Tag Archives: Carmen McRae

An interview with Richard Wyands for the Liner Notes for Half and Half (Criss-Cross) — Feb. 7, 2000

Last night I had the privilege of conducting a public interview with pianist Richard Wyands at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It was a last-minute call, so I had to prepare quickly, and since there is next to information (apart from this leader discography on Michael Fitzgerald’s invaluable website) about this extraordinary pianist, who has been playing professionally since 1944, I had to draw upon an interview that I had the opportunity to do with Mr. Wyands in 2000 for the liner notes to his Criss Cross recording Half and Half, with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. To rectify this gap, I’ve appended that interview below.

During our conversation last evening, Mr. Wyands, who is 84, fleshed out some points that we’d touched on in our earlier conversation.

He met Mingus in 1944 or 1945 on a job with a prominent local bandleader named Ben Watkins, and subsequently gigged with him not infrequently when Mingus was living in the Bay Area, including a 1949 big band session that produced several tracks. Wyands, whose mother took him to an Ellington concert when Jimmy Blanton was in the band, stated that at this time Mingus was doing things technically, particularly with the bow, that were unsurpassed. He also recalled playing an engagement at the Blackhawk with Billie Holiday, one of the many singers booked there.

He went to hear all the big bands that came through Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco — Basie (his early stylistic model), Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie in 1948, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong.

He stated that Ella Fitzgerald — he was her music director on a 12-week engagement (3 in San Francisco, 3 in Las Vegas, 3 in Palm Springs, 3 in L.A.) in 1956 — was extremely shy. If a celebrity entered the room, even a singer who was clearly her inferior, she would feel anxious. She wanted to fire the drummer, but couldn’t bring herself to tell him. After this gig, he decided he needed to get to NYC, and found a gig playing piano at a singers’ showcase outside of Ottawa; 10 months later, Carmen McRae took him on the road to NYC. He loved playing with Carmen, but found it difficult to adjust to her extremely slow pace with ballads.

While in San Francisco, he himself sang  from the piano bench; he also was in a bebop group with Pony Poindexter.

Below the text of the transcript with Mr. Wyands, I’ve appended remarks from a phone conversation with Kenny Washington for these liner notes.

Here’s a partial sideman discography — With Kenny Burrell,  The Tender Gender (Cadet, 1966);    A Generation Ago Today (Verve, 1967);   Night Song (Verve, 1969);     God Bless the Child (CTI, 1971);    ‘Round Midnight (Fantasy, 1972);    Up the Street, ‘Round the Corner, Down the Block (Fantasy, 1974);   Stormy Monday (Fantasy, 1974 [1978])

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis,  Trane Whistle (Prestige, 1960); Frank Foster, Manhattan Fever (Blue Note, 1968); Freddie Hubbard, First Light (CTI, 1971); Etta Jones, Don’t Go to Strangers (Prestige, 1960); Roland Kirk, We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961); Charles Mingus, Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland (United Artists, 1959); Oliver Nelson, Straight Ahead (Prestige, 1961); Gigi Gryce, Savin’ Something; The Hap’nins; The Rat Race Blues (New Jazz); Reminiscin’ (Mercury); Gene Ammons, Nice ‘n Cool (Moodsville, 1961); Gene Ammons Tentet, June 1961; Roy Haynes Trio, Just Us (New Jazz, 1960 w/ Eddie DeHaas); Lem Winchester, With Feeling (New Jazz, 1961); Richard Williams, New Horn In Town (Candid, 1961); Charlie Mariano (Fantasy, 1953); w/ Mingus, 1949; Billy Mitchell (Smash—1963; Milt Hinton, Laughin’ At Life (Columbia); Eric Alexander, New York Calling (Criss Cross—1992);
Harold Ashby, Born To Swing (Epic–1959), I’m Old Fashioned (Stash–1991); Lisle Atkinson, Bass Contra Bass (Jazzcraft, 1978); Frank Wess, Tryin’ to Make My Blues Turn Green (Concord—1993)

Richard Wyands — Feb. 7, 2000:

TP:    I’d like to go into some detail with you about your early years and formative years.  You were born in Berkeley or Oakland?

WYANDS:  In Oakland in 1928.

TP:    Would you recount for me again about the beginnings of your piano playing, how you first came to it, and what your progress was?

WYANDS:  Well, I began at an early age, around 7 or 8, and I had some friends who I grew up with on the block, and their mother was a piano teacher, so I used to go over to their house, and she had a piano and I used to fool around with.  She told my mother to ask me if I wanted piano lessons, because she thought I had talent.  So my mother asked, and I said yes, so they got me a piano, and then they got me a couple of teachers.  And I studied classics.  That was it.

TP:    You had a proficiency.  You said that you took to it and became good pretty quickly.

WYANDS:  Yeah, that’s true.  You mean at the beginning?

TP:    Or within a couple of years.

WYANDS:  Oh, sure.  I was very good.  Almost a prodigy.

TP:    What was your repertoire?

WYANDS:  Oh, I don’t remember.

TP:    Were you playing like 19th Century repertoire?

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  19th Century.

TP:    Liszt and Chopin and things like that?

WYANDS:  Right.

TP:    So you were doing all that as a kid.

WYANDS:  As a kid.

TP:    Did you have outlets to play?  Did you perform?

WYANDS:  No, just recitals.  Piano recitals along with the other students.  But I didn’t perform anyplace.  There was no place to perform really.  I wasn’t that good.

TP:    Then you said that jazz was always around and was always something that interested you.  Talk about what was in the air.

WYANDS:  Well, the radio, of course.  Plus my parents had some old records, some 78s of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and had an older Victorphone I guess you’d call it, one of these ancient turntables.  And I played Victrola.  I had a Victrola, so I played these records on that.

TP:    do you remember what some of those records were?

WYANDS:  Not the names?

TP:    “Carolina Shout” maybe?

WYANDS:  I don’t really remember.  I have no idea what the names of these tunes were.  And a neighbor had a player piano and she had some James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and the stride piano players — piano rolls.  I used to go to her house and put the rolls in and pump it away.

TP:    Would you match your fingers on it?

WYANDS:  Sometimes I’d try, yeah.  The keys were moving so fast it seems like there were three piano players playing on one piano.

TP:    When did that start to translate into your playing jazz?  You said you were about 12 years old, I recollect?

WYANDS:  I was picking things out maybe at that age.  I started studying with a teacher who was also a jazz pianist.  I guess I was around 14.  That was Wilbert Barenco.  He gave me about an 8-month course, and that was all.  He said, “Okay, you’ve gone through the course and you’ve done very well, and this is as far as I can take you; you’re on your own.”

TP:    This is about 1942.  What sort of things did his course comprise?  What was the jump for you in going from Classical to playing Jazz?

