Tag Archives: Chick Corea

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

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

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Larry Willis, Piano

For Miroslav Vitous’ 66th Birthday, Two Interviews From October 2003

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct a pair of interviews with Miroslav Vitous — one on WKCR and one over the telephone — that wound up being distilled for a DownBeat “Backstage” piece. He had just released the ECM CD Universal Syncopations.  I’m posting both (the WKCR interview first) in recognition of the bass maestro’s 66th birthday.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (WKCR, 10-16-03):

TP:    That was “Tramp Blues,” an original composition by Miroslav Vitous, who has a new recording on ECM called Universal Syncopations. Miroslav Vitous is in town, and he’s appearing at Joe’s Pub on Monday for a 7:30 p.m. concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of sound files, samples of his own creation… A sort of concerto for bass and virtual symphonic orchestra. One of the legendary figures who emerged in the ’60s, and hasn’t been in the States much in recent years.

On this album, you gather four of the iconic tonal personalities who came of age during the ’60s, all of whom achieved great eminence in the music in their various niches, and all of whom, with the exception of Jack DeJohnette, who is also a leader, are used to playing their own music, addressing their own concepts in musical activity.  It’s not very often that you hear Chick Corea or John McLaughlin or Jan Garbarek as sideman.  Talk about conceptualizing the album from the gestation and how you put it together.

VITOUS:  It’s a long conversation, so I’ll try to pick a few points here and there. In a way, this album is a continuation of Infinite Search, the first album which was released in 1969, which was also with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, most importantly in the way that all the instruments are equal.  If you know the album, Infinite Search, basically you will remember that the bass was playing not exactly in traditional way.  I was exchanging motives and having conversations with the horn player or with the piano player or with the guitar player, almost to the point that… Well, basically that’s the direction I’ve chosen with my bass playing anyway.

On this new album, much of it is in the same way, but it’s much further down the road, so to speak.  Basically, the bass is completely free at this point.  It doesn’t have to play any more roles.  I am strongly against roles in the music, in the pure sense of music, because you always have a bass player and drummer going BUM-BUM-BUM, SPANG-A-LANG, SPANG-A-LANG, keeping the time, the piano player plays the harmony, and the saxophone player will solo on top of that.  So basically, it’s an arrangement which doesn’t leave very much room for communication between the musicians.  After playing a long time like this, I finally got fed up with it and said, “This is getting really boring, because I am just playing some things, and there are guys over here playing that, and we’re not even communicating.”  So I started playing mainly by the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans.  They started this basically in an overwhelming manner in the ’60s.  I started playing like this a lot in the ’60s, and basically in the compositions.

TP:    But to say that doesn’t imply any loss of grooves.  You’re creating very strong grooves here, as does Jack DeJohnette.  So when you say that you don’t believe in roles, it’s very obvious that the bass is playing both a melodic and supportive function at the same time.  It seems more of a simultaneous thing rather than a rejection.

VITOUS:  I can tell you something about this.  It’s not the same throughout the album.  There are three or four songs where this is very strong applied, like “Miro Bop” and “Sunflower,” and there are pieces that I am basically holding the thing together and setting the direction, so I have to be playing in that kind of way.  But for the most part, I am continuing with the idea of pure conversation between the musicians.  Nobody has to play time, nobody has to play the bass, nobody has to play the harmony.  Everybody is just free to communicate on a high level or whatever level we can communicate on.

TP:    This music obviously wouldn’t have been played in a performance situation beforehand because of everyone’s scheduled.  Is that sort of consideration important in creating an album, or is it overrated?  For example, people wish they could have workshopped this music or developed or fine-tuned it for a week before going in.

VITOUS:  It would be important in some ways.  But on this particular album it was a little bit different, because I was after refining this concept of playing this way, as I was describing before.  If the whole band gets together in place for one week or something, then we would face a lot of danger of falling into the old trap.

TP:    Why is that a danger?

VITOUS:  Because that would be a danger if you want to create something new.  You would not be able to do it, because the band falls in the old tracks.  That’s very likely to happen.  So I wanted to do something which… It would be very difficult to do this, like, on the spot.  So it was done a little bit differently, so that we don’t fall back into old traps, so the new direction can be set in a way.  It would be too difficult to explain-explain-explain, to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, dealing with all the egos involved of all the musicians, and given all the ways they are used to be playing under certain conditions, all of that…it would be nearly impossible to achieve the new directions.

TP:    You’ve known all of these musicians for close to forty years.

VITOUS:  ’67 I met Chick.  ’68 I met Jack.

TP:    What did you notice about their own evolution during those years?

VITOUS:  Well, we are going ahead to some very serious issues with this.  Because up to a certain point, I felt that we could basically remain free and remain 100% free to play what we wanted to play artistically.  Until the period, in my opinion, anyway… And I felt this on my own skin as well, so I can  basically vouch that what I am going to say is definitely what everybody had to face.  When the disco came in and when the element of trad(?) jazz was introduced, the business questions of music got very big.  Unfortunately, from that time, every musician was influenced in a big way to change their music so it could be saleable, whatever would help them make progress in their career.  We were all influenced by this.  I basically had it so much up to here that I left the country.

TP:    You did a number of albums of that kind of after leaving Weather Report, no?

VITOUS:  I did albums only for ECM with my group.  Basically, I have never given into this direction, until the pressure got so large that I said, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t want to teach for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to play this kind of music which I am being requested by the recording companies so they can sell some albums; I am either going to play 100% art, what is coming from my heart, or I am not going to play  at all.”  So this was one of the major decisions which I made, and I had to basically leave the country, because of that.  This is true.

TP:    But you did get into academe.  You taught at New England Conservatory?

VITOUS:  Yes, I was chairman of the Jazz Department there for three years.  Basically, it was a very big issue for me to go to Europe, where basically I was left to play whatever I wanted to play.

TP:    So you’ve had the artistic freedom in Europe.

VITOUS:  Absolutely.  Well, now I have the artistic freedom, period.  Because I have done some other things asides from music to find a good way to make money without selling out or doing something cheap for money.  I am never for that.  So my financial situation is not dependent on my playing. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen for a musician who wants to play 100% art.

However, coming back into this, I still find the business to be basically this way.  So even though I have 100% artistic freedom, I still have to deal with the whole setup of the music business which is not oriented in this way.

TP:    Do you think that art in the real world can ever exist outside of a marketplace?  There needs to be an audience, there needs to be a way of getting people to hear it, there needs to be a context within which you’re performing.  If you’re a professional musician, it seems almost ipso facto you’re accepting the idea of a marketplace.

VITOUS:  You can take that to the logical extreme, where the only thing that counts is how many albums you’re going to sell and how…

TP:    But beyond that.  I’m not talking about selling 100,000 copies of a jazz album.  But you’re in town, and probably Joe’s Pub will be filled with people who want to hear it.  I’m not referring to the materialist excess aspect of the marketplace as much as operating within an established framework…

VITOUS:  The publicity and all this stuff still can exist without having to be part of a one million dollar organization.  It is a tough issue, but I definitely believe that the culture has been hurt greatly on the planet by money interfering with the art.  And we need the culture, we need the pure thing for us to go ahead through life and have the right values.  We cannot live on a plastic spoon.

TP:    It’s interesting, because you were raised in post-war Czechoslovakia under a Stalinist regime, though I don’t know how much it impinged on you.  And among your contemporaries were Jan Hammer, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky… Describe the climate in Prague when you were coming up.

VITOUS:  Basically, I consider myself very lucky.  Before I basically grew up completely, I was gone out of there.  I was a professional swimmer, in terms of being an Olympic contender style of sportsman.  I was going to the Concertgebouw, playing jazz concerts.  Nobody could leave Czechoslovakia.  I was playing on the jazz festivals in the West, playing with a trio.  I was going abroad with the swimming team to swim for the country.  So for me, I didn’t feel any pressure of Communism; only through my parents and people around.  Then I started to see limitations: Oh, somebody doesn’t want you to go to the conservatory, so they will try to do everything they can so you can go the conservatory.  There was a lot of that going.  And before the Communism really got to my bones, so to speak, I was out of there.  So I was very lucky.  However, the great thing about being there at the time is that I received some of the most valuable education you can ever receive from the giants of music at the conservatory in Prague.

TP:    What was the pedagogy?

VITOUS:  Well, it was something that you’re never going to see in the United States, or probably not even in Europe.  You can see it in Europe in some parts.  Total devotion to the music.  Total dedication and absolute love for it, like you have never seen.  Respect absolute.  Together with this, because the country was under the Communist influence and they could not speak freely, basically they were passing on the values of the country and their national pride through their teaching of the music, in this serious, deep way.  So talking about regular education, there’s absolutely nothing compared to what I have gone through there — what they gave us.  It was a double thing.

TP:    At the time, did jazz seem like something very separate from classical music for you?  Were they two different personalities, or all part of the same continuum?

VITOUS:  For me, I didn’t notice.  I played the violin at 6, piano at 9, bass at 14, and as soon as I picked up the bass I played both — classical and jazz.  Another great thing about being there is that at the time there was Radio Free Europe, Willis Conover, who was playing all the albums in the ’60s.  Every album released, the historical albums, and everything.  My brother and I used to tape them, and listen and study it.  When I came to the United States, I used to ask the other musicians: “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.”  So I found out that I knew much more about the jazz music and what was being released and who played what by being there, rather than here.  So it was another valuable education point.

