsky holding pride of place with a healthy collection of classical and jazz CDs. “I hear so many talented people who are obliged to learn many different kinds of musics to function as professionals. Which I was never really obliged to do. Don’t bug me! I just want to play ‘All The Things You Are’ in all the keys. I’ve been through the keys!”

At that moment, Konitz was pondering weighty matters. Having survived post-operative complications from a May 2000 angioplasty and subsequent open-heart surgery, his doctors had informed him that another angioplasty would be required, forcing him to cancel at least a month of engagements. He reflected analytically on the impact of the aging process on his sound.

“My breath control is a little shorter, and I tend to play shorter phrases,” Konitz commented. “But I’ve worked at it every day; all these little adjustments have been systematic in some way, and I’ve accepted them. Whatever change in my sound or in the way I play a line, I’m told that people can recognize me still from the first note I play. Which I consider a great compliment, since I’ve made a real effort not to keep doing the same solo over and over again, so to speak. Whether I played better in 1951 than I do now is a matter of taste, but now I am doing what I think is closer to my real musicality. I’ve studied over the years to try to eliminate the so-called intellectual imbalance in the playing — to play real notes. It’s been a process of editing, finding how to listen better, play in time better, relax better, and to stay inventive. I feel much stronger rhythmically. I hear much clearer and relate much more definitely to what I hear, and all of those coordinating factors are slowly developing. Being 74 doesn’t necessarily stop that process. It seems to be stimulating it in some way, because I know I don’t have that much time. And I have the good fortune of being able to play in public and get money! That completes the cycle.”

The doctors had given Konitz a false alarm, and he resumed his 60-year career with scarcely a glitch. From his Rhenish base in Cologne, where he lives with his wife of several years, Konitz executes the lone-wolf saxman function at festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe, working with whichever musicians cross his path. A week before the Blue Note engagement, for example, he and Bley had performed three nights of duos in Cully, Switzerland, preceded by a Genoa encounter with the excellent Italian tenorist Pietro Tonolo. That followed a Paris recital on which Konitz improvised to four-horn arrangements of his tunes by the Canadian arranger Francois Theberge, and a recording session for Owl on which he earned his one thousand dollar fee (“Not Euros, bucks!”) with five minutes of variations on “My Funny Valentine” as accompaniment to a reading by French essayist Alain Gerber on Chet Baker.

Since 1996, Konitz has recorded some of the strongest albums of his distinguished corpus. He blends his sound with a string quartet, improvising on 10 songs by French Impressionist composers over Ohad Talmor arrangements; interprets 12 ballads associated with Billie Holiday over Daniel Schnyder arrangements for string sextet and drums [Enja]; and channels Johnny Hodges on a luscious recital with the 40-piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland [Koch], making “the vibrato really schmaltzy.” There are two volumes of impromptu triologues with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau [Blue Note], and one apiece with Motian and bassist Steve Swallow [Enja], with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron [DIW], and with pianist Don Friedman and the late guitarist Attila Zoller [Hat Art]. For the Danish label Steeplechase, which has documented Konitz since the ’70s, there are several excellent sax-bass-drums trios and a contrapuntal flight of fancy with tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a friend since 1948. He meets Brown and guitarist John Abercrombie on the RCA album SOUNDS OF SURPRISE, and dialogues with rising tenor star Mark Turner for PARALLELS, on Chesky.

“Beginning before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Konitz reflected in March, a few days after arriving in New York for the first time since his October troubles. “So I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. The sideman mentality, I think, is part of that. Last night I went to the Vanguard and heard Mark Turner’s band, which is a real band; they played nice tunes, nice arrangements, nice solos. Bravo. I don’t seem to need that in my life. For some strange reason, I like to just go in and play with different guys.”

Consider how Konitz approached his 1998 encounter with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in Perugia.  “We rehearsed three days at his studio at 125th Street,” Konitz relates. As introspective in conversation as he is in music, Konitz analyzes the emotions that bedrock his improvisations with the same intensity he imparts to the practice by which he prepares to create them.

“On the first day, Ornette brought about 13 tunes, including a ballad for me. I saw quickly that the tunes were 8 or 12 bars long. Then I discovered that the pitches were correct, but he wasn’t playing them that way. Very typically bright Ornette themes. He gave me a tape after the first rehearsal, and I transcribed his playing so that I could it play it rhythmically more correct. I told Ornette I didn’t feel comfortable, and asked him to let me play the first solo after the theme, though I asked myself, ‘How could that possibly work?’ But it seemed to help a bit, and although I told Ornette I didn’t really fit, he and Charlie and Billy told me I was doing fine. So I accepted the good feelings they gave me and had my doubts about fitting in. After the set in Perugia, Ornette said backstage, ‘Do you want to play ‘All The Things You Are’?’  I said, ‘Yeah!’ We went out…and you never heard a version of ‘All The Things You Are’ like that!”

“I remember going with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh to hear him at the Five Spot one night, and not really knowing what to make of it. Ornette came up and asked me if I wanted to sit in. I said, ‘What do we play?’ or something like that, and somehow I guess I didn’t sound like I really wanted to sit in, so he didn’t pursue it. Sorry I didn’t. At that time, like a lot of people, I was resenting somehow this fact that he was eliminating everything that I’d spent my years trying to hone. But I gradually got over resenting it. Ornette’s concept is extraordinarily inventive and original, and of course had a great influence on a lot of the music’s development. He tried to explain some of the harmolodic theory on an airplane flight when we were sitting together. I said, ‘Wait til we get down on the ground, please.’ I really said that, because it’s so subjective that I didn’t want to face it up in the air. I never really learned his tunes. I’m too busy playing ‘All the Things You Are.’ By Jerome Kern. That guy must be turning over!”

Konitz is Coleman’s senior by three years, and by the fall of 1959, the date of their first encounter, he was a minor legend. An avatar in improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework, he was the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

Both accomplishments trace to Konitz’ intense two-decade disciple-master relationship with Tristano. The lessons began in Chicago around 1944, not long after Konitz — who grew up in Rogers Park — had begun to play professionally as a lead alto saxophonist in several white dance bands and in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox (the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines, who performed under the pseudonym Jimmy Dale), who assigned the pimply neophyte to sing the blues before curious audiences at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom. Tristano had Konitz — then an acolyte of swing era alto heroes Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges — duplicate solos by Lester Young (Konitz cites “Dickie’s Dream” and “Pound Cake” as two of many favorites) and Charlie Parker (“Don’t Blame Me”), laying the groundwork for the twisty legato patterns and behind the beat phrasing that remains his trademark.

In 1948, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Konitz arrived in New York for a fortnight’s residence at the Pennsylvania Hotel with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He never left. “52nd Street was the first place I went after I checked in,” Konitz says. “I heard Charlie Parker, I heard Art Tatum, I heard Roy Eldridge — one after another. Incredible. This was the big time, and I was totally impressed with the funky clubs, with the whole scene.”

Konitz quickly made his mark. Whitney Balliett’s 1982 essay, “Ten Levels” contains the best account of the manner in which he did it. There Konitz discusses how Gil Evans, an arranger with Thornhill, led him to the rehearsal nonet that became Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band; his pioneering “free jazz” recordings on Capitol and Prestige with Tristano’s sextet, and the bizarre course of their relationship; and his 16-month tenure with Stan Kenton’s brass-heavy aggregation. Konitz left Kenton in 1954, and embarked on the nomadic free-lance life he continues to lead, hewing to on-the-highwire imperatives through the tides of Hardbop, Soul Jazz, Coltrane, Avant Garde, Fusion and Neoclassicism.

“I had the model in Tristano and Warne Marsh especially, and before that with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I rejected a lot of what I heard around me on that basis,” Konitz says. “Which is kind of a traditional trap we can get into; there I was, in the ’60s, out of step with what’s hip, with what almost all of the younger people were studying.

“To this day I feel that Warne Marsh was one of the most real players in jazz. When he played, it was all substance and no attitude to speak of. I heard attitude in Charlie Parker, except that he was a genius so he could compensate for that — or cover it. ‘Attitude’ meaning that there was something extra-musical involved in this. Over-dramatic emotionality. Okay?  Coming from the ‘cool’ system, you can take that with a grain of salt. I love passionate expression as well as the next man, but sometimes it felt that all the emphasis was on trying to emote on the sleeve, so to speak. What really gets to me is hearing a really straight reading with great notes. great sound and great rhythm feeling. Warne was capable of doing that more than anybody I know.”

During the latter ’50s, as Konitz came to grips with Parker’s rhythmic language, he began to prove, as Paul Bley notes, “that he could be a muscular time player. Time was an Achilles heel of Lennie’s groups, and Lee went past that to incorporate a swinging approach, plus the intellectual. That’s the whole thing to match off — to be creative harmonically and melodically and at the same time have a mastery of rhythm sections.”

“Lee has a jarring rhythmic sense,” Mark Turner says. “Phrases are never in groups of 2 or 4 or 8 beats or notes, but in 7’s or 9’s or 5’s or 6’s. His lines are also very involved, long, connected, extremely lyrical. Until the ’70s, his playing was pretty complex, always lyrical and logical, always a strong rhythmic sense, with a unique sense of swing. Over the last five years, it’s a much simpler, more pared-down version of what was going on then. He’s very open minded and so free — and rooted as well.”

“I think what Lee needs from a drummer is strong, confident, concentrated time,” says Joey Baron, Konitz’ drummer of choice in recent years. “He plays on the REAL back side of the beat, and it’s important not to try to match where he’s placing the time. I think he expects some fire, some expression without impeding his aesthetic of music. It’s not about energy and texture. It’s more about his mastery of melody and continuity. He really appreciates when you listen, and he starts from scratch with whomever he’s playing with, which is unbelievable.”

Whatever distaste Konitz professes for proselytizing, his search for musical truth has the feeling of a monastic pursuit. “I came into a situation with Tristano that was a number of steps beyond what I was prepared to absorb,” Konitz says. “That meant weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard.” To exist so self-consciously must take a psychic toll, and Konitz, who “was never part of a religious group too much and left the Jewish thing early on,” found himself looking to outside sources for inspiration.

One crutch was marijuana, which Konitz used heavily during the ’50s and ’60s. “That had its effect one way and another,” Konitz says. “As Louis Armstrong said, ‘Where do you get your ideas from if you’re not smoking?’ I can see that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t all come together yet. I still think about it, because those were very special moments. Now I can get a different kind of satisfaction, but very complete, without having to do anything, and that has been a big lesson for me. I didn’t like the feeling of having a door open on something and then having it close up the next morning.”

Konitz began to wean himself from marijuana during a lengthy association with Scientology, which he became involved with around 1973. “It seemed to me that I would have a chance, step-by-step, to look at my life and things around me, and try to make some sense out of it,” Konitz says. “It provided me with the opportunity to continue studying, a discipline that I had stopped when I left high school. I left the Jewish thing early on, and had never been part of a religious group — or any group — too much. Besides the business part, which I objected to very strongly, it was clean, in a way. And whatever was hokey about it, I just accepted the part that felt it was to our benefit, to somehow clean up our acts.”

Free and clear of marijuana, Tristano and L. Ron Hubbard since 1990, Konitz relies on his ears and intuition “to communicate with the people I’m playing with, not just somehow register what they’re doing and continue to do what I do.”

“I understood early on that you’re supposed to study and then go off and think and make your own sense of it,” Konitz continues. “I think that’s what I was able to do. I wasn’t trying to be ‘original’ at any point. I’m quoting Ned Rorem, who said one of the most original things that I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”

“Lee is a master,” Bley says. “The master is not looking for anything. The master already has found everything. It’s just a question of revealing it to you. It’s the same on the bandstand. The master passing wind through the horn, without a note, is already art. The master is the art.”

Konitz the patriarch will have none of this. He continues to work through his process, moving around the world as a gigging troubadour. He offers some parting speculations. “I think all jazz comes from the Baroque music, basically. Bach is always swinging, and it’s got the long line, the great counterpoint and all the ingredients. Someone even said Bach had the progression of ‘All The Things You Are’ in one of his pieces!  But I haven’t come across that one yet.”

*-*-*-

Lee Konitz Blindfold Test, 2004:

The inimitable Lee Konitz is mid-week at the Blue Note with an ad-hoc quartet of Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron. He’s played with each of them at various points along his timeline, but I believe this is their first encounter as a group. The booking coincides with the release of Live at Birdland [ECM], a discursive performance by Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian in which the elder altoist and younger pianist engage in high-level harmonic back-and-forth on six good-old-good-ones.

As the recent recording Knowing-Lee [Outnote]—a trio collaboration with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach—bears out, Konitz thrives on these kinds of encounters. An assignment to write the liner notes for this intense, no-roadmap, unfiltered, three-way conversation gave me an opportunity to distill some thoughts on Konitz’ achievement over 65 years as a professional improviser.

“Even before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Lee Konitz told me in 2002, when he was 74 years old. “I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. For some strange reason, I like to go in and play with different guys.”

    This self-description does not do justice to Konitz’ exalted position in the timeline of jazz expression. An avatar in the art of improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework (he did this in 1949, on a pair of sides with a Tristano-led sextet that included Warne Marsh), he would become the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality—at once cerebral and melody-centric, rhythmically muscular and behind-the-beat—that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking Bird’s style. Over the years, Konitz noted, he’s focused on “weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard,” towards the notion of “eliminating as much of the mechanical part of playing as possible to play some real notes. Ned Rorem once said that one of the most original things I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”    

    During his early career, Konitz developed his language in working bands—Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool nonet. But after leaving Stan Kenton in 1954, he switched his m.o. to that of gigging troubadour, free-lancing from one project to the next. Until the latter ‘60s, with several exceptions, he fronted blowing combos of varying size and instrumentation, propelled by swinging bass and drums. He’s expanded his scope over the past four decades, undertaking diverse projects—Daniel Schnyder’s arrangements of French Impressionist music and Billie Holiday songs for string ensemble; Ohad Talmor’s nonet orchestrations of Konitz compositions and transcribed solos; various one-offs with the excellent big bands that populate the European continent; specially convened units on which he improvises freshly on old standbys with several-generations-removed talent like Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson, and Dan Tepfer, and with such generational contemporaries as Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and Paul Motian.

In 1993, Lee joined me at WKCR over the course of three five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profile” shows to present and talk about his recordings, from the Thornhills on through  to what was then the present (of course, given his extraordinary productivity, he’s generated dozens and dozens of recordings over the intervening years).  Over the next decade-plus, he’d come to the station at regular intervals (usually walking the mile-and-a-half from his Upper West Side home) to publicize one NYC event or another. He is as uninhibited when speaking as he is  when improvising.

I wrote a DownBeat feature on Lee in 2002. Two years later, he sat with me for aDownBeat Blindfold Test.  Here’s the complete, pre-edit proceedings of the BT.

[Re what things sound like at the Blue Note, read Jim M.acNie’s excellent review

* * * * * *

1.    Clusone 3, “It’s You” (from AN HOUR WITH…, Hatology, 1998) (Michael Moore, alto saxophone; Ernst Reijsiger, cello; Han Bennink, drums) – (5 stars)

Was that applause at the end?  Well, that was really nice.  I appreciate very much that these guys chose my line to play on “It’s You Or No One.”  I think that was Michael Moore and Ernst Reijsiger.  I never heard Ernst play a line like that before, so that was really a pleasant surprise.  I don’t know who the drummer was, but he was right in there.  And Michael sounded beautiful.  I haven’t heard him play with that kind of intensity before either, but I haven’t heard that many of his records.  But that was really nice. I always wonder how you come out of a very eighth-notey kind of line like that.  He did what I frequently do, just leave some space and play little epigrams, and then kind of wind up.  But I always think that you should come out of that line even with a higher intensity.  That’s one of the challenges of playing that line instead of “It’s You Or No One.”  So that was really very nice.  And a little canon at the end when they played the line together; it was very effective.  I must send my compliments to those guys. Five stars!

2.    Jackie McLean, “Star Eyes” (from NATURE BOY, Blue Note, 2000) (Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (4 stars)

Well, that was very nice.  I enjoyed that. This is, if I may, bebop playing on a high level.  Very derivative bebop playing.  The alto player sounded a little bit like Jackie McLean. [It was.] The reason I doubted that is because the tendency was a little bit below the pitch, and that’s not Jackie’s wont.  He tends, like me, to go on top of the pitch.  And a lot of times he was holding a long note, which is our way of checking if we’re really in tune with the piano and everything.  I think that’s what he was doing.  The pianist sounded like it could be Barry Harris, but I’m not sure.  The rhythm section was very nice, but I don’t know any of them. [AFTER] Cedar sounded very nice.  And Jackie was playing what he knows very well. 4 stars.

3.    Marty Ehrlich, “Like I Said” (from LINE ON LOVE, Palmetto, 2003) (Marty Ehrlich, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Michael Formanek, bass; Billy Drummond, drums) – (5 stars)

That was very nice.  I enjoyed that very much.  I think that’s Arthur Blythe?  No.  A very fine saxophone player.  It sounds kind of familiar, but obviously I’m not sure who it is.  But a fine player.  The piano player was very nice, too; I don’t know who he is.  The bass player played a nice solo and the drums sounded very nice; I don’t know how to call any of the names.  The only thing that is difficult for me is, in this kind of modal playing, when the bass is playing a pretty free kind of line without specific changes, it sounds like a muddle to me.  I don’t know if that’s the recording or the music.  Frequently, when I hear freer music, the bass becomes almost inconsequential, in some way, melodically.  I think to the player it would be more apparent, but as an outsider, I can’t tune in to that.  Now the alto player has a very clear sound with very prominent vibrato, that sometimes can sound to me a little bit schmaltzy.  But this really feels all kind of cohesive in some way that I enjoyed.  And I know that Arthur can do that very well.  But Arthur’s tone is usually, not strident, but a little sharper, not in pitch but in quality.  But I know when you tell me who this is, I’ll know it.  Five stars. [AFTER] Aha!  I thought Marty Ehrlich, but I don’t know his playing that well, and I don’t remember him using a vibrato like that.  But he’s a marvelous player, obviously.

4.    Bud Shank, “Night and Day” (from BY REQUEST: BUD SHANK MEETS THE RHYTHM SECTION, Milestone, 1996) (Bud Shank, alto saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

That was very hot.  A very hot player.  I admire what he was doing.  I don’t know who that was, but a very fine player.  Negotiating that tune is not easy.  That’s a difficult tune to not sound kind of hackneyed on, and he was doing some interesting things to it.  The only thing is, sometimes, at that speed, at that breakneck tempo, which is very exciting to listen to up to a point, the dynamic level stays on one place, and after a while you wish it would let up a little bit and relax a little more.  But he did it very well.  The piano player wasn’t as interesting as the alto player to me.  The rhythm section was cooking all through. But I can’t name any names.  When you mention the alto player’s name, I’ll be pretty sure that I’ve heard him before. {Is it a younger or older player, do you think?] Older. He just sounds very certain about what he’s doing, and he’s doing some personal things, I think.  I don’t know if he’s black or white, for example.  That is a consideration that we frequently make in appraising a player.  He sounds black to me because of the emotionality.  I’m not saying this is a characteristic, but he’s wearing it on his sleeve a little bit.  But at that tempo, pshew, what do you do?  You just let it all kind of come through out of life-or-death struggle or something.  But I’d give that at least 4-1/2 stars for the alto player and the rhythm section. [AFTER] No kidding!  Congratulations! I just saw Bud’s name on the popularity poll, and I hadn’t heard him for a while, and I wondered how come he popped up all of a sudden.  Cyrus Chestnut?  Congratulations, Bud.  He really was not the famous Cool player that he was.  Great.  What I liked very much was what I call an emotional vibrato at the end of the phrase.  As compared to Marty Ehrlich’s, which was fixed pretty much…well, that was more in the delivery of the melody, not so much in the improvising.  But I love to hear when the vibration happens as a result of the intensity of the phrase.

5.    Benny Carter, “When Your Lover Has Gone” (from 3,4,5, Verve, 1954/1991) (Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Jo Jones, drums) – (5 stars)

We’re going into Schmaltzville now!  It’s nice to hear this kind of rhythm section, the piano player as a kind of reminder of how it used to be.  Very relaxed and not trying to prove anything somehow.  Oh, it’s very early Benny Carter. [AFTER] Benny Carter was a very special musician, a very special saxophone player whom I loved right from the beginning of my listening experience.  When I said about schmaltzy, he had a tendency to play a melody very sentimentally, but his variations were very musical.  I think this is post-Charlie Parker playing, because I hear some little eighth-note triplet pickups that I think he got from Charlie Parker.  But he never really got into Charlie Parker’s music.  He stayed pretty much to his own conception of playing, and I always loved him for that.  And he was a great saxophone player.  The pianist was very nice, but I don’t know who he is.  5 stars for Benny.  It was beautiful.  Thank you for that.

6.    Gary Bartz, “Tico, Tico” (from EPISODE ONE: CHILDREN OF HARLEM, Challenge, 1994) (Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums) – (4 stars)

I’m trying to anticipate how the alto player is going to come out of the theme into his solo.  It sounds like this might be the whole record so far.  But he’s playing it well.  I’m enjoying this. That was well done, I think, for that kind of Latin groove on “Tico, Tico.”  I can’t think of who the alto player is, but he did a much more interesting thing than I anticipated from the melody playing and that kind of Latin groove. He was really playing.  I have a feeling that this is something I might not want to listen to too many times; there’s a little bit of a rough edge in his expression that is effective more the first time, I think, than maybe the second or third time.  But of course, I don’t really know that until I’ve heard it two or three times.  But the rhythm section played well in that groove. The piano solo was not as interesting to me as the saxophone solo. But I’d give it four stars. [AFTER] Gary Bartz!  The rhythm section functioned well in that groove.  I didn’t recognize Larry.  Gary is a fine player.

7.    Julius Hemphill, “Leora” (from JULIUS HEMPHILL BIG BAND, Nonesuch, 1988) (Julius Hemphill, alto saxophone, composer) – (4 stars)

I was sort of relieved when that was over, actually.  But very fine saxophone playing.  I don’t know who it is.  To play against that kind of minimalist, repetitive kind of background, changing harmonically every once in a while, was a pretty good challenge, and I think he did a very interesting job.  But it got a little bit much after a while.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but I’d give it 4 stars.  First of all, listening to him, I’m reminded of how flexible the saxophones are, especially the alto and the tenor, in the sound qualities and the possibilities of expressive playing on each of them.  Every one of these saxophone players so far has had a slightly different approach to playing the instrument, and that’s fascinating to me.  I have my favorite kind of sound and playing.  Michael Moore struck home and Bud Shank, because they were playing the more familiar material.  But all these guys are trying these different frameworks for playing, and he was doing some interesting things with the instrument.

8.    Bunky Green, “The Thrill Is Gone” (from HEALING THE PAIN, Delos, 1989) (Bunky Green, alto saxophone; Billy Childs; Art Davis, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (4 stars)

That was very interesting playing. I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  Again, I think when you tell me, I’m going to admit that I have heard him, but I’m not sure who it was.  Again, playing the standard, “The Thrill Is Gone,” in a special arrangement which was very interesting, and as I listened to the theme I was wondering how the variations are going to sound.  This alto player has a virtuosic ability to play over the rhythm section, almost independent of what the rhythm section is doing.  He could be doing that by himself, which I think he does in his preparation for this kind of playing, and it’s some very contemporary intervallic rhythmic things, very well done.  Sometimes that kind of virtuosic ability, as impressive as it is to me as a saxophone player, gets in the way of the actual music.  I love to hear when the soloist is really playing with the rhythm section, really reacting to what the rhythm section is doing, rather than using them as a backdrop, as I think is the case here.  That’s frequently the case, I feel.  But it was very well done.  The piano solo was very nice.  The rhythm played the groove very well.  I don’t know who any of the people are. [AFTER] That’s definitely 4 stars.  I never heard Bunky too much.  I remember him as more of a bebop player, and he’s obviously moved to the next step in the process.  Very well done.

9.    Miguel Zenon, “Mega” (from CEREMONIAL, Marsalis Music, 2004) (Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, electric piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums) – (5 stars)

Very nice saxophone player.  I like his feeling and sound very much. He never really over-blew the horn, as I think of it.  A lot of the players I’ve heard so far had a tendency to over-emote in some way, and this guy was really playing very beautiful expression.  Very interesting lines.  The electric piano solo sounded very nice, too.  I wish the drummer wouldn’t have clobbered on that beginning and ending.  That got kind of too much.  But he played right through it.  I don’t know who it is, but I think when you tell me I’ll recognize that I’ve heard him before.  It was an interesting rhythmic configuration that they were playing, except for the clobber on 1 and 3. Five stars. [AFTER] David Sanchez told me about him. Very nice player.  David said that he has really studied the players, me among them, and I hear a little bit of that kind of tone concern.  I appreciate that very much. His playing is beautiful.

10.    Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages” (from IN ALL LANGUAGES, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) (Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s Ornette with his beautiful sound!  As passionate as he gets in his expression, the sound is never irritating as some of the shouting high register players can be — kind of a grating sound that’s a little bit like fingernails on the blackboard. But Ornette sounds beautiful on this.  It’s a lovely kind of hymn, I guess. I presume that could be Don Cherry on the little harmony thing.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  It was Charlie?  [Who did you think it was?] I can’t remember his name. [You thought it was David Izenson?] Yes. [So it sounded older to you.] Yes.  I could hardly hear the drummer. But I’d give that 5 stars.  Ornette is a fascinating player.  He manages to sound like Ornette all the time with whatever level of phrasing he chooses.  Folk tunes or nursery rhymes or bebop slides, a variety of material that he uses very effectively, and it all sounds authentic to him.  I can just remember my first feeling of kind of resentment of Ornette avoiding playing on changes and avoiding all the things that I was trying to develop, and thinking, “Gee, how can you slip from that and get a personal thing going like he’s got?”  Then certainly, over the years, I realized what he was able to do and enjoy it more all the time.  I played with him once, with Charlie and Billy, rest his soul, and it was a very unique experience.  He’s a very nice man and a special poet on the instrument.

11.    Frank Strozier, “The Man Who Got Away” (from LONG NIGHT: QUARTETS & SEXTET, Jazzland/OJC, 1960/2002) (Strozier, alto saxophone; Chris Anderson, piano; Bill Lee, bass; Walter Perkins, drums) – (4 stars)

That was some good saxophone playing, I thought, in that standard piece, “The Man Who Got Away.” I had a little problem with that kind of double-time stuck in.  It was done very well.  It’s very derivative kind of double-time, and playing the melody pretty straight and then suddenly running convulsively a few bars, a few meters or whatever.  It doesn’t ring bells with me too much.  But it was very well done.  I don’t know who the saxophone player is.  The sound he’s making sounds kind of familiar and is a nice sound, I think.  4 stars.

12.    Jimmy Giuffre-Paul Bley-Steve Swallow, “All The Things You Are” (from FLY AWAY LITTLE BIRD, Owl/Universal, 1992/2002) (Giuffre, soprano saxophone; Bley, piano; Swallow, electric bass) – (5 stars)

Sounds like Steve Swallow.  Paul Bley.  I wonder when he’s going to change key.  Ah, there it is.  I love to hear the way Paul Bley reacts to the soloist. It’s a very familiar feeling, having played with him, which I enjoy.  I don’t know who the soprano player is.  That was enjoyable.  It was a case of people playing for each other, reacting to each other. I don’t know who the sopranist was, as I mentioned, but I appreciate that he was really interested in what Paul was doing and reacting to it.  5 stars. [AFTER] Jimmy Giuffre?!  Really.  Wow, I never heard him play soprano. But obviously, there was a real affinity between the three of them.  I enjoyed that.  His sound was a little bit reedy, I would say.  There wasn’t as much real soprano quality as I like.  Thinking of his clarinet playing, and I would have expected it to be a fuller sound.

13.    Charlie Parker, “All of Me” (from MORE UNISSUED, VOL. 1, JEAL Records, 1951/1990) (Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Lennie Tristano, piano; Kenny Clarke, brushes on phone book) – (5 stars)

That’s Charlie Parker with Lennie Tristano, and maybe Kenny Clarke on the telephone book. Thank you for that.  That was very interesting!  Charlie Parker almost sounds like an imitation of himself, in some way, being so familiar now, over fifty years later, with his playing, and how fixed in many ways that his playing was, with his great phrases that he put together in this very ingenious ways.  But he relied on them.  I would have thought, playing with Lennie, somehow he would have tried to improvise a little more in some way.  When I heard some of this playing before, I was also surprised that Charlie didn’t give Lennie much of a chance to play.  He did most of the playing.  But it was nice to hear that, of course. 5 stars.

[AFTER ANOTHER TUNE] It’s very nice to hear “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me.” Lennie sounded very nice on that couple of choruses, and Bird sounded as if he was improvising a little more.  I haven’t heard a record of Bird’s in a while now, and I’m reminded of what a definitive player he was and how he changed the music so effortlessly.  Tristano was playing very interestingly, and I think somehow he got shortchanged in the whole process. [Were you ever in a club when Bird played with Tristano or at any performances they did?] I was at the studio for that radio show, the Battle of the Bands. [But was it a general dynamic that Tristano got shortchanged when he played with Bird?] Yeah, I think so.  Bud Powell did also. I think Bird heard some things that he didn’t want to hear.  He was used to being the boss all the time, intimidating Miles Davis and things like that.  So when he heard someone playing a little fresher line maybe he didn’t know how to handle that.  He was used to being the Man.  And he was, for the most part.  He was the Man! [LAUGHS]

But I appreciate very much hearing these 13 guys.  I missed Johnny Hodges, I missed Phil Woods, I missed Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, Herb Geller, Charlie Mariano, Art Pepper… There’s a whole array. Eric Dolphy.  There’s a nice tradition of alto players in this music.  I’m happy to be one of them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lee Konitz

For Steven Bernstein’s 55th Birthday, a 2001 DownBeat Feature, an Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musicians Show From 2001 and the Proceedings of a WKCR interview in 1999

For arranging maestro and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s 55th birthday, here’s documentation of several encounters, including an uncut Blindfold Test from 2009 (Steven’s responses were so detailed, that the printed version only had room for 5), an uncut Downbeat feature from 2001, and WKCR interviews from 2001 (a far-ranging Musicians Show) and 1999.

 

Steven Bernstein Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Wynton Marsalis, “School Boy” (from HE AND SHE, Blue Note, 2009) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Sounds like Wynton to me. Sounds just like him. I love this. First of all, 5 stars for a guy who has a totally recognizable sound even when he’s playing in an older style, because he’s just the greatest trumpet player. There was a little arco bass thing in I think the second 8 bars before the saxophone came in, a beautiful, tiny little counter-melody. That’s one of the things that made me think it’s him, because he’s such a good arranger. It’s beautiful. It almost sounds like  it’s a cello, it’s so high up there. That to me makes the whole arrangement. That’s it for me. Once you do that, you win me over. Something like that… See, I’m always into specifics. The more speciic an arrangement is… Like, don’t waste an opportunity. That’s my feeling. I always tell arrangers, “Don’t waste an opportunity.” I love that. Is this his new piano player? He’s good. Wynton’s been playing this kind of music for a long time, and he has a real unique way of doing it that’s his. A lot of it has to do with phrasing and dynamics. You know me. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. [TRUMPET SOLO] It’s interesting. Even when he plays this style…when he plays eighth notes, you can hear still the way he played when he played with Art Blakey. There’s a certain phrasing he developed. He knows how to get house, get those little…waits to the very end to do the flutter notes. He’s a smart musician, man. What can you say about a guy who built a multi-million dollar jazz place? [PIANO SOLO] Wow, that guy’s a good piano player. What can you say? Ends on a major-VII. I always feel that if something sounds just like a person, then who am I to say it’s not great? Even if it’s not exactly the way I would do something, that is totally… Is that one of the things from Jack Johnson? That’s great writing, too. The guy has his world, and he trains his musician to play like him. It’s very interesting, the piano player really is an extension of him, and he’s done a great job surrounding himself with people who populate his vision. That’s what a musician is supposed to do.

One thing that’s interesting about Wynton is that he has incorporated so many techniques. Every time he splits a note… Everything he does, to me… In the old days, when people split notes, it’s because they miss notes. But Wynton took that and made it part of the jazz technique, and he has it… It’s one of the things you can always tell it’s him, because where he puts his split note…it’s just one of the many techniques he has. The man has integrated so many different techniques for the trumpet, and that’s a real interesting thing he’s done, which is taking the split note, and controlling it so it’s part of his technique.

2.  Lenny White, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from MILES IN INDIA, Times Square, 2008) (White, drums, Wallace Roney, trumpet; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; A. Sivamani, percussion; Vikku Vinayakram, ghalam)

It sounds great? Is this Wallace Roney? All techniques basically are old techniques now, so it’s all fair game, whether you’re talking about Miles from Jack Johnson or dealing with Louis Armstrong in 1928. These are all basically ancient techniques from a different era that people have been able to incorporate. Wallace, of course, has done an incredible job of taking Miles’ and making it his own. Wallace is another master trumpeter. Anyone who’s a master, I have to give 5 stars to, because they’re masters. I heard Wallace playing with Art Blakey, and he was a master then, when he was musical director of that band. And the sound is so good. Both records you’ve played me sound so good in so many different ways. Both are modern reflections of incredible  music that is now seen through the prism of modern living musicians. These guys are contemporaries of mine. I met Wynton when I was 17. I heard Wallace on probably his first gig with Art Blakey when he was subbing for Wynton at Grant’s Tomb, probably in ‘81 or ‘82. See, he doesn’t sound like Miles. He sounds like Wallace. There’s things he does that are so Wallace. But it’s like that particular part of Miles’ technique became Wallace. That’s how he hears music. That’s him. What can you say about him? He’s incredible. Beautiful sound, too. To me, all environments are the same, whether you’re dealing with an environment that’s related to 1920, with modern technology, or an arrangement like this that’s related to more like 1972 but with modern recording technique. It’s just good arranging. There’s plenty of room. Every soundscape needs its own balance, and it’s really well-balanced, well-mixed. The trumpet sits really nice in it. Sometimes it’s hard to put a trumpet in this kind of sound and not make it sound corny, because the trumpet is such a knocking-down-the-walls-of-Jericho type of instrument. But it fits in really nice to the mix. Who’s the guitar player? [You tell me.] Good guitar, man. Nice. It reminds me of Pete Cosey. Really? That’s why it reminds me of Pete Cosey. I didn’t know he recorded with Wallace. I guess he did. Well, good work, Wallace! You got the man! Oh, is this the Miles in India thing? Wow. Cool. No wonder it sounds so good, because Bob Belden is really good at arranging records. Not that Wallace isn’t good at arranging records, too, but it’s a really wide soundscape. I will say that I was surprised that the tablas weren’t mixed louder. I’m surprised they didn’t have the higher tabla sound running in…but I don’t have the rest of the record. It took me a long time to figure out… I didn’t immediately go, “Oh, it’s Miles In India.” I jusrt figured it’s a Wallace Roney record. I didn’t hear it in the context of the whole record. There were so many low tones, I was surprised they didn’t have that really high tabla running through there. 5 stars. But again, what can you say? Pete Cosey is a master, Wallace Roney is a master. Great-sounding track.

3.  Satoko Fujii, “Sanrei” (from Orchestra Nagoya, SANREI, Polystar, 2007) (Satoko Fujii, conductor; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet solo; Tsutomo Watanabe, Takahiro Tsulita, Misaki Ishiwata, trumpet; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru:alto sax; Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax, Yoshihiro Hanawa, tenor sax; Yoshiyuki Hirao, baritone sax; Tomoyuki Mihira, trombone; Toshinori Terukina, trombone, euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino, tuba; Yosuhiro Usui, guitar; Atsutomo Ishigaki, bass; Hisamine Kondo, drums)

There’s two trumpets on this. Sounds like Satoko Fujii’s music, which is funny. I’m on her records. It is? Then it’s her Japanese band. That’s a pretty unique way of writing, so it would make sense that it’s her. She writes a lot of different stuff. Every record I’ve made with her is different. Sometimes she’ll have a lot of harmonic information and sometimes there’s no harmonic information. I don’t think it was Nats on trumpet. Nats usually plays beyond the trumpet. To me, that trumpet solo was good, it was ok, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, because… Nats usually plays more sound-oriented stuff. [DON’T USE THIS] What I like about her writing is that it leaves a lot of room for individual voices, which is a really important part of the jazz way of writing, not just writing something that is allowing the musicians’ individual tonation to come out. I’m into the word “tonation” these days. Not “intonation,” but “tonation.” They don’t use it in education any more. I don’t know if they ever did. But you hear all the musicians talk about it.

4.  Terence Blanchard, “Levee” (from A TALE OF GOD’S WILL, Blue Note, 2007) (Blanchard, trumpet, composer; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; The Northwest Sinfonia, orchestra)

[IMMEDIATELY] Terence. Can I give him 6 stars? I think Terence is so great. His sound is so immediately recognizable. It’s interesting, being a writer, when I hear the string thing in the beginning, I’m like, “That’s cool, I like it, I wouldn’t have done anything quite like that, but…” It’s a little classical, the way it’s played. I like things where there’s a little more roughness in it. But then, of course, when Terence’s sound comes up against it, it makes a nice foil. He probably recorded it in L.A. with studio musicians. Well, it’s an orchestral piece. At the beginning, you don’t know if it’s a jazz piece or what. But it’s orchestral. Ok, that’s why they play it that way. They’re orchestral musicians. Oh, this is from that big piece from New Orleans, that beautiful piece he wrote. I saw the TV show that it was a soundtrack for. Most musicians are afraid to speak about politics, because everyone is so afraid to say anything controversial in this post-Reagan world. But it was great on that TV show to have Terence speak the truth. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. I was weeping during that TV show. Hearing this music makes me want to weep, because you could feel the pain—it’s so beautiful. He’s taken the trumpet and really made it his own instrument. He plays one of these very heavy trumpets that these guys play now. Wow, man! In general, I don’t particularly like what those trumpets do, but Terence…What I love about Terence is he wears his heart on his sleeve, his scope is huge, he has a great working band…  It’s very interesting, because you’ve played me three guys who are my age, came to town, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and have all done really different things with their lives. They all played kind of similar when they were young. Anyway, each one of has not just a distinct sound, but it’s a distinct style. As great as Wynton is, he would never do what Terence just did… Not never. But I’ve never heard him just blow so hard that you don’t even know what’s going to come out of the trumpet. He’s more controlled, even when he’s not playing… That’s not his vision to music, to me. Of course, this is a very emotional piece. But also, on a trumpet level, both Wynton and Terence, and also a lot of these young guys, play a very thick trumpet, made of heavy metal… See, THAT phrase right there, that comes from the style that he and Wynton share. If you’re not a trumpet player, you can’t even understand it, because it didn’t exist before those guys. It’s something that they worked out. Here you can hear the Miles thing coming out. I tend not to like those… Well, not that I don’t like them. I’m a fan of older trumpet styles, so there’s a certain thing that can’t happen when the metal is that big. There’s a certain vibration that physically is not going to happen. But with Terence I don’t miss it. And Terence also…his history also brings in Lester Bowie, which not many trumpet players have done. That’s part of his vocabulary, too. I don’t know if he purposefully does it, but a lot of those things he does, before Lester… Well, not no one did it before Lester. Rex Stewart did that stuff. But Lester brought it back into the lexicon.

5.   Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Malachi” (from NON-COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF THE CITY: LIVE AT IRIDIUM, Pi, 2006) (Corey Wilkes, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, reeds, percussion; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion)

It sounds like the Art Ensemble without Lester.  So this is Corey Wilkes. I met Corey. We had some nice drinks in Italy, at the Balsamo Festival. Nice guy. Now I get to hear how he plays. But you hear Malachi… How many bass players can you say you can hear them in four notes? Malachi you can hear in four notes, man. I hear four notes and… Is it Malachi or is it Jaribu? I thought it was Malachi, but it could just be that it’s Don and Roscoe made me think it’s Malachi. Now, here’s a guy who listened to Lester. A lot of fire. I like fire. I don’t know if it is Malachi. It might be Jaribu. It just sounds stronger than Malachi would be at this age. At the beginning, it sounded like Malachi, but at the end Malachi couldn’t play like this, at this tempo. But when you hear that kind of bassline and you hear Don Moye, it’s just that he really felt like Malachi at the beginning. During the melody, it really felt like Malachi. [Well, the piece is called “Malachi.”] The piece is called “Malachi.” There you go. Well-written piece. By Roscoe, I assume. Powerful trumpet player, man. Very powerful. I wasn’t going to give him five stars… Oh, it’s live. That’s why it sounds like this. It’s a live gig, so he’s not close enough to the mic. But you know what? That’s such a great solo that he doesn’t deserve five stars yet, but I’ll give him 4½—he’s not a master. I’ll be interested to see what happens to someone like him… The way he’s playing trumpet is very physical, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Is he going to keep it at this heavy level? Will he smooth it out? I haven’t seen him play live… It’s a live gig, and you’re really hearing him go for it. It’s amazing. He’s not a master yet, he’s a young man, but he’s playing great. I grew up listening to the Art Ensemble. I’ve been hearing them live since I was 14 or 15 years old, when I met them. How many people can you tell from their composition? How long did I listen to that? 5 seconds, and two of the original guys were gone. It’s like some Ellington thing. You don’t even need the original guys, because it’s such… Well, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be like that. You heard a Messengers tune, it didn’t matter who was in the Messengers. It was the Jazz Messengers.  Don Moye deserves a lot of credit. No one talks about him, but talk about a guy who created a unique style of drumming. I heard one guy somewhere… You know who did? Dave King of the Bad Plus. He played somewhere and I said, “Hey, man, you’ve got some Don Moye in you.”

