Tag Archives: Blindfold Test

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)


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.

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.
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.
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
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.”


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.


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.


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.


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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.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, uri Caine

For Jeff Watts’ 56th Birthday, A DownBeat Article From 2002 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2004

In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 56th birthday, I’ve appended two pieces that it was my honor to write about him for DownBeat more than a decade. On top is a Downbeat feature piece written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk, in 2002 (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below it is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.


Jeff Watts (DownBeat):

When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.

The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.

“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”

For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.

“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”

Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.

“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”

“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”

“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”

Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”

That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.

He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”

Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.

“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”

“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”

During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”

Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”

“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”

Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”

On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.

Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”

Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”

Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”



Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.

But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.

The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.

2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)

Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!

4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)

Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.

5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)

That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.

6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)

Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.

7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)

Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.

8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)

That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.

9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)

Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.

10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)

Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?

11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.

12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)

It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.

13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)

The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.

14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)

Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!

You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.

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For Chris Potter’s 45th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008, a Jazziz Feature From 2006, and an Uncut DB Blindfold Test From 2000

For the virtuoso saxophone maestro Chris Potter’s 45th birthday, I’ve posted a pair of articles —one from 2008 for DownBeat, the other from 2006 for Jazziz — and an uncut version of a DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2000. Here’s a link to a piece that appeared in the December 2014 edition of DownBeat to mark Potter’s award as Best Tenor Saxophonist in that year’s Critics Poll.


Chris Potter DownBeat Article, “No Going Back”:

“It’s interesting how different people think,” said Chris Potter, a day before leaving New York City, his home base, for a five-week world tour. “Or, how the same thought has a different feeling from one language to another and how it’s connected. Figures of speech that translate directly into different languages, and things that don’t, and why.”

Perhaps Potter developed this idea while anticipating his impending linguistic itinerary—two weeks with the Dave Holland Quintet in Japan, South Korea and Australia, then three weeks of one-nighters in Spain, Belgium and Scandinavia with his Underground quartet.

“The way you think is connected to the way you express it,” he said. “Language is a vehicle for thinking, and there are many thoughts that we can only think because we have this tool. It’s as much about the way you organize your thoughts as it is to communicate. I see a relationship between this and music, although music is much more abstract. Rimsky-Korsakov and Duke Ellington might express a similar mood and be thinking in a similar frame of mind, but the way they express that frame of mind is determined by the musical language they work in.”

Given the events of the previous 24 hours, it was admirable that Potter was awake and lucid for a lunchtime interview, much less honing in on abstract matters. First, he was a newlywed, having gotten married on the previous morning before a Manhattan magistrate. Then he’d risen at the crack of dawn to take his wife to Kennedy Airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Budapest, her hometown, where she stayed for the duration of the tour. He had yet to pack, and wanted to buy a few books for the road. He had a gig in the evening at Iridium with clarinetist Eddie Daniels, a friend since he heard Potter, then a teenage wunderkind out of Columbia, S.C., at a jazz camp two decades ago.

Around that time, Red Rodney, Charlie Parker’s trumpet foil at the cusp of the ’50s, did a one-nighter in Columbia, invited the local hero to sit in for a tune and wound up keeping him on the bandstand for an entire set. When Potter arrived in New York in 1989, on a scholarship to the New School, Rodney hired him to play alto saxophone.

To date, Potter, now primarily a tenor saxophonist, can boast a resumé citing 14 albums as a leader, dozens of one-off record dates as a sideman, and long hauls with the Mingus Orchestra and such stylistically diverse leaders as Holland, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow and, most recently, Herbie Hancock. He’s sustained close associations—and recorded frequently—with a cohort of New York cutting-edgers, among them David Binney, Adam Rogers, Scott Colley, Alex Sipiagin, Brian Blade and Jeff Ballard. A bandleader himself with increasing frequency over the last decade, Potter, at 36, seems to be an esthetic role model for an emerging generation of musicians who admire the way he frames his singular voice—constructed on a personal distillation of saxophone dialects spanning Bird to Michael Brecker—with a 21st century soundtrack.

“A lot of people come out to hear Chris when we play,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson, Potter’s partner with Holland since 1997. “On the road people always want to study with him, and he does a lot of lessons.”

“Chris has a dedicated young following,” Holland said. “When we do workshops, the young musicians express a great deal of admiration for what he’s accomplished. He’s young enough for them to connect to him as a peer.”

Potter looks at his perch on a new branch of the saxophone with some curiosity.

“Considering how I looked up to my heroes, and still do, it’s strange that I might occupy that place for someone,” Potter said. As he continued, he neither soft-pedaled nor overstated his talent. “I have an idea of what naturally comes easy for me, but I’ve taught enough people that I know those things don’t necessarily come as easily to them. But I also know that having natural ability is not a guarantee of making something of great artistic worth, and that not having it also won’t guarantee that you’ll make something of great artistic worth. No matter who you are, the big factor is how much work you put into it.”

Potter has emerged as a leading improvisation voice of his generation. He may or may not be any more accomplished an instrumental virtuoso than such tenorists as Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander (who won top and second prize to Potter’s third in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition), or David Sánchez, James Carter, Donny McCaslin, Ron Blake, Seamus Blake, and Tim Warfield. Either way, there’s almost nothing he cannot accomplish on the saxophone as he solves the gnarliest musical puzzles with a don’t-let-them-see-you-sweat sangfroid.

Drummer Ballard recalled a night, about a decade ago, when Potter subbed for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band at Smalls. “Kurt’s music isn’t something you can just read,” said Ballard, then Rosenwinkel’s regular drummer. “We rehearsed two tunes just before the gig, then Chris and Kurt went back to the kitchen and talked through the rest. Chris played the music better than we did, who had been playing it for years. He killed it! Then he was all over whatever I was inferring, whether it was Motian-esque or like Roy Haynes. He screwed me up for days afterward by being everywhere and taking what was just done, and doing everything that you could do with all of it. For the next few days, people would ask, ‘You OK?’ ‘I’m cool,’ I’d say, trying to digest what had happened.”

Veteran Potter observers like Marian McPartland and Jimmy Heath are on record that Potter displayed such legerdemain from his middle teens. Chris Cheek, Potter’s “dueling tenors” partner in Motian’s Bebop Band of ’90s, cosigns such recollections. He first heard Potter at age 16, at a Jamey Aebersold music camp, when he played duet with Dave Liebman on drums.

“We were all stunned,” Cheek said. “I remember being floored by his sound, technique, range and boundless ideas. He can play anything that comes to mind, and those things are soulful and sophisticated. He’s one of the most consistent musicians I’ve ever heard or been lucky enough to play with. During the time with Paul, we played bebop, mostly head arrangements, and he had complete command of the style rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, but without playing the licks—completely himself. He would take these incredible solos, and the place would go crazy. It was awful to follow him.”

Craig Taborn, Potter’s keyboardist in Underground, explained how Potter’s ceiling for solo development and technical command is higher than most saxophonists. “You can’t say he’s stretching his technique, because you don’t feel he’s traversed that line of technical proficiency,” he said. “It never feels like he’s showing off or always playing at that ceiling. It feels like your ideas can go beyond this point, that everything can be executed.”

Underground guitarist Adam Rogers remarked on Potter’s refusal to engage in “gratuitous technicality,” Underground drummer Nate Smith noted Potter’s willingness “to turn the beat around, play different meters over top of you,” and Holland emphasized the “clarity and continuity of his line; the thread through his solos that takes you from one statement to the next in a fluid, connected way. It’s not just a bunch of notes that are related to the song, but a story evolving.”

Trying to offer insight on how he does what he does, Potter mentioned his formative years in Columbia, where as a high schooler he participated on a small but competent local scene that included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had toured with various Rat Pack-era entertainers.

“Playing gigs in front of people from a young age gives you a certain perspective that someone who spends all their time practicing alone wouldn’t get,” he said. “The social aspect was a big part of what attracted me to jazz. Even when I was studying Charlie Parker records, I listened to how he hooked up with Max Roach. Not just the notes Miles Davis played, but the notes that Herbie Hancock responded with, and how Miles reacted to that, and it created this whole sound. I listen to music this way, and it influences how I react to situations.”

After adding that he is somewhat shy, Potter reflected that his ability to organize thoughts in musical language outpaces his verbal capabilities. “In music I can usually identify the pertinent aspects that sound correct stylistically, and then jump from one area to another,” he said. “When I was younger, I’d memorize phrases—what Ornette Coleman or Lester Young used to get that certain sound, or something that Stravinsky might write for solo saxophone—and then try to play my own thoughts that way. I don’t have the memory to learn every lick, and I don’t spend my time working like that. But it was natural for me to hear how melodies and phrasing work, to understand how harmony functions.

“I make the comparison to a great Olympic runner,” he continued. “You train for years on how to start the race, how to stride and so on. When the race happens, the muscles find a way to do it. I go from a sound, then try to figure out the specifics from looking at the big picture. I understand the idea, and then somehow in that moment I can see how to execute it, and the fingers go there, and the brain knows what to do. There are times I’ve listened back or seen a transcription, and thought, ‘Wow, that was hard.’ If I’d stopped to analyze what I played, I couldn’t have done it.”

On many of his ’90s recordings, Potter presented compositions that took him into a specific vibrational world. One tune would evoke a Brecker feel, another a Wayne Shorter ambiance, others the essence, but not the licks, of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Eddie Harris. Each food group was a separate entity, upon which Potter wove original variations.

“I think that’s possible, but if it’s the case, it wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said. “I might have been figuring out what to do with this or that influence, and where to go from that. Perhaps it was a glimpse of the growth process, or it might be the way I am. But I hope, and have a feeling, that I’m entering a different phase where it won’t be so clear where everything is coming from, because I’ve had enough time and experience to figure out what I want to say.”

Potter used electric guitar on several of those ’90s recordings, but all were acoustic in flavor. Although odd meters entered the mix, they were swing-oriented. Underground, however, is an electric band. Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Rogers on electric guitar find resourceful ways to fulfill the bass function, while Smith anchors the flow from the drums. Potter writes scaled-down, open-ended pieces for the group—some documented on the eponymous 2006 studio recording Underground, and the 2007 location date Follow The Red Line: Live At The Vanguard (Sunnyside). Vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational investigations propelled by kinetic African, Balkan, funk and hip-hop rhythms. They’re articulated with a textural palette that evokes those idioms as well as electronica, highbrow pop and ambient music.

“The sensibility that we bring to our playing—for instance, the volume or the shape of the improvisations—is not necessarily always selecting towards jazz,” Taborn said. “Different gestures enter from rock, electronic music or hip-hop—staying on grooves, but less development, or maybe no development. Maybe it gets bigger. Maybe it gets louder than normal. It goes into a sound world. It goes fully out of a sound world. A lot of this stuff is more common in the lexicon of contemporary popular music, and younger audiences instantly understand and relate to those decisions. Underground may be cast as jazz, but there are subtle differences between what we do and what would happened with the same species of musician playing the same species of music 15 years ago.”

“Chris is taking advantage of the instrumentation and strong individual styles of the players to give the band a unique sound,” Holland said. “The music has a cerebral, intellectual quality and is grounded in strong feelings and grooves, which encompasses a lot of what music should be about.”

Holland produced Potter’s other 2007 album, Song For Anyone (Sunnyside), a highly composed 10-piece suite for woodwinds, strings and rhythm section. Drawing deeply on classical music, Potter developed fugues, canons and difficult counterpoint. Rich colors abound in the voicings, and improvisations emerge organically from the flow.

“I’m influenced by classical music, and I learned a lot from the tentet,” Potter said. “It’s a big influence on the way jazz players manipulate notes, and it’s fun to explore other ways of doing it. As an improviser, thinking in this compositional way helps me take a more detailed, birds-eye view of where I want things to go. It was also a chance to experiment with some influences that might be less obvious in a jazz context—to create a fugue or employ 12-tone writing, or develop themes and figure out where to use them. I’ve studied some scores, but I’m a dilettante when it comes to classical composition. I picked and grabbed from Debussy, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Bach—whomever.

“When I was 14 or 15, listening to Bird, [Stravinsky’s] “Rite Of Spring,” The Beatles and Stevie Wonder I heard that there had to be some way to make music that uses all that stuff,” he continued. “I’ve been hoping to find that thread for many years. This might be getting closer to that idea. If I wrote some more larger ensemble music, it might be more improvisational than what I did here. By the same token, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable using more compositional elements within this freer thing, too. Maybe I’m trying to fuse this language.”

As the ’90s progressed, Potter, like many of his cohort seeking to cut the umbilical cord of influence, embraced the challenge of finding rhythmic groupings that would make odd meters flow as organically as swing. At the decade’s end, he began to investigate these ideas with a working quartet of Kevin Hays on piano, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart. On various gigs at the 55 Bar in 2003 and 2004, he workshopped different combinations of musicians and instruments, one of which included Taborn. Hoping “to keep the group small to give everyone room to explore” and attracted to the Rhodes’ ability to project organ-like textures and a thick sonic blend with the guitar, Potter gradually coalesced Underground and wrote the music that comprises its eponymous debut.

“There was another side of my musical personality that I wasn’t letting show,” he said of Underground. “I have a conservative side that is useful in some situations, but I want to make sure that it doesn’t win out over the side that wants to stretch. I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t able to get with my other group, and felt I needed to take a chance and try to follow it. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about disbanding, but rather having more sides to what I was doing. At some point, when I can approach it with a fresh perspective, the other quartet might re-form. But Underground’s path has developed its own momentum, and it’s what I want to go with now.”

Uncorking a series of poetic, theme-and-variation declamations on bedrock jazz repertoire on Motian’s 2006 date On Broadway, Vol. 4 (Winter & Winter) and on Mark Soskin’s 2007 One Hopeful Day (Kind of Blue), Potter sounds anything but conservative. But he is adamant that the swing or mainstream context in which he established his early bona fides is no longer boundary-stretching terrain.