TP:    So when you came here, you had the technical training and you had jazz in your head, so you were equipped… What was the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you came to the States?

VITOUS:  I have to say rhythm.  I’ve studied this throughout the years.  It took me many years to get together a rhythm so that I would… Most bass players can tell you when they play with a drummer, they are basically dependent on the drummer.  When the drummer stops playing, they are like, “Oh, I’m swimming; where am I?” That kind of thing.  It took many years to get to the point that when the drummer stops playing, it doesn’t matter any more, because your own rhythm is so strong.  That took a long while to develop.  I think it has something to do with the freedom of thinking and the flexibility of being free or something.  Because in Europe, being restricted and all that, a lot of people think in a box — still very much old ways.  It’s in the air, and you have to deal with that. It is actually rhythmically easier to play on this continent than it is in Europe.  I have noticed that.

TP:    Rhythmically easier on this continent.

VITOUS:  Rhythmically, yes.

TP:    Still.

VITOUS:  I am going to tell you Monday night.  I haven’t played here in a long time.

[MUSIC]

TP:    Mr. Vitous is performing a concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of orchestral samples he’s created over the years.  Which I do want to ask you about. Googling you last night on the Internet, I came up with a review:

“I’d heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw.  So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate, the ensemble, strings and brass-woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation desk, I loaded them up in my giga-sampler rig and opened up a pre-set performance — bassoon-oboe-flute.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play.  It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played.  The sounds were vibrant and airy, living and reedy — one word that comes to my mind immediately is “thick.”  It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live.  Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin, airy instrument I’d heard all my life.  It was a huge, forceful sound, vibrant…”

Do you have a whole body of scored music for this context?  Do you take different samples and improvise against them?  What’s the structure for these concerts?

VITOUS:  Basically I compose some motives and phrases which belong to the song which I am playing, and then I have them recorded and mixed with the library, and then I place them on a keyboard.  So that particular file, I can push the key and it will start playing whatever it is — 2 bars or 4 bars or 8 bars or 16 bars — whenever I need.  Which is great, because that means there is still all the room in the world for the creativity.  Because I will only play when I need it, when I want it.  So that means I am free to do anything I want to do.  I used to play before this with finished sequences, but basically I was tied to the sequence.  I couldn’t do very much.  When I felt like I wanted to do something else, I couldn’t do it, because the sequence was basically unchangeable.

TP:    Are the instruments virtual instruments or real musicians?

VITOUS:  They are real musicians.

TP:    They are playing the sequences, and then you enter them…

VITOUS:  No, they are not playing the sequences.  They are playing the notes.  The library is put together from notes of each instrument, each section, each of whatever the whole orchestra is…what have you.  It was gigantic work.  It took me seven years to do this.  And I did it with the sound… I needed as much of a realistic sound as possible.  And knowing classical orchestras, I used my ears to get that.  But the main point was, I asked the musicians not to play just the notes.  I said, “Give me some music,” when we were recording.  Like, to the strings, “Play like Wagner, play like Beethoven, play like Dvorak — give me some feeling into these notes.”  Because before this, everybody was just playing dead notes. So when you get a whole bunch of notes on the keyboard, then you play a chord, you have a dead chord.  So that was the basic difference between my library and all the libraries recorded up until today.

TP:    So you have a chord sequence from Wagner, from Dvorak…

VITOUS:  No-no.  Just the feeling.  They know how it feels to play Wagner or Dvorak.

TP:    But in other words, do you have all of those difference feelings?  Do you have the same note or chord sequence with each of those different feelings?

VITOUS:  No.  It would get so complex… I made this in 1992-93.  I think at that point, there was only 8 megabytes memory for the sampler.  It would be so gigantic for that time, I don’t think it would be even possible to comprehend.

TP:    When did you finish collating all the sounds?

VITOUS:  It was completed in 1991.

TP:    This was for you to practice with?

VITOUS:  No, it was to compose with.  Then when I got into it so deeply, I found out, “Wait a moment, half-a-million dollars has disappeared; I’ve got to do something.”  So I decided to complete it and release it for the public also.  But it was made for music.  It was not made for business.

TP:    What was the response when it got into the world?

VITOUS:  It was the same response I would have said, and that was, “Thank God we have finally something which is elastic.” Because we have the technology, we have the programs, we can freeze our compositions, but we had only [NASAL VOICE] sounds up to that point.

TP:    When did you start performing with them publicly?

VITOUS:  I started performing already in the ’90s with this.

TP:     How has it changed with the technology?  Is it a more fluid process now?

VITOUS:  No, it’s basically set.  The sound is there, the attack is there, the flexibility is there, the instrument plays very fast or slow or whatever.  So the technology does not affect the central orchestra.

TP:    Are you improvising against it?

VITOUS:  I am free to play anything I want.  It’s different, always different.  It’s basically the same composition and the same motives, but they are in different places.  I stretch them out, I go somewhere else sometimes.  I am free to be as creative as possible with this.

TP:    Did you approach the structures of your virtual compositions differently than creating music for Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin to play on over you and Jack DeJohnette?

VITOUS:  Well, it is different.  I am by myself, so I am basically free to do whatever I want.  In fact, at the solo performance, I am going to play at least one from the new record with some classical files answering the bass lines.  So it’s done in a different way.

TP:    You were saying that the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you emigrated here in the ’60s was rhythm.  But fairly soon after arriving here, you were playing in a trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes, who was and still is one of the most creative, imaginative, free drummers there is. Great training.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    That trio made a record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, that instantly became part of the building blocks of jazz piano vocabulary.  Pianists still pay attention to it.  Almost anyone under 45 I’ve talked to, cites it.

VITOUS:  It’s one of the most influential trio music albums.  I can tell you what happened when I came to the studio.  It was the first time ever I played with Roy Haynes.  With Chick I’d played before; we did some jam sessions and a few things.  So we started to play, and I played like I usually play, in the way which was that aside from playing time I was playing little motives here and there.  We got to the point all of a sudden that we had to stop in the middle of the take, because we got off somehow.  Then I realized instantly at this point, okay, I’m just going to have to play the time and let Roy do the dancing around.  As soon as I did that, as soon as I realized that this is what I had to do because if we both do it it’s not going to work, then it worked perfectly. But I had to fasten my seatbelt sort of thing… [LAUGHS] It was very…not difficult, but… Yeah, it was difficult to…

TP:    To play the function, as it were.

VITOUS:  The first time you play with Roy Haynes and Chick Corea in the studio, making an album which is going to become a celebrity, in a way.

TP:    That band sporadically has continued to play.  The most recent example on record is Rendezvous in New York, the compilation record that Chick Corea made from the end of 2001. Within that band, do you still have to play the function?  Is it difficult for you to do that now if it has to be done, given all the life you’ve lived and how hard you’ve worked to sustain artistic freedom?  Is that somehow incompatible with playing the bass function in a band like that?  Or have you all grown?

VITOUS:  It’s a question of… We have all grown, of course.  There’s no question about that.  And also, it became less difficult.  We did quite a bit of touring ten years later with Chick and Roy, and so we got very comfortable play. Trio Live in Europe is a wonderful album.  Of course, I am a bass player in a trio, so I have to play differently than I would play either with my own group or solo.

TP:    Jan Garbarek and you have done a number of recordings over the years… What I’m getting to is the process of sustaining relationships and the ways that musical personalities continue to interact and grow together.  Did you play much with Garbarek in the interim from Star to Universal Syncopations?

VITOUS:  Atmos was between them, a duo album of me and Jan.

TP:    But is it very easy to pick up the thread, as it were?

VITOUS:  Jan and I have a fantastic rapport together.  The intuition is such a great element with us, that I know what he is going to play and he knows what I am going to play before we play it.  So basically, we become the instrument of the heavens, just play what we hear and the communication.  So it is not difficult at all to pick up the thread.

TP:    You said that in Europe you have a solo, a duo, a trio, a quartet. Which musicians do you play with there?

VITOUS:  I am trying out different musicians in Italy now, and some American drummers, until I decide who is going to be the steady member of the group.  Because after this, I believe a lot of opportunities are coming, and I want to make sure the band is the best it can possibly be.

TP:    So it’s still a work in progress.

VITOUS:  Yes, a work in progress.  And I like it very much.  Because I am beginning to realize that actually having different members in the band is very beneficial, because it changes the music and… I knew this from before already, that when you are with one band for a long time, you can very easily reach a stagnating point.  It’s very good to refresh, to keep changing things.

TP:    Would you describe yourself as a very interactive bass player?  Are you someone who really takes in the information and responds?  Are you influenced by what other people are playing?

VITOUS:  Absolutely, yes.  Communicating always.  Without communication, there is no music.  Everybody just plays some notes.  That’s what I believe.

[MUSIC]

TP:    About 30 seconds ago, Miroslav said, “Hear that?  Double time, 6/4, half-time.”  And it all comes together with logic and clarity.  Almost any…not just the compositions, but the ideas that are postulated could be extrapolated on in a very dense way, particularly by musicians of this caliber.  But the record is lucid.  The ideas are very clear.  It seems you deliberately went for simplicity and clarity within this.