6.  David Berger, “Serenade in Blue” (from I HAD THE CRAZIEST DREAM: THE MUSIC OF HARRY WARREN, Such Sweet Thunder, 2008) (Berger, arranger, Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, trumpet; Harry Allen, Joe Temperley, Matt Hong, reeds; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Isaac Ben Ayala, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums)

Wow!  Beautiful trumpet tone. It’s interesting, you hear a lot of Clifford Brown and you hear a lot of Clark Terry in it. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I’ll wait til the solo. It’s a young guy? It really has that Clark Terry vibrato. It’s obviously not Clark. But let me keep listening. This is great. The arrangement’s great, too. Nicholas can play like this, but I don’t think it’s Nicholas. This is someone who really-really knows the jazz tradition. The arrangement is great, too. It’s not Warren Vache. It’s someone who’s played with a lot of older musicians. That’s the way the vibrato is. When you play with the vibrato like that, to me it’s someone who’s been around. It has so much truth in the way they’re playing. The arrangement even has some Gil Evans type things going on. I don’t know who it is, but someone who can really play and understand music. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Brian for years. I was on David Berger’s band. It’s interesting, because Brian would be someone who understands Clifford and Clark Terry. Someone who really knows how to arrange. That’s Dave. Someone who’s really played a lot of swing music. That’s Brian. When I first heard it, I said, “I know who this is.” Because I’ve sat right next to Brian when he plays like that, except I never think of listening to Brian on a CD.

7.  Bobby Bradford, “Compulsion” (from Nels Cline, NEW MONASTERY: A VIEW INTO THE MUSIC OF ANDREW HILL, Cryptogrammophone, 2006) (Bradford, cornet; Cline, guitar, effects, Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Andrea Parkins, accordion, effects; Devon Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums; Alex Cline, percussion)

[AT BEGINNING] You can hardly hear the trumpet in the mix. [SOLO] Sounds like Leo. Oh, it’s not Leo. I was thinking it could be the Yo Miles thing. Sorry, Leo, it’s definitely not you. It’s an interesting piece of music. Interesting construction. Not haphazard at all. A lot of nice compositional elements. I like it. I don’t know who the trumpeter is. I could guess, but what’s the point. It almost sounded like a cornet player to me. I liked it. It was good. Ah, there was a little bit of Don Cherry flavor in there. I liked that. It’s blowing like it’s a cornet—a very fuzzy sound. Cornet makes me think it could be Rob Mazurek, but it’s not. But it might not be a cornet; it might be the way the guy is blowing. It’s interesting, because the person is using the lower register of the horn a lot, and it doesn’t sound like someone who is so much a traditional musician, but more like this is really the comfort zone. It doesn’t sound like a guy who plays contemporary classical or anything like that. I like it. Good solo. Short. Good flow of ideas. Obviously coming from the Don Cherry type of thing. I’ve got no idea. 4 stars. It’s a little less defined than some of the other music we’ve heard, so it’s hard, when you’ve heard all this very defined music, to hear this music that’s much more open. Some good things going on in there for sure. [AFTER] Cornet! I said cornet. So it was Nels Cline on guitar! I was going to say Nels. Man, I should’ve said it. I should’ve known it was Bobby Bradford. I did say cornet, though. I wasn’t thinking, man. I’m getting tired. I should have put 2 and 2 together. So is it Ben Goldberg on bass clarinet.

Addendum to Bobby Bradford. It was a short solo, so it was hard for me to tell. At Bobby’s age, it’s a different thing… You hear all these solos by these young musicians, and they’ve got a lot of power to come through and play these long solos. But when I think back to what Bobby played, of course, it was a total Bobby Bradford solo, but so much shorter and so much more concise than the other guys—because at his age, you can’t play the cornet that much. Brass is very physical. So he does what he can with his physicality. When you think about it like that, it’s like Brian Pareschi, who is 40 years old and plays Broadway for a living—he has a lot of power, he can play an incredible trumpet solo. For Bobby Bradford as a musician, 5 stars. For that particular solo, in this context, I didn’t hear all the power I’m used to hearing on the trumpet. He’s a master.

8.  Olu Dara, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (from James Newton, AFRICAN FLOWER, Blue Note, 1985) (Dara, cornet; James Newton, flute, arrangement; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Rick Rozie, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

Modern “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This is Olu and James Newton. 5 stars. I remember this well. I love this. This was a groundbreaking record, and sometimes I’m sorry that music didn’t go more in this direction, because this is a very exciting direction to me. It’s Roland Hanna on piano, and Billy Hart on drums, and Rick Rozie on bass, and Olu. The idea of mixing all these different musicians and showing each other mutual respect and making the most out of the tradition… I think James Newton is a towering figure in this music (I don’t mean just physically, because he’s a big guy, too). He’s one of the few people I’ve never worked with whom I’d really like to work with. This particular solo by Olu influenced me a lot, I must say. I was like, “Wow, you can play trumpet like this. Why not?” So many people take a vocabulary and they pick this and this, but I think, “No, your vocabulary can be everything. Your vocabulary can be as large as you want it to be.” What Olu has done with this, he’s taken some vocabulary from an early-early way of playing trumpet and made it modern by the fact that it’s him. I think it’s an incredible recording. 5 stars for the whole record.

9.  Nicholas Payton, “Fleur de Lis” (from INTO THE BLUE, Nonesuch, 2008) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, fender rhodes; Vicente Archer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Christian Scott? I thought it was him from the mixture of those chords…from the bass and the drum part and the chords. Oh, it’s Nicholas. What trumpet player records with percussion? Nicholas does. All he’s played so far is whole notes, and I couldn’t tell from the whole notes. But I knew from the orchestration it was him. I know Danny Sadownick, the tambourine player, really well. So I was listening to the tambourine, and I noticed it was Danny. Nicholas is another one of these guys who’s such a master… He’s as talented as any musician I’ve ever met. For him as a musician, 5 stars. I’m not crazy about this track, because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s a little just 6/8, you know.

10.  Masada, “Ash-nah” (from MASADA: 50th ANNIVERSARY, #7, Tzadik, 2003) (John Zorn, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums)

See, this is good. This has mystery. I have to figure out who’s doing what. Sounds like something Dave Douglas would do right there. I don’t know if it’s Dave. It’s interesting to hear things that remind you of yourself… Oh, it’s Zorn and Dave. See, it’s interesting. When Dave did those sounds…Dave wouldn’t play that on his own record. He played that on Zorn’s record. I was thinking who the alto player was, then I was listening, and I realized it was Zorn on alto. That’s why Dave did that, because, as any great musician, you serve your leader. He’s a great sideman, too. He doesn’t like to be a sideman that much, but he’s a great sideman. Again, these are master musicians and Zorn is a master organizer. When it first came on, I said, “It’s a mystery.” I didn’t know what I was hearing. I have to give this band 5 stars, because I’ve heard so much and it’s consistently invigorating, and even if they play a song you don’t like, you know the next song you’re going to love. What I like about a band like this, and what I didn’t like about the last piece, is this is four equal voices. That’s why Zorn is such a great organizer, and he gets these great musicians. Each person’s voice carries its own weight. I think that always makes a pleasing musical experience. But it’s funny that I said it sounds like me, too. Because there is that Masada thing… What influenced Masada also influenced me. Not that my music sounds like Masada, but certain elements of Masada… Well, it’s also a way of writing without using piano. Using two horns and bass and drums, I do that all the time. So how do you write for these instruments? How do you organize for these instruments, make the most of harmony and melody and rhythm? Dave’s another guy who’s really created his own… A very non-traditional virtuosic trumpeter. Not a classical trumpeter. Very much a jazz triumpet player. He created his own technique. That’s the thing about the old-style jazz virtuosos, was they were JAZZ virtuosos. They created their own technique that didn’t exist before. This is an objective look at it. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying the idea of creating your own technique and taking that to virtuosic levels is different than having classical technique and being a jazz virtuoso. He has both. But once you’re a classical virtuoso, you can’t not be a classical virtuoso. It’s just what you are. He’s both. But he’s a new thing. That didn’t exist before. No one did that before him. The closest is like Doc Severinson. But Doc couldn’t play jazz like Wynton. He could play a solo. But he wasn’t like Wynton. He couldn’t sit there with Art Blakey. No offense. 5 stars for middle-aged masters. Old masters in Greg Cohen’s case.

11.  Taylor Ho-Bynum, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from THE MIDDLE PICTURE, Firehouse 12, 2005) (Bynum, cornet; Matt Bauder, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorsen, Evan O’Reilly, electric guitar; Jessica Pavone, electric bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums)

Odd. I don’t know what it is. But I love this. Oh, it’s Ornette on trumpet!  Take that back. It’s definitely not Ornette on trumpet! Is that me? I don’t remember making this record. I’m laughing. I love this arrangement. This is the happiest arrangement I’ve heard so far. I’ve never heard them… It could be Kneebody. But I’ve never heard them. I heard a couple of things on the radio that were Shane, and every time I thought, “who is this great trumpeter?”—it was Shane. Finally a big band hit. First big band hit we’ve had the whole time! Nice. The reason I thought it was Shane is that he uses a lot of mutes, and there’s a lot of mutes in here. So somebody who knows how to use a mute. 5 stars for the tune, and since there’s no trumpet solo, I don’t know who it is. Five stars for the arrangement. [AFTER] So it was Mary on guitar. I should have guessed that. He loves Ellington. He loves Rex, but he doesn’t sound like him.

12.  Duke Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (from THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: 1927-1962: Vol.1) (Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, trumpets;

This is Basie. Oh, that jumped out of my mouth without thinking. No, it’s Duke. Ah, this is Rex. I’m sorry. It was swinging so hard, I was like Basie! It’s a total Count Basie introduction. I’ve heard this song so many times, so when it comes on, I’m like “Yeah.” I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve had this track since I was in 11th grade. The very beginning was swinging pretty hard. I said Basie, then I heard this song, like, “Wait…” But it sounded like an old aircheck. That’s Rex. That’s Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Is this a live version? A studio recording? It’s a good mastering. I’ve never heard it on CD. It’s interesting hearing something on CD; it’s different. Sounds like a radio broadcast—it’s brighter.

 

*-*-*-*-*-

 

Steven Bernstein (Downbeat article, 2001):

On a recent Friday afternoon, Steven Bernstein was driving home to Rockland County from Lou Reed’s Greenwich Village apartment, having presented seven horn charts to frame Reed’s interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe stories for a forthcoming Hal Willner-produced album.   After grabbing dinner and putting his kids to bed, he’d return to Manhattan for a midnight show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic, a dimly-lit, art-brut venue where he has appeared the preponderance of Friday wee hours since 1998 with one of the three bands he leads.  MTO is a nine-piece unit with rotating personnel devoted to executing 35 charts – the repertoire includes 25 reefer songs — that Bernstein has transcribed from his voluminous collection of recordings by obscure black orchestras of the ’20s and ’30s; guided by Bernstein’s in-the-moment conduction, they construct statements that have the feel of Don Redman encountering Donny Hathaway encountering Sun Ra.

Another of Bernstein’s bands is the tentet Diaspora Soul, which had performed at Tonic the previous night.  During a lull in the second set, Bernstein told the sparse crowd about the on-stage antics of Courtney Love at a Monday benefit where, on Willner’s recommendation, he led the horn section.  He revealed how at a post-show hang at the Russian Tea Room he charmed the diva with a gift of a t-shirt fronted with the logo of Sex Mob, his most popular band.  He added that Ms. Love had pulled down the top of her dress and donned the one-size-fits-all girlie-tee with effusive thanks.  “It looked great!” he exclaimed.

Bernstein was working a wedding when he came up with the inspired conceit for the self-titled recording [Tzadik] that marked Diaspora Soul’s debut.  He transcribed a dozen soulful Jewish songs from various old cantorial albums, and orchestrated them with the unison sax grooves of ’50s New Orleans rhythm-and-blues (think R&B guru Dave Bartholomew), with clave rhythms, with a touch of keyboard skronk a la psychedelic Dr. John by way of Eddie Palmieri, and with his own impassioned trumpet declamations.  He spontaneously arranges each performance, and as the second set proceeded, the sax (Peter Apfelbaum, Michael Blake, Paul  Shapiro and Briggan Krauss) and percussion (Johnny Almendra, Willie Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez) sections locked into gear and built an irresistible momentum.  Like a vintage 8-cylinder Cadillac, the machine appeared to drive itself, but Bernstein — wisecracking, shouting out chords and rhythmic figures, tweaking the dynamics with emphatic hand gestures — firmly steered the ship, the master of the game.

“I’m Neil Hefti with an earring,” Bernstein joked over his cell phone.  The comment was revealing: Old-school to the core, he mixes as comfortably with musical elders as with his post-jazz peers.  For example, playing “button trumpet” at a recent concert with an Art Baron-led sextet before a tough audience at a Duke Ellington Society concert, he crafted a remarkable solo on “Perdido,” using shapes and phrases to build an idiomatic, structurally cogent statement that went beyond the notes.  He spent large chunks of 1998 and 1999 as fourth trumpet in arranger David Berger’s “Harlem Nutcracker” big band, rubbing shoulders with Ellington veterans Baron, Britt Woodman and Marcus Belgrave, and grizzled modernists like Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion; on the cast album.  On the cast album [Such Sweet Thunder] his peppery open horn solo on “Dance of the Floreadores” channels the jaunty spikiness of Ray Nance, while his plunger solo on “Swingin’ At Club Sweets” reveals a command of timbre and keen timing evocative of Cootie Williams’ heirs in the Ellington canon.

Bernstein is fascinated with the tropes of early jazz, and he conceptualized Sex Mob (Briggan Krauss, saxophones; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums) as a vehicle for his slide trumpet, on which he projects a sound completely his own, wild and gritty, deploying a pronounced vibrato reminiscent of such ‘20s and ‘30s blues-function brassmen as Sidney DeParis, Lee Collins, and Punch Miller.  He uses the slide to elicit tiny increments in pitch that produce vocalized sounds of the sort that Ellington signifier Rex Stewart got through his half-valving techniques in the ’30s and ’40s.  The context is wholly modern, informed by a global world-view akin to that of the late avant-pop guru Lester Bowie, an early role model.   He’s owned the instrument since 1977, and began playing  it seriously about a decade ago on gigs with Spanish Fly, an open form trio with tubist Marcus Rojas and slide guitarist David Tronzo devoted to a repertoire as Bernstein puts it, of “songs everyone knows.”

That’s Bernstein’s operative model for Sex Mob, which has worked hundreds of times since it assembled six years ago for Thursday night hits at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar.  It’s a virtuoso unit, and their modus operandi is incessant collective improvisation; the band book comprises some 150 songs, which they are prepared to blow gleefully to smithereens and rebuild from the ground up.  The sound is Sophisticated Primitive, and the range is kaleidoscopic, jumping from “new standards” (Kurt Cobain’s “About A Girl”) to “classic jazz” (Theater and Dance, a privately produced CD that Bernstein sells at gigs, is a Bernstein-arranged suite of Ellingtonia commissioned by choreographer Donald Byrd) and Blues (Leadbelly) to such neo-kitsch as a suite of music from James Bond films due for fall release on Rope-A-Dope.

“I see Sex Mob as a return to the earliest roots of jazz,” says Bernstein, who named his son Rex Louie.  “People took pop songs of the time and improvised on them in new styles, with different rhythms and dynamics, in the way they felt like playing them.  Jazz was louder than any music of its time; it was played on a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville or minstrel song.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.

“With music that doesn’t have much harmonic structure, you must arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  You can’t play ‘Raspberry Beret’ the same way you play ‘My Funny Valentine’ — it’s that simple.  When the band started, I’d sit on the subway and write a bare-bones chart of whatever song I’d been listening to, throw the chart in front of them on the gig, rehearse in front of the audience, and play it.  I grew up playing free improvisation as well as standards, and free improvisation is about creating instant arrangements.  I still do that on the stage in Sex Mob.  The tunes evolve through an audience’s reaction.  People tend to overwrite, but you don’t need to give great musicians too much information.  It’s not the amount of elements you put in; it’s how good the elements are.”

Bernstein was just your normal teenage “total jazz snob” as an adolescent and teenager in the polyglot milileu of ‘70s Berkeley, California, where avant-garde, vernacular and traditional streams converged comfortably.  He began playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardymon, the teacher who jump-started present-day luminaries like Craig Handy, Josh Redman and Benny Green.  In sixth grade formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the multikulti Hieroglyphics Ensemble.  The youngsters went to shows by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner, and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll.  “Finally,” Bernstein relates, “we went to see our heroes, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at the Great American Music Hall.  Peter and I went backstage and played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they invited us in.  Mr. Hardymon always told us we had to learn to play the changes better before we got involved in that kind of music.  He was right.  But it was in the air, and we wanted to play it.”

In eleventh grade, Bernstein looked up John Coppolla, a respected trumpet teacher who had played with Woody Herman, Billy May and Stan Kenton.  “When I came to my first lesson, I was being a snotty kid,” Bernstein recalls.  “I said, ‘Man, I’m into Lester Bowie!’  Mr. Coppolla was a middle-aged Italian gentleman.  He said, ‘Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex Stewart was doing back in the ’40s.’ He threw on ‘Menelik, Lion of Judah.’  That changed my life.  I started listening to Ellington’s 1940 band, with Rex and Cootie together in the trumpet section, and I knew it was the greatest music that ever existed. I still listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.”

Throughout high school Bernstein and Apfelbaum worked steadily on a 360-degree range of Bay Area gigs.  Somehow he maintained his grades, and he matriculated at Columbia University in 1979 intending to continue his work-study parallel track. Within two years, music won out.  Perhaps in response to an encounter with Wynton Marsalis in a Paul Jeffrey rehearsal band (“I thought everyone in New York had to be that good when they get here”), Bernstein avoided his hardcore jazz peer group  (“I was bored with those hangs socially; I wanted to be around girls and young people”) and religiously attended concerts by Defunkt — the seminal Avant Funk unit with Joe Bowie, Kelvin Bell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronnie Burrage — at the Squat Theater on West 23rd Street.

“That band changed my life again,” Bernstein recalls.  “In Berkeley, no one approached music with that hard an edge.  You either played free or you played R&B.  My dream was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix; they made it clear that you could put these approaches together.”

Bernstein found a West 109th Street apartment for $300 a month.  He enrolled at NYU, became a protege of the iconic lead trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, and spent the ’80s apprenticing in a slew of rehearsal bands, in Haitian and Latin units, in “eight million” obscure Lower East Side bands that featured original music, in art music bands like Kamikaze Ground Crew, and in Spanish Fly, which became a point of entry into Bernstein’s music for John Lurie and Hal Willner, the trumpeter’s two great patrons of the ’90s.

“The original idea of Spanish Fly was what Sex Mob is — to play songs everyone knows,” Bernstein notes.  “I played trumpet like an arranger.  Instead of soloing, I might play an equivalent of a Freddie Stone guitar part or a second alto part from an Ellington type of thing, with the trumpet as the vehicle.  It taught me to think on my feet, and I developed my mute vocabulary.  And it taught me about presentation; Spanish Fly was a collective, but I was always the emcee.”

In 1990, Lurie recruited Bernstein for a new edition of the Lounge Lizards; he remained a band-member throughout the decade.  Bernstein credits Lurie as a mentor.  “John would trust his intuition in putting music together, and I saw that it worked,” Bernstein states.  “He’d tell you to add one part, then another, then he’d listen to us play it, suggest another approach — and a piece would be made.  John organizes shows theatrically; the sets have a long arc, like a movie, as opposed to your typical jazz show.  He’d would send me tapes from Costa Rica of him playing, say, soprano sax or his little Casio, and I’d transcribe it.”

While Bernstein’s tenure with the Lounge Lizards brought increasing visibility, his ’90s work on a variety of Willner-generated projects have made him au courant in the high-stakes worlds of film and Hipster Pop.  They became close when Willner produced Spanish Fly’s first album, Rags to Britches [1994], a process that involved editing 12 hours of tape into a record, Teo Macero style.  “A lot of people don’t want to listen to 12 hours of music,” Bernstein says.  “I like doing that.  So does Hal.  We’d meet and make notes, and it turned out that we liked all the same stuff.”

In 1994, Willner called Bernstein to research songs and help assemble musicians for Robert Altman’s Kansas City.  Willner sent “boxes of tapes” of music apropos to 1934, when the narrative takes place, and Bernstein spent several months absorbing it.  Once on the set, when it became apparent that the promised “arrangements” in the film’s library were useless stocks, Willner put Bernstein to work writing arrangements on almost a nightly basis.

“I still haven’t recovered from that,” exclaims Bernstein, who had just transcribed a 1928 Chocolate Dandies recording for MTO.  “The orchestrated music from that period moves me.  Every phrase has a direct relation to the beat.  I love the attention to sound, to detail, how organized everything is — loose and bluesy, but with a specific framework, because you only had three minutes.  Nothing was wasted.”

The drudgery paid off.  “John Zorn used to ask, ‘Why are you always doing that work for Lurie and Willner?'” Bernstein laughs.  “But that’s how I learned to be an arranger.”   He’s experienced too many ups and downs to let brushes with celebrity go to his head, sustaining the “it’s all good” attitude of a seasoned New York professional.

“I’m a good trumpet player,” he states.  “I do a lot of studio work.  Ask me to play something, and I can play it.  It’s all about balance.  I’m raising a family, and you’ve got to make money where you can.  Playing weddings and barmitzvahs teaches you a lot about improvisation.  Everyone knows ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.  But you might not know what key it’s in when they start it.  There’s no music in front of you, but all the stuff is in your ear, and you’ve got to translate it into your horn and play the right notes.  That is a challenge.

“Doing those jobs makes you more grateful for the chances you have to play your own music.  I don’t take my midnight gig at Tonic as just another gig.  I’m going to write a new chart and present something good.  It all means something to me.”

 

*-*-*-*-*-

Steven Bernstein (Musician Show, 2-28-01):

[Sex Mob, “Holiday of Briggan”]

TP:    Steve Bernstein, aside from being the guiding intelligence of the group Sex Mob, having produced the record Diaspora Soul, and being a ubiquitous and ebullient presence on the New York scene, is also a connoisseur of traditional trumpet styles, particularly those with blues connotations.  He’s brought by my request a bunch of Kansas City material, Lee Collins, ’50s arrangers, and we’re prepared to go in many different directions.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, and into the future.  We’ve got some of the goodold-goodolds from the latter part of the century, as radio guys say who try to be witty.  The latter part of the century as opposed to the first part..

TP:    We’ll begin with Hot Lips Page from the Spirituals to Swing concert, 62 years ago.

BERNSTEIN:  Something like that.  But this is when he was reunited with the Count Basie band, which he had been the star trumpet player of, but by the time they recorded he was not in the band any more.  Anyway, he wanted to have his own career and blah-blah-blah…

TP:    You’re almost 40, and you came up in the Bay Area playing a lot of modern, future-oriented music.

BERNSTEIN:  I brought a bunch of that.  Early Hieroglyphics music and stuff from growing up in Berkeley.  You could hear Frank Lowe play in Berkeley, and the Art Ensemble was there all the time… Sun Ra was there.  We had people into the African drumming thing.  After the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band broke up, there were still elements of that in the Bay Area — Julian Priester had his own band, Eddie Henderson had his own band.  It was a pretty far-out time.  I hate to say “far out” on the radio, but I did.

TP:    That said, how did you become such a connoisseur of older trumpet styles?  A lot of your generational peer group isn’t interested in anything that happened before World War 2.

BERNSTEIN:  It was my trumpet teacher.  See, I was really lucky.  There were so many great musicians out there.  There was a guy named Warren Gale, who I started studying with in the ninth grade.  He was a totally modern trumpet player, and I was just a little kid, and we were playing Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Lee Morgan.  That was his thing.  So at that age I was totally exposed to that whole world of trumpet playing.   So I’m this kid, I’m buying every Blue Note record I can get my hands on.  Of course, I don’t understand the harmony at all, but I can understand the music.

The next trumpet player was a guy named John Coppola.  Now, John and Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion all came together, and he was part of that world.  I have one quick story.  Like most high school kids would, I tried to be really cool.  I get to my first lesson, and at that point I figure… He’s an older musician, in his early fifties.  I say, “I’m really into modern trumpet, I’m really into Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble.”  I don’t even know this guy.  He just looks at me and goes, “Oh yeah, Lester Bowie.  I like the kid.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He does the Rex Stewart thing.”  And then he just puts on this record, which I also brought, and he plays me this Rex Stewart solo, which I guess we’ll listen to second.  I realized he was totally non-judgmental.  He wasn’t saying, “Oh, man, I don’t like that music.”  He was saying, “Yeah, that’s part of the music tradition.”  So basically, he got me hip to Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.  He’d talk about Dud Bascomb.  He’d talk about Bill Harris.  This is a man who was on the road with Bill Harris for years.  He sat in the second with Conrad Gozzo.  He played with Dizzy.

TP:    Apart from the harmonic innovation that happened after World War Two, how would you characterize the prewar trumpet players in terms of sound quality and aesthetic intent vis-a-vis the subsequent generation?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s obviously more sonically and rhythmically oriented.  Definitely more sonically oriented.  Because the longer you hold out a note, the more the sound becomes apparent.  If you’re moving eighth notes, the sound is actually really optional.  The velocity and the movement of those eighth notes is what’s creating the movement in the solo.  With Louis Armstrong, people always talk about the vibrato.  It was a timed vibrato, which a lot of people don’t know about.  The timed vibrato means that the vibrato was actually in time with the music.  They said, “How does Louis Armstrong do it?  He holds the note but he pushes the band.”  Well, because while he’s holding that note, that vibrato is actually right on top of the beat, and it’s pushing the whole band with just the intensity of the air.  There’s a great Sidney deParis solo that I brought from the ’20s… The sound of what these people were playing is so incredible.  That I think is the main thing.  Because music’s music.  I mean, it’s different styles for different beats.

[MUSIC: Hot Lips Page, “Blues For Lips”; Rex Stewart, “Menelik, the Lion of Judah”;  Archie Shepp, “Keep Your Heart Right”; Ellington, “The Flaming Sword”]

TP:    People have done variations on the half-valving technique, but no one did like Rex.

BERNSTEIN:  No.  From what I heard from my trumpet teacher, back in the days when everyone knew each other, there would be parties at his house where guys would come over after shows, he was very interested that both Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan could sing along with all the Rex Stewart solos on the ’78s.  There are guys who were real Modernists who listen to Rex.  He was definitely a special musician, and people were aware of it… He was self-taught.

TP:    It’s interesting in the period after Cootie Williams left the band to join Benny Goodman, while Ray Nance was getting his feet wet, so there are a number of recordings and airchecks where you hear playing the Cootie Williams part.  He was a total trumpet player.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yes.  And he was a firebrand, too.  I have a jam session with Rex and Charlie Shavers where everyone obviously is in their cups.  But Charlie  Shavers lays down this incredible stuff that would be impossible to play on the trumpet, and Rex tries to play it right back, but  using his own fingerings and stuff like that, so it sounds a little different than Charlie Shavers.  But I think Rex made his living as a guy people know… My Dad knows who he was.  “Oh yeah, we used to go see Rex Stewart.”  He was something special.

“Keep Your Heart Right” is by Roswell, and that piece kind of is what made me create Sex Mob.  The great thing about it, it sounds like jazz when you hear it.  Man, they’re swinging!  It’s like jazz.  But when you actually hear what they’re doing form-wise, it’s not like jazz, like with your eight-bar form or whatever.  It’s so much more free.  I think those times were very free.  I think people didn’t want to hear 8 bars.  That’s why they went to hear the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.  Their minds were expanding.  So if you heard things come to 8 bars, you’d go, “Man, this is square.”  Even if it’s so hip, you’re immediately going to say it’s square.  But with Archie and Roswell it was so free that people could really get into it, and meanwhile it had that jazz feeling.

TP:    Maybe so.  Also, a paraphrase could be the term “beyond category.”  What we’re about to hear is a section from an as-yet unreleased suite of Ellingtonia arranged by you for the Donald Byrd Dance Company.

BERNSTEIN:  We were actually supposed to perform this piece at Lincoln Center.  The original concept, which would have been beautiful, was to have Eric Reed do the piano trio stuff from Piano Reflections, and then my idea was to do the second movement, and the third movement being the Lincoln Center Orchestra.  I had worked with Donald on the Harlem Nutcracker for three or four years, and it was obvious we were kind of birds of a feather; we’d been around the same areas of New York at the same time, seen some things.  I knew he had worked with Vernon Reid and Geri Allen, and I said, “Oh, do you know them, they’re friends of mine,” blah-blah-blah.  We started talking about music and things we liked, and then  we started talking about Ellington and I was saying how I think it’s very interesting that there was this side of Ellington that’s a very carnal side… Of course, everyone makes an icon out of somebody, like they want to present this…the whole Ellington shtick.  But he was a human being, and he was a pretty funky guy.
TP:    What he called himself in his book was the master bullshitter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, he was a pretty funky guy!  He had a dark side, too.  And I said, “It would be nice to celebrate that part of the music, instead of always presenting it so immaculately done.  Because to be honest, that band also didn’t sound immaculate.  I remember once talking to Al Porcino, and there were certain guys who were great musicians and maybe couldn’t appreciate the Ellington thing, because they were around during the ’50s, and they were probably like that Kenton sense of everything’s in tune and hits together, and that thing with the trumpet shakes, and you might hear the Ellington band, especially at certain periods, and say, “man, that doesn’t sound that good.”  So the idea of the funkiness of the Ellington band, that it could be a very funky band, it wasn’t all spit-and-polish.

TP:    Well, the band was traveling 250-300 days a year, and you can’t humanly  be in the sort of form you’re talking about.  Different circumstances, different sounds, venues…

BERNSTEIN:  That was just a tangent.

TP:    It was.  But anyway, was this eventually realized?

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  It happened at the Joyce Theater for a week.  But then the idea was to present it later in the summer but record the music.  He couldn’t afford to have us do it at the Joyce.

TP:    And it didn’t get performed at Lincoln Center because of the carnal nature at the core…

BERNSTEIN:  The reason it didn’t get done is that this music had gotten so carnal that he had it worked out that the dancers all come out, and at one point the males and females both have enormous breasts and enormous phalluses.  Each is just for one movement… Well, for each one there was a matching phallus and breast.  Like, they could be in zebra-colored or psychedelic-colored, or a tie-dye set, or a polkadot set…

TP:    And thus it didn’t make it to Lincoln Center.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  It shouldn’t have been.  It was supposed to be for Lincoln Center Outdoors.  You can’t have people bring their children to see it.  It was not appropriate.  But that’s what happened.

[Sex Mob, “Black and Tan Fantasy”]

TP:    That song has such a strong character and defined identity that people who tackle it rarely break it up and mess with it as enthusiastically as you did.  You’ve done a lot of work in rearranging and reformulating the music of the ’30s and ’40s, on Kansas City, this project, many things.  Did your arranging develop in parallel to playing the trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s one of those things in being a professional musician, having someone go, “Can you make an arrangement?” and you go, “Yeah, how much does it pay?”  I talked to Manny Albam who did these arrangements called “Three Dimensional,” where it was three different bands playing three melodies, like the way Mingus did “Exactly Like You” and “A Train,” and finding one more song.  He had three different ensembles, and he had it in Trivision Stereo or something.  I called him and asked “How did you arrange that?”  He said, “Oh, I was in Wingy Manone’s band, and Wingy said, ‘Hey, Manny, can you make me an arrangement?'”  He said yeah.

That’s kind of how it happened, how it started — doing Haitian music.  “Hey, Steve, can you make an arrangement?”  Then I started working with John Lurie.  There were things in between…

TP:    You started working in Haitian bands when you came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  Pretty early on.  That’s one of the first gigs I had that was kind of…

TP:    You got here?

BERNSTEIN:  ’79.

TP:    You were 18, right out of high school.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.

TP:    You get here and try to make your way in the fray.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s a funny story because I get here.  Me and Wynton are the same age, and he was going to Juilliard and I was going to Columbia.  I made it there a few years.  Lifestyle’s too hard, man.  I couldn’t keep up with the druggies at Columbia!  I had to quit!  I’m not really made of that kind of stuff.  I don’t have those kinds of genetics.

TP:    No one here does that these days, you know.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, growing up I had been a professional musician, I thought I was good, all these things, and I move to New York and think “Oh, man, I’m going to play.”  So I get there and I meet another trumpet player at rehearsal band.  See, I’m really good at rehearsal bands.  Paul Jeffrey’s rehearsal band.  I’ve been in town for three days, and this young trumpet player from New Orleans, obviously my age, big Afro, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  And man, he played so good.  And I kept hearing him.  And see, I thought that’s how good you had to be.  I thought man, everyone in New York has to be that good when they get here.  And that was Wynton, you know.

TP:    that was discouraging for you?

BERNSTEIN:  Whoo!  To hear a guy play the trumpet like that?  At that age?  So for a second, I just kind of hung out.  Then I kind of got more into it again.

TP:    But you started to work professionally while you were an undergraduate.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah, I started doing gigs immediately.  But I meant the whole… I had done this record when…

TP:    How did you get networked into those gigs?  Who did you know?

BERNSTEIN:  I met people.  I knew Butch Morris from the Bay Area.  He gave me my first recording session.  I’d been to the East Coast before, and some people knew me.  I had some trumpet teachers, and they’d say, “oh, go to this rehearsal band” or “do this Latin gig for me.”  I knew Jimmy Owens.  I knew Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu.  I took lessons with all those guys.

But what I wanted to play like… What I was doing was checking out Defunkt.  That’s what I did when I first moved to New York.  Every weekend I was at the Squat Theater.  That was my band.  I think that really changed my life.  Because in Berkeley no one had really approached the music that hard-edged.  Where I’m from, the music was so much softer.  It was good, but suddenly you’d hear Defunkt, man, and Joe Bowie was playing so much trombone… Melvin Gibbs, Kelvin Bell, Ronnie Burrage.  It was this great band, and I’d never heard anything like it.  It was my dream, was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix and all this music I loved.  I said, “Yeah, man, you could just play them together.”

TP:    And at the same time you’re playing with people who are very well versed in the bebop and postbop vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah,  but that was never what I wanted to do.

TP:    So the ’80s proceed, you fade away from Columbia and settle into the life of a professional musician, doing Haitian gigs, Funk gigs, various gigs.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  And I was in every East Village band.  Tons of band.  When I got there, now a lot of guys were into that kind of music… I could really well.  If people gave me a chart, I could play it.  Because I come from playing big bands and having teachers who were really serious about playing the trumpet.  Trumpet is a hard instrument.  There are great self-taught trumpet players, but man, it’s hard enough even if you’re well-taught.  I mean, these guys really knew how to play the trumpet.  They taught me about playing in time.  I really believe in playing in time.  I mean, I love playing out of time, too.  But time is very specific, and there’s a lot of ways to approach it.  My trumpet teachers were Jimmy Maxwell.  John Coppola, who sat next to Gozzo.  I mean, that’s a certain concept of where the time should be, which I think is very important.  When I moved to New York, I found a lot of people didn’t feel time  that way.  They felt that much more bright type of time, on top of the beat, and that also was not attractive to me.  I appreciate that modern style of big band, but it doesn’t really interest me that much.  I’ll do anything as a job, but…

TP:    So you started doing arrangements for Haitian bands, and you learned more or less by trial-and-error.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, you’d just figure out… But I always had a natural affinity for it. I could hear the range of the horns in my ear.  Anyway, John Lurie was starting to get to be more high-profile, then Hal Wilner asked me to do stuff, and now I have my own band.  So I’m just writing all the time.

TP:    We’re going to Mezz it up!  This isn’t coming from a CD of the session nor from an LP compilation.  It’s from a Blue Note LP 33-1/3 Microgroove 10″, 7027!  “Mezzerola Blues.”

BERNSTEIN:  Lee Collins.  You can say his name again!

[Lee Collins/Mezz, “Mezzerola Blues”; Charlie Johnson/Sidney DeParis, “The Boy In The Boat”; Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In the Dark”]

BERNSTEIN:  Trumpeters.  Great trumpeters.  Lee Collins I didn’t know about until very recently.  I was on the road in Portland with Kenny Wolleson, and he brings me Lee Collins’ autobiography from Powell’s.  I’m reading about him, and I said, “Man, this sounds incredible.”  Because this guy was a contemporary of Armstrong, a little bit younger than him, but that’s who he grows up listening to.  He comes to Chicago, but he’s his own trumpeter, but Armstrong’s the guy from his town who’s a couple of years older than him.  I found this record in my collection which I hadn’t really checked out, and I put it on and heard it, and realized that to me the beauty of it was that he’s playing in the style of Armstrong in the ’20s, but then developing on that.  Most guys, when they use some Armstrong and put it in their playing, use the ’40s thing,  more obvious, more stated, everything was more tongue.  This almost sounds like Armstrong’s cornet style, a little more sliding around.

TP:    Let’s take a tangent.  Your observations on the evolution of Louis Armstrong’s style.

BERNSTEIN:  When you hear him with King Oliver, he’s playing lower in the register.  Then you hear him play in Fletcher Henderson and the Hot Fives, and he’s starting what became known as the solo style.  He’s playing these beautiful melodies that he just knew.  Musicians know this about Armstrong, but if you’re not a musician you might not be that aware of it.  I don’t think he ever played a note out of the chord.  And chords are not simple on those old songs.  You hear a lot of blues musicians play New Orleans music, and they play a basic diatonic blues over it.  It doesn’t always work, because you have what are called three-chord… You have chords where there’s notes that are actually very clearly outside of the blues scale.

Well, Louis Armstrong always hit those notes perfectly and musically, and led to them.  It was always there.  So he started playing in this softer style.  With Fletcher Henderson I guess he switched to the trumpet and was using more of the upper register.  The more instruments are below you on the trumpet, the easier it is to play in the upper register.  If you’re just playing with two other horns, they can’t really support your note up there.  If you start playing with the big band… Then he had his big band, and that’s when his style became this really super-virtuosic style, that whole thing with “Swing That Music” and you play 40 high Cs and you end on a double high-F, and he’s doing it every night, six shows a night, then doing recordings in the afternoon.

Then when he started going back to play with the All Stars, now he’s mixing the two styles together.  That’s the style of New Orleans trumpet playing most guys use from Louis’ All-Stars.  It’s up in the register.  It comes from that big band playing.  He’s playing really high and he’s stating the beat very directly.  With the early stuff, there’s more mystery in there.

TP:    Now back to Lee Collins.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  He’s mystery.  When you hear him, there’s just a lot of mystery, and it sounds great.

TP:    Sidney De Paris.

BERNSTEIN:  Don’t know much about him.  Him and his brother had a band and were called the New Orleans Jazz Band. [Blue Note and Atlantic] His brother played with Duke Ellington.  He was just another great trumpeter.  Obviously could really play.  Whether it’s his hand or his plunger, however he’s doing, that solo is unbelievable to me.  It’s one of those gems.  When I heard it, I just went back and listened to it over and over again.  Punch Miller was a guy from that same era.  When you listen to the guys of that era when they were young… Trumpet is a hard instrument.  So obviously, when you heard Punch Miller or Sidney deParis in the ’60s, it’s a lot different.  They didn’t have the physicality to keep playing that way.  But when they were young, man, they sounded amazing!

TP:    On the last track we heard the great Clark Terry, who seems to subsume just about everything that ever happened in the history of trumpet in his own style.