“The language is what it is,” Potter said. “There’s no way it’s going to go into certain areas that are interesting to me. It’s not going to be free. There’s always going to be a tempo. The harmony is going to keep moving, and you need to play over it. Not that there’s nothing to learn from it, and I enjoy being in that situation from time to time. Because I learned the underlying rules that made Charlie Parker’s music work, I bring a certain feeling to anything I play, even if the harmonic language is extended, or the actual notes I play aren’t what he would have chosen to play over standard tunes.”

“Chris is open to anything now,” Binney said. “From here on anything could happen.”

Potter does not disagree. “People are working with actual instruments and sounds that didn’t exist when I hit the scene,” he said. “They’ve internalized how to play over odd meters and are much freer with them than, say, Mahavishnu was in the early ’70s. Jazz musicians have a much more sophisticated knowledge of folk music from around the world than a few years ago, and it’s part of what they hear and draw on. All over the world, people are playing at a high level, within their frame of reference. It doesn’t matter whether it’s jazz or not. It just allows more possibilities for finding beautiful things that haven’t been explored.

“It took me a long time to realize how free I could be,” he said. “Things on the scene are much more open now than when I moved to New York, partially because of the demise of record companies. No one has any monopoly on anything; you go with what you hear. But then, I felt I needed to stick within certain boundaries to be accepted. I wasn’t trying to play bebop just like Charlie Parker. I was trying to stretch within the areas. But eventually I realized that I had created the boundaries for myself. If finding another way to approach my own music was my dream, then I should stop dreaming and make it happen.”

Four years into his Underground adventure, married and soon to be a father, Potter has weightier things on his mind than notes and tones, among them the proposition of sustaining a viable career while navigating uncharted terrain.

“Around all of the musicians who I admire, you think of a whole esthetic,” he said on a stopover in Genk, Belgium, following 10 days crisscrossing the highways of Spain with Rogers, Smith and Taborn. “You imagine their sound, you imagine everything about them. That’s dangerous in this day and age, because everything gets simplified into an image that can be easily understood. You can co-opt anything and still sell sneakers. Now, I’ve made a conscious decision to experiment and move more into exploring my own thing. If I give that up, then I’m not doing what I should.

“The best bandleaders are completely committed to their vision, and it won’t include everything,” he continued. “It’s impossible to be all things to all people. You have to find the things that turn you on the most, and not be afraid to follow them wherever they take you. I’ve felt this working with Motian and Dave [Holland], or on my more recent experiences with Herbie. But it’s different when it’s your name on the line and you’re the one stretching on the set. How can I define that to myself and establish it on my own terms so that people know, ‘That’s Chris’ sound’?”

Consistent with his practice, Potter looks to the big picture. “It’s important to remember what gave the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong its power. It was connected to something beyond itself, to forces bigger than we can control,” he said. “As artists, we have to respond to what’s going on and react as best we can. The technical things—theory, odd meters—are interesting, but as a means to an end. That brings us to the question of what is music about. Why are we playing it? I devote all this time to it. I lose so much sleep. I’m not home for months at a time. Why?

“Music is a mystery,” he continued. “People watch a bunch of people on a stage, making noise in an organized fashion and for some reason everyone can feel something from it. I am trying to think when I go on stage: What do I want to do? What I really want to do is get the room vibrating in a certain way that everyone experiences something together—something positive, negative, scary or enjoyable—but something real that only being in a room with people making music can do.”

In Spain the previous week, Potter had faced some challenges in realizing this aspiration. “We did several gigs sponsored by a bank that sponsors cultural events in arts centers in some of the smaller towns,” he recounted. “Most of the people in the audience were Spanish ladies in their 60s. We felt completely like fish out of water.”

Wouldn’t this be a moment for Potter to dip into his Johnny Hodges bag?

“There’s no going back,” he said. “One night I tried to play something pretty in a certain style, but it felt wrong. The band has its own energy to go a certain way. You have to follow that.”



Chris Potter (Jazziz Article, 2007):

On consecutive Fridays in June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For the second Friday, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin. Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz. “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier, and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers. He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang Yesterday, and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”


“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar, launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965. Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources. These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”



Around 1997, when he began to play the vertiginous music of Dave Holland, Potter began to experience periodic dizzy spells that came on without warning and lasted for hours. It was diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition, and made Potter—who gave the title Vertigo to a 1998 two-tenor date with Joe Lovano, and a Kurt Rosenwinkel-Scott Colley-Billy Drummond collaboration—almost completely deaf in his left ear.

“It was an extremely stressful time, a nightmare both from the stress of, ‘Wow, I’m a musician, and I’m losing hearing,’ and, ‘Okay, I’m a traveling musician, and I have to leave at 5:30 in the morning here to travel from Umbria to Finland, and I can’t even get out of bed because I’m nauseous and the room is spinning,’” Potter says.

“I got treated, had a couple of different surgeries, but I don’t think they really helped. I think the illness took its course, and after a certain point I also realized that I somehow had to take responsibility for it myself. I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to be cool. This isn’t going to ruin everything. I’ve lost what I’ve lost, but I’m not going to let it stop me.’ I think it’s one of those tests that we all have in various ways at various points of our lives. Something happens that isn’t exactly what you want, and you have to figure out how you want to react to it. These are the things that end up defining who you are, and although I’m not glad it happened, I think I derived some strength out of it in a way that I wouldn’t have without it. It even has its advantages. I put the drums on my left, and I can sleep through stuff.”


Chris Potter Blindfold Test:

1. Charlie Parker, “Lester Leaps In,” THE COMPLETE LEGENDARY ROCKLAND PALACE CONCERT (Jazz Classics, 1952/1996) (5 stars)

Bird! [LAUGHS] Wow. Where is that from? [The Rockland Palace, a benefit for Paul Robeson in 1952 with dancers.] Wow. That’s great. Man, that’s some unbelievable Bird. I have to check that out. There’s so much available, you never know what’s going to be what. Bird’s probably the biggest influence that I feel I have. He’s such a big figure in my way of thinking about playing the saxophone, it’s hard to even know how to start. But the thing that always gets me about it, besides just his obviously genius way of figuring out how to incorporate rhythms and harmony and make them all sort of work in harmony with each other, there’s such a joyous kind of vibe about it. That’s something I feel isn’t… You always hear about how much of a genius he was. But just the pure enjoyment of hearing that much joy. It sounded just like he was having so much fun that he was able to do that, just singing out. It’s like a kid playing in the sandbox. It’s got that kind of naive almost kind of quality to it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. 5 stars, if that’s all I can give. I remember when I was first playing the saxophone, I was 11 or 12. Everyone said, “Man, you’ve got to check out Charlie Parker.” At that time I was totally into Johnny Hodges. I just didn’t hear it. He’s sort of out of tune and he’s playing all these notes — what’s going on? Then one day I was ready. One day again someone said, “Bird, that’s it.” So I put it back on, and all of a sudden it was like a light went off.” It was like, “Oh, that’s what they’re talking about.” Then that was it. I’m sure at least a year out of my life almost everything I listened to was Bird.

2. Ellery Eskelin/Han Bennink, “Let’s Cool One,” DISSONANT CHARACTERS (hatOLOGY, 1998) [4 stars]

So far I think it’s Johnny Griffin, but we’ll see. Okay, definitely not Johnny Griffin. There’s something about his sound… It’s that Monk tune, “Let’s Call This” or… “Let’s Cool One.” I always get them confused. Wow. I really don’t know who it is. [He’s a little older than you, though he came to town around the same time.] Wow! [And he’s not necessarily known for playing tunes in public persona and reputation.] He sort of sounds like he might play a lot of freer music, to me. I was almost thinking of someone like Jim Pepper, because there’s something about his sound that was similar to Jim Pepper, too. But it’s not him either. [AFTER] That was very nice. It was interesting to me just to hear him play a tune. That’s tricky. I’ll say 4 stars. The only thing is, I sort of wanted it to go on longer and develop more even. Who was playing drums? Han Bennink? That makes sense. I’ve actually never heard Han play time either. But I know that’s how he started.

3. Mark Turner & Josh Redman, “317 E. 32nd St.,” MARK TURNER (Warner Bros, 1994/1998) [4 stars]

Sort of a Lennie vibe. Warne and Lee? It’s a little soon. It’s a great head. Real Warne-ish on the first solo. But it sounds like a newer record; this is obviously not from the ’50s. I’m confused. Mark and Josh? It sounds like Max Bolleman engineered it. I think it’s Lennie’s head; it’s on “Out Of Nowhere,” but I can’t place it. [AFTER] That was interesting, because I actually did think it was Warne at first, when it was Mark, and I found myself thinking, “Man, Mark really borrowed some stuff from Warne!” It was actually recorded a few years ago, right? That’s another reason I didn’t think it was Mark. I can tell from hearing him more recently, he’s sort of developed his thing a little more. It was interesting when the second solo came in. It sounded like Josh was doing the Warne kind of thing, too. Then after a couple of choruses his essential Joshness started to come out. These are obviously guys who are the same age as I am, and I can feel a certain sympathy in the fact that they’re being judged by me of all people especially! But I think that’s a good example of some early Mark and Josh. It’s interesting to me after I figured out to think about how they sound now and how they sound then. They’re more themselves now, more developed, surer of themselves, I think. That’s a natural process that hopefully happens as you get older, if you don’t lose your way. That’s just what’s going to happen. 4 stars. It was a good job, guys.

4. Wayne Shorter, “Wayne’s World,” HEROES (Verve, 1999) [J.J. Johnson, composer] [5 stars]

Wayne. I’m going to go on a limb and guess this is the J.J. Johnson record, which I haven’t heard, but I know it exists. And it’s a modern record, and it’s Wayne, and it sounds like it’s probably J.J. This might be the solo that meant that I didn’t win a Grammy! Well, that’s not exactly true. But I think this was up in the same category. [AFTER] [It sounded like it deserved a Grammy.] It did. I mean, Wayne doesn’t even have to sound good with all the stuff he’s given us. [You’re only as good as your last solo.] Well, that was a great solo. He definitely sustained his reputation on that one, I thought. That was great. I’m always looking for new Wayne to check out. He’s up there with Bird as a huge influence on the way I think. There’s something about him that I always totally dug, that he seems totally unafraid to be an individual. I mean, he’ll do just some weird stuff, and somehow it just resonates the right way. He’s obviously telling the truth about what he’s like, and you get that. 5 stars. [How is Wayne Shorter different now from 10-15 years ago?] It’s hard to really say. I think as it’s gone on, as he’s done records like Highlife and Atlantis, which I love… His thing has definitely progressed from the beginning of his career, from like a great tenor soloist… It doesn’t seem like he’s thinking in those kind of terms any more. He’s hearing everything. That’s something I always dug about him. He always had that, but I think he keeps bringing that out more and more. It always seemed to me that it almost didn’t matter that he was playing the saxophone, that he was playing jazz — that it was music even. It seems like that’s just his way of communicating what he has to communicate, and he can do it through any medium. There some sort of non-attachment or something that I get from it. It’s just the expression that I get from him. It sounds to me like he might not play as much as he did in those… I mean, he was playing with Blakey every night and with Miles. So I can hear that that level of playing comfort maybe isn’t there. But in its place is some really deep thought that keeps getting deeper for me. He’s a hero of mine, too, in that he hasn’t rested on his laurels. He keeps working on stuff, and I think we’re all richer for it.

5. Bennie Wallace, “Moon Song,” BENNIE WALLACE (AudioQuest, 1998) [Tommy Flanagan, piano] [4 stars]

It’s Coleman Hawkins. Let’s see. I’ll take a guess and say it’s Bennie Wallace. But let’s let the record state that he gave me too good of a hint. [AFTER] At first his sound seriously reminded me of Coleman Hawkins, then when he started blowing he was sort of using those arpeggiated things like Coleman Hawkins would do, but further out. So I thought, I don’t know, maybe Don Byas or someone like that. Then it got further and further out, and I went, “Whoa, this is not of that generation.” [Are you familiar enough with the way Bennie Wallace plays that you’d have known it was him?] I might not have known. I sort of have an idea of what he sounds like — and that’s what he sounds like! [LAUGHS] But I’m not that familiar with his work. I liked the song, though I don’t know what the tune is. [Who is the pianist?] It sounded like an older guy. It’s often harder for me to tell who’s playing if it’s a pretty inside kind of thing, if it’s sort of sticking to the conventional language. That can make it harder, in a way, because there’s certain conventions everyone uses to make it sound like jazz, but that can make it harder to identify, too. [AFTER] That would have been my first guess, but it’s too late now! 4 stars. I enjoyed it. This is actually something I’ve found myself working on now that I’m off the road for a few weeks. I’ve actually been trying to investigate ways you can bend the notes, shape every note so it has a character, which the old guys did. And it seems like Bennie has really checked that out. It’s not even totally in tune. It’s like out of tune in a cool way that gives it a vocal kind of quality that… It’s something I’m working on, so it’s nice to hear someone else’s approach to that, which obviously comes from the old-old-old school as far as tenor playing goes.

6. George Garzone, “I’ll Remember April,” MOODIOLOGY (NYC, 1999) [Ken Werner, piano] (3 stars)

It’s obviously a younger musician. No? I’m really not sure. I have to confess I didn’t like this as much as the other stuff you’ve had on so far. What I’d say against it is the fact that it’s “I’ll Remember April” just sort of played without an arrangement, and it was a sort of jam session sounding thing, which is cool if it’s a jam session, but if you have a chance to make a record, try to do something to enliven the arrangement a bit. And there was something about the saxophone player… What I did like about the whole thing is that the energy was really strong. It felt like everyone was sort of going for it and enjoying themselves, which obviously is a huge thing. It can be a great musician, and if it doesn’t have that, it’s not going to have anything that sort of draws you in. But it sounded a little unfocused to me, too, in terms of a conception. It sounded to me there were certain things he was going for that he doesn’t have thought out yet. [Do you know who the pianist was?] (I’m not sure who the pianist was, but I actually really enjoyed the piano solo. It was a little busy at times, too, but it seemed much more focused to me. Very smart. 3 stars. [AFTER] I’m surprised. I totally did not get Ken Werner. I would not have thought that.