VITOUS:  Basically, the compositions come from classical music.  When you write a motif or something beautiful, you don’t want to spoil it by covering it with something else and putting it inside of something else.  Let it shine and be absolutely brilliant.  It has space.  We don’t have to cover it up.  That was the idea for every motif, for whatever is being said or played.  Because the motives are absolutely gorgeous.  So let them shine to their complete, true potential, also with overtones ringing out.  When you play a motif, it takes a little while before the motif actually dies out.  And you don’t want to interfere with that either.  You want to let it ring out before you come in with something new after that, because otherwise you are basically destroying the work you just did.

TP:    What qualities do you think the five of you — Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, yourself, Jack DeJohnette — in the most general sense share in common?  You’re all musicians who emerged in the ’60s in a very efflorescent period of the music.

VITOUS:  I don’t know, and I haven’t really thought about it.  One thing we have in common, all of us, that is definitely very strong is creativity.

TP:    But there was a particular environment in which your creativity was allowed to evolve in a certain direction, which let’s say had you all encountered each other ten years before, in the ’50s, or ten years later, in the ’70s, would have gone on a different path. But you met when you met, and it went in the direction and directions that it did.

VITOUS:  Well, I have to thank very much everybody involved here, because I have such a beautiful relationship with each one of those musicians, and there’s a lot of respect going back and forth, and they respected what I wanted to do.  If I gave them some motives and some music, they completely respected it and they tried to execute it in the atmosphere and in the essence which I wanted to have.  I was assisting everybody personally.  So we were able to stay within this brilliant atmosphere with nothing getting confused, nothing getting overplayed, and nothing covering something else.  I think that’s the main thing, the love for the music by each of these musicians made it possible to do this.

TP:    What are you passions outside of playing the bass and composing?  You were an Olympic caliber swimmer in your youth?  Are sports something you still do?

VITOUS:  I keep swimming.  Not training heavily, but I keep working out two-three times a week just to keep my energies going.  It’s very important.  I do a lot of meditation.  I work with gemstones, I work with meditation, I work with Tao.  But one thing I have discovered, too, is that I don’t like to be part of any organization, of religion or anything like this, because I always found out that whenever I was part of that, that someone was there trying to play some kind of a power game or run your life or whatever. So after a while, I discovered, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t have to go down the street and then to the corner and then over there to get in touch with God — he’s right up there.” So I don’t need any more detours.

TP:    Does that predisposition to individualism carry over to your musical activity as well?

VITOUS:  I would think the clarity and brilliance has definitely helped me.

TP:    I mean the individualism. Not wanting to be part of an organized group, as it were.  Does that carry over to your musical…

VITOUS:  Not in that way.  It’s just that I like to be left alone to live my own destiny and my own life.  I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.  I already know what to do.  Or, it is going to come to me, what I am going to do, anyway.  So everything else basically doesn’t make any sense.  It is just a detour.

TP:    How do you describe your solo bass performances?

VITOUS:  I think probably a good way to describe it is acoustic bass solo with virtual classical orchestra.
TP:    How did the concert go in Philadelphia?

VITOUS:  Great.

TP:    Good crowd?

VITOUS:  Yeah.  Almost full anyway.

TP:    That’s not bad.

VITOUS:  Yeah, that’s not bad.  And we had some equipment problems because we didn’t have the right things, but we managed anyway.  At Joe’s Pub it should be more up to date. Over there in Philadelphia, they are just beginning to do some concerts. But it was great. People thought it was absolutely fantastic.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (Oct. 2003—telephone interview):

TP:    I want to talk about Universal Syncopations and how you developed it. Tell me how the project came to be.  It seems like it was a long gestation period.

VITOUS:  Yes.  Well, I wanted to do an album, so to speak, exactly what I wanted to do.  I didn’t want no one else involved, from the very beginning.  Because I have had experiences before, on many different locations with many different people, where the influence was somewhat… I just wanted to be alone, to do my best without anyone else interfering.  So I called Jack, and invited him to come to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recorded quite extensively for four days. So that’s how it began.

TP:    You recorded for four days.  Did you have the pieces conceptualized then?

VITOUS:  Yes.  I had the pieces… I don’t like to write any more charts, like an exact amount of bars.  I hate that.  It keeps you completely locked up and in a box.  So I make maps for myself.  You come up with a motif or some kind of series of changes or some rhythmical arc or a melody, and you write that down.  But you don’t write down an exact number of bars, you don’t write down how long it should last — you just let the music take its course. So it’s going from statement to statement.  We did that, and Jack was following what I was doing beautifully.  That was the first part.

I was either going to make the album with a symphony orchestra and this duo or I was going to make Miroslav and Friends.  I talked to Manfred Eicher about that, and he seemed to like the idea better about the Miroslav and Friends. I actually liked that better, too.  I continued recording, I asked Manfred if he would like to involve himself at this point by paying for the sessions and the musicians, and he said that he is not sure of the outcome, so that he cannot do that.  In any event, that was not a problem for me, because I had made plenty of money at the time, so I just went ahead and financed the whole recording until I was done.  I wrote parts for Chick Corea, then I recorded at his studio in Florida.  Next on the list was the brass sections; I wrote that out and recorded it in Switzerland.  Then I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded it in my house in Monaco.  Then last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded it in Oslo.  Then I played it for Manfred and he loved it, so basically he made a decision right there that he is going to buy it.  Then I went on and kept everything for about 14 months to put everything together exactly the way I wanted it and what it was supposed to sound like.  So that’s the story how it exactly happened.  It took from March 2000 until I finished the mixing and mastering in January-February of 2003.

TP:    How did you approach Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin in interpreting the parts?  Did you direct their improvised sections, for instance?

VITOUS:  Well, basically I told them about the essence.  I wrote statements and motives for them which were to be played, because the bass was introducing them already.  You can hear it on “Univoyage,” for example, when it comes to a particular part where the statement is written and you can hear everyone basically playing the same statement, more or less.  So basically this, and in between the statements they were improvising, and I asked them to improvise within the content of the tune, so that the atmosphere and essence of the tune stays the same. What I mean by that is you don’t play everything on one tune in the sense of mixing together, like, pork with beef.  You either play pork or you play beef, but you don’t play all that.  That’s why the tunes are so specifically in its essence and atmosphere, each one of them, because they stay within the atmosphere of each tune.  So that was great. They all did it beautifully.

TP:    The bass and drum tracks you recorded initially, did you modify them at all from the original versions?

VITOUS:  No.  In fact, I even tried to open up some things on the bass, and it was like I was in another world.  It would never fit because it was a specific thing at a specific time. Boom, that’s it.  Nothing was taken down, nothing was erased, nothing was edited.  A few beats on the cymbals and stuff like that I moved around a little bit to make sure they were in a better place — sometimes — but that was it.

TP:    Did you change anything in the playing of Chick or Jan Garbarek or McLaughlin, or did their statements stand as well?  And how long did it take for each of them to get the feeling and do what satisfied you?

VITOUS:  It’s not easy remember this.  But I know that I edited some of Chick Corea.  I edited a lot of the guitar tracks.  There were so many guitar tracks, and I had to make very careful choices, because John usually doesn’t play in a collective situation.  So I had to be very careful to make sure it was coming within the context of the group.  So that took quite a long time, to find the correct charts and statements from Mr. McLaughlin.  I hardly touched Garbarek at all. I think I shifted a few statements from one take to the other, just because of the spacing, but basically I didn’t have to do anything.  But Jan was the last one to do the recording, so he heard everything which was on the plate.  He had the best full picture of all the musicians who were recording, because he heard the complete thing basically — almost.

TP:    Was that deliberate, or was it just a scheduling thing?

VITOUS:  It was just a scheduling thing.

TP:    I think we addressed this before, but I’ll ask again in this context.  Can you describe the quality of playing in real time with musicians versus setting up something like this?

VITOUS:  It would be very different.  In fact, I don’t think we could have accomplished this in this way.  There’s all of these great musicians in one room, and there are new tunes, and we would have fallen back into the old traps, playing the way we used to play — in the rhythm section context, also the way the piano would be playing, and all that. Plus there would be probably some clashes from time to time, because there’s a lot of us in the room and there’s a lot of egos and a lot of stuff.  So I don’t think we could have created this new music on “Miro Bop” and “Sun Flower” and “Univoyage,” which are the three on which the concept is groundbreaking — to me anyway.  I don’t think we could play like this in the studio, because even I could have explained that, no one had ever played like that, so we would be kind of fishing.  It would not be as certain and definite as it is this way, on the album. I think that’s a big plus. The way it came, it was not possible to do it any other way.  But if I did it any other way, we would never have ended up with this.  We would have ended up with something else. I think we might have touched on a new concept, but it would not be as clear as it is.

TP:    On Friday I played “Miro Bop” for John Patitucci on a Blindfold Test.  He figured out who everybody was, but it sounded to him like an old recording, from the ’70s or early ’80s.  I’m wondering if there’s anything you tried to do in the overall sound or mix.

VITOUS:  No, it was just done exactly the best quality it could possibly have been recorded.  I’m surprised about this, because he should have at least recognized that this could not be a ’70s or ’80s recording, because it sounds absolutely brilliant.  The sound is today sound.  It is not the sound of analog tape. We could never have gotten a sound like this in the ’70s or even ’80s. No way. So I am surprised about that. He should have known all the way through that it was a new recording.

TP:    You’re going to be working with this music in group situations for the next period of time, while this CD is still hot off the presses.  Do you have your next project in view?