BERNSTEIN:  And he’s the greatest guy in the world.  I’ve known him for a long time.  I hung with him this summer.  He’s such an inspiration.  I read an interview with him where he said he keeps his horn by his bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll just get up and play a few notes.  That’s when I just kind of realized how serious playing the trumpet is.  If you really want to be a trumpet player… I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and some days I’ll skip practicing — or I did, up until three or four months ago.  Then I decided, “You know what?”  I’m never going to skip aa day of practice.  Trumpet is serious.  It’s a really heavy instrument, with the amount of dedication it takes to make your lips work properly on the trumpet.  And Clark is one of those guys… He’s almost blind, he can barely walk, he’s diabetic, and every time he puts his horn to his face, man, beauty comes out.  You cannot believe how incredible he sounds.  He’s an inspiration.  And the greatest person in the world.   And hilarious.  I was hanging out with him and Alan Smith, who is in his seventies, and a 91-year-old drummer, and Roger Glenn, the son of Tyree Glenn, who lives in Oakland.  It was so funny!  The drummer was Eddie Alley, the brother of Vernon Alley, the bass player who lived in San Francisco.  He’s not doing so much playing.  He said maybe he’s going to stick to contracting, because he’s 90 and he’s not been working that much.

TP:    On Diaspora Soul Steven put traditional cantorial music to New Orleans beats.

BERNSTEIN:  It was more like traditional songs to beats… Well, the beats are really a lot of Afro-Cuban beats and Cha-Cha beats.  They’re actually not New Orleans beats.  But the bass parts and piano parts are coming from that tradition of music. The beats actually were mixing like mambos and cha-chas.  But on this I just got right down to the rhythm.  This is with a Rumba rhythm.  I took it from a Polish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, originally written in 1921.  It’s an Ashkenazi piece, but it sounds very Sephardic, just the tonality.  But it’s not.

[“Habet Mishomayem”]

TP:    We’ll hear a track by Yusef Lateef from The Symphonic Blues Suite, another take on the blues, and another way of articulating the blues.

BERNSTEIN:  Growing up, those Atlantic records were very important to me, the whole thing with Yusef and Eddie Harris and Fathead and Rahsaan… See, it’s Rahsaan who brought us into this.  Rahsaan ruled the Bay Area.  I saw Rahsaan about ten times in high school.

TP:    You were a Keystone Korner guy.

BERNSTEIN:  Me and Peter Apfelbaum were in the front… We’d get there early.  And we were slick.  We had a thing where I’d get a Coca-Cola in  Chinatown and stick it in our pocket, and we’d order water as soon as we sat down, drink the water, save the ice, and pour the Coke in real fast, and I had the can again, and it looked like they had brought us Coke for the minimum.  We were criminals, hard-core.

But we’d go see Rahsaan, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I think about music this way.  Those Atlantic productions, you’d get these records, and it seemed like you were entering this world where each record was a brand-new world.  Like, Blackness.  Do you remember Natural Black Inventions, where it’s just him?  We’re kids and looking at this and saying, “wow, this is so great.”  It wasn’t the idea that records was a bunch of guys getting together to play. It was like each record was a world you could enter.  Yusef made some great… The Search, which I wish I still had.  Me and Peter would just sit around and practice and play records.  It’s part of my history.

[Yusef, “Minuet, Hybrid-Atonal”; Gil Evans-Johnny Coles, “Davenport Blues”; Rahsaan-Quincy, “Charade”]

TP:    Quincy Jones did a lot of amazing arrangements in the ’60s, and the dynamic range and precision, but it’s never like a machine…

BERNSTEIN:  It’s never bad.   I’ve been thinking about it.  Quincy is kind of like Mingus with a little TV added to it.  It’s like that good.  I really feel Quincy is that good.  It’s so full of life, so exploratory, celebratory… The fact that he would have Roland Kirk playing the solo.  Who else would love music that much?

TP:    Rahsaan was under contract to Mercury at the time.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but check this out.  Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Jimmy Maxwell, Osie Johnson and Milt Hinton.  I meet drummers all the time, and they don’t know who Osie Johnson is — or Gus Johnson.  Those guys were so great, and their time was so great, and there was a certain level f musicianship… Look, the world changes.  It’s always different.  But at that period of time, man, the level of musicianship was so high, because everyone was playing every day, they’d all been on the road for years, they had all that skill under their belts of having played three sets a night for years.  Then you go into this high quality recording, and people are playing at night… When I hear music like we just heard, I just love this music.

TP:    Before that we heard Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Davenport Blues” with Johnny Coles playing the Bix role, from the great Gil Evans for Pacific Jazz where he arranged all the standards.

BERNSTEIN:  I was probably in tenth grade when I heard this for the first time, and it was just like… That’s one of those solos that’s so pure to me.  When I heard that, I just couldn’t believe it.  It’s so sympathetic, the arranging.  Gil Evans is a whole nother kind of arranger.  That kind of arranging is so beyond me.  It’s so unique.  The interesting thing is that Jimmy Maxwell and Gil Evans grew up together.  They had a high school band in Tracy, which later became the Skinny Ennis Band.  Maxwell told me that Gil would babysit his kids sometimes.  He left the house and go see a movie with his wife or something, and Gil’s sitting at the piano with Maxwell’s son, David, and he’s sitting there playing a chord, and David’s sitting next to him on the piano.  They get back three hours later, David is in the same place and Gil’s still playing the same chord.  That’s the way he was.  It seems to me he really thought so much about every single interval.

Another interesting thing about Gil Evans, he always talked about unison.  People asked him later on, in Sweet Basil, why he wasn’t writing these big orchestrations like we just heard.  And he said, you know, trying to get the band to make unison… I didn’t understand what he said.  But lately I think what he was talking about was that Basie thing of the unison.  Because as I’ve been doing more and more writing, I realize it’s much easier for a band to play harmony than to play unison.

TP:    Why is that?  Because you have to breathe as one?

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  Because the harmony, if it’s a little bit off, the beauty and strength of the harmony can carry you.  But if it’s unison, it’s really got to  be played with this feeling.  It’s really powerful, but it’s much harder to get to.  Maybe there’s a science to unison, but I’d say it’s kind of almost a magic thing that you have to reach out to through time.  You can’t learn it.  You have to spend time to get it.  And you have to start with something else.

I think it’s easier to mess with something with a strong melody.  The stronger the melody is, the more it can withhold.  It’s like a really strong  building.  If it’s a really strong frame, you can hit it with as many hammers as you want and it’s going to hold up.  I’m trying to hit it with many hammers.

[Sex Mob, “The Mooche”]

TP:    Steven was talking about unisons.  When you talk about unisons and breathing-together, you’re talking about riffs.  And nobody ever did the riff function better than the Count Basie Orchestra, at least not on record.

BERNSTEIN:  This is true.  This was always in the air around me, but when I went on the Kansas City film, my job there started off kind of being the research guy.  Hal Wilner, every two days or so I’d get a big box of tapes to listen to, and my daughter had just been born… I swear to God, I think this is why she’s the way she is, which is really special, but the first couple of months all she heard was music from 1928 to 1938.  That was it.  That’s all I listened to in the house.   It kind of seeped into my body, it seeps into one’s body when you listen to it… What do you call that process?

TP:    Osmosis.

BERNSTEIN:  Thank you.  Gesundheit.  It kind of started a disease with me, because now after listening to so much of that music, it’s like I can’t stop listening to it.  And my daughter is 6, so that was 6 years ago.

TP:    There’s a bunch of Basie airchecks from the late ’30s and early ’40s, and apart from the greatness of the band, one of the pleasures is to hear Lester Young play a bunch of choruses.

BERNSTEIN:  And on this one Jo Jones has woodblocks and cowbells… It’s really good.  It’s also before the band had four trombones.  It’s three trombones.

TP:    Here it’s the Basie band playing for dancers at either the Savoy or the Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.

[Basie, “I Got Rhythm”; Benny Moten, “Toby”; KC-6, “Countless Blues”]

TP:    Talk about organizing that style for a group of modern musicians, whose approach to making music is different than musicians 60 years before, developing that organic feeling.

BERNSTEIN:  When we did it for the movie?  Man, these musicians are all so great that it was easy, because they all knew what to do.  It really freed me up, because for some things it could be really skeletal and they could put it together.  Riff music continues to be the music of our generation.  It’s just changed harmonically and rhythmically.  But all Popular music is riff music.  The concept of unisons, as a lot of jazz has strayed from that, has gone to Pop music.  One thing about James Brown is the unisons.  You hear great unisons in a lot R&B music and a lot of dance music.  That’s why it makes people want to dance.  It’s the power of all that happening together.  You hear that in African music a lot.  There’s unisons and there’s… Obviously, the rhythms are different, but a lot of people in unison in different rhythms often.

The band Spanish Fly had… I remember Frank Perowsky, who is the father of a friend of mine and a great saxophone player, came to one of our gigs.  This was a band with trumpet, slide guitar and tuba.  He’s really a modern jazz guy.  He said, “Steve, as I’m listening to this, I’m wondering what is this that they’re playing.”  And I realize it’s unison.  Because if you hear a slide guitar, a trumpet and a tuba playing unison, that’s a very specific kind of unison.  Every unison is different.  So there’s a whole world of unison out there.  You hear it in Parliament-Funkadelic.  You hear a lot of good unison out there.

Obviously, you don’t hear arranging.  Actual arranging has gotten away from that.  Because people are much more into putting a lot of things on top, a lot of different moving lines.  But for dancing, of course, it really moves people.

TP:    We’ll move to music now by the trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who was a primary mentor for Steven when he came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  It was just a miracle.  I went to NYU, and he was there teaching.  You had a choice of trumpet teachers, and I’d been hearing about him.  When I moved to New York, a lot of people studied with Jimmy Maxwell, so I had a lot of opportunity to study with him.  He really took me under his wing.  I’d take lessons at his house, and he’d send me home with tapes and records, and books about Zen, and food.  I’d spend all day there, he’d cook a huge breakfast, we’d take a walk, we’d play, we’d cook… He taught me about cooking.  It was one of those things where someone talks to you about things.  And he’d just seen so much in his life.  Here’s a guy who was 17 years old on the road with Skinny Ennis, then he replaced Harry James basically in Benny Goodman’s band when he was 18 years old.  18 years old, and he joins the most popular band in the United States of America…
.
TP:    Replacing the most popular trumpeter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  It was big news back then.  It as if someone had replaced John in the Beatles or something like that.  What he saw living that life was  really amazing, and being able to pass some of that on to me was great.  He’s a very spiritual guy.  The lessons were much more than just music.

The first piece starts with solo trumpet, and it’s a great chance to hear his sound.  One of the things Jimmy taught me about was timed vibrato.  When I first started playing gigs after taking lessons with him, other trumpeters were looking at me like I was crazy, because I’d be playing these parts with this really pronounced vibrato, which of course is not the way you play in modern music.  But when you’re young and studying with someone, you’re trying to emulate what they teach you, and sometimes that might not be the right thing to do in a certain situation.  But eventually, the vibrato has brought me a lot of good things.

[Jimmy Maxwell, “Estrelita,” “The Trolley Song”]

TP:    Now some live Ellington.  Hearing live Ellington airchecks and recorded performances is one of the great pleasures of jazz collecting.  You have them going back to the early ’30s and all through his career.  These come from 1948-49, when Ben Webster joined the band.

BERNSTEIN:  Right.  These are just trumpet features.  This is “Tooting Through the Roof,” which he wrote for Rex and Cootie.  It’s pretty impossible to play.

TP:    This is where the Ellington band would be that precision instrument

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly. “Braggin’ In Brass” is more rhythmically difficult.  “Tootin’ Through the Roof” is just…as far as the range, it goes all through the trumpet to the very top.  This is when he had Al Killian in the band, who was a great lead trumpet who people don’t talk about so much.

TP:    Talk about lead trumpet versus the soloistic approach.  I did a liner note for someone who’s a protege of Clark Terry, and he spoke of Clark Terry embodying that ideal of playing trumpet with the lead trumpet type technique with the feeling…

BERNSTEIN:  Right, of a jazz player, which is difficult.  Most people… It’s the natural thing that would happen when you’re trying to play things consistently and the same all the time.  We’re talking about balance.  That could shift the balance from being able to be really spontaneous and pulling things in different directions.  That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s what we heard Maxwell do.  He was a very lead style trumpet player.  The Ellington style was a little more… He told me that he didn’t like Chet Baker when he heard him, and then he saw a written-out Chet Baker solo and played it, and then he liked.  I heard him play the Chet Baker solo.  But he’s not playing it like Chet Baker would play it; he’s playing the notes and interpreting it his own way.  Then he could appreciate the rhythmic and melodic beauty of it.  But for him, the way  Chet played wasn’t the way the trumpet should sound.  He comes from another school.  He doesn’t play any more, but when I studied with him he was still playing all the time.  He was playing every night and sounding incredible.

He’s the person who taught me about all these trumpet players.  He talked about Billy Butterfield all the time.  Who talks about Billy Butterfield.  But when he was doing sections, he was telling me that in Mildred Bailey’s show the trumpet section was him, Billy Butterfield and Roy Eldridge.  Now, think about that.

TP:    The different sounds, for one thing.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but also the level of playing of those three guys.  Billy Butterfield was a great trumpet player, a great lead and jazz stylist.  Jimmy always described him as having the best intervals in the  business; his intervals were perfect.  And Shorty Baker, who is the lower of the two lower tessitore trumpet players in this next piece, a trumpet player from St. Louis, has a beautiful sound.  It sounds like he really influenced Clark Terry.  Beautiful tone.  Didn’t Miles talk about Shorty Baker?  Trumpet players know about him, but now everyone will.

[Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (Killian-Baker); “Boy Meets Horn”; Teagarden & Ben, “St. James Infirmary”]

TP:    This “Boy Meets Horn” may be the ultimate of all the “Boy Meets Horns” I’ve heard, which are two or three.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s why I played it.  At the end there’s a cadenza that Rex would always play.  By the way, my son is named Rex.  But that was a set piece, and this is the extended version.  Here Ellington plays piano behind him, and it’s neat, the backup line he plays — a little counter-melody.

TP:    And from 1948 we heard “Tootin’ Through the Roof.” on an Italian collectors label called Raretone.

BERNSTEIN:  At the end, Al Killian and Shorty Baker don’t really make the end the way Cootie and Rex did; they articulated so much stronger on the recording.

TP:    Before the next set, I’d like to speak about Sex Mob.  Each of your ensembles has had a general vibration or sound or signature.  How did this band come to be?

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob came about as a vehicle to explore the slide trumpet.  I only play slide trumpet in Sex Mob, and I’d been playing it in different groups… I bought a slide trumpet in 1977 and I’ve been playing it since then, but never that seriously until about eight years ago, when I decided to really start practicing it.  It’s a really difficult instrument.  So when I originally played it, I would just play in a few keys I could kind of get around in, and it would just be something I could pick up and play.  But then Dave Douglas suggested I practice it.  Smart man.

So I wondered I could take the instrument if I had a band where this was the only instrument I’m taking to the gig.  I just figured let’s see what kind of repertoire I could develop that I could play on this instrument.  And this is a great band.  We’ve pretty much had regular gigs in New  York for five years.  We play usually Friday nights at midnight at Tonic.  It’s Tony Scherr on the bass, Kenny Wolleson on the drums, and my partner in sonic crime, Briggan Krauss, on alto.

TP:    What does the slide trumpet give you that the valve trumpet doesn’t?

BERNSTEIN:  One thing it does is, it frees me.  It frees me from the history of the trumpet.  Most trumpet players feel this… There’s a weight on your shoulders in a sense, an obligation to all those who came before us.  Especially when you grow up like I did, really listening to a lot of trumpets… I listened a lot.  So you listen to Clifford, you listen to Lee, you listen to Booker Little, to Roy Eldridge and Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, etc., Louis Armstrong, obviously… You have all these people you’re thinking about.  I used to see Dizzy all the time.  I should have brought that thing where Dizzy plays just like… Dizzy got so many things from Rex Stewart.  Dizzy is the one who plays like Rex, not Clark Terry.  In fact, Dizzy was on that aircheck of Rex we just played.  Taft Jordan was another great trumpet player that people don’t talk about.

So it allows me to play an instrument… I manipulate it the way I play the trumpet.  I use my airstream in the same way.  But it’s a whole nother instrument.  It allows me to explore other avenues.  The other thing is, funlike the buttons… When you press a button down, you get this approximate pitch as the button shoots air through the trumpet.  But with the slide, you’re just moving the slide back and forth, and it gets all these tiny increments in pitch.  If you want to play below the pitch a little, you can hold it there, or above the pitch — all these different places.  It’s much easier to get there.  Much easier to play like a voice.   Much easier to play like Otis Redding.  Much easier to play like a slide guitar.  Much easier to play other sounds you might be hearing in your head.  So it allows me to express other sounds.  And it’s loud.  And it’s quiet.  That’s really good.  There’s something about the instrument…

TP:    Why don’t more people play it?

BERNSTEIN:  Because it’s really hard.

TP:    You mean controlling those increments of pitch?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s really difficult to get.  I’ve developed a style based on being out of tune, so I have an excuse.  I’m not trying to play like J.J. Johnson on it.  That’s not what I’m going for.  But even the way I play it, it’s really hard.  And eventually, probably someone will come up and figure out how to play like that.

TP:    So as opposed to the trombone it’s out of what the just proportion would be for it to be in-tune….

BERNSTEIN:  No, it’s the same proportion.  but if a trombone has an inch between each half-pitch, I would have half-an-inch.  If you’re a little bit off on trombone, most people can’t hear it.  But if you’re that same physical distance off on the slide trumpet, everyone can hear it.  The second grade music teacher can hear it.  Everyone is checking it out.  It’s one of those long and strong instruments, without a doubt.

[Sex Mob, “Harlem”]

TP:    That was the concluding piece on the CD, so obviously the concluding section of the dance.  All the arrangements kept the essence of Ellington with a contemporary rhythmic connotation, timbre and attack.

BERNSTEIN:  I listen to a lot of modern music.  Most of my inspiration for producing sound comes from what people call the Pre-War period.  But then, I love what it feels like to be alive today, so this is why I play as though I were a living person.

TP:    We’ll enter the here-and-now in the last half-hour, though you were a toddler when Mama Too Tight was recorded.  A mono LP!

BERNSTEIN:  I was 13 the first time I heard this.  This is another record I remember hearing the first time and thinking… Another story going back to Jimmy Maxwell and Archie Shepp.  He taught lessons in a little studio in the Charles Collin studios on 53rd-54th Street, and he told me one day he was giving a lesson, and suddenly he heard something that sounded more like Duke Ellington’s band than anything he’d ever heard.  He ran out of his rehearsal studio, ran into the next, and it was Archie Shepp playing his arrangements of Ellington.  I thought it was very interesting for someone who grew up listening to Ellington to say that.

[Shepp, “Mama, Too Tight”; Apfelbaum, “Chant 49”; Codona, “Coleman Wonder”]

BERNSTEIN:  We have pictures of Peter, Jeff Crestman and Peter in sixth grade, playing gigs — after school.  We were into it, man.

TP:    What is it about Berkeley that produces all these open-minded musicians?

BERNSTEIN:  And it’s funny.  The later they were born, the more money they make!

TP:    Were you a product of that particular teacher?

BERNSTEIN:  Yes Phil Hardymon.  Phil Hardymon, Dick Winnington, a piano player, and Herb Wong, the educator and noted humanist who started the program around 1970.  I got there the second year of it.  I got to Berkeley the first time in ’69, so it must have been in ’72.  Hardymon was incredible.  He was a no bullshit kind of person.  He basically said, “Look, this is good music, this is bad music,” and he would not tolerate us listening to bad music.

TP:    What was bad music?

BERNSTEIN:  You know, bad big band music.  You know…

TP:    Brassy, peppy…

BERNSTEIN:  Well, that’s not necessarily bad.  Brassy doesn’t mean bad.  You know what’s bad?  Out of time.  Out of tune.  Not swinging.  That’s what’s bad.  Those are the elements of jazz that you need to have, is it needs to be in time, it needs that element of melody that makes it jazz.  Whether we’re talking about somebody like Chet Baker, or you’re talking about Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis in the ’60s, with all very different tones and styles of trumpet, but they’re all real, they all have whatever those essential elements are.  And of course, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and Woody Shaw.  Hardymon would take us to gigs… Mr. Hardymon.  We always just called him Hardymon.  He had this little Karman-Ghia, he’d drive us to Keystone Korner.  He took us to see the Art Ensemble the first time.  And he’d put up with it.  I know at first he couldn’t quite get why we were listening to the Art Ensemble, but when he heard them live he figured it out.  He always told us, “Man, you guys got to learn to play the changes better before you start doing all this.”  He was right.  But that was the music that was in the air.  We wanted to play it.  I saw Lester Bowie play a solo in Berkeley.  I saw Baikida play a solo, I saw Oliver Lake play a solo.  These people were all coming through town when I was growing up.

TP:    Well, the Art Ensemble spent a lot of time out there.

BERNSTEIN:  Right, and they had friends they’d hang with.  I still remember once we went to see Lester solo, and the next day we went to play a Reno Jazz Festival.  We used to get up in the Reno Jazz Festival and play free jazz.  Everyone else was playing Bill Holman…well, Bill Holman is hip… Like, Sammy Nestico, those kind of real typical high school arrangements.

Coming up is some music I heard, real Berkeley-style — recorded in New York.

[Lowe-J/L Bowie, “Play Some Blues”]

BERNSTEIN:  Beaver Harris is someone who was really influential on me and Peter.  He was a good friend of ours.

TP:    We’ll conclude with a track that I noticed is on the top of the Knitting Factory charts…

BERNSTEIN:  I have Sex Mob, I have the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and Diaspora Soul.  I’ll have records by all three out in the Fall.

[Sex Mob, “About a Girl” (Kurt Cobain)]

 

*-*-*-*-

Steven Bernstein (WKCR, 6-3-99):

BERNSTEIN:  I’m the world tallest slide trumpet player.  You got a problem with that?

TP:    Is that documented in the Guinness Book of World Records?  I want to see documentation.

On the cover of Steven’s new record, Den of Iniquity, is a very fine likeness of Steven with red horns on his head and some red outline around him that looks like a shadow cape.  Looks like you’re channeling something there.

BERNSTEIN:  It was all stream of consciousness, and no Biblical aspirations.  Some people saw some anti-Semitic undercurrent in there, but it was all completely done…

TP:    With innocence.

BERNSTEIN:  Innocence and inspiration.

TP:    it was more of a Zap Comix vibe, I would say, than…

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  I would say more Zap Comix than Michelangelo.  Is that the one who did the Moses with the horns?

TP:    There’s a good segue.  Because one thing not everyone might know about you, given your extremely contemporary persona, is your devotion to the old guys in the music — and your intense study of the older forms of the music.  You’re a virtual encyclopedia of ’30s big bands and jump music, and I guess al that inflects what you do with Sex Mob.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m trying to.  I see Sex Mob hopefully as a return to what I feel is the earliest roots of jazz.  After it came out of New Orleans and moved to Chicago, you had basically a blank slate of new music where people were taking pop songs of the time and playing them in new styles.  They were playing them with different rhythms, they were playing them with different dynamics, and they were playing them with improvisations.  That’s what Bud Freeman and all those guys heard when they would go to the Royal Gardens.  It was this music where people basically took pop songs and played them in the way they felt like playing them.  These people were young, brash geniuses.  This music was louder than any music of its time.  This music was certainly being played on let’s say a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville song or minstrel song would have been played.

TP:    And accompanied by some pretty psychedelic liquor, too.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  Exactly!  Guys were getting out there.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.  People talk about the problem of having an audience for jazz.  And so many people are scared of jazz.  Because when they hear it, they have no familiarity with the songs.  The last real popular era of jazz you had Miles Davis.  Miles did the same songs.  Miles did “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” songs that everybody knew.

TP:    The songs of the day..

BERNSTEIN:  Songs of the day.  Even Coltrane did “Inchworm” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and all that stuff.  So that’s what I’m trying to do.  On my last record I do a piece by the Cardigans, I do “Live and Let Die,” I do a piece by Prince, I do a tune by Duke, Leadbelly — songs that everyone knows.

TP:    A lot of improvisers are trying to incorporate “the new standard,” one of two pieces from the ’60s or ’70s that they do some rearrangement of.  How do those tunes hold up as vehicles for improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  In my opinion, it matters how well you arrange them.  I won’t say who I saw, but I saw one person, an amazing musician, doing a concert of that kind of music and the arrangements weren’t suiting the music.  So when you’re talking about music that doesn’t have a lot of harmonic structure,  it’s very important that you arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  Because what’s happened in Pop music is there’s been a digression of harmonic material over the last 50 years, where it went from the long form of the march, which had an intro and had the opening strains and the second strains and the third strains, all these different parts; and then we got down to the Tin Pan Alley form of music, which has the verse and the chorus with the bridge; and then you got to the point where you just had songs which were AABA form; and then we got to kind of doo-wop songs which were the same AABA form, but now we’re just having a I-VI-II-V harmonic form instead of going into a lot of different keys, and still usually going to the IV chord no the bridge; and then people let go to the bridge, and that’s when you got some early music of Sly Stone and James Brown, where you just had a I-VI-II-V; then pretty soon it got the point where you had one single melodic bassline which became the entire harmony for the song; then you got the ’80s where you just had a synthesized bass riff; and then you had Public Enemy where it wasn’t even about any harmony at all, but a sample suddenly became your harmonic basis for the song.

So with this new music it’s very important to realize we’re dealing with arrangement, and you’ve got to create interest in the arrangement.  You asked how they will hold up.  As long as the arrangement allows interest and allows growth, and then you have great improvisers, it’s going to be fine.  You can’t play “Raspberry Beret” by Prince the same way you play “My Funny Valentine.”  It’s that simple.

TP:    In your career as a musician has Pop music and jazz music always existed on an equal plane for you in terms of your study and interest?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  When I was a kid I was a total jazz snob.  I started playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardeman in Berkeley, California, who started us playing jazz… We had improvisation in fifth grade.  Phil died last year, and a lot of people came from under his tutelage — Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, etc.  He believed in taste.  He believed everyone should play in taste.  We weren’t really big into  playing a lot of music over the changes.  More into melodies.  He was into playing us ’50s Miles and Chet Baker and of course Duke.  Then Peter Apfelbaum and I started getting into other types of music.  The first concert Peter took me to, we saw Eddie Harris at Keystone Korner.  We were in seventh grade.  Then later on in seventh grade we went to see Sam Rivers Trio with Sonny Fortune opening.  That was the second concert we went to.   Then we finally got to see our heros, the Art Ensemble.  The Art Ensemble has known me and Peter since we were 13 years old.  We’re talking about 1975 is the first time I saw them, at the Great American Music Hall.  Roscoe had taken a sabbatical, and it was just Joseph and Lester.  It was unbelievable.  We went backstage.  We had learned some of their songs, and we played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they came out and see these two little kids banging on the wall, and they invited us in.

Berkeley was amazing.  Not only did I get to get to hear Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner, there was also a series of solo concerts at a place called Mapenzi, and I heard Leo Smith solo, Lester Bowie solo, Oliver Lake solo, Baikida Carroll.  We heard a lot.  Plus my trumpet teacher was a guy named John Coppola, who is now in his early ’70s, and he played with Woody and Billy May and Kenton, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Cootie and Rex.  I was being a snotty kid and I came to my first lesson, we were talking and I said to him, “Man, I’m into Lester Bowie.”  I’m talking to this older Italian gentleman.  He said to me, “Oh yeah!  Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex was doing back in the ’40s.  And he throws on this record.  I go, “Oh, man, this is the same thing!”  So I started listening to Cootie and Rex in 11th grade, and that really changed my life.  When I heard Ellington’s ’40s band, with Jimmy Blanton, with Rex and Cootie in the section together, and Ben Webster, I knew that was the greatest music that ever existed in the world.  That was it.  And it still is for me.  I listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.

I love talking about music.  I was talking to Joe Wilder yesterday for about an hour.  We were talking about Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Billy Butterfield, Dud Bascomb.  Do you know Dud Bascomb?  Both Miles and Dizzy appropriated his licks from the “Tuxedo Junction” solo, and played them in later solos.  Dud Bascomb was one of the important links between Swing music and bebop.  But people don’t talk about him.

TP:    Now we’ll move into the “new standard” aspect with Sex Mob’s arrangement of a tune by Prince.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s “Sign of The Times,” our arrangement, with the help of our great friend and engineer Scott Harding, who also works with Wu Tang Clan and Prince Paul and who I think is as much responsible for this arrangement as we are.

[Sex Mob, “Sign of The Times”; “Rock of Ages”]

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob has played at least once a week every night for the last year.  We have a steady night at Tonic.  We do midnight shows, and they’ve been getting wilder and wilder.  People have been making me CDs, and there’s a great one with Eyvard Kang from Bill Frisell’s band sitting in and Wayne Goodman from the LCJO playing together.  Trombone and violin is an incredible orchestrational device that has not been used enough.  There’s always special guests.  The next one will be Thursday the 10th at midnight, and then on Friday the 25 Sex Mob plays the music of Little Richard with special guest Brian Mitchell.

TP:    Tell me about the evolution of the band, the personnel, what it takes to play with you.

BERNSTEIN:  The bass player Tony Scherr is responsible for this.  We were playing what we might call almost a freebop kind of gig at MOMA with Michael Blake.  Ben Allison, the regular bass player, couldn’t make it, and Tony Scherr came.  I’d never played with him.  He has this very muscular way of approaching the bass, where he holds it away from his body.  I looked at this guy, and I was scared.  I was scared to play with him.  I told Michael, “I’m not good enough to play with this guy.”  Anyway, he turns out to be a great guy, we start talking, and he loved the slide trumpet.  He said to me, “Man, I love that slide trumpet.”  I said, “One day when I get better I’m going to put together a band where I only play the slide trumpet.”  Tony said, “You’re ready to do that now.”  I said, “You really think so?”  Now, Tony’s a guy who’s been through all the big bands, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody, blah-blah..  He’s a heavy hitter.  So he gave me the courage to say, “Okay, if this guy thinks I can really play this instrument…”

So I called up Briggan Krauss, whom I’d met in Seattle, who is a virtuoso alto player but not a virtuoso in the sense… Most virtuoso alto players play a kind of traditional alto style.  He plays a very modern, expressive style, working with styles, but he can read anything, play anything, play any tempo, play any sort of pitch, and in his own style.  Kenny Wolleson, who I’ve known since he was a kid in California — another person able to play with anybody.  And Tony.  We started playing originally with Dom Falzone on bass, because Tony was always busy.  We did Thursday nights at 11 at the Knitting Factory tap bar.  We did that for two years.  After about four months Tony joined us.  And we just developed a repertoire.

Most bands either have no arrangements or else they rehearse.  But we had one rehearsal.  After that, every night I’d bring down whatever song I’d been listening to, I’d sit on the subway and write a chart out, I’d get to the gig, and throw the chart in front of them, and we’d do it.  I still try to do that at every gig.  I try to bring a song they’ve never played before with a real bare-bones chart, I rehearse it in front of the audience, and we play it.  We have a repertoire of over 100 songs.

TP:    Each tune evolves through performance.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  And it evolves through an audience’s reaction.  Which again is something that jazz used to do more.  But lately I think jazz has developed in a bubble, where you have songs developing under the guidance of a producer in a studio or at home, in some guy’s little house.  But actually, our entire repertoire is evolved in front of an audience.

TP:    I think in jazz there’s always been a studio aspect to generating tunes, but people used to have long residencies.  A band would be at the Vanguard for three weeks, or at the Village Gate for two weeks, or the Five Spot for a month, and the things would happen.

BERNSTEIN:  You listen to band that actually had arrangements… One of the great bands people don’t talk about was the original Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams with Duke Pearson doing the arrangements.  That was a band that worked and had… Arrangements are important to me.  I’m an arrangement type of guy.  We were talking about Shorty Rogers before.

TP:    Steven left a message asking when he was coming, and said “Listen to this arrangement, bye,” and it was a Shorty Rogers arrangement of “Un Poco Loco.”

BERNSTEIN:  I had thought Shorty Rogers was a shtick of guy, and it turned out to be this amazing… I don’t think you could find people who would be physically able to play this stuff.

TP:    Did your interest in arranging start with your discovery of older jazz nd Ellington, shaping the course of improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  But it also comes from growing up playing free improvisation as well as standards.

TP:    You were doing both.  Parallel track for you.

BERNSTEIN:  Parallel track.  Obviously you can tell I spent more time playing free improvisation than standards.  But when you play free improvisation, it’s about instant arranging.  It’s creating instant arrangements.  That’s kind of what I do on the stage in Sex Mob.  Then when you actually write arrangements, you have the power with your pencil and your brain to envision these arrangements and then have them come to life.

Another band that influenced me was Archie Shepp’s band with Roswell and the two basses, which was interesting because it was a real swinging jazz band, but it didn’t follow jazz forms, as far as the 8-bar form of a song.  But it had the feel of a jazz band…and they wore suits.

[Sex Mob, “Roswell,” “Come Sunday”]

TP:    Tell me about the slide trumpet and why that’s your medium.

BERNSTEIN:  I’ve had one since 1977.  Peter Apfelbaum and I were up at the Creative Music Studio, and we stopped by this little guitar store and saw these two slide trumpets on the wall.  The guy wanted $25 each for them.  So we both bought one.  And I’ve always had one.  A couple of things I could play  naturally in it, and I used to play it with Spanish Fly on a few tunes, and I’d notice the audience reaction whenever I played it… You could just feel it.  It was very visceral.  One time, I was playing at a festival in Austria, and Dave Douglas was there with Tiny Bell, he was listening to the Fly, and he said to me afterwards, “Man, that instrument is so incredible, why don’t you practice it the same way you practice the trumpet?”  And Dave is such a brilliant guy… Maybe I’m just dumb.  But I’d never thought about that.  I’d never thought about practicing it… In trumpet we have this whole series of books.  We do the Arbins(?) book and the Clark book, these traditional trumpet studies.  I’d never done that stuff on the instrument.  I’d never actually gone and played the classical type of trumpet playing.  So I started practicing it.  I mean, I still make my living as what I call a button trumpeter, but with Sex Mob it’s interesting that this is the first band of the many I’ve done that’s really gotten out into the world and people are really reacting to, and part of it is the slide trumpet.

TP:    What is it about the dynamics of its sound?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s as much… Well, the instrument can do anything. . The instrument can approximate a voice much easier than a button trumpet can, because you can move the slide wherever you want as far as pitch.  With a button trumpet, basically you push down a button and then you have that amount of tubing to go through and  you’re stuck with very close to what that  pitch is.  A slide trumpet is just much more expressive.  Also personally, I’ve always felt a little laden down by the tradition of the trumpet.  Because you listen to Clifford Brown… I’ll never be able to play… If I practice every day for the rest of my life, I’d  never be able to play as good as Clifford Brown.  I’d never be able to play as good as Wynton Marsalis, that’s for sure, even if I practiced every day of my life.  But certainly, you can go back to Clifford, you can go back to Booker Little, you can go back to Lee Morgan — these giants of bebop.

TP:    So there’s a tradition of virtuosity on the instrument.

BERNSTEIN:  And these guys, they staked it out, as far as I’m concerned.  Clifford alone, man, and Freddie.  I used to go see Woody Shaw a lot, and Woody was the last guy, man…  Woody wrote all that music.

TP:    Who really extended the vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  And not only that.  He wrote songs that featured his style of playing.  So he would play these songs, a lot of them he wrote when he was 19 or 20, songs like “The Moontrane,” and he continued to play, where it set up a sort of harmony where he felt very comfortable and where he could, within that harmony, keep extending it, as opposed to playing other people’s songs or playing standards, when he would play his own songs that he had written to feature his harmonic vocabulary.

With a slide trumpet, I feel like there’s no one to compare it to, I just play the way I want to play it.  Then, of course, it gave me this whole other tradition to explore.  Because I’d always felt like I’ve been as much a student of music as a professional musician, and suddenly here I am, and every day I go home and boom,” Dickie Wells, J.C. Higgenbotham, Tricky Sam, all these incredible trombone players.  The slide is its own world.  There’s a world of the slide, where the slide gives you the vocabulary.

TP:    Are there any antecedents in jazz of improvisers who played the slide trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  There’s a picture of Louis Armstrong playing one with King Oliver’s band.  There’s no recordings.  There’s two great slide whistle solos which I transcribed.  One is from “Froggy Moore.”  I don’t remember the other one.  There’s a picture of Freddie Keppard holding one, that pre King Oliver trumpet, kind of that era between March and Jazz.  There was a guy who played it with Kenton’s band.  I’m spacing on his name, but one of those guys who was with Kenton and Woody in the ’50s.  Joe Wilder’s trumpet teacher played it in the style of the time, the ’30s and ’40s.  I don’t know if it was quite jazz.  But I’ve found no recordings of anyone playing it.

TP:    Who were some of your trumpet mentors after coming to New York?  Apart from whatever lessons you may or may not have taken, I know you’ve cultivated relationships with older musicians.

BERNSTEIN:  Well, the main one has been Jimmy Maxwell.  When Jimmy 18 or maybe 20 he joined Benny Goodman’s band replacing Harry James, and he sat next to Cootie Williams.  After that he went on to become probably the greatest studio and lead trumpet player in New York City for 30 or 40 years.  He’s a giant of a man.  When I say “giant,” this is one of the biggest people you will ever see in your life.  He’s old school.  He’s 6’5″ and he looks like a very large grizzly bear.  The trumpet was a toy to him.  Here’s a guy who sat next to Cootie, so when he would show me plunger, he would show me the way Cootie showed him, and he would show me things about vibrato… These are things that people just don’t know any more.  He showed me things about time.  He is also a very brilliant man who taught himself Japanese and Chinese and was one of the first people in the United States who studied Zen philosophy.

We would take these 10-hour long lessons at his house.  I would come to his house, we’d eat an enormous breakfast.  The first thing he’d say to me, “How many eggs do you want?  Six or eight?”  That was my choice.  Then he’d expect you to eat like four bagels and a half-slab of bacon, then we’d walk along the beach and talk about music and he’d tell me stories,  then we’d play for a few hours, and then we’d cook, and he’d play me more Ellington music, and we’d tape it, and he’d always send me home with really obscure Ellington tapes of Rex and Cootie and other players, and also would always send me home with a book of Zen philosophy and leftovers.

TP:    Leftovers and Zen.  There’s a title.

BERNSTEIN:  He explained to me, if you want to be a professional trumpet player you should learn to cook.  Because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to make money.  So learn to cook at home and feed yourself.  Because you have to be strong to play the trumpet.  It’s a very physically demanding instrument.  Then he explained to me, “If you do this kind of session, here’s what you should eat before.”  It’s about always being physically prepared to play.

He was my main older inspiration.  When I was younger I studied with Jimmy Owens, who helped me a lot, and Kamau Adalifu (Charles Sullivan).  To be honest, most of the other ones have been my contemporaries.

TP:    You’ve also been active in recent years in film music and programmatic music.  “Get Shorty,” etc… Some of it must come out of working with John Lurie in the Lounge Lizards.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s funny, because my first movie scoring came from working with Hal Wilner, who produced the first Spanish Fly record and has been a big-big supporter of me.  He brought me out and we did Kansas City.  So my film career started with hanging with Robert Altman, doing Kansas City, being on the set every day.  The next film I did was Get Shorty, which was with John Lurie.  It’s all been downhill from there.  How can you get any bigger than a Robert Altman film and then basically the biggest film of the year, the biggest soundtrack of the year.  I’ve done three other soundtracks with John Lurie.  Also that same summer I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet, for Spanish Fly, called Fly By Night, for Christopher Debase(?), who is an amazing choreographer.  I’ve done three movies with John Lurie and I’ve done two movies of independent films with my own scores, and I’ve done a couple of TV jingles.  It’s all music to me.

TP:    Are you a self-taught writer?

BERNSTEIN:  Completely.

TP:    Did this start from transcribing older material, or functional things?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, I shouldn’t say I’m totally self-taught.  I took a semester or two of arranging in college.  But I was pretty out of it most of the time.  But when I’d write an arrangement, I’d always just hear it in my head first, and then I’d just write it out, and what I wrote was basically the same thing that was in my head.  So I realized I had a gift for that.  The way I study writing is I listen, and I try to identify what’s happening.  Writing is a science.  It’s very physical.  The feeling you get from hearing music is emotional, but it’s all physical elements that create those emotions.  So I listen to things and try to identify what physically is happening there, and if it’s something good, I try to steal it the best I can — and since I never get it quite right, it sounds like me.

The next track is arranged in the style of Dave Bartholomew, who’s     still alive, a trumpet player from New Orleans who was the musical director for Fats Domino, did most of the sessions for Little Richard.  This was written for trumpet, three tenors and baritone. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “Mazeltov,” “Mack The Knife”]

TP:    Is Spanish Fly still running parallel to Sex Mob, or is Sex Mob it for you now?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, basically Spanish Fly is no longer.  We were together for a long time, and it’s a group that was based on improvisation and communication… It’s the thing where everyone’s life changed and people had different ideas about music, and we weren’t able to play the kind of music we had originally played, so it was kind of silly to keep doing it.

TP:    So it came to an organic and amicable…

BERNSTEIN:  An organic end.  It was like it composted itself.