WYANDS:  Harmonically speaking, he showed me altered chords to apply, how to take a sheet of music on a simple tune like “Body and Soul” or “Stardust” or whatever… In those days they had the ukelele symbols on top of the chords, so I had to figure out the chords and make adjustments and write them in and play the tunes.  In fact, I still have a little record that I did with him.  It must have been around ’42.  I played “Stardust” and “Body and Soul.”

TP:    How does it sound?

WYANDS:  Not bad!  Not bad at all.  He showed me how to run little arpeggios on little chords.  Everything I learned, I had to do it in every key, which was a good idea.  He taught me how to make fills while I’m playing the melody — make little fills in between.  He didn’t actually teach me how to improvise, not really.

TP:    But he gave you the tools.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  And I watched him play.  He was working in a nightclub, I remember, in those days, every night.  He played me some of his recordings of his group.  I think Jerome Richardson was in his group.  I really didn’t care for the way he played.  He was more of a soloist.  He played too much to play in a group, and start with somebody.  In fact, most of the musicians said that he overplayed.  He would play through their solos and everything.  But even at that age, I could tell how I wanted to play, and I didn’t want to play like that.  He played great just solo piano, but he overplayed in a group.

TP:    I’ll take it that by then you were starting to listen to piano players for style and vocabulary as well.

WYANDS:  Yes.

TP:    So who were those piano players?  When you were 14-15-16, this is before Bud Powell’s records and Monk’s records come out.

WYANDS:  Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum.

TP:    Is that in any particular order of being favorites?

WYANDS:  Well, Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole were my two favorites. I liked the way Teddy Wilson used his left hand.  He didn’t overplay.  He was very tasty — VERY tasty.  And Nat was just fantastic.  I had an opportunity to play opposite him in his early trio.  I played a couple of dances that he had play; I played with another group, so I got a chance to really check him out.  I loved the way he played, and he had such great taste and good chops and good technique.  Everything was fantastic.  Not to mention his singing, of course, but his piano playing was extraordinary.

TP:    Well, that leads me to ask what the scene was like in the Bay Area during the war.  I guess a lot of people were away, so that opened things up a bit for you to start playing when you were in high school, which I think is when you said you started to gig.

WYANDS:  Yes, I did.  The musicians were really searching for piano players especially.  There were a lot of horn players around, some who were actually in the Service but were stationed in the area.

TP:    Sam Rivers said he was stationed there and used to play all over the Bay Area, jamming.

WYANDS:  In World War Two?

TP:    World War Two, yeah.  He was in the Navy.  He was an office clerk, and so he could go off base, and he said he used to go around Richmond, California…

WYANDS:  Yeah!

TP:    …and San Francisco.  He said the place was hopping.  And he said his first professional gigs were with Jimmy Witherspoon band in the Bay Area.  He also said he heard the Billy Eckstine band when they came out in 1945…

WYANDS:  ’46. Yeah, I heard the band.

TP:    But if you could digress a bit on the scene in the Bay Area.  What kind of gigs were you doing?

WYANDS:  Oh, nightclubs and club dates, club dates meaning dances, private affairs.  There were plenty of those.  I used to work with a guy who used to have about three or four different bands.  He was like a Meyer Davis of the Bay Area.  His name was Ben Watkins, I never will forget him.  He was a lot older than I.  He was old enough to be my father.  And he was uptight, it was hard finding musicians, so somehow he found out about me.  I think he met me in a barber shop or something.  I was getting my hair cut, and somehow the conversation got to piano players, so I said, “Well, I play piano.”  But I was only about 16 and I didn’t belong to the union, so he said, “Okay, I’ll talk to your mother and see if I can… I’ll sponsor you.  I’ll get you in the union.”  So she said, “Okay.”  She was a little apprehensive about it, picturing me working in some joint at the age of 16.  But I’d already done that, though she didn’t know it, working in some tough joints in Richmond at that age.  Tough.  Very tough.  In one of these kid bands, you know; we made $5 or something, if that much.  But anyhow, Ben Watkins got me going, and I played in some of his bands.

TP:    So those bands would vary in size.

WYANDS:  They’d vary in size.  Some were at least two horns, and he used a couple of big bands, playing stock arrangements, and I played in some of those.  It was good experience.  Well, I didn’t have time.  I was going to school, still in high school, and then I went to college right after high school.

TP:    you get out of high school when?  ’45 or ’46?

WYANDS:  ’45.

TP:    Then San Francisco State College, and you get out of there in ’49?

WYANDS:  ’50.

TP:    With a degree in music.

WYANDS:  Right.

TP:    And you’re gigging all the way through, doing this dual track.

WYANDS:  Hell, yeah.  I worked my way through college.  I was working at night in San Francisco mostly.  Some work in Oakland and Richmond, and some of the areas around the Bay Area.  In California you can only work til 2 a.m.; the clubs didn’t stay open any longer than that.

TP:    But there was an after-hours scene in San Francisco.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  There was Bop City and some other places.  But by the time they got started, I was in college or about to graduate.  Jimbo’s Bop City was one of the places, and I remember there was a place called Jackson’s Nook. But there were a lot of little places where the musicians hung out, and jam sessions and all of that.

TP:    Who were some of the musicians you were affiliated with in San Francisco who people now would know about?

WYANDS:  Well, Cal Tjader.  In fact, we went to school together at San Francisco State University.  Jerome Richardson, who lived just around the corner from me in Berkeley.  There was Vernon Alley; I spent a lot of time with him.

TP:    Was Brubeck playing a lot around the Bay Area then?

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  Paul Desmond.  We worked together before the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  We played in some bands around San Francisco, small groups.

TP:    Then after college you start to become one of the most in-demand pianists in the Bay Area is the sense I got from what you were saying.  You became house pianist at the Black Hawk, right?

WYANDS:  At the Black Hawk.  Well, I was still working with Vernon Alley.  He was the leader at all these jobs, at the Black Hawk, at a place called Saks, the Downbeat Club, some other places we worked.  He was a big man in San Francisco.  He had a big name in San Francisco, not further than that.  Vernon was the bassist on the original Lionel Hampton “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet — that band.

TP:    So the Blackhawk was very important for you, I gather, because you said that’s where you met virtually every musician coming through San Francisco.  It was a major stopping place.

WYANDS:  That’s right.

TP:    Tell me about the ambiance of the Blackhawk and the routine.  I think you said they’d play about 5 sets, they’d play 40 minutes, you’d play 20.

WYANDS:  40 on, 20 off.  So most of the time I was either playing in a duo, trio, quartet or solo, and opposite these groups.  Every now and then we played where we were the main attraction, but usually we played opposite these people.  Like I said, I played opposite Art Tatum, and I played opposite Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington…oh, a long list of people.  Red Norvo.

TP:    Let me digress for a second.  When you would be doing intermission piano, what kind of repertoire were you playing?  Were you very taken by bebop?  Were you playing a pre-bebop repertoire?  A bit about how your aesthetic was developing?