7. World Saxophone Quartet, “Requiem for Julius,” REQUIEM FOR JULIUS (Just-In Time, 2000).

The only saxophone group like that I’m familiar with is the World Saxophone Quartet, so that would be my guess. I guess that’s Oliver Lake playing soprano? [That was John Purcell on saxello.] Playing the melody? [On this record they each stick to one instrument, and the instrument you heard was saxello.] Wow, that’s a cool sound. That’s really cool. It sounded a little more in, I guess (I hate to use those kind of terms), than I expected. It had more of a compositional thing. It was like a nice tune, first of all, and nice voicings for all the instruments. I was almost thinking it wasn’t them, because it was so structured, in a way. But it sounded like Hamiet Bluiett’s sound down there. That was sort of the first recognizable thing. Nice. There’s something about the sound of the saxello — obviously it’s the way Purcell is playing it — that’s really cool. Its pitch is funny, and his approach to things is sort of out there, but it sort of hits me the right way. It’s nice. It sounds human. Animal, in a way. It’s cool. 4 stars. I enjoyed it.

8. Johnny Griffin, “All Too Soon,” THE REV AND I (Blue Note, 1999) [Phil Woods, alto sax] [5 stars]

I think it’s Phil Woods. I’m assuming this is Phil’s latest record on Blue Note, which has Johnny Griffin. Griffin sounds great. That was a great performance. I’d say that was a 5 star performance there. The way that I first heard Johnny Griffin’s playing, and probably the way a lot of people did was those Monk records at the Five Spot. I heard those all the time. It’s interesting to see how he sort of changed. He always had that thing. He was playing all the bebop stuff; something about his sound, it’s sort of similar to what I was talking about earlier, bending the notes and being a little out of tune here, and a little low here and a little high there… [He’s a blues guy.] Right. He has that real vocal thing. And now that he’s older, too, to be able to play a melody and just play that simply on a ballad and have it be that much of a voice is a beautiful thing. Man, saxophone can be a beautiful thing. That’s great.

9. James Carter, “Drafedelic In D-Flat,” LAYIN’ IN THE CUT (Atlantic, 2000)

Albert Ayler? Okay, it’s got to be James Carter. This must be that new record that just came out. The intro was amazing. I sometimes get the feeling that he might be playing music for different reasons than I’m playing music — or not very similar. It’s a different way of thinking about what we think is beautiful. Especially after the band came in, I felt like he… I liked the fact that it’s at least a very strong statement in one direction or another, which I respect, but a lot of it doesn’t seem that beautiful to me. It’s not coming from a place of trying to make a beautiful thing. And I was not expecting that sound to come in after that intro. I actually dug the texture of it. I liked the sound of the tenor with an almost jam band kind of thing. There wasn’t really much of a melody or anything. That I sort of liked about it. But I probably wouldn’t choose to listen to it at home. There’s something about it that makes me feel that’s not what I want to have in my head. I won’t rate it.

10. Sonny Stitt, “I Got Rhythm,” TUNE UP (32 Jazz, 1972/1997) [Stitt, alto and tenor sax] (4½ stars)

This is the slowest “I’ve Got Rhythm” I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m assuming it goes into double time! My first thought was Gene Ammons, but I’m not sure now. Nice sound. [AFTER] Well, I actually did end up getting it. Sonny Stitt on alto. But I could not tell if it was him on tenor. I really did not think that it was him. Because his sound sounded a lot more full and focused. His sound on the alto was really recognizable, certain things in certain registers — okay, that’s got to be him. But on the tenor he didn’t sound like he usually does. He sounds great! He was always sort of… If you think about walking into a jazz club somewhere and hearing someone burn, that was him. I never got a chance to see him, but that’s always the sense I have, is just like state of the art bebop — flawless. [Talk about playing on the two horns.] That’s sort of a tough thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, too. Something about the alto, and switching to the tenor… It’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns at the same time, and it’s hard to feel comfortable on both horns, period. I’m not sure why that is, even, that it’s that similar and that different. You really have to think about it. [People say the alto needs more control.] Maybe so. Obviously, the smaller the horn, the smaller the mouthpiece… I think smaller differences in embrochure and all that are going to make bigger changes in the sound and the way that the pitch is. But it’s fairly similar. So to feel comfortable knowing what to do, how to change, how to… I mean, it’s really subtle embrochure change kind of stuff. And also the amount of air that you blow, it’s not that much more on the tenor, but it’s a little bit more. You have to be a little bit looser, but not that much looser. You have to know how to do it. It’s really difficult to feel comfortable doing both. There’s something about the register for me, too, the way that you hear the alto clearer when you play it, I feel it. Because it’s higher, and also because the bell is pointing more towards you. It’s sort of right here, whereas if you’re playing tenor it’s going out that way more and a little further down. So you’re getting a different sonic thing back when you’re playing, too, I find. 4½ stars. I don’t think you could possibly play bebop rhythm changes any better than that. That was like it.

11. Joe Lovano, “The Scene Is Clean,” 52nd STREET THEMES (Blue Note, 2000) (4½ stars)

Lovano maybe. “The Scene is Clean.” I recorded this. Lewis Nash on drums. I guess I started hearing Lovano right around the time I moved to New York, like 1990, which is when he signed with Blue Note and started to be sort of an influence on younger saxophone players. It’s been interesting to see how he has been very influential on sort of the younger generation of saxophonists. There’s someone you can really look at who is very strong about what he wants to do, and he’s put in the work to be able to do it. He’s obviously thought about having an original kind of sound. He had his own approach to things, but totally grounded in history from early infancy, I guess. It’s been a good influence, I think, on younger musicians, because it is someone who is that grounded in the whole history of it. It’s been a positive thing. But I also think it’s interesting now to hear younger players trying to sound like him. As someone in that generation, he’d definitely be one person I don’t want to sound just like. Because he has a lot of influences that I have and I think that’s the way it is for all of the younger saxophonists. So in a way, I don’t end up listening to him all that much any more, because I don’t want to have that in my head too much. I want to have sort of a different thing. 4½ stars.

12. Joe Henderson, “Portrait,” THE STATE OF THE TENOR (VOL.2) (Blue Note, 1985/1994) [5 stars]

Well, I guess, that’s Joe Henderson. This is a Billy Strayhorn tune that I can’t remember the name of. Oops! Sorry. It’s a Mingus tune. I think it’s called “Portrait.” It’s Al Foster on drums, and I’m guessing Mraz on bass. [AFTER] I have to give that five stars, too, just in terms of how big an influence he’s been on me. I don’t even know how to start. Sound, phrasing, his own language, his approach to rhythm. Hugely influential on me, and I’m not the only one. Just a master. And it was interesting for me to see him the first time. I remember seeing him probably a few years after this was recorded, and I was surprised at how soft he plays. He never seems to have to try and get beyond that. There’s something about people who play really quietly in… My own most personal experience would be similar to the way it feels to play with Jim Hall. It’s like you play that quietly, you bring people in. The fact that he seems so much like such a wise gnome — a short guy kind of hunched over — sort of brings people in, I think. That’s part of his mystique. Which is something beyond just playing the saxophone great, obviously. That’s something all these great musicians share, too. I was talking about Bird sounding just like a genius kid at play in the sandbox. Lovano has a whole different thing. He’s like BIG. He’s this big guy and he’s got this big presence With Joe-Hen it’s almost the opposite kind of thing, very soft, very quiet, and it makes everyone listen in. That’s something worthy of study, along with the way they use notes and that kind of thing, is the kind of vibe that these great musicians give out. It’s like they’re so themselves, and they never stop being themselves. 100 percent of the time you’re seeing exactly what they mean to express. Even if they mess up, it’s still them messing up.

13. Ralph Moore, “Crazeology,” SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE…THE SAX PLAYERS (Telarc, 1996) [3½ stars]

Eric Alexander? This is sort of a tough one to figure, which I think is also related to that thing I was talking about earlier. It’s such a standard kind of thing. Which is sort of a criticism I have of it, too… [Well, it’s not the type of Bird tune that everybody plays.] No. There was something sort of conservative about it that I didn’t dig, but it was played really-really well. I really don’t know who it was. My next guess would be like Ralph Moore, just because of his sound. But I know his playing more in other contexts. And it could be Benny Green. It’s sort of hard to find grounds to criticize it in terms of what was actually played. It sounded great. [AFTER] Oh, that’s Ray’s record! Well, then it’s no criticism at all of anyone really, because if anyone has the right to make that kind of record, it’s Ray Brown. [Why shouldn’t people stand in there with the… It’s an interesting question for a guy who started with Red Rodney. You’ve played a lot of this music. Why do you find it a little objectionable for people to make their own statement on it?] It’s not that I find it objectionable. It’s more that I’m not interested in hearing it myself. I’d much rather hear someone do something else. Just because it’s so hard to compete with how great those original records were. Unless you’re going to really do something in a different way, have a totally different concept… I mean it’s really enjoyable to listen to. There’s nothing I can object to except to say that I’d rather hear younger players do something else, even if it doesn’t work as well. Because that’s obviously going to work. But there’s something a bit safe about it that I don’t dig. 3½ stars.

14. David Berkman, “Blue Poles,” COMMUNICATION THEORY (Palmetto, 2000) [Chris Cheek, ts] [4½ stars]

I definitely know this guy’s playing. I’ve played with him. Chris Cheek maybe. I’m not sure who everyone else is. But that was really nice. That was sort of a good thing to play after we were just done talking about I’d rather hear younger players do something else than just play tunes. That was a really good example, a well thought out compositional kind of thing which had a different kind of feel, and wasn’t just simply like swinging. Very, very nice. I know Chris’ sound so well from playing next to him with Paul Motian. I definitely learned a lot from him. He’s someone who I can obviously recognize. He definitely does things that I don’t hear other people do. He has his language which he seems… It seems like he’s not trying to do everything all the time. He’s just trying to do his thing, which is something I have a lot of respect for. And he obviously has a really strong command of the horn, too. [AFTER] I really liked what Brian did on that. I was wondering if it was him. Because it was very, very nice. He really made the tune in a lot of ways, too, the whole feel of it, changing the textures up — really nice. 4½ stars.

15. Sonny Rollins-Coleman Hawkins, “All The Things You Are,” SONNY MEETS HAWK (RCA, 1963/1997) [5 stars]

Sonny and Coleman Hawkins. That’s an immediate 5 stars. That’s a fascinating record from a psychological angle, too; what was going on in the studio, what… I do have a feeling Sonny was making sure he didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins, and I’m also fairly sure that Coleman Hawkins was out for blood! [LAUGHS] It’s just amazing to hear that much personality in one record. That just jumps out at you. That’s some living music there. I recently rented a video of Sonny, and I noticed how unafraid he is when he’s playing. It seems to be an unbroken line. Like, he’s not planning his next move at all. It’s sort of interesting that he got so well known for being a thematic improviser, but it always seemed to me he’s one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was. He’s really in that moment, and it just works out to being a thematic kind of thing. That’s what he hears to play right at that moment. But that’s sort of how he’s able to keep your interest, is just because he’s on that line. He has no idea really what he’s going to play next. It sounds to me that he’s consciously trying to be out, in a way, on this record. Which could be seen as a criticism, but I actually dig it. It sounds right to me, especially in that context, as we were saying, of that psychological drama that unfolds. That makes perfect sense. It was a smart move. Because you’re not going to out-Coleman Hawkins Coleman Hawkins. He sounds great on that, too. It was sort of a good day for everyone.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chris Potter, DownBeat, Jazziz

For Danilo Pérez’s 50th Birthday, an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2001 and a WKCR Interview from 1993

Best of birthdays to Danilo Pérez, pianist-composer-educator-humanitarian, who turns 50 today. I’ve posted the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001, and the transcript of a WKCR Musicians Show that Danilo did with me in 1993, around the release of his eponymous debut album. I’ve also linked to DownBeat features I’ve written about Danilo that were published, respectively, in 2010 and 2014.


Danilo Perez (Blindfold Test – Raw Copy) – (3-29-01):

1. John Lewis, “One! Of Parker’s Moods,” EVOLUTION II (Atlantic, 2000). (George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) – (5 stars)

Man, it’s like the blues told by somebody who really was there. Ain’t nobody… He’s got a classical sound, too, but it’s jazz. I only know one guy who can play like that, with quoting some Bird things — John Lewis. Man, that’s BAD! Is that John? What record is that? [The latest.] Oh my goodness, you would have got me. But the sound is a vocal sound, man, in his playing, and minimalistic to the end, with so much clarity. I wish I could one day play half that good man. Check that out. He’s just so clear. The sound. [And you know the tune.] This is Bird, “Parker’s Mood.” 5 stars definitely. This is just so clear. I hit it! That was a great example of clarity and right to the point. The phrases are all…it was all clear. The phrasing, man. It was the piano being played, but I could hear the humming, the vocal quality to the music.

2. Michel Camilo, “Night In Tunisia,” THRU MY EYES (Tropijazz, 1997) (Patitucci, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

[AFTER IT’S OVER] Wow, that’s definitely “Night In Tunisia.” There’s a lot of energy on it. Sometimes it didn’t flow as good for me. It reminded me in parts of somebody who I met in Panama many years ago; just a couple of parts, not everything, but he had a couple of things that remind me of one of my heroes, but he wasn’t as flowing as I was used to hearing him playing — Jorge Dalto. It definitely wasn’t Emiliano. There were some parts where I couldn’t tell really who it was. It was a nice version of “Night In Tunisia.” It was a nice combination of lines with… It was a great attempt to say certain things, but it didn’t… 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t flow as well for me. He was actually trying for something different in this. I couldn’t recognize Michel. He was trying some different stuff, and that’s probably the most positive thing about it that he was trying some different stuff. He wasn’t doing the octave runs and all the things that are Michel’s trademark. He was doing something totally different, which I feel is the true essence of jazz.