TP:    We were speaking off mike about sources and antecedents, and you’re taking yours very explicitly from the older swing, or I’d call them more blues trumpet players, like Rex Stewart and Hot Lips Page and Cootie Williams and Dud Bascomb…

BERNSTEIN:  That’s a good word to call them.

TP:    …and also the polished approach to lead trumpet that developed in that period, and free improvisation.  But though you’ve talked about admiring bebop trumpet players, it doesn’t seem an area you’re as interested in exploring.

BERNSTEIN:  As we said before, I always felt that hearing Clifford Brown… It was a real epiphany one time.  I was listening to that Tadd Dameron big band record with Idris Sulieman and Clifford Brown.  It literally sounds as if it was a Star Trek episode… The band is good, but it’s kind of ragged.  It sounds like everyone is a little out of it and the arrangements weren’t that polished.  But whenever Clifford solos, it sounds like a weird Star Trek thing where someone had been transported from the future.  He’s just like a laser light!  Every note is impeccable.  At that point, I was practicing ten hours a day, I was in my early twenties, and I realized, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  I called up Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu, and I said, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  He said, “Yeah, that’s right; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can be at peace with it.”

That’s not really the reason I don’t play bebop, but it certainly helps.  As I also mentioned, other people my age who are phenomenal technicians which allows them to navigate chord changes in rapid tempos.  But also, part of learning bebop… You were mentioning the concept of apprenticeship.  I don’t know if you want to say a few words about that.

TP:    Well, there are very proficient players who are dealing with bebop and postbop vocabularies who put in very serious apprenticeships within those situations, learning the language, who come up with a sound of their own.  It amazes me how fresh the vocabulary remains, among all the other things that are going on.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s true.  But something I never wanted to do (and this goes all the way back to when I was a kid) was I never wanted to play other people’s licks.  It was not something I wanted to do with music.  I don’t know what brought that about.  I don’t know if it was being exposed so early to people like the Art Ensemble where you’re hearing this very fresh music not coming necessarily from a harmonic base.  But I never felt comfortable going in and playing other people’s licks over chord changes, which is something you really need to do get to that next level.  So it wasn’t where I put my energy.  And again, as far as listening goes, because I am so arrangement-oriented, it’s not as interesting for me as something I want to put my stamp on for people to listen to.  Because the whole concept of the head, the multiple solos, and another head with no backgrounds is just not something I’m interested in.  I’m much more interested in earlier music that has very extensive arrangements.  If you go to Louis Armstrong’s big bands or Jelly Roll Morton’s small groups, or things as modern as Tricky and Bjork and Porno for Pyros, where you have these very incredible sonic arrangements, that’s what fascinates me.

TP:    You said that coming to New York is when you started to understand Pop music.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  Also, when I went to college at Columbia… I’d been living in Berkeley, which for me was reality, but for the rest of the United States it’s another world.  And so suddenly I’m with all these white people, and what do they listen to?  They all listen to Rock-and-Roll.  So I’m hanging out with these guys, trying to be fit in, be one of the guys, and this is 1979.  I’m trying to dig Popular Couture, and at that time it was James White and the blacks and Defunkt.  These guys were the bridge for me, especially Defunkt.  That was the bridge.  Because it took all the energy of New York Modern Downtown Punk music, which was coming from Rock-and-Roll, which is coming not so much from an Afro-American tradition of music; and mixing that energy with the Avant-Garde music, Joe’s incredible trombone playing; and then taking Hendrix’s sonic kind of music with the electric guitars and Joe’s overblowing, and that was kind of… I started to understand…

TP:    Plus the horn band concept of Black acts in the ’50s and ’60s.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  That showmanship thing.  That, and then just being at these clubs… I kind of became a person of the times, and I felt much more comfortable going to a club like the Mudd Club or Danceteria than walking into Sweet Basil or the Vanguard, where I’d walk in and feel like I was some guy from outer space.  And as I’d hang out in these clubs, you would hear the music they were playing and you were living that life, and as you’re living that life and hearing that music, being in the club, being one of those people of the time just started to make sense to me.  I started to explore more of that music coming through — the early rap music.  And as my ears opened up, I heard more and more music.  I never even knew what the Grateful Dead was.  It was…

TP:    And you’re from the Bay Area.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m from the Bay Area.  But I’d hear it so much, I just thought it was a style of music.  I thought it was like hippies playing country music.  I didn’t know that was the Grateful Dead.  You’d hear it coming from people’s VWs.  It sounded like Country music with the harmonies sung wrong!  The time was really bad and they’d sing the harmonies out of key.  But I just figured it was a style of music.

TP:    When did the hanging-out aspect start to morph into your being a musician on the scene and becoming actively involved in creating the life that people were going to hang out to hear?

BERNSTEIN:  It had all started pretty early.  It was my first summer in New York.  I’d known Butch Morris since I was a kid living in Berkeley, and I went down to hear Sahib Sarbib’s band at some pier that isn’t there any more on the West Side.  And this blew my mind, because this is something I could relate to.  It kind of was like the music Peter Apfelbaum had been writing for the Hieroglyphics, but it had Sunny Murray on drums, and everyone in the East Village was there.  I said, “You know what?  I can play this music.  I can play this music as good as any of these guys and I can relate to this music.”  I dug the people on stage and I dug the scene.  So I called up Butch, who was playing, and I said, “Hey, man, can I meet this Sahib Sarbib?  Can you send me to a rehearsal?”  And Butch, being the way he is, says ,”Well, you know what?  They have a recording on Wednesday, and I haven’t been playing my cornet.  Why don’t you just show up?”

So here I am, I’m 19 years old, and I just show up at this recording, and at this recording is basically most of the people on the scene.  There’s Jameel Moondoc and Paul Shapiro and Booker T and Lee Rozi and Roy Campbell, Ahmad Abdullah, Dave Sewelson, Dave Hofstra, all these guys.  We did this recording for three days, and then Dave Sewelson says to me, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down Sunday morning at the Ear Inn and sit in?”  So here I am 19 years old, I show up Sunday morning at the Ear Inn, and it’s the Microscopic Septet, which also at that time also included John Zorn.  So here I am meeting Phillip Johnston, John Zorn, at that time John Hagen was in the band, Dave Sewelson, and sitting in was Elliott Sharp, hanging out was Bobby Previte, Wayne Horwitz — I met all these guys.

So within four days I met everyone in the East Village, and here’s this relatively fresh-faced, bleary-eyed, 19-year-old trumpet player willing to do anything.  And there weren’t many trumpet players on the scene back then.  I  had certain skills that were pretty useful. I was a good reader, I had good ears, and I was really enthusiastic.  If John Zorn said “I’m doing a Sonny Clark concert,” I said, “Oh cool,” because I knew not tons of Sonny Clark tunes, but I knew four or five Sonny Clark tunes, and I’d come and sit in.  But I loved the music of the time, more noise-oriented music, shall we say.

TP:    And here we are with Sex Mob playing Friday and off and around New York. [ETC.] This is from a tribute to James Brown…

BERNSTEIN:  Like I do anything, I don’t know if it’s from my Talmudic background…

TP:    By the way…

BERNSTEIN:  No, I don’t have a Talmudic background at all.  It’s kind of a joke.

TP:    I was wondering about the Radical Jewish culture thing, and its resonance for you.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m just very Jewish.  Socially I’m about as… My name is Bernstein.  I’m a Jewish guy.  There’s not much you can say.  It’s pretty obvious when you meet me.

TP:    And proud of it.

BERNSTEIN:  And proud of it.  That’s right, man.  Say it loud.  So anyway, they said, “Do you want to do this James Brown compilation?”  I already had tons of James Brown, but then I was like, “Man, I’m gonna get all the James Brown,” so I could hear everything.  I had always dug “Please, Please, Please” off a record called Hell, which I’d had since I was in 11th grade.  It’s a Dave Matthews arrangement with cowbells, sort of salsa-style, and he sings it.  Then I went and found… I said, “Well, that’s the tune I want to do,” because I always loved this tune, not knowing this was James Brown’s first hit.  Then I found live version from the year when Bootsy was in the band, and they do it really fast.  Then I went back to the very first version which is called the Fabulous Flames, not even James Brown — that’s a gospel quartet.  So what I did, I transcribed the original version, and I’m playing what he sang on the slide trumpet, then we do a segue to the Bootsy version for the outro to the song, and the original version of “Turn Me On” is somewhere in my head.  That’s what it is.

[MUSIC: “Please, Please, Please”, “Live and Let Die.”]

Leave a comment

Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, Steven Bernstein, trumpet, WKCR

For Matt Wilson’s 52nd Birthday, a 2001 Blindfold Test and a 2012 Feature in Jazziz

In recognition of drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson’s 52nd birthday, I’m posting the uncut  proceedings of the DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2001, and the text of an article that ran in Jazziz in 2012.

 

Matt Wilson Blindfold Test:

1. Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great. I really like it. I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker. But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon. Just sort of the feeling. But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz. Oh, this is swinging. It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.” That’s obvious! The bass sound is great. Is it Jacky? The answer is no! I like this, though. I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player. I like the environment. They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe. Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel. I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there. I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that. I have to say it was Leon Parker. No? [Because there wasn’t the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon. But just the great upbeat vibe. Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3. There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat. It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way. That’s the great thing about playing them. That’s why I love playing them. It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material. It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe. It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it. They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow. I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night. But I totally dig Jason’s playing. When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth. I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes. In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it. I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2. Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune! I know there’s versions of this. I’m trying to go by the sound. I know the vibe of the drummer. I can’t quite place him. It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound. Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it. Nice. Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great. Yeah! I can almost always tell how generations are. I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing. Swing is changing. But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is. Could it be Louis Hayes? It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative. But that’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end. Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth. Especially with the second-line, the march feel. It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow! The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris. I know Idris’ playing pretty well. But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller. I know he uses a smaller ride. The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4. It’s a good connection with him and Charles. “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever! Anything he plays on with Steely Dan. And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel. It was amazing. I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle. You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom. His ride cymbal was sort of less defined. I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell. But man, it was great. Bernard rocks, man!

3. Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect. But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this. I just didn’t have this ability. Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do! I respect it, though. It’s really great, and I dig it. But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be. Is it my man Mark Walker? [It’s the drummer’s composition.] I had a feeling it might be. I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff. The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts. I hear stuff more from a melody concept always. Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me. The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed! I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to. So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college. But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be. Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing. There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that. They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah. Am I totally wrong? [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic. But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein. I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again. But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music. Again, it’s more of a personal affinity. I don’t really hear that sound perception. But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow! He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe. The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out. I know he’s got so much together. It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se. Who else is playing? Oh. Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance. I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo. I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band. Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice. It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more. I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards. I want to hear Dafnis again. Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with. I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4. Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it! Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that. He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into. I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat. It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is. Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell. From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be. There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me. 3-1/2 stars. The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer. Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there! I would never have thought it was Billy. I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys. I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank. Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be. But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper. Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually. It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros. But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.” That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time. To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure. To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much. But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5. Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great. My man can shift on a dime! I’ll probably be wrong! It won’t be Jim. No, it has to be. If it’s not, I’m going to leave! I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept. To me, sound is the king in music. When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry. That’s acoustic bass. It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone. I like this piece a lot. I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it. I call this episodic composition. I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes. And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey. They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed. Or not. That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited. Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound. They made a good sound together. That’s what I was digging. I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle. I liked it. 4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting. Again, it had these mood shifts. I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing. That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque. I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out. It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different. His vibe is so amazing. All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6. Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.” And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal. To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is. Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal. I love this music! When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated. It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together. To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel. I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty. Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal. But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it. And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa? The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You’re on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough? No. It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented. 4-1/2 stars. I love collective improvising. To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this. The feeling of a band. This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically. But this was different to me. These guys were really throwing it out there to each other. You could tell their connectedness. Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal. When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys. And they did it so amazingly. That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever. One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did. He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close! The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound. It oozes out at you. It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way. Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you. The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud. I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live. But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do. They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7. Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great. Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars. Again, it’s a different perspective. I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was. But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it. That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player. If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something. And this person did that. They waited. At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment. And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways. I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful. The whole thing was very playful. That’s what I really liked about it. It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music. It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully. Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college. I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first. I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing. This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings. You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm. That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this. It has a warm feeling. And he played it kind of wild. It was pretty loose. But the beat was still swinging. The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8. Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave. Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha? I had to get one in there!! I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it. Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo. And he creates a zone. All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on. Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully. One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined. He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man. The hell with it. He’s living life. What the hell! But he swings his ass off. I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa! This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it. But it’s carefree. I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record. They’re just here to play this music. It’s so for that moment. It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth. It’s not cute. People might think that. But it’s not. It’s for real. Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad. You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him. It’s amazing. Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York. He’s a real inspiration. He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him. You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him. Things are emerging from him all the time. I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did. That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9. Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that. A twist! Is it Reggie Washington on bass? I love Reggie Washington. It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally. For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it! Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to. Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago. But I totally dig it. Man, this guy can play over a vamp! Is it Gene Lake? I know it’s Steve Coleman. The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty. Is this one of those JMT re-releases? I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe! I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars. Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!” For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time. I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff. But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away. I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup. He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff. I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that. Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10. Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart. I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge. Is this him with Carrothers? I’m doing better! Bill has a very identifiable sound. Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill. But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him. One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed. Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed. He just goes for it! Not that everybody else doesn’t. But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner. Yeah, this is great. 4-1/2 stars. It doesn’t sound like a duo. It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo. They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration. Again, the roles are less defined. They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra. It’s great. All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless. It’s just music. I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever. They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign. I love that. It’s warm. This is a really warm-feeling recording. He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree. It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them. That’s how I feel music should be. The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11. Fred Anderson-Hamid Drake, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not. The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound. I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason. I’m dumb! It’s powerful. I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove. Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment. But you’ve got me. 4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar. He sounds older to me. I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more. I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together. I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way. I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling. Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling. Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top. But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself. The sound was looser. Man, Hamid is great.

12. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great! Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great. Is it Nasheet Waits? I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him. The bass drum sound seems a little dead. That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get. Is it Lewis Nash? Whoo! I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing. His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him. Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively. I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit. 4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy. They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding. It didn’t sound frantic. Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great. I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip. Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune. When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you. You feel the whole picture. That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical. The head was about these hits. I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13. Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great! It’s moving all over the place. I love that. The drummer has a great sound. He’s dancing, man. This guy playing soprano is a great improviser. It’s really expressive. Talk about rhythmic feel, too. Wow. Everybody has a great sound. I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy. When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit. The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great. The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.” But to me, that didn’t really take away. Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong. And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great. 4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow! I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!! That was really great. We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor. I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away. I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound. I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound. And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting. Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel. Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel. That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises. Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus. Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels. They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.

*_*_*_*_*

Matt Wilson Jazziz Article, May 2012 Issue:

 

Over lunch with Matt Wilson on the first Friday of March, the pressing topic was Arts & Crafts — his quartet with trumpeter Terrell Stafford, pianist-organist-accordionist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind — who would, in a few hours, begin night four of a week-long stand at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, their first run of that duration in a New York City venue.

“I started it to contrast with some of the Quartet’s wildness,” the drummer said, referring to his other primary outlet, the Matt Wilson Quartet — presently comprising saxophonist-woodwindist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Chris Lightcap — that he launched in 1997. “But as time has passed, Arts & Crafts has gotten more to the left and the Quartet has become a swinging band. So now it’s down to the personalities.” He noted that Versace’s chordal presence imparted a thicker sound than the Quartet’s “more transparent” ambiance, and also facilitates working with “classic repertoire that I’ve always wanted to do.” But the only substantive difference, Wilson emphasized, was the instrumentation.

“In both bands, everyone is an amazing musician and a great person,” Wilson said. “The community-family aspect is what I value most. It makes my life easier to know that everybody is totally hip to be with. A lot of people can play but that extra thing is essential. We drove 5-1/2 hours from the University of New Hampshire on Tuesday straight to Dizzy’s —started like that rather than coming in from our homes. It was a great way to keep the flow going.”

Wilson is a father of four who will celebrate his 25th anniversary in July. He owns a house, has two cars, and he’s an elder in his Long Island town’s Presbyterian church. He’s also an uncompromisingly creative musician who doesn’t purvey the tried-and-true. “You have to be incredibly crafty to make it all work,” he said. “I’m a hustler, but I try to do it creatively and to have as much fun as possible. The way I see it, being a musician should be just like being a plumber or a school teacher or whatever you do. You can have a family, live in a house, do things with your kids. A few years ago, my wife and I chose to try to be more involved where we live, to participate in our community rather than feel like we just live here. It’s nice to get out of the music world.”

Nonetheless, as was apparent from his crammed itinerary, Wilson, silver-haired and baby-faced at 47, would be immersed in the music world for the remainder of March. Already in gig shape after several February engagements behind their new CD, An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto], Arts & Crafts would reconvene a fortnight hence for an intense docket of gigs and clinics — one-nighters in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Columbia, Missouri, followed by a six-day residency in St. Louis highlighted by a weekend at the Jazz Bistro. During the interim, Wilson would play two nights with singer Amy Cervini at the 55 Bar, then one-offs at Smalls with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, with pianist Falkner Evans, and with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Upon returning home from St. Louis, Wilson would fly to New Mexico to meet pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, his partners in Trio M for shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to support their second CD, Guest House [Enja]. (They’d meet again two weeks later for single nights at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 and Manhattan’s Kitano). Then he’d head to Western Illinois University to perform with pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Linda Oh, both of whom would join him the next day at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Illinois, Wilson’s home town, to play a concert with Preminger.

“I like keeping busy,” Wilson said. “Some people have said maybe I shouldn’t do all these other things, and focus more on the group. But why would I do that? Sometimes with Mark and Myra, we play places where the audience is different than for the jazz crowd I travel with. It’s been fun to meet these different circles, like bringing together another community.”

Clearly Wilson’s ability to coalesce musicians from a broad spectrum of improvisational worlds and authoritatively inhabit each one of them, mirrors his consistently communitarian focus.

“Matt makes you part of his experience, and he makes you laugh by being brought into his mind,” says bassist Buster Williams, a frequent bandmate over the last decade in pianist Denny Zeitlin’s trio, Williams’ own group, and on a recent Lederer-led Albert Ayler project, documented on Sunwatcher [Songlines]. “He has a great gift of finding humor in everything. He plays things you don’t expect, but can anticipate. I can hear the lineage in him, and because it’s so alive in his playing, it expresses itself as Matt Wilson. He’s his own drummer.”

Stafford cites Wilson’s “big, fat beat” and his penchant for “finding beautiful melodies all over the drums.” Lederer — who collaborated with Wilson on the drummer’s 2010 release, Christmas-Tree-O [Palmetto], a recital of surprisingly effective Ayler-to-prebop treatments of 14 Yule season standbys — notes Wilson’s feel for texture, his knack for “gluing his sound to what’s happening around him,” his “magical way of turning four musicians, no matter who they are, into a band.”

“Everything Matt plays is honest, clear and pure,” Stafford says. “He plays drums like Chet Baker would play the trumpet, taking less and making more. Nothing is overdone. It’s all about the feel and the connection. He’s a genuine, caring person who makes sure always to reach out and see that everyone is OK. I was insecure about playing freer music. I had no idea what to do. Through Matt — and listening to records, and trusting and experimenting — I found my way to do it, and a comfort zone to do it in. That’s the sign of a great leader — to make someone who hasn’t experienced something not feel like a complete idiot or less musical.”

Lederer emphasizes Wilson’s flexibility to move with conversational flow, musical or verbal, without steering it to a place outside anyone’s comfort zone. “He’s unique in his genuine ability to encompass the history of swing in all its forms, even in more open contexts, when the pulse is free,” he says. “He has a million different, subtle ways to swing — pushing the beat forward, bringing it back, or putting it right in the middle, sometimes all within one phrase. His sound palette on a ride cymbal just within playing quarter notes is exceptional, ranging from a ping to a splash, and a broad range in between.”

Wilson expressed his view indirectly when, midway through lunch, he cited that day’s New York Times obit for Red Holloway in which the tenor saxophonist was quoted: “I was down to play whatever kind of music I could do to make a living, and my goal was just to make whatever that music is swing.”

“I thought that was a cool way to think about it,” Wilson said. “He was just trying to make everything he does feel really great. To me, swing is not just a beat. Swing is an attitude of how music can be. Swing to me is that flexibility — or that community feeling — on a bandstand.”

[BREAK]

On An Attitude for Gratitude, Wilson navigates the “inside”-“outside” m.o. that’s marked his output as a leader since his 1996 debut, As Wave Follows Wave, with Dewey Redman and Cecil McBee — his two major employers at the time — and keyboardist Larry Goldings. There’s a multi-sectional, through-composed set-opener, “Poster Boy,” with complex harmony in which each solo section requires a different metric signature. A straight-up reading of “Happy Days Are Here Again” proceeds as a ruminative ballad with Stafford and Versace milking maximum beauty from the melody. From the drum kit, Wilson expertly orchestrates the Sunday-morning-meets-Saturday-night narrative of Nat Adderley’s “The Little Boy With the Sad Eyes.” He propels the Latin-ish “You Bet” with his own refraction of Billy Higgins’ “Soy Califa” beat from the Dexter Gordon album [i]Go[i]; on “Bubbles,” after a melodic opening solo, he channels the ebullient four-on-the-snare that was Higgins’ signature when employed by Ornette Coleman. He reharmonizes “Out Of Nowhere” (“No Outerwear”), and plays it straight, tipping a la Mel Lewis for Stafford’s clarion solo; puts an impressionistic, straight-eighths feel on Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town.” After Stafford’s soulful, unaccompanied reading of “There’s No You,” Wilson ignites the jets on “Stolen Time,” evoking the high-octane multidirectional whirl of ’60s “New Thing” drumming while propelling Stafford’s turbulent declamation. Then he tamps the flames, switching to brushes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” interpreted by Versace as a quiet hymn.

Events during the 10 months before the recording are palpable in the notes and tones. “I was thinking how quickly things literally can change,” Wilson says of the emotions in play when he began putting the recital together in the fall of 2010. His parents had recently died. So had his close friend, Dennis Irwin, who played bass with Arts & Crafts when the group launched in 2001. Another close friend, Andrew D’Angelo, who plays saxophone with the Quartet, had undergone — and survived — a serious illness. Most overwhelmingly, that October, his wife, Felicia, was diagnosed with leukemia.

During the early stages of her arduous recovery, Wilson occupied himself in the hospital by writing and organizing repertoire. “I had to think about something else,” he says. “I got us some bookings, too — partly out of need. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to have to really be hustling here.’ You go through different stages dealing with this kind of illness. Felicia had her bone marrow transplant a few months before we recorded, and we were in a sort of holding pattern, so things were rather calm. I don’t want to sound like a cult, but the recording is a celebration that she’s OK, of gratitude that we have an opportunity to play this music or do whatever we have in mind. Felicia’s doctor came to the club last night, and we dedicated the set for her. In the medical community, like everywhere else, you see people who do their jobs and also have that extra-special thing in their souls, the way they handle themselves.”

Wilson was also grateful for the deep support offered by his “music family.” “Everyone was great,” he says. “The longer you do this, you develop bonds that you don’t get from school or the academic world. Musicians in the older days got that sense of family and community at a much earlier age — they were out on the road with big bands, and a lot of them were in the Army. When I’d hear bands as a kid, I’d see them hanging out and think they sure looked to be having fun, whether they were or not. I imitated what they seemed to be like.”

Growing up in the rural milieu of southwestern Illinois, Wilson — with his parents early on, with his buddies after 16 — drove long distances to workshops and to concerts by such icons as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, the members of the Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich and Quad Cities native Louis Bellson. “They were all characters,” he says. “I don’t mean weirdos; I mean distinct — you’d know who they are.”

He wasn’t shy about approaching his heroes. “Once I asked Buddy Rich for an autograph. He goes, ‘I’ll sign them on the bus.’ I didn’t hear it. I said, ‘Auto…’ ‘I’ll sign them on the bus!’ But I went out there. I was like, ‘OK, I want to meet this guy.’

“Never let opportunities go by. Dewey Redman heard me play in 1992, handed me his phone number, and said ‘Keep in touch.’ If didn’t take that seriously, I’d never have played with him, and maybe a lot of opportunities I’ve had would never have come around. I said, ‘He was interested — call him.’ I called every month for a year-and-a-half — ‘Hey, Dewey, this is Matt Wilson. If you need somebody, let me know’ — before he picked up the phone.”

Wilson applied similarly pragmatic, open-minded principles to learning his trade. He started drums in second grade, heard Rich and Max Roach by fourth, and began to play for pay at 14. (“I never had to have a job,” he says.) His teacher, a bassist, improvised the lessons with him, enabling Wilson to master the beats “not strictly from a page in the book saying your right hand does this,” but from “hearing the sound. I learned I could do those beats my way, with my shapes.” He assimilated jazz vocabulary from the sound samples of Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Tootie Heath contained in Billy Mintz’ book Different Drummers, and from the 4-LP ABC-Impulse compilation, The Drums, which documented drum thinking from Baby Dodds and Connie Kay to Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray. ECM records and cassettes were easy to find then, and Wilson became fascinated with Jack DeJohnette, particularly DeJohnette’s album New Directions: Live in Europe, on which Lester Bowie played.

“That got me into different things,” he recalls. “I always was fascinated with music that seemed to have a cinematic quality, that conjures up images, which that did beautifully. I was always looking to be resourceful, to be loyal to the music, but try things differently within it rather than dramatically change anything. Swinging was hip, but so was playing music by Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble and Old and New Dreams. I didn’t know you had to sign up and get a card that said you were part of this or that.”

[BREAK]

“I have no evidence, but I have this inkling that something new is coming around the corner,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what it is.”

He raised two possibilities — perhaps one band comprised of 20-somethings, perhaps another with musicians who share Wilson’s southern Illinois roots. Or maybe the next step will emanate from one of the combinations of musicians he put together as music director for the 2011 edition of the Lost Shrines Festival, which includ[ed] an homage to ’40s prebop and a celebration of Afro-Cubanism that co-joined Arts and Crafts and the iconic nonagenarian conguero Candido Camero.

Wilson hopes at some point to do an “improv potluck,” a kind of meta performance piece with Lederer. They’ll drive a van around the Midwest, stopping each night in a different town, preferably populated by fewer than 20,000 souls. After a brief ballyhoo, they’ll jam with local musicians, followed by a cook-up in the van.

“Sometimes I want to know these towns a little bit more than just coming in and out,” he said. “And it would be fun to have people become part of the process. People could crochet. Painters could bring their stuff. Welders could bring their welding. Then we’d eat and talk. Food is a great way to bring people together and celebrate community.”
SIDEBAR:

“One thing I try to do as a teacher is give people what a friend of mine calls ‘small victories,’” Wilson said from his Santa Fe hotel room at the end of March.

“I give them one suggestion they can try, and they’ll immediately sound better to themselves. Maybe that clarity will open the rest of their sound, or the ability to play with other people, or to receive other people’s sound. If you inspire them by improving their sound immediately, they’ll continue to work on things.”
Wilson had followed this method in St. Louis the previous week with Arts & Crafts, which visited seven schools, (suburban and inner city), conducted afternoon sessions for a free afternoon program called Jazz U, and augmented their four-set weekend commitment at the Jazz Bistro with concerts in the playroom of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and at Sax Quest, a saxophone store-museum.

“I played some funky drums, a five-piece set that reminded me of the way Max Roach would tune and set up his drums in his later years,” he said. “It inspired me to play some stuff I’d never play. It’s nice to improvise in each setting.

“Kids were playing well, but they’re not characters yet. That’s what we wanted to promote — respect the tune, but put your own vibe on it. By the end of the week, kids who were looking at us like we were from Mars were going, ‘Wow, we really dug this.’ If they’re the next generation of players, great. But I think they’ll be fans, and will take this encouragement of being characters — being themselves — into everyday life. I hope we helped them on all fronts.”

Another side of Wilson’s pedagogy comes through on Webop: A Family Jazz Party [Jazz At Lincoln Center], commissioned by the Jazz For Young People department of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wilson directs 16 musicians from different communities — from his two bands, from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, four main vocalists, and Candido — through a program that, as he puts it, “expresses a lot of what I really like to do overall.” Shuffles, different blues iterations, standards, bebop and the Afro-Caribbean tinge commingle with made-up instruments, freebop and free jazz. In the Sesame Street vein, each song has a lyric with a kid-friendly message: an ABC song is set to “Syeeda’s Song Flute”; on “Free Jazz Adventure,” Ornette Coleman’s “Free” morphs into “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” into Don Cherry’s “Infant Happiness” into “Bingo”; “My Style” is a lyric set to Monk’s “Nutty.” On “Your Own Blues, Doug Wamble explains how to sing the blues and asks Wilson’s son Ethan to demonstrate.

“I dig that this kind of gave everyone permission to be the way we really should be in playing,” Wilson said. “It was an old-school feeling in that we were all in the same room. Maybe that’s what it was like when people were doing these great ensemble dates in New York in the ’50s and ’60s — that kind of musicianship and feeling, coming in, doing it, having fun and then go on to something else.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazziz, Matt Wilson

For Gary Bartz’ 76th Birthday, the Uncut Proceedings of a 2006 DownBeat Blindfold Test

For alto saxophone master Gary Bartz’ 76th birthday, here’s the raw copy of a DownBeat Blindfold Test he did with me in the fall of 2006.  For those interested, several extensive interviews that we did during the ’90s can be found at this link.

*-*-*-

1. Greg Osby, “Mob Job” (from CHANNEL THREE, Blue Note, 2005) (Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Ornette Coleman. Whoever it is loves the hell out of Ornette!! As I do. It wouldn’t be Sonny Simmons, would it? It’s an Ornette Coleman lover. They’ve got Ornette down. I can’t think of his name… Is this guy dead? Oh, okay. I like it. But if I want to hear Ornette, I’ll listen to Ornette. I’d like to hear what he does rather than hear his version of what he does. [You don’t think he differentiated himself enough from Ornette…] No, I don’t. He’s got Ornette’s inflections, he’s got his whole style… See how he does those bends and stuff. That’s Ornette. I’d have to hear something different. Maybe he does an Ornette style, and maybe his next cut would be somebody else’s style. But I want to hear his style. Does he have a style? 2 stars because I don’t hear originality, and that’s what this music is, above anything else. [AFTER] I love Greg! I’ve heard him when I knew it was him. But that sounded like Ornette. You should have played me some of his originals. You wanted to trick me.

2. Antonio Hart, “Like A Son” (from Jimmy Heath, TURN UP THE HEATH, Planet Arts, 2006) (Hart, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Jeb Patton, piano; Heath, composer, arranger)

The player sounds like young. I don’t hear a voice. I hear an alto, I hear trumpet, but I don’t hear a voice as if it was a human voices… Like, you know people’s voices. If somebody calls me up, I know immediately. I don’t hear that. I hear a generic voice. I love the arrangement. I don’t think the arranger is young; I don’t have a clue who he is. The alto player reminds me a little bit of Kenny Garrett, though I know it isn’t him. Trumpet I couldn’t tell either. I’m enjoying it. But once again, I don’t hear… It sounds like a recreation of something that has gone before. I just don’t hear the originality. 3 stars, because of the arrangement. [AFTER] That was Antonio! I love Antonio, of course, and I’ve always loved Jimmy Heath. So that’s putting the generations together. That’s a good thing. Because in this music, you have to have old and young. That’s the way the music grows. [Is it complex for a young guy like Antonio to try to find an individual…] That depends. If he was trying to recreate that era or that particular style, then that’s where he would go. If you’re trying to be original, that’s a whole other thing. Of course, he was playing within that context.

3. Bruce Williams, “Gallop’s Gallop” (from Ben Riley, MEMORIES OF T, Concord, 2006) (Williams, alto saxophone; Riley, drums; Don Sickler, trumpet, arranger; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Jay Brandford, baritone sax; Freddie Bryant, guitar; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass)

This sounds like an older guy. See, it’s a big difference. I can always tell. As John Hicks always used to say, “it’s grown-up music.” It’s more than just the sound. It’s an essence. I don’t know how to say it, but you can just tell. I guess it’s a difference between learning something generations later and being in on the ground floor when it’s actually being created. The arrangement also sounds like an older musician’s arrangement. At first, I thought it was Lee Konitz, but I can’t tell who. Sounds like a Monk tune! I like it. I don’t know this tune, though. Oh, yeah. I never learned that. [AFTER] Bruce! He sounded like an old guy. I hadn’t heard this record, but I know the band and I know about the record.

4. Benny Carter & Phil Woods, “Just A Mood” (from MY MAN, BENNY/MY MAN, PHIL, MusicMasters, 1989) Woods alto saxophone (first solo); (Carter, composer, alto saxophone (second solo); Chris Neville, piano; George Mraz, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

It’s not Benny Carter? The first guy sounded like Johnny Hodges, but I don’t think they did a record like this. He’s got his style, I guess. This is the maestro here. Benny was the beacon for musicians, period; not just alto players, but musicians, period. Because Benny was out there so long, almost as long as Coleman Hawkins. They were like the first stars of the saxophone. So you have to go through Benny. It sounded like a Benny Carter song.

Oh, Phil Woods!? That threw me off, because I didn’t know they made a record together. I love Phil. He’s one of my favorites. I think, though, he was bowing to Benny Carter there and not sounding as much like Phil. He was more playing in the context of that music. I played with Phil many times, and he didn’t sound like that. He’s very flexible.

5. Miguel Zenon, “Mariendá” (from JIBARO, Marsalis Music, 2005) (Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Now, this sounds like Greg Osby! It sounded like the first song you played me. But the alto player sounds like Greg Osby, like Greg sounded like Ornette on that particular cut. Technically, I heard this saxophone player do things Greg did on the first cut. Even this sound and approach… Even though this is not an Ornette type groove, it is a little more free, and it sounds like younger musicians. He’s a good musician. Everybody I’ve heard is a good musician. Now, that’s not Dewey on alto? But this piece doesn’t have enough energy for me. I guess it’s a ballad, but it’s not a ballad that you would necessarily hum. I love the sound of the alto; he has a beautiful sound. 2½ stars. I thought it was boring.

6. Bobby Watson, “Eeeyyess” (from HORIZON REASSEMBLED, Palmetto, 2004) (Watson, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Edward Simon, piano; Essiet Essiet, bass; Victor Lewis, drums, composer)

Another young guy, right? Sounds like it to me. It’s hard to say why. I can’t hear the history. I hear trying to sound like what they think it’s supposed to sound like, rather than trying to push forward and trying to find your own style. I understand you have to go back and get the foundation, but you don’t want to sound like that. You want to sound forward. I hear that in a lot of younger musicians, they’re going back and sounding like older musicians, where the older musicians wouldn’t be playing like that now. So I don’t get it. They’re good musicians. I love what they’re doing. It’s been done. I want to hear something that hasn’t been done. That’s what this music is supposed to be about. I mean, it’s not a museum piece. Is that Lewis Nash? I can’t tell the drummer from the sound of the drums. That was Bobby!? Young guy. I’m 66. I like the song and everything. I just want to hear more original… I guess if you’re playing older music, you will tend to… But even then I don’t think you should go that way, unless that’s what it’s about.

7. Loren Stillman, “Evil Olive” (from IT COULD BE ANYTHING, Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2005) (Stillman, alto saxophone; Gary Versace, piano; Scott Lee, bass; Jeff Hirshfield, drums)

It’s funny. Everything you’re playing sounds the same to me. There are things that older musicians… They have worked with so many different masters and have picked up different things from different masters, that… In a way, it’s not fair even to judge it by that. But it’s noticeable. It’s noticeable, some things that older musicians wouldn’t do that younger musicians do. I hear that here. The concepts… In a way, it almost sounds like “this is what I think jazz should sound like.” Which is a problem, because if you’re trying to sound like a word, then you’ve got a problem, rather than just play some music. Don’t get caught up in “this is jazz, this is rock, this is country.” Play music. You pigeonhole yourself when you’re trying to play a style. Jazz is a style. Music is infinite. I’d like to hear music rather than hear a style. [You play jazz.] I don’t think so. I don’t consider myself that. I consider myself as a musician. Now, if you want to call it something, you can call it that, but I don’t call it that. Never have. [AFTER] Everybody I’ve heard are excellent musicians. It’s funny. I saw a show not too long ago, and there was just no energy. So it started me thinking, “What happened to the energy in this music.” I think it’s because people say, “I’m a jazz musician.” What is that? I’m a musician. I don’t want to get pigeonholed into a style, because that limits you. I don’t want to be limited. I want to be able to play anything. I felt like this is their idea of what that style is. 3 stars. These musicians get caught up in words, and you can’t get caught up in words. You play music. If it comes out like that, that’s what it is. If it comes out in some other way…

8. Arthur Blythe, “Come Sunday” (from EXHALE, Savant, 2002) (Blythe, alto saxophone; John Hicks, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

It sounds like Frank Morgan and George Cables. It’s not John, is it? It’s Hicks! I can’t place the alto player. I like him. He’s mostly just playing the melody, so I can’t hear how he would compose a solo. But I like his sound. I like the way he’s reading the song. Because he’s playing the melody. He’s singing it. He’s not improvising on the melody. You get a chance to do that when you solo, but when you read the melody, you should play the melody as it’s written. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve loved Arthur for many, many years. First time I heard him, I thought he had a very unique alto sound, and that endeared him to me. He wasn’t trying to sound like… That’s what I mean.

An older musician understands that you have to have a voice. You can’t sound like somebody. If you’re going to even have a career, if you’re going to sound like somebody, then you’ll end up with people calling, “Get me somebody who sounds like so-and-so.” [Is that a generational thing?] No, I don’t think so. That’s a THING. It’s funny. When I was coming up, that was foremost. That’s what we were all trying to do, was to find our own voice. Yeah, we could imitate people, you could mimic, but you wouldn’t do that on your gig. You might do it for fun sometimes, but ultimately you’re trying to find your own voice. I don’t hear that so much nowadays. A lot of guys sound similar. I guess every generation has its different ways of doing things, but lately I hear musicians going back, and rather than to go back and take something that they like and add it to their thing, they just take something that they like and that’s what they go with. As an example, Archie Shepp went back and he was more like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. But the music he was playing had nothing to do with what he was playing in those days. Therefore, he ended up with a style of his own. But nowadays, I hear younger musicians going back and they’re just sounding like what the older musicians sounded like. Like, I hear a lot of the trumpet players sounding like Louis Armstrong. Well, Louis Armstrong wouldn’t be sounding like that nowadays, because he was going forward. I don’t hear so many younger musicians going forward; I hear them going backwards. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

9. David Binney/Chris Potter, “Bastion of Sanity” (from BASTION OF SANITY, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Binney, alto saxophone; Potter, tenor saxophone; Jacob Sacks, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass; Dan Weiss, drums)

Almost everybody you’re picking for me sounds similar, in a way. A similar approach. He’s more on the bottom of the horn, which I really love. Even from the first one you played, except for the Benny Carter, which was totally different, everything is similar. Just the approach mainly. It’s a pretty diverse selection. Some I’ve heard. Some I know and love, and some I’ve never heard. I don’t hear originality. That’s the main thing I don’t hear. That bothers me. See, when I listen to music, I want to listen to someone I can learn something from. I’m not hearing that. That’s first and foremost. I like to enjoy it, too. But I want to hear something that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know how to say this; I’ve heard it before. The thing about it, I think the musicians of today are better musicians. But they’re not doing anything with it. They’re just recreating… I don’t know what they need to do! I think a lot of it has to do with not having any bands around. Bands are laboratories to learn to experiment. Nowadays, most of the younger guys, there’s nowhere for them to experiment. In order for them to learn and to keep that energy, it has to be a combination of older musicians and younger musicians. Music has always been innovative in that way, older and younger. The older musicians bring their knowledge, the younger musicians bring their energy, and between them they create something. Nowadays, most of the groups are either older or younger, and you don’t see that combination. When I came up, there were so many bands to play in, and each one was a master, from Mingus to Max Roach to Art Blakey to Horace Silver—you could go on and on. They were schools to learn things. Nowadays they just have to come out and play, and there’s no direction in certain respects. I don’t hear it anyway.

When I worked with Mingus, I was with Eric Dolphy, I was with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I was with great… So you’re learning from each other. I was young then. But I watched the way Mingus did it, I watched the way each one of those musicians did and approached… Each one of them was definitely individual. I like this musician. I’ve liked every musician you’ve played. You have to have an identity… This sounds like what a group of musicians, if you said, “Play me some jazz,” and this is their concept of what jazz is. Which is why I hate that word. Because the word pigeonholes you. I’d rather hear, “Play me some music.” That’s a whole different ballgame.