WYANDS:  Some of all.  Some of both.  I was paying pre-bebop, I was playing sort of stride piano.  I was trying to play like Teddy Wilson, and a little of Art Tatum.  I didn’t try to play like Art Tatum when I was opposite him, though.  I decided to leave that alone.  In fact, he told me, “You can’t compete with me anyhow, but keep it up.”  He encouraged me a lot.  No one can compete with him, no one in the world!  But he was very nice about it.  In fact, he was glad I was there, because he would talk to me while he was playing.  I’d sit right up there by the piano and he knew I was sitting there, even though he couldn’t see too well at that time, and he would tell me what he was doing and what key he was going into.  The audience didn’t have a clue other than the musicians, but the average person didn’t really have much of an idea what he was playing other than the tunes.

TP:    Wow, what an education.

WYANDS:  So we talked a lot.  But when he came off the bandstand, I had to get on, so we really didn’t have much time to talk in between — not really.  But just sitting there watching him was quite an experience, and I didn’t feel bad about it, trying to play opposite him.  I played what I could play, and that was that.  He’d wipe you out in a minute.

TP:    Were you ever house rhythm section for people coming through?

WYANDS:  Singers.

TP:    Let’s talk about how you got out of San Francisco.

WYANDS:  I moved to Canada, and played in Hull, Quebec, which is right across the river from Ottawa, Ontario, a so-called jazz club, but it became a singers showcase.  I played for a lot of singers there, including Johnny Mathis… Oh God, I can’t even think of all the singers.  There were so many of them.  Most of them aren’t around now or they’re not singing.  This was around ’57.

TP:    I think you said the year before that you were doing gigs on the West Coast with Ella Fitzgerald.  Talk about the impact on you of playing with singers.  I imagine it must have vastly expanded your repertoire and aided your ability to interpret the songbook repertoire just by internalizing all the lyrics.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, first of all, Ella was a great pleasure to work with.  Only unfortunately, we didn’t do too much.  She had a certain repertoire she wanted to do on this particular tour which was sort of limited.  We did the same tunes every night.  Rodgers & Hart; I think that’s what she was doing mostly.  Of course, some of her famous things, like “How High The Moon,” this and that.  But it was great.  We did Vegas and Palm Springs, L.A., San Francisco.  But we stayed in each of those locations at least three weeks.  That’s how it was in those days.  So I was the musical director, and if there was a band I had to conduct the band.  Which didn’t amount to much really, because her stuff wasn’t very complicated.  It was just start and finish.  It was nice.  Carmen was a little different, though.  She had a vast repertoire.  She had more tunes than I’d ever seen.

TP:    She played  some piano, too.

WYANDS:  In fact, part of her act was playing piano.  She’d do a couple of tunes a set playing piano and singing just by herself, sometimes with the rhythm section and sometimes just solo.  That was part of the routine, though.

TP:    She did some nice records at that time when I think Ray Bryant was with her, and she played piano on a few tunes.

WYANDS:  Yeah.  That’s when I met Ray Bryant.  He was playing with her.  In fact, I think I followed him with her.  Anyhow, it was a great experience.

TP:    You were talking a bit about what led you to leave San Francisco.

WYANDS:  Well, I got tired of it.  It was time for me either to sink or swim.  I had it sort of made pretty well in San Francisco.  But when you’re the home town, I don’t care how well you can play, they still think of you as just local — the local guy.  So I decided I’m tired of being local.  If I’m going to be local, I’ll be local in New York.  So at least something to listen to, and really to better my playing, my whole outlook, from playing with different… Even though I jammed, played in a lot of jam sessions in San Francisco with the guys who came through, but that’s a little different when you go out… When you play with these people on a regular basis, it’s different.  In fact, I worked with Mingus in San Francisco before I left, before I even thought of going to New York.

TP:    So he was one of the musicians you met while you were in San Francisco who you hooked up with when you got to New York.

WYANDS:  I met him while I was working with this guy Ben Watkins in various bands.  Mingus had come up from L.A. with some group; I don’t remember who.  But I was really impressed.  I was watching him warm up back stage.  He had his bow out and he was sawing away.  I said, “Wow!”

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

WYANDS:  Mid-’40s.  ’44 or ’45.

TP:    Is this when he was billing himself as Baron Mingus?

WYANDS:  No, not at that time.  This came up a little later, as far as I know. But I made a record with him in San Francisco with a big band, a large orchestra.  In those days you just did one at a time.  You did two tunes, and it would be on a ’78.

TP:    I have a collection of Mingus rareties on an LP.  I wonder if you’re included on it.

WYANDS:  I have one, too.  There are a lot of different groups.  They’re all West Coast bands, but some of it was done in Los Angeles and some elsewhere.  L.A. and San Francisco.

TP:    So anyway, you leave Ottawa with Carmen and come to New York.

WYANDS:  Not directly.  We played at the Blue Note in Chicago, went to Detroit, and that’s when I first met Barry Harris.  He was playing intermission piano .  River Rouge Lounge was the name of the place.  Then we went to a few other cities, then we finally came to New York and worked around New York, and then I left.  We did the “Today Show” with Dave Garroway.  I never will forget that, because it was so early in the morning, live, and you had to be there at 6 o’clock in the morning.  I think I was asleep actually during the show.  But then I worked with her  I went down to Philly and worked with her; little places around the area.  Then that was that.

TP:    So talk about establishing yourself in New York.  You said it was lean times the first year or so.

WYANDS:  Very lean.  The union had me uptight.  I wasn’t able to work.  Because I came in on a transfer.  I transferred from the San Francisco union to Local 802.  They had this dumb rule where you had to sit, establish your residence for six months, and they wouldn’t give you a union card til you had been around six months.  And you weren’t supposed to leave town.  You had to stay.  They’d allow you to work a few jobs, but not much.  I worked in Harlem and some places in Brooklyn with no union card.  The business agent in the area usually would allow me to work; he knew I was trying to hang on.  Like a lot of other musicians going through the same thing.  So finally I got my card, then things started happening.

TP:    Your first record was with Roy Haynes, the Roy Haynes Trio record on New Jazz.  Talk a bit about your workaday life the first few years in New York.

WYANDS:  I really didn’t work that much.  Not too much.  I don’t really remember.  But it was difficult.  I finally decided to go to Philadelphia.  I met a friend who booked me into a club in Philly doing a solo piano — on the outskirts of Philly at that.  It was sort of a suburb, and it was kind of tough.  It wasn’t very nice.

TP:    Wasn’t fun.