3. Jorge Dalto, “Avenida Buenos Aires,” LATIN JAZZ: LIVE FROM SOUNDSCAPE (DIW, 1981/1997) – (4 stars)

That sounds like Jorge. It’s one of those rare occasions where he was caught up in a very open sound, very improvised. He’s got traces of a lot of history there. I really enjoy it. I have to give it 4 for the tuning of the piano! But wow, it’s so beautiful. You can hear the whole Pan-American approach to the piano. He brought a lot of dimension to this. When I was listening to this, I could hear New York and I could hear also Los Andes. He managed to play in a way that gives you an organic ride from New York City, with that element of energy in his playing, and kills, too, all the way to the Indians and playing the little flute sonata, which was a part that he did. Right here you’re stopped in the traffic from the airport to Manhattan! He was storyteller, man. Wow, amazing.

4. Joe Zawinul, “Two Lines,” WORLD TOUR (Zebra, 1998) – (4 stars)

This has definitely been influenced by Weather Report. There’s no doubt about it. Let me keep listening. I can hear that whole Joe Zawinul-Wayne Shorter school, definitely. [AFTER] Definitely. That’s one of the newest groups. To me that’s the essence of being a creative force, to be able to stamp. You can hear the stamp right there. We were just so spoiled to the Weather Report thing, but he’s trying definitely for new things on this one. You can’t help but to think on the great group that he had with Wayne Shorter and Jaco and the group that they put together. Just because that has been such an inspiration on how to make a sound; really, the sound he gets from the keyboards is masterful. It’s different than he used to, but still you can hear that voice in there. I would definitely give 4 stars to the Master Zawinul.

5. David Kikoski, “Water,” ALMOST TWILIGHT (Criss Cross, 1999) – (John Patitucci, bass; Jeff Watts, drums) – (4 stars)

This reminds me of Joey Calderazzo a bit. But it’s got some rhythm things, really interesting stuff. I can recognize the drums — Tain definitely. And Patitucci? The piano reminds me of Joey a little bit. Oh, do you know who that could be? That could be my brother, Kikoski. That’s it. That’s what it is. I know Dave a long time, and he’s a truly underrated musician. We’ve come a long way together. Yeah, that’s the sound I was hearing. It’s got that McCoy thing, that Herbie thing, but it’s definitely Dave; I can definitely hear that rhythmically. I haven’t listened to him as much as I used to. He changed, too, a lot. There’s some nice stuff he’s mixed between Herbie, floating the line with the pentatonic stuff, and he’s making some real interesting rhythmic stuff, mixing up the Latin thing and different rhythms — really open playing. Four stars. Oh my goodness. I said, “I KNOW that sound.”

6. Barry Harris, “I’ll Keep Loving You,” I’M OLD FASHIONED (Alfa, 1998) (George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s somebody who knows about Bud! It’s not Bud, but somebody who knows about that shit. Nice recording. In the progressions, a lot of the runs he plays… This sounds like an original to me, but with the standard vibe. It’s really well-done. How he got to that minor-VII flat-V reminded me a lot of the way Barry Harris would do it. You almost got me because it’s a recent recording. The piano sounds so good! I’ll definitely give 5 stars to this. I know this tune. Is it Dizzy’s? [AFTER] Oh, that’s very nice. Yeah, he put something else on that one. It’s the way he got to that chord and the mastery of the idiom. He’s playing it from the heart. That’s HIM. The sound of the instrument is a very fresh, new recording. Is that relatively new? It sounds so beautiful.

7. Kenny Kirkland, “Chance,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) – (5 stars)

That’s an incredible coincidence! [In the first second you said…] That’s Kenny. That’s what I was listening to when I woke up, this tune. This is amazing, man. I haven’t listened to that record since it came out. And this morning I just took it out, and as I was listening, I was crying. There was something spiritual about it. The whole tune, the whole record… What he’s doing with the harmonies, they are very unpredictable. They’re coming out of that school, that Herbie-Wayne type of writing. Not writing tunes, but compositions really. A great influence to me in the way he played the piano. He had no barriers or borders. He encompasses the whole history. I remember so many amazing moments when I started hearing him live, with his energy and rhythmic ideas and the interaction between them in the band with Branford. He’ll be remembered forever. And it’s an incredible spiritual awakening that this morning I got up thinking about him, and you played that, and that’s what I was playing. That’s deep. I miss him. I really do. I miss his power. 5 stars. The only recording he left as a leader, but it encompasses a lot. A lot of ground. A great inspiration for us.

8. McCoy Tyner (solo), “Sweet and Lovely,” JAZZ ROOTS (Telarc, 2000) – (5 stars)

McCoy Tyner. There’s only one guy who can play like that. I’m trying to think of the tune. [SINGS MELODY] Where do I know this tune from? Jon Hendricks taught me a lot of these tunes; we used to play it with the repertory. Because I didn’t know any of this very well. Ah, it’s “Sweet and Lovely.” Art Tatum did a version of this. It’s great to hear McCoy play solo. [McCOY MAKES A RUN] Oh my goodness. I don’t know how to say anything that hasn’t been said. When I hear that, I can hear the true essence of African drums and the true essence of Afro-American piano being played. It’s like coming out of that school, like Monk, for example, that even if they play a scale or a device used by classical musicians, like Debussy, whole-tone or whatever, it doesn’t sound Classical. There is an African-American sound. His own unparalleled sense of time. He’s in really top form here. McCoy is one of the guys who makes you struggle trying to figure out what he’s doing. His thing is like you can’t really figure it out. He’s a force, a powerful force when he plays piano. That’s why I say you feel on this piano a bursting of energy coming out. Definitely 5 stars. It’s so great hearing McCoy play solo.

9. Emiliano Salvador, “Preludio Y Vision & Nueva Vision,” NUEVA VISION (Qbadisc, 1978/1995).

Another out of tune piano. [AFTER HORNS ENTER] Emiliano Salvador. This is a classic. This is the band with Arturo and Paquito. This is one of the big influences. I did a record called “The Journey” and I dedicated one tune to him. Man, it’s so great, the way you had McCoy, and you can hear the influence of McCoy in his playing. I don’t know how he got it, man. He was from Puerto Padre. But truly understanding of the essence of jazz. You can hear it in his music. He’s one of my favorites as far as coming from Latin America and mixing up all this… That’s Bobby Carcasses singing. This is a classic record. It’s a model for everybody, called “Nueva Vision.” [AFTER] Paquito told me many stories about him, about how he was able to play swing on drums and really understanding jazz element. He was able to cross over from Latin to Jazz in an incredibly organic way. For me he has been a big influence, and for me, this is a record that should be on your shelf. Another thing I was going to say is that he really understood the essence of how to mix worlds in a very organic way. I can hear a Woody Shaw influence in there, and McCoy definitely, and Paquito said even Roy Haynes on his drumming. And nobody understands how he got all of that. It’s unfortunate how he never got to play or never got known among the American artists. He was ahead of his time, playing different meters, too. He was into that. A big-big influence.

10. Edward Simon, “Colega,” EDWARD SIMON (Kokopelli, 1995) (Simon, piano; Mark Turner, tenor sax; Larry Grenadier, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s Mark Turner. The way it started at first, I thought it was the whole school that we developed with David, the whole way of playing the bass against the rhythms and all the harmony. There’s just one more cat that I think it would be… Oh ,that’s my brother, Ed Simon. He dedicated this tune to me. It’s called “Colega.” There’s a whole school of playing the bass and the clave and all of that. Really, I’m so honored that he did that for me. I think I heard this once or twice a long time ago when it came out. [Do you know who the bass and drummer are?] [LISTENS FOR LAST 3 MINUTES] No. Oh, Larry! That’s my people, man! Sorry. Totally killing! It’s been a force in the whole crossover thing with being able to break and bridge all these stereotypes about Latinos playing straight-ahead, and I’m proud of Ed for being so honest about what he does and being all about the music. A true inspiration. We came out together and I love him dearly for all he does. I don’t listen to him as much as I used to, just because he’s such a strong force in his music that I want to keep focusing on what I am doing. But I am aware. And as soon as he started playing, I knew it was him. Ed Simon is part of the whole force of Latinos breaking and reaching up to play straight-ahead. He’s just so in-tune with the music. There’s a lot of honesty in his playing. I’m biased because I’m a good friend, but I really admire him. He happens to be a great source of inspiration. For Ed, and especially for that tune, 5 stars! I have to write something for him, too.

11. Uri Caine, “Stain,” BLUE WAIL (Winter&Winter, 1997) (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

This is an interesting mixture of new and old there. An interesting mixture of what is reminiscent and moving forward that is interesting to me. I recognize a blues essence, a blues sound, and I am trying to figure out… [LAUGHS] It’s great to see that… See, that’s like playing with the sound of the blues… There’s a rhythmic language that reminds me… There’s one guy who can do that, who has that language — Marcus Roberts maybe. No? Another guy is maybe Joey Calderazzo. [AFTER] Oh my goodness, I didn’t get it. The drummer sounded a little like Tain sometimes. Somebody in that vein? Somebody I know very well probably. I wasn’t paying attention to him. I was just blown away by the piano. One thing I appreciate about this is that there was a mixture of reminiscent and moving forward. Very interesting. I was really stimulated by the traveling. Definitely 4-1/2. There was a Kenny Kirkland influence there, of course, in the beginning actually

12. Papo Lucca/Sonora Poncena, “Cappucino”  ON THE RIGHT TRACK (Inca, 1988) (Chick Corea, composer) – (5 stars)

You’re trying to trick me, but you ain’t gonna trick me with this, because that’s my hero. Let me make sure before I say it. Oh, huge time! If it’s not Papo ,I don’t know who it is. That’s a very unusual recording, and I don’t know it. But that’s one of my mentors. He was a big influence in the beginning. He’s the guy who introduced me to all the new tumbaos and montunos he was doing, but also mixing it up with… You can hear he’s taking from jazz here and there, listening to Oscar Peterson. I don’t know the tune. It’s interesting. It’s great. I recognize the sound and the voicings with the horns. He’s got a very peculiar way of harmonizing. I owe him a lot. The way he plays the time, it’s a very huge… It’s deep. He sounds in control all the time, too. Very mature playing. I think he’s truly an underrated musician. I’ve got to give Papo 5 stars. That’s my man. It’s a tricky one, because it’s got that Papo sound, but also because of Chick’s tune there is this contemporary environment for him that you usually don’t hear Papo play in normally. That’s where you’re trying to trick me!

13. Eliane Elias/Herbie Hancock, “The Way You Look Tonight,” [Eliane Elias, SOLOS AND DUETS (Blue Note, 1994)] – (5 stars)

I hear Herbie Hancock. They’re going for a journey, man. They’re going for a ride. I don’t know who the second pianist is yet. I heard at Birdland the other day someone I haven’t listened to for so long, and this reminds me of that — Eliane Elias. [You did it!] Yeah? Just to feel that sound and the personality coming through. I’m blown away. This is beautiful. They took a journey, they took a ride together. When you hear music like this, what can you say? They’re just taking you for a ride. Wow! This is a great lesson in duo piano. I’m really proud of her. And obviously, as you know, Herbie has been an influence on all of us. I didn’t get that there were two different persons at the beginning; it sounded so integral. That’s the beauty about music, when it’s connected. It could become a one (?) dimension. They discovered a lot of places in that. I don’t know this recording. Wow, it’s beautiful. I definitely want to get it. But I heard her at Birdland one night recently, and she was totally in control. Such a beautiful player. Beautiful music. The technique with the essence of music becomes one. You’re not aware of how much she can play. It’s just music. And Herbie, what can you say about him? Herbie is like a river, an endless amount of ideas and creativity.. And when you think you know what he’s going to do, he’ll trick you, he’ll turn it around. I admire him a lot. He’s definitely an incredible inspiration. I feel strange giving a rating to this stuff. This wouldn’t even belong in 5 stars; it goes beyond that! I This is some really beautiful playing. Amazing.

A lot of the tunes… On radio in Panama, they didn’t announce the tunes. I didn’t learn English until I came here, so a lot of the tunes I know by the sound or by the melody, or I know it in Spanish. I’ve learned a lot of lyrics hanging out with Roy Haynes. He knows a lot of tunes. Sometimes, when I’ve played certain melodies, he’ll say “that doesn’t go like that; the lyrics go like this.” It’s been an incredible experience. Being around Jon Hendricks, too. They taught me a lot.

14. Marcus Roberts, “Groove Until You Move”, IN HONOR OF DUKE (Columbia, 1999) (w/Antonio Sanchez, drums; Jason Marsalis, perc.) – (5 stars)

Two years ago I had an incredible experience in Seattle, playing at the Jazz Alley opposite Marcus. That was a great week for me as sharing. A lot of these guys are very serious and loving with the music, and sharing… That’s definitely the sound. I remember that sound. I don’t what recording it is, but there’s a blues quality to it, there’s a Latin tinge to this, a connection to the sound that has that same feeling as the other piece you played me — the past and the future. [Who is the drummer?] That’s coming from our school, the way we plays time, so that’s got to be Antonio. It’s the way we deal with the rhythms. Oh, that’s the record he did with him. It’s definitely killing. Marcus’ association with Antonio came from that week. It was an incredible week. That was the first time I used Essiet, and Marcus would be there listening every set. He’d never heard me before. He was very giving; he just cracked me up. I learned so much in that week. He’s calling me mid-day, “What you doing?” “I’m practicing!” He was very competitive that whole week in a very healthy way, in a way that was about love. I remember him at the end of the week saying “We brought a lot of gumbo for you guys, but you guys brought 200 pounds of rice-and beans.” He was so funny. That’s totally killing. I can her the sound of the blues with the Latin… The whole history. That connection with the Latin tinge. That’s one thing that should be clear by now, that Latin Jazz shouldn’t be Latin Jazz like just another thing, that there is also Latin Jazz. When Jazz is called “Jazz,” it already implies having the Latin tinge. 5 stars.