VITOUS:  Yes.  The stuff which I am doing in the solo concerts, together with the classical parts, different phrases and different statements of the classical music made with my library… I am doing this within my solo. Again, this is something completely new.  This is different from the album. It’s another kind of thing.  I tried this with the band last summer, playing with those classical phrases and statements in between our playing, and it was sensational.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I was playing several festivals in Europe last summer.  I had Aydin Esen on the piano, Bob Malach on the saxophone, and sometimes I had an Italian drummer and sometimes a guy who’s been playing with Charles Lloyd now, a very nice drummer. So we did a couple of concerts in Europe, and it was absolutely great.  The first concert was pure magic.  We had one rehearsal, I played them the sequences, and I placed them in between exactly in the right places, so it was sometimes like coming from extremely creative jazz playing, with a lot of space into the classical sequence, and going out that way.  It was like a really perfect marriage of the two musics, not only by concept, but also with the sound.  People absolutely loved it.  I was very surprised by the response.  They freaked out, basically.  It was like shocked.  So I am going to continue with this, to bring that in more.  I would like to make another album like this, because I have still quite a bit of material left from recording.  We did some extensive recording with Jack.  So there is another half-an-album already with Jan, Jack, me, Chick and probably John also, depending on the material which I find.

TP:    So at least two good albums of material set up.  You have a lot to work with.  What qualities does a musician need to be able to work effectively with you?

VITOUS:  Well, it has to be a musician on a very high level, or as high as possible.  Of course, some beginning or mediocre musician would not be able to cut it.  It is a communication.  As they say, you can only play as good as the musicians you are playing with. I find this to be so true.  That’s why I have to be very careful about who is going to play with me, because if they are not at least on an acceptable level of mastery, then I have a big problem because I cannot pull it off.  I cannot even do it.  It has to be a great musician, let’s put it that way.

TP:    Does that mean they have to be fluent in all the idioms you’re fluent in?  Do they have to have a full knowledge of classical music and a broad vocabulary in jazz tradition?

VITOUS:  Kind of like this, with a personal extremely strong rhythm, a sense of space and of development about music so that you don’t play the changes and you’re depending upon the rhythm section as a slave.  You are open to the new music, you know about that… Basically a very advanced musician.  Yes, I think this is the better way to put it.

TP:    Do you think there are a lot of them out there?  Do you think the musician pool has changed in the forty years you’ve been a professional?

VITOUS:  I think it has.  But I cannot give you a really valid opinion because I was out of the circuit for eight years.  So now I am basically reentering, looking around, and I’ve found actually some surprisingly good musicians here and there, but there’s also a lot of musicians who just learned bebop and just play bebop and they don’t know anything else. They could be excellent with that, but they don’t know anything else.

TP:    How are musicians today different than in 1969-70, when you were embarking on your first compositional efforts and your first leader things?

VITOUS:  It’s hard to say, because I was lucky enough to meet the talented ones always.  So it’s difficult to give an overall opinion.  I was not in a position ever to see everybody and know everybody.  I was kind of just going my way.

TP:    Why were you off the scene for eight years?

VITOUS:  Because of the library.

TP:    I see.  So that took all of your time?

VITOUS:  Yes, it was a tremendous project.  You have no idea.

TP:    Well, tell me about the amount of work involved.  Was it something like 8-10 hours a day in the studio?

VITOUS:  Yes.  More like 12 or 13 hours sometimes, including weekends, for four years, non-stop.  I lost some eyesight because of staring at these goddamn monitors.  But I had to do this.  Because I learned so much.  Without doing this, I would never have been able to put together this album that I just put together, because of the sound and… Many different things.

TP:    So it made you more attuned to the cellular structures of music.

VITOUS:  Really it’s sound.  I have learned where the sound is created, so to speak, inside — almost that close.  And the sound of each instrument, the timbre where they sound the best, and spacing, the overtones, all that.  And from then on, it basically grew inside of me to another kind of education, which I cannot even tell you because I don’t know what it is. It’s like I just hear it.

TP:    All the implications are coming out and being actualized.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    Where were you located when you were doing this?

VITOUS:  I did this basically in Germany.  I started doing this in Germany, when I was living in a house in Germany, finished it up in Switzerland, and still worked some more in the Caribbean.  The most time-consuming part is that there are six different formats.  You’ve got Kurzweil, you’ve got Sample Cell, you’ve got Emulator, you’ve got Gigasampler, you’ve got Akai, you’ve got Roland — all these different samplers.  And I had to make a library for each one of them.  They are not compatible at all.  So I had to basically take it from scratch and build every instrument, note-by-note again, six times over.

TP:    Is it still on the market?

VITOUS:  Yes, it is.

TP:    And has it made you a profit?

VITOUS:  Yes, it has.  In fact, a very comfortable profit.

A couple of people in Europe thought it sounded like a Miles Davis band in the middle ’60s. I have something to say about that.  The music of the ’60s, of the Miles Davis band, produced some absolutely most incredible musical things. Now, just because time went on, and we’ve gone through ’75, ’85, ’95, and today, that doesn’t mean the music is getting better.  On the contrary, that was the height.  So why not play the height?  Why do you go on and go down?

TP:    So do you think that period, ’68 to ’71, was the highest period?

VITOUS:  Absolutely.

TP:    What are your speculations on why the music hasn’t evolved from there?

VITOUS:  In the ’60s, it was an absolutely incredibly creative time.  And it hung over a little bit to the beginning of the ’70s.  After that, Disco came in and killed everything.  That’s the biggest reason, I think, was the business and the disco.  All the musicians had to stop what they were doing and do something to survive.  So it was interrupted by business, yes, completely.  And I don’t think the time was right anyway.  Because if the time was right, it would have happened anyway, as you know.  So by the middle ’70s, it was finito.

TP:    So you think jazz was ahead of its time then.  Do you think now might be the time?

VITOUS:  I don’t know. I think this album is returning back to the inspiration.  Let’s put it this way.  And the paradoxical thing about it is that people think it’s old, but they don’t understand that old was better than what is today. If you’re going to go to the top, you might as well keep playing the top.  Just because time goes on, you have to change to something that is worse?  I don’t see that.  So that gets me wondering what do these people know?  Is it possible that they don’t know that was the best, and from that point it went down to worse?  They don’t know that?  Well, excuse me. It’s peculiar.

TP:    But as someone who was involved in jazz education in a serious way, you know something about the information that younger musicians are getting.  What do they need that they’re not getting?

VITOUS:  Well, I can tell you the difference between Europe and America, a little bit.  In Europe almost all of them have more knowledge of Classical music than Americans.  I have tried to play with some even great American musicians.  I can’t tell you who it was, because I don’t remember and I don’t want to talk about individual names.  But I can tell you that they would execute some incredible things in one area of music, jazz music or improvisation or other things, and the next thing they would be a complete blank.  They would have no information.  So they would be full of holes.  The complete picture of education is full of holes.  It’s not a complete musical education.  And American musicians are lacking that.  This is true.  They’re lacking that, because they basically go the jazz school and they learn jazz.  The creative force is what jazz features, and this is what is so beautiful about this music.  But the jazz itself, in the name of jazz, is basically still a roles and slave kind of thing.  Putting people in the box and playing roles.  That’s it.  I’m sorry.  Playing roles.  It’s not really music.  If you knew more about classical music and more about that, you would be much more open to stand on your own and start communicate and talk. The total education will eventually have to be that everybody knows classical and jazz both; you use the creative force to improve the classical music, and use the classical music to improve the forms and wideness of the spectrum by knowing that.  I think this is what it has to come to.  In other word, you’re going to have to be not just a jazz musician, but a complete musician.  That’s a thing of the future.  It’s got to be.

TP:    Does that also include being fluent in the styles of the different cultures of the world — Africa, India, and so on.

VITOUS:  Of course they do.  But I think this would be small influences on jazz music — textural influences and stuff like that.  I’m speaking on a little bit bigger picture.

[ETC.]

VITOUS:  I am not influenced.  If you are after something original, you don’t want to hear everybody, because you are going to get influenced whether we like it or not.

[-30-]

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Miroslav Vitous, Uncategorized, WKCR

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

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

* * *

Martial Solal (Jason Edit):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Italian-American.”

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

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

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

The crowd applauded vigorously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Martial Solal (Jan 3, 2009–Orvieto):

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

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

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

SOLAL:   Oh, you mean large orchestra?

TP:   Large ensembles of whatever size.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLAL:   Yes.

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

SOLAL:   Singer. Yes.

TP:   What did your father do?

SOLAL:   Accountant.

TP:   And you’re half-Jewish?

SOLAL:   Whole.

TP: Both parents are Jewish.

SOLAL:   Sure.

TP:   And your mother taught you to play piano?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   That was after the war.

SOLAL:   No, I don’t think so…

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

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

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

SOLAL:   In Paris.

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

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

BARBARA:   No antagonism.

SOLAL:   No antagonism.

BARBARA: Living separate.

SOLAL:   Each stayed in his corner, you see.

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

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

BARBARA:   Strict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BARBARA:   A big turn, a big change.

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

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

SOLAL:   Yes.

TP:   He got there in ‘49.

SOLAL:   Yes. I was not there yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLAL:   I played years with him. Every night.

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

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

TP:   Was it always Club St. Germain?

SOLAL:   Club St. Germain, yes.

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

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

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

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

TP:   Anything more to say about Kenny Clarke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   My fault again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   And you never did leave Europe.

SOLAL:   No.

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

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

TP:   He was connected.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   It’s very stimulating in New York.