WYANDS:  No-no.  The club owner was a pain.  He was a violinist, and he wanted me to accompany him after hours for his private guests.  I said, “Well, look, I finish at 1 o’clock” or whatever the time was, “and I’ve got to go home.”  So I finally got fired.  So I went to the union.  I said, “Look, this guy is trying to fire me instantly; you know, without a two-week notice.”  So they called and told him, “Look, you’ve got to give him two-week notice.”  Fortunately, I filed a contract with the union in Philly.  I really wanted to leave, but I said, “No, you’d better make these two weeks.  This guy’s a pain in the butt, but…”

So  I came back to New York after Philly and got a place in Brooklyn for cheap rent, and I started working with this guy rehearsing singers in Brooklyn, the guy I was living with in Brooklyn, in his apartment.  He was sort of an agent, so he lined up all these singers.  Some of them were good, some were terrible.  And somehow I met Gigi Gryce, and he was organizing a band along with Reggie Workman, Richard Williams and Mickey Roker.  We rehearsed and we worked at the old Five Spot, different places in Brooklyn, made about three dates on Prestige and one on Mercury — so I made four LPs with Gigi.

TP:    Was he important to you?  Did that gig help launch you in New York, as it were?

WYANDS:  Sort of.  I’d been around a while before I even started with Gigi — ’58 and ’59.  I was working with Jerome Richardson up at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, with Kenny Burrell.  But the group with Gigi was a great group.  I really loved it.  We had so much fun.  It was a happy group.  Extremely happy.  I’d never been in a group like that before ever, anywhere, where everything was just so happy and musical.  Happy musically and otherwise.  Everybody got along with each other, there was no arguing and fighting, no egos.  One of the best groups I ever worked with.  Then Gigi disappeared from the scene and we were all on our own.  So I just freelanced around New York.

TP:    I’d like to jump to the tunes in the tune order I have.

WYANDS:  I composed that tune for my grandson, Kosi.  I couldn’t think of a title, so I decided to put his name on it.  I wrote it just a couple of days before the recording session.  It’s just a blues.

TP:    “P.S., I Love You,” by Gordon Jenkins.  Your association with it?

WYANDS:  I don’t know.  I’d never played it before actually.  I might have played it with a singer or something.  When you work with singers, you play so many tunes.

TP:    You’ve probably played thousands of tunes.  There must be just subliminally tunes in various parts of your consciousness just burbling up at different times, with all the tunes you’ve played.

WYANDS:  That’s true.  I never think about all the tunes that I know, unless someone calls it — or requests it, I should say.

TP:    Then it just pops up.

WYANDS:  Yeah, then it pops up.  But “P.S., I Love You,” for some reason I thought of it.  I have no idea why.  I’d heard it done by Woody Herman with Mary Ann McCall singing, I believe.  This was done in the ’40s.  For some reason, I looked it up.  I looked through all my fake books and I finally found it, because I wasn’t sure exactly how the bridge went.  I found it, I thought, “Well, you’re in look; you won’t have to go to the music store to buy a sheet.”  So I made a little arrangement of it.  It’s always been a favorite tune, even though nobody plays it.  I don’t recall anyone calling that tune ever to play, other than perhaps a singer who would usually have a chart or something.

TP:    When you’re interpreting songbook material, is the lyric paramount in your mind?

WYANDS:  Yeah.  Definitely.

TP:    I wrote a liner note for Billy Taylor, and asked him, and he said, “I don’t remember the lyrics; it’s always a musical thing.

WYANDS:  I remember the lyrics impressed me.  It’s very intimate.  It reminded me of something in the past, writing to a girlfriend or something – long ago, before I even came to New York.

TP:    “Once I Loved,” by Jobim.  Is Jobim a steady part of your repertoire?

WYANDS:  Yeah.  I do some things of his.  Quite a few, in fact.  When I get a chance… I think I mentioned that I’d heard his record that Wes Montgomery did on “Once I Loved,” and I liked it.  And I’d play it quite a bit.  It’s one of my favorite tunes actually, and certainly one of my favorite Jobim tunes.

TP:    A few words about the characteristics about Jobim that make his music attractive to you.

WYANDS:  Well, his whole outlook is very, very intense, but very relaxed. Most of his tunes just fell right into place, all the things, the popular ones that most people know about.  “No More Blues” is one of my favorites.  I thought about recording that, but it’s been done so many times — forget it.

TP:    “Is That So” is that nice Duke Pearson tune.  The other person I’ve heard record this is John Hicks.  You knew Duke Pearson; he was a contemporary of yours.

WYANDS:  I didn’t know him that well.  I’d seen him around New York.  When I first came to New York I heard this record that he and Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean made together.  I have the record but I can’t think of the title.  I liked the way he played.  I saw him play at various places in Harlem.  I ran across the tune when I was working the guitarist Rick Stone, and it was part of his repertoire.  I said, “Wow, make me a copy of that.  I like it.”  In fact, we played it, and I said, “Yeah, I like this.”  I was searching for material to do, so I said, “well, I’ll play this.”  It falls a little differently.  I haven’t played it since, but I hope to.

TP:    “Daydream.”  Your association with the tune has to be pretty obvious.

WYANDS:  Strayhorn has always been one of my favorite composers, he and Duke.  I think this was a collaboration.  I’m not sure.  I don’t have a sheet on it.  But I remember the old Johnny Hodges vehicle of “Daydream,” the original one was beautiful – a ballad, of course.  I decided to put a little different beat to it.  It seems that every trio record I’ve done, other than the one I did with Roy Haynes, I’ve done at least Duke Ellington or Strayhorn tune.

TP:    Strayhorn and Jobim are both so harmonically rich.  There’s so much harmonic meat.

WYANDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    The way Teekens sequenced the tape, there are two solo tracks back to back, “Beautiful Friendship” and “Time After Time.”  Talk about playing solo.  I’m sure you’ve done lots of solo gigs, particularly in New York with all the restaurants with pianos.

WYANDS:  Yes, that’s true.  A lot of restaurants in New York.  Not so many now, but in years past.

I learned “Beautiful Friendship” while I was working with Ella Fitzgerald.  That was one of her features every night; she did it every night.  I’d never heard the tune before.  I loved the way she sang it.  Gorgeous. So I kept that in the back of my mind, I’ll do this tune some day.  Which I did . I’ve been playing that tune for a long time.  And I remember Sarah Vaughan had a nice record of “Time After Time,” and a lot of other singers.  It’s one of my favorite tunes.  I like “Time After Time.”  It’s always been… I didn’t have that in mind to play on the date.  It just came to my mind.  Gerry said “Well, let’s rest now.  Why don’t you do a solo thing?”

TP:    You said one thing that you like about solo piano is the freedom it ives you.  You can change keys, you can change tempos, you don’t have to worry about shaking the guy in the band, so forth and so on.