To me, there’s no such thing as jazz. This is my personal opinion. There is music. We’ve all got 12 notes. I don’t care what kind of music it is. You either like it or you don’t. I mean, if I like it… [Human beings need something…] To guide them? There was a wonderful article that Ornette wrote, and he was saying the same thing. From Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Max Roach to most of the great musicians I’ve been around, they don’t accept that word. And I am one of them. I won’t accept that word because it doesn’t mean anything. “Jazz it up.” What does that mean? [I’m not talking about jazz as a verb. I’m talking about jazz as a noun.] But jazz is not a noun. Music is a noun. Jazz is an adjective. [Does classical music mean something to you?] No. Classical music means nothing to me either. [Does music out of a certain tradition mean something?] Maybe. Yeah. That makes more sense than to lump everything into one style of music, because within that particular style there are thousands of different concepts. If you stopped someone on a corner and said, “who is your favorite jazz musician?” one person would say John Coltrane, one would say Charlie Parker, another would say Kenny G, another would say Al Hirt, another would say Louis Armstrong. To me, that doesn’t make sense. No one knows what it even is. But what it is, is music. That’s ultimately what it is. If I listen to Beethoven, if I listen to Mozart, if I listen to John Coltrane, I’m listening with the same ear. I’m not listening to hear a style. I call this composing. Because at the high end, we compose music on the spot that will live on into the future. So I think we’ve raised the bar from Beethoven’s time, even though Beethoven’s concerts, which would last sometimes for 8 hours… Most people went to his shows to hear him improvise. That was always the highlight, to hear him compose off the top of his head. That’s what we do. [They used to call that section ‘concertizing,’ in jazz.] Yeah. But we compose music on the spot rather than sit down and write it out. So each time out, it’s different. That in itself takes it away from trying to play a style. If you want to call it something… It’s got to swing. To me, Beethoven swings. He has his own way of swinging. Then I hear some things which have no elements of swing—to me. [It’s a different pulse.] A different pulse, yes.

10. Steve Slagle, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” (from LATEST OUTLOOK, Zoho, 2006) (Slagle, alto saxophone; Lovano, tenor saxophone; Dave Stryker, guitar, composer; Jay Anderson, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

It’s a tune by Mingus. It’s beautiful! See, this sounds like somebody I heard earlier, one of the records. It’s not Bobby Watson, because you played him for me. But it sounds like that. 5 for the composition and 3½ for the performance. It’s a beautiful performance. I really like this. See, I wouldn’t call this jazz. He’s playing a beautiful song, a beautiful piece of music. [the drums to me make it jazz. There’s no other music where you have the drums being part of the beauty, part of the inventive flow in real time.] Well, it’s got that swing, it’s got that pulse to it. [AFTER] I thought about Steve, too.

11. Ornette Coleman, “Turnaround” (from SOUND GRAMMAR, Phrase Text, 2006) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Of course, that’s Ornette’s tune. That’s Ornette!? It is? I’ve never heard this version. See, he’s not even playing it like he played it the first time. You’ve got to move forward. I guess he could have gone back and play it the same way. But why? He’s King Ornette! With the two basses. This has to get 5. It’s original, it swings, it’s what music should be. Energy, exciting… He’s played this song probably many times, but it’s still like it’s new.

You can’t get the context of the full album, because to me, an album is like a book. So it’s like reading the first chapter, and trying to say this is a certain writer or player or whatever, but you can’t see where it’s going.

If you’re playing a sad song, it should be sad. If you’re playing a happy song, it should be happy. I take the way I’m going to approach a song a lot of times from the title of the song. So if it’s “Lester Left Town,” I’m going to try to give you the flavor of Lester. I might play some quotes from Lester. I want you to hear that it’s Lester.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Gary Bartz

For Tenor Saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003 and a WKCR Interview From 2008 that Ran on WWW.JAZZ.COM

A day late for tenor saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did in 2003 and a WKCR interview in July 2008 on the occasion of his Concord CD, Cultural Survival, that later ran on the much-missed web ‘zine jazz.com.

 

David Sanchez Blindfold Test (12-1-2003):

1. Michael Brecker, “Timbuktu” (from WIDE ANGLES, Verve, 2003) (Brecker, tenor saxophone, arrangement; Gil Goldstein, orchestration; Steve Wilson, flute; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

This is a very interesting introduction. I love the instrumentation. Oh…wait a minute. The saxophone player definitely has a Mike Brecker. But until he starts playing, the blowing, I’m not going to… It definitely sounds like Mike. I love the orchestration. It’s really interesting, and I love what the flute player was playing at the beginning. He doesn’t play like how many flute players conventionally would play. In a way, I think he’s maybe not strictly a flute player, and he plays other instruments, like woodwinds. I might be wrong, but that’s how it sounds to me. Logically, the way he’s playing tells me this guy plays some other stuff. He isn’t the tenor player, though. But I’m convinced that he plays other woodwinds — saxophone, clarinet, other stuff. The saxophone player sounds a lot like Mike. If it’s not Mike, with all due respect… It just reminds me of Mike playing. I’m sure in other contexts, maybe he sounds a little more like him. But to me, right now, he’s sounding like Mike. [He is Mike.] That makes sense! It’s funny. A lot of people try to copy Mike, but when it’s Mike playing, 98% of the time I’m always right that it’s him. Because he plays certain ideas, certain intervals in a certain way that you say, “This is Mike.” With a certain attitude. That’s what I’m trying to say. He plays certain kind of intervals with a certain attitude, and he has a certain phrasing that’s very clean. So when he plays a phrase, I know when it’s him. He sounds great. I like hearing him in this type of context. It has that world music type of thing. At the beginning I think I heard some kalimba. I’d be lying if I told you I know which record it is. But it’s definitely Mike. I cannot tell you who the flute player is. Steve Wilson? Whoo! He was killing! I haven’t heard him play flute in a long time. I knew something about the ideas he was playing. Incredible. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I liked the orchestration a lot. I’ll be buying this record for sure. I was going to say something about the percussionist, and I didn’t have time. But I was going to say that it sounds like he plays a bunch of different genres, so it’s not strictly a Latin guy. You know how there’s percussionists and there’s congueros, and I was going to say this guy sounds like he’s a percussionist, but at the same time, the people playing know how to keep the feel. Of course now that makes sense — Antonio Sanchez is playing drums, Patitucci is playing bass. Patitucci has great awareness of how to put the Afro-Caribbean vibe and Latin in there, but at the same time he makes it sound open. I’ll be buying this record for sure.

2. Mario Rivera, “La Puerta” (#3) (from EL COMMANDANTE, Groovin’ High, 1993) (Rivera, tenor saxophone; Hilton Ruiz, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Alexis Diaz, congas) (3 stars)

That’s a beautiful song, “La Puerta Cesaro(?).” The first time I heard that song was by Elis Regina actually. I’ve never heard the record before, but I think I have a sense of who’s playing. I think I know, but I’m going to wait. The bass player has a very good sense of playing Latin music by the way he’s playing a bolero. It’s hard to tell who he is. The piano player reminded me of Hilton Ruiz. Ah, that makes sense! He reminded me of him because he’s him! I was going to say it’s Mario Rivera playing tenor. At the very beginning, he did something with the phrasing and his sound that made me think of Mario, but now, after I’ve heard the blowing… There’s something in the sound that reminds me a bit of Mario. It’s just the sound, but then when he plays, I’m like, “That sounds a little different.” Maybe it’s because I’ve heard Mario so many times playing songs at a pace that is not this; it’s not a bolero or anything. It’s been a long time since I heard him. Sometimes he has a tendency to play a little more, more notey, but now I’m not so sure. I liked the performance. It was Hilton on piano. The bass player could be Andy Gonzalez or… I don’t think it’s Benitez, though. Walter Booker? That makes sense, because he played sometimes with Fort Apache, and the feel he put in there shows he knows how to play the bolero. But you’ve got me on the saxophone player. At first I thought it was Mario. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] It was Mario? At least I was close. Mario is an incredible musician. He’s one of these musicians who can do anything. He can play any genre, instruments like crazy; this guy can go so many directions. And here, he was really using very well the sense of space. And he can play a lot. Because I heard him playing like incredible. I said, “No, maybe this is somebody else.” But definitely the sound reminded me of Mario.

3. Ted Nash, “Point of Arrival” (from STILL EVOLVED, Palmetto, 2002) (Nash, tenor saxophone, composer; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Ben Allison, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

It’s an interesting composition. It’s going to be a little hard to tell you who the tenor player is. I can tell right now, by listening to his blowing. I hear many influences. I hear a little bit of both Joes, Joe Henderson and Joe Lovano. I can tell you the trumpet player, though. That’s Tom Harrell. It sounds like Tom Harrell to me. No? You got me here. See, I should have listened a little longer. That trill that he did, it’s so accurate. Tom doesn’t play that. Tom plays some beautiful ideas, but accuracy is not his thing. He plays some notes that take your breath away, but accuracy is not his thing. I take that back. The tenor player, there’s no way I really could tell. I could guess, but I’m not sure because I hear so many influences. I even hear a little bit of the Mark Turner thing in the upper register. Is that Clarence Penn on drums? No? Well, at least I’m being consistent. I’m getting everything wrong! [LAUGHS] [You’re saying you have to know the record to know who’s playing.] That’s not Roy Hargrove. No. He doesn’t play like that either. At first, I thought two things. When the composition started, while the tenor player was playing, I was thinking maybe this is Tom Harrell’s record. But once he started blowing, I realized I’d made a mistake. The other name that came to mind — when I heard the head especially — was Dave Douglas. But obviously it’s not him. 3-1/2 stars. [It was Wynton. I’d like to state for the record that David is putting his head in his hands.] When he played that trill, I thought, “That’s not Tom Harrell.” I said Tom Harrell too fast because when I heard the composition… Then I thought, “Is this Greg Tardy playing tenor with Tom? It could be. So maybe this is Tom.” Then I said Tom too fast. Greg plays with Dave Douglas, too. But I was thinking more in terms of how the composition sounded and the instrumentation. But once he started blowing, he started doing some things that were very accurate. So then I knew it was definitely wasn’t Tom. But you got me. I’m very surprised it was Wynton. I would have never guessed Ted. First, I’m not familiar with his stuff. Second, he has a beautiful thing going, I like his sound a lot, but he has so many influences that I could not put it together.

4. Eric Alexander, “I’ll Be Around” (from NIGHTLIFE IN TOKYO, Milestone, 2003) (Alexander, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

That’s a nice intro. The piano player put some very nice stuff on there. It’s a beautiful song, “I’ll Be Around.” I recorded this song. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. George Coleman, man! No? I said that very loud into the tape recorder! [LAUGHS] It’s definitely not George Coleman, but he definitely has a little vibe on the top register of the horn, a George Coleman thing. It reminds me, at least. I don’t know. It’s amazing. He reminds me of that vibe. I really liked what the piano player did at the beginning. The piano player is not a younger guy, right? I know by the attitude. I like the sound. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. But I can’t help it, those notes in the top register remind me of George Coleman. The only way I could guess is go to all those guys who have some kind of influence from George. Maybe I can tell on the cadenza. You can tell it’s a newer record, because for my taste, it has a lot of compression. You can hear a lot of echo. It sounds like most records sound now. In the studio, they put on a lot of compression, the sound sounds huge, but you can tell it’s fake; they use all these effects and compression and echo, a lot of reverb. You got me, man. [AFTER] You’re going to say that I’m jiving, but I was going to say Eric, but Eric has a lot of George influence. How old is this record? I’m surprised. Often there are some ideas he plays that sound like George Coleman’s stuff, but here some of the actual sound is the same vibe — the same approach in the higher register of the horn. That’s a compliment. If somebody told me I played like George, I’d be really happy.

5. David Murray, “Aerol’s Change” (from NOW IS ANOTHER TIME, Justin Time, 2002) (Murray, second tenor saxophone solo, composer; Orlando Sanchez, first tenor saxophone solo; Tony Perez, piano; Changuito, percussion) – (3 stars)

There’s definitely a Latin vibe going on. [LAUGHS] I’ll tell you that for sure! The timbalero is not an old guy. He’s playing too many notes. It’s definitely not Manny Oquendo. It’s kind of desperate, like “let’s get this…” The tenor player is doing things that remind me of Steve Grossman! I have no clue who it is, but he did a few very subtle things like Steve Grossman. The timbal is so loud that I would think it’s his record. Why is it so loud? It’s incredible. You hear every… The nature of that instrument is that it projects. So I don’t know why it’s so upfront in the mix. This tenor player reminds me of this other guy… I hear little things by other people, but something I’m hearing in this particular moment reminds me of David Murray. Okay, so that’s what this record is. [LAUGHS] Was he playing also at the beginning? So let’s put on the record that this first guy reminded me of Steve Grossman. There was no way I was going to guess him. [AFTER] By logic, I heard that David Murray had made something with a big band, a Latin thing. He did it in Paris? Oh, in Havana. That makes sense. I’m going to be honest. There’s different ways of playing Latin jazz. There’s a way of playing just like you play when people dance, like playing in a club. In all these salsa clubs and mambo clubs, there’s one way of playing. There’s the way of playing Latin jazz exactly like you’re playing for a salsa band, and then you put a solo on top. And the other way is that, yes, you take elements from that and go with the flow at the moment, and you’re very careful in how you interact with each other. In order to do that, you have to leave a considerable amount of space to be able to listen to all the other musicians surrounding you so you can interact and find your spot. At the same time, you’re going to add all those elements in the music. Here all I’m hearing is a steady rhythm, no matter what the solo is doing, and it seems to me a little frantic, like they’re in a hurry, an urgency to say “I’m here” instead of taking your time and getting there. That’s why I said this timbal player is not one of the old guys. Maybe I’m wrong. His solo is almost as though he doesn’t have enough time; he wants to say everything at the same time. But it’s only opinion, and my opinion doesn’t really matter. To my taste, I don’t like it that much. But that’s only my taste. [And that being said…] Oh, how many stars! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 3. [That was Changuito on timbales.] Well, let me say something. It’s contradictory, because Changuito is one of my favorite timbal players in the world. So for me, it’s weird. But you never know. Different dates do different things. So maybe the way he reacted to this particular day was like this. But Changuito is actually one of the masters. I take everything back that I said, because he’s a master. I will say that for me, for my taste, first of all, the mixing…once again, it’s the compression vibe. This is the era we live in; everything is compressed. You hear every single detail of everything. And you know that when you’re at a concert, that’s not the way you hear music. The compression kills the natural overtones of the music for me. You hear even the sticks hitting the metal. For me, if I’m in a dance club and dancing with my girlfriend or something, it’s cool. But if I’m in my house listening to a record, it could bother me. But that’s only me.

6. J.D. Allen, “Pharaoh’s Children” (from PHARAOH’S CHILDREN, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Allen, tenor saxophone, composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gene Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

I like the atmosphere. I like the communication they get. Playing music that way is a different approach, and I like it. At first, I thought of Charles Lloyd, but then immediately I knew it wasn’t. And for a quick second, I thought of Dewey, but I immediately knew it wasn’t. [Does he sound like a guy that age?] I don’t know if I would put it that it’s this age or another age. But he did a few things that reminded me of them, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it isn’t. I liked he was doing. He utilized a great sense of space. And I liked the piece, which helps, and his communication with the pianist was very good. They were really hooking up, and that’s what I appreciate most in any genre of music. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him. It’s a great record.

7. Dexter Gordon, “Scrapple From The Apple” (from OUR MAN IN PARIS, Blue Note 1963/2003) (Gordon, tenor saxophone; Bud Powell, piano; Pierre Michelot, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s great! You can’t go wrong with that one! You play it every day. Whoo! Mmm! It’s Dex. Big Dexter. “Scrapple From The Apple.” I’m trying to remember which record it is. But I knew him from the first note. It’s that way with all the older players The funny thing is that Coltrane sounded so many different ways throughout his career, but he always sounds like Trane. Sonny, too. Even Stan Getz. I have some really early stuff by Stan, but you always know he’s in there. This is not “Doin’ All Right.” Is this “Go”? I’m trying to remember the actual album. I haven’t listened to it for ages. Dexter’s the only guy who could do that quote and make it sound great! He plays all over the horn, great sound, great sense of time. 5 stars. Is the pianist Kenny Drew? Tootie Heath on drums? Oh, Kenny Clarke. Ah, definitely Bud Powell. The thing with Dexter is that in terms of sound he’s obviously got a lot of Prez, but you can tell that a lot of stuff came from Charlie Parker. He’s really playing the bebop shit incredible, but he has a whole other element of laidbackness that’s Prez-oriented, but also has his own vibe of the sound. That’s what makes him sound completely different, because the way he laid back is not the way Prez laid back. It’s a different thing. The real weight is in his sound. Another guy who plays a quote like [sings “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”], it’s like “come on, man!” But Dexter makes funny quotes. He has a sense of humor, and still sounds so great. Probably I wouldn’t like it so much if I tried to play those licks, Charlie Parker shit, that incredible stuff. I would sound sad! But he delivers the phrases in a certain way that make it sound so hip and so personal at the same time.

8. Papo Vasquez, “Vianda con Bacalao” (from Papo Vasquez, CARNIVAL IN SAN JUAN, Cubop, 2003) (Papo Vasquez, trombone, percussion, chorus composer; Willie Williams, tenor saxophone; Arturo O’Farrill, composer; John Benitez, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums; Joe Gonzalez, congas; Roberto Cepeda, chorus)

Nice. This is what people call Latin Jazz, but it sounds like New York Latin Jazz. It’s got some New York shit in there. It has some New York attitude to it. It’s really hip. It has a lot of content, but at the same time the groove is there. I like this. This reminds me of Papo Vasquez’ stuff, the arrangement. He’s one of these guys who writes music, like the in Fort Apache also, and he makes very good use of the bass, contrasting motion in phrases with the percussion, and then the horns are doing something different. That was a very interesting arrangement. Did you notice that the drum was not so much in your face? The clave was a little up-front; I wish I didn’t hear it so clear. Anyway, it reminded me of Papo, but I could very well be wrong. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I knew it. He writes some really hip stuff. I think the tenor player was Willie Williams. He sounded good. But sometimes, when you put cats in a certain context, I guess the natural thing is that you change a little bit your playing, but just to that particular way of playing. Here it’s a Latin thing, but it’s a really hip Latin… It’s not like the Latin jazz where you just play for people to dance, and okay, let’s have some fun and background music. This is a really hip arrangement. You could tell the interaction was a little different also. It has that New York attitude, like I said before. But somehow, because the Latin element is there, I feel sometimes guys try to change a little bit and adjust and try to play a little bit more rhythmic and so on. And sometimes… I know Willie’s playing, and I know he’s a great player, but on this particular occasion, for my taste, I’d rather hear him play the way he really plays. Was that Negro on drums? I liked it a lot. It sounded great, and Papo wrote some beautiful music, as usual.

9. Warne Marsh, “Rhythmically Speaking” (from BACK HOME, Criss-Cross, 1986) (Marsh, tenor saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; David Williams, bass; Albert Heath, drums) – (3 stars)

That sounds like someone who is influenced by Lester Young, but the rest of the band sounds really bebop-oriented, very tradition. But the tenor player is playing kind of over the bar lines. I’m not sure I’m so much into this… Believe me, I love the bar lines. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are the two greatest people to play over the bar line to me. They could play so elastic, but then, when they came back, WHOO! Monk, too. He had a very special way of playing over the bar lines. This one has a different way of doing it. The tenor player reminded me of the Tristano school, that perhaps he had some influence from Warne Marsh, that type of playing. I like that type of playing, but you’ve got to play a certain way. I thought it was cool, but I’m not going to tell you it was great. 3 stars. [AFTER] [LAUGHS] Well, at least I was on the right track. I was never going to guess it was Barry. But the other guys were more bebop, more traditional-oriented. This is a late recording of Warne Marsh. Because he had a way of playing over the bar line which was different. This reminded me of this Tristano counterpoint type of thing. But earlier in his life it was a little more accurate. On this, it sounded like he was playing over the bar line, but then after that, what? It’s falling over anything, basically. It doesn’t have the continuity after the fact of going over the bar line. This is a late recording. It sounds like it. I’ve got a great record with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and they play all these incredible heads. They sometimes will take a standard song and put on a whole other head with a Tristano vibe. This reminded me of him, and it was him, but it was another period of him, I guess.

10. Frank Wess, “Rockin’ Chair” (from Bill Charlap, STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) (Wess, tenor saxophone; Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

I hear some Ben Webster. But it’s not Ben Webster. That phrase definitely sounded like Ben. The inflection is right in there. Swing. This is a tricky one, because I know it’s not Ben. Sometimes I hear a little bit of Houston Person, but I know it’s not him. I don’t recognize the song. Is this a younger guy…not a younger guy, but definitely not the generation of Ben Webster. This is a guy who was after the generation of Ben Webster. [Is this an older recording or a newer recording?] I think it’s a newer recording. Maybe not new-new, but not even from the ’60s or ’70s. This is maybe ’80s or ’90s or something? I don’t know. Is it Scott Hamilton? Nice performance, right in the pocket. I liked the feel of the drums, the ride cymbal. It was definitely swinging, right in the middle of the beat, and the tempo was very precise. The piano player actually played very beautiful. When you play that kind of style, you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it, and I liked the way he was economical, but at the same time had some stuff going on. The tenor player has the Ben Webster thing, he has the old thing, but I know it’s none of those guys, like Gene Ammons or Ben Webster. I would give them definitely 4 stars. It was right in there and it had some beauty. I liked it. [AFTER] Oh, wow! No wonder, man. I should have guessed Frank. He plays with such a beauty. I was hearing the influences. I knew it wasn’t Ben, but at the same time what I liked is that it was very mature. I knew it had some level of maturity in the way he was playing, and I suppose I should have guessed it.

11. Wayne Shorter, “Orbits” (#8) (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums) – (5 stars)

I know this record, and it’s one of my favorite records. It’s “Alegria” by Wayne Shorter. I don’t remember the name of this particular composition, but this has been my inspiration record for several months. You know how you have an inspirational record, “let’s get the day started” when you’re on the road, and it inspires you. I love anything Wayne Shorter ever did. He’s so profound. There’s so much in every single phrase he plays that it’s unreal. English is not my first language, so I don’t have enough words to describe how deeply anything he does and anything he puts into it. I know some of the orchestrations on this record are his. It’s amazing. You think the voices are going to move in a certain direction, and they move another one, completely unpredictable. The funny part about this is that a number of people, as usual… For me, it’s been like this for years. They always have missed the point with Wayne. Some guys talk about Wayne’s compositions. I think he’s one of the deepest and heaviest composers ever. EVER. This is just my opinion, and it’s only mine and it doesn’t matter. But it’s not only his compositions, but his playing is at a level… The only word that comes to me in English is eloquent. All the phrases are eloquent, with soul, with heart, but very well thought at the same time, very well executed. The ideas are very wise and warm, but at the same time with a very precise way of doing things structurally. Meaning the way he writes, the way he develops a solo… He’s completely accurate. You talk about having accuracy in playing, that’s accuracy for me. For some people, accuracy is hitting all the notes and you can hear them all clear. But for me, that’s only one way of accuracy. Mental accuracy is what he does, that he takes one idea and connects to the next one, the next one, and builds up and just comes down. It’s a very impressive way of doing that. He’s unique. When it comes to that, there’s nobody like Wayne. And this record is great. It has the structure, the very well-formed structure vibe, everything is very well-formed, but it has some sections that are completely open. It’s fascinating to hear somebody going forward with something no matter what. No matter what, we’re just going to go forward. I was in London and I heard him being interviewed, and he said he was willing…his degree of commitment is at such a level that he’ll go down with the ship. To me, that was a deep statement. If he means to go down with the ship, that’s… Are you willing to commit for the moment? I got this recording several months ago, and since then I carry it everywhere. I get inspired by people who are willing to… It has a very high degree of honesty in terms of how they interact together. Danilo is very special like that also, because he has great ears, but he commits also to listen and sing with John. Outside of the fact that John can play different genres and has an understanding of playing different ways, musicianship-wise, he also has some great ears. Anywhere you take him, he can go. And when you put him together with Danilo and Brian, who has these huge ears and plays beautiful things on the drums. He gives you the energy, but it’s like martial arts energy. He has that power, but it’s not blasting. He has power and it has some depth. That’s why I love this particular group, especially with this kind of chamber ensemble. In my book, it’s 5 stars.

[-30-]

 

*-*-*-*-

 

David Sanchez (WKCR, July 24, 2008):

It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who turns 40 next month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sanchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation. Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sanchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—recontextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz, and articulating them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos —on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión, and Travesía), all Grammy-nominated. He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.

In late July, Sanchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.

TP: Your new CD, Cultural Survival , is your first in four years.

SANCHEZ: It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.

TP: Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?

SANCHEZ: It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.

TP: Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.

SANCHEZ: Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.

TP: You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.

SANCHEZ: For the last four years, almost.

TP: How is it not living in New York any more?

SANCHEZ: Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.

But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.

TP: In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?

SANCHEZ: Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”

TP: Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?

SANCHEZ: It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.

TP: What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?

SANCHEZ: I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.

TP: Serious stuff.

SANCHEZ: Serious stuff! [LAUGHS] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.

TP: This is an older sister?

SANCHEZ: Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days. . I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career… I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me. Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.

TP: For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?

SANCHEZ: There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation… You would be amazed how many similarities.

For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.

TP: So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.

SANCHEZ: There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.

TP: In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?

SANCHEZ: Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too. When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.

TP: You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.

SANCHEZ: Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.

TP: What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?

SANCHEZ: For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.

TP: Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.

SANCHEZ: There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.

TP: Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?

SANCHEZ: He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.

The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.

TP: You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.

SANCHEZ: As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.

TP: So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.

SANCHEZ: I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it’s going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we’re only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, David Sanchez, Jazz.com, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.

 

Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.

 

*-*-*-*-

Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.

BARTH: Yes.

TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]

*-*-*-

 

Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Bruce Barth, DownBeat, Piano, WKCR

For Dafnis Prieto’s 43rd Birthday, A Downbeat Article from 2018, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece

Downbeat, 2018 Feature

Dafnis Prieto’s vivid new big band album, Back To The Sunset, gestated with a phone call. It came on May 2016, a month after the virtuoso Cuban-born drummer-composer self-published A World Of Rhythmic Possibilities, a well received book that deep-dives into his methodologies and aesthetics. On the line was Eric Oberstein, who’d become friendly with Prieto while serving as Executive Director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, the umbrella non-profit that sponsors Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. ALJO had recorded Prieto’s “The Triumphant Journey” on the 2015 Grammy-nominated Cuba: The Conversation Continues, and “Song For Chico,” which titled ALJO’s 2008 Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy-winning CD, both of which Oberstein produced.

“I fell in love with ‘Song for Chico’ the moment I heard it,” Oberstein recalled in early February. “Dafnis’ beautiful, lush melodies captured me, and I’ve never met anyone with such an incredible sense of time. His pieces are little journeys that take hairpin turns, but he’s always in control as he takes you down his beautiful path.” Oberstein was looking to branch out, and decided to suss out Prieto’s interest in a collaboration.

Before Oberstein finished asking, “What’s your dream project?” Prieto declared, “I want to do a big band with my arrangements.” That aspiration dated to Prieto’s adolescence in Santa Clara, a city of 215,000 in central Cuba where he was focusing on classical percussion in conservatory and teaching himself to play drumset with exercises from a technique book by American percussionist George Lawrence Stone. He fueled his imagination at performances by the local big band Orquesta La Musica Moderna, propelled by the “extremely musical drummer” Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”), who would subsequently spend consequential time with Chucho Valdes’ Afro-Cuban Messengers.

“Through them I heard not just Cuban music, but American music and any other kind of music—played well,” Prieto said by phone from his Miami home. “Always in the back of my mind I hoped some day to record my music with that great, rich sound.” Thirty years later, with the cessation of funding from his $500,000 2011 MacArthur “Genius” Award, and a substantial corpus of original music from five quartet, quintet and sextet CDs on his imprint, Dafnison, Prieto decided that the prospect of professional support in navigating infrastructure and logistics made this a fortuitous moment to take the plunge.

As spring transitioned to summer and summer to fall, Prieto and Oberstein looked for a narrative thread. Prieto decided to construct a notes and tones autobiography through tributes to a Pan-American cohort of heroes—some living, some deceased; some direct employers-mentors, some admired from afar—who influenced and inspired him in the process of evolving his sui generis heritage-meets-modernity sonic vision.

Three of the nine pieces are features for Steve Coleman, Brian Lynch and Henry Threadgill, who each recruited Prieto for their bands not long after he arrived in New York in 1999. Each master is also a dedicatee, as are Jane Bunnett, Andrew Hill, David Samuels, Eddie Palmieri, Jerry Gonzalez, Michel Camilo, Roberto Carcasses, Bebo Valdés and père and fils O’Farrill, all of whom he worked with, and such signposts as Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdès, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, Buddy Rich, amd Art Blakey.

As Prieto composed new charts and expanded older ones, Oberstein tasked himself with financing the enterprise and convening a 17-piece band comprised of five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass, percussionist, and Prieto on drumset. The core members were saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Roman Filiú, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, and pianist Manuel Valera, all long-standing friends who are intimate with Prieto’s vocabulary, and intuit his intentions.

Oberstein announced the project around Thanksgiving 2016, and launched a crowd-funding campaign through the New York based non-profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas. They created tiered levels of rewards that, at the Producer level, included access to the recording session. Via this modality, a May 2017 fundraising concert by Prieto’s Si O Si quartet at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery, and several grants, Oberstein, “by hook or by crook, raised about $60,000.” They decided to self-release the project on Dafnison.

On August 21, a year-and-a-half after project’s conception, Prieto and company entered Michiko Studios for three days of rehearsal, then played a sold-out August 25-27 engagement at the Jazz Standard. Thus prepared, they recorded Back To the Sunset at Brooklyn’s Systems-2 on August 28 and August 29.

“The recording session was relaxed,” Valera recalled. “Most of the tunes were two takes, with hardly any overdubs.” He added that the charts are stimulating to play. “Dafnis’ writing for big band reminds me of the way Thad Jones wrote, where all the lines could stand on their own. He applies his rhythmic concepts to give the big band forward movement, push-and-pull, similar to those old Cuban bands—less about harmonic complexity than the different sections playing the melodies and rhythms.”

As an example of Prieto’s rhythmic legerdemain, Valera mentioned “Out of The Bone,” dedicated to Coleman and Camilo, on which, after a stentorian baritone sax overture by Chris Cheek, Prieto states a ferocious 7/4 time feel that conveys the illusion that two separate drumkits are in play, or that he perhaps deployed an extra limb—or two—in addressing his instrument. With that rhythmic signature as a fulcrum, the sections render complexly syncopated, Colemanesque polyrhythmic cycles over which bass trombonist Jeff Nelson and trombonists Alan Ferber and Jacob Garchik uncork evocative solos.

Prieto first encountered Coleman in Havana in 1996. He made 1997 and 1998 sojourns to the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Coleman’s instigation, and played drums on Coleman’s 2003 album Lucidarium. “Through Steve, I discovered the playing and music of Max Roach, which was huge, and music from South India and Ghana,” he said. “I’ve incorporated his strategies in my playing and in my teachings—you can see his influence in my book.”

The refracted motif of Gillespie’s “Manteca” introduces the album-opener, “Una Vez Más,” which Prieto composed for jazz quartet he played in with Palmieri, Lynch and Boris Kozlov in the early 2010s. Lynch—a co-dedicatee with Palmieri and Tito Puente—follows Valera’s Palmieri refraction with a clarion solo, flawlessly rendered, that signifies why he and Prieto have remained close since 1997, when Lynch played a concert at Stanford with him and Yosvany Terry.

“Right away I knew something special was going on with both guys,” Lynch said. He told Prieto, “If you’re ever in New York, call me.” He followed through in 1999, hiring Prieto to replace Antonio Sanchez for a band he was leading weekly at an Upper West Side bar called Cherokee Phoenix. “He had a lot of finesse, obviously a lot of knowledge and understanding of the rhythms from his culture, and a real ear for what the soloist is doing,” Lynch said. “He’s able to pull things into a creative place while respecting the form he’s playing. He plays like a composer always. When someone comes along and plays so great in an idiom that interests you, you think, ‘Ok, now this is the cat.’”

Both Lynch and Apfelbaum played in Prieto’s early ’00s groups, developing the repertoire that appears on the 2005 album About The Monks. Apfelbaum elaborated on Prieto’s creative mojo. “Dafnis plays with this exploding imagination,” he said. “He reminds me of the young Tony Williams. Every once in a great while, a drummer comes along with that breadth of vocabulary, and not only can they do all these different things, but they make everyone sit up and say: Wow, I didn’t know you could do that or that you were allowed to do that.”

He emphasized the linear ingenuity of Prieto’s quartet and sextet music, analogizing it to a tree with different branches. “Now each line is harmonized and played by a different section comprising four or five instruments and the tree’s branches are now filled with fruit,” Apfelbaum said of Back To The Sunset. The overall effect, he added, “is seeing a movie that seems familiar, but in 3D with Surround Sound.” Apfelbaum opined that Prieto “seems to have evolved in two directions. Not only is his imagination moving forward, but he’s using an even broader vocabulary to swing back and reference some roots of Afro-Cuban music.”

Prieto dedicates the title track to Andrew Hill and Threadgill, who uncorks a searingly vocalized alto saxophone solo, marking his second recorded sideman appearance with Prieto, following “Afrotango” on Absolute Quintet (2006). Both masters availed themselves of Prieto’s skills in 1999; Threadgill (who can be viewed on a Youtube clip playing alto sax and flute on a Prieto concert at the Jazz Gallery in March 2001) hired him for his paired 2001 albums Everybodys Mouth’s A Book and Up Popped The Two Lips.

“Dafnis operates at a very high level of musicality,” Threadgill said. “He’s able to translate non-percussion ideas into percussion ideas, to look at a piece in terms of the entire picture of the composition and not just his part. As a composer, he has command of the resources he uses and an ability to carry it out.”

Prieto observed that Coleman, Threadgill and Hill “showed the possibility for music to sound like yourself—it doesn’t have to be generic.” He first heard Threadgill’s music during a 1998-99 sojourn in Canada under the sponsorship of Jane Bunnett that directly preceded his move to New York. “I thought it was surrealistic, the music I could hear in my dreams—and when I wake up, it disappears,” Prieto said. “I learned from Henry that each tune should have its own character and intention upon which you put your own voice. You create your own world, which reflects your set of beliefs and structures and content, and it comes through in your artistic vocabulary.”

As he describes in A World of Rhythmic Possibilities, Prieto has practiced techniques that evoke a panoply of sounds on his drumkit, endeavoring to make his instrument both a vehicle to represent or imitate various Cuban folkloric percussion instruments and a portal to “the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas.” He speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time, and deploys the rhythms to serve synesthetic or abstract imperatives—a notion of visual art, or a philosophical principle, or the sound of thunder.

His compositional process transpires “mostly by ear.” “I like scores from classical music, like Bartok’s String Quartets or some Stravinsky works,” he said. “It’s like they consist of words, and the game is how you play with those words—you see what results. The quality of the performer is also part of every composition—a melody played by Henry is almost a different melody than the same melody played by someone else.”

Prieto first conceptualized his procedures on mid-’90s tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti (acknowledged on “Two For One” and “The Sooner The Better,” respectively), whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. As his horizons expanded, he increasingly felt stifled by the absence of a platform in Cuba on which he could—pardon the bad pun—march to the beat of his own drum. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, landing first in Barcelona, then in Toronto, then in New York.

After the two aforementioned albums for Zoho, Prieto launched Dafnison in 2008 with Taking The Soul For A Walk. “I was basically swiping my credit card, or saving money from the gigs for my own projects, which wasn’t easy in an expensive city,” he said. “But I wanted and needed my own label. If no one wanted to release my albums, I had to do it myself. It gives me absolute control over the product, from the first note to the last artwork. I have the courage to challenge myself economically to make it happen. I make a record, and I don’t know how much I’ll make or how much exposure it will get—I depend on an industry that rolls on other principles. Our distribution is mostly online, through iTunes and Amazon. I always joke, ‘I don’t need anyone to make myself poorer; I can do that very well.”

At the beginning of 2018, Prieto released Transition, by the Kairos Sextet, an ensemble that he assembled during his first academic year (2015-16) at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where he teaches composition as well as drums and ensembles, and a course called Rhythmic Synchronicity, intended “to help people on different instruments work in depth with rhythm in conjunction with other members in the band.” “For me, teaching is one of the highest spiritual paths,” he continued. “There’s the reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving; you feel the students develop through time, and feel their gratitude for what you are giving them, just as I feel gratitude for what the musicians who I honor on Back To The Sunset did for me. They see I’ve done it on my own, and they ask why I did it, what the challenges are, why I made the decisions I made.”

Prieto lives ten minutes from the Fort Lauderdale airport, from which Jet Blue runs a direct daily flight to Santa Clara, facilitating visits to his mother. But increased proximity to his homeland hasn’t resulted in invitations to perform or teach there. “I’ve never even been invited to play the jazz festival in Cuba,” Prieto said. “I wouldn’t ever be able to do in Cuba what I’ve done in the U.S. as a leader and creative musician. In order to work with a Steve Coleman or a Henry Threadgill, to do what I really wanted, I had to come here.” On the other hand, he continues: “In Cuba, you can dream about what it’s going to be like, but when you get here, it’s not what you thought it would be. It takes a lot of time and courage, a lot of strength to keep your belief alive. Just to keep yourself at the top of your game is very challenging.”

For now, Prieto was focusing on the challenge of working with Oberstein to spread the word about Back To the Sunset, to book gigs for the orchestra, and to find personnel with whom he can tour. Ever the pragmatic risk-taker, Prieto is both optimistic and realistic.

“If the budget allows, I want to use the guys on the record,” he said. “But I’m open to using other musicians. To play these pieces, you don’t have to be a specialist in Latin music—though you need to be good at rhythm. But this isn’t generic music. We’re not playing ‘El Manicero.’ It’s completely new material. Besides being strong already as a musician, they have to be open-minded in order to accept it and be able to execute it.”

[—30—]

 

Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the Proverb Trio’s just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to write and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done.”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”

[BREAK]

Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music as though for the] first time, as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”

SIDEBAR

Title:

“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”

Downbeat, 2011 Feature

The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” Prieto responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa, surrounded by an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, sustaining a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

[BREAK]
Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. “The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”

Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.

*-*-*-

Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*-*-*-

Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer

It Isn’t Stefano Bollani’s Birthday, but it is the Final Day of Umbria Jazz Summer 2016, so here’s an Uncut Blindfold Test Done Live in Perugia in 2008 with Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava, in Addition to a Long Downbeat Feature on Bollani Done in Barcelona in 2012 and a Long Interview for Jazz.Com Taken at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Jan. 2009

For the final day of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, here’s the uncut proceedings of a live Blindfold Test I conducted there with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani, who were playing duo. It consisted entirely of trumpet-piano duo recordings. Following it are two long pieces on Bollani, which I may repost separately at some future date — one is a DownBeat feature on Bollani reported in Barcelona in 2012; following it is a long interview, conducted in Orvieto in 2009, that ran on the no-longer-accessible website jazz.com.