15. Eddie Palmieri, “Dona Tere”, VORTEX (RMM, 1996) – (5 stars)

I’m hearing Eddie; it has Eddie’s energy on it. That humor in his playing, too. If it’s not Eddie, I don’t know who it is. Is that Conrad Herwig playing trombone? And Donald and maybe Brian Lynch. Killing! It’s a very unusual Eddie, though. I’m so used to hearing him live with the electric, and it’s great to hear him play acoustic. And there’s a laid-back feeling, too, very relaxed. also, he’s playing more harmony than normal, and he’s doing so many different things, where he’s keeping one hand going and the left hand going… Wow! It’s great to see that he can change. He’s been doing something different, definitely. There is a subtle quality to Eddie’s playing here that I don’t usually appreciate when you hear him on the electric piano. Really beautiful. The way he created a sound between Monk and his McCoy kind of voices made it definitely a recognizable sound. The way he orchestrated horns, too. The way he plays also traditional things — six, then all of a sudden a four-four thing, then back to traditional tumbao. I think the star rating for Eddie doesn’t really belong; he’s a star by himself…! You can’t give Eddie… Especially the fact that he’s trying to do something new, that he’s going for something different. But since we have to…5 stars.



Danilo Perez,WKCR Musician Show (6-9-93):

Q: You’re playing at Bradley’s this week with a quartet that has two different configurations, two different saxophonists.

DP: Yeah, we started on Monday with David Sanchez on tenor, and then Larry Grenadier on bass and Dan Rieser on drums. And today through Saturday, Mr. George Garzone on tenor.

Q: Now, he’s an associate of yours from Boston for a long time.

DP: Right.

Q: And a lot of your career in the United States has been located… It’s been sort of a center of operations for you.

DP: In Boston, yeah. Just because I moved there… That was one of my first places I moved to. But actually, I’ve moved so much that New York also has been… I’ve been around here a lot.

Q: I’d like to talk a little bit about your record [Danilo Perez [RCA]) before we get into the Musician Show aspect of playing music that’s influenced you and giving a window on you as a musician. There’s a wide range of material that goes from your origins in Panama to the work in Jazz that you do today. Tell us a little bit about how you came to the selections on the record.

DP: Actually, the record represents my influences that I’ve had from since I was a child, from my father singing, playing me boleros and Latin music, to Dizzy Gillespie, you know, and to Paquito, to Tom Harrell… I chose the tunes to represent every part of America, like South America, then you’ve got Argentina, you’ve got Brazil, you’ve got Panama, then you’ve got Cuba, and then you’ve got North America which his a… If there is a name for the record, it would probably be “This Is My America” or “Interior Caribe,” which is a way to look in at Caribbean things, but knowing that in the… You can see it. You have to really listen to and hear that it’s being influenced by Caribbean. You know what I’m saying? I mean, it’s not so obvious.

Q: When you were coming up as a young musician, were you exposed to a broad range of Caribbean music, or specific styles in Panama?

DP: Oh yeah. The first thing I learned was the clave, the percussion. My father gave me the bongos when I was two years old; at three I was already playing bongos. And I started playing Classical music when I was eight years old. But my training with my father was mostly old Cuban records, Sonora Matancera, Papo Lucca, Peruchin, until I was like 16-17. But at the same time, there was a neighbor of mine in my neighborhood, who used to play records by Freddie and Stanley Turrentine. And I didn’t know who they were; I was just enjoying it every time he played it. So I didn’t know what was that. But since I was like 7 or 8, I’ve been listening in a way, very partial, but also a little bit of that…

Q: Is your father a musician?

DP: My father is a singer, yeah. And he used to sing around. Actually, I got him out of being retired to go back and sing so I could play with him!

Q: What kind of bands was he…? Was he fronting bands as a singer?

DP: Yeah. Latin, Boleros, Salsa. My father is what is called, like, a sonero, which is sort of like an improviser, because he improvised mostly words and melodies on his part. So it’s a little bit jazzy, the concept. It’s like a Benny More type of thing, sonero, you know.


Q: …we’ll hear “Alfonsina Y El Mar.” Forgive my pronunciation.

DP: No, that was great. This is a tune written by a woman that…you know, it’s sort of like a love story. She killed herself walking through the sea. She was a great writer, Alfonsina. And it’s a very famous and very historical tune in Argentina. So I thought it would make a great representation of what South America is.


That was “Alfonsina Y El Mar,” from Argentina. It’s a composition by Ariel Ramirez and Félix Luna. You could hear that we… That’s the mood of the record, you know, which was a really low-key, really relaxed and meditation type record…

Q: A smoldering mood on your record.

DP: That’s right.

Q: We’re speaking with Danilo Pérez on the Musician Show. Again, Danilo is at Bradley’s this week, and I guess beginning tonight it’s the quartet that features George Garzone on saxophone, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Dan Rieser.

DP: This is a quartet that’s been working now. We’ve been working together for two months now, so we’re trying to get that group type of vibe.

Q: Is it the same sort of variety of material that’s on this record?

DP: Definitely. And we do also a lot of, like, standards but arranged in a different way. Last night James Williams was there, and he was happy. He’s a great cat. He was, like, “I’m leaving after this tune because I’ve got to go home” — and he stayed all night, man. So that was a real compliment.

Q: Is he someone that you ran into in Boston?

DP: Well, James and I…you know, one day when… Donald Brown was my teacher at Berklee, and a couple of times James gave me a lesson when he subbed for Donald. And there has always been like a really great vibe from that; you know, you have a little school going on there, which is great — Mulgrew and Donald Brown… I learned a lot about the music just seeing him play, and then getting to talk with him and asking him questions and stuff like that.

Q: We’ll next get into a set of Latin piano, and I take it this is the music that you really cut your teeth on…

DP: That’s the music that influenced me since I was probably four years old until I was 14, 15 years old.

Q: You were playing Classical piano. Were you also playing gigs where you did things besides Classical?

DP: Yeah, I started playing a lot… You know, it’s a funny story, because I used to play bongos with my father, and one time the piano player, who used to make the arrangements and was a great friend of my father, he’d get up and ask me to come and play so he could hear the band. And then I sat in and played, and I was really working… That was kind of new, those tumbaos that he was playing. And everybody in the band was like, “Yeah, stay there!” From then on I started playing piano, yeah.

Q: Would you say the piano and the drum is related in any way?

DP: Oh yeah. Well, see, because I started playing percussion, I relate to the piano. In Latin music, the piano is a very percussive instrument, and you have to play like a conga, like the timbales, like the bongos — you’ve got to know all of that to really… The piano actually is like a guajiro(?); it’s doing the work of the tres. And you’ve got to try to imitate the string sound [CON-KI-CON, CO-CO-CON-KI-KI-CON…]. You don’t play so much, you know, looking for chords to play. You’ve got to make a groove going on and just, like, you know, kill it. It’s like Funk, you know; it’s like playing…

Q: The whole rhythm section is really that way, because the bass in Latin music is very drum-like.

DP: Yeah. Everybody has to have this feeling for… You’ve got to know what the timbales does, what the conga does, what everybody does, how to phrase, and then how to really play your tumbao, your guajiros, you know.

Q: And the rhythms of each genre are very specific rhythms.

DP: Right. The bass is doing… The basic thing that it comes from is from the son montuno. That’s the base of everything. And the bass used to… In the old times the bass used to go like PUM-PI-PUM, BE-BE, PUM-PI-PUM, BE-BE-PUM-PI-PUM, and the piano was GUM-TI-GUM, DUM, GUM-TILI-KON-KON, GUM-TI-KON-KON-KON… [CLAPS AND SINGS RHYTHM] Then by the time the pieces started to get more contemporary, and they said, “Don’t play so much,” they’d say [SINGS RHYTHM, LEAVES OUT BEATS], and then more and more it was starting to get more mixed… We’re going to get there with how do you mix all of that son montuno with different…with guarachas…how it’s starting to take it from all different sequences for different rhythms, and to get to the point now which is actually playing 6/8, which is the African thing on 4/4, what they call songo(?) now.

Q: Is this very easy to apply to your playing in a jazz situation?

DP: Well, at first it was difficult, because the way we phrase is the way we talk. The Latin musicians, the Latin… We speak very, like, “oh-yeah-man…” [RAPID FIRE] — that’s the way kind of we phrase. We phrase like POP-PA-PA-PA-PA-PA, PA-PA-PA, PA-PA-PA-DE-DE-DE-DUP-PA-PA. And the Jazz music is a language…the brothers don’t speak like that. They talk, “Hey, man, what’s happening, man, you know, hey, cool.” And that’s the way they play. They slink through the things, like VROOM, DU-DE-DE-LADLE, DU-DU-BUDDLIE-DU-LADLE… They slink, while we go PA-PA-PA…

Q: More behind the beat.

DP: Right. And it’s not perfect. That’s what makes it so beautiful. It’s the way they talk. So that still takes me a while to get used to when I’m playing. I learned a lot with Dizzy, and with Jon Hendricks. He started to teach me a lot about how think as a singer, and then trying to phrase that way, so I don’t sound like I was always on top of the beat.

Q: We’ll talk more about Dizzy Gillespie and your experiences with him later. But let’s talk about each of the pianists who we’re about to hear on this set.

DP: All right, we’re going to start with Papo Lucca. Before Papo, I was checking out Lino Frías, who was the pianist for the Sonora Matancera, and Eddie Palmieri when he got that famous thing, “Puerto Rico,” then Peruchin, “Bilongo”.

We’re going to start with Papo, because Papo for me made the transition from Latin piano to kind of like… That’s when I wanted to learn his solo. Because he sort of took Bud Powell, a little bit of Bud Powell, a little Bebop lines, and put it into Latin rhythms. Until that time I never heard anybody doing that, really, playing lines on… So after I heard Papo, that’s when I started to think, “Where did he get that from?” Then people were telling me, “Yeah, you’ve got to check out Bud Powell,” and that’s how I made the transition.
Now you’re going to hear a famous solo Papo Lucca did, “Sin Tu Carino,” with Ruben Blades, one of Ruben’s beautiful hits.

[MUSIC: Papo Lucca/Ruben Blades: “Sin Tu Carino”; Eddie Palmieri, “Puerto Rico”; Peruchin, “Bilongo”

“Bilongo” was with Peruchin on the piano and Richard Egües on the flute. That usually has a vocalist, but they did an instrumental there. If you notice the similarities between Latin pianists, they’re all playing percussion — that’s real important. The other thing is that you hear the octave is very predominant. I’m not so sure why. But one thing is to try to imitate the tres, because the tres is tuned in an octave, how you get that octave sound. The other reason was at that time also there was no electric pianos, so it sort of built up from the same concept that McCoy had to play like fourths so he could get a big sound, that could be heard. So Latin pianists developed that way of playing so they could themselves, that they could be able to hear… And that developed the octave playing.
You hear a lot of, like, rhythms going on, like KA-KA-KA-KA-KA, K0-KI, KO-KI, KO-KI…[SINGS BASIC RHYTHM]. You hear that in the three of them. You hear Papo, where he put a little bit of blues on it; he was running, like, some blues chords on it. Eddie’s left hand is very different from everybody else, because he’s doing like IN-CHIN,IN-CHIN, CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN, in the (?) beat, and the bass going TUM-DE-DE, DE-DUM, DUM-DUM-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN… — all beat. And then the right hand is going [REPEATS FIRST RHYTHM] That’s really hard to do and to make it feel right. So that was Eddie’s trademark.

Q: A few words about Peruchin and his meaning in the piano continuum.

DP: Well, Peruchin was like the virtuoso of Latin… He brought the piano to another level, because he played the piano so well. He was a trained conservatory virtuoso, you know — and he plays the piano. So people would be dancing and stuff like that, and when the piano solo came, people would stop dancing and come to listen to him because he was so amazing. He wasn’t the… Usually on the piano solo, things get… people get talking. He was a show-stopper every time he took a piano solo. I remember my father told me, like, people would just go to listen to him, just to hear his piano solo, because he… I mean, he had like… He was one of the first ones who started doing embellishment, like playing over the tempo and then going [SINGS BLAZING PIANO RUN] — that kind of stuff over the piano. I mean, he had such a technique, that it was so easy… So people would be dancing, and when Peruchin came and played a solo, people stopped and would go around the piano and hear what he was doing. He was like the favorite… My father said that every time he was playing, he would go to see him just to see his solo, be with him playing his solo.

Q: Did Peruchin stay in Cuba after 1960?

DP: He was in Cuba for a long time, then he moved to Panama. He was in Panama also… I don’t know where else he was. I mean, he did like a little tour. But I know he was in Panama for a while, because he developed a little school in Panama of people playing like him. In those times in Panama, there was a lot of Cubans… Benny More used to come a lot, Perez Prado used to come a lot to Panama. So there’s a guy in Panama who plays just like him, like Peruchin, you know; he got everything from him.

Q: Who were your teachers as far as piano goes?

DP: In Panama? My teacher was a woman from Chile by the name of Cecilia Nunez. And then the records.

Q: But you learned the rudiments and the technique of piano, and then learned the vernacular music, so to speak, by yourself.

DP: Yeah. There was nobody really teaching me anything, you know, like how to do things. You just bought the records and listened to them.

Q: And you had a good critic in your father.

DP: Oh yeah! My father actually made me transcribe the piano solos, you know, like Papo, Peruchin… Peruchin was too hard for me to transcribe, because those octave things were so difficult…

Q: What was your father’s training? How did he get started in music? And what’s his name, by the way?

DP: My father is Danilo Pérez. He never really had a training, like a conservatory or anything. But he grew up in a family where they all…like, they were singers and trumpet players. So my father grew up and played with the best bands in Panama, like played with Armando(?) Bossa, which was one of the best bands around Central America, Latin America. He played with them, he played with many, many bands. Actually, he was a self-taught musician. And he just has a… This kind of music for him is, like…

Q: Natural.