WYANDS:  Yeah, that’s true.  It’s complete freedom.  I can play anything.  I can play whatever comes to my mind.  There’s no particular form or structure, just play any tune.  If I want to go back to the bridge, I can do that.  If I want to change keys in the bridge, I can do that without having to have signals, which I would if there were some other musicians playing with me.  Sometimes it gets a little lonesome, though.  You’re playing by yourself, playing at some joint where all the people are running their mouths and talking loud.  But usually it can be very rewarding.  I can practice.  I use a lot of those solo jobs just to practice!  I can play tunes I haven’t played in years, and play those verses, all sorts of things.  It goes through a lot of different harmonic scenarios. It’s great, whether there’s a listening audience or not — unless they’re just yelling and screaming!  Which is quite the case in some instances.  A piano bar when they’re sitting right up in your face, and some drunk gets up and wants to sit on the piano bench and help you play the piano.  I’ve had to go through that.

TP:    You take all the romance out of the music business.

WYANDS:  Well, that’s part of it.  If you work in a saloon.

TP:    “As Long As I Live.”

WYANDS:  I think I mentioned that I played that with Maxine Sullivan.  Of course, I’d heard the old record by Benny Goodman, the sextet I guess.  Some of the older musicians used to play that a lot, especially when I was in California.  Because I came up with a lot of older musicians.  In the San Francisco Bay Area there weren’t that many young musicians around my age.  So I really learned how to play playing with older musicians.  Anyhow, I didn’t want to jump from the (?) to that.  But Maxine Sullivan sang that tune so great that somehow I… Sometimes I think about these tunes in my sleep.  I’m in bed and I think, “Whoa, I can hear her singing now.  Why don’t I do that?”

TP:    “Half and Half.”  That’s the title track and the one that Kenny Washington said busted his and Peter’s chops.

WYANDS:  Yeah.  They wanted to do it earlier in the date, and I think they were right, because we didn’t save it for last but right near the end.  I think we should have done it not in the beginning, but around the third or fourth tune.

TP:    What makes it so tricky and complicated, in your words.  You said you wrote it 35-40 years ago, and Don Sickler found it when he got hold of some of Gigi Gryce’s material.

WYANDS:  Right.  Because I didn’t have a sheet on it.  I misplaced it, and I couldn’t even remember how the tune went until Don sent me a copy of it.

TP:    Was that tune performed by the Gigi Gryce group?

WYANDS:  It was never performed by anyone.  It’s never been performed before.

TP:    But you wrote it then and Gigi had the sheet music.

WYANDS:  I don’t know what I had in mind for that tune.  I don’t know whether I wanted to do it as a trio thing or what.  But I put it in his publishing company, obviously, and that’s why he had the sheet on it.

TP:    Then you said you had to relearn how to play it.  You had to relearn your own tune.

WYANDS:  Yes, that’s usually the case.  I’ve got a lot of tunes that I don’t even play.

TP:    Have you done a lot of composing over the years?

WYANDS:  Yes.  Well, not that much.  But a lot of tunes I’ve written, I just wrote them for a record date, and then they don’t play them any more.

TP:    “I’m Old Fashioned” is the last tune.

WYANDS:  It’s an old standard that I really like to play. I’ve played it with a lot of horn players at various tempos.  Singers.  Slow sometimes.  I decided to do it at sort of a walking tempo.  It’s kind of difficult to play ballads.  Like, you can get away with it on a record, but it’s hard on a live performance because you can’t get the audience’s attention.  There’s too much talking.  On a concert stage it’s easy, but in a nightclub… But rather than do it as a straight ballad, I did it with a little tempo to it.

TP:    A few words about your partners, Peter and Kenny.

WYANDS:  Peter is one of my favorite bassists.  We’ve made a few things together, certainly not enough — mostly on records.  We did a few live things.  But unfortunately, we’d work together maybe a week, then that would be it.  We wouldn’t even see each other.

TP:    He’s a busy man.

WYANDS:  Yeah, he’s very busy.  So we never really get into anything.  Unfortunately, that’s the way the business is now unless you’re with a regular group.  But he’s been with Tommy Flanagan and Lewis Nash for a long time.  But I think the first time we played together was with Frank Wess at the Vanguard several years ago.

TP:    Anything about the dynamics of his style?

WYANDS:  He has good feel, intonation is good, he’s aware of so many different things, so many different styles that he can deal with.  Like I said, I haven’t known him that long.  I don’t know how long he’s been in the New York area.

And I love Kenny.  He’s one of my favorite drummers.  Very versatile, loose, and he’s very cooperative.  He’ll try to do whatever you want him to do if at all possible.  Nobody’s perfect.  Everybody can’t do everything.  There’s certain areas that we all can’t get into.  But I know I’m not going to have a problem with him.  Good technique, good sense… Well, being a DJ, he listens to a lot of older records.  Well, a lot of it he has in his own private collection.  I listen to his program on the radio when I get a chance.  He’s into the old big bands and all of that stuff.  I like his approach.

Kenny Washington on Richard Wyands:

TP:    Just to cut to the chase, talk about the dynamics of him as a piano player and the characteristics of his style and approach.

WASHINGTON:  Well, Richard Wyands doesn’t have any one set approach.  See, Richard Wyands is like a pro.  He is the kind of a pianist who has been around for many, many  years, and unfortunately, he is sort of-kind of taken for granted.  I mean, he has been on so many great recordings… He’s someone who is taken for granted, but then when you really start checking him out you say, “Geez, this guy, he’s an important musician.”  Because he does everything right.  He’s got the touch, he’s got the sound, he knows how to comp for horn players, good time.  He just knows what to do, when he’s supposed to do it, and nine times out of ten no one has to say anything to him about anything.  He just knows instinctively what to do.  That’s the kind of pianist that he’s always been, and a lot of times people don’t really notice him like they should.  In other words, he is somebody like a Hank Jones or someone like that, who just, they come in, they take care of business — they don’t make a big hoopla about it either.  That’s the other thing about them.  They just go in and do what they’re supposed to do, and it’s plenty-plenty, bye-bye — they’re gone.  And then after a while you start saying, “Man, this cat can really play.”  Any situation, man.

TP:    Well, he’s done just about every situation.  He’s been gigging since he was about 16 and playing before that back in the Bay Area.

WASHINGTON:  See, I’ve made several trio records with him, but then he was on Eric Alexander’s first record, New York Calling, and he came in, man, he took care of business on that.  Like, he can go any direction.  He can go in the direction like a Herbie Hancock, or a McCoy Tyner, play modal, and he can play bebop… He can do it all.  He doesn’t really say anything about it; he just does it.

TP:    And his style isn’t really what you’d call modern or old.  It’s just functional.

WASHINGTON:  That’s why he’s not noted more than he is.  Because people want to always typecast you, he’s a bebopper or he’s this or he’s that.  The problem with critics especially is that no one says, “Man, this guy is a great musician who can go in and play with Buddy Tate and Clark Terry, but then again he can come in and play with a young dynamo like Eric Alexander and still take care of business.

TP:    What are some of your favorite records that he’s on.