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

TP:   Do you play much in Paris?

SOLAL:   Not very often.

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

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

TP:   The ‘60s in Paris were turbulent.

SOLAL:   Do you mean in jazz?

TP:   I mean culturally.

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

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

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

TP:   Nouvelle Vague, it was called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   What sort of things did you read?

SOLAL:   Everything.

TP:   Philosophy ever?

SOLAL:   No-no-no.

TP:   Nothing you had to think about.

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

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

SOLAL:   I would say no.

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

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

TP:   You’re not interested in abstract art.

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

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

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

TP:   I apologize for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLAL:   Il ne pas comprende.

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

SOLAL:   With his proper technique, of course.

TP:   So it’s proper for his music.

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

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

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

TP:   How much do you practice now?

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

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

SOLAL:   Oh.

BARBARA:   It’s ok.

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

TP:   Do you also practice playing?

SOLAL:   Pardon?

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

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

TP:   that’s enough for you.

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

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

BARBARA:  [WHISPERS] Yes.

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

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

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

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

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

TP:   Do you listen to your recordings?

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

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

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

TP:   You can play any idea you want.

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

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

SOLAL:   Yes, of course.

TP:   Chansons or Piaf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Who else do you use in your trios?

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

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

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

TP:   I have Dodecaband Plays Ellington.

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

TP:   No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Classical and jazz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

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

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

TP:   What kind of piano do you have?

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

BARBARA:   Not loud. Hard.

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

BARBARA:   Oui. Heavy.

SOLAL:   Stiff.

TP:   Resistance.

BARBARA:   Yes.

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

TP:   To prepare yourself.

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

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

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

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

BARBARA: No. Four maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

BARBARA:   [LAUGHS]

SOLAL:   To do things…

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

BARBARA:   I want to keep you!

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

TP:   You wrote practice books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BARBARA:   Merite…

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

TP:   It didn’t interest you at all.

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

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

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

BARBARA:   It’s not his fault…

TP:   I know what you mean…

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

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

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

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

BARBARA:   Your character. You are so stick to…

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

TP:   You’re stubborn.

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

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

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

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Martial Solal, Piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, DownBeat

Chick Corea is 70 Today

To note Chick Corea’s 70th birthday, I’d like to share an interview from two years ago that was conducted for the  now-dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com.

Chick Corea (May 26, 2009) – for jazz.com:

“I like all kinds of sounds,” Chick Corea told me some years ago. “I’m always realizing over and over again that the instrument itself is just a vehicle for the actual guts-and-blood of life, which is creating something and communicating it to other people. They’re just instruments. An instrument is a tool with which to do something. I’m interested in the instrument, but I’m more interested in the effect. Sounds are sounds, and a musician uses sounds to paint music with.  So I keep trying to use whatever instrumental techniques I have to create effects.”

This remark is particularly apropos to Corea’s musical production across his seventh decade, during which he’s navigated multiple stylistic environments, moved back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, written books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, recontextualized iconic units from his past, and also created new ensembles. The most consequential of the latter is Five Peace Band, Corea’s collaborative venture with John McLaughlin in observation of the fortieth anniversary of their mutual participation on the transitional Miles Davis albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the dates that established the template within which, over the next decade, the movement known as Fusion took shape. Spurred by the prevalence of electric guitar in ‘60s pop culture and by the presence of electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, Corea (Return to Forever) and McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) plugged-in along with such fellow sons of Miles as Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi and Head Hunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), setting up experimental hybrids of jazz with contemporaneous mass market dance-oriented music, specifically rock, soul, and funk, as well as folkloric idioms from India and African- and Iberian-descended diasporic cultures. Towards sustaining that spirit, they convened fellow Milesian Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums, presented them with a corpus of original music, and developed their interpretations during a seven-month world tour that transpired over four legs, and concluded at the beginning of May.

Above all else, Corea is a musical storyteller, whose vocabulary contains a global range of reference—Bach and bebop, Bartok and the blues,  Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish Tinge. The hybrid is uniquely his own. He is also a master of his instrument, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide repertoire of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands are completely independent, and he tosses off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort. But he’s no showoff, and never deploys his enviable technique as an end unto itself. Again, whichever keyboard he uses, the intent is to treat it as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.

It is apparent that Corea’s music is the sum total of his personal biography, which began in 1941 in Boston, where his father, Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical bebop and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He put his lessons to use on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1962. While studying Bartok and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1966, he made his first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones. That year he hit the big time with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and in 1968, upon a recommendation from drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. During his two-year adventure with Miles, Corea went electric and stretched form to the limit. Then for a year he explored ways of improvising freely on abstract musical in an acoustic experimental quartet called Circle, with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. During that time he returned to melodic lines and harmonic progressions on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM. Late in 1971, he plugged in again and made a commitment to melody, structure and consonance with Return to Forever, the fusion super-group that made him a mega-star.

We caught Corea while he was enjoying a little down time before embarking on his next journey, a summer tour of Europe that will find him playing solo and duo. In the fall, he tours again, this time in trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, both RTF partners.

“At first, I thought that the trio was the trio and the piano is the piano and the 4/4 tempo is the 4/4 tempo,” he told me in the conversation cited above. “But as I began to experiment and put my attention on the way a lot of different artists make music—ethnic music, classical music, written music, improvised music—I finally realized that in the field of art there are no ultimate authorities with rules that say you must do it this way or that way.  I guess slowly the conviction grew in me that whatever material I could use that would make a creation bright and interesting was valid.  The fun is the joy of creating.”

* * *

You’ve been touring almost continuously since the beginning of last year—two marathon tours over the 14-15 months.

Yes, the Return to Forever tour and the Five Peace Band kind of butted up against one another. But it hasn’t been consistently out on the road. There are a couple of one-week breaks here and there. But for the most part, I pretty much keep my suitcases ready to go at every point.

Do you enjoy the road?

As the years go on, actually, the travel part of the road gets harder and harder. So we need to use more and more organizational energy to try to keep that part of it livable. But the payoff is the nightly playing—playing music with my partners, and playing music to live audiences everywhere. That’s my lifeblood. So in that sense, I would never stop touring. That two or three hours a night is what I live for.

Five Peace Band, which I saw twice at Rose Theater in April, seemed really to be set up for creative music-making. I know you’ve discussed this eight million times, but could you first discuss FPB’s genesis and the various steps by which it coalesced?

Simply put, it’s been a goal of mine for decades to get together with John McLaughlin for a musical project. We would always cross paths, or talk occasionally, as friends will, and there’s always been a very mutual high respect and admiration between the two of us. John is such a magnificent and unique musician. One of my criteria for wanting to get together with specific other artists is my desire to learn something new, and expand myself musically. John is one of those musicians with whom I felt I could do that. I wanted to get more inside his musical universe, to play with him—and learn. I love to learn new things. So with that desire in mind, maybe a year-and-a-half before we began the tour, and actually before we began to talk about even the Return To Forever tour, I began to present John with this idea. I had more recently worked with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta in various situations. I had never worked with Brian Blade before. But they were also at the top of the list for musicians whom I love working with and with whom I wanted to work some more. So in my head, I kind of put together a dream band. Gee, who do I want to go out on the road with and spend some time? Those were the guys.

Just before I presented the initial idea to John, I had dropped the idea to all three guys—to Christian, Vinnie, and Kenny—in a casual way. “What would you think about it if we could get together with John?—blah-blah-blah.” “Yeah, man, let’s go for it.” So I kind of had their interest up on it before I even approached John. When I told John, it didn’t take too long before he said it was a great idea, and all we had to do was find a schedule. I guess we settled on that period of time only some weeks after that—the end of last year through the beginning of this year.

It was a seven-month tour in four legs.

Yes, approximately that.

You’ve mentioned that each band for you is a body of music, a body of work. How did the body of work for Five Peace Band take shape? Was there an overriding concept for the repertoire?

For the kind of music that we were playing with that band, and the kind of music I like to play in a small group, I regard the compositions as kind of game plans. Different games. Different areas you can go in that have certain rules and certain freedoms that make a certain game that we would like to play.

Actually, the first thing John and I talked about was what the repertoire would be, and it turned out to be several new compositions by me and several compositions that John chose off of his recent recordings. However, that was only a small percentage of the input that finally resulted in what the music turned out to be. When we got together all the guys at the first rehearsal, and then the first couple of gigs that we did, the atmosphere of whatever that was that we did together got pretty firmly agreed-upon. Like how far we would stretch material, how much freedom we would take in developing it, and all of that, started to settle into a groove after four-five-six concerts.

For instance, I’ll give you an example. When John and I discussed it, John said, “Maybe we should have different guys soloing on different songs, so that not everybody solos on every song.” He also said, “For me, I’d like to keep the solos kind of short and not like the old days.” I said, “Well, ok, let’s give that a try.” Heh-heh. That idea immediately went by the wayside, including John liking to stretch out himself. So it turned out that the game plan became anywhere from 15-minute to 45-minute renditions. Actually, 15 minutes was short for us. At the very end of the tour, even after you saw us (or maybe in New York as well), we were playing five tunes a night.

I think you played six in New York in a three-hour concert. You went past the union closing time! It sounded like you were tailoring the originals for the individuals in the band.