 

Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Blindfold Test, Perugia, July 2008 (Raw):
1. Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie, “Caravan” (OSCAR PETERSON & DIZZY GILLESPIE, Pablo, 1975) (Gillespie, trumpet; Peterson, piano; Juan Tizol, composer)

[AFTER ONE CHORUS]

Rava: We’ve got it. [IN ITALIAN] [SHTICK] Dizzy Gillespie.
Bollani: And Oscar Peterson. I would say that Oscar Peterson was my favorite piano player when I started listening to jazz music. I had this recording. He was playing “My Blue Heaven.” And I was sure, because I couldn’t read the liner notes in English (I was only 10 years old), that it was two piano players playing together. So when my father told me that it was just one, it wasn’t Oscar and Peterson, but it was Oscar Peterson, I started studying seriously, because I understood that you really had to practice a lot if you want to play jazz music. I love all the records he did with trumpet players. But my favorite one is the one with Clark Terry, the one where he is singing.
TP: Dizzy for Enrico Rava.
Rava: [IN ITALIAN] [THEN IN ENGLISH] Dizzy…what can I say about Dizzy? Dizzy is one of the main musicians in jazz. Of course, he is unbelievable. He brought the trumpet ahead twenty years when he started. Although in the very beginning, when he was a kid, he sounded EXACTLY like Roy Eldridge. Dizzy played in a big band when he was a kid, and he was very …(?)… Anyway, I saw him in my home town, Turino, in the ‘50s with the beautiful band he had with Leo Wright, Les Spann, Lex Humphries… To talk about Dizzy doesn’t make any sense, because he is so great he deserves more than words. Words cannot describe him. I can say that the art of Dizzy is enormous. The technique of Dizzy is so extraordinary and unique. He invented a way of playing. He has little tricks with the fingering. Something that I learned from Dusko Goykovich, another good friend. Although I always say that, of course, Clifford Brown, Miles, Chet, the people that I love, I know what they are doing. If I stay a hundred years practicing, every day, I might do the same thing. But Dizzy, I really don’t understand how he got those things. He’s something that’s too much. Dizzy is too much.
[APPLAUSE]

2. Paul Bley-Chet Baker, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from DIANE, Steeplechase, 1985) (Baker, trumpet; Bley, piano)

Rava: I feel sure that the trumpet player is Chet Baker. It could be Paul Bley, because I know they did the record together, but I’m not sure if this is him. We’ll wait til the solo. [SOLO BEGINS]
Bollani: It sounds like the pianist is Paul Bley, but it’s not that record with Paul Bley. I don’t know who is this piano player. For me, it could be (?-12:54). For Chet Baker, one million stars. But I am not in love with this piano player.
Rava: For me, 2 million stars for Chet.
TP: Paul Bley is the piano player. You probably were thrown off by the sound of the piano through this system.
Bollani: [translator: The trumpet players, it’s easier, because they have a personal sound, but the piano, they’re just touching something mechanical.
Rava: I did a duo with Paul Bley, and I know how he plays. I know him very well. So this is why I said, “Maybe it’s not…” Although I was almost sure that it was Paul Bley, because I know the record, but I don’t remember exactly.
Bollani: This is the Steeplechase record, Diane. It’s strange because I have the record…
Rava: They did it for Enja.
Bollani: No, Steeplechase. But I have this record, and I didn’t recognize the sound. To me, it sounded better in my home.
Rava: I love Chet. Chet for me, after Miles, is the one I love more than anybody else. I am very close to his way of thinking and playing melodies. I love his sound. Besides that, the first modern jazz… I am a jazz fan since I was 6 years old, and I love Bix and everybody else. But the first modern jazz I really heard was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, and I think that was some of the best trumpet playing I’d heard. So I fell in love with Chet then, and I became a very good friend of Chet. When I bought a trumpet, I was about 18. One year after, he came to live in my home town, at the house of one of my best friends, so I would be all day with Chet, bringing the trumpet, asking him things he couldn’t answer because he was totally …(?—16:59), so he couldn’t give any advice. But I was almost… I couldn’t speak with him, because it was like to be near the sun. He was so strong for me. I was very young then. Then I got to play with him many times, and we were friends. I think he was one of the most beautiful musicians.
Bollani: It’s easier for me to talk about Chet Baker, because he’s one of my idols, even as a singer. It’s not easy for me to talk about Paul Bley, because I am not a big fan of Paul Bley. I don’t know him so well. Actually, I also have to say that in talking about Chet Baker in duo with a piano player, I would rather prefer the record with Enrico Pieranunzi. I think he was much more close to Chet’s feeling, so the final result of the recording is better.

3. Martial Solal-Dave Douglas, “34 Bar Blues” (from RUE DE SEINE, CamJazz, 2006) (Solal, piano, composer; Douglas, trumpet)

Rava: I think that that’s Don Ellis.
TP: No.
Rava: Okay. It sounds like Don Ellis. I have no idea.
TP: It’s recent. Contemporary.
Rava: Maybe Herb Robertson.
TP: No.
Rava: If it’s not Don Ellis, it’s someone I don’t know at all.
Bollani: Me either. I have no idea of the piano player. At the beginning, the vocabulary sounded like Martial Solal, the French piano player. But I’m not sure it’s him because of the kind of phrasing. And I wouldn’t know who’s the trumpet player, actually. But I really like this piano player, but I don’t know who he is.
TP: You’re right. It is Martial Solal.
BOLLANI: [RAISES HANDS OVER HEAD]
TP: The trumpet player is Dave Douglas, and it’s on the Italian label CamJazz.
Bollani: He said Dave Douglas. He told me, “Maybe it’s Dave Douglas with Uri Caine,” and I said, “this is not Uri Caine.”
Rava: But then, to me, he sounded really Don Ellis at the beginning. I love Dave Douglas. I know him pretty well. But he didn’t sound like Dave Douglas to me; he sounded like Don Ellis. I would give it 4 stars. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it’s wonderful.
Bollani: Actually, I really like it. This is my second Blindfold Test ever. I did it once in France. I only liked two ones. One of them was also Martial Solal. So I really like him. Now it’s the same. I told you, I like this piano player, but I’m not sure of who he is. To me, Martial Solal is the greatest piano player alive, technically and mentally speaking. Maybe you can compare other piano players, as listeners. But as a piano player not as a listener, I am amazed at what he can do. He’s always thinking what you’re not expecting he is going to do.
Rava: You mean as a piano player?
Bollani: Yes.

4. Wynton Marsalis-Eric Lewis, “King Porter Stomp” (from MR. JELLY LORD, Columbia, 1999) (Marsalis, trumpet; Lewis, piano)

Rava: Very nice. 5 stars.
TP: Would you like to know who it was?
Bollani: We were talking about the trumpet player, and we said that probably it’s the same period of Roy Eldridge, but not before…
Rava: I think it could be. I am doing a very stupid thing, but it could be maybe Rex Stewart. I’ll tell you why. I know that Rex Stewart was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke, and this trumpet player did things that reminded me of Bix, but it was not at all that kind of trumpet player. But it sounded to me maybe like Rex.
TP: So you think it’s an old recording?cheche
Rava: Uh… No. I think it’s very new. [LAUGHTER]
Bollani: We were talking about the piano player. I don’t think he’s one of the greatest piano players of jazz history, people like Earl Hines or Teddy Wilson or whomever. He sounds like a modern piano player trying to pretend he’s in the ‘30s. I guess he’s American, but he’s got something which is not exactly in that style, and he sounds more modern. So I guess he’s trying to do these kind of things, but probably he doesn’t do these kind of things all the time. He’s not an expert of that kind of jazz. This is a very precise style, so you can immediately understand if it’s a pianist who was born today or is from that period. He played stride piano, but he didn’t really come off completely; a few things told me that it wasn’t an old pianist.
Rava: I have no idea.
TP: It was Wynton Marsalis and Eric Lewis, who played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years.
Carlo: It was too much technique.
Rava: It really sounded like a guy from the late ‘30s.
Bollani: Actually, I thought the trumpet player was an old one, with a young piano player trying to play in that style. So I couldn’t guess who it was.
TP: So Wynton did what he intended to do.
Bollani: Yeah, exactly.
Rava: I had for a moment, if he’s not… But he sounded so much like an old trumpet player. Anyway, five stars.
Bollani: I am not giving 5 stars, because I loved Wynton, but not so much the piano player. 3 stars. His way of comping was not… 5 for Wynton.

5. Lester Bowie-John Hicks, “Hello, Dolly” (from AMERICAN GUMBO, 32 Jazz, 1974/1999) (Bowie, trumpet; Hicks, piano)

Rava: To me, that’s Lester Bowie.
Bollani: Lester Bowie. The problem with this piano player, it sounds like the opposite of the other one. It sounds like he’s not one of the musicians involved in the free movement, but he’s older, so he sounds older than Lester Bowie. Maybe he wants to sound modern. But he sounds like a very good piano player from the ‘60s.
TP: Actually, he was the same age as Lester Bowie, and also from St. Louis. John Hicks.
Rava: I’ll give 5 stars to Lester. 3 stars for this piece, because to me it’s too much… I always loved Lester, and this very ironical… But this I think was really too much. He still is great. He was a good friend. So 5 stars. Maybe even 10.
Bollani: I liked very much the piano player.
TP: One thing that was interesting about John Hicks musically is that he was very comfortable playing outside or inside. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He played anything, and played it great.
Bollani: Another one that I really love is Jaki Byard—he could do that, too, very well, He could play stride piano, then he was playing modern things, and it was perfect.

6. Dick Hyman-Randy Sandke, “Slow River” (from NOW AND AGAIN, Arbors, 2005) (Hyman, piano; Sandke, trumpet)

Rava: To me, it sounds like Ruby Braff.
TP: Good guess, but not.
Rava: Merde.
TP: The trumpet player is alive.
Bollani: I really like it. But I’m not sure about the piano player, because he sounded once again like Oscar, but it’s so much cooler than Oscar Peterson that I wouldn’t say it’s him. I would say once again that he’s not a very famous one probably. I don’t know him so well.
TP: He’s the same age as Oscar Peterson, and both he and Oscar Peterson were influenced by Art Tatum.
Rava: Could it be that white trumpet player that used to…Warren Vache?
TP: Not Warren Vache, but that’s also close.
Rava: Anyway, it really sounded like Ruby Braff to me. Anyway, I give 4 stars.
Bollani: Same age as Oscar Peterson? He’s cooler than Oscar. He’s playing less notes. But he’s alive.
TP: The trumpet is Randy Sandke.
Rava: I don’t know him. I’ve heard his name, but only several times. His playing was very good. But he really sounded like Ruby Braff to me.

7. Kenny Wheeler-John Taylor, “Summer Night” (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn; Taylor, piano)

Bollani: We both recognize the trumpet player, and we think it’s Kenny Wheeler. I think the piano player could be John Taylor.
Rava: We know the trumpet, or flugelhorn…it was a flugelhorn. I’ll give it 2 stars. Do I have to give stars? I’ll give 3 stars. I must say I did not get that much from it.
Bollani: Sometimes it sounded like Kenny Wheeler’s composition.
TP: It’s a standard called “Summer Night,” by Harry Warren.
Bollani: It had something in the chorus at the end of the tune which made me think about Kenny Wheeler’s composing, things like “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” These kind of compositions, the long ones that go the ‘70s.

8. Nicholas Payton-Anthony Wonsey, “Weather Bird” (from GUMBO NOUVEAU, Verve, 1996)

Rava: What I can tell you is, first, whoever it is, there is a time problem, with the piano speeding up. The trumpet player, whoever it is, sounded good, but he played licks of everybody else. I heard some Dizzy licks, some Bobby Hackett licks… I mean, it was like an encyclopedia for trumpet. So I didn’t really like it. I’ll give it 2½ stars, maybe 3 for the technique and the ability. They are very good players, but I didn’t see any magic or any voice or something like that.

Bollani: Once again, I will start saying that probably they are not two very-very-very famous jazz musicians, because I really don’t recognize the… The same as the trumpet player . I don’t recognize the style of the piano player, because it sounds like a good piano player but not really a special one, a personal one. But still, I think that what Enrico said was true about the timing problem, but I think the piano player is the problem, not the trumpet player. He’s doing things, and he’s not very creative.

The problem with the records, the duo recordings with trumpet and piano is that the most famous jazz musicians, except maybe Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, didn’t do this kind of formula. Except for the Oscar Peterson albums… You can count them. But if you talk about the greatest players in the world… Miles, for example, never did one. So a lot of the greatest jazz musicians never made…

TP: It was Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Anthony Wonsey on piano playing “Weather Bird.”

Rava: Sorry, I recognized “Weather Bird,” of course.

Bollani: They are alive. So they are going to read the Downbeats and kill me.

Rava: I like Nicholas Payton most of the time. But I did not recognize him on this tune, probably because he wanted to make a kind of tribute to Louis Armstrong. But he didn’t sound like Nicholas Payton to me at all.

Bollani: I have to say, I’ve never heard even the name of the piano player. Never.

9. Earl Hines-Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Mean To Me” (from JUST YOU, JUST ME, Black and Blue, 1978) (Hines, piano; Edison, trumpet)

Bollani: We know the period, of course, but we’re not so sure about the musicians. I would say that this piano player, maybe it’s not him, but now he’s sounding like Willie The Lion Smith, but I don’t know if he recorded something…
Rava: To me the trumpet player sounded a lot like Harry Edison.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: I love Harry Edison. This is, for sure, not one of his best performances. If you compare this to the solo he played with Lester Young on “Sunday” which is a total masterpiece, this… But I don’t mind.
TP: He was 22 years older when he did this.
Rava: Not everyone is like you. Getting older, I feel better.
Bollani: Anyway, what can I say about Earl Hines? His nickname was “Fatha,” so this means that he is considered the father of the modern piano players. So I won’t say anything. He’s one of the piano players I always loved not only for the piano playing, but because of his attitude. Often people say that I’m too much entertaining or I’m too much funny or smiling or whatever. But people like Dizzy, Fats Waller, Earl Hines…
Rava: Armstrong.
Bollani: Armstrong. These were people who were playing great and also entertaining people. I have a record with Earl Hines singing and imitating the trombone, which is fantastic. I think he was a great performer. Smiling all the time.
Rava: Hines’ style. For Harry Edison and Earl Hines, I’m not particularly fond of this record, but I’ll give it 1000 stars. All the stars in the universe.

 

 

Stefano Bollani Article (Barcelona, 2012) –  (#1):

Stefano Bollani does not do soundchecks. “I always try not to have a sound in my head before playing,” the 39-year-old pianist explained in his room at Barcelona’s El Gran Havana Hotel, a few hours before hit time for a solo recital at Luz de Gas, the final event of Umbria Jazz Festival’s week at last November’s edition of the Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz. “I don’t want to know how the sound is on stage or in the place. So I don’t go to the theater before the concert. I just go on stage and play.”

He elaborated the point. “Being alone at the soundcheck is so sad,” he joked. “That’s one reason, but also I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know that the piano has a problem or a good characteristic, because then you think, ‘Wow, this piano is playing well, but only when you play it softer, so let’s make a list of how I can play softly all night.’

“Usually I am telling a joke or talking about some other subject—not thinking about the music—until the moment I begin. Then I forget everything. That’s free time. My phone is off. Nobody is asking me questions or proposing things. Nobody is interviewing me. I am doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child. I have two kids. I am never home, so I feel guilty because they don’t have a normal father. But when I’m playing, I know it’s my job, so I’m cool. I’m in the right place at the right moment. People are buying a ticket for me, I’m playing for them. I chose to come here. You chose to listen to me. It’s perfect.”

It was time to go. Dressed in an untucked black shirt, jeans and sneakers, his matted, gray-flecked hair tied back, a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, Bollani picked up his backpack and walked briskly to the elevator, passing several open rooms in which several Umbrian representatives sat in their undershirts, glued to CNN, hoping to catch the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Later, at Luz de Gas, after Bollani had finished two tunes, an audience member called out that the deed was done. “This is going to be a very special night,” Bollani said, “because as you know, we have very sad news. We’ll just have to go on without him.”

Bollani instantly stated the melody of “If I Should Lose You.” He launched his improvisation at jet tempo, a la Conlon Nancarrow, crisply articulating every note. He transitioned to a rubato section, abstracting the harmony to its limits before working back into the theme. Suddenly, he chugged out a relentless walking bass line in the Jaki Byard-Dave McKenna manner, supporting high-velocity Bud Powellish “horn-like” lines that included an “I Found A New Baby” quote. He offered a pluck-the-strings sidebar, crossing the hands (variations by the left; bass figures by the right), executing Cecil Taylorisms with extravagant gestures. Some repeated treble notes coalesced into a portentious, impressionistic melody that gradually morphed into “For Once In My Life,” upon which he built a rollicking, swinging statement that transpired over another pendulum-steady bassline.

The “Adios Berlusconi” theme continued when, after a pause, Bollani abstracted “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” limning the melody with the right hand juxtaposed with with more laugh-provoking atonal harmonics on the strings. This morphed into “Angel Eyes,” on which, after a rumbly, low-end climax, he decrescendoed to a gentle theme statement, returning to the strings for the last chorus. Bollani played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” medium up, repeating “she was more like a beauty queen” in different voices, counterstating with Powell-Tatum references. Pretending to forget the lyric, he fixated on “the kid is not my son” section, which he addressed as an aria. He interpolated the lyrics of “Old Devil Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” then laid out a series of reharmonized permutations that concluded with “Blackbird.”

After two more songs—“After You’ve Gone,” done as an old-school saloon stomp, and “Kingston Town,” treated as a gentle waltz—Bollani took requests, which included “Cavaquinho,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Tico Tico,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Für Elise.” He cogitated over his list, and developed an ingenious, structurally connected collage, at various points singing in a French accent and emulating a flamenco singer. Then, after an ovation, he filleted Berlusconi one more time with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelling his variations—to which he scatted a falsetto counter-melody—with yet another surging bassline.

“Every jazz musician will say to any interviewer that you’ve got to tell your own story,” Bollani had said earlier in the day. “But I love when the story is full of things. Our lives are full of nice moments and sad moments—there’s a funny situation, then one of us is dying on the floor so it’s suddenly tragic, then you call the police but they aren’t coming, so it’s funny again. Life is changing all the time. Some jazz music today is like the Sea of Tranquility, trying to develop the same feeling for sixty minutes. My life is not like that; I cannot tell this kind of story.”

Bollani’s communicative flair, his penchant for addressing serious improvisation as quasi-populist performance art, is the primary source of his high Q-score in Europe, the reason why, since 2007, he’s hosted the much-listened-to Il Dottore Djembe on Italy’s NPR equivalent, Rai-3, and, more recently, a TV spinoff. This quality comes through on his solo concerts and more recent piano duos with Martial Solal, Antonello Salis, and Chick Corea, where he generates an erudite flow that is at once hilarious and poignant, buffo and nuanced, elemental and complex. Some might see Bollani’s predisposition to skip from one reality to the next as bespeaking superficial clownishness, but it’s more accurate to say that it denotes an exhaustive breadth of reference.

“Stefano doesn’t make a distinction of ‘there’s one world here, and another there,’” said drummer Jeff Ballard, who has performed on several Bollani projects since 2009. “He has an incredible command of styles—everything is available at once, and out it comes. His thought process moves at incredible velocity, whether he’s performing or just hanging out. When I was touring with him, he’d sing one Italian song after another in the dressing rooms, saying, ‘Check out the harmony of this; see how this goes.’ He’s a natural performer and a virtuoso.”

“Comedians are usually very well-prepared,” Bollani had said earlier of his modus operandi. “But I am not preparing the funny part. It’s something I feel at the moment. If I have somebody with me, I am using musicians on the stage. Otherwise, I am using the audience. A lot of listeners, not necessarily jazz fans, tell me they get a feeling that I am having joy and want to share it. Jazz can be a kind of magic circle that some people feel they cannot enter. That’s not good for jazz music, or any kind of art.”

As jokes were the topic, Bollani mentioned that, on Dottor Djembe, he and co-host Mirko Guerrini pre-record fake music to present to their guests, mostly Italian musicians, with whom they perform live and discuss contemporary jazz, some of it by one or another of the numerous “fake musicians” of their invention—composers, pop singers, instrumentalists—whose biographies appear in a book-CD (Lo zibaldone del Dottor Djembe).

“If you don’t know what you’re listening to, you might think we’re talking seriously—until somebody starts laughing,” Bollani said. “There’s a scat singer called Tex Plosion, and on our recording he scats until he explodes—it’s a point of departure to talk about how dangerous jazz can be and not to play too many notes. We have a contemporary French-German composer named Jean-France Camenberg who did a seven-hour opera in Berlin called Sisyphus and Tantalus. For the whole time, Sisyphus sings ‘I am pushing the stone’ and Tantalus sings ‘I need the water.’ The moment Tantalus reaches the water is exactly the moment when Sisyphus is able to throw the stone, which hits Tantalus on the head and kills him, ending the opera.

“I have Duck Ellington, a guy who found a female duck that he uses to sing all the Duke Ellington repertoire. It’s very stupid, so stupid that the guest isn’t expecting it. Most of our guests said, ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ ‘Why? Didn’t you like it? Don’t you like jazz music?’ ‘I do, but…’ Very funny.”

[BREAK]

Bollani related that he and Chick Corea “did lots of jokes” at the free-flowing duo concert at Umbria Jazz Winter, 2009, that produced Orvieto [ECM]—he described it as “feeling like one piano player with four hands.” However, they do not appear on the recording. “I’m not mad about humor on records,” Bollani said. “A good piece of music works when you listen to it forever, but not a joke.”

Indeed, humor is not a prominent component of Bollani’s eclectic discography, which includes several solo piano solo recitals, a dozen encounters (including two duos) with trumpeter Enrico Rava, six standards dates for the Japanese market, and presentations of his original music by three different trios, a quintet, and a 40-piece orchestra. The jokes are also tamped down on Carioca [Universal], Bollani’s learned exploration of a broad array of Brazilian flavors; on the 50,000 unit-seller Rhapsody in Blue [Decca Classics], on which Bollani and conductor Ricardo Chailly present a vivid interpretation of the Gershwin classic; and on Big Band! [EmArcy], a 2011 project on which the NDR Big Band—with Bollani on piano—performs Norwegian arranger Geir Lysne’s reworkings of five Bollani compositions from the early ‘00s.

“Geir chose the pieces, and I came in after the band had learned them,” Bollani said. “I didn’t recognize them. I love that everything sounded new, that he used them to build different atmospheres. I use my compositions to build something different each night, which is how music keeps herself alive.” He quoted Surrealist philosopher Andre Breton’s bon mot, “Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.”

He continued: “You take different things, shake them, and see what comes out—the postmodern idea. That’s what I like in jazz. Take a melody by the Beach Boys and place a chord from a Prokofiev sonata; start with a standard, “My Funny Valentine” or ragtime, and go some other place. It’s playing with language, like working with characters in a novel.

“On some of my own compositions, the principle is funny—we miss a bar or jump to another key, and that’s clear. A lot of people did this, from Raymond Scott to Frank Zappa. But lots of them are not funny until I play them; the pianist Bollani is funnier than the composer Bollani. Actually, I am a tremendously serious composer. The pieces are never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars—always 43. There’s a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one that wants to be original. He is saying, ‘Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put in a bar more.’ I’m so serious that I would write only ballads, if I could. I have to force myself to write something light.”

Born in Milan and raised in Florence, Bollani internalized his everything-is-grist-for-the-mill approach early on, playing the piano along with the Fats Domino-Nat King Cole-Jerry Lee Lewis portion of his father’s extensive collection of ‘50s pop, from which he also assimilated the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. He learned Italian musica legere (light music) as well, through recordings by Renato Carosone and Celentano. At 11, the aspiring young singer enrolled in Florence’s prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory (he would graduate with honors in 1993) and also encountered local pianists Luca Flores and Mauro Grossi, who gave him hands-on instruction in the codes of jazz and blues. At 12, he fell hard for Art Blakey’s Night At Birdland album and joined what he describes as “the Taliban of Hard Bop.” As his teens progressed, Bollani expanded his horizons, absorbing “the real masters”—Martial Solal, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines.

“Ragtime and stride piano is the sound of joy to me,” he said. “Even the ballads, except for things like ‘Lotus Blossom’ by Strayhorn.” He sang the melody. “In fact, as soon as they get melancholic, they sound European, in a way. But I love the joyful part of jazz, which is probably coming from Africa.”

Apart from the ebullient feel of the earlier styles, Bollani cited the technical derring-do required to play them. “These guys had amazing character,” he said. “When Teddy Wilson played with Gene Krupa or Nat Cole with Buddy Rich, they had no bass, and they often had no amplification—they had strong hands, big hands. When Bud Powell started playing mainly as a horn player with the right hand and no chords on the left hand, that became the book. But I discovered a lot of people in jazz history, before and after Bud Powell, who think of the piano as an orchestra, which it is. I can play 50 notes at the same time if I want. So why should I force myself to solo only with the right hand? It’s ok, it’s an idea, but that’s ONE thing you can do. But as a piano player, you can’t only practice on that. A lot of people study Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, without considering that they are not points of departure in piano history, but points of arrival. If that’s how you start, you miss their process in getting to that point, and you’ll be an imitation of them.”

Bollani’s strongly typed tonal identity is fully apparent on Orvieto, a trans-stylistic tour de force on which he and Corea improvise interactively through American and Brazilian Songbook and jazz standards, a blues, and several scratch inventions. “I immediately knew that I could go anywhere with Chick,” Bollani recalled. “Usually one person solos and the other comps, and vice-versa, but here no one is driving—no roles are played for more than a few bars, then we start over. I told myself to be careful about quoting him, but it didn’t feel like the Chick Corea I knew in my youth. It’s just music.”

Trumpeter Enrico Rava, who hired Bollani in 1996, was a key figure in helping him gain the confidence to develop his mature conception. “When I was a teenager playing in clubs and theaters with my trio, people were silent, listening,” Bollani recalled. “This meant that I was developing a music that was closer to Art than entertainment. In 1995, when I’d been mostly playing keyboards with [Italian pop singers] Irene Grandi and Jovanotti, Rava joined our trio as a guest. Later he told me that if I turned down a long tour with Jovanotti, he could find gigs for us that summer. It was maybe seven concerts, but that was enough.

“After the first set on my first concert with him, he asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I’m playing.’ ‘No, you’re playing a little of what you can do—maybe you are shy.’ ‘Well, it’s you, it’s Aldo Romano, so I leave the space.’ ‘No. I called you because you have to fill the space.’ Enrico always tried to get from me what I wanted to do.”

Whatever Bollani chooses to do in the future, being funny will remain in the mix. “If I like you, I can joke with you; I can play with you,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll probably be more serious, because I cannot be free to laugh. I’m not iconoclastic, though probably people feel I am. I’m not laughing against something. Usually, I like the persons I’m making fun of. Serious fun is important. If you take yourself too seriously, you should die. Why play the piano after Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich? Just jump from the window. Why make children? Why make love? You know you’re going to suffer about that in a few hours, a few days. One member of a couple is going to die first. You can’t do anything if you think negatively. I cannot imagine a life without self-irony. Otherwise I couldn’t stand myself.

“But I am very serious about music. I can’t do anything else. I’ve never worked. I’m not a practical man. I am really saved by the music.”

*-*-*-

Stefano Bollani (Orvieto, Jan. 4, 2009):

Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this winter’s Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvieto, a small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millennium, pianist Stefano Bollani, digesting what he described as his first real meal in days, sipped pear juice in the salon of his hotel. He was looking forward to a well-earned nap: Called five days earlier to replace bossa nova legend João Gilberto, the festival’s headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, the 18th century opera house that is one of Orvieto’s many architectural wonders, Bollani had been hustling to fulfill the task, and had executed his duties with aplomb.

After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet, while on Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohen, herself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvieto’s central square. After his nap, he would sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by bassist Roberto Gatto.

An obscure figure to American audiences, who know him primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and in March will release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release Piano Solo, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy, where, in addition to his eclectic musical production, he is a television and radio personality as well as a published author of both children’s books and experimental novels.

Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated with honors, Bollani was also a teenage bebop acolyte. His solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of kaleidscopic repertoire—Italian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originals—in which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable digital dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.

During the course of his Thursday duos, he displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, Bollani sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partner’s solo episode) and with Solal, who maintained a Buster Keaton deadpan as he went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play “musical piano benches,” and riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TP: What you’re doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, you’re called to replace João Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets, half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, you’re seamlessly occupying the flow and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it’s not.

BOLLANI: Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second night—we played what we play. Of course, we didn’t know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didn’t want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No “Desafinados” in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque. So it wasn’t just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.

I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of music—of course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.

TP: How many groups are you working with now?

BOLLANI: I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.

TP: What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group that you primarily compose for?

BOLLANI: Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.

TP: Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?

BOLLANI: I would say that EVERYTHING has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, “This is coming from Italian music” or “this is coming from Brazilian music,” etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, “Ah, it’s joy.” C-minor—“Ooh, something happened.” Symphonic orchestra—“Ooh, it’s classical music.” The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.

Q: You do that when you do those encores.

BOLLANI: Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didn’t see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. “This is Chopin,” then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes… I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isn’t that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, it’s like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.

TP: This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you can’t…

BOLLANI: Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesn’t expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I don’t do. They do this on purpose—they are waiting for me to do this. But if I don’t know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I don’t know, and I said, “Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one.” [ENGINE SOUNDS] That’s what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, “This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.”

TP: You’re 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.

BOLLANI: A lot of old songs. Usually it’s better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neal Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.

TP: You’ve been working since you were 15. Did you learn all these songs as a working musician?

BOLLANI: Not, not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentano—old stuff. I’m sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what I’m looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I don’t find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever…

TP: You’re talking about Bjork, Radiohead, those people…

BOLLANI: I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world—the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what I’m talking about, “Musica legere,” “light music.” It shouldn’t be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record or Mahler or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesn’t mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.

TP: You also play with language when you compose and write..

BOLLANI: I do. In almost any of my compositions, it’s never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. It’s always 43. You miss something or there’s something more. That’s why my musicians hate me.

TP: Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?

BOLLANI: I’m not sure, but I think it’s deliberate. I pretend it happens.

TP: Why is it deliberate?

BOLLANI: [CRADLES BELLY WITH HANDS] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one which wants to be original. He is saying, “Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put a bar more.” I feel it’s natural, but I’m not sure it is.

TP: It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?

BOLLANI: Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old til 16—I only listened to Hard Bop, Horace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock or Free Jazz. I was playing THE shit, like the Taliban of Hard Bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones—I’d been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernova—I got into rock music. The most intellectual ones maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles…

TP: The songwriters.

BOLLANI: The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speaking — Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didn’t really like it. I was studying the technique. I didn’t really like Beethoven at that moment.

TP: But the way you use the pedal and your touch, it’s obvious…

BOLLANI: Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini or Ricardo Muti, for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like BAPPP. So very serious. And he didn’t know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, “Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; he’s going to throw me out.” But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, “Okay, I discovered you’re playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.” Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he HATED it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he just said, “Okay, let’s go on.” I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now he’s happy about me, about my playing; even if he doesn’t like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.

TP: Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.

BOLLANI: A little-little bit. I don’t like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composers—but I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you don’t know the music, it’s interesting because the character is so interesting. That’s what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who I’m quite interested in as well—the technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, it’s enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.

TP: So it’s a challenge, an additive thing.

BOLLANI: Yes, I would say so. It’s not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think it’s good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.

TP: How about the jazz avant garde in the ‘70s?

BOLLANI: Almost the same.

TP: You were speaking of the Taliban of hardbop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to Neoclassicism and Art Blakey Young Lions editions of the Jazz Messengers and so on.

BOLLANI: Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people don’t understand what you’re doing—there is the Avant Garde Party and there’s the Hardbop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans don’t understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hardbop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. I’m trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. I’m waiting for that.

TP: That’s the opposite of my impression from outside. For example, I’ve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. I don’t want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own music—they just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords, you learn the RIGHT thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.

But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each other—which is why it’s hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably it’s this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I don’t know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.

TP: I haven’t heard you deal so much with Italian materials.

BOLLANI: Not so much.

TP: It seems to be pop.

BOLLANI: Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kind of things, but it’s a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar… Some songwriters from the ‘20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and he’s older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello. So it’s his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. It’s really different.

TP: So it’s hard to speak of Italian jazz because it’s so…

BOLLANI: I think it’s big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But it’s actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the world—it’s like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.

What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think they’re islands.

Antonello Salis is a genius, and he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. He’s coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesn’t have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, we’ve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. That’s what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.

Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad… For example, Denmark. That’s the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, “Okay, now you can play whatever you want…” “Whatever I want? Okay, let’s play a blues.” “Ah, okay, let’s play a blues.” Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You don’t have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.

The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, they’re wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But it’s dangerous if you think THAT’s the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still TRYING to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whatever—they never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. “Okay, they told me what music is.” It’s not like that.

TP: Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?

BOLLANI: Actually, I do think it’s changing over time, but it’s hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I don’t know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to do—trying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz music, hardbop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whatever, was a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I don’t know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.

TP: You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.

BOLLANI: Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldn’t sit down and think, “I should go in this direction.” I don’t want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, “Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line…”

TP: You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock…

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasn’t interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian—we rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. That’s quite interesting to do as practice. It’s not interesting at all when you do it on stage.

To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. It’s just I’m playing… Then I listen back, and I say, “Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.” But then after a minute, I see where I’m doing something different, so ok. Whew. It’s ok. Good. Because I don’t really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I don’t recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that it’s an external thing coming into my music, that I’m adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I don’t even recognize because it’s part of my language.

TP: You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?

BOLLANI: I was talking about compositions, I don’t like compositions.

TP: Why not?

BOLLANI: Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I don’t like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. Elena e Il Suo Violino,” for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, “I have enough.” But I don’t have enough of playing “There Will Never Be Another You” or “Cheek To Cheek.”

TP: Not so dissimilar to Solal.

BOLLANI: I would say so. He is a composer, but you are never listening to his compositions.

TP: Because he returns to the same songs all the time.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: What about those songs allows you to do that? Is it about the music, or the signification?

BOLLANI: Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kind of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.

TP: That’s interesting, too, because you’re speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet you’re simultaneously loving both things.

BOLLANI: But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because it’s anachronistic. That’s why it’s interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.

TP: I’m fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. You’re in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and it’s beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. You’re from Florence, the home of Dante…

BOLLANI: Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.

TP: The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?

BOLLANI: I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think it’s a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.

TP: The church was an instrument of political power.

BOLLANI: Exactly. But it’s not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. That’s good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and we our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politics—if you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. It’s not the ego thing. It’s the idea of the world. It’s the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable…

TP: You’re pointing to your brain.

BOLLANI: Exactly. It’s much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.

TP: So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is…

BOLLANI: Absolutely. It’s coming from that.

TP: You seem to have a very young audience.

BOLLANI: I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hardbop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, or in Europe Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, “Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.”

TP: As though you’re not quite serious.

BOLLANI: Yeah, exactly. I am not enough serious.

TP: It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re…

BOLLANI: More serious.

TP: It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: It seems more like performance art than comedy.

BOLLANI: Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello, everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.

TP: You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.

BOLLANI: No-no-no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but THAT was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out… When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.

TP: How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?

BOLLANI: Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.

TP: The French ones are very serious.

BOLLANI: Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.

TP: Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava, because if you have a musical mentor it would seem to be he, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.

BOLLANI: Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.

So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or João Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.

TP: He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?

BOLLANI: I never thought about it.

TP: You were working the whole time, I guess.

BOLLANI: Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, “oh, I would like to be Chick Corea” or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.

TP: When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, “You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it, you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.” Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanatti, which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.

BOLLANI: I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.

TP: But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz.

BOLLANI: I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995 when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, “Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,” which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, “I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.” Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.

TP: And you found enough other work to…

BOLLANI: Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning SO much money from the Pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.

TP: But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.

BOLLANI: Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever…

TP: I saw a Youtube where you do that.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.

But talking about the Pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, “wow, why doesn’t he like that?” But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.

TP: You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading, your writing filter into your performance attitude?

BOLLANI: I’m reading a lot of novels.

TP: All Italian?

BOLLANI: No-no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones, Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa, where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it because after three pages, for example, there s a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, “wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.” When you read Calvino or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside… A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. “If on a winter night, a reader…” I don’t know the title in English.

Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [SINGS OPENING 12 BARS]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [SINGS SECOND REFRAIN] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.

TP: There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice metaphor for your performances

BOLLANI: That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. “Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,” and then, “Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.”

TP: Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?

BOLLANI: Yes, I think so.

TP: How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?

BOLLANI: I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.

TP: Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?

BOLLANI: Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, “I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.” Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst…That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing… Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.

TP: I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.

BOLLANI: Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and the idea of Breton, or of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that “beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.” Which meant you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take “Yesterday” by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.

TP: When you talk about the Taliban of Hard Bop, it’s a clever phrase, but it also refers to a music that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. Blues developed from an American context in the ‘20s-‘30s-‘40s-‘50s, so does dance music, then it evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.

BOLLANI: Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, “Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!” Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying “I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.” In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, “This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.”

TP: You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano…

BOLLANI: Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that… Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in Antonia which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert, because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing “The Wrong Note Rag” for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [SINGS IT], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone… What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the “Wrong Note Rag,” and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.

TP: Does your intimacy with so many languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on “Do You Know What It Means” on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.

BOLLANI: Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.

TP: The word “idiomatic” would cover it.

BOLLANI: Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, Promenade is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.

TP: So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet and João Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to João for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with João. I can go to a desert island with João’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. “Girl From Ipanema,” six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.

TP: Solal talks about having to practice every day.

BOLLANI: I do not. I never practice. I am a disaster. I would love to practice. I have no time to do that. I am practicing at soundcheck, which is always not enough.

TP: Is practice important to you?

BOLLANI: I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.

You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to IMAGINE myself doing something else.

[END OF CONVERSATION

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava, Italy, Piano, Stefano Bollani, trumpet

For Uri Caine’s 60th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2004 and a Downbeat Feature Article from 2001, plus Interviews for that Article

For the 60th birthday of pianist Uri Caine, I’m posting an uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2004, the final draft (not sure if it’s verbatim of what made it to print) of a 2001 DownBeat feature, and the interviews conducted for that feature with Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave  Douglas, Stefan Winter and DJ Olive.

 

Uri Caine Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chick Corea, “Bessie’s Blues” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Stretch, 2003) (Corea, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Dave Weckl, drums) (5 stars)

It’s “Bessie’s Blues” and it’s Chick Corea playing with Roy Haynes. Oh, no, let me listen. It sounds like he’s playing a lot coming out of Chick Corea, but it’s definitely not Roy Haynes. Maybe it’s the newer group with Avishai and Jeff Ballard — if it is Chick. I’m enjoying the performance. It’s swinging… I’m thinking of it two ways. If it is Chick, he’s playing a lot of stuff that’s new. Some of the runs are definitely different. But the thing about his playing which is great is the buoyancy, the lines, the way they keep on coming. There’s a lot of rhythmic energy; it’s swinging. He’s playing a lot of interesting substitutions on the chord changes of the blues. It’s a famous Coltrane blues from “Crescent” and a really famous McCoy Tyner solo, so in other words, it’s one of those things where… It’s exciting, the way he’s playing, and I always love the incisiveness of how Chick Corea plays and the rhythmic energy of it. The trio is strong. They’re great musicians. The bassist sounds like John Patitucci. I say that because of the way he’s playing those high ideas, and there’s a certain rhythmic attack which he has. I like the drummer. One thing I will say is that I love the way Roy Haynes plays with Chick Corea, because he puts it right up in that area where Chick’s stuff sounds so ebullient. But I’m not sure who the drummer is. He sounds good, though. I like the way Chick is trading fours, too. [AFTER] Wow! Because I never really checked Dave Weckl out so much as a straight-ahead drummer. 5 stars because it’s Chick Corea. I feel like some of the pianists got alot of stuff from hearing Chick’s music. So in a way, this is a continuation of a lot of the great music he’s done from “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” especially in the trio vein. Those records are very important.

2. Pete Malinverni, “Elegy” (from AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, Reservoir, 2002) (Malinverni, piano, composer; Dennis Irwin, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) (4 stars)

That’s a hard one to guess. The composition seemed almost derived from a classical type of progression. I thought it was nice the way the pianist, the right hand especially, was playing some really nice things. In contrast to Chick, for instance, the rhythm was a lot more on the beat. The drummer is playing pretty much on the beat. Even the pianist’s left hand, a lot of the time, is playing very much on the beat. I would guess from that that it’s probably an older style, or a younger person imitating an older style, which many people do, too. In terms of who it might be? Oy!! I could get somebody from the Hank Jones-Tommy Flanagan-John Lewis type of vibe. I didn’t really hear enough to be able to identify somebody, but stylistically I would say that it’s coming out of those types of pianists. There’s a certain restraint in it that’s very nice, and also rhythmically it’s sort of staying more within than, say, the way Chick starts his phrases at the end, or even when Chick is trading he doesn’t stay so much in the rhythmic grid. But I enjoyed it. There was an elegance to the way whoever it was, was playing. I liked the composition. That sort of composition is hard to play on, because the type of chords he was using are…it’s one thing when you have a composition based on that, but when you actually have to solo on it, it’s a harder thing. There’s a certain…what’s the word when something is foreordained…when there’s a certain progression that’s happening… I don’t know who it is. 4 stars. [AFTER] They’re great players. I’ve played with Dennis Irwin, and I love playing with him. He gives a lot to the music when he plays, and he’s also a total Mahler fanatic. I’ve spent entire evenings talking to him. We have this connection beyond having played together. I wouldn’t say he really got a chance to play his stuff on that track, but he’s a great player.

3. Geoffrey Keezer-Mulgrew Miller, “Alpha” (from SUBLIME: HONORING THE MUSIC OF HANK JONES, Telarc, 2002) (Keezer, Miller, piano; Hank Jones, composer)

It sounded like two pianists. If it was one pianist, it would be Art Tatum. Again, it could be several people. Playing together that way is hard, and the pianists had really good time. I like the way they accompanied each other. They weren’t always walking. Sometimes they were breaking up the time, sometimes they were letting open space happen, other times they were trying to sort of walk the left hand. It had a good feel to it, a good swing to it. Stylistically, I would put it somewhere coming out of pianists like Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Barron rather than somebody playing more outside. They’re playing really within changes. But there was a lot of creativity in how they were playing. It’s hard to guess who it would be. I’m trying to think of duet records. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Keezer had a nice idea with this record. I used to hear Geoff Keezer more. He has an awesome technique. And I love Mulgrew. He has so much swing, and a lot of harmonic sophistication, and good time. I was thinking of him, especially in those runs, when he’s filling up the space. It had his signature.