WASHINGTON:  He made Straight Ahead, didn’t he, with Oliver Nelson and Eric Dolphy. There’s a Gene Ammons record with…one of those records is Ballads, I think, and he really took care of business on that one.

TP:    I think basically you said what needed to be said.  Any particular memories about this session?

WASHINGTON:  The thing about Richard Wyands sessions, he’s the kind of guy who… They say you’re sort of-kind of like you play.  He’s sort of a quiet guy.  I don’t know him that well.  I mean, I know him well enough, I suppose.  But he’s a very quiet person, a very pleasant person.  He doesn’t say a whole lot.  He just says what he has to say.  So he calls me up and says, “Listen, I got this date; can you make it?  Would you like to make it?”  I say, “Of course, man!  Don’t even ASK me that question.  Of course.  The answer is just yes.”  So we came to the rehearsal, and he had some ideas for some music, and that’s when he pulled out that tune, “Half and Half.”  He said, “I have something, I don’t know how good it is, it’s kind of old, but let’s just try this.”  He passes out the music, and Peter Washington and I just looked at each other, “Unh-oh.”  I said, “Right, man, you don’t think this is much, man, do you.  Oh yeah, not much.”  And he started laughing.  At one point he was getting ready to change his mind, and I said, “No, man, let’s do this!”

TP:    He said he thought you should have done it earlier in the session, which you’d suggested to him.

WASHINGTON:  Yeah, that’s possible.  But see, he didn’t want to do it early in the session because that’s a butt-kicking tune.  The head of the tune, with all the syncopation and everything.  And he had never done that before.  He wasn’t… See, those are the kind of guys you’ve got to watch, man, because on all these dates I don’t think I’ve ever played any of his music.  He usually just comes in with standards… I think that’s the first time I’ve played a tune that was actually his tune.  Maybe there might have been a blues… I’m talking about in general.  There might have been a blues or something that he wrote.  But I don’t even think so.  And he just pulled this one out, and it turns out that he had written it with Gig Gryce… [ETC.]  So the thing about it is you say, “Lord knows what else he might have in terms of writing tunes.”  So we had one rehearsal.  It’s funny, because at the rehearsal he had stuff worked out.  I mean, he doesn’t really say much.  He plays the stuff down, you ask him a couple of questions.  “Well, how about this part?  What would you like?”  He said, “Well, that’s up to you, man.”  Or he might want something like this, and it’s “Okay, no problem.”  Peter and I can hear real good, so we had most of the stuff together.  That’s when he pulled out the tune “Half and Half.”  Then I think for a good portion of the rehearsal we were trying to get that tune together.

Leave a comment

Filed under Liner Notes, Piano, Richard Wyands

It’s Joey Baron’s 56th Birthday

On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree.  They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.

“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe.   He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash.  That’s part of his sound.  I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style.  Beautiful touch.  It took me a while to appreciate what he did.  When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things.  But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy  does.”

Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.

* * * *

Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.

The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh.  Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.  In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade.  Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.

We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community.  It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness.  Round two is another story altogether.  Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.

“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks.  “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing.  He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines.  He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”

Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano.  To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”).  Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.

As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest.  I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making.  “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds.  “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included.  They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo.  They know how much is enough.”

Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home.  “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states.  “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn.  Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel.  I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it.  It was not an accident.”

Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South.  Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”

“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states.  “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took.  I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews  with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist.  It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes.  These guys were very supportive.  They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is.  I got my experience doing the work before me.”

Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP.  On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage.  Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper.  “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues.  “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about.  This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black.  I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’  ‘Do you know who that is?’  ‘No.’  ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”

While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education.  “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!”  Baron jokes.  “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups.  I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician.  I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”

Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles.  His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later.  “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses.  “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume.  One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline.  Carmen always kept things in balance.  Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”

L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms.  Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker.  He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it.  Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York.  There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’  I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back.  I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning.  We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”

Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.”  He studied voraciously.  “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records.  I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played.  But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing.  Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal?  It was the beginning of the chorus.  He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo.  Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”

One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David.  “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently.  “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me.  When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish.  You’d get the living shit kicked out of you.  I went to Hebrew School and hated it.  I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door.  There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”

As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity.  He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.”  In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract.  “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms.  “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles.  My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York.  We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”

After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly.  During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.  “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms.  “It gave me a lot of strength.  It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong.  I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”

Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture.  “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks.  “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  I was seeing myself as a victim.  I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard.  I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson.  I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”

Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments.  He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble.  “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls.  “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note.  Right at that moment I turned to him.  We smiled at each other like we KNEW.  There was this weird connection.  I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play.  I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with.  I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’  But then he started to kind of get it.”

Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.”  One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session.  “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs.  “Not unfriendly.  But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this?   Doesn’t he play any tunes?’  It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it.  Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson.  All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”

Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles.  “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates.  “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around.  The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us.  We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way.  Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit.  All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation.  It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”

As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen.  “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv.  He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned.  He was thinking of it presentationally.  He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”

Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots.  “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay.  We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room.  I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish.  John said, ‘What?’  I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’  He said, ‘No.’  At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism.  I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’  I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”

If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope.  Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.

“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there.  He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before.  I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it.  I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another.  Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.

“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey.  I’ve been spoiled.  I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard.  As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do.  I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for.  If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it.  What he did was a matter of will!  It didn’t just happen.  He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals.  He decided to cut down his set.  I really respect that.  It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows.  It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do.  This has not happened before.  I am going to take a chance.’”

Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT.  “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says.  “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band.  I wrote a whole book for Baron Down.  I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own.  I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard.  The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down.  It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly.  Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.

“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas.  Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them.  I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well.  But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians.  I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch.  That’s an endless study.”

As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.”   Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand.  He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel.  “Close your hands.”  Dutifully, I make two fists.  Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms.  A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch.  “Open your hands.”  Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist.  “You did that very well, Joey.”  “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles.  “‘Very well!’”

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Drummer, Jazziz, Joey Baron

The Pile (#4), and raw copy of Karrin Allyson’s Blindfold Test from About Ten Years Ago

Coming in from several weeks on the road to back a new Concord release (her 13th on the label), entitled Round Midnight, singer Karrin Allyson enters Birdland tonight for a Tuesday-Saturday run.  I’m a fan. Like her idol, Carmen McRae, Allyson plays piano with more than an arranger’s touch, as she demonstrates throughout the date (bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson join her long-time guitarist Rod Fleeman in an impeccable rhythm section). Perhaps this is one reason for her uncanny, sodium-pentothal like phrasing, which certainly serves the repertoire on Round Midnight, comprised of blue ballads and reflective, elegiac songs. Allyson  conveys the oceanic emotions with minimal artifice and a complete absence of mannerism or excess or bathos; her husky, lived-in, pitch-perfect contralto conveys a starkness that’s an aural analog to her  Great Plains (Great Bend, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Minneapolis; Kansas City) background. Along with Gretchen Parlato’s The Lost And Found, it’s my favorite recording this year by a female vocalist. All the more interesting that, when coming up, Allyson was known for the cyborg chops she displayed when scatting at fast tempos (to hear what I mean, listen to Footprints, from 2006, on which she displays those skills with Jon Hendricks and Nancy King).