DP: Natural. That’s it. The clave and the sonero and improvisation… Just the jumping around and, you know, improvising, that’s second nature to him.

Q: And he’s still playing and you’re now working with him.

DP: Yeah. Well, sometimes we get together and play.

Q: You’ve got to bring him up to the States.

DP: Yeah, we will. We will. I’m planning to do a record, actually, because I want him to do… We want to do some stuff together.

Q: [ETC.] The next set will start with something by Peruchin from a recording called The Incendiary Piano of Peruchin, with the great Cuban drummer Guillermo Barreto, who died a couple of years ago, Cachaito on bass, and also a percussion section. Tell us about what we’re going to hear.

DP: Cachaito is another guy who also changed the bass. He is Cachao’s nephew or his son, I don’t know. Cachaito is related, I know that. Tata Güines is probably one of the innovators of the congas. You see people like Giovanni Hidalgo coming out of the Tata Güines school, you know. Guillermo Barretto also is one of the pioneers of playing the drums, and you know, bringing the percussion into the group. So what you’re going to hear is a set-up for many of the things that are happening right now in the Latin thing, and I am happy that they are putting it out on the records right now, because people can see that there is a tradition to this, and it’s not like they just got together… There’s a whole tradition to it.

See, Peruchin was an innovator, too, and also an innovator was Perez Prado. Perez Prado to me was to Latin music what Thelonious Monk was to Jazz; kind of like really crazy and had a concept, and went for it.

Q: I’ve been listening to Benny More’s recordings with his band in the late 1940’s. You hear bits that sound like the vocabulary of Ellington or the Dizzy Gillespie band, and then it goes into a whole different place.

DP: Yeah. Well, that’s the street vocabulary type of thing. Because he used to sell fruits on the street, and then in order to sell the fruit he had to say “Mango with papaya with…”, and make it go together… How do you say it when they go together, like the rhythm… I don’t know. You say “Papaya porque atawaga(?)” or something like that, things that go together with the ending. He used to do that. All the fruits. Mango, papaya and all the things he had, and improvise on all of them, you know. And that’s how he got his sonero. And there is a guy right now doing that, Gilberto Santa Rosa, who took a lot of stuff off him.

But Benny More… And the music at that time, because of the political situation in Cuba, he was very, very much together. If you hear some old recordings, you’ll hear, like, for example, Fernando Alvarez singing with a string group, and it sounds like the same kind of strings that were accompanying Charlie Parker and Strings. You hear a lot of similarities, even in the kind of tunes, the boleros… They have some harmonic movement that also the Jazz tunes, the standards had at that time. Havana, Cuba, was a really open island, so you had musicians back and forth…

Q: Everybody was coming in, so there was a lot of interchange.

DP: Oh yeah.

[MUSIC: Peruchin: “La Mulata Rumbera”; Sonora Matancera: “Besito de Loco”; Peruchin: “All the Things You Are”; Sonora Poncena: “Nica’s Dream Mambo”]

Q: That was quite a set you programmed.

DP: Uh-huh! You liked that, eh?

Q: Papo Lucca.

DP: Yeah, that’s one of the giants. They’re all giants in their own… You see how they take one thing and make it their own thing. You see Papo playing changes. There’s definitely some influence there, the way he voiced the chords also. He took that, you could tell he took that from the Jazz idiom in the way he played the changes on “Nica’s Dream” with Sonora Poncena.

Q: Each has their own way of playing tumbao.

DP: Yes, definitely. Each one of them… You have to do a lot with the accent, where they accent the…where they hear the upbeats, and where you hear the off-beat, too, and the way they play the left hand. Usually people here in America don’t pay attention to the left hand. They do basically the same thing with the left hand and the right hand. And there is more to that than just… You’ve got to kind of hear the different percussion and the different…the conga, the clave, to make the left hand be playing kind of like something else, but implying other…you know, implying the whole rhythm section.

Q: So in a sense, the tumbao implies giving the instrument the quality of the drum.

DP: Exactly. I mean, the drums, not really. The percussion. The bongos, the campana, the sensero(?), the timbales, trying to hear all of that. If you leave Papo alone or Eddie alone with that, they’ll groove you to death! Because they’re playing so much little things. Not like KON-KI-KON-KON-KOO…it’s not just that any more. It’s like [SINGS COMPLEX  RHYTHM] You’re hearing all of that.

Q: And it’s all on the piano.

DP: It’s all on the piano. It’s all on the piano, man, by itself. And every time it’s different. People think it’s always the same. No, every time it changes. [MIXES TWO RHYTHMS THAT HE SANG] You know, it changes. But you have to really know and pay attention to really hear this. So what I would like to play, you know, is how the three of them that you just played influenced me into getting my own…


“Besito de Loco” by Sonora Poncena featured Lino Freires(?) on piano. He did not have a solo, but you could hear the tres. I mean, he was a very, very swinging piano player.

Another pianist we’re missing, I know the people that are listening are going to be… There’s a bunch of them that we’re missing. But these are the ones that influenced me the most. Rubén González, which I couldn’t find any tape or anything; it’s hard to find. But he was the pianist for the Aragon Orchestra for a long time. He actually influenced Papo Lucca very much. He’s actually probably Papo’s big influence.

Q: Now we’ll hear a selection on which you perform, again on which the audience can hear how you’ve been influenced and created your own way….

DP: Yeah. I took all the things from Papo, little things from Eddie, and mixed it up with the Jazz thing, with the changes thing. And how I started playing tumbaos, in this sort of like KON-KI-KON-KI-LE-KONKA, I say KOM-PI-LE-KOM-PI, KON-KI-LE-KON-KI… It’s like more off-beat. Once you hear it two or three times, you know after the fourth time who is playing the tumbao. Because tumbaos are very personal if you really work on it and try to get your own tumbao. So this is a record with Charlie Sepulveda, his first recording, “Tid-Bits.”


Q: …David Sanchez, tenor saxophone; Arturo Perez and Danilo Perez trading off on electric and acoustic piano.

DP: Arturo was playing electric and I was playing acoustic piano. But you could hear the… Like, the original way of playing tumbao like that was… [SINGS RHYTHM], and I say [SINGS MODULATED RHYTHM], with the 6/8 also in-between and the off-beat. Instead of going KIN-KU-KO-KIN-KI, I say KIN-KU-KO-KIN-KI, KU-DU-KO, KI-KI-KI, and you actually get like one beat, a little bit more. It sounds like I am off, you know!

Q: [ETC.] We’ll now move into the music of Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, and show some ways how Latin rhythms were integrated into the jazz idiom. Danilo had some first-hand experience, of course, having played with Dizzy for about two years…

DP: Three years.

Q: …and having studied Bud Powell’s music. When were you first exposed to Bud Powell?

DP: When I was 18 years old. I think it was 1986. That was the first time that I heard Bud Powell. It was with that record, Live At Massey Hall, with Dizzy and Charlie and Max Roach and Charles Mingus. It was incredible, man. I mean, when the piano solo came, I couldn’t believe somebody could even just go… I mean, he just killed it. I mean, after Dizzy and Charlie played, it had to be somebody like Bud. He just killed it. I mean, he was playing phrasings like Charlie was playing, [SINGS LINE]… It was incredible. And that was the first time. Then I started getting, you know, most of his records. I’ve been trying to find the original… You know, the things you’ve got there, I’d like to have the original LP’s…


Q: …a classically trained pianist and a competition winner and so forth. Have you been able to go back to some of his sources and some of the earlier Jazz piano styles at this point?

DP: From Bud, you mean, or from somebody else?

Q: Well, before Bud, the people he was listening to.

DP: Well, there’s a lot, like Dizzy told me… Basically, a lot of the training he got, actually… I mean, the way he practiced, Dizzy told me, he used to play… He liked Bach a lot. He was a Bach maniac. He practiced a lot of that to get that fluidity. Actually, when you hear him playing the lines also, you can hear… I mean, I can hear The Well-Tempered Clavier, you know, the way he played. I could hear Monk, too. He definitely was influenced by Monk. I mean, to me. I don’t know if I’m maybe wrong…

Q: I think that’s true.

DP: There is this thing… I think he was very influenced also by…. I don’t know who he was influenced by, I’m not so sure, but Charlie Parker, definitely… The way he phrased in the piano was very new to the way everybody was phrasing. He was really phrasing like a horn player, actually.

Q: On this set, we’ll hear Bud Powell and Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. For you, coming out of a Latin experience, does it fit very naturally into that concept of playing?

DP: Well, if you think about it, they have the same principle, which is rhythm. The rhythm is quite different, in a way, but they’re rhythmical. They say, DU-BA-DU-DU-DOOM, DU-DIDDLE-DIDDLE, DU-BE-DAY-DA-DEEDLE. And in our Latin, we were all based actually in rhythms. That’s what is so appealing right away, the way they play the rhythms. It’s really interesting how they phrase.
What I said to you… What is hard for us is to really learn how to lay back. We have a hard time with that. I mean, I find myself having a hard time, because the way that our music is, it’s so on top that we have a hard time to lay back. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to learn. But as far as the concept, playing rhythms, it’s pretty… It’s not the same playing the Latin and also playing that, but the principle of playing the rhythm and make it swing and making grooves like you just heard Pappo do, and Eddie and those guys is the same principle, which is very African, where the rhythm is really important.

Q: Let’s hear one of the most famous performances in the history of Jazz, Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco”…

DP: Oh my God!

[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Un Poco Loco,” 1953 (Blue Note); Monk, “Evidence,” (Griffin-Malik-Haynes, 1958.]

There are many reasons why these records should be played and should be a part of your library, definitely. But one of the things… Like, first of all, you hear… Like, the thing that attracted me the most to Bud was, of course, his concept of playing, but the lines, the way he wades into the chords like a horn player, and the phrasing, that was really appealing to me the first time I heard it. I said, “Man, that sounds like a horn playing on the piano.”

And then when I heard Monk, I mean, the way he played was completely contrast. He played like a composer, you know, and he’d build up a tune. The thing that was so appealing to me there was that when I tried to sit down and copy Monk, it would not sound right! Because I had to sit down and transcribe not just the melody and the rhythms, but the harmony, the way he voiced the chords, you know. Because he may call it E-flat, Major 7th, but that’s a… I mean, there’s thousands of ways to play E-flat Major 7th — and Monk got his own way to play that chord. And I was so inspired to see that…I mean, he… There has been arguments for many years about, you know, his technique and, you know… But I think Monk’s technique is killing. Because the way to play like him, you have to learn how he gets that sound out of the piano, and really sit down and work on it, while if you want to play like somebody else, usually it’s more or less the same type of way, usually the touch and… People like Bill and many great pianists had a great touch, but they always related to the Western tradition. But with Monk, he just brought… It was like a Varese-ian type of thing. He just brought the usual sound, man… And really, if you want… I mean, for me, if I want to try… You know, I’ve been checking out Monk more and more now, just because he don’t play… I mean, you take his melody part, [SINGS “EVIDENCE”: BONK-BEH-BERRRWW!!], and then he’s playing like shapes and colors and, you know, like he’s playing… I mean, he’s playing so advanced that you could see and hear on the records… When the sax player finished, they were going, “Yeah!!” and when he finished playing, they were going, “Ahem, ahem.” I mean, they had no idea what was happening!

I mean, he was so just so advanced. The way he played over the tune, he was playing his composition. He didn’t really blow over the tune. He’d make another tune out of his tune and put in like a B section and a C section and an interlude, and you could hear…kind of like an orchestrator, you know. Which I think he got… To me he got kind of that from Duke, I mean, definitely that kind of concept, like playing chords and then playing, like, a suddenly abrupt line — VRROOM, and then RING-RING-RING. Like playing colors, you know.

He’s amazing. And I could that influence in many people. Like McCoy. You can hear definitely McCoy influenced by Monk on Live At Newport, where he plays a blues there, and you could hear he’s definitely… And then Chick and then Herbie… Man, everybody’s been influenced by Monk, just the way he plays — it’s amazing.

Q: His musical world is so complete unto itself.

DP: It’s complete. I mean, you have to learn the melodies because… Actually, the thing also about Monk is the rhythm in the melodies. If you check out Rumba Para Monk, that Jerry Gonzalez did, you can hear that… I mean, those rhythms really work well with the clave. For some reason, he got like the clave. I mean, it was always there, in all…mostly all his tunes. And you could definitely put Latin rhythms to it. So that’s another attraction to me in Monk, his concept of displacing the rhythm. Instead of going, like, POP-PE, he goes POP-PE-E-A-PO-PE… You think that’s the downbeat. That’s not the downbeat sometimes. That’s your beat. He’s another bar ahead, or… Even in “Blue Monk” you can hear it. That tune, when I heard it first, I said, “Something’s wrong with that.” Or even “Jackie-Ing.” You hear that… [SINGS REFRAIN OF ‘JACKIE-ING’] He knew… I mean, I don’t know…

Well, you said it while we’ve been talking about it. His work was complete, very complete. It’s not just like harmonies and then E-flat Major 7th and then a melody, and then you play Monk all your life. No, you got to sit down and work, check how he voices. He’s really something else.

Q: What did Dizzy Gillespie say to you about Monk that you can remember during your time with him?

DP: Well, Dizzy told me one thing… Because I asked him about Bud and Monk and all those guys. He said that the first time that Monk would play around, they were all like kind of, you know, “This guy’s crazy, man.” I mean, actually that was his device. And then the more they got to hear him… Actually, he taught Dizzy a lot. I mean, actually the Minor 7th Flat 5 chord was taught to Dizzy by Monk. That’s why he used it everywhere, after he practiced with it… You can hear it in the intro of “Round Midnight” at the coda, you can hear it on the end of “Con Alma,” you can hear it in “Woody’n’ You” — you could hear that Minor 7th, Flat 5 chord all over. Because that was what Monk taught him.

But he said… I mean, the way he played was like a little kid, you know; it was like a humorous thing. And I said, “Well, you got that, too.” And he said, “Well, I guess we all got it then!” But you see, there is a humor and there is, like, a happy feeling…

Q: With Monk it always seems like he’s discovering something every time he plays.