Well, the most tailor-made was “<i>Hymn to Andromeda</i>.” I wrote that suite with everybody’s feature in mind, as it turned out. But the other pieces? I wrote “<i>Disguise</i>” kind of just to add a mood to the band. But I did write absolutely with those musicians in mind. That’s the fun of writing for me, to have musicians to write specifically for who I love to play with.

You’ve mentioned a number of times how deeply the drums feed you, how attuned you are to rhythms. On FPB, you deployed two drummers with very different approaches to stating a beat and navigating the kit. In fact, it almost sounds like two different bands, Band A and Band B. I’m wondering how you conceived of it with Vinnie Colaiuta vis-a-vis Brian Blade.

Well, the conception was one thing, and what came out was a slightly other thing. I conceived of it only because those guys were the musicians I desired to work with. The other part of it, I guess, is that, because the way the tradition of a jazz rhythm section has developed through the decades (not all the time but a lot of the time), the drummer can really set the atmosphere of the group, especially if those playing with him give him the freedom and openness to do that, and encourage it to happen—which, in this case, is the case, because John also, like me, loves the drums. He could play with just drums all night. So both Vinnie and Brian, when they took hold of the music, really set an atmosphere and an energy for our renditions. As you noticed, which is pretty obvious, the two styles couldn’t be any further apart! [LAUGHS] The same set of compositions came out completely-completely different when Brian added his touch to the band. Especially what Brian did. After working with him for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time. He thinks as a composer, and he carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, but he also…I don’t know… In my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming. But he does do what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly! [LAUGHS]—or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He’s very expressive. He came in and the whole set turned around. I’m hoping at some point we can extract from those last couple of tours another live set. Marketing-wise, it’s kind of funny because it’s all the same tunes, but they came out so different, they’re worthy of being produced, I believe.

Another interesting thing is that the way FPB mixed electric and acoustic feels, although my impression is most of your recent band projects have been one or the other. Am I completely off on that comment?

You can never be off on anything subjective. It’s the rule of communication. It’s the ethics of communication, is what I feel. It’s a better conversation on what it is you actually observed than to try and pander.

I’m not trying to pander.

No, I know that. Maybe “pander” was the wrong word. I meant try to be nice. But it’s interesting you mention it like that, because since maybe halfway through my experience with the Elektrik Band in the ‘80s, my goal has been to produce a band sound and a group sound that easily accommodated both the nuances of acoustic music and the impact of electric music. I like both sounds. Keyboard-wise, I like playing both ways. But drumming-wise and texture-wise and communication-wise, I like the stage texture to be such that we can always hear each other comfortably, and in order to do that, each musician has to develop a pretty wide dynamic range. It’s actually quite a technical feat to be able to do it. But it requires a drummer like Brian to be able to do something like that. Fortunately, John is probably, up to now, the only guitarist I’ve ever worked with who can do that with a solid-body electric guitar sound. He can play within the context of a delicate acoustic piano, and he can play with the impact and energy that was produced when he’s playing with Vinnie Colaiuta playing full-out! Being able to do that enables me, as a player and a composer, to explore a really wide range of emotions in music.

I guess Christian McBride also was doing something that very few bassists can do, transitioning between the electric and the acoustic seamlessly and with tremendous virtuosity. That’s also a characteristic of John Patitucci and Stanley Clarke, with whom you’ve played extensively.

It was the first time I’ve played with Christian with his electric playing, and I was very happily surprised. He’s a master at it. He’s also a master at being able to blend the instruments. This problem of introducing electric instruments onto an acoustic stage… We do play in concert halls, and this has been happening since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s always-always been a problem,  as soon as you bring a P.A. system and drums with impact, and other instruments with impact, and amplifiers and so forth. The first mistakes that have been made and the horror that’s been created from acoustic stages with the use of electric instruments through the years is…well, it’s legendary, isn’t it!? [LAUGHS] It’s produced a lot of writing in print. But it is an actual problem. That’s one of my high interests, because it’s an actual living, physical problem that impinges on the creativity of the musicians and the enjoyment of the audience, and it’s really one that needs to be solved fully.

FPB’s creative approach fit in with the marketing of the band as a response to the fortieth anniversary of Bitches Brew, and the mutual intersection that you and John McLaughlin shared during that period with Miles Davis, with whom that kind of attitude towards nightly performance before large audiences was the default mode.

Mmm-hmm.

Were you thinking about that approach as an overriding template from performance to performance?

Well, John and I certainly wanted that from the very beginning. We talked about it, and we didn’t need to talk about it a lot, because, in fact, it’s what we both wanted as far as the blend on stage and the dynamic range of the music. That is, we wanted to be able to easily include the piano and the saxophone, and to play with a wide dynamic range. We strove for that, and I think, to a great degree, we accomplished it.

I’ll apologize in advance for asking this question, as I know it’s come to you 18 million times. But looking back on your days with Miles Davis, and particularly Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, since these experiences so palpably influenced Five Peace Band, how do you now perceive that time?

All experience to me is… Life is a cumulative thing that’s lived day by day, hour by hour, and you just keep living. Life is always right now, you see. So you just keep going, you live, and you have experiences. For me, what I think I try to do, and I believe what all people try to do naturally, is take with them successful actions, successful things, things that please them. Things that I liked, I take with me, and try to leave the things that were painful or unsuccessful behind—and just keep going. But it’s hard to evaluate, and maybe unproductive also to try to evaluate particular things in the past and how they were influential. So when I think about my period with Miles, and Miles generally, as the universe of music that he is, it’s hard to pinpoint things, other than to say generalities.

Fair enough. I asked because you don’t seem to let go of experiences in your musical production, as is evident from the Rendezvous in New York DVD set, where you revisited and updated so many different bands. I find it interesting that you’re able to create new contexts in which these old relationships can continue.

I know what the truth of this is. The truth is that the experiences themselves are not what’s important. What’s important are the people in them—the relationships. Any friend that you had for a long time, for years or whatever, the important thing is the friendship itself more than the individual experiences. The communication. The thing that you had with that person, with your wife or your family or your musical partners—that kind of thing. For me, my life is as rich as I have friends and musical partners and family, and people who I love and who love me. The pay for life is living. The pay you get for the thing you do that we call “life” is the actual pleasure of living, and the pleasure of living comes about by the pleasure of relationships with people.

You did tell me once that each one of your bands turned into a little family. Perhaps that’s another way of saying the same thing.

Yes, it’s associations with individuals and groups that is what makes life, life. It’s what makes it pleasurable. So the thing of “returning to the past” or “reexperiencing” something, or the terms like “reunion” or “recreation” and all that kind of thing, I put them aside, because it’s all the bric-a-brac of the past, and what makes life exciting is always doing something new. Always. If I have a rich relationship with John McLaughlin, for instance, or Kenny Garrett, or my other musical associations, that is a richness that never goes away. If, hypothetically, Miles Davis took on a new body and came and played with us now, it would be a new creation. Do you know what I mean? That’s really the excitement of it.

That sixtieth birthday party that I had at the Blue Note with all of my musician friends brought me to the extreme realization of how important my friends are to me. That experience really brought it home. So rather than trying to be cool and hip and say, ”Yeah, I never return to the past; I always do something new,” which would irrationally equal that you never wanted to talk to your old friends again, is stupid. So I actually started to actively go back and find my old friends again, because the relationships were so rewarding—and the rewards have been coming. These two projects, Return to Forever and the Five Peace Band, are examples of that.

Let’s talk about the 2008 Return to Forever tour, then. There’s a new double-CD  and also a 2-CD anthology of the old music. Anyone who is interested in RTF can saturate themselves in that body of music. Now, the edition of Return to Forever with which you toured last year wasn’t the only one. I know you’ve talked extensively to the press on this project, but please trace the genesis.

Return to Forever was probably, and probably always will be my breakthrough into having a band of my own. Not working for another bandleader, but either working in partnerships or with my own music. It was the first time that I did that, and it was a return to myself. It was a return to my own universe of music. In a sense, the concept of that band will always be special to me. Yes, the band has had many versions. RTF-1 I call the band with Flora Purim and Airto, and Joe Farrell, and Stanley Clarke. RTF-2 consists of the bands with mainly Stanley, Lenny White and myself, along with Billy Connors, then Al DiMeola. RTF-3 was shorter-lived but still was a creation that lasted a year to 18 months, the big band that Stanley and I had with Music Magic, with Gayle Moran, my wife, and the brass section. Getting back together, especially with Stanley and Lenny, brought that whole experience back to life.

Why the choice of Al DiMeola as the guitar voice?

Stanley, Lenny, and then Al were the guys who were in communication with me about wanting to keep the band alive. That version of the band was the one that had the most road experience together in the ‘70s. We made more records and did more concerts than any other version of the band, and created a wider repertoire. I guess it’s the version that most people remember.

Within that band, you created some of the compositions that are most associated with you, compositions you’ve revisited in many forms—an efflorescent burst of composition. Did the formation of RTF spur you in that direction?

You’re talking about the time of the ‘70s. Well, I was on a roll of the creation of that sound, and also on a roll of enjoying creating my own music, creating my music with musicians who turned out to be partners, like Stanley in particular and also Lenny. So the compositions kept rolling out. It was like having a personal orchestra to write for, and I took as much advantage of that as I could.

One of the most noted characteristics of the band is your use of Spanish and pan-Iberian rhythms within the flow. You’ve mentioned that your experience playing with Afro-Caribbean bands, a la Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, had a big impact on the way you think about music—although you would move away from that approach for several years when you joined Miles and then did Circle and the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. But Return to Forever seems like a logical extension of what you were doing in those earlier bands.