4. Chano Dominguez, “Cilantro y Comino” (from HECHO A MANO, Sunnyside, 2002) (Dominguez, piano; Javier Colina, bass; Guillermo McGuill, drums; Tino di Geraldo, percussion; Joaquin Grilo, Juan Diego, Lorenzo Virseda, clapping) (5 stars)

I like this very much. It’s definitely a marriage of flamenco music — flamenco harmony and melody and definitely rhythm — and a Jazz-Latin vibe. You can tell the soloist is familiar with both of those words. I really like playing against that percussion, the clapping. My guess would be the guy from Spain who played with Wynton… I don’t remember his name. Actually, I heard him play at a festival in Spain. I like a lot of people who are bringing those types of rhythms in, where you can go back between 2 and 3 rhythmically. Those types of polyrhythms sound great. The pianist sounds like a combination of coming out of Chick Corea but trying to be more folkloristic about it in dealing with the flamenco part, which I like. So 5 stars. I don’t know the other players, but I’m assuming it’s the same group I saw him with.

5. Roland Hanna, “One For Gustav (Adagietto)” (from APRES UN REVE, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Antonin Dvorak, composer) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He or she played the beginning of… In the first part of the piece, the improvisations were really not on the harmony. They were just alternating on two chords. When people take a piece like that and sort of “jazz it up”… I think whoever was doing it was trying to do it in the style of a jazz ballad. I’m not sure that they got the drama of that music, in a way. There’s a sort of pseudo cocktail vibe to it. Although it was well done. The pianist is good, had a very good touch, and the group is playing together. In a way, I would want more from doing that, because to me, the point of taking these pieces is to bring something else to it, even if you’re going to play it fairly straight, that the improvisation should propel the piece forward. I was looking for more of that. But it was well-done. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Roland Hanna is a great pianist. I think that a lot of… [Does the function have anything to do with the aesthetic?] Well, I was going to say that. Again, there’s many ways to do it, so this isn’t in any sense a criticism. It’s just more a sense that I guess if you’re going to take a lot of his music and try to transform it through improvisation, there’s intense ways to do it. Roland Hanna was a great pianist, and I used to go hear Roland Hanna all the time play with Thad Jones, a really long time ago when I would first come up to New York from Philly to hear the band play, and I’d sit right up next to him. I consider him a great pianist who was a master of many styles, and also a real gentleman. So maybe it’s the idea of a theme record, where they’re suggesting to somebody that they take these pieces and play them. In that sense, it’s okay. But even then, I would rather hear Roland Hanna play his real thing, which I didn’t.

6. Bobby Few, “Continental Jazz Express, Reprise” (from CONTINENTAL JAZZ EXPRESS, Boxholder, 2002) (Few, piano, composer) (4-1/2 stars)

A very powerful pianist, influenced a lot, if it’s not Cecil Taylor, by Cecil Taylor, especially the types of left-hand flurries. The harmony doesn’t totally sound like Cecil Taylor, but if it’s not him, it’s somebody who’s listened a lot to him, especially the way he moves around, those types of two-handed figurations that go up and down, these ostinatos that start and stop and then move back. If not him, I’d guess somebody like Marilyn Crispell, or maybe Matthew Shipp — although it could be many people. In a sense, some of it almost sounds like a cross between certain classical composers, the figuration and sort of a Cecil vibe. But in a way, it doesn’t really sound like…there are certain things that don’t sound like Cecil, so… Like, now it doesn’t sound like Cecil. To me, it’s a challenge to play this way. The ending is very different than everything that came before it. I was very surprised by that ending, because in a way, it sort of went into a very tonal bebop type of ending. But it’s a different challenge to play this type of music than it is to play on changes, because in a certain way, you have to keep things moving and harmonically interesting without the benefit of having types of chord changes. But I enjoy this type of music very much. So I would give it 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Wow. I should be more familiar with Bobby Few’s work. That was strong. I need to check him out more.

7. Hilton Ruiz, “Black Narcissus” (from ENCHANTMENT, Arabesque, 2003) (Ruiz, piano; Joe Henderson, composer)

This is a Joe Henderson song called “Black Narcissus.” It’s a beautiful song. It’s very hard to play. Again, it could be many people. Maybe somebody like John Hicks. Just because of the style of the runs. He or she is keeping a rhythmic pulse going in the left hand to accompany. That’s another thing that’s hard to do when you’re playing a song like this without a rhythm section. You have to keep that thing moving. I’m hearing the pianist move in between playing in time and a more rubato type of feel, where the time is a little bit freer, which is nice. There’s also the attack. It’s a harder sound rather than a softer sound. But dynamically, it’s working, because they built up to a solo, and now they come back to the head and it’s more gentle, slower. I like the performance. Maybe it’s Joanne Brackeen. I know she played with Joe. But it is a certain maybe New York style of really digging in and playing. I wish I knew who it was. 4 stars. [AFTER] Hilton! Another pianist I’ve been hearing ever since I moved to New York, and usually not in this sort of context. Usually with his group. I love the song. Joe Henderson is a great composer, and it’s a challenge to play on tunes like that. They’re deceptively simple, but they were really vehicles for the type of floating improvisation that combines so many different styles, from the blues to outness, with very advanced harmony, very inside harmony. It’s a great tune.

8. Classical Jazz Quartet, “Invention #4” (from THE CLASSICAL JAZZ QUARTET PLAYS BACH, Fine Tune, 2002) (Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Ron Carter, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D-Minor. I’d guess the pianist is Kenny Barron. Especially his right hand is very…the timing is beautiful, the touch is very beautiful. It’s very light compared to the Bobby Few take, for instance. And it’s very well-suited for playing Bach. I would also say that unlike the other piece of Mahler, where you’re taking the piece but not necessarily adding to it, here I think that they are sort of using the harmony. Bach also lends himself to this very much, these type of circular harmonic patterns that are really satisfying to improvise on. So this feels like it’s moving forward in a better way. There’s a good contrast between how they’re soloing on it that sounds real, rather than sort of, “All right, now we’re going to take a little solo after we play this whole classical piece.” So in that sense, I think there is a better integration between the soloing and the piece. I like this middle section when they do that sort of minimalist thing, and then it breaks, and then they’re sort of vamping, and then they go back to the Bach. The arrangement of the piece is nice. And I really can’t say enough about Kenny Barron. Again, another pianist who, ever since I moved to New York, I’d make it my business to go see him play at Bradley’s. I’ve gotten to know him. He’s seen a lot and heard a lot, and he’s also from Philly. 5 stars. [AFTER] Let me say that Stefon Harris sounded great on that. That was a nice arrangement.

9. Orrin Evans, “Some Other Blues” (from BLESSED ONES, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Edgar Bateman, drums)

It’s a blues by John Coltrane. There’s a looseness in the way they’re playing which is sort of different, let’s say, than some of the other pieces you played. I like the way that the pianist is touching on different styles, however briefly. There’s a mixture of sort of a bebop vibe, but also sort of playing outside of the harmony, playing real swing type of lines, but then sometimes moving sequentially, leaving it, using the themes from the melody as a basis for improvisation — sort of repeating things over and over again versus playing more fluid lines. So I like the contrast that’s going on in the piece. I like the way the bass and the drums sometimes seem like they’re falling behind, and then catching up. A lot of times, when people play a blues, they keep it very straight, and I think that the group is going for more of an open feel. I wish I knew who it was. [Any idea who the drummer might be?] That is a really good question. The drummer… Wow, wait a minute. The drummer seemed like he or she was very influenced by… It could be an older drummer, coming from the ’60s. There’s a certain looseness and almost non-chops-oriented approach to playing the swing thing. It almost reminds me of somebody like Barry Altschul. But I really don’t know who it is. It sounds familiar, and that’s why I’m frustrated, because I feel I should know who it is. And when you tell me, I’m going to hate myself. It’s not the sound of the record; it’s a certain approach. Certain people wouldn’t like that approach. There’s a certain looseness to it, and it’s okay. I like it when people go for that feeling. For the vibe, 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I was almost going to say that it sounded like Orrin, but in terms of the style… I grew up playing with Edgar Bateman, and he was considered to be a very eccentric drummer in Philadelphia compared to the more eccentric style people like Philly Joe or Mickey Roker. He was playing a lot of complicated stuff that I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t deal with. Because the way he was trying to play, it really was coming out of that head where instead of creating these continuous grooves that you sort of float on, he’s also trying to set up obstructions, then relax, then go forward, and so there’s a certain give-and-take which I really like. It’s great you played Edgar Bateman, because a lot of people really don’t know about him. Orrin is also somebody that I’ve known from Philly even before he moved to New York. I knew him through Ralph Peterson. Orrin is really combining a lot of stuff which I like. I think he has a lot of sense of humor in his playing. Also, I like the fact that he’s not afraid to sort of go for things, just as a musician. So I give it up to him.

10. Pablo Ziegler, “Chin Chin” (from BAJO CERO, Khaeon, 2003) (Ziegler, piano; Walter Castro, bandoneon; Quique Sinesi, guitar; Astor Piazzolla, composer)

It definitely sounds like Piazzolla. It was definitely out of the tango. It wasn’t Piazzolla, but sounded like a group playing his music. Maybe it was Richard Galleano or Gil Goldstein…I’m not sure who it was. It was interesting formally. I really liked the arrangement, and then sort of everything dropped out, and there was a longer piano solo and then a very short ensemble at the end, which was different. I don’t think that would normally happen, necessarily. For me, it was hard to tell from the solo who it was, because a lot of the solo piano part didn’t necessarily sound improvised; it sounded like it was composed and part of the arrangement. The harmony in that piece, as in a lot of Piazzolla’s music, is beautiful, the way it goes around and a lot of unexpected chords come into it. So I liked it. It was hard for me to tell from that piece who the pianist was, because I didn’t recognize the style — it was more playing a part. But I liked the arrangement. 4 stars. [AFTER] When I discovered Piazzolla’s music, it was a revelation, and then when I played iun Argentina I got a chance to see some of these clubs where they’re dancing to the tango, and it was interesting to see how there were some people saying “Piazzolla is not tango,” and then other people saying, “No, he took tango to the new form.” It reminded me of the way people talk about jazz or improvised music, where some say, “no, this is really jazz,” and others, “No, this is really the shit” or “he took it, but it’s not the real thing.” It was interesting, because I’m not prejudiced by those things, and I can deal with the traditional tango and also the Piazzolla, but once you start to really get into it and appreciate what he not only had to struggle against, but to develop his thing against a lot of people who said it’s not the real thing, it’s a good lesson that you should go with your own thing and create — using the tradition. Because it really sounds like he is using that tradition. But you see it in a different context with different music, and you realize that this dynamic goes on in a lot of musics.

11. Vijay Iyer, “Circular Argument” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Derrek Phillips, drums)

Geri Allen? I like the melody. It has a Monk vibe to it. Also sort of a looseness of how… Again, the soloing is not based on bebop harmony so much. It’s this rising progression. A good ending, too. The reason I said Geri Allen is because certain phrases reminded me of some of the stuff that she might play — or maybe Michelle Rosewoman. The lines had a certain feel like that. But I liked it. It sounded like a challenging piece to have to improvise on. It was combining swing with — especially in the piano part — a freer type of playing over that. Which means it could be a lot of different people. Maybe Andrew Hill? I’m trying to think of the drummer, because there was a very distinctive… But I don’t know. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve played with Derrick Phillips. He’s great. I first heard Vijay Iyer playing with Steve Coleman, and the other stuff I’ve heard that he’s trying to do in dealing with certain rhythmic structures… I think he’s an interesting pianist.

12. Fred Van Hove-Frank Gratkowski-Tony Oxley, “Tiddledit” (from GRATHOVOX, Nuscope, 2002) (Van Hove, piano; Gratkowski, alto saxophone; Oxley, drums)

Stylistically, it’s coming out of a much freer school. When it started out, it could have been a piece by Stockhausen. Now we’re in an improvisation section. The saxophone player could be Greg Osby or Tim Berne. Neither of those? Oh, shit!! Or Anthony Braxton. [You’re on the wrong continent.] There’s a certain tone, and also the line he’s playing over and over again is complicated, wide jumps… Well, this part I would say is more in the Tim Berne area. But maybe it’s somebody like Louis Sclavis. It’s not Peter Brotzmann. [Wrong horn.] That’s true. It’s definitely coming from the free jazz vibe. The pianist reminds me of… Especially the way they were playing in the beginning, the way they’re using the pedal and the way they’re voicing, almost using the harp sound, it’s very typical of certain music of Messiaen. Now, in this more active section here, it has more of a Cecil Taylor vibe. But who knows? Again, it could be a lot of people — and I wish I knew who they were!! 4 stars. It was interesting. It was not surprising after a certain point, and in this music it really needs to be surprising. But actually, I shouldn’t necessarily say that, because I can listen to that music for a long time. There’s a certain vibe that gets going, and I guess the question becomes in any music, if something can be said in 5 or 10 minutes and then you start to get bored with it, is that your fault or the music’s fault. I don’t know what the answer to that is. It just sort of happens. Any music that stays in a certain area can be accused of that, and it’s not a good way to criticize music, because there are certain aspects of a lot of music that… You’re not going to get another thing from it. You’re not going to get a free jazz solo in the middle of a Mozart sonata. In that sense, I can accept it. It’s definitely well played, as opposed to a lot of free music that I think just sounds like a hit-and-miss attempt by a group that can’t play. These guys can play. Who are they? [AFTER] These are all musicians who are not getting the type of due that they should be getting, especially in the United States and especially, I guess, in a more mainstream jazz whatever. When I look at it that way, I want to defend musicians like that, because I know, in a certain way, they’re keeping up a certain tradition that’s important, and I enjoy it. It’s even more than a tradition. It’s just fun. As a musician I enjoy playing that way.

13. Brad Mehldau, “Paranoid Android” (from LARGO, Warner Brothers, 2002) (Mehldau, prepared piano; Derek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Matt Chamberlin, Jim Keltner, drums)

There was a very interesting contrast in the arrangement between the sort of quiet, almost classical sounding piece with the harmony and the pianist sort of playing against those long chords, and the more rhythmic, Latinesque type of piece. It’s hard to guess who it was. For a minute (I know this is a strange guess), I thought it was Brad Mehldau, because of certain lines he was playing. But it’s characteristically… I guess I’m more familiar with his Art of the Trio records. I enjoyed it. Brad Mehldau is a great pianist, very original. He does amazing things with his touch and also the time, how he plays standards in different time signatures. His whole sensibility is beautiful. 4-1/2 stars. In the middle it sounded like they were distorting, or trying to change the sound of the piano. That was okay. I guess he was going for a contrast between those different sections. That sounded okay to me. I’m not sure how clear everything was to him, especially in the percussive part. But again, in terms of creating contrast between section, it works.

14. McCoy Tyner, “Contemplation” (from LAND OF GIANTS, Telarc, 2003) (Tyner, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Eric Harland, drums) (5 stars)

This is a McCoy Tyner piece…what’s the name… It’s on “The Real McCoy.” That one I can identify. McCoy Tyner!! That’s one of the amazing things about McCoy, that he’s instantly identifiable, especially with those runs, his touch… In a way, he’s the pianist that so many other people followed in this groove, and it’s… Wow. That’s all I can say. Great musician. Sounds like Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I could listen to this a long time. I heard Bobby Hutcherson play a lot this summer with Herbie. 5 stars. Again, it’s the same vibe. You have somebody who’s done so much over a long period of time, and I think… A lot of pianists studied his stuff a lot — the lines, the way these tunes moved. I also love the original recording of this with Joe Henderson. There’s a lot of classic McCoy solos where he’s playing both as a leader and as a sideman which maybe are more intense than this thing you’re playing for me. But even McCoy’s bad days are great. There’s a total consistency. When you invent a certain style, that’s what happens. You’re creating this area you’re playing in, and he’s certainly created a distinctive sound for piano.

*******

Uri Caine DownBeat Article, 2001 — Final Draft:

In late February, a packed house at the Knitting Factory witnessed a performance by the pianist Uri Caine and an octet of Caine’s adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

The set, videotaped for “B.E.T. On Jazz,” was textually rigorous, expertly paced, cinematically orchestrated, never condescending, and hardly ever arch. It proceeded as follows. Addressing a slightly out-of-tune piano, Caine gracefully stated the opening variation. After a brief rest, turntablist DJ Olive let forth a swoopy Spike Jones sound, launching Caine into a barrelhouse refrain. Olive countered with a Dada voice inquiring, “Are we sure we know where we are?” Violinist Joyce Hammann played a straight classical theme against a Caine bop variation; trumpeter Ralph Alessi and clarinettist Chris Speed commenced a free rubato dialogue; the ensemble plunged into a N’Awlins blues concluding with a Caine quote of “Over the Rainbow.” Over the next hour, they referenced Hardbop styles from Kenny Dorham to Woody Shaw; Barbara Walker sang four spirituals, moving from Mahalia Jackson fervency to spirit-shaking shuffles to Fontella Bass-like avant-pop declamations over atonal horn lines; Olive punctuated with a series of aphorisms, jokes, cantorial grunts, and synth sounds sampled from musique concrete; Caine crafted compelling solos in the Tyner-Hancock-Corea mode. It ended with a succession of Olive-spun snores, reminding us that Bach had written his epochal masterwork of theme-and-variation as a soporific for an insomniac noble patron.

Caine streamlined this Goldberg from the elaborately reimagined version that he recorded in 1999-2000 for Winter&Winter. He arranged 26 of Bach’s 30 original variations — and wrote his own variations on the given harmony — for various ensembles drawn from a dramatis personae including early instrument specialists, a German choir, singers Walker, Mark Ledford and David Moss, several deejays, and jazz improvisers like Don Byron, Greg Osby and Ralph Peterson. He devised an intricate system of strategies to impart structural unity to the whole. Where Bach wrote a Sarabande or a gigue as a dance form, Caine riposted with a drum-and-bass or a tango. Bach wrote every third variation as a canon voiced at each interval from the opening unison to the ninth; Caine composed variants incorporating the intervals and equivalent time signatures — i.e., the canon at the fourth is 4/4, the canon at the fifth is in 5/4, and so on.

“Theme-and-variation can liberate the composer to write in other people’s styles, because the game of the piece is the variety,” Caine had noted a few weeks before at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant not far from his Upper West Side home. “If Bach composed a nod, say, to Scarlatti, I could do mine to other people. You can emphasize the contrasts of miniatures following one another in rapid succession that are unified by a central theme. Unlike a sonata, where you develop and recapitulate the opening material, here it’s like a jazz solo; you lay out the theme, and then BOOM, all these different chords and variations. If you gave a jazz musician the 32 chords of the Goldberg theme, it would be like a 32-bar song form. I’m dealing with it from that point of view.”

Back at the Knitting Factory, after a brief intermission, the octet launched into a program of songs and symphonic excerpts drawn from the corpus of Gustav Mahler, played in a relaxed, stretched-out manner that had the quality of a jam session. Caine first recorded the material on “Urlicht:Primal Light” [W&W] (it won a Best Mahler Recording of 1997 award from The International Mahler Society), and offered a live concert followup two years later, “Mahler in Toblach.”

“Even in high school in Philadelphia, I could see that Mahler switched up feelings,” Caine recalled after swallowing a forkful of arroz con pollo. “He would cut from a complex Wagnerian orchestral sound to, say, a klezmer band playing a folk melody, or break up a marching band section with blaring trumpets, or bring in the simplest heartbreaking melody. He was one of the first modern composers who juxtaposed the beautiful and the vulgar to reach a greater whole, and he referred to aspects of his own life. He gave music a psychological dimension, setting up an expectation, then bringing in a counteractive element, for which he was severely criticized in his lifetime. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone, and it reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.”

One of those players is the trumpeter Dave Douglas, in whose sextet Caine regularly appears (see Douglas’ acclaimed homages to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams). Not long before the Knitting Factory set, Caine sidemanned for a week with Douglas’ newly formed quintet at the Village Vanguard for a series of tightrope-walking sets that blended the best-and-brightest of cusp-of-the-’70s Miles Davis, Mwandishi, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, the Sonny Rollins-Don Cherry Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Perched before his Fender Rhodes, fully in synch with the formidable bass-drum team of James Genus and Clarence Penn, Caine spun out surging solos that evoked sturdy melodies from complex voicings and jagged rhythmic designs, and drew on a comprehensive awareness of contemporary electronic music to navigate nuanced open-form structures. From night to night he refined his touch, testing different angles of approach without fear of failure; by the end of the week, Douglas observed, “I felt Uri had come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music.”

“The reason it’s exciting to play with Uri is that he understands so many different musical languages,” Douglas continued. “It’s rare to find someone with the technical knowledge to perform the Goldberg Variations, who can deal with freedom and move in and out of the post-jazz continuum without missing a beat. Uri arranges the Goldberg or the Mahler or his own trio completely free and flexible, so everyone can go for it. I’ve been on Mahler gigs where we’d have this incredible train wreck, and if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out. Uri would have a beatific smile on his face, like, ‘Here we are in the real music — now deal!'”

Caine’s dialectical tinkerings with the tradition make him a hot commodity on the European continent. According to my seatmate at the Knitting Factory concert, his beautifully packaged CDs, each a fine piece of handiwork, receive place of prominence in German record stores alongside the Three Tenors. He has performed his Mahler at an international assortment of Classical and Alternative Music venues, including the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival and a slew of Mahler festivals.

Following one such appearance, a representative of the Munich Opera invited Caine to do a project with the music of Robert Schumann. Caine’s response was “Love Fugue” (1999), which sandwiches Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Opus 47 — performed by La Gaia Scienza Ensemble with ravishing idiomatic specificity — with Opus 48, “The Poet’s Love,” a song cycle of 16 love poems from the composer to his wife, deploying three poets (“it’s about the poetry of love”), guitarist David Gilmore (“the intimacy of the Bill Evans-Jim Hall vibe”), and vocalists Ledford and Moss (to evoke the “the gospel and pop overtones we hear in this beautiful piano harmony written in 1840”). That followed “Wagner e Venezia” (1998), which documents a Caine-led sextet of New York first-callers performing his arrangements of iconic Wagneriana in the cafes of St. Mark’s Square that Wagner habituated a century ago.

Nor is Caine close to slowing down. Another record of Mahler’s songs is in the can, and he’s working out the logistics of an “audio film” project constructed around the musical tropes of Brazil. In 2000 the Stockholm Ballet Company made a ballet for Swedish television of “Wagner e Venezia”; in May 2001 the Pennsylvania Ballet will premier their version of his Goldbergs. As we speak, he’s writing a piece based on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with improvisation commissioned that Concerto Köln commissioned for a June 2001 premiere. Still in gestation is a scored piano concerto for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern to which Caine will add arrangements of iconic jazz compositions, and he’s mapping out a version of “Otello” for Milan’s centenary celebrations of Verdi’s death.

“Uri is working with the history of Western music,” says Caine’s producer Stefan Winter. “Both the jazz and Classical audiences in Europe understand what he is doing — if he is turning a section of Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel, or putting something on top of a Bach bassline. I think they love this incredible variation and interpretation. Uri’s music has no categorization. He is using all his influences; he works in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. He is absolutely reflecting what happened in the last 400 years of music history. He has the talent to take these elements apart and make his own puzzle out of it.

“When I was coming up in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t have predicted that my thing would develop the way it has,” Caine says. “I wanted to move to New York and play with Freddie Hubbard.” That said, “Blue Wail” (1997) is Caine’s only hardcore jazz date for W&W. Tackling a set of eight distinctive originals with a take-no-prisoners trio (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums), he reveals an improvisational personality informed by but never imitative of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor, as well as Philly piano idols McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron and Hassan Ibn-Ali. It begins and ends with a pair of let-it-all-hang-out improvisations on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that evoke the spirit of Earl Hines’ free associative solo performances of the ’60s and ’70s.

Caine spent a good chunk of 1999 exploring the jazz prehistory from which Waller emerged while researching and preparing “The Sidewalks Of New York: Tin Pan Alley,” a kaleidoscopic “audio film” for W&W that he dedicated to his grandfather, Edward Caine, a Russian Jew who died that year at the age of 97. It postulates an idealized music hall in which a multicultural cast of in-character performers who play 27 tunes of provenance ranging from 1892 (“After The Ball”) to 1915 (“Cohen Owes Me $97”). Caine eschews parody, vividly reconstructing the sound and animating spirit of the time. More clearly than any of Caine’s projects, “Sidewalks” articulates the enduring American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon to vernacular imperatives.

“I was thinking about how a lot of the songs we play as jazz musicians became established,” Caine reflects. “I read about the history of Tin Pan Alley and the groups of musicians who worked in different genres in New York at the turn of the last century. I’m fascinated by the immigrants who came to New York City, who were transforming America as they were being transformed themselves.”

Caine credits an immigrant from the post World War II diaspora as the catalyst of his personal transformation at 13 from unfocused student to driven musician. This was the virtuoso French pianist Bernard Pfeiffer, a stylistic omnivore whose conceptual range spanned Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor. “Bernard told me that if I really wanted to improve, I’d have to get intense on every level,” Caine relates. “I’d have to practice and investigate and start reading and start thinking. I’d have to start playing with musicians my age and older, listen to them and try to move into what they do, even if I don’t accept it all. Since then I’ve felt that if you can play in all these different areas, you should go for it.”

At 17, Caine left home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a conservatory-trained practitioner of Modernism under the tutelage of twelve-tone composer George Rochberg, who gave Caine an early assignment to write a piano reduction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” the pianist notes with some asperity. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.”

Caine was learning his jazz the old-fashioned way, on the streets of inner-city Philly. He apprenticed on gigs playing electric keyboards in a variety of bars and lounges with local sax hero Bootsie Barnes, master drummen Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham, bassists Jymie Merritt and Charles Fambrough. He jammed with Rashied Ali, Pat Martino, Hank Mobley, Johnny Coles and even Grover Washington; he workshopped with post-Coltrane tenorists Odean Pope and Willie Williams; he played Avant-Funk with drummer Cornell Rochester and electric bassists Gerald Veasley and Jamaladeen Tacuma; he worked cocktail gigs in the upscale parts of town.

“Whatever circles Uri moves in, he maintains his identity and speaks up,” says Rochester, who remains a close friend. “He never changed up what he’s about. I grew up with a lot of gang activity, and Uri impressed me because he always hung with us in the hood; he played in areas that I would never even go into. I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; I just thought about him in our context, which was different than what Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were doing, where he functioned perfectly. He’s been functioning multi-dimensionally for a long time.”

“I never felt a barrier coming from those musicians,” Caine emphasizes. “They basically told me, ‘If you’re cool and properly respectful, and keep your ears open, you’re welcome.’ I always enjoyed the power of the drum, how you get a chance to surf on top of all these incredible feelings. Philly Joe and Mickey Roker were dynamic players and strong stylists, and I was lucky that they took me under their wing and were generous with their advice.”

Caine began to lay down New York roots in the early ’80s, and by 1987 he found the studio apartment that he and his wife still use as their primary base of operations. At first he scuffled, working as a rehearsal pianist, doing $15-a-night gigs at places like Augie’s, sitting in at public jam sessions and workshopping at private homes with like-minded peers such as Douglas, Mark Feldman and M-Base bassist Kevin Bruce Harris. Not infrequently, he toured with Cornell Rochester, and at a festival in Saalfelden, Austria, Caine met clarinetist Don Byron, who was in Craig Harris’ band. They bonded during a long bus ride to the next destination; in 1990 Byron invited Caine to join his successful klezmer project and continued to use the pianist in his jazz groups. That year Caine also began to get steady employment with disparate stylists like Buddy DeFranco, Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. In 1992 Caine made a demo, and Winter — prodded by Gary Thomas, then a JMT artist — released it as “Sphere Music.” Caine followed up with “Toys,” on which an ensemble featuring Douglas, Thomas, Byron, Dave Holland, Ralph Peterson and Don Alias tackled four reconstructed Hancock standards and six tone-parallel-to-Herbie originals.

“Stefan may have thought I would be his Postbop, inside-out piano player,” Caine speculates. “He didn’t have someone like that; a lot of the M-BASE guys and Cassandra Wilson were leaving him at that point. It all changed when Stefan broke with Verve in 1995. He took from that a resolution to never again become involved with a corporate entity. That’s when I started these other projects, which — without trying for commerciality — became more successful for him than the stuff he tried to do to fit into the corporate realm.

“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Caine muses. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It’s a question of accepting the basis that they’re dealing with. On the largest level it’s all one thing. But I don’t want to disrespect any of the musics by saying it’s all the same, because it’s not. Coltrane’s achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I’m for less generalizations and more specifics.

“Now, once you start taking commissions, the process involves the input of a lot of people. For example, the Bach was going to be just my group of musicians and deejays in New York. Then German radio said they could give us a choir and free studio time, and Stefan Winter jumped at it. Of course, I wanted to write something for choir, but I wasn’t originally thinking about it. I try not to compromise. But for instance, if someone commissions you to write a piece ‘doing what you do,’ and what you do depends on having a trumpet player to whom you can say, ‘Okay, when we get to this part we play on these changes,’ and their guy is like, ‘What does that mean?’, then you have to say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this out.’ I’m still adjusting to the idea that these groups have their own thing. Part of you is saying, ‘This is not going to work,’ part of you is saying, ‘This is an experiment; even if it messes up, I’ll try it.’ The worst that can happen is that it fails.”

Caine turns 45 this year, and he is content. “My vibe is that the most important thing is to try to stay in the game, like I’ve been doing since I was 17,” he says. “To the extent I’ve been able to do that and not play barmitzvahs on Long Island, I feel very happy.”

**********

Interviews with Uri Caine’s Colleagues: (Mickey Roker, Cornell Rochester, John Swana, Dave Douglas, Stefan Winter, DJ Olive):
TP: What are your early memories of Uri, of your first encounters, and his musical level at that time?

ROKER: Well, he always had great potential. He went to University of Pennsylvania. Him and a friend of his who played piccolo… When I first came back to Philly, I had just left Dizzy and I started taking gigs around Philly because I wanted to learn how to play jazz again. Because playing with Dizzy in the later years, we played a lot of rhythm-and-blues and Latin and Rock type things. So I started taking local gigs. And one of the first gigs I had was with Uri Caine. First we played with the tenor player Bootsie Barnes from Philly. Then Uri had a gig and he asked me to play with him, and we played at a club called All That Jazz on 18th Street. We played there one or two nights every weekend for about a couple of months.

TP: What were your impressions of Uri as a player then?

ROKER: Well, he was just a young kid then. He was trying to find himself. But now he’s found… You’re always trying to find yourself. We didn’t really play together that much for me to know exactly what was in his head. I can only tell you what I think was in his head. He always had good potential, he always had a good beat, but harmonically and rhythmically he was trying to find himself.

TP: He seems always to have been able to fit in well with dynamic drummers.

ROKER: Well, any musician. If you’ve got a good drummer, then that’s part of it, man. Then you don’t have to worry about the rhythm. You dig? All you’ve got to do is worry about the melody and harmony.

TP: Do you remember what kind of tunes you’d be playing?

ROKER: We were playing like some standard tunes and some original tunes. But mostly standard jazz type tunes that guys play. I can’t remember, because it was 20-some years ago.

TP: But I assume you’ve been keeping an eye on Uri over the years…

ROKER: I haven’t really been keeping an eye on him. We play together whenever we can play. For the last ten years he’s been living in New York. We played together about a year ago.

TP: I’m sorry to push this in this direction, but I’m interested in someone who has known and played with him for the amount of time you have who can discuss how he’s evolved.

ROKER: Well, he has definitely grown since the first time I played with him. He can tell you about himself better than I can tell you about him. My impression is that when I first started playing with Uri, he was a young guy who showed a lot of potential. In fact, he had probably just come out of college. And now, he’s a productive piano player. You know what I’m saying? So he had to be sincere and do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of practice in order to become what he is now. But the main part of that is finding yourself. Once you learn the basics. First you’ve got to learn the basics, and then you’ve got to find which direction you want to go in. A lot of guys can play the piano, a lot of guys can play instruments, but you have to find out which direction you want to go in. There are so many avenues, so many ways to get to the same thing. Now, I think he’s found his direction.. The last time I heard him was a year ago and I think he… I’ve always had respect for him as a piano player; he’s always been a good piano player. But he was a young piano player when I first joined him.

TP: So he always had chops and instrumental ability, and you’re saying that just as part of working very hard and growing up, he’s begun to display his own sound and style.

ROKER: Right. It takes time to do that.

TP: One thing about Uri is that he functions simultaneously in different style s of music. He has the European Classical projects, then when in Philly, apart from hardcore jazz he played a lot of funk and electric gigs with keyboards, and he seemed able to do all of those in the manner in which they’re supposed to be done.

ROKER: Well, Uri is a good rhythmic player. You’ve got to know all the different aspects of rhythm. The horn players, all they do is deal with melody. But the rhythm players, you have to know all these rhythms and know them authentically. There’s a lot to rhythm.

TP: So you would call Uri a good rhythmic player.

ROKER: He’s a good musician. Which takes all three — rhythm, melody and harmony. He’s a good musician, and he’s grown musically over the last five-six years. He’s mature. I can’t pinpoint it because I don’t play with him all the time. I play with him every once in a while. And there are so many young cats I’m listening to. But I’ve always respected Uri because he’s always been a good player. I mean, you can live three lifetimes and you still won’t have it all. Nobody’s got it all! But as long as you grow and show some kind of improvement in the way of maturity, then you’re going to be respected by your peers.

 

ROCHESTER: I had a band in Philadelphia years ago with the bass player Gerald Veasley, and Gerald brought Uri to my attention. I live in North Philadelphia and grew up with a lot of gang activity and stuff… I was always impressed with Uri because he always used to play in the black neighborhood. He used to work with Philly Joe Jones and a cat by the name of Bootsie Barnes, and like I said, I basically grew up in a gang type of situation, and I was always captivated by that because there were areas I would never even go into… But I always came into contact with him from that perspective, but I didn’t know he was involved in a multitude of things like going to the University of Pennsylvania and studying up there; I didn’t know he was involved in Classical music; and I didn’t know that he was basically… I thought he was from West Philly, and he was basically from Valley Kenwood, like out on the main line to a certain extent. He always hung with us in the hood and everything. But I just never knew he was into all these different kind of things. He’s a very interesting individual, multi-dimensional. And he can function definitely in a lot of different situations.

I always respected him, because he’s Jewish and like I said, we had a couple of people who were Hebrew-Israelites here in Philadelphia, and he don’t care where he go at, he really maintains his identity and he really speaks up, don’t care where he’s at, what environment and everything. I was always impressed with… He’s just a very interesting guy! Almost like Frank Sinatra; they say he’s a guy that can actually fit in in any kind of situation. Like I said, when he started doing this Mahler stuff, I wasn’t… I did tour with him with that Mahler thing in England. And I had never even heard of Mahler before! It was just interesting.

TP: Do you remember when you first met him?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s when I first him… I used to play with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so then he was on Gramavision, and by me playing with him, Jonathan Rose had approached me to do a project, because he was familiar with me from playing with Odean Pope, the saxophone player who plays with Max Roach. So we had a record with me, him and Gerald Veasley years ago. I wasn’t a writer, and I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t a songwriter and stuff. But he said he could just come up with something. Then I told him I was in a partnership, and I went and got Gerald Veasley. Then we started getting a band together, and the first person he brought through was Uri Caine. And he was really receptive to what we were trying to do. We were basically trying to do something different. We were basically thinking about trying to do something more commercial, but I think Jonathan Rose wanted to do something more different. That was his emphasis. So Uri, even during that time… I was mostly thinking about him playing with Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker and these jazz musicians, and he was into this synthesizer and everything in the early ’80s.

TP: When Uri played with Philly Joe and Mickey Roker, would he be playing acoustic piano or electric piano?

ROCHESTER: Well, this was in the early ’80s. I don’t think they were doing a lot of acoustic piano.

TP: Those rooms didn’t have piano.

ROCHESTER: They were basically just playing in bars, like in the 21st Street Bar, and all these places really in the hood, far as… I know Philly Joe Jones is international, and I’ve been traveling there since 1980, and I know all about Philly, but as far as my environment… Philadelphia is highly segregated, and you have the African-American community here, you might have the Asian community… It is highly segregated, but everything is within the community, so you don’t really have to go out of your way, so you can be isolated to a certain extent. So as far as these black clubs are concerned, I’d never seen any of these black clubs that had an acoustic piano. So I think he was basically playing electric piano. And he was playing with Bootsie Barnes. I think he was even doing an organ trio thing, too. I did a record on Moers in ’93, and I had him playing on black keys versus white keys, with Willie Williams on sax and I was playing drums. It was based on an organ trio, something like what Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette were doing in the late ’70s. It was based somewhat on that. That was my last one. You don’t know about it because I had rappers, and the name of the record was… I said, “Your Mother’s On The Pipe.” It was kind of controversial. So a lot of promoters and distributors shunned it. But we did three or four European tours on it. But basically, that’s the reason why they said it was offensive.

TP: So with you Uri dealt with the electric keyboard function and more with funk and less jazz.

ROCHESTER: Well, I was basically playing with Jamaladeen Tacuma, so I was trying to intermingle that with the Rap. Because even in the ’93 record where I think I was one of the first one who was trying to have the rappers on a more progressive… I got these rappers rapping, and their music is more progressive than that rapper up in New York was doing with the vibe player… I was something a little bit more progressive, because I was looking at it from a musical perspective. So I had like the rappers doing these lines, something like what Steve Coleman was doing, with the bebop lines and everything, unisons with the horn and stuff like that. But basically, when we did that record in ’93, that’s what he was talking about… He was more into acoustic piano and everything, and he did a couple of acoustic piano things on the date. I wasn’t really all that familiar with the piano, because when I write, I write off of the regular electric piano. So then I said, “Man, I could have did this whole record with the acoustic piano.” So right now that’s all he plays, basically, is acoustic piano.

TP: I saw him play Fender Rhodes last week with Dave Douglas. He seems so comfortable doing so many different things, and he seems to do them all in an idiomatic way. When he plays classical music, he does it the way classical music is supposed to be; when he does funk, it’s the way that’s supposed to be; and when he does bebop and post-bebop, it’s the way that’s supposed to be.

ROCHESTER: Well, like I said, he’s a guy who was functioning multidimensionally for a long time. Because like I say, when he was in our little thing, I never thought about him in terms of classical or in terms of this other stuff that he does. I just thought about him in that context, and in our context he was functioning perfectly. So I think that it was just a learning experience in all these different contexts. My context was different than what Philly Joe Jones and them was doing. This girl, Terry Gross, she has a show on NPR, was saying she used to go to these clubs down in center city. I never really went to these places. But she used to see him down there, playing in duos and stuff like that. You know what her show is about; you can imagine what environment she was in. I listen to her show a lot, too. But at the same time he was playing with us, I guess he was playing at these places, too.

TP: You know Uri pretty well. What do you think it is about him that lets him function like that? It isn’t most guys from his background who can function comfortably, without giving up their identity, in a hardcore Black situation for sure. A lot of white guys would try to be Black or act that way.

ROCHESTER: First of all, I kind of know his father, and his father is a lawyer, who was the President of the Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, and his mother is a university professor. He said that when he was growing up, they constantly had intellectual discussions and debates; his father is a great debater. And he was head of the Civil Liberties Union, so you know where he’s coming from, what his politics is about. So I think by him saying that they grew up like that, debating over the table. So I think that was naturally in him. And like I said, I was always impressed because when he came into our environment, he never changed up what he was about. He just is an interesting guy.

TP: Do you ever remember Uri being in a dicey situation or having to stand up for himself physically?

ROCHESTER: Like I said, just being in that situation… He’d fit in so good with them. He was just a part of their thing. It was never really about a racial thing on that level. People in North Philly, they’re so busy hustling and trying to make money, it’s not a (?). Especially with the whole drug situation, like you have everybody in your community come for drugs and stuff like that. So it’s not really on that level. But you very rarely found somebody that’s very vociferous, when they get into an environment. One time I was in Europe with them, and I seen these guys, they were like Germans or something, and it seemed like he was ready to get into a thing with them [LAUGHS] — and I was kind of scared to death! I think basically it’s his upbringing with his father, and that’s what gave him the character that he is. Like I said, that’s why I always respected him, because he was what he was.

TP: If you were going to describe him to someone as a keyboard player, as a musician, how would you do it?

ROCHESTER: Well, that’s kind of hard to say now. Because like I said, he can play everything. I can always go get him… When I’m trying to make a record, I can go get him, because he can play what I want him to play. Because before I got my writing to the point it is now, I wasn’t real clear what I was trying to do, and he was able to really formulate and translate what I was trying to verbally say. Because I tried to dictate things to a certain extent at that point, and he was able to process the information and he was able to do something great with it. So he’s real creative on that level.