DP: Discovering, right! He always comes up with something you never expected. And the way he’d get to the stuff, you’d say “How the hell did he get there?”

Q: Danilo Perez worked for several years with Dizzy Gillespie.. [ETC.] Dizzy Gillespie system of music was also complete unto itself, and I think this was made very clear to people who maybe didn’t realize it, during that week at the Village Vanguard, when Slide Hampton brought the band in and did the arrangements. Because the arrangements were so idiomatic and so true to the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie, that they really brought out that flavor in a lot of ways.

DP: Yes. Well, that’s a really great band, man. It’s fantastic. I wish sometimes, you know, when I heard… The experience I got sometimes is that people sometimes, you know, don’t relate…you know, the media, the audience in a certain way… Because was always, like, a funny and human and very humorous…and sometimes they… I mean, Dizzy, every time that I remember when he put his trumpet in his mouth, he just played music, man. I mean, he may be laughing and dancing and stuff, but I mean, don’t confuse that… When he put the trumpet up, he always played; he got deep into the music and played great, man. And sometimes they… You know, there’s a certain thing about looking at Dizzy like a humorous… You know what I mean? But, no! He was dead serious.

The thing about Dizzy was not just the musical thing, which is a gift, and I think he’s definitely one of the geniuses of this century, but his humanity. The whole time I was with him, I never saw him… A couple of times I saw him mad, but I never saw.. Dizzy was a great human being. I mean, really uplifting all the time.

Q: Well, one thing about Dizzy Gillespie, among his many musical qualities, was that he really was the first American musician to codify Latin rhythms into a Jazz structure, and brought Chano Pozo over from Cuba. He always had an affinity for the Latin sound and Latin rhythms, and taught it to many American musicians.

DP: Right. Do you know who got him into that, the first…?

Q: Mario Bauza.

DP: Yeah, who got him the gig. So Mario is actually probably the guilty one for that Carnegie Hall concert… Mario also got him his first gig with Cab Calloway, playing with Cab Calloway’s band.

Q: But he had his way of assimilating it and bringing it into…

DP: Because if you hear him playing Jazz, his rhythm is very interesting. So he was really drawn into the rhythm aspect right away once he heard Latin music. I think Chano, of course, brought a lot of the traditional thing then.

Q: Well, let’s hear a location recording from the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1948, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in full flower. This features a lengthy duo between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo on “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” by George Russell.

[ETC., MUSIC (Oscar Peterson/Dizzy Duo, “Con Alma)]

As Danilo mentioned a little while ago, we could spend a couple of days with Dizzy. Indeed, WKCR has done so several times in the last few years. But the music we’re playing during this show, the music that’s influenced Danilo and so many other musicians, is so vast and the scope of these musicians I don’t think is always appreciated by contemporaries…

DP: Right.

Q: It takes a long time. They think, “Well, he’s great,” but I think it’s sometimes hard to realize how complete and how deep the scope was of what certain musicians were doing while they were doing it.

DP: Right. Like, Dizzy, he got that rhythm…the rhythmic aspect with the melody, and the harmonic also… He found the weirdest notes to put in a chord and make it work. That’s a concept. I mean, he was a conceptualist. It’s not about notes or anything. He was playing a… I mean, the way he would shape his solos was just amazing. So free, at the same time so strong. He had all the ingredients for anybody from any kind of culture to just go and fall in love with that. Because he knew how to play… [SINGS DIZZY LINE]…you know… He’s got that freedom to… like, waving like a snake. That’s what I thought of when I first heard him. It sounds like a bunch of snakes, you know, rolling through the chords.

It’s funny, because sometimes when I… The first lesson I remember I got from Dizzy was, like, “Don’t play so many notes in the chord.” And I’d say, “Wow.” And he’d say, “You know why?” I’d say, “Why?” He’d say, “Because then I weave my thing into it.” You know, it was so obvious. That’s when he mentioned to me to approach the piano in a way like Monk does, or… But he kind of taught me that with the piano you can fall into the mistake of playing too many notes in the chord, and instead of playing two, play one… And then when you open up, it really makes a balance. You know, just balancing out, like an orchestrator.

Q: Well, that’s the quality you mentioned in Monk also, of playing a complete composition within the improvisation and always discovering something.

DP: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Dizzy played long, bravura, complex passages, but they always had a function…had an end. Everything was done for a reason.

DP: Right. And even if it wasn’t related to the chord in that moment, for example, it was related to the idea that he played before or the one that he was going to play. You know what I’m saying? I mean, he was always aware of what he’d play and where it was going, and the shape of the stuff that he was…

Q: Well, I think in retrospect, that may be one thing that Miles Davis learned from Dizzy Gillespie, was how to find the right note and how to play with the incredible economy that he was so famous for, as well as the rhythmic thrust. And we’re about to hear one of Miles’ thousands of performances that we could hear to elaborate on that point. You wanted “All Of You” from the 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert.

DP: Oh, this record… I wore this record down. Well, this record, when I heard it… The pleasure of being a musician that can create and make people get into your boat and just disappear for a while… I mean, those guys really went in a boat. This was actually the first time I heard Herbie Hancock play, and he had all the ingredients that I really like from all the things that we just heard, from the Latin rhythm aspect, the Swing, the complex ideas, the feel of the chord, you know, the Classical approach… He is one of my major influences, definitely. [ETC.]


DP: They breathe together, man. They’re all playing, and nobody’s getting in the way — I mean, to me. And it’s just exciting to me to see how they all became a one mind type of thing, you know. And Herbie’s things here… Like, the comping is so beautiful, and the way he voiced the chords, and the space, and the rhythm that he got with Tony — I mean, he’s just amazing, man.

Q: When did you first hear these recordings?

DP: To tell you the truth, the first time I heard this was… The first time I really got into… Which I am really behind on material, but I’m doing my best! But it was 1986. 1986 was the first time that I really got to it. Before that was all the other things we have been talking about. And the (?) had a couple of things from other people, but never…

Q: Is that when you came to the States?

DP: Yes.

Q: Let’s do quickly your biography, say, from leaving Panama to now.

DP: Okay, a quick biography. I started with my father playing percussion, but music wasn’t my life. It was electronics. I was studying electronics until I was 18. By that time I did a lot of things in the music world in Panama, but it was never…nothing really… It was not going to be a career or nothing. I never had a dream to play with Dizzy or be doing what I’m doing.

When I got here, I got a scholarship to go to Indiana and play Classical Music. Then I heard Chick Corea playing Jazz and then playing a Mozart concerto, and I really liked the Jazz part — and I really didn’t know what he did. So that was actually the first thing. Then I got actually my first recording. And I had already heard Papo Lucca playing before, which I was really into what he was doing. Then I made a transition, man. I said, “That’s what I want to play. I want to play Jazz.”

Then actually, my first year I was at Berklee, I met Donald Brown, which was definitely a big influence on me, and Herb Pomeroy, and also a little bit of James Williams who I got to meet. Then came the gig with Jon Hendricks, who was like my teacher. He’d say, “No, no, no. This is about Swing, about Thelonious Monk, about Bud Powell, about Horace Silver” — and he just changed my whole thing around.

Q: So you’ve had very good teachers and people to train you.

DP: Oh, yes.

Q: And you’ve been very fortunate, or fortune as the result of ability, in terms of people you’ve come in contact with who have shown you how to focus…

DP: Oh yes. Donald Brown recommended me to Jon Hendricks, and I worked with Jon Hendricks for two years. And that was my school to learn the basics of what the music really meant. And he was there with them, so he knew exactly what was happening, and he knows exactly…

I heard Herbie on My Funny Valentine in 1986. That’s like seven years ago now.

Q: Well, I know that if you studied with Donald Brown and James Williams, you would have been listening to Phineas Newborn!

DP: Oh, yes. Definitely. They’re coming from definitely that school. But listen, I haven’t really got into now… But I’m just getting into in the last couple of years more and more music of this. I listen to it a lot and I sit down, and I think that it’s just great. I mean, it’s a problem in this period that it just… It’s never a problem to get related to it right away. Definitely, Donald Brown and James, you know, Phineas Newborn! I’m just getting into Phineas, into Erroll Garner now. I want to really study those traditional things so I can apply that with my background in Latin rhythms and bring up some fresh ideas. But I don’t believe in just going from what I know right now. I have to go back. Erroll Garner is another favorite of mine, and also Phineas Newborn — the double-hand thing that he does.

And also the Classical aspect, bringing Classical music into Jazz. The thing you’re going to hear is “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn. The intro he does in that is the “Sonatine in F-Sharp Major” by Ravel. Which shows you that there was no limit to what the music really was…I mean, it is. There’s just two kinds of music, good and bad. And he does the intro of Ravel, and then goes into “Lush Life,” and you don’t even know that he did that. I mean, fantastic.

[MUSIC: P. Newborn, “Lush Life,” A World Of Piano, 1961; K. Jarrett “All the Things You Are,” (Intro)

DP: That intro — oh my God! You could hear a whole bunch of stuff at once, man. I can hear also that he’s improvising; you could hear it natural… And that’s really hard to do, to get to that creative point. The way he plays, I mean, I could hear danzones. Actually, in a way there’s a Latin influence, you know, in the way he’s playing subdivisions… It’s really hard to get, you know. And the way he was playing rhythms and playing the theme. Because you hear the theme almost the whole time, but you’re hearing it turned around all the time. Wow.

Q: So both those pieces really showed very creative ways of incorporating a Western Classical background in Jazz…

DP: Exactly.

Q: …and doing it in an idiomatic manner.

DP: Exactly. I mean, you hear Phineas using Ravel, and it’s just so beautiful the way he slipped through that and just getting to the theme of “Lush Life.” You couldn’t even tell; he’s just so beautiful.

Q: Well, I think if there’s one thing our program has demonstrated, Danilo, it’s that Jazz has so much more scope than is immediately apparent to people, and keeps revealing new depths, new layers. And we’re seeing with you a pianist Classically trained and dealing with the tradition of Latin piano without even much exposure to Jazz until the age of 19 who is able to perform with Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Harrell, Ray Drummond and many other artists, and perform idiomatically, and deal with the music. And the music that you’ve selected really shows the broad range of sources that goes into creating Jazz music.

DP: You know, there is two things. For me, it is very important, that assimilation of music… And to see somebody like Dizzy, who was one of the founders of this…you know, importance to the fact that there is just two kinds of music. He never really pulled any type of things that… Actually, the things that he even didn’t like, he always told me, “You can learn from that, too. Even if you don’t like it, you can learn from it. Because there’s always something to learn from.” And I always try to keep that in my mind, and I always will. You know, just Phineas and all those guys, that’s something nobody’s got to force you to do. Since I heard that, I just say, “Wow, I love this. This is amazing. I mean, this is great. It’s coming from another planet.” I don’t know from where, but definitely coming from another planet, it’s so beautiful, and this music… It’s as great as hearing Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin, or hearing Mauricio Pollini playing, or Vladimir Horowitz playing Scriabin. It has the same depth. And that’s what I’m looking for, is how deep…how good and how… — the vibrations, you know.

There is always something to learn from everything. Definitely, nowadays, I think there are a lot of Jazz musicians that recognize that. Especially Dizzy started recognizing that before. A lot of them recognize the fact that, you know, if you bring out different elements from another culture, it will enhance what you’ve got. Because that’s what Jazz really has been, has been changing.

And the beautiful thing about all the things we are listening to is that they all have their personality. You know, Bud had his own, Monk had his own personality, and when we listen to Dizzy he’s got his own personality, and even the early works, like… We have a lot that we didn’t play that are favorites of mine. Chick developed his personality, McCoy developed a personality, Bill Evans developed his personality. They all developed by studying really hard, and disciplining themselves to what came before. And I think Latin music, like Papo Lucca and Eddie Palmieri, they all have the personality. That’s why to me they are really important, all of them.

[MUSIC: Danilo Perez, “Serenata”]

This is a composition of Carlos Franzetti. It’s a mixture of danzon, and in between you can hear a little bit of Ravel, and also a little bit of Monk in between, just a really tiny bit, but you can hear it definitely in the back — and the Western influence with the Latin rhythm.

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For Lenny White’s 66th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2010

For drummer Lenny White’s 66th birthday, here’s the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that I conducted with him in May 2010. His remarks were unfiltered and trenchant. We did this in a high-end midtown recording studio, which I mention because of Lenny’s comments on how the positioning of the drums in the mix of several of these recordings affects our perception of what the drummers are doing.


Lenny White Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (LOVE LETTERS, Sony, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass)

This is one of the six masters. This is the history of jazz right here—the living history of jazz. Do I have to say who it is? Roy Haynes. He’s the living history of jazz. He’s played with everybody, done everything, and he’s one of my six heroes. The others are Philly Joe, Max, Elvin, Art Blakey, and Tony. It’s Roy Haynes! That’s all you’ve got to say. All the drummers that I named transcend the instrument. They’re not drummers. They are musicians who happen to play drums. Because they have such a unique approach to playing music, they don’t play just drums—they play music, and the drums are the instrument that they use to interpret the music. 9 stars. I’m not even listening to the other cats. No disrespect, but Roy commands such attention when he plays the instrument… Is that Christian on bass? I wasn’t listening to the piano player, so I didn’t hear his solo. Is this Marcus Strickland on tenor? No? I’ve got to tell you a true story with Roy Haynes that helped shape my musical life. Roy Haynes used to have a group that he called the Hip Ensemble, and every night, the last tune he would play on the set would be the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At the end, he’d go, BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, and he’d play a drum cadenza. He was playing at Slugs’, and he knew I was there, and said BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, stopped, and called me up on the stage, and had me play the drum cadenza. That’s all I’ve got to say.