There’s a natural magnetism that any person has for certain cultural things, certain artistic things, certain ways of doing things. In music, that’s always been my sort of geiger counter. That’s been my pointer. It’s been the thing that has led me into studying certain kinds of music, or learning from certain kinds of musicians. It’s the reason why, for instance, in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, or even in the ‘40s, when I was still a young boy, I was attracted to musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a magnetism to it, an interest that led me to that kind of music, rather than, say, Elvis and rock-and-roll back then, which I pretty much completely bypassed. It held no interest for me. So in a way, all through my life my interest and attraction has been towards jazz music, but also towards Latin music. Especially when I got to New York in the early ‘60s, the salsa scene, or the Latin jazz scene that was going on was very magnetic to me. I have great pleasure-moments of the stints that I did at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, because five doors north on the same side of the street was the Palladium. On practically every break took from the gigs I had at Birdland, I’d be at the Palladium, checking out Tito Puente and Machito and Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. I had and always retained this attraction for Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, South American music, and then finally, in the early ‘70s, for what we call the flamenco music, from southern Spain. Whether I’m writing music directly out of that rhythm and dance spirit, like I did with Touchstone, or whether it’s just an echo of a flavor, it will always be there for me.

The Latin music is an extroverted dance music, and that was a great complement to the seriousness of jazz that I was into.  Jazz and Classical music of the ’60s was already a serious, almost introverted kind of performance.  Jazz musicians never looked at an audience and were quite serious in demeanor, especially on stage.  Go to a Latin dance, heh-heh, and you’re back into the joy of life again, you know.  It really was the complement I needed in my life to open me back up again to communication and sociability and the importance of an audience.  That’s mainly it.

There’s a couple of different definitions of serious, and I don’t want to confuse the two.  When you say “he’s a serious professional,” that means that the guy is really competent and ethical about what he does.  He puts his nose to the grindstone, and he really works hard and he gets a product.  That’s what that definition of “serious” means.  There’s another definition, which is the one I’m talking about, which is the seriousness that one gets when one becomes very serious about a subject, and it’s kind of heavy.  That kind of seriousness to me is anti-art.  You see someone on stage who is a little bit too introverted with his own scene.

Latin music took me out of all that, and I’m happy for it!  Actually, my jazz heroes were always kind of extroverts.  Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were extroverts.  Miles was a total covert extrovert.  He looked like he was introverted, but he never was.  He was really communicating to an audience all the time.  And Coltrane, even though he didn’t tell jokes from the stage, was very warm with the audience, even though he didn’t say a lot on the microphone.

You once told me an anecdote of spending a long run at the Apollo when you were playing with Mongo Santamaria opposite Monk…

Yes. It’s a story I often tell when I’m trying to describe to other people that era or talk about Monk in particular. That’s definitely one of the things I experienced that shows what his humorous personality was all about. That’s one of my great pleasure moments.

That was in the early ’60s, about a five-week stint at the Apollo Theater that Monk’s quartet was on when I was playing with Mongo Santamaria, so I got to be around him a lot and watch him play.

Did that have a big impact on you?
Totally.  Completely, yeah.  The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn’t that flashy.  It was just…hip. [LAUGHS] On this particular occasion at the Apollo, I was watching him through a hole in the curtain, which was right by his piano, and he played this set.  He had Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop.  His first tune, he played “Rhythm-a-ning.” He played the tune, he stated the melody, and they played the tune all the way through with long solos. The drums soloed, bass, saxophone—everybody soloed.  It must have been a 10-12-15 minute piece.  He stopped, and the people loved it, and they applauded, and Monk took a breath, and sat there for a moment, and then he started the next piece—which was [SINGS REFRAIN OF “RHYTHM-A-NING] He played the same tune, same tempo, and they played the tune all the way through with solos fresh as a daisy, rhythm beautiful, everything was great, the audience loved it, and they applauded.  And yes, he took a breath, and played it a third time.  Same tempo, same tune.  It was just hilarious.  That’s audacious!  It’s of the moment.  He thought, “I’m going to play this again.” Who knows how he came around to deciding that?  But there was no question about it, because once he launched into it… These guys, Bud and Monk, had a power of certainty about what they were doing that made their creations so unique.

I don’t want to put you in the position of comparing yourself to them, but the quality you evoked in that last comment does seem to infuse your musical production over the last number of years. In any way, can we take it as a self-description?

I stay completely away from self-descriptions, as you know. They are unproductive. But I can tell you that that quality of, oh, you can call it artistic certainty or just your own knowingness about what you like… When I teach music or when I talk to music students, that’s one of the high concepts I try to get across in a simple way, is to trust your own judgment, to think for yourself, to know what you like and know what you don’t like. It’s the basis of all artistic creation. You cannot create based on some idea that someone else gave you that you’re just using without it being your own. I have noticed that the kind of artists and people that I get interested in, that I get attracted to, that I like to learn from, are ones who have that quality in abundance. You’ll find that same quality in every artist who is creating their own way, their own individual expression. That’s the quality of life. That’s the thing we struggle to keep alive. You can take that idea into reviewing social issues, and how society develops or de-develops, based on whether individuals are thinking for themselves or not. That was the whole idea of our founding fathers, for instance, if you want to take it into that subject. It’s the thing we love about the idea of democracy or a republic, in a social way—that it involves people thinking for themselves and interacting with one another, taking responsibility for life as individuals. It’s an attractive quality. It’s a basic spiritual quality. The more of it you have and can develop, the more life there is in life.

Bud and Monk were musical adventurers in New York.  They were New Yorkers, just like I sort of was; I was a Bostonian, but I came through New York as well.  There’s the whole wide world, and here’s this thing called music and jazz and improvisation.  They were the guys who for me on the piano held on to a creative motivation, a world of music that they heard that they immersed themselves in.  They became their compositions in music. That’s all they did, and spent their life that way. What they created was inspiring.  So it was sort of like having someone who was doing something that I wanted to do, so they became mentors and teachers and inspirations, and I ended up spending a lot of time with their music.

Were you around in the summer of 1964 when Bud played Birdland?

Yes.  He came back, and I heard one night of him playing at Birdland. It was very emotional to watch him play.  It pissed me off in a lot of ways, in the sense that he was obviously mutilated by the psychiatric community.  But through it all, he was still there, and once he got his hands on the piano, there it was, Bud’s music.  John Ore was there that night, and I think J.C. Moses was playing drums.

But you didn’t get to spend any time with him.

No, I never got to meet my hero.

Talk about approaching his music as a fresh avenue of creative expression.

Well, it’s totally a deep repertoire of music.  Bud wasn’t ever acknowledged enough as a composer.  He was as a pianist.  But his compositions stood on their own as great works.  Some of the musicians would play some of his music;  Miles recorded some of his tunes.  So I had incubated the idea for years of doing a Bud Powell project where I performed all of his music.  I had already done that with Monk, but it didn’t get called a Monk project.  But there was a recording I made in ’81…

On ECM with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

That’s right.  A record of all Monk’s music.  So I did my tribute to Monk, and this was my tribute to Bud.

Speaking of trios, let’s talk about the trio you’ll be playing with starting in the fall, which is the Return to Forever rhythm section, but as a trio. Is it a new entity unto itself?

It’s definitely a new entity unto itself, although it’s an old entity that we’ve done before. There’s a glorious week that Stanley and Lenny and I will sometimes reminisce about, which was kind of the inception of RTF-2, the electric version. It was a trio gig at Todd Barkan’s old club in San Francisco, the Keystone Korner. It was Stanley on his amplified upright bass, and Lenny on a small kit of drums. He used to have this bass drum that we called an oil can, because I think it was basically an oil can—it was a wild 18-inch bass drum. That week I played exclusively Fender Rhodes. I didn’t have a synthesizer or a piano. I just played Rhodes all week. One of the intents of that week was to audition guitar players for the eventual quartet that we wanted to play in together. But from that point forward, that rhythm section has become like an old, comfortable shoe that you put on. Working with those guys, that same warm pleasure is still there now. So we’ve decided to explore it some more.

This summer, you’ll be touring Europe mostly solo, and a couple of duos with Gary Burton and one with Stefano Bollani in Perugia. Speaking of Gary Burton, you made Crystal Silence  right at the time that Return to Forever came out, beginning this dual track between what people have called your “acoustic chamber jazz” and more dance-oriented, beat-oriented music. It’s a very long-standing duo. It’s 37 years since then. You’ve reunited on a number of occasions, most recently Native Sense: The New Duets   in 1997, and The New Crystal Silence  in 2007. Talk about the mutual attraction.