In 2001, in conjunction with Allyson’s release Ballads, on which she sang down the repertoire from the iconic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman collaboration of that name, I had an opportunity to conduct a DownBeat Blindfold Test with Allyson. Here’s the unedited version.

* * *

1.    Kurt Elling, “Say It” (from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (4 stars)

I don’t recognize the voice.  It sounds a little like Mark Murphy, but I know it’s not Mark Murphy. [LAUGHS] I like it.  It sounds good.  It’s a very focused version of “Say It Over and Over Again.”  Cool little horn things behind it.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I don’t know who it is, though.  Unh-oh, this is Kurt Elling.  But it sounds older than Kurt; I don’t think it’s him.  Maybe it is Kurt.  I’ll bet it is Kurt.  Interesting.  I didn’t even know he’d recorded this.  I like it. [AFTER] As I said at the beginning, it’s a very focused thing.  It’s not terribly romantic…but at the same time it is.  It’s not the typical romantic sound.  You don’t hear many singers do this song.  That’s what turned me on about Trane’s ballad album, because it’s not a typically romantic sound.  Like I said in the liner notes, it’s a deeper thing than simply romance.

2.    Luciana Souza, “Embraceable You” (from AN ANSWER TO YOUR SILENCE, NYC, 1999) – (2 stars)

Sounds like a Cassandra Wilson disciple.  I don’t know about disciple; that might be a little strong.  But she sounds influenced by Cassandra Wilson.  It’s kind of a cool arrangement.  Her pitch is a little off for my taste, so I give it a 2.  I really don’t know who it is.  But it’s creative, and I like that. [AFTER] Many Brazilian singers do have that trait about bending the pitch a little bit, and I do like her feel very much.  But for me, if you’re singing an American standard, maybe I’m just a snot, but it seems like maybe paying a bit more attention to the pitch would be a good thing.

3.    Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You” (from COMPACT JAZZ: BILLY ECKSTINE, Verve, 1962/1989) – (5 stars)

Is it Arthur Prysock?  No?  Do I get another guess?  Is it Grady Tate? [LAUGHS] It’s not Billy Eckstine.  Is it?  Yes?  On the third guess, I guess I knew it was Billy Eckstine.  It’s a bit more operatic than I’m used to hearing him present a tune.  “Operatic” may be the wrong word.  Because of that 12/8 Rock feel… It’s lovely.  I love it.  It’s classic.  I’ll give it a five.  I never really cared for the choir in the background, however, but that’s a whole other story.  That’s not his fault.  That’s the producer!  And the time, the year it was done.  Nat Cole did all that stuff.

4.    Norma Winstone, “Prelude To a Kiss” (from WELL KEPT SECRET, Koch, 1995) (Jimmy Rowles, piano; George Mraz, bass) – (3-1/2 stars)

Is that Dena de Rose”?  No?  It’s interesting to take “Prelude To A Kiss” as a waltz and spread out the phrasing so much.  It’s hard to do that.  And she leaves space, which is nice.  Her pitch is pretty good.  I mean, it’s very good.  Nice accompaniment.  They’re providing a nice groove for her.  I might like it better instrumentally this way than I like it for a vocalist.  But that’s totally subjective for everyone.  It’s not an insult toward her; it’s just a taste thing.  And in that way, instrumentalists have it easy.  Not easy, but that’s an advantage they have over vocalists, I think.  Because lyrics, the way you present them… Like I said, she’s spreading out the phrasing.  Because there are a lot of words to get in, but when you spread  it out that much, it goes quite a bit slower, of course… I’m trying to get used to this version of this tune.  I have no idea who it is.    3-1/2 stars.

5.    Jimmy Scott, “All Or Nothing At All” (from OVER THE RAINBOW, Milestone, 2001) (Justin Robinson, alto sax) (5 stars)

Jimmy Scott.  I didn’t think he did anything up!  I love Jimmy Scott.  This is cool.  Beautiful.  He’s somebody who knows how to paint a picture.  I can even see him singing this.  And I’ve never seen him live, so that’s kind of interesting!  He’s an artist.  I wish I’d heard this before I recorded my version of this…or before I recorded Trane’s version of this.  I like the alto player.  He has a really unique sound on his horn. [AFTER] I don’t have a problem with vibrato unless it’s insincere.  It depends upon the age of the singer, too, in a way.  Because physiologically, sometimes singers can’t help but waver.  I’m not speaking about Jimmy here particularly; I’m just saying in general.  So that’s a whole nother matter.  But vibrato I don’t have a problem with if it’s well-placed!

6.    Sarah Vaughan, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (from AFTER HOURS, 1961/199_) (Mundell Lowe, guitar; George Duvivier, bass)

[AFTER A MINUTE] Is that Sarah?  Is that early Sarah?  Am I totally wrong, or is that Sarah?  Mid period Sarah?  She’s having fun with that tune with the breaks in the melody…as if this melody needs any more!  It’s so unexpressive! [LAUGHS] Only kidding.  Sarah’s got one of those trick voices.  She can go wherever she happens to think about, and she can think about a lot of things, so therefore she can sing a lot of things.  And she contains so much… I mean, she’s playing with you at the very end there.  “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” she’s playing with you.  At the beginning it’s a little playful as well because of the breaks in the arrangement in the middle.  And she’s just singing it straight, it sounds beautiful.  5 stars.  Was the guitarist Herb Ellis?

7.    Tony Bennett, “Out Of This World” (from JAZZ, Columbia, 1964/1987) (Stan Getz, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, Elvin Jones, drums) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Tony Bennett.  I like this tune.  I used to sing this tune.  Trane did this?  I didn’t know that.  I may have to do another Trane CD!  What I like about Tony is his pretty much no holds barred approach to singing.  I suppose that’s the Italian Tenor in him.  But he’s not afraid of showing emotion.  5 stars.  There’s a lot of reverb on this recording, maybe a little too much for my taste, but that’s probably the time as well.  Is that Paul Desmond?  Is it a tenor?  All of a sudden I’m confused if it’s a tenor or an alto, for God’s sake!  Shame on me! [LAUGHS] I think it’s a tenor.  Is it Getz?  Okay, I never said Paul Desmond!  He was up there on that high register, though, with that tenor.  I have this record here!  I like Tony in this jazz context.