2. Jason Marsalis, “Puppet Mischief” (from John Ellis & Double Wide, PUPPET MISCHIEF, Obliq, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Marsalis, drums; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone)

Is it Dave Holland’s band? No? That’s very interesting, because of the use of the tuba, and they can negotiate their way through 7/4 pretty seamlessly. The drummer is playing within the music, doing an admirable job within the music. I haven’t a clue. It’s cool. He’s not getting in the way. You know what’s interesting with the younger guys? I think they’re very technically proficient, but there’s no particular emphasis on a sound—an identifiable sound, whether it’s choice of cymbals, or how they tune their drums, to the point where I say, “Oh, I know who that is” immediately. It sounds great, though. 3 stars.

3. Kendrick Scott, “Short Story” (from REVERENCE, Criss-Cross, 2009) (Scott, drums, composer; Mike Moreno, guitar; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kenny Dorham, composer)

Is it Tain? No. I like it. He’s killing. I like the organic sound of everything. It sounds great. My only problem, sometimes, is how the recordings are today. See, what drives the music is the ride cymbal. A lot of the guys now play more drums than play cymbal. See, I don’t get a sense of the real hard drive with the music with a lot of drums. It got it when they were playing in open 7, but when they started to swing over the changes it didn’t work as well. From that standpoint, I’d like to really hear some hard swinging. 5 stars. Kendrick Scott? A new guy. But when they start to play straight-ahead stuff, it’s a little weird. From another perspective, what music is, is how you break silence.
So when you make a statement, it better be good. If you’re coming back from silence… That’s why it’s a little strange. There’s this flood of music, and then the music has to compete with movies, it has to compete with games. So the emphasis is not on art, like it used to be, or the art has been fragmented.

4. Brian Blade, “Joe Hen” (from John Patitucci, REMEMBRANCE, Concord, 2009) (Blade, drums; John Patitucci, bass, composer; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

John Patitucci, Joe Lovano, and Brian Blade. I don’t know the record, but I know them. It’s ok. 4 stars. I like Brian’s playing. [If I run this entry, it would be nice if I had a little more than “I like Brian’s playing.”] What is it that you want me to say? [Just your response…] Let me ask you what do you think? [Of this piece.] Yes, and Brian’s playing. [Open, interactive piece, Brian’s responding on a dime like he always does…] Everybody that you’ve played me so far has done exactly the same thing. Everybody’s responded and played, and it’s great. The drums sound great. The sound is great. The thing about it is that conceptually…what defines concept, or helps make up concept, is your choice of cymbals, how you tune your drums, and hopefully that will come out in a recording. This is recorded well. The drums sound fantastic. In conjunction with the music, it still sounds great, and all of that. I think it’s great. 4 stars.

5. Dafnis Prieto, “Si o Si” (from SI O SI QUARTET, Dafnison, 2009) (Prieto, drums, composer; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone; Manuel Valera, piano; Charles Flores, bass)

You’re giving me all these weird time changes. I like this, though. Great composition. Is it the drummer’s composition? Tain? It’s great. I love the composition. It shows that drummers can be musicians, too. That’s why I think I know who it is, but I don’t want to say yet. Is it Jack deJohnette? No? Who is it? Dafnis Prieto? Nice, man. You can tell that he wrote this composition. Very musical. It says something when someone comes here who is not from the United States, and they take their culture and adapt it to jazz. He’s not trying to play jazz; he’s playing jazz within his culture, which is cool. Oh, it’s live. I really like it. Who’s the piano player? [Manuel Valera.] Are they all Latin? [The tenor player isn’t.] It’s killer. Very believable, very honest, and they were going for it. It’s not as much as Roy Haynes, but 6 stars. Whoo!

6. Teri Lynne Carrington, “The Eye Of The Mind” (#2) (from Tineke Postma, THE TRAVELLER, EtceteraNOW, 2009) (Postma, piano, composer; Geri Allen, Fender Rhodes; Scott Colley, bass; Carrington, drums)

Great-sounding recording. Whoever this is has been influenced by Jack. Unless this is Jack. No? Oh, Teri Lynne Carrington. The statement was accurate. I thought it sounded great. It’s kind of hard for me, because I don’t want to sound cynical or jaded, but I have such… The best way that I can explain it is that jazz is not a style of music to me. It’s my heritage. The reason why I say that is that those six heroes I mentioned all took me aside and told me things about how to interpret and represent the music. I got a lot from listening to their records, but it really made sense when they said what they said, when you sat and listened to somebody and they’d say, “Ok, you see that? This is how you make that turnaround.” Or, “You see this? This is what you need to…” Every one of those guys I mentioned actually did that with me. So they gave me their perspective of how to represent the music the right way. That’s why for me it’s a heritage. Everything you’ve played is a very good representation of where the music is today, or where it’s going. But you haven’t played anything yet that was a true sense of swing from the perspective of all of those guys that I named, and all those guys that I named, maybe with the exception of Philly Joe and Buhaina, they took the music from a straight-ahead swing situation, and amped on it, and made it into something else, to what this is right now. But I still haven’t heard that link back to those guys yet. I’ve heard great representations of what the music is today, but with the exception of what I just heard with Teri Lynne, I can’t say where the influences of the drummers have come from. She sounded great. 4 stars. You haven’t played me anything that I did not like and which sounded bad—and was a bad representation. And I would hope you wouldn’t write about either! It’s just from the standpoint that what keeps a music pure is that there’s a source point, and you can trace the lineage from A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and it goes down the line. But when there’s an offshoot that is something that doesn’t have a point on the chain, it becomes something else. Now, it might be totally valid. I’m not saying that nothing else is valid. That’s not what I’m saying. Just that to this point you haven’t played me anything where I can see a link. The reason I haven’t been able to recognize some of the people is because I don’t hear those influences in their playing. When you played me Roy Haynes, I knew who it was in a second.

7. Ali Jackson, “Dali” (from Ted Nash & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, PORTRAIT IN SEVEN SHADES, JALC, 2010) (Nash, composer; Ali Jackson, drums)

Does anybody play in 4 any more? Not a clue. Don’t know who the band is. It could be Gil Evans—I don’t know. There’s not too much the drummer can do, because he’s playing in odd time, and it’s pretty much arranged—so he’s kind of in handcuffs. Is it a ‘50s or ‘60s recording? [Neither. It’s 2010.] Whoa! I was just thinking of how far back the drums are. [Ali Jackson with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.] That’s really interesting. See how far back the cymbal is? I know Ali, and I like his playing. But this doesn’t represent his sound. They’re probably all great musicians, but there’s no drive. You can’t hear any drive. All you hear is the bass, but the drums have no drive.

8. Ernesto Simpson, “We See” (from Manuel Valera, CURRENTS, MaxJazz 2009) (Valera, piano; James Genus, bass; Simpson, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This must be the piano player’s record. That’s all you can hear. You can’t hear any drums. Well, you can hear the drums, but you don’t hear any cymbals. When was this recorded? A year or two ago? The piano is so out in front, you lose perspective. I spent a week playing with Danilo and Avishai Cohen when he was doing the Panamonk stuff in the ‘90s, and I had a ball. It was great. [Did you play Afro-Caribbean music, salsa, when you were a young guy?] I did a lot. I played in a band called Azteca. I actually did a record called Afro-Cubano Chant with Bob James, Gato Barbieri, Andy Gonzalez, Mike Mainieri, and Steve Berrios, and we did all stuff like that. We played Lonnie Hillyer’s “Tanya” from the Soul Sauce album, Cal Tjader. But I don’t know about this…

9. Cindy Blackman, “Vashkar” (from ANOTHER LIFETIME, 4Q, 2010) (Blackman, drums; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Doug Carn, organ; Benny Rietveld, electric bass; Tony Williams, composer)

This is Cindy Blackman. This is her Tony record. I don’t like the sound of the recording, but I love what Cindy’s playing. The recording is weird. No clarity. Cindy knows how to tune the drums, she has a great choice of drums and everything, but I don’t really get that. It sounds muddled. It sounds like drums and guitar. You’ve got to be able to HEAR the drums. That’s Mike Stern on guitar and Doug Carn on organ. I knew it exactly because I know the music and I knew they made the record. The guitar is way too loud. I’ve been reluctant to do a tribute album for Tony. His playing comes out so much in me, I didn’t think I had to do that. I’m not saying that Cindy shouldn’t have done that; I’m not saying that at all. But I’ve managed just to be able to trace through him and find what I needed to find. And anybody that listens to me play can hear his influence on me. If there’s any negative about this, it’s the sound of the recording. That’s all. 4 stars. It sounds like the snare drum and bass drum in the mix. There’s a whole bunch of stuff she’s playing that you miss. Cindy’s playing some great stuff, but you don’t hear it. Who’s the bass player? [Benny Rietveld.]

10. Paul Motian, “Abacus” (from LOST IN A DREAM, ECM, 2010) (Motian, drums, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano)

Ringing snare drum. See how far back the bass drum is from the snare drum. These engineers and producers make jazz records try to sound like pop records. Jazz music is ambient music like classical music. You need to hear the air around the instruments, and then you hear it in direct proximity. You don’t hear a first violin louder than the viola. It’s a section. It’s a drumkit; you should always hear the whole kit, not the snare drum louder than something else. Is this a younger guy? [No.] I didn’t think so. It’s Paul Motian, but it sounded like Roy Haynes, from some of the things he did. I liked it. 3 stars.

11. Jeff Watts, “Caddo Bayou” (from John Beasley, POSITOOTLY!, Resonance, 2009) (Beasley, piano, composer; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone; James Genus, bass; Watts, drums)

Finally we have somebody swinging. Same thing, though. The cymbal is not loud enough. The music doesn’t swing if you don’t get… And the guy can be really swinging, but it suffers in the mix. I believe what happens is that guys are set to play, and they’re not content enough to make the band swing just playing the ride cymbal. They want to play a whole bunch of drums, and it overpowers everything. So the producers that make these jazz records bring down the drums because they’re afraid that it’s going to overpower everything. But you miss the ride beat. It doesn’t swing if you don’t hear that. It just sounds like a rolling thing. You hear the bass, but you hear the low end of the bass. You don’t really hear any finger noise. And you hear the soloist way up front. So the rhythm section has this rumbling thing, nondescript. Is this one of them new trumpet players? Now, let me ask you a question. Listening to the drummer, who is his influence? [This sounds more coming out of Tony with Miles than anything else, at least in intention.] No way. Because the stuff Tony played, he played off of a ride cymbal. [Is that from the recording or the actual vocabulary the drummer’s playing?] A little bit of both. I mean, the stuff that Tony played was so intricate, it wasn’t just a rolling thing. There was great coordination between hands and feet, and a ride pattern. It was the cymbal beat which keeps the rhythmic perspective, so that when he played some other stuff, it was really amazing, because he played it against and coordinated with the cymbal beat. This just sounds like it’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, but there’s nothing to keep it focused. I don’t know who it was. 2 stars.

I honestly think that the recording made Tain’s contribution suffer there, because I know he has more of a cymbal ride beat than that, because you couldn’t hear it. That’s what made me say what I say. [This is  illuminating for me. Because so many records sound like this, I’m used to projecting what I hear live onto the record, and it becomes like a ghost sound…] See, the problem is it’s as if you went to a jazz club and heard a classical orchestra, and you got used to that sound, so that when you went back and heard a classical orchestra in a correct auditorium, you’d say, “Wow, that’s really interesting, because I’m used to hearing it in….” One of the things that is important in maintaining the history and giving the right perspective about the music is how you record it. When I listen back to the records I came up listening to, the Blue Note records and Columbia records, it had a sound that we all loved and got used to hearing, and it was a quality sound. It didn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. {Is that because of compression?] I think it’s basically attitude from the producer and the engineer. The engineer gets the sound, but the producer says, “This is the sound that I want,” and the artist usually leaves it up to the producer. Or maybe the artist doesn’t know enough to say, “Hey, let’s use this amount of compression on the piano, let’s use ribbon mikes on the cymbals so we can get a sweeter sound.” They don’t take that impetus or study enough to get a great-sounding record. And if the record doesn’t sound good, how are you going to get what it is you want to get across to people? Today we listen to music on phones! It’s like, “Please!” It’s gotten to that point. So I think basically what made Tain’s sound suffer for me was the way it was mixed.

The reason why I became a producer was out of… I was so disgusted playing on someone’s session, and someone sitting behind a glass telling me to do this, and listen to the sound, and the sound sounded horrible. I said, “Man, I’ve got to think and do my homework to find out what it takes to have a good drum sound, and record it.” If I want to make records, then I’m going to need to know how to make my drum sound. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else, to say, “Ok, that sounds good.” No. So I had to take control.

[These aren’t self-produced recordings, but are independent labels, producers who have a point of view, so I’d suspect they think they’re putting some effort into the sound… For example, Paul Motian is on an ECM record; Manfred Eicher puts out a very curated sound…] Yes, and that sounded eons better than the last one. [But you were critical of the sound on that.] No-no. The point is… Yes, I have my opinion. But that was much more of a representative sound of what the music was like. It was a live recording. He had a very open bass drum, and I don’t know who decided, but some producer decided, “We don’t want to have ringy drums like that, we don’t want the snare drums to ring, so we’ll put tape on it and do this and do that.” Motian probably took control and said, “No, this is my sound, this is what I want to…” That’s why I said I knew it when I heard it. Roy Haynes plays a big open bass drum like that, too.

See, Ted, I just want to go on record as saying that what I say is not gospel. It’s just my perspective on it. When I am asked about it, I say what my perspective is. It took me a while to decide to record a record again, because I had listened to what the landscape was and thought about it and said, “Well, do I really want to make a statement in this particular landscape?” My statement is a lot different than what I just heard. But it’s my statement, and I take pride in how to make my instrument sound and how to mike it and all of that. I would hope that would come out in my recording. That’s why I’m so critical about the sound, because I don’t want great artists to make statements and for them not to be heard—and I’m talking about not to be heard while listening. It’s one thing that you don’t hear the record, but if you don’t hear the statement that they’re making while the record or CD or MP3 is being played…

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Lenny White

For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.


Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.



Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.


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