You’re asking how can a guy go int these different style like that… I’m not trying to get too out there on you. But I think as far as that astrology thing, he’s a Gemini, and Geminis are people who have multiple personalities, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he seems to be… Miles was a Gemini. Know what I’m talking about? I think maybe that’s what it is, that they can handle a multitude of things comfortably simultaneously.

TP: Maybe that’s what it is.

ROCHESTER: I don’t want anybody to start laughing at that shit. But I used to work with Jamaladeen, and he was a Gemini, and he seemed to be trying to do a multitude of things simultaneously. Even one time he was trying to do a Classical project, too, when we were in D.C.

TP: Kind of what you’re saying is that Uri can get into the thought process that goes into whatever piece of music is being played in whatever particular way.

ROCHESTER: But also I think basically that not only can he feel that naturally, but he actually studied it. Because a lot of people have a feeling that they would like to get into a Classical thing and would like to do this. But they haven’t really studied it enough to make it legitimate. He can effectively play in these different things because he’s effectively studied these things.

TP: And he’s had functional experience in all of them. He’s played Funk, he’s played Bebop, he’s played Classical music.

ROCHESTER: Yes. From my perspective, that’s why I say I’ve always appreciated what he’s about. Even though I didn’t know the full extent of what he’s about and didn’t really understand that he was as analytical and thinking person as he is, because we were so busy just trying to play… I didn’t know that he had an overall perspective on what he was trying to do, and what his relationship in hanging with us was about. So I didn’t see that picture from that far away. He’s an interesting guy.

 

 

TP: When did you first hook up with Uri? Do you remember your first encounters?

SWANA: I remember the first time I saw him. It was either ’82 or ’83. I used to sit in at this organ bar called Gert’s, and I came in expecting organ, and he was in with a bass player, playing Fender Rhodes. Gert’s was at Broad and South Street, in South Philly. It was the place where Philly Joe played and Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. I was a real organ hang. When I heard him, I was blown away. I sat in with him, and then I asked him if he taught. He said, “No, we’ll just hang out!”

TP: He was about 25 then. What did he sound like?

SWANA: It was straightahead. He was kind of out of Herbie and Chick, the way they would play Fender rhodes. But it was Uri. He always sounded like Uri. He has a certain feel that I can tell it’s him right away. When I heard him I was like, “Whoa!” I just knew that I really liked the way he played. He’s a very rhythmic player.

TP: Did you see him playing with Philly Joe or Mickey Roker?

SWANA: I saw him play with Mickey. I never saw him play with Philly Joe. I used to go around and try to sit in with him. He’d be playing in these weird trios, playing… After he stopped using the Rhodes, he was playing the DX-7, and he’d play with this guy Akim Emmanuel, and he’d just be going nuts. He’s always had this energy. I always looked up to him. I would ask him… I remember sitting next to him on the bus when we played with Joe Sudler’s Swing Machine — which is a big band that would bring in different people like Freddie Hubbard, Lockjaw, Phil Woods, Bob Mintzer — and barraging him with all these questions about music, and he would tell me what records to get and turn me on to a lot of great even bootleg stuff.

TP: Like ’70s Miles stuff?

SWANA: He turned me on to the Miles stuff and he turned me on to McCoy, Time For Tyner and The Real McCoy and Herbie’s stuff from the ’60s. He loves Joe Henderson, so he made me tapes of Joe Henderson In Japan, all this stuff. And Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

TP: Have you continued to play with Uri over the years?

SWANA: I play with him once in a while. I went to Taiwan with him over the summer, playing the Mahler and then the Bach.

TP: Did it seem of a piece with the Uri you know?

SWANA: He’s so laid back. I went over… We were playing before a big audience, and before we went on stage, he looked at me and said, “It’s just another Joe Sudler gig; it’s just another gig.” Then we go on, and he just gets wacky. I have jet lag and I’m used to playing straight jazz gigs, not really reading lot of music.. So I’m looking intensely at the music, and I look over at him and he smiles at me and starts throwing his elbows on the piano and playing even more crazy. It seems he just has a good time. He doesn’t get uptight. I mean, he might. But it’s his own gig and he’s so laid-back. I was actually really impressed how he handled himself.

TP: But in terms of the structure of the music and the concept.

SWANA: I think it fits with where he’s coming from. Because when I first used to see him, it was only on straight-ahead, and I love the way he plays — straight-ahead he just burns. But he always had this other side where he’s listening to all this crazy stuff.

TP: Do you mean Modern Classical?

SWANA: Well, Modern Classical or… I don’t even remember the guy ,but I was at his apartment in New York and he was, “Check this guy out,” and he was playing this guitar player who was playing these weird sounds. “Man, I dig this!” He was listening to so much stuff. So it was inevitable for him too come into projects like this.

TP: And he’s so well-studied. Just his educational background, his academic background; he’s a very highly trained musician. Cornell said something interesting. He said when he met Uri he had no idea that he was going to University of Pennsylvania and studying classical music, that it was almost a separate thing. He was impressed that he could function in the Black community and maintain his identity, just being him. Cornell said that Uri would go place where he, Cornell, wouldn’t want to be going.

SWANA: Totally. I remember playing at this place called the Top Shelf with Uri, Edgar Bateman, Chris McBride and this guy Julian Presley. Uri’s taking a solo, and this black guy comes in and he goes, “Uri! I love you, man!!” and he just grabs him and kisses him on the head while we’re playing the gig. He’s so comfortable. He just seems so comfortable in any context. On the whole black scene… He used to play with Bootsie Barnes, and so many people…all the time you’d see people coming up and hugging him. He seemed so natural.

TP: So you played the Mahler and you played the Goldbergs on the same tour?

SWANA: Yeah, it was one gig, then there was four days off, then we did the Bach, the second gig.

TP: I realize the Bach parts for trumpet are a certain thing; he has different configurations doing different things even with the live performance. Is that part of your background as a musician, studying classical music? Are Mahler and Bach part of your practice and study?

SWANA: Yeah, I am familiar with it. I didn’t feel necessarily totally comfortable on Uri’s gig. Because as I said, on most of my gigs I hardly read music. I came up Classical but I never really… When it came to that crossroads where you’re going to dive in and try to go to like Juilliard for your Masters or do something else, I chose jazz. I didn’t feel like I did a great job. I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I would have liked to do more gigs..

TP: Uri says that through the live performances, it morphs into something different all the time.

SWANA: Yeah, he’s real loose. Once the violin and Uri were playing one of the variations really straight, and he pointed to me and said, “Just improvise.” We were playing and he pointed to me and the DJ and he said, “Okay, DJ and John, go!” We just started playing.

TP: So he sets up situations where he knows you can function but likes to keep you a bit off-balance and uncomfortable.

SWANA: I don’t know if he meant to… I enjoy that kind of challenge. My uncomfortableness wasn’t because of Uri; it was because of my feeling like I haven’t been on gigs where I have to read a lot of music, so I have to concentrate more. I feel comfortable in those situations. Uri makes me feel comfortable, because I know the wackier I play, the happier he’ll be.

TP: So to please Uri, you have to stretch out.

SWANA: Right, stretch out.

TP: Any other anecdotes?

SWANA: I remember once driving somewhere… They used to play this Brazilian jazz on the radio, and I was driving Chris McBride home or something, and Uri was right next to us, and we opened our window and he had this Brazilian music blasting out of the car. I remember Chris McBride going, “Uri, he’s crazy!”

 

 

 

DOUGLAS: It was different every night too.

TP: That’s emblematic of the personnel you used, and it’s one thing I wanted to broach regarding Uri. Formally, if we look at recorded evidence, he’s been part of these rather specific projects of yours that take off and fly in various directions depending on how much the band plays and where they play it and where you go with the material. Cornell was talking about that, and it seems to be operative with Uri, his utter flexibility and malleability…

DOUGLAS: As I was dialing your number I was thinking of that very word — flexibility. The reason that it’s so exciting to play with him is that he understands so many different languages of the music. No matter where the music goes, he’s able to completely deal — and without missing a beat ever — with all of the changes. I think also what’s interesting in the last few years is that Uri has also become a captivating bandleader. People have problems with tribute projects and theme concepts…

TP: Do they?

DOUGLAS: I hear a lot of talk, like, “Oh, now it’s the Mahler thing, now it’s the Bach thing, now it’s the Mary Lou Williams thing.” Like, in jazz, if you’re not just being yourself, it’s dishonest or something. I think people heap that on the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. But the comment I would make about Uri is that when you hear him play the Goldberg or the Mahler music or his own trio, it’s completely free and flexible. The way he arranges it is that everyone can just kind of pick up and go for it. I’ve been on some Mahler gigs where there’s been some serious train wrecks in the music, and it’s like it didn’t matter.

TP: He sort of welcomes the train wreck.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. It was almost like we’d have this incredible train wreck, if I was the bandleader I’d be freaking out, but I’d look over at Uri and he’s got this beatific smile on his face, like “Here we are in the real music now. Now deal.” It’s pretty rare to find someone who would know enough about the Goldberg Variations, have the technical knowledge to be able to perform that but also to be able to deal with the freedom and to go in and out of the post-jazz continuum.

TP: You and Uri in are both experimentalists and traditionalists in a fundamental way… Well, this isn’t about whether Uri is one or the other, but about how what he does stems from his life and experience in palpable ways. Cornell said that when he heard Uri in Philadelphia, it was on synth in Gerald Veasley’s funk band.

DOUGLAS: That’s the first time I heard Uri, too. He was playing funk on a synthesizer.

TP: He said he had no idea Uri went to the University of Pennsylvania, he had no idea he knew anything about classical music, he had no idea he played cocktail piano gigs, and that Uri would hang with total comfort with this very hardcore group of people in hardcore neighborhoods without ever losing his identity, and he did it without ever trying to be “Black,” and he spoke his mind. From your perspective, what was your first encounter with him?

DOUGLAS: There was a place on McDougal Street called the Scrap Bar. I was friends with some musicians he was playing with there, and I went down and he was playing synthesizer. It was totally a fusion, heavy Rock vibe. And it was happening. The same as Cornell; I thought, “This guy really has some shit together.” Then I probably didn’t run into him again until 1990, when I joined the Music of Mickey Katz group with Don. I was coming to the Mickey Katz music like it was completely fresh; it was a vocabulary I had never played before. I had to learn the whole book from scratch on two days’ notice. I came into it and Uri just sounded like he’d been playing it for years. I later found out that for him,, he felt like he was on a wedding gig or something. Again, it was like, “Hmm, interesting.” I knew he was also playing jazz and doing other things.

TP: How have you observed Uri evolving over the years? Is he more comfortable in his own skin with these projects? Is he just having a chance to do it.

DOUGLAS: I would just say that he is doing it now. I think arranging the Mahler stuff was a real step out for him, and probably something he’d been thinking of for a lot of years, and it just became possible to do it when Winter & Winter came along.

TP: He said he had been dissatisfied with turgid renditions of Mahler, and there was a piece in Toys with a bass line that comes from a Mahler symphony, and Stefan heard it and said, “Ah, you know, Mahler,” and then Stefan asked him to do the score for this Mahler movie and Uri said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So a lot of this stuff has come about through the relationship with Stefan, which is a complex relationship.

DOUGLAS: We’ve all had our interesting relationship with Stefan. Well, I no longer have a relationship with Stefan. That’s another article. Or I’ll write a two-minute piece and call it “Summer and Summer.”

TP: Uri has always played acoustic with you.. Talk about how he functions on your projects.

DOUGLAS: I always see articles when they talk about the guy and then they interview somebody and the person ends up talking about themselves. I don’t want to go in to say, “Well, I called Uri because.” But it is true that when I started the sextet to play the music of Booker Little I couldn’t think of anyone else I would have called that would understand where I was coming from. There are very few people who would have understood what I meant when I said, “I want to do rearrangements of these pieces from 1961 and play them totally our way, differently, and here I’ve got this sheaf of original music that comes out of that spirit, and I want to play this originally but this is why we’re doing it.” There’s a big leap of faith going on in there. So the person really has to have a rock-solid understanding of the traditional aspect of the music, but also have a real experimental sensibility to know how far is too far. Uri can play as out of a piano solo as you could ever want to hear, and I have certainly asked him to do that in certain situations. But that’s not always what it’s about. When you’re talking about taking traditional elements and moving them forward, there’s something else that has to happen. And Uri is really brilliant in understanding that. I think that’s what he brings to these projects he’s working on now.

TP: I don’t know how proactive you want your sidemen to be. But how much input do you get from Uri in doing these projects?

DOUGLAS: I think it depends from piece to piece. A lot of times for me… Again, I think that Uri works this way. Rather than speaking about it, you hear what someone does, and then you make a decision based on that. You say, “Okay, they’re playing this here because they think that’s what this is, and it might be more interesting if blah-blah-blah.” So I think that in this kind of music, you rely on musicians to help you develop the thing, but it’s up to the leader to make those ultimate decisions.

TP: Talk about this new body of music you’re working with here in relation to what Uri was doing with the Fender rhodes.

DOUGLAS: I thought it was interesting to watch Uri this week, because the Fender rhodes really is a different instrument than the piano, and it’s a delicate instrument, and he had to refine his touch, and it was interesting to see from night to night that he would approach the music differently each night and approach the instrument differently. I felt that by the end he had really come up with an entirely new style with which to play this music. I obviously chose to ask him to play Fender rhodes for sonic reasons, and I wrote the music that way. So aside from having this wealth of harmonic and melodic and rhythmic knowledge that he has, I also wanted to draw on his awareness of electronic music and contemporary sounds, contemporary electronic music. I think it took him six nights to figure out how to get the Rhodes to speak that way. That’s what I like to see, is somebody who is willing to not get it the first night. I mean, it was still great. Sometimes I feel like musicians are too quick to just say, “Yeah, I got it, no problem.” But someone like Uri, who is willing to take a chance that it may not work and to actually develop it on stage, is really special. I think that’s the legacy we all take from Miles Davis, is that creative music should be developed onstage, in front of an audience.

TP: And it seems that Uri also deploys that attitude with these Classical projects.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. That’s what I was saying before about actually being on a Mahler gig. I hadn’t played the music in three or four years. It was in Israel on a big festival stage, and I was totally lost. I looked over, and there he was smiling. It was like, “Yeah, now we’re here.”

TP: So you first met him around ’87 at the Scrap Bar…

DOUGLAS: I think it was earlier than that. I think it was in ’84-’85. It was when I first moved to New York.

TP: You first gigged with him in Don Byron’s Mickey Katz thing.

DOUGLAS: I think so. Around 1990. I hired him in ’94 to play on In Our Lifetime. Then he hired me in 1995 to play on Toys. He’s been on all my sextet records, and now we’re continuing together in this new concept.

TP: Are you recording this music, Dave?

DOUGLAS: Eventually. I’m not in any rush to, because this one, unlike a lot of my projects, I want to see it develop. Most of the sextet records I just write and they’re fully formed, and we just go straight into the studio. But this one we have some gigs later in the year, and we’ll work some more before we record it.

TP: This would be an interesting live record.

DOUGLAS: I was thinking about that all week actually. But it would have to be a double-CD. Because everybody was stretching out. We’re not talking about Uri now, but I don’t know if you saw Ben Ratliff’s review in the Times. It was interesting to me that he was only able to make links to the obvious connection of the Miles quintet from ’67.

TP: I was hearing a lot of early Freddie ’70s CTI stuff.

DOUGLAS: Right, but also Lee Morgan, Live At The Lighthouse Joe Henderson, If You’re Not Part of The Solution, and a lot of other things as well.On line a woman says: “I’m curious how someone who operates so deeply within a Jewish sensibility has his CDs produced in Germany.”

 

TP: I want generally to discuss with you a few aspects of your relationship with Uri — the history of it, the dynamic of how projects are generated nd conceptualized, how what Uri does fits into your personal aesthetic, and perhaps some sociological observations on the reason why what Uri is doing has struck such a chord. People tell me that what he’s doing has made a tremendous impression. How did you first come in touch with Uri and what of his qualities made you want to record him?

WINTER: Basically, it started out that Gary Thomas introduced me to Uri. The very first album that Uri did on JMT, Sphere Music, Gary Thomas was playing on. Gary gave me a tape where he’d played together with Uri, and I very much enjoyed his playing. Then Uri and I got in contact, and I think we figured out pretty quickly that we have a common understanding and that we want to work together. So we released two albums on JMT, and then basically the story really starts when I was talking to Uri about the tenth anniversary of JMT. We were organizing a three-day festival at the Knitting Factory to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the label, and besides the normal performances of music, I wanted to have also some special performances. I have known that Uri, when he studied music, was very much interested in Gustav Mahler’s music, and I gave him a film documentary that I and my brother did together and asked him if he could use this film documentary about Gustav Mahler as a silent movie and if he could play with his group Mahler’s music. That’s what Uri did at the tenth anniversary of JMT at the KF.

TP: At that point, did you consider what Uri would do with Mahler’s music? Was it something that you foresaw or discussed?

WINTER: I mean, we had spoken about it, of course. But if you talk about something and hear it later on, most of the time it’s different. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I have had a certain expectation, and after we have done the project my expectations were absolutely fulfilled. It was even like going further and more deeply into the direction I thought it would go. So for me, it was not like a super surprise when I did the album or when I heard the music live at the tenth anniversary at the Knit.

TP: What was your expectation?

WINTER: My expectation was that Uri is doing with this music the same thing that jazz musicians have done for a long time with the history of American popular music. Basically, they’re taking known songs, songs from musicals and so on, and playing around with these songs. They’re improvising, they take these songs apart and put them together in a new way, they reharmonize these songs and they play different melodies on it, come back to the melodies, and play with excerpts and parts of this music. So in a way, they make this music to their own music. That’s one of the reasons why jazz music in the States became popular, is because a lot of people can recognize their music history. They can recognize songs which were popular in the ’20s-’30s and the big musicals. And if you recognize something (this is giving each listener a big helping hand), then you know where you are, and it’s much easier to understand the music.

TP: Now, there’s one difference, it would seem to me, between the way jazz music was developed, which came out of a vernacular, vis-a-vis what Uri is doing with Mahler, Schumann, Wagner or Bach, which is the Canon. It would seem to me that the audience for this music has a different sense of what that music is, if that makes any sense. I’m just saying this to refer to the position this music occupies in the social hierarchy. Do you see that at all? Is this changing now in Europe, the attitude towards Classical music.

WINTER: Well, if this attitude exists (and I’m not sure it’s the truth), then certain writers and certain critics have these attitudes. But the audience and I think the majority of the writers don’t have this attitude. I think this attitude is clearly coming from the 19th Century. It’s coming from a time where the music, more or less, was ruled by the middle class, especially here in Europe. In the time after Beethoven, when the middle class were making certain compositions to their heroes and they wanted to have certain artists where they could go to opera houses, to concert houses and so on, to listen to these heros. It’s coming from a time which to my eyes was a very-very short time period. It was maybe 100-150 years long. And before that, talking about Baroque or Renaissance music, we didn’t have this kind of hierarchy in the music. It was very different. Maybe we’re coming back now to the point that it’s really possible just to listen to music without having this hierarchical thinking in our brain.

TP: Uri said that in one of the tunes on Toys, the bass was taken from a Mahler symphony, and that’s how you arrived at a mutual understanding.

WINTER: Yes, that’s how it started out, it’s true.

TP: With Mahler, obviously you demonstrated the evolution of Uri’s concept through the studio and live albums. Can you discuss how the Schumann and Wagner projects were set up from your end?

WINTER: In a way, all these projects are projects which Uri and I have created together. Sometimes he has had certain ideas and sometimes I have had certain ideas, and we talked about it. If you work together with somebody, and you work together with somebody in a close way, then you share thoughts. And if somebody is telling you his thoughts, this is working in my brain, and if I tell Uri some of my thoughts, I guess this is working in his brain. So it just came together. I made an album in Venice where I recorded the orchestras that play in the coffeehouses at St. Marks Square in Venice, and I knew that Wagner’s music was played at these coffeehouses during Wagner’s time. Wagner wrote letters very often that he heard his music at St. Marks Square. I talked with Uri about it, and then we both had the idea to arrange Wagner’s music for a coffeehouse ensemble. Everything more or less that we do, it’s not that there is one great idea by either Uri or I. I think it’s a common sense that we have. I am very open to what Uri wants to do, and I am trying with my thoughts to give Uri a helping hand so that he can really develop what is inside him. This is very-very important for me, and it’s not so important for me to fulfill my own wishes and thoughts. I’m not that kind of producer.

[Uri comes from a background where he was immersed and functioned professionally in three areas of music — as a student of Classical music with academic training; as an idiomatic jazz musician, and as an idiomatic funk-jazz musician. The way he puts it, when he was in Philadelphia, Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker didn’t know he was playing with Cornell Rochester, and Cornell Rochester didn’t know he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. He kept each sphere kind of separate from the other. So he comes from this background, and there’s a very heavy jazz component to what he does.]

TP: To what extent do projects come out of Uri’s have struck a chord in the European community in terms of getting commissions or going to festivals and so forth? But he’s had tremendous success in penetrating the European festivals, and I wonder what you think the attraction is to them.

WINTER: The attraction is that Uri is in the history… It’s like part of the history of the music scene in the Western world. All composers worked with music that was written from other composers. I mean, Beethoven did something about the Diabelli Variations, and then Bach used some Vivaldi, and Mahler used some Mozart, and so on. And it’s going on and on. In our day, sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult, because the law forbids certain adoptions, because you need the permission from the composer, which was very different over one hundred years ago. I know that there are, for example, certain composers who were working with certain materials in our day… Cage, for example, wrote a piece which he named “Imitation,” and he used some ideas of Eric Satie, and the people who held the rights for Eric Satie didn’t allow Cage to do it, but Cage turned it around to such a degree that he made it into his own piece and they couldn’t anything against it. He called it, I think, “Imitation,” which I’m sure was a sarcastic title.

It’s a shame, what’s going on at the moment, and I think that the law, which normally should help the musicians and the artists to secure them, is now turning around, and it’s working against the musicians. They can’t just go on and adopt the music as they want.

But the success in Europe has to do with the fact that Uri is working with the history of Western music. And the people — on the one side the jazz audience, but on the other side, the Classical audience — understand what he is doing, because they are able to recognize the parts and they understand if he is turning certain parts of Mahler’s music into, say, some Jewish feels, or with Bach, if he is working with this bassline and putting something else on top of it. I think they just love this incredible variation and interpretation that he is doing.

TP: Uri always seems to have a narrative goes… I was sitting next to a musician at the Goldbergs last night, and he commented, “It’s a revue,” which is a good description of The Sidewalks Of New York. It evokes an imaginary, idealized music hall circa 1905. One dynamic comes on, then another, then another, and it’s unified by some overarching narrative. That’s apparent in Uri’s records going back to Toys, which was devoted to the vibration of Herbie Hancock. It makes him an effective leader, because his personality comes through so clearly.

WINTER: Uri is using all of his influences. He studied Mahler on one side, and on the other side he is very close to Latin music, then he also studied Herbie. There are so many different aspects. And he is able to use these aspects in his own music and make his own music out of it. I don’t really see all these so-called arrangements, that he is more or less adapting or arranging Mahler’s music. I look at it in a different way. I look at it that Uri is taking elements from that music and making his own music out of it. Sometimes he is focusing on Mahler or on Bach or on jazz musicians, but it’s all on the same level. There is no difference. I think the unifying point is that he is always making it through his own music.

TP: Do you have any speculations on the role that national identity plays in Uri’s generating this music, that as an American Uri can observe the music in a fresh way or without the weight of the tradition upon him…

WINTER: I have thought about this, too. But I don’t really think it has to do with Uri being American. In my eyes and what I hear today… If anybody else is around who can do what Uri is doing at the moment… I think Uri is an absolute exception right now. It’s not that he is an American or European or whatever. It’s just him. He is a total exception. Looking at the whole music tradition, I have absolutely no fear to mention Uri’s name in the same category as Beethoven’s name or Mahler’s name or Wagner’s name or Bach’s name.

TP: In what regard?

WINTER: He has the same kind of value for our music in terms of reflecting everything… One element of an important artist for me is that he is able to reflect what happened before him, what happened before his time. And Uri is absolutely reflecting what happened in the music history in the last 400 years. He is absolutely able and has the talent to use all these elements, and take these elements first apart and then put the new puzzle together — making his own puzzle out of it. I think this is a very-very important part of a musician. Bach or Beethoven, all these people, they have done something like that, and this made those people very special, that they were able to reflect the time before them and make something new out of it.

TP: If I can paraphrase: Uri is going back to the future. He’s going back to a certain attitude of musicmaking which had gone by the wayside in the last century or so.

WINTER: Definitely, yes. And there is no categorization in Uri’s music. He is working in the same way with the ideas of Bach or Mahler as he is working with Herbie Hancock’s ideas. There is no difference. I think this is very important. As I said in the beginning, we have these categorizations. Our schools and universities and so on tell us this is a high-level music and high art while this is low-class art. I think this is absolutely nonsense. If you would talk to Mozart, he used certain melodies in the “Magic Flute”… The biggest success for Mozart was always that the people in the street were whistling his songs and that they were turning his songs into popular folk songs. Brahms did the same thing. The music was always connected with the people. And I think it’s a big mistake to put something on the throne, because then it’s not reachable for us. If something is on a throne, then we are afraid of even touching it or we are afraid of doing something with it. If this is happening with art, then I believe that we kill this art.

TP: The Sidewalks Of New York might seem like anomalous to the other projects, but not if we look at it as a revue, as a commentary on the material. How was that generated?

WINTER: I started doing what I call Audio Films. It started out in Venice, where I recorded these coffeehouse orchestras and tried to record the atmosphere of this location. I’ve done it in Buenos Aires, in Havana and in other places. I was thinking about New York and how is it possible to make an audio film about New York. My girlfriend, Mariko Takahashi, told me at that time to do something with Tin Pan Alley. This is one of the most important areas of…

TP: It’s the prehistory of American Popular Music.

WINTER: Yes. And even I, I have to say, had a wrong understanding. Because I thought it’s later, after the First World War, which is not true. I realized after I started working on the project that the Civil War and end of the Civil War was basically the starting point for that music scene. There is so much in it. The idea, in a way, was to try to make an album where we can capture the music and the feeling of the time as we see it. I talked a lot with Uri about it. We talked about the sound effects we wanted to use, and the different elements, how we would like to present the music, and that this song should play in a vaudeville, and this song should play in like a Jewish marriage and so on… Like somebody else would produce a movie; to produce an album about an historic subject, and doing it as someone else would produce a movie about that time. That was the idea. If you listen to the album, I think you can close your eyes and time travel into that era, and be free to discover a different feeling.

TP: Uri did a great job at imparting an idiomatic quality to the music. It didn’t sound in any way condescending. He got into the skin of the time. Do you and Uri operate by a contract, or do you go from record to record?

WINTER: We go from record to record. That’s how I work with most of my artists.

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen not them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

TP: Can you tell me some rough estimate of the sales of Uri’s records, dividing them between Europe and America. Uri told me you mentioned to him that one of the records sold 1000 copies in a short period of time in Hamburg. Are the records selling well, within your terms?

WINTER: Some are doing very well, other ones are difficult…

TP: Which are doing the best?

WINTER: That’s something I hate to talk about. Because I am not producing music and looking at sales figures, and I am not continuing working with musicians because of sales figures.

TP: I’ll ask you this, then. Do you marketing in the sense that you break down who is buying the music? Who are the people in Europe who have Uri Caine’s records?

WINTER: I don’t do that at all. Even in Europe, one day I got the record for whom are you producing this-and-this music. It happened to me when I was writing music for an album which was called The Little Trumpet 10 or 15 years ago, and the German company asked me, “For whom did you write this?” I said, “What do you mean?”

TP: But I’m not asking that. I’m asking who is buying it.

WINTER: But that’s what I mean. Really, seriously, I don’t want to even think about it, because if I think about who is buying it or who could be the target group, then maybe I could change or the artist would change his music around to fulfill a certain group of people. And I think it has to go the other way around. Uri or Paul have something to say, and up to us to bring it to the audience. And I believe if we make good efforts to bring it to the audience and the music is good, then people also will enjoy it.

TP: But you do a certain packaging and presentation. The records stand out. I assume you mean it to reflect a visual analog of your aesthetic. The musician I was sitting with yesterday said he was in Cologne, and that Uri’s records were prominently displayed in the record store, next to the Three Tenors. I think the stores here like Uri’s records and consider it a mark of status to sell them, but they’re not marketing them with the Three Tenors. I don’t care about the commerciality; I’m more interested on what this tells us about the impression Uri’s music is making upon the public that buys these records.

WINTER: When I was 18-19-20 years old, I read the letters between Schoenberg and Kandinsky. From that time on, it was always inside me that I want to bring together as an editor and work together with artists who on the one side are musicians and on the other side are painters and photographers and so on, and the best would be if I am able to bring together certain artists. That’s how I feel I want to work as an editor, and my main work is to be an editor. Our whole packaging is a result of just presenting the music or some other arts in the same kind of value or in the same kind of form. And I figured out that it is impossible to do this in a plastic box. I mean, you are killing the art if you do that in a plastic box. So I was just searching for another way. That is the main reason why I’m doing that. It happened, for example, that a new album which we are releasing right now for an accordion player, Theodore Ansilotti(?), is playing Scarlatti’s music, the artwork was done by Baselitz, who is one of the most contemporary German artists. These kinds of things are happening. Then Baselitz invited the musicians, and he played for Baselitz, and an interactive thing was doing on between Theodore Ansilotti(?), the accordion player, and Baselitz. I love if these kinds of things are happening. And especially talking about the States, one of the most important artists is Steve Byrum who did most of the JMT covers and also a lot of cover and artworks for Winter&Winter. He is for me a very important voice. If you ask me, then I say Steve Byrum is as important as Baselitz is in Germany. It’s just that these people don’t get the recognition they should get.

TP: I think in the art world, even more than the music world, the market and commodity value of the work is what causes an artist to be visible in the arts community. What is Uri’s next release going to be?

WINTER: That is a rather difficult question. We are working to release three albums at the same time in more or less three different directions. I have no idea if we can realize what we are planning to do. But that’s what we have in mind. We have in mind to do three albums and to put them out at the same time, but these three albums are going in three different directions. One album will be a piano solo record which is already recorded. Then there will be another album which he wants to record with a trio and with deejays; it’s a combination of his trio works and deejay works. And the plan is to make a third album with Brazilian-Latin music.TP: Uri said that you and he first encountered each other at various sessions at the Tap Bar. Is that how you and he started making narratives together?

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, but I didn’t really know him. That was with a group called Liminal, which was me, Danny Bloom and Richard Pinsiera. We were playing the Tap Bar, and anybody could basically jam with us. Danny Bloom knew the Knitting Factory scene a lot better than we did; Rich and I were from kind of the electronic music scene. A lot of people played there who we didn’t really know but Danny knew. Then when Uri was working on the Mahler record, he asked Danny if he knew any crazy deejay, and Danny said, “Yes, I know Olive.” So he brought me out to a studio in Brooklyn, and Danny and I jammed on the multitracks for like a 9-hour day. When the Mahler record started selling pretty well in Europe and the tours started coming in, he asked me to go and tour with him, which was a really different role than jamming to multi-tracks. He really liked what I was doing on the road so…

TP: I want to elaborate on several things you said. On the Mahler thing, what was the criteria for the choices you were making within that jam? Obviously, once you have some time under your belt, you can codify your ideas. But jamming as a deejay, what areas of music and sound were you thinking of as matching Uri’s concept?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I really didn’t know when I went to the studio. I had no idea. Danny basically called me and said “Do you want to do some studio work? We’re going to play to some multi track, and it’s like jazz interpretations of Mahler.” I really had no idea. I put together my arsenal, my toolkit of different directions I could flip the script. The main thing for me, in general, that I look for are records that have a single instrument on them or sections with solo instruments. Because if you’re playing with a band, and you start mixing in a whole other band, it’s very hard to have it integrate with the musicians. I find one of the dangers of deejaying with bands is that it can become a kind of two-dimensional thing, where you have the band and then you have the sound coming out of the sound system. It happens a lot when deejays play beats with a band and there’s a drummer there as well, and you hear the processed beats coming out of the sound system… It’s kind of complicated. But records have timing and tuning. So if you pitch something up so that it’s the right pitch, it’s very…almost never going to be in time. So for me, when you start playing beats for stuff that has both timing and pitch involved in it, then the band starts to play to the record rather than the record being inside the group like another instrument.

TP: I’m interested in the way in which your own personal narrative intersects with Uri’s, because you’ve obviously developed a strong relationship.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. Well, in general, I was playing with a lot of bands, and I was boiling down my toolkit into the single sound records that I could find, and then starting to press my own records that I call palettes, which are various single noises and sounds and people talking who are mostly friends of mine or musicians I know who get in the studio. That kind of way that I am deejaying with bands is I guess why Danny said, “Why don’t you use this guy?” I already kind of had that formula going. When I went to the studio, they had 90 minutes on multi-track, and then they would play us a track, and we would jam to it, then maybe we’d jam to it again, and they could edit us out or cut-and-paste us anywhere they wanted later. So I would try different things and see what the response from Uri was, because I was getting to know him that day. He was digging it. He seemed like he was really liking it and I was doing the right thing, and he didn’t sort of tell me what to do or second-guess me. I tried to do what I thought would add something, would be a cinematic element. So it would be as if, as an audience, you could start to picture the sound in your head.

TP: How did this develop on the tour?

DJ OLIVE: On the tour he just kept telling me to play more. I wasn’t playing very much.

TP: How did your concept of what he was doing evolve over the tour?

DJ OLIVE: Well, I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to play the same things or to be like a wild-card for a little while, so I was testing that ground. Then I really found that for me (and he seemed to agree), the more wild I could be… It’s almost like I was keeping the band on its toes, in a weird way. If I was playing the same sounds, the same little spoken word chunks, then the band wouldn’t have a reaction to it in the same way. Because if you put in some spoken word, like collecting the garbage or something, people react to that only the first time in the same way, because it has the humor and the content or something. So I was trying to keep the band on its toes by always playing something different, coming in on different people’s solos with different sounds. Then there were a few sounds that I found would really worked somewhere, like the snoring at the end of the Goldberg Variations. I started to play something like that every time, and it really fit. But I don’t think that the turntables are a very good instrument when you start having to hit cues, where you’re playing a set record at a set time. Then you really should be picking out a sampler.

TP: As far as the Goldberg vis-a-vis the Mahler, are you using the same process? Are you working from the text, as it were, or are you relying on your intuition in regard what the sound is in the moment?

DJ OLIVE: It’s a combination. The text from Mahler is really different than the Goldberg.

TP: And Uri’s process is very different in dealing with the two.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah. But I think a lot about Mahler and about Goldberg; not so much about Bach, but more about this insomniac who couldn’t sleep, and that he’s sitting in his bed and these pieces are being played in his castle over and over again. So I started to think about incidental things, like dogs barking or a cat or going to the toilet, or things that would happen for an insomniac. Mahler is really different especially because we were touring Germany and there was this issue about Mahler being coopted by the Nazis, and this kind of Jewish-German meeting place of culture.

TP: You mean the Nazis coopting Mahler’s legacy.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. They were using his work, which was really ironic because he was Jewish. So that kind of thought started to come into play as far as what kind of person he would be, and trying to… For me, I had a much more melancholy sense about some of the tracks. I guess his kid died. There’s a song about that. So I would try to put my head in a very different place for each piece. But the technique is pretty similar. On the Bach I tried to be a loot more funny.

TP: So you’ve known Uri now for 4-5 years. Tell me your impressions of him as a thinker, as an improviser.

DJ OLIVE: You know, it’s really not my world. So I am constantly amazed by these players and their process. I work with computers and samplers and stitching little tiny bits of sound for hours and days and weeks, just one measure of some beat. Very synthetic. And it’s all basically intuitive, except knowing the programs. I can’t write a bar of music. But to watch someone like Ralph Alessi sight-read and sight-transpose simultaneously, like having the sheet music for say the clarinet and transposing it for trumpet while it’s the first time he’s ever seen the music, blows my mind. I see that on the road working with these guys. So I’m more amazed by what Uri is doing. When he was working on the Goldbergs, we were in Austria, and his hotel room was just papers… He was talking on the phone and writing music, and you had to walk over piles of music, and there was all these different players, and they were rehearsing every day. It was like four days rehearsal. He was constantly rewriting. I was really blown away by how intense his process was, but it didn’t seem to be bogging him down at all.

TP: He seems not to get particularly phased by much of anything.

DJ OLIVE: Yes. He’s an amazing guy as a bandleader. I’ve never been on the road with someone like that, as far as not stressing the band. He is ridiculously nice and considerate, and trying to take care of everybody without it being like a panic. Everybody seems to get on the train, everybody seems to get on their plane and get to the gig. There’s no drama. And that’s his style. That’s true with his playing, too, that he won’t necessarily try to mold people into his pieces, but to have pieces evolve with some of the players.

TP: So basically he’s extrapolating everyone’s tonal personality and have that comprise what the music is at that particular moment. I guess the music can have infinite iterations just by who plays it. Maybe that defines what his music is, that there are 8 million ways to skin the cat.

DJ OLIVE: Exactly. And I think he’ll play different tracks when different players are on the road.

TP: Tell me about some of the other bands you play with.

DJ OLIVE: I did a record with William Hooker and Glenn Spearman called Mindfulness, a totally different vibe. I learned a lot from William, and I was on the road with him for two trips. I just did a record with Kim Gordon and Ikue Mori on Sonic Youth Recordings, which was mixed by Jim O’Rourke, who did a really great job. We’re going to go on the road in March, to France and Italy. I have my own project called We(tm). That’s an electronic outfit, and we’ve put out three records. I work with Christian Marclay.

TP: He’s kind of the pioneer of this particular end of deejaying, I would think.

DJ OLIVE: Well, that would be too big a statement. In a way, but I think there’s a middle ground that people like me are finding me that are between the skills developed by Hip-hop and the skills developed by people like Christian. It’s like two different branches on a tree…

TP: I have vivid memories of things Christian was doing in the ’80s.

DJ OLIVE: Yes, and Hip-Hop was happening at the same time in a totally different way somewhere else. I grew up on Hip-Hop and then did some really weird pieces, and someone said, “Do you know Christian Marclay?” and I was like “Whoa!” They gave me the Footprints record. [38] The main thing I’ve been working on is what I call the Vinyl Score, which is compositions for the turntable, which are played by solo deejays. So it’s like a palette of sounds, and you have three copies. You can only play that palette on three turntables for 10 to 20 minutes. So what I would paint and what you would paint would be totally different.

TP: So within a finite set of sounds and these finite instructions, you give your interpretation.

DJ OLIVE: Right. And every time it’s mixed, it’s different, and what you’re hearing are the skills of the deejay and the instruments of the turntables. so I’ve been making those and doing performances in Europe and here with different deejays, playing the pieces back to back. I’m starting a label that’s focused just on doing that. I’m going to do one vinyl score that Luc Ferrari is making and another vinyl score that DJ Toshio, my partner on the label, is working on with John Appleton, who’s a concrete guy. They’re both about 75, one’s American, one’s French, and they’re both concrete composers.

I learned a lot from Ralph Alessi, Ralph Peterson, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress and all these guys. I learned a lot from these guys, just sitting in a train for a few hours. Don Byron, what a thinker, man. That guy is amazing just to sit around and talk with. Ralph Alessi and Drew Gress, and Don can get into this, too…this linguistic gymnastics that’s hilarious! Drew Gress is incredible with it. All this linguistic stuff. It’s pretty funny. Barbara Walker is an amazing person. But she’s not heady in the same way at all. She’s really down to earth but super-smart. For me it’s great to be with these musicians after being in the studio with deejays, which I love, too, but there’s a lot of shallowness and Fashion… It’s a lot about Fashion. Music has Fashion, music has Design. Which I like. I like that aspect of it, of music being like design.

TP: You represent a point of view for other people, and people get very wedded to their points of view (I’m talking about the public aspect of deejaying), so I imagine it would be an easy trap to fall into. Because deejays get a person, a certain authority, whatever that status is, and it would be very easy to get carried away with that.

DJ OLIVE: Yeah, and then you get categorized and…

TP: So a lot of the things you’re doing are consciously to avoid that trap.

DJ OLIVE: Well, these people who are like gods to me. Kim Gordon calls me. Am I going to say no? The same with Uri. I knew him a little bit, just his name. But he’s this incredible musician. I’m not going to say no to the chance to work with these people and soak something up, and try to get some feedback, you know, how can I make this instrument work as an instrument, not as a playback device. Or not just as a reference device either, although I use it that way a lot with Uri, like referencing sounds or sound effects or people speaking. For instance, with William Hooker I didn’t do any of that. It was all just usually synthesizer, early experimental synthesizer records. I wasn’t making like any reference to any content or the way that records usually are used when they’re not playing beats.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, uri Caine