8.    Dena De Rose, “The Touch Of Your Lips” (from I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW, Sharp-9, 2000) (4 stars) (DeRose, piano, vocals; Dwayne Burno, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] That is Dena, isn’t it?  I just saw her at a gig, and she’s been in my consciousness.  I heard her on Marian McPartland’s show.  It sounds nice.  Is she playing piano for herself on this?  My first version of this tune was by Tony Bennett.  I love this tune.  I like singing it.  This version is faster than it needs to be, but it’s swinging.  It’s nice.  That’s cool when pianist-singers will double their own line.  I attempt that myself sometimes.  She’s a good piano player.  I know that was her first instrument.  A real inventive solo.  I like that very much.  Four stars. [AFTER] As little as I know about Dena, and I like her musicianship very much, I know that she will find, the longer she does this, that her voice is more a part of her than she might realize.  She’s an artist in progress, and she’s going to have a good run at this wonderful music.

9.    Ian Shaw “If You Could See Me Now” (from SOHO STORIES, Milestone, 2001) (3 stars)

One of my favorite ballads of all time.  Why is that singer starting on the bridge?  Just kidding! [AT THE DOUBLE TIME] Don’t sabotage this beautiful tune!  No!!!  Oh, well.  It’s nice, though.  It’s tricky sometimes.  We took “It Might as Well Be Spring,” as many other people have too…a beautiful ballad, and we samba-tized it.  So it’s totally a matter of taste.  I think it’s very important… And this singer is doing it.  He’s enunciating.  When you do a tune fast and it has a lot of lyrics, it’s very important to understand those lyrics.  It’s almost like he’s  trying to keep his rhythm section entertained or something.  I know it’s not Al Jarreau, but he is Al Jarreau-influenced, I think…a little bit.  Is he the pianist?  No.  I don’t know.  It’s a little frantic for me, this version of this beautiful ballad.  I’d give it 2.  Although the singer’s performance is better than a 2, so I should give it more.  3 stars.  It’s almost like this singer is a theatrical performer.  He’s got a great feel.  He’s a good singer. [AFTER] Now that I’ve discovered it’s Ian Shaw, I did hear him on a live gig once and really enjoyed it.  It’s just not my preference to treat that tune that way, but like I said, it’s totally subjective.  I said before I know who he was that this was more of a theatrical singer, and I got that impression when I saw him live, too.  Maybe it’s that English drama, the Shakespearean influence he has from being British.  I don’t know.  Maybe.  He’s a real showman.  He was just with a pianist the night I saw him, and you can only do so much with that.  And that’s  good sometimes!

10.    Betty Carter, “My Favorite Things” (from INSIDE BETTY CARTER, United Artists 1964/1993) (5 stars)

This is Betty Carter, of course.  I love Betty Carter.  Talk about bending the pitch; she does it, too.  Not too much on this.  Betty is an original, very unique.  I feel like I learned a lot from this influence… I don’t know if it would be evident to anyone else.  But I saw her many times live, and she was so integrated with her rhythm section.  Because I feel like I am part of the rhythm section, not only when I’m playing piano but when I’m standing up singing.  She may have felt a little bit like that, too.  I don’t know.  But she’s totally original.  I love her.  5 stars.  And not any singer could get away with doing this kind of… Good for her.  Do that Indian EEYEEYEEYEE thing there.  That ain’t Julie Andrews singing it!  Yeah, good for you!  She’s great.  Not every singer could get away with what she does.

11.    Jeffery Smith, “Lush Life” (from A LITTLE SWEETER, Verve, 1997) (3 stars)

Pretty voice.  I like the conversational style he has at the end of his phrases.  It’s nice. [SWING SECTION] Unh-oh!  I’ve never heard “Lush Life” swung by a singer.  Shows you how much I know.  Again, I liked it on the verse.  It’s beautiful.  I’m not crazy about swinging this tune as a singer.  But I mean, albeit it’s a waltz, but he’s swinging it.  He’s got nice pitch.  3 stars.  I was sort of really digging the verse in that dreamy state, and I know everybody doesn’t like it if they don’t swing or don’t do it in a different way, but it sort of turned me around a little bit on it.  It kind of ruined my mood.  But I suppose it’s a great way to do it in a club where it’s really noisy! [LAUGHS] I have been there and done that!  That’s where we come up with all our different versions.  Pure necessity is the mother of invention.  Or non-invention.

12.    Shirley Horn, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from I LOVE YOU, PARIS, Verve, 1994) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Shirley.  I was going to comment on the piano playing, but I should just wait… I love Shirley Horn.  I’ve never heard her do this either.  I love Shirley.  She’s another unique, beautiful interpreter of songs for me.  Her accompaniment, of course, is dreamy for her.  She takes a bath in her ballads.  She’s got all those suspended chords that always leave you…suspended as a listener.  5 stars

13.    Carmen McRae, “Speak Low” (from PRICELESS JAZZ: CARMEN McRAE, GRP, 1955/1997) – (5 stars)

Early Carmen!  I love Carmen.  She can do no wrong. [LAUGHS] Carmen has so much attitude in her singing and contains… She’s a little bit like Sarah, but Sarah is a little more on the romantic side — or can be.  But she can be sassy, of course, like she was given the name.  But Carmen has so much attitude in  her singing.  It contains all kinds of emotion within one phrase.  Yeah, I love Carmen.  Five stars.  I like this tune a lot.  I used to do it.  It’s a cool arrangement, too.  It’s fun.  I have no idea who it was.

14.    Billie Holiday, “Why Was I Born?” (from THE COMPLETE BILLIE HOLIDAY ON COLUMBIA: 1933-1944, 1937/2001) – (5 stars) (Buck Clayton, tp.; Teddy Wilson, piano; Benny Goodman, cl.)

“Why Was I Born,” obviously.  It’s not Louis Armstrong, is it?  Oh. [LAUGHS] Billie Holiday.  Of course.  Those are different changes at the end of the A-section.  It’s interesting.  Different chord changes than I know, anyway.  I never heard Billie’s version of this.  I guess this is THE version! [LAUGHS] I knew Coltrane’s version. [CLARINET SOLO] The Dixieland approach.  [When does this sound like it's from?] The ’40s. [Who do you think the pianist was?]  Jimmy Rowles?  She used to work with him all the time. I have no idea.  Was it Buck Clayton on trumpet?  Was it Tommy Flanagan?  Teddy Wilson!  Oh, sure.  So you want me to give that a star rating?  5 stars. [LAUGHS] [So you're more familiar with her later recordings.] Mmm-hmm.  Not so much the earlier stuff.  It’s a terrible thing to admit.  But I had to grow into Billie when I first started singing.  She didn’t hit me as quickly as Sarah and Carmen, Ella… Part of it is that I did hear her later stuff first, like Lady In Satin, things that now I really appreciate.  I think she’s somebody that you keep discovering.  She’s got layers.  She’s geologically got a lot of layers going on there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Singers, The Pile