It can be easily explained. I think of that magnetic artistic connection that I make, that I go and befriend someone like Gary, who is this magnificent musician who makes a particular sound. We first played together, on a couple of gigs when Gary first founded his own quartet after he left Stan Getz—Steve Swallow had brought me on Stan’s gig after Gary left. Anyway, I was working other gigs, and that wasn’t a preferred gig.  But when we played our duet together, something clicked that was really pleasurable to both of us. We started discovering how pleasing it was to just play piano and vibes together. We didn’t need anything else. We weren’t thinking, “Well, this is nice; let’s get a bass player and a drummer and do some gigs.” It was, “Wow, this is kind of nice; let’s do this some more.” When we first got together, that idea was encouraged along by Manfred Eicher, who heard us play, and immediately, with the genius perception that he has, or the genial perception that he has sometimes of something that strikes him as interesting, he offered us a contract to do a recording. That was the beginning of the duet. Just like my association with Stanley Clarke, it’s one of those lifetime relationships. You go into it, and an infinity of music is possible. It’s amazing how Gary elicits all that music out of what I’ve thought of as a metal thumb piano. Through the decades, I’ve found myself constantly going back and playing with Gary some more, and we’ve always come up with a new idea of some other area that we want to explore, until recently we finally realized this orchestral project. I think we touched on it years ago when we did Lyric Suite for Sextet, and we played the duet with that wonderful string quartet. It seemed such a beautiful sonic setting that I never forgot about that, and I always wanted to use strings again with the duet. So here we had the opportunity, and we thought, “let’s go for it,” and we created those orchestral arrangements for the duet and did that last record. So the duet just keeps going on.

We have another idea now, another recording that we’re going to finally do, or a set of music we’re going to develop, that we began developing during that last tour, which had to do with, well, standards, and songs that I’ve always wanted to try to play. Like, for instance, the repertoire from Birth of the Cool, Miles’ record. I’ve always loved those songs, and not too many guys play them. Gary and I started exploring Bill Evans’ wonderful repertoire. Things like that will be the direction of our next project.

Duos seem to be a particular love of yours, and your most recent duo recording is Duet with Hiromi. It’s very far-flung, very sprightly, and seems to have been a mutually energizing project. You even did some Bill Evans on it—“Very Early.” You did Monk’s “Bolivar Blues.” Many things. You also recorded not long ago in duo with Bela Fleck.

Philosophers and poets have eulogized (is that the right word, “eulogized”)…have poeticized about the beauty and microcosmic aspect, universal aspect of the relationship of two people. It’s the basic act of communication, living communication, one person directly with another person. In music, it certainly is the most intimate ensemble and, in a way, allows for everything that I like about music. It’s got an incredible amount of space and freedom, just because there’s only two people playing, of course. But then it’s got this intimacy of just a straight communication line with one other person, which can be explored infinitely. So when I find compatible partners like Gary, or like Bobby McFerrin, or more recently like Hiromi or Bela Fleck, it’s a great joy.

Also, the other kind of mechanical aspect of the duet is it’s very practical to tour with.

But it’s interesting that you seem to have created separate books of music for Bela Fleck and Gary Burton, and each partnership has taken on its own tonal identity.

Yes. That’s the beauty of it. Recently, I got together with Bobby McFerrin; we jammed a little bit and started putting together ideas for another project. When I step into a musical universe so huge as that, gee, all of these kind of new, fresh things occur. So it is a great way to make music.

Stan Getz seems to have been such a pivotal job for you.  So much music you would do subsequently spun out of relationships that you formed in that band. In fact, you also seem to influenced his own musical production for a number of years after.

I felt that Stan always wanted to learn new things.  He had already developed a beautiful lyrical style and had made his fame with “Desafinado” and the Bossa Nova.  But he always wanted to try new things.  That’s why he loved playing with Roy Haynes, I think, and that’s why he started to like playing my compositions. Stan was a wonderful performer.  He taught me the lyrical side of music and the quieter side.  I was coming from playing free music, and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen and Bartok were my mentors.  When I got the gig with Stan Getz, I had to learn how to deliver up something a little bit more lyrical and compact.  He didn’t want 15-minute piano solos.  He wanted two choruses. I learned a lot doing that.

Classical music  seems to be the foundation of a great deal of what you do.  Were you studying classical music from very early on?

Not really.  As a matter of fact, when I first was getting into music and playing the piano, classical music seemed conservative to me.  I didn’t get into the sound of it at first.  What really attracted my attention was the jazz big bands, the trios, Charlie Parker’s music.  When I was 8 or 9, my dad sent me to have piano lessons with a local pianist in Boston, a wonderful man named Salvatore Sullo, who played every year with the Boston Pops.  He thought it was kind of silly that I played jazz.  I auditioned for him and played “Perdido,” and he said, ‘Oh, like Dizzy Gillespie,’ and he blew air into his cheeks or something like that.  He introduced me to the piano music of Chopin and Bach, the easy pieces, and I became interested in Classical music through the piano music more than anything else.  But I didn’t intensely study it.  My interest in classical music was more analyzing orchestral scores as a composer.  I fell in love with Stravinsky’s and Bartok’s music, and that was my first passion with Classical music. But it wasn’t until the early   ‘80s that I became interested in what we term ‘classical music,’ meaning the music of the 18th century—Mozart’s music, for instance.   Then I decided that it would be a challenge and really fulfilling to try to perform some of that music live, and that’s when I started to get involved.

Could you tell me something about your father, about what sort of musician he was?  It’s obvious that you were hugely influenced by him in your musical path.

My Dad was a real sweetheart and a great father. He let me have my own mind, as my mother did.  They encouraged me in every creative effort I ever had.  When I wanted to stay out late and hang out because of the musicians, they let me do it.  Plus, he was a very, very good musician.  He played very soulful horn.  He played trumpet mostly.  He played a little bit of piano.  He played bass.  He played some drums.  He played violin earlier on in his life.

Was it a lead trumpet sound?

No-no.  He was always the second trumpet player who played the jazz solos. He was the soulful guy.  He was always up on the times.  He had another trumpet player friend, and they used to listen to Miles play.  I used to catch them.  I’d come into the house, and they’d be in the back room where I had my hi-fi set, with Miles records on, smoking cigarettes, and with their elbows on their knees, close to the speakers—crying sometimes! He was a sweet man.  He had a band.  I used to sit in with his band.  We played a lot of dances together as I grew up.

Was he a full-time professional musician?

Yes.  He was a working musician.  He had a successful band during the Depression.  He played radio shows, and played at the hotels.  His band played at the places where the guys would go and hang after the theater gigs, that sort of thing.  They’d sit in with his band.  But later on, as he got older, he didn’t have his own bands any more, but he continued to get calls for work around town.

<When you were younger, were you part of that very hip Boston scene?  You’re a little older than Tony Williams.  I’m thinking of people like Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and Hal Galper and Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy…

I connected with some of those guys.  I used to go listen to Herb Pomeroy’s band play, at that club he played every Tuesday night, and I knew Herb a little bit.  I played with Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Mosher.  I played with Tony a little bit in Boston.  I worked at Conley’s a lot—I worked there with Pony Poindexter and Sonny Stitt. My school friend was Lennie Nelson, one of the young great drummers around town—unknown but great.  And Bobby Ward, another wild drummer from that era.  Roy Haynes I never knew as a Bostonian, but Tony I connected with.

So in a sense, your father taught you to be a professional, just by example.

Exactly.  And how to live a life where you did something that you really loved, and where that was good to do, not something that was considered frivolous.

Was your father a first-generation American, or did he come here from Italy?

No, he was a first-generation Italian-American.  He was one of 13 kids, and his father and mother only spoke Italian.  So when I sat on my grandfather’s knee, he used to tell me stories in Italian.  I didn’t understand a word he said, but I used to dig it.

Did he play Italian music also as part of his…

No.

That was corny for him?

It was corny for him.  He was a jazzer.  He wore loose shirts.  He used to buy a new white shirt… I used to see him do this—I’d hang with him.  He’d take the shirt home, and the sleeves would always be way too long for him.  So he’d measure it like about 2 inches above his wrist, which is where he felt comfortable, and he’d take it off, and he’d cut both sleeves with scissors.

You like to wear those baggy, guayabana shirts yourself.

Yeah.

Was your mother also musical?

She was a great mom.  She was not a singer or a musician or anything, but she supported us, and went in the candy factory and worked her butt off and bought me a Steinway piano.  She was the greatest.

So she really sacrificed for you.

She totally worked her butt off.  She kept both of us in line.  I was the only child.  So she cooked for me and my Dad, and kept the house clean, and kept us going and encouraged us, and she was the best.

Perhaps as a wrap-up question: I’m not sure if you gave yourself this name or if it was given to you—“The Chameleon.” Who did give you that name?

I have no idea. But it’s used sometimes to describe people, isn’t it, “the chameleon.”

It is, and it seems like a wonderful cognomen for you. It’s very descriptive of your ability to project your own personality within so many diverse situations consecutively. I read an interview where you mentioned Dustin Hoffman as a model, because he’s so good at portraying different characters, as opposed to DeNiro, who is always great, but, you said, pretty much always DeNiro.

Years ago, when I would try to describe what it’s like to invest myself in different musical directions, that was the first analogy that I came up with. I thought, “well, maybe I’m the Dustin Hoffman of music.” But that’s apt, and that’s the way it goes. My desire as a musician has always been just to learn—always to learn something new. I think learning and growing more aware and more skillful is an infinite process. I don’t think it has a ceiling. So in order to do that, it’s always necessary to find something I can’t do, that I want to do, and then just go there. I’ve never had a sense of trying to be myself, if you know what I mean, or try to create my own sound, or my own way. I’ve never had my attention on that. I don’t care what I sound like, because it’s not where my attention is. My attention is outside of myself, and I’m always happiest when it’s that way, and whatever comes out, comes out. So what tends to happen is, I find myself playing a lot of different roles, or being a lot of different ways, or expressing a lot of different emotions, and it makes life interesting and rich for me.

It’s a great way of staying young, too. Mentally.

I guess, yeah! How about that?

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